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Archive for October, 2008

There are a couple of interesting sayings about history. One of them is: “History repeats itself”.  Another one, closely related and penned by George Santayana,  is: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The economic history of the United States is now in one such process of repetition as our economy and stock market continue to melt.  Ben Bernanke, a student of the Great Depression and Chairman of the Federal Reserve, has taken significant steps to try to avert a repetition of the Great Depression that followed in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929.  He has already drastically reduced interest rates. With rates now close to zero, this is little more that he can do.  Treasury Secretary Paulson has also advocated taking major economic actions and has quickly acted to save the investment banks (which are now bank holding companies). It seems that he has also learned something from history, although probably not nearly enough.

If there is one person who history has blamed for the depression it is the Republican President at the time, Herbert Hoover.  Hoover is blamed, not so much for what he did, but for what he did not do. He sat back and watched as the stock market slid and the banks collapsed, over a period of about three years.  The stock market fell to an eventual value less than 10% of what it had been at its peak, and over 10,000 banks failed.  Unemployment went up to 25%.  Many businesses ceased to exist.  Unemployed people were standing in bread lines to get food.  Hoover did nothing because he believed that the capital markets were self-regulating and that no-rules capitalism would always correct itself.  Despite his own record in his earlier years of being a government interventionist, when he became President he had come to believe that a hands-off policy would be the best for the economy.  History has shown him to tragically wrong, and by the time he left office the United States was deeply mired in economic chaos and hardship.

We are at a point now in our economic history that, in many ways, is similar to where we were in 1931- our stock market is now about halfway to the bottom. We have an ineffectual, conservative, government, steeped in the Republican, feudalistic philosophy of trickle down economics. Our government believes that if we can just repair the damage to our big businesses and banks then everything will be OK.  George Bush and his wealthy advisers stubbornly cling to their self-serving, failed, economic beliefs and have no effective plan to restart the economy that for the past several years had been surviving only by the economic churning of a real estate Ponzi scheme.

Despite the catastrophic failure of Republican feudalism,  John McCain still deeply believes that the correct order of things is for the United States to have a small, ultra-wealthy class from which all things trickle down to the ordinary man (should I say peasant?).  He is a man who, if elected to be President, would do absolutely nothing to correct the imbalance of our tax system that so greatly, and catastrophically, favors the ultra-rich.  He is fundamentally a stingy man who would cut taxes even more for the rich if he could. He would tax the health care benefits of the middle class, and he would drastically cut Medicare which provides the sole source of medical insurance for many of America’s elderly.  A cold and uncaring man, given more to fighting wars than reaching out and helping people in need, he is certainly the Herbert Hoover of today.

On the other hand, Barack Obama has come forward with a new vision – a New Deal, so to speak. He will spend massive amounts of money to create a high technology effort to produce modern forms of energy that will make us self reliant and in the process he will create millions of new jobs for the middle class.  He will provide better health insurance for all and work toward greatly improving our schools – a critical step if America is ever to succeed in today’s economiy. He will pay for this by revising our tax code so that the wealthy and the ultra-wealthy will once again pay their fair share of taxes. He will eliminate wasteful and corrupt spending, (like the Iraq War), and he will impose new regulations on Wall Street that will prevent the greediest of the greedy from ever again recreating a state of economic deregulation such as we have had, that, in the past, resulted in the stock market crash of 1929 and now has resulted in the stock market crash of 2008. Barack Obama is essentially the Franklin Delano Roosevelt of our day.

It now up to us to choose who shall lead this country out of this economic quagmire.  Will we learn history’s harsh economic lesson or ignore it?  Will we choose the ghost of Herbert Hoover or the spirit of FDR to lead us out of economic ruin?  History has already clearly shown which of these is the right man for the task – all we have to do now is vote.

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A few days ago Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, said that he was shocked that our financial system has broken down.  He said that we are in the midst of a credit tsunami and that, “I still do not understand exactly how it happened”.  In short, our nation’s, and indeed the entire world’s economy, has been threatened with disaster because of bad loans, and Mr. Greenspan doesn’t understand how this happened.  Over the long years that he was Chairman of the Fed he oversaw the creation of a system of financial operations whereby the banks and other financial institutions would regulate themselves.  Greenspan believed that they would be careful in their decision making because if they made ill-advised loans they would suffer the inevitable financial loss.  It seems that this didn’t quite work. Our financial institutions were only too happy to make idiotic loans to people who had utterly no ability to repay them and in the process the world’s financial system is on the brink of collapse because the world’s financial institutions all wanted to play this new game.

