Thursday, October 29, 2009

Great Speeches

This is from the TV series 10 Days to War: Episode 8; Our Business is North.  Kenneth Branagh portrays Lt. Col. Tim Collins.  This speech is based on the actual speech delivered by Lt. Col. Collins to his troops on  19 March 2003 prior to the start of the second Iraq War.

Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan R. Jessep in A Few Good Men.  Tom Cruise got top billing, but c'mon.  Nicholson's the real star.  In the film, Jessep is portrayed as the heavy; the bad guy.  But after this speech, there's no doubt in my mind that he's the hero. 


Kenneth Branagh again, this time as the title character in Shakespeare's Henry V. The mother of all inspirational speeches.

Churchill was a master of the motivational speech. So many to choose from. But this one is illustrative of the man's power to inspire. The last line is history.

A very dignified recital by Jeff Daniels of one of historie's shortest and most eloquent speeches; Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

The Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan. Ignore the title at the top. This is not a famous speech, but the genuine character of the man shines through.

Margaret Thatcher was for Britain what Ronald Reagan was for America. The embodiment of character. She knew what she believed and was proud of it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Interview with Charles Krauthammer

This is a link to a Der Spiegel interview with Charles Krauthammer, who I believe is one of America's best opinion journalists.

Der Spiegel


Connecting the Dots

I connected some dots yesterday.  I read an article online, and that led me to another article.  That led me, in turn, to several Wikipedia entries, and when I was done, I'd discovered a few interesting connections that had not been obvious to me before.  I knew most of the individual pieces of information, but I hadn't seen the big picture.  I hadn't connected the dots.  Here are the links to yesterday's reading list in the order that I read them.  Kind of odd.  The bibliography coming before the article instead of the other way around.

Obama Team Ignores Volcker at its Peril. by Bill Fleckenstein on MSN Money
Volcker Fails to Sell a Bank Strategy  by Louis Uchitelle at the NY Times
Glass-Steagall Act  on Wikipedia
Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act  on Wikipedia
Community Reinvestment Act  on Wikipedia 

Some of you might see where this is leading.  I chose to read the Fleckenstein article because the title intrigued me.  Paul Volcker is the 82 year old former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board under Ronald Reagan who is often credited with having had the insight and the courage to raise interest rates to rein in the runaway inflation of the Carter years.  He is currently the head of the president's Economic Recovery Advisory Board.   This is the same advisory board, by the way, that includes General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt.  I only mention this because some of you may be familiar with this group as Glenn Beck frequently refers with derision to the potential conflict of interest that Immelt's position on the board represents.  But anyway, the crux of Fleckenstein's article was basically to highlight and support the position of Louis Uchitelle's NY Times article, to wit:  Paul Volcker is an advocate of re-regulating large financial institutions to limit the combination of banking, insurance, and investment activities in one enterprise, but his advice is being ignored by the Obama administration.  He's essentially saying we should bring back Glass-Steagall in some form.  That's a bold step, but Volcker's opinion should count for something.  Volcker is saying that if Glass-Steagall hadn't been abandoned, Citigroup, and Bank of America, and many of the other huge financial conglomerates couldn't have gotten so big, and they couldn't have used FDIC guaranteed depositor's money to participate in the riskier areas of the market, essentially placing bets that would make them rich if they won, and make taxpayers poor if they lost.  Or as it has been referred to elsewhere, privatizing the profits, and socializing the losses. 

So here's a short history lesson.  In 1933, during the Great Depression, Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act.  Glass-Steagall created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), to guarantee the public's bank deposits and restore confidence in banks.  But its main goal was to prevent a recurrence of some of the most egregious banking practices that are widely believed to have led to the market crash of 1929 and the subsequent bank failures of the 1930's.  Most famous of the restrictions imposed on the banks was a prohibition on any financial institution from participating in more than one of the following three businesses:  Commercial banking, investment banking, and insurance underwriting.  In 1999, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act essentially removed these restrictions allowing the banks to incorporate the other riskier activities into their business model.  So for instance, Citicorp, which used to be just a bank, could merge with insurer Travelers Group which had already merged with or bought investment houses Salomon, Shearson, and Smith Barney.  Citicorp thereby became Citigroup, a huge financial behemoth, and a major participant in the recent financial meltdown. 

That's the short history.  The black and white version.  Now let's add a little color.  When financial deregulation/reform was being debated in Congress in 1999, the Senate and the House each passed their own version of the bill, and so it went to a conference committee which had a difficult time reconciling the two versions.  In order to garner more Democratic support for the joint bill, Republicans agreed to measures that would  strengthen the pre-existing Community Reinvestment Act (CRA)Congress originally passed the CRA in 1977 to reduce discriminatory credit practices called redlining.  Banks would routinely refuse to offer loans and other banking services to residents in certain neighborhoods if those neighborhoods demonstrated a higher than acceptable default rate.  Charted on a map of the community, the "bad areas" would be surrounded by a red line, hence the name.  Even people and businesses that were otherwise creditworthy might be refused banking services if they lived within the red lines.  Democrats argued that this effectively discriminated against low income and minority borrowers.  Democrats insisted that a provision be added to the Gramm-Leach-Bliley financial reform legislation to further enhance the ability of the CRA board to influence banks to provide riskier loans in the name of equality in lending.    In order to coerce banks into making loans that they did not feel were good risks, the legislation that emerged out of conference stipulated that any application from a financial institution seeking a merger, an acquisition, or additional branch expansion would not be favorably considered if any of the entities had a less than satisfactory rating on its most recent CRA exam.  This tremendously increased the leverage that the CRA board had on the lending practices of banks.  The CRA essentially had veto authority over any bank expansion activity.  They could compel (blackmail) the banks to do their bidding as regards high risk lending or face the consequences of restrictive regulatory decisions.  The CRA used this authority to promote their agenda of expanding low income and minority home ownership, by compelling banks to make risky loans that they might not otherwise have made.  Further promoting these risky practices, Democrats in Congress turned a blind eye to the increasing warning signs at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  These were the quasi federal agencies that were buying these bad mortgages from the originating banks using funds raised by selling bonds with an implied federal guarantee.  We know how that movie ended.  When inflated housing prices started to decline, highly leveraged individuals started defaulting on mortgages they could never afford in the first place.  Fannie and Freddie, were left holding larger and larger numbers of non performing mortgages, and soon could not make the payments on the bonds they had issued to buy these ill conceived obligations.  The bonds, having an implied guarantee from the federal government, couldn't be allowed to default, so the taxpayer stepped in at huge expense to make good on the debt.  

