Monday, September 29, 2008

Republican Ignoramusi!

They've done it again! The republicans have this particular talent for acting on emotion and taking our country down. Their feelings are right - nobody felt good about Wall Street and all the pain its junk securities have brought to us. Their actions are wrong; they're willing to trash the country out of anger. I hope they get voted out in droves! But I also hope we find a reasonable way out of this mess before the economy tanks.

The fact is that we, the people, created this problem. We voted for the wrong people (deregulators), we let greed take over in too many households, we accepted government deficit spending, and we sat by and let the lobbyists own Washington. Now, we own it and we got to fix it. There are two ways to do that - the way of chaos and the way of workout. The republicans chose the way of chaos, and chaos is what they are getting - Dow down 777 points today! The only bright side is that it wasn't 666 points, which really would have set off those conservative Christian republicans.

Many ordinary citizens believe that the institutions and people left holding the bags of bad securities should just take their losses or even go under. Well, some of the banks already have, and more will. Some big investment firms have failed. Some foreign banks have failed. Nobody knows for certain what will follow, but Obama, McCain, and almost all the experts are worried that liquidity will dry up and paralyze routine interbank transactions. This could bring the world economy to a halt. But most republican congressmen think this would be just fine. They are ignoramusi! But Faux News loves them, bless their souls! The question is, will ordinary citizens love them by Christmas, or even election day?

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Six "P's"

I can't remember where I first heard this saying, "Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance" - the "Six P's". It's true. If you get in front of problems, then you can avoid them or minimize their impact. If you don't see the world as it really is and take proactive steps, then problems grow into crises. That's why the current financial situation represents "piss poor performance" by our elected officials - especially the executive branch.

Fingers are being pointed in all directions - always away from whoever is pointing the finger, which is typical of politicians. The fact is that everyone in a position to have gotten in front of this financial crisis failed us. Republicans, democrats, the executive branch and the congress, the regulatory agencies, and the big companies that dominate the markets who are now crashing. Nobody is clean, except perhaps Warren Buffet, who called derivatives and credit swaps and packaged sub-prime mortages "financial weapons of mass destruction". He was right.

After a week of listening to many points of view on this topic, I have three conclusions:

1. The government "bail-out" is the right thing to do, if it includes appropriate oversight and transparency, and has terms that maximize the government's ability to recover funds. If the credit markets can't function, a serious recession is inevitable.

2. Conservative "small town" republicans have their heads in the sand and are fomenting chaos by focusing on their outrage instead of working toward a solution. They are the "Herbert Hoover's" of the current situation; they are willing to risk a general meltdown over "principle". However, these are the same people who, for years, have had plenty of opportunity to get in front of the problems but failed to do so.

3. The president is primarily responsible for not preventing the meltdown. He is "the Decider", or at least, the captain of the ship. He has 3,000 people in his office; he appoints the SEC chairman, the Federal Reserve chairman, and the secretary of the treasury; he oversees the regulatory agencies. In his role as the primary "defender of the country", it was his responsibility to see the risk of economic chaos building and then take steps to mitigate it, whether or not his message was politically palatable. He did not do this - he looked the other way because his message would have been politically unpopular. He failed us, either because he was not smart enough to understand the problem or he just ignored it.

In the end, the meltdown will be avoided. All the "good Americans" will pay a high price for the actions of the "bad Americans" - those who took unreasonable risks and those who managed the scams that allowed people to take these risks. We have good reason to be outraged, but we have to deal with the situation as it is at this moment - looking forward, not backward.

Will we remember the "Six P's" as we look at the many other major problems that America faces? Time will tell. The November election will have much to say about this.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

"Boo" Weekley and Kenny Perry Win the Rider Cup

I'm a golf nut. It's like having a disability. This year has been chaotic; I've shot 37 on both the front and back of my difficult course (slope=128), and I've shot almost 100 for 18 holes. I play golf a lot, I subscribe to golf magazines, I have lots of clubs, and I watch golf on TV. Although I have a really busy life, I work something about golf into it whenever I can. So, this afternoon, I sorted hundreds of work documents while I watched the singles Rider Cup matches. As I write, the outcome is still uncertain. Whatever happens, I will always remember two country boys from Kentucky - "Boo" Weekley and Kenny Perry.

