Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Thinking about NASA's Future

The Bush Administration made some fateful decisions about NASA's future shortly after it arrived in 2001 - most notably the decision to cancel major components of the International Space Station.

It seems as though The Obama Administration will be in a position to make even more important decisions regarding the future of the space program over the next few years.

The Space Shuttle is scheduled for retirement in 2010 and America's replacement vehicle, the Ares I rocket and the Orion capsule, is not expected to be ready for manned flights before 2015 (under extremely optimistic scenarios). If this timeline holds, it will mean that Russia and China will be the only two countries capable of sending humans into space for at least 5 years.

In tough economic times, some will make the argument that the United States should not spend money on manned space flight. It's a reasonable statement on the surface. But when considering the fact that NASA's entire budget is far less than 1% of federal expenditures, it seems like a painful and shortsighted way to save a relatively small amount of money.

You can read more about the Ares and Orion here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Comic Relief

If you've never read anything by Dave Barry, you're missing out.

The Washington Post published a fairly long but very amusing piece by Barry today that is good for a few laughs. You can read the whole thing here.

It's a great satirical overview of the events of 2008. Here's a sample:

Barack Obama, having secured North and South America, flies to Germany without using an airplane and gives a major speech -- speaking English and German simultaneously -- to 200,000 mesmerized Germans, who immediately elect him chancellor, prompting France to surrender.

Meanwhile, John McCain, at a strategy session at a golf resort, tells his top aides to prepare a list of potential running mates, stressing that he wants somebody "who is completely, brutally honest." Unfortunately, because of noise from a lawnmower, the aides think McCain said he wants somebody "who has competed in a beauty contest." This will lead to trouble down the road.

Speaking of trouble, the economic news continues to worsen with the discovery that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have sent $87 billion to a Nigerian businessman with a compelling e-mail story.

Happy New Year everybody!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Moment to Celebrate a Good Deed

Noticed this little story on CNN.com and thought I would pass it on.

Nothing too profound here, just thought it might be nice to promote a short story about generosity hidden amidst the raw politics, economic distress and warfare that has dominated the news lately.

Here are the highlights:

Virginia businessman Earl Stafford has spent $1 million to give hundreds of poverty-stricken and terminally ill Americans, along with wounded men and women in uniform, an inauguration experience that would ordinarily run each of them thousands of dollars or more.

"We wanted to… bless those who otherwise wouldn't have an opportunity to be a part of the great celebration, the inauguration and the festivities," he told the paper. "Our objective is to bring in a cross-section of society — those who are distressed, those who are terminally ill, those who are socially and economically disadvantaged, those veterans who are wounded and served our country".

...the... packages [include] high-end hotel rooms and luxury suites, food and drink, a (heated) viewing spot right above the parade route, even gowns and tuxedos to wear to celebratory balls, and a beautician to help you get ready for it.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Lou Gerstner for Secretary of Education

Okay - so I'm not sure that the former IBM CEO is the best choice for the job, but he published an excellent essay on reforming the American public education system today in the Wall Street Journal. I recommend it to all of you that are passionate about education reform.

At the very least, I hope the President-Elect nominates someone with a similar vision and a comparable record of effective leadership.

The subtitle of Gerstner's essay calls for "abolishing local school districts" and "adopting national standards" - but his strategy is significantly more comprehensive. I guess I would need to dwell on it a while longer before I decided it the entire plan was the best course of action, but it certainly seems like the type of bold action we need to break the pattern of massive spending and limited results.

You can read the essay here (if you missed the link above).

Monday, November 24, 2008

Thoughts on Bailing out Detroit

Thanks to any of you that are still checking in here from time to time. Life has kept me from writing the last few weeks but I hope to be posting more often for the foreseeable future. There certainly is a lot to talk about!


Despite my lack of writing, I have still been keeping up with current events - particularly the debate over giving GM, Ford and Chrysler another $25 billion dollars.

I guess my summary opinion is this: I reluctantly accept the idea that the current state of our economy makes the failure of GM too dangerous to chance. Therefore, we should hold our nose and guarantee the loans necessary for their survival.

That being said, I take strong issue with the current approach of Congress.

Last week Nancy Pelosi explained Congress's decision to withhold money by saying: "Until they show us the plan, we cannot show them the money".

It is my understanding that Congress ordered the CEOs to return in a couple weeks with a plan to make their companies viable. I have two big problems with this statement and the general approach.

1. Anyone who knows a thing about business should know that these companies won't be able to produce a business strategy worth the paper it's printed on - much less $25 billion - in two weeks. This request for a plan is simply a tactic to provide political cover for what the Democrats have already decided to do.

2. It is stunning to me that there is not a serious discussion about removing the senior management of these companies. I might be persuaded to give some of my children's money to GM (all of mine was already spent on Iraq and Medicare prescription drugs), but not if they are still led by a management team that has clearly failed.

It's important to recognize that GM's current chief executive, Rick Wagoner did not have the misfortune of taking over GM this year or last. He has been the CEO since June of 2000. The company has not been profitable since 2004 and GM's losses during Wagoner's tenure have been almost 5 times their profits. Giving him more money is a horrible idea and it's insulting to the tax payers.

One final thought: it is fashionable right now to blame Detroit's woes entirely on either overly generous union contracts or failure to produce cars with sufficient fuel efficiency. People on both sides of the aisle are using this situation as a hammer to score political points for their pet causes.

This is not surprising, but it is also not very constructive.

Although there is some validity in both claims, I think we should be highly skeptical of arguments that try to simplify the causes of the current situation exclusively back to one of these two reasons.

This situation is very complex - and government will not be able to sort it out. In fact, they could easily make it worse. Their best move is to ensure that fresh and competent leadership replaces the status quo at each of these companies. Detroit's desperate need for this latest cash infusion makes this step easy to execute - if only the political will and wisdom can be found.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Please Share Your Thoughts

I'd love to hear what some of you think about last night and/or what you expect for the next four years.

Say as much or little as you'd like. Multiple paragraphs or mere statements like "I'm happy" or "I'm disappointed" are welcome - whatever you'd like. I know that some that read this blog are highly skeptical of Obama - your perspective is welcome and very valuable.

If I can't talk you into making a comment here, please write down your thoughts somewhere while they are still fresh. Someday, your children or grandchildren will probably ask you about this event.


I hope you saw Obama's speech last night. You can read it here.

My favorite parts:

This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change...

It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.


Let's remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House, a party founded on the values of self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity.

Those are values that we all share. And while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.


And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared....

To those -- to those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: We support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright: Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope...

That's the true genius of America: that America can change. Our union can be perfected. What we've already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

So tonight, let us ask ourselves -- if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call.

As Emerson once said, the ancestor of every action is a thought. These are just thoughts, but they are the right ones...

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Witnessing History

I am almost overwhelmed with tonight's results.

I am overwhelmed by the thought that in my parents' lifetime, African Americans were, in many parts of the country, not able to attend the same schools, use the same restrooms or share the same water fountains.

Many will be disappointed by the result of this election... but I think it is impossible to argue that it does not demonstrate America's extraordinary ability to reinvent and improve itself from generation to generation.

That is something that we can and should be immensely proud of....

... and now the next chapter in American history begins.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

First Thoughts on Behavioral Economics

Another fascinating and insightful article by David Brooks. I recommend the whole thing - you can read it here.

His thesis:

....there are four steps to every decision. First, you perceive a situation. Then you think of possible courses of action. Then you calculate which course is in your best interest. Then you take the action.

Over the past few centuries, public policy analysts have assumed that step three is the most important. Economic models and entire social science disciplines are premised on the assumption that people are mostly engaged in rationally calculating and maximizing their self-interest. But during this financial crisis, that way of thinking has failed spectacularly.

