Greater Krueger National Park

Greater Krueger National Park
An image from a recent trip to South Africa. Clcik on the image for more on this trip.

Welcome to Wandering Lizard's Blog

Thank you for visiting our blog. If you have not already done so, please also stop by the Wandering Lizard web site.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

What would I do if...

There are a lot of places in Pakistan that I would love to be able to visit.  Some of the most beautiful and unique Buddhist sculpture that I have ever seen comes out of ancient Gandahar and the blend of cultures in the tribal areas must be fascinating.  Today, the country is undergoing a time of severe political troubles and I feel extremely sorry for the people.  I freely admit that I know nothing about what is going on, but I am deeply concerned, not only for the Pakistani people, but also for ourselves.  There appears to be a range of political factions that are willing and able to use violence to achieve their political ends both within the country and outside.  This nuclear power is basically hostile to it's Indian neighbor, and is providing safe haven in it's tribal regions for some of the most radical terrorists operating today, and we are right in the middle of it all.

I admire the men and women who are attempting to craft our policy in this difficult part of the world and sincerely wish that I could be part of it.  I can't, so I just try to figure things out from afar and worry.  I worry a lot.  Next door to Pakistan, India worries a lot too.  Our Indian friends absolutely understand the threat posed by radical Islam, but they also have to be concerned about the regional balance of power.  If I were in India I would try very hard to understand how American aid to Pakistan effects not only the effort to defeat terror, but also how it might help Pakistan in a future conflict with India, let alone how some of it might be used to stimulate trouble in Kashmir.  Given that we want to be friends with both Pakistan and India we have to worry about that too.

Within Pakistan the political cliche is that the army is the steel skeleton of the country.  The army is what holds the country together, but within the senior levels of the military there appears to be a wide range of political opinion.  Some profess to support democracy, some prefer a military dictatorship, and some appear to share radical Islamic objectives.  How does a foreign country decide how to structure it's economic and military aid to ensure that we do not inadvertently make matters worse than they already are?  Within our own senior policy levels there are almost as many factions as there are in Pakistan.  We have foreign policy proponents of democracy, dictatorship, disengagement, and perhaps even a few on the fringe that favor more exotic solutions.  (I don't know of any, but in the past they usually have been somewhere in the wings so I presume that they are there now.)

When I put myself in the shoes of a Pakistani leader and wonder what I would do, I see things through a cloud of very bad choices.  On one border I have a sworn enemy and a great deal of extreme hatred between my people and theirs.  We are both armed to the teeth and we have some serious disagreements about concrete matters - not least of which is Kashmir.  On another border I have an unstable country that causes me enormous difficulties right now, but in the event of hostilities with India could conceivably cause me to fight on two fronts.  What do I do about that?  Again a range of options from helping America fight radical Islam to providing assistance to some of the Afghani militants thus ensuring allies if I ever need them - both in Afghanistan and in the tribal areas of my own country. 

As I work my way through my options as a moderate Pakistani leader, I find my conversation with my American allies increasingly difficult.  I understand their interest in eliminating terrorist sanctuaries, but they do not seem to understand most of my internal and external concerns.  I find it politically destabilizing to use force against fellow Islamic populations even if they hold beliefs different from my own brand of Islam.  I worry that if I push too hard I will lose control of the steel skeleton and will see the more radical elements within the military attract enough popular support to take power in their own right.  At that point I believe that both I and my American friends would be in an even worse situation than we are now.  As if that is not enough, I also have to justify assistance to my country when we all know that I have less than a perfect governmental system.  There are even more inequities, more graft and corruption, and more ignorance than in the American government that I read about in my newspapers.

And then I have to deal with my own people who question why the Americans broadcast the names of all foreigners who help them in their war against terrorism.  As my compatriots risk being singled out and executed along with their families I find it increasingly difficult to convince my countrymen to help me in my alliance with my American friends.  Some of the more sophisticated among my fellow Pakistani leaders ask me difficult questions about how sincere the American public is in its professed support of my government.  These people can and do read and have been around long enough to have seen the American track record in other endeavors and they quite understandably question the sincerity of the American public.  When I am very tired and worn out after a day of being constantly accused of being a tool of American imperialism, even I wonder in my heart of hearts if America is an enemy of my religion.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

So what do we do about it...

I do not know what is in our president's mind, but he did tell Joe the Plumber that we should spread the wealth around, and he criticized Wall Street's executive pay scale.  Let's assume for a moment that he is trying to use his presidency to even the economic playing field.  That assumption would go a long way toward explaining his disinterest in fiscal responsibility.  The massive spending programs are giving to the poor and the debt will be paid back by the rich.  Here again, I believe that his policies are threatening the economic engine that has made this country great and for this reason I oppose them.  Without a healthy economy none of us will prosper and the quality of all of our lives will suffer - including the poorest among us.

Taking this position does not mean that the wealthiest among us can look the other way when we see social problems within our country.  The president is correct.  We have to do everything that we can to level the playing field and make it possible for everyone to compete as fairly as possible.  Where he gets off track is that we should do this not by tearing down what we now have, but rather by improving it so that others can more easily join in the prosperity.  There is a role for what a former president regarded as compassionate charity, but the real solution to the problem is not charity - that is not much more than a private version of the government dole.  Both forms of assistance should be reserved for the truly incapacitated among us.  What we need to remain focused on is the challenge of making it possible for more of us to effectively engage in the main stream economy as active and productive participants.

In earlier posts I spoke about watching a group of refugees accommodate to and engage in this economy.  They had no money, knew no one, did not speak English, did not have an education, and had only basic skills.  They accomplished the transition remarkably easily.  Today, I see illegal immigrants taking jobs away from residents.  I ask myself why the immigrant seems to be able to thrive when the native born citizen complains of hard times.  Obviously one of the factors involved here is the relative expectations of the two groups.  An illegal immigrant usually comes from an economy that is even further depressed than our own so this one looks like a great big candy box.  What the resident considers to be an unacceptable wage frequently looks very good to the immigrant.  The two groups have a number of other important differences as well, but I honestly believe that what is going on inside their head accounts for the most important difference.  The immigrant is motivated by having nothing and the resident is motivated by wanting more.  That all by itself makes a huge difference.

It may not be possible to sufficiently motivate the poor to move all of them suddenly into wealth, but we can obviously do better than we are now doing.  All of our recent political leaders at all levels have been correct to highlight the importance of education in this regard, but I fear that little is being accomplished to actually improve the learning process.  In this article I will leave education to the experts in the field and will address what I believe to be a useful short term expedient aimed at those elements of our society that have completed school.  I suggest that we develop a program designed to motivate folks to literally buy into the mainstream economy.  If I am correct in my analysis the most important single ingredient of success is motivation.  Identify folks that are genuinely motivated to improve their lives and invest in assisting them to establish businesses and buy homes through a monitored loan program.

OK, you say that has been tried before and it did not work very well in any of its many manifestations.  The earlier failures in these kinds of programs is, in large part. because they were monitored by impersonal bureaucracies.  I suggest moving the monitor function down to the community level and to insist that the monitor has an economic interest in ensuring that the effort is successful.  I am not talking about an Acorn type approach that uses public money, but rather a private approach that uses private money.  Select a man or woman or family that wants to improve their lives and loan them the money to start a business.  Because the individual, business, or organization that is the guarantor of the loan has "skin in the game" they will be motivated to help guide the recipient of the loan to achieve success. 

If business or individuals are reluctant to do this I suppose that the government could give them some sort of tax benefit, but I would hope that that would not be necessary for a whole range of reasons, the most important of which is that I want the guarantor of the loan to worry about the success of the recipient not regard it as a business transaction undertaken for tax considerations.  A better way to stimulate this might be to explore helping banks to make the loan not to the individual but to the guarantor.  It is important to not just subsidize the loan, but to keep the guarantor "on the hook" for repayment.  This ensures their full participation in helping to bring about a successful result.

I am not talking to liberals here.  They honestly believe that this kind of thing is the rightful duty of government.  I also recognize that a lot of conservatives will think that I am describing a pie that is well out of reach high up in the proverbial sky.  I am talking to those Americans of whatever political hue that understand that there are inequalities in our country and would like to find an effective way to address some of them.  I am talking to Americans who feel that big government is not an answer.  I am talking to Americans who believe that the most vital economic force in our country is private business.  I am talking to Americans who want to help their fellow human being.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Foreign Aid, foibles and fallacies...