Talk about "Country Boys", these two take the cake! "Boo" is the nickname for a guy who qualified for the PGA tour wearing camoflage, a guy who didn't know the rules for match play, a guy who said he'd rather be out hunting or fishing than playing golf, a guy who didn't make it to the PGA tour until age 29, then lost his card, then got it back three years ago. Kenny Perry, on the other hand, is a PGA tour veteran, 48 years old, and wealthy from many years of good performance on the golf course. Can you imagine, a big time golf pro named "Kenny"? He still thinks he's a country boy, and he isn't really interested in the British Open.

"Boo" and Kenny have been great performers in this year's Rider Cup. But they are not "blueblood" country club players. Kenny's dad gave him a hug wearing denim overalls with shoulder straps - farmer's clothing. Golf has been democratized!

These two players say a lot about America. Our country is so varied, but people everywhere have a chance to get in the mix and succeed. Way to go, "Boo" and Kenny.

And, by the way, the Americans just won the Rider Cup! Hip, hip, hooray! And all those rich professional golfers played for zero dollars this week - they played for pride. How sweet it is!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Accountability, Not Finger-Pointing

Our highly organized, many-layered society requires millions of leaders. They may be called chiefs, managers, presidents, executive directors, pastors, or whatever, but they are important people.

In short, here's the deal they make with their employer: "In exchange for a nice salary, some prestige, some perks, and the self-actualizing power of being 'in charge', I promise to understand and attend to the best interests of my employer at all times."

Implicit in the contract is the idea that the leader is capable of doing the job. Responsibilities are outlined, declarations are made, references are checked, other candidates are considered and rejected. Both parties shake hands and the leader starts leading. From that point on, whatever happens in that organization is his or her problem to deal with.

I was a 2nd lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division at age 20. At age 27 I was in charge of small audits for a large CPA firm. At 38, I managed the financial systems and kept the general ledger for a multi-billion dollar corporation. At one time, my staff and I had 16 critical projects going, simultaneously; millions of dollars in costs, and millions of dollars of risks if the projects went awry. After retirement, I was director of operations for a 100-member volunteer ambulance corps, a group that handled life-and-death situations and was subject to many government regulations. Consequently, I have a pretty good idea of what it means to be responsible.

I recall being taught the three possible responses that a second lieutenant can give a senior officer: "Yes, sir. No, sir. No excuse, sir." No equivocating. You get asked a direct question, you give a direct answer. This is the expectation of leadership. So, if you stay ahead of events, you work smart, you have a little good luck - you get medals or bonuses or cheers. If you don't anticipate, you get lazy, you get a bad break - you get demoted or fired or pillaried. But you are expected to stand up and be accountable for your successes and your failures. Leaders don't weasel, don't equivocate, don't whine, don't point fingers, and don't disappear.

Have you seen any leaders in Washington lately?

And, as a footnote: if one has to choose between two people for president of the United States, one might consider giving merit to the candidate who seems more action-oriented, more attuned to the issues, more able to work with people to achieve solutions, and more willing to stand up and be counted. On the other hand, if a candidate seems consumed with finger-pointing, dismiss him. What you see will be what you get.

An Ugly Denoument

Today the federal government pretty much committed to swallow many hundred billions of dollars of sub-prime debt held by financial institutions. The markets rebounded, with people like me seeing many thousands of dollars of paper losses erased in the comeback...not that there aren't quite a few more losses unrecouped at this point. Should we be happy? Hardly.

This entire fiasco resulted from two primary failures of government. First, the financial regulators somehow forgot that it's bad to allow customers with poor credit to buy overpriced homes with no down payment and commit them to mortgage interest rates likely to skyrocket them into foreclosure and bankruptcy. Second, a certain Mr. Cox, a republican congressman promoted to head the SEC by president Bush, killed a regulation that outlawed naked "short sales", thereby allowing the most unprincipled people to drive beleagured stocks deep into the tank without even owning any of them - and make huge (maybe even billions) of profits by so doing.

Now, the United States of America (also known as the "taxpayers" - you and me) will own the junk mortgages and take much of the losses associated with them. The financial institutions that previously owned them will be bruised but not broken. The real estate agents, mortgage brokers, and financial intermediaries who packaged the mortgages will keep the immense profits they made during the sub-prime mortgage boom. You and me, the average American citizen who pays their taxes and doesn't take stupid risks, will pay the bill. In other words, we're being punished for being responsible, and the greedy bastards are being rewarded. The logic is that if we don't take on this debt, the world's financial stability will be destroyed. Isn't it nice to be the savior?

