Monday, August 27, 2007

August 25, 2007

August 24, 2007

Waiting for Greatness

We live in extraordinary times.

That's the bad news.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary leaders, and we have none. Not one.

That's the really bad news.

Among the Dems and Repubs vying to be our next leader there are gradations of greatness. But they range only from the “not-so-great” to “you-gotta-be-shittin'-me” levels of greatness.

Greatness is, to be fair, the rarest of human conditions. We see it only rarely and, if we're real lucky, greatness appears, seemly out of nowhere, at extraordinary times to save our mortal cookies in just the nick of time.

The founders of this country, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, et al, were a pretty impressive lot, for their time. They were weren't perfect, but they were great. They had and displayed courage, wisdom and vision. Oh, I know, they also had slaves ... their bad. But considering the times, they were by any measure, great leaders, without whom our history would have evolved quite differently.

Abe Lincoln was another great piece of work. So was FDR. Roosevelt's greatness pulled America out of economic depression. And his creation of Social Security is the only reason America's elderly enjoy any degree of security in their old age. Oh, and there was that whole World War II thing that Roosevelt was able to pulled off in less time than our current leader has battled us to a draw in Iraq.

Jack Kennedy was shaping up nicely too. Though he was not allowed to fully prove his greatness, we can all thank him for the fact that Florida and Cuba don't glow in the dark today. His brother, Bobby Kennedy also had the seeds of greatness, though they were never allowed to germinate.

Martin Luther King shared the kind of greatness our founders had; courage, wisdom and vision. His greatness was required to complete what Abe Lincoln began a century before.

Now here we are, once again living in extraordinary times. War – or near-war -- rages throughout the Middle East, western economies that run on oil suddenly find themselves looking down the barrel of an empty barrel. The US, once the engine of the world's economy, mortgaged it's engine for a couple of trillion bucks in easy credit to Chinese loan-sharks. American consumers also became credit junkies. Our grandparents once celebrated “mortgage burning parties,” when they paid off their home loans. Today too many Americans celebrate simply being able to scrape enough together to stay out of foreclosure each month.

Then there's the environment. We've shoved so much of our gaseous trash into the atmosphere that Mother Earth has had right up to here with us, and she may just be fixing to shrug us off like so many annoying pests.

Extraordinary times, indeed. But if you're like me you feel like the guy in the play, Waiting for Godot. Where are our time's great leader(s)? Are there any? Is there at least one? Will he/she show up in the nick of time and begin addressing the real reasons we are living in extraordinary times, rather than simply reeling them off as political talking points?

I'm waiting. And I suspect millions other Americans are waiting too. Waiting and hoping. Hoping, but still waiting.

We have something like 20 people running for President, and not one of them has displayed anything that rises to the level of the kind of greatness required by our times.

Barack Obama shows, from time to time, glimmers of greatness. But even there he seems unwilling, or unable, to break completely out of the box, to dare to color outside the lines of conventional political orthodoxy. He had just such a an opportunity when his opponents pounced on him for saying he would not use nuclear weapons against terrorist camps in Pakistan. They called him “naive,” and said it was dangerous to “take anything off the table.”

That was a moment when a truly great would-be leader turned to his/her detractors and said something like this:

“Excuse me. I don't mean to be rude, but I am forced to ask -- are you people crazy? Because if you are now's the time American voters need to find that out before we end up with another reckless nut in the White House.

“So, I ask, just what are you saying -- that if you were elected President you would keep open the possibility of using a nuclear weapon against collections of mud huts in the mountains of Pakistan? Is that what you say "should never be taken off the table?" The threat that you, as Presidient might nuke terrorists camps?

“Let me be perfectly clear what my policy would be as President. Nuclear weapons have only one purpose -- as a deterrent. And not as a deterrent against asymmetrical, near-primitive bands terrorists, but a deterrent against a nuclear attack from another nuclear-armed country. Period.

"Therefore I repeat, I would not use nuclear weapons against terrorist camps in Pakistan or anywhere else.

