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!