Archive for the ‘Politics 2007’ Category

The Thinker

Wrong Target

Somehow, I could sense that Benazir Bhutto would not survive the year. Maybe subconsciously she had a death wish. Martyrs often live larger in death than they did in life. On October 18th, when the exiled former Pakistani Prime Minister triumphantly returned to Pakistan after years of exile, 145 of her supporters died from targeted suicide attacks during her welcome home rally. Yet she was not deterred and either fearlessly or recklessly continued campaigning to win power again. Today we learn of her assassination, which quickly escalated into yet another mass murder triggered by a fanatical suicide bomber probably linked to al Qaeda. At least twenty others were killed in today’s attack.

From our distant perspective ten thousand miles away, her assassination is more sad evidence that Pakistan and Afghanistan, not Iraq, should have been our real front in the war on terrorism. Sadly, it has all the right ingredients to be its front line. It is a sometimes democratic nation still without firm roots in democracy. It has known as much totalitarianism as democracy. It is a country that now has to grapple with whether it will be secular or theocratic. The Pakistani military rarely fights outside its borders. Instead, it spends much of its time unsuccessfully containing an emerging a civil war.

Unlike either Iraq or Iran, Pakistan has nukes. Their nuclear weapons are outside of our ability to control them. Should Islamic extremists gain control of Pakistan, they could be leveraged against us. To preclude that possibility, we may end up having to support its many totalitarian regimes. Democracy is a nice idea, but keeping nuclear arms from being used against us requires sane people in command. Dictators believe foremost in clinging to power, so they are unlikely to do anything too rash. This was why I was not surprised that we found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after we invaded.

Its old news, but we took our eye off the real target. Instead, President Bush squandered the last five years chasing an illusionary Axis of Evil. By invading Iraq, he unbottled its repressed sectarian forces and put our troops in the crossfire. Troops that might have gone into Afghanistan where our real enemies lied went instead into Iraq to try to contain a bloody sectarian civil war. Meanwhile, since we elected to distract ourselves, al Qaeda’s leadership moved into the relative safety of lawless northwestern Pakistan. The area may be lawless, but Pakistan still considers it part of its territory, so it prohibited us from actually sending in our forces to engage al Qaeda there. There is irony that our greatest enemy found relative sanctuary and new strength from our erstwhile ally. That new strength was on display yesterday with Bhutto’s assassination.

According to the latest National Intelligence Estimate, Iran ended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Despite having access to this intelligence, our administration chose instead to rattle sabers with Iran and thus inflame our diplomatic row with its leaders. Fortunately, with the release of this NIE we can at least rule out a preemptive war with Iran. You would think Bush and Cheney might have learned something from the Iraq debacle, but apparently not.

The irony is that if we really want to solve the war on terrorism, we need Iran’s assistance. It appears that it is reducing the number of arms smuggled into Iraq. Iran also helped us early in the war by lending its support to forces that undermined the Taliban. Iran is overwhelming Shi’ite. Al Qaeda is a force of Sunni extremism. Iran may be a quasi-democratic theocracy, but the last thing its rulers want is to be surrounded by states associated with al Qaeda. That was in part why they were providing arms to Shi’ite militiamen in Iraq; they saw it in their own self-interest.

Iraq may appear to be our quagmire, but it is unlikely that our national security would be undermined if we left. The people who live there might have to fight a protracted civil war, but they consider our presence counterproductive. Surveys of Iraqis consistently show they want us out.

It is hard to see though what we can now do in Pakistan to defeat Islamic extremism. A few surgical strikes against the leaders of al Qaeda might be effective but it might also inflame anti-American passions and thus prove counterproductive. Following the Vietnam model and placing hundreds of thousands of our troops there will not solve our problem either for the same reason the British lost the Revolutionary War: there is too much terrain to occupy. It is ruinously expensive to occupy any territory indefinitely, as we are finding out in Iraq. Just as Vietnam endured a civil war, so Pakistan is grappling with what looks like its own internal war. Foremost, we would like to ensure that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons never get into the wrong hands. However, it is unlikely that the Pakistani government will trust them to our safekeeping.

Thanks to Bush Administration bungling, our short-term options are now bleak. We may have to support Musharraf even though he is likely to continue to give democracy the short shrift. We would do so on the assumption that a dictatorship is preferable to wholesale anarchy. We can also keep pushing for democracy but it is tacitly understood that we will only be cheering for it from the sidelines and will not do anything meaningful to allow it to flourish. As we have learned in Iraq and Palestine, we have to be careful what we wish for. A democratic government in Pakistan may not be aligned with our national interests. However, it is likely that an enduring democratic government in Pakistan would promote long-term peace in the region.

As I have mentioned in other entries this war on terror cannot not won on the battlefield. It is a generational war that fades into gradual irrelevance by uplifting lives. The real causes of Islamic terrorism are not religious, but are a result of the persistent and pervasive feelings of hopelessness and the miserable living conditions within much of the Islamic world. To some extent, these conditions are fed by not embracing Western capitalistic values. (Note that few people in prosperous Qatar want to see the regime replaced.) Until governments there change to embrace the needs of the people, radical clerics will find they have a ready audience.

The United States must look long term. It is in our interest to quietly facilitate and fund as much humanitarian aid for the disenfranchised as possible in the Islamic world. This does not mean giving billions to Halliburton, but it does mean working discreetly with non-governmental organizations in the region and funding organizations like the Red Crescent to ensure they have the capital to change conditions on the ground. We also need to make our foreign aid conditional on meeting benchmarks for improving the living standards of people in a country. This conflict is about how Islam will fit into the 21st century. Right now, we are being used as proxies to inflame the conflict. We must change the dynamic and Pakistan is likely its front.

 
The Thinker

Barack Obama for President

As you know, you have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
Camp Buehring, Kuwait
December 8, 2004

Waiting around for the perfect presidential candidate is like waiting for Godot. In 2004, Howard Dean came very close to being my perfect presidential candidate. In 2008, I find no such candidate. However, as the primary season approaches, I have to pick someone.

