Saturday, July 30, 2011

Past v. Future

I watched a clip featuring Bill Maher from an appearance on the Lawrence O'Donnell show on MSNBC. I find I agree with him far more often than not and this time was no exception. He made a specific statement that struck me. While talking about the debt ceiling negotiations he noted it's stupid to lump the debt limit with budget deals because the debt ceiling is about the past and the budget is about the future. This seems to nail the issue rather well.

Few will argue that our past spending habits as a nation were flawed, to say the least. Too many short-sighted decisions, most of them completely unaccounted for in the budget, have piled up a tremendous amount of national debt. Some expenditures may well have been necessary, but many were not. Put simply, it was just easier to put it on credit than to bother adjusting our budget to pay for it. Don't get me wrong, there are times when you have to do that, but they should not be that common. So now our debt is in the $14 Trillion range and projected budget deficits are still way into the red. This has to not only stop, but we have to put some plans into place to begin paying down the national debt to a more manageable level. But let's be clear, the debt is the past. Debt: "Something, typically money, that is owed or due." Past-tense. The money is spent, the clothes have been worn and the food has been eaten. No amount of whining, moaning or cuts to current spending will change that. If we didn't spend one more penny on new expenditures, we would still owe $14 Trillion. So let's stop fighting about the balance of our current debt. We owe the money and we have to pay it back, honoring our prior commitments. So let's just raise the limit on a clean, no frills bill and move onto the next crisis!

Where the real debate should be taking place is with the federal budget. This is about future spending and has no place in a debt ceiling debate. This is the messy part. It would be nice if we could debate it without all the partisan crap that has brought the sticky gears of Congress to near standstill. We really do have to look at everything, including the military, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, federal agencies and programs. But this needs to be done with a scalpel, not a hatchet. We want the patient to make a full recovery, not require prosthetics and plastic surgery!

We didn't get into this mess in a single decade, so we ain't getting out of it overnight. We need to approach the problem of the national debt and the budget deficits calmly and rationally. All sides must be willing to give a little. That means looking at entitlement programs for any possible savings without cutting benefits, such as raising the retirement age a few years. It means closing stupid loopholes in the tax code that allow highly profitable companies and fund managers to get special breaks that have no purpose other than to make them richer. It means looking at the military budget, especially drawing down the wars and reducing permanent overseas bases. It also means killing the unpaid for Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy.

I admit I'm not optimistic because these days there seem to be so few reasonable people in Congress. Especially after the November 2010 election debacle which ushered in a wave of uber-conservative politicians who seem to be completely out of touch with reality. Look, we've wasted months arguing about this and accomplished nothing. The debate has even managed to fracture the Republican party itself. The Republican Speaker of the House can't even get his own bills passed without days of delayed votes and arm twisting. And worse yet, he wasted all that time and effort on a bill that was never going to pass the Senate! Bottom line, we have to pay our bills, and meet our obligations, so raise the debt limit with no strings. The budget must be addressed, but not like this. Not in the last seconds before the car goes over the cliff. Stop risking a full blown depression for political leverage!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Wrong Problem

America has a bunch of pressing problems. We have unemployment topping 9.2%, the national debt at around $14 Trillion, budget deficits pushing a Trillion per year and an economy that may have climbed out of the hole, but remains prostrate and panting in the dirt. Now one of these problems is key to solving all the others. No, it's not the budget deficits or the debt itself. It's the economy! As long as the economy is immobile we cannot solve any of the others.

It's easy to try and compare the federal government's budget to a business or an individual's finances, but it's also nonsensical to do so because there are significant differences. If you and I get into debt, our main options are to cut our spending or increase our income by getting a better or second job. Or better yet, both. So far so good, but here is where the paths diverge. For you and I, this is pretty much all we need to do, since we are only responsible for ourselves and immediate family. The federal government, however, must balance the needs of the country and the complex interplay of finances, services and policies that affect the entire US economy. Every cut you make ripples outward across the country and sometimes even beyond our borders. Now when the economy is cruising along, these ripples are fairly easily absorbed with minimal shock. But the more fragile the economy the harder it is for the system to ride out the spikes and dips caused by large changes in federal fiscal policy.

The thing that gets lost in the brain bleeding cacophony of the budget fight and debt 'negotiations', and I use that term loosely, is that none of this happens in isolation. It's all connected. When the economy is bad and the unemployment rate is high, as it is now, it's a bad idea to start cutting federal and state jobs like a madman. This only makes the problem worse by reducing the total jobs available and increasing those looking for work. Conservatives like to pretend that government jobs aren't 'real' jobs, but that's just part of the 'government is bad' propaganda they like to spew. These are real people doing real work. So while cutting government programs, and thus public sector jobs, will indeed reduce overhead costs what's forgotten is that this only takes them off the government payroll and puts them on unemployment. This means more people drawing unemployment checks and more people flooding the job market. So really, you're just moving them from one government ledger to another. Their drop in income will lead directly to more bankruptcies and more foreclosures. This also leads to less consumer buying and thus more pressure on companies who are seeing their sales of goods and services continue to slide. Inevitably this leads to more layoffs as companies hunker down to ride out the storm. Oh, and let's not forget that people out of work and not buying equals less tax money being collected, which makes federal and state budgets even worse! It's a very logical and vicious downward spiral that is often completely ignored in the press and on the Sunday talk show circuit. Partly because it's an inconvenient hiccup to the Conservative narrative and partly because it doesn't fit into a one sentence sound byte.

