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Archive for December, 2009

Here we go again.  Another lunatic tries to blow up an airplane and the Department of Homeland Security once again responds in a way that can only make one wonder if they give an IQ test for employment that specifies not a minimum IQ, but a maximum IQ – maybe around 60.  This sad department of the federal government, first made infamous by its completely inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, and then made even more infamous by its failure to recognize or own up to its own failure in Katrina, is now in knee jerk response mode to the recent attempt to blow up a Delta/Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Unfortunately for the people at Homeland Security, and thus unfortunately for the American people, this agency – and the government as a whole, with all its CIA, NSA, FBI, DIA, and who knows what other “intelligence” agencies lurk in the shadows of DC –  doesn’t believe in following up on tips from people who know we are in danger. Like for example: the father of the lunatic who tried to blow up the plane told the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son was a nut job and that he feared his son was about to do something radical. So, the lunatic gets on the plane with no problem – no questions asked, just “welcome aboard”. Homeland Security is asleep on the job – as usual.

Hours later, as the plane was preparing to land, the guy gets out of his seat and go to the aircraft lavatory – apparently to rig up the bomb in his pants.  Well, as everyone knows, his pants caught on fire but he didn’t blow himself up in his seat. The plane landed safely and now everyone is saying the same thing: what happened here? Who’s minding the store? Apparently not the Department of Homeland Security.  However, in an effort to convince us that they are not stupid, but instead that they are actually morons, Homeland Security has quickly instituted a rule that you can’t get out of your seat to go to the bathroom an hour before the plane lands. That’s because the lunatic did go to the bathroom an hour before the plane landed.

So here’s a question for the morons at Homeland Security: suppose another lunatic does the same thing but instead of getting up to go to the bathroom an hour before landing he gets up an hour and fifteen minutes before landing? Or what about an hour and a half?  An hour and forty-five minutes?

Is this the best that these inept people can do? Couldn’t a bunch of fifth graders come up with better ideas?  Couldn’t a bunch of sixth graders done a better job of responding to Hurricane Katrina?  Couldn’t a bunch of eighth graders have figured out a way by now (eight years after 9/11) of communicating information about threats to America? Doesn’t anyone remember that the government had plenty of information about Al Qaeda before 9/11 but the various departments all had their own turf and they fiercely defending that turf in the unending DC turf wars? Don’t they recall that it was these turf wars that prevented the sharing of information between departments, and that was one of the major reasons that Al Qaeda was successful on 9/11? Haven’t they figured out a way yet for crucial information about an imminent threat to the security of the U.S. to be relayed to the appropriate people in the government?

Apparently not.

And that is the continuing fiasco and failure that we inappropriately call the Department of Homeland Security.  The blind leading the blind.  Just remember, the next time you fly on an airplane – you can’t go to the bathroom.  That’s Homeland Security’s plan for keeping you safe.

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Emotions have run high on both sides of the issue.  Is access to health care a right, a privilege, or a commodity?  The answer, it seems, depends upon where you stand.  Today, as the U.S. Congress continues to thrash through the process of considering the health care bill, accusations fly from both sides, with Senator Joe Lieberman caught in no man’s land, trying to please both sides but pleasing no one – an army of one.  The left-most side of the debate has already turned on their leader, President Obama, declaring that he has misled, misdirected, and misfired.  Dire predictions abound about 2010 and 2012.  On the extreme right, Republicans chortle with glee, knowing they have stymied a process that might have led to low cost health care for most Americans.  It’s hard not to be emotional about this whether one is on the left or the right. Health, after all, can be an emotional issue. But, then again, so is money.

There can be little doubt that we are a nation divided on this issue. There may be a majority of people who want to change the present health care system. There may be a majority who favor a public option or expanded Medicare or some other version of a government supervised health plan. But it apparently isn’t a two-thirds majority or a three-quarters majority. And that is the problem for this Bill.  Our Constitution was written to ensure that the majority rules, but not the simple majority.  The way the system is supposed to work is that 60% of the people (i.e. 60% of the Senators who represent the people) can make laws – but 51% just isn’t enough. There are not 60 Senators who want this health care bill.  It is that simple. It also seems that there are not 60% of the people who want it either – maybe 55%, maybe 59%, but it doesn’t look like 60%. So, it’s not going to happen – at least not in its present form.  That is the way our government works – that is who we are.

