Archive for August, 2008

The Thinker

The problem with For Better or For Worse

It seems that the comic strip For Better or For Worse is ending, sort of. Sunday’s strip will be the chronological end of the story for the fictional Patterson family that creator Lynn Johnston began drawing in 1979. Unlike The Family Circus where Dolly, Billy, Jeffy and PJ stay young children forever, the Patterson children and their parents kept aging just as we aged over the decades. Johnston herself is now 60.

The strip has proven to be an enduring comic phenomenon. My late mother was one of the many people drawn to the fictional yet ordinary lives of Elly and John, and their children Michael, Elizabeth and later April, not to mention their many neighbors and friends. Like Peanuts, it seems to run in every newspaper in the country. It seems though that its author Lynn Johnston has little more to contribute toward the story. Lizard Breath (Elizabeth) just got hitched to her long-time friend Anthony while Grandpa seems about to pass comfortably and nobly into the hereafter. Sunday’s strip will be the last in the series chronologically. Johnston plans to redraw the strips from the beginning with much improved artwork.

When I read this article in The Washington Post, I was surprised to learn one new detail of Lynn Johnston’s life: she is a recent divorcee. After thirty-two years of marriage, she is no longer married to her husband Rod who she used whole cloth when modeling John. Her own two children are also clearly characters in the strip. Actually Johnston is now a twice divorcee, but clearly she expected her second marriage to last the rest of her life. It is the whole premise behind the strip.

Things happen of course. Most married couples intend to hang in there for better or for worse, but the reality is often different. “Worse” turns out to be a lot more worse than many imagined. About half of married couples divorce at least once. It is unclear how many of those who do remain married for life are reasonably happy with their marriages. For the most part, any marital spats between John and Elly were minor. There were no ugly and denigrating screaming and shouting matches in this household, at least that I remember, even though you likely saw them in yours.

On the surface, the world of the Patterson family resembles that of most healthy nuclear families. For the most part the characters feel real, and many of the situations are clearly modeled on incidents in Johnston’s personal life. This is what made the strip so compelling to read: we could readily identify with her characters. As life is messy, a comic strip modeling family life should be messy too. Johnston’s strip was perhaps the first example of a family comic strip that was actually plausible. Most of the time, she found the right mixture of the serious, the not so serious and the humorous.

Still, it is hard to write any comic strip for three decades without it devolving toward mediocrity. Overall, the artistry improved over the years while the story lines degraded. For the last ten years, I have read the strip only sporadically. I lost interest in many of the characters. It felt more soap opera-ish than realistic. Particularly in the last few years, while Johnston’s marriage was likely unraveling, it felt saccharine.

Was there any doubt with such sterling parents that Elizabeth would marry that loser fly boy? No, of course, Johnston would insist that she have more common sense. So in time she would come to her senses and marry devoted and dutiful Anthony, even though he brought some baggage from his failed marriage. It would follow a predictable script where Elizabeth was morphed into the sweetest woman in the world. Elizabeth, who used to be shown with a button nose, is now a glamorous young woman with a thin physique and a cute, upturned nose. She’s both hot and an ideal woman. Maybe she is doing Jenny Craig.

My stomach was queasy this week as I watched her wedding play out. Of course, immediately after the wedding she would have to dash to the hospital to see her ailing grandfather. Grandpa could not conveniently die a few weeks after the wedding. Moreover, of course grandfather would be doted on by his second wife who epitomized compassion and selflessness. The story of the Elly and John could not wholly model her own marriage. While Lynn Johnston is divorced, it is clear that Elly and John are happily married for life. Michael and his wife even get to start their own married life in their parents’ old home. Heck, Michael even married a girl he argued with in grade school. How likely is that?

Perhaps it is best to stop. Twenty-nine years is a good, long run for a comic strip. The strip was widely admired and occasionally chastised when it fell into controversial areas like Michael’s gay friend Lawrence. Johnston’s relatively liberal Canadian values did not always align with America’s more conservative values. Clearly though the strip was tired. As it aged, it drifted more obviously toward implausibility.

The Pattersons are her universe to define, of course. Yet, if Johnston was going to lift so much of her life and insert it into the strip, perhaps she could have modeled the dissolution of her own marriage and put that in too. It would have been appropriate, under the circumstances and realistic. The society in which the Pattersons interacted was plausibly portrayed, but it ends on a slightly surreal note with all the principle characters a bit too surreally moving toward happily ever after.

At least For Better or For Worse was far more plausible than The Family Circus.

 
The Thinker

The government needs common sense contracting

If like me you work for the federal government, or even if you do not, there is a good chance you have contractors in your workplace. Love or loathe contractors they are a fact of work life for many of us. Arguably, our occupation of Iraq would not have succeeded without lining the pockets of contractors like Halliburton with billions of dollars. The Army gave up making their privates peel potatoes decades ago.

Contractors are often necessary. I would not want to replace my own roof, or make a roofer my employee just to get my roof replaced. The theory of contracting is it allows you to acquire either a specialized skill for a limited period or it allows others to perform routine services that are considered so ordinary that they can be easily replaced if they do not perform. You hire employees for those unique, domain related skills that you will need performed on a continuing basis.

Where I work there are many contractors that are truly disposable. After a couple years, they seem almost like part of the furniture. Then one day they disappear along with their contract. These include what I think of as people in blue (from their blue garments): guards, floor sweepers, restroom cleaners and the people who man the registers in our cafeteria. Then there are others that are technically contractors but sure feel like employees to me.

In my last job, contractors were so pervasive and the downsizing so extreme that federal employees like myself who just happened to be able to program a computer were not allowed to. Computer programming and design, even for large legacy systems that were poorly documented, were treated the same I treat my roof: hire a contractor. Instead, we project managers were tasked to make sure our systems were maintained and modified but having little understanding of how it actually worked. Consequently, keeping the contractors who could actually retrofit the system became key to our own job success. If some of these contractors left, our agency’s mission would have been severely impacted.

After a while, it became clear that the contractors had the vital domain knowledge and project managers never would because it was out of our scope of permitted duties. It was a very curious situation: the federal employees, people who normally hang around an agency for twenty years or more, would hop and skip other agencies where they felt more vested in their work. Meanwhile some of the key contractors had stayed there for twenty years or more and were effectively managing government systems. They were indispensable. The contracting agency changed, but they still sat at the same desks doing the same work, but drawing a salary from a different company. The smarter ones incorporated and sold the services of their “corporation” to the contracting agency for higher sums of money. Some of these people were making in effect GS-15 money for GS-12 work. It is nice work if you can get it because you effectively created your own small monopoly.

Throughout the federal government, contractors are doing work that they should not. The Washington Post today documented yet another example of contracting going awry. The Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services audited medical equipment claims that were charged to the taxpayer. It found an error rate of 29 percent. Who is doing this work? Contractors. Should they? Probably not.

