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.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Democratic legislators threaten the glue that holds us together as a nation.

All eyes are on Wisconsin Governor Walker's effort to reduce the collective bargaining rights of public unions.  We should, indeed, watch the outcome of that battle very closely for obvious reasons, but do not forget what is going on in Indiana.  There, some excessively ardent Republican legislators attempted to extend the concept of diminishing the power of public unions to all unions operating in the state, including those in the private sector.  Democratic legislators took a leaf out of the Wisconsin book and fled the state.  By so doing, they made it impossible to get the necessary quorum to vote on the bill. 

Republican Governor Daniels had warned against introducing right-to-work legislation, saying that it would require a thorough debate before it could be acted upon in Indiana.  It was taken off of the table, but the Democrats failed to come home.  Instead, they introduced new demands.  My suspicion is that they feel that their tactics were successful in getting rid of the right-to-work challenge so they might as well see how far they can go with other things that they want.  Do not be confused.  The Democrats are resorting to political blackmail in both Wisconsin and Indiana.

This is not the way our system of government is supposed to work and it is highly dangerous to the fundamental glue that holds us together as a nation.  We are supposed to vote every two years for legislators.  The people elected are then supposed to duke it out and legislate.  If we the people do not like the results, we get another shot at changing the cast of characters in another two years.  This kind of nonsense in Wisconsin and Indiana is negating the decision of the voters.  If it goes on too long or spreads too far it will undermine the trust that the public has in our system of government.

There are legislative and political avenues open to redress this travesty, but none of them are particularly good for the long term health of our system of government.  It is tempting to chase the truant legislators with law officers, or perhaps mount a recall effort to have them removed from office, but neither of these remedies could be implemented without generating a great deal of rancor in the body politic.  Better to let the public weigh in at the next election cycle.  In the meantime, it will be important for the Republican leadership to exercise great patience and not be lured into irrational action.

We have serious problems in this country that demand our full attention.  They must be resolved in a manner that is supported by the majority of Americans.  This is frustrating for all of the true believers on both sides of the political aisle, but it is none the less true.  All conservatives must remember that one of the main reasons that we achieved massive political gains in the last election cycle was that our neighbors were fed up with a government that crammed things down our throat.  If we are so convinced that we have the best ideas we should put them forward and debate the heck out of them until we convince America to go along with us in straightening this country out.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Short Ribs and 2012

Rush Limbaugh recently found out that Michelle Obama and her children ate short ribs in Aspen, Colorado.  He went on national radio and used this to denigrate her effort to get American children to eat healthy.  In the process, he denigrated himself and that is too bad because his over-the-top commentary frequently highlights real issues.  I continue to believe that the First Lady is on to a serious problem in America - childhood obesity - and I admire her efforts to improve childhood nutrition in this country. 

This is not to say that I am a big fan of Mrs. Obama.  (I still remember her comment "this is the first time that I have been proud of my country.")  It is just that I do not think that conservatives should attack her just because she is married to a president that is taking this country in the wrong direction.  She is in the public eye and deserves to be judged fairly for what she does.  When she does good work we should not be afraid to give her the credit she is due.

Fox News is guilty of much the same thing when they poke fun at her for not letting her own children have a Face Book page.  From what I can see, the Obamas appear to be pretty darn good parents and I do not feel that their decisions as to how to raise their daughters is a suitable subject for national debate.  (If anything, I agree with Mrs. Obama about the Face Book thing.)  It would be far better to just leave anything to do with the Obama children off bounds.

When major conservative voices stoop to this kind of attack it may appeal to the hard right in their audience, but it makes more moderate conservatives wince in embarrassment.   Worse yet, it turns off the political middle and justifiably raises questions about the suitability of conservative ideas.  The only person that is happy about this kind of thing is David Axelrod.  Conservatives should wake up and get serious about 2012.  This is not the way to accomplish what needs to be done for this country.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Republicans sometimes remind me of Nancy and Harry

Indiana Republicans are proposing legislation which would prohibit unions from requiring workers to pay union fees as a right to work.  This has triggered another show down between unions and Republican lawmakers.  This fight is made more interesting by the fact that the Republican Governor probably does not have his heart in it.  Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels earlier warned his party not to push for "right-to-work legislation," saying that he supported it, but it would require a statewide debate before it could be introduced in the state legislature.  In as much as he is thought to be one of the folks interested in running for president in 2012 it will be interesting to see how he deals with the present situation in his state.

Right-to-Work legislation is opposed by unions because they fear that many workers will refuse to pay union dues and this will significantly reduce their political muscle.  Most Republicans support it for exactly the same reason.  This argument goes back a long way in our history - even before the Taft-Hartly Act of 1947, and it looks like we are in the midst of another chapter in the long standing battle between labor and management.  Today, twenty-two states have right-to-work legislation in place and it is said that those states have a significant advantage in attracting business.  New business means new jobs and Republicans are saying that today's battles are not about squashing unions, but rather about attracting jobs.

I favor right-to-work legislation for all of the usual conservative reasons, but believe that Republicans are overreaching in attempting to introduce it now by claiming that the November election results support it.  I do not remember any campaigns that included mention of right-to-work anywhere in the country and Mitch Daniels is reported to have said that "no Republican Governor ran on this issue."  I would be surprised if the subject did not come up in one or another campaign from time to time, but I certainly do not remember it being highlighted anywhere.  If conservatives are going to get serious about this they must let it be debated thoroughly throughout each state.  It is too complicated an issue to try to sneak it by, a la Obama Care.

Right-to-work is an important issue and I am very interested in how things work out in Indiana.  I am even more interested in seeing what Republicans take away from this argument with the Unions and our President.  Win, lose, or draw, I believe that Republicans are giving the public a very good reason to be concerned about granting them more political control over our lives in 2012.  The arguments in both Wisconsin and Indiana, although different in substance, are both examples of a majority attempting to ram something down the throats of a minority without a thorough airing of the very real differences that exist.  It makes me think of Harry Read and Nancy Pelosi.

Lest my conservative friends think that I have fled the nest, let me reiterate:  I favor right-to-work legislation and would love to se it implemented throughout America.  I do not believe that it would result in a diminution of living standards.  Quite the contrary, I believe that it would improve our competitiveness in the global economy, improve the jobs situation at home, and lead to a better standard of living for the nation.  I suggest, however, that we back off trying to take advantage of new majorities in state and local government to ram things down the public's throat without a thorough debate.  We could be in the process of creating a liberal version of the so-called "Tea Party" and it just might come home to bite us in 2012.

