Posts Tagged ‘Bush’

The Thinker

Iraq and Afghanistan: the folly slowly winds down

The end result will be a gradual deterioration and failure of both endeavors [Iraq and Afghanistan] as casualties and costs go through the roof and as Americans grow tired of a conflict with no clear exit criteria. Eventually we will declare a weak victory and leave, but no one will be fooled: we will have had our hands burnt and will be unlikely to indulge in such reckless military adventurism for the foreseeable future.

Occam’s Razor
November 3, 2003

It won’t be like the final episode of M*A*S*H. When the final helicopter with U.S. soldiers flies out of the Green Zone by the end of this month, there will be no “Goodbye” spelled out in rocks on the ground below. For the vast majority of Iraqis, if anything were to be written to express their feelings about our war and occupation, it would be “Good Riddance”. It took us eight long years, at least a trillion dollars in direct costs and likely three trillion or more dollars in final costs, not to mention at least 4,483 casualties just in Iraq to do what exactly? Do we even remember why we invaded Iraq in the first place?

Most Americans have forgotten. We tuned out the Iraq War around 2007 and to the extent we focused on our soldiers overseas, we turned our attention to Afghanistan instead. Just in case you forgot, we had to invade Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction that it was getting ready to unleash against our allies and us. You knew it was true because in front of the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to satellite photos of railroad cars that he said contained portable chemical laboratories that made nerve gas and other internationally outlawed chemical agents. Those weapons of mass destruction were right there!

Except of course they were not but once invaded for a mistake we found it inconvenient to quietly leave. We had won an unnecessary war in Iraq, but almost immediately lost the peace. Iraq, held together by Saddam Hussein’s terror, quickly split into its ethnic factions that quickly got back to doing what they used to do when there was no strongman: wage religious and ethnic war on each other. To enforce something resembling peace, we compartmentalized much of Baghdad into ethnic enclaves complete with two story concrete high separation walls and what feels even today like a billion checkpoints. It never stopped the violence. Nothing really did, although it was curious that violence seemed to at least ebb the more our soldiers stayed on base.

Yes, by the end of the month we will be out, except for the 16,000 or so Americans who will be attached to our embassy in the Green Zone. It’s unclear to me why we need 16,000 Americans in the Green Zone, particularly after talking with a former ambassador to Iraq in the 1980s (who happens to be a member of my church) who oversaw what was then the doubling of staff in Iraq, to 32 people.

Supposedly we are leaving behind a peaceful and stable Iraq, but of course this is a lie. Bombings continue regularly, but rarely make the news these days because they have become so routine. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be imitating the dictator we toppled. Security in Baghdad and elsewhere, to the extent it exists, is handled by troops sworn to loyalty to him. al-Maliki also takes after Saddam Hussein because he has no problem with torturing his fellow citizens, although perhaps he is less egregious in it than Hussein was. One major change: al-Maliki is a Shi’ite where Hussein was a Sunni. Just as Hussein found it convenient to keep a few trusted Shi’ites on the staff, al-Maliki seems to have found it convenient to keep some Sunnis on the staff as well. It’s unclear if democracy has really taken hold in Iraq or not, but it there is plenty of evidence, like with recent elections in Russia, that there is mucho ballot stuffing. Maybe this is a sign of progress.

In any case, our American soldiers leave with a whimper, not a bang, and we will be lucky if our last soldiers only have shoes thrown at them as we exit. President Obama can at least take credit for getting us out of Iraq. We leave behind a country still very much at civil war, but with a shell of a democracy and a three trillion dollar price tag.

Over in Afghanistan, things are not that dissimilar. The government of president Hamid Karsi is thoroughly corrupt, and we don’t like it, but largely choose to do nothing about it. Corrupt Afghani governments are as Afghani as apple pies represent the taste of American, so there is not much new here except that the Taliban, at least for the moment, are not in charge, at least not in Kabul. It seems likely that they will be shortly after we make our own Goodbye, Farewell and Amen episode. Thanks to our largess, they might be able to be bought off, at least for a while, buying us a few years of the illusion of leaving Afghanistan as a stable democracy. Most likely the Taliban are more religious than idolaters of American manna. The good news is that the Taliban probably have learned one lesson: don’t let al Qaeda and their affiliates set up shop, or out come our cruise missiles and special forces. Otherwise, we won’t care if they oppress their women and decapitate errant sinners in their public squares again. Well, we will certainly denounce it, but we won’t do anything to stop it. The bottom line: sponsoring terror is okay, just not against our interests or us.

But American troops can’t leave Afghanistan quite yet. Obama first has to wind the conflict down in stages, and leave it just stable enough for us to skedaddle out of there as well without too many mortars hurdled at us as we exit. All bets are off, of course, if a Republican wins the presidency in 2012. Republicans seem pathologically unable not to flex military muscle, except for maybe Ron Paul, which might be a reason to vote for him.

Within a few years we should have wound down both conflicts. The cost of our adventure proved ruinous, as I predicted, but did plenty to keep the defense industry alive. What have we won? Arguably we succeeded in wiping out al Qaeda, now a shadow of its former self. This likely could have been done without invading Afghanistan, and certainly without the folly of invading and occupying Iraq. If we take as a lesson learned to stop invading foreign countries that annoy us, perhaps that will justify the cost in the long run. Our history since Vietnam though suggests we won’t retain our lessons for long, so we are probably doomed to repeat the lesson. Perhaps next time though our creditors will just say no. The perhaps we will learn to make peace instead of war. Here’s hoping.

