Sunday, November 07, 2010

Big Changes Take Long Term Planning

America has a lot of big problems: high unemployment, inadequate education, huge unfunded entitlements, energy dependence, and impending major climate change damage, to name a few. Informed citizens pretty much agree that "government" must tackle these challenges, either by taking direct action and/or enabling the private sector to take action. What is lacking, however, is a political consensus that long term planning is key to success. In fact, our political system is a hindrance to progress - perhaps a fatal one.

It's obvious that none of these problems is susceptable to instant solution; there are no "silver bullets". Neither electing a new crop of politicians nor throwing a lot of short term money at them will have much effect. What is really needed is a vision of where we would like to be in the longer term and a systematic approach to getting there. If we look at the meteoric rise of China since Mao's passing, for example, it's easy to see that this resulted from the slow implementation of very well-conceived and multi-faceted plans. We need the same sort of strategies if America is to solve its seemingly intractable problems.

In a former life I played a big part in effecting major structural change in the way a corporation accomplished an important function. The change began with conceiving a vision of the desired "end state", which was so dramatically different from the current state that the human and technological challenges to achieving it were daunting. Yet, by developing a long term plan and slowly, over six or seven years, taking logical steps in the right direction, we accomplished what lots of smart people thought was impossible. The measured pace of the change minimized disruption and chaos in the ongoing function. America's problems must be addressed in the same way - we need to get to very different places while keeping disruption at an acceptable level.

Our democracy, while having many laudable characteristics, is often a dis-enabler when it comes to tackling big problems. Since major change creates "winners" and "losers", politicians are extra sensitive to the concerns of the "losers". For example, the changes needed to put Medicare on a sound financial footing will excite the giant "senior citizen" voting block; a politician willing to work for change is likely to lose his/her seat at the next election. "Losers" in all the other area needing structural change will be similarly energetic. Consequently, democracies have real difficulties overcoming roadblocks set up by powerful constituencies that favor the status quo - things that "must be done" often can't be made to happen.

Unfortunately, democracies seem to enact major changes only when problems reach the crisis stage and great damage has already been done. The cost of this damage, and of the hugely disruptive and expensive "crash projects" that follow, usually far exceeds the cost that would have been incurred if the needed change had been implemented earlier and in a measured fashion. For example, slowly adjusting Medicare benefits and taxes would be much preferred to abruptly shutting down major aspects of the plan because the government ran out of money to pay the bills. Understanding this, is it possible for the American democracy to avoid the crises that it will almost certainly face if it fails to act now?

My answer to this question is that the "commission" strategy often used by presidents and the congress is the best potential solution. The commission, composed of members with many points of view, gathers facts, calculates likely scenarios, and produces one or more variations of a long term plan to solve the problem. Congress and the president then debate the alternatives and are forced to choose one of them by the "rules" that set up the commission. The "choice" also requires the congress to pass legislation and appropriate the funds to carry out the plan, and the administration to take positive implementation steps. Years ago, my management set the stage for major change by doing much the same.

Perhaps the "commission strategy" is not do-able in our democracy. If so, we will end up with crisis after crisis and pay dearly for our lack of long term planning. This would provide a lot of evidence that our democracy does not work, and set the stage for some sort of revolution and the installation of a much stronger executive - Hitler was Germany's solution in the 1930's. Do we really want this? It's time for our leaders to pull up their pants and skirts and get going on the right path.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Gentle Reminder

Not too long ago the economy crashed as a result of something called "the sub-prime mortgage debacle". Real estate prices had been artificially pumped by allowing people to buy homes on substandard credit, at too-low interest rates, and under terms that now seem ridiculous. The resulting mortgages were then traded on the market as "AAA" securities. This house of cards had to crash, and the worldwide economy almost tanked when it did. All of us, but particularly many of the currently unemployed, have been greatly harmed by this calamity. Somehow, though, the culprits who facilitated this collapse seem to have been forgotten.

Who were those culprits? They were the politicians and government agency (read "FED") people who kept interest rates too low for too long. They were the bankers and mortgage brokers who relaxed their credit rules and wrote the ridiculous contracts, and the rating agencies who lied about the value of the packaged securities. They were the real estate agents who got rich peddling overpriced property to people who clearly could not afford it. All these big players made it possible for speculators and ignorant buyers to get hooked and subsequently get busted, and for the rest of us to bear much of the cost.

My gentle reminder is that the culprits mentioned above, the self-described champions of the "free market", are the perennial backers of the republican party. Their goals have not changed; they want want low taxes on their income and investments, and they want gentle regulation of their business interests. Many of them made big money during the boom years, and they kept it. Now they're trying to convince us that the people who got displaced by the crash don't need any more "welfare" and that the rich can't afford a tax increase. After what these people did to all of us during the Bush years, is it really possible Americans will hand them the reins again?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

No Breaks for White Collar Crime!

I see that ex-Illinois governor George Ryan is asking for an early release from prison because his wife is ill and not expected to live more than three more years. Ryan's been in prison for less than two years of his 6.5 year sentence for bribery, tax evasion, and other charges. I say, throw away the key to his cell. White collar crimes don't get treated nearly as seriously as they should be.

I have much less sympathy for the white collar criminal than I do for many who go to jail for crimes of passion or desperation. Typical white collar criminals have plenty of money, considerable education, and lots of social contacts. They do their crimes not out of what one might consider "necessity" but, rather, out of simple greed or a compulsion to outsmart the system. I put George Ryan in the same stinking boat as Bernie Madoff and a host of others who have knowingly misused their positions of trust to enrich themselves at great cost to innocent others.

If prison time meted out for punishment or deterrence is to have any meaning, then it must be served. If Ryan is released early under standard "good behavior" terms, that's fine with me. However, external events should have no bearing. Those are the contingencies Ryan should have considered when he took the risks that landed him behind bars.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Haiti, Pakistan and the Concept of "Relief"

I'm in a quandary thinking about the two big disasters of 2010 - the Haiti earthquake and the Pakistan flood. In both cases, millions of people were and are in great jeopardy and in need of help. In both cases, the sovereign government was incapable of providing relief or reconstruction. And, in both cases, the affected areas were overpopulated and becoming even more overpopulated despite the fact that the basic services associated with "civilization" are unlikely to be available in the foreseeable future. Should relief be provided by the rest of the world if the affected countries do not take steps to change their ways?

What are the basic services associated with civilization in the 21st century? I suppose the short list would include a reliable internal food supply, commonly available clean water, transportation and communications infrastructure, workable governance and justice systems, and an education system that trains people for useful work. Governments are responsible to provide these things, I believe, as first priorities. Neither Haiti nor Pakistan provides these services, except for the elite. That's just the way it is.

The area of Pakistan affected by the floods has about 20 million residents. It's agricultural, with plots as small as two acres. Girls are often married by age 14 and have many children through age 25. The residents have no capacity to pay, through taxes, for the basic services described above. Moreover, each year the population becomes more likely to fall prey to those who would blame their subsistence conditions on the failure of their government or the outside world to "take care of them". That's why fears of insurrection rise when disasters like these occur and the government is unable to respond.

So, here's the quandary. Should the outside world provide massive relief to bring the disaster-ravaged areas back to roughly the same "uncivilized" condition they enjoyed prior to the disasters, with no preconditions? Or, should the outside world require governmental reforms and population control measures as the price of relief? Is preventing future disasters as important as mitigating current disasters? Should TANSTAAFL (There ain't no such thing as a free lunch) be applied?

