Scrooge is alive: Wal-Mart is evil

Can a company be evil? I think so. Wal-Mart is an evil company.

I have decided I will have nothing to do with Wal-Mart. Granted I was not exactly one of their major customers. I bought some paint there once, only because it got a Consumer Reports recommendation. And I purchased a set of prescription glasses there a few years back. I might have bought a couple other things over the years but that’s about it. That’s all it’s going to be unless Wal-Mart reforms its ways. I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon. See, first Wal-Mart has to get a conscience. It has none. Tolkien’s evil Lord Sauron looks good in comparison.

Admittedly I find its stores to be incredibly easy to hate. I hate the phony Wal-Mart greeter at the door. I hate the narrow aisles with products stuffed to the ceilings. I hate not being able to find anything quickly in the store. I hate the hugeness of the place. I don’t hate its customers, but they don’t appeal to me a whole lot. They make me itchy. I know I paint with a wide brush here (and I’m certainly not saying that all their customers are this way) but they seem to me to be a lot of overweight and over-hassled looking people. They seem to disproportionately represent the lower middle class. I don’t hold it against them for shopping there. If I were living from paycheck to paycheck I might be shopping there too.

I don’t hate its employees either because I was like them once. For about two years in my early 20s I worked as a wage slave for the now defunct Montgomery Ward corporation. It had a lot of the same attributes of Wal-Mart, but it just wasn’t as successful. What can I say: the economy was bad in 1979, even worse than it was today. I was a newly minted college graduate with a liberal arts degree and no place to use it. I worked at Wards to survive. I survived most of the time at or a little above the minimum wage (then in the $3-$4 an hour range). I did earn a commission of sorts for every lawn and garden sale I made, but all of it was against a draw. Lots of times I couldn’t earn my draw (i.e. earn the minimum wage based on my sales). (This wasn’t from lack of effort, just lack of customers.) I still got the minimum wage in these cases, but they were forever threatening to fire me and hire someone else if I couldn’t “earn” my draw.

Surviving was tough. I was fortunate to be young and in good health. Wards did offer some sort of health insurance plan but I couldn’t begin to afford it. Imagine trying to live on $4 an hour. If you can find a place to flop and put food in your mouth you are doing okay at those wages, even in 1979. I couldn’t afford a car — the one I brought from Florida gave out and I had no money to fix it. Purchase health insurance on my salary? The idea was laughable. The same is true with current Wal-Mart workers, which, like Wards, does actually offer something they call “health insurance”. Those of us who have real health insurance wouldn’t recognize it. The Wal-Mart basic health insurance plan costs $10 a week but is limited to paying out no more than $1000 a year in benefits! In my family we spend three or four times that a year on prescription drugs alone! Wal-Mart health insurance is, in short, mostly a waste of money, which is probably why so few Wal-Mart employees bother to get it in the first place.

McDonalds (another evil corporation) calls its jobs “opportunities”. I doubt Wal-Mart workers really believe their dead end jobs are opportunities. Here in Northern Virginia the local Wal-Mart seems to hire a lot of people who must have just recently gotten their green cards. Most don’t appear to be American citizens. I see lots of people who appear to be part time workers of Indian or Pakistani descent. When I was working for Wards I could afford (barely) to share a cheap apartment with another guy. I doubt they can manage even this. I imagine their Wal-Mart job is probably a second, third or fourth job and whatever miserly income they make helps support an extended family living in densities greater than their local housing officials would approve.

Scrooge lives folks, but he is now incorporated and he runs Wal-Mart. This Scrooge though squeezes everyone: suppliers and employees alike. He is ruthless in increasing profits and driving the competition out of business. If that means doubling imports from China and putting Americans out of work, it’s not a problem. This Scrooge is not immoral; he is amoral. He simply doesn’t care if his actions put Americans out of work, or results in depressed wages across the country. He doesn’t care if his store is tended to by legions of Bob Crachits. Scrooge begrudged giving Crachit Christmas Day off, but at least he did it out of some feeling of shame. Wal-Mart employees, as has been amply documented in the media, often are forced to book unpaid overtime. Its cleaning contractors hire illegal aliens at rates below the minimum wage that at least in some cases never get a day off. Scrooge grins and looks the other ways. The stockholders are pleased, as long as it doesn’t go public. Oops.

People like me with consciences need to know which companies treat their employees fairly and provide them with decent benefits. We need to know so we can patronize these companies. I wish there were more people like me. But Republicanism apparently has turned us into an amoral nation. We simply don’t give a damn about Wal-Mart workers and all the companies like Wal-Mart. All we care about is low prices and reckless consumerism. We don’t care if these people get sick. We can’t even see the connection when they show up at emergency rooms and their costs are passed on to us in the form of higher premiums. Skeptical? Believe it! Health insurance costs don’t go up twenty to thirty percent a year for years on end solely because new miracle drugs come on the market. They go up also because Wal-Mart workers and workers like them can’t get preventive medicine and instead get “free” but transitory treatment at our public emergency rooms at your expense.

I won’t patronize companies like Wal-Mart anymore. We need to grade corporations on how well they treat their employees and their business partners. They need score cards that are released with their quarterly balance sheets. We need to know who these corporate Scrooges are. We need to change our laws to ensure the lowest paid workers in this country are still paid decently and can actually survive on their wages. Until then those of us with consciences must just say no and refuse to patronize these places. Wal-Mart is the easy target. But if we can get Wal-Mart to cave in, the rest might too. Then perhaps there will be fewer stories in the paper like this one.

Continue reading “Scrooge is alive: Wal-Mart is evil”

Goodbye Smoke Filled Room

Politics in America is undergoing a fundamental change. Say goodbye to smoke filled rooms and party directed elections. Say hello to true grass roots democracy.

For the most part the powers that be haven’t caught on yet. The Republicans in particular don’t get it. They raise money the old fashioned way: through fundraiser dinners where wealthy patrons write very large checks. Admittedly this is a pretty effective way of raising money, but the supply of wealthy Americans able to drop two thousand dollars at a fundraiser is a relatively small. Even with innovative techniques like “pioneers” and “rangers” that work their network of friends to bundle larger sums of money there is a limit to the amount of money even Bush can raise through this process.