 
The Thinker

The virtues and pitfalls of fellowship

Ever notice how people tend to congregate with people who act and behave a lot like them? I am no exception. I live in a middle class suburb, quite similar to the one I grew up in, with people mostly of my race and around my income level. Our weekends are spent on domestic things like mowing grass and trimming hedges.

Why did I seek this lifestyle instead of hanging on to my old lifestyle, which was living in a townhouse in a truly diverse community? In part it was because I got promoted and could afford a single family house. But I also didn’t like the teenager next door persistently sitting on the hood of our Camry while he smoked, who continued even when repeatedly asked to stop. I’d never do that with his car, or turn up the bass on my stereo so his floorboards rattled. I shared similar values with many of my neighbors, but not with some, particularly those renting next door. So when opportunity presented itself, I skedaddled to a community that did share my values. Here typically the only noise I hear from my neighbors is if they turn on their leaf blower. No one sits on my car hood anymore either, because my car is parked on my property, not communal property. I am happier when people that share my values live around me.

It has been remarked that Unitarian Universalists like me are principally a lot of liberal, upper income, predominantly white people. That is true of the UU church that I attend, although we do have a handful of African American members now as well as a few other families from other races and cultures. In our unison affirmation at every service we covenant to “help one another in fellowship.” Now there’s a strange world: fellowship. It’s so archaic that I had to look up the definition:

The condition of sharing similar interests, ideals, or experiences, as by reason of profession, religion, or nationality.

Fellowship is basically enjoying spending time with people a lot like you. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy going to services: not only do I hear great sermons, but services are followed by coffee and conversation: code words for fellowship. There I try not to eat too many carbohydrates while chatting mostly with liberal white guys and ladies and discussing issues near and dear to us, like the building expansion. I also practice fellowship by attending my covenant group meeting at the church once a month: more time to interact with smart white people, share our travails and joys, and to discuss some issue of the heart.

I’m not a Rotarian, Lions Club member, Masonite, or Knights of Columbus member, but they are all principally doing the same thing: practicing fellowship. Fellowship seems a bit unnatural to us liberals, even though we guiltily enjoy it. Surely we should be using our time to help the poor or save the earth or something. Instead, we are busy engaging in fellowship. The actual doing of that other stuff is somewhat harder, at least in person. It’s much easier to give money to charities. If I start handing out food to poor people, I may get grateful looks but some teenager may also decide to sit on the hood of my car. That would not be cool.

It turns out America is all about fellowship, and our fellowship is often fierce and insular. Texas governor Rick Perry represents a certain kind of fellowship: almost exclusively conservative Republican white guys and their spouses from Texas with evangelical roots and humble beginnings. He won’t hang out much with George W. Bush, who is also a conservative Republican, but really only gave lip service to religion and evangelicals, is a faux Texan and never had to worry about bills because Daddy always had his back. No wonder they reputedly don’t get along.

Americans love to self-segregate. We mostly unconsciously surround ourselves by yes men who largely parrot our values. Hear enough of it and when you hear something outside of your bubble your tendency is to be hostile toward it.

Yet we do need to escape our bubbles now and then, because too much fellowship leads toward insular outlooks, warped perspectives and ultimately a false picture of how the world is and what is required to fit inside it. It turns out that’s a pretty hard thing to do that, because it requires an open mind, an open heart and finding the courage within yourself to admit that, hey, maybe I am insular. And maybe it came from too much fellowship.

And yet I have found out that fellowship does have merit. I find enormous satisfaction is simply having a community of fellows: people a lot like me that I can bounce ideas off and know I will get heard. In many cases these people may superficially look like me, but they often have life experiences they can share that are outside my experience. Of course, it tends to be easier to consider these ideas when they come from people you perceive as peers.

One way I step outside my comfort circle is by teaching. I teach a course or two a year at a community college. It gives me some satisfaction, but when I teach I am also deliberately moving into a zone of potential discomfort. I am not a peer, I am a teacher, which makes me something of a leader and judge. And unlike in my congregation, neighborhood or even at work, few white middle class faces stare back at me from across my desk. Instead, I see lots of hues. I see people working two or three jobs and still trying to fit college into their lives. I see more women than men. I see a plurality of people from India and Pakistan. Communicating with them is sometimes a struggle, because we both have to struggle through cultural, language and age barriers. At the end of a class I am frequently wrung out. However, I do return home feeling like I have a truer understanding of the community I live in than if I had stayed home instead. By stepping outside my comfort zone, I have developed empathy for the tough lives that so many people endure for just the chance for real middle class prosperity.

I hope you do something to step outside your comfy circle of fellows, at least semi-regularly. It grounds and centers you. It also makes you appreciate the comfort of fellowship in more measured doses. Last week I traveled all the way to Tacoma, Washington and back. Yet it was like I never left home: the same sorts of people and the same conveniences of modern living were available 2300 miles away, right down to the Starbucks on the corner. For a truly grounding experience, I merely had to drive a dozen miles to campus, stand in front of a room full of students, speak and listen. Last night, as is true of most nights after teaching, I felt that I learned far more than I taught.

 
The Thinker

bin Gone, and good riddance

Lately my newspaper has seemed obsolete. Anything of importance, I usually learn about online the night before. Today was a happy exception. My Washington Post totally shocked me by being the first to inform me that our special forces had killed Osama bin Laden.

Today as the news ripples across the United States, it is impossible not to feel great joy and catharsis. Anyone age fifteen or older must have the memory of September 11, 2001 seared into our brains. Most of us shared in the experience by watching it unfold on television. Some of us who live in New York City, Washington D.C. or Shanksville, Pennsylvania had a closer encounter with history.