Yes, we have lots of problems and the debt is certainly one of them. But while it is a problem, it is not THE problem. The debt is not going to destroy anything today, tomorrow or next year. However, not getting the economy moving and getting people back to work only makes the debt issue more intractable and increases pressure on future deficits. None of this should be surprising. This is simple economics. Just basic cause & effect that anyone willing to use that ten pound lump on their shoulders should be able to work out. We don't need more anti-abortion laws or any of the hundreds of other things the GOP controlled House has wasted time on this year! What we need is action to resurrect our economy before it stumbles back into the abyss from whence it came!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Is it Time?

On July 5th an Op-Ed appeared in the NY Times, co-written by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) entitled 'Let's Not Linger in Afghanistan'. They put forth an argument that I've heard summed up as 'declare victory and come home.' These Senators are part of a growing, bipartisan movement afoot in Congress, mirroring the sentiments of more and more Americans, that want to see an end to the 10 year war in Afghanistan. In fact it's one of the few truly bipartisan things going on in DC these days. That in and of itself begs for attention.

We invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, less than a month after in fact, and it made sense to do so at the time. The country was run by a regime that actively, and unabashedly supported and sheltered terrorists who attacked the US and other nations. It was the primary base and training ground for Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda network and was the home of Bin Laden himself. When President George W. Bush announced the invasion to the American people, he stated clearly the reasons and goals.

"On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime."

This we accomplished in fairly short order. We destroyed al Qaeda's support and training infrastructure and forced the Taliban leadership from power. Bin Laden and the bulk of the remaining al Qaeda network were pushed into the mountainous area along the Pakistani border. By December Hamid Karzai was selected as Chairman of the Interim Administration. Six months later he was chosen for a two year term as Interim President before winning the first post-Taliban Presidential election in 2004. So by 2004 Afghanistan was installing a democratically elected government. Fast forward to early 2009 and newly elected President Obama announces an increase in Afghan troop levels, now that we are finally drawing down from the non-sensical Iraq war that had distracted us since early 2003. Obama stated that the addition troops were "necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires." Then in December of 2009 President Obama, speaking at the military academy at West Point, announced a surge of some 30,000 additional troops to "bring this war to a successful conclusion." Finally, on May 2nd of this year, Osama Bin Laden was tracked to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and killed in a SEAL team raid, ending a hunt that actually started in the mid '90s. So here we are in mid 2011, and the President announced the beginning of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, which he had promised from the stage at West Point. But the drawdown will be much slower than the buildup, taking a year to return to the Fall 2009 troop levels of around 70,000. A full withdrawal would not occur till 2014!

So, by the current timetable, over thirteen years after it began and about ten years after the Karzai government took power, US troops will finally leave Afghanistan. By then we will have spent the better part of a trillion dollars, and that's only the direct military appropriations! We may never know what the exact number is, once you factor in all the ancillary costs and pallets of cash airlifted into Kabul that nobody seems to really be able to account for. Even more important than the cash are the lives lost. Over 1500 Americans thus far have lost their lives halfway around the world, averaging over 40 a month just this year, but rising month over month. You can add 920 additional deaths for the rest of the allied coalition. According to The Guardian news, you can tack on another 3800+ Afghan civilians, just since 2007, with numbers also continuing to rise. Don't forget, these are only the deaths. Current US wounded totals exceed 11,000! Then there is the strain on our entire military and their families as they return for tour after tour after tour. Many current American soldiers probably have more time 'in country' than our WWII veterans did. This is not a normal existence, with families split apart for 6 months or more at a time. We are wearing these men and women down, inch by inch. Treating them as if they were inexhaustible and ignoring the psychological, as well as physical, toll that some will never, ever recover from.

I'm just not sure what we're even accomplishing anymore. After ten years we still have only been able to really secure the larger cities. The hinterlands are still just about as dangerous as ever and still mostly outside the control of the central government. Just as they have been for centuries. Intelligence reports indicate that there are likely less than a hundred low level al Qaeda still in the country. The biggest single issue, as I see it, is really the Karzai government itself. Institutional corruption has prevented any deep reforms and undercut any real trust with the Afghan people. This is not a problem that can be fixed by yet another tour by the 10th Mountain Division! We have long since reached a point where all we're doing is keeping the various insurgent groups scattered. We can't eradicate them, any more than the British could in the 19th century or Russians in the 20th. I doubt Alexander had any better luck himself when he 'conquered' Afghanistan over 2000 years ago! The Senators' OP-Ed speaks to the problem succinctly when it states:

