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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Monday, April 25, 2011

Deer in the Headlights

Did you know that every single person in America owes over $46,000? That is the national debt divided by the entire population of the United States of America. As you undoubtably know, not everyone pays taxes in this country. If you are a taxpayer, your share of the national debt is north of $128,000. I don't know about you, but I don't have enough money to pay my share right now and I am worried about the fact that my share is increasing every minute of the day.

My president tells me not to worry. He will change the tax code so that the rich folks pay a bigger share and that will permit us to spend even more than we are now. I know that there are a lot of millionaires and billionaires in this country and some of them are saying that they are willing to pay more. The national debt currently stands at more than $14,300,000,000,000. In english that is 14 trillion, 300 billion dollars. So, if all of the rich folks agreed to pay a million dollars each in taxes we would need 14,300,000 folks to step up to the plate. I am not sure that we have over fourteen million three hundred thousand folks that are that rich and that civic minded.

Ok, so I am being ridiculous, but so is my president. Does he really expect me to believe that changing the tax code can solve our debt problem? Maybe he thinks that we are not smart enough to do the math. I certainly agree that it is hard to keep all of those zeros in their proper place, but even if I am off by one or two, the problem still seems to be much bigger than the solution. I suppose that Mr.Obama would point out that we don't have to pay all of the debt off right away and can carry some of it without doing ourselves any damage. In fact, we can add to it as per his budget proposal.

So let's see how that works out if we continue spending at the current rate let alone increase it. Right now the interest that we pay on our national debt is more than $3,583,000,000,000 per year (3.5 trillion dollars). That works out to each one of us having to come up with $11,500 or so in interest payments this year. Again, if we only include taxpayers, it works out to a lot more than that. Assuming that we continue to spend at current rates at some point we are using all of our GNP and borrowing more money just to pay off debt. I suppose that will work assuming that we can find some country that is rich enough and dumb enough to continue to loan it to us.

If the American public permits this idiotic situation to continue much longer we deserve the economic cataclysm that is coming our way with the speed and weight of a freight train. I am reminded of the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Debt and Elections

As I have pointed out in previous posts, I believe that the United States is moving toward what used to be called stagflation - persistent high unemployment and persistent high inflation. We already have the persistent high unemployment and food and energy prices are beginning to get out of hand. Rising energy prices, in particular, will adversely impact the economy and this will tend to inhibit job creation. The Federal Reserve's second round of Quantitative Easing (QE2) is scheduled to end in June. It was designed to help the economy by pumping money into it and indeed the stock market has benefited. As is usually the case, when money is plentiful, prices tend to rise - inflation.

Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke is charged with keeping the economy on an even keel. If, and when, he believes that inflation is a real problem he will move to restrict the money supply. For this reason, I do not foresee a third round of Quantitative Easing. I believe that interest rates will increase as a result of this and other Federal Reserve policies. A rise in interest rates is the standard cure for inflation. Higher interest rates will be a significant problem for the entire economy. (It is perhaps easiest seen in the adverse impact that it will have on the housing market.) At the end of the last round of Quantitative Easing, both the stock and bond markets reacted negatively. I expect that, although the economy is on slightly stronger ground now, both will once again react negatively.

This is all happening at the same time that we are attempting to face up to our debt problem and are entering the 2012 election cycle. It will be interesting to see how the public reacts to the emerging economic realities of 2011. I presume that liberals will want to continue the policies that got us into this mess, while conservatives will continue to press for a change in course. In the process, unfortunately, most of the thunder and lightening of the debate will be devoted to whose fault it is. Anyone who has read any of my postings will understand that I dislike Mr. Obama's economic policies, but please know that the fundamental problems that we face are not just his fault. Previous administrations and congresses, Republican and Democrat, share in the blame. I focus my ire on Mr. Obama only because he is in the chair right now and he is the one that must start fixing the problem.

As we consider our political future we must remember that the reason we are in this mess is because we have over spent and are over spending. That not only can not continue - it will not continue. That is a fact of economic life. The only question is how the overspending comes to an end. Whether we do it sensibly or have it forced upon us, a la Greece. I advocate getting our spending under control right now so that we will have the kind of future that we all want. Politicians talk about protecting our children's future. I agree with that objective, but I assure you that we are also talking about our own immediate future. In fact, overspending is already adversely impacting our lives. It is stupid, and we are doing it to ourselves.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Libya is a Mess

Libya remains a mess. As a number of us pointed out at the outset of this adventure (see previous Libya posts), equivocation about objectives, lack of applying sufficient force soon enough, and confusion within our alliance guaranteed that we would be where we are right now. President Obama has told us that we went into Libya for humanitarian reasons, yet more people are dying now than would have if we had stayed out, and the long term dislocation that is going on in infrastructure and interpersonal relations is far greater than would have been the case absent our involvement. I don't like Gaddafi and agree with most that Libya and the rest of the world would be a better place if he were not in control of that country, but this is not the way to get rid of him.

