Archive for April 2010

Idle Thoughts

Last time I was in Hawaii I wrote about their inability to split the difference on the amount the two sides were saying they would fund teachers here in the aloha state so that the teachers could go back to teaching 5 days a week.  Well I am back and I picked up the paper and lo and hehold, they split the difference.  Why does it take so long to be reasonable? Note that the Governor wanted the teachers to work the last 3 furlough days for free as good faith.  I don’t know, why couldn’t the citizens of Hawaii raise their taxes just a smidgen to pay teachers for work they actually perform?

On another positive note the Hawaii House passed a civil-unions bill that will grant both gay and straight couples the right to enter into civil unions that will grant all the same rights as married couples under state law.  But the Governor is making noises that she might veto it.  Seems she feels it should have been voted on by all the citizens.  I find this flawed thinking typical of most confused Americans who don’t understand our system of government.  The people don’t get to vote on basic rights, they are enshrined in our constitution.  Otherwise popular opinion would trample the rights of minorities.  Civil rights is not and should never be decided by mood swings in the mob.

Meanwhile the situation in Louisiana is slowly sinking in and I watched a seafood executive on CNN explain that the products were still untainted and feel safe to buy them.  Reminded me of “Jaws” when they kept claiming there was no shark.  As the crisis worsens scape goats will be hunted for but the real cause of this disaster is the person you see in the mirror.  There may be valid reasons to drill off our coast, but as I mentioned yesterday, based upon the arguments I heard so far, it is not worth the risk and the arguments have been dishonest about the risks.  That reality may be sinking in.

Finally since I need to go work and earn my keep here in Honolulu, one last irreverent thought.  Did you ever wonder if the boys on Wall Street arrange for the explosion and sinking of the oil rig to get the press off them and focused in the boonies in Louisiana?  Any way you look at it, it is working out well for the Banking boys.

Ignorance on Display

As we watch the oil slick move toward Louisiana wetlands, which by the way are 40% of the total wetlands in the country, we see how ignorance and its celebration works out in the real world.  Remember “Drill baby, drill”?  There are consequences to the choices we make and this incident has stepped in to remind us of our short memories.  Of course the argument went that the chances of an oil disaster based on today’s technology were remote, and guess what, shit happens.  Now there might be a reasoned argument as to why drilling off our coast makes since, but I haven’t heard it and what has taken its place is greed and accommodation of ignorance and we are where we are.

The whole “drill baby drill” mantra was an exercise in ignorance.  It was wishing to be oil independent and thinking that we can just exploit our own resources if those damn tree huggers would get out of the way.  But the facts, little discussed, never got in the way of this idea with President Obama throwing a bone to Republicans and to States greedy for oil income.  The first is that the amount of oil produced in this program would be a drip in the bucket and would have no impact on our dependence on Middle Eastern countries (or Venezuela for that matter).  The second problem with this approach is it delays our understanding and action regarding moving away from oil as our primary source of energy.  Finally, it is like a drug for the State’s politicians.  With oil income, they don’t have to raise taxes to actually pay for the services people demand, and then they can’t do long term planning to see how this addiction to oil revenue is actually hurting them.  Look at Alaska, which is the biggest oil welfare state in the union.  Yet global warming will be devastating to their way of life.  But who can give up that yearly check?

I used to live in Louisiana and the wetlands are the breadbasket of the state.  A large portion of Louisianans make their living harvesting their delta.  Yet their attitude toward off shore drilling was blasé.  They were proud of the pollution they were creating in their oil and gas industries and made fun of California and its moratorium on drilling off shore.   Sadly reality has a way of intruding on false arrogance.  Everything they love about their state is now at risk.  Was it worth it?  Did they really understand the risks?  People compromise mightily when their paycheck is at risk and the oil and gas business was a big employer and taxpayer.  Now their paycheck is at risk because of that choice and one wonders why they could not see this coming?  They may lose what defined them.