The Democratic leadership isn’t much more innovative. Most presidential candidates are working the phones talking to wealthy donors and are speaking at rubber chicken fundraisers in order to fund their campaigns.

Both parties have in place national, congressional, senatorial and state campaign committees which depend on a core network of committed activists willing to tow the party line. One gets in power by working within the existing power structure and by being willing to compromise your political principles for the greater good. Effecting political change is almost an afterthought; getting and retaining power is the primary focus of political parties.

Increasingly this is not a game many of the disenfranchised grass roots want to play. They’ve seen the results, and what usually happens is that whoever gets in charge becomes disconnected from the real needs of the people, and spends time pandering to their base. As a result tax dollars are squandered toward those who keep politicians in power. I witnessed this in the 1980s working for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. While hundred dollar checks were appreciated, the focus was large contributions. This was done through means like “The Speaker’s Club” that allowed wealthy contributors to have face time with top congressional leaders. While this was the way the game had been played for years it was very disillusioning to actually see it in practice. I felt kind of dirty facilitating the process through information technology.

The internet has changed things. Since the cost of connecting with like minded people is dramatically lower, those with good technological and organizational skills can use the internet to find people of a similar political persuasion. Most Americans can afford an AOL account. The internet also allows for collaboration among communities that would otherwise be discouraged from coming together due to geography or time. Those with the most to gain from using these new tools were the first to leverage them. Consequently while Republican donors kept writing large checks, insurgent candidates who spoke to the common man like Howard Dean found a way to network those people. And these people found they could afford to send Howard $50 a month. It was a revelation that a whole lot of small contributions equaled or trumped the effects of $2000 contributions from the fundraiser circuit.

Last quarter Howard Dean raised nearly $15M, mostly from supporters primarily using the internet. When the Democratic National Committee tried a similar strategy by contrast it raised a couple hundred thousand dollars. This should tell the DNC something. But I’m not sure they are getting the message. The message is the Democratic Leadership is out of touch and estranged from its base. The Democratic Party is being taken over by its grass roots. I personally think this is a great thing, and I hope fervently that in the process we truly end up with a party that represents those who voted for it.

The energy I feel at the monthly Dean Meetups is palpable. These are people who are determined to win this election and take back the country. We are talking to our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers and we are investing significant amounts of our time, energy and money to make it happen. We are empowering ourselves. This is the most amazing aspect of the Dean campaign: it is decentralized. We don’t wait for someone to tell us what to do. We will certainly listen to direction if Joe Trippi, the campaign manager, says we need to write letters to uncommitted voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. But others are networking with senior citizens, or are talking with veterans, or are reaching out to African Americans. We are effecting real change, and we don’t have to curry favor with some party hack in order to do it.

It remains to be seen how far this phenomenon goes. Clearly most Americans have tuned out politics and are more concerned about making a mortgage payment or having time with family. But organizations like have proven there is a committed base of people who, through small donations and by targeted phone calls and key moments can change policy. It was’s members, for example, that raised holy hell about the FCC’s change of policy on media ownership rules. This caused the Bush Administration to back down. Instead of 45% ownership of a media market that Chairman Michael Powell pushed through the FCC it looks like it will be raised slightly from 35% to 39%. Even with all branches of government controlled by the Republicans, MoveOn.Com members got it done. Bush’s veto threat apparently was toothless.

Such victories only embolden us to work harder. Howard Dean calls his campaign special interest free. It is not just words. It is a fact. If Howard Dean wins the nomination and the election he may well be the first president elected accountable to no one but the people. Rather than the faux Republican revolution we’ve been experiencing, we might well get that government of the people and by the people that we’ve claimed to have.

Let’s make it so.

America has lost its soul

I hate what Bush and the Republicans are doing to my country. I feel like I am living in some sort of foreign land that superficially seems to be American but has had its soul sucked out. I live in a meaner and more divided country where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the powers that be believe in their hearts that this is good. The powers that be have become the moneychangers in the temple to whom Jesus alluded.

There was a time when I felt we were all in this together. We were one nation and one people. Now, thanks largely to Bush and his Republican cronies, I feel like we are one nation very much divided. The oligarchy is now firmly in control and big business owns the country.

As if we needed more examples to see it, the new Medicare prescription drug care bill is a perfect case in point. As this chart points out the effect of the new law will be to pay only a modest percentage of seniors’ total drug costs. But this bill does little to restrain drug prices from rising. Instead of using the buying power of the federal government to purchase Medicare drugs, it creates numerous buying groups. The effect is to prop up the drug company prices (as if they were hurting for revenues in the first place) and add even more burden on the taxpayers and senior citizens. Not surprisingly the drug companies were big donors to Bush’s presidential campaign, and to the campaign coffers of those putting together this legislation.

Meanwhile, the rape of our government continues. Voters are bought off by modest tax cuts that create unheard of levels of deficit spending, burden them and their children with future public debt, but actually put the bulk of the money in the hands of the richest Americans who need it the least. The energy bill likely to be passed by Congress hands billions of tax dollars to already rich energy companies. It throws more money on research into technologies, like ethanol, that are have repeatedly proven not economically viable. Our Environmental Protection Agency goes out of its way to make it easier for polluters to pollute. Here in the Washington area it looks like once again we will get a waiver so we don’t have to seriously address our regional air pollution problem. I guess the growing numbers of people with asthma don’t yet constitute a majority of citizens locally. The Congress is saying in effect: screw their lungs and let’s keep buying those Hummers to exacerbate the problem. Oh, and speaking of Hummers, MS-NBC recently ran a story that indicated Hummers, as well as most SUVs or luxury cars, can now be written off as business expenses by the self employed. Yes, take a tax credit for making the air more polluted that necessary!