Considering that Medicare costs hundreds of billions of tax dollars a year, an error rate of 29 percent is unacceptable. Some senior bureaucrat, probably to satisfy the current administration in power, which believes in maximum contracting out, decided that it did not want to make actual employees responsible for monetary judgments like what constitutes a valid government expense. This was a boneheaded decision that has since resulted in what appears to be a waste of billions of dollars annually. What incentive does a contractor have to excel when every few years their contract will be re-competed? Why should a contractor’s employee care too much when they are looking at the calendar and are pondering their next contract too? Why in particular should they care when they are making these decisions yet are not held directly accountable for their decisions? They will be paid regardless.

Since contracts are legal instruments, contractors excel and doing precisely what the contract says and typically have little incentive to go beyond it. Many in fact prefer to do less than what is required, on the hope that it will be too much hassle to hold them accountable. This results, coincidentally, in an improvement to their bottom line. That appears to be the case at HHS. This happens because contractors are not necessarily vested in their work, like an employee would be nor is there much fear of accountability. The result can and often does breed mediocrity. Mediocrity is driven by an obsession by the government to get the lowest cost. It operates on the assumption that the work is in essence rote, when it is often specialized, unique and enduring. Yet, year after year, as I look around it sure appears that some contractors are doing this kind of work. If they look like an employee and smell like an employee why are they not treated as an employee? Why not just hire them? You already know the answer: because it is politically incorrect.

My office is big enough where it recently opened its own health club. Plastered on the door is a prominent notice: the club is for employees not contractors. As you might expect, an employee get other perks too such as a generous retirement plan. Occasionally though a contractor gets a perk that an employee does not. In my agency when a contractor travels on official business, the travel time is billable, along with all their travel expenses. Employees are not entitled to overtime for travel on nights or weekends. (Over the last few years, we were allowed to claim travel time outside of our regular hours as compensatory time. In addition, I can keep what small frequent flyer miles I earn.)

Once upon a time, I learned that the relationship between an agency and a contractor was legally considered a “relationship of equals” rather than a supervisor-employee relationship. This makes sense if you are a homeowner and need your roof fixed, but in the workplace, it often makes little sense and is a distinction that is meaningful only to lawyers.

I think contracting rules should be rewritten so they meet the common sense test. Contracting can be kept for jobs that are low-skilled and truly interchangeable, such as pushing a broom. They can be kept for highly specialized jobs that are limited in time and scope, such as a technology assessment. They should not be used to perform judgmental work for which the government is legally responsible. They should not be used as service contracts for work that is domain specific, specialized and amorphous in nature.

Until that time if any when some common sense returns to government, can we at least allow the contractors to use our health club?

 
The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 9: So you want to be a parent

This is the ninth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

Young adult, you may think that it would be fun and inspiring to have a little baby of your very own bouncing on your knee. There is no question that little babies can be awfully darn cute and that parenting can be a very fulfilling role. Arguably, there is no calling nobler or more daunting than being a parent. The survival of our species literally depends on the willingness of people like you to procreate.

Parenting though is far more than procreating. You should be willing to hang in there for eighteen years, but the reality is that eighteen years is just a start. You need to be able to make a lifelong commitment to your child. You may ditch your spouse at some point but you must never ditch your child. Your child will always need you on some level, even when they are middle aged like me and carry a paunch around their waist.

Being a father or mother is not that hard. It can take as little time as thirty seconds to start the process. Being a parent on the other hand is the ultimate roller coaster ride, and to succeed in parenting you have to hold on until you are dead. My father is age 81 and he is still teaching me lessons. Granted when your child is age thirty or so the work tends to go down quite a bit, but do not assume that at some point you will be all done. Parenting is a lifelong commitment based on a unique and unselfish bond of love.

It is understood that these days parenting is optional. This means you do not have to be a parent, but if you choose to have sex then you better use protection or be sterilized. Do not depend on the rhythm method. Many of those parents who did try it found out, like mine, that it did not work all that great. I am the fifth of eight Catholic children. No form of contraception is foolproof. Even vasectomies have been known to reverse themselves all on their own. Here are the only ways known to guarantee you will not be a parent:

  • Women can have their ovaries and uterus removed
  • Men can have their testes removed
  • Celibacy

A prerequisite for parenting should be to first have your own cat or dog. It does not matter which, but if you cannot make a ten or fifteen year commitment to an animal that only needs you part time, you should not be a parent. If after a couple months or years you find yourself taking Fido or Mittens to the animal shelter, it is time to be sterilized. You should not be a parent.

Assuming you pass the first test, there are two things to think about before getting into the parenting business. The first you will hear at your local Planned Parenthood and is absolutely true: every child should be a wanted child. If you do not really really want to be a parent, you just should just say no. The second is a corollary of the first: you must have a realistic capability to raise your child to at least the same standard of living as you now enjoy. The consequence of the latter point means that your life and job needs to be reasonably settled and you have the means to care for the child. This also means you must have a job that has health insurance.

Here is how the parenting experience will be for you: I haven’t a clue. Parenting is life’s ultimate crapshoot and it can explode all over your face. If you think about it logically, no one would ever be a parent because the odds that you will screw up your child are too large. Moreover, you will screw up your child. The only question is the degree that you will screw them up. You will screw them up for two reasons: you are not perfect and your child will not be perfect either. Actually there is a third reason: you have never been a parent before. You can and should get parenting education before you have a child, but each parenting experience is unique. Just as you can improve the odds that you can drive a car by reading the instruction manual first, parenting education will tell you what you need to do. It will not do much to help you deal with the stresses and feelings that come with being a parent. Some things cannot be taught but can only be experienced.

Parenting can be simulated. I applaud those schools that simulate parenting by giving you a simulated baby to carry around for a few days. They are programmed to wake you up at inconvenient times around the clock and you have to do certain things to make it happy. A few days of this makes most teenagers want to defer parenthood for years. Of course, this kind of inconvenience is the easy part, because you also have to attend to the costs of having a child. If I were dictator, as a requirement for a high school diploma I would require the successful completion of a parenting course. It would include a week spent in a day care center changing poopie diapers and dealing with children going through their terrible twos.

I am probably making parenting sound like a real bummer. It can be. As I said, parenting is a roller coaster ride, full of many extremes. There are awful bone-crushing lows. There are also exhilarating highs. Strangely enough, there are also placid periods. Things rarely stay the same for long though. Children grow too quickly. Most parents have zero time for reflection because they are too busy dealing with the reality of life with children. That is why I am helping you out by giving you time to reflect now.

