Thursday, December 31, 2009


Everyone has no doubt heard the details of the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to set off an explosive hidden in his underwear. His arrest has reignited the debate about torture and 'enemy combatant' status as well as the usual run of crass political opportunism.

Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, who is currently running for Governor, wasted no time in getting his voice out there. How did he respond to this incident? Was his first action to commend the passengers and crew who subdued the bomber? Was it to tout or even question the way the Homeland Security system reacted to the incident? Nope. He just saw an opportunity for a quick buck. He posted a statement that said, in part:

"There is still a war against the American way of Life; on Christmas morning, it came right here to Detroit. I understand the real and continuing threat radical jihadists pose ... But I need your help! ... Please make a most generous contribution of $25, $50, $100 or even $250 to my campaign. ..."

No, this is not a joke. A sitting US Congressman, running for Governor has used the attempted murder of some 300 Americans as a way to increase his campaign contributions. For this alone I can only hope he loses the election. This is an example of the most base of political actions. It demonstrates that this person cares far more for his own political career than for the people who elected him. In my opinion this is pathetic and unworthy of a member of the US Congress. He should feel shame. Sadly this is just the latest action Congressman Hoekstra has taken which clearly demonstrates his lack of fitness for his elected office. This includes a statement he made after the Ft. Hood shooting, where he appears to have divulged information on a classified surveillance operation in his rush to ensure his name was in the news. And this man is the ranking Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee! It boggles the mind.

As always, please let me know what you think by clicking the Comment link below and leaving your thoughts!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Non-Workings of the US Senate

Here's a great article by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post on how the US Senate works, or rather . . . doesn't. It's an interesting read. Here's an excerpt:

"To understand why the modern legislative process is so bad, why every Senator seems able to demand a king's ransom in return for his or her vote and no bill ever seems to be truly bipartisan, you need to understand one basic fact: The government can function if the minority party has either the incentive to make the majority fail or the power to make the majority fail. It cannot function if it has both.

In decades past, the parties did not feel they had both. Cooperation was the Senate's custom, if not its rule. But in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich, then the minority whip of the House, and Bob Dole, then the minority leader of the Senate, realized they did have both. A strategy of relentless obstruction brought then-president Bill Clinton to his knees, as the minority party discovered it had the tools to make the majority party fail.

Unfortunately, both parties have followed Gingrich's playbook ever since. According to UCLA political scientist Barbara Sinclair, about 8 percent of major bills faced a filibuster in the 1960s. This decade, that jumped to 70 percent. The problem with the minority party continually making the majority party fail, of course, is that it means neither party can ever successfully govern the country."

Full article: After health care, we need Senate reform

As always, please let me know what you think by clicking the Comment link below and leaving your thoughts!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Senate Health Reform Bill in Tatters

The Senate health reform bill has now reached the point, after weeks of debate and compromise, where even some of the biggest supporters of health reform are now calling for it to be scrapped in favor of trying to create something under the less comprehensive Reconciliation process. A few nights ago Howard Dean, a long time reform proponent, finally threw in the towel on support of the Senate Bill, saying that continued attempts to appease conservatives have striped the bill of most of its benefits leaving mostly gifts to the health insurance industry it was meant to reform. This can be blamed on many. There are the Republicans who never even pretended to care about health reform of any kind, no matter who proposed it or what it involved. Add in the Conservative Democrats who do nothing but give speeches and bask in their moment of notoriety and power who are seemingly determined to protect insurance companies against the slightest check to their power. And don't forget the far right conservatives who have fought this every step of the way with absurd slogans about the Government between you and your doctor, completely ignoring that we've had profit driven insurance companies in this exact role all along. Does anyone really think a company beholden to investors and Wall Street is more compassionate? Do you really think Cigna's CEO is going to lose any sleep over your lack of health coverage as long as he gets his million dollars in bonus money this year?

Last night on Countdown, Keith Olbermann gave an editorial about the current health reform bill being considered in the Senate. It was somber, direct and unfortunately accurate. I highly encourage you to read the text and/or watch the video:  Olbermann: Ruined Senate Bill Unsupportable

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Case for a Withdrawal Plan

Since President Obama announced his policy for going forward in Afghanistan, there have been a few questions about the withdrawal schedule. At first the Administration was firm that this was a serious and solid schedule to begin pulling troops out. Then, within a few days, statements from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense have begun to water this down.

Then came Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' surprise trip to Kabul at the beginning of the week. Gates spoke about the planned withdrawal of US troops, as outlined by the Obama Administration. But in contrast to this, President Karzai stated that, only with a "maximum effort", could Afghanistan hope to completely take over its own security in 5 years. And he then stated that it would be at least 15 to 20 years before they would be able to actually bankroll their own military and police force. That's right, 2015 before they can provide their own security. And they will need outside financing for their armed forces and police until at least 2025! I can't help but wonder if Karzai discussed his take on the timeline with the Obama Administration, prior to this.

I fully admit that I am no expert in the state of the Afghan military and police. I am also aware that it takes more than just learning to shoot, as some pundits have ignorantly stated, to make a good military. What is needed is a military and police force that is 'nationalized'. In other words, one that has allegiance to the nation first and foremost rather to a province or tribal system. It also must attain a state of discipline and dedication within the ranks, beyond that usually seen in that part of the world. But 5 years just to take over the basic management of their own security? That's after some 7 years since the Karzai government took power. This seems to me, a very long time. Then add in that they can't even pay for it until 2025 or maybe longer. I don't even want to consider how much this will ultimately cost America and NATO,  in lives and money.

This underscores why we need a solid schedule. It needs to be made clear to Karzai and his government that America and NATO will not just hang around forever. Karzai needs a deadline. Without one, he will have no pressure to move forward quickly. Think about it, right now America and NATO are providing most of the money and the primary security force for Afghanistan. What is Karzai's motivation to step up and take over? I'm sure he'd like to not have us meddling in his politics, but I'm also sure he's happy for the elite military and seemingly endless flow of cash. I know if I was in his place, I'd certainly be in no hurry for that to change.

Setting a timetable isn't a matter of giving up or "surrendering", as the simplistic among us like to repeat ad nauseam.  It's a matter of being fully aware of everyone's motivation in this.  It's simple psychology.  If Karzai has the expectation that the US and NATO  will continue to militarily and financially sponsor his Administration until he is 'ready', then he's got no motivation at all to rush. As long as the benefits of our presence outweigh the complications, it's in his best interest to keep us around. It is only after Obama's plans for the future in Afghanistan that we find that Karzai has an expectation of troop support for the next 5 years and for us to continue to pay for Afghanistan's own military for another 15+ years. Clearly there is a huge disparity between US and Afghan expectations.

We set and do everything we can to stick to a withdrawal plan, so the Afghans know the clock is ticking. We need to keep pressure on Karzai so he will actually want us to step away. We need to make sure there are enough strings attached to the money we are pouring into his administration that he will actually start weighing the pros and cons of our support.  As long as it's in his best interests for us to stay, Karzai will never declare that Afghanistan is ready to stand on its own. Why should he? America and NATO will be footing the bills and doing much of the fighting. And whenever there are civilian casualties or an outcry about methods he can always blame it on us. We need to setup an exit strategy and make sure the Afghans are fully aware that we intend to use it whether he's ready or not.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Tuesday night President Obama gave a speech at West Point Military Academy in NY, the subject being the plan going forward for Afghanistan. The gist of the new policy is an increase of 30,000 troops, beginning in January. However, it also sets a planned date for the beginning of withdrawal in July 2011, a break with the policies of the previous Administration, and standing Conservative doctrine, of pledging to stay till we have 'won'. Another major change from past years is a pledge to fund the Afghan war in the light of day, using standard Congressional appropriations rather than in the shadows with special funding bills, as the previous Administration preferred.

As expected, this plan, which doesn't promise everything either wing of the political spectrum wanted to see, is getting mixed reviews from both Liberals and Conservatives. Republicans, such as Senator McCain, liked the troop increase, yet were upset at the time table for withdrawal. The Liberals like a time table, but think it's time to start pulling out now rather than increasing troop levels. This may be a case where, if both sides are only 50% happy, then it might just be the right course.

So what was my take? Well, I admit that I've been leaning towards beginning a withdrawal now. Technically, we already accomplished what we set out to do in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida was kicked out of their safe havens, being killed, captured or forced to scatter. We dismantled the Taliban run government which openly harbored and supported terrorists. And we helped the Afghans setup a new government. What else can we really do after 8 years? We're dealing with a government that has major problems with corruption and even the taint of election fraud, something we can't fix ourselves. I worry about us becoming the region's mercenary army and I worry a great deal about the state of our military in general. We are wearing the edge off our armed forces and leaving them tired and ragged. By the time this influx is completed we will have committed the vast majority of our available armed forces to Iraq and Afghanistan. Think about that. If another crisis arose in the world, we would be virtually incapable of dealing with it without yanking troops away from the current wars. We are over extended and over committed, and that makes me very uneasy.