Overseas we squandered our good will and sympathy through obnoxiousness and ignorant foreign policy based on ideology instead of an impartial appraisal of the facts. Much of the money for our unwinnable war in Iraq goes to support companies that funded Bush’s 2000 election campaign. (Example: Haliburton charges the U.S. Army up to $1.70 a gallon for gas in Iraq, when it is locally available for 4-15 cents a gallon.)

I don’t understand why Americans can’t see how our country is being so recklessly pillaged. Our skies are dirtier, our water more polluted, our military is overextended, our nation is less safe, more Americans lose health insurance every day, three million new unemployed have been created in three years and we are bought off by tiny tax cuts which are quickly taken from us in the form of higher local taxes.

Meanwhile, as Bush’s poll numbers finally plummet the Massachusetts Supreme Court decides that homosexuals in the state should be allowed to marry. It’s a great decision, but the timing is disastrous. Now instead of focusing on the mess Bush has made, the 2004 Election will focus on the “immorality” of gay marriage. Republicans will be beating their religious base to pass constitutional amendments to forever keep gay people from enjoying the same partnership rights as heterosexuals, even though the idea is deeply evil and wrong. They intend to make the next election focus on reasons why we should discriminate against people in our own country because it distracts us from the mess they made of the last three years.

There is hope that Americans will sober up by the next election. But Californians apparently haven’t arrived there yet and that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country. They replaced a governor with an actor whose first act was to increase the state’s financial problems by repealing some unpopular taxes. Way to go Gov. Fiduciary!

What hope there is comes from Americans starting to realize that they are not better off than they were in 2000, and likely won’t be better off for the foreseeable future. As we start to sober up we have begun to realize we will have to invest a little of their own money to change the country. Howard Dean believes if he can get two million Americans to send him $100 he can retake the White House and win an election where he is not tainted by special interest money. Let’s hope he is right.

The Reagan Wreckage

I hope it is not just me who thinks the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project is going too far. This group has taken upon itself the ambitious task of naming at least one notable landmark in every state for the ailing former president. But that’s not all. No, they want more. Much more. They also want one notable landmark in every county in the country too. Advocates are already pressing for a Reagan Memorial on the Mall. Can’t the man die first?

In the eyes of Republicans of course Reagan is their hero. Consequently he must be our hero too. One reason he perhaps looms so large in the imagination of Republicans is that really there weren’t that many great Republican presidents, so beggars can’t be choosers. It is unlikely any Republican president will ever match Lincoln’s legacy. But since Lincoln, the pickings for Republicans have been slim. The Great Depression occurred on Hoover’s watch. (Hoover and Jimmy Carter have a lot in common: presidents who were in power in troubled times that were largely beyond their control, but who managed to excel as leaders and statesmen more after they left office than when they were in it.) Eisenhower is the best of the bunch since Lincoln; he knew how to balance a budget and run a country. Nixon of course, was the biggest embarrassment of all time for the Republican Party. Ford was a transition president. One term presidents don’t qualify as legacy material, as Bush I found out although he was one of the better ones.

Clearly the current Bush is running hard to meet and exceed the Reagan legacy and, unfortunately, he is doing a great job. He’s created deficits far larger than Reagan achieved, and Reagan created deficits on a magnitude never seen before.

I wonder if the people supporting this project were asleep during the 1980s. I certainly wasn’t. I was a newly minted civil servant. Although I had no exposure before the bizarre workings of government, things quickly went beyond comical to ludicrous. I worked at the Defense Mapping Agency at the time and remember being just astounded by the amount of money being thrown at our agency. When it came to defense spending, Star Wars was just the tip of the iceberg . We literally couldn’t find enough places to spend the money. Much of it went to create systems way beyond their time to move maps produced on paper to digital maps. I was part of a massive reengineering effort at the time. I remember business trips for hush hush requirements sessions with defense contractors as they tried to automate our enterprise business processes. I’m not sure whatever happened to these systems, or even if they got off the ground. I do know when I left in 1987 they weren’t operational. But there was no let up in the defense money pouring in. I am sure we did our best to prop up the share prices of bloated and wasteful defense contractors. (The Meese Commission, which was charged to look into waste and fraud in federal agencies, gave our agency high marks. This was a source of considerable amusement to us at the time, and another sign that the Reagan Administration had lost touch with reality.)

The downsizing of the federal work force was another constant started when Reagan took office and has continued ever since. Early in my career I was fortunate in the sense that I was working in the Defense Department, and that put us largely off limits. But by the 1990s, downsizing had hit DoD too. About the time I left the Air Force my office was being looked at to be A-76’ed (referring here to Circular A-76, otherwise known as the “let’s fire feds and replace them with overpaid contractors” Executive Order.)

We seem to have forgotten just what a wreck Reagan made of the government. Defense money was squandered for bombers costing billions of dollars and for laser satellite systems that were supposed to shoot down enemy missiles from space (but never did). The Savings and Loan fiasco also happened on the Reagan watch. In an attempt to make banks compete, the Reagan Administration let S&L’s invest in all sort of murky investments that caused S&L’s and banks to fail all across the country. The U.S. taxpayers bailed out these mistakes to the tune of over $100B.

And then there were the cast of bizarre characters populating the top ranks of government. As one example, we had Anne Burford Gorsuch, at the EPA, whose idea of improving the environment was to decimate the agency, and who set the sterling example of chain smoking in her office. And of course who can forget Energy Secretary James Watt, who showed his sterling political skills by saying he had the perfect staff because “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple”.

Meanwhile, we had Reagan involving the CIA and our military in all sorts of banana republics. We invaded Grenada because a few Marxists were running around. We funded what amounted to government terrorists in a civil war in El Salvador that killed and terrorized thousand of people for more than a decade. We did similar operations in places like Guatemala and Costa Rica. Reagan approved a brilliant strategy of providing “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan with shoulder-launched Stinger missiles. These same freedom fighters, of course, are today’s Taliban and many of the weapons we supplied are now being turned against our forces. Reagan also cozied up to Saddam Hussein and sent no less than current Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld to Baghdad to make nice and to offer U.S. military aid. And then there was the plainly illegal but under the table shenanigans that Oliver North directed from his office at the National Security Council in the White House. Lets also not forget the hundreds of marines killed by a terrorist bombing in Lebanon for which Reagan assumed “full responsibility” but naturally didn’t pay a political price.

