Sunday, December 30, 2007

Something to Keep an Eye On...

This article caught my eye and I thought I would flag it for any of you that want to add even more complexity to the current Presidential race. If you are unsatisfied with the current candidates - or your favorite candidate's chances - this article might even provide a little hope.

Apparently there is a group of fairly prominent current and former politicians meeting in the near future to discuss a third party "Unity" candidate for the 2008 election....

It's entirely possible that this effort might not gain any notice or traction, but with the stature of some of the figures involved, I wouldn't immediately dismiss the possibility....crazier things have certainly happened...and much of the country certainly does seem desperate for a new approach...

Friday, December 14, 2007

Bring Back the Real Filibuster

I have no doubt that some of my more politically savvy readers will tell me that I am crazy and/or foolish at the end of this post. Perhaps this is a bad idea, but I want to provoke a debate... so here goes:

In theory, it takes only 51 votes for a bill to pass the United States Senate.

However, Senate Rule 22 allows unlimited debate on any issue if one or more Senators are so inclined. And whereas it takes 51 votes to pass a bill, it takes 60 votes to end debate on a bill if Senators do not end it voluntarily. (This 60 vote process is called "cloture").

So without 60 votes of support, a Senator, or group of Senators can mount a filibuster - which literally means endlessly talking about a bill (or any other topic) until the speaker(s) yields or until the Senate Majority Leader gives up and withdraws it.

The U.S. Senate has seen some memorable filibusters in the past including a physically impressive but morally shameful 24 hour 18 minute effort from Senator Strom Thurmond to block Civil Rights legislation in 1957.

But the Senate has evolved in recent years and it is now no longer necessary to speak when filibustering a bill. All an individual Senator or party must do is declare their intention to filibuster. If the Senate Majority Leader cannot get 60 votes for cloture, he withdraws the bill.

On the one hand, I can see some value in this approach. By cutting right to the chase in counting cloture votes, the Majority Leader can save time and the collective face of the Senate.

On the other hand, one could argue (as I am about to) that this filibuster, now that it is painless, has been abused. In the 1960s, no Senate term had more than seven filibusters. In the first decade of the 21st century, no Senate term had fewer than 49 filibusters. In the fall of 2007, the 110th Congress' broke the record for filibuster cloture votes with more than 70.

The most recent use of this tactic was seen last week. Republican Senators filibustered an energy bill because it repealed subsidies for oil companies. The Republican Senators explained their action as "opposing a tax increase". The cloture vote failed, obtaining 59 of the 60 votes it needed to pass.

The Senate Majority Leader, bowing to the minority, decided to strip the measures in dispute and pass the first increase in automobile efficiency in 32 years. This is good progress, but more must be done and I am not convinced that all options have been exhausted.

The President had threatened to veto any attempt to deprive Exxon of the government funds it receives each year. Therefore, one could argue that the Majority Leader would be wasting time if he had less than the 66 votes he would need to override the veto.

I disagree. There is a time for collaboration and/or compromise and there is a time to fight for what is unambiguously right for the country.

I would encourage the Majority Leader to consider reintroducing the failed measures while reinstating the real filibuster at some point in 2008.

I seriously doubt that even the infinite debate allowed by the filibuster will be enough for Republicans to justify why the government is giving Exxon, the most profitable company in American history, your money.

Of course, this issue may be more complicated than it seems and I could be wrong. I invite the Senate Republicans to take all the time in the world to explain their position.

In my judgement their position was indefensible when oil was $30 a barrel. It is a disgusting and blatant display of pure political corruption at $90 a barrel.

If the Democrats cannot win this debate, which ones can they win? The truth is they are scared of being called tax raisers and accused of stimulating higher gas prices. Both of these claims are entirely bogus. At some point they owe it to the country to take the political risk of standing up and making the case for their position.

A glut of media attention surrounding a series of real filibusters, coupled with a capable (and courageous?) Democratic Presidential nominee might give them just the platform they need to do so...

Friday, December 7, 2007

Oil First, The Nation Second

Earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed the most meaningful piece of energy legislation in decades. Based on a previous post, I am obliged to give credit to Speaker Nancy Pelosi for passing this bill. Well done!

Today, however, that effort was stalled in the U.S. Senate thanks to a filibuster and the promise of a veto from President Bush.

I have long prided myself on being a political Independent, but in evaluating the actions of the Republicans on this bill (and energy policy in general) I risk sounding like the most partisan of Democrats.

So be it. The Republicans are dead wrong on this issue. I welcome arguments to the contrary.

Anyway, on to the bill.

If it became law, this bill would do the following:

1. Increase automobile fuel efficiency 40% by 2020.
2. Require electricity companies to produce 15% of their power from renewable sources by 2020.
3. Repeal tax breaks to oil companies passed in the 2005 "energy bill" to fund research in alternative energy.

This bill would make a significant dent in our oil consumption, thereby lowering our gasoline costs and weakening our dependence on the Saudi Royal Family, Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and whatever governmental entity ultimately prevails in Iraq.

It would constitute our nation's first meaningful steps to lower greenhouse gas emissions .

In addition, it would fund an increased investment in alternative energy (an industry certain to be one of the most important of this century) by repealing tax breaks for oil companies enacted by a Republican Congress in 2005.

Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has hinted that the bill could pass the Senate if items #2 and #3 were eliminated.

Let's look at #2.

The only respectable argument that I have heard against this item is that it could raise energy prices for consumers. But there is no reason substantial and/or abrupt price increases should be necessary in the near term because the utility companies would have 12 years to achieve this standard.

Given the plummeting prices for solar and (especially) wind power, there is no reason significant price increases should be necessary in the long term either. And even if it DID raise electricity prices, they would be offset by savings from the dramatically increased efficiency of our automobiles.

As for #3, here is where I really get angry.

In 2000, when oil was less than $30 a barrel, Exxon Mobil made $8 BILLION in profit. Today, with oil at $90 a barrel, Exxon holds the record for the largest profit ever by an American company - $39.5 billion. Yet the President and the Republican leadership maintain that we should continue to give tax breaks to these cash machines.

The Congressional approval ratings are abysmally low, which makes them easier for the President to ignore. Yet in this case, the Democratic majority has crafted a policy that would be tremendously beneficial for our national security, the health of our environment and, over the longer term, our economic well-being.

Any politician that values these things more than the oil company financing of his/her next reelection campaign should be supporting this bill. Those that don't should do us all a favor and find another profession.

This President, who will never stand for reelection again, has no excuse. Unfortunately, at this point, he has no accountability either.

The article that sparked my thinking on this matter is here.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Mr. President, Talk to Iran

A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was released yesterday that claims Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. This is report represents the collective opinion of U.S. intelligence services.

Iran must still be viewed with a great deal of skepticism and we should retain a defensive posture. This can and should be done in a respectful way.

Nevertheless, this report is extremely encouraging to me for two reasons .

First, it demonstrates that Iran is not necessarily 100% determined to obtain nuclear weapons.

The belief that the Iranian leadership is fully committed to building 'the Bomb' was not merely the opinion of the Bush Administration. In the last few years, I have heard several panels of American and international experts (across the political spectrum) speak on this topic and almost all of them believed Tehran was moving ahead to develop nuclear weapons (after 2003 when they apparently stopped).

Second, it suggests that the leadership in Iran (and I am talking about the Supreme Ayatollah and his inner circle, not the provocative but relatively powerless President Ahmadinejad) does rationally respond to external pressure, at least to some degree.

This is an important point that could not previously be assumed because of the theocratic and highly mysterious nature of the Iranian regime. This made their acquisition of nuclear weapons especially scary (as opposed to the Soviet leaders who we KNEW valued their own survival).

President Bush responded today with the following statement:

"Iran is dangerous. And Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge
necessary to make a nuclear weapon."