When you give someone something that they did not have to work for I have noticed that they do not appreciate it very much.  When you do this consistently I have noticed that the recipient very quickly begins to take the gift for granted.  When you provide a service to someone without asking or taking compensation there are frequently similar long term results.  On the other hand, I have seen that when someone works hard and achieves some level of success they take great pride in it and frequently continue on to increasingly more success.  A few even become notable in their chosen field of endeavor.  I have lived abroad a great deal of my life and have found that these principals apply the world over in every single society to which I have ever been exposed.  Civilian and military foreign aid very definitely falls into the category of something for nothing. 

At one point in my life I sponsored a group of refugees.  One day one of the group came to me for advice.  He explained that he was being offered a twenty five cent per hour raise in pay and he asked whether I thought he should take it.  Surprised, I said something like "of course."  He patiently explained that he would actually lose money if he did because he would cross a financial threshold and would lose more in welfare than he would gain in pay.  Granted, that is an extreme case, but it is indicative of the unintended complications that can arise when one attempts to structure financial assistance to the less well off in society.  We must also understand that virtually all assistance is to some degree or another fungible.  Society gives with one purpose in mind and the recipient uses the aid for another purpose.  Welfare money turning up in Casinos is an example of this, but please note that food stamps to the working poor might well free up the paycheck for the crap table.

Similar things go on overseas with our foreign aid.  I have seen wheat that was intended for human consumption fed to pigs because it was not a normal staple in the diet of the people receiving it.  I have seen foreign aid for basic infrastructure permit countries to use their limited resources for other purposes not all of which fit into our foreign policy objectives.  Because the monies involved in foreign aid are so massive it is child's play to find examples of corruption, theft, and misdirection.  Similar problems arise when services are provided. I have seen local doctors and nurses remain in plush urban settings while volunteer doctors and nurses from far off lands visit rural areas to provide the most basic medical services.  I have repeatedly seen American military carry the fight to the enemy while local forces sit on their hands.  (In these situations many Americans conclude that the locals just can't fight, yet the enemy is invariably the same local people on the other side of that particular political argument.)

It is relatively rare when our foreign aid is provided for other than political purposes.  There are examples of purely humanitarian relief programs but the funds involved are dwarfed by the amounts provided for political purposes.  The fact of life is that we provide the vast majority of our foreign aid because it is deemed to be in our national interest.  Today, we are giving Pakistan large amounts of assistance and the public has just awakened to the fact that there is corruption in that country and a strong suspicion that the wealthiest people are not paying their taxes.  In Afghanistan we are trying to figure out how to pull our military out of the fight without handing the country over to the Taliban.  The key challenge facing General Petraeus is how to motivate the Afghani government forces to take up the fight.  If I were an Afghani I would look back at our record in Viet Nam and I would have serious reservations.  In Viet Nam we handed the fight over to the Vietnamese, promised to support them economically and with military supplies, and then we literally cut off the pipeline.  Zip, nada.

The zig zag course that we follow in domestic politics is mirrored in our relations with foreign countries.  When we feel that we have a national interest in a particular area we provide foreign aid.  When we lose interest in that area we withdraw it.  Now we are interested in the Middle East rather than Southeast Asia.  For the most part we leave the worst humanitarian problems to the NGOs and the missionaries.  I honestly believe that most Americans have not thought much about all of this, but I argue that we should.  I guarantee that the rest of the world understands it and does not see us as being the humanitarian state that we believe we are.  This world view of America's motives is profoundly deleterious to our national interest.  Please do not misunderstand here.  I favor providing humanitarian aid to the less fortunate among us both at home and abroad, but I want to do it more effectively than we are now.  I believe that it is critical to our domestic happiness and our international security.  Not only that, I honestly believe that I know how to do it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Stupidity can be treason

The release of thousands of classified documents is not helpful to those that are trying to manage our foreign relations and protect us from attack, but some among us do not seem to care very much.  This is not the first time that this has happened, but it still amazes me.  The person or persons who did this not only gave valuable information to those that would harm us, but also ensured that those who want to work with us must reassess the relationship.  I have not read any of the documents yet, but from what I have heard about them there is a very good chance that good people will die because of their release.  If that happens, I want those that leaked the documents to understand that they executed good people who were trying to help America.

Because I do not have a loved one directly involved in Afghanistan I can attempt to look at this event fairly objectively, but if I did I am afraid that there would be considerable rage inside of me.  Even looking at it objectively it is impossible for me to justify it.  It is illegal, unintelligent and extremely dangerous to our security.  I presume that the individuals involved believe that it is important for America to understand just how evil this war is and feel that it will help turn the public against the effort in the same way that the Pentagon Papers did in Viet Nam.  Their egos must be enormous that they understand all of this better than the folks on the ground.

War is hell.  That is not just a phrase in a book.  It is reality.  Ask anyone who has been caught up in one.  We should not go to war unless we have to do so because it is impossible to prosecute a war successfully by being a nice person.  The reality of war is that you have to be at least as vicious as your opponent and you have to kill a lot of people.  You do not fight a war successfully by following the rules.  If you want to prove that the war in Afghanistan is bad all you have to do is ask anyone in our military or anyone who has ever served his or her country in a previous war.  You do not need to do something stupid like helping our enemies to make your case.  I agree - war is hell.

If you are trying to prove that the Pakistani government is duplicitous that is also a given because all governments around the world are duplicitous - and that includes us.  I have personally been there and done that and so have a whole lot of others who have worked in government in this country.  So once again, why did you do it?   Perhaps you are upset with the Afghanistan government for talking to the Taliban.  If I were a citizen of Afghanistan of any station I would be talking to the Taliban for a lot of different reasons including the very real possibility that the United States will get tired and go home.  If you were in their place, would you do otherwise?

I presume that you want to end the war so that we can spend all of that treasure at home.  I would like to do that as well, but I am left with a whole lot of very serious problems out there among the pesky foreigners that worry me a great deal, (including, but not limited to, a hundred or so nuclear weapons that are in very real danger of falling into the hands of terrorists).  I do not see your action as helping deal with those issues.  In fact, I see it making things a lot worse than it already was.  So once again I ask myself why did you do it.  I will give you the benefit of the doubt and not assume that you are an enemy of this country.  Instead I will conclude that you are merely very stupid and are after your fifteen minutes of fame.  Shame on you for risking killing good people including our own troops and harming our national security to do it. 

Because we are not the Taliban I do not advocate the punishment that they would deliver to one of theirs had they done something comparable.  Instead, I think that you should just be convicted of treason and put in jail for the rest of your life.  (If my son or daughter were in harms way I would be sorely tempted to reconsider the sentence.)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Fortunes and Prophesies

I am critical of conservatives that point out what is wrong with President Obama's various policies without offering specific alternatives and am critical of liberals who defend those policies without explaining how the country is going to pay for them.  This slug fest that we call a political campaign is about the least intelligent "discussion" imaginable.  I am particularly critical of the media role in all of this.  There is nowhere to go in radio or television or the internet that is politically neutral.   A "moderator" will ask a question of a candidate and then talk over the response to the point that I turn the "conversation" off.  Walter Cronkite was not politically neutral, but he did one heck of a lot better job than any of the people "on the air" today.

As I see it, we are at another one of those cross roads that have come up every once in a while in our history and we do not really understand it.  We voted for change and we are definitely getting it, but a lot of us are really uneasy about what kind of change, about what it is doing to the fabric of our nation, and about the speed with which it appears to be happening.  Senator Al Franken was correct when he warned liberal bloggers in Las Vegas that our gut reaction will be to reverse gears in November and, as Sarah Palin says, attempt to "refudiate" Obama's policies in their entirety.  This kind of zig zag political course is illogical, expensive, ineffective and dangerous.  It is the inevitable result of our inability to talk to one another in a rational manner about anything other than trivia.  Tip O'Neill, where are you when we need you?

The gentlemen that invented the United States of America were almost certainly not as omniscient as we now give them credit for being, but they did have a pretty good grasp of human nature and they came up with some useful procedures to minimize the damage that we could do to each other.  They were a bunch of individualists.  They did not seek the most effective form of government, they sought the safest form of government.  They installed checks and balances at every turn and those checks and balances have served us well for several hundred years.  In 2008, we effectively found a chink in the system.  We elected a congress and an executive of one mind.  There was suddenly no need for the legislature to seek compromise within each of the bodies, nor between them, nor between the two houses and the executive.  Three leaders could literally decide and implement virtually anything that they wanted to without considering the opinions of those that disagreed with them.

Barak Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi are making policy and implementing sweeping legislation without being forced to seek compromise with conservative voices.  All three of these leaders are experienced politicians and they know that there is a very good chance that they will only have a two year window of opportunity so they are pushing hard to get as much of their agenda implemented as possible.  My guess is that their motives are mixed, but I give them credit for believing that they are acting in the best interests of the American people.  The problem comes that a very large percentage of the American people feel that their interests are not being adequately considered so there is something of a groundswell aimed at "throwing the bums out of office."