Arguably Reagan did change the shape of government. Before he took office most of us thought of the government as an institution by and for the people. Reagan portrayed the government as a somewhat evil institution not to be trusted. His “legacy” continues today to portray the government this way. He embraced supply side economics that led to the largest deficits in the history of our country, during either peace or war.

Is this the stuff of legacy? Apparently. Because here in Washington the Reagan Legacy Project has been very busy. First National Airport was renamed to Ronald Reagan National Airport. Those of us who remember Reagan were very puzzled by this. He hated Washington and couldn’t wait to get away from it for extended vacations in California. Why name an airport after him next to a city he loathed? But there was also the Ronald Reagan Building at Federal Triangle, which has the dubious honor of being the most expensive federal building every constructed, busting its budget numerous times (all that marble gets expensive!) The Reagan Building may well be a fitting landmark to the man. As a president who gave us the largest deficits of all time, it is fitting to name the most costly and badly managed federal construction project after him.

Will Ronald Reagan make it on Mount Rushmore? Rest assured the Reagan Legacy Project is working hard on this endeavor too. But also be confident of this: history will judge Reagan as a lesser president, not a great president. Naming so many things after him and putting him on Mount Rushmore won’t change the facts. He was a nice guy but a disaster of a president. Fifty years from now his name will only evoke snickers.

Report on my November Dean Meetup

This Wednesday was Dean Meetup night. Mother Nature did her best to keep me away. Severe weather made my trip home from work a half hour longer than usual. That left me little time after getting home and find something to eat before rushing out to the 7 PM meeting. The Chantilly public library was not available this time, so our host moved the meeting to the Centreville Library instead. This is quite a bit further from my house. The rainy weather and early darkness exacerbated the traffic problem. It took me 35 minutes to make the drive. You would think that with eight lanes of traffic and limited intersections there would be enough room to accommodate traffic on Route 28, but it was almost all stop and go. I arrived a couple minutes late to the meeting, when I had hoped to arrive a half hour early to help set up!

The meeting was quite similar to my last and first Dean Meetup in October and had about the same number of people: 40-50 altogether. There were however some exceptions. The buzz throughout the meeting was on Dean’s comment two days earlier that “White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back ought to be voting with us and not them, because their kids don’t have health insurance either and their kids need better schools, too.”

Several people, including many die hard Dean supporters found his remarks offensive. I thought it was a poor choice of words. What Dean was saying was that for Democrats to win, Democrats had to be more inclusive, and that includes bringing in under the tent people who lean Republican. This makes a lot of sense: many people who vote Republican in the south are Wal-mart workers and live from paycheck to paycheck with no or little benefits. Health insurance is something they cannot afford. Dean’s rivals of course jumped up and down on the remark and tried to imply Dean is a racist, which he isn’t. It was just a stupid remark. Dean can do that on occasion. I sometimes wish he were as careful with his choice of words as Bill Clinton. On the other hand Bill Clinton usually seemed stage managed; Dean comes across as someone who genuinely says what he believes. It is that personality and energy, I pointed out, that is largely responsible for his popularity. He’s not part of the buffed and pampered Washington elite.

There were more people who were undecided or leaning between Dean and Clark at this meeting than the last. The pros and cons of each candidate were discussed at some length. I’m not sure we convinced any Clark supporters. A couple people left early figuring they had heard enough.

One encouraging sign was the presence of an African American family. A young son in the family, about ten years old, was a big Dean fan and waxed eloquently about his favorite candidate.

We also wrote letters to swing voters in Iowa. I wrote two letters to two women at the same address, so I wrote each differently and expressed my opinion that Dean was something truly different. About 80% of the attendees were at their first meetup. Those of us who had been to one before knew what to do and started working on our letters while the debates continued.

One area of contention was whether Dean should foreswear federal matching funds. This is the Bush strategy. With no opponents in his primary Bush has already amassed $170M in contributions from fat cat Republicans. In the last quarter Dean collected $14.8M, a new record, but Dean’s average contributions were less than a hundred dollars each. It is clear that Dean’s support comes from average working people, not fat cats. Even so we will need a lot more people to come close to matching the contribution that Bush will so easily raise. I voted to go without matching funds. It’s not that I don’t believe in public financing for campaigns, it’s just that as long as someone can opt out to their advantage, our campaign shouldn’t be put at a disadvantage.

One person asked how the campaign would reach out to African Americans and other communities. Dean has drawn his support from mostly white and liberal people. Our hostess, Geri, said that it was up to us, not the Dean campaign, to make these connections. She suggested we take up the issue and involve more of our African American friends. This is what is really unique about the Dean campaign: it is genuinely people powered. People don’t follow instructions laid down by Joe Trippi at campaign headquarters. At best Trippi and Dean set broad goals and communicate them through their web sites and web logs. Issues get thoroughly thrashed through by his supporters on his Blog for America web site. I find it remarkable that Dean would let his supporters make his decision on whether to forego matching funds for his campaign.

In the month since my first meetup a few things are becoming clearer. A month ago Wesley Clark was a phenomenon and a worry. Now his luster has been dimmed quite a bit. Clark is still playing catch up, and Dean Supporters have proven to be committed to the man and his cause. I spoke with a very nice lady I saw from the last meetup who lives in my neighborhood. She says instead of spending $30 a week at Barnes and Noble, as she used to do, she contributes this money to his campaign instead. I said I pretty much send him $50 every month when I pay my bills. When a special solicitation comes out I tend to send more. I haven’t added it up but I suspect I’ve given the Dean campaign at least $300 so far.

And so we in the Dean Camp continue to move doggedly forward. We are aware that Howard Dean is not the perfect candidate, but he does offer the personality and creative ideas that we expect from a winning candidate. We do hope though that Howard learns to temper his remarks a bit. There is still a year to the election and Dean can’t afford too many more major gaffes. We’ve got to win this one and take back our country.