One thing that I really did like about this speech was that Obama did not fall back on the old, tired talking points of fear and unquestioning patriotism. He laid things out in an organized manner that didn't rely on bullet points. It was refreshing for a President to talk to me like an adult, rather than a child who should just let the grownups deal with these complicated matters. It's the difference between 'explaining' a policy decision and 'demanding' obedience. It was a good speech and seemed to me to do a good job of outlining the situation, the Administration's plan and how it would be implemented. While I may not be in full agreement, I do accept that I am not in possession of all the facts and classified details. What he is planning does sound reasonable, as long as we do stick to a planned withdrawal.

This brings up the Conservatives' biggest gripe. Though they got almost everything their little olive drab hearts desired, you could hear the indignant cough when a withdrawal schedule came up. Senator McCain punched this point solidly when asked for his response, following the speech. "What I do not support, and what concerns me greatly, is the president's decision to set an arbitrary date to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies." I am unsure how to take this statement from a military veteran.  The theory seems to be that if we set a withdrawal date, the insurgents will just hang back and wait until we leave. This is mush minded drivel. An insurgency cannot, by its very definition, pull back and wait. If they do that, then the Afghan government and the NATO advisers will have time to make serious gains with the Afghan people and make it more difficult for the Taliban to gain support in the future. They have to keep the pressure on or be edged out of the equation. What I see as the biggest advantage of setting a timetable is that the Afghan government knows it has a deadline to consider. President Karzai will be on notice that the US military will not be there to watch his back forever. It will light a fire under his administration to make sure its military forces are ready to take over when we leave. I realize this isn't a simple thing for Karzai, but I feel he needs to be shown in no uncertain terms that if he wants to keep the militant Taliban factions from overthrowing his regime, then he better get busy! This is what it all comes down to, here and in Iraq. We got rid of the autocratic, extremist government and helped them setup a new one. Their responsibility is to get their ducks in a row so they can police their country. Yes, we are worried about Taliban militants and the remnants of Al-Qaida from regaining strength and safe havens. But the only reason that's an issue is because the Afghan government can't secure their own territory. A professional and trained Afghan military will do a much better job against the militants than we would, because it's their country and their people. I'm a little tired of Americans dying on the other side of the planet so Hamid Karzai, and his alleged drug running brother, can relax and enjoy the Presidency. So, yes, I think a deadline is just what is needed.

There were a number of things the President said that resonated with me. The one that I thought was most important was, "As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests." Read that line again, as I think it's a very important statement. It bears on one of the major talking points that the Conservative Hawks constantly harp on: Victory. This is the same thinking that kept us in Vietnam for so long. The idea that we stay until we win. No matter what. I don't even know what they would consider victory. This isn't Europe, 1945. There will be no articles of surrender or treaties formalizing capitulation. Bin Laden will not walk out of the hills and lay his Kalashnikov at the feet of the NATO commander. Neither the Iraqi or Afghan wars will end with a victory parade through Baghdad or Kabul, with adoring locals chanting their love of America. Let's be very clear, 'Victory' in Afghanistan is a stable government that can keep the country's tribal, extremist elements in check. Honestly, that's all we can realistically hope, much less expect. Anyone who is holding out for an American style democracy, with a secular, non-political, professional military is dreaming. This region is nothing like Europe or America. We cannot keep thinking that we can twist and hammer it into a mirror image of a Western democracy. It may happen, to some degree, eventually but it will not be because the West forced it. It will be because the Afghan people WANT it that way.

He made two other statements while speaking of American security that jumped out for me. "And we can't count on military might alone.  We have to invest in our homeland security, because we can't capture or kill every violent extremist abroad.  We have to improve and better coordinate our intelligence, so that we stay one step ahead of shadowy networks." Then, a few sentences later he continued. "We'll have to use diplomacy, because no one nation can meet the challenges of an interconnected world acting alone." As I've said many times, we cannot operate as a one nation vigilante. We must work with other nations and use non military means to fight these extremist elements. In a time of insurgencies and terrorist strikes, Infantry Divisions are of limited use. When we are threatened, this is not the time to withdraw and cower behind the serried rows of drones, tanks and APCs. It is a time to tend to alliances and cultivate good relations where feasible. Nobody wants to help a bully, but they will help a friend.

In the end, this policy is not exactly what I would have chosen, but it seems to offer a plan to do what we have to do, yet shows us the light at the end of the tunnel. The withdrawal date is, I believe, necessary to ensure the Karzai government understands that America is not their private security force who will be there till they get around to securing their own country. It's been eight years, the clock is ticking.  Another thing, everyone needs to wake up to the strain we are putting our military through. This must be more than an abstract awareness.  These are our fellow Americans and they deserve more than being ground down in tour after tour as we wait for some event we can hang a 'victory' flag on. Our fighting forces are not limitless and we need to stop pretending that they are. And finally, the 'hawks' among us have to stop focusing on this nebulous idea of 'Victory' or 'Winning' at all costs. Only a fool makes statements like that, outside of a Terminator movie. This is the real world. We must look at things as they are, not as we wish them to be. I know it's very American to focus on winning, but this isn't a Western where we meet the bad guys at high noon, gun 'em down, and ride off into the sunset. Real life is messy. And it doesn't get much messier than this.

Link to video and transcript of speech:

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

When Will He Shut Up?

Imagine, if you will, an alternate history of the G.W. Bush Presidency. Where Al Gore continually makes speeches and takes interviews where he repeatedly accuses President Bush of "weakening" America and "emboldening our enemies"? Going so far as to make these sorts of biting criticisms immediately prior to a major Presidential speech on national foreign policy. How do you think Vice President Cheney would have reacted? Shocked? Angry? I think we can be sure he would have had some serious things to say on the patriotism of a former VP undercutting the sitting President in such a direct manner.

And yet this is exactly what Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been doing to the current Administration since leaving office. Every chance he gets, he accuses Obama of making major mistakes or opening the nation to terrorist attacks or showing weakness. Hell, he's probably spoken up more in the last 11 months than he did the entire 8 years he was in office! I'm not saying he has to disappear from view, though I certainly wouldn't mind. But this has gone way beyond policy differences. And to throw lawn darts at the President immediately prior to a speech to the nation on the prosecution of military operations is astounding. What is wrong with this man?

The constant railing about how the Administration is making America more open to terrorist attack is especially despicable. It comes off, not as a warning, but as covering his historical butt. He seems to be intent on making sure that he's on the record with this drivel so that if there is ever another attack on US soil, that he can jump out of his wheelchair and cackle "I told you so!" The real kicker is that, to my knowledge, the Obama Administration has done nothing to change anti-terror policies. Aside, of course, from rescinding support for torture. Arguably an UN-American policy from the start. Yet Cheney acts as if Obama reversed everything, from the top down. There are times I actually wonder if he secretly hopes for another attack, just to vindicate himself.

There is legitimate concern and then there is, to put it bluntly, being an ass. Cheney crossed that line within weeks of leaving office. At least show the Obama Administration the basic, boilerplate support that any President deserves. You know, the same respect Cheney and Bush always demanded! Funny how a shift in perspective changes things. If you have a constructive critique, go ahead. But this constant cawing of "Doom, Doom, Doom!" is pathetic.

Forgive my directness, but it is way past time for the Former Vice President to sit down, ruminate on his glory days and shut the hell up!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

When Will Arrogance Go Out of Style?

So, this week, it's Obama bowing to the Japanese Emperor during his visit to Asia. Is our President being subservient? Why is he bowing to some old Emperor? In the comments on a short NPR story about bowing and when it was in style in the US, one reader noted: "Since he's so fond of prostrating himself before those with a "divine right" to rule, does that mean he's just being more religious than the rest of us?" All I can do is role my eyes. Did he not even read and understand the article itself? The one that noted that when our country was created, bowing was a normal thing? That it continued for some time, before going out of style? Oh, yes, and the part where it's noted that in Japan, bowing is not at all unusual?

At what point did being polite and respecting the customs of other nations, especially one of our allies, become subservient? Can anyone answer me that? Another story on this subject, which I Googled up, stated: "This person who swore he would support and defend the Constitution of the United States obviously doesn't understand (or care) that America has never bowed to a foreign country or its leaders ..." Actually, I recently saw pictures of both Nixon and Eisenhower bowing to foreign dignitaries. So, apparently doing so does not destroy the fabric of our Constitution, only this person's preconceived notions of American smug superiority. Certainly, some elements will look for anything to use against Obama. This is obvious, as the above 'bowing' issue proves. If you're gonna make bold, definitive statements, at least spend a couple minutes on Google or Wikipedia first! It would certainly cut down on the embarrassing eating of crow later.

It's not so much the uproar over this, specifically, that bothers me. It's how it seems to be just the most recent case of Americans seeming to take this 'Leader of the Free World' thing way too seriously. I've always hated that phrase, to be honest. It drips with arrogance and self righteousness. When people use it I can almost hear the macho swagger in their voice. Certainly America is the pre-eminent military power in the world. Assuming we don't continue to grind away our Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. But we are hardly the voice of freedom for the world.  We certainly have screwed up enough things over the years, and should have learned by now that we are not always right and that our good intentions do not always wisdom make.