On that date, I was working in Washington D.C. in the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, a building close to the capitol. I first learned of the event when a breathless contractor told me to come to the TV quick where images of a smoldering World Trade Center were projected on a wide screen TV. We stood there open jawed trying to figure out what had happened. After some confusing minutes, we found ourselves outside the building staring out toward the west and seeing plumes of tan smoke rising from the Pentagon. We knew our nation was under attack. Our hearts were all skipping beats as we tried to pull together all the disparate information we were getting, much of it false. (A suicide plane is headed for the Smithsonian castle!) Landlines mostly worked but the cell phone system was overloaded. People were wandering the streets futilely trying to call loved ones on their cell phones. Sirens wailed endlessly. As our vanpool made a premature trip to get us all back home, the smoke from the Pentagon lingered in the air on an otherwise delightfully cloud-free and cool late summer day. We waited for hours in traffic to return to the relative safety of suburbia and embraced spouses and children with real tears in our eyes.

That day was followed by days of silence, not just due to mourning and shock, but also due to the lack of aircraft. We live a few miles from Washington Dulles and the dull roar of airport traffic is constant. The only thing in the air was military fighter jets, relentlessly circling the capital, which were much louder than commercial jets and rattled our windows. Mostly it was surreally quiet. I knew, as all Americans knew, that our national life had been altered fundamentally. I rate only one day in my life of more national significance, and that was when we landed men on the moon for the first time. It is unlikely I will ever be as close to disaster again.

Osama bin Laden’s death certainly does not end the war against al Qaeda, but it does finally release a large national bubble of psychic melancholy that has persisted since that day, which by itself helps in our national healing. Bin Laden’s death is one death that even I can feel happy about. I tend to avoid absolutes, but he was a very evil man. Even if terrorism against us increases as a direct result of his targeted killing, I still will be glad that he is dead, and even gladder that our special forces killed him. Justice was delayed, but nearly a decade later justice was finally meted out.

For a while, maybe a good long while, Americans can feel happy again. It will doubtless be reflected shortly in President Obama’s poll numbers. His high ratings will likely be transitory, although if there are no major crises between now and election day it should probably seal his reelection. The president may not be able to instantly turn around the economy and solve our budget deficit, but unlike George W. Bush, he can capture and kill Public Enemy Number 1. He succeeded by focusing on the problem and making sure our counterterrorism units and special forces had the resources to do the job correctly. Apparently, these things can be accomplished without pompously parading on aircraft carrier decks in a flight suit with a Mission Accomplished banner behind you. Apparently, it takes a sound strategy, executed with viable tactics to kill such an elusive mass murderer, rather than cowboy antics and red state platitudes. It is done through applying intelligence rather than ideology. This would be news to our right wing if they were to absorb it, which they will not.

It turns out our president is one cool and focused dude, much less concerned with pandering to politicians and pundits than working methodically at reaching a goal. I had this impression of him from the start, which is why I voted for him. Maybe America realizes the value of having a strategic president, blessed with intelligence and vision, but especially blessed with dogged tenacity and focus. These qualities eluded George W. Bush.

I hope Americans everywhere today celebrate, and celebrate lustily. There should be no shame in feeling good about killing this man. While the long war on terror will continue, let us justly and unashamedly revel in this symbolic but significant accomplishment.

 
The Thinker

How Republicans politically manipulate you

Republicans may be wrong on most things, but that certainly does not mean they are stupid. How many poor Republicans do you know? I cannot think of any offhand. Unless you inherit a boatload of money, you don’t get to be rich by being stupid. You get rich by figuring out ways to manipulate people, organizations and markets so that you come out ahead, usually at someone else’s expense. Perhaps the first rule in becoming rich should be to join the Republican Party.

Lately, Republicans have fine-tuned their machine to deliriously new and exciting heights. The Great Recession scared most of us shirtless, but Republicans saw it as an opportunity. They got us into it in the first place. However, when you don’t care about the consequences of your actions as long as it enriches you and your tribe, and when you do not feel remorse, you also won’t suffer from shame and guilt that most normal people would feel.

Yes, their stock portfolios took a tumble just as mine did, but they had eight profitable years under George W. Bush and largely Republican congresses to fatten their cash coffers. They persuaded Congress, which they essentially purchased, to lower capital gains taxes below their income tax rate, far below it, in fact. This means that investing money is now officially valued more than labor, which means the rest of us will pay disproportionately more in taxes. They also pushed the levers of power to lower their income tax rates as well. The cost has been massive deficits and the movement of wealth from middle and lower classes into the elite’s pockets instead. That this happens really doesn’t bother them at all; it makes them happy. If the government has to borrow money to give them tax cuts, like we’re going to do again with the latest compromise, that’s perfectly fine too. All that really matters is the accumulation of more and more wealth through whatever means works. When you cannot grow an economy because of lots of systemic factors, moving wealth from the bottom half to you is more than acceptable.

So unsurprisingly, Republicans dominate the moneyed professions, such as banking, investments, realty and the like. The one exception might be the law profession, simply because Republicans as a class don’t like it when the legal system can be used sue the rich into making them give up some of their wealth. It’s not sporting for a Republican to play Robin Hood, and that’s what a lot of these trial lawyers do, while often collecting a third of the settlement as their reward. So we get disinformation campaigns on so-called lawsuit abuse, for filing civil suits in court that are inherently lawful.

One of the first rules that the rich learn is that if you want to make money, you have to spend money. If you are of modest means like the rest of us, you don’t have a whole lot of discretionary spending. In fact, Republicans are hoping you are up to your eyeballs in debt, because this just makes you more disenfranchised. Whereas if you are rich, spending ten percent of your income to make sure you stay rich or get richer makes a lot of sense.