Click here to see video of Congress in denial of problems at Fannie and Freddie

The analogy of the perfect storm is inescapable.  The combination of multiple factors, each posing a limited threat in and of itself,  coming together at the same time to create an overwhelming disaster.  The Federal Reserve lowers interest rates to aid the economic recovery from the stock market crash in 2000. Low rates promote a feeding frenzy in home purchasing creating a bubble in that market.   Glass-Steagall is eliminated.  That allows banks to get bigger, as in too big to fail.  It allows them to take on risky investments, and do it with taxpayer (FDIC) guaranteed depositor money.   The very legislation that eliminated Glass-Steagall is, by coincidence, the same legislation that puts the teeth into the CRA.  Banks are compelled to make riskier and riskier loans to over-extended buyers at the height of the bubble.  They are further encouraged to make these loans because Fannie and Freddie, acting under pressure from Congress, are buying them up as fast as they can.  Risk takers at the big banks do their part by creating complicated and mysterious derivatives such as collateralized mortgage obligations (CMO's).  Rating agencies who don't have a clue what the potential hazards are with this toxic paper bless it with a triple A credit rating.  And it all works just fine until housing prices start to drop.  Then it all comes crashing down.  As Warren Buffet says, "Only when the tide goes out do we get to see who has been swimming naked."

I had most of this information prior to yesterday morning.  I already knew about how low interest rates led to the housing bubble.  I knew that banks had capitalized on the frenzy with risky loans and riskier derivatives.  I knew that, with Congress' encouragement, the CRA and Fannie and Freddie had played a role, as had the rating agencies.  I knew a little bit about Glass-Steagall and Gramm-Leach-Bliley.  But until today, I had never seen the relationships between all these different factors.  I hadn't seen the bigger picture; the flow of events; the cause and effect.  I had never connected the dots.

So what happens now?  Is Paul Volcker right?  Should we re-regulate the financial institutions ala Glass-Steagall?  Congress and the Obama administration are contemplating financial reform to ensure that something like the recent crisis doesn't happen again.  They apparently favor a regime that keeps the bank structure as it is in this post Glass-Steagall world, but imposes complex layers of regulation and bureaucracy to limit the potential for a repeat disaster.  Separating the entities as Volcker suggests sounds simpler.  Should the KISS rule be applied here?  Keep It Simple Stupid?  Or was H.L. Mencken correct when he said, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong?"  I'm not proposing an answer, just proposing the question.

Click here to hear bank analyst Chris Whalen on an alternative solution.  This guy is really good.  I understand about half of what he says.  Starts at 49:10 into the video---about 14 minutes.

Perhaps as important as the question of how we change the regulation of the financial industry, is the question of should we change it.  For many, this might be a no brainer considering what we've just been through.  But when I consider the issue, I'm coming from the point of view of a libertarian.  As a matter of principle, I prefer to err on the side of less government intervention in the free market as opposed to more.  But what of the equally vital principle of protecting the interests of the taxpayer and the consumer?  Its worthwhile to consider the merits of all the arguments.  A balance must be struck between the two competing principles.  If the FDIC provides a guarantee of the banks' depositor funding, then the government has an obligation to limit the risk that can be taken with taxpayer guaranteed money.  Certainly, FDIC guarantees are not going away.  Furthermore, if the banks, abetted by the rating agencies, provide inadequate or fraudulent disclosure of the risks they are taking with investors money, then that is surely a matter for government intervention.  Laissez faire does not imply abandoning the consumer to dishonest practices on the part of the financial industry.

This is not a partisan issue.  Democrats are largely to blame for the abuses associated with the Community Reinvestment Act and the lax regulation of Fannie and Freddie.  But Republicans are largely responsible for Gramm-Leach-Bliley and the repeal of Glass-Steagal protections.  The real culprit here is probably the financial services industry itself and the tremendous lobbying clout that it commands.  The big banks also contribute heavily to both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.  Both parties have been co-opted  by money from the financial industry.  This is more an integrity in government issue that a partisan issue.  I wish I could say that I had confidence that our political class had the vision and the integrity to get this right.  I do not believe they do.   When the last dots are connected, my guess is we'll find ourselves well shy of a sensible resolution.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Tea Party Becomes a Documentary