As I said in a previous blog, it is the responsibility of government to safeguard the country from major disasters. This particular disaster happened on Bush's watch, and many of his major contributors have emerged very rich as a result. But we, and our children, have gotten screwed. In my view, quite a few people in the Bush administration belong in the doghouse or worse. And their backers, those who profited nicely from this debacle, should pay some big taxes on their future income. And the republican party should be put in the closet in November. And, unfortunately, we normal people are going to end up holding the bag. Sorry to give you the bad news if you hadn't heard!

Monday, September 15, 2008

It's the Republicans, Stupid!

It boggles my mind that that the democrats are running against McCain by attempting to connect him with the failed presidency of George W. Bush. Personalizing the great divide between democrats and republicans is the wrong strategy. The right strategy is to focus on the "republican party" as the problem, because it is.

The sad state of America today is largely the result of policies that the republican party has adoped and implemented since 1994, when they took over control of congress. Those policies got far greater support after George Bush's election in 2000. McCain may be a contender for a seat in the oval office, but the much bigger problem is that the many behind-the-scenes party functionaries and their allies will not change if McCain is elected. The basic policies that they have supported all these years will continue, because they have such great influence. That is the problem.

It's easy for Americans to agree on the issues that need to be addressed if America can rebound. Getting the federal budget under control, including the giant unfunded entitlements...implementing a comprehensive energy policy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil...educating our children...moving toward a unified foreign policy stance with our natural allies...rationalizing our health care system. These are the issues that the republicans, as a group, have failed to confront, let alone solve. Who would want four more years of no progress on these critical matters?

Why, given a new McCain presidency, would progress be unlikely? That's easy to answer. It's all about who would gain or lose if change was made. It's obvious the republican movers and shakers don't think fixing these problems are in their best (financial) interests, simply because they've had plenty of opportunity to deal with them during the past seven years. Who would conclude that they've had a major change of heart? Only a fool.

The past few weeks have shown most thinking Americans what the republicans are trying to do in this election - turn it into a soap opera of personalities rather than a discussion of issues. "Problems" don't exist, except for such trivial issues as "earmarks". Their campaigns of outright lies about their own positions and qualifications, along with not-so-subtle appeals to racism and a false claim to ownership of patriotism, are right out there for all to see. Some media are finally getting bold about "outing" this detestable behavior, but there should be a firestorm of outrage!

Obama and his managers need to take off the gloves. They need to put the problems on the front page and explain in simple terms why the republicans have no interest in solving them. They need to call a lie a lie. They need to use McCain's own quotes about "experience" to show how underqualified Palin is. They need to ask the American people if they like the way things are, since a McCain election will bring more of the same. And that's the truth.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Another Course Completed, Another Course Started

The Good Witch and I recently enjoyed our way through Neil deGrasse Tyson's wonderful 12-lecture course entitled "My Favorite Universe", courtesy of a small payment to The Teaching Company.

Where did we come from? Stardust, of course. How many galaxies and stars are there in the universe? 50-100 billion galaxies, each with 50-100 billion stars. That's a lot of stars! How many black holes are there, out there? Billions of them, and don't get too close! Should we be concerned about the earth getting hit by a big asteroid or comet? Might be a good idea.... And much more, delivered in layman's terms by a great communicator. Education at its finest.

That done, we've returned to an old friend, Robert Greenberg. He once lead us through a long (48 lectures of 45 minutes each) course called "How to Understand and Enjoy Great Music". It was truly enjoyable and illuminating. Now we've begun "The Concerto", a 24-lecture course on one of the great formats of music - a solo instrument interacting with a powerful orchestra. The last two lectures covered Mozart's concerti, in Greenberg's opinion the greatest body of work in this format. Perhaps I'll agree, but we've got many great composers to hear before we're done.

Some gerontologists say that people age much faster when they stop learning, when their curiousity wanes, when they get set in their ways. The Teaching Company provides a great way for us simultaneously to keep our minds active and to experience true enjoyment, without leaving the house. So I can walk 18 holes in the afternoon, have dinner and a nice Scotch, and then settle down with my sweet wife to become a little more educated. What a great life!