In general, I've concluded that the second and third worlds now require a lot more supervision than in past times. Technology now provides great opportunities for these countries to upgrade their standards of living, but it also provides great opportunities for them to make mischief - North Korea and Somalia are poster children for the latter. Consequently, perhaps it's time to put out the carrot and the stick to Haiti and Pakistan's elite "quasi-governing" classes. Relief must be accompanied by radical changes in their societies, changes that in the long run will make for long term success.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Louisiana Scofflaws Cry the Blues

It's sad. So many of those in the Louisiana fishing industry who have been harmed by the BP oil well debacle will not qualify for BP's reparations because they can't document their 2009 income. Why not? Well, they didn't file tax returns, that's why. Doing business on a cash basis and not paying taxes is traditional, it turns out, just like in the country of Greece and other semi-civilized places. Now it's time to pay up for these sins, folks!

After five minutes of research I found that Louisiana has only a four percent sales tax (it's 8.25% where I live), a 2,4, or 6% state income tax rate after generous deductions, and very low property taxes. I suppose that's because the state has lots of industries and natural resources extractors that put taxes and fees into the state coffers. Louisiana is a very tax-friendly state, made much friendlier when lots of folks don't even file tax returns.

Somehow this news makes me feel much less generous when it comes to government relief for hurricanes or oil blowouts in Louisiana. We pay much higher taxes here in New York, and they're much harder to avoid. Why should we send that money to bail out the scofflaws who don't do their part?

Well, my Christianity tells me I should be generous, so I'll make an offer. BP should pay compensation to these people if they are willing to pay five years back state and federal taxes on the amount they claim as lost income from their fishing business. Amnesty! Sounds good to me. Otherwise, go fish!

Regulation - An Often Meaningless Panacea

Yesterday's supreme court decision regarding the personal applicability of the 2nd amendment has gun control advocates "up in arms", so to speak. They seem to like the status quo in places like Chicago where the city is swimming in handguns but only the criminals have them. I'm no fan of handguns, but I can understand the decision; if one wants to defend him/herself against a criminal, one's got to have a weapon. "Regulation" to the point of banning something has turned out to be a total farce in this instance. That brings me to highlight a few other regulatory fantasies.

Marijuana cultivation and sale is against federal law, but it's the highest grossing agricultural product in our country and some states have even partially ("medically") legalized it.

Coal mines and oil drilling platforms are regularly inspected, but recent events have proved that many operators have figured out the system and how to get around it or ignore it.

The SEC and and the accounting profession have a myriad of regulations covering financial reporting, but some big companies and investment firms have "cooked their books" with impunity for years before being caught (or not).

Many states have laws banning cell phone and texting usage while driving, but one out of four drivers in my town, where it's illegal, seem to be on the devices almost all the time.

And yes, it's illegal to enter the United States without some form of official approval. Somehow, at least 12 million humans ( four in every 100 U.S. residents) are here without approval of any kind.

I'm sure you have plenty of personal examples of regulations that seem to have little or no effect on conduct. That's the problem with regulation - without effective enforcement, they are meaningless or even detrimental. People assumed, for example, that Bernard Madoff's operations had been scrutinized by the SEC, much to their impoverishment.

In my view, government entities that make regulations should be required (by a regulation) to make a convincing case that the regulation will be enforced generally. That is, that adequate resources have been assigned to ensure the regulation will be followed by the great majority of those affected by it. If the regulation does not pass this test, it should be put on hold until such time as the case can be made.

Most of us learned, early in life, that parental instructions are to be followed only if we wish to, or if we are likely to be caught violating them. And, if the punishment for violators is minimal, forget #2. These are laws of nature. Why, then, do we let our governments spend their time making laws that they know are either unenforceable or will not be enforced? It's time to regulate the regulators!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Thanks, Praise, and Payback

This is the sermon that I delivered at Christ Clarion Presbyterian Church this morning. It's based on Psalm 39, 4-7 and Matthew 5, 43-48. It's from both my mind and my heart.

Thanks, Praise, and Payback

One of my favorite songs is one by James Taylor, called “Walking Man”. I like the melody, and I like the idea of the singleminded person portrayed in the lyrics. “Everyone else stops and talks, but the walking man walks.”

Most of you probably know that I’m trying to finish hiking the Appalachian Trail. This year I’ve already walked 145 miles in the New England mountains, and I’ve got to hike another 70 in July to finish Vermont. In total, I’ve already walked 1,700 miles in ten states, so you can imagine why I identify with the “Walking Man” song; except for one thing, that is – I do stop and talk a little with most of the people I meet on the trail.

Walking so many miles in the wilderness allows me to experience something that I value very highly – solitude – life with minimal distractions. I’m alone with my thoughts, and I’m usually surrounded by the world at its most elemental level – nature, filled with beauty but also with challenges if one has to walk through it, day after day. As I subconsciously plan where I’m going to put my next footstep, to avoid a root, a rock or a puddle, my conscious thoughts often turn to the temporality of life, how short it is when compared to the mountains I’m climbing – mountains that have been there for several hundred million years, all of them being slowly worn down by wind, rain, and ice. I think about all the things that had to happen for me to even exist, and about the miracle that I have intelligence and can consider how all this came to be and what it means. I recall that everything I can see is made of elements formed in the hearts of stars, billions of years ago and so far away. And, here I am, the walking man. What does it all mean?

It’s at times like this when the thoughts of men and women from the Bible often come to mind. As I walk through primitive places, I can place myself closer to the Israelites who walked through the desert to the promised land. I can think about the pain of the Hebrew exiles as they walked from their homes to Babylonia and captivity. I can ponder Jesus’s years of walking from town to town to speak about God, or of Paul’s travels across the Roman world. All of these people had points of view on that big question – what does it all mean? And that’s what I had in mind as I thought about the scriptures for today. So, I chose a very thoughtful and contemplative passage from the Psalms, and then a part of Jesus’s sermon on the mount that is particularly special for me.

In the scripture that Sharon read earlier, we hear the Psalmist contemplating the meaning of life. “Let me know my end, and the number of my days”, he asks. He understands that he is a temporary being, here today and gone tomorrow, and that everything he values is fleeting and insignificant. It’s a sad and searching moment. Is there anything of permanence, anything worth waiting for and holding onto? After setting everything in his life aside, he asks “And now, Lord, what do I wait for?” From somewhere deep within him, an answer comes, an answer of faith - “My hope is in thee”. We all, at the core of our being, want to know what this life is all about, and we know that only God will be able to provide the answer. So, we thank God for everything, continually, and we wait for God to fill in the blanks each day of our life, and in the life to come. Our hope is to finally rest in God. This was true three thousand years ago, and it is still true today.

When our hope is in God, it’s natural to be filled with thanks and praise. Thank you, God, for creating everything, including all of us. For the heavens full of stars, for the warmth of the sun, the beauty of the flowers, for the incredible miracle of every sensory experience and emotion, whether pleasant or not. God’s power and majesty is beyond comprehension. Knowing this, every breath I take, every thought I think, every experience of my life is God’s gift. What gift could be more valuable, more deserving of thanks every day? Does it matter that my life will some day come to an end? I don’t think so. Who of us would prefer to never have lived – not me, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine never holding a loved one, never feeling the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, never existing in any way. How can we not join with the Psalmist and, with confidence and heartfelt thanks, repeat the the simple truth of faith – “O God, my hope is in thee.” For me, there is no alternative.

