Sunday, October 19, 2008

Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama

There should be little surprise that Powell endorsed Obama. Powell had a long and distinguished career as a public servant, but this career contained one embarrassing blotch on it. When he was secretary of state just before the Iraq invasion, he came before the United Nations and gave a speech describing the efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He was putting his great personal prestige behind the Bush administration's justification for starting a pre-emptive war.
The only problem was that the facts he quoted in the speech were lies, fabrications. They were fabrications by Iraqi expatriats, opponents of Hussein, who hoped that they would become the new leaders of the country with Bush's help. They concocted a fancy tale of chemical weapons being created in mobile labs semi-truck trailers. They concocted links between ben Laden and Sadam Hussein. They created tales of attempts to purchase uranium in Africa. Now, expert weapons inspectors from the United Nations had been trying to find weapons of mass destruction for months but had failed. This did not matter to the Bush and Cheney and their neo-conservatives who did not trust the UN anyway. In their defense, our intelligence community had very few "on the ground" operatives in Iraq. A previous administration had ended this work, believing that electronic survelience and satelites were enough.
Bush and his friends, on a mission to protect and spread democracy (and to protect our oil supply and companies), were ready to believe any wild thing they heard about Iraq and they disregarded CIA and other warnings that they should not trust these ambitious expatriats. Bush and friends convinced Colin Powell that the evidence was overwhelming and he should make his speech. That speech was perhaps the most convincing part of Bush's propaganda campaign to promote his war. Why did Powell endorse Obama?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Minority Power

In my blog on democracy, I noted the crucial role of extreme parties in Israel, that by threatening to leave coalition governments, they can exercise great power. We like to think that we are beyond that, but are we? Many of our national elections are very close and some groups take advantage of that. The Cubans in the swing state of Florida have kept us from opening dialogue with Cuba. We work with Russia and China but we are still isolating tiny Cuba. Why? The Cubans in Florida.

Former Congressman Paul Findlay, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and others have been telling us for years that the Jews have far more power than their numbers merit. Jews own the New York Times, have substantial interests in some banks, and have a history of being martyrs so we give them deference. And they are swing votes in critical states like New York. Their power has muffled criticism of Israel in this country. We have often been the only nation in the United Nations voting with Israel. Our military, economic, and political support of Israel as it has repeatedly oppressed the Palestinians has angered peoples around the world, particularly Moslems.

Read Jimmy Carter's Israel, Peace not Apartheid to see how the Palestinian lands have been seized and been dissected by Israeli controlled roads that connect the settlements. I've visited Israel 3 times and each time I have had more sympathy for the terrible conditions the Palestinians have to live in. I've visited a refugee camp and seen others where they have had to live for 60 years. One camp had open sewers. I've been in a beautiful new settlement in the West Bank. We were given a tour by a lady with a thick Brooklyn accent. I asked her a question noting that many Jews were heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's, quoting the prophets and Biblical injunctions to protect the strangers in the land. I asked what the Jews were doing to help the oppressed Palestinians. Fire came to her eyes and she replied "God gave Israel to the Jews!" I've met moderate Jews and Moslems who want to work for peace but the extreme parties in Israel, angry Palestinians, and the Jews in America have stood in the way of democracy and/or a viable two state solution.

The Republicans have to satisfy evangelical Christians and some talk show hosts. The Democrats have been beholden to certain unions. The Black and the Hispanic votes are crucial in some swing states. These groups are crucial parts of our nation but sometimes more extreme leaders from them have yielded unusual power. As one famous newscaster used to say "thats the way it is."

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Who'll loan us the money?