With the Supreme Court’s blessing in the Citizens United decision, they now no longer have much in the way of constraints. Under the guise of a corporation or a political action committee, they can spend as much as they want on elections. Unsurprisingly, they use their money to dominate the airwaves to make sure their message is heard. They also spend gobs of money on focus groups to figure out what message or phrases are most likely to influence you. Once they find it, they market it relentlessly.

Therefore, you get campaigns that culminate in an odd sort of distinction: PolitiFact’s infamous Lie of the Year 2010, a carefully crafted lie generated by moneyed Republicans designed specifically to appeal to your worst fears. That it was in fact a lie matters not. There is no penalty for lying in political advertising. The only thing that matters is whether you can sustain the lie long enough for it to have a political effect. Oh, the lie? It came from political consultant Frank Luntz who urged GOP leaders to say that health care reform was “government takeover”. How many of you knew it was a lie? How many of you were convinced, like Sarah Palin may actually believe (but probably no other thinking Republicans), that health care reform meant government death panels were imminent? How many of you were uncertain, but it had just enough plausibility in your mind to alter your vote?

Republicans played voters like a well-tuned fiddle this election season. Voters were already dreadfully anxious because while we were technically out of a recession the unemployment rate hovered near ten percent. So thinking like a Republican, you see opportunity and put out messages designed to feed these anxieties. Accuracy is obviously not important, you just have to influence perceptions and feelings. And when you have a lot of money and can afford to do first class market research and saturate the airwaves, you can translate anxiety into votes and gain sixty-three seats in the House of Representatives alone.

Democrats unwittingly aided and abetted Republicans, proving ineffectual at best at countering these messages. This was in part due to the large volume of salvos being hurdled at them. If you are forced into a defensive game, this eventually means that you will lose, because to win you have to score points. With money, it is possible to put the opposition on the defense most of the time. Rest assured that Republican political consultants have prepared poll tested responses in advance for any response they will get from Democrats to one of their many lies and exaggerations. Mainly they know that we voters are simple creatures. We cannot handle too much complexity, so they keep repeating the same talking points relentlessly until they sort of morph into a new conventional wisdom.

Any questions? How to change this dynamic will be the subject of a future post.

 
The Thinker

Review: W. (2008)

It is hard to find Oliver Stone movies that do not deserve to be on someone’s A List. W., which attempts to chronicle the life of President George W. Bush, may be one of the few from this noted director to deserve to be ranked somewhere between the A and the B List. It is not a B movie, as plenty of money was spent on it and it has overall good directing and acting. Still, it does not measure up. If there is a definitive movie on George W. Bush, it has yet to be filmed. This one, filmed and released while Bush was still president, feels more like a made for TV movie.

I finished W. thinking, “This movie probably misses who George W. Bush is by a fairly wide mark.” As regular readers know, I loathed him as our president. Moreover, his kind (conservative Republicans) tends to give me the hives. The only Bush I know is the one I saw on TV or heard on the radio. Even so, I am plenty skeptical that the George W. Bush played here by Josh Brolin comes close to portraying George W. Bush the actual man.

W. could almost be classified as a satire, because Brolin portrays Bush as someone who is probably even more inept than he actually is. In the movie Stone seems to be using Bush as his little Voodoo doll, pricking it to see if anything will bleed. From the tone of the movie, it is clear that Stone loathes the guy. He has lots of company there. The movie often feels jumbled together, throwing actors who resemble people we know too intimately (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Rove and Powell in particular) into tightly choreographed scenes that collapses the eight years of his presidency. It attempts to explain George W. Bush but left this viewer more confused than ever.

As portrayed by Stone, Bush has serious daddy issues with his father and 41st president of the United States, whom he calls Poppy. Poppy is constantly bailing out junior, who both needs Poppy and wants to be free of him. The movie makes innuendos that I am not sure are backed up by fact, for example that Bush impregnated a woman before marriage and that Poppy arranged for the abortion. The movie also suggests that Bush resumed drinking after the crap in Iraq got too deep. Granted, Bush’s behavior these last few years has gotten more incoherent, but that could be due to other things than picking up the bottle again. Perhaps like Ronald Reagan, these are signs of early Alzheimer’s.

Likely part of my reaction to W. is my wish to forget about the man. Bush himself may be retiring quietly in Dallas, but principles from his administration are still regularly annoying us. Specifically former Vice President Dick Cheney, creepily portrayed in the movie by Richard Dreyfuss and Karl Rove (portrayed by Toby Jones) refused to leave the national stage just because their administration was finally out of power. The last eight years still makes me feel queasy from time to time; so reliving them in this 129-minute movie frequently had me wanting to reach for the Pepto Bismol.

The movie frequently moves back and forth on the timeline. Bush comes across as dangerously naïve and gullible. I could be wrong, but I doubt the man was quite as naïve and gullible as he is portrayed. Stone suggests that Bush’s infatuation with Evangelical Christianity was due to his simpleminded nature and a way to separate himself from Poppy, who adhered to a dry and milquetoast Episcopalianism.

Nor are Brolin and James Cromwell (who play’s Bush’s father) convincing as younger versions of themselves. Trying to emulate W’s fraternity days at Yale, Brolin looks like a 40 something guy pretended to be in his early 20s. Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush looks too young. Ellen Bursytn as Barbara Bush looks too thin and seems too nice. Scott Glen as Donald Rumsfeld looks even creepier than the man he portrays (if that is possible). There are many actors in the movie that I suspect exaggerate the people they portray. Not that they necessarily do a bad job with their portrayals. Jeffrey Wright looks a little young to portray Colin Powell, but he carries himself with conviction. Thandie Newton (portraying Condoleeza Rice) portrays Rice as superficial and disengaged.