Libya is another example of this administration's amateurism, and it is understandably stimulating further concern among our allies and delight within the ranks of our enemies. My assumption continues to be that Mr. Obama is sincere in trying to do what he believes is just and right. In the case of Libya, I assume that he did not want to get involved, but pressure from France and Britain forced his hand. Britain in particular would be hard to turn down, given their loyal support of this country in enumerable international conflicts over many decades. I am not privy to the innermost workings of all of this, but I assume that Secretary of State Clinton was right in the middle of planning and executing this policy. My impression is that she helped craft this policy and that not only surprises me, but also disappoints me. I had thought her to be a wiser person.

So where do we go now? Mission creep is, of course, alive and well. More French and British boots are being put on the ground. The rebel force is being supplied by Britain, France, the United States and the United Nations. Interestingly, the United Nations is also trying to establish a relief office in Tripoli. Various organizations are attempting to broker peace negotiations between the two sides. Meanwhile, Gaddafi's forces continue to find effective ways to pound rebel positions and more and more people realize how limited air power is in a situation like this. All the while, the White House is attempting to say that we are no longer really involved, having handed the problem off to NATO.

The rest of the world has a different view of what is going on and it is not flattering to the United States. At best we are seen as bumbling idealists (and that may be close to the truth). At worst we are an increasingly helpless Gulliver being tied down by increasingly numerous Lilliputian challenges (and that too may be true). This particular case of ineptitude is almost certainly going to do more to weaken our relations with Europe than almost anything else going on right now except our debt problem. At some point our unwillingness to fully support the Libyan effort is going to cause our British allies to ask where we were when they needed us. Given that they were alongside us when the going got tough in Korea and VietNam and Afghanistan and Iraq as well as countless other conflicts around this troubled world, I am very glad that I do not have to answer that question face to face with a Brit.

How we purport ourselves in the world is vitally important to our welfare. This administration is not doing a good job in managing our foreign relations and I fault both our president and our secretary of state. It is another reason why we must elect more intelligent leadership in 2012.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Debt Ceiling Battle 2

John Boehner appears to have managed the Continuing Resolution fight correctly. The Tea Party is howling that the cuts were not enough, but the government continues to function, and some real reductions were made in President Obama's purse. Some liberals may be smirking that the cuts did not damage any of the President's priority programs, but that is the nature of a compromise. Although there are important differences between conservatives and liberals about government programs that is not presently the crucial fight. It is important, but the critical fight is over spending and debt, not health care or high speed rail. We must solve the debt problem before we can argue about how to spend what money we have left over.

The Continuing Resolution was child's play compared to what is now before us. In the Continuing Resolution squabble, I urged compromise because it was not the critical fight. I still urge compromise, but the negotiating parameters for an acceptable compromise are far more limited. This battle is made more complicated because it is composed of two parts - debt ceiling and budget. It is of sufficient importance that it very well may result in one or more government shutdowns. The outcome will decide the 2012 presidential election and that will determine the fate of our country over the succeeding four years.

President Obama has laid out his position which includes minor cuts in spending, an increase in the debt ceiling, and higher taxes. He appears to honestly believe that policy would redistribute wealth sufficiently to solve many if not all of the inequalities that exist within our country. I absolutely do not agree with this philosophy (see earlier postings), but do agree completely with the President that his approach will destroy the America that we have now. I give him credit for sticking to his ideals - he is still after the change that he promised in his campaign.

I honestly believe that we are at an inflection point in the history of the United States. I do not think that we can blindly acquiesce to the kind of change that our president advocates. For this reason, I am very sympathetic with Tea Party views regarding the debt ceiling and the forthcoming budget. If I were to assign adjectives, I would designate President Obama's position as radical and Paul Ryan's position as conservative in the sense of protecting the America that is still the envy of the world. I really do not like the change that the President wants to impose on us. It is very bad for America.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Debt Ceiling Battle

The next question is how big an increase will President Obama request? If it is on the smallish side, it might get approved more easily, but it may not be enough to see him through to November 6, 2012. He would then have to come back to Congress just before the next presidential elections and that would probably be a political mistake. For that reason, those inside the beltway are betting that it will have to be a large increase. That should make it even more difficult for the Tea Party and most of the rest of America to accept.

