Archive for March, 2009


We budget what we are care about

I received the email from the Obama staff about supporting his budget.  I signed the pledge of support and promised to spread the word.  Then I tried to come up with exactly why I support it and what new and exciting way I could put it down in a letter to the editor.  Several nights ago, I flipped through the channels and caught Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont explaining why he supported it.  He seemed to sum up everything pretty well.

But, let’s take it to a more personal level.  All the blow back the bill is getting shouts that the spending would be unsustainable.  I shout that what we are doing now is unsustainable.  Big ideas take big bucks.  That’s scary, no doubt.  What’s the alternative, though?  Just keep peddling the bike off the cliff?  Take energy, the $4 a gallon gas was a wake up call.  It was a little bubble and the prices are back down, but does anyone really think that our use of petro-fuels is sustainable?  Even taking away all the arguments about climate change, you have the fact that we just don’t have the oil here to support our needs and that the people that do have oil are the tough kids in the sandbox. 


Then there is education.  One of the things that made this country succeed is that everyone was a learner, not just educated.  Our success at opening up public education to all so that all had a chance to learn has morphed in to a day care service.  The emphasis is not on learning but on knowing a narrow band of information so as to pass a test.  The idea that what you learn allows you to learn more, to innovate, to explore or think is, completely lost.  I called my sister-in-law the other night.  She was telling me that they were looking at having up to 25 kids in a class in 1st and 2nd grade next year.   That’s completely unproductive.  She told me that it was so disheartening that during her nearly two decades of teaching the same grade that she has seen a marked decline in where the students are when they enter her class.  They are simply not ready for what they use to be doing at that level.  The causes are many.  They get nothing at home and in the class they end up teaching to the test.  And this is one of the better districts in the city where she teaches.  On top of this is the bill working its way through the state legislature to make all the schools in the state charter schools.  There would be no mandated certification, no teachers union, they can hire and fire whoever they want and pay them whatever they want.  Sure, the entire system is in disarray so, blame the union.  Teachers are what hold everything together and some of them are outstanding.  My boy has a great one.  She met with me on concerns I had and during the course of our conversation I realized just how lucky we are.  Not only do we have a cap on the number of kids in a class, she obviously takes time to know the kids she is dealing with – she actually understood my  boy and what his needs were.  She told me she already had a teacher in mind that she would recommend he be placed with next year and that she would discuss his needs with her beforehand.  So, there are some great things there, we need to foster those.  If not, we get what my sister-in-law sees – classes of kids coming less and less prepared to her grade.  We not only have kids left behind, the entire nation will be left behind.  We get Idiocracy.


Energy and education are easier sells than healthcare.  Our system is so ingrained into us and nationalized healthcare so demonized it is hard to get passed it.  You hear it touted as the best healthcare in the world.  Sure, we spend boatloads of money, but the statistics don’t bear out the effectiveness.  I went to visit a friend the other day.  He answered the door and looked kind of like a question mark.  He has debilitating back pain and has been dealing with it for years.  He’s had surgery and injections and all manner of pills.  Currently, he is out of work.  The subsidiary of the company he worked for was based in Germany and up until three months ago, he worked there.  He had health benefits through his American company, but he didn’t need them.  Since he worked in Germany, he was covered under their health system.  While he was there he spent several days in the hospital while they ran tests on his neck and back and removed bone chips from his shoulder.  His bill at the end of that stay was less than the co-pay on my husband’s cholesterol medication.  He is calling his contacts in Germany now trying to find a position simply so he can return and continue his care.  The cost aside, the thing that stuck him was how much time they were willing to invest to really understand the problem before they just gave him some pills or said he needed surgery.  They weren’t looking for the latest thing that everyone was doing or the easy answer, they wanted the best solution. 


The budget is huge.  We will be incurring more debt.  But, in the end, what is ultimately unsustainable is where we are – an energy system that is wasteful and dependent on unstable parts of the world (and contributes to global climate change), an education system that teaches kids to take tests and follow instructions rather than to think, and a healthcare system that doesn’t meet the needs of the citizens.  The spending is an investment in our future.  If we do not make them now, we will not reap returns and we will not be competitive with those countries that are willing to do so.


Did you watch?

Everyone I run into today has asked me if I watched the President’s press conference last night. I love it. Not only do I get to argue politics with people but people actually watched. Honestly, most of the time no one pays attention to such things. Well, at least that is in our favor. At least people are tuned in.