Mr. Greenspan professes not to understand how this could happen, so I thought I would give him a little help.  The cause of this seemingly strange behavior by the world’s financial institutions was not “irrational exuberance” –  that is Alan’s term for us little investors who get duped into making dumb investment decisions and then get taken to the cleaners by the big boys at the investment houses. I would say the proper term to describe the behavior of the financial institutions would more appropriately be “insatiable greed”.  Given that, by their very nature, bankers are greedy, I use the term “irrational” to denote those loans that had interest rates so high that any intelligent person would know they couldn’t possibly be repaid. So we have mortgages and credit card debts with excruciatingly high interest rates, which periodically get adjusted higher and higher, and we have the poor people who got saddled with these mortgages and credit cards who had no idea they had entered credit hell.

This, however, was only step one for the greedy banks. They’re not completely stupid, in fact they seem to be a lot sharper than Mr. Greenspan. These banks knew that these really shaky loans were really hot potatoes so they protected themselves by selling the loans as soon as they made them to some unwitting bank on the other side of the world. This was made easier by lumping a whole bunch of these loans together and then slicing and dicing them and repackaging them so no one had a clue as to which package had which loan.  All that was left was for the ratings agencies to certify that these were AAA-rated, mortgage-backed, securities and everybody bought them.  Of course these buyers also bought insurance for these securities from insurance companies like AIG who called this insurance a “credit default swap”.  There was also a host of “derivatives”, i.e. other things the banks could sell that derived their value from these loans – things like options and futures. The market for credit default swaps and derivatives was a hot one too, and the best thing about the whole thing was that there were (thanks in part to Mr. Greenspan)  no regulations because the banks were policing themselves – out of their own self-interest (despite the fact that they were selling these worthless investments as fast as they could). It’s a shame that Mr. Greenspan can’t get his arms around this…

Well, of course the inevitable happened. The people who got in and got out early made enormous fortunes and the poor “stuckies” who got left holding the worthless pieces of paper went broke. They were basically cheated by the fast talking, crooked, financial institutions who sold the loans and the derivatives to them and forgot to mention that the loans were made to people who couldn’t possibly repay them.  So much for self-policing. Someone should tell Mr. Greenspan that this is a good example of why we have regulations – it’s because there are plenty of greedy people out there who have no internal moral compass and who will do or say anything to cheat you out of your money. A lot of these people seem to choose careers in finance.  These people need to be watched all the time, Alan. The have insatiable greed and they think they can beat the system and they don’t care who gets hurt as long as they make a fortune – and a lot of them did.

This isn’t only Alan Greenspan’s fault.  It’s also the fault of Senator Phil Gramm who wrote legislation that eliminated many of the banking rules that had been created during the Great Depression because everyone knew that the financial institutions were a bunch of crooks then. It’s the fault of Senator John McCain who has made a crusade out of deregulation, whose ideal form of the marketplace is no-rules capitalism.  It is the fault of all the “pure” capitalists, like George Bush, who fail to believe or even care that pure capitalism is like a car with no speed controls, no brakes, and no steering wheel. It is the fault of bankers and financial people who believe that pure capitalism is a religion that you must believe in or else you are not an American. But mainly, it is the fault of the intelligent people who knew from the beginning that the wheels would eventually fly off. They knew they had to flip the loans as soon as they made them. They knew they could make a quick buck, but then they had to get out fast. They knew that the outcome would eventually be a disaster for the world’s financial systems that they had poisoned with millions of worthless loans.

If Alan Greenspan truly wants to understand what happened he need only look at the really smart people who profited from this debacle, the people who knew what would happen when they made and sold worthless loans, but eagerly participated anyway out of their irrational greed, and out of their complete lack of morality or caring what happened to anyone else in the world.  It was these no-rules capitalists who knew exactly what they were doing who created Alan Greenspan’s credit tsunami.