Now, since each of you, particularly Hillary, have criticized me for saying that, I assume you have a different policy. Therefore, if any of you wish to announce tonight to the American people and the world that you don't share my stated position on the use of nuclear weapons, I relinquish the rest of my time to for you to make that announcement.”

That would have been a display of greatness. I would have recognized it as such, and I figure millions of Americans would have as well.

But Obama didn't do that. He didn't exactly retreat, but he didn't advance and expose the political double talking nonsense being spewed out by the other candidates. A great candidate would have driven that spike right through their phony-baloney hearts. Instead he became cautious, allowing that flicker of greatness to be extinguished by the stale hot air that surrounded him.

No one else running has shown even that flicker of greatness. Hillary is host (in the parasitic sense of the word) for big money machine politics as usual. (Holy cow, the reptilian right wing, FOX News-owning Rupert Murdoch threw a fund raiser for Hillary!)

Hillary Clinton is the quintessential political shape-shifter. She's the Eva Peron of contemporary American politics. The only reason Hillary is leading her Democratic opponents in the polls is because none of them are are. None of them has yet shown the courage to step right up and smacked her around like a pinata. If one of them did just that the toxic crap that fell out of that phony would cause voters to flee in disgust.

But no one has had the guts – the greatness – to do that. Which has allowed Hillary to fill this “greatness-vacuum,” with focus-group-tested policy nuggets and her well-rehearsed but entirely greatness-free, sound-bites.

If what you think the world needs right now is more of the dog that bit it, then Hillary really is your girl.

If it's any consolation, Republican voters are even worse off. None of their candidates have even shown a flicker of greatness. Instead they have a bunch a guys that all look and sound like insurance salesmen vying to convince voters that they are more spiritually connected than their opponents. Instead of putting a guy in the White House who's in touch with a genuine IQ, GOP candidates seem determined to prove they can channel the spirits of Ronald Reagan and Jesus Christ. (Just what the nation needs, another guy in the White House who believes he's in touch with God, and visa versa. )

Americans have become resigned to being limited having to choose from a list of appallingly mediocre candidates. After decades of such elections the mediocre candidates that got elected as “the lesser of bad choices,” created the convergence of daunting and festering problems that now threaten our liberty, prosperity and very lives. They may not have been great candidates or great leaders. But they did create great messes.

Don't such extraordinary times demand better? Shouldn't we demand better? I suspect that the vast majority of Americans, be they Republican, Democratic or Independents thirst for candidates up to the extraordinary challenges that face America and the world today. I'm sure of it.

In fact, I would bet my home that if our ballots included “None of the Above,” that choice would win hands down more times than not. Maybe that's the solution. Let voters reject all the candidates when they don't like them. Then give the parties 90-days to put up new candidates and have a new vote. Pretty soon the parties would get tired of having their mediocre “it's their turn” candidates rejected and would begin putting up their best and brightest, the courageous, the out-of-box thinkers.

Since we don't have and the “None of the Above” option – and are not likely to be granted it by the mediocre incumbents in charge of such matters -- I'm left out here waiting for Mr. or Ms. Great-bar to show up.

At least I have lots of good company to commiserate with. Folks who, as one thing after another goes sideways, can look at another and nod knowingly. “See, I told you so,” we can say with a strange combination of smugness and dread as, piece by piece, the American dream morphs into the American nightmare. the earth continues to heat up, storms, droughts, famines and infestations take on biblical proportions and intensity.

In the meantime I will continue waiting. Waiting for greatness to appear and save our cookies once again.

Or not.

August 22, 2007

Vietnam By Dummies
(Prof. G.W. Bush Lecturing)

President Bush finally got something right by comparing the US war in Iraq with the disastrous US war in Vietnam. After five years of denying there were any similarities at all, Bush lectured us on the lessons he says we should have learned from that war and apply them to Iraq.

So far so good. Trouble is the lesson Bush suggested we should learn from our failure in Vietnam four decades ago goes something like this:

We cut and ran in Vietnam. We let our allies down. We allowed a rag tag group of insurgents to win against the great American military. And that's why we're in the mess we're in today. Our enemies today, another group of rag tag insurgents called al-Qaeda – have been emboldened by our retreat from Vietnam.