I have finally worked through my issues with the candidates and have chosen to vote for Barack Obama. He is not the ideal candidate but he is the best choice. I might add that during this election cycle, Democrats are truly blessed. We have a bumper crop of genuinely fine candidates from which to select. All have their warts and pimples. None of the group, from my perspective is an ideal candidate. Any of the first or second tier candidates would make good presidents. Any would be a quantum leap over the miserable failure currently occupying the White House.

Hillary Clinton, for all the brickbats she would bring as the Democratic Party’s nominee, has been battle tested. She made some serious mistakes in the political roles she played at First Lady and as senator (particularly on the Iraq War Resolution). Yet she remains smart, capable, personable and pragmatic. I personally like the idea of a woman president. I think the time has come for a woman president, particularly as I discover in my own life that the most effective leaders I know are women. She may have baggage associated with her husband, but I suspect she would make a fine president.

John Edwards gets an A for enthusiasm, for having a firm grasp of reality, and for championing the rights of the poor and disenfranchised. In my mind he is the most Democratic of the Democrats in the race, almost a Franklin D. Roosevelt reincarnated. He just oozes passion. I could enthusiastically line up behind John Edward except for his vote on the Iraq War Resolution. He admits the vote was a mistake. We all learn from mistakes but this one was a whopper. It led to the biggest foreign policy mistake in the history of our country. I can forgive John, but not enough to endorse him. As in 2004, I think he would be an excellent Vice Presidential candidate. I just do not think John would accept the position again.

Of all the candidates, Bill Richardson is the only one who can credibly claim he has both the knowledge and experience to be president. In all of his jobs, from New Mexico governor to U.N. Ambassador, Bill has excelled. He is also decent and humble. Bill though has a few problems that make me leery endorsing him. First, he has said things that made him sound like a homophobe. Second, he might have the knowledge and experience, but he does not communicate his position passionately enough to either lead or inspire people. Bill is an excellent manager. Throw a big and nasty problem at him and he will solve it. He would be an excellent Secretary of State or Secretary of Homeland Security. The presidency though requires a certain style of leadership that I just do not see in him. Perhaps I am wrong. The president should be both an excellent manager and an excellent leader.

Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd are both are experienced and capable senators but simply have not caught the interest of the public. There is nothing compelling in either of their resumes that suggests they deserve a promotion to the Oval Office. Dennis Kucinich is unelectable, as is Mike Gravel.

Which leaves Barack Obama. I have my concerns about Obama too. Like Bill Clinton, he may be reaching for the brass ring a little too early in life. A few years as a state senator and as a U.S. senator are hardly the sterling qualifications necessary to be our next president. What makes Obama different in my mind is that of all the candidates he is the one who behaves the most like a genuine leader. In these perilous times, we need a leader that can pull us in their wake. He or she must do this while also moving us in a positive direction that moves us back into the international mainstream, addresses the root causes of terrorism, and moves us toward taking real action on global warming. We need someone with sound judgment who also truly grasps the nuances of the bigger picture. In short, we desperately need a president with real intellect and mojo. I have some concerns that Obama’s mojo may be more for show than real, but overall I feel comfortable that it is real.

The true test of leadership is to see if a candidate made the right judgments in difficult times. He may have been just a state senator at the time, but when the Iraq War resolution came up, Barack Obama was one of a handful of people who swam against the tide. He said going after Saddam Hussein while our real enemies were in Afghanistan and Pakistan did not make any sense. He spoke out passionately against going on this ill-advised war. Almost without exception, the rest of the candidates went along with conventional wisdom. They went toward political safety while I am sure many in their hearts knew the war would be a debacle. This is not leadership. This is triangulation.

There may be some dirt on Obama out there, but if so, I have not read it. About twice as many people feel positive about him as feel negative about him. Given his ability to inspire and his Reaganesque ability to communicate with the masses, he becomes a compelling candidate. If he wins the nomination, I think he is a shoe in to win the general election. Moreover, I think he will bring many new progressives into national office in his wake. I think he is the best candidate running in our perilous times and the one most likely to restore the progressive government we desperately need.

If Al Gore were running, I would vote for him over Obama. Since I must vote for one the candidates we have, Barack Obama looks like the obvious choice. I suspect I am one of many voters puzzling out the candidates and reaching this general conclusion. This suggests, contrary to my earlier analysis that Hillary Clinton’s star is fading.

If you have not made up your mind, I encourage you to consider my analysis. I hope you will join me in voting for Barack Obama for President.

 
The Thinker

Send me to the Democratic National Convention!

Am I a good enough of a blogger to go to the 2008 Democratic National Convention? I don’t know, but I intend to find out. The New York Times reports that the Democratic National Convention Committee plans to be more inclusive toward bloggers at next year’s convention. While it will likely be more fun for bloggers to be across the street at ProgressCon2008, I am still intrigued with the idea of being a blogger at the Democratic National Convention. The convention is scheduled for the Pepsi Center in Denver from August 25-28th, 2008.

Starting in just one week the DNCC will begin taking applications from bloggers, who can apply to attend as either state or general bloggers. I will most likely have to apply as a general blogger. The application process will end on April 15th. It is likely that the number of bloggers given credentials will be in the dozens, not the hundreds, which unfortunately makes my chances of getting in rather minute.

Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I do have some good credentials. I am about to start my sixth year of blogging and few bloggers out there can say that. I have written close to 250 political posts in those years, or roughly one third of all my blog entries. Nor am I your typical blogger. No three line blog entries with misspelled words and punctuation for me. If I attend the DNC, my readers will get the high level of writing and perspective likely unavailable on many other blogs.