You can help by learning more and perhaps contributing to Dean at Dean for America.

Our Coming Failures in Iraq and Afghanistan

The United States will not prevail in Iraq, and likely won’t prevail in Afghanistan either. Both are noble endeavors to try to remake the world into a saner and more peaceful place, but both efforts are doomed to fail. The underlying reason that we will fail will be our inability to understand the complexity of both regions of the world. We acted out of instinct and prejudice instead of knowledge and wisdom. Consequently we will fail, and the failure will change the nature of our nation profoundly.

There is a power greater than our armies and navies, greater even than our nuclear weapons that we conveniently overlooked. This is the power of the human will. Whichever side in a conflict has more of it will eventually win the conflict. In truth our country does not have the stomach for a prolonged conflict in Iraq. Bush gambled it all on the expectation that a quick victory over Saddam would put Iraqis in a mood to accept American ideas and American values for a future state and that opposition to the occupation would either not materialize or be easily squashed. This is the fundamental flaw that in time will be understood to be the reason we lost, but which this administration plainly cannot see. It is blinded by its ideology.

The truth of course is that while most Iraqis were glad to see Saddam gone, they had no interest in being tutored and mentored by Americans in how to set up and run their own country. Iraq, of course, is the cradle of civilization. While America was thinly populated by natives, they were setting the standards for education and commerce for the rest of the world. Even today Iraq is in many ways at the forefront of the Muslim world. Compared to countries around it, it is teeming with educated and bright individuals. Women live lives markedly better and participate more in society in Iraq than those in other Muslim countries, including Kuwait.

Iraqis are not children who need to be tutored in how to run their own country. Somehow they managed to construct all those hospitals, power plants and schools by themselves. If their infrastructure is now a bit shabby, it is the result of more than a decade of sanctions and our war, not because they are incompetent of managing their own country. They are not emerging from some third world society. The literacy rate is 58% (vs. 10%-20% in Afghanistan). 93% of children attend primary schools. Per capita income is $2171 per year. By American standards this is not high, but for the region is it very respectable. For example Egypt’s per capita income is $1530 per year, and we have been subsidizing and “mentoring” Egypt for decades.

In short, the United States is acting in a very condescending manner toward the Iraqi people. This is building resentment that is translating into resistance against their occupation because Iraqis are a proud people and used to doing things by themselves. Moreover the United States is demanding that Iraq change its long established methods. As this Marketplace Report demonstrates, Iraqi businessmen are leery of our American style contractor-subcontractor system where they must pay to participate. It’s as if everyone there drives on the left and we are requiring them to drive on the right.

Imagine if we had a Saddam Hussein running our country for the last thirty years. We would probably be very grateful if Canada sent in its army to oust our oppressive leader. But it wouldn’t take very long before we’d say, “Thanks, we can take it from here.” According to an independent Zogby poll of the Iraqi people this is exactly what most Iraqis believe and want. Some of the findings include:

– Only two in five (39%) said that “democracy can work in Iraq,” while a majority (51%) agreed that “democracy is a Western way of doing things and will not work here.” Shiites – who suffered the most under Hussein and who make up the majority in Iraq – are more evenly split about democracy (45%-46%), while Sunnis are far less favorable.

– Asked about the kind of government that would be best for Iraq, half of all respondents (49%) said they preferred “a democracy with elected representatives guided by Sharia (Islamic law).” Twenty-four percent prefer an “Islamic state ruled by clerics based on Sharia.” Only one in five (21%) preferred a “secular democracy with elected representatives.”

Three out of five made it clear that they wanted Iraqis left alone to work out a government for themselves, while only one in three want the United States and Britain to “help make sure a fair government is set up.” Two out of three Iraqis – and seven in 10 Sunnis – want U.S. and British forces out of Iraq in a year.

What to expect in the future? It’s not too hard to figure out, but the longer our army occupies the country the more resistance against us will increase. This should not be surprising. Those who have a vested interest in having America out of Iraq have had time to network and to bring in the skills and arms needed to sap the morale of our Army. Not surprisingly a Stars and Stripes poll of our forces in Iraq found that half of our troops there describe their unit morale as low. As attacks increase expect these numbers to go up. 49% of those surveyed said it was unlikely they would remain in the military when their term of service ended.

The logical thing to do would be to declare victory and leave. Our mission was to defeat Saddam. We have done that. It might made sense to keep an air base in the Iraq regardless, just in case Saddam does try to make a come back. That way he could be quickly taken out again. The people of Iraq might well descend into internecine conflicts when we leave, but that is the likely scenario in any case. If a government there does not command the respect of those it governs, it will not work. And any government in place that is being overseen by the United States is unlikely to be supported by the Iraqi people. Read Riverbend’s blog for more background.

In Afghanistan we can hope that a new government with a new constitution will emerge, but the likelihood is that while one will be put in place it won’t work in the long term. Afghanistan is a country created by the British. It has no unique national identity. Rather it is a collection of ethnic and tribal areas. If it makes sense for these tribes to affiliate they will, but indications are that ethnicities will want to manage their own affairs and centralized government is unlikely to work in the long term. The Russians tried to occupy Afghanistan and failed spectacularly. If Communism can’t be made to work there, American style democracy is unlikely to work their either. All we can really do is try to strike at al Qaeda and Taliban elements where we can find them. But most of these elements are now in Pakistan, not Afghanistan; it is a safer place for terrorist at the moment and generally protected from our military forces.

The end result will be a gradual deterioration and failure of both endeavors 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.

It is a shame, but not surprising, that pretty much all the Democratic candidates except Dennis Kucinich say we have to stay the course in our war in Iraq, despite the obvious evidence that our strategies are fatally flawed. Yes, we should feel a natural obligation to finish what we started, but we should not blind ourselves to the reality that we are unlikely to be able to actually finish what we started. We need to limit our attacks on those who aided and abetted the September 11th attacks only. Anything else will be seen as more American imperialism and likely to inflame more hatred and bad feelings against us. In the end that is counterproductive to our national security.

