Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Don't Believe Petraeus - He's a Soldier

I don't have anything against General Petraeus. He was commanding general of my old unit, the 101st Airborne. He reportedly ran the best counter-insurgency operations of anyone in Iraq, so he was a good choice to command the force there. But, with apologies to him, I got to tell you that his "September report" is not going to let the chips fall where they may. Not because he's a bad guy, but because he's a soldier.

There are two things about good soldiers that pertain here: they live to fight, and they don't like to lose. Nothing makes a true soldier happier than a tough battle, and Iraq certainly is that. Petraeus has the job that every general dreams about - leading a war against a determined and capable foe. And he does not want to lose. He may not win, but he does not want to lose under any circumstances. Consequently, no matter how things are going he will ask for more time to fight. We can't take him seriously because he is both incented and programmed to keep the battle going.

If not Petraeus, then who should we believe and what indicators should we be sensitive to? In my view, we should believe nobody. Everyone has a point of view and a bias. The indicators, however, are real. Is the Iraqi parliament beginning to function as a true national assembly? Are the Iraqi troops and police becoming more effective, or are they becoming more associated with militias? Is the electricity staying on longer in Baghdad, and is the oil flowing? How many GI's are we losing every month, and do we have replacement divisions to go there? The facts, boss, just the facts... The facts of progress or setbacks on the ground wil tell the story better than Petraeus ever will.

So, General Petraeus, do your best. We really do want you to "win" after all the years of ugly screw-ups by your non-military, self-styled "Commander in Chief". Just don't expect me to believe what you say. The facts on the ground don't love to fight or hate to lose. They're just facts. Come September, I think we'll know how it's going over there.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Harry Potter Rocks!

OK, I admit it, I've read all the Harry Potter books including the last one, and what a nail-biter it was! Don't worry, I won't spoil it for you.

I'd be the first to admit that compared to "Lord of the Rings" it is a minor league effort, but J.K. Rowling has done a good job with her characters and the action, especially in the last book, is non-stop.

I've learned over the years that life is not simple. There are few decisions that are cut and dried, few (or no) friends that never make a mistake about you, and there are many situations that have significant ambiguities. Harry Potter's life is no different - he has doubts, he takes chances, and he deals with joy and tragedy. The good thing about Harry is that his instincts are pure and he is never mean-spirited. All these examples are great for kids and adults alike.

So, if you've been avoiding Harry but have some spare days to kill during the summer doldrums, pick up the first book and get started! They're quick reads, and I promise you won't be disappointed by the time you turn the last page of the seventh book.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

An Appointment With Death

I have a dear friend who I've known for about 30 years. We see each other at church, but seldom anywhere else. We don't live in the same towns and we have different social circles. She's a large woman, married but without children, and she's always been successful in her jobs and extremely resiliant and optimistic when her circumstances changed abruptly. Although we have little in common, I've loved her from the start because her eyes always sparkle, she has a beautiful smile that seldom leaves her face, and she has absolutely no pretenses - she's at home with herself and easy with everyone else. But, as of yesterday, she has an appointment with death.

Cancer is a fact of life in America, and perhaps it always has been. In these times, however, our increased longevity due to preventive medicine and less dangerous work and personal lives has emphasized cancer as a common and terrifying illness. My friend strugged with breast cancer a few years ago and fought it off, but it has come back with a vengeance to claim her. The doctors have tried every possible cure, as evidenced by her disfiguring radiation burns, but to no avail. Yesterday, as she lay in intensive care on a ventilator, her doctor gave her the final prognosis and recommended that she move to hospice care - her appointment with death. As we talked a few hours later, her eyes still sparkled and her smile came easily. Her joy of life and her resiliance continue to the end.