If the movie is an attempt to explain Bush to the world, then I think the movie leaves the viewer more confused. Bush comes across as someone who does not know who he is or how he fits into his large dysfunctional family. His personal savior is not so much Jesus Christ as Karl Rove, who latches onto Bush early in his career and tries to mold him into the image of someone who can meet the emerging demographics that Republicans need to capture.

Stone must have a fatal attraction to politicians, since he has also made movies about John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Still, overall W is disappointing considering Stone directed landmark films like Wall Street, Platoon and Natural Born Killers. If he had to make the definitive movie about George W. Bush, he should have waited another decade so we could appraise the man more dispassionately.

3.0 on my four-point scale.

 
The Thinker

Some Mad Hatters plan some tea parties

What’s with all these teabagging parties planned on Tax Day, April 15th? Fox “News” seems to be urging Americans — well at least their brand of “real” (read “white and conservative”) Americans — to come together for “tea parties”. The aim of these parties is to protest what they perceive as onerous new taxes enacted recently as well as express their concern about the perceived new socialist administration and congress. As I pointed out after the elections last year, these folks apparently do not know what real socialism is. To them, anything the government does to help those making under $50,000 a year is socialism.

The way Americans voted last November could not possibly be a natural reaction to the last dreadful eight years of largely Republican control. Teabaggers are greatly alarmed, not just over hikes in cigarette taxes, but also over Obama’s $3.5 trillion dollar budget. They say Obama is taking federal debt to new and stratospheric new levels.

However, all the debt accumulated before January 20, 2009 is completely forgivable, particularly the massive debts accumulated during the Bush and Reagan administrations. See, it’s good debt if it goes to national defense or to show American muscle in hellholes like Iraq. It is bad debt if money goes to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure or to give low-income working parents affordable childcare. Is that clear? It makes perfect sense to the teabaggers. The rest of us think they are worthy of derision. I will be chortling while watching their rallies on television on April 15th.

These teabaggers suffer from one common characteristic: cognitive dissonance. In their peculiar world, cutting taxes is always good. Apparently, government could function just fine with no taxes whatsoever! You can bet all the teabaggers out there, who are now so concerned about our burgeoning national debt, would be okay with more debt if they were back in charge, providing they got more juicy tax cuts and it could be used to get rid of more of the Axis of Evil, perhaps North Korea this time.

So let them congregate and wave their teabags. The right to peaceably assemble is protected in our constitution. Americans are entitled to their opinions, no matter how crazy and ill informed they are. I, along with millions of other Americans, have the right to laugh at their lunacy. Of course, if we had had some of their new found fiscal conservatism back in 2001 we would not have gone on a tax cut binge and raised the national debt up to ten trillion dollars. We could have used some of that extra tax money to fund things like bridge improvements so people did not have to fall headfirst from their cars to a watery grave in the Mississippi River. Perhaps rather than add another trillion dollars to our debt, we could have levied an Iraq War tax. Instead, our Republican Congress did what other cowardly Congresses have done and put it on the national charge card. After all, Dick Cheney told us that deficits don’t matter. What he meant to say is they don’t matter until your party is out of power and it can be used for political leverage.

Today many of these self-professed patriots want to start a new American revolution. Apparently, working through the democratic process is fine only until you become overwhelmingly marginalized. Then it is okay to have a revolution. Hence, the need for tea bag parties to allow their nut jobs to connect and perhaps actually bring about a new American revolution.

Timothy McVeigh might have fired the first shot, so to speak, when in 1993 he killed 168 people and destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Other incidents suggest some other right-wingers take revolution seriously. Just last week, a well-armed man in Pittsburgh murdered three police officers and wounded two others when police responded to a disturbance at his house. According to a friend of the alleged shooter “Pop” Poplawski, “always said that if someone tried to take his weapons away he would do what his forefathers told him to do and defend himself.” Many teabaggers are apparently convinced that President Obama wants to take away their guns, even though he has explicitly ruled it out. Teabaggers though are a paranoid bunch and are buying guns and ammunition in record numbers anyhow. Demand is so high that police are having a hard time buying ammunition.

After President Bush won reelection in 2004, many of my liberal friends including my wife made noises about moving to Canada. They were convinced America was entering a new dark age. Some of these people actually moved. Now, just four years later, some teabaggers apparently want to throw in the towel when democracy becomes inconvenient. Perhaps they could move to Alaska and join the Alaska Independence Party, like Sarah Palin’s husband. Since they are now looking at a prolonged period of being out of power, to some of them revolution is both acceptable and justified. As for us other Americans, who apparently are satisfied with the way government is now being managed, since we are wrong our opinions do not matter. It appears that the many Americans are armed to the teeth and could facilitate such a revolution if they chose. Moderating some positions to return to power is not an option.

I doubt too many teabaggers will actually take up arms, although they could inflame enough of the nutcases in their midst to cause more terrorist incidents like the Oklahoma Bombing. Some might call for a new civil war, or at least a partition where the South rises again as its own country. There taxes will always be low, gays will be kept in the closet, global warming can be blithely ignored and Ward and June Cleaver will always sleep in separate beds.

It will not happen. What will happen is that, over time, the pendulum will swing back their way again. It is inevitable. They just need to exercise some patience. This is America. One party never controls all the levers of power for long because, as Republicans proved, corruption eventually ensues. The inevitable result is a backlash. To regain power, compromising their so-called bedrock principles must happen eventually, and that will be hard for teabaggers to accept. Whites are quickly becoming a minority and nothing can stop this change in our national demographics. The Republican Party will likely evolve into a more libertarian and less religious party.