The question we need to ask is this: what does this say about the American people? Somewhere around 30% of the people don’t have and can’t afford health insurance.  Many people go without critical medical care because they can’t pay for it.  Many people die because they can’t pay for the medical care they need. We all know that. It also seems that pretty close to half of us are OK with that too.

It’s just who we are.

We Americans like to say that we believe in freedom – in many ways that belief defines the essence of America: freedom to be what you want, do what you want, say what you want. It is also the freedom to not do things, to not help someone, to not pay someone else’s bills, to not take care of strangers. It is the freedom to look the other way.  We do that all the time.  Many people may have forgotten by now, but there  was a tragic case of murder that occurred in New York City in 1964. A young woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death at the entrance to her apartment building. She screamed that she was dying. A lot of people watched. No one helped.  A few years ago New Orleans was inundated by Hurricane Katrina.  President Bush flew over the city and looked out the window of his airplane at the drowning city as he flew by. He didn’t help. The U.S. government didn’t help. The people drowned.

It’s just who we are.

It is indeed ironic that it is the Republican Party that has led the fight against health care. It’s ironic because so many Republicans are staunch “Christians”. Yet, standing by and watching people suffer and die is the opposite of Christianity, isn’t it? Isn’t that a value more to be attributed to the Roman Empire where people were thrown to the lions just for fun? I must admit, I don’t understand the mental gymnastics that people have to go through in order to call themselves Christian and at the same time vehemently and violently oppose health care for the sick and dying people of America.

It’s just who we are.

In the end though, we have to recognize one truth.  Regardless of how strongly we feel about this issue, we as a people, have an agreed upon method for creating rules. We have an organization we call Congress that makes the rules on our behalf. The process is complex and involves a lot of horsetrading, money changing hands, posturing, threatening, and cajoling. Money counts in our system. Money buys influence in our system.  The average citizen’s only voice is his single vote in the elections. We voted. There is now a majority of Democrats in the Senate, but not an overwhelming majority. We made it that way.  We could change the system. We could eliminate lobbyists and payoffs.  We could eliminate the deal-making and the lying. But we don’t.

It’s just who we are.

In the end, whether a watered-down health care bill passes or it doesn’t, it is because this is what we, as a people, voted for.  We have this form of government because we want it and we don’t want to change it.  If we don’t choose to provide health care for the poor and unfortunate people of America it is simply because we don’t want to do so. That’s what this all means.  It isn’t President Obama’s fault. It isn’t Joe Lieberman’s fault.

It’s just who we are.

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OK, let’s face it.  There can be little doubt that the Earth is warming. The northern poles are melting. Mountain glaciers in Peru are melting.  Glacier National Park in the U.S. is losing its glaciers.  The Earth is warming – but the real question that causes such controversy is this: Why? Why are we warming up and what can be done to stop it?

Enter Al Gore.  Until Al Gore lost his bid to become President of the United States and began a worldwide crusade to spread the inconvenient truth that the world was warming, global warming wasn’t much an issue for a lot of people.  Eventually, Al received the Nobel Peace prize for his efforts – not the Nobel Prize in physics which one might have thought would be more appropriate since it is hard to see the connection between alerting everyone about global warming and peace. On the other hand, sounding the warning about a potential global meltdown (literally) sounds sort of like physics, doesn’t it?  The ways of the Nobel Committee are strange indeed.

Perhaps just as strange, or maybe not strange but just sort of uncomfortable, is the fact that Al Gore is cashing in on global warming.  Yep, Al’s in the Green tech business. He got in on the ground floor, so to speak, and now that he has the world all fired up about warming up, big Al stands to make a fortune from his investments. Now, that’s OK, I suppose, but doesn’t that sort of sound like a conflict of interest or something like that?  It’s like Al telling everyone that the world is going to run out of milk soon, so you run out to buy milk while you can and you find out that Al Gore now owns all the cows.  It just sort of makes you uneasy.