I believe in God, but I don't believe God interferes with nature on any regular basis. Our nature is that we are born and that we die, and we are subject to all the risks and benefits that life can offer. For some, even the most evil among us, life is a walk in the park. For others, even the best among us, life is filled with difficulty and sadness. There is no "justice" in this life, but my belief is that there is justice after death. Moreover, in a less religious vein, I feel that the quality of a life is much more important than its length. My friend has had a quality life which will last 59 years.

I expect to see Julia as often as possible until she leaves this world. She needs the comfort and diversion that friends can provide, and her husband needs our support. I can deal with the tubes that sprout from several places on her swollen body, and I can deal with the constant "swoosh" of the ventilator that will keep her alive a bit longer. In return for my company, Julia will shine her bright eyes on me and smile that unquenchable smile. She will continue to be my role model as the person who makes the most of life no matter what comes her way. O Lord, help me to be as courageous and loving as my friend, the soon-to-be-memorable Julia.

Monday, July 23, 2007

More Random Thoughts

My 45th high school reunion was worth the trip. Perhaps the best part was seeing Mt. Lebanon, PA, my home town, again. It has revitalized itself and is thriving - even the home I grew up in looks better than it did then. Something in Pennsylvania government is working, it appears.

My golf game is going great, with my handicap coming down nicely (15 and falling). It's nice to know that at 63, I can play a game with 30-somethings and be competitive. I'll let you know when I get to 10.

I need diversions, since Bush is not going away just yet. I don't like him, I don't trust him, I don't like his isolation from the real world, and I worry about the additional mischief he might make before he leaves office. Events of the past six years have shown just how inept both our president and our congress can be. The U.S. government is definitely not working, and maybe ThomasLB's call for a revolution is not so far-fetched. But let's wait for one more election to see how it goes.

My wife drives a 1998 Chrysler Cirrus with 61,700 miles on it, and it's in great shape. My 2004 Chrysler Town & Country van has 40,000 or so miles. I bought Chrysler products partly to support American industry, but I'm really disappointed in all the American automakers now. Their R&D has stunk compared to the foreign makers, especially Toyota, and their glamorizing of big, heavy vehicles with large motors has been unconscionable. I won't replace either of my cars until the next generation of fuel-efficient cars is introduced - something equivalent to my cars but getting 40 mpg. Maybe the American makers will provide these vehicles, but I have my doubts.

I just picked up my desktop computer from "The Computer Doctor", who removed viruses and worms that somehow got through my security software. The machine had slowed to a crawl, but now it speeds along. As much as I value "free speech", I would love to see the spammers and the cyber-tricksters put away for a long while. My spam is so bad that I think it's time to change my email address.

Tonight I medic on the ambulance from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. I haven't had a "bad call" for quite a while, and I hope tonight is not the night.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Random Thoughts

A woman, holding a large-headed driver, was found standing over her dead husband who had many head wounds. When the cop asked her if she had killed her husband with the golf club, she admitted the crime. He then asked how many times she had struck him, and she paused, thinking hard. Then she said, "Maybe five, six, seven times...just put me down for a five." Only a golfer can appreciate this joke.

Five reasons to impeach Bush: illegal wiretapping, ignoring congressional subpoenas, lying about Iraq, "rendition" of kidnapped individuals,no-bid contracts with companies connected to friends. Why is this not in progress?

This weekend the Good Witch and I will attend my 45th high school reunion near Pittsburgh. 500 of 505 graduates in my class went to college, five of them as sophomores in Ivy League schools. About 100 of us will gather, and tomorrow will include a "scramble" golf event at Fox Chapel Golf Club, a premier course. My game is hot right now, so I'm looking to impress the old friends - high school one-up-manship revisited! I was fortunate to grow up in a much more open society where kids could be kids.

I really believe global warming is a big, big problem. The second big problem may be bird flu. The next fifty years might be really "interesting", "interesting" being the word that EMT's use when they come across a really nasty situation.