I am almost nineteen years into my parenting experience. In two days, my daughter sits down for her first college course. My parenting journey is not over yet by any means, but I have come to some tentative conclusions. It has been said many times before but it is true: parenting can be (but is not necessarily) the most rewarding and selfless thing you can do in life. I can guarantee one thing: it will be the biggest learning experience of your life. After experiencing it first hand, you should feel something like awe at your own parents. Maybe they screwed you up a bit but as you will experience just hanging in there at all borders on the miraculous.

You will never know for sure if you are cut out at the parenting business, but once you have started there is no going back. A child will pull you in more directions than you can possibly imagine. Most parents though adapt with time. You may find it easier to go with the flow. Be pragmatic and just accept that your universe is being fundamentally reordered. A relaxed attitude with your children, if you can manage it with all the inevitable chaos, is probably healthy for you and the child. Children know when they are loved, and if so they will respect you and accommodate you.

When the bulk of parenting is behind you, if you are lucky, the experience becomes somewhat nostalgic. I love my nearly nineteen-year-old daughter very much, but I cherish my memories of her at certain ages more than others. In my opinion, age four was my best year of parenting. There are times when I wish children could be like pets that stay at the ideal age forever. For better or for worse, they keep maturing. Therefore, I cherish those memories of our 4 AM feedings alone in the library while I watched the fog roll in out the window. I cherish reading Dr. Seuss to her as a child and feeling her snuggle close in my arms and her eyes light up with the story. I cherish seeing her perform in her first school play. As a parent, you have a unique privilege: to witness first hand the development of a child from birth to adulthood. They will not remember most of it, particularly the early years, but you will. With luck near the end of the experience, you will say with satisfaction, “I wasn’t a perfect parent, but I did a good job, and I consistently loved my child.” It should be that and “Whew! What a ride!”

 
The Thinker

Not quite the end of the world as we know it

If you are a regular reader, you will know that my family and I just got back from a week long driving tour of New England. My political and social radar though is never wholly turned off, even on vacation. For some Americans, going to New England is daaaangerous. Granted, the reputation of Boston drivers is well deserved, based on our limited encounters. What worry many Americans, particularly from red states, are the dangerous laws up there in New England, particularly the ones that allow gay marriages and civil unions. From all their huffing and puffing, I figured there was a pedophiliac faggot hiding behind every other tree.

It turns out there is not a single state in New England that does not recognize gay unions in some form. The most prudish state in New England is Rhode Island, which may be due to its Puritan heritage. It does not allow gay marriages or civil unions and will not recognize gay unions or marriages from other states. However, it does recognize gay marriages from other countries. So if you are a gay couple that wants to settle in Rhode Island and enjoy the benefits of being married, I’d suggest getting married outside the United States first. Fortunately, Canada is only four or five hours away by car from Rhode Island. We only spent a few hours in Rhode Island but not once did I see an openly gay couple. Doubtless, this is due to their morally correct marriage laws.

Stray into Massachusetts and surely, you must be in extremely dangerous moral territory. Upon driving into the state, I expected to see hellfire and brimstone, but the closest thing I saw were a set of thunderstorms in the distance over Boston. Perhaps God was sending a warning. He could have sent those thunderstorms over relatively moral Providence, Rhode Island but no, they made dead aim for the most populous city in arguably the most morally lapsed state in the country. After all, Massachusetts had the audacity to be the first state to permit actual gay marriage. Not only do they allow gay marriage in the state, but they also recognize gay marriages and civil unions performed in other states. They will even marry gays from other states who are not permitted to do so in their state of residence.

So my eagle eye was on the lookout for moral depravity. I found some, I think, right in the hotel lobby of the Doubletree Bayside in South Boston where we stayed. There is an Au Bon Pain in the hotel that provides a convenient breakfast for many of the hotel’s guests, who eat at tables in the lobby. During our second breakfast at the hotel, I noticed that three men arrived, gave each other hugs and started kissing each other on the lips. Then they started talking without giving each other the sort of body space most Americans expect. I guess I should have been more shocked than I was, but based on the cut of their hair and their clothes it is possible they were from Italy. As shocking as it may seem to Americans, in parts of Europe like Italy heterosexual men openly hug and kiss each other and have no problem getting into each other’s personal space. Nonetheless, they could have been brazenly licentious gay Americans. Such a breathtakingly open display of same sex affection might have gotten them lynched in states sufficiently far south of the Mason-Dixon line.

But that was it. We spent three days and two nights in Massachusetts and that was the extent of the moral depravity that I witnessed. Maybe I was not looking hard enough. I did find some bums on the street, and we all know bums are morally dubious. Nonetheless, there are plenty of bums in the heart of red state American too. Overall, Boston and Massachusetts seemed shockingly normal and mainstream. People there acted just like people everywhere else except that some of them talked funny and liked to skip pronouncing the R’s in the middle of their words.

Off to Maine where the law forbids same sex marriage but offers limited partnership rights for same sex couples. There was no particular sign of moral depravity there either. I thought I detected a stench in Kennebunkport, but that was probably just from passing the Bush family compound. Once again, people in Maine seemed to behave about as normally as everywhere else.

Thence to New Hampshire where same sex marriage is banned but civil unions that offer the legal equivalent of marriage are permitted. Perhaps we spent too much time in the northern part of the state, but most of the locals looked pretty redneck to me. How could these upstanding moral people pass such liberal laws? The answer is unknown, but again I detected zero sign that the fabric of our country, or at least New Hampshire, was about to come apart.

Perhaps we should have held our noses as we crossed the Connecticut River into Vermont. All the moral mischief started there when the Vermont Supreme Court had the audacity to read its constitution and realize that it could not discriminate against gays who want the legal protections of marriage. So they passed civil union legislation, the first in the country. Same sex marriage is still outlawed in Vermont but civil unions are identical in every way but the wordage. In the immortal words of Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley (played by Louis Gossett, Jr.) from the 1983 movie, An Officer and a Gentleman, I expected Vermont to be full of little but “steers and queers”. I didn’t see that many steers, though I did see two pony farms, and I understand “ponying” it popular amount some moral deviants. Vermont felt far more like a Norman Rockwell painting that a den of moral iniquity. The fresh faced teenagers who led us into the parking lot at Ben & Jerry’s for our factory tour seemed almost surreal in their wholesomeness.

We did not actually stop in Connecticut but only drove through it. It too allows civil unions that are the equivalent of marriage, while technically banning gay marriage. There was traffic in Connecticut but nothing I could find in the way of the open looting and gays copulating in the streets.

Perhaps the gay marriage movement is just building up steam and any moment now these states will be overrun with gay related crime. It sounds crazy and just call it just a hunch, but after spending a week in New England my guess is the place will do as well or better than the other states in the country. If the end of civilization is imminent, I doubt it will start in New England. Overall, we found it to be a lovely, pleasant and otherwise perfectly ordinary place.

 
The Thinker

The Cold War Returns

It is now looking like The Cold War did not so much end as it was postponed.