In the event that I am selected, it will not be a cheap event. Doubtless, the hoteliers will push up their rates for the duration of the convention. Airfares will be steep too. When I add in my other costs, this event could easily cost me $2000. This makes me wonder whether my readers would help subsidize the cost of my trip. Would having Occam’s Razor at the DNC be worth paying for? Perhaps you can let me know in the comments. If it looks viable and I am selected, I may solicit donations by putting up a PayPal Donate button.

How newsworthy will the convention be? If recent history is any guide, there will be little news to cover. The Democratic presidential candidate is likely to be selected by February. The vice presidential pick will likely follow within a few months. The reason to go to the convention is simply for the unique experience it presents. After all, it is an event that only happens every four years. Moreover, virtually any Democrat of significance will be there.

What would intrigue me the most though would not be meeting these Democratic luminaries, most of whom are likely to be too busy to shake my hand. I am more interested in documenting the atmosphere of the convention. Only a few of us have the opportunity to attend a national political convention, and in general, you have to be willing to spend years working with your state and locate political committees to get on the convention floor. Yet it sounds like the DNCC might allow bloggers access to the convention floor. Television is no substitute for being present. I want to take it all it in so that through my eyes you can be there too.

Probably next April I will let you know whether I was selected.

 
The Thinker

The Rise of Soft Power

When I first read this story in the Washington Post this week, I felt the need to check my glasses. Surely, I needed a new prescription because I read that our Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates was promoting soft power. Poor Donald Rumseld must have had a heart tremor when he read this story. Surely, Gates’ speech this week at Kansas State University, was one of those “unknown known” threats that Rumsfeld had rambled about when he was Secretary of Defense. Gates’ words must have risen the hair on his head and the heads of everyone in the Pentagon’s E corridor. Say it ain’t so, Mr. Secretary!

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called yesterday for a “dramatic increase” in the U.S. budget for diplomacy and foreign aid, arguing that al-Qaeda does a better job than Washington of communicating its message overseas and that U.S. deployment of civilians abroad has been “ad hoc and on the fly.”

In a speech that emphasized the importance of “soft power” to prevent and end conflicts, Gates suggested beefing up the State Department’s foreign affairs budget of $36 billion, even as he acknowledged that Pentagon observers might consider it “blasphemy” for a sitting defense secretary to make such an appeal for another agency.

What is shocking is that in the insular world of the Pentagon, where the mantra has always been that all national security problems can be won if necessary by wielding the Pentagon’s vast military and intelligence machine, its top man was saying this was no longer true.

“One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win,” said Gates, delivering the annual Landon Lecture at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. The wars of the future, he said, are likely to be “fundamentally political in nature” and will not be solved by military means alone.

I think inside the Pentagon, on Monday a paradigm shifted without a clutch. For many of the rest of us though, this is hardly news.

Yes, of course future wars cannot be solved by military means. I mean, duh! We did not need to invade Iraq to find this out. It is just now, 65 years after the Voice of America was created that the Pentagon has finally acknowledged the obvious. Wars are political conflicts. In today’s world, using military might to achieve political results is by far the least effective way of getting the results you want. It is also the most expensive way, if it can be done at all. War as we practice it today is the manifestation of the late Isaac Asimov’s belief, embodied in his character Hari Seldon that “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

When the dogma no longer fits the real world, we need better dogma. Soft power should be our new dogma. Soft power, typically exercised through diplomacy does not always work. Rarely do all parties in a dispute come out victorious when conflicts are resolved diplomatically. However, diplomacy does have some advantages. First, diplomacy does not kill anyone. Second, it costs pennies on the dollar (if that) compared to warfare. Third, since wars are the military manifestation of political conflicts, until the political issues are resolved the war does not really end. It may have the appearance of ending but instead it will eventually return. Adolph Hitler understood this. That is why he instigated genocide as his “final solution” to the perceived problem of the Jews and others. It is why the Huns and the Mongrels left no survivors when they pillaged Europe. They may have been bloodthirsty, but they were not stupid.

Now of course the world is much more populous and multiethnic. The atomic bomb was a neat trick but really, you could use it to win a war just once. To win conflicts in today’s world, you have to win hearts and minds. You do not do it by bombing people back into the Stone Age. It is good that our brave troops in Iraq have stemmed a lot of violence there, but do not mistake a lessening of violence with success. The political quagmire in Iraq is as confounding as even, with few signs that it will be resolved any time soon. Our invasion of Iraq merely allowed the centuries old animosities to resume. It is highly unlikely that anything that this country can do can resolve these political conflicts, although we should try.

The new reality, as I mentioned in an earlier entry, is that the United States alone cannot dictate the order of the world. It is folly for us to try. We squander more than half a trillion dollars a year annually on a defense budget in an attempt to ask the military to do for us what it cannot. Essentially, the military can blow up stuff and kill people. At great expense, it can hold land and the skies. It is most effective in a defensive role, such as keeping incoming missiles from hitting the United States. Our power will be based on our willingness to join up with other states and organizations of like mind. We will win through collaboration and negotiation. However, winning will not mean surrendering our goals. Instead, it will mean understanding that partial winning is okay because mutual accommodation in win-win, and win-win fosters a long term collaborative climate. At best, victory will be getting 80% of what we want. We will never get 100% again.

Secretary Gates is right. We need to become adept at exercising soft power again. It is a skill we lost sometime in the early Reagan years, but it is one that we can acquire again. We saw its manifestation after World War II in the Marshall Plan and in alliances that kept the Cold War from exploding into a real war. Frankly, in our new reality we need only a fraction of our armed forces. Much of our armed forces are engaged in futile work: preparing as best they can to win types of wars we are unlikely to win again. Instead, money should be redirected to keep small problems from exploding into larger problems. We could use some of our defense money to stem the tide of AIDS in Africa and improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians. To the extent we can win, we will win through a strategy of prevention and international cooperation.

The United States will never again win a conventional war. However, we will “win” through preventing wars from occurring in the first place. Robert Gates understands this. If only our other leaders would too.