"What's to say they couldn't start another covert nuclear weapons program?
Nothing's changed in this NIE that says, okay, why don't we just stop worrying
about it. Quite the contrary."

I would agree that no one should consider the matter closed or take our eye off of Tehran and their nuclear operations.

But this report undeniably changes the dynamic in two ways... and the President should respond accordingly.

Change 1. The urgency for decisive action has dramatically declined.

In my opinion, short of a reversal of these findings (or some provocative action by Iran in Iraq), there is nothing that could justify an attack on Iran before Bush leaves office. The NIE says that Iran could not have a nuclear weapon before 2010 (and that it may take until 2015) assuming they restarted their program today.

Therefore, we now have more time to engage diplomatically and consolidate a coalition to pressure Iran to allow for more transparency in their nuclear program.

Change 2. There is now undeniable evidence that some agreement to permanently cease Iran's nuclear weapons program is possible.

If Iranian leaders were determined to get a bomb, why would they suspend their program for four years - particularly when the United States has 150,000 soldiers right next door?

We have not had formal diplomatic relations with this country in almost 30 years. We have no idea what we could accomplish today if we engaged them face to face. It is entirely possible that the answer is...nothing.

But at this point, we have some newly discovered time to spare - so what else do we have to lose?

Mr President, there is new evidence that counters your assumptions about Iranian intentions and capabilities. I therefore ask you to do what you did with North Korea and Libya.

If you can sit down with Kim Jong Il's and Gadhafi's regime, you should have no qualms about doing so with Iran's.

Refusal to talk is not an admirable demonstration of principle. It is only a sign of fear or stubbornness.

Perhaps most importantly, we must realize that to those in the world who do not understand the sincerity of American values, not talking may actually look like a move to increase tension and the likelihood of conflict.

Have the courage to talk.

You will lose nothing if you do... but you will jeopardize our safety if you do not.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Support a Post Iraq G.I. Bill

I'm writing this post to call attention to an Op-Ed in today's New York Times. Written by Senators Chuck Hagel (R) and Jim Webb (D), it's calling for a "Post Iraq G.I. Bill".

It is a very brief essay and if you are interested, you can read it here.

I'll quote the core of the argument directly:

Veterans today have only the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which requires a service
member to pay $100 a month for the first year of his or her enlistment in order
to receive a flat payment for college that averages $800 a month. This was a
reasonable enlistment incentive for peacetime service, but it is an insufficient
reward for wartime service today. It is hardly enough to allow a veteran to
attend many community colleges.

It would cover only about 13 percent of the cost of attending Columbia,
42 percent at the University of Hawaii, 14 percent at Washington and Lee, 26
percent at U.C.L.A. and 11 percent at Harvard Law School.

Even with the soaring costs of college, money spent to ensure that our best young people (those with a demonstrated willingness and ability to serve society) reach their full potential is an intelligent investment. I'm sure many of you would agree that it is also our moral obligation as a nation.

Although this issue seems like a no-brainer to me, we can't seem to take any progressive measure for granted in our government today. So, if you have time, take 5 minutes to email your Representative and Senators to express support for this measure - just a single line asking for their support of the Hagel-Webb Post Iraq G.I. Bill.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Leadership Under the Radar

Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, gave a speech last week that I wanted to promote.

It is a bit of a long read, so unless you are a political junkie, an environmentalist, and/or a policy wonk like me, you may find it painful or impossible to read. If you are up for reading it though, you can find it here.

The public is understandably unhappy with both of our political parties today. I know numerous Americans that care tremendously about the future of this country, but they have no confidence in the ability of any politician to make a difference. As a result, they have tuned out. Some no longer vote, most no longer really investigate politicians' records or actively listen to their rhetoric.

In short, many Americans are no longer even looking for leadership.

This is tragic because I think it is still there. Bloomberg's speech is a good example of leadership, but I had to work a bit to find it in the New York Times (i.e. it wasn't near the front page).

There is no doubt that the media is partially to blame. In today's New York Times, one of their regularly featured opinion writers wrote about "...the failure of the [presidential] candidate[s] to galvanize supporters with a vision so compelling as to be almost irresistible."

This is simply not true.

Having researched this myself over the last few months, I know that several candidates have produced very specific plans for energy, immigration and Iraq (beyond simply deciding to withdraw or stay). Of course, these plans may not be "so compelling as to be almost irresistible", but that does not mean that they are neither serious nor detailed - and realistically that is all we can ask.

For democracy to work well, we need an engaged electorate. If we continue to be apathetic - both in our research and our personal advocacy, we will get what we deserve - more of the same.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Useful Facts on the History of Presidential Campaign Polling

This post is more useful for the people interested in the Democratic presidential primary than the Republican.

Here is a link to an article in today's New York Times that cites some interesting facts on how unreliable polls are for determining the eventual winner of the Democratic nomination (turns out they are super-reliable for the Republicans).

I wanted to draw attention to this article because it provides another example of the need to stay (or get) engaged in the Presidential election. It is NOT a waste of time to continue to study or advocate candidates that are not leading in the polls, nor is it wise to become complacent if you support the leader....

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Extinct Fiscal Conservative

I've always been naturally apprehensive when it comes to debt. I like the simplicity of a one-time payment and I hate the idea of interest expenses. However, I learned in business school that debt is actually a good thing if used in certain situations.

For example, a government incurring debt to build a highway is positive because that road will result in sustained economic growth that will, over time, largely offset or even completely pay for the original cost (and then some). Furthermore, paying for the highway over time ensures that all the beneficiaries of it (today and in the future) share a portion of the costs. It's a good idea from both an economic and a moral standpoint.

A bad example of debt would be using your credit card to buy your meals everyday. You incur interest expenses on the food which makes it more expensive. Furthermore, once you eat it, it is gone forever. You do not get any ongoing benefit from it. Plus, if you are like me, you exercise less restraint when spending money you never actually see (or have). This can result in you spending more than you need or should. Clearly this is a bad financial idea. And if you spend with extreme frivolousness, such that you leave your children with part (or all) of the bill for something they can never use, it becomes a bad moral decision as well.

This is precisely what our current government is doing today.

I read a story today that estimates the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be 2.4 trillion dollars over the next 10 years. This is in addition to the total we have already spent - a number far exceeding half a trillion dollars. (All of this, by the way is on top of our annual $500+ billion military budget).

I want to set aside any argument about the value of these expenditures. Whether or not you favor more or less money for these wars, let me call your attention to the fact that no American citizen has paid a penny for either of them since we invaded Afghanistan in 2001 or Iraq in 2003.

Our government has made the decision to let my generation and my children's pay for the entire war. The only sacrifices being made today are in blood and tears by a small portion of our population - those serving in the military.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the Republican House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay said the following: "Nothing is more important in the face of war, than cutting taxes". The Bush Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress agreed and did so.

This Republican policy is quite bold given that it directly contradicts the actions of the very first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln instituted the first federal income tax in order to finance the Civil War. Another Republican President, William McKinley, levied taxes to pay for his generation's share of the Spanish-American War. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt each raised taxes to offset some of the expenses of World War I and II, respectively.

One could intelligently argue that financial prudence does not necessarily demand raising taxes during war. We could instead cut spending. That is a respectable argument in theory, but it would be tremendously difficult to sufficiently accomplish in practice. Furthermore, if not done properly, cuts could result in immediate decreases in social welfare that could cost us in real dollars in the future. Still, I concede that it is possible that cutting spending is the right answer. It is almost certainly at least part of the answer.

But in any case, the important point is that the Congress made no attempt to control spending either once the wars started - quite the opposite. For example, in 2003, the government passed the largest increase in entitlement spending more than 30 years when it passed the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan (estimated cost $500+ billion).

There is a good argument that this prescription drug spending is analogous to putting food on your credit card (or more aptly, your children's credit card). I agree that we should provide our senior citizens health care, but we should pay for it in cash because, frankly, the economic returns from this are minimal. It would be a different story if we were investing in the health of children with decades of economic productivity ahead of them.