Teabag parties speak to Republicans’ political impotence, which for now is very real. Thus far, Americas are quite happy with their Democratic Congress and Administration, perhaps because they are working in the best interest of the American people for a change. We will never return to the way things were. The way things were was never the way teabaggers thought they were anyhow. We have always been a multiethnic and pluralistic culture.

The mixture in our national melting pot is changing once again in the 21st century. Political parties that hope to prosper in this century had best put down the teabags and instead start appealing to our new and changing demographic groups.

 
The Thinker

Welcoming the Bush Babies

News item:

A federal judge ordered the Food and Drug Administration yesterday to reconsider its 2006 decision to deny girls younger than 18 access to the morning-after pill Plan B without a prescription.

Another news item:

The 4,317,119 births, reported by federal researchers Wednesday, topped a record first set in 1957 at the height of the baby boom.

Behind the number is both good and bad news. While it shows the U.S. population is more than replacing itself, a healthy trend, the teen birth rate was up for a second year in a row.

I was born in 1957, at the height of the baby boom. It was an excellent year for cranking out babies. Apparently, 2008 was as well. One of the reasons that 1957 was an excellent year for bringing babies into the world was that birth control was largely unavailable. The FDA approved an estrogen-based pill in 1957, but for menstrual pain only. A variation of this pill was not approved for birth control until 1960. The first plastic IUD was made available in the United States in 1958, but many women found it uncomfortable to use and serious side effects like uterine bleeding were common. Condoms were available, although they were often hard to procure given that birth control was generally frowned upon and public discussion about sex was largely taboo. When men discovered how much pleasure was lost using those old-fashioned condoms, many preferred to take their chances. In effect, in 1957, contraception was largely unavailable. With plenty of fertile men and women in their prime baby-making years, the nation’s maternity wards were full.

Society today is quite different but many things are still the same. Men and women continue to have sex, and teenagers in particular feel their oats more than most. Condoms can now be readily procured with no questions asked, but it generally falls on the male to buy them and only men can use them. The contraceptive sponge turned out to be a so-so contraceptive device, better than nothing, but no guarantee for preventing pregnancy. For years it was off the market, and was only relatively recently reintroduced in 2005.

The birth control pill is still only available by prescription. Plan B is contraceptive available without a prescription that allows women concerned that they might be pregnant to change the situation, provided they take the medication within 72 hours of intercourse. However, the Bush Administration found Plan B to be deeply offensive. In its view, it was an abortion drug, should not be available to anyone, but in particular should be restricted from use by minors. It gave marching orders to the FDA to drag its feet on approving the drug, which went on for three years. Finally, the FDA approved it for adults only. Even though there was no credible evidence that it was medically unsafe for minors, it required pharmacies to place the non-prescription drug behind the pharmacy counter, and to ID purchasers who appeared to be minors.

While birth rates are up for all age ranges of women, it is disturbing that they are up for teenage girls in particular. Doubtless, some of these girls were trying to get pregnant. Some of them would have liked to have had the option to purchase Plan B discreetly off the shelf.

The Republican theory was that teens could be deterred through abstinence education. There was also doubtless the hope that these adolescents would confide in Mom or Dad before taking a major step like becoming sexually active. I doubt many of these knocked up girls were comfortable with having such conversations with Mom and Dad. I also doubt many of them knew that if they could get to a Planned Parenthood clinic they might have gotten free or reduced costs contraceptive and counseling. One thing is clear: after having sex, they could not get a Plan B from their local pharmacy. So at least some (and likely a great deal of) teenagers gave birth to little baby girls and boys that would otherwise not be here. Call them Bush Babies. The Bush Administration tacitly agreed that if it would mean compromising their principles then it was okay to bring thousands of unplanned babies into the world. In their crazy heads, this apparently was a more moral choice to have babies out of wedlock than to allow minors to procure a safe over the counter contraceptive designed specifically for these teenage encounters with adult life.

Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol (who recently gave birth to an out of wedlock child and who is now estranged from the baby’s father) recently provided some pragmatic advice. Doubtless Republicans everywhere were stopping their ears full of cotton and singing “La la la la la” when she told Fox News that teenage abstinence was not realistic. The sadder-but-wiser Bristol Palin also suggested that teens should wait ten years before having a child.

Even if the Wasilla, Alaska Wal-Mart had Plan B on its shelf of other non-prescription drugs, there is no guarantee that Bristol would have purchased it. At least if it had been available she would have had the choice. She could be planning for college now instead of trying to figure out how to raise a baby with an absent father.

If abstinence is not realistic, the reality of teenage birth is something far more tangible. Bristol could do teenagers everywhere a favor by documenting her life as an unwed teenage mother. Meanwhile, we can only hope that with a new administration it will not be long before this counterproductive rule on Plan B is rescinded and seventeen year olds like Bristol can postpone the responsibilities of parenting until they are mentally and financially up to the task.

 
The Thinker

Transfer of Power

I could not help but marvel today watching Barack Obama’s historic inauguration on television. It is true I marveled at seeing a black man take the presidential oath of office. If you had asked me in 2004, I would have guessed we would have to wait another two decades before we were collectively mature enough to elect a black man as president. It is also true that I marveled at the million plus Americans standing shoulder to shoulder on the Mall in freezing weather. They stretched from the Capitol all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, with most cheering and waiving American flags. What I found the most marvelous of all was the peaceful transition of power itself. In many, if not most places in the world, a transfer of power of this magnitude is a cause for civil war or rioting. In the United States, it is a time for celebration and partying. Every four or eight years the world has a chance to witness and marvel at America’s peaceful transfer of power.

