Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Biden on Obama

First, an anniversary observation unrelated to the rest of the blog.

Seventy-nine yeats ago today, October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, bringing on the Great Depression.

Democrat vice-presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden is coming in for a great deal of criticism from other Democrats on his “validating inexperience” comments. Indeed, on first hearing what Biden said – or rather on hearing the selection that has become a center piece of a new Republican political ad campaign on radio and television – and who has not heard it repeatedly, the objective observer might agree with Biden’s critics.

What Biden expressed is his belief that sometime in the initial six months of an Obama administration (and of course Biden here assumes the Democrats will win the White House), the new president will be confronted by an artificial crisis created to test to what extent he can handle foreign relations.

Biden pointed to the “test” of the last “young president,” John F. Kennedy, by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, which culminated in the Cuban Missile crisis – a distinctly military confrontation that to the very end was played out and remained in the military context as far as the world knew. (Only later did it become public knowledge that Kennedy agreed to remove U.S. intermediate range missiles aimed at the USSR from bases in Turkey.)

Given the context Biden used, little wonder the Republicans jumped on the vice-presidential candidate’s remarks. Their view is that Biden validated the Grand Old Party’s oft-made charge that, in a world so full of dangers, the U.S. does not have time for “on the job training” for an inexperienced commander-in-chief.

Well, I for one don’t want the next president, whoever he is, to see himself first and foremost as commander-in-chief. I want him to see himself as president of the people and to concentrate on that job. He can get military advice when it is needed and then issue orders to the generals.

George Bush made the mistake of responding to 9/11 as commander-in-chief instead of as president. And look at the state of the nation today.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Endless Campaign

As this is written, there remains, unfortunately, still a full week before the calendar finally turns to the official date for balloting in the 2008 general election... When that blessed day finally arrives, it will mark the completion of the longest political campaign season – ten months and one day – when measured from the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus to the general election. Yes, iPods and cell phones and email intrusions will decrease in the immediate aftermath of the election, but that should not be considered as anything more than good generalship. Win, lose, or draw, whether the field being contested is war or politics, following a major “battle” a commander must pause to assess the lay of the land, see who is left standing, whether they are actual or potential friends or opponents, and how influential they are and may be in the future.

At the same time that the “official” political campaigns have lengthened, so too have the periods allowed in which registered voters may cast their ballot for the candidates of their choice. More and more, states are either allowing unrestricted early voting (i.e., no presumption that the voter will be absent from his precinct on election day) or are expanding the justifications for early voting.

This national trend toward increasingly unrestricted early voting is unmistakable: an estimated 12.7 million in 2000 (12 percent), 25 million in 2004 (about 20 percent), and at least 40 million in 2008 (about 33 percent). Pennsylvania is the earliest to mail out ballots to voters – this year on August 26th to mail ballots although it is not among the 33 states that require a reason for voting absentee.

There is a down side – or at least a potential down side – to this trend should it become a majority of the final vote count. This year’s contest illustrates the danger. During the major party nominating conventions, the major concern of the public and the main theme sounded by the candidates was national defense,

Less than four weeks later, the debacle that has overtaken U.S. and global financial structures and institutions and commodity, currency, and credit markets broke wide open. For whatever reason – the slow administration reaction to the collapse, Senator McCain’s assertion that “fundamentals were sound” or Senator Obama’s press briefing standing in front of a number of “experts” who have been advising him on the economy – more voters (according to polls) believe the Democrats would be better with the economy than would Republicans. Had the economic sector tailspin started near the end of October instead of when it did, a large number of early voters could suddenly have regretted their precipitous action.

Moreover, once people vote, that human tendency to pay attention only to what is of immediate concern kicks in – and early voters will tend to put politics and the political campaign aside – but do so at their own risk.

I’m not opposed to early absentee voting, but I do think that some time limit ought to be agreed among the states (which have the final say on this matter). There are enough other controversies about voter eligibility, voter registration, and the security and accuracy of voting machines without adding the prospect that in some future election, early voters might be “hoodwinked” into believing that they can trust the political pros. If that’s the only alternative, maybe the “endless campaign” deserves another look.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Holiday and More

FCNL was closed today as October 24 is the birth date of William Penn.