Let’s jump forward eight or nine centuries from the time that poignant Psalm was written, but we’re still in the same country. Jesus has been roaming, walking, visiting small towns and preaching out in the open. People follow him everywhere because he’s been doing amazing things. His words follow a similar pattern wherever he goes. He repeats his summary of the Ten Commandments – “Love God and your neighbor as yourself”. He tells people that God wants far more from people than simply following a rule book of laws – he wants them to live a life of love from the heart, to have gentle spirits, to be peacemakers. Years later, Matthew compiles Jesus’s words in Chapters 5 through 7 of his gospel. This story, of Jesus teaching on a hill as he often did, is known as the Sermon on the Mount.

Verses 43 through 48 of Matthew 5 always get my attention. The passage has two primary thoughts. The first is that God gives everyone an equal chance; God does not play favorites. Jesus says, “Your father makes his sun rise on the good and the bad alike, and sends the rain on the honest and the dishonest.” In this world at least, God does not punish bad behavior or reward good behavior. Wonderful things can happen for anyone, as can tragedies. Regardless of how we live, life will have its perils and disappointments. The same rain that waters one person’s crops washes away another’s home. The same sun that produces the lush foliage outside this window also parches marginal land into desert and drives affected families into despair. Even in our own relationships, no matter how hard we try, how lovingly we behave, sometimes even our best intentions do not bear fruit. We are to accept that this is the way the world works. But this does not in any way alter the fact that our world and our lives are the greatest gifts we can imagine. They are God’s gift to us, and Jesus says, “Your heavenly father’s goodness knows no bounds.”

The second thought in this passage is about payback. God did not give these gifts without having some heavy expectations about our response. Just as God gives the sun and rain to good and bad, equally, God expects us to treat everyone we meet with equal love. “Forget about the old idea of loving your neighbor and hating your enemy”, Jesus says. “If you love only those who love you, what reward can you expect? Everybody does that. I want you to be special, I want you to act like me.” Well, I don’t know about you, but I find this command to be very challenging.

The way I see it, being like Jesus does not mean just doing good when you get a chance. It means actively looking for opportunities to do good. Jesus often stopped what he was doing, or diverted his attention from another task, so that he could minister to someone who was ill or needed his help. How often do we do that? The thing is, God does not consider that kind of selflessness to be exceptional. It’s expected. It’s the payback for our gift of life and the boundless goodness of God. Can we do it? Maybe we can, much more often than we think. A good way to start would be to echo the Psalmist every morning when we get up. “O God, my hope is in you.”

So that’s it. The scriptures tell us that life is short and often unpredictable, but God’s goodness is boundless. Our every day, our every moment, is a miraculous gift from God. What else can we do but say, “Thank you, wonderful God, for all of this.” Thanks and praise. Then, it’s time to roll up our sleeves. It’s payback time.

Friday, May 28, 2010

SIck of CNN!

I've been a CNN fan from the beginning. As a long time road warrior, I watched CNN for many years in motel bars and breakfast nooks. I liked their straightforward "news" and the generally "normal people" who delivered the news. All that has changed, and CNN, to put it perhaps too bluntly, is now just another blowhard "faux news". Viewers fell away under the old regime, so CNN made a choice to go for the false news. Too they've lost me, too.

The latest big news at CNN is that the "top kill" pumping was stopped for 16 hours without BP telling the world about it. "Rick", the idiot who does the 4 p.m. show, went on and on about how this was a heinous crime, but then brought on an expert from Tulane who said it was normal to stop for awhile and measure pressures. "Rick" then went on to ask some stupid questions that proved he knew nothing about what he was talking about. That, I don't need.

What I do need is a lot more facts and experts and a lot less "talking head" baloney. That's what news is all about. So, goodbye, CNN. I'll listen to NPR and forget about you.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Hyperbole Reigns in America

What's the best advice to follow in a crisis? "Stay calm". When unexpected things happen, the situation is often confused and unclear. Under these circumstances it's easy to misjudge what has really happened and what should be done. Consequently, we often make rash decisions that actually make things worse or make us look foolish. We'd be much better off letting the dust settle and then acting rationally to resolve whatever the problem really is. Americans need to accept this simple truth and discount the hyperbole that we often attach to every unexpected event.

The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a case in point. There are 3,400 oil platforms in the gulf, hovering over the 35,000 wells that they drain. During the past 20 years no serious accidents have occurred there and major hurricanes have not destroyed a single platform. But, accidents are inevitable when large numbers of complex machines are used to accomplish difficult tasks; we should have expected something of this nature to happen sometime. When it does, the important things are the short term actions taken to resolve the problem and the long term impact of what has happened. Instead of dealing calmly with this accident, our media, politicians, and interest groups turned the event into a circus of rash statements and hasty decisions. With many mitigation activities in progress, it's likely that most of these reactions will be found to be dead wrong. Let's check back on this in a year.

The same sad truth applies to the two other major events of the past week or so, the lone terrorist car bomb in NYC and the stock market's reaction to Greece's debt situation. Both situations should have been expected, and in both cases the real impact is likely to be minimal. The moment by moment coverage and over-reactions probably caused more problems than they solved. As Churchill said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." We actually have excellent security services and effective economic backstops; it's just that we'd rather panic than allow them to work.

Lastly, I can't help but take on the Obama issue. From the screams I hear from the right, Obama is destroying the country. From the real news, I see that the market is back (despite this temporary setback), housing and car sales are up, manufacturing employment is coming back, the Iraq war is winding down on schedule, foreign policy is steady and rather uneventful (that's good), and Obama seems to be pretty comfortable in his job. Bush II left him a real bag of snakes, and he's coped pretty well with the mess. With a couple of years to go before having to run again, I'd give Obama pretty good odds of being a two term president. So much for the screamers; there's plenty of time to judge whether or not they make any sense at all.

We need to calm down and dampen the hyperbole. There's far too much noise from the right, the left, and the media in general. Life does go on, and problems generally get solved without the world coming to an end. I have a lot of trust in the ability of people and governments to do the right thing over time, even though there are always hiccups now and again. Screaming and overstating seldom add any value to the problem solving process, and we should not accept it when we see and hear it. Relax, America. It's going to be OK if we just keep our heads calm and focused.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

48% Approval for Obama?

Americans are so fickle! We seem to be satisfied only when everything is going just great. Instant gratification. No memory. That's why Obama's approval rating is just under 50%. Sometimes I think we don't deserve him. McCain would have been far worse.

Other times, I think the republicans got out in 2008 while the going was good. The economy in shambles, the deficit out of control, wars not being bad could it get? Time to cut and run, give the problems to Obama and then blame them on him. So far, this cynical strategy seems to have some traction. After all, if people can listen to Glenn Beck they can believe anything.

I'm very happy I voted for Obama. He's quietly pursued progress in many areas and achieved quite a few goals in just over one year. The stock market has rebounded and the economy is slowing rebounding - slow, but much faster than most people would have predicted twelve months ago. Iraq is winding down to a conclusion, and Afghanistan is on a timetable. Obama's won a health care reform war that some opponents wrongly thought would be his "Waterloo", and a financial reform package is also likely to pass. He's beefing up education policy, and he's done pretty well with foreign policy. Not too much to complain about!

