Archive for August, 2005

The Thinker

Capitalizing on the 2006 Election

What a difference a year makes. In 1972, the “silent majority” reelected Richard Nixon in a landslide, trumping George McGovern with 520 electoral votes to McGovern’s measly 17. (McGovern only won his home state of Massachusetts and the District of Columbia). Nixon captured nearly 62 percent of the vote.

A year later, at about the same point in his second term that Bush is at now, President Nixon’s approval rating was at 34 percent. According to Gallup, Bush currently has a 40% approval rating. In the summer of 1973, Nixon was embroiled in the worst of Watergate. In the 1974-midterm elections the Democrats, likely a direct result of Watergate fiasco picked up 49 seats in the House of Representatives and 4 Senate seats. In the House, this was only six seats shy of the number of seats that Republicans picked up during the 1994 “Gingrich Revolution” midterm elections. Americans did not need much convincing in 1974 that Nixon in particular and Republicans in general were on the wrong track.

A few months back I detected faint signs that there might be a political shift coming in this country. I no longer am looking for signs. I see lots of them and the consequences are now clear. The timing was premature in the 2004 election but the doubts about Bush and the Republicans were obvious even then. The most liberal senator in the U.S. Senate does not lose to an incumbent wartime president by only three percent unless the public having many second thoughts. The question now becomes, are the Democrats shrewd enough to fully capitalize on the shift that is likely to happen in 2006? If they are then they should be able to easily take back at least one house of Congress.

Sadly, the current signs are that most of our national Democratic politicians remain spineless and cowered. However, to me Cindy Sheehan is a harbinger. The winds of change are blowing and she is riding the first gust of that wind. The polls are clear: the American people have figured out that our war in Iraq is unwinnable. To win, Democrats have to embrace its inevitability too.

Bush’s poll numbers are likely to keep dropping. They will likely hit Nixon’s levels and could go even lower. As bad as Watergate was, the War in Iraq was much worse. Nixon and his cronies committed crimes, but no one died. Thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died as a direct consequence of Bush’s gross incompetence. Bush’s cascading poll numbers should give many Democrats the courage they finally need to come out for unilaterally withdrawing our troops from Iraq. Nevertheless, apparently most Democrats are still feeling very pussy-whipped. In 2002, they were pummeled for openly supporting President Bush on terrorism and Iraq. Despite their subservience, Bush still castigated Democrats as being soft on terrorism. Well, it is payback time.

Democrats need to put the blame for the fiasco directly on Bush where it clearly belongs. If Bush gave no credit to Democrats for supporting him in 2002 then they should cut him no slack today. Democrats need to say it often and say it loud: the Bush Administration and the Republicans who marched in goosestep with him bungled both the War on Terror and the War in Iraq. They simply need to stay on message. Americans are actively listening and these are the words they want to hear.

Yet it is not sufficient to just complain. The Democrats must have an alternative. It is foolish at this point to even pretend that the War in Iraq can be won. The Democrats should demand a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. They should let the voters know that if Bush and the Republicans will not withdraw our troops, they will if put back in power. What Congress gives Congress can take away. It can rescind its resolution authorization of force against Iraq with another resolution, noting that their previous authorization was conditioned on Iraq being a direct threat to America’s national security, which it was not. Moreover, Democrats can say that if put back in power that they will use the power of the purse to make sure the withdrawal happens. The power to make war rests with Congress, not the president. Consequently, the power to stop a war also rests ultimately with Congress.

Then the Democrats will have to say what they would do differently to win the War on Terror. I have a number of pragmatic suggestions, but of course, not all will be politically viable. However, some of them will certainly ring with voters. Securing nuclear stockpiles. Seriously hunting down and tracking those directly responsible for 9/11. Finding then capturing or killing Osama bin Laden. Focusing relentlessly on a real peace between Israel and Palestine. Improving the lives of Palestinians through generous grants that are conditioned on meaningful progress toward non-violence and democratic reform.

If the Iraq debacle were not enough, there will be plenty of other winning issues on which to run. The price of gasoline will not be going down. In fact, gasoline price increases are likely to fuel the first painful inflation we have witnessed in more than a decade. Of course, it will hit the middle class and the poor disproportionately. It will shrink the standard of living for most Americans. Democrats should be advocating for long term solutions. This will show that they have a grasp of what is actually necessary to solve the problem. These include clean alternative fuels and increased CAFE standards for automobiles. In 2006, these will be winning issues.

Democrats simply need to move to where the voters already are. The voters are no longer with Bush or the Republicans. Even in his home state of Texas, Bush can barely eke out a fifty percent approval rating. The voters are looking for mainstream and moderate politicians. They are looking for pragmatic candidates who have viable ideas on how to run our government during these challenging times. Voters know that the Republicans have failed miserably at the task. Unfortunately, it will not work for the Democrats to be Republican-lite in order to win. Given a choice between Republican and Republican-lite, there is little incentive to change the course. Democrats must return to their Democratic roots. Clearly, the Republican Party is not nor has ever been the party that cared about ordinary Americans.

What is old will be new. Just as people in Great Britain tired of Conservative government, the time is now ripe for the Democrats. A living wage will be embraced. Environmental protection will seem sensible. Cooperation rather than confrontation with the international community will be welcomed. To start, this requires the courage to demand the phased and orderly withdrawal of our troops from Iraq.

 
The Thinker

Government is the price of progress

Some years back I read a review of the book Children of the Depression. I purchased the book, which is full of glossy black and white pictures documenting ordinary life for children in America during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The pictures were found in the archives of the now defunct Farm Security Administration. In their raw and unvarnished form, they detail the heartbreaking daily poverty of ordinary Americans living through those times, with an emphasis on how the lives of children were affected.

Both my parents lived through the Great Depression. My paternal grandfather was a civil servant, so my father was only tangentially affected by it. My mother, born in 1920, had her entire life view shaped by being young and in a desperately poor family during the Great Depression. Looking through Children of the Depression, I can see that world through my mother’s eyes.

Here are a few snippets from my mother’s autobiography that gives you some inkling of just how awful and life was for her during this time:

When Dad lost his job, that was the end of meat in our diet every day. Now it was depression soup (a mixture of oatmeal, onions, water, salt and pepper).