Will John McCain run for president?

If I were a Republican I’d be getting damned worried right now. Bush’s reelection, considered a sure thing just a month or two ago (for reasons I don’t understand) now looks dubious at best. His poll numbers haven’t completely collapsed, with his approval ratings hovering at or just above 50%. Looking at polling reports though, there is not much good news for the president. The American people seem to distrust his leadership as commander in chief, and he gets negative marks on the economy. The latter may improve as the economy improves, but even Republicans are figuring out that Iraq and the war on terrorism will be liabilities for Bush next year, not accomplishments.

Candidates usually ride a president’s coattails but there can be a downside to the phenomenon. When a president becomes unpopular it may hinder candidates who align themselves with the president. We’ve seen this phenomenon before. In 1992 many Republicans distanced themselves from George H.W. Bush as it became clear that the poor economy and the unemployment rate would sink his reelection.

One factor that may work in Bush’s favor this time around is the lack of a spoiler in the race. Ross Perot was the spoiler in 1992 and 1996 and arguably Clinton might not have won at all had Perot not entered the race. In 2000 the spoiler was Ralph Nader, running for the Green Party, who almost certainly caused Gore to lose the election. It is unlikely that the Green Party will field a candidate this time, and even if they do liberals learned their lesson in 2000 and will vote for a pragmatic Democrat in 2004.

What’s a good Republican to do who pragmatically wants to keep control of the White House and Congress but is worried that Bush’s unpopularity may cause them to lose both? Numerous fissures are appearing in the Republican ranks as they learn to say no to Bush. For example, Republicans learned to say “no more, thanks” to Bush’s outsourcing initiative. Senate Republicans said no to his request for $20B in grants to the Iraqi government, part of his $87 supplemental funding bill for Iraq. It seems likely that in conference Bush will get his way, but it’s a close call. Many Republicans are getting sick of following Bush’s lead, and have ideas of their own they want to promote.

John McCain, who has never felt particularly endeared to George W. Bush and who frequently joins the Democrats when he thinks it is right, is one of those astute Republicans who is questioning the president’s policies in Iraq. He is calling for more troops in Iraq, saying it is clear that the number is insufficient to deal with the increasing terrorism and attacks.

Like Wesley Clark, John McCain has sterling credentials and a reputation for pragmatism and honesty. He is no ideologue. Moreover, he has a demonstrated ability to attract independent and swing Democratic votes. John McCain is one of the few Republicans I respect. It is possible, although unlikely, that I might actually vote for him. He is the Howard Dean of the Republican Party and represents a more traditional Republican than the neo-conservatives who seem to run the show at the moment.

I have to think he is weighing his options for a possible challenge to Bush in the Republican primaries. Granted, he would be at a huge disadvantage in the money game and would be getting a very late start. But he has a lot of name recognition and he comes across as a positive alternative to the president.

My bet is McCain is quietly exploring his options right now. I’d not be surprised if sometime in November he makes an announcement. Much will depend on how events unfold between now and then. Looking at the situation in Iraq in particular it is hard to see how it will improve. It is almost guaranteed to continue to deteriorate and will likely peak during the primary season next year. I think we will continue to see Bush’s poll numbers slip. By early next year I expect his approval ratings to be in the mid 40s, and might well be lower.

While McCain is likely exploring his options, so are lots of other nervous Republicans. They aren’t necessarily as vested in George W. Bush as it might appear. They are far more interested in maintaining power than they are marching in lockstep behind him. McCain is the logical person to coalesce around. Smart Republican money could come his way rather quickly.

The Dual Income Trap

I like it when the little light bulb above my head goes off. It doesn’t happen as often these days, but it did the other day when I read this interview in Salon with Elizabeth Warren. She is professor at the Harvard Law School. Together with her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi they wrote a recently published book “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke.”

It’s a great interview and I’ll probably have go out and buy the book now. The book puts its finger on a nagging question: why more of us are going broke in America. The results were not what I expected. The McMansions popping up around my neighborhood do not mean that we are living better; in fact the study shows that people are living pretty much the same lifestyle our parents did. Yes, we have more toys like DVD players and computers, but we are not spending more on similar things than our parents did.

What has changed is that to live the lifestyle our parents lived it takes two incomes, not one. And because it takes two incomes, the loss of any one income is devastating and can lead rather rapidly to bankruptcy. Consequences range from homelessness to moving your husband, wife and children into the basement of your parent’s house, if you are that lucky.

I see it around me in this economic malaise, but in reality this is a 30 year phenomenon. A neighbor’s husband down the street lost his job about a year back and is still unemployed. They’ve burned through his 401-K and most of their other assets. He was another victim of the high tech implosion. Her income, which is pretty decent working as she does for Fannie Mae, is insufficient to maintain their fairly modest lifestyle.

They live in the same sort of house I had growing up: just another colonial in a decent neighborhood. But in the past if one parent became unemployed the other could probably get some work to help make ends meet. In a depressed economy finding two or three jobs to make ends meet is difficult. If they can be found they are unlikely to pay the bills.

Why? Because lots of bills have gone through the roof. As the authors document, things cost more — a lot more, in real terms, than they used to. Two big examples: mortgage payments and health insurance. It used to be that you did not need health insurance; if necessary you could pay for medical costs out of pocket. That’s not an option anymore. The mortgage payment phenomenon is more interesting. The problem seems to be that we are drawn to zip codes with good schools and will pay inflated prices for housing so that our children will benefit from good education. It’s quite possible to find more affordable housing elsewhere, it’s just that most of us have a fear of living in these neighborhoods. But, paradoxically, if we had the courage to live in these neighborhoods rather than “follow the crowd” there would be sufficient critical mass to likely improve the local schools to our liking.