My hawkish friends will mock me saying that when the opportunity presents itself one must press forward.  "Damn the torpedoes!"  I suggest that I would prefer to have a 2012 electorate that saw a conservative majority as a rational, thoughtful, deliberate governing body that perhaps has not done quite enough to right the ship of state.  The tactical objective being to have the voters add at least the senate and hopefully the presidency to the right side of the aisle and the issues.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Teacher's Reputation & Politics in Wisconsin

I wish that the most important story in the news today was North Africa and the Middle East, but for Americans it is not.  Although not as dramatic as Muammar al-Gaddafi's offer of martyrdom, the most important newsworthy developments continue to be in Wisconsin where Republican Governor Scott Brown is facing off, not just with his own public unions, but also with the President of the United States and virtually every union in the country.  The good news is that, so far at least, there has been no violence.  The bad news is that public employees are ignoring contracts and laws in an effort to protect their benefits and their collective bargaining rights.  This has placed the governor in an unenviable position.  He is rapidly approaching the point where he may feel compelled to fire public employees who are not acting legally.

For the reasons outlined in a previous post, I continue to believe that a distinction needs to be made between public unions and the rest of the union movement.  In the private sector, the struggle for dollars between labor and management is very much a fair fight.  With public unions it is not, because the changing cast of individual politicians that are in charge of their side of the negotiations do not care as much about costs down the road as they do about soliciting votes.  I advocate eliminating public unions entirely and relying on the marketplace to ensure that government positions are filled by qualified persons.  This is obviously not a perfect solution and it is relatively easy to point out how it might go wrong, but the system that we have now is even more obviously broken.

Governor Brown is not proposing that Wisconsin abandon public unions nor that the unions give up collective bargaining.  He is, however, proposing that collective bargaining be weakened and that state funded employees benefit system be brought more into line with that of the private sector.  In today's fiscal climate, I suggest that his proposals are a very modest approach to a serious issue.  The opposition advocates higher taxation rates for the wealthy instead.  Governor Brown feels that the November 2010 election results rejected that fiscal avenue and points out that he was elected on a campaign promise not to raise taxes.  In his mind, the majority of people in Wisconsin are on his side of this disagreement.

For obvious reasons the face of the opposition to the governor's proposals is the Wisconsin teacher.  Nobody wants to hurt the kids, right?  These dedicated people who teach our children need to feel secure in their employ so that they can focus all of their energies on the education of this nation's future leaders, etc.  If I were in charge of the union campaign in this disagreement, I too would be tempted to make the teacher the focus of the issue.  If I were a teacher, on the other hand, I would oppose this approach and would go back to the classroom lest the public become disenchanted with my intransigence in demanding what many people feel to be an inappropriate economic advantage.

There may well be fall out from these events in Madison that runs contrary to the public school teacher's position in our society.  The education system is already believed by most to be less than what we need going forward into our brave new world.  Most reports that I read are highly critical of public education.  The attractiveness of charter schools continues to be bandied about as a solution to the problems that face public schools.  Some of the most articulate educators in the country point to the teacher's union as one of the most serious problems facing our education system.  Granted the criticism of public school teachers and the their union is hushed, but it is there, and there are very few Americans that have not heard it.  Watching the antics of the protesters in Madison is not conducive to thinking of our teachers as being good role models for our children and then there is the question of their honesty when they permit union organizers to do unlawful things - allegedly on their behalf.

I am not anti-union, but you may think that I am when I say that the national private sector unions are wrong in the way in which they are dealing with this set of issues.  By resorting to time-honored tactics of bringing in out-of-state support, resorting to illegal tactics involving children, and accusing the governor of wanting to bust the union, the unions are intensifying the anti-union sentiment that is already well established in this country.  They are also further tarnishing the public school teacher's reputation.  Neither of these things are good for unions or for America.  I understand that a shortsighted union leader might be tempted to engage in this knee jerk set of reactions, but why is our president aiding and abetting this stupidity?

See follow on post.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Radical Islam and Mr. Obama

As I see it, President Obama is an intellectual with all of the strengths and weaknesses of a very intelligent person.  On the domestic front he is convinced that he is smarter than the rest of America and knows what is best for us.  He may actually be right.  I agree with many of his announced domestic objectives.  I would love to see prosperity enjoyed across the land by everyone in America.  I definitely want to "win the future," at least as far as new technologies are concerned.  I am all for bipartisanship and believe that we should all share in the effort to bring our deficit under control.  Etc., etc., etc. 

My problem continues to be that I do not agree with any of the president's policies designed to bring this utopia to fruition.  Specifically, I do not believe that big government overseeing a welfare state is the way to bring prosperity to anyone except those with high positions in the commissariat.  I see it as a way to lower the standard of living for everyone else.  I do not see how we can afford to spend our way to technological supremacy when we can not pay our current debts without borrowing more money and thus increasing our debt to foreigners.  I do not see any shred of real bipartisanship in anything that the president is doing.  Etc., etc., etc.

Internationally, it is much the same, but infinitely more complicated because of the diversity of people that we are dealing with in one hundred some countries.  I believe that, here again, Mr. Obama feels an intellectual superiority even though he goes around the world bowing to foreign potentates and smiling weakly at dangerous men who would kill us.  I believe that he feels that America must find a way to become part of the pack rather than seek to lead the pack.  In so doing, he believes that we will eliminate the intense hostility that we find in certain quarters of the globe.  Reason will triumph over force, etc.  The analogy is not perfect, but Mr. Chamberlain had much the same attitude with regard to Adolph Hitler.

We are all shaped by our experiences.  I believe that Mr. Obama is a good man with a high IQ and noble objectives, but I fear that he lacks international street smarts.  Granted, he did spend a lot of time in rough parts of Chicago and it is clear that he knows how to use his political muscle in dealing with recalcitrant domestic political opponents, but that is nothing when one is faced with truly evil outsiders that possess weapons that can hurt, if not destroy, this country.  Lest we be too hard on this particular president, we must note that our system of government does not often select leaders that are experienced in the rough and tumble world of international relations.  It is another case of an amateur having to grow into the job.  In Mr. Obama's case the process is taking far too long, if it is happening at all.

I am one of those who believe that one must define an enemy before an effective defense can be organized.  In addition, the entire country must agree with the definition.  Some historians believe that President Roosevelt permitted Japan to bomb Pearl Harbor in order to rally the American people behind the war effort in the 1940s.  I am not advocating that we permit another 9/11 to convince all of America that we have a serious problem with radical Islamic ideology.  One such attack should have done the job, but the public gets confused when it's leadership quibbles about definitions.  This administration's "man caused disaster" does not cut it.  Neither does a declaration of war against all Muslims.  We should have learned by now that crusades do not work.

I suggest that we make very clear to ourselves and to the world around us that we understand that we are under attack by radical Islamic groups and that we intend to protect ourselves by every means necessary.  An important subtext needs to be added that we do not dislike Muslims in general and we do not see ourselves as capable of deciding fine points of religious ideology for the Muslim community.  We simply want to defend ourselves from those that would kill us and I see no problem with asking Mr. Ahmadinejad if he is serious when he repeatedly calls for "Death to America." 