So perhaps this will be the moment when we alter our view of decision-making. Perhaps this will be the moment when we shift our focus from step three, rational calculation, to step one, perception.

His conclusions:

...markets are not perfectly efficient, people are not always good guardians of their own self-interest and there might be limited circumstances when government could usefully slant the decision-making architecture.... But the second thing you realize is that government officials are probably going to be even worse perceivers of reality than private business types. Their information feedback mechanism is more limited, and, being deeply politicized, they’re even more likely to filter inconvenient facts.

Brooks seems to be leaving us with a very valid yet very intractable dilemma. I read him as saying that our capitalist system needs a very small amount of outside intervention in limited circumstances to ensure the national welfare. However, the government - the only institution with any meaningful resources at its disposal that is dedicated to the public good - is woefully unlikely to perform the needed actions effectively.

So what do we do (assuming that he is on to something here)?

I don't know. A couple of thoughts though:

1. Brooks mentions in the article that the emerging field of behavioral economics may be able to provide some insightful theories and frameworks that could improve our economic policies and institutions. I have limited experience in this field to date, but based on what I have studied, I think he is right - and the possibilities are quite exciting.

2. If we are going to resolve this issue as a society, we are going to have to abandon much of the political and economic dogma that has defined much of the last 50 years. I suspect that this exact same essay - if written by a self-described liberal like Paul Krugman instead of the respected conservative Brooks - would be immediately dismissed as an argument for bigger government and a more centralized (i.e. socialist) economy.

This is not what Brooks is saying at all. He is merely acknowledging that there is probably a set of very specific circumstances in which the government should intervene and provide guidance on the economy. He is not advocating an alternative to capitalism and free markets - quite the opposite - he is discussing measures to make them function more effectively and ensure their long-term viability.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Taking a Moment to Be Thankful

Yesterday, I stood in line today for 45 minutes to cast my vote for President of the United States.

I had some time to think while I was waiting and a few things occurred to me as the line muddled along.

First of all, it was incredible to see the lines for early voting. People of all ages, economic status and races were in line - and none of them seemed overly annoyed by the wait. It made me happy to see people involved and it renewed my optimism (just a bit) that America can emerge from the difficulties that lay ahead a stronger, wiser nation.

Second, and more importantly, it occurred to me how extraordinary an event the election of the American President is when viewed in a historical context. The American President is often called "the most powerful man in the world". George W. Bush has demonstrated over the last eight years that this is probably true. Of course, he is not even remotely all-powerful, but his decisions mean life and death for millions (and not only on issues of war and peace).

And yet, despite the power of the office and the allure that comes with it...the office changes hands every 4 or 8 years in an utterly peaceful manner. This is something we take for granted as Americans, but it is actually an extraordinary thing.

If you look at history - or even select parts of the world in 2008 - you can regularly see dramatically less important (even trivial) offices change hands only as a result of bloodshed or other violence. But that does not, nor has it ever, happened here.

King George III is believed to have said about George Washington that he would be "the greatest man alive" if he declined to become a monarch after winning the Revolutionary War. Of course, Washington reaffirmed this selflessness when he declined to run for a third term as President. It was a remarkable act to be sure.

The true miracle, however, is that the precedent Washington set was upheld by the 41 (soon to be 42) men that followed him.

I'm generally restless and unsatisfied with the state of the country. As proud as I am of it, it is my nature to focus almost exclusively on the things that could be better. Sometimes, however, it is good to just stop, smile and be thankful for a few minutes about the things that continue to go well.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Conservative Speaking the Truth to Republicans

Killer quote from the son of conservative icon William F. Buckley who just left the National Review after endorsing Barack Obama:

While I regret [leaving the conservative National Review], I am not in mourning, for I no longer have any clear idea what, exactly, the modern conservative movement stands for. Eight years of “conservative” government has brought us a doubled national debt, ruinous expansion of entitlement programs, bridges to nowhere, poster boy Jack Abramoff and an ill-premised, ill-waged war conducted by politicians of breathtaking arrogance. As a sideshow, it brought us a truly obscene attempt at federal intervention in the Terry Schiavo case.

So, to paraphrase a real conservative, Ronald Reagan: I haven’t left the Republican Party. It left me.

I stole this post idea from another blog, but I had to include it here as I believe it reflects the experience of millions of voters and, to a large extent, my own (I have also realized that on some substantive issues I am undeniably left of center).

I have tremendous respect for truly conservative political policies and agree with many of them. I remember being excited by the "compassionate conservative" philosophy that George W. Bush campaigned on in 2000 - and it led me to vote for him. But the governance of the last 8 years has been neither compassionate nor conservative.

I can understand why one may not be comfortable (much less excited) voting for a Democrat this year - but I absolutely cannot understand how one can justify voting for a member of the current Republican Party.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sounds Like Leadership....

Picking up on a thought at the end of my last post....

Remarks from Barack Obama yesterday:

"Part of the reason this crisis occurred is that everyone was living beyond their means – from Wall Street to Washington to even some on Main Street. CEOs got greedy. Politicians spent money they didn't have. Lenders tricked people into buying homes they couldn't afford and some folks knew they couldn't afford them and bought them anyway. We've lived through an era of easy money, in which we were allowed and even encouraged to spend without limits; to borrow instead of save.
Now, I know that in an age of declining wages and skyrocketing costs, for many folks this was not a choice but a necessity. People have been forced to turn to credit cards and home equity loans to keep up, just like our government has borrowed from China and other creditors to help pay its bills. But we now know how dangerous that can be. Once we get past the present emergency, which requires immediate new investments, we have to break that cycle of debt. Our long-term future requires that we do what's necessary to scale down our deficits, grow wages and encourage personal savings again."

This is a fairly easy thing to say (though it is more than any American President since Carter has been willing to do). Assuming he is elected (still a big assumption) we'll see if Obama has the courage to put some policy muscle behind this sentiment. But I like and applaud the thought.

One final remark - these are NOT the words of a crazy tax and spend big-government liberal. I'm not about to say that Obama is not well to the left of center, but I think this is another data point that suggests that the baby-boomers definitions of "conservative" and "liberal" will (mercifully) be obsolete when the new generation takes power (perhaps as soon as 3 months from now).

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Must Read on the American Economic Situation

I haven't had the time to write a solid post on the historic economic events that have unfolded the past couple of weeks. I've been closely monitoring a variety of news sources to pass on insightful articles but have found few I felt worth forwarding - until now.

Fareed Zakaria, writing in Newsweek, has produced a marvelous 10 minute essay that explains - in very straightforward language - the reasons for the crisis and the implications for America's strategic position in the coming years.

I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing, but I want to cite a few key passages here.

We're now living history, suffering one of the greatest financial panics of all time. It compares with the big ones—1907, 1929—and we cannot yet know its full consequences for the financial system, the economy or society as a whole.

Amid all the difficulties and hardship that we are about to undergo, I see one silver lining. This crisis has—dramatically, vengefully—forced the United States to confront the bad habits it has developed over the past few decades. If we can kick those habits, today's pain will translate into gains in the long run.

Since the 1980s, Americans have consumed more than they produced—and they have made up the difference by borrowing. Two decades of easy money and innovative financial products meant that virtually anyone could borrow any amount of money for any purpose. If we wanted a bigger house, a better TV or a faster car, and we didn't actually have the money to pay for it, no problem. We put it on a credit card, took out a massive mortgage and financed our fantasies. As the fantasies grew, so did household debt, from $680 billion in 1974 to $14 trillion today. The total has doubled in just the past seven years. The average household owns 13 credit cards, and 40 percent of them carry a balance, up from 6 percent in 1970.