It sure looked like it ended back in 1989. For those of us of a certain age, the images of the Berlin Wall being torn down brick by brick (with many of the bricks being carted off as souvenirs) are indelible. Sometime in the early 1990s, I remember going to sleep with the realization that for the first time in my life, there was virtually no possibility of our country being attacked by nuclear missiles. No country had a reason to lob one at us. We were safe at last!

Over the last ten days or so, we have seen what sure looks like an opening salvo in The Cold War, Version 2. Russia and Georgia have been having a little tiff. It started over the largely ethnically Russian province of South Ossetia in Georgia. It was allowed quasi-independence from Georgia because Georgia feared Russia, its big brother. Who started this war? It is hard to say for sure, since there were plenty of skirmishes on both sides leading up to it, as The Washington Post cataloged yesterday. It looks like the Georgian army was the first to tip the apple cart by brazenly sending its troops into South Ossetia to show them who’s boss. To Georgia it was, “Well, excuse me for reclaiming my territory.” To the residents of South Ossetia it was, “Hey, I thought we were independent! Russia! Help!!” To Russia, it was “Let’s squash those Georgian buggers and send a signal that the Bear is back”.

Moving troops into South Ossetia was a spectacularly stupid move by Georgia, but one that was probably inevitable at some point. Disputed regions never remain disputed indefinitely. Eventually one side gets into a big enough huff and moves their chess piece. The Russian Army showed that Georgia’s forces were paper tigers. This left Georgia to squeal to its Western allies to help negotiate a cease-fire. Maybe Russia will withdraw, maybe not. Point made.

This war is not really about South Ossetia or neighboring Georgian territories under occupation by the Russian army. Telling this to the thousands of civilians who appear to have died because of this conflict is doubtless of no comfort. No, the roots of this event go back to that day in October 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and the subsequently poor job the West did integrating Russia into the free world in the years since. Unsurprisingly, much of the blame can be laid on the Bush Administration, who have proven ever anxious to push its ideological saber when it could. This administration believes that possession is nine tenths of the law. That is why it never thought twice about suspending Habeas Corpus. If you have power, you should use it, whether earned or not. So of course we were going to overtly and covertly do everything we could to encourage Russia’s neighboring states to adopt our values. We needed an enlightened approach toward Russia. What we got was ideology.

In 1962, when the Soviet Union put mobile missile launchers in Cuba, the United States nearly became engulfed in a nuclear war. The result was the well-known and truly scary Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, just because we can, we are pressing new NATO states like Poland and the Czech Republic to accept our missiles as a “defense shield”. We are doing this supposedly to protect them from rogue states like Iran that might want to lob missiles at them. Of course, we are not doing it because Russia sits right next to them and has a habit of making sycophant states out of Eastern Europe. Why, we even invited the Russians in to check it the missile’s guidance systems. See, they’re not targeted at you. Never mind that in a couple minutes, they sure as heck could be targeted at Russia. Never mind that Iran has zero interest in lobbing missiles at the Czech Republic or Poland anyhow.

With the retirement of Boris Yeltsin and the rise of Vladimir Putin, the Russian government gave up governing by vodka. With Putin, smart leadership was back. His methods were hardly democratic, but he was a man of practical action. He knew he could leverage the power and greed in the West for Russia’s own aims. Democracy became inconvenient toward a more powerful goal shared by most Russians: wiping away the stain of humiliation over their defeat in the Cold War. Russia has enormous amounts of land and natural resources. Western capitalism became the means to reinvigorate their economy. Naturally, we in the West and elsewhere were more than happy to earn some fast bucks. Communism is gone, as it is pretty much in China as well. What is not gone is the tendency on both sides toward hegemony. And the bad news is that while America is now just coming off its energy high having consumed much of its most valuable natural resources, Russia has what is likely the largest natural resources in the planet, much of it untapped. It also has all sorts of metals and oil reserves needed to run a first world country. Moreover, we greedily facilitated the process by providing it with the technology and expertise.

Nuclear missiles, which used to be relatively far away in places like West Germany, may be but a relative stones throw from Russia if the West succeeds in putting these missiles in places like Hungary and the Czech Republic. In other words, 2008 looks very much like 1962 did to us, which is why recently one Russian general remarked if missiles go into Poland, it could be subject to Russian attack. Maybe this sort of delayed karmic experience is inevitable, but it did not have to be this way. It required the West, and the United States in particular, to act in a more enlightened manner instead of an ideological manner. Russia’s reaction to these new threats was entirely predictable. Consequently, they were wholly avoidable.

What would have been a more enlightened way to deal with Russia? Some ways were attempted. Russia was invited to attend the G-7, which became the G-8. We sent over venture capitalists and some that tried to teach America’s style of democracy, which proved to be a culturally imperfect fit. What was really needed was a slower and lower key approach. Eastern European countries had good reasons to want to become NATO and European Union members. Living under Russian occupation or its dominion was rarely a happy circumstance. What was also needed was a more respectful attitude toward Russia. If you want to avoid paranoia, you need to set up circumstances that reduce paranoid feelings. A slower and gentler approach toward helping emerging democracies would have been better. Providing military aid and advisors to neighboring countries like Georgia do nothing but inflame paranoia that the United States has motives beyond spreading freedom.

And so both sides are continuing their games of geopolitical chess which if we had acted in an enlightened manner we might have ended forever in 1989. Instead, the Cold War is reemerging unnecessarily, and doubtless its costs will be at least as high as they were during the last go around. Communism vs. democracy is no longer its animus. On the surface it appears to be about things like oil, free trade and keeping vital shipping lanes open. What is really going on is that the United States senses that it is an empire in decline, much like the British a century earlier. We also see Russia as a true empire for the first time. This time Russia is not saddled with the ideology that made it so inefficient. Our hope is that by sponsoring emerging democracies like Georgia, and by making sustaining friendships with strategic trading partners like Saudi Arabia the weight of these alliances will counter the newly unshackled Russian and Chinese states.

The effect of these changes is a new Cold War that in some ways is not that much different than the old one, and may well be scarier. The USSR is replaced by Russia, which is smaller, but by being more ethnically-pure may be more united. China is still China, but having embraced capitalism is also stronger. Then there is the United States. We thought we were the world’s only remaining superpower, but we were deluding ourselves. The United States is both stronger and weaker, both enabled and hobbled by being continents apart from the competition.

It remains to be seen how the emerging powerhouses of India, Indonesia, South Korea and Iran will fit into all this. It does appear that many more chess pieces are now in play and the game will get more complex from here on. All sides have studied the board for a long time. Russia’s invasion of South Ossetia is Pawn to King 4.