My guess is that we will get a new set of politicians that will continue to blindly attack their opponents rather than truly seek  the compromises necessary to find a way through a future fraught with danger - both internally and externally.  It will help marginally if we can ensure that conservative voices are sufficiently strong to guarantee that one party rule will be at an end, but what we really need is an electorate that is interested in substance rather than rhetoric.  I understand that it probably won't happen, but that is what I hope for when I open the fortune cookie.

Friday, July 23, 2010

My prejudice

I have to admit that I am prejudiced against people who think that they are smarter than I am, even if (perhaps particularly if) they are.  It is not rational and I am not particularly proud of it, but there you have it.  When someone talks down to me I find myself irrationally fighting against the logic of their position even when I know that it might be correct.  I have to resist the temptation to stamp my foot and say harsh things, but most of the time I am happy to report that my better self exerts itself and I give them the benefit of the doubt and sometimes I am even capable of agreeing with them.  In today's political world I find that I have this problem a lot.  My president talks down to me all of the time and it really grates on me.  Many of his associates, sheltering in his shadow, do so as well, but mostly they would be humorous if it were not for the fact that what we are talking about is so serious. 

A long time ago I explored the possibility of going back to university and studying for a doctorate.  A very elderly and wise secretary talked me out of it.  She admitted that I had the grades, could probably get some financial help, and would almost certainly matriculate sooner or later, but she said I was not the right type or person for academia.  She divided the world into two types - those that do and those that teach.  I have been applying her schematic to people ever since and find that there appears to be some truth to it.  With regard to our president, I note that he taught law at the University of Chicago for a significant period of time.  I suspect that he was a very good teacher.  His handling of the practical problems facing our nation make it clear that although he might be able to teach, he is not the type of person who does much that is useful for the nation.  This analysis does not make him a bad person - he is just in the wrong job.

I am serious about this analysis and extend it to the majority of those in our society who think of themselves as intellectuals.  It follows that if you honestly believe that you are smarter than your fellow human being then you can obviously do things better than he or she can.  It is not a long leap to the conclusion that you can conceive of ways to organize the world that are superior to the way in which the lesser intellects want to approach things.  One of the family of concepts that many intellectuals are attracted to is socialism.  I absolutely agree that it is intellectually seductive.  I can even see the intellectual attractiveness of it's big brother - communism.  These isms promise a more just world where everybody lives in harmony and pull together to build a utopia.  I have seen both socialism and communism tried first hand by some fairly dedicated proponents and I have yet to see any form of this spectrum of political solutions turn out very well anywhere - including modern Europe.

This is not to say that I think that we have a perfect political, economic or social system.  There is a lot wrong with all sectors of our system.  We still have poverty.  We still have social injustice.  We still have corruption.  We still have obesity.  We still have incompetents running for political office.  The list goes on and on and every one of those problems that face us should be addressed, but I argue that, in the process of resolving these problems, we should not destroy the basic strengths that have served us so well for so long.  I have tried to objectively parse our president's many words and I believe that he may or may not be a socialist, but I am convinced that his family of solutions to our very real problems is moving us closer to that particular ism than I believe it is wise for us to go.  I advocate peacefully removing as many of his congressional allies as possible in the next two elections and sending him back to academia where he could be very useful to our country in highlighting the problems that need to be addressed by all of us.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Health and Wealth

It is  lot easier to tell someone what is wrong with another's efforts than it is to tell everyone what you would do instead.  We are at that point in our national conversation about health care.  Part of the reason is that there are no easy answers to the multitude of challenges facing health care.  Most of us can see the issues, but we currently have a system that seems to work for most of the folks that are fully engaged in our society and we do not want to risk destroying what we have in order to perhaps improve things for those that are less well integrated.  I count myself to be one of that number and I know all of the arguments that can be used to justify the status-quo, but my problem is that I can also see the increasingly serious social and moral problem that faces our nation.

Everybody "knows" that if you have enough money you can not only live forever, you can be healthy, beautiful, and have a perfectly shaped body as well.  It is understandable that every person on the planet would want to join that very exclusive club, or at least get the best health care possible.  This brings us to the moral dilemma facing the entire world.  The very poorest of nations are reliant on the generosity of international aid to obtain the most basic health care imaginable.  There are people living in our world today who have never had access to clean water in their entire lives.  These folks would give their eye teeth to have what we consider to be a flawed system.  On the other hand we also must understand that some improvement in health care is reaching into even these people's lives.  We should ask ourselves why that is happening.

Obviously, health care is improving even more dramatically in the developed nations of the world and the United States is fortunate enough to be on the very top of the pyramid.  I suggest further that advances in medical science occurring in the United States are improving the lives of people living all over the planet including the depths of Africa and the most remote ghetto in America.  The improvements are not of equal efficacy nor are they applied uniformly, but they are happening.  Why is the United States leading the way in medical research?  Purely and simply because we are the richest nation in the world.  We have enough that we do not need to spend our entire national wealth just to feed ourselves.  We have a bit left over to devote to an effort to improve our lives.  And some within our borders even think that it is important to help the folks that have less than we do.  (Warren Buffett and the Gates family come to mind here.)

I suggest that our efforts to further improve the distribution of health care in the United States had better be ever watchful of the impact on our economy.  Without a healthy economy our health care system will regress more rapidly than most are currently aware.  The hard fact of life is that health costs money.  No money, no health.  That fact of life makes me reluctant to move too rapidly to redress current inequalities in our health care system.  I agree that specific problems need to be addressed, but suggest a piecemeal approach rather than a radical revamping of the entire system.  To attempt radical surgery would endanger the economic heart that provides the medical advances necessary to help the entire world - not just those of us fortunate enough to live in the United States of America.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

If I were black...

I am not black or white, nor am I post-racial.  Although various forms insist on labeling me as being "white" my skin color is actually a rather pasty orange. I was born into a racial America and I have not yet found the post-racial society that everybody is talking about.  (As a kid, I used to try to improve the color of my skin by staying out in the sun as much as I could.  Today, my dermatologist informs me that I have skin cancer.)  Growing up, I saw plenty of examples of racism in my own country and abroad.  Some of it was malevolent and some of it was just taken for granted.  I honestly do not know which is worse.  I also saw a lot of people of all skin hues sincerely trying to eliminate racism.  Somewhere along the line, I joined the later group.  Although I did not grow up black, I can understand that it would not be as advantageous as growing up pasty orange.

I am the kind of person who spends a lot of time trying to put myself in the other guy's shoes.  Long ago, I found that it was a very useful exercise if I wanted to persuade someone that my particular take on a subject had merit.  In my diplomatic career I found that it was critical to successful negotiating.  In the process, I also found that force had a limited long term role in bringing about change in human beings.  South African imprisonment of Nelson Mandala comes to mind here.  So I conclude that I am a liberal when it comes to racial relations.  I may even be a crypto-evangelist on the subject - so, if you are racist and set in your ways - be warned that I am going to argue that you should change your attitude - and that goes for blacks as well as whites.

From a white perspective, it is less than advantageous to endorse social attitudes, government policies, and business practices that discriminate against people who are not pasty orange in skin color.  To do so, not only is unjust, illegal and morally wrong, it is also expensive, illogical and unintelligent.  It does not even add to one's "superiority" if we analyze it carefully and honestly.  It is kind of like a modern sports figure using drugs to go after a world record. 

From a black perspective "reverse racism," no matter how understandable, is getting in the way of improving lives within the black community.  There is no doubt but that white prejudice, though much reduced, still exists in our society.  It is one thing to fight against it and quite another to use it as an excuse.  I apologize to those that I offend, but I think that many black people use race as an excuse for not trying.  Here again I see analogies to the use of drugs in our society.

Our society has a number of drug problems and racism is one of the worst.

Our current president, Barack Obama, is half white and half black and there are both black and white folks who do not like him.  Some dislike him for his skin color and some for his policies and the two groups obviously overlap.  In this, the president and I have much in common.  I have met people who dismiss me because of my skin color and others that dislike me because of policies that I advocate - and I am just a middle class American.  I can imagine that all of this gets intensified when you are president of an entire country.  I genuinely admire his fortitude in dealing with this aspect of his job.

I am impressed by Barak Obama, the man, and I respect his obvious intelligence a great deal.  I also respect the fact that he came out of nowhere to become the president of the United States of America. I am in awe of his control of rhetoric and his electioneering skills. At the same time, I oppose most of his policies.  I think that I understand where he is coming from in proposing those policies and I am pretty sure that I can see the rationale for them given his personal perspective, but I still oppose them because I feel that they are impractical and will ultimately destroy America.  I honestly do not think that my opposition is racially motivated - remember please that I honestly respect the man.