Finally, one last thought about ignorance.  Those who decry big government should take a hard look at the forces mobilized to try to contain this spill and to deal with the after effect.  It is your government at work.  There are those onerous regulations that businesses hate, which is putting the burden of the cost of the cleanup on BP.  Then there are, it is estimated, 17 Federal agencies trying to coordinate and prevent further damage.  But we don’t need big government do we?  We should just let the marketplace resolve these issues.  There are all kinds of lessons here for the simple minded who think our future is in regaining our past.  I don’t believe that they see even one here.  Nothing ever changes does it.

Financial Reform

Well if the hearings told you anything yesterday, the financial world is an arrogant bunch. I guess that would be okay if there was value added, but where they make the big bucks, it produces nothing for our economy in terms of investment in innovative business that benefits all of us. The conventional wisdom is that the market is the most efficient way for a market to apply capital to places in the economy that need it to grow, but as we have seen, that is not where the money is.  Of course it does stimulate the economy when one of those schmucks buys a Van Gogh or other extravagant purchase, but for the average guy, things just get worse.

Meanwhile the Republicans continue their obstructionism. As I heard Susan Collins of Maine tell it, the Republicans just want to fix the bill so tax payers won’t bailout to big to fail banks. Problem with that is that we already know that is a lie and the current bill does exactly that with money paid in by the banks to liquidate them, not bail them out. The shareholders and management would take it in the ear.  I can’t figure our whether Susan Collins is just a moronic tool of the Republicans, or a Machiavellian. Either way what the Republicans (most, not all) really want is to return to the unregulated days that got us where we are. “Forget about all the bad stuff that happened when these guys were unregulated.  An unregulated market is the most productive market.  Government is bad and greed is good.”  The bill before  Congress by the Democrats in my mind does not go nearly far enough, but any finagling by the Republicans would return us to where we were before the bailouts.

My son thinks that the Republicans must be morons as they continue to block debate on a bill and an open discussion of reform. I tend to agree with him as the American people should see the Republicans for what they are, shills for the financial industry with a tired philosophy that almost destroyed our economy. But my age cautions me. What we may find out is how gullible the American public is and how short their memories are.

Note: I am out of pocket on a consulting job in Hawaii for the next couple of weeks. I will post when I can, but quite frankly nothing seems to be changing and sometimes I wonder why I bother as people hold on to beliefs that have failed over and over again.  Einstein comes to mind as he was purported to say, “Stupid is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  What amazes me is that Democrats still get blamed for almost everything and the 12 years of Republican control of the Congress (and few filibusters) and the eight years of the Bush administration don’t seem to register.  Now they like to say the Democrats are in charge and nothing has changed.  Did you see that ever major bill was filibusted by the Republicans?  I don’t really think there is any hope with this kind of myopia.

Appealing to the Base

I was listening to some spokesperson for Hispanic Americans on NPR and of course the discussion was the new draconian Arizona law that solves nothing, but may get Washington off its dead ass.  In the course of the conversation John McCain came up and this person, always politically careful, said that it was unfortunate that he had made some rather anti-Hispanic remarks, but she knew he was an honorable man and after the primaries he may return to a more reasoned position, that he once held before the radicals took over his party.

Well that got me to thinking and it doesn’t just apply to John McCain and one might think Arlene Specter.  Do honorable men change their stated beliefs because of a change in political wind?  If the change isn’t heartfelt and one might expect them to moderate their positions once election time is past, is this honorable?  I mean let’s face it, reality in the Republican and Democratic parties is that you have to appeal to the base in the primaries, and then tack back to the middle for the general election and we expect this kind of duplicity.  But is it honorable?

My answer to that is no.  If you take a position because it is popular and gets you votes, but you know it is not in the long term interests for your country, then I see nothing honorable in this behavior and in fact just the opposite.  You are not a leader, but a follower and your voters come to expect duplicity from our politicians.  It is lose-lose for everyone.  The politician see’s his duplicitous behavior as the norm and okay, and the voters don’t really know who they are electing and expect very little from the people they elect.  Most damaging is that our “leaders” are really just at the head of the lynch mob, ready to change directions in an instant based upon the crowd mood instead of trying to lead the crowd to do the right thing.  They will do anything to stay at the head of that mob.