Of course, tonight may be a long one, since I'm the medic on Pittsford Ambulance from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. Who knows what combination of real emergencies and silly stuff awaits me? The suspense is one of the things that makes ambulance work interesting, even after 2,000 calls. With great luck I may sleep throught the night in my uniform! If you haven't found a way to "give back", think about finding an opportunity. You will get back more than you give.

Friday, September 12, 2008

An Upset Victory

I'm celebrating over the victory, last Tuesday, of an independent democrat who won a 3-way primary, the winner to face a republican for the house seat vacated by Tom Reynolds, who has retired. Her name is Alice Kryzan, and she's an environmental lawyer.

Alice beat an aging millionaire democrat businessman who put a lot of his own money into the race, and she also beat a 30 year old Iraq war veteran put forward by the state and local democratic parties. Now she's beholden to nobody except her own conscience.

I don't live in Kryzan's district, so why should I care? I care because I heard her handle a tough interview from a staunch republican talk show host. She was smart, cool, and verbally astute. Her positions on issues were pragmatic, and she looked forward to helping construct legislative solutions to the issues that America faces. The talk show host was clearly impressed with her. Apparently, working virtually alone in a large geographic district, she convinced a plurality of primary voters that she's the real thing. She won, and she was front page news!

Perhaps Alice's victory is a portent of what will happen in many districts around this country. Maybe people are tired of rich candidates and candidates owned by the special interests who control the political parties. Maybe those candidates who are seen as smart and independent will get unexpected support. I certainly hope so.

Good luck in November, Alice!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

American "Empire"

We Americans hear a lot about our soldiers in Iraq and Afganistan, somewhat less about our soldiers in Korea, and from time to time we hear news of someplace else where our troops are involved in something. And, we know that the U.S. has a bunch of large aircraft carriers that go here or there based on some threat or need. But we really haven't a clue about how ubiquitous American military power is, across most of the world.

Take a look at the following url; it's worth a few minutes of your time.
Thanks to a friend for finding it!

As a veteran, I thought I had a reasonable grasp of what our military was into, but I had no idea that we have so many forces and bases overseas. Is this level of commitment beyond our shores necessary to defend our country, or is it what you get if your country is ruled by a military/industrial complex? Something to think about, something to vote about.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

"Elitist" Needed

Americans are funny. Maybe we're just like people everywhere. We extoll accomplishment in a general way but seem to resent it in a specific way. We like the idea of doing things well and succeeding, but we seldom hold those who have been very successful in high regard. They're "too rich", "too smug", "too distant", "out of touch with average people", "too elitist", or any number of other phrases that we use to describe people who, by way of their own accomplishment, enjoy fame, riches, social status, or opportunities that we can't even imagine.

In this election, all the candidates are playing down their own success. They're defending themselves from their own accomplishments for fear the electorate will feel distanced from them. Obama stresses his upbringing in a poor single-parent family rather than telling us about the $4 million income he reported last year. McCain talks about his POW days rather than his life as the son and grandson of Navy admirals who lived very well, and he never talks about his wife's $100 million fortune. Biden tells of his humble upbringing in Scranton, and Palin trumpets her marriage to a member of the USW. Running away from success! How interesting.

I don't like this behavior. In a conversation with a very successful lawyer friend this morning after church, he mentioned that he wished the president to be a person who he felt "inferior to" in every way. I replied that I knew, personally, at least ten people who were more qualified to be president than Sarah Palin, but that none of them were really qualified for the job. We both felt that our leaders should be very intelligent, very broadly educated and well-traveled, good communicators, morally and ethically straight, and courageous. That is, they should be the most impressive people that America can produce. Unfortunately, such persons could never get nominated or elected. Too "elite", I suppose. Also, too incorruptible.

Although we may never get the very best citizens to be our leaders, we should nevertheless restrain ourselves about judging those who have accomplished much. The fact is that achievers, like Obama, are those who are most likely to achieve in the future. George Bush, conversely, is a great example of a non-achiever who continued to non-achieve in office. Even Sarah Palin, while unqualified for national office, has done well considering her background. Rather than focusing on her "hockey-mom" credentials and her caribou-shooting ability, however, we should be asking about the qualities that make her superior to us in many ways. When it comes to leading the richest and most powerful nation in the world, an "elitist" is just what we need.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

What Century Are We In?