How did we keep warm? I’m hazy here but I do believe welfare gave use some coal, but not enough to keep our drafty house warm. We are not proud of this, but we stole some from the trains that would pass near us. A few blocks to the east of us the train had to slow down to make a turn and the older boys would hop atop the coal cars and when they would get within blocks of our house, they would toss coal off as fast as they could. When the train would slow down they hopped off and gathered their booty in burlap bags and carried them home. Things got so bad at times the boys would hop a night train and go out early to pick it up.

There is much more to her story. Her family depended on sporadically available charity clothing and food. She routinely missed the first few weeks of school because she had to earn migrant labor wages in the fields harvesting the crops like sugar beets. Holes in her shoes were left unfixed, and she used cardboard insets instead. Naturally, there was no money for doctor visits, drugs, dental care or therapy. She was just one daughter in a family of twelve supported by an immigrant father. Her father, who emigrated from Poland, dropped out of school after the third grade. During better days, he was employed as a butcher.

Leafing through Children of the Depression, you can see that my mother’s tale was wholly ordinary and one of millions. Many people dealt with much worse than she experienced. While her family’s house was sold at auction, they managed to evade being thrown into the streets. They were eventually able to pay off the back taxes and reclaim their house. Therefore, unlike many in America during the Depression, they did not have to live the vagabond life. Such was life in Bay City, Michigan and much of America in the 1930s.

As bad as the Great Depression was, it could have been much worse. While modern welfare benefits were unknown, there were surplus food and goods that the government sporadically made available for the poor. My grandfather eventually found employment as a laborer helping to construct a bridge over the Saginaw River. This was just one of the many projects funded by President Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress during this period that succeeded in putting many chronically unemployed people to work. The government did not choose to stand on the sidelines while so many Americans suffered so deeply.

A couple days ago, I learned about the Otto Bettmann book The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible! It describes life in the 1880s. By comparison, the Great Depression seems wonderful. A diarist on DailyKos summed up some of the key findings, which include:

FOOD: Adulteration of foodstuffs was problem and conventional practice in the 1880′s. Alum, copper, and sulphur were often added to bread flour for preservatives. Coloring for candy was often toxic, sickening children and adults alike. “Bogus butter,” a mixture of animal fats, calcium, or potatoes (whatever was on hand) was bleached and processed in disgusting conditions and repackaged by merchants and labeled as butter. Canneries operated under filthy conditions, and the process itself often was proven detrimental, through the use of chemicals added to preserve. Slop fed to cows often made the children sick

SANITATION: Cities such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, Helena Montana, Leadville Colorado, generally suffered from putrid conditions. The air stank, refuse filled the streets, garbage and food refuse was dumped everywhere, the waste of humans and animals alike trickled through crowded streets. Unhygienic conditions on the streets were matched by interior conditions in workhouses, orphanages, factories, asylums, hospitals, and farmhouses. Life in the country did not proved an escape from unsanitary conditions; private wells were often contaminated by close proximity to barns, privies, and household refuse. Many homesteaders lived with farm animals in their homes during winter months.

Yes, this was just a bit of the way things were actually like during those glorious, wonderful days of laissez faire capitalism. They must have been wonderful, because I hear modern current conservatives brandishing obsolete slogans like Thoreau’s “the government that governs best governs least”. I have to wonder: we are aspiring to return to days like this?

While that is unlikely, we do see more and more steps in this direction. We saw it emerge in recent times with the election of Ronald Reagan, who appointed people with open contempt for the general welfare. Of course, we also find ample examples of it in our current administration. We see it in its hostility to raises in the minimum wage. We see it in its refusal to create meaningful increases in vehicle fuel economy. We also see it in its inability to acknowledge honestly that global warming is largely a result of human activity. While our president makes inane statements about prosperity like “We’ve got to make the pie higher”, in actuality he is very deliberately making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Because of his tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the rich, when necessary commodities like gasoline rise in sharply price, those of lower incomes bear most of the pain.

Economic conservatives these days seem very much out of touch with reality. For one they seem to assume that liberals and progressives are against capitalism. They think that we embrace unbridled socialism as utopia here on earth. Except for a few liberals on the fringes, this is just plain wrong. Progressives like me understand that capitalism is a vital ingredient in social progress. However, capitalism is just one force that enables the promotion of the general welfare. The other part is government, which has the duty to promote the general welfare.

Centuries of unbridled capitalism have demonstrated beyond argument that by itself capitalism does not lift all boats. Instead, unbridled capitalism gives power to the wealthy. Moreover, by restraining government so that it does not do much to help the general welfare, it perpetuates the class system. Our social security system was created by the government because the private sector could not provide it and it was needed. Nor would free markets ensure that all laborers could earn a living wages. Capitalism does not care a whit if human beings are forced to live in tarpaper shacks or whether communities have modern sewage systems. Capitalism is simply a means that helps to maximize profits for the owners of the company. As is amply evidenced in the hallways of Congress and state legislatures across our country, businesses will petition endlessly to shift the costs, risks and burdens of industry off them and onto anyone else. They call it “being more competitive”. When you hear those words, beware!

Just as unbridled capitalism is not ideal, neither is unbridled socialism. Capitalism is a necessary engine for progress, but it must be constrained so it becomes win-win. Companies need to make profits, but also need to be constrained to ensure some of the profits indirectly improve life for all Americans. In addition, the government needs to give capitalists the maximum freedom to earn those profits consistent with allowing its benefits to affect the commonweal. This is, at its heart, what the economic aspects of the progressive movement are all about. It should not be the least bit controversial. It should be “No duh!”

Economic conservatives need to sober up. Libertarianism is simply not a workable philosophy in our modern world. We need agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, otherwise we are back to snake oil salesmen and unsafe food. We need the EPA, if for no other reason than capitalists need consumers around to buy their products. While there are perhaps some agencies whose missions are of dubious value, the vast majority have survived because they are involved in vital regulation and monitoring. This enables both the general welfare and provides a platform so that entrepreneurial behavior can continue to flourish.

Those who pine for the 1880s are sadly misguided and recklessly foolish. Except for the J. P. Morgans of the world, most of humanity lived short, sad and miserable lives. Ironically, China is becoming a case for why progressive government is needed. While some income levels in China may be creeping up due to largely unchecked capitalism, lifespan is decreasing from the resulting unchecked pollution.

