Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mission SnowRemoval

Good morning, Mr. Phelps.

The man you are looking at is Edward Snowden, formerly an employee with a contracting firm with this agency. He is now the most notorious criminal ever to have committed treason in the United States. He stole documents that, if in the wrong hands, can impede our crucial anti-terrorist operations and give others the ability to attack this country either by bomb or through cyberspace.

Snowden worked with a journalist in Hong Kong, Mr. Glenn Greenwald, whom you see in the next picture. He first left his place of employment in Hawaii and traveled to Hong Kong where he met Greenwald and released details of The Agency's programs to the press. Following this, Mr. Putin in Russia gave him temporary asylum where he continues to leak information.
(BTW: On a side note - Mr. Putin is currently renovating the International Arrivals Building in Moscow, renaming it to the "World's Criminals Asylum Center" - WCAC", and getting it prepped up to receive Mr's. Assad, Mubarek, and Morsi.)

At this point we do not know the extent of knowledge that other foreign governments have obtained from Mr. Snowden's stolen documents.

Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it is to:
  1. Capture Edward Snowden, and bring him back to the U.S. where he can face a jury of his peers.
  2. Retrieve all stolen documents and either bring them back or destroy them.
  3. Find out how much the Chinese, Russians, and possibly other countries have learned from Mr. Snowden
  4. Remove a significant part of Mr. Greenwald's anatomy (get help from the Taliban).

Of course, should you or any of your eye-enforce be either caught, killed, or leaked to Wolf Blitzer, the Director will disavow any knowledge of your actions.

Please do not use Ethan Hunt (a.k.a. Tom Cruise) on your mission. He has repeatedly flunked his Polygraph and speaks a horrible Russian accent.

This Microsoft-Windows based Smartphone will self-destruct in 5 seconds as the viruses take effect.

Good luck, Jim

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Dangers of Organized Labor's Decline

I am saddened but not surprised by what took place in Michigan yesterday.

I am not a member of a labor Union. I'm a software developer and there are few, if any unions in my profession.

I have very good benefits - 40-hour work week, 4 weeks time off, health insurance, disability, etc.

For these benefits I do not necessarily thank my employer - I thank the Union movement.

Perhaps the decline in Union participation is because the victories it has achieved have largely moved into the mainstream.

(But as we know with examples like Walmart, there is a long way to go.)

I see the defeat of organized labor in Michigan as a Tea Party win, financed by the extreme right oligarchy who are still reeling over the recent Presidential election.

Back in April 2010, when the Tea Party was first gaining strength, I posted a blog stating that the way to defeat them was to display exactly what our world would be like when they came into power:

We are seeing some of this reality now, and my hope is that our citizens wake up to the revelation that their own interests will be further damaged by the Tea Party and the oligarchs. We could be in danger, in a world where "austerity" is being floated around, of moving to a pre-Union society, where all the benefits I described above wither away. 

So remember, Unions are not perfect, but the alternative will be a lot worse.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 23, 2012

After Operation Pillar of Defense

The month of November 2012 has not been boring in world events. Barack Obama won a second term and the right-wing is still in PTSD. The war in Syria wages on. And then there was the Hamas-Israel confrontation known to Israel as "Operation Pillar of Defense" which found new players in the game of  resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Without having all the facts it is difficult to choose the winner of the latest Mideast clash. What were the goals for Netanyahu; Did he want to eliminate Hamas or simply deter them from launching any missiles? Did Hamas really gain stature as a result of firing hundreds of missiles but not really doing as much damage as they would have liked (thanks, in part to the Iron Dome)? Has President Morsi become a stronger player? Has President Obama reconciled his relations with Israel? Has Abbas's stature been diminished?

I must comment on some statements I've seen. Those who feel that Israel did not "do enough" to Hamas are simply wrong. These people wanted Hamas destroyed. Yes, if that could be done that would bode well for Israel. The problem is that at this point trying to destroy Hamas from the outside would be like trying to destroy the Republican Party in the US. They are far too entrenched in Gaza to be taken out easily. While as of a month ago they did not have support of a majority of Gazans, there did not exist a strong enough alternative.