The problem with global warming is that there are a lot of things being said (or not said) that can make you uneasy.  For instance, remember when you were in high school and you were taught that green plants take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen?  OK, maybe you don’t remember, but trust me, you were told.  So could it be that maybe the increase in CO2 in the world is at least partly caused the destruction of the rain forests in South America and Asia? Not to mention the destruction of the forests in America and Africa. Did Europe ever have forests? Probably, but we forgot what they were called. So – why not just plant trees? Wouldn’t that solve the problem?

Apparently biology changed a while ago, because the New Scientist magazine published an article saying the planting trees would just make things worse because in actuality trees give out more CO2 than they take in. So, it’s probably a good thing we destroyed all those rain forests.  On the other hand, the New Zealand forestry industry published some equations that indicate that trees give out a lot less CO2 than they take in.  So, do we believe our high school science teachers and the folks in New Zealand or do we believe the New Scientists?

It seems that the people in Copenhagen who are attending that big meeting up there believe my science teacher because they have just come up with an agreement to preserve the forests and fields and swamps because they are so crucial to absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. OK. Good. So why don’t we go further? Why don’t we begin a massive tree planting program to begin to replace all the trees that have been cut down over the past couple of centuries by people who simply exploited the land for their own personal enrichment?

And why is it that Al Gore never talks about Global Dimming? Is it because he is unaware of it or is it another kind of inconvenient truth? The simple fact is that manmade (and completely unintentional) global dimming has been going on for years and it has greatly mitigated global warming. So where are the physicists in all of this? Why is the podium monopolized by politicians who know less than my high school biology teacher? Is it any wonder that Sarah Palin isn’t so sure about global warming? Is it any wonder that so many people just aren’t so sure about the whole thing, even though there are a bunch of islands in the Pacific that are slipping beneath the waves right now because the sea levels are rising?

The problem with global warming is that it presents a massive business opportunity and every charlatan, crook, and politician  who thinks they can make a buck from it, one way or another, is clamoring to get up on stage.

Could we just let the boring scientists speak so we could just get the facts?  There is no doubt there is a problem, but there is a lot that can be done to mitigate or even reverse global warming, but leaving the solution to politicians is almost as bad as……………   as………………….   why, it’s almost as bad as leaving the problem of U.S. health care to the politicians.  They’ll never get it right.

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For America’s capitalists, it is the 800 pound, unacknowledged gorilla in the room.  China has the most successful economy in the world today. Despite the current worldwide economic meltdown that has caused the worst recession in America since the Great Depression, China has not had a recession.  The great engine of the Chinese economy has chugged along, continually churning out the goods that we have all come to rely on for our everyday needs – now that, it seems, almost nothing is made in America anymore. So, does this mean that Communism is superior to Capitalism? (I can almost hear John McCain and Sarah Palin choking at the very thought – not to mention the entire Republican Party. How can we even ask the question, they would say.  Isn’t it unAmerican to even ask questions like that?  I’m sure it is in Sarah Palin’s world.)

The question, however, is a valid one. What is going on here?  If capitalism is such a great economic system and communism is such a vile system why is China on top and not the U.S.?  In case you missed it, because the U.S. press tends to ignore economic successes in China, it was announced yesterday that China now has the world’s fastest high speed train. It travels at 380 km/hour (236 mph). Even more notable, China plans to build 42 more high speed rail lines in the next three years, covering 13,000 kilometers of track (about 8,000 miles).

If that isn’t enough, consider this: China is the world leader in Green technology. Even as President Obama is talking about starting a green tech initiative, and even while he is hoping to recharge our economy by major investments in green tech, China is the world’s largest producer of wind turbines, and it is also the world’s largest market for generating power from the wind.  It has 10 gigawatts of newly installed wind power generation capacity. So how much wind power generation capacity does the U.S. have? About 1/10 of China’s capacity – not much more than a gigawatt.