Like it or not we now live in a far more complex world. Unless we all become like the Amish, the combination of increasing populations and quickly evolving technologies will make it inevitable that government will need to expand. If you object then to be consistent, you should give up your computer, cell phones and automobiles, none of which would be as cheap, safe or work as well without necessary and relatively benign government regulation. Like it or not, our complex and modern world and growing government is here to stay.

 
The Thinker

Defying Gravity

When life’s thermals decide to take you into the stratosphere you simply have to buckle up and breathlessly enjoy the ride.

For no particular reason that I can pin down, I have been feeling good. Not just good. Great. Exceptional. I feel full of energy. I feel in very high spirits. Certainly, I have both good and bad days, but lately I have been feeling, well, terrific. I am trying to think how long it has been since I felt this way. Years most likely. Decades perhaps.

I am trying to find an explanation but nothing can wholly explain it. It is not as if I have found a new love (the old one is still fine, thank you). It is not as if my sex life has suddenly skyrocketed. Nor has this blog taken on thousands of new hits. In fact, there are many aspects of my life right now that should be downers. My mother is dying. My wife is still chronically underemployed. My daughter still has issues she is working through. I still have some weight I could stand to lose. The yard needs a lot of work. Clearly these are not all huge issues, but they are issues nonetheless that must be groped with and through.

So why do I have this good mood? Perhaps it is a combination of lots of things. Washington D.C. has delivered a lovely summer week, with low humidity and highs in the mid 80s. The skies are blue and the haze is absent. As a result, I can ride the bike to work every day and it was more of a joy rather than a pain. My body really appreciates the extra exercise. Getting my heart rate above 150 several times a day through biking seems to tickle my body.

It also likes the workouts at the gym. Usually I hit the gym more out of necessity and resignation than with any eagerness. Yet I find myself bounding up the stairs to the gym and almost jumping onto the machines. Adding additional weights to a set is not as difficult as it usually is. I like coming home and having my muscles stretched. My body tingles in a healthy, aerobic glow.

A large part of it is doubtless my job, which I seem to enjoy more and more everyday. I have felt optimized for quite a while now. My In basket is generally overflowing in the morning and overflowing in the evening. Rather than get upset over it, I seem to like it. I like the frantic nature of my job. I like its chaos. Moreover, I like its management aspects a whole lot more than I expected. That is because I am empowered. It is lovely after 48 years to finally be able to be in charge.

I feel great being so challenged at work everyday. This is the aspect of my job that I strangely like the best: being pushed to excel. Although my job is sedentary and it seems like nothing much gets done, a lot actually does get done. I am blessed with a dedicated and professional team. Unlike most managers, I have no deadweight to deal with. This leaves me free to lead, and I like to lead aggressively. I do not lead recklessly but I do move confidently and strategically. Fortunately, I have a team full of people who feel exactly the same way. While realistically they know they have limitations too, each employee seems to arrive at work in a similar frame of mind: anxious to get into the tasks of the day and to do things exceptionally well.

If you saw the movie Apollo 13, you may have some idea how my team works. While that flight was a failure, it was also a success. Despite all the odds, the astronauts and Mission Control successfully brought a crippled spacecraft home from the moon. That is what we do. It may not be obvious to you, but the Internet is a big, chaotic environment. Entropy tries every day to bring our distributed system to its knees. Yet we persevere. We keep it going at it full throttle. My team certainly stumbles now and then. Nevertheless, we never give up nor despair. No matter what the Internet gods throw at us during any given day we can work through it or around it.

It is a glorious form of chaos. We juggle dozens of balls in the air at once. Occasionally one drops to the ground. However, what is amazing is that we mostly keep them all in the air at the same time.

It is like this pretty much every day. Yet I seem to thrive in this sort of chaotic environment. I love the asymmetric nature of the job. I love the fact that it is hard and complex work. I also seem thrive in our much-challenged budgetary environment. We always have to pinch our pennies. We are not funded like Microsoft or Google. It is hard to do anything complicated with computer systems, but it is a lot easier when you are flush. When you are not, you have to think outside the box. We think outside the box a lot.

So why am I happy? I am not sure. Nevertheless, many things are going right, or at least feel like they are going right. And for once I feel a sort of synergy from it all that is almost ecstatic. My body seems to be in step with my mind. We are a team. We are moving, we think, toward greatness. We are changing our little corner of the universe for the better.

I feel like Elphaba from the musical Wicked. I feel like I am defying gravity:

So if you care to find me
Look to the Western sky!
As someone told me lately
Everyone deserves the chance to fly
And if I’m flying solo
At least I’m flying free
To those who ground me
Take a message back from me!

Tell them how I am defying gravity
I’m flying high, defying gravity
And soon I’ll match them in renown
And nobody in all of Oz
No Wizard that there is or was
Is ever gonna bring me down!!

 
The Thinker

After Iraq, then what?

I have been meaning to write this entry for a while, but vacation got in the way. In addition, I was not quite sure what to write. This is a particularly hard topic for me to think through. After we lose in Iraq, how do we go on and actually win the larger war on terror?

My assumption is that our exit from Iraq will not be particularly pleasant. I do not know how much longer it will be before we formally throw in the towel, but I am convinced that we will throw in the towel. If I had to guess, I would bet we would be mostly out by the end of 2007. The 2006 midterm elections should sober Washington up, assuming it takes that long. As I suggested some months ago we are likely to see a replay of Vietnamization in Iraq. The first three acts have been the same. It remains to be seen if the final act will be a repeat too. At some point, even the polite fiction that we can maintain some sort of rough control in Iraq will be blown either literally or figuratively away. While we can, we might maintain some bases in Iraq to leverage force in particularly lethal battles. However, Iraq is more likely to devolve into a civil war. In this case, since we could not choose sides our forces would be useless. It is very unlikely that brigades of terrorists will launch frontal assaults on Iraqi cities. That is not their modus operandi.

Therefore, although the end is easy to see, exactly how things will play out in the final act remains a guessing game. However only fools or high stake gamblers will bet that we will leave Iraq with a peaceful and democratic government that can maintain control for the long term. There will be a natural tendency to want to bring the all our troops in Iraq home and to make noises, but take little in the way of effective action, against al Qaeda and its agents. This would be a mistake.