But let me get back to the core issue.

Given the wartime fiscal policy of dramatically raising (non-war related) spending and simultaneously lowering taxes, I must ask: What do George Bush and Tom DeLay know that Lincoln and FDR did not?

I think we all know the answer to that.

And let's not fail to recognize that the Democrats have failed to remedy this situation since taking control of the nation's purse (though some have tried). We desperately need the Democratic leadership in the Congress to demonstrate some basic financial sense and some political courage.

There is a job opening in Washington: for a fiscally conservative political party.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Am I Missing Something?

Between 1915 and 1923, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians died in the process of being deported from present day Turkey.

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, has declared her intention to pass a resolution in the United States House of Representatives formally labeling this event a genocide. Most of the history I have read and independent commentators I have listened to recently seem to agree that what happened was, in fact, a full-fledged genocide.

That being the case, what will such a resolution accomplish?

Apparently, there are a number of Armenian-Americans that have been demanding such a resolution for decades. Many of them reside in Pelosi's home state of California. This resolution is apparently designed to make them feel better. I say that with no sarcasm - I simply can find no other upside or benefit of such a resolution.

The costs, however, are far more apparent.

Turkey has recalled its Ambassador to the United States in the last few days. They are threatening to tighten or close our largest pipeline of military equipment into Iraq and even talking about lessening the restraint they have shown (at our stringent request) to strike back against Kurdish fighters from Iraq launching attacks across their southern border.

I do not mean to belittle what some of these people and/or their parents and grandparents experienced - but can we remember for one second that the political entity that persecuted these people ceased to exist in 1923? Can we also remember that the entity that replaced it is probably nothing short of the best case model we could realistically hope Middle Eastern governments to achieve? Why intentionally offend a secular government in a Muslim country that has been a key NATO ally for decades??

I could be missing something here, but the only upside I see to this is for Nancy Pelosi and select fellow Democrats to score some political points with local Armenian Americans. Perhaps they will get some more points from the sliver of Americans that think moral victories of this particular sort are worth more than tried and true political, economic and military alliances.

I hope I am missing something substantive. If I am, she is failing to call it out.

Her argument is principally a moral one - rhetorical justice for a rapidly dwindling pool of survivors.

I feel genuine sympathy for the victims of this crime. But the perpetrators of it are dead and their political movement is buried forever. The cost of the meager comfort we can provide them at this point is too great.

A powerful leader, such as the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, has a responsibility to recognize this and act accordingly. She's no longer representing just her district or even her State. When she speaks, it reflects on the entire nation.

Pelosi should make a clear argument why this resolution's benefits outweigh the costs of humiliating a close friend and ally.

If she cannot, she is failing as a leader by trying to succeed as a politician.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Trying to Start a Fight

I am becoming more and more of an activist as I get older. The more I read about our government policies (foreign and domestic), the angrier I become - at both parties. Climate change, disastrous fiscal policies that my kids and I will have to pay for and an underfunded social safety net (e.g. social security and medicare) worry me - because they will one day, perhaps dramatically, affect my life and, more importantly, my children and grandchildren.

Still, I sometimes wonder if I get too worked up about these issues. I have many friends as smart or smarter than I am that also care about this country, the world and the security of the future. But I seem to talk about these issues a little more than most of them (though definitely not all!) - and I tend to take actions that leave some of my friends both surprised and a little amused - such as emailing my Senators when I get particularly fired up.

I read a column by Tom Friedman yesterday that argues (admittedly quite anecdotally) that what I am observing is part of a trend in my generation. We definitely care. We very often act (e.g. volunteering, joining the Peace Corps or Teach For America). But we are relatively unengaged in politics and government.

This greatly worries me.

I strongly suspect that the best way to guarantee a meaningful professional life is not to join the State Department or a Congressional Office, but to work in a effective social enterprise (e.g. The Gates Foundation or Teach For America) or to earn a lot of money in the private sector and give back financially. I know that many of my peers have made the same calculation and acted accordingly.

While a life of government service - particularly elected politics - opens up the greatest potential for impact, the path to reaching that potential is dominated by distractions and events that even the most talented and dedicated cannot control. In short, some of the smartest people in our generation could effectively be wasted over the course of a lifelong pursuit of a Senate seat or the Presidency. Realizing this, many of our best leaders are going elsewhere to serve and find fulfillment.

I was once asked how a nation of 3 million people could produce Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Adams and Hamilton while their 300 million present day successors could not seem to produce a single comparable talent.

I just do not believe it is true.

The world, and the United States, has its share of geniuses today - many more of whom today than ever before are living lives that allow them to use their gifts. They are just choosing another venue to serve.

That being said, the government, due to the unmatched resources it commands, will be essential to any major progress we make. Therefore, our generation must become more engaged. We need more intelligent and selfless people to run for office and advise elected leaders. More importantly, we need a broader movement of increased engagement. Perhaps our own version of the AARP would be ideal... but as a start, people need to start paying a little more attention, writing their Congresspeople (it literally takes 5 minutes now - see the links on this blog) and talking about these issues with their friends and family.

People complain that we have had no strong options among our political candidates. Perhaps this is usually true - but it is a belief based on some gross assumptions. Most people take no time to listen to, much less study, their candidates today.

Our generation's Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson could be participating in their respective party's Presidential debates or running for the Senate in Illinois or Virginia today and most of us would never even know it!

This is beyond unacceptable in a society with virtually no barriers to information and substantial leisure time.

I do not worry about the talent or integrity of my generation. I have met many of the future leaders of this country and other nations. They are better educated, at least as talented and I believe even more informed about our national and global challenges than their parents and grandparents were at their age.

But they must become more engaged today.

We are distracted with unprecedented professional opportunities, constant media entertainment, global information flows enabled by broadband Internet and an unbelievably dynamic consumer based economy.

We need to make more time to pause, think about the future ....and fight for it. Otherwise, the nation and world we will one day lead will be hamstrung by problems being created and ignored today. If this occurs, all of our preparation - our education, our accumulated wealth - will be spent fixing problems instead of making progress.

Do something.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Perspective, Inspiration and Opportunity

Dr. Mario R. Capecchi just won the Nobel Prize in medicine.

This is certainly a tremendous accomplishment under any circumstances, but Dr. Capecchi's life story makes the achievement truly extraordinary and inspirational.

Dr. Capecchi's mother was sent to the Dachau concentration camp in 1941. For most of the next 5 years, beginning when he was about 4 years old, Capecchi was homeless and alone on a continent at war.

I'll leave the rest of the story to the article if you are interested.

I wish such lives were more celebrated. It reflects poorly on our society that rock stars and professional athletes are household names, but people such as Dr. Capecchi are not.

Both children and adults would benefit from exposure to these stories. Examining lives like Dr. Capecchi's puts our own personal obstacles in perspective and inspires us to persevere during adversity.

But I think such stories can teach us something else as well.

I can't help but wonder how many children, both in the United States and abroad, have had the same capacity as Mario Capecchi but have never realized it due to violence, poor health and/or no access to a sufficient education. How many Einsteins, Beethovens, Picassos, Shakespheares, Gandhis, Newtons, Jeffersons and Lockes have we (mankind) missed throughout our history for this reason?

After the most extreme deprivation in his earliest years, Capecchi eventually found security and opportunity in the United States.

His story is one distinguished by extraordinary strength and enormous ability... but its triumphant ending was enabled only when those qualities were finally paired with social justice.

Beyond inspiring us, Dr. Capecchi's life and achievements should make us realize that ensuring every single child's physical safety, health and education is more than an abstract moral obligation, it is also a worthwhile investment from which we will all benefit.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Napoleon on Ahmadinejad

There was a big fuss this week about the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, coming to New York to speak at the United Nations and Columbia University.