The "Einstein" biography continues to be good reading. Anti-Semitism was rampant in his day, both in Germany and the U.S. His relativity discoveries were earth-shaking, since Newtonian physics were considered to be the last word. He did not realize for a long time that E=M x c-squared would result in the atom bomb.

"Truth" about our country's fiscal situation continues to be avoided by all presidential candidates. Ignorance is bliss, apparently.

Be extra kind to someone today. I friend of mine is dying of cancer, and she's not having any fun at all. Life can be fleeting, so make the most of it.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Is it Bloomberg?

Someone asked who I would back for president in the 2008 election. Frankly, none of the current candidates, with the possible exception of Ron Paul, give me much to hope for. The other republicans are hopeless (the "debates" are clear on that), and the democrats aren't even talking about the real issues other than immigration and the Iraq war.

Our next president will need the independence and courage to put the true "state of the nation" on the table, and then offer some strategies to get our country financially strong again. The fact is that we are going broke, and some day in the not too distant future we will not be able to afford our military or our big entitlement programs. Bloomberg understands this better than anyone, and he's not afraid to stand up because he's got the bucks and doesn't need anyone else.

The democrats can't deal with the entitlements, and the republicans are out of touch with American culture. Maybe it's time for an independent.

Friday, July 13, 2007

McCain is History - Whew!

John McCain is virtually out of money and definitely has one foot out of the race. I have mixed emotions, but in the end I have to be happy about it.

Once upon a time I felt good about McCain. Remember McCain-Feingold and McCain's outspoken comments on major topics like immigration? He seemed to have the spunk and independence to tell it like it is and get the American people and even the congress on board with reform in major areas. Then came the Iraq war.

McCain never did figure out that attacking Iraq was not part of a war on terror. However, the American people have finally concluded that was the case. McCain's initial support of that war, and his continuing call for a military victory there, has destroyed his candidacy for president.

Now I'm happy he is history. His Iraq statements tell us more than enough about his qualifications to be president. We can do much better.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

"Commander in Chief" is Obsolete

President Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq has convinced me that the unilateral responsibility for direction of our strategic military decisions cannot be housed in the presidency. As I write, Bush is again speaking as the "decider" and the "Commander in Chief", thumbing his nose to congress and the American people. He speaks of consulting with congress, but his idea of consulting is to tell them what to do. He bashes congress for wishing to "micromanage" the war, when that is exactly what they are not involved in.

Congress needs to have much more power regarding the strategic direction of our military, and not simply power emanating from their control of the nation's purse. The republicans in congress have been able, so far, to avoid accountability for the lack of Bush's success by deferring to his constitutional role as Commander in Chief. If their congressional leadership during the 2003-2006 period had also been accountable for support of Bush's strategy, I believe the direction of the war would now be different because different strategic choices would have been made.

The initiation of the Iraq war was made possible by a congressional vote allowing the president to take military action. It makes no sense that the congress should not review this authority on an ongoing basis, and adjust it as necessary from a strategic standpoint. We need to have more control over an executive who, by virtue of his position, can pursue military adventures without constant oversight.

This concept makes a lot of sense if we look at our government as a corporation, the largest corporation in the world. The chief executive has tremendous power in a corporation, but he or she also is accountable to the board of directors. When the chief executive errs significantly in determining the corporation's strategy, the board can intervene and either force strategy changes or fire the executive. Unfortunately, our governmental structure does not include a body like a board of directors. Congress can impeach (fire) a president, and it can de-fund a president's initiatives, but it does not have an adequate role in determining military strategy. Time for a change.

Another Bush "Success", And the Aftermath

This week President Bush described his forecasted 2007 deficit of roughly $230 billion as a victory, since it bested his earlier 2007 forecast of the deficit. This was another great example of what Bush considers a "victory" - a result just a bit less ugly than a previously ugly expectation.

In 2000, Bush predicted a 2007 surplus exceeding $500 billion. This means that his latest forecast for 2007 is about $750 billion worse than his original prediction. That's a victory? No, it's a tragedy.