 
The Thinker

Mount Washington and beyond

It takes a different kind of railroad to push a train up a thirty-seven percent grade. Specifically, it takes a cog railroad. Aside from the normal rails on the track, a cog railroad has a third rail between the tracks with steel bars about four inches long and a few inches apart. The cogwheel attached to the locomotive’s engine fit nicely between the bars. At full steam, you make at best a couple miles an hour ascending the side of a mountain.

The railway in question is undoubtedly one of the more eclectic rail lines in the country. Some twenty years ago, we took the Cass Scenic Railroad from Cass, West Virginia to the top of Bald Knob. We thought its eleven percent grade was impressive. However, it has nothing on the Mount Washington Cog Railway. You board your railcar at a depot about six miles from Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.

So in a way it is amazing that in a bit more than an hour its locomotive has pushed us and sixty or so fellow passengers from the base station some four thousand feet above sea level to the summit of Mount Washington, which is at 6,288 feet. Mount Washington happens to be the highest mountain in New England. The tree line rapidly disappears as cog by cog you ascend the mountain. With each cog, you can feel a ka-chink, which makes for a noisy journey. Our coal powered train put an impressive amount of environmentally incorrect dark smoke into the atmosphere. Progress though is coming to this railway, which started in 1869 and has locomotives going back to its beginning still in service. One of the locomotives runs on biodiesel fuel.

We were lucky with the weather. It was a partly cloudy day, however there were clouds just below the summit, which somewhat obscured our views. The Appalachian Trail cuts across Mount Washington’s summit. We saw some backpackers, but most of them appeared to be tourists only willing to hike a few miles across this rocky and largely vegetative-free part of the trail. If you do not want to pay more than sixty dollars a ticket to ascend Mount Washington on the railway, you can also drive your car up to the summit. The mountain is the home of an observatory as well as a weather station, which once registered a surreal wind gust of 231 miles an hour. In addition to the observatory and weather station, there are places to buy a meal and the compulsory gift shop. I was glad we paid for the train ride, which took close to three hours round trip. You cannot get an experience like this from a car.

Mount Washington thus was literally the high point of our trip, sandwiched about midway in our vacation. I almost feel compelled to say that our vacation was all downhill from here but that was not the case. The mountain was less than forty miles to the Connecticut River, which separates New Hampshire from Vermont.

Vermont was lush, verdant and as intensely green in August as Ireland is in the spring. Vermont feels surreal, being too bucolic to feel real, yet there we were, surrounded by gently rolling hills, pastoral meadows, cows, some horses and not many people. The Queens Anne Lace is plentiful along the sides of its roads in August. Vermont is not big enough to have any place that feels like a metropolis, with Burlington (where we spent on night) coming the closest. We drove through Montpelier, its state capitol, which feels more like a village than a city. The shining golden dome of its state capitol sits within blocks of some of the most decrepit housing in the state. In many ways, Vermont reminds me of Utah. It is mostly rural and overwhelmingly white. No doubt, there are people of color here somewhere, but you have to look hard. As with Utah, its citizens proved to be welcoming and hospitable.

Vermont is more recently known as the state that made Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream famous. Since it was on our way, we stopped in Waterbury and spent $3 a ticket for a tour of its factory. The factory is a surprisingly big draw in Vermont, pulling in hundreds of tourists, many of them children. We could not have picked a better summer day to visit. Cheerful summer help directed us to parking spots on the lawn. Ben & Jerry sold the business years ago, but it still feels very much like they own it. Believing that a business should give back to the community, seven percent of its pretax profits still go to charity. There were long lines to get to their ice cream cone counter where you could order any of their exotic flavors including oddities like Chunky Monkey. The tour itself included a few short videos and an observation booth that looks down onto their production floor. Other than the free samples given out at the end of the tour, the tour itself was not very memorable but nonetheless fun in a quirky sort of way. The casual and fun attitude of its employees was quite evident and welcome.

Our stay in Vermont included a fabulous suite at a Mainstay Inn overlooking Lake Champlain. We could see sailboats anchored in a nearby bay and the blue green Adirondack Mountains ascending in the west. It would be hard to pick any location with a more impressive view. We also turned out to be only a couple blocks from Pauline’s Café where you can dine on exceptional food at the cost of $15 to $25 an entrée.

Friday morning we left Burlington and drove south along U.S. 7, stopping for a while in Bennington, Vermont. We stopped to see the impressive Bennington Battle Monument, a 306-foot high stone monument to the militias that fought the British in 1777. It looks something like a slightly scaled down Washington Monument, only much more accessible. Tickets to the observation tower are only two dollars each and are available at the gift shop. Inside the base of the monument, there is a mini museum that you can tour at no charge.

Our Friday evening plans included a concert at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts deep in the Berkshires. Tanglewood is the official summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, to save some money during the overpriced summer season, I picked a hotel about thirty miles away in East Greenbush, New York. This made commuting to Tanglewood, not to mention finding the place, challenging. It was worth the hassle. Wolf Trap Farm Park near Washington D.C. is clearly modeled on Tanglewood. Our concert was in “The Shed”, actually a very large open-air pavilion where lawn seats were available for less than $10. There we heard two pieces of 19th century French classical music.

The first was Saint-Saens Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor featuring the soloist Janine Jansen. She turned out to be worth the price of admission and then some, giving a spirited and full body interpretation of this work. It was followed by a symphony I have listened to many times but never heard performed live, Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Our conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos had his work cut out for him because this is exceptionally challenging music to conduct with its wide breadth and frequent discordant portions of the score. The Boston Symphony Orchestra proved they were worthy of their reputation as a first class orchestra. The weather was cool but comfortable. This was our daughter’s first live classical music concert.

Our final vacation event today required us to head back to the Berkshires to a town called Stockbridge, just a few miles from Tanglewood. The town hosts an annual theater festival, similar in some ways to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival held annually in Stratford, Ontario. We attended two plays there in 2005. Like Lenox, which hosts Tanglewood, Stockbridge is a too perfect example of a New England town. To live there it helps to be independently wealthy. We saw Samuel Beckett’s classic 1953 play Waiting for Godot, still as befuddling and existential as it was in 1953, at the Unicorn Theater, a small venue that probably seats no more than one hundred fifty. The director tried to liven it up with a bit of humor for American audiences, which helped to make endurable what is really a very bleak play. This play was a stretch for all of us and worth seeing once for the experience. Once is probably enough for a lifetime.

Tonight we are holed up at a Microtel Inn in Middleburg, New York. The hotel is hosting a large group of Hassidic Jews, which is making for an interesting cultural experience. Hassidic Jews have children who behave very much like everyone else, judging from their screaming as they run up and down the hallway. We return to our home and our cat tomorrow afternoon.