Some will jump up at this point and declare me 'unpatriotic'. This is the usual response to anyone who questions, or in any way, impugns America. When, in fact, this is what patriotism is about. It's not about supporting anything the country does, no matter the wisdom of the actions. It's about loving the country enough to be concerned when it appears to be veering off course. Bothered so much that you feel the need to speak out in an attempt to avoid a perceived mistake. I feel like the Bush Presidency was an exercise in focused arrogance. We built no bridges or partnerships to fight terrorism. We bullied and threatened anyone who didn't follow our lead. That, to me, is the worst kind of arrogance and pride. You cannot organize resistance to something that way. All you end up doing is annoying your allies and alienating everyone else. It's really just psychology 101 or simple schoolyard politics. There's nothing strange or complicated about it, so I'm amazed that so many seem not to see it.

I tend to read a lot of military history and I've been struck by a number of things relating to the Roman Republic and Empire. There were a number of times where the Romans got themselves into bad situations simply due to arrogance. They operated with the view that anyone who wasn't a Roman was uncivilized and therefore a barbarian. This attitude led them to repeatedly, throughout their history, stumble into bloody wars that could have likely been avoided. They dealt with 'barbarians' as beneath them, even when these peoples were nearly on par, socially and technologically, with them. And they often treated even their 'barbarian' allies with less respect than they should have. Thus creating several nasty enemies from former allies. As you might imagine, this sort of foreign policy did not go over well. This attitude and the dismissive way Rome dealt with it's 'barbarian' neighbors, during its last century or two, contributed quite a bit to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. What might have happened if they had integrated the Goths and others into the Empire, rather than treating them as unworthy and uncivilized interlopers we will never know. But I'm confident the result would have been preferable to the bloody wars that did occur.

This is how the Bush Administration seemed to deal with the world, much to our detriment. There seems to be this warped view that to show a basic level of respect to a potential adversary, even if only respect for the office, is some form of weakness. I have no idea where this comes from. It's this mindset that historians regularly site as a factor in the fall of past empires. So why do some continue to think that talking down to Iran or North Korea is at all helpful? To treat them with some basic courtesy doesn't show weakness. It shows we are willing to play the political game. We must remember that we are dealing with people who have their own constituencies to deal with. They can't just cave in, even if they might personally be willing to give ground. To do so will make them look weak to their supporters. Again, it's schoolyard politics. If you back them into a corner, with no exit, they will fight tooth and nail. If you leave them room to maneuver and deal realistically, there is a much better chance of success. They will then be able to compromise here and there without losing face to their supporters. One of Bush's bigger blunders in foreign policy was his infamous 'Axis of Evil' speech. In one speech, he managed to back every country on this list into a corner, giving them only two options- give in completely to our demands, essentially groveling at our feet or remain our mortal enemies. Great choice, eh? Debase yourself in the eyes of your internal and external supporters or keep the status quo as the underdog who is standing up to the bully. So in one speech, Bush found the perfect way to guarantee their continued stone wall opposition. What the Bush Administration, and many others who still support the same policies now, fail to realize is that part of international politics is smiling and shaking hands, even if you'd rather push them in front of a bus. It's about maneuver, proposal and counter proposal. You can only demand when you have complete control of a situation and that rarely occurs outside of a surrender ceremony.

On the edges of this, you have Obama being raked over the coals by conservatives for simply saying to the world that America has made mistakes.  Seriously? So America is never wrong? Or is it that we are showing weakness by admitting it? Then I must be confused. I distinctly recall being told and hearing numerous times while growing up, that it takes a strong person to admit when they've made a mistake. Ring a bell? I'm sure just about every parent who criticized the President on this has used that little parable with their own kids. But this apparently doesn't apply to countries. It's as if, by keeping silent, no one will notice that we sometimes screw up. By admitting it, and accepting responsibility when we do, we gain respect in the eyes of friend and foe. Nobody trusts someone who maintains that they are always right. It demonstrates a disconnect with reality and an unwillingness to be honest. Hardly traits to inspire partnership or loyalty.

Since Obama was elected, America's standing in the world has risen dramatically. And it's happened because he doesn't talk down to other countries. He doesn't belittle anyone who disagrees with our policies. Even when dealing with Iran or North Korea, he manages to keep a professional tone that indicates America's stand, but doesn't try and kick sand in their faces. Now many will say that we shouldn't care what others think about us, but that would be speaking in ignorance. This is a global economy. We cannot exist, separate from the rest of the planet. Good relations are essential for our survival as a economic and political force. We don't have to like everyone we deal with, but it costs us nothing to treat them with some minimal level of respect, regardless.

For example, I don't particularly like or trust Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but I see no reason not to be professional in our dealings with him. He is the head of a sovereign nation and we should at least show a minimum of respect for his position, if not the man. And the more evenhanded and businesslike we are in our dealings with him, the more we contrast his wilder pronouncements. This is a win-win situation. We keep the door open to communication and possible solutions with Iran and we show the entire world that America is a reasonable country. Thus, moderates in the region will be more likely to see us as intellectually engaged and deal with us in a meaningful way. Don't forget, people are people, no matter their race, creed or theology. If you start the conversation with a slap to the mouth, you have immediately closed off almost all positive outcomes. If, however, you start off with a polite greeting, the outcome is still open to negotiation. No, it won't always affect the final result. But at the very least, our allies and others around the world will see that we are reasonable and level headed. Not because we tell them we are, but because they can see it in our actions.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Why We Must Fix Healthcare

I just read a first hand account of a recent free clinic, not in some third world country, but in New Orleans, LA. Those who took advantage of this opportunity were not vagrants or welfare leaches. The majority of them were actually employed. Though not in a job that provided full benefits.

I ask you to read this for a perspective on health reform:  Health Reform's Human Stories

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Should We Stay or Should We Go

Afghanistan. The 'other' war has come center stage recently as the Administration considers how to proceed. More troops? Less troops? Pull out? Certainly no shortage of opinions. The senior commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal, has called for some 40,000 additional troops to prevent 'failure' of the mission there. Now President Obama is weighing these options and is expected to announce a plan in the next few week or so.

Much has been made of how the troop surge in Iraq helped reduce violence but, we must be careful about making general assumptions that the same plan would work in Afghanistan. The two countries are vastly different. Contrary to Iraq, Afghanistan has minimal infrastructure. This, coupled with mountainous terrain, makes the same sort of mass troop movements and area control techniques useless. The non-urban population is highly dispersed and more beholden to local leaders than the central government in Kabul. So a surge of troops would almost certainly be much less likely to have the kind of affect seen in Iraq. Put simply, these issues would make this a dramatically more difficult situation, no matter the troop numbers.

Another major issue is the drug trade. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is a major opium hub. This brings in a whole new complication to the situation. According to the CIA World Factbook, about 1/3 of the country's Gross Domestic Product is from Poppy and illicit drug production. So, basically, one out of every three farms is dedicated to growing drug crops. Not a good thing for stability, since with drugs comes corruption and violence. With drug crops making up such a significant portion of the country's economy, simply destroying the poppy fields is hardly going to solve things. The farmers need to make money to live and currently poppy production is the most lucrative crop. This only adds to the political and factional violence already plaguing the country.  And of course the various extremist and anti-goverment groups use the drug trade to finance themselves. With this much drug money floating around, it doesn't take a Harvard scholar to tell you that this pretty much guarantees  governmental corruption at the highest levels. There have even been numerous accusations of Hamid Karzai's own brother being heavily involved in the drug trade. So any military operations will have to consider the drug problem in addition to the factional and political issues.

One thing that is similar, though probably still on a much larger scale than Iraq, is the simmering and often explosive, anti-foreigner sentiment. While there is undoubtedly some of this everywhere in the country, it is most rooted in the rural areas where the tribal system is in full control. These are people who remember the last time a foreign power swept into the country in 1980. And as much as we may draw a sharp distinction between ourselves and the Soviets, to the Afghans, the line is much more blurry. This is something that America and the West seem exceptionally hard headed about. We keep believing that because we have good intentions that they should understand and let us go about our business. But our intentions are of no concern to them. All they care about is that foreign soldiers are running free in their country. Attacking their people. We seem to have a lot of trouble looking at our 'interventions' from the point of view of those we are 'liberating'. Things look a lot differently when you are on the other end of the assault rifle.

That we have a working relationship with the Karzi government carries little weight either. Karzi's popularity is on a low ebb and has never been very strong at all in the tribal areas. The recent election was rife with accusations of fraud and ended up so close as to require a run-off election. But the run-off election never happened due to the opposition candidate withdrawing at the last minute. Most recently, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, has reportedly advised the President that  he is unconvinced that the Afghan leadership is committed to rooting out governmental corruption and that he has concerns about committing more US troops. Eikenberry is a retired Lt. General and former commander in Afghanistan which gives his opinion even more weight.  All of this casts a shadow over Karzi and his new government. Aside from these accusations, Karzi has his own internal problems to deal with and has to balance them with our needs. He is bound by political and factional necessities that limit or may even prevent him from fully supporting US and NATO operations and requests. Put simply, he has to worry about staying in power.