The whole country has been complicit in a great fraud. As economist Jeffrey Sachs points out, "We've wanted lots of government, but we haven't wanted to pay for it." So we've borrowed our way out of the problem. In 1990, the national debt stood at $3 trillion. By 2000, it had almost doubled, to $5.75 trillion. It is currently $10.2 trillion. The number moved into 11 digits last month, which meant that the National Debt Clock in New York City ran out of space to display the figures.

I've highlighted the most gloomy parts of this article - sections that actually seem to scold the American public. However, the second message of this article, which I believe is equally as valid as the section above, is that with proper leadership, the country is perfectly capable of getting up and coming out stronger on the other end....

Which leads me to a final thought.

The next President of the United States, if he really cares about the long term well-being of this nation, is going to have a miserable job. He is going to have to do more than berate CEOs and Wall Street executives (though some of that is necessary and justified). He is going to have to tell the American people, either directly or implicitly through policy decisions, that their lifestyles must change to some degree. Few American Presidents have had the stomach for this in the past...

We are going to find out very quickly next year if we have elected a true leader or just another politician.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Don't Miss the "Mini" Bailout

Despite its gridlock on Monday, Congress did manage to prove $25 billion in loans to America auto-makers this weekend. This is the first such measure since the government helped Chrysler in 1980.

I just thought someone should mention it.

As for the $700 billion bill that failed to pass on Monday... I just don't know what to say right now.

I'm stunned that it failed to pass. That being said, I'm not 100% sure that its failure is a bad thing in the long run (of course, it obviously seems to be catastrophic for the short term well-being of the world's stock markets). Perhaps the delay will lead to a superior bill in the coming days...but I guess neither party is giving us reason to be optimistic about such an outcome.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Demands of the Presidency

The American public and media are right to be focusing on the current economic crisis and the resulting debate but unfortunately, the rest of our challenges cannot be put on hold.

Nor, unfortunately, can new ones be stalled from emerging.

Today, American and Pakistani troops exchanged fire along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Earlier this week, North Korea threatened to restart it's nuclear weapons program.

And two days ago, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad added to his provocative rhetorical track record while speaking at the United Nations.


Tomorrow night, John McCain and Barack Obama are scheduled to hold a debate on foreign policy.

These two men have an opportunity to speak to tens of millions of Americans tomorrow night and we need them to do so.

John McCain has suspended his campaign under the pretense that his full and complete attention is needed to resolve this crisis. He is suggesting that the debate should be postponed and perhaps even take the place of the only debate in which Sarah Palin and Joe Biden are slated to speak.

First of all, let me say (with an honest attempt to limit my condescension) that the idea that John McCain is needed or is even capable of being an indispensable player in the current bailout negotiations is borderline hilarious given that he thought the economy was "fundamentally strong" less than two weeks ago. And in an attempt to be somewhat fair and frank, Barack Obama's presence at these negotiations is not necessary to save the Union either.

In fact, these two Senators will almost certainly do more harm than good if they crash the debate at this point because it is completely impossible to separate either of these men from the raw politics that have inevitably consumed their campaigns. And as both have said, partisanship is the last thing this crisis needs right now.


As for John McCain asserting that his campaign and its discussion of other issues should be suspended until the crisis is resolved....

In the spirit of full disclosure - again - I'll admit that I support Barack Obama in this election. Perhaps I have therefore lost my objectivity, but I feel compelled to say - almost scream - that I find John McCain's campaign suspension nothing less than absurd.

Here's my thinking on the matter:

I pray that our next President that can walk right out of negotiations on a crucial economic bill at 7pm and tell me at 8pm exactly what he thinks we should do to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

At 8:15, if necessary, I want him to explain to me why Americans are being shot at by troops from a supposed "ally" in the war on terror and what we should do about it.

After that, he can take a breath.

But THEN, at 8:30 he should be able to discuss what our options are if North Korea decides to break their word and build more nukes.

At 9pm, if necessary, he can go back to fixing the economy over a late dinner.

Notice that I didn't even ask him to discuss Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear weapons proliferation or border security. He can put those off until tomorrow because I recognize that even the President of the United States is a mere mortal.

But I DEMAND that he be a truly exceptional one.

This debate should go on. We need it. We deserve it. And the candidates for POTUS should be capable participating in it without harming their "contribution" to the resolution of the economic crisis.


Thanks for reading this rant. I had to get it off my chest.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Say No to Cancelling the Debate

New stations including CNN and CBS are reporting that John McCain is asking Barack Obama to agree to postponing the presidential debate scheduled for this Friday night.

McCain is going to continue his campaign through tomorrow afternoon at which time he wants to suspend it to "focus on the economy". This would include "postponing" the debate this Friday night.

This is a terrible idea.

A better one (at least for the American people) would be to follow through on the debate but shift its focus from the previously agreed upon topic of foreign policy to the economy.

Instead, McCain is proposing for the following:

"I am calling on the president to convene a meeting with the leadership from both houses of Congress, including Senator Obama and myself.... It is time for both parties to come together to solve this problem."

This is not a bad idea, but there is no reason in the world that this should necessitate cancelling the best medium for letting the voters analyze their candidates' position.

We MUST have this debate - and someone truly prepared to assume the Presidency should welcome it. Here's why I say that:

We are in the middle of a crisis that has yet to be resolved. The timing of this debate gives these two men an enormous platform to discuss and promote their agenda for addressing it. This platform gives them a level of power and influence that only an elected President typically has. Tens of millions of people are expected to watch these two discuss their ideas. And given that a legislative response to this crisis will likely come some time next week, their words on Friday night could profoundly shape the outcome.

In other words, if they truly want to lead this nation (and not just "hold the office") - this is their chance.

I'm skeptical of anyone this close to the Presidency that has this opportunity and is not literally jumping to take it.

The Bailout: Two Thoughts and a Summary Perspective

Ok - another post on the bailout proposal. I've been reading more commentary from journalists, economists and even the Treasury Departments website.

Two emerging thoughts and a summary perspective:

First thought:

The more I think about it, the more outraged I become that the Bush Administration has asked the American people to give $700 billion to Henry Paulson with absolutely no ability to influence how he uses it or any mechanism whatsoever to hold him accountable for any decision he makes.

As proposed by the Bush Administration, the Treasury Secretary would be given the following power (source: Dept of the Treasury Website):

[The Treasury Secretary] will have authority to issue up to $700 billion of Treasury securities to finance the purchase of troubled assets. The purchases are intended to be residential and commercial mortgage-related assets, which may include mortgage-backed securities and whole loans. The Secretary will have the discretion, in consultation with the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, to purchase other assets, as deemed necessary to effectively stabilize financial markets.

I added the bold font myself for emphasis. Make no mistake - this is basically saying that Henry Paulson can buy anything he wants with this money. This is a bad idea. It is a potentially catastrophic idea when combined with the following clause in the Bush Administration's proposal:

Sec. 8. Review. Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

This is from the Administration's bailout proposal summary issued this weekend. You can read it for yourself here.

I say all this, not because I doubt Paulson competence or integrity. Install any human being (alive or dead) you want in this position - and give him/her this power - and I would be writing the exact same post. No one should have this much unregulated power. Adams, Jefferson and Madison will spin in their graves if this bill passes.

Fortunately, it looks like it won't. Even the Republicans are balking at its passage.

Second thought:

I cannot find - anywhere - a clue as to the origin of this $700 billion number. Not a single high level equation or minimal set of assumptions. Not one pie chart even speculating where this money might go. At an absolute minimum we should get an explanation that says something like this:

"This money is to buy approximately 1,000,000 bad mortgages at an average price of approximately $700,000 a piece".