It’s such a shame that poor Alan doesn’t understand, isn’t it?

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John McCain is fond of saying that Barack Obama wants to “share the wealth”. By this he means that Barack’s tax plan is unfair and that it will result in taking money from the wealthiest people in America (like John McCain) and giving it to the less wealthy (like you and me).  He and Sarah Hockey Puck then go on to rant about Socialism and Europeans, etc.  There is little doubt that one of the fundamental causes of the current economic meltdown is “no rules” Capitalism – the sort that John McCain, George Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Alan Greenspan have advocated over the past thirty years.  There is, however, a deeper underlying factor that has led to the financial horrors that many Americans are now facing: it is the 401(k) plans that so many of us have come to depend upon.

The term 401 (k) refers to a particular section of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service code.  The groundwork for our present 401 (k) system was initiated in 1978 when the IRS allowed employees to not pay tax on deferred income.  However, it was not until 1981 when Ronald Reagan was President, that the IRS allowed salary deductions to go directly into a 401(k) account without any tax being paid on the contribution. This was the beginning of a massive injection of new funds into the U.S. stock market – investments that were being made by ordinary U.S. citizens, i.e. amateur investors. If you look at a chart of the Dow Jones average for the past hundred years you will see many interesting features. One of these is the spectacular climb in the Dow between 1925 and 1929 – probably something Alan Greenspan would call irrational exuberance. You might also notice that after the stock market crash in 1929 that the Dow did not return to its peak of 380.330 until 1954, twenty five years after the crash.  A strong period of growth begins in the middle of World War II as U.S. factories supply arms to most of the world. This growth continues throughout the recovery period after the war until about 1966.  We then enter an ocillatory period of about fifteen years of essentially no growth in the Dow. Then we come to 1982 and some companies begin providing 401 (k) options to their employees instead of defined benefit pension plans (in defined benefit plans the company guarantees you a specific retirement income, and the company assumes all the risk of providing your pension).  By 1984 there was almost $94 billion in 401(k) funds invested in the stock market. By 1990 there is almost $385 billion of 401 (k) money in the stock market. By 1996 there is about $1.06 trillion of 401 (k) money in the market. In 1998 there is $1.54 trillion. By 2002 there is $1.8 trillion. By 2003 there is $1.9 trillion.  Based upon these numbers we might expect the total value of 401 (k) contributions invested in the stock market today to be about $4 trillion dollars. If we look at the total loss in the U.S. stock market capitalization since the market peaked almost exactly a year ago we see that the market has lost about $7 trillion dollars in value.

This is another way of saying that your 401 (k) wealth has been shared – probably in a way that John McCain approves of.  A lot of the experienced investors bailed a year ago when they saw the meltdown coming. These experienced investors are mostly the wealthy or the analysts who work for the wealthy. They have sold at the top, or near the top, and have pocketed an amount equal to a bit more than the total amount of 401 (k) investments in the market.

Wanna play “share the wealth again”? John McCain has another great idea for you: how about instead of the government providing you a “defined benefit pension plan” i.e. Social Security, you just invest all your Social Security contributions in the stock market – just like a 401 (k)? Pretty good idea, huh?

If you look back at the chart that shows the performance of the Dow for the past hundred years you can see that beginning about 1998 the growth in the market – probably due largely to the injection of funds from 401(k) accounts – has slowed down and we get into a “double bubble” economy. First we have the tech bubble, then the housing bubble as people chase temporary increases in stock value. It looks like the 401 (k) accounts are no longer a big enough annual contribution to continue to automatically propel the economy upward – which of course explains why John McCain wants to put your Social Security money in the stock market and provide another great injection of funds into an otherwise tired stock market. It’s all part of Johnny’s plan for sharing the wealth.

The thing is that neither Johnny nor George Bush give a hoot about why Social Security exists in the first place.  It was created during the Great Depression after people got wiped out in the stock market crash of 1929 and then found that when they reached retirement age they had absolutely no income.  Social Security is there to protect the average person from the avariciousness of the wealthy who would try to entice the innocent worker to gamble their life savings on the stock market. These scrooges have already been successful in doing this with the creation of the 401 (k) plans and now they want to do more of this by privatizing Social Security. John McCain and the rest of his wealthy cronies are not against wealth redistribution, in fact he and they have always been very active proponents of it -it’s just that it is your wealth that they want to share, not theirs.