 
The Thinker

Presidential candidate marriages under the microscope

I know it should not bother me but it does. Fred Thompson is running for president. Fred is 65. His wife, the former Jeri Kehn is 41. Fred, at age 65 is looking, well, old, as in grandfatherly. Jeri looks like a fashion model. Perhaps when you are 24 years younger than your husband is this is to be expected. There is no question though. Jeri is a babe. Fred knows how to pick the lookers.

When it comes to May-December marriages, Fred is not the leader of presidential candidate pack. Think about one presidential candidate, Republican or Democratic, who you think is least likely not only to be married (secretly you think he is gay) but even if he were married, would have a much younger spouse? Raise your hand if Dennis Kucinich comes to mind. You are, by the way, spectacularly wrong. Dennis is on his third marriage. Dennis may be 61, but his far left leaning vegetarian lifestyle bought him quite a filly. She would be Elizabeth Jane Harper, born in 1977, whose resume includes working in Mother Teresa’s orphanages as well as the British House of Lords. She just turned 30.

I started this blog post thinking that if Republicans are the party of family values then their presidential candidates should not have as many divorces under their belt as the Democratic candidates. Conversely, Democrats, because they are left leaning liberals should have candidates rife with multiple divorces. Yet surveying the seven current Republican and seven current Democratic candidates, the presidential candidates for both parties are equally as likely to have been divorced. In this sense, both parties are fielding candidates who well represent the public on marriage, where approximately half of our marriages end up in divorce.

If you are interested, my statistics are summarized in a table in the extended entry. My survey should be taken with a grain of salt, since it involved about an hour of web surfing, much of it on Wikipedia whose veracity sometimes can be questioned. (If you find errors, please send them to me so I can correct them. Please note that Joe Biden’s first wife died in an automobile accident, so he has never been divorced even though he is on his second wife.) Many of the candidate’s spouses are good at hiding their ages from prying Internet eyes.

Rudy Giuliani and Dennis Kucinich might not appear to have much in common, but they top their party’s candidate lists in the number of divorces: two each. Which party prefers younger spouses? At least with the current crop of candidates, Republicans seem to like their wives younger. I was unable to find information on the ages of the wives of Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul and Tom Tancredo, but it appears their wives are close to their own ages. On the Democratic side, Joe Biden, Mike Gravel, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson seem to have wives not anxious to reveal their ages. Based on the incomplete information I do have, Republican wives tend to be 11 years younger than their spouses are. On the Democratic side, the difference in ages between candidates and their spouses is 7.75 years. Among Republicans, John McCain is 18 years older than his spouse Cindy is, and Rudy Giuliani is 11 years older than his third wife Judi is.

Dennis Kucinich skews the statistics on the Democratic side. If I could ignore his candidacy (and most of us do), the Democratic candidates would show no average difference in ages at all with their wives. John Edwards’s wife Elizabeth is actually four years older than he is. Barack Obama’s wife Michelle is three years younger.

Most of us assume that John McCain is the oldest of all the candidates running. In fact, he is the third oldest. Mike Gravel is the oldest at 77. (He is also, I was surprised to learn, a fellow Unitarian Universalist. No wonder he has no chance of winning.) The favorite candidate of the Libertarians, Ron Paul, running as a Republican, comes in second at 72. John McCain is 71. Barack Obama is the youngest candidate at 46. The average age of Republican candidates is 63. The average age for Democratic candidates is 60.

Given the small sample set, there is not too much I can say with authority about presidential candidates. The evidence does suggest that Republicans running for president prefer much younger spouses and Democrats prefer spouses around their own age. So perhaps the Democrats can accurately state that their candidates are more representative of traditional family values. Who’d have thunk? Read the rest of this entry »

 
The Thinker

Why Al won’t run

There is depressing news for progressives and Democrats like me who want Al Gore to run for President. It looks like Al Gore is really, sincerely not going to run for President in 2008. How do we know this? It could be from Al’s periodic statements that he has no “current plans” to run for President. Hope springs eternal in the heart of his supporters though until, at last, events crush them. With many crucial filing deadlines for the 2008 presidential primary past and with Al Gore taking no action he is giving us another inconvenient truth: whoever wins the presidency a year from now will not be him.

Many of us ask why? Why Al? You are on top of the world! A movie on your quest to bring attention to global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, won an Oscar. You have won a Webby Award (for interactive technology) and Quill awards in two consecutive years, one for your latest global warming book. You are also sharing this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for your strident advocacy on addressing global warming. You have set an example of how to live a carbon neutral life. You are opening an environmentally friendly investment firm. You are likely to be Time magazine’s 2007 Person of the Year. The American public, recently skeptical of your global warming hypothesis, now ranks global warming as one of its most important and urgent issues. Al, your time is right to claim the mantle that was denied you in 2000. Yet you are not interested in being president, at least not this time around, despite the fact that as president you could probably do far more to solve the global warming problem than you ever will with your movie, your books, your public speaking and your Nobel Peace Prize.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Al Gore asked those like me who are clamoring for his candidacy to be patient and to trust his judgment. By deferring on the presidency, is Al Gore smarter than we think? Why would someone whose personal approval rating is likely close to where President Bush’s was after 9/11 not leverage his sound insight, foresight, wisdom and considerable political skills while he has the most leverage and his country desperately needs him?

The more I think of Al Gore’s remark, the more I am starting to grasp why he said what he did to Rolling Stone. For as much as many of us would embrace him now, Al understands that this country is just waking up to the magnitude of sacrifices required to address global warming. Most Americans, if they have given global warming any thought at all, think that maybe it can be solved by switching their incandescent lights to fluorescent lights and driving a hybrid.

In fact, these are just baby steps that more than anything show that we just don’t get it. Americans do not yet appreciate the degree of sacrifice that is really required to address global warming. Until we feel its magnitude, Al Gore realizes that rather than helping the cause he is libel to end up hurting it. Moreover, we would eventually despise him for what we perceive to be his obsessiveness on the issue. I think that is why he is not running for president.