I totally get that this is a tremendously complicated problem and I don't expect, nor would I trust, a detailed, line-item budget for these funds. But we are seeing no transparency whatsoever - and that is totally unacceptable.

So - a summary thought:

Whatever fallout we are going to have from this crisis, it is not going to be materially worse, in the long run, if Congress takes another week or even two to get the best possible solution in place. Turning over $700 billion dollars to one man who, by the way, has only about 4 months to spend it, is one of the most ludicrous ideas in the history of Western Civilization.

And I say that understanding that crises often need us to act much faster than the slug we call the U.S. Congress is capable of moving - but to give that level of power and preclude retroactive accountability is unjustifiable under ANY circumstances.

Let's all take a deep breath and spend another week letting these Congressmen and Senators - 95% of whom are no more prepared to evaluate this plan than a 19 year old second semester economics student - talk to experts and get up to speed.

Let's not allow a once in a generation economic debacle to lead us into a once in a century political one.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Questions and Answers on the Bailout Plan

In my quest to learn more about the $700 billion bailout plan Congress and the President are currently debating, I've found another useful article to pass on.

The article is not anywhere near all its title claims it to be ("The Wall Street Bailout Plan, Explained"), but if you're interested in a perspective on any of the following questions, you can get one here.

Q. The bailout program being negotiated by the Bush administration and Congressional leaders calls for the government to spend up to $700 billion to buy distressed mortgages. How did the politicians come up with that number, and could it go higher?

Q. Who, really, is going to come up with the $700 billion?

Q. So is it fair to say that Americans who are neither rich nor reckless are being asked to rescue people who are? What is in this package for responsible homeowners of modest means who might be forced out of their homes, perhaps for reasons beyond their control?

Q. How is it that the administration and Congress, which have not tried to find huge amounts of money to, say, improve the nation’s health insurance system or repair bridges and tunnels, can now be ready to come up with $700 billion to rescue the financial system? And is it realistic to think that the parties can reach agreement and get legislation passed in a hurry?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Krugman on the Financial Crisis

Paul Krugman published a very strong opinion piece in the New York Times today that outlines the reasons for the economic crisis and comments on the appropriate response. I'm usually hesitant to promote Krugman in this blog because (despite his strong reputation as an economist) I feel that his essays are often a little less objective than they should be. That being said, I'm with him this time.

The article takes less than 5 minutes to read and it will give you both a good overview of what got us into this mess and what we should (and should not) do about it.

You can read it here.

Voters should pay extremely close attention to the $700 BILLION bailout plan that is currently being negotiated in Congress. The Bush Administration's current proposal wants to give the Treasury Secretary extraordinary and absolutely unprecedented powers to administer the plan without review "by any court of law or any administrative agency".

This is a horrible idea in my opinion.

No one should be given that kind of power and not have it at least subject to retroactive review - regardless of whether they were appointed by George W. Bush, Barack Obama, John McCain - or heck even one of the Founding Fathers. (They would have known better).

We're in the middle of some truly historic economic events right now and, as scary as it is, we are relying on our politicians to craft a $700 billion dollar plan to address them in a matter of days. Be skeptical of anyone who says we need to rush to judgement on this. The decisions being made today and over the next week or two could have economic repercussions for a generation.

Getting Smart on the Financial Crisis

Very few people understand the causes and implications of the economic events of the last few weeks, but many are starting to realize that we have just witnessed some hugely important and historic economic events.

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm still trying to get up to speed on all this and it's proving difficult even given my experience in business and economics.

I've found two articles so far that I'll pass on if you want to try to better understand the events you are witnessing. The second article is probably the better read, but I am mentioning it second because it is a few months old.

The first is by Robert Samuelson writing in The Washington Post. The article quickly becomes pretty dense - so you should read it at your own risk (I still find some aspects a bit confusing). You can find the whole article here, but I've tried to isolate the core of the article below. This section speaks to the causes of the crisis only. Other parts of the essay try to explain the government's actions over the last few days but in my opinion is not easily understandable without a bit of background in macroeconomics.

Every financial system depends on trust. People have to believe that the institutions they deal with will perform as expected. We are in a crisis because financial managers -- the people who run banks, investment banks, hedge funds -- have lost that trust. Banks recoil from lending to each other; investors retreat. The ultimate horror is then everyone wants to sell and no one wants to buy. Paulson's plan aims to avoid that calamity.

As is well known, the crisis began with losses in the $1.3 trillion market for "subprime" mortgages, many of which were "securitized" -- bundled into bonds and sold to investors. With all U.S. stocks and bonds worth about $50 trillion in 2007, the losses should have been manageable. They weren't, because no one knew how large losses might become or which institutions held the suspect subprime securities. moreover, many financial institutions were thinly capitalized. They depended on borrowed funds; losses could wipe out their modest capital.

So the crisis spread because the initial losses were multiplied. AIG, the nation's largest insurer, is a case in point. Although most of its businesses -- insurance, aircraft leasing -- were profitable, it had written "credit default swaps" (CDS's) on some subprime mortgage securities. These contracts obligated AIG to cover other investors' losses. In the first half of 2008, AIG itself lost about $15 billion on its CDS contracts, and through the summer losses mounted, resulting in downgrades of the company's credit rating and a need to post more collateral. AIG didn't have the cash.

The second is a reference to a previous post I made some months back that links to an excellent tutorial on the mortgage crisis that seems to be at the root of this mess. It's a fantastic place to start (and even a little entertaining, believe it or not). The post is here.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

An Interesting Solar Power Initiative

It might be surprising that I haven't said a word about the economic developments this week but the truth is, I am still trying to get my head around it. Despite a bunch of very relevant education in business and economics the last few years, I'm still finding it difficult to feel confident that I understand the causes and the proposed solutions well enough to think aloud about it.

So instead, I'm looking for some well written articles that I could promote on here to help any of you that are interested learn a little more. I haven't had a ton of success yet.

So, in this post, I'm passing on something else that I thought was interesting.

Berkley California is rolling out a pilot program that provides low interest loans to residents that want to retrofit their homes with solar power panels. Although many communities have tried tax-credits and/or rebates to encourage similar efforts in the past, Berkeley's program is the first that actually provides residents the cash upfront to address the start-up costs (which are considered to be the single biggest obstacles to wide-spread adoption of the technology).

The plan allows residents to pay off these loans over the course of 20 years via a ~$180 monthly increase in their property taxes. An undetermined portion of this $180 cost would be offset by savings in monthly electricity bills.

Sounds promising to me. You can read a little more about it here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A New Low for a Man and His Party

This post is written primarly for any conservative or undecided voters.

I don't feel the need to try to maintain a balanced or dispassionate perspective when I hear garbage like this:


In the above 30 second ad, John McCain accuses Barack Obama of fighting to achieve "comprehensive sex education for kindergartners". McCain calls this Obama's "one accomplishment" in education.

The truth is, this piece of legislation was designed simply to teach these young kids just enough to know when they were being sexually abused. In other words, this was not a pro-sex education law, this was an anti-pedophilia law.

Anyone out there that still supports the McCain campaign needs to ask why they feel the need to resort to such blatant and disgusting lies.

We have a severe energy crisis in this country, a failing public education system, record budget deficits and two wars to fight. Instead of telling you where he would lead the United States, John McCain is spending time, money and energy trying to convince you that Barack Obama wants to teach your 5 year old all about sex.

Why would he and his party resort to such a tactic? If you are still considering voting for him, you need to ask yourself that question.