Therefore, Bush posits, we must stay the course in Iraq, no matter how bleak the situation becomes. Because, to do otherwise would be to reinforce our enemy's belief that the US lacks staying power and has no stomach for taking casualties. That in turn will encourage them to cause trouble throughout the region and to even launch attacks against the American homeland itself... or as Bush claims, if we don't fight them in Iraq, we'll have to fight them right here in the US of A.

Of course no well-read (or sane) person would draw such lessons from Vietnam. In fact, had Bush and Congress had heeded the real lessons of Vietnam they would have scoffed at the idea of putting tens of thousands of US combat troops on the ground in the heart of the Middle East.

(Note: Few will also miss the bitter irony of being lectured on “the lessons of Vietnam” by a guy who spent that war hiding out in the Texas Air National Guard, drinking beer and malingering by skipping out on monthly drills. (It was good to be the son of a powerful Texas congressman.)

Those of us who lived through the Vietnam era, or have since studied declassified documents from the Johnson and Nixon administrations, have walked away with much different lessons:
Super-power status is meaningless against a enemy fighting on and for their own land and willing to incur and take unlimited casualties.
  1. Puppet governments set up under foreign occupying forces are viewed by their own people as illegitimate and therefore cannot govern.
  2. The hurdle for an occupying army is very high – they need to win. The hurdle for an indigenous insurgency is much more achievable – they simply need to not lose.
  3. When the vast majority of Americans cease to support a foreign war, that war is lost – period.
  4. Retreat from Vietnam did not result in a “domino effect,” in the region, as threatened.
  5. When we retreated from Vietnam the Viet Cong did not “follow us home.”
  6. Our retreat from Vietnam did not result in permanent estrangement, just the opposite.
  7. The only Vietnamese who “followed us home,” were refugees who have since become among some of the most highly educated and successful American citizens.
George W. Bush learned none of the real lessons of the Vietnam War. Because Bush and his Neo-con co-dependents insulated themselves from the those lessons by soaking their gray matter in the Koolaide of denial – that it was the “liberal media” and “liberals in Congress,” that cut the ground from under our troops. In other words, as far as Bush et al are concerned, we didn't lose in Vietnam, we cut and ran before the job was done. They surely believe to this day that, had we only stuck with it a few more months, surged a few more times, that we would have won. The light was right there they say, at the end of that tunnel – a tunnel that never itself seemed to have not end.

And if you believe that, then I have a war in the Middle East to sell ya.

We've gone through so many iterations of the Bush doctrine with Iraq that I've lost the thread. But this appears to be a whole new version of the Bush doctrine: Never give up. Never admit defeat no matter how many soldiers are dying each week (especially since none of them are related to you.) Keep fighting.... no matter the cost in treasure or to our nation's soul. Because, as long as we keep fighting no one can say we lost. No one can say we cut and ran.

It's not a new idea. In fact it's just a reworked version of the military doctrine of another George --

George Custer.

The Day the Economy
Went Cold Turkey

Did you see what happened last week? I mean did you really see what happened?

What happened was the US economy, and much of the world economy entangled with it, was forced to go cold turkey.

But first a look at how they got hooked on junk in the first place.

For the last five or six years America's alleged free marketeers took a page from Barry Bonds' personal play book. America and Americans were already heavy hitters on the world economic stage. But why be satisfied with being just good. Why not leverage our economic strength by pumping it up with artificial wealth – cheap, easy credit.

And so it came to pass. Debt became the enhancing drug of choice for heavy hitters and wannbe heavy hitters.

And it worked, at least for a while. Even after cutting taxes and increasing spending, a seemingly endless supply of cheap, easy credit flowed in to fund government spending from pushers in Asia.

Corporations took notice and began doing the it too, borrowing, buying other companies, borrowing against those assets, buying more companies, building entire corporate empires upon mountains of debt.

Joe Sixpacks down on Main Street figured they'd like to be heavy hitters too. So they beat a path to credit pushers, their own banks, credit card companies, DiTech and such. Consumers loaded up on the stuff.