Can he blame 9/11 for this failure? No. We have had years to recover, and the economy has rebounded with stock market indexes at high levels. The blame lies with his combination of excessive tax cuts and overspending by his administration and the republican congressional majority of the past six years.

The truth is that Bush has had virtually no successes during his tenure, a fact that the public has come to understand very well - his 30% approval rating is solid proof that the American people have run out of patience with his leadership and with the credibility of those in congress who continue to support him. It's hard to believe that the 2008 elections will result in anything other than major gains by the democratic party.

The bad news about the impending change in government leadership is that the democrats will inherit giant problems left over from Bush - overspending, Iraq, immigration, energy independence, entitlements, and education, to name a few. They will be unable to escape dealing with those problems simply because they were inherited, and they will have to make some very painful choices if the issues are to be resolved. Will the democrats be able to explain these issues to Americans and get their support? The new president's communication skills will be tested to the utmost as he or she attempts to get this nation united behind a package of projects that will rival the New Deal in scope and complexity.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Einstein - Brash, Brainy and Busy

There's a new biography of Albert Einstein, written by Walter Issacson and titled "Einstein - His Life and Universe". I'm on page 129, where I'm learning about Einstein's concept of "special relativity", which shows that there are no such things as absolutely simultaneous events or "real" or "absolute" time. It's a complicated idea, but Einstein proved it and I can understand his explanation. So far, the book is a winner.

Three of Einstein's major characteristics stand out in what I've read to this point: he had little respect for authority, he loved knowledge of all kinds, and he worked his butt off on his own time. He was not "just a scientist", but also a philosophy student and a practical engineer. He rebelled against academic institutionalists who confused knowledge with authority, who resisted new ideas because their prestige was connected to the old. Einstein was fortunate to be turned down for academic positions, since the "patent examiner" job he later worked at gave him much more freedom to think creatively. He may have been a genius, but he put more hard work (thinking) into solving problems than almost anyone, and he stuck with it. He was an intellectual entrepreneur, and he invented ideas that have changed our world.

I'd hope that bright young people would read some biographies of people like Einstein, people who changed our world. They might get a better appreciation of how to maximize on their talents and understand how much sacrifice is required to accomplish great things.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Our Government is Our Own Worst Enemy

Pretty provocative title, isn't it? You may be thinking I'm going to rant about the Presidentidiot, or maybe about one or more of the boneheads in his executive branch, or the Supreme Clowns, or those people who probably searched my wife as she traveled by air today - but I'm not. I'm going to slam the republicans, the democrats, the bureaucrats, the governors, the think tanks - everybody who has a hand in guiding our nation. They are all complicit in a vast conspiracy that has a good probability of reducing our country to a weak shell of its current state. It's the conspiracy of ignoring the financial mismanagement of our nation, and the accusation is made by none other than David Walker, Comptroller General of the United States.

I quote from David Walker's interview on "60 Minutes" last night. "I would argue that the most serious threat to the United States is not someone hiding in a cave in Afghanistan or Pakistan but our own fiscal irresponsibility," Walker tells Kroft (the "60 Minutes" staffer).

What is the problem? Simply stated, the United States has about $30 trillion - that's right, $30 trillion - in unfunded liabilities. The largest of these is Medicare, where the recent prescription drug benefit alone contributed $8 trillion of unfunded obligations. Walker says that our government is spending, borrowing, and undertaxing to a scandalous degree - that we cannot possibly afford the national lifestyle that our elected officials are providing us. Our children and grandchildren will be left with this gigantic bill, one that they cannot pay under any forseeable circumstances. And Walker says that "this is the best kept secret in Washington". Everyone in power understands this, but nobody wants to talk about it, including all the announced presidential candidates. What a crock of shit!