I have outlined some pragmatic steps that we should take elsewhere. Many of these I lump for my convenience into a set of “birth control” strategies. It is premised on my belief that like the Cold War, the problem of Islamic extremism is not going to fade away. Consequently, we need effective long-term strategies that lesson the likelihood that new generations of terrorists will arise eager to destroy America. Even the Bush Administration is starting to understand that a genuine and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the best long-term use of our time and money. By some estimates, we will have squandered more than a trillion dollars before we leave Iraq. Yet we support Israel’s national security at a cost of about ten billion dollars a year. Surely a few billion dollars a year invested in Palestine to build quality housing and schools would be money well spent. This money needs to be tied to meaningful metrics, like the end of terrorism and a gradual withdrawal by Israel from the West Bank.

We also need better understand how the Islamic world thinks and behaves. You can get a sense of how clueless we are from our actions in Iraq. After more than two years, we still do not even really know exactly who the insurgents are that are fighting us and who is funding them. We guess they are mostly ex Ba’athists and al Qaeda sympathizers, but much of the time we are clueless. No wonder we are so ineffective dealing with them. A good place to start understanding Islam is by engaging Muslim America. We treat Islam as something of a curiosity, rather than the full-fledged religion with over a billion adherents that it is. We tend to fear that which we do not understand. As a result, we get radio talk show bozos like Michael Graham who paint the religion of Islam as “a terrorist organization”.

Sorry Michael. Al Qaeda is no more like modern Islam than Eric Rudolph typifies mainstream Christianity. (Although after Pat Robertson’s bizarre remarks today, you have to wonder at least a little if mainstream elements of Christianity are having a case of al Qaeda envy.) Just as Islamic nations needs to understand us better, so we need to be coaxed into learning more about Islam. In America, we seem almost proud of our ignorance of the rest of the world. In any event, it is clear that we cannot effectively deal with a problem that we do not understand both intellectually and with some degree of empathy. We are using 20th century tactics against terrorism and it clearly is not working. Our military force can and should be leveraged, but they should be used selectively. This war is more likely solved more through winning hearts and minds, and through good intelligence, than through conventional weapons and armies. Therefore, rather than recoil at the plan to put Al Jazeera International on our cable system, maybe we should welcome it.

A more Machiavellian strategy might suggest a policy of containment. While I am not advocating it, I will put it out there for what it’s worth. This strategy suggests that unstable Islamic countries should be isolated politically, culturally and economically from the West. It is based on the assumption that Muslims have to work through their own problems and our assistance is counterproductive. If they are going to kill people, the thinking goes, far better for them to kill each other instead of us. If Islam must go through its own dark ages and reformation like Christianity, why not start now? Just stay to the sidelines and let the Muslim nations implode.

On the other hand, I do not advocate its opposite either. While I think engagement is useful, I think part of the reason 9/11 happened is that we either deliberately or inadvertently introduced too much change too fast into the Islamic world. Yes, PCs and satellite dishes are undeniably convenient. However, we did not have to market to these countries. Moreover, we do not have to go around proselytizing democracy. This strategy does not have much success with Jehovah’s Witness adherents, so it probably will not work for us either. If democracy is inherently good, wayward countries will eventually knock on our doors asking for assistance. Jimmy Carter’s low key approach has been very successful.

As for short and medium term strategies, securing nuclear stockpiles is a fairly easy and inexpensive problem to solve. It is also a lot more doable than trying to impose democracy on unstable countries. I do not feel terribly hopeful that we can restrain the development of atomic weapons, although I certainly think we should continue to try. The price of joining the nuclear club is a lot lower than it used to be. Nevertheless, certainly we can stop doing asinine things like providing nuclear equipment to India, as President Bush did recently. (India has never signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.)

Clearly, Iraq caused us to lose focus against our real enemy: al Qaeda and those who support it. We can certainly refocus on finding and killing Osama bin Laden. That will not solve the problem of terrorism, but it will send an important signal. I am somewhat puzzled why we found it perfectly okay to invade Afghanistan, but we somehow feel as if we cannot send a single troop across the Pakistani border without permission. We need to be clear that any nation that gives sanctuary to our enemy, either deliberately or inadvertently is subject to attack. I am certainly not recommending that we overthrow the Pakistani government, but we should feel free to attack suspected al Qaeda hideouts in that country without advance notice and with impunity.

There are branches of al Qaeda in Indonesia and elsewhere. We should continue to feel free to help governments there find, capture and kill these people, or to do it ourselves if necessary. Nevertheless, we should be judicious in our use of force. Where possible our strikes should be short and surgical. Our footprints should be minimal. Ideally when these counterstrikes happen we should profess ignorance and disclaim responsibility.

There is also nothing wrong with changing policies even if they may appear to be appeasing terrorists. I have pointed out many times that our support for Israel is counterproductive. It buys us far more enemies than friends. I think Israel can and should be weaned off American aid. I do not see why we need so obnoxiously promote American values either. What is the point of rattling the saber when it just riles up those already inclined to hate us? Why do we have to have the equivalent of giant neon billboards associated with our country? Would more mainstream values like greater support for the United Nations and an agreement to join the International Criminal Court really be that bad for the United States? Some of us remember a time when the United States was the U.N.’s biggest supporter. Of course, we are not going to agree with many member countries. However, the point of the U.N. is to have a forum for countries to air their grievances peacefully, instead of through armed conflict. After more than fifty years, it is still an organization that helps keep the world peaceful. We are better off as friends and supporters of the United Nations than openly hostile to it.

Therefore, I think our war against Islamic extremists needs to be fundamentally rethought. If we bring home the troops from Iraq, we could use the time for a devising new and effective strategies to combat Islamic terrorism. It is very clear that our current course is counterproductive. We need new and pragmatic leadership, not leadership that cannot see beyond their prejudices or will not try new strategies when the old ones fail. President Bush is right in one thing: this is not a war that will end anytime soon. However, in time it can end by embracing effective short, medium and long-term strategies. We should be inviting Islamic scholars like Juan Cole to help draft these policies. To win this war we must avoid knee jerk reactions. Instead, we must think with our forebrains.