And it worked for them too, for a while. They bought all kinds of crap they would otherwise not been able to afford -- SUVs, flat panel televisions and, most importantly, houses. If they already owned a house they used it as collateral for more of the stuff, more credit, more debt.

By August 1, 2007 nearly everyone from Washington to K-Mart shoppers were hooked on cheap, easy credit.

Wall Street analysts and government economists downplayed the problem with the standard junkies refrain, “We can stop any time we want.”

Of course they never tried to prove it. They never did stop.

Then suddenly last week their drug of choice dried up. From San Francisco to New York City, from Dog Patch, Idaho to Sacramento, California, from Washington to Hong Kong, London, Germany, France, not a cheap, easy credit pusher in sight.

For three, painfully long days, cheap, easy credit disappeared. And by day-two world markets went into what can only be described as “withdrawals.” Cut off from their picker-upper of choice, banks, mortgage lenders, hedge funds, bonds, mutual funds, home builders and foreign banks began going through the DT's.

By Thursday things had become so unruly, the whines and cries for “spare change,” gotten so shrill, that the Federal Reserve Bank, the pusher of last resort for credit junkies, finally stepped forward and provided the markets the only thing that would calm them – a booster shot of cheap, easy credit.

What happened next should erase any remaining doubt that America's free market big talkers have become nothing more than credit addicted phonies. Because, as you may have noticed, their DT's eased within a hour after the Fed injected their drug of choice – billions of dollars of bargain basement priced credit.

And the Fed did not even try to get these junkies into treatment. On the contrary. The Fed actually sweetened the deal, allowing already debt weakened institutions to get all the credit they say they need to remain afloat at wholesale prices.

But wait, there's more. The Fed's fixes are being handed out through what it calls its “overnight discount window.” Discount window Fed loans have traditionally been overnight loans given to banks to smooth the flow of capital between institutions. The loans the Fed approved in the wee hours of Thursday night are 30-day loans.

But wait, there's more. If, at the end of that 30-day period a bank claims it can't pay the money back, the Fed says the banks can roll them (renew) them for another 30-days.. and then another and another. And, like the sub-prime rules that allowed unqualified borrowers to get those loans without documentation or other proof of worthiness, the banks endlessly renewing these Fed “loans,” are not required to prove they really need to in order to remain solvent. (A 'if you can't beat them, join them,” tactic by the Fed.)

But wait, there's more. Since there was suddenly no market for the billions in mortgages and mortgage backed securities these banks were saddled with, the Fed, for the first time, allowed the banks to use those now nearly worthless assets as collateral against which troubled institutions can borrow even more cheap, easy terms money.

Well! Nothing quite perks up a junkie like a fresh fix! The DOW index soared the moment markets opened Friday morning.

And our Euopean co-dependents felt the rush too:

Paris shares soar on news of Fed discount rate cut; banks lead charge

PARIS (Thomson Financial) - Share prices rebounded in spectacular fashion in afternoon trading following the Federal Reserve's decision to cut its discount on loans to banks to 5.75 pct from 6.25 pct, citing increasing risks to economic growth, market sources said.Announcing the rate cut, the Fed stated: 'Financial market conditions have deteriorated, and tighter credit conditions and increased uncertainty have the potential to restrain economic growth going forward.' (Full)

Of course, all the Fed accomplished Thursday was to temporarily stabilize all those twitching credit addicts. They also managed to reinforce the irresponsible behavior that has created a world economy all hopped up on credit-juice. In the weeks ahead expect the Fed to pump more of the stuff into the body-economic by lowering interest rates.

What's really needed is a tough-love intervention. But, with a national election just over a year away don't expect anyone, in either party, to tell credit junkies, from Countrywide Mortgage to CitiBank to Uncle Sam himself, they need to get off the junk and back to basics.

Of course, anyone who knows a junkie or an alcoholic understands that sooner of later such matters take care of themselves. Rock bottom looms in the future of every untreated junkie. It's not a matter of if, but when. It's an ugly way to get the message. But for the worst of the worst, it's often the only way.

Unfortunately, when this mega-addict plummets into that pit the rest of us are going to be sucked along by the downdraft.