I am afraid our political primary system has produced this effect.  Now don’t get me wrong.  There is nothing wrong with political parties, but the way we elect our candidates through a party political primary has produced this result.  Since the primary is all about getting out your most opinionated and rabid supporters so that you can compete in the general election, it directly follows that this system produces those that the general population may have to hold their nose to vote for.  And of course the politics of playing to the base results in extreme positions that are not representative of the general voting population.  So what is to be done about it?

I saw a proposal in an op-ed not long ago that is making more and more sense.  That proposal is very simple.  Based upon some criteria like number of signatures on a petition to qualify for the ballad, the candidate qualifies for the primary ballot.  But when the primary comes, the election is open to the whole voting population for that office and only the top two move on to the general election in the fall.  Political parties can still nominate their candidates for the open primary and fund them accordingly.  But the primary difference is that this candidate must appeal to a wider population for his office.  In other words his message in this open primary and in the general election have to be consistent because he is appealing to the same larger voter pool.

Would it work?  I don’t know and you can probably think of some enhancements to this proposal that might address some unintended consequences that I haven’t thought about.  But you have to admit it would be a better system than we have now and it might tone down the partisan hatred that the present system generates.  Will they do it?  Of course not.  If we have learned anything in the past year it should be that when a system is failing, it is the hardest thing in the world to change our behavior because so many have vested interests in the failed system.  For the America we all think is on the cutting edge, one has to wonder why change is so hard.

On Earth Day Reality Intrudes on Global Warming Deniers

There were a couple of stories today that were shocking in their recognition of the reality facing our environment.  It was a bad day for Republicans in other words.  Here they are:

  • US Military tests Biofuel Jet – The military, recognizing their vulnerability depending on oil is developing various alternate energy vehicles.  They do this as the oil morons chant drill baby drill.  The military cannot afford to wish for the past, but must deal with the reality of the future and be ready.  I wish our Congress could figure this out.  Military to Test-Fly Biofuel Jet as Part of Overall Energy Shift
  • Drilling Platform Blows up and Sinks – So much for the idea that it is now safer to drill off our coasts.  There is now considerable risk of a major oil spill and while the drill baby drill morons continue their chant, anybody who can do a risk/benefit ratio will conclude that for the negligible impact that new oil will have on our demand and supply, it is not worth the risk. Potential for Big Oil Spill After Oil Rig Sinks
  • Ocean Acidification Accelerating – McClatchy News reported today that “the oceans (are) absorbing more than 1 million tons of carbon dioxide an hour, a National Research Council study released Thursday found that the level of acid in the oceans is increasing at an unprecedented rate and threatening to change marine ecosystems.”  Meanwhile a new group called the Independent Woman’s Forum led by Michelle Bernard doesn’t want to scare our kids in school with Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth.  Actually they just don’t want to face up to an inconvenient truth.  They just hate that he was right and are still relying on pseudo science to deny the impact.  McClatchy News
  • Finally, Sam Waterston, the actor on Law and Order, was noting on MSNBC today that along with the military, the insurance agencies around the world are now using global warming predictions in their risk models.  What more do the deniers need?  Sorry I don’t have a reference for that but there is plenty of data on the use of global warming predictions by the insurance industry on the net.

So happy Earth Day Earth.  Sadly it is getting harder and harder to deny that we are badly mistreating you.  But then we can’t worry about that if it impacts the bottom line can we?  Just ask Michelle Bernard who doesn’t want to scare our kids with the truth they so desperately need to become responsible adults.

South Park and Muslim Intolerance

Apparently South Park depicted Mohamed in a bear suit and some Muslims are threatening violence against the show. Some are asking if the South Park folks stepped over the line. What line in a free society? The day we start tolerating Muslim intolerance is the day we start to muzzle free speech in an open society and kill rational debate. What’s next? Criticism of their treatment of women will be a death sentence? Muslims are living in the 5th century precisely because they cannot openly criticize their religion. Let’s not go down the road of Europe that so wanted to tolerate their intolerance, that they aid and abet it. They want to live here then they must learn how to accommodate an open society, not how we should close our society to accommodate them.