Our president who comes from a party that advocates a balanced budget, but has not delivered one for decades, is now merrily proposing $700 billion to buy up all those bad mortgages held by banks and others, $50 billion to shore up our money market mutual funds, $200 billion to save Freddie and Fannie Mac, $29 billion to settle up Bear Stearns, $85 billion to keep AIG afloat, and soon $25 billion to keep our auto industry from going under. (This is in addition to the $20 billion a month for this stupid war--most of which is borrowed.) Soon we are going to be talking about some serious money. Also between now and 2011, the buyers of $1 trillion of interest-only mortgages(Alt-A) will have to start paying on the principal. Checks were not made on many, many of these customers to see what their income was. Will they be able to pay the payments--on houses that have lost much of their value?
Who in the heck is going to loan us all this money? Who is crazy enough to do this? If China and Russia are going to help, shouldn't they be investing in new schools, roads, industries, etc., etc., in their own country? Do we look like a good credit risk?
Our president and his economic people have been asleep at the wheel while all these major parts of our economy have been taking enormous risks and been going down the tubes. Their philosophy has been that there was no need to regulate these groups to protect from their own greed and stupidity. Short selling has abounded, where you borrow stock from someone and promise to give it back later. You sell the stock betting that it will go down and you can buy it back cheaper later. This is a great risk and drives the market down. Even riskier is "naked short selling" where the player does not own or borrow anything but promises to sell stock at a certain price on a certain date. Leveraging has also abounded, this is where you have borrowed far above your assets and when someone calls a loan, you may not have anyway to pay it off. These types of market games are not played just by small day traders but by employees of large banks and investment firms who are managing hundreds of millions of dollars invested in our IRAs, nest eggs, insurances, and banks. The risky mortgages mentioned in an earlier blog abounded too.

Some examples of leveraging: Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were leveraged 50 to one, $50 in loans to $1 of assets. Lehman Bros. and Merrill Lynch were at over 30 to 1. Conservative investment firms try to stay below 15 to one. Many wise firms in these troubled times have built up cash reserves.

It is said that China is the largest manufacturer and we are the largest consumer. How can we continue to be the biggest customer when we produce very little that can be sold to help pay for all our toys? Will China continue to shore us up to keep her factories humming? Christian financial advisers recommend that individuals not live on borrowed money because we are then at the mercy of the holders of our mortgages, etc. We are not free. When will cash rich China, OPEC, and Russia begin to call in our debts or pull our strings and we are going to have to jump? It used to be that our banks owned much of the national debt, but they are not in shape to buy this new over $1 trillion debt. It is great that the federal government wants to help, but they are going to have to borrow to do it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Insurance regulation

AIG's need for $60 billion to stay afloat raises some interesting questions. Who regulates the insurance companies that have expanded into IRA and annuity providers. AIG has become a trillion dollar company. Who is watching the store? Insurance companies and fixed rate annuities are regulated by the states. What states, with all their financial problems, have the resources to oversee these huge multinational corporations? Can Nebraska, Delaware, Ohio, or even New York do this? Variable rate annuities are regulated by the federal government.

The regulators do have their national organizations to provide networking, training, and uniform codes, but is this the best way to do this? There are advantages to decentralization, it increases the number of possible whistle-blowers. But where were they as this was becoming a crisis, who was speaking up? Can the states bail out these companies?

Obama said that if these companies want the federal government to bail them out, "they need to live by our rules." McCain said that these problems are caused by greed and he is going to straighten all this out. The solvency of our life insurance policies and pension programs are at stake, but how do we prevent these companies from investing too much in high risk schemes, putting too many eggs in one basket? Is too much being spent on very high salaries and too little being put into prudent reserves?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Musings on Democracy

Bush and his neocon friends justified the war in Iraq in part because we were spreading democracy. This was a great goal, but in so doing caused so much anger in the Arab world that we should be very happy these are not democracies. Democracy is a form of government, not some sacred goal for the world. It is a way of governing people that we think works best, but democracy alone can elect Hitler to power in Germany, can support Sen. Joe McCarthy, and can elect Huey Long and Richard Daley, Sr.
Democracy uncontrolled can become mob rule. The French Revolution was a people gone wild. The founders of our nation had a great dream of freedom, but they wanted to protect the freedoms won in a very bloody war. As they wrote the constitution, they still had the dreams of freedom, the optimism of the Enlightenment, but they also wanted to prevent freedom from going wild. They were well versed in the scriptures and had some the Apostle Paul's realism as he knew that he did the things he did not want to do and did not do the things he wanted to do. Theologians later talked about original sin. The Constitution included such things as the balance of powers and the rights of the states to help prevent leaders and/or the people from abusing their powers. The Bill of Rights had to be included to get some states to ratify it.