A few American presidential candidates frowned on his invitation to speak at the University and at least one or two stated that he should not be allowed to speak at the United Nations.

I've given this issue quite a bit of thought and it has led me to an opinion that can be summarized in three words: Let him speak.

Don't get me wrong, it is obvious to me that this man feels no obligation to include a syllable of truth that does not support his agenda. He is clearly not an individual who has many positions that are respectable or even minimally defensible. Without a doubt, some are nothing short of reprehensible.

Nevertheless, I still support him speaking in this country. In fact, I encourage it.


Napoleon Bonaparte once said, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."

Anyone who has ever listened to this man talk for more than 60 seconds probably sees where I am going with this. Of course, Ahmadinejad levels harmful charges at the U.S. and others with great frequency - needless to say, rhetoric we could certainly do without . But he also, with equal or greater frequency - makes statements that reveal the extent to which he is 1. completely and dangerously removed from reality and/or 2. shamelessly willing to look the world directly in the eye and lie (examples here).

We are engaged right now in an effort to prove and prevent a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program. At a time when the word of the United States government is trusted less abroad than it arguably ever has been, we are greatly aided when our adversary so foolishly shows his cards.

In addition to letting him speak, I would also like to reject the grandstanding remarks by the President of Columbia University. When "introducing" Ahmadinejad he said, among other things:

“Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” adding, “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.”

I must ask, what purpose do these remarks, or any insult for that matter, serve? Insults are usually the product of fear, anger and/or ignorance - and it does not serve us well to have our actions clouded by any of them. If one wants to see Ahmadinejad diminished or made to look foolish I am certain that a presentation of facts will suffice. Insults are not required.

One could reply by saying there is value is calling a spade a spade. In my opinion, this is true only when the subject's identity is not obvious or otherwise debatable. Again, thanks to Ahmadinejad's candor, that is not the case.

Americans should remember that we are still in a position of strength - militarily, economically and, in part thanks to Ahmadinejad's foolish candor, we could find ourselves in a position of renewed diplomatic strength as well. I am certainly not advocating complacency, nor am I trying to diminish the legitimate threat that a man like Ahmadinejad might pose if we leave him be.

I am only saying that out of all the things we should rally to oppose in this world, the President of Iran rhetorically walking off a cliff is not one of them.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Shocked by the Elephant in the Room

Alan Greenspan's memoir is being released later this week and it is already making some waves in the news.

The initial news reports revealed content criticizing the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress for its fiscal policies.

But another claim emerged today that is causing even more of a stir. A direct quote from the book has leaked in which Greenspan says the following: (source here)

“I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone
knows: the Iraq War is largely about oil...”

I watched the media on three different channels tonight, including Fox, express shock and/or outrage as if this were some kind of new revelation or offensive claim.

The media's reaction, not Greenspan's statement, is the only thing that should be shocking.

I am not saying we went to Iraq on an imperialist quest to seize the oil fields and steal the Iraqi people's resources - and neither is Greenspan. What I am saying is that maintaining a cheap and steady supply of oil is the reason we have (before the Iraq war) and will continue (long after the Iraq war) to have vast aircraft carrier fleets in the Persian Gulf and numerous airbases with thousands of troops in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries.

For any of you that think that the primary reason we are in the region is for any type of humanitarian cause or even a grand agenda to promote democracy to fight terrorism, tell me why we do not have troops in Africa or why we are not investing equally (on a per capita basis) to ensure the establishment and survival of democracy in Afghanistan.

What should shock the American people is not that we are acting militarily to secure these supplies today, but that we are NOT taking aggressive and deliberate action to decrease our need for oil tomorrow.

Our national "debate" on the Middle East confounds me more with each passing day. For all the discussion of military tactics and diplomatic strategies, no one seems genuinely willing to pursue the only thing that could fundamentally change our strategic position in that entire region. Yes, there is and has been the "quest" for "energy independence" - but it has been over three decades since the first American politicians called for it (see Gerald Ford, 1975 State of the Union).

The only people that benefit from the status quo (let's even be generous and go back to the "good" ole 1990s) are the oil companies, defense contractors and to an increasingly lesser extent, the American auto manufacturers.

I'm not claiming a grand conspiracy here, I'm just stating the fact that every single American would be better off in ten years if we didn't need oil anymore - everyone that is, except the oil and auto executives and the people that build the weapon systems that secure that region.

So... why don't we act?

Would a ten year Manhattan Project to get us off oil cripple the economy? Could we not afford it?

We have spent over half a TRILLION dollars on the current war and there is no reason to believe that we will not spend at least several hundred billion more before we are disentangled. Can anyone even begin to estimate what we spent to deter the Soviet Union from the region in the Cold War, to fight and later contain Saddam Hussein in the 1990's, or what we will spend on the next war in the Middle East (and can any one seriously doubt there will be another sooner or later)?

Does anyone want to make the argument that the cost of eliminating oil from our economy would be more expensive than what we have spent and will continue to spend in order to keep it flowing? Let's subsidize the R&D, provide full economic assistance to any workers who lose their jobs for the sake of national welfare and I still have no doubt whatsoever that we still come out saving a fortune - and not only in dollars, but also in lives.

I fully admit that, although this is an important and essential step, taking it would not - now or upon completion - completely eliminate the need for American engagement in the region. The welfare of every nation's economy, including the United States', is increasingly tied to its neighbors and trading partners. Simply put, this means that the price the Chinese pay for oil significantly affects American consumers. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that we would still come out in a dramatically stronger position.

Finally, I want to address another course of action that some may advocate as an alternative: increasing domestic supply. We could develop the ANWR oil reserves in Alaska and other sources but it would not change the fact that oil is a global commodity with a global price. It would probably lower the price in the short term, but as China and India consume more and more, the global price will eventually meet and exceed the current record prices - and this is without factoring in the likely instability in the Middle East (which will certainly possess the bulk of oil reserves until the day we run out). Because oil is a global commodity, and because demand will increasingly outpace supply (afterall oil is a nonrenewable resource), it is painfully clear that as long as we need oil, the Middle East will continue to demand a disproportionate share of our attention.

I truly believe that historians will marvel at our society's unwillingness to break a habit that so obviously harms our economic well-being and our national security (to say nothing of the emerging environmental imperatives).

We can only hope that when action does finally come, it is the result of proactive leadership and not the desperate reaction to another bloody war or economic crisis.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Potential Remains

It's been a gloomy week if you are a news or political junkie.

The sixth anniversary of 9/11 came and went and the only thing we know for sure about Osama Bin Laden is that he is alive, relatively well and doing all he can to prosecute his war against us.

Iraq... well... I'll save that for another post soon to follow.

I noticed an article on that I wanted to share that made me feel better about the world - or at least it's potential - so I thought I would pass it along to anybody that it interested.

It was almost 40 years ago that the United States sent the first human beings to the Moon. We don't think about this accomplishment much these days - both because so much time has passed and because it seems that little has been done to build upon it.

I recognize that many do not support the space program - and there are some respectable arguments to be made that the money could be better spent elsewhere.

But I think it would be hard for any one to argue that the Moon landings were not an extraordinary accomplishment with respect to the science, engineering and perhaps most importantly, human collaboration. History will credit Neil Armstrong with making the first footprint on the Moon, but it took took tens of thousands of people working together to get him there and back safely - and few (if any) of them got rich doing it.

For this reason, the achievement maintains extraordinary value as a symbol of what Mankind could achieve in the future given the right context and leadership.

There are cynics that think hope is worthless. I admit, it certainly won't feed your family.

But it does keep people vigilant and pursuing opportunities to improve their lives and their communities. For this reason, it is important - particularly when things are down - to remember how well things have gone in the past. This reminds us of how well things can go if we persevere.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Non-Trivial Formalities

I gave George W. Bush credit a while back for a rare demonstration of diplomatic flexibility that led to a genuine breakthrough in the quest to eliminate the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

Now I think it makes sense to ask him to demonstrate a little more.