 
The Thinker

Taking Oz for a Spin

L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was first published in 1900. It was the first of fourteen books that he would write about his Oz universe. The book was turned into plays and, of course, the classic 1939 motion picture. After more than a century, you would think that Americans had plumbed the Oz universe for all it is worth. Not so, as those of us who have seen the hit Broadway musical Wicked can attest.

Last week I got my opportunity to see the touring company of Wicked at the Oriental Theater in downtown Chicago. The touring company stars Ana Gasteyer (of Saturday Night Live!) as the Wicked Witch of the West and Kate Reinders as the good witch Glinda.

I came into the musical cold but with an open mind. I had heard none of its music and knew nothing of its plot. So it is a pleasure to report that Wicked (as its sales figures attest) is a terrific musical that succeeds on almost every level. Having not seen the Broadway production I cannot compare that cast with this touring cast. However, I can say that with the exception of a minor character or two the performances in the touring version were very well done.

As you would expect the staging is spectacular. (Wicked deservedly won Tony Awards for costume and set design). As for the music, it hits many high water marks. While some of the songs are not terribly memorable, when a song hits a high note it often does so brilliantly. For me, “Defying Gravity”, which concludes Act 1, was the highpoint of the show. It is Broadway at its best: song, spectacle and acting all interwoven into one piece that, like its title suggests, soars far into the stratosphere.

Those expecting another retelling of the classic story are going to be disappointed. Dorothy, Toto and the rest of the gang do appear tangentially. Rather than retell that well-known tale, this musical focuses in on the relationship between Glinda and Elphaba (a.k.a. The Wicked Witch of the West). Much of it occurs long before Dorothy shows up. In this version Dorothy is an offstage presence who is manipulated by both Glinda and Elphaba to effect some big changes in Oz.

Wicked presents a delightful and frankly far more satisfying alternate version of Oz. Elphaba is not quite as wicked as she appears (in fact, she is something of an environmentalist). As for Glinda, or “Guh-Linda” as she prefers to be known through much of the musical, she is deliberately portrayed as a shallow, sincere but kindhearted bubble-headed blonde. Both Ms. Gasteyer and Ms. Reinders shine in their respective roles. The heart of this story centers on Elphaba. She may be green, but she is shown to be a complex woman who happens to have some unusual talents. Ms. Gasteyer does a marvelous job of bringing out the complexity of her character. Glinda may be one dimensional, but no one will say that about Elphaba.

In fact, Wicked pulls off a neat trick. It retells the tired Oz tale into a form that is fun, intriguing and keeps you guessing. Plots are turned inside out. The result is a story that is much more interesting and far more compelling than the comparatively cartoonish quality of the original story. If you cannot come to New York to see the Broadway version, I am confident you will be fully enchanted with the touring company version. We found it well worth seeing, even if we were reduced to obstructed view seats. In fact, I plan to see it again when it comes to Washington, D.C. (This time we will get much better seats.)

Read the rest of this entry »

 
The Thinker

Oh the Mediocrity! Driving America by Interstate

We are wending our way home from a vacation in Chicago, traveling I-70 east from Columbus, Ohio. Overall, Chicago was a good destination for a vacation. Nevertheless, having done Montreal and Toronto during our last vacation, Portland and Denver on recent business trips and New York City many times I am citied out. On my next vacation, I want a few weeks far from civilization.

Nonetheless, if you have to visit a huge American city and have deep pockets then Chicago is a terrific destination. It has the virtues of New York without most of its downsides — like the hellish 24/7 noise, the incessant congestion, the filth and the rats. (I am speaking only of downtown Chicago. The rest of the city, from our views of it, was far less enamoring.) While in Chicago, we saw terrific museums and took in two musicals. The more memorable one was the touring version of the new Broadway hit musical Wicked. The other was an irreverent but very funny Second City musical version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Aside from four nights in Chicago, we spent three nights in the Ohio suburbs. Each stop was convenient to traveling and the people we were visiting. Our overnights were in Maumee (a convenient rest stop south of Toledo), Springfield (a suburb on the north side of Cincinnati) and Dublin (on the periphery of Columbus).

I am afraid that the driving part of our vacation left a lot to be desired. It also left me sad and more than a bit nostalgic. Driving used to be an adventure. Now driving across America is a bland, frustrating and sometimes abrasive experience. I should wax poetic at the marvel at our interstate system. Undeniably, it is overall a convenient and usually quick way to zip across the country by automobile. Our transportation infrastructure, even if often congested, is still a marvel that is reached neither in size nor in scale by any other country. However, driving the interstates today, at least here in the Midwest, struck me as a sad and extended experience in the mediocrity and homogenization of modern America.

You can get a feel for the values of a state by traversing their toll roads. On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you feel doubly squeezed: by the often-narrow road and the high cost per mile for the toll. Pennsylvania goes for minimalist rest stops that are often crowded and dirty. Getting back on the toll road may mean putting the pedal to the metal because the merge lanes do not last long. Fortunately, Pennsylvania has greatly improved their turnpike. While it can be considered fair at best, it used to be downright poor. The surrounding scenery helps to make up for road itself.

The Ohio Turnpike has both the best rest stops and the best-maintained toll roads. We travelers actually feel welcomed on their turnpike. Admittedly, large stretches of it may be flat and boring. At least much of their turnpike is three lanes in each direction, so you do not feel like you are going to be scraped by a passing vehicle like you do in Pennsylvania. While Ohio’s tolls are not cheap, you feel like you got your money’s worth. Their rest stops are attractive to the eye. They offer a variety of restaurants that are well maintained and uniformly clean. The gas prices on the turnpike plazas reflect street prices off the pike. The good citizens of Ohio have decided that travelers should not endure either a second-class road or second-class services on its toll roads. I appreciate these kinds of values. Perhaps I will retire in Ohio.

Contrast this with traveling on the Indiana Turnpike. In Indiana, you get the feeling the state just wants your dough, and as much of it as they can get for the least amount of money. The road quality quickly degrades. Unfortunately Indiana, as experienced from its interstates, does not speak well of the state. If I were to judge the state by what I saw along its interstates, Indiana would rank near the bottom of desirable states to live. The values of Indiana seem to be large annoying billboards, cheap fireworks, adult superstores, strip joints, casino gambling and, oh, religion too. Go figure. There is not much of anything bucolic to see on their turnpike other than cornfields. As you pass through Gary, you may have to roll up your windows to avoid the chemical stench. In short, from the interstate Indiana gives the impression it is a state full of trailer park trash values. If this red state is an example of Republican utopia, Republicans are welcome to it. If I were in charge of promoting Indiana, I would be thinking about making some major changes.