At the present time there is a lot of talk about racism in the United States.  It is high fashion to brand an opponent as being racist in the same way that we used to call men that we did not like the male child of a prostitute.  (Legalization of prostitution in Nevada appears to have made this epitaph less satisfying so we are moving on to a more up-to-date lexicon.)  Using the R word is almost as bad as reverting to the N word or any of the other phrases that we are afraid of saying out loud in this politically correct hypocrisy that we call modern America. 

Let's deal with reality here.  If I were black, white, yellow, brown, or purple, and the forthcoming election included a place to vote for president I would not vote for Mr. Obama because I do not agree with his policies.  We should remember that the forthcoming ballot does not have a check box for president.  We are going to vote for a variety of officials at all levels of government short of the national executive.  All of them are important for a lot of reasons including the way in which they fit into the overall scheme of things.   My hope is that where possible we will elect congressional and gubernatorial representatives that will slow down or perhaps even reverse some of Mr. Obama's policies.  Hopefully, we can do this without encouraging racist elements to try to capture the political debate that is certain to get intense in the months ahead.

There is a lot at stake in the November 2010 election.  I honestly believe that the future of our way of life is one of those things.  I do not like the present political course that we are on and will vote for the person that seems best able to move us back in the right direction, but I will not vote for any candidate that I deem to be a racist.  The principal reason is that that person is obviously unintelligent and would make a poor representative of my hopes and aspirations.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Here we go again.

Unfortunately, we are about to add to our already massive debt once again and it appears to be an issue colored by unnecessary political infighting.  The very real problem that faces our country is that our economy is in recession and there are not enough jobs to go around.  Those that are without work are receiving unemployment checks.  The time limit on that program is about to run out for a large number of people and President Obama has asked congress to extend the program for those folks.  Both the Republican and the Democratic leaders agree that this is necessary.  They disagree as to whether the extension should be paid for with money already appropriated for other programs or borrowed.  The Republican leadership wants to pay for it by reducing the scope of other programs and the Democratic leadership wants to borrow.  It is a difficult problem and the rhetoric is heating up accordingly.  All statements on the issue are being crafted with an eye on the November congressional elections.

The Democrats will almost certainly be able to pass their version of the law and Mr. Obama will certainly sign it.  In the process we will help a lot of people who are currently out of work and simultaneous add another huge amount of money to our already staggering debt.  The help will be a temporary fix and the debt will be a long term problem.  Obviously, we need to extend the program, but I do not favor adding to our debt to do it.  That approach not only delays addressing the real problem, but inevitably makes it that much more difficult to accomplish.  Unfortunately, there is a lot of waste in government and there are programs currently being funded that do not appear to be adding to our economic recovery.  Having said that. I must also agree that gaining consensus as to what is wasteful spending and what is not is a difficult challenge.  Difficult is not an acceptable reason for inaction - it is not even a valid excuse.  It is what we elect our executive and legislative representatives to do for us.

The political stalemate that faces us in Washington is, in very large part, because of the intransigence of the electorate.  All of us understandably want to protect our own, but in the process we have to understand that sometimes it is vitally important to compromise in order to accomplish that goal.  In the past we were wealthy enough that we could ignore a lot of inefficiency and even some stupidity.  I suggest that we can not do that anymore.  It is in our national interest to elect the best people possible - not just the ones who promise us our version of paradise.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The words are important.

Religion can be a difficult subject to write about.  It touches values that are at the very core of our being and it can trigger powerful forces within us.  Like most of us, I have been intellectually and personally very interested in the subject and have made a considerable effort to understand at least a little bit about the world's most influential religions.  I am fascinated by their similarities and interested in their differences in exactly the same way that I am with regard to atheism.  I envy those who are certain about their religion or lack of it and can believe without question.  I am even envious of those who profess to know that nothing is known or can be known of the nature or existence of God - the agnostics.  I do not regularly attend any church and I suspect that God does not exist, at least as depicted by most religions, but I notice that I prayed to God when I thought that I was about to die.  So, here i go ignorantly pontificating about religion.

A long time ago I was in Calcutta, India, haggling with a merchant over the purchase of a reproduction of Cambodian sculpture that I wanted rather badly.  In order to prove my bona-fides I turned the discussion to religion and told him ten percent more than I knew about Buddhism.  He listened patiently and then explained that Buddhism was a failed splinter religion off of the main Hindu stem.  I was struck by his comfortable certainty and his ability to utterly dismiss a religion that had a major portion of the world interested in it.

On another occasion, I was in Israel walking around the Temple Mount and environs with guides.  The first day, I went with an Israeli and learned the religious significance of every rock, hill and stream.  The second day, I went over the same ground with a Palestinian and learned another religious significance of the same rocks, hills and streams.  I was struck by the extent to which religious history can get in the way of peace.

On September 11, 2001, we were attacked by a small group of terrorists who claimed to be Muslim.  We were understandably outraged and angry.  Some of us briefly spoke of mounting a crusade to redress the situation.  In so doing we were reaching back into a time long ago when Christian fought Muslim.  Claims were made that September 11 had been chosen because it was the date that Suleiman had been turned back at the Gates of Vienna in the sixteenth century.  (It wasn't - at least not in our calendar.)  Subsequently, an unfortunate flow of bad history and ignorance has been used to vilify our opponents and their religion.  One that typifies this kind of thing is the Houston, Texas mall sign that said that a particular perfume shop would be closed to honor the martyrdom of Imam Ali.  The sign was reproduced and circulated on the internet along with the claim that Imam Ali was one of the 9/11 hijackers.  None of the hijackers were so named.  (Imam Ali was an important Muslim religious leader of the Seventh Century.)

I can readily believe that the 9/11 hijackers prayed to their god just before they slammed into the concrete side of the Trade Center just as the Japanese Kamikaze pilots did before crashing into the steel deck of an American battleship half a century earlier and the way in which an American soldier jumping out of a trench and storming a German machine gun position did in the "Great War."  The idea that Al Quida's thugs are somehow different in this respect from the rest of us is nonsense.  it is also hard for me to see the fundamental difference between an American military chaplain blessing our soldiers before battle and a rogue Islamic religious leader blessing a suicide bomber.  We all want god on our side.

I am not an Islamic scholar and can not really dissect the Koran to prove one way or another what it means (and I confess that I can not really do a satisfactory job of doing that with the Christian bible either - no matter which one we chose for the exercise).  One thing I do know is that I do not want to go to war with one billion people unless I absolutely have to do so.  Fortunately, I do not believe that we do.  I see no evidence that the Muslim world is wanting to bring back the days of crusade and counter-crusade.  I do see a lot of frustration out there and a very real need to redress a number of injustices - including pervasive poverty and terrorism.  I plead with my fellow Americans to stop making unnecessary enemies and stay focused on the real ones.  At the very top of the terrorist hierarchy I suspect that most of the current group of malcontents are merely very bad people grasping at whatever they can to recruit followers.  Let's not help them by unilaterally declaring a religious crusade against all Muslims.

I completely understand President Obama's effort to eschew using religious terminology when talking about Al Quida, but unfortunately many Americans see this as an indication that our president is in denial of the facts.  I propose a compromise.  Lets agree first that we are not in a religious war.  Let's agree second that so far all of our enemies have been extremist terrorists who claim to follow a rogue form of Islam.  These differences may appear to be subtle and maybe they are, but I believe that they are critical distinctions in the debate going on in the bazaars of Houston and Abu Dhabi.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

No problem, we'll sue...

The state of Arizona has passed a law that the people at the top of the federal government do not like so they are challenging it in court.  I am not smart enough to know who is going to win this argument.  I can certainly see the legal issue that is at stake and I think that I can even see at least some of the principals of law that are involved.  If the court decides that the Arizona law attempts to preempt the constitutional authority of the federal government to deal with immigration then the feds win.  If the court decides that the new law is designed to merely assist the federal government in carrying out it's constitutional responsibilities then the state might actually prevail.  The Attorney General has also indicated that if the courts uphold Arizona's law, the federal government might well bring suit on different grounds later on.  The leading contender for a rationale at that time would be racial discrimination and the outcome would depend on how Arizona's law and order system implements the law.  I think that is as it should be.