Likewise, Hamas and its supporters claimed "victory" over Israel. Well, perhaps there was one small victory in that Israel had to negotiate a cease-fire with them instead of with Abbas. But they showed just how vulnerable they are to a stronger Israeli attack. The only defense Hamas has is in their PR claiming "victim". They cannot and will not, in my view, bring their own people any dignity that they deserve.

I am wary of President Morsi. I just hope that despite his public condemnations of Israel and praises of Hamas, he is influencing the latter on accepting a 2-state solution and recognizing Israel.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton did a nice job of standing up for Israel yet influencing Israel's decision not to launch the ground offensive. I think they both know that there is a lot more work to do, but at least for now they helped save lots of lives.

Moving forward, this needs to become an era of proposals. I don't care who makes them, as long as they are reasonable. There needs to be give and take. Both sides needs to sacrifice some of their entrenched views. Movements toward peace by any side need to be praised by both Muslims and Jews. Movements away from peace by either side need to be criticized by both Muslins and Jews.  It is never too late for the Moderates of all religions and nationalities to unite in the cause of compromise. Let's change the status quo to the one the Israelis and Palestinians really want - one that has them respecting each other as human beings and allowing them to live their dreams.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Debate on Small Business

President Obama's performance improved quite a bit in the second Presidential (town meeting) debate. But I felt it was just about even.

For him to throw a knockout punch I believe he needs to counter his opponent's argument that "Obama will hurt small business and Romney will help it".

Romney and Ryan got up on stage and claimed that Obama will raise taxes on small business. Ryan cherry-picked a statistic by claiming that 53% of "small business income" will be subject to increased taxes. They claimed that this will result in more lost jobs. Finally, they claimed that Obamacare will be a job killer.

Here's how I would argue their false assertions:

1. Ryan's 53% claim has already been debunked by factcheck.org. He included, in his definition of small business, large hedge fund companies. The number of small businesses that will be affected by higher taxes are relatively few (about 3%), as ONLY profit over $250,000 will be subject to increased taxes.

2. But even with some increased taxes and new health insurance requirements, does that kill jobs? Ask the small businesses that have gone under in the last decade. I've asked them and they have pointed to 2 different factors. The first is the decrease in consumer spending.  The second is the increase in rents.  Nowhere is taxes or healthcare mentioned. If less people are coming into small business stores to buy, or people are buying less, there will be less staff working at the business. Furthermore, if the reduced traffic causes losses, the business closes.

So what caused this decreased spending? If you correctly state the Bush Great Recession, you win the debate point.

Also, I've heard from at least 2 businesses that landlords are charging astronomical rents. Why are they doing this? Because they can! Because there are large businesses waiting in the wings. I can give you an example. A strip mall near me in Rockville has a bagel restaurant, hair salon, and furniture store amongst other things. There is also a TGI Fridays. All of the businesses in this mall, with the exception of the Fridays, are going to be taken down in order to put up a new Walmart. Conclusion: we are in an era of domination of large business over small business -  and it is being helped by the greed of some landlords.

So, in summary, the notion that Obama's polcies and plans hurt small business are bogus. Mitt Romney does not want to acknowledge this because he is hell-bent on blaming Obama.

Mitt Romney says he understands business. What he really understands is the big business "mindset" - the mindset of maximizing profit by minimizing expense, no matter how much profit, no matter where the expense comes from. Think about this - what does the right wing dislike? They hate the minimum wage. They hate labor unions (even the small "David" unions that go against the "Goliath" businesses). They hate anti-trust laws. They hate regulation. They claim all is anti-free market, anti-freedom, anti-America. But think - how much of what they want to do away with are those things that have a benefit to you and me?

We've come a long way in 230 years - from ending slavery to ending child labor to controlling monopolies to giving workers better conditions to the New Deal to Social Security and to Medicare. And we're still going in that direction. The claims that "business will be hurt" go back to the arguments to keep slavery. Yet we've survived quite well with every law that improves our lives.

And when has business gone bad? Think of all the major slowdowns: 1929, 2008. Taxes caused this? Of course not. It was bad business decisions caused by simple greed of large business to maximize their profits, the profits of those who sold us the bad decisions, and the heads of the companies who got either a huge salary or a golden-colored parachute.

So if you hear that our President hurts small business, think about the facts, and think about your values. Do you want a world of the big business mentality, or do you want a world where all citizens of this country can pursue the true American dream?