I am not a proponent of first strike attacks and was very concerned about the Bush decision in Iraq, but, like George Bush, I am even less enthusiastic about responding to a nuclear attack on our soil or on the soil of a close ally.  Unfortunately, we are once again rapidly approaching those kinds of nasty policy decisions.  Our threat of mutual destruction worked the last time around with the Soviet Union, but I am not convinced that it will work against an Iran, the fanatical religious leadership of which is comfortable with the concept of martyrdom, and I certainly do not see how we can hold a stateless terrorist group hostage by threatening the country where they happen to be hiding at the moment.

While I am not a big fan of Mr. Obama, he is the only president that we have right now and I certainly wish him well in his effort to protect this country.  I just suggest that he toughen up a bit so that we and our enemies are less confused as to what will happen to them if they get out of line.  I also suggest that the next time that we get an opportunity to select our national leadership we look a bit harder at their experience and character, and not permit ourselves to be confused by a lot of rhetoric.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Conservatives should stop bashing and start leading.

According to the economists, the recession is behind us and has been for some time.  The economy is growing and has been for that same period of time.  The stock market has climbed back to where it was almost three years ago.  That is good news, right?  Not to folks who are still out of a job.  People all over this country are asking how economists and government leaders can say things are getting better when they are still unable to find acceptable work.  Heck, we are even told that the flow of illegal immigrants is down because the lure of a low end job in this country has pretty much faded away.

What if this is the new normal?  Ugly thought, but something that we are going to have to address if we want to return to the concept of prosperity for all Americans.  We all talk about this global market thing that has somehow sucked all of the jobs out of America and sent them off to China.  I have a friend who recently purchased a Macintosh clone from a Chinese web site.  He says that it works just like a regular Mac, but costs far less.  My email in-box has an increasing flow of offers from China that emphasize low prices and speedy delivery.  Today's offer is a bicycle in five days.  I recently purchased an iPad online directly from Apple.  When I got the package, I noted from the routing slip that it had originated in China five calendar days (not work days) earlier.  Even when I buy American, I am buying foreign.

An increasing number of pundits on the left and on the right are saying that our government has aided and abetted our dependence on the global market by signing a bunch of unfavorable trade deals with foreigners.  Donald Trump is so mad that he is once again threatening to run for president.  If elected, he says that he would be a lot tougher on foreigners who sell us low priced junk and refuse to buy the good stuff from us.  At one point in time, eons ago, I was in a position where I was supporting the sale of an American jet ferryboat to the Japanese government.  I was precluded from offering incentives to Japanese officials.  A Russian company did offer incentives.  The Russians got the sale.  At the same time, I was watching American cars excluded from the Japanese market while Toyota was crushing Detroit single handedly.  Viscerally, I am with The Donald, and am all for tougher negotiations, but that all by itself is not going to solve our problem.

We are not going to be able to return to the world wide economic system of a previous era.  We are in the global economy for better or for worse, and right now, things are not going in the right direction.  One of the things that has made America an economic powerhouse is that we attracted the best brains from all over the world to come live and work here.  That accomplished two things.  America was smarter and the rest of the world was less smart.  We had an edge and we still do, but it is slipping.  A lot of very good minds are staying home and our economic dominance of the world market place is slipping - badly. 

President Obama is speaking to this issue when he proclaims that we must win the future by developing the new technologies that the world will need as we go forward.  We are in such an economic mess that we are precluded from accepting his path to this utopia, because it would spend us into oblivion.  The single most pressing issue facing America is not that the Chinese are manufacturing our stuff.  It is that our economy is not strong enough to do what we need to do.  Conservatives are correct that we must get spending under control before we can move on (pun intended).  I am optimistic that we can achieve that goal in the next couple of years if the American voter understands the seriousness of the threat.  I am somewhat less optimistic that conservatives will be able to come up with their own path to the future.  Right now, I see too much bashing of Obama and not enough specifics as to why we have better ideas.

I think that it is about time for conservatives to start outlining a specific set of policies that will lead this country forward once we get our deficit under control.  I am all for freedom, self reliance, initiative, lower taxes, smaller government, and the rest of the mantra, but the American voter is going to need some concrete policy ideas come 2012.  For us to say that we don't want to propose specific ideas because it would permit Democrats to poke fun at them is cowardliness and lack of intellectual leadership.  To say that the President should lead is to abdicate the opportunity that we were given last November.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Madison, Wisconsin and the Unions

Events in Wisconsin are presaging the intensity of the debate that is before us regarding the budget deficit.  It would appear that the conservative leadership of the state is attempting to balance the state budget by requiring state and local governmental employees, paid in part or in full by the state, to pick up a small portion of their retirement pension payments and a slightly larger share of their health care cost.  Apparently, they are not now paying anything into either fund.  According to press reports, the amount that they are being asked to pay is much less than what folks in the private sector are paying.  This seems like a fair approach to solving a difficult problem.

A second objective of the conservative leadership appears to be an effort to weaken the public unions' ability to bargain collectively in the state.  President Obama characterizes this as being an assault on unions and is apparently spending money, time, and effort to block it.  I agree with the president on the substance of the conservative effort, but do not believe that he should be involving the presidency in what is, after all, a state matter.  He obviously feels that he needs union support in 2012 and can not sit on the sidelines with regard to Wisconsin.  This is one more place where he is using the office of the presidency to the detriment of the state and I am definitely with those that point out that he is not abiding by the intent of the framers of our constitution, but I do not see him clearly, at least, breaking any laws.

Unions are rightfully concerned with events in Wisconsin.  All over the country there is a rising tide of anti-union sentiment.  Everywhere that one looks within our economy, the high cost of labor is blamed for jobs moving offshore.  It is not the only reason, but it is certainly in the list and it has to be addressed if America is to be competitive in the global economy.  Unions feel that the correct way to fund the budget in Wisconsin is to increase taxes on the wealthy.  Understandably, non-union members of the public are less enthusiastic about the idea of raising taxes.  With regard to the jobs problem, they argue that the federal government must negotiate foreign trade agreements in such a way as to protect American wage earners.  In addition, the public should boycott foreign products that are produced by underpaid laborers at home and abroad.  Unfortunately for the union movement in this country, neither solution is feasible.

Of the two issues in the Wisconsin standoff, the more important is collective bargaining.  The amount of money to be paid into pensions and health care by government workers is very reasonable and should eventually be sustained.  Collective bargaining, however, has been a key element in the long history of improving the standard of living of the working man and woman in this country.  The problem is that in the case of government employees, the process has been flawed.  Over the years, an ever changing cast of political leaders have negotiated with a stable cast of leaders on the union side.  Politicians had little interest in looking into the future cost of their immediate decisions.  It is a very complicated set of issues, but, in a nut shell, shortsighted politicians currying political favor gave too much and got too little.