I like the way our federal system of government is structured and believe that it continues to serve us well even as some of the people in our government fail us.  I think that, unfortunately, this legal exercise is necessary and I will be interested to see how the courts deal with it.  At the same time, I really do not like the reason that we are spending our time and money this way.  As I read the constitution, Eric Holder is correct - immigration and border security are federal responsibilities.  Because  the federal government is not (and has not been) doing it's job well enough to protect the people of Arizona, I agree with Governor Brewer that "something has to be done about it."  On a purely political plane, I admire the state for coming up with this kind of a prod to stimulate some national attention to the issue.  I wish that the public discourse was a bit more disciplined.

I can make an argument that, from a political perspective, Arizona might lose if it wins the case in court and might win if it loses the case.  I have a harder time calculating how the country wins no matter the outcome of the legal challenge.  We are spending our attention, treasure and time on a symptom not on the cause.  (We do a lot of that.) The real issue is, of course, "comprehensive immigration reform."  I have been reluctant to come to the conclusion that Arizona is a pawn in the national debate on this issue, but I am reluctantly concluding that it is.  The raucous, irrational hue and cry coming from the various sides of the basic debate would seem to bear this out.  The circuitous answers that the administration gives to straightforward questions adds to my concerns.  As does the chattering of all of the talking heads.  Threats of boycotts and counter-boycotts amplify the sound, but fail to clarify very much of what is at stake here.  It is pretty obvious that we have to revamp our immigration policy and control our borders.  Why don't we just sit down together and figure out how to do that?  Because new federal  legislation is inevitably a necessary ingredient of a solution of this problem, I suggest that this is another situation where our congressional representatives are letting the people down. 

I am also extremely critical of the executive branch for not implementing existing immigration laws effectively and even more critical of the current administration's failure to protect our borders.  There is no need for new legislation concerning the defense of our border.  The constitution is quite clear as to who is failing us in this regard.  Here again I am tired of the excuse that the other guy didn't do it either.  I was critical of him on this issue when he was in the White House, but you've got the job now and please don't forget that you asked us to trust you to improve things.

Friday, July 16, 2010

How much does all of this cost?

There is a television ad that I have seen a copy machine company run a number of times recently.  I'm sure that you might have seen it as well.  A group of people sitting around a conference table trying to figure out how to trim the cost of doing business.  One of them points to the piles of documents, reports, and other paperwork piled high on the table in front of him and asks "how much does all of this cost?"  Another looks pensive and comments "it could be millions..."  I'm not certain that I would go to a copy machine company to help me deal with the problem, but I certainly wish our government would at least make a sincere effort to address the waste associated with excessive paperwork.  One of the mantras in government is a claim that the USG is serious about eliminating unnecessary paperwork.  I might possibly believe that some bureaucrats are sincere, but I have a problem with what government officials at all levels consider to be necessary paperwork.

At one point in my government career I was assigned to a small provincial town in a very nice country enduring an ugly war.  I was in the field all day and I dealt with paperwork at night.  Bad people frequently harassed us with mortar attacks, particularly at night, and sometimes they followed up with ground probes.  As a result, when the mortars started coughing everybody had to wake up just in case.  My responsibility was mostly to stay out of the way, but I did have a small area of our perimeter to cover if the mortars stopped and the bad people made it that far.  I knew that they did not want to be stumbling around in the dark when exploding mortar shells were doing their bit so I blacked out my hootch and read my in-box as long as the cacophony outside was reassuring.

One evening, I found a letter addressed to me from the Assistant Secretary of State for Security Affairs.  At the time I did not know that we had an Assistant Secretary of State for Security Affairs so I was curious.  (Kaboom) The letterhead stationery was memorable in its beauty.  I have forgotten the exact carefully typed words (new typewriter ribbon), but it was clear that the secretary was upset with me.  (Kaboom)  Apparently I had repeatedly failed to fill out an important security form and so he was personally sending me another copy for my immediate attention.  The form asked where I had lived during the previous ten years. (Kaboom)  I had been in the Foreign Service for much longer than ten years and the government had told me where to live all during that time so I had obviously ignored the previous iterations of this exercise. (Kaboom)  He explained to me that if I did not immediately return this form properly completed I would face disciplinary action.  (Kaboom)  I wrote on the beautiful ivory margin of his expensive stationery (Kaboom) that I was interested in knowing what kind of disciplinary measures were being considered. (Kaboom)  I scotch-taped the letter back into his very crisp envelope and asked that it be returned to sender.

I never heard back form the Secretary and have often wondered whatever happened to my reply and for that matter to him.  I remain curious to know what kind of disciplinary action he thought might be persuasive to someone in my circumstances. I hope that he has prospered and the silly form has died.  I am encouraged to think that it might have expired because I never ever saw it again, but I am not vain enough to think that I might have hastened it's demise.   I spent a long time working for the government and I have a lot more paperwork stories, but none of them are this dramatic.  The only place that my television ad analogy falls short is the amount of money involved in all of this.  It is not millions - it is billions.  If you don't believe me add in staff costs, storage facilities, computers, bandwidth, and the largest cost of all - inefficiency and confusion.  Please do not think that just because something is stored digitally that it saves anything except trees.  If anything, paperwork costs more in the computer age than it did when we used pen and ink.  Oh, and one more point.  I never saw any evidence that the bad people (who defeated us in this struggle) ever used very much paper for any purpose.  They appear to have been more interested in doing things rather than writing back and forth to each other about maybe doing things.  (They didn't have computers either.)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Democracy is the worst form of government...

I think that Winston Churchill said it best - "democracy is the worst form of government except for any other that has ever been tried."  One of my criticisms has been that the course of our ship of state tends to be a zig zag.  Our domestic policies constantly lurch back and forth, narrowly avoiding shoal waters on both the port and starboard sides of the ship.  Last time around, the lurch was off to the left and in a century of days it looks like we will probably lurch off to the right.  I am not opposed to this change in course, but I worry mightily about who is going to be in the ship's crew after November.  It is one thing to gain control of one or both of the houses of congress and quite another to do it with representatives that can help lead us in the right direction.  It is one thing to be opposed to the failed policies of your predecessor and quite another to have what it takes to successfully help solve the enormous problems that face our nation.

We continually bemoan the fact that we have difficulty recruiting the best folks to take on these extremely difficult and vitally important challenges.  In fact, we are lucky to get the talent that we do.  In today's political environment a candidate for office can look forward to a long, expensive, grueling campaign wherein he or she can be certain that they and their families will be vilified, lied about, and generally trashed, no matter their political beliefs.  It is one of the results of our unthinking, uncivilized, unintelligent political dialog these days.  We delight in finding the chink in a politician's armor, particularly if he or she is not "one of ours" and then destroying the individual if at all possible.  I am not saying that we need to tolerate wrong doing, but I am saying that we should spend more time thinking very hard about the political choices that are in play at any given time.  Rather than spending our time looking for flaws in the opposition, we should concentrate on thinking about how we would solve the set of problems facing us right now.

Recent political polling tells us that the public is tired of this administration's policies.  I am very much part of that demographic, but I am also concerned about who we might elect to replace the people calling the shots right now.  I am one that favors candidates that have a specific plan over those that spout rhetoric designed to play to the prejudices of the public as reflected in the latest poll.  I prefer a conservative financial approach to what I consider to be our biggest single challenge - the economy.  Conservative candidates are pretty much all telling us that they will be diligent watchdogs of the country's financial interests and I want to believe them, but I would be more comfortable if they told me more about what specific policies they favor.  I am tired of being forced to select between red and blue.  I would like to select the best person to do the job - whatever their political color.  There is absolutely no question, but that i would vote for a blue dog Democrat with a good plan over a Republican candidate that refused to tell me what he or she intended to do.

Color is an important issue in this country as it should be.  Black and White need to figure out how to get along and so do Red and Blue.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Let's turn the volume down a bit.

I am used to being odd man out.  I get into situations all the time where my friends turn against me when I explain why I think that we are doing the wrong thing.  I am often accused of being "one of them" when I suggest that we should modify our actions along the lines that one of our critics might suggest.  I spent several years working with military men on political issues and I was never out of hot water - sometimes with my military associates and sometimes with my fellow cookie pushers.  (My first firearm was an M1 rifle and I have actually pushed cookies.)

I consider myself to be quite conservative on financial issues and moderately liberal on social issues.  A combination that bars me from the inner circles of all political clubs.  (I believe that there are probably a lot more of us that think this way than either political extreme would like to believe.)  The really interesting thing is that even when I am among folks who label themselves the same way that I do we still argue a lot.  For instance I am a supporter of capitalism, but I think that it is greed personified.  I am also a supporter of public education even though I believe that it has been completely taken over by a mind set with which I do not agree.  I support liberal immigration policies and I worry about joblessness.  I can go on and on, but hopefully you get the point.  For me the world is very gray and I envy those who can see it as either black or white (but I don't see how they do it).