A few of their observations I figured out a long time ago and implemented in my life but still could not quite articulate them. One was that kids are huge financial risk factors. In short kids not only increase the risk that you will go broke but are huge income drains on the family. Sensing this was one of the reasons I was comfortable with stopping at one child. My wife and I had talked about having a second child but thinking of how much money it would take to raise a second child and send him or her to college was one reason I wanted to stop at one: adding another child would be too risky to our family unit. Of course I was also aware that life would be a lot more manageable with one child. But on some level I understood that even though I came from a family of ten I would be lucky to maintain the same lifestyle my parents had, which was pretty Spartan, with two children.

The interview though made me realize why it’s almost impossible to elect a politician these days who will raise your taxes. It’s not that taxes are evil, as many Republicans assert, it is because families have no more money to throw at taxes. Their money is already committed and they are at enough risk with two incomes trying to navigate their family through life to pay more taxes. It’s not a matter of philosophy, it’s a matter of economic necessity. Metaphorically, parents are on their front porch with a loaded shotgun warily looking up and down the street. They know it won’t take much for their American Dream to vanish, and they are vigilant in an almost reflexive way.

The consequences of “me first” on society at large are very real. If my income were cut in half I probably would be neglecting a lot of basic maintenance. The house and yard would look pretty shabby. The same is true of our society. As our costs of living escalate, and with little ability or will to maintain the infrastructure, things suffer. That’s why our roads and schools are so crowded. Citizens are saying “Sorry, me first!”

You have seen this happen most recently in California in the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger said he would repeal the tripling of car taxes. This is money that people can put in their pockets. Naturally it’s hard not to vote for someone like that. The consequence is to exacerbate California’s budget problems but citizens are saying “Too bad: me and my family first.” It’s not that Californians explicitly want their state to go to hell; it’s that they are living too close to the margin and are consequently too scared to pull together.

I’m not sure how this will play out but most likely we will continue to see a decline in our prosperity. Right now we don’t really see it because dual income families are providing the illusion that it is under control. But increasingly cracks are beginning to show and soon we may have a bellwether event. It may be that with the costs of health insurance becoming out of reach even for middle class Americans we will demand national health insurance. It may be that the engines that sustain our growth, like cheap land, will gradually disappear and there will be no real way to get out of this economic box.

Ultimately this “me first” approach is not sustainable. We are in this together. It’s all well and good to promote growth as President Bush is doing, but this is not going to solve these systemic problems. To some extent the Wal-mart-izing of American may be the last step. We are making it as cheap as possible to buy the stuff we need, but eventually all the cost savings from that supply chain will be realized. And then what?

The malaise that so many people are feeling is very palpable. The solution out of it is not.

Report on my first Dean Meetup

I attended my first “meet up” for Howard Dean last night.

For an internet savvy person like myself I wonder why it took me so long. It’s not like I haven’t been working in electronic communities for nearly 20 years now. I’ve been contributing to the Dean campaign for several months now, listening to his speeches on line, haunting his Blog for America site and basically fascinated by what he seems to have started. I’ve come to the conclusion that with Dean it’s not so much what he says as how he says it. He has personality and he has attitude. I can’t say that any of the other candidates, with the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich. In many ways Dean is the Democratic Party’s response to John McCain.

Still these are worrying times even for Dean Supporters as a hitherto largely unknown, recently Republican, but highly respected Wesley Clark recently threw his hat into the Democratic nomination. In fundraising Dean still has “the big mo” with 14.8 million dollars contributed in the last quarter. But in polls he is not so much slipping as is Wesley Clark has filled in the undecided column. This puts Dean in a competitive position again.

Nonetheless I’ve been excited by the Dean phenomenon. At the meeting last night at the public library in Chantilly, Virginia we learned that the average contribution to the Dean campaign was $87. This is amazing. You can guess what the average contribution to the Bush campaign amounts to: thousands and thousands of dollars. The Dean Campaign is funded by the masses. The Bush campaign is funded by Republican fat cats. Even among the Democratic candidates, most of the remainder get their money the old fashioned way: via the rubber chicken circuit.

Dean supporters are the real deal: large numbers of average Americans giving part of their hard earned money and lots of their free time to a candidate they believe in. I don’t think this has been done before in modern history. Moreover, Dean, unlike all the other candidates, can concentrate largely on campaigning instead of raising money. Soliciting contributions over the Internet makes the cost of getting contributions very small. More money can be used to build the campaign, instead of being funneled into more fundraisers.

The Dean Campaign used an existing site,, to arrange the logistics of putting otherwise disconnected strangers together. Volunteers agree to host a Dean gathering in their home or in some public space. The Chantilly library was a good choice because about 50 people showed up; most living rooms won’t accommodate crowds of this size. There might well have been more people except the meet up software seems to have been a bit confused, and suggested that our meet up had been moved to another location in Annandale.

The lady facilitating the meeting was a lady named Geri about my age or a little older. I volunteered to help her set up and she took me up on it. The meeting was at 7 PM but I arrived at 6:30 PM. A young guy named Sam was already there and he and I started setting up chairs. Geri arrived a bit late and had us rearrange the place. She needed tables because tonight was a letter writing night.

The Dean campaign seems savvy enough to send packets to meet up organizers. She had a box of brochures, bumper stickers, buttons and lots of writing paper and envelopes, with stamps already inside the envelopes. We lined up some tables near the door and made sure attendees put their names on the attendance sheets and wore name tags. Geri dragged in a TV set and VCR. Her packet came with a short video from the Dean campaign that she used to start the meeting. It was a good video. Howard Dean’s passion clearly came through, and many of us clapped or applauded certain lines. (I particularly like this often repeated observation that he simply tells the truth, and it scares the hell out of Republicans.)

The video followed with 45 minutes or so of general discussion. We had a few people who were just curious and not committed to any particular candidate. We shared our thoughts and opinions on the man and the campaign. I shared my experience working for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee back in 1987-1988 and how disenfranchised I felt when I realized our government was truly up for sale. I said I was excited by the Dean movement because it was the antidote to this mess, and I hoped the decentralized, empowered Dean people would have the energy to take back not just the White House but the Congress as well. Virtually all of us wanted to roll back the Bush years. We want our old country and old values back. In that sense perhaps we were conservatives. Most of us were progressive, but we believed in balanced budgets and for the United States to be a full and equal partner in international affairs. We discussed some frequent myths about Howard Dean, such as that he is a liberal and that he is not electable. I think we opened a few minds that night.