For if Al Gore were elected president, we would soon see him as Bad News Al. President Bush’s current approval ratings would soon look good in contrast. Gore would encourage us to make changes to our lifestyle that we simply are not yet willing to make. To win the global climate challenge, if it can be done at all, America and the world will have to fundamentally reinvent itself. We will have to halt destructive generational patterns that have never been halted before. Moreover, because this is America and it is the land of the free, we must convince ourselves that it is in our best interest to do this. To make this change, we first need to experience more and stronger negative effects from global warming. It has to seer into our consciences. Many of us are still living in the Ronald Reagan mindset that if we smile enough and think enough happy thoughts, it will always be Morning in America. To address global warming though we need to grasp the reality that we must make the sun set on our lifestyles. We have to develop the mindset of sustained personal and community sacrifice lasting generations. We have to embrace consuming less, smaller families and get comfortable with the notion that our days of living large are behind us.

For Americans, freedom is demonstrated through rampant consumerism and easy mobility. We want more money so we can buy more things and live ever more opulent lifestyles. We want the freedom to go where we want when we want, and that means having a car, not taking the Greyhound. While we can and must take important steps like develop more fuel-efficient cars, they mean little as long as we keep indulging in our selfish habits. Principally we have to stop breeding so much. Zero population growth is just one step in addressing global warming. Today there are about 6.5 billion people on the planet. Even if we could achieve zero population growth, we would still be in for an environmental catastrophe. Unfortunately, we need negative population growth, sustained for many generations, combined with smart technologies, less consumption and a smaller footprint on the planet. If we can do this then perhaps the planet has a chance of recovering.

We have many lessons to learn, but it will be devilishly hard to both take these to heart and make these efforts work globally. If we can do it, no achievement in the history of humanity will be more important or speak as highly for our species. If we fail, and all trends suggest that we will fail, we will eventually be the source of our own undoing, as well as the undoing of much of the known life on this planet. Our adventures in Iraq will seem like child’s play compared to the ugly, overpopulated, resource constrained and increasingly war-torn world ahead of us.

I think Al Gore quietly understands all of this but does not want to scare us by stating this openly. Nonetheless, I think he remains hopeful. The first part in addressing any large problem is to get beyond denial. In this country, I think we are mostly beyond that phase. The harder part will be moving toward the resolution phase. When we are ready culturally and mentally to make these tough choices, I think Al will be ready to be the leader we need. This process must play out. If it can play out quickly enough before Al ages too much then as our president, he will be a natural fit. He is probably ready to be that president. The problem is we are not yet ready for him.

 
The Thinker

The measure of a democracy

Here in America we are trained to look down on our lawyers. We assume that lawyers are just petty ambulance chasers. We think they are eager to bend justice for their clients but only if it also obscenely increases their fortunes. We do not understand how anyone can justify billing rates of $200 or $300 an hour by doing something as dry as reading dusty old law books. Sometimes we grudgingly express appreciation for those lawyers who attempt to provide equal justice to the poor. We do so while sometimes also expressing unhappiness if their justice was purchased with our tax dollars.

On Capitol Hill, the Republican Party seems to have an animosity toward trial lawyers. This is curious since the ranks of Congress are rife with lawyers. Nonetheless, when trial lawyers are successful suing corporations for what are perceived to be excessive punitive damages, Republicans tend to get their dander up. Tort reform is usually near the top of their agenda, right after tax cuts. Greed may be good on Wall Street, but not when their actions affect stock values.

We want to believe that lawyers are simply unnecessary. We want to think that we should be able to reach agreements without having to legalize it with these complex paper instruments we call contracts. The reality is that we need lawyers. Laws and contracts may be time consuming and expensive but they also remove legal ambiguity. Imagine the potential mess of a business merger without an enforceable contact hammered out by lawyers. Imagine if you willed your estate to your family but they ended up inheriting nothing because a judge decided arbitrarily to ignore your will. It is not obvious but, yes, we really do need lawyers. They are part of the epoxy that allows society to function in a predictable way.

In William Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Dick suggests to the rebel Jack Cade that an excellent way to start an insurrection is to kill all the lawyers first. Dick may have been on to something. Lawyers are the gears that make the law work. Without lawyers, anarchy or dictatorships become possible. Most of us do not choose careers that we hate. The same is true with lawyers. It is likely that most lawyers are drawn to the law because they respect it. That so many lawyers populate Congress is likely due to their fascination with the law. (It also does not hurt that lawyers frequently have enough disposable income and the connections to be able to run for Congress in the first place.)

Perhaps like me you were stirred by the recent events in Pakistan. I was not surprised that with his grip on power loosening, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf would find it convenient to suspend the constitution and lock up most of his political opponents. Like most of us democrats, I was upset. Yet I was also very moved to see opposition arise almost immediately. Who led the opposition? They were the Pakistan’s lawyers, who marched in the streets by the thousands. By standing up for their democracy, they literally put their lives on the line. In fact, it is likely that at least hundreds of them are now in prison for doing so. So far, it appears that most of Pakistan’s masses have yet to become engaged in the struggle for democracy. The lawyers are proving to be the phalanx for the restoration of the rule of law in Pakistan. It is also clear from footage of their marches that they are passionate believers in the law and in democracy. As they proved some months ago when they stood up to Musharraf in support of their chief justice, they have the courage of their convictions.

I wish our many lawyers in our Congress had similar courage. In their case, much less courage is required. Yet most of them appear spineless. Today, for example, with the shameful support of a handful of Democratic senators, the Senate approved the nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey as our new Attorney General. Senators approved the nomination even though Mukasey could not assure them that waterboarding was a form of torture. As egregious as this was, Mukasey also stated his belief that the President might have inherent powers that puts him beyond the reach of the law. Somewhere up there, Richard Nixon has an evil smile on his face.