Here is my own personal answer: the once proud party of Lincoln, T. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and even Newt Gingrich - the one that most reasonable people at least minimally respected (and many proudly supported) - is gone.

This country needs an honorable conservative political party.

Today, we do not have one.

If you ever want to see one again, you first must show those that have stolen its mantle the door.

Even if I did not support Barack Obama, I would no longer be able to bring myself to vote for John McCain - and I say that as someone who, only eight or nine months ago, would have probably voted for him over Hillary Clinton.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Rudy, Palin and Community Organizers

You might be surprised that I haven't commented on either of the conventions over the last couple weeks. I've watched every day of both conventions (or at least TiVo'd and caught up) and the sheer volume of rhetoric has left me grasping for where to begin. I've also wanted to give myself a bit of time to cool down because both sides provoked a range of emotions that I didn't want to overly influence my writing.

But some of my strongest emotions were provoked two days ago after hearing Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin and they haven't really gone away. So, I thought I would say a few words.

In this post, I want to focus on a single comment both of them made that I felt crossed a line and, more than that, revealed something meaningful about these two individuals.

Sarah Palin moved me to the edge of my seat when she said the following:

Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves.

Great, I thought. Inform us about your record - make an argument that you will be able to take the reigns next year if the oldest President ever elected to a first term has his 5th recurrence of skin-cancer or, God forbid, some other health problem. Tell me something substantive about yourself. I'm listening with an open mind.

Instead, she said this:

I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities.

(And by the way, she never quite remembered to tell us "what the job involves").

Rudy Giuliani preceded Gov. Palin that evening. If you can spare 45 seconds, you can observe the remarks (and the audience's favorable reaction) that prompted this post.

So why am I writing about this after all the things that were said by both parties in the last two weeks? It's standard practice for politicians to mock their opponents -particularly at their political conventions. But this remark was not merely demeaning Obama (who worked as an organizer in his youth), it was denigrating a service oriented profession.

If you're interested, you can read more about the job of community organizing here - but here is a pretty solid core definition:

Community organizers create social movements by building a base of concerned people, mobilizing these community members to act, and developing leadership from and relationships among the people involved.

Community organizers act as area-wide coordinators of all the programs of different agencies so as best to meet community needs for health and welfare services. They also facilitate self-help programs initiated by local common-interest groups, for example, by training local leaders to analyze and solve the problems of a community. Community organizers work actively, as do other types of social workers, in community councils of social agencies and in community-action groups. At times the role of community organizers overlaps that of the social planners.

So basically, community organizers help people help themselves. They are nothing less than the very embodiment of what the conservative movement once claimed (rightly) to champion and what it continues today to pretend that liberals reject in favor of government handouts.

I find this tremendously ironic and hypocritical. And given the boisterous positive response of the convention's crowd - both to Giuliani and Palin's statements - it is also sad.

Barack Obama gets a lot of credit for his role as a community organizer from those that support him. They say that after graduating with his elite education and given his personal gifts he could have taken any number of lucrative and prestigious jobs instead- and they are right.

Some of his more thoughtful critics like to say that given Obama's political ambitions, his "sacrifice" wasn't a sacrifice at all given the political network he built in the community where he eventually launched his career. Some further claim that this was one of Obama's chief intentions all along when he returned to Chicago. And you know... I'm willing to say that there is a good chance they are right.

But Giuliani and Palin did not attempt to cast doubt on Obama's intentions. Instead, they mocked the job itself and by extension, it's purpose. They also insulted all the other people that have served in the same capacity - most of whom were not able to use the experience to attain wealth or political power.

This says a great deal about Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Palin and yes, John McCain.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Read the Pickens Plan

If you haven’t seen the new television ads being run by longtime oilman T. Boone Pickens, I encourage you to take 60 seconds to check it out.

In a single brief ad, Pickens lays out an intelligent and easy to understand plan to break America’s dependence on oil. You can read the whole plan here (and I encourage you to do so – it’s an easy read), but here it is in a nutshell:

1. Establish wind power as a mainstream source and producer of a substantial fraction of America’s electricity

2. Leverage these new wind resources to free American natural gas (currently used to generate 22% of our electricity) to rapidly phase out oil as our primary transportation fuel.

Pickens supports the eventual transition to renewable fuels for our vehicles but claims that the technology is not yet ready.

Here’s my two cents on the plan – I’ll keep it short and sweet:

We should embrace and expand wind power as rapidly as possible. It should be a national project on par with Eisenhower’s initiative to build our highways, the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Program.

And while natural gas would be a better fuel for our cars than oil in pretty much every respect (read his plan – very compelling), I’m not convinced we couldn’t do better (see sugar-cane ethanol in Brazil).

However, my summary opinion is that this plan represents a dramatic improvement over the status quo.

Thoughts, anyone?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Peek at Obama's Political Worldview

I certainly don’t agree with Barack Obama on everything. That being said, when Obama speaks about his overarching political worldview, I often feel like my mind is being read. This is one of the reasons that I have become such a strong supporter of his campaign.

Today, Andrew Sullivan’s blog posted a quote from Obama that appears in the latest issue of Time.

I was always suspicious of dogma, and the excesses of the left and the right. One of my greatest criticisms of the Republican Party over the last 20 years is that it's not particularly conservative. I can read conservatives from an earlier era—a George Will or a Peggy Noonan—and recognize wisdom, because it has much more to do with respect for tradition and the past and I think skepticism about being able to just take apart a society and put it back together. Because I do think that communities and nations and families aren't subject to that kind of mechanical approach to change. But when I look at Tom DeLay or some of the commentators on Fox these days, there's nothing particularly conservative about them.

In my opinion, this simple quote neatly captures several aspects of Obama’s intelligence and political philosophy that have given me the confidence not only to vote for him, but also to openly promote him to people that I know will be skeptical.

Let me be more specific.

These words reveal a mind that is not ideological in nature. Obama not only cites his aversion to dogma, but explicitly acknowledges that both the right and the left often go too far in pursuing their values. It is this mindset that allows me to support him despite the criticism of his very liberal Senate voting record.

Obama also recognizes the value of the conservative political philosophy. He does this explicitly when he acknowledges the “wisdom” of conservative thinkers such as George Will and Peggy Noonan (two of my personal favorites) and implicitly when he cites his biggest problem with modern Republicans – that they “are not particularly conservative”.

As someone who voted Republican in 1996 and even 2000, I could not agree more. (For example, cutting taxes while dramatically raising spending (e.g. two wars, the Medicare Prescription Drug act) is not conservative. Subsidizing Exxon in times of record profits is not conservative.).

Beyond acknowledging the value of conservative political thought, Obama also reveals a belief that is directly at odds with extreme ideological liberalism: that the power of government intervention is clearly limited. Perhaps I am reading too much into his words, but I think that when Obama says that “nations and families aren’t subject to that kind of mechanical change” he is acknowledging what few ideological liberals will - that there major limits to what government can achieve and, therefore, we should be skeptical and incremental when we expand its purpose and power.

Am I reading too much into these words? I would be happy to hear alternative and/or skeptical opinions.

If you buy this argument, I encourage you to forward it to skeptics.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Purging Some Apathy

My posts have obviously been few and far between lately. There are several reasons for this, but I must admit that my absence has been partially due to a sense of disgust at the current state of the Presidential campaign and the dominating effect it has had on the media's coverage of the various policy debates. It's made me want to take an extended break from it all - and I think that is a bad thing.

I blame both campaigns for this.