What it comes down to is this. The question of whether to add more troops or not is putting the cart before the horse. The real questions are, first, what is our ultimate goal and, second, can we realistically achieve it? If our goal is to eradicate the extremist elements, then we may indeed need to infuse more troops into the country. But is this a realistic goal? I'm not debating the morals of right and wrong. The question is, can it really be done, considering what we know about Afghanistan? We are dealing with a nation that has a highly factionalized tribal system outside the cities, with minimal infrastructure, very rugged terrain, a central government without any real power in the outlying provinces and a population that doesn't really want Western troops there at all. Some have simply pointed to General McChrystal's request for more troops and declared that we should listen to the commander in the field. But we must remember that McChrystal is looking at this from a purely military perspective, based on his current tasking. At the end of the day, McChrystal is simply trying to achieve the goals the Administration has set. Which brings us back to the question of what the ultimate goal should be.

This brings me to, what I believe, is one of the most important issues. The US military. Since 2001, when we began our post-9/11 military operations, we began deploying major segments of the US military to Afghanistan and later Iraq. These deployments have resulted in, roughly, some 150,000 troops in Iraq and some 60,000 in Afghanistan. This is a significant portion of America's available military forces, including Guard and Reserve units. Enough of a percentage of troops to require that units be rotated back into action over and over and over, with only short breaks in between. And lets not forget that we've already had troops in Afghanistan longer than we had troops in Europe during WWII. While combat operations are certainly not as consistently intense as they were then, the stress level of troops constantly on guard for insurgent attacks is great. The pressure this has put on the troops and their families has been tremendous. We must remember that our military is not a machine that can be turned on or off and simply oiled once and awhile. These are our fellow citizens and they cannot be run through this sort of high stress situation for years at a time without there being a corrosive effect on them personally and on combat effectiveness professionally. The previous Administration seemed to see the military as a resource that could be used indefinitely. Simply numbers on a chart.  But as suicides and post traumatic stress spike, and combat stress spills over into off duty violence the government must realize that we are running our troops ragged. They are not an infinite resource and the longer they exist in this purgatory of repeating deployments with only the minimal time home with families, the more damage we will do to them personally and to the military as a fighting force.

While I would very much like to see the extremist elements suppressed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, wanting it is a long way from having it. Can we, realistically, hope to eradicate these elements? Especially considering that, to them, there really isn't much of a border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, thus adding in a complex political side to an already messy internal situation. Personally, I don't see how we can do too much more than we have so far without at least doubling the current troop strength. An additional forty thousand will help, but I don't see how it will solve anything in the long run. The Soviets put in upwards of 105,000 men, at any one time,  during their invasion and occupation, and had complete control of the government, yet they couldn't pacify the country.  There is a reason Afghanistan is called the 'graveyard of empires'. This is a region that gives the insurgent defender every advantage over an invader. We need to consider what more we can realistically achieve. Not just what we would like to or feel we should achieve. It's time for some pragmatic analysis as to our goals, the means we have to apply and, most important of all, the likelihood of success.

So, what do I think? Well, while there are major differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, they have some things in common. First, and foremost, we must accept the fact that we cannot 'Win' in either country. I know how tough this is to wrap our heads around, as America is very much into winning. To 'Win' would require us to control most of the variables. However, even at the best of times we only control one part of a complex equation. We can suppress armed insurgents to a degree, we can provide expertise, we can provide intelligence assets and we can offer ourselves to support the central government. That's it. We will never eradicate the extremist elements in Afghanistan. The only way that would even be vaguely possible is if we stationed troops in every single village, town and city in the entire country. Essentially a police state. This is, of course, ludicrous. We will never convince the Afghan people to support the Karzi government if they don't feel trust in it themselves. It's their government, made up of fellow Afghans. The impassioned words of an outsider are not going to convince them. That kind of trust has to be built by Karzi, not the West. Secondly, we may very well be starting almost as many fires as we are putting out. Every single time a bomb or missile kills a civilian, we ratchet up the distrust and discontent of the people against us. You and I know that even modern, precision munitions cannot completely avoid collateral damage. We may have taken out an entire Al Qaeda cell, but all the Afghans know is that America killed their son/daughter/father/mother. Each time this happens, we move moderates towards the extremist camp. And we move another angry person to pick up a gun.

The bottom line is that this is not our country. It is not a Western country. It has a social order that is almost alien to most Americans. This is a region which has seen, time and again, world powers using them as nothing more than a spot on a Risk game board. Just a colored shape on the map to be occupied for strategic or monetary gain. They know we are not there out of an altruistic desire to make their lives better. Whether we do good there or not, it will not transform their hearts and minds about us. Pragmatically, it is probably time to start moving towards the exit, just as it is in Iraq. I feel that we have done about all the good we realistically can and that it's up to Afghanistan and it's people to take it from here. To do anything more would require the West to pour so many troops into the country as to make it little more than a client state, with a continuous insurgent threat. It's their choices that will decide the direction of the country from here on out. We cannot win this conflict. Only the Afghan people can win it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why I Love Autumn

My favorite time of year is now. Autumn. While so many others are bemoaning the end of summer and the cooler temps, I rejoice. I am positively giddy to be free of the 90 plus, humid degrees. To be able to walk outside without immediately bursting into sweat is divine. As I've often told anyone who would listen, swimming is the only thing I can think of that benefits from temps over 70 degrees. Everything else is more pleasant when it's 70 with a nice breeze on a partly cloudy day. In fact, I love coat weather. I know it's odd, but I like wearing coats. Look at my closet and you might think I have as much of a thing for coats as some women do for shoes. I'm not sure why it is, but I just feel more comfortable. Maybe it's just the extra layer between me and the world Or perhaps it's a vanity thing where I feel like I look better. Whatever the reason I am ever so happy for evenings in the 40s & 50s again.

I celebrate the colors of the leaves too. I mean, really, who doesn't? After so many months with only varied shades of green, the trees seem to come alive even as they are going to sleep for the coming winter. And while I often wish the colors would last longer, I guess it would get boring after a while too. Better to have the short, spectacular explosions of reds and yellows, like living fireworks. And even when they fall to the ground. I enjoy walking through them. The crisp sound of them under foot makes me smile. And more than one person has seen me run up and high kick my way through a big pile of leaves. They even make the rain more exciting. The stiff, dry leaves make a rain shower so much louder and more interesting as it drips it's way through the trees and filling the woods with a crackling sound.

So you won't hear me pine for the dog days of summer or shorts weather. Instead, you'll find me shuffling through the leaves, with a henley over a t-shirt or a light coat, and smiling. Did I mention that I love Autumn? :-)

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Sign Too Far

Yesterday, in an event sponsored by Representative Michele Bachmann (Republican, MN), hundreds of people came out to protest the current health reform bill. Whether I agree with them or not, it's certainly their right to protest. But, at least in my eyes, they completely invalidated their point when they started making comparisons that were so over the top as to be astonishing.

First we have the, now standard, signs calling Obama a Marxist. Which is amusing since the same groups regularly use signs of Obama as Hitler. It may come as a surprise to some of these individuals, but Hitler was a Fascist and was directly opposed to the Marxist/Communist movement. So, for anyone who's ever watched the History Channel, or just Googled the terms in question, these comparisons come off as what they truly are; a number of ignorant people who grab political terms out of thin air without regard to what any of them actually mean. As long as it evokes an emotional response, that's all they care about. Even if that response is based on misinformation. The saddest thing to me is that it actually works sometimes. Do any of these people ever stop and actually, you know . . . think? Has the intelligence level of the country really dropped this low?

But the one that really got me was this one. A large sign with the title "National Socialist Healthcare. Dachau, Germany 1945" over a picture of the bodies of concentration camp victims, piled like cord wood. Really? Does this make sense to ANYONE?! I'm not sure what angers me most about this. Is it the fact that the inference is exaggeration on a galactic scale? Or is it that they are taking a truly horrific piece of human suffering and death and reducing it to a disagreement on healthcare reform? It is insulting and demeaning to all those who died in these camps. It is a testament to the moral bankruptcy of those who created and cheered this sign. And it highlights a complete lack of understanding of the real world. I am at a loss to understand how anyone could create such a shameful and disrespectful image. Not only does it sicken me that some people actually think this is a legitimate comparison, but it seems to confirm that these people are not intelligent enough to even be allowed in the discussion of real issues. This may be an overreaction, but how can I think otherwise, considering the apparent ignorance involved?

What is the matter with people? It's one thing to want attention for their side of the argument. But when the means they choose are so ridiculously outrageous, how can anyone take them seriously? How can I, or anyone else, engage these people in dialog? There's no common ground, as they have started the argument from a point of lunacy. I can't help but conclude that they don't even care what others think anyway. This sort of protest comes off, not as a demand to have their input considered, but as a demand that you just do what they say. Period. That's not a discussion, that's the kind of overbearing, rule by fiat that they accuse the current administration of. Am I the only one who sees the irony here?

Thursday, November 5, 2009


For the love of [insert appropriate deity here]! I am so sick of hearing the word Liberal used as a synonym for Lunatic or Idiot! Have we really gotten to the point where we are redefining legitimate terms simply to insult each other?  This is one of those things that seems to be far more of a Conservative thing, I've noticed. Every time a Conservative politician or pundit uses the word Liberal, it's spit out as a slur. Often phrased with disgust or contempt. As if the target of the remark were some raving luntic. The term 'Liberal' has been slowly hammered into purely a negative. Why?