It's kind of humorous that congress would enact the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation to require corporate reporting and control - to prevent another Enron - when the government itself is on a course that will make Enron seem like a triviality. Think of it...we have 300 million citizens in the U.S., and $30 trillion in unfunded liabilities...that's $100,000 in "unfunded" liability for every man, woman, and child in the U.S. And this number does not include the "funded" liability, which is, for example, the part of future Social Security payments that will be covered by future payroll taxes. If our country was a corporation, "bankrupt" would be a kind word for our status.

Walker's prescription for averting disaster is increased taxes, lower government spending, and reductions in our entitlements. That's why politicians don't want to deal with this issue - the solutions will be difficult and unpopular. Moreover, both parties participated in building the bloated government that has got us into this untenable state. "Handshakes all around" occurred when Bush and the democrats agreed on the $8 trillion unfunded prescription drug benefit. They are all guilty.

My very smart partner on the ambulance today predicted that the U.S. will ultimately try to inflate our currency to the degree that these obligations will be met in cheap money. Of course, U.S. interest rates would go sky-high and our credit rating would go down the drain. Retirement funds would provide far less security than people are expecting, since the dollar would buy much less. He suggested it would be foolish for anyone to be in long term bonds at this point in our history, given this huge risk. Hopefully this blog will be preserved long enough for Dick to get due credit for his prediction. You might want to think about this as you make investment decisions - I am.

So, forget about terrorists. The Comptroller General says they are a minor threat compared to what our own government has in store for us. Think about asking your congressperson, senator, or governor about what Walker is saying. What is their plan for coming up with the $30 trillion? If they have no answer, tell your children and grandchildren to pile up hard assets like gold or stock in Chinese companies,or to consider moving to Canada. (If you think I'm bullshitting you, answer why a Canadian dollar is worth $1 U.S today when it was worth $0.55 not so long ago.) All the world knows our economy is tettering over the abyss, but we have no clue because our politicians don't want to deal with it.

Oh! I almost forgot to mention that every dollar Bush is spending on the Iraq debacle is going into the unfunded liability. My grandson Ryder will curse his sorry ass!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Bush Commutes Accountability

"Scooter" Libby will not go to jail, but his felony conviction stands - for now. He'll pay a fine and go on probation pending an eventual late-term pardon by the president. This is simply the latest example of the Bush administration's refusal to accept accountability for major mistakes, some of which are likely crimes.

Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice because he lied in court about the events surrounding the "outing" of Valerie Plame, a former covert CIA agent. When a person is convicted of perjury, the facts must support the contention that they knowingly misstated the truth when under oath. I would argue that Libby,as an attorney, had a heightened obligation to tell the truth, and that his punishment for not doing so should be severe. President Bush, by commuting Libby's sentence, is declaring that lying in support of his administration's objectives is no big deal.

Most Americans have no idea of the extent to which the activities of senior administration figures are managed and documented. Time and specificity are precious when the issues being addressed affect the interests of the United States and all its citizens, so appointment calendars, phone logs, meeting minutes,and email copies are essential to the smooth operation of the White House. "I don't remember" is an unacceptable answer to any question about activities that have occurred there, but Libby made this claim over and over again. He flat lied. Why? Because the truth would have been more embarassing to the administration than the spectacle of Libby's trial and conviction. Now his loyalty has been rewarded.

This sad episode points out an inconvenient truth about our government, one that,once again, most Americans do not understand: that integrity is not a prime prerequisite for those in politics. We tend to assume that those who are elected or appointed to high office are honorable, when in fact they are only as honorable as those who manage to place them in these positions. When government is operated on the premise that "the ends justify the means", honor is subordinated to expediency. In Libby's case, the objective of justifying going to war with Iraq was worth breaking the law about safeguarding clandestine agents and then lying about it. Bush's commutation of Libby's sentence confirms this. Honor was expendable.