David Brooks wrote an insightful piece this week that attempts (successfully in my opinion) to diagnose why the McCain campaign has taken the low-road in this campaign. In short, Brooks argues, the nature of the media's coverage is forcing him to attack Obama. Though I am uncomfortable with this conclusion, his argument is pretty persuasive. It is certainly not the whole story, nor does it even come close to absolving McCain for some of the absurd and/or oversimplifed arguments he is advancing (e.g. claiming we can even come close to lowering the deficit by only cutting pork barrel spending). Nevertheless, Brooks argument provokes a useful debate on why we see what we do from our politicians.

Obama is not blameless either.

Although I have been much more impressed with the idea-centered nature of his television ads and his publicized speeches, he has declined McCain's invitation to appear in a series of one on one town hall style debates. There is no good excuse for this refusal. We would all be better off to hear these two men go head to head on the issues instead of continuing to be subjected to the ludicrous filters and priorities of the mainstream media - both the liberal and the conservative players.


I didn't think about the content of this post before I wrote it - which is somewhat unusual for me on this blog. But I felt it was necessary to write something as I find myself being consumed by the affliction that I have railed against so many times on here before... apathy.

It is tough to even feel minimal value - much less anything near contentment - at reaching so few people with this blog in the face of the spectacle of the trivial, misleading and often harmful presentation of our political process that I see on the news most days.

But I remind myself that this spectacle is precisely the reason it is important to stay engaged and sounding off. We should all remember our responsibility to do what we can with what we have where we are (hat tip: Teddy Roosevelt).

So...I'm going to redouble my efforts! I hope each of you will do the same in your own way.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Perspective on the Conflict in Georgia

The Olympics have distracted much of the world from the war that has erupted in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. I've been trying to study the issue, but the divided news coverage and my lack of background knowledge on the factors driving the conflict make me uncomfortable making any statements of my own.

That being said, it seems like a far too important event to not comment on. Needless to say, wars - especially involving powers the size of Russia - are always a big deal, but this one really captures my attention for what it seems to suggest about the role Russia will play in shaping world events in the coming years or decades. In short, it's pretty troubling if not downright scary.

Robert Kagan, writing today in the Washington Post, discussed his take on Moscow's intentions in this conflict and speculates on the role they will play in the coming years. If you are interested in international relations, I recommend the whole essay but I've copied his core conclusion below:

Historians will come to view Aug. 8, 2008, as a turning point no less significant than Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Russia's attack on sovereign Georgian territory marked the official return of history, indeed to an almost 19th-century style of great-power competition, complete with virulent nationalisms, battles for resources, struggles over spheres of influence and territory, and even -- though it shocks our 21st-century sensibilities -- the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives. Yes, we will continue to have globalization, economic interdependence, the European Union and other efforts to build a more perfect international order. But these will compete with and at times be overwhelmed by the harsh realities of international life that have endured since time immemorial.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Important Facts About Energy Policy...and Your Tires

Energy policy is getting the attention it deserves in the current Presidential campaign. Unfortunately, most of the rhetoric is not sufficiently serious. That being said, some good ideas are being floated, even if they are being dismissed for political reasons.

Barack Obama, like John McCain, has supported specific energy policy ideas that I object to including subsidizing corn-based ethanol and, more recently, the windfall profits tax on oil companies. The McCain camp opposes both ideas and has rightly challenged these positions. Unfortunately, they have criticized some of his better ideas as well.

The most recent is Obama's suggestion that Americans prioritize keeping their cars' tires inflated and engines tuned. The RNC has actually begun handing out tire-gauges in an effort to mock Obama's energy plan and score political points.

But a recent article in Time magazine has made it easy to evaluate the merits of this proposal. You can read the entire article here, but the most important points are in the first two paragraphs which I will quote directly:

How out of touch is Barack Obama? He's so out of touch that he suggested that if all Americans inflated their tires properly and took their cars for regular tune-ups, they could save as much oil as new offshore drilling would produce. Gleeful Republicans have made this their daily talking point, Rush Limbaugh is having a field day, and the Republican National Committee is sending tire gauges labeled "Barack Obama's Energy Plan" to Washington reporters.

But who's really out of touch? The Bush administration estimates that expanded offshore drilling could increase oil production by 200,000 barrels per day by 2030. We use about 20 million barrels per day, so that would meet about 1% of our demand two decades from now. Meanwhile, efficiency experts say that keeping tires inflated can improve gas mileage by 3%, and regular maintenance can add another 4%. Many drivers already follow their advice, but if everyone else did, we could reduce demand several percentage points immediately. In other words: Obama is right.

I encourage you to forward this article (or the blog post) to your friends. This is an easy way to elevate the debate (and also to help your friends save a bit of money!).

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Exciting Progress Against Alzheimer's

Scientist's working in the U.K. have just completed a tremendously successful round of human trials on a new drug that halts the progression of Alzheimer's.

Needless to say, if this drug makes it to market it 4 or 5 years, it could save countless families from tremendous suffering. You can read a short article here that will tell you more about the drug and the evidence supporting its efficacy.

This breakthrough is tremendously important for at least one additional reason.

Alzheimer's is tremendously expensive due to the fact that while it is not fatal it is eventually completely incapacitating - requiring 24/7 care for its victims - oftentimes for several years.

Newt Gingrich's Center for Health Transformation published a white paper last year that estimated without breakthroughs like this, government funded care for Alzheimer's could reach $1 trillion a year in today's dollars by 2050. Today, before the baby-boomers have begun to really suffer from this disease, it is already costing the American taxpayer $100 billion a year.

It may not be a stretch to say that this breakthrough alone - if it can be successfully developed into an affordable product - could almost single-handedly save the long-term financial viability of Medicare!

Very exciting.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I'll Be Back

Sorry for the dry spell here - I just realized that I didn't mention that I wouldn't be writing much (if anything) in July.

I'm currently hanging out in Costa Rica in self imposed exile from politics/current events (and several other things). Please drop in again late this month or early in August!


Saturday, July 5, 2008

Why We Can Demand Energy Independence

Everyone has agreed for the last thirty years that energy independence is a worthwhile goal.

There is some debate over why we have not achieved it yet, but the most common or persuasive argument is perhaps that it is simply "not yet technologically feasible". Politicians and energy company executives call for "increased investment in R&D" but set no meaningful goals or benchmarks - and therefore, nothing changes.

The fact is, claims that substantial and affordable progress toward energy independence is not yet possible are completely false.

The Washington Post published a concise article today that outlines 4 countries' efforts and their dramatic progress towards this goal. It also gives some insight into why we have been unwilling (I say unwilling because we are NOT unable) to take the necessary steps.

We should demand an aggressive and specific energy independence plan from out next President. In my opinion, it should be the top priority of his first year. John McCain has already named his plan the "Lexington Project". Barack Obama will probably offer something of similar detail soon.

We can and should demand bold and meaningful action- but we need to know what to ask for from our leaders.

We should not accept McCain's plan of increasing our long-term dependence on oil by investing in more drilling, nor should we follow Obama's calls to produce economically and environmentally inferior versions of ethanol (specifically the politically appealing corn-based variety).

Read here (for 5-8 minutes) to see what other countries have done and are doing. It is an easy and effective way to quickly build some solid knowledge around this important issue.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

On Independence Day

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

John Adams

I'm not sure that any other quote so aptly captures the American Dream. The progress of the United States been often been slow and occasionally stalled altogether - but it is impossible to seriously argue that we have not made tremendous advances towards Adams' goal since he and his contemporaries created this nation.

I feel fortunate to live here in the United States where I have both the physical safety and the intellectual freedom to pursue my potential and I am excited to see what the latest generation can do. What diseases might we cure? What new renewable and clean sources of energy will we tap? What improvements will we make to our public schools? Will we return to the Moon or finally send a human being to Mars?