However, to ensure your vist was not time wasted, I offer the following:
From History: October 24 1648 was the date the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, ending the 3o Years War.

Ascribed to John Adams: In my long years of obseving men, Ihave concluded that oneuseless man is a shame, two are a law firm, and three or more are a congress.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wishful Reality

Some months it’s as if nothing happens like it should – which is a less egotistical statement of the ancient conceit that sets the achievement of my desires, will, and expectations as the measure of or the standard for judging the relevance of events and relationships.

You will immediately recognize where this is headed: the distinction between an objective reality that is “out there” as it is encountered and filtered through the senses to the brain, and an inner reality – the mind’s eye or “I,” so to speak – that is created moment-to-moment from the accumulation of mental and physical experiences.

A hard lesson that “normal” people learn, and the earlier the better, is that the world of “what should be” rarely occurs spontaneously. That happens because in the context of human experience, “should” constitutes a non-physical imperative (as distinct from a physical entity subject to the laws of materials) that is a cognitive judgment of the value of something occurring or not occurring. Sometimes it is possible to affect the propensity or the probability that something that “should” happen actually does, but it is not possible to consistently bend the events and relationships of this exterior reality to conform to the inner construct.

All this came to mind again as I looked over piles of unfiled papers dealing with Guantanamo Bay and the military commissions created by the Bush administration to try the “worst of the worst.” Almost all of the prisoners were handed over to or captured by Americans in Afghanistan.

In Bush’s world, these were people who should be in prison for life if not executed for opposing U.S. forces or in some way being associated with al-Qaeda or the Taliban. But after seven years, one of these “unlawful enemy combatants” pleaded :guilty in a plea bargain and one was found guilty of driving Osama bin Laden – for which he was sentenced to serve only five months in prison over and above the time already served.

Surely, this is not what George Bush expected when he started this ill-conceived “war” and then compounded the situation by violating international laws relating to the treatment of detainees. He leaves office January 20, 2009, but he also leaves his successor a most unpalatable reality that will take years to overcome,

Monday, October 20, 2008

National Defense University 2

Last Friday’s blog ended with a description of a predictive business formula for reforming operations: Q x A = E, where Q is quality, A is acceptance, E is effectiveness, and should the acceptance of the workforce of a reform package ever reach zero, the = sign guarantees ineffectiveness of the changes no matter how brilliant the original idea for reform.

The formula, of course, is nothing more than a hoax insofar as it expresses no scientific truth even though at first glance – such is the strength of our deference to science – its simplicity suggests it might. Yet it does represent an “eternal truth” that most adults “learn” (an instinctive recognition) early in their working lives: the more people that buy-into (accept) a course: of action or a reform project, the greater the chances of successfully implementing the change because the majority are stakeholders who will work to ensure success.
This, in turn, removes the critical part of any reform effort from the physical to the perceptual world. The more complex the change, the clearer the explanation has to be of of what the change accomplishes for the " product" and the specific benefits that will accrue to those implementing the reform. (Conversely, at least in the business world, never mention what you “gain.) Moreover, reform advocates need to watch reactions (body language): are the listeners cautious, enthusiastic, or negative to the changes? The greater the resistance, the more effort must be made to discover what is driving the reluctance.

At this point, three errors can occur. The “reform” champions understate the total effect of the reforms (not known even to the reformers given the propensity for unknown unknowable to occur); in the drive to overcome what seems to be irrational resistance the pro-reform faction strays from explanation into propaganda and become trapped in their own rhetoric; or they refuse to offer (or accept) course of action that could, in a reasonable time and at reasonable cost “field test” the reform. In short, a possibly powerful positive idea suddenly becomes one of the more dangerous forces on the planet for the simple reason that it allows no other ideas or possibilities to exist.