This administration has been characterized by obfuscation and untruth. Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Michael Brown ("Great job, Brownie"), the sucession of press secretaries, and Alberto Gonzales have each uttered, regarding major issues, boldfaced statements that that unbiased citizens would consider false. Libby is simply the latest to be trapped by his own words. Consequently, I would argue that President Bush believes lying is appropriate if it's deemed necessary to implement his policies or justify his actions. As my own boss once said, "You are who you hire." History will show that this president had a mighty disregard for truth.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Bush - The Quintessential Loser

Our illustrious president, George W. Bush, is attempting to have a summit meeting this week in Kennebunkport with Russia's Putin. Given Bush's 30% approval rating, Putin must be thinking mostly of having a little vacation on the shore because Bush has no status in his own country. This is the latest in Little George's string of incompetencies, which would be laughable except for the fact that he happens to be President of the United States of America. His failures discredit us all.

By the time GWB leaves the White House he will have two major accomplishments as his legacy: an unnecessary and incredibly costly war, and a Supreme Court tilted to the right for the forseeable future. The first he accomplished through deception, the second he accomplished through a retirement not under his control. His batting average on the stated major priorities of his administration, with a congress of his own party for six years, is verging on .000. He's the quintessential loser, but he's dragged all the rest of us down with him.

It's obvious now that he was nominated in 2000 because the kingmakers in the Republican party knew he would be a patsy for them. They nominated him as strong leader while knowing all along he was a wuss. And they got their reward: lower tax rates on the wealthy, and no change (conservatives stand for no change). The recent failure of the immigration bill was the latest big victory for the "no change" crowd who love Mexicans for their cheap labor and think the status quo is just fine. Anyone with a brain, however, knows that the rest of the right wing propaganda about "law-breaking immigrants" was simply pap for the masses to digest. Bush's pet project to legitimize the immigrants was quashed by his two-faced pals who tossed him into the political garbage can for a lot more than 20 pieces of silver.

Since we're already at the end of this administration for all intents and purposes, it's a good time to summarize President Bush's legacy beyond the war and the Supreme Court.

1. The worst cabinet in a long time, dominated by people who left in ignominy or who have been non-entities (can you name any of them?). Innumerable sub-cabinet posts filled with the likes of Monica Goodling and other incompetents.

2. A Vice President who appeared to be unaware that he had a boss, and who set new standards for surliness, secrecy, and un-Constitutional leanings.

3. An unblemished record of presidential appearances in front of hand-picked friendly or military audiences, guaranteeing that he could recite his talking points without the inevitable embarassments that would ensue from having unscripted appearances before average citizens.

4. Responsible for negative progress on the big threats to our country - entitlements, energy independence, global warming, and overspending/overborrowing. We will suffer severe consequences in all these areas where his leadership was essential yet non-existent.

5. Responsible for severely wounding the American scientific community by backing religious Luddites on stem cell research, climate change, and creationist nonsense.

6. Self-destructed his most passionate pre-election claim: "I'm a uniter, not a divider." Given his rhetorical deficit, he may have just gotten the two words transposed in a momentary lapse of concentration. Ditto with "I'm not a nation-builder". Is it possible that GWB is what we used to call "retarded", or should we blame substance abuse?

I suppose this list is long enough to support the title "quintessential loser", although it is clearly incomplete at this point. Unfortunately, with 1.5 more years left in his administration, there is plenty of time for him to further earn the title. No doubt he will provide us with plenty more of his sad-sack moments before he's gone.

Do I hate the president? No. It's not nice to hate. Do I pity him? Yes. He's like the cute, uncoordinated puppy we brought home, only to find that the dog snarls when anyone looks at him but then cowers and craps on the floor when they don't flee. The guys at the Republican dog pound knew about this dog when they handed him across the counter to us, and it's them that deserve a long stay in purgatory. They've been more than satisfied with the quintessential loser who has made them all winners at our expense, and it's them that the next administration needs to go after with a vengeance. I'll be ready to join in that manhunt, and let the truth fall where it may!