Come to think of it, they’ve been pretty successful at it too, haven’t they?

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The economic news today is not good: consumer spending has dropped off significantly and the retail industry is therefore suffering. This news is apparently the cause of today’s massive sell-off in the stock market. People are not buying because they are uncertain of their own economic future and are unwilling to spend money on anything other than necessities. This drop in purchasing leads to a drop in business profits which eventually will lead to job reductions and the loss of family income.  The whole cyclic process becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because economies operate on confidence, and the lack of confidence in an economy can lead to a recession or worse.

Several months ago, President Bush created a stimulus package whereby taxpayers could get a rebate of up to $600 per person.  Millions of checks were sent out, but not everyone spent the money. Approximately half the money was deposited into savings accounts and therefore did not have the effect of massively increasing retail sales.  Senator Obama has been calling for a second stimulus package of $1,000 per person, but how could the government ensure that the recipients would actually spend money, and therefore stimulate the economy, instead of just banking i- t which might seem to make a lot more sense for a lot of people right now?

I think there is a straightforward solution to this problem that, if employed, would ensure that essentially all the money would be spent in the desired amount of time.  I would suggest sending every authorized recipient of the stimulus a $1,000 debit card with a two month expiration date instead of a check.  This debit card would not be capable of obtaining cash from ATM machines and could only be used for purchases by using the recipient’s PIN number.  When the people realize that the value of the card goes to zero in two months they will definitely spend the entire value of the card soon, thus injecting large amounts of cash into retail businesses.

I would expect that if the government announced a plan like this we might immediately see a stabilization of the stock market.  Then, as people start spending the money this may well perform the  “priming of the pump” function that is needed to start getting the economy back on track.

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There are times when I just don’t understand our American news media. I find myself wondering if some of them have morphed into nothing more than propaganda arms of the Bush administration and the others have become the propaganda arms of the opposition to the Bush administration.  Whatever happened to just straight reporting of the news? Here’s a case in point: did you hear that the Russian government conducted a massive test of its intercontinental ballisitic missiles on Sunday? The launches were part of the largest Russian war games in the last twenty years. Did you hear or see anything about this on television or in our newspapers? Why has the American news media given this a big “So What”?

On Sunday, the Russian military conducted the launch of three long range Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), two of which were launched from submarines. One of these traveled 7,145 miles (a new distance record according to the Russians) and landed in the mid-Pacific region, near the equator – the first time the Russians have ever launched a missile to that location.  The news of the near simultaneous launch of three nuclear-capable ICBMs was reported by the French News Agency, Agence France-Presse (AFP), and contained quotations by Russian Defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, a columnist for the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.  Felgenhauer wrote that “This was a dry run for a war with the United States.”

Wait a minute!  I thought that George Bush had looked into the eyes of Vladimir Putin and saw that they were on the same wavelength. What ever happened to detente? Could it be that Vladimir Putin looked into George Bush’s eyes and didn’t like what he saw?  Is this why Russia is now overtly forming a military relationship with Venezuela? Is this why two Russian Tupolev-162 strategic bombers, each of which can carry 12 cruise missiles armed with 200 megaton nuclear warheads, carried out exercises with Venezuela last month? What is going on, and why has our news media decided to give these events essentially no coverage?

According to the AFP, Russia, and Vladimir Putin, are alarmed about the U.S. plan to place our most sophisticated missile tracking radar and interceptor missiles on the border with Russia while claiming that they are  really there to protect against an attack on the U.S. from Iran (which has absolutely no ICBM capability).  Putin is also, no doubt, aware of the Bush Doctrine (the one that Sarah Palin is clueless about) that states that the U.S. reserves the right to make a preemptive strike against a country if we think we are in imminent danger.  Not only did Bush define this doctrine; he used it to attack Iraq – half a world away from the U.S. Imagine the worry in the U.S. if Russia had created a similar doctrine and used it to justify an attack on Canada or Brazil. Would we be a little concerned?