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Romney's Shallow Foreign Policy

I caught much of Mitt Romney's Virginia speech on foreign affairs last week. The first word that came to mind was "shallow", which I found out later, was also Madeline Albright's description.

The first question I would ask is: other than thumps of his chest and calling Obama weak, what does Romney have to offer?

It is one thing to be critical of the current President. But there was no thoughtful criticism, just hot air rhetoric. In fact, it appeared to me that Romney's only goal in this speech was to attack Barack Obama.

For example, Romney's one phrase about Osama Bin Laden rightly praised the military and intelligence forces, but left out the Commander In Chief. Is Romney so disdainful of Obama that he deliberately chooses to ignore any possible praise? Is this the best behavior we can expect out of our possible chief diplomat?

On the issues of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, China, and Russia, Romney offered absolutely no true critique or insight. He either agreed with Obama (though he did not acknowledge this), or he said he would somehow be "stronger" - that's IT.

On Libya and Syria Romney chose the rhetoric over the facts. How would he, as President, react on the current, very fluid situations? Send the troops? If yes, how many would he take out of Afghanistan? 

I didn't hear a peep about Pakistan, one of the most difficult challenges we face.

Finally, Israel-Palestine. As a local sportscaster used to say - "let's go to the videotape".

Between his Florida "secret" speech and his address to the Israeli Knesset, Romney has all but given up on the Palestinians. Calling the problem "unsolvable", and declaring that the they do not "want peace", Romney was resigned to a policy of "kicking the ball down the road, hoping that something happens" (hmmm - so Romney believes in "hope" after all  :-)).

In his (public) Virginia speech, he calls for the 2-state solution. If I were Mahmoud Abbas, would I take this as a sincere proposal?

Granted, Israel's moral and political foundations need to be praised, as Romney rightly did (and Obama regularly does). But as in the "47 percent" remark, Romney, in his speech did not back away from his dismissal of Palestinians. So how, I must ask, does Romney propose to bring the 2 sides together?

I've expressed my frustrations with Abbas and Netanyahu. I don't think they speak to the realm of possibility. They are mired with the past injuries to their respective peoples and choose to influence with fear and nationalistic pride rather than thoughful negotiations.

But Mitt Romney will make no better a leader. In fact, with his attitudes, I don't think Mitt Romney could today even pass the test to be a low-level diplomat.

I hope President Obama can make the case for his leadership over Romney in the next debate.

Thanks for reading.

Regaining The Debate Momentum

I write this less than 3 weeks before the 2012 Presidential election. I am very concerned - Mitt Romney is gaining in the polls. And the more I see of Romney, the worse I feel about who he is and what many of  his supporters think.

I divide Romney supporters into 2 groups. First, the die-hard conservative Republicans - the ones that either broadcast on Fox News or get their information from it. Second, the more independent voter who looks to see who is the more competent.

Obama was on a roll for the past few weeks getting the votes of his base and the independents. Romney's campaign suffered from suspicions due to his lack of transparency. He did not reveal his tax liability and how he shelters his money. He didn't give an explicit explanation that shows how his tax reduction will bring the deficit down. He didn't say publicly how exactly he would deal with the Arab-Israeli dispute, or Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, China, or Russia.

Then came some damaging events for Romney: the secret recordings in Florida - which gave insight into at the very least his attitude towards a large part of the electorate. His "47 percent" remark drew enormous criticism. Romney at first said it was "unelegant" but did not show remorse. The pollsters detected that there was a growing mistrust as Romney's numbers fell.

However, at the first debate, Romney made a comeback. He did so without revealing any more of his plans, and without showing any remorse on the "47-percent" remark. He did it by first portraying our current economic state as Obama's failure, and then stating that the usual conservative free market approach coupled with a universal tax cut will be the way back to prosperity. In the debate (unlike the recording) he only hinted at the "47-percent" by framing opposition to government solutions as only "against the government" policy (especially Obama's), not against "the people" who receive the government benefits.  Clever, and it went unchallenged.