Republicans and tea partiers call Obama a socialist or worse. The problems they decry were made worse during many years when their own party was in control, but memories are short and anger, even inane anger, is powerful. It's not what Obama has done, but the idea that he personifies a government that does things and influences our world, that is the reason they hate him. I just disagree with them, for the most part.

Time is on Obama's side, I think. As the country continues to heal economically, and, if there are no big uncontrollables to sidetrack him, Obama's steady pace of accomplishment will win back the independents. This will be true especially if his opponents continue to oppose but have no plan of their own to sell. November's elections will be important, but they will not make or break Obama. He has several more years to make the case for his approach, and the republicans need to worry about 2012 - it's far from in the bag for them.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Entitlements Gone Amuck!

Our country's political process has been broken for a long time, but I'm not talking about the partisanship that seems to be tearing us apart right now. I'm talking about the decades-long loss of political will to to say "no" to unaffordable spending. We are now on the verge of a massive upheaval that will be required to get us out of the giant hole we have put ourselves in.

Governments at all levels are swimming in debt, saddled by huge unfunded pension and medical liabilities, and trapped by gold-plated labor contracts that seem ironclad. There is no easy way for many of these public entities to escape bankruptcy, and that's why I predict a massive upheaval over the next few years. It's going to be interesting.

Under-taxing and over-spending got us into this mess, and correcting the problem will require over-taxing and under-spending for quite a while. In addition, the fix may also require the "managed bankruptcy" of many governments. This unavoidable medicine will certainly cause a massive upheaval in our society as we rebalance our governments.

It's almost funny that addressing the entitlements problem has taken so long, since it's been as obvious as the noses on our faces for a long time. In the private sector, we saw GM slowly die as its untenable labor contracts killed off its competitiveness - and then we paid to fund its bankruptcy and backstop the outrageous deals it had made with its workers. But who can save all these bankrupt governments? Only us, by forcing change that will be hard for all of us to take. Or, will the politicians demogogue this issue until our country collapses under the weight of its incredible debts and unfunded entitlements?

The stock market is currently jumping up and down in reaction to the problems Greece's insolvency is causing the EU. Greece is a tiny player, but its unraveling finances are creating great uncertainty. What would the world's reaction be when its largest economy can no longer pay its bills? Massive upheaval, that's what, and perhaps of the worst kind that one cannot even speculate about without praying hard. That's why we need to engineer our own mini-massive upheaval, starting this year. A stitch in time saves nine, as they say.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Roman Catholic Problem

Organizations with a strong hierarchical structure have it for one primary reason: they want a lot of control. Sometimes this can be good, but it often goes bad over time. In the case of the Roman Catholic church, having strong central control was probably pretty good for a long time, but now the hierarchy is in trouble for covering up a lot of sexual misconduct by priests.

As a protestant outsider, I have no strong sense of why the Roman Catholic church has been so lax with respect to policing its own. A cynic would say that this church has so long been a haven for so many pedophiles at all levels that it regarded pedophilia as one of its privileges. A more pragmatic person would say that the church regarded guarding its reputation as being more important than holding a few of its priests to account for sins and crimes. A kind person would say that the church's labyrinthine structure and extreme conservatism made it time-consuming to pursue questions of priestly misbehavior. My guess is that all three points of view have some truth in them.

Whatever the truth regarding the "why", there's no question that, for the younger generation, the Roman Catholic church has been greatly tarnished by the ongoing scandals about pedophilia in its ranks. Older Catholic's who were raised in the church and were virtually brainwashed about the status and rights of priests seem to be immune to outrage about the current situation. It's not at all the same for younger Catholics who see the church as managed by a bunch of old men who seem dedicated to running a church as it always was - an inside game characterized by arcane rituals and obeisance to the rulers. These young people see what the inside game has produced, just like us outsiders have seen. Who would want to be part of that?

Where does the Catholic Church go from here? Well, it's hard to say. They are excellent at stonewalling, and that seems to be the plan at the moment despite the fact that it doesn't seem to be working very well. An alternative would be to decentralize priestly discipline and let the bishops or archbishops take quick action to cleanse the ranks - no doubt there are still more than a few known pedophiles out there. Given the shortage of priests, that's a tough call. Can that church restore its honor for the next generation? The jury is out, for sure.

My guess is that the Roman Catholic church needs to change a lot if it is to survive in North America and Europe. The old guard's time is over, and with it a lot of the historical organizational concepts they held. Women need a lot more power, celibacy needs to become optional, and power needs to be decentralized. The Roman Catholic church's strengths have always been concern for the poor and unwavering belief in a loving god who forgives those who repent. It's time to return to those roots and shed its over-riding concern for its own "inside game".

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

An Alternative History of Health Care Reform

President Obama this week failed to get enough support to pass healthcare reform, one component of which was to require almost all Americans to get health insurance, with those less financially capable getting a subsidy to cover part of the insurance cost. This failure was cheered by those who felt being required to have insurance was an intrustion on their rights.

Many of those who rejoiced in Obama's defeat were healthy young and middle aged people who didn't have much money and saw the insurance requirement as a budget problem. Their view was that they'd rather keep their money and take their chances. Now they were able to do that.

What was the outcome of this health reform failure? Well, even though most of these basically healthy people would stay that way, quite a few did not. Some of these younger people were severely injured in auto accidents or incurred serious sports-related injuries. Even more of the middle aged people had these same issues, but some also had heart problems, became diabetic, were diagnosed with cancer, or required a joint replacement. Every one of these unlucky people was very expensive to treat, but they had not purchased health insurance. What became of them?

Thankfully, none of these people were denied health care for serious conditions due to a lack of insurance. These uninsured folks went to emergency rooms, were admitted to the hospital, and got the care they needed. After their meager financial resources were exhausted, they went on public programs that paid for their ongoing medical procedures and medications. Their huge unpaid hospital bills were uncollectable, and they went bankrupt. However, since their assets were small to begin with, their financial losses were not that significant. The losses incurred by hospitals and doctors were much larger.

What happened to the losses that hospitals and doctors incurred for these uninsured patients? These costs just became part of their overhead, and added to the base of costs that they passed on to insurance companies in the form of higher prices. The insurance companies, needing to cover their higher costs, raised rates for all the people they insured. Some doctors took their practices totally private, refusing to accept insurance for payment.

So, Obama's health care reform failed, and things remained pretty much the same as they were before. Uninsured people got treatment for their immediate problems, and many of the poorest ended up on public assistance health care programs. Those who did have insurance saw their rates increase, and they paid higher taxes to offset the costs the government incurred for public assistance health care. In the end, the young and middle aged uninsured who stayed healthy spent their savings on other things, and the uninsured ones who got sick or injured indirectly passed on the cost of their care to those who had purchased insurance.

Many people, understanding this pattern, began to demand that those who do not want to buy health insurance sign an agreement that they will only get care that they can pay for themselves. This concept was incorporated in a new health care reform bill. After that, hospitals opened new wings filled with cots where those whose funds were exhausted died in peace, content that their death was based on principle and remembering all the good things they had purchased with their savings from not having health insurance.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Answer is: Massa's Nuts!

I gave my Rep. Massa the benefit of a few days to explain what happened in the three days between his decision not to run for health reasons to his abrupt resignation from the house of representatives.