Vladimir Putin seems to be afraid – very afraid, and from the way the U.S. is behaving under George Bush, he probably should be.  George Bush showed that he has no regard for the United Nations or international law when he attacked Iraq.  George Bush launched a massive, unprovoked, and unjustified attack on Iraq and now he is placing a very advanced missile tracking radar and ICBM interceptor missiles on Russia’s doorstep. He has declared that he has the right to preemptive strike and abandoned the long standing policy that kept the peace for many years between the USA and the USSR. It was called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), and while there were tensions between the countries, MAD worked because neither country endorsed the principle of preemptive strike.  Until now.

The recent ICBM tests by Russia clearly show that our relationship with Russia has deteriorated to a new and very dangerous level, a level seemingly beyond the comprehension of George Bush and beyond the interest of our news media.  I realize that our presidential election process generates news every day and the world economic meltdown (directly attributable to the now thoroughly-discredited, Republican theory of trickle-down economics) is on everyone’s mind.  However, doesn’t it seem that someone should be paying a little more attention to Putin’s growing anxiety?

If you look into his eyes, he looks pretty serious.

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I suppose that John McCain already feels that he has enough problems with Congressman Lewis implying that he reminds him of George Wallace. Congressman Lewis said yesterday that John McCain’s campaign was “sowing the seeds of hatred”.  It was pretty tough talk, and it was no doubt due to the incendiary speeches that Sarah Palin had given that essentially proclaimed Barack Obama to be a terrorist – or at least a terrorist sympathizer.  Sarah’s remarks were without question outrageous and dangerously misleading.  They were unworthy of a candidate for Vice President of the United States.

As John McCain tried to defuse the growing anger among his supporters, all of it caused by Sarah’s hateful remarks, he found that he was being booed by his own crowd of screaming rednecks! The crowd was on the verge of becoming a mob.  It was a bad day for Johnny.  Now, Congressman Lewis comes along and says this all reminds him of Alabama and Governor Wallace in the 1960s.  George Wallace is remembered as being one of the worst racial bigots in American history. The thing is that Johnny only has himself to blame for unleashing the Alaskan Pitbull upon polite society. And now, of all things, Johnny has to listen to my complaints too.

John McCain responded to Congressman Lewis’s remarks, not by saying a single word of apology for his campaign’s scandalous and atrocious behavior, but by saying that Lewis’s remarks about hatred that Sarah was preaching were “shocking and beyond the pale”.  It’s not bad enough that McCain doesn’t feel obliged to apologize for inciting a mob mentality, but now I’m wondering: does he even understand what he is talking about?

You see, Johnny, when you say “Beyond the Pale”, I don’t think it means what you think it means. At least I hope not.  “Beyond the Pale” is really a very old expression, and I don’t think it is usually taught in our schools.  It’s just sort of something you pick up through conversation, like some other words in our langauge.  You know what I mean?  So, in order to really understand this expression, we need to take a step way back in time for just a moment.

In the fourteenth century, England’s control over Ireland began to slip, and the part of Ireland that remained loyal to the king of England shrank to a rather small area in the vicinity of Dublin. In order to repel the incessant attacks by the Irish, a wooden palisade, or high fence, was built around this area by the English soldiers. English society and government then continued to flourish inside the palisade, which came to be known as the Pale.  (Many of today’s Irish still refer to this area as the Pale.) Most of the Norman lords, who had originally teamed up with England in the conquest of Ireland, had become disenchanted with England.  They had taken up Irish customs and language, and became “more Irish than the Irish”. They had gave up their loyalty to the crown, sided with the Irish, and resided outside the Pale.

A new expression then came into being in the English language to describe any sort of outrageous, illegal, uneducated, or uncivilized behavior. The new term to describe such behavior was to say that it was “Beyond the Pale”; which is to say that someone was either Irish or that they were acting like they were Irish.  So now I am in a bit of a quandary. Should I interpret John McCain’s remarks to mean that Congressman Lewis’s statement was shocking because he sounded like an Irishman? Or should I assume that John McCain just doesn’t know the meaning of the words he is using?