Because of the increased size of government, there are a lot of people in this country with a stake in the Wisconsin argument.  Whatever happens in Madison will inevitably be used as a precedent for what is done elsewhere.  Wisconsin is not the only state with this set of challenges, in fact, some of the issues are also seen by a growing number of Americans as being applicable to federal employees.  Federal and state salaries and pensions are fixed by legislation, and are not as responsive to changes in the overall economy as is the income flow within the private sector.  In times of prosperity, the public is less concerned with government salaries, but when times get difficult for the majority of Americans, tax payers are understandably less enthusiastic to see their tax money used to maintain a better and more stable standard of living for their public employees than for themselves.

See follow on post this subject.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Paul Ryan is right but...

Paul Ryan, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin and a man that I admire, dislikes my "single cut across the board solution" to the budget problem.  He has what he believes to be a better set of cuts and he is almost certainly correct.  He has access to better numbers than I do, is a better economist than I am, and has been thinking about little else for a very long time.  I sincerely hope that he will be successful in his efforts to get his cuts implemented.  It would be a better solution to our budget woes than what I suggest. 

The problem is that a whole lot of people, in Congress and out, dislike his suggestions.  Mr Ryan is inevitably making policy judgments as to what is important and what is not in the programs that he is addressing.  What he considers to be important programs don't get cut in his proposals, or at least not as much as unimportant programs.  There is the rub.  Everybody has their own definition of what constitutes important programs.  As we have seen in Britain, France, and Greece, and are now seeing in Wisconsin, people can get pretty upset when their important program is on the chopping block.

Mr. Ryan also feels that a single cut applied across the board would be unfair because President Obama has increased spending in some areas more than in others.  To cut all programs equally would be unfair to those that have not recently been enlarged.  Here again, I can only agree with Mr. Ryan if I agree on the importance of the programs in question.  Although I have not discussed specific programs with him I probably would agree with most, if not all of his choices.  The problem is that I know of a lot of folks who would not agree with either one of us.

My proposal to cut government spending by an equal amount in every single program that exists is not particularly fair or intelligent, but it just might be "politically doable."  We should also understand that our problems will not be resolved in the 2011 budget fight.  This is going to go on for some time into the future.  My solution would create a lot of problems that would have to be addressed, but it would also get the process of taming our budget challenge under way.  If that does not happen soon, we will see a lot more of the kind of thing than is going on in Wisconsin right now.

PS:  Mr Ryan is wrong about one thing.  Madison, Wisconsin, does not look very much like Cairo, Egypt, but it does look exactly like Athens, Greece.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sharia Law and Spanish as a Second Language

Several European countries have recently discovered that what they call "multiculturalism" is not working the way that they thought that it would.  Like most things involving human beings it is a complicated set of issues, but it boils down to conflict between islands of one culture living in the heart of another culture.  A lot of Algerians live permanently in France and their communities primarily follow the cultural patterns of the country of their birth.  Many Turks in Germany do much the same thing.  Pakistanis in Great Britain are to some extent another case in point.  With cultures radically different, at least some conflict is bound to occur between these peoples.  Most European countries actively do not want to absorb these foreigners through acculturation and have passed laws to ensure that does not happen.  In an effort to rationalize this situation, European intellectuals have theorized that it is possible for multiple cultures to live harmoniously side by side.  The penetration of radical Islamic activism within these communities is causing Europe to rethink the issue.  Germany, France, and Great Britain are leading the backlash against multiculturalism, but other countries are rethinking the issue as well.

Here in the United States, we have taken a different approach.  We have welcomed foreigners from every part of the world and have only insisted on one thing - they must become Americans.  During the course of our history, when particularly large numbers of immigrants came from one particular corner of the globe we usually saw a cultural ghetto created as when the Irish or Chinese arrived to escape the potato famine or to build our railroads. These ghettos usually turned into neighborhoods within one generation, and by the second or third generation they were usually a marketing ploy offering ethnic food in their restaurants.  Most of our new immigrants have been fully absorbed into the main stream culture within a short period of time and have made major contributions to our strength as a nation.  It has been an excellent concept and has been part of what has made this country great, but today the basic idea is being corrupted.

We still have the laws in place for legal immigrants.  They still learn at least a little bit of English, study an outline of this country's history, and pledge allegiance to the American flag, but illegal immigrants do not go through any of this "Americanization."  Even more importantly, main stream society is increasingly accepting of people who live in this country for generations and do not speak English.  Many places in the United States have laws that require Spanish as a second language.  We actually teach children in Spanish in public schools.  Our laws are translated into Spanish.  Many of our citizens are dual citizens, and while that has always been the case in this country, this dual nationality is in the process of changing in nature.  It used to be that the other nationality was less important than the American nationality.  I don't have the numbers, but my guess is that this is in the process of change.

Another change that is occurring is that some of our ghettos are becoming large functioning communities with a life of their own.  There are parts of Los Angeles that are effectively a permanent Spanish speaking community largely independent of the Anglo community surrounding it.  The same is true of the agricultural region between Highway 99 and Highway 5 in California.  I am not prejudiced against Spanish speaking people and I do not want to rob them of their cultural heritage, but if they want to live in America I request that they become Americans.  I do not care what people speak in their homes, but I see no reason why this country should have two languages in our public forums.  I believe that it weakens one of the pillars of our strength and I think that it dooms the children born into that community to a second class life at least in economic terms.

Ironically, the thing that is bringing all of this to the fore in the United States is our concern about radical Islamic terrorists.  We are beginning to worry about the loyalty of American Muslims and are fearful of what the Europeans call "multiculturalism."  Some of our more rabid nationalists worry about the construction of a mosque in the heartland of America and warn that some Muslims want Sharia law practiced in this country.   I agree that we need to be watchful for radical Islamic tendencies within America, but I am even more concerned about the long term effect of Spanish as a second language in our schools.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Let's take a Meat Axe to the Budget

There is a lot of angst about the deficit and there should be - it is a very serious problem that could bring this nation to its knees.  We must cut our spending and the good news is that both Democrats and Republicans are finally saying pretty much the same thing.  We are still miles apart in how to deal with the issue, but we are finally engaged in dealing with it.  The very hard part is now before us - Where to cut, and by how much, and for how long.  As we approach these tough choices a plethora of formulas will emerge.  This program will be cut by 10%, that one by 14%, the other one by 7%.....  This cut for four years, that one for three years, the other one for two years...  If the economy improves by 3% every year for two years we will...

It is going to be impossible for the average citizen to know in detail what is happening, why it is happening, and for how long it will continue to happen.  We are going to have to trust the folks that we elected to get it right.  (A commentary about how important our vote is in an era when some folks feel that they have no say in government.)  No matter the formula that is arrived at, we can be assured that we will feel it.  The numbers are just too big for that not to happen.  It is also inevitable that we will be dissatisfied with the formula because it will certainly be "unfair" to one or another group of people. 