Now it's clear that the guy I thought was a harbinger of America's new wave of politicians just lost his bearings, to be nice. It's not just about the "groping", which he attempted to explain in a rather bizarre way. Then, he refused to answer directly Larry King's question "Are you gay?", putting off the answer to his Navy brothers, several of which then dumped on him. Or, was his demise simply the work of Rahm Emmanuel? I suppose it doesn't matter, because Massa has already become just a funny footnote in the craziness of this year's political circus.

I feel bad for him. He could have enjoyed his nice Navy retirement with honor. Now, he'll be a laughingstock everywhere his name is known. Politics can do that for you!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Is Eric Massa Nuts, Or?

Two years ago I walked many streets in Pittsford, my home town, volunteering for Eric Massa's congressional campaign on the democrat side. Massa, a retired Navy officer, seemed to have a lot of common sense and drive, and did not appear to be overly wedded to either the dreamy-eyed wing of his party or the unions. He won. Now he has abruptly resigned the seat, and it's likely a conservative republican will win the special election to replace him. My efforts seem to have backfired in a spectacular way!

The reasons for the resignation are unclear. Last week's news was that a Massa staffer had complained to the house ethics committee about alleged "sexual harassment" committed by Massa, but Massa claimed his resignation was due to concerns over possible recurrance of a cancer that had been in remission. However, this past weekend Massa claimed he was run out of Washington by the democratic leadership who were upset about his intention to vote against the health care bill. One thing is clear, though - Massa is out for revenge.

My ex-congressman is scheduled to appear on the Glen Beck and Larry King shows, where he will likely skewer the democrats with sharp criticisms. He's a good communicator, so I expect his comments will be carried in other media as well. His revenge will be sweet!

What is really going on here? My guess is that Massa, a man accustomed to military discipline and the military's way of accomplishing objectives, could not accomodate himself to the rough and tumble of both Washington and local politics. His fact-based approach clashed with the overt special-interest-based approach taken by "professional" politicians. He supported the public option for health care, and he likely found the union-dominated local democrat party to be unreasonable. He likely was worn out by the pressures he felt from all sides. So, another pragmatic idealist has bit the dust.

I'll be interested in hearing what he has to say on the talk shows, and I'll expect a lot of bitterness to color his explanations. The house democrats probably will regret what they've done to him. Whether or not his comments will be helpful is anyone's guess. I'll wait until the dust settles before I decide whether or not my many hours walking the streets for him were a colossal waste of time. Stay tuned...

Sunday, March 07, 2010

"My thoughts are not your thoughts"

The title of this blog is a quote from Isaiah 55, a part of which was read in church this morning. It's a concept that I've really come to internalize during the past few years, since it allows me to embrace both religion and science and also come to terms with human tragedy.

Being religious is a choice, of course. Nobody forces me to choose it, and there is precious little hard evidence that would make this choice a logical one. Nevertheless, I choose to acknowledge a God, even a God that would make itself known to sentient creatures like us. But this God's thoughts are not my thoughts, and I don't presume to have any idea about the ultimate purpose of creation. What I do presume is that God would like to see us creatures make as much "progress" as we can, both scientifically and socially. So, I think that when man landed on the moon God said, "That's pretty good", and when women got the vote God said "It's about time!" But these thoughts are nothing like our thoughts, since we cannot comprehend all there is to know about the universe in a moment, as I believe God can.

Perhaps my most significant personal belief is that God can be "good" and still not often intervene to shield individuals, humanity or the earth from natural events that we would regard as tragedies. We know that good people and bad people get cancer; humanity could be wiped out by a rogue asteroid; and, the earth will burn up sooner or later. Could "goodness" only relate to creating the conditions where progress can occur on an individual or societal basis, with the rest pretty much left up to us? This idea seems likely to me, especially since we are able to contemplate the creator and develop theories about how to achieve human progress. But I don't rule out the possibility that God might give humanity a nudge from time to time, which leaves some room for a divine Jesus or perhaps other divine visitations - we sure do need a little help from time to time!

Someday my end will come, and I will follow all my human predecessors back into the dust. I'm not overly concerned about this natural event, since it can hardly be deemed a tragedy if everyone does it. What does intrigue me is whether or not I'll ever get some insight into what God had in mind when God set in motion all of this stuff we now experience. If my "spirit" does survive, I doubt it will ever begin to comprehend the mind of God. "My thoughts are not your thoughts" likely pertains forever. But it would be nice to get a little taste of what this was all about, wouldn't it?

Friday, March 05, 2010

Paying for Government Action?

I keep getting these emails from Obama's non-governmental support group, asking for money to combat those nasty republicans. "Help us get health care passed", they cry, "send us $5 or whatever you can". No, thank you very much.

Don't get me wrong. I want to see health care legislation passed, even though I'd prefer a public option. I just don't want to fund non-governmental groups. I thought the way to get policies that you favor enacted is to elect those who favor those policies. I did that, and they won. Now I just want them to do what they promised. They don't need my money to do that.

The democratic congress has been a major failure, in my opinion. If they don't have the will to pass health care legislation through "reconciliation", then they have blown their final opportunity. This should have passed it last year when they had a filibuster-proof majority in the senate, but they frittered that away as only democrats can do.

The democrats don't need my money to make their point. Obama, Pelosi, and Reid can get all the media attention they could ever want. So, just get on with it, folks, and stop begging!

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Sad Truth About Health Care

There's an old rule that roughly applies in so many situations - the "80-20 rule". It means that 20% of a population accounts for 80% of a certain result. For example, as a church treasurer I know that 20% of contributing families account for 80% of the total contributions in many churches. Or, as I look out my window this morning, I consider that 20% of the times it snows account for 80% of the total annual snowfall in Rochester. Well, the same concept likely applies to health care - 20% of us probably account for at least 80% of total health care costs.

My ten years of work on an ambulance have given me a new outlook on health care. Prior to this work, I thought that people got sick randomly and that health care costs were distributed rather widely across the entire population. Now I know that this is not true; health care costs are concentrated in a few sub-groups of our population. If we are to get these costs under control, the areas of concentration are the primary places to look for savings. Yet these areas don't seem to be discussed at all in the "great health care debate" now taking place in Washington. This lack of candor represents a failure of our governmental process.

So, where are the costs concentrated? As you might guess, we spend a lot for health care of aged people with serious chronic health problems - heart disease, respiratory disease, circulation problems, and cancer. More than 25% of total health care costs are incurred for people who are in their last year of life, and much of this is spent in the last month of life. I've met many of these people - people whose quality of life is questionable at best due to pain, invasive medical treatment, and altered mental status due to the drugs they have been administered. I have serious doubts about the value of costly medical interventions for many of these patients, and some countries have established protocols that limit such interventions. Republicans have characterized these protocols as "death panels", and perhaps they are correct. However, in my view such panels are necessary and humane. Significant cost savings would be a by-product of letting these people die with dignity.

A second area of health care cost concentration relates to people with chronic diseases; diabetes and coronary/respiratory issues are likely the major ones, although other conditions like lupus and Crohn's Disease are also common. These are diseases that require constant attention and patient compliance with treatment regimens. In my experience, patient non-compliance is often an issue that results in frequent hospitalizations and increasingly costly interventions. At some point, non-compliance should result in the categorization of the patient as not interested in being stabilized, and costly interventions should be curtailed. It seems strange, but I've often felt that non-compliance is aimed at getting attention...but should society pay a high price to deal with conditions that patients knowingly create?