The “scientific” conceit of Q x A = E lies in the belief that possession of “facts” guarantees a high value Q. Facts are important; they are the currency of advancement up the ladder to military, corporate, and government leadership positions. Ironically, those who attain high office in business and government will rely more on “feeling” about proposals to “reform” practices, programs, and products. The importance of this factor is that the “act” of acceptance is based on feeling that “something is right” more than on a litany of “facts.” In turn, as one conferee noted, business chiefs who believe that intuition or instinct were valuable instruments in their rise up the corporate ladder will continue to prefer relying on their own intuition.

Next: What are alternatives?

Friday, October 17, 2008

National Defense University 1

Meeting Complex Challenges
Through National Security Reform
October 16-17, 2008

A conference’s title, properly chosen, conveys, implicitly if not explicitly, the key abstractions that the organizing group intends to have attendees ex;plore. And if the conference organizers are adept at this business, the one or two page flyer that describes the objectives to be achieved and names a few well-known “leaders” in the field – usually academics, retired government officials, and occasionally individuals who have had direct experience with the subject matter or the processes through which the subject matter changes and, in so doing, changes the trajectory of history.

Thus this conference was advertised to be about the inevitable plethora of distinct person-to-person relationships that develop over time between representatives of governing entities that, when looked examined over a long period of time are said to possess certain characteristics. If a significant number of “outside” (foreign) observers convey negative or ambivalent feedback and the country in question is alert enough to detect the negative signals, reforms can be undertaken. But to be consistently effective ot only in making the change across all relevant departments and agencies, there must be a high degree of what the mliitary refers to as “unity of effort.”

The two paragraphs above describe only processes – the intellectual “bundling” of impressions from a large number of individual encounters between a group possessing common characteristics (e.g., location, type of habitat, use of implements, dialect, etc.) and a broad, highly diverse set of “not them” who have developed a state of mind about what can be expected from members of the group wherever encountered.

My experience in the military attaché system and then working with military attachés assigned to Washington clearly refuted this conclusion. One of the delights of working in this field is the opportunity to invite to lunch or dinner attachés whose countries were at near war with each other – Pakistan and India come readily to mind. Yet get these officers on neutral turf and the generalization that they are implacable enemies could not be sustained. They acted and genuinely interacted like “ordinary” human beings might.

Indeed, I doubt that anyone reaching maturity in the 21st century has not heard some variation on the warning that generalizations are dangerous. Yet the volume of information flowing through the senses to the brain is so overwhelming that humans have had to develop mechanisms that unconsciously prioritize and generalize according to the circumstances the constitute the dominate context (e.g., is the alligator I see in its zoo habitat or roaming along a river bank 20 yards away and closing?).

When it comes to international relations, countries, like individuals, are characterized by others according to the perceptions created through behaviors in various contexts. Thus it becomes imperative that a country aspiring to leadership or a business seeking to expand into foreign lands be aware of the impressions held by allies and adversaries and any others whose intervention could help or hinder achievement of the goal. And depending on the context, the country or business in question may find it expedient to undertake reforms of its practices and processes.

This is about where the conference started – with the premise that more often than not, when government or business begin to talk about reform, they are really talking about process – the “how can the operation be made more effective?”

Now this question, particularly in the context of reform, usually is directed toward the udusl litany of getting rid of waste, fraud, and abuse. One participant in the conference who had held a very high position in his country’s military structure, offered the opinion that after two or three years one could pretty well expect to recoup about ten percent of an agency’s budget from inefficiencies that creep into the organizational processes.

Another participant offered the following formula as a statement of what businesses and governments often do wrong when they go after reform: Q x A =E, where Q is quality, A is acceptance, E is effectiveness.

Now the goal of business is to turn out a quality product in such a way that resources are used in the most optimum manner. The person who is on the production floor or in the product stream is often the one who knows better than a plant manager whether the production process is being effectively implemented. A key element in effectiveness is acceptance of th process by those who do the work. If management disregards suggestions on better ways to work, morale will go down. And should it hit zero, then effectiveness goes to zero also

Next: An idea can be the most powerful force on earth
An idea can be the most dangerous force on earth when it is the only one you have.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Economics 101 -2: Before the Debate

So much for the Monday evening prognosticators who saw last Monday’s 936 point rebound in the Dow Jones average as the signal that the market had bottomed out. Yesterday’s 77 point loss has been eclipsed by today’s 733 point nosedive.