I am not sure that Mr. Boehner can pull it off, but I hope that he can wrestle things around so that we keep the increase as small as possible and leverage it as much as possible to get presidential agreement to the deep cuts in the 2012 budget that are necessary. It is important that we also continue to educate the public about the very real problems that face our economy. I suggest that Paul Ryan and his charts are on the right track, but we must stay alert to any and all attempts by liberals to play down the threat posed by our debt. Those efforts must be met head on with facts, not yelling. They must not be ignored as just being liberal trash talk that then stimulates equally stupid conservative trash talk.

The defunding of Obama Care is inevitably going to come up again in these negotiations, just as it did in the fight over the Continuing Resolution. I want to see Obama Care eliminated, and I do not mind seeing it included in the debt ceiling negotiations, but I do not want to see it made a real sticking point for the conservative side. How we get rid of Obama Care is important for a lot of reasons. No matter what conservatives think about it, a lot of Americans are still attracted, at least in part, to at least some of it's provisions. The very best solution I can imagine would be for the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional. Perhaps Mr. Boehner could convince the President to expedite the Court's consideration of the issue as one of the prices that he has to pay for having the debt ceiling increased.

The debt ceiling is an important tactical engagement in a larger, far more important, strategic effort. The real task is getting America back to financial solvency. In order to accomplish that, we must make progress not only in the 2012 budget, but in at least a few after that one. In order to accomplish the goal of financial solvency, we must convince a majority of Americans that the path that we advocate is the right one for our country. All of these votes are tactically important, but they mean next to nothing if we do not get the bulk of this country thinking that the conservative path is the right one. We should not just yell louder than our opponent. We should continue to talk to the facts.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Continuing Resolution Compromise

Thank you John Boehner and Harry Reid. Assuming that you hold it together and pass the necessary legislation next week, I see yesterday's Continuing Resolution compromise to be exactly what we needed at this point in time. Although I am not a fan of Harry Reid, I give him full credit for his part in the process. I am a fan of John Boehner and I very much appreciate his management of the conservative side of this process. I thank the voters of this country for giving Boehner the necessary muscle to pull this off. I don't yet see any evidence that the President did much of anything that was useful.

Now that this minutia is hopefully behind us, we can go on to the real problems that face us - the 2012 budget and the debt ceiling. The two are inextricably linked, but the debt ceiling will need to be addressed before the inevitable budget brawl is decided. According to the people that watch this sort of thing, we will probably hit the debt ceiling sometime next month. No matter what any politician on either side of the aisle says, we will have to raise the debt ceiling. Not to do so would have catastrophic consequences both here and abroad. Period.

My presumption is that the more conservative politicians like Michelle Bachman will argue that we should "keep their feet to the fire" and refuse to raise the debt ceiling. Their argument will be that we have already borrowed more than we can afford. If the debt ceiling is raised, the Obama Administration will just go on spending and our problem will get worse. That is unfortunately true, but the real solution is to rein in spending not default on our debt. One of the very unfortunate reasons we need to borrow more is to get the money to pay the interest on our existing debt.

Messaging is very important in the debt ceiling fight. Conservatives should work hard, very hard, to do two things. First, keep the increase as small as possible. Make certain that we do not do anything to damage our fiscal reputation, but do not give President Obama any more money than absolutely necessary to accomplish that objective. Second, continue to educate the American public about the financial mess that this country is in. In the process of doing this, we need to stick to the facts and avoid hyperbole.

I recognize that folks like Bachman will take an extreme view in this discussion, but hopefully we can filter that stuff out of the discussion. It is the kind of theatre that she used when refusing to vote for the recent Continuing Resolution compromise while expressing her confidence that we would get an acceptable deal. In any case, the real fight is the budget fight and that is where we need to keep our focus. Michelle and her Tea Party friends will probably make much more sense in that one.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Government Shutdown

I don't agree with much of anything Harry Reid stands for, but I take my hat off to him for being an effective politician. To the extent that he is able to cast the looming governmental shutdown as being because of other than fiscal reasons, he is effectively making the case that Republicans are not serious about fiscal responsibility. The so-called riders that he claims are part of the Republican demands are policy issues not fiscal (abortion etc). His claim that the two sides have agreed to the amount of money to be cut and are now wrangling over policy issues will hurt the conservative cause with a lot of independent voters if there is a governmental shutdown. Because the actual talks are being held behind closed doors we do not know what is really going on. It is another case of the public being influenced by the spin doctors, not the substance of the issue.
 