Be Careful What You Wish For

The Tea Party and the conventional wisdom that has held sway for about the last 30 years is that big government is bad and the unfettered market place is best left to its own devices to create wealth. Now even a casual observer would challenge this in the abuses in Wall Street, but we still are not able to generalize this to the rest of our problems. Simon Johnson and James Kwak in their book, Thirteen Bankers, have identified the conventional wisdom about our belief that the financial markets, unregulated, are the best mode of wealth creation for all of us and even with the failures, we seem to want to cling to this false dogma.

But even more important is that these unregulated markets have created tremendous wealth, but has done nothing for our economy or growing business while enriching a few who gamed the system well. In other words, this unregulated market has become self-serving and in its selfish pursuits is actually hurting our nation and our economy as it focuses on creating wealth for itself at the expense of providing capital to innovation and business creation. But reality is a hard thing and even now, we have these calls for less government since it is the perceived bad guy. So I will just reiterate my title to this blog, be careful what you wish for, as you may find that what you want will make your life much worse.

When things went bad and governments started to feel the impacts of reduced income, these governments started to cut services with furloughs and reduced or cut programs. Many of the thoughtless welcomed this as less government to impact their lives. But now they are starting to feel the impact directly in their lives and are demanding a return of these services. What strikes me is that most people have no recognition of how they have and are benefiting from their government. They have taken it for granted and now in small ways they are starting to see the impact of that false presumption. Rachel Maddow, in her MSNBC show Wednesday, showed how the Tea Partiers and gun nuts could not have had their demonstrations without the government services and parks that were provided for them. They even had the gall to complain about the public transport service (no extra service for them) that they used to attend their rallies. Who do they think pays for all this stuff and makes it work?

Where the rubber is really starting to meet the road is in our education system. Hometown America is now starting to see their failure to fund government in the mass firing of teachers and the growth of their classroom size. It is the tip of the iceberg. As we continue down this road of government is bad and starve the beast, more and more critical services are going to be affected. While we had media saturation on about 1000 people in Washington protesting big government, many times that number were marching in Illinois and Iowa with no media coverage demanding the return of these services and willing to pay taxes for them. Nothing is free and our tea partiers and the conventional wisdom has failed to recognize what they get for their tax dollar.

The hope for our future quite frankly is to ignore these morons and hope for a progressive future. A progressive view believes that we cannot solve our problems without a strong, and effective federal government. Nobody thinks that government is perfect or that it doesn’t from time to time do stupid things or implements regulations that actually do hinder innovation and our economy. But what progressives believe is that we then fix it so we can move forward. The hate government groups simply believe the world would work better without government which is such a gross over simplification of our problems as to be totally out of touch with reality.

For those who like anecdotal evidence, there is a really interesting story in the New York Times (U.S offers a Hand to Those on Eviction’s Edge) about the struggles of some of the unemployed. Many of my conservative friends love their self-serving belief that government is the problem and the poor have only themselves to blame. But this story is about reality and the struggles of real people, well educated and willing to work hard, who are victim of their circumstances. So the handouts, as my friends would characterize the aid to help these folks, is really a lifeline to their and our future. And as much as they don’t believe it, there by the grace of god or fortune go I. I am willing to pay more in taxes to help my fellow citizens because we are all in this together. If that ultimate truth could finally permeate into their small brains, we could start really tackling some our big problems and using our most effective tool, our government to solve them.  Democrats have been cowards in not arguing for their core belief in effective government.  It is time to stand up.

Perspective

In the last few days I have written about angry people, angry people without a sense of humor about themselves.  These are the most dangerous kind, because if you can’t laugh at yourself once in a while, you are entering the realm of believing you are infallible.  You become an intolerant lout who looks down on every one else.  You have lost your sense of humanity which allows you to understand your own failings and respect others because, guess what, you don’t always have the right answer.  I was going write a blog about this in our media, and was reading through the papers and blogs this morning when I came across this absolute gem from John Stewart of the Daily show.  It made me laugh so hard I think I hurt myself.  Humor in social commentary is one of our great saving graces which helps us laugh at ourselves and see issues in less threatening ways.  But in this classic piece John used humor not only to make a political point, but to show the great contrast between anger with grace and without.  Thank you John Stewart for keeping me sane and grounded during these turbulent times.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Bernie Goldberg Fires Back
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

They are Nuts

They represent less than 18% of the electorate, most are Republicans (or they voted for McCain in the last election), they are white, they are older males, and they are mad about something, and yet they are dominating our news coverage.  It is given us a skewed view of the issues and real America.  Oh and did I mention that most of the coverage is about how important it is that they are mad, not about their irrational views.