On September 12, 2009, thousands of Americans came to Washington, DC to tell our politicians that we objected to their reckless spending, their mortgaging of our children's future, and their attempt to grow the power of the federal government at the expense of individual liberty.  I was there that Saturday along with my wife and son, and I have to tell you, it was one of the most inspirational experiences of my life.  My greatest fear while driving into DC that morning was that there would not be much of a crowd.  I felt morally compelled to join this demonstration, but would anyone else share my sense of obligation?  I was afraid that Americans would be too apathetic to stand up and protest the blatant grab for power that was taking place in Washington.  My fears were unjustified.  As we reached the New Carrollton Metro Station, we were greeted with a full parking lot and had to drive on to the overflow area.  There were lines ten to twenty deep at the ticket machines.  I generally shun large crowds, but I have never been so happy to be lost in a sea of humanity in my life.  I was not alone.  Overwhelming numbers of my fellow Americans shared my concerns and were prepared to do something about it.  Marching down Pennsylvania Avenue and standing in front of the Capital with thousands of like minded souls gave me hope that we might yet stop this juggernaut of big government out of control.
There was no one single cause driving this throng of people.  Everyone had their own specific motivating issues.  It may have been taxes, spending, immigration, gun control, health care, home schooling, abortion, vaccination, energy policy, cap and trade/tax, the fairness doctrine, prayer in schools, or card check. There were lots of people who were generally just fed up with a perceived lack of integrity in Washington, and yes,  there were even a few who had questions about the president's birth certificate.  There were people who were mainstream and some who were closer to the fringe.  I doubt that in that crowd of thousands there could have been more than a handful of people who shared my views on all of these issues.  But that was irrelevant.  We didn't have to agree on everything.  We were a coalition of individuals, each with their own significant issues; the issues that were important enough to them to bring them out there that Saturday morning.  Not just the issues about which they might have had an opinion, but the issues that were important enough to determine how they vote.  And even if no two of us could agree on all the issues before us, we were united under one common belief; that government has grown too big, too intrusive, and has forsaken the principles upon which this country was founded.

Today I learned that Tea Party: The Documentary Film will be released directly to DVD on Thanksgiving Day (watch movie trailer) to tell the story of the Tea Party Movement and the 912 Project.  I can only hope that the film will help encourage and inspire yet more Americans to rise to the challenge to take back our country from elements who want to abandon the principles of free markets, limited government and fiscal restraint.  There may be thousands or even millions of people out there who feel the way that I did;  people who hate what is happening to this country but feel helpless to stop it.  Maybe this film will restore the hope for them that the 912 March on Washington restored for me, and encourage them to take action to keep this a country that promises equal opportunity, not equal outcomes, and values individual responsibility above group entitlement.


Friday, October 23, 2009

What's Old Will Become New

I was sitting in my family room watching the news this evening.  The story they were covering at that moment wasn't particularly interesting, and my mind began wandering.  I started thinking about how I haven't played Solitaire with an actual deck of cards in years.  Make no mistake, I play lots of Solitaire, but its all on the computer now.  I have my oft repeated computer routines.  I bounce back and forth between news, commentary, finance, e-mail, and the occasional Google search on this topic or that.  Perhaps you're like me.  The transitions between these various endeavors are often punctuated with several games of Solitaire. 

Now I know that there are a myriad of variations on the game, but I am a purest.  I only play the original version.  Its not that I doubt the appeal of the newer games, its just a matter of habit.  Or, as his detractors often said of former president George W. Bush, perhaps you would accuse me of a lack of intellectual curiosity.  I prefer to believe that I'm simply an old fogey who is comfortable with my current practice , and I'm not going to fall victim to every new fad in single player digital entertainment that comes along.  I won't even play the version that comes with Vista.  When you move a card in that version, the program automatically flips over the hidden card underneath.  I hate that.  I prefer to do that myself with an additional click of the mouse as is required in the previous XP version of the game.  Is it just me, or does that make anyone else crazy?  Playing the Vista version for me is like kissing with your eyes open.

But that is not to say that I am totally lacking in imagination.  I have always introduced my own subtle twists to the rules of the game.  When I was young, I used to play with a conventional deck of cards.  But I soon came to appreciate that this could be very frustrating indeed, as I would typically lose far more games than  I ever won.  This was especially disappointing when I was a child.  I soon hit upon the perfect solution.  I would cheat.  I would change the order in which I took the cards from the deck to facilitate making progress in the game.  Or I would peek at one of the hidden cards to gain an advantage.  These, and any number of other liberties with the conventional rules, were sanctioned in my version of Solitaire.  And then I would count the number of times that I cheated in order to eventually complete a successful round of the game.  This way I had the satisfaction of always winning.  And the fewer cheats required, the greater the satisfaction.  And to win a game without cheating at all?  Well, that was a rare, and exhilarating experience.

Of course these days, that's impossible.  The digital game won't allow you to cheat.  I don't understand that.  Could I be the only one who cheats at Solitaire?  I can't imagine that everyone didn't occasionally "revise" a move and try another one that was more conducive to  victory.  How hard could it be to program in a "Cheat Option" for Solitaire.  C'mon Microsoft.  Surely I'm not the first to suggest it.  Maybe I'll write a letter to Apple.  Even with eighty gazillion I-Phone apps, I bet there is room for one more.  But even with Microsoft's Solitaire, my wife and I have our own peculiar rules.  And oddly enough, our rules make it even harder to succeed rather than easier.  Before I started playing digital Solitaire, I didn't even know that there were rules to keep a numerical score.  But on the computer, every move of a card earns points.  Each time you flip over a card in the lower array after having moved the card on top to another column, you earn five points.  Each time you find a place for a card from the deck in the lower array of cards, another five points.  And every time you bring a card from the lower array up into the four stacks on top, that garners you another ten points.  The maximum score, therefore, is 745.  That is a perfect game.  But to accomplish that, you can never move a card from the deck directly onto the upper four stacks.  If you do, you forego the five points you would have earned for placing it on the lower array first.  My wife and I will intentionally ignore the opportunity to move a card from the deck directly to the upper four stacks because that is essentially conceding defeat.  In addition to those scoring rules, the game also starts to deduct 20 points for every rotation through the deck after the fourth.  Once we have been through the deck four times, and we get to the last card, we'll usually just start a new game.  We will not see the Promised Land on this journey.  Time to start anew.  There is no telling how many games we could complete if we didn't follow these additional rules.  Notice I said how many we could complete, not how many we could win.  To us, a completed game with a score of less than 745, is just that; a completed game.  It is not a win.  To you, a glorious victory; to us, victory perhaps, but a hollow victory.