The Treasury Department has announced it will distribute the initial $250 billion of the $700 billion Congress voted to make available to the Secretary of the Treasury to stave off complete collapse of the credit markets. The nine largest banks in the country will receive the bulk of the funds on condition that the funds be used to maintain liquidity in the credit markets and not simply be “locked” away in the vaults of those receiving the monies.

For their part, the banks receiving the Treasury largess will have to issue non-voting preferred stock in the banks that will pay 5% interest annually to the Treasury for the first three years. Should the stock remain unredeemed at the end of the three years, the interest rate will jump to 9%. Bank executives would have to accept some ceiling on their annual compensation, and dividends could not be paid without first notifying the government. Financial pundits in both major parties and on both wings are already arguing whether this “semi-nationalization” of the financial sector will mark the tipping point of post World War II capitalism.

Interestingly, many of the regional banks that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is trying to bring on board in the effort to spread “liquidity” more quickly and smoothly (like butter on hot toast) are resisting. The chief objection goes quite far in explaining how the financial meltdown managed to get as far as it did before any action was initiated. Simply put, those who were charged with oversight of the operations of the financial sector and of oversight of the regulatory apparatus simply failed to do their jobs.

As detailed in the Washington Post (October 15, 2008), an economic Rubicon was crossed in April 1998 when three of the economic gurus in the Clinton administration – the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and the Treasury Secretary (all from Wall Street) rejected a suggestion by their peer from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to look into a new financial instrument called a “derivative” to find out what effects it was having on the markets.

Given the rampant opposition in the Republican Party to any regulation that even remotely hinders the “free market,” when the GOP took the White House in 2000 the outlook for any restraint or discipline disappeared. More alarming today – in addition to the actual free-fall in the market, is that two of the chief advisors to the Democratic contenders are familiar from the 1998 meeting.

Not to worry, however, for both now confess to believe in some regulation to prevent irrational exuberance.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Small Change

Today’s (October 13) Washington Post Business section carried a story whose subtitle read: “After Eight Boom Years for Spending on Military Equipment, Contractors Expect a Slowdown.”

A slowdown? One might expect a little better than that given that U.S. military spending, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), has increased 59% in real terms since 2001. (The Post article, using Fiscal Year data, put the increase over the same years at 86% – moving from $361 billion to $672 billion in inflation adjusted dollars) As of the end of 2007, according to (SIPRI), the United States accounted for 45% of total global military spending of $1,339 billion or $1.339 trillion.

(In case you are like me and still have a hard time wrapping your mind around a trillion of anything, the $1.339 trillion spent in 2007 comes out on a global per capita basis at $202 more or less – but who’s counting?)

SIPRI also notes that the subregion in which military spending has increased most rapidly is Eastern Europe, including the western-most republics of the former Soviet Union. If you don’t have a map handy, this latter includes the Republic of Georgia and the Ukraine, two countries seeking full membership in NATO. Georgia tried to force its secessionist province of South Ossetia back under Tbilisi’s thumb, failing totally when Russia came to the aid of the Ossetians. Moreover, Russia has warned Ukraine not to move ahead on its bid for full membership in NATO, but that warning appears not to have made any difference in Kiev or Washington.

Back to the Washington Post, another article from the Sunday October 12 paper’s Outlook section carried an article co-authored by Nancy Soderberg, U.S. ambassador to the UN during the second Bill Clinton administration. She joins Richard Danzig, a former Secretary of the Navy under Clinton, in pushing for Robert Gates to stay on as Secretary of Defense in an Obama cabinet (assuming Obama wins November 4). This would mirror Clinton’s appointment of Republican Senator William Cohn as his Defense chief in the second Clinton term.