Some people lobbied for particular causes. One person needed people to hand out flyers. Others wanted to staff a table at a Fairfax City parade. Another wanted help reaching out to the senior community. These efforts met with mixed success; not everyone had quite the energy to attack all these causes.

The last part of the meeting was a letter writing exercise. We were asked to compose two letters, in our own words. The first letter went to Al Gore, Jesse Jackson or Bill Bradley. I made mine to Al Gore and said that he should endorse Howard Dean, and I listed my reasons. The second letter depended on your congressional district. In my case it went to Virginia Governor Mark Warner and it followed a format similar to the one I wrote to Al Gore. We addressed, sealed and stamped them ourselves and turned them into Geri.

I was expecting a younger crowd, but it was truly a mixed crowd with the exception that there was not an African American in the room. (We did have some Oriental and Hispanic Americans.) There were a number of students from George Mason University, there were a number of senior citizens or retired folk, and there were lots of middle aged people like me. The common theme though was a feeling of disenfranchisement and horror with three years of George Bush as president and a dogged determination to take our country back.

In short is was a fun time, but it was also useful and meaningful. It felt very much like democracy in action, something we often talk about in theory but fail to carry out. Despite the fact that most of us had never met before, we felt bonded and started calling each other by first names. As the meeting wound up (the library closed promptly at 9) a number wanted to go out for drinks and unwind. I hadn’t anticipated that and declined but it might be fun to do it some time in the future.

I am sure I’ll be at the next meet up and probably at subsequent ones too. It was fun, I felt empowered and I felt connected. I felt that what we were doing was not wasted effort. I felt hopeful and a bit determined to do what I can to take my country back.

If you are a progressive I encourage you to go to and sign up for the November meet up. Check out both and I can tell you for sure now that this movement is very real. It’s a great way to do good for your country as well as to meet new friends. Don’t feel you have to be a Dean supporter to attend. Just go and observe. I think you will be impressed.

Crazy in California

I’m fortunate I don’t live in California.

To recap: in about two weeks a special election will be held. Voters will have the option of throwing out Gray Davis, the twice elected governor of the state. Davis has never been a very popular fellow. He’s about as smooth as sandpaper. Nonetheless, there would be no special election had not a disgruntled Republican with lots of spare cash organized a state wide voter effort to force a special election for his recall. They can do that in California. The rest of the states for some reason figure that if the guy was elected he should serve out his term, unless he committed high crimes and misdemeanors.

But anyhow in California with enough signatures you can force a special election about anything and dictate the terms. This one though is particularly egregious because you get to pick a replacement at the same time you are throwing the guy out. And no majority or run off election is required. Whoever gets the most votes gets in. Consequently a Republican who might well lose a general election in this Democratic state can get swept into office with 30% of the vote or less. This is democracy in action, California style.

Such is life in that peculiar state. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man whose career consisted of lifting enormous weights and starring in testosterone laden action movies, who has never run for public office, and whose sole claim to politics is being married into the Kennedy clan, figures he can do a good job as governor. And maybe he will win because the polls currently show he is leading, although I can’t figure out why. He looked foolish in the one debate he participated in, and he seems to have the same high opinion of women as his character had in the latest Terminator movie. Arnold even alluded to it when during the debate independent Arianna Huffington gave him a hard time. Arnold said he had a part for her in her next movie: presumably the next lady to have the terminator put her head into a toilet.

It’s quite a collection of gadflies and eccentrics in this election, with the exception of Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, who by rights should assume the office anyhow if Davis were removed. We have another Republican candidate Tom McClintock who is so far to the right he is likely to fall off the planet, porno publisher Larry Flint, columnist Arianna Huffington (whose voice makes you want to put your fingers in your ears), and Mary Carey, a porno star with great hooters who has no chance of winning but whose videos can’t stay on the shelves of adult video outlets. Them and 130 or so other candidates. I guess there is plenty of choice for voters.

Meanwhile, the legislature, controlled by the Democrats, can’t address a $35B budget deficit very well because a law requires any new taxes to pass by a two thirds majority, which they don’t have. That effectively leaves the Republicans in charge during fiscal emergencies and they won’t, god forbid, allow any new taxes to be incurred. Davis was able to triple car taxes only because of the way that law was written long ago. That extra money, plus borrowing billions of dollars, is how Davis balanced the budget this year. The Republicans couldn’t be bothered to even try because all they kept saying was “No new taxes.”

Meanwhile in flusher economic times California voters basically took away most of the discretionary spending from its legislature. Education, health care and prison spending are dictated by California voter referendum, state law and federal laws, leaving little money for the legislature to cut to fix $35B budget gap.

And yet of course all the candidates are denying this reality. Schwarzenegger is just one of many promising to balance the budget somehow, even though Republicans will slit their own wrists before they vote for a tax increase, and there is not enough money to do it while the economy remains sour in California. And of course by law California must also balance its budget.

In short voters have boxed politicians into a no win situation. They are saying we will have our cake (education, prison, health care spending) and eat it too (but they won’t pay for it when revenues go down). No one can win.

So take it all out on Gray Davis. Put someone else in charge. Just don’t expect the underlying problems to be solved.

A candidate with courage would be leveling with California voters. For example either the referendum which requires educational spending to be at certain levels has to be repealed, or the legislature have to vote to raise taxes, or the state must continue borrow billions of dollars at increasingly high interest rates. This will eventually bankrupt the state or cause California’s debt rating to go to junk bond status. At some point no creditor will lend the state any more money.

It is fitting that Fantasyland started in California. I suggest the capital of California move from Sacramento to Anaheim, and the legislature should meet there in Cinderella’s castle. Clearly Californians are comfortable living in a fiscal fantasy anyhow.