Apparently, the North Koreans are demanding, among other things, a formal peace treaty with the United States as a precondition for eliminating their nuclear weapons program. The South Korean President, Roh Moo-Hyun, believes this request should be granted.

In an exchange the New York Times called "testy", the South Korean leader publicly (and apparently unexpectedly) asked President Bush to grant this request.

The President responded with the following:

"I said it’s up to Kim Jong-il as to whether or not we’re able to sign a peace
treaty to end the Korean War. He’s got to get rid of his weapons in a verifiable
fashion. And we’re making progress toward that goal. It’s up to him.”

Now, evil is a word that is thrown around a little too readily in political debates today, but it surely applies to Kim Jong-Il. His regimes record of cruelty and depravity could compete with any other in human history.

Nevertheless, in the interest of trying to actually solve a problem (or at least improve a situation), let me take a step that some might find distasteful. Lets look at things from the North Korean leader's point of view.

He is still technically at war with a country that he surely knows has the capacity to destroy him. He's watched us invade and annihilate an Iraqi Army comparable to his own, right after we called its leader - and him - Evil (remember the Axis of Evil speech).

Kim Jong-Il clearly does not value human life (he's brainwashed and starved millions of his own people). Therefore, what seems obvious to us - that we are not going to start a second Korean War that undoubtedly would costs tens if not hundreds of thousands of South Korean lives - may not only seem possible, but perhaps even likely to him.

If you believe that hypothesis, then it makes sense that he would demand a peace treaty before abandoning the one thing that he feels gives him a true defense against American power.

Now, one may say that the treaty demand is nothing more than another delaying tactic by a sinister and hostile regime determined to become more powerful through acquiring additional nuclear weapons. Others might say that you cannot meaningfully employ reason and logic with the likes of Kim Jong Il.

Both of those statements may very well be true. what?

Neutralize Kim's excuses immediately and diminish his room to diplomatically maneuver. Back him further into a corner and give him one less thing to talk about instead of dismantling his weapons program.

A peace treaty will change NOTHING on the ground. It is a formality only - yet it is a measure that could have non-trivial positive implications for moving forward with diplomacy and nuclear disarmament.

I am NOT suggesting, nor would I support any signing ceremony that had the President of the United States standing next to this monster, much less shaking his hand. Just sign a formal statement acknowledging what the rest of the world already knows - we are not going to invade Korea.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Please Consider a Donation

Some of you undoubtedly saw the story yesterday about a 5 year old Iraqi boy named Yousiff. He was doused with gasoline and set on fire by masked insurgents in January.

I will put a link to the article at the end of this sentence, but I feel compelled to warn readers that the before and after pictures of Yousiff are breathtaking and heartbreaking - so view them at your own risk.

I considered putting a link to the original article yesterday, but held back. There is so much bad news right now coming out of Iraq, and the coverage so constant, that we are all sufficiently aware of what is taking place.

Drawing attention to this single incident, as vile as it was, seemed to serve no great additional purpose. Furthermore, I sadly considered the fact that putting this story front and center may somehow mark it as a rare occurence which- between Iraq and Darfur (and likely, a number of other places our media isn't looking) - it tragically is not.

But the updated article today provides a little bit of heartwarming news and an outlet for action. That is why I am writing.

A non-profit burn center in California has offered to fly Yousiff and his family to America for treatment at no cost.

The article (again, warning on the pictures) provides a link to the Burn Center's website and donations can be made to a fund specifically for Yousiff (scroll down to the "Honor Memorial Gift Information" section).

I encourage all of you to consider giving a small donation. You can access the foundation's donation site directly here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Summers are Hot in Hell

I am embarrassed that I have not written about this sooner.

American soldiers and Marines are bleeding and dying every single day to establish and maintain a relatively secure environment in which the Iraqi Parliament can build a political agreement to end their country's internal conflict.

Meanwhile, this same Iraqi government is, literally, on vacation while their country is being torn apart and their citizens murdered by the thousands.

This is one of the most shameful and unacceptable acts by a group of individuals that I have ever seen.

If I had the ear of the President of the United States, I would seriously consider advising him to tell our military units responsible for protecting these Iraqi leaders to stand down until these people get back to work.

Many would argue that is a rash move. Perhaps it is.

At an absolute minimum, our "leaders" – the President, Senators, Congressmen – should be shaming these legislators every time they come within 10 yards of a reporter or TV camera.

I am not talking about vile, tactless insults or provocative and inflammatory rhetoric that can be easily dismissed. I am just advocating a simple, factual and daily statement:

Today, 14 of America’s finest young citizens died in Iraq.

Their mission was to enable a political solution to be reached that could save an entire nation.

The nation these noble young Americans died to save was not even their own.

The people they died to protect, the only ones that can win this war and justify the death of almost 4,000 Americans, are on vacation.

This vacation should end immediately.

If any one is saying this forcefully and repeatedly, I have missed it. And I literally spend 2 to 3 hours reading the news every single day.

I did notice that Vice President Dick Cheney was asked for his thoughts on the Iraqi Parliament's vacation on Larry King Live earlier this month. His entire response:
"It's better than taking two months off, which was their original plan."

I am not even going to comment on the appropriateness or inappropriateness of this response.

It speaks for itself.

Tony Snow, the President’s press secretary, has informed us (see the above link) that it is 130 degrees in Baghdad in the summer.

Of course it is.

Hell is a hot place.

And that is exactly where our troops are serving and the Iraqi people are fighting to survive. The only people that can justify the former and end the latter are these vacationing Iraqi politicians.

We – you and me – should demand that they do so by any means we have available - or at least get back to trying.

With that in mind, this is another good chance to write a quick email to your Representative or Senator (links on the left of the page).

Please write a one line email asking them to speak forcefully and daily for an end to this insult to our servicemen and women and to the Iraqi people.

It is the least we can do in a war in which so few have been asked to do so much.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Last Excuse...Gone

Many of you have probably already seen the 1994 video that was recently found of Vice President Cheney explaining why we chose not to go into Iraq after expelling the Iraqi army from Kuwait in the first Gulf War.

For those of you that have not, here is a link. Everyone should watch this. Just push the play button on the lower left half of the video box.

Cheney speaks for only 90 seconds, but in that time he reminds me why I was excited when he joined the ticket in 2000.

To summarize, Cheney, the Secretary of Defense during the first Gulf War, basically foresees everything that has gone wrong in Iraq since we removed Saddam Hussein.

Of course, this video naturally raises questions about why he came to endorse and champion the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But I actually think this question is not the right one to ask. We can still have endless debates on the threat Saddam posed - even knowing that he didnt have WMD. Perhaps there is a right answer, but neither side will cede it to the other.

A better question:

Why, when clearly foreseeing the challenges we were going to face, did the Administration not 1. prepare the public and 2. commit adequate resources to "win the peace" ?

People today, at home and certainly abroad, regularly accuse this Administration of intentional lies and imperialist motives in launching this war.

Although the Bush Administration has said and done some despicable things in my opinion, I've never come to believe that they were intentionally deceptive in starting this war, nor that their motives were sinister.

They were clearly negligent and sloppy when analyzing and collecting the intelligence to justify the war, but I think they believed, as did most of the world, that WMD were there. Perhaps I am wrong, but this is still what I choose to believe.

In any case, I am now absolutely baffled at the way the Administration conducted this war. Any argument I could have constructed to make our situation understandable, if not justified, is gone.

It is one thing to think that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld simply did not anticipate the challenges we would face after Saddam was gone. This is not excusable, but it at least makes their actions understandable.

But now we know that they knew how hard it was going to be....

I just do not know what else to say.