I have another serious problem.  I am loath to label someone my enemy.  I do it when I have to, but I really don't like it for a number of reasons.  I am told that Jesus encouraged us to love our enemies.  I find that very hard to do, but I can see the wisdom of it.  For me the issue is very pragmatic.  I want to avoid having any more enemies than absolutely necessary.  More allies is better than fewer allies.  Some have said that makes me a coward so I looked the word up and found that I am not such.  The key point is that I think that I do have the courage to do unpleasant or dangerous things, it is just that I really don't want to unless I absolutely have to.  So I am not quick to advocate war for instance, but once in a war I see no real advantage of losing it.

Ok, where am I going with all of this?  As you can probably tell if you have read any of the postings in this blog I am advocating that we elect more conservative people to congress in November.  That does not mean that I dislike the Democrats, only that I disagree with the policies of their current leadership in the Congress and in the White House.  The political leader that did the most to shape my life was a Democrat - John F. Kennedy.  "Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country."  I spent an entire lifetime trying to do that, (but even so I disagreed with the way in which he and his brother ended the Cuban Missile Crisis).  I think that the political dialog in this country is much too strident on both sides of the fence.  Both sides are making unnecessary enemies and hurting the country in the process.  Much of what I hear is not dialog or debate it is discordant, mindless shouting.  That makes enemies, but not good policy.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The single biggest problem that faces this country is....

Unfortunately there are a lot of candidates for this position in our national To Do List.  We might disagree about which one gets top honors, but I think that the majority of us can agree that the financial state of the nation is among the top contenders.  Every time I turn on the "news" I am told that we are going broke and our government is doing little about it.  The people who tell me this have varied over time, but I note that their number is growing and they are crossing the political aisle.  That worries me a lot more than it used to and I find myself moving the problem up in my list of personal concerns.  One of the most recent harbingers of this particular form of doom is Erskine Bowles, the head of the President's Commission on the National Debt.  I don't know as much about this man as I should, but I note that he was hand picked by this administration to check things out.  I presume that this means that his statement is devoid of a whole lot of political gamesmanship.  The fellow spending the money and the gentleman looking at the accounts are both of the same political party and they appear to like each other.  It is one thing when a feisty and politically articulate Republican ex-governor makes the claim and quite another when a respected member of the president's own party sounds the warning in very plain, straight-forward language.

So, just for argument's sake let's assume that we are about to fall off of the financial cliff.  What do we do about it.  I, of course, have not got a clue, but I do know where I would start looking at the problem.  The first thing I would do is ask somebody how much money I still have in the bank. ( In government terms how much money that has been appropriated but not yet spent.)  I would scrutinize every single project that was still in the planning stage and stop as many of them as I possibly could.  Those that I could not stop outright I would try to reduce in scope and cost.  I would also scrub my own list of employees and lay the least productive off just like business does during hard times.  After I had done all of that once I would do it again just to be sure that I had not missed the odd million dollars.  We have to remember that a million here and a million there can add up to real money before we know it.  I would ask all of those people who are smarter than I am to tell me how I could accomplish even more savings and I would actually listen to all of them and then implement the ideas that made the most sense.

Just reducing the outflow of treasure is not going to turn the financial tide.  I don't need an economist to tell me that we need to increase income at the same time that we reduce spending, but I could use some help in figuring out how to do it.  It seems to me that an important part of government income is derived from taxes that our citizens pay.  Many of them are out of work so that income stream is down.  Another important part of the picture is taxes paid by business.  Most business in this country is hurting so that source is down.  Sooo, I think that I would try to stimulate business and would find work for as many of our citizens as possible.  Here again I would ask the folks who know more about this than I do to drop whatever they are doing right now and come help me think it through.  After I had their input I would stimulate job growth and develop a robust set of business friendly policies even if it meant reducing taxes occasionally.  I remember that this approach appears to have worked once before in my lifetime and it might be worth trying again.  I would also look hard at a work program that offered a pay check instead of a welfare check.  We might actually get around to fixing some of the roads and retrofitting some bridges so that they won't fall down when the "big one" hits.  As I remember it Roosevelt did this a while back so we have something of a model that ought to be rather easy to replicate.  (I know, I know.  The really smart people think that he slowed down our recovery from the great depression, but I am not sure that forecloses a Civilian Conservation Corps approach to our current problems.)

Ok, I am well aware that it is hard to do all of this - real hard.  I also know that it is even harder for a lot of plain citizens to make ends meet in their family budgets.  I confess that I am loath to let the people who we elected to solve these issues skate by with an explanation of the difficulties - no matter how erudite.  I am also pretty tired of hearing that "it is not my fault." That may or may not be true, but the country elected a government that promised to fix things and they don't look like they are being fixed.  Truman said it very well.  Something to the effect that if you don't like the heat then get out of the kitchen.  I don't want to be rude, but I am sympathetic to that line of thought.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Name Change

The name of this blog has been changed.  It used to be Wandering Lizard's Blog.  Now it is Cristalen's Blog.

These posts started out to be about travel, but they have taken on a life of their own and the articles are now about what is going on in this world.  If you are reading it at all regularly I am honored.  If you don't care to read it, no hard feelings.  As a friend of mine noted recently - we all got here via different roads.  Whether you agree with me or not I would like to hear from you, either via email or as a comment on any or all of the posts.

If you are looking for travel information you will find my take on the subject in the
Wandering Lizard web site.

NASA is more important than some think

A few days ago,NASA director Charles Bolden gave an interview to AlJazeera that touched off a brief flurry of poorly thought through criticisms from various conservative political pundits.  Apparently President Obama has instructed Mr. Bolden to make it his principal objective to engage in an outreach to predominately Muslim nations around the world.  Mr. Obama's critics do not agree with the President's low opinion of NASA and used Bolden's words to attack the President.  In the process some of them seemed to be deriding the President's outreach initiative.  I wish that those with large trumpets would be more discerning as to the notes that they decide to play.

The way in which these folks expressed their criticism will be read by many around the world as another demonstration of America's lack of interest in, and disrespect for, Islam.  Domestically, it makes it look as though the conservative side of our internal political discussion is unsophisticated at best and unintelligent at worst.  This kind of thing usually dies down pretty quickly inside this country as the public's interest moves on to other issues, but the damage that it does elsewhere is far more difficult to assess.  My guess is that this one did us no good and the plethora of similar incidents does us massive harm.

While I applaud the President's outreach to the Muslim world, I can not understand his lack of interest in Space.  (I see no evidence elsewhere that he is interested in saving money.)  He claims to be interested in moving beyond fossil fuels, developing new technologies for the future, finding jobs for Americans, etc., yet he simultaneously decides to destroy one of the most useful programs imaginable to move this agenda forward.  In addition to the many concrete things that NASA has already accomplished, there are the intangibles which I suggest are the most important of their many contributions to our future.  Among the most important of these is the stimulus that NASA has provided to the nation to widen our intellectual horizon.  You can not build something that you can not conceive.

A century ago Orville and Wilbur had a dream and today the economy of the entire world depends upon our ability to fly.  Last week Andre Borschberg flew a solar powered airplane 25 hours without landing.  Not really revolutionary one might say, but think about it for just a minute.  A good part of that time there was no sun shining on his solar collectors.  What does that mean for solar power collection efficiencies and power storage technology?  Ok, so it was not a NASA project - it was funded entirely by private financing.  True, but one of the principals in the project was a gentleman named Rogers E. Smith, former Chief Pilot for NASA.  It might just be that one of NASA's most important contributions to our future is people.  Former employees who return to private enterprise after having their imagination goosed by thinking outside the planet.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Health Care Worries

I consider myself to be of average intelligence and I make a sincere effort to understand what is going on around me locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.  For me, being informed is a duty of citizenship in a democracy.  I was told in school that the United States is a democratic country where the government is responsive to the citizen that elects it.  It would seem to me that following from that would be an effort on the part of the government to explain to the citizen what it is doing and why.  Currently, I don't see very much of that going on.  In fact, it looks like the members of congress are actually deciding on legislation that they are not even reading let alone debating in any meaningful manner.  If this is true (and nobody I know of has denied it) then I am disappointed and do not understand how my alleged representatives can claim to be doing their job.

I am also a senior citizen and while I do enjoy some of the discounts that I receive at the store, I am increasingly concerned about what my government is considering doing with me.  I still have not seen a reliable explanation of this new health care legislation that everybody is talking about, but I did note that the fellow that has been designated to implement it was not vetted by Congress.  It appears they were busy celebrating the Fourth of July and the President suddenly needed him so badly that he was installed in the job without having to answer any questions before the Senate.  (Here again this seems to me different from how they explained the process in school.)  So I don't know much about this gentleman or his intentions and I don't know much about the law that he is going to implement, but I have heard a lot of very disturbing rumors as well as a couple of soundbites that are disrupting my sleep.