Liberal:  (From the New Oxford American Dictionary)
• Open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values
• Favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms
• (in a political context) Favoring maximum individual liberty in political and social reform

This is the definition of Liberal. Sounds positively evil, doesn't it? Practically Communist, right? Sure, some people take it to the extreme, but no more so than Conservative extremists.

Lets be honest here, without Liberals, America would be a much more backward place. Whether they used the term to describe themselves at the time or not, who do you think spearheaded the abolition of Slavery? Liberals. Women's right to vote? Liberals. Civil Rights? Liberals. It's the progressives among us who push beyond tradition and what's considered 'natural' to do what is right. I'm sure some will try and pull out the nugget that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, and therefore a conservative. But the various political parties have changed a lot over America's history, so you can't say that Republicans of the 1860s had the same party philosophy as those today. Conservatives by their very nature, support the status quo. They support tradition. Don't rock the boat.

I'm not saying that every Liberal idea or movement is great. Like all philosophies, you can take it too far.  You can get too lost in ideals and lose touch with the realities of life and human behavior. And that is the whole point. Both Conservatives and Liberals need each other! The Liberals push us to step outside our little, safe boxes and reach for more. Conservatives are the sea anchor that keeps the dreamers from racing off into a philosophical fog. Yet the current Conservative movement, in particular, seems determined to demonize anything with even a whiff of Liberalism about it. As if anyone who is not a Republican is, by definition, an ultra left-wing wackjob. Believe me, if the hard core Conservatives ever got what they keep screaming about, the majority of them would regret it soon after. As the wise saying goes, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Middle Ground

Those who know me and have had any kind of political or social discussion with me will attest to the fact that I consider myself a Centrist. If you really want to put a party name to it, I'd say I'm a Conservative Democrat. But as is usually the case with political views, the more you try to align someone under a standard party label, the less accurate it is. I tend to see some good ideas from most of the various points on the political spectrum. From Republican to Libertarian, Green and Democrat.

This is what frustrates me so much. Every one of these factions, which is of course splintered into moderates and extremists among its own members, claims to know the truth. They boldly state that they have the answers to all the country's woes. But every one of them is wrong. The answers to most issues are not contained within a single ideology. Especially the really contentious ones. This is something few seem willing to understand. Partly it's a human tendency to look for absolutes. And partly it's an underlying need to compete with another group to see who's better or smarter. And since humans generally want to belong to a group of like minded individuals, we end up with these clots of people, each person reinforcing the other's feelings of absolute certainty. I can tell you, there are few things more detrimental to intelligent, reasoned problem solving than a sense of 'absolute certainty'.

In fact, that sense of certainty is the antithesis of reason. There are rarely absolutes in this world, aside from some basic moral codes of conduct. Even some of those are less absolute than we like to think. We all agree that killing another human being is wrong. Yet we do it all the time, institutionally, in wars and capital punishment. So even that's not entirely black and white. So why do we seem to think that one, ironclad political philosophy will serve to solve all of our problems? Socrates is quoted as saying, "True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing." I would modify it slightly and say that true knowledge is when you realize that you don't have all the answers. I truly believe that the most important skill anyone can learn in life is to be able to step outside yourself, intellectually, and look at things from another point of view. Call it a reality check, if you like.

Without this kind of reality check, it's very easy to become so entombed in our own opinions that we just assume that every other viewpoint is wrong. Once you've walled yourself so deeply in this certainty, you become intellectually dead. All you end up doing is spinning around in tighter and tighter circles, blocking out more and more of the outside world.  Then add to that the effects of listening to pundits and assorted personalities who mirror your own opinions. It becomes harder and harder to even consider other ideas. This is how a society stagnates.

If America is going to find the answers to healthcare reform, financial policy and the myriad of other problems we are now facing we all have to venture out of our personal bunkers and talk to each other!  Then we work together and not against each other. Everyone, from every extreme, has to stop assuming that their 'side' is the answer. Because I'm telling you, not one of these political parties or social movements hold all the answers. Not one. We like to talk about America as a 'melting pot', but someone must have turned the heat down, because we have started to congeal into large, disparate clots. We are at our best when we work together, when all these diverse viewpoints come together for a common goal. It's only then that we benefit from ideas that we, ourselves, would never have thought of. Conversely we are at our worst when we pull back into like minded enclaves, each claiming a monopoly on good ideas. I'm sick to death of this 'I'm right, everyone else is wrong' blather from the politicians to the cashier at the local Target. None of us is right about everything! And even those who are wrong about one issue, aren't necessarily wrong about everything else!

Take a moment and really, honestly listen to those you disagree with sometimes. Most  Liberals are NOT neo-socialist nut jobs! Step back from your own opinion occasionally and think about it from the other side to see if it really makes sense or if you're riding a wave of pure, knuckle-headed emotion. Because sometimes you'll be surprised to find that you're spewing cross-eyed-badger-spit rather than the insightful political commentary you thought. Don't assume someone is an idiot just because they are a Democrat or a Republican. I guarantee you that there are nut-jobs in every group! Stop using labels like 'Liberal' and 'Conservative' like insults.They denote a political viewpoint, not an indication of intelligence. Once you start hurling insults and derogatory comments, everyone goes on the defensive. When that happens, all meaningful discourse stops and any chance of actually learning anything ends. There are a lot of really smart people out there and not all of them occupy your political orbit. Doesn't make their ideas any less valid or any less likely to be right.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Live and Let Live, Damn it!

I have a very simple philosophy about life. I think people should be able to do whatever they want, with whomever they want, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else or infringe upon another person's right to do the same. Seems simple to me. Seems logical to me. So why is it that people, who are in no way affected by the actions of another person or group simply must go out of their way just to get pissed off about it?!

Whether it's homosexuality, clothing, hairstyle, sexual kinks, theology or any other personal decision, there are always way too many people who've gotta stick their noses in just so they can declare that it's 'wrong'.  I was just skimming an article about Chaz Bono, formerly Chastity, who is in the midst of a sex change from female to male. I didn't think too much about it aside from wishing 'him' well. I noted that the site had comments available and couldn't resist taking a peek. The first comment I see starts off, "I am not judging anyone here. Whatever blows your hair back. If she thinks she is a man more power to her . The fact still remains though, she is not a man, she is a woman who mutilated her body." What the hell?! First, why did this person seem to feel the need to read an article about something they obviously aren't comfortable with and then go out of their way to say how wrong this was?  Look, if you don't like the idea of sex changes, may I suggest that you don't read stories about them? What Chaz is doing has no effect on this person. Why do they feel the need to get involved and spout their opinion?

I have a very short fuse with people who can't just let others live their lives as they see fit. Life is screwy enough without having strangers tell you that you're doing it all wrong. Take gay marriage. I have no clue why anyone feels the need to oppose this. Nobody's trying to force anyone to marry a homosexual. Don't approve of gay marriage? Then don't get married to a homosexual! It's as simple as that. Otherwise, shut up and worry about your own life. How can two people loving each other POSSIBLY be bad?! Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? The only reasons I've ever heard to oppose gay marriage are either theological or vague 'it's not right' blather. I listened to Mike Huckabee try to explain why gay marriage was wrong for 5-10 minutes on The Daily Show one night. He couldn't come up with anything other than vague biblical references and that it was 'unnatural'. As to the biblical side, if there is a God, then He/She will certainly weigh in directly at some point before or after death. He/She certainly doesn't need some self righteous ass pretending to speak for Him/Her! And the 'natural' debate is nothing but hypocritical clap-trap. Women voting was considered 'unnatural' for a while too, as I recall. Natural is whatever is considered by society, at the time, as the status quo. It has no connection with what is right, wrong or natural.

We all have a right to be upset by whatever bothers us. I'm not arguing that. And if we're debating societal or political ideas, then by all means, get involved. But if we're dealing with personal, sometimes intimate, issues that have nothing to do with us we should just keep our mouths shut and walk away. The First Amendment may give us the right to babble incoherently about things that aren't any of our concern, but common sense and basic good manners should inspire us with the wisdom to shut the hell up.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Proof of Entropy

Way back in early 2004, when I first started playing with a blog, I wrote a piece titled 'The Entropy of Capitalism'. Positing that Capitalism is constantly in a state of entropy. In other words, that without careful attention, it will naturally spiral into corruption and chaos. After the last year of financial ups and downs, I went back and re-read it. I found it just as valid now as it was then. Maybe more so. Certainly we have even more examples of how wrong our financial system can go in a short period of time.