I didn't catch all of the debate. I was driving home and listened to some of it on radio. It was clear that Obama was unprepared. I was screaming the rebuttals to Romney at my windshield but Obama failed to go on the offensive. I remembered that I had seen the lackluster Obama before - it reminded me of some of the 2008 debates. When I got home I saw the split-screen TV that had Romney calmly smiling during Obama's answers - which gave him another advantage since Obama seemed nervous.

A few days later my fears became justified: the polls now show Romney ahead. Clearly the independents shifted.

I cannot explain what happened to Obama, and I hope he does a better job in the next 2 debates (more on this later), but I wish people understood exactly what Romney was selling.

A few examples:

First, his philosophy on government. In an era of high deficits AND high unemployment, it's easy to say government tries to do too much and claim that if only we brought down government spending and gave the money back to "you, the taxpayer" a massive number of new private sector jobs would be generated. More on this later.

Second, the notion that the Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare) leads to a end of choice (freedom).
Finally, the specifics of his tax policy and the deficit issue. The Republican argument that we pay too much taxes always has appeal, and the easiest thing to do in a campaign is to claim that everyone, yes everyone, benefits from their solution.

I wish Obama had brought up that we are a country evolving in finding solutions to problems. Let's not forget how we ended slavery. It was a government-based solution that was opposed by business. But the overriding concern over the business interest was the moral way we treat each other as human beings and citizens.

The same holds true for child labor laws, worker protection laws, and minimum wage. Government has intervened. But even though businesses have to pay more, we have some degree of ensuring some morality in the employer-employee relationship. There's almost always going to be that business interest - morality tradeoff.

(As an aside, isn't it ironic that Conservatives deal with the immigration issue by calling for a "fence" but not really going after businesses that hire illegals. I don't see guns and rallies in front of those businesses. Perhaps it is because those businesses benefit from the illegals' lower wages?)

The concept of Government investment is, as we know, nothing new. But it is interesting that Republicans, in the 1936 Presidential campaign, claimed that FDR's New Deal was and will continue to be a substantial failure. Again, they use the same arguments that we hear today - that we cannot have prosperity if the government takes "our" money and it it's always better to satisfy the business interest. The Republicans' morality believes that the "freedom" of striving for profit is, and will generate good behavior. We've seen lots of examples that say - "not always".

Another aspect in our country's moral evolution has been in retirement and health care. Keep in mind - Social Security and Medicare are more like insurance policies - not entitlement programs. The conservative objection is that these are compulsory. But these are programs that benefit retirees - people who have paid into a system that just guarantees that you get back what you put in. The free market could get lucky and do just as well or better - but there are no guarantees. So we've evolved to favoring some safety for our seniors - do we want to turn back on this?

The evolution of health care requirements for non-seniors, as I see it, affects both the public and private sectors. The public sector expanded programs to cover some disabilities and to those who are living in poverty. The private sector implemented health insurance so that individuals and families can buy into a pool of health benefit money so long as they agree to the rules set by the insurer.

I'm not sure exactly why health care costs have risen so much, but I see several factors. As a child, my father had insurance to cover only "emergency" events and long hospital stays. I was not covered under any policy. The rare "normal" doctor visits were paid for out of pocket. Fortunately, I was a healthy child. My father, however, had a serious heart condition and died at age 62 (I was 16) when he suffered his first heart attack. I don't know if bypasses were available back in 1970, but I doubt that any preventative procedure would have qualified for emergency insurance.  But we didn't have the money to pay for it out of pocket, so my Dad took his chances.

When you combinine the growth of private plans that cover non-emergency treatments as well as the public sector plans for the disabled and disadvantaged, we see more expenditures in health care than in my father's day. You can look at it a couple of ways: now that we have insurance, the costs seem more transparent. This is good in that it takes a lot of the worry away and people really get treated early and live longer. But the downside is that expectations for coverage rise as we expect our out-of-pocket expenses to go down.

I have no great answers to this, but what I can say is that the Republican message that the ACA results in less individual freedom is bogus. I can speak from personal experience that it is Insurance Companies, not the Government, not the doctors, that are the impediment to the care I often need. For example, it is the insurance company that dictates what medication I should take for my allergy. My doctor was eventually able to get what I needed approved, but I pay more for it because it isn't the medication of "choice".

Romney and the Republicans want to sell the notion that the Government is intruding too much. But under ACA, we still have private plans. The "intrusion" is that these plans must meet the standards that doctors and consumers want, even if it digs into the insurer's profitability.