When we do win, though, my wife and I have a ritual that we share.  No victory lap, no loud celebrations, no back slapping, or trash talking one another with arrogant braggadocio.  We simply leave the completed game on the screen with the prominent 745 displayed at the bottom of the playing field, and walk away.  We each just walk away and wait for the other to haplessly wander to the computer screen to be greeted with the taunting proof of the other's triumph.  A testament to our superior skill.  A subtle, if somewhat mocking, "in your face".   Always good for a grudging smile.

Now let me back up just a bit.  I started this post with the revelation that I had not used an old fashioned deck of cards to play Solitaire in years.  That in turn led me to this epiphany, and the reason I started writing this piece in the first place.  There are probably children today who have never used a deck of cards to play Solitaire.  Someday soon, if we're not there already, there will be children who don't even realize that it is possible to play Solitaire with a deck of cards.  I am looking forward to the day when I can interupt my grandchildren playing computer Solitaire with the words, "Let me show you a card trick."  Then I'll proceed to deal out the cards in the standard Solitaire arrangement, all the while watching their faces and waiting for that look in their eyes when they first spot the familiar pattern. Then I'll start moving cards here and there according to the accepted rules, and in a few minutes, I'll invite one of them to take the deck and finish the game.  If I've misread the likely outcome, they'll groan and say, "Not now grandpa.  Were playing on the computer."  But in my imagination, they're fascinated with this new and totally unexpected discovery.  They'll demand that I teach them how to deal out the cards, as the computer game does that for them, and they'll have no idea how to proceed.  Pop quiz:  How many columns do you deal out in the lower array?  Once they've mastered the rules, they'll argue with each other over who gets to play the next game.  They'll beg me for a second deck of cards so they can both play at once.  They'll take a deck of cards to school with them to teach their friends this "new" way to play Solitaire.  They will thrive on the attention, as all their friends gather around in admiration to learn the secrets that only they can reveal.  What's old will become new.  And who knows; if they get frustrated with the new game, as we all do from time to time, maybe I'll even teach them how to cheat!


Quiz Answer: 7

RIP Soupy Sales

Soupy Sales died yesterday, 22 October, 2009, at age 83.  I have many fond recollections of his show from when I was a child.  Looking at some of the YouTube videos today, the production values back then were pretty rough, but oh the memories.  Those were simpler times.  Here's a sampling.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Wisdom of Mark Twain

The Obama administration has had some pretty nasty things to say about Fox News lately.  I'm OK with that.  Fox News has had some pretty nasty things to say about them too.  While I don't believe that Fox is an arm of the Republican Party, I do perceive a conservative bias on the part of Fox News.  "Fair and Balanced" means we're as biased in favor of the conservative perspective as every other major media outlet is toward the liberal perspective.  That's OK.  Lets be candid about it.  But Mark Twain had some interesting advice for those who felt inclined to take on large media organizations, which in his day were the newspapers.  He said, "Never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel."  The Obama team might want to consider the wisdom of that remark.  Either way, I'm happy to sit back and watch the outcome of this pissin' contest.  I'll put my money on Fox News.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Sometimes the Right Man for the Job is a Woman

Margaret Thatcher famously once said, "If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman. "  These days, with all the controversy swirling up around this financial crisis, we hear a lot of rhetoric from political and economic authorities that , in polite terms, I regard as less than inspiring.  Look at the rogues gallery of players on whom we are relying to navigate our way out of this mess; men like Tim Geithner, Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Charlie Rangel and Larry Summers.  On the whole, a bunch of weasely politicians and tax cheats.  I've intentionally left out Fed Chairman Bernanke, because he is neither of those things.  I haven't decided in my own mind if he's a good guy or a bad guy in this film.  There's a lot of suspicion in some circles about the actions of the Federal Reserve, and its lack of transparency.  I don't understand it well enough to know where the truth lies, so I'll reserve my judgment for now.  I guess we'll have to wait until the end of the movie to find out.  Geithner may be a good guy too, but he's still a tax cheat.  Nobody's perfect.  There's good and bad in all of us.  For all I know, Joseph Stalin liked puppies and little children.  But I digress.  There are a couple of players in this drama who actually seem worthy of the authority and the trust we have placed in them.   They are both experienced and thoroughly qualified for their jobs.  They both speak with honesty and candor when dealing with the public, and they are both women. 

Elizabeth Warren is chairman of the Congressional Oversight Panel overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).  She is a  professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where she teaches contract law, bankruptcy, and commercial law.  She is also an advocate of President Obama's proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency legislation.  From what I can tell, I'd guess that her politics are more liberal than I'd typically be comfortable with, but the focus of her efforts seems to be to counter the powerful influence of big banks.  Who better to perform the function of watchdog over the banks than someone who apparently regards the big banks as a bunch of unprincipled sleazebags.  I'm a big believer in free markets, but I too regard the big banks as a bunch of sleazebags.  In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith warned, "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices." Free markets still require prudent regulation to protect the public against depredation by big business.  I'm not willing to drink the Kool-Aid on everything professor Warren supports, but hers is at least a reasonable voice in the debate.  See what you think.