I have always heard, from the Conservative side of the aisle, that the 'Free Market' is the way to go. That we should setup some basic, minimal guidelines and just let corporate America manage itself. After all, the Free Market will adjust. Right? Yeah, sure! I think we can finally put a fork in that particular bit of idiocy. Let's be clear. Capitalism runs on one thing, and one thing only . . . Greed. That one vice is the fuel that makes the whole thing work. Now, it's easy to say that greed is good and inspires people to work and push harder and that's true to a degree. But only to a point. Beyond that point it truly becomes one of the seven deadly sins.  And that is the problem. It can be deadly. Greed is a creature that will happily begin devouring itself and only discover the problem as it bleeds to death. And this is what our entire financial system is based on. Just look at Wall Street, everything is based on quarterly profits and growth. Quarter over quarter and year over year. Fail to keep your growth rate solid and, even if your company is stable and profitable, your stock will plummet. More, more, more. Now, now, now! Tell me how this system can be trusted? It's a gambling addict that we're told can be trusted to walk past the Bellagio with a $100 in his pocket.

Need examples? Junk bond collapse in the '80s. WorldCom. Enron, Maddoff, Mortgage crises, and this is just off the top of my non-economist head! Over and over this supposedly self-regulating financial system has attempted to devour itself. Either with monster corporations doing ridiculously stupid things or entire sectors of the economy succumbing to temporary insanity. Or in the case of Maddoff type incidents, people who are happy to destroy the lives of others, just to add to an already bulging bank account. Enough is NEVER enough. It might be different if these implosions only hurt those who took the risks, but the reverse is often true. In many cases, the masterminds behind these financial nightmares are little more than inconvenienced when things go south. These are the people who already have millions in personal wealth and iron clad, platinum parachutes. Thus allowing them to get out with only a slight tarnish on their reputations to show for the damage they've caused. Meanwhile, everyday people, i.e. the ones that do the actual work that generates corporate profits,  see life savings and jobs vanish almost overnight.

We would all like to think that the government might be of some use in reigning this in, but it's also part of the problem. Money has been corrupting politics more with each election. Campaigns that once cost candidates hundreds of thousands or maybe a million dollars now require tens of millions just to be in the running. Where does all this money come from? It certainly isn't from individuals, or at least not the majority of it. It's coming from corporate America. Individual companies and entire industries are dumping obscene amounts of money into the coffers of political candidates. Explain to me how this cannot provide a corrosive and corrupting influence on local and federal governments? How can a candidate not feel beholden to a corporate lobby that dumped massive amounts of money into their 'war chest'? It sure wasn't donated out of generosity. They expect 'their' candidate to support and protect them. Let them slide when they are under scrutiny and push through bills that benefit them. Now you might say that this is no different than any individual might want. Theoretically this is true. But how many families can inject a million dollars or more into a campaign and support dozens of highly paid, full time lobbyists? Do you note the imbalance?

The problem is that these corporations hold ridiculous amounts of sway on our political system. Totally swamping any grass-roots citizen movement. One of these groups might demonstrate and inspire letter writing campaigns to clean up pollution in a river, but how much chance do they stand against a huge chemical company who's spent decades cultivating close relationships with dozens or more members of Congress? Exactly. Experts can smile condescendingly and explain that Capitalism is a financial system and not a political one. But the truth is that this distinction is becoming more blurred every year. And any argument that a company represents thousands or tens of thousands of workers is, ridiculous. A person's job is not their entire world view. For example, do you really think every service member supports the war in Iraq? Simply working for a company doesn't mean you support the policies of the Board of Directors. The reality is that a corporation's millions are really only put into play to represent the top executives and perhaps the major shareholders. Essentially an Oligarchy. A relatively small group of elites controlling the revenue output of a multi billion dollar corporation. Not exactly what I'd call Democracy in action.

In the late 19th century, Lord Acton gave us one of those truisms that are as unyielding as gravity itself. "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." And in America, money is power. In this country, enough money can fix or cover up almost any problem. And enough money can turn pretty much any head. We see it over and over in the news. And we all know that what we see is only the tip of the iceberg. It's only when they are caught that we even know about it and you and I both know that only a fraction are actually being caught.

As the current healthcare reform debate rages, it's surprising to no one that many politicians who are fighting hardest to stop reform are the ones who've gotten huge financial injections from the Health Insurance Industry. I'm not claiming that anyone who got a check from Etna is an insurance company drone, but how can you trust anything they say or do when you know they took a huge donation? Maybe they are completely ethical and just standing up for their core beliefs, but the seeds of distrust have been sown and their motivations will now always be in question.

Today, top executives in the major financial corporations make seven figure salaries with bonuses that sometimes exceed their entire yearly income! These are the people who made and approved the decisions that led to the most recent, global financial crisis. These, supposedly, intelligent financial minds managed to do something criminally stupid and cost the world economies dearly. But did it hurt them? A few, maybe. But the vast majority can go on about their days, just as they did a year ago. All the risks they take are with someone else's money. If they do well, they get bonuses that dwarf the LIFE EARNINGS of the vast majority of Americans. If they screw up, even as massively as they did this time, the worst most will face is that they might not get their bonus this year. They'll just have to get by on their paltry million dollar salary. Where is the motivation to properly weigh risks? Why wouldn't they take huge gambles, when they know they have nothing to lose? Sure, some poor schmucks who agreed to loans they should never have been offered in the first place will lose their home and declare bankruptcy. So? Not someone that lives in his neighborhood! Nobody he knows!

This is not a system that can police itself, much less be trusted as the bedrock of our nation. In fact, I hesitate to trust any of these clowns with my lunch money! Many conservatives would like you to believe that the free market will always self-stabilize. And in a vastly macro view, maybe there is some truth to it. But from that same vantage, families and individuals are just buried in a pile of numbers. There's nothing on the balance sheet to show how lost homes and life savings destroy the lives of those who've worked hard for what they have. These are the kind of people conservatives like to call the 'Real America'. But every little 'correction' of the vaunted, unregulated, free market rings out with the sound of thousands and sometimes millions of broken lives and families. And once again, these same conservatives can step down from the lectern and go home to their secure lives and happy families. Upper middle-class, and in many cases affluent, families with comprehensive health insurance and no mortgage worries. I suspect this might alter one's perspective on life's priorities. Just a little bit.

So what am I saying? Am I calling for the end to Capitalism and a headlong dive into Socialism? (Real Socialism this time, as opposed to the phantom kind that so many uninformed Americans are whining about currently.) Of course not! For better or worse there are too many pluses to just discard it, even if that were possible. But Conservatives in particular and everyone in general need to wake up to the reality of our financial system. Capitalism is like riding a tiger. As long as we stay in the saddle and keep our wits about us, it's a beautiful thing! But if we let our attention wander, even in the slightest that lovely creature will eagerly devour us whole. It's time to stop looking at Wall Street through greenback glasses. I know how exciting it is to gather up the money as it rushes into the system, but sometimes that's an indication that the boat is sinking. The financial system and it's Las Vegas swagger needs to be bounded by checks and balances. We need a tight, intelligent framework of laws and regulations to childproof our nation's financial system. Because, make no mistake, in many ways these companies and individuals cannot be trusted unsupervised anymore than a two year old can be trusted with a match. Just like a child, these supposedly smart adults will become so mesmerized by all the shiny coins that they will completely ignore that the house is on fire.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Learning the Hard Way

I was checking mail in a little used, secondary account, and noticed something in the 'Spam' folder. Since these can sometimes be legitimate emails I took a look. The subject line read: "DEAR FRIEND CAN I TRUST YOU".  I don't know about you, but when a stranger says that to me, I start verifying the location of my wallet and look for available exits! All I could do was roll my eyes. This all but screamed out 'SCAM', but curiosity as to the content of the message convinced me to open it. It was, essentially the same scam that has become famous, or infamous if you like, for many years and referred to as the 'African Bank Transfer Fraud' or 'West African Scam', among other names.

It's really an amusing read. You have the bits of French mixed in, such as the date: "jeudi 22 octobre 2009," to give it that old colonial flavor. There is the slightly broken english, to indicate it's this person's second language. There is the vaguely plausible tragedy that leaves $14 Million unclaimed. The financial bit is of course, wildly implausible, but he states that he is "a banker by profession in BURKINA-FASO, WEST AFRICA and currently holding the post of manager in account and auditing department in our bank." So I guess he's trustworthy, right? He offers a 60/40 split of the money with you, which makes sense. After all, he's making the offer, he should get the larger share. Only fair. And all he's asking is for some fairly simple information. Full name, Age and Sex, Contact Address, Telephone & Fax number and your Country of Origin. See, not even asking for any financial info!

My first thought, after laughing for a bit, was to wonder why this scam was still pinging around the internet? One site I found claimed that losses to this scam approach a Million dollars a day in the US. This family of scams has been around for years. It's hard to imagine anyone who hasn't gotten at least one of these emails at some point. And yet the scam continues. This can only mean that, every once in a while, someone is actually responding. As incredible as that is for me to believe, it's the only explanation I can come up with.

So who are these shrubs that take this seriously? I don't mean to sound cruel, but if you are gullible enough to fall for this kind of ham-handed scam, then you are in serious need of a reality check. I can cut slack for an individual who is mentally challenged in some way, but for the vast majority of people there is no excuse. This isn't about being generally trusting or skeptical. This is about engaging your intellect beyond the idle setting. It doesn't require a PH.D in international finance to recognize how ridiculous this offer is. A banker in a West African country wants to split $14 Million with you? Really? And it makes sense that he picked YOU out of billions of other people around the world? And it doesn't strike you at all odd that he doesn't just keep all $14 Million for himself? If he can keep 60% of it, why not the whole thing?