Yesterday Chris Mathews was interviewing some of the fruit loops who are afraid someone out there is going to take away their guns.  Their freedoms are under attack, but when you ask them what exactly has been done to put their freedoms in jeopardy you get some vague hand waving and grumbling about the government.  Chris asked them why, since the Obama Administration has done nothing to infringe upon their gun rights and has an F grade from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence for doing nothing to reign in the spread of weapons, did they not also protest during the Bush administration.  That was a very telling question and of course the answer was nonsensical.  They have an irrational fear of Obama and government in general.

The guy (they are all guys) in Washington was sans his weapon because it is against the law in Washington D.C. to be carrying.  He was afraid of being mugged and the government was taking away his right to protect his family or so he said.  So Chris asked him if he would feel better if everyone in the city (one of the most crime ridden in the country) were armed and he kind of wishy-washed that one.  Then Chris granted him his point that the 2nd Amendment grants him the right to a weapon, but then asked how big.  What was the limit of the weapon he as a private citizen could have?  He thought a machine gun would be good.  He didn’t think he needed a bazooka.  Chris pointed out that it was during the Elliot Ness era that machine guns were outlawed and should we bring back that level of violence?  No response.  Ah, but the devil is in the details.

The reality became apparent that these people have an irrational fear of our government and they “cling to their weapons and religion”.  They want their rights back, but I am not sure what rights have been taken away.  They are ignorant of our history.  Some are reviving the old “states rights” claim used to justify racism and slavery.  They forget that the Constitution they hold so dear to their chests, but never read or selectively at best, came out of a failure of state’s rights called a confederation.  The Constitutional Convention was called in 1787 because all those states were going in their own direction and it wasn’t working.  The convention made the Federal Government Supreme.  Nothing has changed in our Constitution yet somehow their rights are being threatened.

The answer to why this is, is quite simple.  We had an election, they lost, and they can’t stand the result.  It was all done as part of our democratic process called majority rules with minority rights.  But none of their minority rights have been threatened.  The simple answer is these are very undemocratic people.  If they don’t get their way, they want revolution.  It is everything that our government was established to prevent.  We entered into a contract with basic rights that have not been infringed, and an agreement to abide by a process of debate, election, and majority rule.  These guys lost and now they want to void the contract.  It is as simple as that.  They are the most un-American of Americans who have no understanding of the underlying principles of our government.

Last night MSNBC ran a special on Timothy McVeigh, the American terrorist who killed 168 innocent Americans including 16 under the age of 6 years because he was one of these fruitcakes.  He hated the government and saw it as a bully.  He built up a world that didn’t exist in his mind.  He was a lost soul whose violence gave him some sort of fantasized meaning.  When confronted with the innocent victims, his comment was “Lots of Grandmas lose grandchildren, get over it.”  I lost a daughter to a drunk driver and I will never get over it.  He had no respect for human life or human dignity.  He claimed to want to restore the government of 1789, but I guess that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” only applied to him and not all those he killed.

What is running through all this is hatred of government.  But the government they fantasize is not the one I know to exist.  I spent 33 years as part of that government and I know it pretty well.  It is a mirror of all Americans.  It is moms, dads, brothers and sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles, cousins, and aunts all trying to do a little good.  The people I worked with were protecting this nation in the military and risking their lives, they were building canals to provide water for California, they were building flood control structures to prevent the loss of life for our citizens, they were cleaning the environment and restoring wetlands.  They were all generally underpaid and committed to doing some good in this world.  Is this what these people hate?  If it is, then I am one of them, and I take it personally.  These people are morons.  The problem is we have politicians who are egging on these morons, and a media who is not challenging them.  Oklahoma City here we come.