China is what the U.S. was.  China is the merchant to the world these days. China is the banker to the world too.  China has demonstrated capabilities in space that rival the U.S. Apollo program.  China recently hosted the Olympic games and put on a show that amazed the world.  So – do all of these accomplishments mean that communism is a superior economic system compared to capitalism? Not necessarily.  Consider for a moment a much smaller country that also made major economic advances in the past – a country that is primarily Chinese, yet is far from being a communist country. I am referring to Singapore. As small as China is large, Singapore was once a part of Malaysia. An island state, and now an island nation, Singapore was not much more than a port city – a stopover for merchant ships plying the far east trade routes. However, that all changed with the election of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.  Lee took control of Singapore and it’s economy.  Far from being a communist, Lee was a capitalist – except that he believed in planning. For Lee, uncontrolled capitalism made no sense. Under his guidance, Singapore’s economy flourished.  Singapore is now a major hub for international finance, technology, and tourism. Lee Kuan Yew implemented a carefully drawn plan for economic growth – a plan that included strict controls on business practices (as well as lifestyles).

The lesson that can be drawn from Singapore and China then is not that communism is superior to capitalism, or that capitalism is superior to communism when we are talking about economic systems. Both can produce good results and both can produce disasters. The key to success for both China and Singapore has been intelligent, responsible government.  It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize that intelligent design will always succeed over random chaos.  Darwinian economics of the sort advocated by the most right-wing of politicians – every man for himself and let the government just stay out of the way – is a recipe for economic disaster and chaos.  The Neanderthal economic doctrines of Bush/Cheney of  “just let ‘er rip” led to the greatest financial disaster in eighty years.  The lesson we need to learn is that non-functioning, or dysfunctional governments inevitably lead to disaster.  Intelligent, thoughtful, responsible governments lead to success.  The key is not whether the government is communist or capitalist, the key is whether the people who are in charge have intelligence, integrity, and compassion for the people of the country – all of which qualities were lacking in the Bush years.

We are not out of the woods yet. Just one look at Congress shows the problem we face. Obstructionist Republicans in Congress use every trick that can think of to stymie legislation on almost any topic – except war – they like war.  Health care reform that might bring America into the civilized world of the 21st Century is held up so that the Republican cronies in the insurance industry can continue to feed off the people. Never mind that so many people suffer and die without health insurance. Anything for a buck.  Obstructionist Republicans create a situation where almost nothing can get done in Congress and the country is unable to move forward on any major initiatives whether they are related to health or the economy. That is the principle difference between China and America.

Once upon a time we had people in Congress that honestly worked for the “good of the country”. Today, the “good of the country” is a joke. It’s not about the country, it’s about power and control and money in your pocket from whichever lobbyist has the most.  China is our largest creditor. China is our major supplier of consumer goods.  China is growing while we are stagnant.  The reason for this is not the “isms” of economic systems; the reason is intelligence and integrity in government – both of which have been in short supply in our nation’s government for far too long.

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Today, the national unemployment rate is at 10%.  So far, the Obama administration has spent only about $200 billion of the allocated economic stimulus money- about 1/4 of what has been appropriated. One might conclude that President Obama doesn’t have a sense of urgency about the country’s economic situation.  While the President’s attention has been turned to health care and Afghanistan, American’s have continued to lose jobs every month since he was elected – and for many months before he was elected. George Bush was equally unable to create jobs for Americans. Why?

First of all, we need to admit that the U.S. government does create a lot of jobs for Americans. About one half of our entire national budget is spent on defense. So, if you work for Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics or other defense contractors, or if you work at one of the national labs that does defense research, or if you are in the military – Uncle Sam has created your job. The problem of course is that these types of jobs do not create additional revenue. i.e. the only customer, by definition, is the U.S. government.  So the income that people receive from these jobs is sort of like taking money out of one pocket and putting it in the other – the total wealth of the country doesn’t increase – and by the way, for many people, the money to pay for these jobs is coming out of their pockets and going into the pocket of someone else. Remember – that is fully one half of all the money our government spends, and we have been doing that for many years.  It’s a big part of our economy – such as it is.