I guess only time will tell. But I feel blessed to live in a country in which questions like these are not unwarranted...

Happy Independence Day!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Add a Zero

George Will, writing in today's Washington Post, seems to have identified a no-brainer action that Congress should take immediately:

Two-thirds of doctoral candidates in science and engineering in U.S. universities are foreign-born. But only 140,000 employment-based green cards are available annually, and 1 million educated professionals are waiting -- often five or more years -- for cards. Congress could quickly add a zero to the number available, thereby boosting the U.S. economy and complicating matters for America's competitors.

....Solutions to some problems are complex; removing barriers to educated
immigrants is not.

Makes sense to me....why would we not want to most educated people in the world working in America?

You can read Will's entire essay here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

36 Up, 3 Down

For any of you that think gas prices will ever come back down significantly OR not continue to increase for a long time, consider some powerful yet simple facts about the American demand and willingness to pay for gasoline:

Gasoline prices are 36% higher today than they were a year ago, but American consumption last week was only 2.7% lower than the corresponding week last year.

We can guess about the role of speculation, cartel price manipulation or the impact of Chinese and Indian economic growth, but the fact above is all you need to know to be certain that prices will not only fail to come back down, but also continue to rise steadily for the foreseeable future.

I found this fact in this article.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


My previous post on cancer research reminded me of an article that I read a while back about the tiny number of "scientists" in Congress. Even applying the loosest definition of the word, there are only 30 scientists out of 535 Senators and Representatives.

This is not a surprising fact, nor does it necessarily have to be a problematic one. A strong and curious mind can quickly be brought up to speed on the ways in which science can and should impact public policy - provided of course, that our politicians have both the desire to learn and an inner circle with sufficient expertise to recognize when a scientist's input is warranted.

Sadly, the testimony of the politicians in this article indicate that most of their colleagues seem to be lacking both. Representative Rush Holt (one of the 30 scientists) characterizes the issue perfectly when he says:

“We (the scientists in Congress) know more than our colleagues...but not more than they could know.”

So what does this mean for a voter?

My personal recommendation is to look for evidence of critical thinking ability in your candidates. Do they demonstrate an ability to handle nuance or do they grossly oversimplify issues? Do they change their mind in response to new facts? Does their background demonstrate an ability to work effectively in very diverse jobs or environments - and with diverse teams?

It seems that we usually don't have the opportunity to vote for someone that can clearly demonstrate any of these qualities. Fortunately, the article lists another, more actionable recommendation that we should demand our next President adopt:
Move quickly to appoint a science adviser and keep that person in the presidential inner circle.

This seems absurdly obvious to me... but I guess many of the best ideas are....

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cloning Technology and Curing Cancer

I ran into an extraordinary article today that discusses the potential of specific types of cloning technology to fight cancer.

The basic idea is to find a sample of the small percentage of cells in a person's immune system that attack cancer cells, clone them in large numbers and then re-inject them into the body. This therapy is powerful and innovative due to the fact that few immune system cells usually attack cancer because cancer cells are not recognized as being foreign to the body.

I love stories like this because they give us a glimpse of the extraordinary things mankind could accomplish in the future. This technology is pretty far from being widely available, but it is exciting nonetheless.

You can read more about it here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Perspective on Fatherhood

I read these remarks on fatherhood this morning and wanted to share them. I want to say clearly that these are NOT my words, but I do not want to cite the source.

Whether it be in business, government or just every day conversations, the speaker is too often dramatically more important than the validity of the content s/he is delivering. This is a topic that we should all evaluate strictly on merit and that idea is what I am trying to promote by keeping these remarks anonymous (though many of you may know exactly who said them).

The remarks I read are based on three priorities for excellent fatherhood (and parenting in general). I am citing just this core in lieu of the entire speech.

The first [priority] .... – as fathers and parents – [is] to instill [an] ethic of excellence in our children.... And that means meeting those expectations ourselves. That means setting examples of excellence in our own lives.

The second thing we need to do as fathers is pass along the value of empathy to our children. Not sympathy, but empathy – the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes; to look at the world through their eyes. Sometimes it’s so easy to get caught up in “us,” that we forget about our obligations to one another. There’s a culture in our society that says remembering these obligations is somehow soft – that we can’t show weakness, and so therefore we can’t show kindness.

But our young boys and girls see that. They see when you are ignoring or mistreating your wife. They see when you are inconsiderate at home; or when you are distant; or when you are thinking only of yourself. And so it’s no surprise when we see that behavior in our schools or on our streets. That’s why we pass on the values of empathy and kindness to our children by living them. We need to show our kids that you’re not strong by putting other people down – you’re strong by lifting them up. That’s our responsibility as fathers.

...the final lesson we must learn as fathers is also the greatest gift we can pass on to our children – and that is the gift of hope....not ...an idle hope that’s little more than blind optimism or willful ignorance of the problems we face. I’m talking about hope as that spirit inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better is waiting for us if we’re willing to work for it and fight for it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Next Generation's Role in the Iraq War

In 2000, one of George W. Bush's central campaign promises was to cut taxes. Prior to 9/11, when the federal budget was running a substantial surplus, this was a respectable idea.

However, after it became necessary to invade Afghanistan, history would have suggested that these tax cuts be scaled back or eliminated. Actually, if Bush and the Republican Congress had followed the example of every single other wartime government in American history, they would have raised taxes. Instead, they proceeded as if it was still 1999.

If only the fiscal irresponsibility had stopped there.

As we all know, less than two years after the invasion of Afghanistan, we went to war with Iraq. Many of you might also remember that in 2003 the Medicare Prescription Drug Act was passed. Fewer of you probably know that this was the largest increase in entitlement spending since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society initiatives passed in the 1960's. The price tag for this program runs well into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Despite these enormous new financial obligations, the Congress passed another round of tax cuts in 2003.

No one seems to care about this issue. There is no outrage.

You might explain that by saying that it's hard to get people outraged about NOT having their money taken away from them. But I would respond by asking "what about their children's money"?

This war WILL be paid for, it's just a question of when, who and how much interest they will pay.

Our politicians (I now refuse to call them our "political leaders") have rightly concluded that their careers are enhanced by passing the bill to people that will not be old enough to vote until they are no longer running for office.

Let us hope against the likely scenario the these future citizens, our children and grandchildren, aren't also also paying for their own wars at the same time they are paying for ours....

I read an article on the Washington Post a few days ago that sparked my thinking on it this issue (again). You can read it here.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Brooks on Mature Leadership

David Brooks has rapidly become on of my favorite thinkers over the last couple years.

Today he published an essay in the New York Times in which he ponders the value of a leader truly coming to terms with his/her greatest weaknesses (before gaining power). He considers this idea through the lens of Abraham Lincoln's experience.

I recommend the entire short essay (it's here), but wanted to quote the end of it directly as I think it captures some true wisdom:

...it’s not fair to compare anybody to Lincoln, but he does illustrate the repertoire of skills we look for in a leader. The central illusion of modern politics is that if only people as virtuous as “us” had power, then things would be better. Candidates get elected by telling people what they want to hear, leading them by using the sugar of their own fantasies.

Somehow a leader conversant with his own failings wouldn’t be as affected by the moral self-approval that afflicts most political movements. He’d be detached from his most fervid followers and merciful and understanding toward foes. He’d have a sense of his own smallness in the sweep of events. He or she would contravene Lord Acton’s dictum and grow sadder and wiser with more power.

All this suggests a maxim for us voters: Don’t only look to see which candidate has the most talent. Look for the one most emotionally gripped by his own failings.

A Martian Sunset...

Another departure from politics...

Click here for an absolutely breathtaking picture of a sunset on Mars.