Despite all the confidence I have lost in this Administration, I am somehow still stunned that they conducted themselves in this manner. Incompetence no longer explains our situation, as I had come to believe.

We are entitled to a direct response to this question from President Bush.

If he still believes it was necessary to go, why didn't we at least give ourselves a real chance to succeed?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Newt on the State of Presidential Elections

Newt Gingrich recently made some interesting and insightful comments on the current state of our Presidential election process that I would like to recommend.

The article is buried on, so most of you almost certainly missed it. It is a quick read, 2 or 3 minutes at most.

I've plugged some of Newt's ideas on this blog before. Though I disagree with him on some policy issues and many political tactics, I consider him to be one of the most intelligent politicians we've had in recent years.

Hope you find it interesting.

Friday, August 10, 2007

In Search of Substance

After becoming frustrated with the media's superficial coverage of the Presidential campaigns, I recently decided to visit the websites of the top six presidential contenders (Clinton, Edwards, Giuliani, McCain, Obama, Romney).

Before looking at any of the sites, I decided to pick a single issue that is important to me and examine each candidate's stance.

I wanted to pick an issue that I felt each candidate was likely to discuss thoroughly on their site.

I chose energy policy because I reasoned that whether it was due to its link to our national security, climate change concerns and/or simply the 3 decade old mandatory call for "energy independence", each candidate was sure to have something to say.

I'm going to include a link to each site, but I'm also going to share my observations in alphabetical order by the candidates last name.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary starts with an intelligent and amazingly rare (among the other candidates) statement that concisely articulates the impact this issue has on national security, economics, health and the environment.

She then goes on, in language undoubtedly approved, if not written by, a political consultant to promote her past efforts to "champion" progressive policies in on this issue. Unfortunately, from the available material on the site, I'm not sure if she just made speeches on an empty Senate floor or actually drafted and fought for a tough but necessary policy.

Clinton does advocate repealing oil company tax breaks and endorses limiting carbon emissions and increasing fuel efficiency. I give her credit for looking in the right direction, but there is nothing courageous or bold about these proposals.

This issue demands bold leadership. There are many vested interests that will fight what the country needs. Hillary fails to convince me here that she is up to the job, only that she has found the "optimal" political answer.

My grade: C-

John Edwards

It takes Edwards a little bit to lay out an actual idea, but he does get there.

He pushes a cap-and trade program with specific short and long term goals, similar to what America's business leaders are advocating. He also proposes allocating new funds to support an alternative energy industry by repealing oil company subsidies. Sensible ideas. A good start, but I'm not blown away.

Finally, I am rarely impressed by catchy political rhetoric, but I did like a line from the introduction. " is time to ask the American people to be patriotic about something other than war."

Yes it is.

My grade: B-

Rudy Giuliani

Rudy gets points for the breadth of his ideas to diversify our energy portfolio. Unfortunately, there is virtually no depth to the ideas. He gives obligatory and largely trivial nods to renewable energy, conservation and biofuels and every type of fossil fuel as well.

With the exception of his call for increased nuclear power, this page could have been on the website of any political candidate.... in the last twenty years (let's pretend websites were around in the days of the Reagan Administration).

The site is essentially a laundry list with something for everyone. Although it has a much different feel, it seems, like Senator Clinton's, to be clearly designed to promote a political agenda.

It is not a vision statement - and certainly not even the beginning of a new strategy.

Yes, I know that websites are first and foremost political marketing tools. But that is not what I am looking for, and its not what everyone else should be satisfied with anymore either.

Grade: D+

John McCain

Senator McCain discusses energy in his "Environment" issues section (which is nice to see on a Republican's site).

Unfortunately, although he invokes the right high level concerns of security, inter-generational equity and economic competitiveness - he does not support a single idea except expanding nuclear power.

He does take the time to cite the "liberal live for today" attitude that he associates with our failure to act more aggressively on this issue. Is he serious? That remark is beneath him - especially if he is not going to couple it with his own plan.

Grade: D-

Barack Obama

I did not start this post with the intention of promoting the Obama campaign, but frankly, it is hard not to after reading this site.

Obama lists multiple specific ideas that address the concerns of all stakeholders in this issue: fuel consumers, car manufacturers (yes, car manufacturers) and energy companies. He even makes an innovative proposal to engage disadvantaged and educationally under served youth in a sector of renewable energy that is certain to be one of the greatest growth engines of the coming generation.

As a both an Ivy League trained policy wonk and a pragmatic idealist, I was thoroughly impressed with this site.

The candidate without the necessary experience? Well, Obama does look like the candidate with the least political experience. This site appears constructed with the intention of communicating a vision and a plan - not just selling a political candidate.

He also looks like the first serious contender for the White House that we have ever had that is serious about making progress on this vital issue.

Grade: A

Mitt Romney

I kicked Mitt pretty hard on this blog the other day and I don't regret it.

He's a brilliant man with two master's degrees from Harvard who created and grew a $4 billion company and later convinced Massachusetts to elect a Republican Governor. Wow. Seriously.

This ability is precisely the reason why it is absolutely unacceptable for him to lower the level of debate in this election. My evaluation of his energy site? I'll let you decide. Here is the entire thing (minus a video)and a 14 month old quote:

"We must become independent from foreign sources of oil. This will mean a combination of efforts related to conservation and efficiency measures, developing alternative sources of energy like biodiesel, ethanol, nuclear, and coal gasification, and finding more domestic sources of oil such as in ANWR or the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS)."

I would give him an F, but that would imply a failed effort. I fail to see the effort.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A Good Point and an Opportunity

President Bush argued today that Congress should not enact a 5 cent gasoline tax to pay for a wave of infrastructure repairs following the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

Instead he says, " [Congress should] revisit the process by which they spend gasoline money in the first place...”

The President is basically railing against the pork barrel spending that has dominated the Transportation Committees for years - throughout years of both Republican and Democratic control.

I agree with the President and I would advise the Democrats to take a different course for both policy and political reasons.

(I've already commented on the interesting but now unimportant question of why President Bush didn't ask the Congress to do this while his party controlled it).

Many people support a gasoline tax on national security and/or environmental grounds. Some probably see this "crisis" as an opportunity to take a difficult step that will benefit several areas of public policy.

The reason that I disagree with this line of thinking is that a five cent increase is too small to meaningfully impact gas consumption, but it is more than large enough to give Republicans a (legitimate) club to use against the Democrats in the next election.

But more importantly, there is a superior policy reason to pursue an alternative course. The Democrats have recently passed an ethics bill that would dramatically cut earmarks and/or pork barrel spending.

If they were to connect the financial response to this bridge collapse with a more efficient use of public resources (redirecting the pork to the public) instead of a reflexive tax increase, it would make it more likely that the President would have to support the bill.

He would have to put his money (and by his money, I mean our money) where his mouth is....

On the political side, this could deflect the tax-and-spend framework the Republicans will undoubtedly try to invoke in the coming election.

It seems like good politics and good policy don't seem to intersect very often in this divisive age of wedge issues. That makes it more important than ever to recognize and act upon these chances when they arise....

Monday, August 6, 2007

Commentary on Republican Tax Policy

I should never write when I am angry or annoyed, but I cannot help it right now.

Robert Novak published an article recently that discussed the political pressure being applied to Republicans supporting the expansion of State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The expansion of this program is being financed with an increase in taxes on cigarettes.

This tax increase has elicited harsh words from Grover Norquists' "Americans for Tax Reform."

This organization is disappointed with Republican supporters of this bill that have signed a no-tax-increase pledge (42 senators and 196 House members have signed the pledge). They argue that a vote for this bill equals a broken promise.

Perhaps it does, but that is not why I am writing.

Can we consider, for a moment, the folly in such a pledge?

I am well aware of the economic arguments for keeping taxes as low as possible. They make a lot of sense and I think increases should be a last resort and rigorously justified before being enacted.