It’s About the Money Stupid

This week will be a focus on the Democrat’s attempt to pass financial regulation reform and the Republicans attempt to maintain the status quo.  The language we are hearing is double speak right out of George Orwell’s 1984.  Let’s us make no mistake about this debate.  The banks are spending roughly $1 million a day to fight any change in the way they do business.  My concern here is that if simple concepts like universal access to health care can so confuse a nation with lies such as death panels, what is a complex issue like financial reform going to do to our national dialogue?

On Friday night on the Bill Moyers Journal, there was an interesting discussion between James Kwak and Simon Johnson from the BaselineScenario.com and host Bill Moyers on how our nation has become a oligarchy. To quote Mr. Johnson, “I know people react a little negatively when you use this term for the United States. But it means political power derived from economic power. That’s what we’re looking at here. It’s disproportionate, it’s unfair, it is very unproductive, by the way. Undermines business in this society. And it’s an oligarchy like we see in other countries.”

Their argument goes something like this:  We know that a free financial market is one of the most effective ways to see that money is directed toward innovation and where it is needed in a thriving economy.  The banks have made this extremely complex and in doing so, have created ways to siphon money out of the system, making large amounts of profit gaming the system, at the expense of investing in production and growth.  The system has gotten to the point where bankers can make large amounts of money at the expense of their own organizations.  The risks they took and the counter bets they made were in a large part what brought down our system in 2007.  The banks understand this and they want to prevent any regulation which would affect their ability to game the system.  Now enter the double speak.

The Republicans are trying to prevent any regulation under the guise that next time no bank will be too big to fail and we will protect the citizens from having to bail these banks out.  They are capitalizing on uniformed voter anger about the amounts of money that were given to banks to make them whole.  I won’t go into the details of the Democrat’s plan to regulate banks.  It is sufficient to say that two things are necessary.  First and foremost is the limiting of the size of these institutions so that any single failure will not put the whole system at risk.  The other is regulations that require visibility of transaction and rules that automatically kick in controlling liquidity and risk.  The Democratic plan is not perfect.  They to are susceptible to lobbying by the banks, but it is a start.

But here enters the real lies.  The Democrat’s plan will be to tax the banks and set up a fund that will pay for the costs of taking over and reorganizing or selling off the banks assets if they fail.  The Republicans under the leadership of Mitch McConnell and Richard Shelby claim that this makes bailouts certain and are trying to scuttle the whole regulatory bill.  Result:  Leave the banks just like they were before 2007.  There are several lies here.  First is that if we faced a crisis like we did in 2007-2008, we would not bail out the banks.  Let’s see, a severe recession or a return of the depression.  Which would you choose and note these guys voted for this bail out under a Republican Administration.  So the first assertion that we would not bail out the banks if we faced a similar crisis is a lie.  But the key is to not face a similar crisis, hence the regulations.  The next lie is that the fund is established to bail out the banks guaranteeing a bailout.  In reality its purpose is to help pay the cost of the take over and reorganization.  In this case the bankers and the stockholders will be wiped out with the Fed having the authority to liquidate these failed institutions.  Enter the third bogeyman, the Fed has too much power and is taking over everything.  Let’s see, we left it to the bankers last time and we all got screwed so we are, if the Republicans have their way, going to do that again?

Here is where you know that the Tea Party Gang is a mindless bunch of morons.  Here is the real hijacking of our government and our way of life.  The Republicans (and some Democrats) are now nothing but shills for the financial markets having been bought and paid for.  The Republicans, saying they are protecting us from banks to big to fail and big government, are really making sure banks stay too big to fail and own our government.  So where is the Tea Partier’s outrage?  Focused on hating a government that gave them every amenity they hold dear today.  They just like to hate and be angry.  It’s so counter productive.  You know that old saying about when you are up to your ass in alligators, it is hard to remember that your original purpose was to drain the swamp?  Well I got another one for you:  If your are focused on the ants, you might get trampled by the elephants.  In this case the elephants would be Republicans selling their souls to greed and money.