Hopefully, the actual situation is different from that which Senator Reid is projecting. If the Republicans are, in fact, inserting policy issues into the Continuing Resolution fight it is almost certainly because of pressure from over zealous Tea Party members in and out of Congress. Hopefully Speaker Boehner can eliminate those demands before the midnight deadline and reach a compromise with Majority Leader Reid. If that actually irritates those Tea Party members, I say shame on them. If, on the other hand, it is just part of the inevitable kabuki play that is American politics, then no problem. Speaker Boehner is in a critical seat at a critical time in the history of this nation. What he does today will not, in and of itself, decide the outcome of the 2012 elections, but it will certainly contribute significantly.
 

I continue to urge conservatives to compromise on the continuing resolution and fight hard for a sensible 2012 budget that actually sets a downward trend to government spending. The Continuing Resolution is the wrong fight. (See previous post on this subject for full rationale.)

Monday, April 4, 2011

DOJ Website Design Issues

The fact that General Eric Holder took the stars and stripes off of the United States Department of Justice's web site irritates me, but is not, in and of itself, a reason to replace him as Attorney General. I am not even particularly mad at him for highlighting a quote that, for some, implies his affinity for the union movement. I certainly don't have any problem with the quote itself: "The common law derives from the will of mankind, issuing from the life of the people, framed by mutual confidence, and sanctioned by the light of reason." As I understand it, no one is really sure who first said it, but it has been used by a lot of good people over the years and I believe is chiseled into the facade of the Justice Building.

There is an email campaign underway to bring these transgressions to the attention of those who are expected to vote in 2012. I wish that same amount of effort would be focused on the very real problems that are far, far more important then the top of a web site page. There is no question that Mr. Holder is well left of the political center. There is no question that he should be removed from office in 2012, but the top of his website is not high up in the list of reasons. This kind of thing may be red meat for the hard right, but it is not what conservatives should be focused on. All this sort of quibbling does is to stimulate liberal pundits to find something dumb that a conservative has done recently. There then follows a schoolyard full of name calling, but little or no real thought.

Mr. Obama's administration is in the process of ruining America. He is engaged in a lot of really unintelligent policies, but the principal problem that faces this country is that we are actually, perhaps irreparably, going broke. We have daunting national problems that we have never faced before and some others that we have refused to face. We must find a way to compromise, repeat compromise, our way through these next few budget cycles so that we can continue to enjoy a strong America. Yelling at each other about web site design is distracting, but not useful. After we have the budget under control I am willing to debate things like the top of DOJ's website pages, but even then I would suggest that there are a couple of other subjects that might take precedence.

People, this situation is serious. We need to stay focused.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

I Miss America

Daniel Patrick Moynihan is reputed to have argued that culture, not politics, determined the future of a given country and people. Assuming, as I do, that this is correct, we need to try to determine what is happening in our culture in order to glimpse our political future. As I look at the cultural life of modern America, I have to constantly remind myself that I am part of the older generation and that, at least in part, colors my view of what is going on around me. America is changing and it is understandable that those of us who grew up in different surroundings are uneasy about the changes.

Having made that disclaimer, I also have to confess that I am not encouraged by what I see happening. My benchmarks are mostly from the 1950s. To make an intelligent dialogue even more difficult, most of the people who read these words only know that as ancient history. In as much as history is always at the mercy of the historian, I should note that the current popular view of that period is not what I remember. It has been written by those involved in the changing scene about which I have questions.

From my perspective, our culture is creating a mindset in the American people that is unduly emphasizing the following characteristics: greed, immorality, pessimism, lassitude, and impatience. All of these were, of course, alive and well in the 1950s, but they were not the dominant characteristics of our culture. As I see it, they are, today, on the road to being the driving force in our lives and I think that is dangerous to our well-being. I believe that the cultural fibers that hold us together as a people are being weakened as a result.

In the middle of the last century, Norman Rockwell's paintings sold magazines, but today, his images are used to typecast an outmoded way of life. Religion used to be respected, but today it is definitely passe in an ever widening segment of our society. We used to believe that America was a huge melting pot where hard working people mix together to bring out the best in all of us. Today, we see it necessary to maintain individual cultures and accept second languages. It used to be that we respected moral people and actually believed that a deal was a deal. Today, there are organizations that help people squirm out of legal contracts and it is regarded as "smart" to walk away from a legal agreement if it makes economic sense. Etc., etc., etc.

There are a lot of reasons why all of this is happening, but technology is certainly one of the more important. Advances in transportation and communication make it possible for us to live anywhere we choose. Many of the old restraints on how we lived our lives have been removed by these advances. Because we are now infinitely mobile, the old lady down the street's opinion of us is much less important - in fact, we are invisible to one another. We can be immoral (however that is currently defined) and get away with it. Facebook and Twitter make it possible to associate with like-minded people whether they are representative of those around us or not. This minimizes the importance of compromise and makes us intellectually mobile to compliment our physical mobility.