I felt the spirit of George Washington alive today in the city named to honor him. In his life, George Washington was so popular that could have been president for life. Instead, Washington performed perhaps his most patriotic act by declining a third term in office. In doing so, he showed us fledgling democrats that regular changes in leadership were healthy for a democracy and that our constitution transcended the personalities in power at any given moment.

Thanks in part to George Washington’s precedent another peaceful transfer of power went off today like clockwork and with great celebration. At precisely noon, President Obama became our 44th president, even though he had not yet taken the oath of office. At that exact time, the President’s military aide carrying our nuclear launch codes moved from President Bush’s side to President Obama’s side. Following protocol the new president saw the retiring president out of the Capitol and waved goodbye to him as a helicopter carried him out of Washington. Doubtless inside the president’s desk in the Oval Office was a letter from Former President George W. Bush to President Barack H. Obama with a customarily letter of congratulations and some personal thoughts on the transition of power.

As a civil servant myself, I watched this transfer of power at a somewhat lower level. Last Thursday, I was invited to a high level meeting. I sat across the conference table from our Associate Director. Also in the room were representatives from another department that we meet with quarterly. With one working day left on the George W. Bush Administration, the transition of power was on everyone’s mind and was freely discussed. Everyone was completely matter of fact about it and deeply respectful of the process which by then was well underway. Our Director was a political appointee and wanted to hang on in his job. Hearing nothing from the incoming administration though he knew what was expected and tendered his resignation. He did so not because he wanted to but because that is the way our system of government works. By losing his job, he demonstrated his respect our constitutional process and for the judgment of the American people.

Arguably, the outgoing administration was one of the most egregious in ignoring the law and the constitution. Yet, even this administration could not ignore our democratic electoral process. Had the outgoing administration, like so many banana republics, tried a coup d’état, I have no doubt where the loyalty of our armed forces, our secret service and our civil servants would have lied. Any such attempt is doomed to fail in America. Americans would not allow it. If push came to shove, the military, as is true of civil servants like me, are required to put the constitution above the orders of the president.

It says so much about the character of our country that these values are hardwired into us, in both good times and bad. Back in 2003, I penned a post where I lamented that America had lost its soul. Perhaps it was lost for a while. Perhaps our constitution was a more than a bit tattered by the latest Bush Administration. Yet, we survived and we did so in part because of George Washington’s example and the orders given by the people who once every four years weigh in on who their leader shall be.

Each inauguration is like a heartbeat in the life of our country. The mere fact that it happens like clockwork, in good years and bad, is proof that our country shall endure. Through regular repetition, these events ensure, however imperfectly, that our democracy will continue and we will keep moving forward toward a more perfect union.

 
The Thinker

Review: Frost/Nixon

Why watch a movie about a disgraced President Richard M. Nixon being interviewed some thirty years ago by a British television personality? What possible relevance does it have for 2009? It has more than you would think, given that we are in the last two weeks of the disgraced Bush Administration. A series of four interviews were broadcast in 1977 between the reclusive Nixon and British TV host David Frost. This was three years after Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace over his obvious complicity in the illegal Watergate cover up.

At the time, our current vice president, Dick Cheney, was the Chief of Staff to Nixon’s successor, President Gerald R. Ford. Many assert that it was Dick Cheney who is the current mastermind behind expanding the authority of the president beyond what most believe are its constitutional limitations. Where did Cheney pick up this idea? Toward the end of the movie, you will see reenacted the famous scene where President Nixon gives the opinion that if the President of the United States says something is legal, then it is. At least Nixon then went on to say that this was probably an opinion not shared by most Americans. His view is clearly shared by Dick Cheney. Arguably, Dick Cheney has spent the last eight years living out Nixon’s vision of the presidency to our own national shame.

Therefore, the timing of Frost/Nixon now playing in theaters is probably not coincidental. You had to have been born in the 1960s or earlier to have any remembrance of Nixon as president at all. Consequently, for many Americans, Richard M. Nixon is someone wholly unexplored. In Frost/Nixon, Director Ron Howard can acquaint younger Americans with arguably our slimiest president.

As an ex-president, Nixon was widely reviled and loathed. He needed his Secret Service protection because it was unlikely he would have survived otherwise. Yet, in many ways Nixon’s likely crimes, which were preemptively pardoned by President Ford, seem like a minor kafuffle compared with the actions of President George W. Bush. Had he not been pardoned, Nixon would have been impeached and convicted for the serious crime of obstruction of justice. George W. Bush though gets a pass for deliberately and flagrantly violating our laws on torture and wiretapping.

Back in 1977, when Americans heard the name David Frost, it was invariably “David Who?” Frost was a British TV personality known more for hosting lightweight shows than as a serious interviewer. Michael Sheen portrays Frost as a bit of an airhead and playboy, but also as someone unafraid to take major chances to enhance his career. He was indefatigable when it came to securing the coveted Nixon interviews. It took hundreds of thousands of dollars to land the interviews in the first place, which was during an era when “checkbook journalism” was considered unprofessional and was widely decried.

Frank Langella deftly portrays the disgraced former president. He demonstrates his ability in the first three interviews by dominating them. Frost can hardly get a word in edgewise. At the time, Nixon was obsessed with rehabilitating his image. His interviews with Frost became the means toward that end. He used every deft political skill he had acquired to succeed. Meanwhile, Nixon’s critics were obsessed with trying to get Nixon to admit he conspired to obstruct justice. Perhaps, they hoped, Frost could at least get Nixon to apologize to the nation for his actions.

The pressure is on both Frost and Nixon in the last interview. Nixon has to talk about the topic of Watergate, his least favorite topic, and Frost has to nail Nixon to the wall, which is much like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. At this point, Frost is seriously financially overextended and he is feeling desperate. He has put up much of his personal fortune buying the interviews. He has also undersold the interviews in the broadcast market. He needs a winning final interview to dig himself out. What happened is a matter of historical record, but in case you do not know, I will not spoil it for you here. Suffice to say though that even if you know what is coming, in some ways you will pretend you do not know.