Venture off the interstate in Indiana to buy gas and it becomes impossible to distinguish one place from another. It soon all runs together: garish billboards, large signs for restaurants and hotels hoisted hundreds of feet in the air, neon lights, harsh industrial lighting, and the ubiquitous but deafening drone of accelerating trucks. Alas, in this respect Indiana is like most other states. Junk food is cheap and plentiful, which may explain the girth of the people I encountered. Unless you are close to a city, trying to find a place to purchase something resembling healthy food off Indiana interstates is a largely a pointless endeavor. You had better be hungry for McDonalds, Wendy’s, Taco Bell or KFC if you are traveling through Indiana. If you are lucky, the exit may have a Subway.

While there are still many cornfields in Indiana and Ohio, it increasingly feels like the cities are encroaching on each other. (Cincinnati and Columbus are good examples.) Each place where we stopped overnight seemed indistinguishable from the others. The nearby restaurants and theater chains were largely the same that we have at home. There was nothing particularly memorable about Maumee, Springdale or Dublin. They offer bland uniformity and convenience for the traveler, but not one thing that will make you turn your head. You would think they would be cleverer at marketing. Those who drive I-95 to and from Florida certainly know about South of the Border.

We found the truck traffic on the interstates to be often overwhelming. I have to assume that the railroads are having a hard time attracting customers. It seems that all of our freight is now moving by truck. We recreational drivers spend much of our time jockeying around the voluminous single, double and even triple trailer trucks. Between the laboring trucks and the heightened volume of the summer traffic, we found that the cruise control had little value.

Perhaps things are different in Europe. If we were to vacation there, as we hope to at some point, perhaps every place where we stop will feel different, look different and have a unique character. However, the more I travel the United States, the more homogenous it feels. It feels particularly this way when I travel it by car. Perhaps these are simply expressions of our deepest values. Perhaps we are truly one United States now in fact. From our highways, the evidence seems overwhelming. It seems that in America we want our travel experience to be like our fast food: familiar, mediocre and predictable.

The late CBS News correspondent Charles Kuralt used to travel the highways and byways of America. In every community, he seemed to find a unique culture or story. Maybe that is still the case. You probably will not find it along America’s interstates. They are best breezed through and forgotten.

 
The Thinker

Exquisite Corpses

I have seen dead people. Lots of them. I have seen their insides ripped out. I have seen them dissected every which way imaginable. In addition, I have examined diseased lungs, clogged arteries, arthritic knees, and babies in the uterus. However, after having examined literally hundreds of corpses rather than feel nauseous I feel more than a bit awed.

Fortunately, I did not have to visit a morgue to see such unusual sights. Instead, I visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois. There on exhibition through early September is Gunther von Hagens’ The Body Worlds. This exhibition is full of human corpses, all of which have been “plasticized”. In 1977, Hagens invented a process that turns corpses into objects suitable for dissection and easy exhibition. There is no smell of formaldehyde or decaying flesh to offend visitors. Perhaps that is why the exhibit also feels a bit surreal. The plasticization process replaces body fluids and fat with special reactive polymers that leaves everything exactly and completely preserved. It allows human tissue and bone to be sliced, diced or just carefully exposed. The results are corpses (or more often, portions of corpses) that are preserved far better than any pharaoh could have hoped for. These corpses have achieved a weird form of immortality. Altogether, the exhibit shows over 200 corpses, or portions thereof.

The result is an exhibit that is both unique and a bit mind boggling. Thanks to Hagen, the rest of us now have the ability to view the human body like surgeons and coroners do. Peer into the inner ear canal and see the tiniest bones in the human body. Examine the brain stem from various perspectives. See the many intricate and tiny arteries that make up the human face. Linger over muscle groups pulled open for your inspection. Follow nerves from the brain to the tip of your toe.

I thought I would be squicked out. I thought I would be nauseous. Instead, I found the exhibit fascinating. I agree with my wife’s assessment: this exhibit is also art. However, it can be a bit unnerving.

After spending at least an hour in the exhibit, I find myself with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the exhibit rekindled my fear of death (never too far away since I am 48). The exhibit is undeniable proof that we are all mortal. We are bones, blood and tissue all intricately arranged and working in near perfect harmony. Except for our sex organs, under our skin we are all the same. The exhibit makes clear that our bodies are marvels of engineering and complexity. Yet they are also undeniably finite. It is a marvel that our bodies work so well for so many years without so much as a pit stop. Having now examined clogged arteries first hand, I feel the sudden and almost panicky need to change my dietary habits and start taking statin drugs. Yet for what? While we can extend the length or quality of our lives, our bodies are literally born to die.

On the other hand, you too may find that this level of intimacy with the inside of our bodies to be something of a spiritual experience. It is difficult to see how intricately we are engineered and not feel, well, just a tad closer to God than when you arrived. For those who believe in souls, our bodies seem like ideal vessels for connection to the environment.

The Body Worlds then is something like rubbernecking past a massive car crash. Once inside it is irresistible. No diagrams in medical textbooks can truly allow us to get such a holistic perspective of our bodies. If the exhibition comes to your city, I think you will find the entrance fee money well spent.

 
The Thinker

The end of the best of times

Some time ago, I wrote about the end of cheap oil. The oil economy is definitely on my mind today because we are in transit. As I write this, we are snaking into Ohio from Pennsylvania on the turnpike. I am wondering how much longer Americans can take for granted simply getting into your car and taking it anywhere you want to go.

There are scary signs out there for us drivers. If they are causing jitters on Wall Street, they should at least make our hearts skip a beat.

- Crude oil prices spiked past $67 a barrel in open trading on Friday
- Gasoline prices hovering near $2.50 a gallon
- The markets are nervous about our ability to refine all the oil we are importing. Refineries do not have much excess capacity. Moreover, it is difficult to finance and locate new refineries.
- General uncertainty about our foreign oil supply

It may be that these oil spikes will be a passing phase. Frankly, when I first wrote about the end of cheap oil, I did not imagine it would get this expensive this quickly. I wrote about $150 a barrel oil prices as being something fantastic. Now it seems quite plausible. After all a year ago, the price of a barrel of crude oil was $40. Now it is at $67 a barrel, an increase of more than 50% in one year. You would think that with such high prices that demand would be dropping, but that is not the case.