I favor what most people consider to be the least attractive formula out there.  Were it to be chosen, the New York Times would immediately label it a draconian "Meat Axe" approach.  I favor having the best and the brightest economists decide on the best number and time line for a single cut that would be applied across the board to our entire budget .  No exceptions and that includes aid to the poor, education, defense, public safety, entitlements, and absolutely everything else.  Economists are pretty good at macro economics, but they are not very good at running a government program.  Neither are elected officials.  The folks who understand their programs the best are the folks actually in charge of them.  Let them deal with the cuts rather than have an outsider tell them that they need to buy fewer pencils next year.  I still cringe when I think that an elected official who has never seen a battlefield up close and personal thinks that he is smart enough to tell the Army what kind of tank they will need ten years out.

This will not be a perfect solution.  There will be severe problems and they will need to be dealt with as they come to light, but my guess is that one heck of a lot of fat will be burned out of the system at all levels before that happens.  An administrator facing a reduced budget will cut the nonessential faster and more intelligently than any committee in Washington will ever do. (In fact, we should cut that committee's budget too.)  Everybody talks about waste and fraud in our governmental programs.  The most intelligent and effective way to deal with those problems is with the meat axe, not the scalpel (metaphors, not actual tools to be used). 

If those in charge of our programs can not make the transition to a lower budget we must immediately replace them without prejudice.  They are probably not bad people - they just can not handle the job that needs to be done.  We, of course, need to tell them up front that we will do that.  Some will say that is being awfully hard on the bureaucrats.  My answer is that managing the people's business is a hard job that needs to be done and done right.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Islam and Democracy

As we look out into the world we must remember that although we are one of the oldest democracies, we are also one of the youngest nations.  Our political system matured over a period of just a few centuries.  It fortuitously includes a very stable democratic government.  Other nations in the world around us count their years of existence in millennia.  Few include democratic forms of government.  A tradition of political instability is well entrenched.  Social systems and belief systems differ widely as well.  Perhaps, because I am an American, I see America's form of government as the best around.  I also see America as having the most mature society in the world.  Compare America with most African or Middle Eastern countries in any field you care to enumerate and you see enormous differences.  Education, wealth distribution, health, freedom, equality, etc, etc, etc.  We are by no means perfect, but our populace is genuinely more caring (in the best sense of the word) about what happens in this world than any other group of people on the face of the earth.

When America comes into conflict with other nations, this imbalance in maturity comes into play immediately.  In Afghanistan, an American military man with space age fighting gear is opposed very effectively by combatants newly emerged from the stone age.  (An exaggeration, but not by much.)  As we attempt to dialogue either on the battlefield or in the conference room we have to bridge the gap in social maturity that exists between us.  Much of the time, we find it difficult to understand the other person's thinking, let alone find ways to avoid conflict and work together.  In today's world, a major concern is something we call radical Islamic terrorism.  Most of us do not understand this threat very well, but it is clear that religion is somehow involved.  Many of our enemies are talking in terms that harken back to the Crusades and, to our horror, their words are resonating with a great many people all through the world of Islam.

Given our background, we advocate democracy as an antidote for what ails the world and we are confused when it does not take hold as quickly as we would like or result in political decisions that we favor.  This confusion is not the other guy's fault - it is ours.  We are so convinced that we have the right solutions that we are genuinely perplexed when the other fellow does not see things exactly the same way that we do.  Palestinians pretty much universally hate israel and we are confused about why they elected Hamas to govern them.  As the kids would say - DUH!  Today, we are seeing political change occurring across North Africa and rumbles of it in the Middle East.  We are calling for democratic solutions in all of these places and that is as it should be, but we should not be surprised if these democratic initiatives result in political developments that we do not like.  One of the differences that will continue to characterize these nations no matter their form of government is the central role that religion plays in their social and political decision-making process.

My guess is that the potential advantage of democracy is actually emerging within the thinking of the more educated groups in all of these countries.  Certainly they are increasingly talking about it, but I do not believe that it will develop as we know it in this country.  Genuine democracy in a country whose population is largely Muslim will not be the secular form of government that we know in America.  The Mosque and the Imam are just too influential in the daily lives of the people for that to be sustained for long.  The question that should concern us is not how the form of government develops, but rather the ideological battle going on within Islam between radical and moderate.  If the moderate voices in government and in religion are not able to improve the lives of the people I believe that they will turn to radical solutions that are inimical to our national interest.  My thesis continues to be that we must deal effectively with the fundamental problem of poverty at the same time that we concern ourselves with the form of government.  It is the right thing to do, but more importantly, not to do so is extremely dangerous for our own well being.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The 2011 Budget and Egypt

Events in North Africa and the Middle East are extremely important to our future, but we have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.  The budget fight has started here at home and, although it is far less dramatic, it is every bit as relevant to our future as what is going on in Cairo.  On top of that, the average citizen can do something about what our president calls our "domestic squabble."  We, as individual citizens, have far less say about what happens in Egypt.

The budget issue, that is currently in the news, revolves around so-called discretionary spending for the current fiscal year which amounts to about 13% of our overall budget.  What we do there is not going to do much to address the fundamentals of our deficit problem, but it is an important start.  The budget that President Obama is going to unveil next week is reputed to include a significant increase in discretionary spending over what we spent last year.  If he does indeed do that, he is obviously continuing the reckless spending that got us in the mess that we are in now.  We must not permit that to happen.

The Republican members of Congress are now debating how much of a cut they should propose in FY2010 discretionary spending.  There is a range of opinion within the House Republican ranks as to how much should be cut.  The original idea was to cut about $32 billion, but the more ambitious newcomers that are being identified as belonging to the "Tea Party," are pushing for $61 billion less than last year.  This new number is said to be $100 billion less than what President Obama is requesting.  Apparently these newcomers have enough political muscle that the Republican leadership is going to go along with them.

I can see the rationale for the higher number.  In the forthcoming continuing resolution debate with the President, it is useful to start with a higher number and compromise on something in between his number and ours - say $32 billion instead of $61 billion.  That would be smart politics, but if the budget hawks within the Republican Party are not willing to compromise, I see potential trouble on the not so distant horizon.  The new continuing resolution has to pass in the House and the Senate and be signed by the President by March 4 or the government will have to shut down.  The last time that happened, it benefited the incumbent president , Bill Clinton, and is credited with leading to his reelection.

I am all for convictions and promises made at the polls, but let's not lose focus on the big picture while we deal with an infinitesimal part of the debt issue.  The important part of the budget fight is still ahead of us when we tackle entitlements.  After that, we have to replace Obama with someone that can better address our challenges both here at home and abroad (including Egypt).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Knuckle Dragging Neanderthal"

The pushing and shoving has commenced within conservative ranks to find the right person to be the Republican standard bearer in 2012.  "Knuckle dragging Neanderthal" is one of the descriptive phrases currently in vogue among the contenders.  I understand that this is part and parcel of the political process in this country, but I don't have to like it.  Nor do I have to think that it is smart politics.  Any thinking American; left, right, or center, has to wonder about the suitability of potential conservative leaders that resort to name calling rather than sticking with the very important real world issues that face us. 