Sheila Bair is chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).  She is also a lawyer and has been a professor teaching Financial Regulatory Policy for the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  She has held a number of responsible positions both in and out of government including several years on the staff of former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas.  She unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in 1990 for Kansas' Fifth Congressional District. 

Here is a sampling of what they have to say.

Elizabeth Warren

More from Elizabeth Warren           Or You Can Check C-Span
Or You Can Check YouTube

Sheila Bair

More From Sheila Bair On C-Span     Or You Can Check YouTube

Libertarians Have a Better Plan For Health Care Reform

If the president and the Democrat controlled Congress get their way, we may soon face the prospect of monumental changes in the way health care is delivered in this country. Several versions of so called health care reform have come out of the various committees in the House and Senate, and a group of politicians, all Democrats, is meeting in secret to meld these bills into one plan for consideration by the full Congress. The process has been labeled the health care debate, but debate is a poor description of what has actually occurred so far. Democrats have significant majorities in both houses of Congress, and of course they hold the Presidency. What little debate has occurred up until now has been between various factions of Democrats arguing over whether to force bad policy or really bad policy down the throats of the American people .   Attempts by Republicans to influence the shape of the legislation have been blocked in favor of a strictly Democratic agenda. The Democrats have tried to label the Republicans as obstructionist, calling them the party of NO. They claim that the Republicans don't want any reform, and that they just want to derail the Democratic plan.  
I believe that the Democrats are guilty of two major misrepresentations. The first is that they are trying to reform health care to rein in costs. This is not their motivation.  Their goal is to expand coverage, and to hell with the costs.  But this doesn't make a very good bumper sticker, especially in times of fiscal crisis.  They might lose votes if they admitted the real agenda.  Now on the surface of it, expanding coverage might be a noble goal, but they plan to do it by taking money out of the pockets of people who have health insurance to give free or subsidized coverage to those who don't.  They will take the money and/or reduce the benefits  of  the haves to give it to the have nots.  From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.  We've seen this movie before.  It doesn't have a happy ending.  The Communists tried it.  Socialists all over the globe are still trying it today.  Canada and Great Britain have health care systems to demonstrate what kind of results you can achieve with this redistribution of wealth.  The Democrats claim that their approach would save money.  This would be a worthwhile effort if this was true. The cost of health care has gone up much faster than the overall inflation rate, and costs have the potential to put a tremendous burden on the economy going forward. Medicare alone is a system on life support as our obligation to seniors for future care far outpaces our capacity to finance the promised benefits. There was a time when Republicans tried to act responsibly and address the huge imbalances in entitlement budgets. But Democrats demagogued the plans, telling seniors that," The Republicans are trying to take away your Social Security and Medicare."  Today the roles are reversed. Its the Republicans who are now trying to rally support among seniors to defeat Democrat health reform by spreading fear of Medicare cuts. I'm quite disappointed in this approach. I'm sure the Democrats are right about there being a huge amount of waste in Medicare.  That doesn't mean I think they have the cajones to tackle the problem with anything more than rhetoric.  And someday the grownups are going to have to do something to trim Medicare down to a program we can afford. When that day arrives, we're going to be deluged with YouTube clips of those same politicians speaking out against cutting Medicare during the current dispute. Exposing their hypocrisy will only rob them of the credibility they will need to be effective in reforming a badly flawed Medicare bureaucracy.  There aren't a lot of politicians covering themselves with glory in the arena of health care policy.  And if you don't believe that Medicare is rife with waste and maybe even fraud, then explain to me how the  Scooter Store can inundate the airwaves with commercials promising practically every senior a new Scooter or Power Chair with Medicare picking up the tab.           

Besides the cost cutting canard, the other major misrepresentation the Democrats make is that the Republicans have not offered a plan of their own.  This is not true at all, but it is true that the Republicans' proposals have received very little attention.  Even in the conservative media, the focus seems to be on how bad the Democrats' plan is with no real attention to the positive aspects of Republican ideas.  To be fair, there is no hope of enacting the Republican plan with the current political reality.  Stopping the Democratic plan is probably the best that can be achieved.  But more emphasis on a reasonable alternative to Nanny-Care might provide a persuasive argument in our favor.  The Republican plan emphasizes tort reform to lower costs.  It advocates turning over control of money that employers spend on health insurance to employees to spend as they see fit.  This introduces market incentives to save on expenses.  The Republican plan would lower barriers to purchasing insurance across state lines to broaden the competition between insurance companies and insurance plans.  Below you'll find an audio clip from the Cato Institute.  The stated mission of the Cato Institute is to increase the understanding of public policies based on the principles of limited government, free markets, and individual liberty, and peace.  So they are a libertarian think tank offering policy solutions that focus on avoiding the heavy hand of government.  The audio clip provides an assessment of the current status of the Democratic legislation in Congress, and a sampling of market oriented alternatives for purchasing health insurance and health care services.  I've said that the Republicans have a plan, but it is probably more accurate to say that the Republicans have adopted a plan based on the libertarian principles listed above in bold type.  In my opinion, Republicans betrayed their constituents and their principles in the last administration by becoming a party of big government, not limited government.  The only means by which they can redeem themselves in my mind is to return to the libertarian principles they used to stand for.  Health care policy would be a great way to start.  Listen to the clip below.  Its under ten minutes long.  See if you don't agree that a broader dissemination of these ideas among the voters of this country would be a powerful argument in this debate.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Of Dogs, Rainy Days, and Grandchildren