Health care costs are also concentrated for older persons with very severe mental illnesses. A large number of citizens are now permanently hospitalized for severe dementia or Alsheimers - conditions where many of them do not know where they are or who their relatives or caretakers are. When these people are afflicted with life-threatening medical conditions, is it right to employ costly procedures to continue a life they often cannot comprehend? I think not. Their families should have the authority to let them pass on with dignity and without pain, and at some point should be held accountable for costs that a "panel" feels go beyond reasonability given the overall condition of the patient.

Lastly, chronic drug use causes a host of severe health problems. These persons often cycle in and out of hospitals regularly, each time incurring very large bills that they cannot pay. One might wonder if there should be a limit on the cost any person can put onto society due to voluntary behavior. This is a very difficult issue, but also one that is much larger than most people would ever guess.

The issues discussed above are relatively new. During the past 50 years, medical science has developed the ability to keep many people alive who in previous times would have expired from natural causes. I'd be the first to agree that in many cases these life-saving procedures have added years of productive life to many, and particularly to those with cancer or heart disease. I am thankful that we live in an age when terrible diseases can be cured or arrested. However, it may be that technology has now forced us to come to grips with the reality of resource allocations to health care.

When the total cost of prolonging certain lives becomes great, one must consider the benefits of employing these resources elsewhere. For a fraction of the avoidable costs I've identified above, for example, every child could receive a college education or technical training, or the infrastructure of Haiti could be rebuilt. What other great needs might be met? Or, for you, does maximizing physical life for every person outweigh all other considerations? Something to think about...

Saturday, February 20, 2010


It's not funny how so many people love to jump to negative conclusions, including those who discount Tiger Wood's contrition and subsequent vow to change his ways. Some say the apology was not sincere because he read from a script; some say it was all driven by the need to repair his commercial value; some say he left out too many details. They are all wrong, and I condemn them for disparaging someone who is trying to do the right thing. Sometimes you just can't win...

They forget that Tiger Woods had many other options, since he's rich almost beyond measure. He could have said that, for him, marriage was a mistake. He could have walked away from the limelight and tended to whatever else he fancied. He could have come back to golf right away and endured some derision until it faded; every topic wears out, you know. Instead, he said all the right things and committed himself to becoming a better man. He stated the true but simple reason for his philandering and what he had to internalize in order to stop it. I give him a lot of credit for saying exactly what needed to be said and no more. Now it's just a question of the doing.

Few of us can identify with a young man who achieved world-class fame and fortune before he was 30. How can we not understand that he had many role models - other athletes and celebrities - who cross the line every day and get away with it because that is their persona? And, of course, there were uncountable women who would do anything to get his attention. How easy it would be to fall! I believe that very few men would have been capable of withstanding that level of sexual pressure at his age, and I would not have been one of them.

I am giving Tiger my full support in his effort to come back in every way. Based on his history of incredible accomplishment, perhaps he will again set the example for making a beautiful sculpture from the trash of life. Go get'em, Tiger.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Earning Your Life's Prospects

Black leaders visited President Obama today and harped on the 16.5% unemployment rate for black Americans, which is much higher than the 9% rate for whites and 12.5% rate for Hispanics. The NPR news report mentioned their focus on the chronically unemployed base in the black community. I'm also aware that a high percentage of young black men are unemployed. It's a shame, but it's also their problem in far too many cases. We've got to have a little more personal accountability here.

The high schools in Rochester are open for business every day, and there are no state troopers keeping black youth out. If the students are from low income families they qualify for free breakfast and lunch at the school. Free transportation is provided to and from school. In other words, there are no institutional impediments to getting a good education in the city of Rochester. Yet only about 50% of Rochester's high school students graduate. It's not a discrimination problem; it's a social problem.

Nothing would make me happier than to see every black youth graduate from high school, then college, and then enter the work force prepared to compete on the basis of equal preparation. If the unemployment rate of high school or college-educated blacks stayed much higher than that of other races, then I'd complain about this apparent discrimination and try to do something about it. But I have little sympathy for those who don't take advantage of the opportunity to become educated and able to contribute to the U.S. economy.

I've heard all the rationalizations about kids growing up in poor, disfunctional families. I know it's tough to grow up in those conditions. At the same time, it's a matter of community pride and intent - if there isn't any, then nothing will change. Just giving money to poor, disfunctional families does not change attitudes. There has got to be an intent to succeed for success to occur.

I've been working with a group of Burmese refugees for several months. They've recently come the U.S. with only the clothes on their backs, and many come from tribal societies. Most have no English when they arrive. I'm amazed at how they have strived to adjust to American society, learn English, and get jobs. Their upward mobility from the absolute bottom is a sight to behold! The difference between them and many who surround them in poor neighborhoods is that they have decided to get with the program. There's no secret about what it takes to achieve some upward mobility in this country.

So, black leaders, go home to your communities and ask the hard questions. Tell the truth. You get what you give, and if you give no effort you can expect nothing. Chronic unemployment is not just about lack of opportunity; it is mostly about lack of preparation.

In this month of Martin Luther King day, I mourn his passing partly because he held up great expectations for the people he led. His successors seem to focus mostly on handouts. It's a darn shame!

Monday, February 08, 2010

Tim Tebow and Abortion

I'm really glad that Tim Tebow's mother did not have the abortion that doctors recommended she have. She made a great decison for herself, her family, Tim and many thousands of Florida Gator fans. She was right, they were wrong. But, she could have been wrong and she could have died as a result. You win some, you lose some. It's wrong to generalize from the results of an individual case, but that's what Focus on the Family did with their Super Bowl commercial.

I'm "pro-choice", primarily because I support the individual freedom that people are supposed to have in America. Even before being pro-choice, I'm "pro-contraception" - I don't want any babies conceived by accident or against the will of the mother. That's why we have only three children; we wanted to stop at three, and we made sure we did. But I digress...

"Freedom" means just that. If it's your body, you should be able to do what you want with it - what could be more personal than that. Not allowing a life to begin, or being able to end your own life, is the most personal expression of freedom that I can think of. I may disapprove of the decisions that some people might make in these areas, but I would never consider taking away their right to make those decisions. That's why I am perplexed by the "get government out of my life" crowd who are also vehemently anti-abortion. Huh?

Secondarily, I'm "pro-choice" because I believe families should make decisions about their future by considering all the likely outcomes of their decision to have, or not have, a baby. Many families, for example, cannot stand the strain of caring for a special needs child on top of the other major challenges they may be facing; many divorces result. Other families might have a structure that would accomodate, or even thrive with, the challenge of raising a special needs child. In short, every family is different; a "one size fits all" prescription on abortion makes no sense in the real world.

Some folks think this issue hinges on the crucial question of "when does life begin"? I don't feel that way at all, even though I'd say I have a very high respect for life. I just believe that life is full of hard choices and tragedies; any of us could be dead tomorrow, for example, from some unforseen cause either man-made or natural. There is no certainty in life, the uncertainty increases as one moves down the economic ladder, and God does not step in to save those who happen to be unlucky - including those who are not born due to someone else's choice.

Good for you, Tim Tebow. Your mother won the pregnancy lottery and you won the Heisman. It's a great story of pluck and luck. Now, let's hear the story of the child born with some terrible defect who died after enduring several years of agony, during which time its family went bankrupt and fell apart. After all, one conclusion based on anecdotal evidence deserves another, don't you think?