Don't get me wrong I am not opposed to improving health care and extending it to more folks.  Heck, I would like to extend it to the entire world.  Every single one of the people living today has just as much right to health care as I do.  My problem is that I can't figure out how to pay for it let alone organize and implement it fairly.  If I were in charge, I think that I would approach this whole subject very carefully lest we damage or destroy what we have now.  It seems to me that we have a pretty good medical system right now and I notice that a lot of my friends who live in other countries come here for their medical problems.  A lot of them tell me that we have the best doctors in the whole world and I think that I believe them.  Now that brings me back to my problem - I don't know what my government is doing with this system and I sure don't know how the folks who pay taxes are going to afford it if the rumors are true.  I am sure that they are all good people trying to help, but I confess that sometimes I am not as certain as I would like to be.  A lot of the time it seems to me that the government people are just trying to obscure what they are doing and that is not what they said in school they should be doing.

I want to believe that my government officials are living up to their oaths of office, but I honestly don't think that all of them are.   It is very disappointing for this old man thinking about the country that he loves very much and the government that he has believed in for so long.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Immigrants and Our Law

When I was just starting a career in the United States Diplomatic Service long ago, I remember criticizing the Soviet Union for having closed borders and bragging about the fact that the United States had open borders.  In conversation with foreign diplomats I would sometimes quote Lady Liberty offering to receive the poor huddling masses.  On occasion, I also proudly pointed out that America was a land of immigrants.  Today, we speak of our porous borders and wonder if the immigrants are here legally or illegally.  I used to deride the Berlin Wall and now I am advocating the Fence.  It is not something that I enjoy, particularly because I know for a fact that if I had been born in a foreign country and could not get a visa through legal channels I would come to the United States illegally.  If I had enough money to fly in on a tourist visa I would disappear into a big city.  If I was without resources I would cross a border on foot and disappear into a farmer's field.

A long time ago, together with a very good friend, I sponsored 36 refugees from one of the many disasters that continually trouble the world around us.  They arrived in the United States with $100 and a couple of suitcases of clothing between them.  Three of them spoke broken english, the rest did not know one word of our language.  Seven were adults, the rest were small children.  One of the adults was a very elderly woman.  Six were able to work, but had no skills applicable to our labor market at the time.  The economy was suffering a mild recession.  None of the group had any education beyond grade school and what little education that the three grown men had was not very good.  They had no family in the United States and knew no one.  That was just about as close to a cold start as I can imagine.  Today, they are fully integrated into our society, the children are all educated (some through university and a few with post graduate training), they own their own homes, and drive their own cars.  They are paying their taxes and raising their families just like the folks living next door to them.

This experience was an eye-opener for me on a number of levels.  Most importantly it gave me a glimpse into the dynamism that immigrants bring to our society.  Since then, I have thought a lot about the role of immigrants in this country and I conclude that the old hackneyed sayings are actually true.  We are what we are today in large part because of immigrants.  Not just the Plymouth Rocks folks, but the more recent immigrants including the cross-border illegals.  If for no other reason than the natural selection process, most of the folks that come here legally or illegally are very vigorous, imaginative, competent, strong, active, brave, etc, etc, etc...   This constant flow of new dynamic blood literally renews our strength as a nation. I am not bothered by the grousing of native born folk who feel that they pose an unfair competition in American society.  Most of those folks are just plain lazy.  I am concerned that the illegals broke our law and I feel that we must deal with that lest we damage a core principal of our nation - law and order.

I am told that there are estimated to be eleven or twelve million illegal immigrants in the country.  Whatever the real number, they have been here long enough to have entwined themselves in our society on a number of levels and in a lot of different ways.  The practical problems that would be involved in uprooting them so that we could physically remove them from our country are enormous and I believe that course of action is impractical.  Those that advocate that approach to the problem can not really believe that it is a viable solution.  Another group of folks advocate that we completely disregard the fact that they broke our law and champion giving them citizenship.  These people are ignoring the importance of law and order and are minimizing the adverse effect of that course of action throughout our society.  The compromise that I suggest be considered is to give all illegals the opportunity to regularize their status as temporary workers as long as they are not criminals.  Simultaneously with that action we should require all employers to obey the law regarding illegal workers and we should clearly define the rights of a temporary worker as far as access to social services.  Those illegal immigrants who did not want to accept that situation would be free to leave the country on the first bus out of town.  As far as staunching the inward tide of illegal entrants into the United States - that should be done right now along with a hard look at our current immigration policies.

Obviously the solution that i suggest is not a simple one.  One of the problems is that all of us are going to have to be able to prove our legal status when we apply for work.  That may even mean that we have to put another card in our wallet, but it is not really all that different from what we have to do when we buy something with a credit card or check, when we see a doctor and ask that our insurance be billed, when we are stopped for running a red light, when we buy groceries and want the loyalty discount, or anyone of a number of other daily activities that we engage in on a regular basis.  (Maybe the red light thing is not a daily occurrence, but hopefully you get my point.)  There is enough libertarianism in me that I don't like having to carry a wallet full of identification cards, but I got used to it a long time ago and I see the need for it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Hillary Clinton in 2012?

First of all, please let me establish my fallibility in making political prognostications.  During the first half of the 2008 electoral campaign I was convinced that Hillary Clinton was going to succeed George Bush as our next president.  Obviously, I underestimated the power of Barack Obama's rhetoric and the political naiveté of the American voter. I am painfully aware of my inadequacies in this regard, but I am still squinting into the political fumaroles of the future and trying to figure out where this country is headed - I can't help myself - it seems to be all too relevant to the future of our country.

After his election, legend has it that our new president offered Mrs. Clinton the choice between being his vice president or his secretary of state.  Many political pundits were surprised when she turned down the seat next to power and took the prestigious but politically insignificant diplomatic position instead.  Why did one of the most savvy politicians currently on the American political scene do this?  I suggest that she calculated that the vice president would inevitably be associated with the president and his domestic policies.  If things worked out well, she would be helping Obama gain a second term.  If things went south, her political fortunes would be compromised along with those of the president.

As Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton must be well on her way to recording the most days out of Washington in the history of the position.  Even when the subject is foreign relations one rarely hears her name or sees her face in the news.  I obviously do not know if all of this is part of a plan worked out by our president and his secretary of state, but it well could be - both of them seem to be capable of thinking this way.  Whatever the back story, the situation is developing that Hillary Clinton is in position to be the Democratic standard bearer in 2012 if Mr. Obama's political fortunes do not soon turn around.  To the political left, her task would be to consolidate what Obama had started and to the political center her promise would be to correct the excesses of his policies.  She won't be able to do much with the political far right, but depending on how things develop at least a few moderate conservatives might well listen carefully to what she has to say.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Visual Communication Today

When I was a youngster there were not as many images in our lives as there are today.  No television and no internet.  Movies were a weekend thing at best, but my house did have Life Magazine.  I wore the pages out of every issue that came my way.  National Geographic was an important source of imagery as well.  As I grew older, I got interested in the photographic pioneers and spent a lot of time thinking about their works.  I read all of the books on photography that I could get my hands on and spent a lot of time pouring over photographic hardware.  As soon as I had a camera of my own as a young man, my odyssey started and I have been taking pictures ever since.  I used photography to help scrape together enough money to go to college and have been a "professional photographer" ever since.  Early on I subscribed to various photography magazines, joined several photography organizations, and attended a number of photographic conclaves, but mostly I am self-taught.

How we make images has changed dramatically in my lifetime and I have a room full of outdated photographic and video equipment to prove it.  I used to operate my own darkroom, but now I process my images in a computer.  Unlike some veteran photographers, I do not miss film and poisonous fluids.  I embrace the fact that the technical side of digital photography is much simpler and less expensive than was the case with film.  The technical breakthroughs have done much to level the playing field among all of us and that has resulted in an erosion of much of the mystery associated with this craft.  It has changed the folks viewing the images as well.  Today, we are bombarded with images at every turn and we are a very jaded audience.  Image manipulation has moved out of the hands of the masters and into the hands of the masses.  Anybody can create their own version of Moonrise over Hernandez without leaving home.  Video is rapidly taking the place of still images in the lives of many as U-Tube demonstrates so dramatically.