Thus, my exit question for Health Care is: Do we want to continue to have health care decisions be totally market (read: profit) based, allowing people to fend for themselves, or is our moral code OK with having some regulations so that everyone in this country knows that he or she won't go broke due to bad luck with his or her health?

If we can keep the costs down, if we can still enforce some individual responsibility in both health care and retirement, and if we can make sure there is no fraud, I'll go along with Obamacare and not privatize Social Security.

Regarding tax policy: We've been down this road before. Romney and Ryan are showing Santa Claus and hiding Scrooge. You cannot hide an important question such as "how do you get more revenues when you are cutting taxes" behind a answer such as "I'll work with Congress to figure this out". I hope Obama finds a way to make sure Romney doesn't get away with this.

Related to taxes is the issue of the deficit. As Bill Clinton urged, do the math. Compare the 1990's to the last decade. Look at the fact that the increases in unemployment under Bush resulted in higher unemployment insurance costs (and keep in mind that our citizens paid for this up front, so they are not "entitlements"). Romney and Ryan need to answer to the Clinton line that the Republicans "got us into the mess, complained that Obama didn't get us out fast enough, and want to be put back in charge".

I hope the Obama campaign gets a few ideas from this writeup and the next 2 debates go much better.  I will write a foreign policy piece shortly.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Candidates' Economic Worlds

The debates going on over economic issues stem from, I believe, 2 opposite views of the world that I covered in my initial blog post.

What the "you didn't build it" debate highlights is one side promoting individualism and the other promoting community.

Yes, President Obama's words were taken way out of context. He clearly stated that success doesn't come in a vacuum, but it was taken as though the individual deserves no credit.

In the world of the individualists ("Buchannanism"), only the creativity and hard work by those who start business and make it succeed is what makes America exceptional.

Yet in every company I have worked for that has succeeded, their successes have, in Management's opinion, derived from the employees who have made significant contributions to their products and services.

So we need healthy entrepreneurship AND a healthy environment for those who work for our entrepreneurs. 

The moderates acknowledge the sacrifices of entrepreneurs, but say that they succeeded in an environment where our governments were a catalyst. Yes, there are regulations to keep everyone in line, but business success does not come in a vacuum. Our public schools, public roads, public transit, strong common currency, environmental protection, national security and defense, and - yes - health and retirement protection policies have established a place that keeps our country strong and our people protected.

The individualists fear that the country (government) is taking away entrepreneurship. The globalists fear that we may be going back too far to individualism.

I believe that if we make sure we frame our programs as working to solve a specific problem - and not get too tied down in the overall individualism versus community debate - we could make more progress.  

Let's take, for example, the debate concerning stimulus and infrastructure.

Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnel, John Boeher, and Eric Cantor fully support lots of government spending on America's infrastructure, as they know it will create thousands if not millions of jobs (though it will increase our debt).

The only thing is -  their infrastructure of choice is the military.

(And now with sequestration approaching, there is some fear that defense will take a big hit. I work in defense and I see it)

So there should be no argument about government needing to invest. The difference is - "in what"?

Another aspect of this debate about business versus government is being able to differentiate "entrepreneurship" from "capitalists" (people who do not produce anything, but simply use money to make money). Particularly when it comes to investment. Thom Hartman spoke to this recently. If I put my own money into my own business and it is successful, I should be rewarded. While it is nice to have outside investment, keep in mind that the investors are, like the Vegas crowd, speculating. They want the business to succeed, and may take part in some business decisions, but in the end their gratification not only comes from the business' success, but from their financial reward as a result of it.

When it comes to taxes, the individualists want to combine the entrepreneurs and the capitalists. They feel that both should pay lower taxes than workers.

I disagree.Those who directly create American jobs should get a break, but for the rest, income is income.

Keep in mind that investment in a company does not always result in American jobs. I have a separate post on this.

In conclusion, we cannot allow scare tactics of "government takeover" to frame the debate about what is best for our country. A lot of what we have done has worked but it needs to be tweaked to work better. To lower our debt AND foster business growth, we need to make sure that our government's investments in projects that will help us grow our infrastructure are properly financed, and we give some extra help to real entrepreneurs.

Thanks for reading.