Fifty-six men were signatories to the Declaration of Independence. Twenty-four of them were either lawyers or jurists. In the declaration, they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to establish a new democracy called the United States of America. These were not just idle words. The British Army hunted down these signatories as treasonous rebels. If captured they would have paid with their lives. Some of them paid that price. Others spent the Revolutionary War constantly on the run leaving behind ruined families and businesses. Only one of those patriots, Thomas Jefferson, would survive and rise to become President of the United States.

I wish we had patriots in our Congress like this. We have many patriots in uniform overseas and I certainly do not mean to discount their patriotism. Thousands have died for their country, tens of thousands have been wounded, most on a mission in Iraq that will probably prove in vain. Their patriotism is beyond dispute. The least we could do to honor their sacrifices is to demonstrate patriotism by respecting the rule of the law in this country.

Congress can start by not allowing the telephone companies who broke wiretapping laws at the behest of the Bush Administration to get retroactive immunity for their illegal actions. It can do much better than this. Rather than just refer Representative Dennis Kucinich’s bill to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney to committee, where it will linger until this administration leaves office, it can press forward with real impeachment hearings. It can send a signal both to this administration and to future administrations that the egregious and unlawful unilateral expansion of executive powers by the Bush Administration will never be tolerated again.

Those courageous lawyers in Pakistan know that respect and adherence to the rule the law is the difference between civilization and anarchy. This is a lesson we should relearn now more than two hundred years into our own democratic experiment. If freedom is not free, neither is the equal application of the law. Our pragmatic founding fathers at least gave the branches of government power to check excessive power grabs by the other branches. It is long past time for the Congress, on behalf of the people who it serves, to restore the rule of law in clear and unambiguous terms.

 
The Thinker

But what’s in the package?

As readers know, I am having a bad case of candidate commitment phobia. With so many candidates to choose from in the coming presidential election there should be one candidate that stands out for me and for whom I can wholeheartedly support. Yet I remain leery.My most likely useful contribution to the primary process will be contributing money. Virginia is not scheduled to have its Democratic primary until February 12th. This will be after Super Tuesday by which time (in all likelihood) the nominee will be chosen. Thus, my vote will probably be meaningless. So here I am with checkbook in hand, desperately wanting to write in some candidate’s name that I can wholeheartedly endorse and finding myself unable to do so.

Since I am a Democrat, it is unlikely that I will be voting for a Republican. Among the Democratic candidates, there is not an obvious flake in the whole bunch except for Dennis Kucinich. In fact, the potential nominees are much better than we typically get. I see virtues in all of them.

Hillary Clinton likely shares her husband’s deep pragmatism. Bill’s pragmatism, called triangulation was much scorned by Republicans, but it also made him very effective. This suggests that (despite suggestions to the contrary) Hillary could be very effective working with Congress. Barack Obama is blessed with high intelligence, a natural eloquence and the ability to connect with people. John Edwards is running as a born again populist candidate and an agent of change. As today’s recent Washington Post/ABC News poll indicates, more than anything else voters want change. Bill Richardson offers expertise at both the state level and at the international level that no candidate of either party can match. Arguably, these skills in a president could be crucial to our country. Joe Biden may be a Washington insider, but you do not have to listen to him very long to understand he has a complete grasp of the full complexity of politics and international relations. Moreover, he has sound and well thought out strategies for solving our most crucial problems. Chris Dodd is also a long time senator, but with solid records on progressive issues. Mike Gravel, according to an online survey I took, aligns most closely with my views on issues.

I notice that when I am in a restaurant I have a hard deciding on my entrée. When forced, I tend to make a snap decision, which is usually whatever I was most recently looking at on the menu. A few minutes after I order, I want to change my order. Of course, by then it is too late. I may like what I order or I may loathe it. However, in general I find that my entrée rarely lived up to my expectation.

Perhaps this natural inclination of mine is why I am leery to open my checkbook. Yet I have succeeded in prying it open a bit. I have given John Edwards $150. Despite his tone of voice, his eloquence and his stands on the issues, I remain leery of Edwards. Part of it may be his bad call on the Iraq War Resolution. I like what John Edwards is saying, but I am wondering if he is being disingenuous. Why did he not hold these positions back in 2004? I know that if I vote for John, that I will be buying the John Edwards for President package. Yet as is true of all the candidates I really am not sure of what is inside. Instead, I am relying on candidates to tell me truthfully who they are. This is sort of like relying on the veracity of the Bible because it is the Bible.

My ideal candidate would be totally transparent. I want no nefarious Richard M. Nixon as my next president. I know when asked questions that candidates are quick to say what they will do. I want to know in advance what they actually will do. Historically there have been poor correlations between a candidate’s views during the campaign and their actual actions once in office.

One of the reasons in 2004 that I was drawn to Howard Dean was that in my gut I knew he was sincere and authentic. This rarely happens with me. I feel some vindication because he was proven right on the issues. I also feel vindicated by the sterling job he has done as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He has stepped on many toes, many of them inside the beltway, but those toes really needed to be stepped on. Complacency was killing the party. He is succeeding in his grass roots effort to reinvigorate the Democratic Party. He convinced people like me to help fund this work. I felt the results were on display during the 2006 election.

So I am keeping my political ears close to the wind. I am waiting to get that gut feeling. It is not coming. So, like when I examine a menu, I almost feel like I need to pick a random candidate, give them some money, and hope for the best. On the other hand, perhaps I should just keep my checkbook closed. Why spend money on a candidate who is likely to lose? Even if they win, will I have a case of buyer’s remorse?

I am very weary of snake oil selling politicians, which is to say politicians in general. I am particularly wary of politicians blessed with eloquence. Barack Obama is this way. He can mesmerize any audience. I am not surprised that he has legions of devoted followers. They all seem anxious to give him whatever spare change they can, as well as to petition their neighbors and friends. I love listening to Obama give speeches. I think it would be great to have a president who could communicate so well with so many different audiences. Yet I am deeply skeptical on whether he would be an effective president. Perhaps like a snake oil salesman or an eloquent preacher he can keep us in his spell. However, getting us to believe in him is not the same thing as doing what is in the nation’s best interest.