The press conference was good. He answered the questions and stuck to his points. It is the same thing he has been saying for 2 years. We have to deal with things like healthcare, education and energy. Now, not later. They are the structure we will need to build everything else on. They are real and tangible constructs unlike the financial instruments, the shifting sand, we built everything on previously.

Obama was cool and prepared as always but also showed a little pique. He mentioned several times that he had inherited the mess. I’m less than a cool head – I would have been shouting before it was over, “Jesus, people! I’ve only been in office 64 days!”

The one thing that stuck out to me the most? The questions. One, he knew what he was getting into. He had a list of people he planned to call on and they didn’t pull their punches. If he didn’t answer every part, they came back and asked again until he answered. So, in the end what I was left feeling was slightly deflated. If they had asked those questions with such tenacity over the last eight years, would we be where we are now?

I went from deflated to depressed as I switched from the press conference to Frontline. Frontline answered my question with a firm “no”. Over the hour they showed where we were in 2000 and how we got to where we are now. Not everything was W’s fault, but they made a pretty firm case that he has a huge helping of culpability. They also explain the herculean task that Obama faces in leading us out of this, ending with the chart of where our national debt is heading.

It comes down to this. We want all the perks and to pay nothing. That just won’t work. It’s time we face the hard reality, quit arguing and playing games and just get to work.


Fireside Chat

Jay Leno’s couch is the modern fireside chat. The president was calm and cool as ever, but seemed more relaxed. The warm reception, the applause and cheers at all the policy points he mentions during this taping and the weekly jaunts he takes outside of the DC Bubble must be like biofeedback for him, for us as well. Step back, look again, what are we aiming for? Then, move on forward. It’s not pretty, it’s not happening as fast as we all want, mistakes are being made, politics creeps in – still, we are moving forward.

One of the most interesting things Obama said last night was that approximately 40% of the growth we saw in the last twenty years was in the financial sector, meaning it was on paper – nothing tangible – and could be swept away in a moment, as we have seen. He followed by saying we need to focus on growth in things that are real and contribute to steady growth. Instead of the goal of being an investment banker, the kid coming out of college could be an engineer. Of course, what this means is that we have to fund these sectors of growth. There wouldn’t be a dearth of teachers if they could survive on what we pay them. Science can thrive if we fund the research and subject it to rigorous intellectual debate rather than political nonsense. His budget proposal reflects this – the focus on the energy, education and healthcare. These are things that are real and provide a structure to build on unlike the financial scaffolding of illusionary gains based on derivatives and credit default swaps.

I keep seeing articles and people talking about the American way and hear concerns about Socialism and fears that all the lazy people will live off the government teat. They fear regulation of the financial market will keep people from making money. It is the American way, they say to work hard, get ahead and get rich. Ok, yeah. It is. Americans work longer than anyone. Our ethos is to work hard and get ahead. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Work for what you get. We are tough in the face of adversity. We are will to sweat to get what we need. We are “we can do it”. I don’t think anyone concerned about the government taking control of our lives and keeping people from getting ahead will dispute any of that. So, here is my question. We can all agree on the American way, but do the mechanisms that got us into the financial mess really meet any of those criteria? The entire idea of making money quickly and easily using someone else’s capital without really taking on any personal risk seems counter to what we want to think of as American. If you want to get rich, work for it. No one will begrudge you that. But that’s not what has been happening. What we are trying to get back around to is the American dream that anyone can get ahead and do well if they work hard enough. We are not moving toward Socialism so much as away from Oligarchy.


Going after the monster

Everyone is up in arms over the AIG bonuses and I agree it is distasteful. They should have learned from the auto execs flying in the private jets. You just can’t go hat in hand to ask for money and dress in top hat and tails. Sure the bonuses are about .097% of the money we have given AIG and sure we should be way more concerned with where the rest of the money is going – but it just looks bad. Never mind that it is just a bucket in the ocean. It is always the symbols that get us fired up. We are always more apt to argue over the criminality of burning the flag rather than seriously discuss the erosion of all our civil liberties. So, sharpen up your pitchforks and let’s go after the straw man we erected!

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Pork Perspective

A little bacon makes a pot of green beans taste so good.

John McCain focused his economic policy on the campaign trail around earmarks. He railed against them. Great. Obama agreed. So do a lot of people. But, Obama won the election in large part because people thought he could handle the financial crisis better than McCain. In the end, those earmarks everyone hates just aren’t that big of a deal in the big picture. In reality, they are huge sums of money to me and you but a minuscule percentage of the national budget.