Conservatives need a pretty intelligent candidate to go up against Barak Obama.  I may not like his policies and I definitely think that he is vulnerable, but I certainly respect his mind and give him a great deal of credit for being a clever politician.  If we just stick to IQ, the man is almost certainly one of the most intelligent people who has ever served as our president.  If we consider his speaking abilities he is well up in the pecking order as well.  We are not going to beat him by resorting to name calling.  If we have a chance (and I think that we do) we have to select a leader that can articulate a set of ideas that are superior to the ones that he is selling.   Resorting to name calling is akin to using a club when a rapier is required.  (Lest anyone misunderstand in today's politically correct world, I am not advocating the actual use of a rapier.  It is meant as a metaphor for effective argumentation.)

We all understand that the real battle ground (metaphor) is the political middle of America, not either extreme.  The so-called independent voter will decide who our next president will be.  It is easy to see how the partisan fire breather might well be selected in the primary because he or she appeals to the visceral feelings of a lot of frustrated conservatives.  The question is whether this person has what it takes to beat Mr. Obama, let alone govern this country.  I certainly hope that he or she does, but if I had to wager my own hard earned money I would not bet on it.

 Mr Obama is back in campaign mode.  He might govern poorly, but we all know how well he campaigns.  His recent appearance with Bill O'Reily just before the Super Bowl is a case in point.  Mr. O'Reily asked a lot of good questions and the president answered every one of them adroitly.  He came across as a reasonable man with a likable personality.  The President's recent speech to the Chamber of Commerce is another case in point.  He did not give ground on any of his principals, but he came across again as reasonable and likable unless you thought hard about the specific issues he was talking about. 

My thesis is that Mr. Obama will not be defeated by denigrating him with epithets.  He is vulnerable on the issues.  Let's find some one who can match wits with him effectively.  My current favorite would be Chris Christy.  My hope is that his promise not to run for president that he gave to his wife is a political ploy.  I suggest that we draft the guy.  I'd love to hear him in a debate with Mr. Obama.  I expect that it would be about issues and Mr. Christy's straight forward no nonsense argumenttion would win the political right and center hands down.  Even more importantly, with a man like that in the White House, we could probably get on with our lives, reestablish our place in the world, and get to work solving the real problems that face this country.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Cowboy Stadium vs Tahrir Square

As confrontation turns to negotiation in Cairo, the American public's interest in Egypt begins to fade and our thoughts turn to who will win the Super Bowl.  If you are really interested in Egypt, please read my posts in the order in which they were put on line.  There are five posts and they constitute one story.  The one below is the last in the series.  Please start here.

All of our wise men are being interviewed on television and are pontificating about what is going to happen in Egypt.  I happen to know some of these folks and they are indeed wise men in the best sense of that term.  There is no question but that they know more about this subject than I do.  Much of what they have to say seems to make sense to me, but I am depressed by the fact that they and their interlocutors are primarily focused on governmental process and are not looking at fundamentals.  I give them a great deal of credit that their analysis is above the minutia of the moment that understandably characterizes most of the press reports, but I bemoan the fact that, so far at least, I see no one on either side of the microphone attempting to tackle fundamentals.

A great deal of attention is being paid to the question of why we did not see all of this coming.  Another line of questioning revolves around who will occupy which chair in the next government and how many people will accept that arrangement.  Another fascination is with the role of the internet and social networking.  Once all of that subject matter is decided (or at least exhausted), questions arise about what will happen in other countries around the region.  Etc, etc, etc.  All of this is important stuff and I find the emerging story fascinating, but I remain depressed that nobody is talking about the most basic issue - poverty.  Whenever I talk this way, I see people's eyes glaze over, their feet shuffle, and I immediately lose their attention.  I presume that this is the reason this subject is rarely addressed on television.  The people in the front office know that this is not the type of material that improves market share for their station.  Boring, depressing, impossible to resolve....

I know from experience that when I engage the best minds in our foreign policy establishment one on one regarding this subject they will agree with me as to the importance of poverty as a root cause of instability and argue that the very best way to address the issue is by working toward improving the structure of government.  The vast majority of them honestly believe that by encouraging democracy throughout the world we are setting the stage for effectively eliminating poverty.  I agree with them, but believe that we must simultaneously improve the way in which we provide concrete assistance both at home and abroad.  I suggest that one of the many reasons why radicals are able to subvert democracies is that they do not always deliver improved quality of life to the public in question.  Just because a group of people are democratically elected does not necessarily mean that they will be able to deliver improved standards of living let alone meet the rising expectations of the public they serve.

I believe that the political actions of most people are primarily motivated by their perception of how well off they are.  People who regard themselves as well off, tend to be conservative, while people who regard themselves to be less well off, tend to be attracted to more radical concepts.  It is true in our own political system as well as in Egypt.  The amount of foreign or domestic assistance is not the real issue.  The real issue is the effectiveness of that aid.  I honestly believe that the dollar amount of our foreign and domestic assistance programs is adequate.  The problem is that neither in the United States nor abroad is our assistance effective enough to achieve it's objective.  At home, charity makes us feel better, but does not really help the recipient.  Abroad, foreign assistance helps us achieve specific short term objectives, but does not adequately address real problems facing the country in question.

As long as we fail to deal with the fundamentals, so long will we have discontent at home and abroad.  I really don't care if we address the imbalance of wealth that currently exists in this world because it is the moral thing to do or because it is politically expedient, but if we do not address it, I predict that we will continue to face serious challenges to our own well being.  In America today, we are faced with a very mild version of this same problem.  Tens of millions of people do not have access to the same quality of health care as do the well off in this country.  They want it and are willing to experiment with faintly radical political solutions in order to get it..  The conservative challenge is to find ways to satisfy this objective without resorting to what we regard as a radical reformation of our system of government.  Our democracy provides a framework to accomplish that goal, but the fundamental problem is health care.  In most of the rest of the world the fundamental problems are so numerous that they get lumped into one word - poverty.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Obama vs. Mubarak

Those that worry about radicals taking advantage of the situation in Egypt can point to a number of recent occurrences as evidence that they are trying.  The one line of events that stands out among several is the series of attacks on Egyptian jails and prisons.  Among the prisoners that have been released are a significant number of radical Islamists.  My guess is that the attack on the gas line into Israel and Jordan is probably also the work of radicals.  Assuming that an attempt on the life of the newly designated Vice President actually happened, the probability is that it was the work of radical elements.   There are several objectives involved in these kinds of efforts, but central is the attempt to further intensify political instability in the hope that it will make it possible for radicals to increase their influence.  Presumably, those that advocate more moderate solutions are as concerned about political instability as is the ruling elite.  This opens the door for detente between the regime and their more moderate opponents.  Hopefully, that is what President Murarak is attempting to take advantage of in his current political maneuvering.