The presidency is perhaps the most complex job in the world. In my humble opinion, it is the kind of job which if you say you want it you should automatically be disqualified. It is too hard. Perhaps experience makes it less daunting, but I believe it is a bit like being someone licensed to fly single engine aircrafts being told to fly a Boeing 747. I believe that there is no real preparation for it other than to experience it.

Perhaps this is why if Hillary Clinton becomes president I may not be too upset. As First Lady, Hillary actually lived inside the White House. Rather than spending days baking cookies, she was deeply embroiled in her husband’s policies. She understands the presidency like probably no other candidate. In short, I doubt she will have a high learning curve. She will probably be able to hit the ground running. Being First Lady is not necessarily a great qualification for being president, but it is not necessary a bad one either. It worked for Christina Fernandez, who was recently elected the new president of Argentina. She is succeeding her husband, Néstor Carlos Kirchner. Like Hillary Clinton, Christina also happens to be quite attractive.

In a subsequent post, I hope to write more about the relationship between beauty and politics. For now, I simply ask you to consider these points.

  • Candidates may think they have the country’s best interests a heart, but they also love power. They love it the same way an alcoholic loves Jack Daniels. I believe all of them have egos the size of King Kong. Maybe that is good because it provides the fuel for a very demanding job. However, it is also dangerous because it really means they are much, much different from you and me.
  • Do not let your passion for a candidate overrule your common sense. I see this particularly with Barack Obama and John Edwards’ supporters. Candidates who achieve cult status are often the best at presenting a façade. Both Obama and Edwards may be completely sincere. Understand though that they are also excellent actors. They have learned how to enter a room and mesmerize every one in it. In short, they are master manipulators. Consequently, you are probably seeing a projected image of a politician, and not the person himself.
  • Having said the above, in the end it is okay to trust your gut feelings. Just make sure it is a real gut feeling. A gut feeling for a candidate will not swoop you away with a sense of love-like euphoria. Instead, like a well-matched mate, you will feel an alignment on all levels. If you find someone like this, he or she deserves your vote.

I wish I could feel this way. Right now, my gut says to be wary of all of them. Therefore, I dither. I hope that by dithering I am not making a mistake. It may be that as a consequence our next president will be selected based on how passionate people feel about them rather than how well we believe he or she will actually govern. Given the stakes in the 2008 election, this could be a deadly mistake.

 
The Thinker

Needed: a Department of Managed Growth

Freedom, bumper stickers often inform us, is not free. Freedom is not free but stupidity can be very expensive. For example, the Congressional Budget Office is suggesting that the eventual cost our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be end up costing taxpayers $2.4 trillion dollars. That is quite a bill to future taxpayers (since of course we will not increase taxes) for unnecessarily invading Iraq. The lesson of the Vietnam War should have informed us that our war would be folly. However, we let our paranoia and patriotism override our common sense. Speaking for future taxpayers: ouch!

Life tends to teach us useful personal lessons. It only takes one episode of being locked out of your home to always remember to bring your house key. However, collectively we often seem incapable of learning from our mistakes. Albert Einstein once said that insanity was repeating your mistakes expecting different results. Apparently, we prefer collective insanity. More than a thousand homes in Southern California were burned to the ground this week because of a fires fueled by a persistent drought and Santa Ana winds. Most likely, all these houses will be rebuilt where they used to stand, not with fireproof materials, but with combustible materials. Given that the geography of Southern California is unlikely to change, there are good odds that these same homes will be burned to the ground again. I would not be surprised if some of these thousand homes had been rebuilt once before because of previous fires. Logic would suggest that we require that houses built in these areas be fire resistant and have vegetation free buffers. Most likely, these houses will be rebuilt with little thought to future consequences. Moreover, to increase their houses’ sales values most homeowners will ensure they are landscaped with nice combustible trees and bushes.

Not as much in New Orleans itself, but certainly along much of the path of Hurricane Katrina, homes and businesses are being rebuilt. Here too the lure of those sandy beaches and warm climates seems to be overriding our common sense. Perhaps their building standards will be tightened a bit. Yet should another hurricane of Katrina’s size hit this area again it is likely that most of these homes and buildings will again be destroyed. Logic would dictate that if homes are to be rebuilt they should be rebuilt at least thirty miles inland, beyond the storm surge and the most dangerous winds. However, we insist on our freedom to live where we want, no matter how stupid and preventable our decision is.

Georgia and Alabama are suffering from record drought. As noted in a front-page story in today’s Washington Post, Lake Lanier in Georgia, which feeds the water supply of three states, is disappearing. Atlanta has less than three months of water reserves. Have any of these inconvenient truths done anything to taper home construction around Atlanta? Not a chance!

The greater Phoenix and Las Vegas metropolitan areas are growing at phenomenal rates. Both cities are supporting populations far in excess of their natural water supply. Both Las Vegas and Phoenix depend on water from the Colorado River. The Colorado River is so over-tapped that in many months of the year it dries up before it hits the Pacific Ocean. Phoenix gets its public water from a hundreds mile long aqueduct. Consequently, much of Southwestern America is dependent on a water supply from a single source, which is already often over-utilized. Yet housing construction in these cities continues at a feverish pace.

Here in the Washington metropolitan area more and more housing goes up in ever more distant exurbs, none of which is accessible to public transportation. Should we have another oil embargo, or if we simply cannot afford to pay the jacked up prices for our petroleum-based lifestyle these communities will be financially wrecked. These communities are also going up with little thought about whether the electrical grid will be able to support all this new demand.

If freedom isn’t free, perhaps we should acknowledge that we are not paying the true costs of our recklessness. Currently we largely depend on state and local governments to sort out growth issues. In many cases, these governments are not really managing growth. Instead, they are reacting to it. Population growth seems unstoppable. People have to live somewhere. It is easier for government officials to acquiesce.

