Friday, July 25, 2008

Depression, Revolution, or War

"Which would you rather have, a major depression, a revolution, or a really big war? "

"Quite a choice of ugly alternatives!", you might exclaim in response.

Well, that's what I think are the choices we are likely to face if the U.S. government doesn't get our economy fixed for the long run.

I attended a men's outing one day this week at a lovely "cottage" on Keuka Lake, one of the "finger lakes" south of Rochester...on land worth thousands of dollars per foot of lakefront. The 20 men who attended are pretty smart guys, and we talked about a lot of things as we enjoyed the ambiance of a beautiful scene, plenty of good food and drink, and a respite from the day-to-day pressures that most of us face. Most of the men were either retired or well along in their work life.

The consensus is that our kids and grandchildren will not enjoy anything like the standard of living that we have enjoyed. The America of today is not the stable, rich land of opportunity that we remember, and all signs point to further deterioration. We don't see a large class of younger "middle and upper-middle class" people accumulating enough wealth to live well after their retirement. Rather, we see America being propped up by us older folks as we spend our accumulated wealth, and then falling rapidly as we are not replaced by a large group of relatively well-off older citizens.

Our generation enjoyed significant advantages over our counterparts around the world. Their countries were ravaged by war, their treasuries were depleted, and their cultures resisted change. They had less natural resources to tap, and often, less freedom to be entrepreneurs. But all this is past history now. Our competitor countries have rebuilt, their people have worked hard and saved, they understand entrepreneurship, and their citizens are more free to succeed.
America is no longer the source of most items demanded by consumers, and our competition has virtually wiped out America's participation in some industries.

During the time our economic competitors were gearing up, our government has fought three very expensive wars, set up social programs like Social Security and Medicare without adequately funding them, and has run big deficits and foreign debts despite being the most successful economy in the world for two generations. We have got fat and lazy while our competitors have got skinny and invigorated. At one time America was the world's banker, but now we are the world's biggest debtor. As the value of our currency falls our standard of living will fall and our sense of security will diminish as the years pass. How will our people handle the disappointment?

That's where my choices come in. If we do nothing to fix our problems we will face either a major depression, a revolution, or a big-time war. We will have a depression if the U.S. dollar depreciates even further, since oil and commodities will become extremely expensive. We will have a revolution if our citizens conclude our political system is guilty of selling us out. We will have a major war if our politicians decide that a desperate grab for worldwide power is preferable to America falling via depression or revolution. This is not a very happy set of possibilities. Can they be avoided? I don't know.

What I do know is that America needs to make some dramatic changes in order to compete and survive in the 21st century. Government needs to live within its means, get our entitlements under control, and somehow convince the citizens to endure the lower standard of living that recovering will entail. There is no quick fix; our debts are gigantic and our resistance to change is high. Will our politicians ever wake up to their responsibility to future generations, or will they, like President Bush, paper over the problems until a collapse is inevitable?

Depression, Revolution, War, or major structural change? This is no parlor game question. We don't have much longer before the answer must be given, so pray it's the latter.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

McCain is the Wrong Man

Lately there's been a lot of talk about Obama's and McCain's qualifications to be president. I'd agree with those who say Obama is light on experience, but I have a lot of trust in his knowledge, his instincts and his calm and positive demeanor. On the other hand, I've become more and more convinced that McCain would mean big trouble for our country because he lacks knowledge and seems socially retarded. In these respects, McCain differs little from our current unsuccessful president.

It's no surprise that McCain's supporters focus on his military background and his POW status in order to depict him as a great patriot. In my view, his version of patriotism is about all he has to offer. Like Bush, his education is dated and there's little evidence he's been a dedicated student of world affairs and the cultural, business, and social issues that face America today. There's plenty of evidence that he has a short fuse, speaks before he thinks, and has a penchant for being crude in public and private. Because his family's wealth and his privileged status as a tenured senator have isolated him from the challenges faced by average Americans, he is unable to clearly explain domestic issues or speak coherently about how to address them. And lastly, his mental and physical stamina is suspect due to his age. In short, he's not competent to be president unless you feel patriotism is the sole criteria.

I don't hate John McCain. He is a product of his environment, as we all are, and I doubt he is an evil person like Dick Cheney. But, remember: he is running for the most important and demanding job in the world. McCain is clearly the wrong man.