We, here in America, sometimes are a bit arrogant in our judgment of foreign leaders, particularly those from what we loftily call "Third World" countries.  We tend to believe that our president, as the elected leader of a true democracy, leading a country that is recognized by the entire world as a super power has some sort of moral superiority over leaders in lesser countries.  In some cases that might actually be true, but our arrogance does us little good in dealing with an international challenge like the one that we face in Egypt today.  A day or two ago, I heard a former US ambassador to Egypt opine on national television that Mubarak must go, but he was a "stubborn man."  I remember that back when this same Mubarak was sending Egyptian troops into Kuwait to help us stop the Iraqi invasion he was a "steadfast friend" of America.  The difference between "stubborn" and "steadfast" is an interesting one and it says a lot about the individuals wielding the lexicon and their interests of the moment.

In past incarnations, I have learned that if you want to convince someone to take a specific course of action you had to first take the full measure of that individual.  I do not know Hosni Mubarak, but my guess is that he is a formidable personality and is probably irritated that the America that he has helped so consistently is now throwing him under the bus.  He is a staunch nationalist (stubborn/steadfast?) that has ruled Egypt for over thirty years, has helped lead his country in several shooting wars, has escaped assassination multiple times,and has played a critical part in working toward peace in the region.  To the extent that the President of the United States, a law professor/civil activist, is attempting to influence his decisions, he almost certainly sees Barack Obama as being a significantly lesser individual that happens to be leading a very powerful nation and knows much less about Egypt than he thinks he does.  In addition, Mubarak is over eighty years of age and understands that he is approaching the end of his life.  He does not appear to scare easily.  I believe that he is going to do what he feels is necessary for his country and is not going to be influenced by outsiders including the almighty United States of America.

I think that it is also interesting that I have yet to hear any Egyptian voice asking for America to do anything other than "butt out."  Granted, the so-called "young democratic" protesters are interested in how they are trending on Twitter and want the moral support of America, but even they have not asked us to do anything specific.  They appear to think that it is their fight and that they are winning it all by themselves.  They have Mubarak making concessions and they appear to be convinced that they have the regime on the run.  I predict that they will come out of this intent on showing the world and themselves that they are not stooges of America.  My guess is that, if they succeed, they will insist on an all-inclusive government that includes the Muslim Brotherhood.  Because the Muslim Brotherhood is not yet appealing to a large percentage of folks in Egypt, radicals will be content with this situation for the moment and will attempt to use it to build power as rapidly as possible.

One thing to remember - Egypt is a country of 79 million people.  At best, all I have seen in the street is a disorganized crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands.  The mass of the population is, as yet, unheard from.

Click here to read the last post in this series on Egypt.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Egypt - What Now?

Yesterday, the most ardent critics of President Obama started accusing him of cutting off information to the press about what he was doing with regard to Egypt.  They started hurling charges that he was not living up to his pledge to govern transparently.  I am a fan of transparency in all things domestic and far fewer things international.  About Egypt, our president should keep his mouth firmly shut for reasons outlined in my post yesterday.  In this instance, his critics on the far right are being unintelligent, shortsighted, and unhelpful.  Unfortunately, Mr. Obama's reluctance to talk about this situation is a bit late and, even more unfortunately, " Administration sources" continue to blather about how we are working with the Egyptian military to work out a transition.  In the world of foreign affairs it is one thing for people to speculate and quite another for the actors in the drama to actually spell things out.  In this case, the cat is out of the bag and we have to live with it.  We have no choice but to get over it and move on.

Eventually, some sort of a transition will be worked out.  Mubarak will stay for some period of time as a weakened leader or a transition will occur more immediately.  In either case, the disorganized group of folks who are currently sitting in Cairo's Tahrir Square will be far more important to the political process than they were last month.  Many in the United States and abroad hope that this will somehow result in movement toward true democracy in Egypt - and the fascinating thing is that it might.  If it does, that would unquestionably be a positive development in the long run, but the more immediate challenge is more mundane and potentially very dangerous.  There is a lot of anti-American hostility in Egypt and even more anti-Israeli hostility.  Just because a government is a democracy does not mean that it necessarily has interests that are compatible with our own.  Hamas did well in what were apparently fairly honest elections in Gaza and Hezbollah is doing well in Lebanon.  Among many other things, the United States is firmly committed to Israel and that will inevitably cause very serious problems in Egypt after Mubarak leaves the scene.

As everybody is well aware, the radical Islamist  Muslim Brotherhood is considered to be the single best organized group in Egypt other than the Egyptian military.  The nature of military organization does not lend itself to the give and take compromise inherent in the political process.  To the extent that the military involves itself in determining the political future of Egypt, it can be expected that it will tend toward authoritarian solutions.  If it remains uninvolved, it can be expected that the Muslim Brotherhood will do very well in increasing it's political influence and power.  Here is the dilemma for those of us who genuinely wish for democracy, not only in Egypt, but throughout North Africa and the Middle East.  Given the fact that there is considerable anti-American hostility within Egypt the challenge becomes even more intractable. 

Mohammed  ElBaradi, Former Director General International Atomic Energy Commission, is currently emerging as the nominal leader of the opposition, but, if successful, will be totally without a real power base.  He is known abroad, but does not have a following within Egypt.  There is no question but that this offers Egyptian radicals a wonderful opportunity.  I presume that radicals are already in the process of rallying to the Muslim Brotherhood and that countries like Iran and Syria will provide them with resources, operatives and advice.  I will not be surprised to see Al Quaida's involvement as well, although that will depend on a lot of things about which I have no information.  (Remember that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Quaida's number two leader, was born in Cairo.)  The more interesting questions for me revolve around what other countries in the region will do and what our own options might be.  It will be fascinating to see how this administration addresses this set of issues.

Click here to read the next post in this series on Egypt.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Amateurs and Egypt

There are a lot of advantages to democracy and I am a staunch supporter of the basic concept.  One of it's challenges, as practiced in the United States, is that amateurs are constantly forced to deal with international relations at the very highest levels.  In past incarnations, I have worked hard to convince foreigners that a peanut farmer, or a rich dilettante, or a professional politician, or a movie actor was presidential timber and was truly capable of leading the free world.  I assure you that we talked a lot about the advantages of fresh ideas in dealing with intractable problems and I think I remember arguing that experience was not always what it was cracked up to be.  Sometimes my arguments carried the day and sometimes they did not.

President Obama is another in this long line of distinguished amateurs facing significant foreign policy problems.  In Egypt today, he is obviously intent on projecting an image of an America that dislikes dictators and loves the free expression of ideas.  He believes that access to Twitter and Facebook is pretty close to an inalienable human right and he feels compelled to publicly instruct former staunch allies as to how they should remove themselves from power.  I am not as naive as I sound.  I am not a big fan of Twitter, but I agree that President Hosni Mubarak should step down.  My quibble with our president is not what he did, but how he did it.