"Today, despite vast investment in training and equipping Afghan forces, the country's deep-seated instability, rampant corruption and, in some cases, compromised loyalties endure. Extending our commitment of combat troops will not remedy that situation." [emphasis added]

This is where we find ourselves today. We've spent dearly, in lives and treasure, and in the end we are not even the deciding factor in this equation. In many ways we never were. For the last six or seven years all we've really done is act as Karzai's army. But the problem isn't really military in nature, it's governmental. It's institutional. Afghanistan probably hasn't had a firm central government since the fall of the Persian Empire. Outside the main population centers it's still a tribal system that, aside from AK-47s and RPGs, is little changed from when the British occupied the country over 170 years ago. At least in Iraq there was a national governmental structure, despite the sectarian tensions. Afghanistan has none of this and out in the tribal lands, I'll wager, they don't even want it. We invaded to destroy al Qaeda and oust the Taliban. We accomplished most of this in the first year. All we've been doing since 2004 is desperately trying to hold together a corrupt government that most Afghans don't even trust. A government, in fact, that came off looking very shady in the last Presidential election. 

Look, I understand what everyone is worried about. We're all scared that when we pull out the bulk of our troops that the scattered elements of the Taliban will coalesce into a strong enough force to bring down Karzai and return to power. It is a valid concern, but will things be much different between summer 2012 and the end of 2014? Will the Afghan government be any stronger? Any less corrupt? We are dealing with a culture that seems to almost enshrine corruption and cronyism. A nation that has lived on the opium trade for generations. As I've said on more than one occasion, in the end the only people really in a position to 'win' in Afghanistan are the Afghans themselves. Whether we leave in 2012 or 2014, they are the ones who will determine if the new government stands or falls, not America or NATO. 

It's time to start bringing the bulk of our troops home, not by the end of 2014, but by the end of 2012. Do it for the troops, who have suffered, bled and died for 10 years already. Do it for the Afghan people who have lived with a foreign army of occupation for a decade, good intentions or no, and must be allowed to choose their own destiny. Do it for our economy, which cannot continue to hemorrhage money in the hundreds of Billions while we lay off teachers and watch our infrastructure crumble. Finally, as President Obama put it in his Afghan policy speech, "America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home." Way past time, if you ask me.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Underrated & Still a Favorite

There are a lot of films that have come and gone with nary a whimper at the box office, while at the same time taking a substantial chunk of the studio's money with it. Some, with very good reviews, some . . . not so much. One of the latter is a guilty pleasure of mine, 'The Adventures of Ford Fairlane'.

This fine film, circa 1990, was directed by Renny Harlin, best known for'Die Hard 2' and 'Cliffhanger'. It starred Andrew 'Dice' Clay, a standup comic of some fame in the late '80s, along with a well known supporting cast including Priscilla Presley, Gilbert Gottfried, Ed O'Neill, Robert Englund and Wayne Newton. Not to mention cameos from rock, rap and R&B artists of the time like Vince Neill, Morris Day, Tone Loc and a few brief moments of Sheila E. Clay plays the title role, obviously based heavily on his iconic standup character. A sort of 'R' rated Fonzi-style detective in Los Angeles who specializes in cases involving the music business. Whereas Clay's 'Dice' persona has more of a belligerent edge, Fairlane is more easy going. He may make semi-insulting comments, but they come off as more playful than outright mean. The movie is done in a narrative style, with Fairlane giving a running commentary which both moves the plot along and provides some amusing observational quips here and there.

After an introduction scene, where you get a glimpse into Fairlane's style and job, the plot begins to take shape. Back at his office, Fairlane gets a message from an old pal, now a radio shock-jock named Johnny Crunch (Gottfried), who hires him to find a young groupie named ZuZu Petals (Maddie Corman), though Crunch is quite vague as to who she is or why he's looking for her. Shortly thereafter Crunch is dead and Fairlane is left with the mystery of why and what ZuZu has to do with it all. His investigation leads him into the company of record exec Julian Grendal (Newton), a socialite named Colleen Sutton (Presley) and drags along Fairlane's long suffering assistant Jazz (Lauren Holly). The pacing is good, with little time to get bored. The plot certainly isn't without its holes, but nothing that will likely pull you out of the story. As you'd expect, most of the cast play it pretty straight, allowing Fairlane to drive the comedy elements. There are exceptions, such as ZuZu, who is played wonderfully as a somewhat ditzy, but endearing music groupie who is as clueless about her importance as Fairlane is. Robert Englund provides an over the top performance as a thug with a British accent who is probably not quite 'all there'. Ed O'Neill plays a bafoonish police inspector with a disco fetish and a Fairlane sized chip on his shoulder.

Is this high-brow? Not even close. The closest comparison that leaps to mind is "The Hangover', though Ford Fairlane isn't as tight or polished, if that's the word for it. The dialog is where it shines. There are a lot of great one liners that make me chuckle even after multiple viewings. One thing that helps is that the film doesn't take itself too seriously. This movie will never endear itself to critics, but if you are just looking for a light hearted, if occasionally raunchy, ride with some laughs, I think 'The Adventures of Ford Fairlane' will fit the bill.