The United States urgently needs a new Department of Managed Growth. If we have to grow to support our burgeoning population then we should at least grow intelligently. We need clear standards that must be met before an area can be developed. What is the likelihood of a hurricane hitting a given portion of the coastline? How should this inform housing construction in these areas? Which areas of the country have plentiful and redundant public water supplies? For those that do not, how do we ensure they get the water they need from elsewhere? Perhaps we should offer incentives for growth to occur where the resources can meet the growth. Perhaps we need disincentives, if not outright prohibitions on growth occurring in areas where the water supply is in jeopardy.

Perhaps we need development penalties. Right now if you build in a hurricane-prone area, you may not be able to get private flood insurance, but you can get federal flood insurance. Maybe we need to stop extending federal flood insurance to new homes, or perhaps just get rid of the program altogether. The government should not be subsidizing the cost of making obviously stupid personal choices. For example, if you want to build that house on the Gulf shore, it should only be allowed if you can self-insure your property.

With growth comes concern about the availability of fresh water. In many areas, there are not enough rivers and lakes to provide water for public use. How much ground water is available in a given area? At what rate can it be tapped so that it is sustainable? Here my agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, can help. In addition to its renowned work in the area of earthquakes, an even bigger portion of it (the part that I work for) measures and monitors the nation’s surface water, ground water and water quality. The system I manage has much of this information available free to the public. The USGS Climate Response Network compares levels in wells with historical averages. This information can inform land use planners. From my perspective (and I am speaking for myself, not in any official capacity) this is an un-sexy area that needs much more funding. I hope the government decides to move ahead with a water census for the nation. Sending humans to Mars may be a worthwhile endeavor, but arguably making sure we have aligned our public water supplies with our population is far more important.

This nation will thrive in the 21st century by applying intelligence to our inevitable growth. It is how we will stay ahead of other national like China. While overall we do a better job of managing growth than most nations, we are also far behind more enlightened countries like those in the European Union. This has given the EU a strong competitive advantage. The economic consequences and personal pain due to natural events, much of it preventable, simply wastes our resources and works to our competitive disadvantage.

To effect real change we need to change. We need new laws that recognize that the effects of population growth and global warming must be managed holistically. Unfortunately for Republicans, these sorts of issues cannot be wholly sorted out at the state and local levels. They require national and in some cases international management. That is why other efforts I am tangentially involved in, like systems of systems being developed to monitor the world’s oceans, are critical not just for our nation, but for the world.

First things first. We need to rethink how growth is managed in this country. Yes, it will tick off many people with short-term mindsets and dollar signs in their eyes. For our nation’s future, and for the benefit of future generations who will suffer due to our short-term thinking, we must manage growth much more intelligently.

 
The Thinker

I smell a cover up

Curiouser and curiouser. Just how far down the rabbit hole does this domestic spying business go anyhow?

If the Bush Administration has its way, not even the Congress will know. Well, maybe a few key members of Congress with the proper clearance will know. Of course, because publicly revealing their knowledge would be a crime, they are keeping their lips zipped.

What we do know (at least at this moment) is that Congress is balking at extending existing wiretap provisions in the domestic spying legislation that it hastily passed this summer. Democrats in Congress want more court and congressional oversight on calls placed between American citizens and potential terrorists overseas. The current legislation delegates to intelligence agencies decisions that traditionally were authorized by the courts. In addition, President Bush is now insisting that the Baby Bells be granted retroactive immunity from the law for facilitating unlawful wiretaps and access to calling records. The Democratic Congress is asking the very reasonable question: “How can we know whether to grant the Baby Bells this immunity when you won’t tell us what they did?” The Administration retorts that it cannot tell the committees responsible for intelligence legislation because in doing so state secrets could be exposed.

Well! Something here stinks to high heaven, that’s for sure. The Administration seems to be tacitly admitting that the actions taken by compliant telephone companies was probably illegal. The nature, size and scope of the illegality though are largely unknown because only a trusted few know what the Baby Bells actually did. One thing is clear: the administration does not want them to held liable. Why? Because the Baby Bells were just doing their duty for God, country and the American Way, which means that if something illegal did happen they should not pay any penalty.

Naturally, I hope that the Congress refuses to pass a bill with such a provision without first knowing the full details of these transgressions. If, as I expect, President Bush vetoes a bill that does not contain the immunity provisions, then I make the following modest proposals instead. First, the bill should grant the Baby Bells immunity if and only if the President agrees to waive his right to pardon any individuals in his administration who may have facilitated this lawbreaking. Second, the bill should require that a special prosecutor to investigate this matter. This way if violations of the law occurred then those who instigated them could be held accountable.

The way I studied government, no one is above the law. Yet in this case, the Bush Administration appears to want to retroactively ensure that no one will have to pay a price for their decision. They want to frame the debate as one of national security, and not pay a price for the fact that they arm-twisted the Baby Bells into facilitating these likely illegal acts. They want us to believe what is simply not true: that they were not required to first petition Congress for these powers.

A decade ago, such an action would have been routinely dealt with by the Justice Department. If there were any concern that the Justice Department could not be impartial, a special prosecutor would be appointed. Few in Congress now trust the Justice Department to impartially go after any violation of the law. This sad and sordid squabble tells us just how badly our system of checks and balances has eroded during this administration. It simply does not give a damn about its duty to ensure that the laws are faithfully and impartially executed.

If the Democrats are more worried that they will be judged “soft on terror” then ensuring our civil liberties and agree to these requirements then the Administration wins through intimidation. Moreover, Congress’s ability to exercise meaningful oversight is further degraded. This is no time for the Democratic congress to capitulate yet again. It needs to demonstrate that it truly is a coequal branch of government. Moreover, in this case it holds the Trump Card. President Bush needs an extension to the badly named Protect America Act. These proposed minimal accommodations to the current egregious law are entirely reasonable. I hope the Congress stands firm. In the process, it will help restore both the rule of law and our system of checks and balances.

 

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