The rest of our economy is in a shambles.  We all know that.  That’s why we have been depending on a real estate Ponzi scheme to make money for us for the past several years. Now that the bubble has burst, it is pretty clear that we can’t re-inflate that particular bubble anytime soon.  We’ll have to find another way to make money for the part of the population that doesn’t feed off the defense budget.  And this is where the problem lies. This is Obama’s Dilemma.

There are many places we can turn to illustrate the roots of Obama’s Dilemma, but perhaps none are so illustrative of the problem as everybody’s favorite store: Wal-Mart.  The problem with Wal-Mart can be found in their motto: Save Money, Live Better Wal-Mart.  We all like to save money and it is difficult to find any place that sells stuff for less than Wal-Mart, but that is exactly the problem, and it started a long time ago. Next time you go to Wal-Mart see if you can find anything (except food) that carries the label “Made in USA”.

For those of us old enough to remember, we know that once upon a time television sets were made in the USA. So were refrigerators and other appliances; so were cars; so were airplanes; so were clothes; so was furniture. I guess you can see where I’m going here. We, well not exactly we – but the wealthy people who actually run this country and it’s government – found that they could make a lot more money by building stuff in China and India and Mexico and Costa Rica and Egypt and almost anywhere that much cheaper labor could be found. These “Americans” who own the multinational businesses that make our stuff exported our jobs throughout the world. While the American people played Ponzi real estate bubble, the wealthy class exported our jobs. We now live in a multinational economy but the problem is that we can’t compete because our wages are too high.  We can buy, but we can’t sell.

So, while businesses like Wal-Mart and many, many others flushed our economy down the toilet – while they made fortunes for themselves, most Americans were unaware of what was happening. Now we face a hard reality. The jobs are gone and they are not coming back. The bubble has burst and we can’t play bubble games anymore.  We are a bunch of high rollers who have spent our last few dollars and our credit is no longer any good at the banks.  We need jobs but, outside of more defense jobs, the government is unable to create anything that would have much of an effect.

So, President Obama dabbles with Green technology ideas – as if that will put ten or twenty million Americans back to work.  We have cash for clunkers and rebates for first time home buyers and other little tricks that give temporary surges.  It’s like when your car is out of gas and you add a pint of gas to the tank. It doesn’t take you very far. The question we all need to ask is this: can this thing be fixed?  The answer is no – at least not very soon.

Our wealthy “un-Americans” have enriched themselves at the expense of the entire country’s economy.  Globalization has been a boon to some Americans in the short run – but the short run is over – now we are in for a long-term disaster.  Globalization means flattening, that which is high is lowered (that’s us) and that which is low is raised (that’s China, India, and soon to be Africa).  A few of John McCain’s class will benefit but many, many more will suffer and our government has let this happen, slowly, over the past twenty to thirty years. There are many people to blame, but Obama is not one of them.  Even so, he will be blamed if he can’t solve the dilemma.

The problem is that the solution is not palatable to the wealthy, ruling class.  The solution is to scale back globalization.  The solution is to level the playing field via tariffs on imported goods so that American made goods can compete again.  Only then will there be jobs in the U.S. again.  Our economy won’t be healed until we once again build televisions and furniture here. We won’t have stability until we build quality cars in this country that compete in price with foreign-made cars. We won’t have good technical jobs in this country until we have more than one company building commercial airplanes and at least one company that builds commercial ships.

Wal-Mart is not the cause of globalization, but it is the poster child for the siren lure of cheap foreign imports. Our economy won’t be finally healed until the Mom and Pop clothing stores and hardware stores on Main Street can compete fiercely with Wal-Mart. However, that is something that is abhorrent to many, if not most, of our very wealthy Senators and Congressmen, their sycophantic lobbyists, and the hidden oligarchs of our society.

Even so, it must be done, and how to make that happen is Obama’s Dilemma.

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