Friday, July 18, 2008

We Need a United Government

I detest committees, and I hate meetings. Throughout my business career and subsequent volunteer leadership activities I've avoided them like the plague. Why? Because there is usually no imperative to act. "Information sharing", rather than hard-nosed planning, becomes the purpose of most committee meetings. The time is generally wasted, and time is precious.

One of my bosses had a name for people who filled their calendars with meetings. He derisively called them "professional meeting attenders". Their output in real terms was often zero, since their goal was "to discuss" rather than to take responsibility.

Our government, i.e., the administration and congress, seems to be filled with professional meeting attenders. They talk a lot, but accomplish little. "Posturing" to pander to those who elected them takes up a lot of their time. Even with democratic party majorities in congress, the senate filibuster rule prevents the democrats from enacting the laws they propose. This allows for unlimited posturing because all sides know nothing is going to happen. I'm sick of it.

This fall we need to install a united government, a government unencumbered by artificial restraints on action. It seems that Obama and the democrats have the best prospect for achieving a veto-proof or filibuster-proof majority, so bring them on!

The USA has so many problems that prioritizing them is going to be a herculean task, and allocating scarce budget dollars will be painful. Those in power will have to make hard decisions and the enemies that go along with them. This is just what we need, however. We will find out whether our "professional meeting attenders" have the ability to plan and execute. The leaders of the democratic party will be forced to show their true colors, for better or worse.

In my view, our country is under siege from problems of our own making. Foreign wars, over-reliance on fossil fuels, bloated entitlements and government payrolls, poor oversight of financial institutions, and archaic education methods have hampered our development and created a horrific fiscal mess. We are faced with a "wartime" situation, a situation that must be confronted with fast and effective action on many fronts. Only a united government has the potential to put the country on the fast track to recovery.

Will united government be the solution? Maybe, maybe not. We really don't know if those we elect can lead until they are given a chance. But one thing is certain: a divided government has no chance of success unless one defines success as the current status quo. Whatever your views, hold your nose in November and vote for democrats! We need to find out whether government can work or not.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Life Is A Precarious Thing

Several weeks ago my youngest son got a nasty virus or something equally ugly. Within hours his hearing in one ear was gone, and his other ear was also affected. He's a music therapist who's been playing keyboards and guitar for over 25 years; music is a major part of his life, but now he can hardly hear it. Good Witch and I have been trying to deal with this tragedy, but it's hard. Our boy has lived an exemplary life - how could he deserve this? It's an age-old question, a question that is always asked when bad things happen to good people.

If we were living in biblical or medieval times the answer would be easy, but perhaps unsatisifactory. God did it, either as punishment for bad conduct or as a "test" like Job's. Nothing happened by accident for those people. But we are living in the modern world and we need a more sophisticated answer.

My answer is that "things happen" in the natural world. Bad things happen to both good people and bad people all the time, and good things happen to all kinds of people all the time, too. Some people get struck by lightning, others win the lottery. Grief or joy results from these accidents of life, depending on what kind of accident happens to you or someone you love.

My pastor preached on this topic yesterday. His conclusion regarding God was that God has complete freedom to act, but may or may not choose to do so. Consequently, God may or may not have caused this tragedy, but has certainly (so far) felt that corrective action was not the appropriate response. And although he did not say this, he probably would have added that "who are we to question God". I agree with him on that unstated point.

The upshot is that I am left with grief. One of my precious children has a new and painful burden to bear, a burden that I can do almost nothing to assuage. His brave response is one of acceptance; take the blow and go on. That reflects his history, since he once took a severe blow (a broken neck) like a hero as a teenager. I know him well, and I know he will truly accept whatever is the final outcome of this ordeal, and he will go on to maximize his contribution to his family and the world. Yet this knowledge makes me no less angry, frustrated, and depressed. I want to shake my fist at fate and scream "Why him???????" But I know it's to no avail.

I once lost control of my little car on a mountain road in West Virginia, driving too fast. I should have gone over the cliff and died, but somehow I didn't. I came home to my family that night as if nothing had happened. My youngest son, this one, was not yet born. I survived, and he is alive but now challenged by sudden hearing loss. Chance works both ways, and life is a precarious thing. We take the cards that are dealt to us, win or lose, and we wait to see what the next hand brings.

Dear God, who made the universe and my son, hear my prayer: May those who listen to your voice find peace in this life and forevermore.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Democrats Too Focused on Revenge

As I've mentioned a few times, I'm still registered as a republican. It's been several years since I last voted for a republican in a national or statewide race, since my brand of "Eisenhower republican" has pretty much died out in the GOP. That flavor may never return, since the "reformers" in the party are sick of Bush and the neocons but anxious to move even farther to the right. So, I guess I'm unlikely to return to the fold before I die.