That being said, I want to consider the motivation and indeed, the very character and competence of any one that would sign such a pledge to never raise taxes.

Could these people actually be saying that they would not raise taxes to pay for a war (or two)?

Could these people actually be saying that they would not raise taxes to help rebuild a major American city that was destroyed by a hurricane?

Could these people actually be saying that they would not raise taxes to rebuild critical American infrastructure like, say, structurally deficient bridges?

Apparently they are saying exactly that.

Ok, well what exactly does this mean for our country's financial situation?

It means that instead, we are borrowing money from and paying interest to China and other countries to finance these endeavors.

This is an absolutely brilliant solution if your first and only objective is to ensure your own political survival. After all, children can't vote against these bills that they will one day be asked to pay. My generation can, but historically has not.

Very, very convenient for the Republican Party.

Far less convenient for the United States of America that our children and grandchildren will inherit.

But that is not a problem for these Senators and Representatives. By then, their careers will be over.

Novak's article is here.

Scratching One Off My Short List

I just read the highlights from the recent Republican Party Presidential debate.

Perhaps I'll have more to say later, but I found a remark of Mitt Romney's so shameful that I had to bring it up here. This is taken from an article in today's Washington Post:

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), in particular, was singled out for saying last week that he would act against terrorists in Pakistan without the support of its president. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney contrasted those comments with Obama's remark during a recent debate that he would be willing to meet with all foreign leaders.

"I mean, in one week he went from saying he's going to sit down, you
know, for tea, with our enemies, but then he's going to bomb our allies," Romney
said. "He's gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week."

There are two things I would like to say about this comment.

First, any Presidential candidate that would NOT go after Bin Laden in Pakistan, if we knew where he was - and Musharraf would not act - owes every single American an explanation as to why.

Perhaps in the greater geopolitical scope of things, this is the right answer, but to treat Obama's stance as an absurd statement offends me and it should offend every other American as well.

Bin Laden has killed over 3000 Americans in his life and explicitly stated his desire to murder thousands (millions?) more. Why should we allow any nation to protect him?

Republicans are contemptuously dismissive of Democratic insistence that we act more collaboratively with other nations and/or the U.N. on foreign affairs, but they insult Obama
for advocating unilateral action against the greatest mass murderer of Americans in history.

Any one considering voting for someone with this position should demand an explanation of their candidate.

Second, lets examine the rest of Romney's comment. Obama is going to "sit down for tea with our enemies and bomb our allies".

So...this is what passes for useful commentary by a Republican candidate for the most powerful political and military office in the world? What an insulting and mindless piece of rhetoric on the most important issue we are facing today.

Some wonder why so many Americans are apathetic about politics today? It's partially because we are routinely subjected to absurd comments like this. Either Romney was violently twisting Obama's words for political gain (i.e. to manipulate and mislead voters) or he now considers Osama bin Laden our ally - after all, it was bin Laden that Obama was promising to "bomb".

Until this morning, I considered Mitt Romney a respectable candidate for President. He was definitely on my short list of candidates that I would consider voting for.

Now my decision is easier.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Actual Progress...Almost....

A piece of good (and by good, I mean meaningful) legislative news!

Apparently, the House passed a significant piece of congressional ethics reform yesterday. (I'll pat you on the back for this one Madam Speaker, but you're still on the hook for those increased mileage standards).

Here are the highlights from a New York Times editorial.

For the first time, the lavish torrent of campaign money from eager
lobbyists to grateful politicians would have to be reported quarterly to the
public via the Internet, with tighter scrutiny and penalties for violators.

And the bill would require that all earmarks .... as well as who’s
sponsoring them be identified on the Internet before final passage. The bill
would also curb such abuses as corporate-paid gifts and travel. It would end
lobbyist-sponsored galas “honoring” ranking politicians at national conventions.
It would even ban the ludicrous pensions now being paid to Congressional alumni
doing prison time for felonies.

Sounds to me like genuine progress.

One wonders why it this did not happen sooner than two centuries into our little democratic experiment, but hey, I'll take it.


This bill has yet to pass the Senate.

If you have never emailed your Senators about something, this would be a good time to do it.... (See the links on the left of this blog).

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Let There Be Light

I found this article uplifting and so I thought I would share it.

A nice story about a remarkably industrious individual bringing solar panels to a remote village in India.

Apparently it was the first time many of the residents had seen artificial light after dark. The article speaks to the fact that this literally created several more hours each day in which these people live productively - working, studying or just socializing with family and friends.

The potential for solar (and wind power) is phenomenal on several levels and this article speaks to some of them.

At the same time, I wonder how this entrepreneur was financed. Solar power is not yet cheap on any scale that I am aware of (though wind is much cheaper)..... in other words, we can't exactly roll this out to all the un-powered villages in the world just yet (barring massive philanthropic efforts or some revolutionary business model).

Still, this article is inspiring. As the economics for these technologies become more favorable, the benefits for communities like this will be enormous. It seems hard to believe that efforts similar to this will not be an integral part of any eventual solutions to global poverty.

If you're interested, read the article here.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Recommended Reading

An insightful analysis on the factors that shape world opinion on America's foreign policy.

I recommend the entire article, but would like to highlight two specific parts that I thought were particularly intelligent and effectively communicated.

First, a brilliant analogy that attempts to explain the gap in understanding between Americans watching or reading the news and citizens of other countries that are often living it.

[A] major reason for anti-Americanism: the accreted residue of many years of U.S. foreign policies. These policies are unknown to most Americans. They form only minor footnotes in U.S. history. But they are the chapter titles of the histories of other countries, where they have had enormous consequences. America's strength has made it a sort of Gulliver in world affairs: By wiggling its toes it can, often inadvertently, break the arm of a Lilliputian.

The author follows this analogy with a compelling and specific example of U.S involvement and its impact on Pakistan over the last 30 years. Though people reading only this quoted paragraph could dismiss it as a common "blame America first" line, it is certainly not - quite the opposite.

The second part was a call to action.
Americans need to educate themselves, from elementary school onward, about
what their country has done abroad. And they need to play a more active role
in ensuring that what the United States does abroad is not merely in keeping
with a foreign policy elite's sense of realpolitik but also with the
American public's own sense of American values.

Most probably view this as an unrealistic aspiration. I will grant that it is extremely unlikely in the short term. But in the longer term, it is certainly not any more so than the aspirations of 17th and18th century political philosophers.

Their ideas, once doubtedlessly characterized as naive, politically unrealistic or simply impossible given human nature have a daily impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of people today.

Like Locke and Voltaire before him, Hamid is saying what needs to be said.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Prove me Wrong, Madam Speaker

I would be lying if I said that I had a favorable opinion of Nancy Pelosi. I feel this way despite the fact that a few close friends - with intellect and character that I greatly respect - are strong supporters.

Although it is not at all fair, I am willing to admit that this opinion is largely (though not entirely) based on an irrational, unfavorable gut-feeling.

Perhaps I should not admit this weak rationale, but it is a powerful and (will any one dispute?) almost universal aspect of voters' decision making process. So please remember the criteria for casting the first stone....

Anyway, I suppose that I feel comfortable admitting this personal weakness because I also know that I can and will give credit where it is due - and the Speaker has a big opportunity to win some points with me in the near future - and more importantly - to do some good for the country.

On the flip side, she could also ease my conscience by giving my instincts some supporting evidence.

The Senate recently passed the first measure since the 1970's that would require American automakers to raise the fuel efficiency of the automobiles they produce.

Under Speaker Pelosi's leadership, the House is trying to pass its own energy legislation. However, the current drafts do not include the efficiency law the Senate passed. The New York Times largely attributes this to a particularly powerful member of Pelosi's own party, Rep. John Dingell of (shocker) Michigan.