Director Ron Howard does a great job pulling you into the post Watergate world. Nixon was a very private man, so it is hard to know exactly what those years were like. Thanks to Langella’s excellent acting, we have excellent speculation. The scene where a drunk Nixon calls up Frost is likely the invention of screenwriter Peter Morgan but it certainly helps spice up what would be for many a rather dry battle of wits.

Whether you enjoy Frost/Nixon will depend in large part on whether you were around when Nixon was president, as well as any curiosity you may have about our disgraced 37th president. It is a tightly focused film, equally as focused on the multifaceted Frost as our wily 37th president. Of the two, Nixon proves far more interesting.

Like most Americans who remember President Nixon, I grew up to feel ashamed of what he did to our country. After seeing Frost/Nixon I can better appreciate the tragedy of Richard M. Nixon, a Shakespearean character of the 20th century if there ever was one. Like our current president, he largely successfully hid from confronting the magnitude of his own mistakes, to his own diminution. He was not entirely successful in doing so though, thanks in part to David Frost.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

 
The Thinker

Quantifying incompetence

I can understand why most Americans do not want to look at their financial statements. If you take the time as I did yesterday, it is scary. I do not have all the numbers for my household yet but a year ago, our net worth was around $938,000. Today our net worth is about $771,000. That means in just one year about eighteen percent of our wealth has vanished.

Our real net worth is probably lower. How much is our house really worth? I will not know unless I actually sell it, so I go with our county’s assessed value, which was done before the sub-prime mess fully exploded. There are no bright spots in my portfolio. Our T. Rowe Price New Era fund is worth just 52% of what we paid for it. If this is what our “new era” will look like, it does not sound hopeful. This fund was supposed to be used for our daughter’s college education. We are drawing on other funds for now but unless stocks turn around dramatically over the next few years, we will have lost money set aside for her education, despite investing consistently for fifteen years. It suggests that we would have been much better off putting the money in a mattress.

Our other funds show a similar but less dramatic story. I can only hope that since most of our investments are for the long term that they will actually turn out to be investments rather than places to throw away our good money. Perhaps Michael Moore had it right all along: keep your money in government insured accounts only. Granted, the money may not grow that much, but at least it is unlikely to disappear when you need it.

A year ago, my personal financial adviser forecast that there would be a significant economic upturn toward the end of 2008. This was based on reading and listening to other people he respects. He was proven wrong of course. I cannot hold it against him. Even Warren Buffet lost money in 2008. This was a year when no matter what financial strategy you chose, unless you invested solely in bonds, you were going to lose money. The Washington Post today crunched the numbers and put the total loss on Wall Street during 2008 at $6.9 trillion. How much money is that? Consider that the federal government spent about $2.9 trillion in fiscal year 2008. In one year our investments, and consequently our national net worth, dropped by more than the federal government spends every two years. Gone. Poof.

Despite his prediction a year ago, my personal financial adviser is optimistic for 2009. “We are now convinced that the stock market has either hit its low, or is very close to it,” he tells me in his latest newsletter. He may have something this time. One measure, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, shows signs of bottoming out. It slipped briefly below 8000 and has floated between 8000 and 9000 for a while now. If we have hit a bottom in the stock market then now is the time wise investors should be purchasing stocks. Of course, there is no way to know. With all due respect to my financial adviser, anyone who tells you they do know for sure is bluffing. We will only know in hindsight when the bottom occurred.

Unless you need money from your investments right away, the current value of your investments should not matter too much. What is more important is whether you retain your job and lifestyle. One thing we have noticed in our family is that many information technology jobs have become commoditized. This is not good news for someone like my wife, who lost her full time job on an IT Help Desk in 2004. She was making close to $50K a year. Her job was outsourced to someone who did the same work for a lot less money and who conveniently was not on “staff”. She now has a part time job doing similar work but took a substantial pay cut to get the job. As for benefits, the doctor’s office she works for has little in the way of a 401-K other than a general profit sharing plan. Unfortunately, the money they contribute toward it would not let you live on dog food in retirement. I am more fortunate but even in the software and systems development area where earn my living, many people are hurting. The bottom line is that our standard of living was hurt too and our income (adjusted for inflation) is down substantially from the start of the Bush Administration.

Perhaps this explains why three out of four Americans are glad to see President Bush leave office in nineteen more days. Bush has been saying in interviews that he will be judged by history as a far wiser president than we give him credit for now. I would suspect him of sniffing glue but I think hitting the bottle is more likely. I am confident that historians will not be kind, for reasons I outlined here, but which you already understand.

Our falling net worth is a meaningful measure of the price of incompetence and of the failure of government to, well, govern. It is not as if we were doing stupid or risky things. Rather, our government was doing stupid and risky things by placing inordinate faith in a free market and by actively reducing its oversight role. Frankly though in this economy I feel lucky. $166K of my family’s worth may have vanished in the last year, but we are both gainfully employed and we have maintained our standard of living.

Like most Americans, I feel that January 20th cannot come soon enough. I admire Barack Obama for having the audacity to believe that he can move us out of the national wreckage of these last eight years. When the dung is piled this high, it is hard to see daylight. While I hope my financial adviser is right, my intuition tells me that the dung is much higher than we think. I suspect it will be quite a while before we see the sun. Good luck, President Obama. You will need not just exceptional competence but extraordinary luck if our country is to successfully emerge from the wreckage of the Bush Administration.

 

Switch to our mobile site