As an out-of-the-closet turncoat republican, I listen mostly to NPR and the popular liberal radio personalities. Stephanie Miller, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz , and Ron Kuby are all pretty smart and entertaining despite being repetitive as the hours pass. They beat heck out of Rush and all the other idiots on pseudo-conservative radio. My travel minutes each day are devoted to hearing the latest in left-wing news and commentary, which brings me to the point of this post: liberal democrats are suicidal when it comes to politics.

During the past week Jesse Jackson has expressed interest in "cutting Obama's nuts out" because he feels Obama talks down to black people. Hordes of outraged hard core liberals have been foaming at the mouth over Obama's FISA vote. The Clintonista's still can't get over their primary loss to Obama, some of them even threatening defection to McCain! And, there's all kinds of loose talk about prosecuting current and past members of the Bush administration. This kind of craziness is enough to make me wonder if a filibuster-proof congress and a White House controlled by democrats will result in sane governance. Obama will need to get out the whip in order to keep these folks in line.

If you look closely at the four examples I've given above, each of them is about revenge. Jackson for being marginalized. The FISA radicals about punishing phone company executives and stockholders. The Clintonista's for being outfoxed by Obamamania. The anti-war crowd for being run over by the Bush crowd's fear-mongering and flag-waving. Maybe each of these has some legitimate bitch, but it's time for them to shut up and get on the bandwagon for fixing the big problems America faces. Revenge will fix none of them.

Maybe these hard core liberals will always be outside the tent, content only when they are in opposition to something. I, for one, would like to hear a lot more from democrats who have something constructive to add to the debate. Enough is enough. The democrats need a lot of independents and people like me if they are going to stay in power for more than one term, and their incessant back-biting and hate speech is not something that draws people in. If the majority of Americans ultimately want revenge on the neocons, it will come in due time. In the meantime, a more pro-active outlook would go a long way.

T. Boone Pickens Is on the Right Track

Gee, you mean we could get a lot of our electricity from wind, solar, nuclear, and biomass power and thereby free up our natural gas to fuel vehicles instead of costly oil? And do it in ten years? What a novel idea! You'd think it would come from a giant government organization with a name like "Department of Energy", but instead it's coming from one man who's on a crusade.

How long will it take for the majority of Americans to understand that our government sucks at most of the things we have given it authority to do? Anyone with a brain knows that the hard things have to do with preparing for the likely future rather than reacting to a present that's beset with problems that should have been anticipated. But our governments mostly deal with the latter, and we let them get away with this shoddy performance.

Visionaries like President Carter have been ridiculed by eminent politicians who laughed and said things like "Carter thinks the sky is falling, but there's hundreds of years of oil in the ground!" Soon we'll realize that that nutty old Perot was right about a lot of things, too. If we fail to change our expectations for elected leaders, then we deserve the problems they fail to address.

Even at this late stage of crisis in oil supply our government has little to say and seems to be moving at a snail's pace. Then, along comes Pickens with a pretty simple substitutionary plan that could have been initiated years ago. I hope he riles up a lot of conversation and forces our lead-footed governments to facilitate a rapid migration to alternative energy sources and innovative substitutions. Better late than never.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Happiness is Best When Shared

The title of this blog is taken from the movie, "Into the Wild". It's the story of a bright young college grad from a troubled home who became a wanderer, a social but often solitary dreamer and a nature lover. After many interesting adventures he went to the wilds of Alaska to live alone, off the land. His abode was an abandoned school bus, and that was where he was found, starved to death, at age 23. He found that living off the land, even when you have a gun, is a really hard thing to do. But he lived heroically, and, until the end, happily.

There are other things in life that can seem as difficult as living off the land in Alaska. Saying you made a terrible mistake. Feeling forced to do something that you feel is wrong. Seeing someone you love experience pain. Looking back at a wonderful opportunity wasted. But these difficulties are magnified when you have to deal with them alone.

Alex learned in solitude that happiness is best when shared. I would add that sorrow is best when shared. Life is best when shared. Friends and lovers are the frosting on the cake of life.

And, as a veteran of the outdoors, I recommend paying attention to one other thing Alex learned in Alaska. Don't go far from civilization without a) knowing what you are doing, and b) taking along someone else who also knows what they're doing. Nature is beautiful, but also deadly.