Democracy needs some cohesion among the peoples. The United States was united by its great victory over Britain and their love of their leaders: Washington, Franklin, Jefferson,... But they were also divided over slavery, religion, and nationality. The religious differences were quite significant. Stories abounded about the wars in Europe over religion and the oppression of certain religious groups. Here we had colonies founded by Quakers, Roman Catholics, Baptists, followers of the Church of England, Puritans. Many of the founding fathers were deists and remembered how the church in many nations was dictatorial and wealthy. Shortly before and after the war those wild Methodists were causing quite a stir. We had English, French, Germans, Swedish, and other nationalities. There were soon arguments between the frontiersmen and the rich businessmen of the coastal cities. What held us together, I do not know. We share a dream.

But in some other nations, elections are the occasion of riots and killings. Deep divisions over religion, nationalities, political philosophy, class warfare, history, etc. feed fires of hatred when elections are called. In several nations their several political parties representing these different factions and the only democratic system that works is parliamentarian. There the parties must form assemble coalitions and in Israel this means that the extreme parties have extraordinary power because if they pull out, the government collapses. If Israel was truly a democracy and all the people who live inside its borders were allowed to participate in the democratic system, the Palestinians might soon have a majority.

Democracy is a system, but it works best where there is a sense of cohesion and mutual respect for persons of different backgrounds. Democracy alone has no ethos or system of values. It is a place where different ideas can be shared and we can learn from each other--if we want to. Writers say that the post-modern world is one where we realize that there are different valid ways of life and belief, different ways to shared goals. We can not go back to the religion of our forefathers for they did not share a common religious outlook. We must take pride as we have in our world being a melting pot of different colors, religions, histories, nationalities. We must work together to solve problems--but we all know that that is very difficult often, even in a democracy. And we must remember our sinfulness and weakness. Democratically elected leaders helped kill off millions and millions of innocent people in the last century.

Democracy does indeed remain the best system but for it to work well there has to be some civility and the sharing of some basic sets of values.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Why worry about drilling?

Someone questioned why we should worry about offshore drilling by some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Maybe I should not worry about Big Sur, Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, Coney Island, Miami's beach, Daytona Beach, or Cape Cod. Now I know that offshore drilling must use some marvelous technology to try to prevent catastrophes, but are we protected against terrorism, human error, erosion and wearing out of equipment and caps later put on underwater wells, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, ship wrecks? We've been somewhat lucky so far, but the more wells the more likely there could be more catastrophes. The hurricane Ike was only a level 2 or 3 hurricane, what if a category 4 or 5 directly hits these wells? The Exxon Valdez was in 1989 and there still is enviromental damage and millions of gallons of oil in the beaches there.
Offshore drilling could indeed include the Great Lakes. These are the sources of drinking water for many millions of people along there shores. Sport fishing is an important industry for many communities on the shores. A major spill there could have long term effects on the health and beauty and wildlife in the area. A large part of the damage would come from heavy oil that would sink to bottom and put off dangerous chemicals for possibly centuries.
Why risk these dangers for such a relatively small amount of oil? Oil produced there would be still sold at world prices and so would not save the consumer much. It would help some on our balence of world trade payments.
Experts say it will take 10-20 years before these wells will produce. It appears very likely that wind, solar, tides and waves, geothermal, small hydroelectical, lightning, and other clean sources will produce electicity cleanly in sufficient measure to make the demand for oil to decrease substatially. Fission may also be online. Why put at risk some of our most enviromentally sensitive and beautiful areas and endanger the health of those living near? Let us not panic but look at the long term.

Friday, September 12, 2008

drill baby drill

At the Republican convention, a large and enthusiastic cry went up "drill, baby, drill!" There has been before a bipartisan call to restrict oil drilling off some of the most beautiful beaches in the world on our east and west coasts but now "drill, baby, drill." There has been bipartisan and international agreements to prevent drilling in the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater source in the world, but are we to start off shore drilling there too? There have been bipartisan efforts to preserve environmentally sensitive areas in the Rockies and in Alaska, but are these all to be thrown out by the Republicans?
Experts agree that these areas contain very little oil compared to the world supplies and the growing world demand. In our rush to satisfy our oil needs, our energy self-sufficiency, how much are we willing to risk or give up? The Republicans are screaming "Drill, baby, drill!"