I took the dogs for a walk this morning. It used to be that the dogs only got a walk in the afternoon. My wife and I would take them when I got home from work, or about that same time on days I didn't work; between five and six o'clock. We try to do that every day. We walk about a mile, and its good exercise for all four of us. But a couple of weeks ago I got up around eight o'clock in the morning on a non-work day, and I decided to take them for a walk then. The plan was to start the day a little early, get some exercise, get showered and dressed, and get some breakfast so I could get in front of the computer by about 9:00 to 9:15 before the market opened. I have a routine in the morning that includes visiting four or five websites for news, political commentary, and business updates; then reading e-mail, and watching/trading the market for a few hours. By starting a little early, I wouldn't be sitting in my bathrobe wasting the better part of the morning stuck in front of the computer. I'd be showered, shaved, dressed and fed and wasting the better part of the morning stuck in front of the computer. Anyway, this particular morning the dogs must have thought they'd died and gone to dog heaven. My dogs like to sleep. They really like to eat, but they absolutely love to go for a walk. For those of you who have dogs, you know that you can tell when they're happy because you can see them smiling. Yep, dogs smile when they're happy, and that makes me happy. That's why I have dogs. And I talk to them to enhance their good mood even further. "A morning walk and an afternoon walk," I tell them. "It's a good day to be a dog!" Anyway, I followed the same routine for the next few days, and before you know it, the dogs are onto my plan. If I'm still in bed around eight o'clock in the morning, one or both of the nasty beasts will have figured out that I'm not going to work that day. I'll be awakened by a delicate but plaintive whimpering coming from the side of my bed telling me its time to get my lazy ass up and go get the leashes. "We're burnin' daylight," they'll tell me.

And that was pretty much the scenario this morning. I'm coaxed out of bed by my two furry companions, and off we go following our new standard routine, except that this morning there is a gentle rain falling. Now ordinarily, my puppies do not like the rain. If I let them out the back door when its raining, they will not venture off the porch unless they have urgent business to conduct. But headed out the side door with me on the biped end of the leashes, and the prospect of twenty minutes or so in the outside world, well that's another matter. It was a lovely morning. I never use the world lovely when I speak. Too poofy I guess. But I'll use it when I write, and its a good description of this fine morning. For me, rainy mornings can be fine mornings, just as sunny ones can be. We were walking along, and I was reminiscing about when I was a kid. It is the reminiscing that was the wondrous part of my morning walk, and its the reason I'm sharing the story with you. I love rainy days, and I've always enjoyed walking in the rain. Its very calming. I was thinking back to when I was ten years old or so. We lived in Reseda, California, a reasonably civilized suburban community in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles. But we lived on Wilbur Avenue, and whenever we got any significant rainfall, Wilbur Avenue would flood. I guess the street was built along the natural path of flood waters leading from the Santa Monica mountains to the usually dry Los Angeles River.

View Larger Map

Looking east along the concrete lined LA flood control channel (river)

And when I say flood, I mean two to three feet deep and traveling at twenty to thirty miles per hour. You could no longer drive on it, and cars trying to ford this stream when conditions were not quite so bad would often get stranded. I remember being with my dad in my family's 1960 Plymouth Valiant and getting stuck with water up to the side window and leaking in from the doors and the floor. Water had gotten the ignition wet, and the engine died. My dad was able to put the car in first gear, crank the engine with the starter, and ease off the clutch to slowly get us to the other side of the road. I guess that was before the days of neutral safety switches. Nowadays, you couldn't do that. The neutral safety switch won't let the starter crank unless the clutch is depressed. Now you may be surprised after hearing the description of this event, that this was not a frightening experience. I don't think we were ever in danger of anything worse than getting soaking wet and maybe destroying our car. If we were in more danger than that, I certainly was never aware of it. I have fond memories of the episode, and I'm sure everyone in the family probably repeated the story over and over again, laughing all the while. I also remember dressing up in all my rain gear; coat, boots, umbrella, etc. and walking or just standing on the sidewalk enjoying the feel of the cold and the wind and the rain, and watching the roaring river flow past my house. I'd often see various bits of detritus washing down the avenue. Tree limbs, trash cans, and the occasional adventurous child of negligent parents riding the rapids on some piece of floating debris, and once on a surfboard. I don't know of anyone drowning on Wilbur Avenue while we lived there, although there was certainly the potential for this to have happened. People regularly were washed away and drowned in the Los Angeles River when flood waters turned it from a dry trickle to a raging torrent. But what did I know? I was just a kid who'd never seen a real river except the one that occasionally flowed past my house in inclement weather. My parents hated the flooding streets because of the obvious inconvenience, but I loved it. I'd pray for more rain so the river would rise higher and flow faster, and I'd be tremendously disappointed when the rain would stop, and the flow would diminish and eventually disappear. It was like going back to school after summer vacation. They eventually tore up Wilbur Avenue and put in huge storm drains to prevent the flooding. You can imagine how that broke my little heart.