As I left the golf course tonight (shot 39 in our 9-hole league), I picked up NPR and the republican convention. A video was being shown to the conventioneers between speakers, a video outlining all the things McCain would do if he was president.

I was shocked to hear, between such ideas as McCain hastening generic drug approvals and McCain strengthening alliances, that he would bring "20th century information technology" to government. A Freudian slip, no doubt.

The problem is that McCain would champion lots of 20th century ideas as solutions to the problems of the 21st century. He can't escape his generation, and the world has passed him by in more ways than I could enumerate. Not now, not ever, not McCain. For the children.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Gustav a Republican Bonanza

What if you knew you had scheduled a party that was sure to be a dud? It would be embarrassing to just cancel it - you need a good excuse in order to save face. Well, the republicans scheduled a convention that was bound for disaster, and Gustav has saved them.

Why was the convention going to be a dud? Bush and Cheney had to show up, even if they would be early and short, basically out of the picture. What could the party celebrate? Not the economy, not the war, not foreign policy successes, not ethics purity, not constitutional protection. And the nominees? Wooden John McCain and inexperienced Sarah Palin, the latter under pressure from several sides. Where was the inspiration going to come from? Maybe only the dream of continued tax cuts for the rich, but even those seem destined to run out. Time to cancel the party!

Just at the opportune time, along comes Gustav. He's only a run of the mill category three hurricane (now a less threatening category 2), but he's good enough to prompt the cancel. No celebrations when a tragedy is unfolding! McCain's got to get down there and do a photo op in a raincoat. That's a much more effective campaign device than a speech guaranteed to beat Ambien for promoting drowsiness. And, the cancel prevents hundreds of reporters from asking convention delegates questions they can't answer, such as "Why was Sarah Palin the best choice for vice president?", or "How is John McCain going to deal with the deficit?". This year, for the republicans, having a typical convention would have have been a disaster.

Gustav is not living up to his billing, but he'll be good enough. A few cameos and the republicans will be gone from Minneapolis. McCain's poor acceptance speech will be attributed to hurricane fatigue, but he'll be characterized as a fighter who'll be back on his feet in the morning. Maybe it's all for the best. The cancellation saved a lot of us plenty of angst. But, it also prevented the republicans from having to make sense in public - something they find that hard to do these days.

Allegations About Palin's Child

"Daily Kos" recently published detailed circumstantial allegations that Sarah Palin's child is not her own, but is actually the out-of-wedlock child of her oldest daughter. That posting has now disappeared from the web site where it originated. How interesting!

I've looked elsewhere on the internet to find any reference to this allegation, but have found none. No democrat or republican has come out to address the topic. The question is hanging out there, unresolved. Maybe the charge was a lie, maybe not. I expect lots of news organizations, and especially the National Enquirer, are digging for information before they decide to take on this unbelievably hot potato.

Is the question important? You bet! Already, much has been made of this child in the campaign. Palin's decision not to abort her fetus when she was aware it would not be normal has been trumpeted as a personal validation of her "right to life" position. That position would still stand if the child was actually her daughter's. However, if it is confirmed that the child was not Palin's, but instead her daughter's out-of-wedlock birth, the political implications would be major. It would reflect on Palin's success as a mother, and it would reflect on her truthfulness and integrity by claiming she was pregnant in order to avoid an unfavorable public reaction. It would result in many people deciding McCain's choice of her for vice president a terrible mistake, and perhaps finish his campaign.

So, now we wait for this situation to be resolved. It should be a simple matter to confirm the facts one way or the other. There are likely more than a few people who know the truth, and perhaps some who might be in legal trouble if the true mother's name was not disclosed.

I'm torn when I think about this. Based on personal experience I know that the unfortunate actions of children can be dismaying but also require parents to continue unconditional support. If the allegations are true, I feel genuine sorrow for Palin and wish the best for her family. However, if true, the allegations also provide much justification for deeming her unfit for high office. A massive public fabrication of the "facts" of this situation would be totally unacceptable.

The silence is deafening. If Palin suddenly decides to withdraw from the nomination, we will know why. If she files a suit for defamation and and settles the matter in her favor, "Daily Kos" should be and will be pillaried and discredited. But who would deny that this question should be resolved promptly?