What it all comes down to, is that sometimes the only way for a person to learn is to get burned. I would like to believe that people wouldn't be taken in by something like this, but obviously some are. So all I can say is, while I hope nobody loses serious amounts of money, if that's what it takes to learn to think first, then that's what has to happen. I certainly don't advocate looking at life and assuming that everyone is out to get you, but you have to keep your wits about you. Especially with the plethora of internet scams loose in the wild. When a stranger, or someone you barely know, offers you something wonderful, it's time to step back and think. As the saying goes, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Subject Matter

What to write, what to write. This is the question that tries men's souls. Or not. OK, it vexes mine. (Hey, how often do you get to use the word 'vex' in day to day conversations?!) I have generally felt that I need to post more weighty sorts of things to this space. Usually longer and often politically charged treatises of a serious nature. The problem with that is that I need some significant issue to write about and it takes a while to put it together in a way that seems well thought out. Though I realize that family members might disagree on the "thought out" point, at least on the political issues.

That brings up the other issue. With the political ones, I risk being disowned by my family for my, apparently, wildly naive and liberal ideas. Never quite understood the 'naive' bit, but everyone has an opinion. And I know that when they say 'liberal', they mean idiotic rather than the Oxford English definition, but again, it's an opinion.  The point being, I probably shouldn't do too many politically themed pieces in a row, so as not to rile people up too much.

But I don't want to just tell you about my day either. I think that would be rather boring, not to mention narcissistic. Not that I'm adverse to a little self aggrandizement, but that probably shouldn't be my main subject matter. And there is the very serious danger of making myself look stupid rather than good. And who wants that? Well, I don't, anyway.

So please bear with me. I'll try not to bore, but at the same time try to avoid political overdose. And as always, please feel free to comment and let me know what you think.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Age & Wisdom

The old saying that with age, comes wisdom is an interesting thing. Like many of these gems, it's both true and an over simplification. You certainly gain wisdom with age. How useful that wisdom is and how much you are actually able to apply it, is certainly up for debate.

I remember that when I was a kid, I looked at my parents and couldn't figure out how they knew so much. They seemed to have the answer to every question. Now I've reached and probably exceeded their age when I was a kid and I've discovered something startling. I don't really know what I'm doing. No, really! It's quite the revelation at 40 some odd years old. I still don't know what I want to do or how to get there if I did. Shouldn't I have gained some level of wisdom by now? I would think I deserve at least a minimal Wisdom bonus just for 'time served'. It's only fair, after all.

This begs the question, how clueless were Mom and Dad when I was a kid? Were they just making it up as they went along? If so, I'm impressed with their skill at hiding the fact as well as their ability to come up with the answers. There are times that I'm quite sure that I have failed to even approach their level of wisdom, at a comparable age. I shudder to think what minimal information any child of mine would get from me! Might be just as well I'm offspring-less.

I'm not saying that I've learned nothing in my 40+ years! With the number of mistakes I've made, I'd have to have picked up something. Just pure law of averages. But the irony is that what I've learned is unlikely to be useful to me in the future, since I learned it after the fact, and anyone I know who might benefit from this info is unlikely to listen. (Kids these days!!) Humans are like that. We don't like to take someone's word for anything. We much prefer to walk into the wall ourselves, then, while holding pressure to our bleeding foreheads, think, 'Wow, that is tough to walk through!'. This is probably one of humanities bigger flaws. Somewhat below killing people for being different and somewhat above failing to signal when changing lanes.

I certainly remember hitting my mid twenties and having the epiphany that Mom and Dad were right about much of what they told me when I was growing up.  All the advice that I ignored suddenly looked so obvious all of a sudden. But did I suddenly hang on their every word, like a modern Oracle of Delphi? Nope. Like most everyone else I continued to walk into walls. So I'm not really sure if I've gained any real Wisdom in life.  I guess all I can do is plug away and continue trying to discern the brick wall before I actually hit them. So far, my record is less than stellar, but on the other hand, I'm still alive!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Religious Wisdom from Jimmy Buffett

After posting my last entry, I was listening to a Jimmy Buffett playlist when I was struck by a verse from the song 'Fruitcakes'. Seemed to bear on what I had just posted. So here's the relevant verse that shows Jimmy's lyrical wisdom:

Religion! Religion! Oh, there's a thin line between Saturday
night and Sunday morning. Here we go now.
Alright, alter boys.

Mea Culpa Mea Culpa Mea Maxima Culpa
Mea Culpa Mea Culpa Mea Maxima Culpa

Where's the church, who took the steeple
Religion is in the hands of some crazy-ass people
Television preachers with bad hair and dimples
The god's honest truth is it's not that simple
It's the Buddhist in you, it's the Pagan in me
It's the Muslim in him, she's Catholic ain't she?
It's the born again look its the WASP and the Jew
Tell me what's goin on, I ain't gotta clue

Monday, October 5, 2009

All in the Details

To start off, let me be clear. When it comes to religion, I will often, jokingly refer to myself as a 'non practicing pagan'. Partly that's to indicate that I'm not a member of any particular religious order. It's also, I will admit, a bit of a slap to organized religion in general. This isn't to say I don't respect individual faith, whatever variation that faith follows. After all, nobody will know for sure what's what till we shuffle off this mortal coil.  Having said all that, can someone please explain to me why there has been, and continues to be so much animosity between the various monotheistic sects?! Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, and the seemingly 150 flavors of Protestant.

Look, I'm coming at this from the outside. I have no Catholic, Muslim, Jewish or Baptist agenda.  But I am amazed at the amount of distrust and friction between all the monotheistic faiths. And I don't get it! Really, I don't. Here's what I see. A whole slew of faiths that all believe in a single God. Correct? So they can all agree there's one God/Supreme Being/Universal Force, right? Sounds like on the most important point, there's full agreement! I mean, it doesn't matter what you call your God. Whether Yahweh or Allah or just God. Like Florence, Italy and Firenze, Italia. Different name, still the same city. So there's obviously no issue there!

The problems seems to start when you get to the Prophet v Son of God level. I'm not going to even pretend I am especially knowledgeable about the pantheons of the various faiths. But as I understand it, one of the big points that seems to set otherwise sane, people's brains on fire is the whole Jesus thing. Was he the Son of God, or simply a prophet? As a purely intellectual exercise in theology, I can see where you might want to debate it and quote this or that relevant passage. But come on, really? This is a huge deal in the grand scheme of faith? Every sect that believes he is the SoG can dig up things to support it and every one that doesn't can dig up just as many references that support the other side. So here's the question that would get me excommunicated, if I was Catholic anyway. Does it really matter, outside of an intellectual exercise? No matter which view you take, you'd have to agree that he's at least on God's board of directors! Does it matter if he's the CEO or only VP in Charge of Human Moral Enlightenment? Either way, isn't he's still your boss! And wouldn't you have to assume that any memos that come from him are at least approved by, if not actually copied & pasted directly from God's original email? Again, seems like it would only really matter to the bored theologian.

Then we get to the real minutia. All the rites, ceremonies and whatnot that are part and parcel with organized religion. We'll leave aside the fact that a lot of these were borrowed from historical pagan ceremonies in the interest of attracting more followers. I just find it hard to believe that God is going to give you the one way ticket to Hell, because you ate the wrong thing on the wrong day of the week. Or prayed in the direction of Melbourne instead of Mecca. Seems to me, the born again pagan, that if God loves His people, then I doubt he's going to strike them down for enjoying bacon on their cheeseburger or not wearing their church approved undergarments. I understand tradition, but when tradition becomes sacred it usually starts weaving wildly towards the edges of reason. Next thing you know we're burning people at the stake because they don't perform their sermons in Latin or don't trim their beards in the approved manner. To me, this seems like having capital punishment for parking in a loading zone.

I realize that there is more to some disputes and animosity than this. As the very accurate saying goes, 'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. And is there any greater power than that over your follower's souls? There have certainly been, and continue to be individuals who use faith as a cloak for the most base of human motives. We've seen that lately in people like Osama Bin Laden, who wave a Muslim flag yet is more interested in anarchy and power than anything theological. And humanity's bloody history provides many excuses for people to shroud vengeance in the righteousness of faith. But there is still a lot of disdain and arrogance well outside these examples. Like those who talk of America as a Christian nation and can barely tolerate any other religion. America is not a Christian nation. It is a Secular nation. And that, in my opinion, is one of the reasons it is a great country and has remained stable for over 230 years. Faith in the personal sphere has much to offer. Faith in the political sphere is a recipe for disaster.