 
The Thinker

Bewitched in Massachusetts and Maine

What a surprise. Salem, Massachusetts is a happening place! This was particularly surprising given that the cities we passed through on our way to Salem, which included Revere and Lynn, and which sit on the north side of Boston, are definitely not happening places. They look tired, distressed, and sad. Enter the City of Salem and you discover a city that knows how to market itself. Its downtown area models an old fashioned downtown from fifty years ago, except it is far more congested, thanks to all the tourists flocking in. It can be challenging getting either in or out of Salem.

There are plenty of things for tourists to do in Salem, if you can find a parking space. It is nearly as challenging as finding a parking space in Georgetown. Fortunately, unlike Georgetown, there are several city-provided parking garages. We felt fortunate to snag street parking a few blocks away from The Salem Witch Museum, our destination. The museum turned out to be cheesy and unmemorable, but for $7 a ticket (with our AAA card), it did not matter too much. You get to sit with a hundred or so people in one dark room surrounded by scenes from the Salem Witch Trial of 1692. You hear somber recorded narration while bright lights beam on the scene of interest. Hey, this ain’t Disney World. I rather expected some lame animatronics but you do not get even that. Afterwards there are some unmemorable exhibits in the back and of course the compulsory exit through the gift shop. One of the exhibits connected past incidents with associated catalysts that caused witch-hunts throughout history. One example provided was the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s unleashed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The exhibit needed updating: September 11, 2001 + George W. Bush = Guantanamo.

If you do not want to take in this witch museum, there are other witch theme related establishments in Salem including a witch dungeon. (None of the alleged witches in Salem had dungeons of course, nor am I aware of any witches that had dungeons outside of fiction, but never mind.) There are also period actors provided by the City of Salem on the Salem Commons to tell you when Bridgette Bishop, the first of nineteen people to die due to superstition and paranoia, is going to be brought into the public square for her trial. I suggest going with this rather than the witch museum as it is likely more entertaining and costs less. If witches are not your thing, you can learn more about Nathaniel Hawthorne, see the House of the Seven Gables or take a tour of Salem Bay. I enjoyed all the dense nineteenth century row houses, mostly well preserved and home to a new generation of eco-friendly urban dwellers.

We thought it might be fun to drive to Portland on U.S. 1 along the Maine coast. What a mistake! This puts you right into snooty resort cities like Ogunquit and Kennebunkport with their associated traffic. Due to the dearth of traffic lights, we were stuck in traffic for close to an hour. We eventually decided that paying for the Maine Turnpike was a much better use of our time. We had only a few glimpses of Portland as we drove through it. Soon we were back on U.S. 1, as it was the only pragmatic way to get to our destination: Boothbay Harbor.

Almost precisely two years ago, I was in Maine on business. A number of us elected to drive down to Boothbay Harbor for dinner, which was no minor matter as our meeting was in Augusta. I was charmed by Boothbay Harbor so it seemed a convenient place to revisit with the family. Rain earlier in the day made the harbor area unnaturally cool, but we enjoyed our fine dinners at the Tugboat Inn anyhow. Afterwards we walked through the many tourist businesses hugging the harbors. There are in fact many picture postcard marinas along Maine’s glorious Atlantic Coast. Boothbay Harbor though is one of the most picturesque. Our hotel was not in the harbor itself. Rather we stayed overnight at The Flagship Inn, which is a few miles inland. Generally, I am not that fond of roadside motels, but this one was surprisingly nice and clean. Unlike the Doubletree hotel in Boston where you have to pay $10 a day for wireless access, the modest Flagship Inn provided reliable and free high quality wireless access for all its patrons.

This morning we drove some more along the Maine coast. U.S. 1 north of Boothbay Harbor offers some spectacular scenery. In particular, the harbor cities of Bath, Rockland and Rockport offer magnificent views of the Gulf of Maine and the Maine coast hugged by myriad sailboats.

When you are from out of town, it is no trivial matter finding a restaurant in Augusta, Maine even if you have a GPS. Thanks to my last trip to Maine, I was somewhat familiar with the layout of Augusta, so we arrived at our destination only fifteen minutes late. We dined with one of my wife’s online friends, her husband and her two young children at a barbeque place in downtown Augusta. The young couple reminded me of my wife and me two decades earlier. Their three-year-old son though was a handful and had to be distracted throughout our time together. I am glad that those years are behind us.

Our home for this night is a Best Western in Franconia, New Hampshire. Getting from Augusta to Franconia was no trivial matter, as there are no direct routes. There was plenty of road construction (including several miles where the pavement was removed and we had to navigate through a rocky construction area) on our route but the scenery along U.S. 2 was often spectacular. Every mile closer to New Hampshire revealed taller mountains. The citizens of Maine must have had a hard time coming up with names for their towns for we passed a cluster of towns named after countries like Mexico and Peru. Mexico, Maine though has little to recommend it and comes with an unwelcome stench from what appears to be a local paper mill. The picturesque Androsco River though flows through Mexico and the adjacent towns that border U.S. 2. This road is definitely one of the less traveled roads in the continental United States, but one of its more bucolic.

Here in Franconia we find an area of New Hampshire overrun with gnats and mosquitoes. We will definitely need the bug spray tomorrow, and we will need to brush them off our clothes and out of our hair before we resume of tour of New England. They lie by the dozens on our windshield. Tomorrow’s final destination: Burlington, Vermont, the last state in New England that I have yet to visit.

 
The Thinker

Road trip to Beantown

To have a good vacation you do not necessarily have to fly thousands of miles. That is our premise this year. There are not many areas left on the East Coast that we have wanted to visit. Since my brief trip to Maine a few years ago, New England became an area I wanted to see further. It is also reasonably close as it is only a long day’s drive away. It is mostly an undiscovered region for me. In addition, it has the virtue of being in my time zone. Jet lag gets old after a while.

Before heading to New England, we first elected to spend Saturday night in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. We spent much of the afternoon and evening in Mount Gretna, a near by and decidedly liberal (and well moneyed) township in the woods where respect for the natural environment is a high priority. Tourism accounts for a fair amount of its business. The Mount Gretna Playhouse hosts a number of shows during the summer. There were two last Saturday alone. We attended a performance of The Capitol Steps, which my wife and I saw for the first time in January. The Mount Gretna Playhouse is a covered amphitheater that is far larger than I expected for being in such an out of the way community. This time our 18-year-old daughter Rosie came along. A few of their numbers were familiar, but most were new or reworked. They seemed edgier than they were back in January and even funnier.

As for Lebanon, it is a sad declining city on the outskirts of Pennsylvania’s Dutch country. Like many cities in the Northeast and in Appalachia in general, it has seen much better days and it appears those days will never come back. Our stay at the Quality Inn in Lebanon was anything but. The hotel was musty. The free wireless was spotty. The free breakfast was non-existent. Our windowpane was cracked and there was dirt and mold around its seam. There was only one elevator serving its five floors and it was slow and antiquated. My daughter complained endlessly about her uncomfortable rollaway bed while my wife refused to take a shower in the hotel because she did not feel it was clean enough. It is at best a two star hotel. I hope that other Quality Inns have higher standards. Unbelievably, this was one of the less expensive hotels in the area, yet we still paid more than $120 a night for a room with a king size bed. We were glad to check out of the room.