Besides being visited by fond memories from my past on my walk this morning. I also enjoyed a possible vision my future. I daydreamed about walking in the rain with my grandchildren someday. Now this is a bit more than just a fantasy, because I don't have any grandchildren yet. But if I get any, I'm gonna be prepared. In my daydream, I have two grandchildren; a boy and a girl. Brother and sister. They are both somewhere between seven and nine years old. They're not twins; one's older than the other. I don't know which is which. It doesn't matter. My wife and I are watching them for the day while their parents are off somewhere. I don't know where. It doesn't matter. I don't know if the children are my son's kids or my daughter's kids. It doesn't matter. But its raining outside. I ask the kids if they want to take the dogs for a walk in the rain. They're as excited by this suggestion as the dogs are. This is a great treat for them. They don't have any dogs at home. I'm not sure why. It doesn't matter. Its a good day to be at grandpa's house. We meticulously put on our rain gear. Hats, gloves, boots, jackets, and umbrellas. Were going to go walking in the rain, but we will be protected from getting too wet or too cold. The children each take the leash of one of the dogs. As we walk, I tell them the story about how I used to walk in the rain when I was their age, and how much I loved it. I tell them about Wilbur Avenue and the kid on the surfboard, and I tell them about getting stuck in the car with my dad. They ask me about my mom and dad whom they never knew. I tell them a few stories about my parents. Who they were. Where our family comes from. They seem genuinely interested to learn they have ancestors and a heritage. I ask them what they're learning in school and if they have boyfriends or girlfriends yet. At their age they are appalled by the idea, and I tease them about that. We get home and have a hot lunch. Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. And that's the end of the daydream. Pleasant in every respect. Its been a lovely morning. Gentle rain, a walk with my dogs, some pleasant memories, and a charming little fantasy about the future. What made me decide to write about it? I was wondering the same thing. I don't really know the answer. It doesn't matter.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Breaking News-Obama the Favorite for the Heisman

Reliable sources, view link, have confirmed that president Obama is the current favorite to win this year's Heisman Trophy.  Apparently the president is known in the sports community for having watched college football.  This, along with his universal popularity make it all but certain that the president will be adding yet another trophy to his prestigious collection.  I must admit that when I first learned of the news, I was moved to tears.  If I may  paraphrase the first lady,  I've never been so proud of my country.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Do You TED?

Here's a site you might find interesting. Its called TED which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. They describe themselves as a non-profit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading.  Apart from sponsoring an annual conference for which they charge such an exorbitant fee that only the wealthy could ever hope to attend, they also make their content available by on line video. Kind of like YouTube for the rich and famous. The method of presentation is by means of roughly fifteen minute talks. They have a catalog of hundreds of different subjects, some familiar and some obscure. The topic is distilled down to a fifteen minute monologue from the various advocates of the different ideas. If you like learning about new things, but you suffer from a short attention span, then this site is for you. As a warning, their topics tend to lean toward the progressive, which is code for left wing aka liberal. But that doesn't prevent them from offering an eclectic mix of very interesting ideas. A veritable smorgasbord of knowledge.  Here's just one example. Below you can find a link to the website.


Go to TED

Partisanship Good--Compromise Bad

Health care reform seems to be the main topic of political discussion lately. The dems have big plans to transform a system that polls show most Americans are fundamentally satisfied with. While few Americans are lining up to drink the Kool-Aid of comprehensive "health care reform", most people would support some tinkering around the edges. There is no shortage of ideas from both sides.
The problem seems to be a partisan divide on which ideas should be incorporated. Conservatives favor tort reform, expanded interstate competition, and modifications to improve portability of existing coverage so you wouldn't fear losing your coverage if you lost your job, for instance. Liberals want a single payer takeover of all health care, or failing that, a public option that would compete with private insurance companies, albeit a bit unfairly. No matter how lousy the public option turned out to be, or how much money it lost, the government could just keep bailing it out with our tax dollars. Think the US Postal Service or AMTRAK. Failing that, the dems might settle for a system that mandates all citizens purchase coverage under threat of fines or jail time for non-compliance. Of course they'd subsidize the poor by cutting Medicare and ballooning the deficit.
The partisan part comes into play in that the liberals won't accept any of the conservatives' ideas, and the conservatives won't accept any of the liberals' ideas. Many in the country are bemoaning the partisan gridlock and calling for bipartisanship. Some sort of compromise to meet in the middle. I think that is a terrible idea. There is nothing wrong with partisanship. Margaret Thatcher once said, "There are still people in my party who believe in consensus politics. I regard them as Quislings, as traitors... I mean it." A little harsh perhaps, but Mrs Thatcher has always been regarded as a woman who speaks her mind.  There is no consensus. Why must we dedicate ourselves to hammering out a consensus when none exists. I support conservative goals, and I abhor the liberals' agenda. The liberals feel the same way in reverse. Gridlock under these circumstances is good. I would consider it a poor bargain if the conservatives got everything they wanted in return for accepting even a little bit of the liberal plan. That compromise would be worse than nothing at all.   And you know conservatives won't fare that well in the bargain. If anything, we'll end up with the liberal plan with some phony tort reform thrown in as a bone to the conservatives. Our Dear Leader offered as much in his "You Lie" speech to the Joint Session. Then they'll deflect the blame for a horrible piece of legislation by claiming it was a bipartisan compromise supported by both parties. Please!! Glenn Beck had the right idea. Until our legislators show some sign of responsible government in the peoples interest, the best option is to "Just Say No." Gridlock is good. Nothing coming out of Congress and we'd all be better off. I've often thought that a candidate for Congress might do quite well with the electorate if he just promised to do nothing! He could stay home in his pajamas watching Jerry Springer for his entire two year or six year term, and the republic would be better off for it.