I don't know it for a fact, but everybody that should know seems to think that we still have superb relations with the Egyptian military establishment.  Mubarak is a member of that elite.  If you want him to step aside you talk to him and his associates very, very privately and you help him map out a face saving exit and a smooth political transition to someone else who wants to be friendly with the United States.  Not hard and definitely not rocket science.  If you do it publicly you prove several things.  First, this particular dictator was our puppet all along.  This means to most that we supported all of the bad things that he did for thirty years.  Second, we will throw our friends to the wolves whenever it appears to serve our interests.  Not the most heartening message to send to other leaders that we support.

OK, so Mr. Obama is not dealing with this mess as well as he should, but the more important failing is further back in the chronology of Egypt and it involves both Republican and Democrat.  I was looking hard at Egypt at exactly the time that General Mubarak came to power.  (In fact, I tried to attend the ceremony during which Sadat was assassinated, but my boss at the time did not like what I was telling him and refused to take me with him.)  We had successfully convinced the Egyptian military to quit playing the games that Nasser had advocated and were moving toward solidifying peace between Egypt and Israel.  Mubarak looked real good to us at the time and he helped us in virtually every way that he could.  Eventually, we began to take him for granted.  Hard to believe, but true. 

We left Mubarak to deal with his internal problems as best he could.  We needed him in the bigger regional picture and felt that he knew his country better than we did.  On occasion we attempted to encourage him to permit domestic opposition to develop as a way of relieving internal tensions, but our primary worry was elsewhere and we did not sufficiently press the case.  Both Mubarak and his American advisers felt that it was important to educate young people in Egypt.  Education is good, but once you educate someone they begin to think that they know something.  At that point, you had better give them something constructive to do or they will become disillusioned with the system.  On January 25, 2011, inspired by events in Tunisia, these young intellectuals led hundreds of thousands of dissatisfied citizens out into the street and precipitated the crisis that is ongoing today.

Here in the United States, we are fully occupied with our own problems, but we have time to ask questions.  "Why didn't anybody see it coming?"  Why did the previous administration ally America with an evil dictator?  Will the Muslim Brotherhood take power? Will the revolt against authority spread to our other allies in the region?   What will it do to the stock market?  What will happen to Israel?  Unfortunately these are all good and valid questions.  Even more unfortunately, I have heard them asked at other times about other places.  My question is - will we ever learn?  My answer is - probably not.

Click here to read the next post in this series on Egypt.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Unrest in Egypt and the Region

I know very little about North Africa or the Middle East.  I have been there, but it was a long time ago.  I once followed events in that part of the world, but don't any more.  I only have inadequate media reports for current information sources.  Having said that, here is what I think is happening and what it means to America.

The quality of life for the vast majority of people living in the region is extremely poor.  The ruling elites are, by comparison, living very well and their leadership is frequently ostentatious with it's wealth.  This is not a new development, but it is made more grievous by increased access to the knowledge that people in other parts of the world have a far better standard of living.  Understandably, the mass of people want their lives to improve.  Expectations are rising more rapidly than regimes can meet them throughout the region - particularly among the younger segments of society.

In Tunisia, on December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of city hall in the town of Sidi Bouzid in protest of this basic situation.  The specific facts had to do with a squabble with local authorities over a few vegetables, but the underlying cause was frustration and hopelessness in his life.  Bouazizi's martyrdom caught the imagination of the people of Tunisia and, led by young idealistic intellectuals - not radical ideologues, they went into the street demanding regime change.

Thanks, in part, to improved communications through out the region, Bouazizi's action resulted in copycat immolations in a number of places in Africa and the Middle East and, more importantly, triggered massive demonstrations in several countries where the specific conditions on the ground were different, but the underlying dissatisfaction with life was very much the same.

In all of these upheavals, there are many other forces peculiar to each individual locale that are shaping each individual political outcome.  Everywhere, radical ideologies vie with more moderate voices offering political solutions and making grandiose promises.  In some countries like Syria and Iran the demonstrations are harshly repressed.  In Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt, they have resulted in governmental change and may well even result in regime change.

Because there are very real assets at risk, countries around the world, including our own, are vitally interested in the political outcome of each of these dislocations.  In Egypt, we are worried about the Suez Canal and Egyptian support for peace in the region.  In Jordan, we are worried about Israel.  In Yemen, we are worried about our quasi-military effort against Al Quaida.  Throughout the region, we are worried about access to and cost of oil.  Over arching everything, we are worried about our struggle with radical Islam.

Lost in all of these worries is concern with the basic problem - too many people in this world have a lousy quality of life.  In a perfect world, those of us with more would think harder about how to help those that have less - in North Africa as well as here in America.  Please note that I am not advocating increased charity in either place.  I am advocating more effective assistance - both foreign and domestic - and more self-reliance - both foreign and domestic.

We have to deal with each of these international upheavals as they come at us and the real world forces us to do things and strike deals that are distasteful.  I understand that.  (In fact, I've done it.)  It is not in the national interest of either the United States or the Egyptian people to turn that country over to the Moslem Brotherhood.  Inevitably, we will do things in the immediate future that will not pass muster in a high school civics class.  I fear that it may also be inevitable that we will not effectively address the underlying problem of poverty. 

Because we won't deal with the fundamentals, we can expect these things to continue to happen and to grow more dangerous in direct relationship to the growing inter-connectivity of this world.  Assuming that we are short sighted enough to continue to do that, we will deserve what we get.

Click here to read the next post in this series on Egypt.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Obama Care - Fast Track To The Supreme Court

Federal District Court Judge Roger Vinson's decision that Obama Care is unconstitutional should clear the case for immediate consideration by the Supreme Court.  There are provisions in our legal system that, if a case is important enough, it can be fast tracked to the Supreme Court for immediate decision.  The need to decide this case as rapidly as possible should be clear to everyone, but apparently the White House is not willing to agree to permit it to move forward expeditiously.  Speculation has it that President Obama feels that the longer he can keep it from what many believe will be an unfavorable Supreme Court decision the better.  If that is true, he should be ashamed of himself.  If it is not true, I wish he would explain himself.

Everybody that studies the Supreme Court these days seems to think that the case will be decided by a five to four vote and most judicial pundits appear to believe that it will be declared unconstitutional.  I suppose that there might be some faint hope that one of the conservative seats on the court might become vacant if the decision can be postponed long enough and that might be reason enough to engage in delaying tactics, but I sure hope not.  More likely, the White House believes that the longer that the final decision can be delayed the better their chances will be in 2012.  I can't see that logic, but then this White House has mystified me for quite a while.  In the meantime, we have fifty states spending money and energy to implement a law that might or might not be constitutional.  Seems to me that is just plain irresponsible in this time of financial peril.