Saturday, February 06, 2010

An Easy Winter, Except South of Here

I've been following the news stories about the "great storm" that's hit the eastern seaboard and areas west of it during the past two days. People who never have had to contend with 20-30 inches of snow have no idea of the impact such a storm makes. Transportation is basically halted; power goes out in many areas; and, emergency services are taxed to the limit.

How would you like to experience heart attack symptoms when ambulances cannot make it through the streets, or be a weak 90 year old person who loses power and cannot keep her home warm? Those who can cope think a storm like this is fun, but there are others for whom it results in tragedy. During the three years when I managed our local ambulance corps I saw the unusual problems that a storm can bring; how about an otherwise smart person who runs a generator in a closed garage and almost kills himself, for example?

I remember taking the Xerox corporate jet into White Plains airport, just as a big storm like this hit Connecticut. Somehow I made it to the hotel where I spent the next three days as the city dug out from over 20 inches of snow. Another time, I was at a church retreat in the southern tier of New York when over 20 inches of snow hit; we enjoyed an extra day there and upon arrival at home found our 19 year old son exhausted from shoveling our long driveway. Big snows are truly paralyzing!

It seems strange to be sitting here in upstate New York watching a few snowflakes fall onto the 2-3 inches that have been on the ground for a few days, while people far south of me are trying to cope with a blizzard. We are used to the big snows and we are equipped to deal with them; we've had 62 inches already and hardly noticed it. But, how many people in D.C. own a snowblower? Good luck, you guys! I can at least imagine your pain.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

More on Haiti

This past Sunday evening a group from my church met at our home. Late in the meeting the subject of Haiti came up. Four of us had been to Haiti, two of us twice, but none had gone together. The common opinion of us all was that Haitian culture was intractably corrupt and the Haitian mode of education and governance would not change regardless of what the "rescuing" countries did.

One of the men mentioned a conversation he'd had with a young man who'd spent 18 months in Haiti with the Peace Corps. This fellow was totally disillusioned after his stint there, and he believed that the country had little hope to become even a second world country. Americans who work in Haiti are involved, generally, in tiny projects that improve the lives of people in the countryside by providing clean water, for example. There seems to be no government interest in or capability to perform major projects that would restructure the country.

I keep hearing diplomats and other high ranking people drone on about giving the Haitians control over the rebuilding projects, but they are mistaken. There are far fewer qualified Haitians than there are projects to manage, and I'd guess that many of those Haitians are well-schooled in the art of corruption. My view is that outsiders should, with Haitian consultation, manage all the projects and employ as many Haitians as possible in responsible positions at good pay. Good training should be given to as many Haitians as possible. However, if a Haitian employee gets involved in corruption on a project, they should be fired.

If and when competent Haitian managers emerge, they should be given more responsibility. It would be wonderful to see a Haitian professional class emerge. But, until that happens, I feel the governmental and non-governmental relief and rebuilding organizations should stay in firm control of where their money goes and how things are done. Otherwise, they are likely to be pouring their resources down the drain.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


We'd like to believe that people are rewarded for being good and punished for being bad. It's a foundational element of our American culture, even if in reality it has often not been true. Consequently, the idea that those responsible for many of America's current problems have not got their just desserts is grating on the rank and file. I share main street's angst.

I'm outraged that so many of those who enabled and operated the sub-prime mortgage industry are living well on their profits while the rest of us suffer, either without jobs or getting no interest on our savings.

I'm incredulous that George W. Bush and his cronies got off scot-free after starting a very expensive war for no good reason.

I don't understand why my tax dollars bailed out GM and its retirees, both of which lived large for many years on extravagant wages and benefits as the company's products deteriorated and its market dried up.

It irks me that some of America's largest institutions, including the fossil fuel consortium and the teacher/public employee unions, are successfully lobbying to head off progress toward 21st century paradymes in their sectors of the economy.

And, maybe most of all, I'm sick of the U.S. congress - both parties - for standing around bickering when so many national issues need attention. The situation makes me wonder if our form of government makes sense anymore.

What to do? Beats me! That's why it's so frustrating. Perhaps widespread public anger will result in some positive change. That's our only good hope.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Haiti Update

I told you so. Haiti is a total mess, not only from the earthquake but because there are no Haitians in charge. Over the past 20 years, most people with any competency and integrity have left the country, leaving those without it to manage the place. Oh, and "manage" means manage the corruption. There is no national or local government with any standing as far as the people are concerned. As a beleagured Haitian said it on NPR yesterday, "We need aid, but don't give it to the government because we'll never see it." It's true.

So, where does that leave things? Well, there are lots (10-15 thousand) of international relief workers and American soldiers doing rescue and immediate relief activities right now. The dead will be buried before long, the injured will get some sort of treatment, and food/water distribution will be figured out. When that's over, about 3 million Haitians will be left standing around the rubble wondering what to do next. That's when the next big problem becomes apparent.

If you recall, General Colin Powell said before the Iraq War, "You break it, you own it." Well, it could also be said that, "You relieve it, you own it." At this point, the U.S. government and private agencies have committed to about $250 million in relief spending in Haiti. If 3.5 million Haitians were affected, that works out to about $71 per Haitian, many of whom lost whatever home they had. In other words, even if this aid number doubles, it's a spit in the ocean.

There is already talk of making Haiti a U.N. Protectorate - in other words, the U.N. would take over the governing role for Haiti until a competent Haitian authority could be put together. This means years, not months. The U.S., of course, would be the primary muscle and money behind the Protectorate, since no other countries really care about Haiti despite words to the contrary. We are in this for the long haul, it appears, and it's a bad thing.

Why is it bad? Did you know that there were 45,000 Americans in Haiti when earthquake struck? That's one American for every 200 Haitians, and most Amercans were doing humanitarian work. Despite this level of involvement, which has been going on for many years, Haiti remained a poor, unsuccessful, backward country. Part of the problem is its unique "Creole" language, a blend of French and native tongues; it's hard to modernize when you can't talk to anyone. Another part is the level of pride Haitians exhibit; they may be poor, but they don't like listening to foreigners. These issues will haunt us, because we have excessive expectations and the Haitians now have a claim on us - we must keep them alive indefinitely.

We are stuck. In order for Haiti to manage itself, it must change. If we try to force change, we will be accused of killing their culture. It's a recipe for unending stagnation and unending support of that population. If Obama was smart, he'd announce right now that we'll give our best efforts for three years and we're out of there, governmentally speaking. If the NGO's want to stay and help out, fine; they've been there forever, anyway.

The U.S. could do amazing things in three years, infrastructure-wise. Reliable power, good and accessible drinking water, some sort of sewage collection and treatment, for example. We could build cement plants to convert the rubble into new concrete blocks, and we could try to organize some sort of workable government process at all levels. In the end, though, the country belongs to the Haitians, and we should give it back to them. We didn't cause the earthquake, and we have no obligation to attempt a huge "nation-building" project there. President Obama, the time to say "goodbye" is now.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hopeless Haiti

The big earthquake that hit Port au Prince has caused casualties in the hundreds of thousands, but Haiti has hardly any hospitals and some of those likely have collapsed. Even with the best relief efforts of other countries, only a small fraction of injured Haitians will be able to access professional health care during the next few weeks. It's going to be really ugly over there.

Having been in Haiti on two occasions in the early 1990's, I can easily envision the chaos that has ensued following the earthquake. Almost all buildings were constructed of substandard concrete block with little or no reinforcement, so they fell down when the first big shake occurred. The sharp, heavy blocks were perfect for killing or maiming people. And even in the best of times, injured people relied on friends to get them to the hospital because the few ambulances served only the very rich. Today, most of the injured have no place to go and no way to get there, anyway. The unmitigated agony must be surreal.