Economists tell us that there are few better ways to stimulate the supply of a commodity than a sustained high price. One expert on the talk show circuit assures us that there are large new untapped oil reserves out there. He says that they will add much more new oil onto the market the within the next decade, bringing down prices. Perhaps these new supplies will buy us another decade or two of the status quo. Perhaps the increased cost of oil will make it economically viable to mine oil from shale, or to use synthetic fuels like ethanol. Nevertheless, as National Geographic points out in its most recent issue, these new approaches will help but is no silver bullet. More people are coming and they will demand more energy.

Demand shows little sign of slacking. In addition, it is not just emerging economies like China and India are driving new demand. The United States needs more and more oil too. Our population keeps expanding. Moreover, the way we are growing is fueling even more demand. People tend to live where they think they will get the best value for their money. Not surprisingly then they prefer the outer suburbs where land is relatively cheap. However, by making the choice they also exacerbate our nation’s oil dependency.

Today, for example, we were trying to wend our way from Northern Virginia to Frederick, Maryland. I could not help but be astounded by all the growth in Loudoun Country, Virginia. Reputedly, it is currently the fastest growing county in the country. My memories, only a few years old, recall the area of U.S. Route 15 north of Leesburg being only a two-lane road. Now it is four or six lanes as necessary. Townhouses, condominiums and ubiquitous shopping centers crowd along the edges of the road. Frankly, I find this kind of crazy growth disturbing and more than a little frightening.

Of course that far out there is little resembling public transportation. The closest Washington Metro Station is probably twenty-five miles away. For the most part people who live in Leesburg work elsewhere. Typically, they work ten to forty miles from where they live. There might be a commuter bus or two that wends commuters from Leesburg into Washington D.C. every day. However, only a fraction of these commuters needs to go to the big city. Most are moving from an outer suburb to an inner one. With virtually no other choices, they get there by car.

Consequently, for these new homeowners a car is an absolute necessity of life. Of course their cars must have gasoline. This new growth has created an already amazing amount of congestion in the exurbia along roads like Leesburg Pike or Sully Road. Where will the oil come from to keep these commuters mobile? What if the oil is simply not available to sustain their lifestyles? What then?

It is a hard question whose consequences are hard to think through. If the situation were to last for any length of time, there would be huge economic problems. We would be fortunate if the situation merely instigated a recession. A depression seems much more likely, along with huge amounts of inflation. In the short term, some sort of gasoline rationing would be needed. Our experience during the oil shocks of the 1970s does not bode well for this decade. Those 1970s oil shocks might be relatively mild by comparison. Back in the 1970s, we pumped most of our own oil out of the ground. Now we import far more oil than we pump from our fields. Expecting new oil fields like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to solve our problem is naïve. Even if we could get at the oil, we could not draw it fast enough to make much difference in our oil dependency.

If we did not have enough oil it is not like these people living in exurbia could suddenly turn to public transportation. It could not begin to cope with the demand. It would take decades to rearrange our infrastructure to suit an oil-diminished reality. I am not sure if it is even possible. Our whole infrastructure is no longer arranged for public transportation. We live too far apart. Even if public transportation were available, getting from A to B would likely take much longer.

There was a time not too long ago when we lived in villages and life’s necessities were nearby. This became clear to me during our last vacation. We spent one night in Schenectady, New York, the city where I was born. I was amazed by how convenient everything was. You could easily walk to your church, to the store, to your school and to your job. The streets were narrow. The lots tended to be small. What happened? The automobile made the village less attractive. So there was little reason not to build your house out in the country where the land was cheap, since the cost (reasonable commuting time) was less than the benefits (cheaper land, privacy etc.) Cheaper land and cheaper labor elsewhere also drew jobs away from these villages and small cities. It was all predicated on a sustainable economy forever based on oil.

Moreover, our new economy has exacerbated the situation. It is often cheaper for me to order my medications from a mail order pharmacy than to patronize a local pharmacy. Some of our medications are shipped from Phoenix, Arizona to Northern Virginia packed in several pounds of ice. It is cheaper, yet it carries with it a hidden transportation surcharge: the oil that is needed to move it from there to here.

Yesterday our dryer stopped working. This gave me a good excuse to knock on our neighbor’s door. She was happy to let us use her dryer since we were in urgent need. On her kitchen table was a bucket full of tomatoes. Yes, it was tomato season and she was reduced to giving them away. She persuaded me to take a few with me, which I consumed with supper. They tasted delicious and were clearly better than anything I could purchase at the store. Tomatoes sold in stores, of course, are engineered for transportation, not taste. I marveled that I could eat something so delicious that did not cost me any money and was grown a couple hundred feet from my house. No petroleum products were needed to get it from the supplier to the consumer.

In our modern world, we are blessed with a seemingly infinite variety of products. However, the variety does come at a cost since almost all are transported to us using oil based products. Unless we can find a substitute for oil in our not too distant future, or unless there is a lot more oil out there than we think, our times will be a changing. The life you are living will likely seem nostalgic to your children. Perhaps your grandchildren yet unborn will be incredulous that you lived through such a marvelous time.

I sense that the transportation economy we have known may be coming to a rapid end. I suspect it will arrive sooner than we think.

 
The Thinker

The Blogging Vacation

My family and I are off tomorrow to Chicago where we will four nights vacationing. We also plan to make overnight stops in Toledo, Cincinnati and Columbus. Last year I blogged from nearly every place we stayed. If the laptop is not monopolized by my wife or daughter, if high-speed internet is readily available at our stops, and particularly if the hours of highway driving get tedious then I will send entries from the road. If not then expect entries to resume on or after August 20th.

