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.