Some right of center defense supporters are pulling not only to fight off shallow cuts but to increase defense spending as a way to help the economy grow faster. One suspects this might be happening as U.S. arms sales last fiscal year hit $33 billion plus what looks like a purposeful delay in announcing a $6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan. Why the delay? U.S. sales had been just $12 billion in FY2005; the leap to $33 billion in two years was obscene enough without pushing it to nearly $40 billion.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Al Qaeda 3.0

This was the title of a seminar held today in Washington,DC.

By day's end, I don't know that attendees had learned much that could be called "new." But I was struck by the general consensus on three points:

(1) al Qaeda has not given up on attempting another "spectacular" attack against Americans on American soil;

(2) it does not have the physical presence or the psychological position to execute even a limited operation in the next two to three years; and

(3) the time-frame al Qaeda "central" requires to recruit, train, and put in place the people and materiel for a well-planned major terror incident in the U.S. is about 15 years, and we have gone nearly half that span of years since 9/11.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Economics For Today

Economics 101 Part 1

One of the dangers to which laissez faire (that is, unregulated) free market capitalism is susceptible is a monopoly. In Adam Smith’s time (1723-1790), “monopoly” did not carry the conspiratorial baggage with which it is now encumbered. Originally, a monopoly was a way for government to gain control of or regulate the availability of a strategic commodity, resource, or technology. Nor was it unknown, even in this comparatively late period after Europe’s “discovery” and conquest of the “uninhabited” Americas, for kings to devolve land and all uses thereof to those performing valuable services to the crown.

Left to itself, a monopoly can easily become a power center in its own right. For example, should an individual possess land that contains a very high percentage of a locally rare but very necessary commodity for life (e.g., salt), he theoretically achieves a dominating trade and quite possibly a disproportionately significant economic advantage over his neighbors until technology (transit systems) opens new competitive sources.

Elevate the scenario to the international level where one country enjoys a monopoly over a vital resource. How its relationships with other countries evolve – whether open (or more open) trade among all on an equitable basis or the resort to armed conflict by one or more of the countries bereft of the resource – depends on the interplay of a host of exterior factors. Among these is a collective moral pragmatism that can serve in ordinary times as an invisible self-referencing foundation for society and in crises as a self-regulating mechanism that, when energized by the political leadership, acts to constrain the use of violence regardless of the alleged provocation.

Should the above even slightly resemble the Founders’ interpretation of Adam Smith’s market dynamics, how can the system determine a new “natural level” should political governance come under stress?

The first step is to determine the source of the stress. In the current international economic meltdown, the precipitating stress, according to economic gurus, has been the inflated U.S. housing market and the “bundling” of high risk (and therefore high profit as long as prices inflated) mortgages. The psychology at work is easy to understand: greed, made possible by removing transparency and accountability not only in the market place but in the art of governance.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Language and Politics

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When these is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns instinctively as it were to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946)

When I come across a statement like this, I too have an “instinctive reaction.” Mine is to immediately concur, and the more ancient the author, the greater the temptation to add that the misuse or abuse of language by today’s politicians is more true today than ever before.

Of course, just how one would go about verifying such a sentiment I have no idea. Theoretically, if a “politician” is defined as anyone willing to place his or her name before the public to contend for elective office , it might be possible to arrive at a very rough quantitative total of a country’s political class in any given year. At a minimum, the intrepid investigator should be able to establish a quantitative floor for this number by identifying all the elective offices in a country and multiplying by two. Where more than two political parties are known to have been viable contenders, the appropriate adjustments can be made.

Because we think of politicians in conjunction with populations that have some say in their form of government and some say in who will represent them (in lieu of a direct democracy where each citizen is obliged to legislate), the quantitative challenge is not overwhelmed by history. “Elections” as Orwell understood the term are notable more by their absence in history than by their use – and even where used the franchise was extremely restricted, usually to males who were landed or to “citizens” or to the rich hereditary houses of the state.

This subject came to mind again because of the way in which President Bush and some in the congressional leadership – i.e., those who are the “elite” among the political class – who should have known better initially approached the economic melt-down. As he has done in his tenure in the White House, Bush attempted to ram through a measure that would have permitted the executive to wrest Congress’ last constitutional power that has not been deeply compromised already: the power of the purse. Ironically, the initial power grab which would have allowed the Treasury Secretary to act independently of congressional scrutiny was rejected by the House Republicans.