Partisanship is not a dirty word. Compromise is not always a virtuous goal. Mark Steyn summed it up well with an analogy he used regarding our support for the UN. He was referring to the way liberal democracies demean their principles and legitimize rogue governments when we hob nob as equals with a pack of thugs and two bit dictators. I believe his analogy is equally relevant to our abandoning our principles in the name of seeking compromise in the health care debate. Mark said essentially, and I'm paraphrasing, that if you mix a quart of ice cream and a quart of dog shit, its gonna taste more like dog shit than ice cream.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fat Baby Blues

I've been hearing a lot lately about the fat baby who was denied health insurance because of his weight.  It got me thinking about the Andy Warhol remark,  "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."
How bad would it suck if that's true, and you grew up to find out you'd blown your fifteen minutes on being "the fat baby?"

16 October 2009 Update. The You Tube link to the Family Guy clip that was originally posted here has been replaced with the Dancing Baby clip. The original Family Guy clip was taken down from the You Tube site due to copyright issues with 20th Century Fox.

A Crack in the Armor of the Global Warming Alarmists?

This article by Debra Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle makes reference to a BBC item citing the fact that global  temperatures have actually been declining for the past ten years.  And this from the BBC, long recognized as a bastion of left wing orthodoxy.  Ms Saunders cites other studies by a variety of authors which question the accuracy of the Chicken Little school of climate change research. Global warming alarmists have long tried to shut down debate by claiming that there was no debate.  It had been decided.  They attempted to ostracize dissenters by labeling them as crackpots or stooges of an evil cadre of carbon polluters.  Thank goodness the heretics persisted in their belief that meticulous science should trump politically correct ideology.  There seems to be a resurgence in the numbers of climate scientists willing to question the validity of the Gospel of Global Warming.  I hope this trend continues. 

Here's a link to the original BBC article.


Another View of the Nobel Decision

Dennis Prager has an article on the Real Clear Politics site, click here, that talks at some length about the Nobel committee's motivation for their recent award to President Obama. He parses the statement that accompanied the award and translates the various parts for a clearer understanding. Its worth reading.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

The King is Dead

Americans, and indeed the whole world, seem to crave our pop idols. It is a phenomenon that I don't thoroughly understand, but we have to recognize that it is real. Our culture is obsessed with fame and the famous. Consider Elvis Presley. Known the world over as the King of Rock and Roll. I'm an Elvis fan to some small extent, but I'm not one of the zealots. I have a few Elvis songs in my music collection, but I don't own any Elvis kitsch. No Elvis statuary or Elvis fan magazines. I don't pant in hopeful expectation with every new report of an Elvis sighting. I've paid to see a Beatles cover band, but I wouldn't pay to see an Elvis impersonator.

Or consider Michael Jackson. He referred to himself as the King of Pop, I guess because the title King of Rock and Roll was already taken. But the name stuck, and maybe with some justification. Now I'm not particularly proud of it, but I'm a bit of a Michael Jackson fan too. I've still got a couple of his older albums (Thriller and Off the Wall and in vinyl no less) with cover pictures of him when he was still black. He created some great music over the years and some great videos. And what a fantastic dancer. A truly talented man. But he changed, and so did my opinion of him. The plastic surgery, the skin bleaching, the reclusive habits were all just too bizarre. And I'm afraid I could never quite get my arms around the whole sleeping with children thing. I don't really understand the world's continued fascination with him.

But that's the way it works with hero worship. It doesn't always make sense to more rational people. So by now you're probably thinking to yourself, "Jess, this is all fascinating stuff, but what's your point? What's with all the aimless musings over pop idols?" I'll tell you. I turned on my computer yesterday morning as I was eating breakfast and getting ready to go to work. My home page comes up. Fox News. Big surprise right?

What do I see staring me in the face, but a picture of our president with the headline Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize. "What's this?", sez I. Seriously, my first thought was that this was a joke. Saturday Night Live or one of the late night talk shows having a little fun the way they do. But no. It was not a joke. Upon closer examination I learned that the article was a serious one. Barack Obama, our Dear Leader, had indeed been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I felt like I had been slapped in the face. "For What?", I'm sure I must have screamed at the computer screen. Was it the nuclear disarmament nonsense in his UN address? Was it his eagerness to legitimize every two bit dictator and holocaust denier in the neighborhood by offering one on one talks with them? Or was it just generally all the Hopey Changey rhetoric that he is so famous for? Ronald Reagan destroyed communism, the defining threat to the entire free world over the previous sixty years or more, and he never won a Nobel Prize. What were these guys thinking?

I spent the rest of the day drifting from angry to amused to just plain bewildered and then back again to angry. I was laying in bed last night still pondering this puzzle when an idea occurred to me. Not a justification, mind you, but at least a context in which it seemed to make some sense. The world has a new pop idol. Elvis is dead. Michael Jackson is dead. Both victims of drugs and their own fame. The world now has someone to take their place. Countries all over the globe have been falling all over themselves to proclaim how wonderful he is. What a refreshing change from the last eight years when the United States didn't listen to or respect the views of the international community. Now they have the Enlightened One who is humble, and thoughtful, and values their opinions in a way they haven't enjoyed in many years. America finally has a president the world can admire or dare I say worship? The Nobel committee is simply the latest expression of this nonsense. The latest expression of international hero worship. Picture the members of the Nobel committee as a group of deranged sixty somethings with Elvis on Velvet pictures hanging in their living rooms and it starts to make sense. Or picture them as a bunch of screaming Japanese sixteen year olds at a sold out Michael Jackson concert, and the world can once more at least be explained if not understood. The urge among some people to have an idol to worship is a strange phenomenon, but it is one that we recognize. This frame of reference has helped me to make sense of the world once more. I am no longer befuddled by the Nobel committee's decision. I am less angry and a little more amused. It all makes sense now. Obama is the new King. God’s in his Heaven -All’s right with the world! The King is dead. Long live the King.