In my personal, and predominantly secular, opinion, I think it's best to follow the old saying about keeping it simple. And in Faith, the 'simple' part is a belief in one Supreme Being. Period. That is the point where all monotheistic faiths meet and agree. It's the point where every Jew can agree with every Muslim and every Mormon can agree with every Catholic. And isn't this single point, the most important one? Is it just human nature to ignore commonalities and focus on differences? Look at the Catholic v Protestant split, almost five centuries ago. Both Catholic and Protestant sprang from the same history, the same stories and the same basic faith. But somewhere along the way a few disagreements on ceremony and flair erupted and soon thousands were dying at the hands of people who they had more in common with than not. Maybe I just don't 'get it'. Maybe there is some plane of enlightenment that I have yet to attain. If so, please educate me. Because all I see are people bludgeoning each other to death over turns of phrase and interpretations of interpretations of secondhand translations.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Thinking Inside the Box

I've noticed, over and over, that there is a big difference between people who work in a technology field, such as computers and those who are consumers. By 'consumer' I mean anyone who is not interested in how something works or who doesn't really put a lot of thought into the details of a device. They just want to use it. You know, the vast majority of the population. I've listened to a lot of people who write and opine on technology and I'm struck so often by how out of touch they can often be from the mass of consumers.

For example, I was listening to a podcast that featured one of the more well known names in the world of Apple's technology, Ted Landau. He has spent decades writing about Apple's computers and other products, in general, and Macintosh troubleshooting extensively. He and the host were discussing the new iPod Nano, that now has a built in video camera. Landau was speaking about how so many ordinary phones nowadays have built in video, so why would the video in an iPod Nano be a big selling point? It's a good example of someone 'in the know' who has analyzed this from the tech point of view, but completely missed the consumer view. However, I don't think video is standard on a majority of phones on the market right now, much less the majority of those currently in use. But in the world he moves in most often, where he's surrounded by techie types who often have the latest gadgets, I'm sure he sees video on phones all the time. Hence, it must be on most people's phones, right?.  But I suspect the reality is that the vast majority of cell phone users don't have video on their phones. Not to mention the percentage who may have it, but don't remember/know that they have it.  Also, lets not forget that many consumers only use their phones as just a phone. He is also completely forgetting the 'Want' factor. Consumers often buy things, not because they need it, but because they just want it. Because it's new or cool. Remember, if everyone only bought what they needed, our economy would be a fraction the size it is. America, and all market driven nations, derive their wealth from 'Want' not 'Need'.

Another example are the proponents of Linux or Unix based computers. Those who live in the world of Linux can't understand why everyone isn't using that operating system on their home computers. They see all the benefits, such as the operating system being essentially free, all the low cost and free software and the fact that you aren't locked into a proprietary system like Windows or Macintosh. (Apple's OS X operating system is actually built on a Unix foundation and can run many Unix/Linux based apps. Though the graphical interface and such wrapped around that foundation is proprietary.) They like to tout how many months and years their systems go without having to reboot. Impressive as these things are, they completely ignore the consumer. They're thinking like the people they are, knowledgeable and tech-savvy. They ignore the reality that is the other 80% or more of the population. Yes, the operating system is essentially free, but it's no easy thing for Joe Consumer to install and setup. Yeah, you can download all kinds of applications, free of charge. But again, you have to know what you're doing or follow very detailed instructions to install and configure them. These are things that seem like no-brainers to those in the Linux/Unix world, but not at all to those outside it.

I've run into this myself during my tenure in the desktop/network support arena. I sometimes had to give myself a quick reality check when I made assumptions on what was obvious and what was not. I've certainly found myself thinking that a particular client 'should' know a certain piece of information. And perhaps they should, but my expectations often have little in common with reality. So I generally run my conversations through a buffer, in a manner of speaking, and do a quick edit for jargon, acronyms and the like. Kind of weird to have the live edit running in the background, but seems to work. Also have to remember when setting computers up or working on them in general that many things that seem normal for me to do, just confuse the average user or cause them problems.

The bottom line is that Techies, and those in a similar positions, have to occasionally take several steps back and look at things from the consumer viewpoint. They need to remember that many, probably most, lack much of their specialist knowledge. Knowledge that gives them an unbalanced view of what the rest of the world may know or think. And this applies not just to tech fields, but any profession really. From desktop support to politician, lawyer, doctor, electrician, carpenter, among others. It's not about thinking down to someone else's level, it's about thinking outside your own box. In these cases, more often than not, the problem is yours in assuming, not theirs in understanding. Just something to think about the next time you're wondering why someone would want 'X' item or doesn't understand 'Y' instruction.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Long Week

I must apologize for the delay in my next post. Figures that I would make my grand statement about "at least one a week" only to miss that mark almost immediately. Something about best laid plans and all, I suppose.

I had a stressful week and therefore blogging wasn't at the top of my list of things to do. But, worry not! You were worried, right? I have four posts in progress even as I type this. I'm hoping to have one polished and posted by the end of the day. Oddly, I'm not sure which one. Go figure.

Anyway, if you've stopped by looking for my brilliant [cough!] musings, be patient, I'm back on the keyboard!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Open Letter to the President

Dear Mr. President,

I realize that you want to find a solution to the Healthcare issue that includes input from all parties. You want to find a consensus. I respect that. I respect your desire to create true, bipartisan legislation. It's a noble idea and speaks well of your character. Particularly the tenacity you've shown in sticking to it. But there are times when we have to accept that bipartisanship will not work. We have spent months now, trying to engage in a dialog. To find middle ground. And it's been worthless. A dialog only works when both sides are willing to sit down and work for a solution. 

Let's be honest, the Republicans never even walked in the room. Instead of approaching the discussion with an open mind, they have come with a political agenda. That agenda is, first and foremost, to stop you from passing anything of substance. Period. Exclamation point. Think about it. They gain absolutely nothing from this Administration succeeding. Even to the smallest degree. Yet they have everything to gain from even the tiniest failure. Second, as the party that has always championed the corporate right to do virtually anything that isn't actually illegal, they don't want to see the, extremely powerful, insurance companies threatened in any way. As soon as you set healthcare reform up as a major Administration agenda item, you painted a target on it. It doesn't matter what the Bill, if one is ever actually produced, says. A large percentage of Republicans will oppose it. Not because of what some obscure provision states, but because 'President Obama' supports it. The massive losses the Republican's sustained in the last election has backed them into a corner. And they are fighting, not for or against a particular bill, but simply for survival. No Republican congressperson will ever be re-elected by touting a vote in support of a 'Democratic' Healthcare plan. This is an ugly truth, but it is a truth nonetheless. And one you must face.

Then we have the Democrats. Your own party. And I'm sure you entered office with every expectation of having their support. This is understandable. You won solidly. This would indicate that you won, not just the Democratic affiliates, but also a significant percentage of moderates and even some of the more liberal Republicans. Basically, you came into office with the full support of both the Left and the Center. So you certainly should have expected predominantly positive support from the majority of these groups. But you don't have it, do you? That's because the Democrats have always been a fractious lot. They stand together when they must, to survive. But when the crisis is over, they fly off in every direction like a flock of pigeons. Only to then cluster nervously in tiny, discordant factions. With Democrats in 'control' of Congress, it's sad that it's the Republicans who are in control of the Healthcare debate. And have been from the start. Your party has, in it's euphoria over their victory last November, sabotaged any benefit that might have been gained from it. They are like an army that solidly defeats an opponent, then gets so drunk in celebration that they allow the opposition to capture them all the next morning. The Democrats won a battle during the last election, but if they don't stop celebrating soon, they'll ensure their loss in the next one.

This is why you find yourself where you are today. You started, during the campaign, with some good ideas for healthcare reform. Ideas that obviously connected with the masses, based on your solid win in the election. But it's all coming apart, slowly, but surely, isn't it? Day by day you are having to drop item after item. Not in a compromise to find a middle ground. Not due to logical discussions of what can really work or make a difference. No. You are losing them, one by one, as the plan is pecked to death by sound bites, lunatics and lies. And I can feel your frustration, even some 500 miles from DC. 

But you, and those Democrats that support you, have to take a significant share of the blame. You must take a deep breath, look in the mirror and see your enemy. With all due respect, Mr. President, you've dropped the ball on this for one simple reason. Overestimation. You overestimated the American public's ability to listen to intellect over emotion. You overestimated their ability to withstand smoke & mirror parlor tricks and to shrug off fun house level scare tactics. You overestimated the ability of your own party to stand together and the willingness of the Republicans to set aside political considerations and deal in good faith.  It is past time that you looked yourself in the eye, Mr. President, and accepted that you made a mistake. 

Once you come to terms with this, it's time to do what you should have done from the beginning. Step up to the microphone and explain your proposal. Not in the context of a speech to a joint session of Congress. That is virtually pointless, sad as it is to admit. As proven by your Republican heckler, the Republicans in Congress are not your allies. They spent the whole speech 'Tweeting' their disagreement to anyone who would listen. And the Democrats are so lost to their individual schemes and alliances as to be useless in building anything approaching a solid front.  What you have to do and what you should have done from the beginning is to take control of the debate! I respect your desire for consensus. But it's not Congress that you need to convince. They aren't listening anymore anyway. You have to convince America! You have to fight the ignorance and lies with Fact. Too long you have allowed your opponents to control the debate, by carefully crafted sound bites and sweet smelling bullshit. Speeches, inspirational  or not, that tout the vague outlines of your plan will never be able to compete with shouted phrases like, 'Death Panel" and "The government between you and your doctor." Yes, they are gross distortions at best, but if they are broadcast with enough volume and vehemence they will drown out all the logic and reason in the world.