Haiti's warm climate and the inputs of cheap food and clothing from outside has allowed its millions of poor citizens to live at a very low standard. Developed counties send used clothing to Haiti, so even the poorest have something to wear. Shelter from heat and rain can provided by a corrugated metal panel supported by whatever will hold it up, with concrete blocks being the upscale solution. Typical food for the poor is basic, such as rice and beans with a tasty flavoring; meat is available for those who have money, as are tropical fruits such as plantains. Water is often provided by communal supplies that people access with bottles and buckets. In normal times, therefore, millions of Haitians live on the edge but survive because they have what they need to stay alive. However, nobody wants to get sick or injured because medical care is spotty at best.

The Haitian economy is primitive. When I was there, it was a cash or barter economy for most people. However, a few oligarchs controlled the few industries that can operate in Haiti - rum production and small factories, mostly, and the oligarchs lived well. In addition, many people received payments from funds transferred in by family members living in the U.S. or elsewhere outside the country. Small businesses such as corner stores and bars were common, all protected by iron bars on windows and doors to ward off theft. People got around by walking or paying to ride on brightly painted trucks of all sizes that had large platforms with wooden seats built into their beds. The population was very resourceful, however, and most people found ways to earn the small amounts of money they needed to survive. Charities often provided a buffer for the destitute.

One would be amazed at the lack of infrastructure in Haiti. Few areas had running water or sewers, and electricity was often not available due to the rationing of power from generating stations. Food was usually cooked on charcoal stoves, the charcoal coming from what few trees were left in a country once 97% forested. Most roads were hard-packed gravel, and major highways were two lanes wide. Rainstorms in the rainy season often created wash-outs, and I remember seeing a major stream running down the main street of the town where I worked; one walked across the street by stepping from large stone to large stone amidst the running water. This was normal.

From the above description, you may better understand the impact of the earthquake. In a subsistence economy there are no resources for dealing with emergencies. Damaged water supplies and roads prevent people from accessing the basics needed for life, so even those who were not harmed by the earthquake will be desperate. With millions needing assistance, the relief efforts must be massive to deal with immediate needs. Who knows how long it will take to get the country back to "normal"? It will be a long time.

I found the Haitian people to be friendly, very nice looking, and generally happy despite their deprivation. Many, including the poor, were quite intelligent and creative. Their problems were mostly related to living in a country that had little to offer in terms of output; where there is no production and no valuable natural resources, there is no money. Yet the availability of basics made it possible for Haitians to grow the population, thereby limiting the resources available to each individual. Under these conditions, I saw little that would give the average person any hope for getting ahead. Now, the earthquake has crushed whatever hope there was. The "failed state" of Haiti has descended into a state of hell.

What can be done? In my view, only a benevolent dictator regime can pull Haiti out of its mess over a long period. With no internal resources, foreign aid is the only hope - but endemic corruption will result in the looting of this aid unless extremely tough standards are applied. Because the society has ingrained corruption and few who are trained managers, outsiders would need to provide most of the leadership during the recovery period. However, I doubt Haitians would accept such an approach unless it was maintained by a level of force that would make liberals cringe. Even concepts such as enforced birth control would have to be considered in this dire situation. Who would impose such a regime? Probably nobody. So, don't pay much attention to those who predict Haiti will recover. The best outcome will likely be a return to a client state supported by international aid and living on the edge - until the next crisis again brings chaos.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Working Together

It's a new year, normally a time when one is optimistic about the future. I can be optimistic about my own life, since I'm relatively secure, pretty healthy, have a good support system of wife and friends around me, and have interesting work and play opportunities. However, my psyche is always affected by what is going on outside my little cocoon, that that stuff does not engender much optimism for 2010. The problem is that we humans seem to have a lot of difficulty working together, and that is the source of most of our problems.

In one of his most profound statements, Jesus said "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".'s such a simple concept, but hard to implement. Selfishness stands in the way, prompting us to see life as a zero sum game where we each must fight to keep what we have. We fail to see that, working together, we can create far more for everyone.

I'm astonished that obvious communal efforts are so often neglected, since the evidence that it works is all around us. In fact, our entire "modern world" is a result of groups of people working together to achieve common goals. Why is it, then, that we resist dealing in concert to solve so many issues that threaten our country and the world? As a pragmatist, I'm perplexed. Can we start to turn this around in 2010? It seems unlikely.

I heard yesterday that in many parts of the undeveloped world pregnant women suffer from an iodine shortage that robs their offspring of 10-15 IQ points due to iodine-deficient brain development. Providing iodized salt to these people would seem so easy to do, yet it is not being done. What a tragedy! Would I be writing this blog if my IQ was 15 points less? Why are countries that suffer from this problem not making it easy for other countries to provide this simple solution? Beats me! We just don't seem to be able to work together.

Nowhere is this problem of conflict more obvious than in American politics. Working together requires a common set of facts, to begin with, but our politicians seem allergic to facts but addicted to partisanship and special (read "selfish") interests. Both parties are smoking dope instead of identifying the core problems that American must deal with, gathering pertinent facts, and working together to find solutions in the common interest.

If it was up to me, I'd fire every sitting member of congress and replace them all with people who've shown little interest in politics and lots of ability to accomplish difficult tasks. In six months we could have a new congress that would remake America in ten years and leave few people unhappy with the outcome. That's because solving difficult problems makes everyone optimistic for the future. We really do have people who could lead us up this road.

So, I am very concerned about our ability to work together. For the moment, though, my attention is focused on "Abel". Abel is a 23 year old refugee from Burma who's been in the U.S. for eight months. Starting with no English, he now reads easily (pronounced and understood the word "idiomatic"), and speaks English pretty well. Perhaps this fluency results from his prior knowledge of two Chin dialects, Burmese, and some Chinese and Malay. He's taken his GED already, and likely will pass it. If he does, he will enter a good college in Rochester - for free.

Abel has been through hell in his young life (just believe me), but he wants to become a civil engineer. I'm making it my project to get him there, and enjoying the hell out of it. It helps that he's a hard working (two jobs) guy with a great smile. I love helping those who are willing to help themselves! Perhaps that's why I admire my own three sons, all of whom stand on their own two feet while helping others. Abel is a surrogate, perhaps, since the boys are all grown up.

Selfishness may kill America. Seniors complain about any reduction in their benefits, even if they are comfortable. Wealthy folks complain about higher taxes, even though taxes are relatively low. Kids complain about increases in state college tuitions, even though those tuitions are an incredible bargain. Union members complain about efforts to bring their job requirements and overall compensation in line with their abilities and their industry counterparts. Inner city parents and students have no clue and violence rules their streets; their future is bleak, but they seem indifferent to whatever they might do to change this. All of us seem to acknowledge that progress requires sacrifice, concerted efforts, and hard work - but few seem interested in becoming part of the solution.

Many say this century will belong to the countries of the far east, and they are probably right. I hope those countries do well, but I also wish that America would do well. Sadly, I'm not optimistic. We've lost our ability to work together, so we will decline together. In the meantime, though, I can help Abel achieve the kind of life he always deserved. I can be optimistic about that, at least. Call me if you know about any other, more promising, options for how I should spend my spare time. And, Happy New Year!