Sunday we drove from Lebanon, Pennsylvania to Boston, touching five states in one day including two I had never been in before: Connecticut and Rhode Island. We elected to avoid New York City and navigated around it instead, taking I-81 to Scranton, then I-84 across the southern part of New York State into Connecticut. I saw some lovely and mountainous country I had not seen in more than forty years along the Hudson River. Connecticut charmed both my wife and I. We were especially intrigued with the cities of Waterbury and Meriden. We both ached to explore more of Connecticut, but we had to get to our hotel in Boston.

We stopped for dinner at an Applebees in Cranston, Rhode Island. For being the nation’s smallest state, Rhode Island seems to be doing quite well and Cranston was doing better than most, with expensive multistoried housing going up. Rhode Island surprised me because it was prettier, hillier and more prosperous than I expected. Cranston is also located next to Warwick. My wife and daughter are fond of the show Ghost Hunters on the SciFi channel. Two plumbers who are the hosts of the show now apparently make most of their money selling their alleged expertise in the area of the paranormal detection. Anyhow, we found their storefront for TAPS, The Atlantic Paranormal Society, which was an otherwise indistinguishable storefront along Warwick’s main drag. I snapped a few picture of my wife and daughter in front of the storefront. Apparently, the ghost hunters were busy elsewhere that Sunday afternoon, but we could see through the door that they left a heap of fast food wrappers in their wastebasket.

The sun was setting and thunderstorms ahead provided an illuminating show as we headed north on I-95 toward Boston. Our GPS had been acting cranky and would lose its satellite connections after about an hour or so. Consequently, we used it only sporadically when it seemed fresh. It took us to our hotel well enough, but with the crazy roundabouts that populate Boston it took several attempts before we successfully got on the right road to the Doubletree Inn Bayside where we are spending two nights.

Today we spent the day trying to get a brief taste of Beantown. I had been through Boston at age five or so but had no recollection of it, so I was seeing it for what felt like the first time. Our hotel near the convention center was far nicer and cleaner than the Lebanon Quality Inn, but a bit pricier. I picked this hotel because it was just a couple blocks walk to the T, Boston’s name for its subway system. The T is an aging transit system and it shows, but at least it is reliable. There are just six stations between our hotel and downtown Boston.

Unfortunately, we did not have much time for sightseeing. Today was inordinately cool for August as well as overcast and periodically rainy, with high at best making it into the low 70s. We spent most of the day inside the Museum of Science, which is on an island on the Charles River. This was just as well considering the weather outside. An IMAX show, a planetarium show, lunch in the cafeteria and a couple hours of wandering the exhibit halls later, we had seen enough.

From there it was a brief subway journey to the Boston Commons, where we dodged more rain. We did not have time to do much more than look around, but our time there did cement our decision to come back to Boston sometime and see the city properly. We then took the T to Harvard Square across the Charles River in Cambridge, where we met a friend. What little I saw of Cambridge impressed me. Of course, it helps to have two of the nation’s most prestigious schools there, including Harvard University, which is right across from the station. It seemed that Click and Clack were right because we found a number of bums hanging out at Harvard Square. We found no sign of Car-Talk Plaza, nor of the law firm of Dewey, Cheetem and Howe.

Thanks to our friend, we did dine at Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers, which the Wall Street Journal proclaims as one of the best burger joints in the country. I certainly enjoyed my “This Old House” burger, which was both juicy and very hot. Their hamburgers have unique names, most with political affiliations. (The John Kerry burger, for instance, says he voted this the best burger before he voted against it.)

We should end up at Boothbay Harbor in Maine tomorrow night, followed by a day in New Hampshire, a day in Vermont, and two days in the Hamptons.

 
The Thinker

Johnny, we hardly knew ye

Lord, another politician has fallen. If politicians were trees in a forest, citizens would be going deaf from all the careening trees of late. Today’s infidelity poster boy is John Edwards, the handsome and charismatic ex North Carolina senator blessed with teeth so wide and bright they could burn your retinas. Edwards was John Kerry’s running mate in 2004 and was a twice a Democratic presidential candidate.

Count me as one of those not the least bit surprised by these latest revelations. Part of my problem with John Edwards latest presidential foray was that he was too good: too handsome, too eloquent, too slick, too squeaky clean. He was more rock star than presidential candidate. He was the politician’s equivalent of a traveling evangelist. He could fill up a tent, or a town hall and like the Pied Piper have the crowd in the palm of his hands. Among liberals, he was the clear favorite for president. Until he dropped out, he consistently outpolled the other candidates on the liberal blog Daily Kos. Many of his supporters were heartbroken when he dropped out of his presidential campaign. Many of them now are furious, for they gave hundreds or thousands of dollars to his campaign and poured out their passion because they believed in him. They thought he was the real deal. They believed not just in his politics, but his image. Here at last was a handsome, charismatic man dopily devoted to his wife, who was also a few points lower than him on the attractiveness scale. That he was standing by her in spite of her terminal illness made him even more of a principled human being.

Instead, he was getting a bit on the side. Her name is Reille Hunter, age 44 (Edwards is 55), a skinny platinum blonde whose firm also earned a cool $100,000 from Edwards’ political action committee for producing four short web videos. To quote George Gershwin, it’s “nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try.” I bet Hunter did not have to try too hard. Oh, she did have to change her name. Lisa Druck just wasn’t cutting it. Reputedly, the two first met in a bar.

Why did he do it? Only John Edwards can answer that one, but I would view any rationalization he comes up with suspicion. If I had to guess the real answer would be very close to Bill Clinton’s: “Because I could”. Hunter was younger than his wife and arguably prettier. Hunter must have found plenty of men to admire in the Edward campaign because she produced a child that Edwards says is not his, but instead is apparently one of his staffers. For John’s sake, I hope he wore a condom.

I have ruminated before on the subject of infidelity. Among the recent politicians with problems keeping their pants up was the former governor and attorney general of New York State, Eliot Spitzer. Virtually everyone publicly decries infidelity. (It also keeps a number of newspapers and magazines in business.) It is also probably true that something like half of all marriages have at least one incident of infidelity. With statistics like these, you would think the shock value would wear off.

However, when you are a politician running for office, it’s all about trust. Fidelity with the voter has to be your main selling point. Biologically you may have the same yearnings as the rest of your brethren, but you must sell yourself as someone beyond the casual, tawdry affair. Few spouses who have been cheated on can even muster the courage to trust their partner with a checkbook. Can politicians successfully compartmentalize, as Bill Clinton seems to have done, and really keep their bedroom shenanigans separate from their public duties?