Today, people keep their scrapbooks on one or more of the social network web sites.  They use both video and still images to record their activities and interests, their hopes and their aspirations.  Their Face Book page is frequently a look into their innermost feelings and can give us an excellent understanding of who they really are.  The mass of imagery that is out there is one of the very best descriptions of our world that could ever be imagined.  It is also where the craft of photography is today - for better or worse.  It is no longer the prisoner of the rule of two thirds or any other formula.  It is a raw and powerful form of human communication and it is everywhere and all pervasive.  In fact, there is so much imagery in our lives that it is virtually impossible to assimilate what it means.  All we can do is grasp a vague understanding from the images that cross our own personal horizon.  Interestingly we will see a different world depending on which web sites we visit and which television stations we watch.

For me, photography and videography is very simply a way to express myself.  I make images to tell stories.  Sometimes I can do it in one image and sometimes it takes several.  Sometimes they are still and sometimes they move.  Sometimes they have sound associated with them and sometimes not.  I see still photography and video as visual communication and technology has erased the separation between them.  In fact, the same device now records both still and video and does it in increasingly fine detail.  In the old days I created pieces of paper with images on them and clients put them into physical albums.  Today, I very rarely put an image on paper.  Nearly 100% of all of my images - still and video - are for the internet.  I think that it is obvious that the concept of photography as fine art has changed as well.  Each of us is our own arbiter of what constitutes "fine art" and each of is entitled to our own opinion.  As to what differentiates a professional photographer from an amateur - that is the same as it has always been.  A "professional photographer" tries to get paid for his work.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Adjusting to the Information Age

I was not born into the information age.  I am a product of the end of the industrial age.  When I grew up there was still plenty of entry level work in businesses in this country that needed intelligent workers that were willing to learn on the job.  I look around the country these days and I do not see as many of those kinds of jobs as there used to be.  That worries me.  One of the prices that we have paid during the globalization of the economy is that we have exported the manufacturing process and the related jobs abroad in order to reduce prices and increase profits.  Although it appears to be working as far as price and profit goes, it also seems to be contributing to the current unemployment problems facing us.

The cliche response by those in the know is that we must move our economy into the Information Age and compete where we are strongest - in computers and related technologies.  I agree, but it does not relieve my concerns very much as I look around and see who it is that is manufacturing the tools for the technology that we are inventing.  I am even more concerned when I see that many of the folks actually in the trenches doing the inventing are not native born Americans.  I have nothing against foreigners, but I do worry about the future for my countrymen, particularly as I watch these information workers go home and take their knowledge with them.  I suggest that we have moved out of the Industrial Age and do not have a lock on the Information Age.

I do not agree with him very often, but I wholeheartedly concur with our president when he proclaims that we must transition our economy into advanced technologies beyond those based on fossil fuels and we must bring our workforce along with us in the process.  If we are to continue enjoying the good life we must somehow or another continue to lead the rest of the world in developing and manufacturing the things that humans will need in the future.  In order to do this we need to focus hard on practical education in all aspects of science and engineering and we need to address basic education as well.  It is very obvious that the workforce of the future needs the very best education possible.

As we struggle to deal more effectively with the challenges that face our country today we need to be very careful in our policy choices.  On a number of fronts the present administration is attempting to force the society to move more rapidly than I think is wise.  Obviously, we must move beyond fossil fuels for a plentitude of reasons including the fact that they are a limited resource, but we can not so handicap business in this country that we further exacerbate the problems facing our current economy.  All that would do is to intensify the economic difficulties that we are already facing and thus slow down the development of the future that we seek.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Happy Independence Day!

I enjoyed a traditional Fourth of July yesterday at a friend's beautiful home.  Magnificent host and hostess, congenial guests, very cold beer, superb bar-b-cue, with lots of delicious "fixens" and topped off with superb pineapple upside down cake and vanilla ice cream.  Flags prominently displayed, picture perfect weather, and lots of laughter.  My mind kept going to far off places and I kept thinking how lucky I was to have been born into this magnificent country at this particular time in human history.  No human being in any previous time period has ever lived a better life - no matter their social station.  And no country in today's world is able to provide it's citizens with a better life than what we enjoy here in the United States.

Those that know me best tell me that I am usually something of a drag at a social event.  One of the criticisms is that I don't talk much.  What makes it even worse is that I know that the criticism is correct and I still can't do very much about it.  My friends want to talk about the fireworks and the parade and I am thinking about how fortunate we are on how many levels to be able to have a parade let alone toy combustibles.  Inevitably this line of thought also takes me to places in our way of life where we are having serious problems and I know that I can not talk about those subjects lest I kill the party entirely.  So I keep to myself and enjoy listening to the conversation about so many unbelievable things in our extraordinary life.

One of the guests has explored the southwestern desert more than I have and has gone repeatedly into remote parts of it that I want to visit.  One couple has lived and worked in remote parts of Alaska - something that I envy enormously.  Another has lived all over the United States and worked at a number of different vocations.  Several of the guests were talented artists working in a variety of media.  Among the guests were creative people. blue collar and white collar workers, entrepreneurs and wage earners.  All of us take our freedom of association, movement, and employment for granted.  All of us are lucky as all get out.  I thank all of those people who have gone before us and have built and protected this unique place that we call home. I also thank all of those that are protecting us right now.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Afghanistan and Viet Nam

Inevitably, much is written about the relevance of our experience in Viet Nam with what we are experiencing in Afghanistan.  There are indeed enough apparent similarities to tempt one to make comparisons.  There are also enough differences that we really have to be careful in drawing any hard and fast conclusions.  Before we make up our mind about any policy recommendations that we run across, we need to examine the information base upon which the authors are opining.   I have lived and worked in Viet Nam and I have very strong opinions about our conflict in  that country, but I have never even been in Afghanistan, let alone attempted to shape events in that country.  My experience in Viet Nam makes it very clear to me that I do not know enough to tell anyone what they should be doing in Afghanistan.  I argue that for better or for worse we have to leave that to the folks who are working the problem in the field and in the national government.

The McChrystal/Petraeus changeover has stimulated a raft of articles and news reports that attempt to offer insight into possible policy courses for our involvement in Afghanistan.  One stream of analysis in the press even goes so far as to try to define the rules of engagement for our deployed force in Afghanistan.  Political pundits argue the pros and cons of counter insurgency as if they know enough about the Pashtun and Tajik culture to make useful recommendations to the nineteen year old American kid sitting in a mud hut in that far off place.  "Far off" geographically and culturally.  These policy decisions do have to be made and all of us should be interested in what our leaders choose to do, but to think that most of us have anything useful to add to the debate about how to fight that war (other than our own fears and concerns) is ridiculous. 

It is hard enough for a military organization to take orders from leaders that have never experienced combat, but to be told how to conduct themselves when under hostile fire by a leader that repeatedly sought a student draft deferment rather than to serve in the military during a shooting war is asking a whole lot more.  To be told that those who have their body parts on the line can not criticize those rules of engagement is almost certainly unrealistic.  What we have to understand as a nation is that war is a horrible policy choice, but once it is undertaken it has to be pursued rigorously with the objective of achieving a consensus among the belligerents that political compromise is necessary.  The last time that this country succeeded in doing that was in 1945.  We fire bombed civilians in Dresden and used the atomic bomb on civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on our way to doing it.

One of the fundamental things at play here is a clash of culture.  This conflict in Afghanistan is one between two combatants at different points in the evolution of their cultures.  This is not the first time in history that this has happened.  Persepolis faced the Macedonian, Moscow faced the Mongol, Rome faced the Visigoth, Spain faced the Moor (and later the Moor faced Ferdinand and Isabella), etc, etc, etc.  In these conflicts the barbarian defeated the civilized state in part because they were more effective (read ruthless) warriors.  Although I do not know of a single one of these struggles that included a successful use of anything remotely similar to counter-insurgency, I do not automatically rule it out as an acceptable strategy if the participants are competent enough to carry it out.  Please reread that last sentence.  That is a very important if.

At various times and in various places in Viet Nam we tried to implement policies to which we affixed the counter-insurgency label.  We had some dramatic tactical success in a few places for a limited period of time, but we obviously failed to accomplish our national objectives in the long run.  Our people, civilian and military, were in the villages and hamlets risking their lives in an effort to convince the residents that what we represented was better than what the Viet Cong represented.  Our opponent in the debate was Vietnamese and he was determined, ruthless, and in the fight for the long haul.  In the end, our military won every single fire fight of consequence, but we failed to make our political argument prevail either in Vietnam or in the United States.  One of the principal causes of this was that the argument at home emboldened our enemy and weakened our friends.  There was no such argument in the United States during the Second World War.  There appears to be a similar argument at the present time within America and it appears to be well on the way to achieving the same result in Afghanistan as it did in Viet Nam.