The simple fact is that the expression “Beyond the Pale” originated as a discriminatory and derogatory term to describe the way of life of the Irish people and the Normans who had adopted the Irish lifestyle. It has remained a part of our language for many hundreds of years and it gets a lot of use by people, whom I am sure, have no idea of its actual meaning and think that it just means “outrageous”.

During the past fifty years, American society has made a concerted and laudable effort to purge certain racially motivated slur words, many of them associated with African Americans, from our lexicon.  The expression “Beyond the Pale” is no less racially motivated or insensitive; it has just been around a lot longer that the newer words that America has now essentially banned from polite use.  I think it is time to stop using this ancient insult against the people of Ireland as a part of our normal speech. Just because it is a really, really old derogatory term does not excuse its use. The right thing to do would be to simply abandon this little phrase and let it die. We don’t really need it, do we? Aren’t there plenty of other ways to say “outrageous”?

I don’t know if Johnny is listening to me or if he regularly reads my blog. Probably not, and I suppose that, ultimately, Johnny can keep on saying “Beyond the Pale” if he wants to.  I certainly can’t stop him.

But I’ll always wonder one thing when I hear him use it: does he think it means what I know it means?

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Aren’t you getting just a little tired of Sarah Palin?  It might be different if she had something intelligent to say once in a while, but she doesn’t.  She just goes on and on with her mud-slinging, muck-raking, in-the-gutter type of campaigning that apparently has served her well in Alaska.  Her latest campaign ploy tries to paint Barack Obama as some sort of shady, terrorist associating, unknown quantity that might even be dangerous. If you ask me, it is Sarah Palin who might be dangerous because she has so little regard for the truth and seems to have only a passing acquaintance with honesty and straight talk. I thought that perhaps I could help Sarah out and fill in some of the blanks for her since she is apparently too lazy to find out for herself.

Barack Obama was born in the United States of America, in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1961. He is a United States Senator from Illinois.  His father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., was born in Kenya, and his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was born in Wichita, Kansas. His mother was of Irish-American descent.  His parents were divorced when he was two years old and he was raised by his mother until she died from cancer in 1995. At that time his maternal grandmother, Madelyn Lee Payne, took over his care. Madelyn’s husband (Barack’s grandfather), Stanley Armour Dunham, was a veteran of World War II and died in 1992. He is buried in Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. One of Barack’s great-grandfathers was named Falmouth Kearney, an immigrant from Ireland who arrived in New York in 1850, a refugee from the Irish famine.

Barack Obama went to the first grade through the fourth grade in Indonesian public schools and then he returned to the U.S. He spent most of his childhood growing up in American households that had both Irish-American and English-American values. He went to the exclusive Punahou School in Honolulu as well as Columbia University and Harvard University. He spent a good part of his early adult life helping the poor people of Chicago.

For comparison, let’s look at John McCain. He is a United States Senator from Arizona.  He comes from a decidedly military family. He is self-described as Scots-Irish, i.e. Ulster Scots who were imported and “planted” in Northern Ireland in the 17th Century by the English government as part of their successful plan to subjugate Ireland.  His father, Admiral John S. McCain Jr., was Commander in Chief Pacific Command (CINCPAC) during the Viet Nam war. His grandfather, Admiral John S. McCain Sr., had several commands in World War II. He participated in the battles of Guadalcanal and Okinawa.  His great-great-grandfather, William A. McCain of Mississippi,  was a private in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and was killed in battle. He had been a slave owner with fifty-two slaves who worked on the family’s 2,000 acre plantation in Carroll County,  Mississippi.

Sarah continues to speak at rallies strongly implying that Barack Obama is a terrorist or a terrorist sympathizer. I wonder if she also thinks that John McCain advocates slavery?

I hope these very short biographies help her to understand the truth. Both of these men are 21st Century United States Senators, and both are ardent supporters of the United States, its people, and its constitution.  However, they do see things differently and they have different solutions for the problems that confront the country and the world. But the patriotism and fairness of both men is beyond reproach.  If rabble-rousing Sarah can’t figure that out, or if she is simply Hell bent on distorting the truth and misleading the American public simply to win an election,  then she has no business pretending that she is capable of being Vice President of the United States, nor is she worthy of the title and its responsibilities.

Perhaps it’s time for her to do the right thing for America and step down.  It would be the patriotic thing to do.

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