With a revised plan in hand, the White House called out the “fear factor” as it had done in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. by the 19 hijackers. The main difference between then and now is that today people don’t have any money to go out and shop as Bush suggested they do after 9/11.

And this brings up another point where there is a gap between the administration’s true intent and what they claim. For a number of days, some media outlets carried stories about the huge jump in arms sales by the U.S., sales that come on top of the money that the Pentagon is spending every month on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- $12 billion a month – on top of which is the “base budget” of more than $600 billion. Arms sales for the fiscal year just ended came in at $32 billion, a level not seen since 1991 right after the First Gulf War. Now we find out that the administration is selling $6.5 billion in arms to Taiwan. The justification to Congress will read that the sale enhances U.S. security.

This can only be seen as another deliberate slap at China – a continuation of the fiction that Richard Nixon, another Republican president, effectively repudiated when the U.S. finally recognized the Beijing government as the representative of the Chinese nation and Taiwan as a province of the one China.

But unlike Nixon, Bush needs China to keep pressure on North Korea in the six party talks about ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The fact that the North has announced it plans to restart its nuclear reactor may indicate that Beijing was aware of the impending sale – and this was their reply.

What all this adds up to is confirmation that the eight years of the Bush administration has done violence not only to our system of government but to the language of governance itself. The gap that Orwell alludes to is the gap in the people’s trust in the government to act in the interest of the general public.

Listen carefully to what is said in this economic crisis. The long words may not be there; Bush often has trouble pronouncing them. But when the “exhausted” idioms start, hold on to your wallets.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Political Leaks

What British Prime Minister Gordon Brown needs is a good plumber.

Last December, some two weeks before Christmas, the last debates of the even-then unbearably long political contest to chose the presidential standard-bearers for the Republican an d Democratic parties presented an unusual picture. The majority of the contending hopefuls (including two not permitted to participate in the Iowa debate) were veterans of the U.S Congress.

Among the Democrats, the contenders included four sitting and two former senators, one sitting Member of the House of Representatives, and one sitting governor who had also been the Secretary of a federal cabinet department in the Clinton administration .– Bill Richardson. The Republican contenders were a more diversified field: two former governors, one current and one former senator, two current and one former members of the House, one former mayor, and a conservative commentator.

At this point, one could confidently predict that the Republicans would dust off one of their favorite campaign themes: the “other candidate” is a Washington insider” who had “lost touch with the people.” Moreover, since the Democratic field featured four active and one viable former senator – and the Republicans had only one serving and one former senator in their race – the GOP might also find they could level the additional charge that the Democrat’s nominee was (assuming the winner served in the senate at some point) a self-admitted “elitist,” for senators like to refer to their chamber as “the world’s most exclusive club.”

Within five months, the December calculus was shredded. True enough, the expected winner on the Democratic ticket would be a senator but one who was still in his first term in that office. Against all odds, the Republican nominee also turned out to be a senator, one who had served more than three decades in the U.S. Senate.

Clearly, the new charge against the Democrat seemed obvious: unseasoned, untried, untested. But the GOP candidate now was the one susceptible to the “insider” charge.

Late August and early September saw the calculations change again with the choices for vice-president. The GOP nominee was the first term governor of Alaska (inexperienced in foreign affairs) while the Democrat’s pick was another sitting “insider” – and three of the four candidates current members of the senatorial elite.

So when a highly classified seven-page letter from the British ambassador in Washington to the British Prime Minister that noted the charges of elitism leveled against Senator Obama were “not entirely unfair,” it was sure to catch on in the press.

In his letter, written last summer before Obama’s highly publicized trip to Europe, the ambassador, a career British diplomat, also noted Obama’s “decidedly liberal” if short voting record. This observation was immediately followed by what appears to be a consensus view – whether the ambassador’s summary or an actual consensus of Obama’s peers is unclear – that the junior senator from Illinois was “finding his feet and then got diverted by his presidential ambitions.”