Since most of us cannot compartmentalize like this, when we find out our politician du jour is capable of such infractions, we would rather see the bum kicked out. Yet, infidelity is hardly a death sentence for a politician. Rudy Giuliani cheated on his wife openly in front of the press corps, and yet for months was considered the most likely Republican to win the nomination. Ironically, he lost to another adulterer, John McCain, who clearly was getting a bit on the side from Cindy well before his first marriage ended. He likely got some other tail during this period too. Yet, people seem to look the other way regarding his infidelity, perhaps because the press doesn’t want to raise the issue. Or perhaps it is okay in McCain’s case because he is a maverick and thus being consistent with his persona. So I would not assume that John Edwards political career is over. At least his failing was typical stuff. At least he didn’t grope for sex with men in airport restrooms. If you have to cheat, Americans can be more forgiving if she is a hot babe, and that seems to be the case with Reille Hunter.

I guess what amazes me the most is how effectively Edwards mesmerized us in spite of his egregious sin. His wife was fully aware of his moral lapse, and he ran with her apparent blessing. I remember seeing a news report in 2006 or so when this affair was taking place. It showed him and Elizabeth eating at a McDonalds where they had their first date. They made a habit of doing it on their wedding anniversary. It was just so cute and seemed so heartfelt. He seemed so dopily devoted to Elizabeth. Yet, he was stepping out on her.

In any event, I saw Edward as one of the slickest of the slick. He was too slick, which made me naturally suspicious of his genuineness. Given that many of the positions he espoused running for president in 2004 were discarded for the 2008 campaign, my suspicion was probably somewhat grounded. His slickness was the principle reason I avoided endorsing his candidacy and remain a bit leery about Obama’s. I sensed that something was not quite right. My unease has unfortunately now been validated.

I expect his rehabilitation will be complete by 2012, providing there is an opening in the Democratic race, and if not by 2016 for sure. I bet he will still look plenty handsome. I do not know what it will take for him to remake his reputation, but I am confident that Edwards will find a way to make us believe that he has been reborn.

 
The Thinker

For Obama: some environmental cheers and jeers

No candidate running for president will run a perfect campaign and that certainly includes Barack Obama. When I endorsed him in January, I said he too was a flawed candidate. Overall, Mr. Obama has pleasantly surprised me with his post nomination campaign. He comes across as very thoughtful and articulate. It is clear that his campaign is remarkably well managed and on message.

If a presidential candidate is serious about winning, some accommodation toward the politically fickle winds of the moment is generally considered necessary. So we have seen in the last few days some statements by Barack Obama that have my head shaking. Pandering may seem necessary when winning at all costs is the goal, but when it happens it lowers my opinion of the candidate.

Obama’s proposal to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was one of these political accommodations that made me wince. What a bad idea! Yes, I know his plan is to remove the easily refined light sweet crude oil from the SPR and replace it with the harder to refine heavy crude oil. This is supposed to result in no net loss from the SPR. As a result, he believes this will provide some working relief to the middle class, which is still reeling from the latest oil shock.

The SPR is there for a reason: to accommodate the nation’s needs in a national emergency. No such emergency exists. I grant that many families are suffering under the burden of $4 a gallon gasoline. Still, the economy is in no danger of collapse. Artificially lowering gas prices, if it works, simply encourages more of the dependence that got us in trouble in the first place. Obama says such a release would be temporary. He points to the effect of a decision made late in the Clinton administration to sell oil from the SPR and says that decision reduced gas prices. It is unclear whether it would have that effect today, but it would make it harder for America to get over its addiction to oil and move toward a post oil age. This is a politically expedient decision but overall a call I think he will regret.

Another bad call: tacitly agreeing with John McCain that we need to drill for oil off our coasts. Obama characterizes this change of heart as one part of an overall energy strategy and suggests such drilling would be limited. He knows that any oil we discovered would have but the most modest effect on oil prices. If oil companies started drilling tomorrow, it would be at least six years before we would see any oil from these fields.

There are a few reasons that oil companies are not drilling in these tracts that they are already allowed to drill in. Their geologists have surveyed these oil fields. The likelihood of getting oil in the quantity desired is slim and the cost of drilling in these deeper waters is high. In addition, you cannot force an oil company to drill for oil. Oil companies will look out for their bottom line, and if it does not increase it they will politely spurn politicians’ suggestions. This means that both Obama’s and McCain’s calls for drilling are specious. There are the many coastline states that have prohibited offshore drilling. They recall California’s 1969 experience that fouled 35 miles of beaches. Any oil that is recovered would have only the most modest effect on oil prices and would do nothing to move us to a post oil economy. Even if there were no oil spills, the drilling would have a major environmental impact on our seaboards.

What the nation needs is a comprehensive energy strategy that moves us into a post oil economy while simultaneously moderating greenhouse gas emissions. It may not get much in the way of votes, but if the nation had a strategy like this backed up by money and commitment it would be good not only for the nation and the environment, but good for the economy too. It would stimulate growth in jobs that are environmentally friendly.

However, I did like Obama’s speech today in Berea, Ohio. Obama pointed out a few days ago that a great way to reduce oil consumption is for drivers to make sure their car is tuned regularly and their tires are properly inflated. Republicans for some reason latched on to it as a crazy idea and began handling out tire pressure gauges to draw people’s attention to the proposal. This attitude is particularly odd coming from Republicans, who are reputedly big on individual responsibility. His proposal is not laughable; it is effective and can be made workable.

If I were running for president, I would do more than just suggest that Americans do these things. I would give modest tax deductions or credits for having your car tuned. Aside from the 1-3% reduction in oil consumption, if Americans practiced this regularly, it would help get Americans into the habit. Most Americans are too busy to be proactive about car maintenance. Knowing they can get a tax deduction for being kind to the environment (and their wallet) can lead to a pattern where most people will have their cars tuned regularly.

Getting people to check their tire pressure regularly can be accomplished too. We could offer modest credits for gas stations that add or expand air pressure hoses. A tire pressure center should provide tire pressure gauges on site and easy guides for determining the correct tire pressure for your tires. Why not add a penny to the gasoline tax but offer a penny a gallon rebate for checking your tire pressure within one hour of filling your tank? Simply insert the same credit card you used for your gas purchase to activate the tire pressure system at your gas station where you filled your tank to claim your credit. These modest steps, along with regularly increasing CAFE standards are pragmatic steps toward energy independence.

I suspect that before this campaign is over we will see many more accommodations by both Obama and McCain to lure in swing voters with proposals that are stupid. I just hope that these latest proposals from Obama are not serious and are discreetly dropped when, as I expect, Obama wins the election in November.

 

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