Over a year ago, I attended a speech Ms. Pelosi gave at my graduate school. It was a pitch about Democratic ideas for the future and the progress that our voting Democrat in 2006 could bring.

The centerpiece of the speech independence.

Of course, this is a tremendously (and ever increasingly) important idea, but hardly a new one.

Some genuine leadership on the issue - precisely the kind Speaker Pelosi has the chance to demonstrate here - now that would be new.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Hope....Front and Center

I get depressed from time to time like almost everyone else. But in general, I am most definitely an optimist.

Despite all the human history I have read, most of which is quite dark, I am convinced that our true potential as a race is tremendous. I do not think it is possible that any nation, much less the great bulk of mankind, will achieve anything remotely Utopian in my lifetime, but I do believe that the world - in as little as a couple centuries - could be dramatically better than any one today really thinks is possible with respect to health, peace, education and the universal acceptance and true establishment of a core set of human rights.

Perhaps I'll write more on this in a later post as I have some pretty specific ideas about how this could happen and, more importantly, what our generation's role should be to that end... but right now, I want to focus on something we need in the meantime.


I am convinced that great things almost never happen when hope is totally absent, and it occurs to me that we could use a little more of it these days.

And I'm not talking about the vague and endlessly recycled warm and fuzzy rhetoric our politicians use.

I'm talking about concrete examples of meaningful progress and achievement in the face of overwhelming odds. I'm talking about actions and outcomes that defy our presumptions regarding what is realistic and what is ultimately possible.

We hear about these occasionally, but not nearly often enough. I guess the media doesn't seem to think they attract viewers as effectively as sex, scandal or bad news. Perhaps they don't...

In any case, I am going to make an effort to highlight examples a little more often here.

I am creating another permanent section on the left column of this blog. I am giving it the self explanatory title: "Hope". I'll do my best to add example to it from time to time.

I will give an introductory example here. I have changed the names and will not reveal the sources of this story, but it is entirely true.

It is about a public school teacher working in one of the poorest and most under performing schools in the United States. It shows what one capable individual can do - and the grand potential that could be realized if our nation's priorities and resources were aligned behind her.

Mary Jones taught 1st grade in inner city New Orleans. A Tulane
University study of her school district revealed that 85% of the children
in her school suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to witnessing
violence and crime in their communities. It was not uncommon for some of
her students to arrive to class without shoes and with empty
stomachs. Although most would probably take pity on these children,
many would probably also tragically assume that no school - and certainly no
individual teacher - could make substantial progress with them.

Indeed, 21 of her 25 first graders arrived with skills registering below

Mary did the following:

She set a clear and ambitious (undoubtedly characterized by some as naive) goals for every single student. Specifically, that every one of them would be able to read at a third grade level by the end of the year, write a paragraph with a main idea and
complete sentences and be able to add and subtract.

She assessed their progress constantly, and adjusted lesson plans accordingly. Her effort was substantial, but the process replicable.

She engaged every child's parents with home visits, phone calls and daily
personalized notes sent home with the students.

She did not receive any additional financial or material resources from her school, yet she made sure she had food for children that arrived hungry.

At the end of the year, 8 of her students - almost a full third - were reading on a third grade level. Another 40% were brought up to a second grade level from a pre-k level in a single academic year.

It was Mary's second year as a teacher. She was only 23 years old.

Stories like this make me realize that the progress we could attain one day as a society is truly beyond what we even dare to dream.

The admirable visionaries in our world today work towards the goal of the most disadvantaged students receiving a comparable education to the most fortunate. Doubtlessly, this is a worthy goal that we should pursue relentlessly...and it must be achieved before something greater can be attained.

Yet, reflect on what was accomplished with these students. A substantial fraction of them achieved more than two years of progress by our current standards. Their achievement was not simply incredible given their circumstances - it was extraordinary by any standard widely adopted today. Imagine what this teacher could have achieved with secure, properly clothed, properly fed children...

It makes me imagine a world in which 14 year-olds have the academic skills of today's high school graduates (the adequately prepared ones). It makes me think of a world in which people do not fear change as they do today because they were not simply infused with facts and routines (the process we call "education"today), they were also trained as independent critical thinkers - adaptable, open-minded problem solvers. This is entirely possible - it's precisely what the best colleges and universities achieve today.

These individuals would be able to independently seek answers to the cultural questions posed by an increasingly smaller and borderless world. These individuals would not be as susceptible to incompetent or manipulative leadership (whether it be tyrannical or democratically elected) or agenda driven media or individuals. These individuals would comprise an entirely new form of society.

But let me descend from the clouds for a bit.

I am not foreseeing or depicting a world in which every one can write a Pulitzer Prize winning essay or make a Nobel Prize caliber discovery. I am simply talking about a world in which people are not bound by prejudices or worldviews built in their youth - views that may very well have been accurate or useful when they were taught, but can serve in a rapidly changing world to hold that individual back for the majority of their life.

If we can remove that burden, then it will not just be our potential - but our actual achievement - that will truly be extraordinary.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Politics over Progress. Again.

The House of Representatives recently passed a measure that would remove a ban on providing contraceptives to overseas groups that offer abortions.

Many Republican representatives voted against the measure stating that “anything that helps abortion providers should be banned.”

Although it is questionable whether this bill will pass the Senate, if it does, the President has already signaled that he would veto it.

I do not wish to claim a side in the “Pro-Choice”, “Pro-Life” debate in this post, nor do I have to in order to stake a firm position on this particular issue.

This bill should be passed unanimously and the President should be proud to sign it.

The bottom line is that this bill will reduce the number of abortions performed.

Actually, let me add a little more to that bottom line.

This bill will also (assuming that some of the contraceptives are condoms and not just birth control pills) combat the spread of AIDS and other STDs – a great moral, healthcare and financial victory for the donation recipients and the U.S. taxpayers (who are spending tens of billions to treat AIDS in Africa alone). Furthermore, easier access to contraceptives could have positive empowering effects for women in developing countries and less liberal societies.

The argument that donating contraceptives to abortion providers enables the expansion of the service seems nothing short of nonsensical to me. Just how are items that reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies supposed to increase the number of abortions?

I can only see one remotely intelligent argument that tries to answer that question.

"If we provide either cash or in-kind contributions or anything of value to
pro-abortion organizations in other countries, we empower, enrich and enable
them to expand abortion,"

So said Representative Christopher Smith (R –NJ).

In a strictly financial sense, this is true. Money not spent on contraceptives could be used to market abortion services. In theory, it could even be used to hire more doctors to perform the procedures.

We could debate if or how often this would ever happen. We never see commercials or mass promotion of abortion in this country (promoting the preservation of the right is not the same as promoting its arbitrary practice), but it may very well occur elsewhere.

In any case, I believe that a better debate tactic is to grant the opposition’s point as true and then proceed to demonstrate why it is irrelevant to the greater issue.

If we do that here, it becomes clear that this is still a worthy tradeoff if the goal is to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies and thereby lower the number of abortions. If a condom costs the U.S. government $0.25 (and this is probably an overestimate given volume discounts) then you would have to believe that a single new $100,000 doctor (hired with the “freed” funds) can perform more abortions than four hundred thousand condoms would prevent.

This is pretty simple math, even for a member of the United States House of Representatives.

Unfortunately, political equations are often even simpler.

A politician’s stance on abortion – particularly a Republican’s – is too often a black and white issue. You must be against Roe vs. Wade and for a law banning abortions. If you support a measure to reduce the number of abortions that even appears to be conciliatory to a Pro-Choice constituency, you expose your right flank in your ever-upcoming election.

Overturning Roe vs. Wade could only result from a Constitutional Amendment (requiring approval from most of the state legislatures, not just the federal Congress) or a new Supreme Court.

This being the case, it is fair to say that individual lawmakers are almost irrelevant to the question of outlawing abortion. Yet a few more politically courageous ones could easily reduce the number of them performed.