Downing Street is put on notice that should Obama become president, the Brits will have a far thinner public record to mine for insights into the foreign policy of the United States. While Obama is “solid” on climate change, the ambassador worries that an Obama administration may opt to conduct direct talks with Tehran over the latter’s nuclear enrichment program and bypass the efforts to tighten sanctions

The appearance now of a letter written last summer by Britain’s ambassador in Washington might be half of the dreaded, proverbial October surprise that seems to be a part of every modern presidential race. If so, this year’s “other half” may be another leaked diplomatic communication, this time from the French ambassador in Kabul to French President Sarkozy. But with a not-altogether unexpected diplomatic twist, the French ambassador notes that he is conveying the views of Britain’s ambassador in Kabul on the emerging U.S strategy in Afghanistan.

According to the British diplomat (as reported in French diplomatic cables), the “American strategy is destined to fail.” The envoy continues: “The security situation is getting worse. So is corruption and the Government has lost all trust….. The presence – especially the military presence of the coalition is part of the problem, not the solution.”

Were that not enough, the British diplomat‘s conclusion is that the coalition countries need to start preparing their publics for the eventual appearance of “an acceptable dictator.”

I guess that's a step up from an unacceptable dictator, but not enough of a difference to warrant the cost in lives and national treasure.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

It's Piracy

In 1879 Gilbert and Sullivan finished writing/composing a comic operetta that was to be one of their most enduring compositions: “Pirates of Penzance,” subtitled “A Slave to Duty.”

In 1953 Walt Disney produced a feature length motion picture about a boy (Peter Pan) from “Never Land” whose swashbuckling nemesis there bears the name “Captain Hook,” after the device that substituted for his left hand.

And the end of this month, many children will venture out on All Hallows Eve to “trick-or-treat” dressed in costumes with baggy trousers, handkerchiefs tied around their heads or showing from under their hats, one black eye patch, a “talking parrot” perched on a shoulder and large bags that they hope to fill with “booty” from indulgent neighbors.

This year, however, the tricksters may find that many houses in their neighborhoods are empty or the owners not responsive when the doorbell rings, meaning a smaller take in candy and other nominal “bribes” or rewards than in the past. Many, like Disney’s Peter Pan, probably won’t notice any quantifiable fall-off; for this group the “fun” lies less in the “getting” than in the “doing.” Moreover, there is just the tiniest suggestion of “rampant” sin derived from the “massive” rule-breaking tolerated this night – dressing up (hiding one’s true identity); staying up past normal bedtime; munching on more than one piece of candy; and even in venturing outside long after the sun has set.

Now associating “rampant sin” with the Halloween trick-or-treats tradition of my childhood seems a bit harsh. Back then, we worked for our “treats” by telling a joke, reciting a poem, or singing a song – unlike today when the very act of a child ringing the doorbell seems to be the only requirement for being given a treat.

“Showing up” seems to have been the only “rule” in effect for a number of well-placed, well-heeled, financers, stock brokers, real estate agents, and others who took unnecessary risks with other people’s money and future in their quest for personal enrichment. Their activities were aided and abetted by elected and appointed federal officials who removed regulations and oversight authority that had been in place for years in the effort to provide some protection for the ordinary citizen against predatory and unscrupulous practices.

What connects all the above is the definition of piracy – in its most simple form, demanding something for nothing, which is to say, “robbery.” Originally it was robbery on the high seas – exactly what we read about in today’s newspapers. This year off the coasts of Somalia and Nigeria modern pirates using speedboats and armed with machineguns are hijacking merchant ships and even tankers in record numbers and then demanding million dollar ransoms from the owners. As technology developed, so too did other forms of piracy, especially air, copyright, and broadcasting piracy.

But all these pale when compared to the financial sector, where the greed of a few has in effect robbed many people of their retirement savings, of their homes, and of their businesses. How far, for how long, and just how deep the damage is no one really knows. And unfortunately many who created the opportunities for this piracy to occur are now involved in the government’s “rescue plan.”

That’s the real scary part of this whole mess.