Then comes the omnibus bill. There are tons of earmarks in it. They total $7.7 billion. That is horrible. Well, really? Is it? You have all the players with “R” in front of their name saying it is horrible. McCain loves it. It is his pet project and it puts him in the spotlight. It is a lot of money going to projects in the states. Is that bad? Isn’t that what the stimulus is trying to achieve as well? So why all this fuss? What the problem really is involves the system by which we fund things, not so much the funding. All of these things get put in, tacked on, at the last minute and just ride the coattails of the bill that is being voted on. It is inherently shady to be able to get money without really having to put it up for a vote. So, the system needs to change.

Still let’s put this in perspective. The omnibus bill is a $410 behemoth. Those earmarks that took up so much of the news cycle? Their less than 2% of the total of the bill.

Does anyone know what is in the other 98%? Did anyone cover that?

What we get are sound bites of McCain and other going on and on about spending on such frivolous things as research on swine manure. Boy, is that a low hanging fruit. Earmarks are after all called pork and a lot of people think they’re bullshit. But come back from all the sound bites and trivializes a moment. Have you ever driven by a hog farm? How about one of those chicken farms when they are cleaning out the shit? If you have, then you know that deriding research into the problem is chicken shit. The smell alone travels dozens of miles. It is pollution. It is hazardous waste. That is just one of the nearly 9,000 projects. I’m sure there are some really silly things in there, but there are some things that may sound silly but are serious. It’s pigheaded to dismiss them all out of hand.

Again, we are talking less than 2% of the total.

Then I read this article. Maybe there is a reason to research swine?



Hope he can go back to making fart noises soon

But not yet.  Sure he’s funny, but he brings things to the table that you just don’t get with a lot of the news sources, things like facts and documentation and follow up questions.  Seriously, this is fun and it is funny, but wouldn’t it be nice if people had to answer for the behavior more often?

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Stay Tuned

A comment from Jon to my last post basically told me to stop watching if it bothered me. I would argue, that you simply cannot tune out on this… what shall we call it? The Great Depression II? The Crash of the Titans? Or, hmm, let’s go for the comic fan-boy crowd with Institutional Crisis. Call it what you will, it is there and you cannot avoid it, even if you aren’t a news junkie. It is everywhere. Cutting corners and saving money is the current fashion trend and if America is good at anything it is following trends. The morning DJ is giving out cost cutting tips between the traffic report and the goofy sound effects. Coworkers who always went out to lunch are brown bagging it. Their salary didn’t change and the cost of a sandwich didn’t change, but spending $7 or so 5 days a week suddenly seems wasteful.

What I can’t escape is the feeling I got when I ran into a woman that use to do my mom’s nails and who did mine a few times. I’ve never been one to go get regular mani’s and pedi’s, but it is a nice personal treat. It is not something that has crossed my mind in months, though. This acquaintance, friend, was with her husband who is an independent contractor doing home repair jobs. We chit chatted a while before we said our goodbyes. She said I should give her a call sometime to come get my nails done. The look in her eyes was haunted. Both she and her husband work for themselves. They can’t lose their jobs, but they certainly can lose business. Driving home I kept wonder if I should go get my nails done or if I should call and have her husband work on our fence. One side of me says to hold on to every dime, the other side reminds me how lucky I am and that I should be helping out.

Is every expenditure on my part stimulating the economy in some small way? Even if it is only for a friend. Especially if it is for a friend. The Institutional Crisis is painful for everyone, but maybe there can be an upside if it helps us realize we are all connected. Maybe we can hold on to this lesson as we resolve the crisis and things start getting better.

It’s not all bad news, either. One thing I’ve noticed is the increase in commercials by the Ad Council about things such as child safety. The trend that started back during the campaign with the ads for featuring diametrically opposed pairs such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson continues with other activist websites. I love the clean coal ads. More subtle (ok, a lot more subtle) is the push for science in the gum ad that touts that its flavor is long lasting by showing an ameba evolving into a fish, a lizard, all the way up to a guy on a skateboard. Pretty gutsy move as I’m sure it ticked off a bunch of Bible-thumpers and you still have states arguing over if they need to include Intelligent Design or give equal time to arguments against the theory of evolution. But it’s out there. A gum commercial making evolution just another thing that is part of our collective conscience – in other words, accepted. We also have a new president who actually believes in science. Wow! It’s like going from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance. Maybe this Institutional Crisis could spark Age of Reason Part II.

March 2009
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