 
The Thinker

How Iraq will dissemble

Whelp, the chickens have come home to roost for Mr. Bush. I was surprised that our miserable failure managed to eke out a win last November. However, as I pointed out then, this would not change the fundamental dynamics of what he unwisely set into play. Right now pollsters tell us that the Vietnam-redux unfolding in Iraq trumps all of our other concerns. Even so, Americans do not seem too excited with the “good” economic news that Bush keeps touting. Sky-high gas prices might have something to do with it. A diarist on DailyKos makes a convincing case that the real unemployment rate is holding steady and is a lot higher than our official labor statistics. Americans, sensing this truth, are unlikely to believe economic data that contradicts their wallets. Also likely contributing to our mood is our sense that the benefits of growth seem to be going disproportionately to the upper class and stockholders. Well duh!

For whatever reasons, Americans are in a sour mood. Bush’s anemic poll ratings in the low forties are likely to go even lower. He is trapped in a box of his own making. Let us shed tears, but none for him. Instead, let us save buckets of tears for our dutiful soldiers, marines and airmen who have paid and are paying the price for his bungled leadership.

Our retreat from Iraq will happen, but not because we will succeed in bringing real stability and democracy to Iraq. No, it will happen because it must happen. We get to grit our teeth and watch as Bush’s house of cards slowly falls, to the inevitable suffering of many more innocent people. One sign can be found in today’s news: the Army now admit they will not come close to meeting their recruiting goals this year. The fundamental flaw with our all-volunteer army is that it only works in peacetime or during wars of short duration. Only the foolhardy or the excessively patriotic will volunteer to lose life or limb when their neighbors will not. The rest of us are left to the extreme edge of the cheering section, way inside the safety zone. Lately though our cheering has been halfhearted. Our beers taste flat. We are urgently looking for distractions, but are finding the distressing fact that our team is getting its butt kicked is impossible to tune out. Therefore, we are getting really ticked off at the coach.

Since our president rarely does anything without consulting his political adviser Karl Rove, I expect we will see substantial troop reductions in Iraq (likely under some transparent guise) during the first half of 2006. Why? There are midterm elections coming up my friends. The last thing Republicans want is to have the Congress return to Democratic hands. For Republicans power is paramount and responsibility is a word they cannot apply to themselves. Republicans are likely to be scapegoats next year unless Republicans can give the appearance that America will soon go back to Norman Rockwell mode. So despite Bush’s bravado about staying the course, expect that the real course he will stay on is the one he thinks that will keep him and fellow Republicans in power. (However, if he actually stays the course, expect at least one house of Congress to change hands in 2006.)

Eventually the situation in Iraq will completely devolve. We can expect in the next few days that Iraqis will say that they need another six months to work on their constitution. They will need more time than that but they likely will never finish it. It is clear the insurgency has picked up a big head of steam. As American forces go through the pretense of strategic pullbacks next year expect the insurgency to occupy the territory. As for Iraqi forces, expect them to scatter faster than the South Vietnamese Army when the North Vietnamese Army approached Saigon. Iraq will balkanize unless a new strongman can be found who can keep the country together. Presumably, Saddam Hussein will not be available. However, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi probably hopes that he can fill his shoes with a less secular version of a glorious dictatorship. In the unlikely event that Saddam turned out to be available, well, the bull has run through the china shop. There is no going back to early 2003.

Therefore, the most likely scenario in Iraq is civil war. That is why Iran is sending arms across the Iraqi border. It is not necessarily in order to get the Great Satan, although if their shells are lobbed at Uncle Sam’s forces they would not be upset. No, the arms are for their Shi’ite brothers who, after all, are the majority in Iraq who have never really held the reigns of power. The Iranians know the real deal: sectarian civil war is coming in Iraq, if it is not already here, so their side needs to be ready. Shi’ite Iraq looks promising as a future Shi’ite state, although Iran is likely hoping that in time it will be absorbed into a greater Iranian empire.

If you want a likely playbook of what will follow, possibly as soon as next year, think of the diaspora that occurred when Great Britain decided to turn greater India into India, and East and West Pakistan. Where there are pluralistic communities inside Iraq, expect them to become single ethnicity. Shi’ites are mostly already where they already need to be. Sunnis living in predominantly Shi’ite territories will beat a hasty retreat toward predominantly Sunni areas. With luck, Sunni areas may affiliate with friendly countries too. Jordan is possible but Syria is more likely. The Kurds will claim their state although whether they can keep it is another question. Turkey will be watching them anxiously. The moment the Kurds seem too uppity or too weak Turkish troops will cross the border en masse. The notion of a new stable, peaceful and democratic Iraq will prove yet another mirage that our leaders conjured up gazing wistfully into the Arabian Desert.

Yes, it will be a shame. Moreover, I will be ashamed. (Heck, I already feel ashamed.) Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding (after all, according to the Right, all us liberals were secretly hoping for the worst) I ache for the suffering of the Iraqi people. I am sure most of them would prefer something like a democratic government and a real peace. I wish we could have given it to them. A few short months after we invaded Iraq I knew that we could not make it happen. I feel ashamed because my country needlessly set this house of cards in motion. Despite plenty of well-respected experts pointing out before the war that what has unfolded would be the most likely scenario, our leaders refused to let reasoned judgment get in the way of their prejudices. Instead, this will be more sad evidence that our leaders see the rest of the world through a greatly distorted prism. They could not grasp with the complexity of the Iraqi problem as it actually was. Instead, our leaders of course had to act from their own foolish preconceptions. Hit the patella of a neoconservative and you get preemptive war. They cannot help it anymore than a crack addict can avoid his next fix. However, blame yourself if helped put these fools in power.

With luck, things outside of Iraq will not spiral too badly out of hand. I hope that the civil war there will not spark riots in Egypt. I hope it will not trigger the untimely toppling of new King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia by Islamic insurgents. I hope that the ethnicities in Iraq will quickly create defacto borders that will be grudgingly respected by the other sides. If we keep all our fingers and toes crossed, perhaps in ten years or so they will form a loose federation, perhaps an Iraq-lite. Here’s hoping.

Therefore, our exhausted troops will leave sooner rather than later, possibly to be sent to the next theater of war, assuming they do not mutiny outright. Their next theater of war likely will not be one of our choosing. Nevertheless, it does beg the question: after defeat in Iraq how do we regroup and win this war against Islamic extremists?

For my thoughts on this, please come back in a few days. Because that is the real war that will continue. We need to seriously and soberly grapple with it. Iraq has been a costly and unnecessary sideshow from a main event that will keep coming.

 

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