In small town America there were fewer beggars than there are in America today. In those long gone days, the community knew the individual. Scams were more easily detected. Real need was more often addressed effectively. Today, it is cool to give a dollar to a beggar, whether one suspects that he or she is scamming us or not, but it is not necessary to find a way to help that individual in any real way. That is the government's responsibility. This is America and all individuals are owed a good life whether they work hard or not. In fact, working hard is not cool. "Smart" is cool. Me is the definition of our culture.

Norman Rockwell's America had problems, but, in my view, it was a much better place than where we appear to be headed. I recognize that my concerns are not cool and, thus, are not relevant to "smart" America. I should just get one of those bumper stickers - "I miss America."

Friday, April 1, 2011

Tahir Square Again

A group of students have gone back into Tahir Square in Cairo in an effort to maintain their influence in the political process. Some among them are calling for the removal of Mubarak supporters from the current government and all of them are increasingly worried about the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood. The so-called students fear that they will be unable to organize in time for the forthcoming elections. It will be interesting to see how the Egyptian military responds to these demonstrations and even more interesting to watch the Muslim Brotherhood. I would imagine that there are a lot of very dramatic and very intense debates going on in all three groups. When the history of the revolution is written, this will be determined to be a critical time.

It is, of course, impossible to know how the political situation in Egypt will develop over the years ahead, but the safe bet is that it will be a turbulent process. I presume that, if left to their own devices, the military will do everything in their power to maintain a secular state that they can control without having to actually occupy all of the civil governmental positions. The Muslim Brotherhood will work for an Islamic state that they control through the clergy and the mosques, a la Iran. The student group, which is, in reality, an amalgam of everybody else, will push for something close to genuine democracy. National elections will appear to the outside world to be the focus of the battle, but the real battle for the future of Egypt will take place in the neighborhoods. Coercion will be relevant, but interpersonal conversation will be the dominant battleground.

I have a great respect for the power of the gun and do not lightly dismiss the influence of the Egyptian military, but I know of no military government that has been able to hold on to power once public aspirations fail to be met, as appears to be the case presently in Egypt. I also know of no rag tag bunch of idealists that have been able to stand up to an organized group such as the Muslim Brotherhood and simultaneously invent a functioning democratic government. If I had to place a bet in Las Vegas on which of the three groups would emerge victorious I would bet on the Muslim Brotherhood. My assumption is that they are already well along, not only preparing for the next election, but, even more importantly, working to solidify their influence in every community in Egypt.

The frustrating part of all of this is how little the United States can do to impact this process. President Obama appears to have concluded that the radicalization of North Africa and the Middle East is inevitable, and we must find ways to cozy up to extremists like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. By so doing, he feels that we can modify their behavior and thus minimize the harm done to ourselves. The President has made Green Energy a principal interest and is attempting to convince America that it must continue to spend in order to meet the challenges of the future. I assume that he foresees a day when all countries in the Middle East and Africa are controlled by radicals and the supply of oil that currently fuels our economy is no longer as available as is the case today.

There is logic to the argument that we need green energy, but not that we should attempt to pacify religious zealots. I do not believe that appeasement is the best route for this country to take, nor do I believe that it is the best outcome for the rest of the world. I don't find any of the countries that are being run by radical theocracies to be responsible members of the international community and I certainly do not see those governments as being good for their own citizens. We are in serious trouble at the present time because we did not do the necessary earlier. We can not change that, but we should not just give up because of past failures. We must find ways to blunt the momentum of radical theology in this critical part of the world. In the process we must understand that the real battleground is not in the deserts of Libya, but rather in the conversations on the Arab Street.

This is a much bigger problem than just Egypt. It extends throughout all of North Africa and the Middle East and, if not addressed now, will certainly face us in other parts of the Muslim world in the future. In Egypt, I would sit down with the current rulers of that country, all of them military men that America has supported for their entire adult lives, and talk turkey - literally. I would use Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as my example. Ataturk was a military man. He created a functioning secular democracy in a Muslim country. I would do my very best to convince my Egyptian military contacts that it is in their long term interest to not make the mistakes that Mubarak made in attempting to control the government. Somehow they must ensure that the so-called students win this fight with the Muslim Brotherhood. I presume that we are talking along these lines, and I presume that at least a few in the Egyptian military see the logic of the argument, but I worry about how determined we or they are. My worry stems in large part from my view of President Obama's attraction to a policy of appeasement.