I'm guessing it was taken by the new probe that landed last month.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Watching History..and Feeling Good

Last night, Barack Obama became the first African American to ever clinch the nomination of a major American political party.

Please forget - for just a moment - whether you intend to vote for Obama or not.

Instead, remember that barely more than a generation ago, in many parts of this country, African Americans were not allowed to share the same restrooms or water fountains with Caucasians. In many places, African American children were not allowed to sit in the same classrooms with white children.

Regardless of your political beliefs, it is hard to argue that last night was not a huge symbol of America's exceptional ability to continually move closer to the ideals expressed by our Founding Fathers in our founding documents.

This capacity for self-improvement makes me proud of the United States...and it reminds me why we can always be hopeful for our prospects in the future.

I feel good.

Yes, I am pleased that Obama won. But much more importantly, I feel renewed optimism that our biggest challenges might indeed be overcome and that our greatest opportunities may one day be realized.

I don't feel this way because of a particular candidate. I'm not excited by an unrealistic vision of overnight or otherwise short-term solutions. I am excited because I have been reminded, once again, that over time, America tends to get better and better.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Meanwhile, 171 Million Miles Away...

As a politics junkie, I have to make it a point to step back every so often and remember the important and/or interesting things that are happening elsewhere.

NASA just successfully landed a new probe on Mars called Phoenix. You can read about the mission here, but I've copied a few key paragraphs below.

I'm a big fan of the space program, but even for those of you that are not, I think things like this remind us of the extraordinary things we can accomplish given the right focus and resources.

...Phoenix is designed to look for organic material and other signs that life has existed on Mars, or could exist on the planet. Unlike the two rovers that have been exploring the Martian surface for nearly five years, Phoenix is built to stay in one place and use its robotic arm to dig into the soil and ice. The vehicle is equipped with several miniature chemistry labs to analyze the material it digs up.

The lander touched down further north on Mars than any previous lander. NASA scientists think the frozen water on or near the surface may tell them whether the minerals and organic compounds needed for life as we know it exist, or have ever existed, on the planet.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Risky Conversations

I'm going to comment soon on the talking versus appeasement question that President Bush recently raised with his speech before the Israeli Knesset last week. But first, I want to recommend an article that speaks to the related (but different) question of the risks associated with high level diplomacy with adversaries.

First, let me say that I with those that say the United States should be pursuing far more expansive and aggressive diplomacy with our adversaries. Under the right circumstances, I even support these talks on the Presidential level.

I've been frustrated recently by the low level of debate around this issue and it has caused me to dig in around my opinion that increased high level diplomacy is a superior course of action. In other words, I have lost some objectivity.

This "digging in" has happened to the extent that I have not allowed myself to reflect on the fact that Presidential-level diplomacy is NOT a risk-less proposition if not done properly. Some of our wisest leaders have made that mistaken assumption to disastrous effect.

The New York Times ran a strong editorial today that reminded me of that fact. It used the example of John F. Kennedy's direct discussions with Nikita Khrushchev to make the point. It makes the argument that Kennedy's weakness in those discussions emboldened the Soviet Premier so much that it may have been a contributing factor behind his decision to move the weapons to Cuba that ultimately led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

If you want to read more, it's a 5 minute essay..

Friday, May 16, 2008

In Support of Big Dreams

I found this 90 second video on another blog (Andrew Sullivan's) and wanted to pass it along.

Save it for the next time you lose faith in your ability to achieve your goals.

I'm confident that it will pick you back up...

Thursday, May 15, 2008

McCain's First Term Goals

Policy speeches usually don't get enough attention in the mainstream media, but CNN covered one by John McCain today that I thought was worth passing on.

I'm not going to provide much commentary here. I think some of his goals are laudable and achievable. Others I think are too vague to discuss in any detail. And a few, like claiming there will not be another terrorist attack on American soil, are reckless (despite how obviously desirable a goal it is).

Still, in my judgement, this is a rare example of the media providing valuable information you can use to evaluate someone that is asking for your vote, so I'm passing it on.

You can read the article here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The 5th Annual Livestrong Day

Lance Armstrong published an important Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal today - you can read it here (subscription required).

Three of my close friends, all in their 20's, have been diagnosed with cancer in the last 12 months - one just this last week. I also have an aunt that survived breast cancer.

I would imagine that every reader of this post has a loved one that has fought or is fighting the disease now....so this issue probably hits close to home for everybody... and if it doesn't now, it almost surely will sooner or later.

Here is the core of the article:

...increased funding is only part of the solution. Government must streamline the laborious process of getting breakthroughs from lab to clinic. We can cut out red tape of questionable necessity that discourages innovation in the private sector.

Meanwhile, the private sector must work to ensure that Americans fighting cancer have access to new treatments and therapies. Our regulatory system should not hinder the fight against cancer, and our profit-based health-care providers should do more to address the fact that too few people can afford the treatments they deserve.

....What can you do? Ask your local, state and national lawmakers what steps they'll take against tobacco, the number one cause of cancer, and how they'll ensure that all of us – not just star athletes and politicians – have access to prevention efforts, early screening and effective treatment. Educate yourself and others. Support cancer programs in your community. Live a healthy life. And vote.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Peek at McCain vs Obama...?

Last year, I wrote a post about the plans for the 1964 Presidential campaign.

John F. Kennedy and Barry Goldwater were reportedly discussing the possibility of traveling the country together in a series of direct debates in front of the American people. (Lyndon Johnson did not pursue this idea after Kennedy was assassinated).

CNN revealed today that representatives of the McCain campaign have been floating a similar idea for a series of joint town hall meetings featuring the two candidates. Although the idea is only in its infancy, Obama himself has already expressed some enthusiasm for it...

We'll have to wait and see if and how this idea progresses but I think it has a lot of potential. We desperately need a respectful and serious debate on many issues and McCain and Obama are two politicians with both the willingness and ability to candidly discuss their positions on some of our most important issues...

..anyway, I thought this was a reason to be optimistic about the upcoming general election.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Help is On the Way

Kudos to John McCain for making climate change a non-trival part of his Presidential campaign despite the minimal benefit it will garner with his party's base.

McCain has probably been the most vigorous Republican voice in the Senate for taking action on this issue- even going so far as to co-sponsor legislation with Democrat Joe Lieberman.

Fortunately, it would seem that regardless of who we elect in November, our federal government will finally start addressing this issue constructively...

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Helping Myanmar

By now, hopefully you've heard of the catastrophic cyclone in Myanmar. More than 100,000 people are believed to be dead.

If you want to help, the Washington Post has provided a single page with a concise list of quick and easy links to assistance organizations that would benefit from your support.

I also found a blog that shows a before and after photo from a NASA satellite that shows the Burmese landscape before and after the cyclone. It's stunning.

Remembering Some Real Issues

If you care about foreign affairs (including, but not limited to Iraq), you've probably had to work pretty hard lately to find some fresh news.

The media has been intensely obsessed with the Presidential race the past few weeks - particularly with a small subset of issues of relatively low importance including gas tax proposals that will never become law, flag pins and incendiary pastors.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of significant media attention, the real world is moving on. And, ironically, it is moving in ways that may very well affect the election in November far more than anything the press is being covering today.

David Ignatius made this argument yesterday in the Washington Post.

The 2008 campaign has been so mesmerizing that it's easy to forget what's going on out in the real world that could disrupt, once again, the certitudes of the pollsters and strategists. The campaign in recent weeks has focused on pocketbook issues because of worries about a deep recession. But as these economic anxieties fade a bit, we are likely to return to the ground zero of the Middle East, and to the themes of war and peace that will be interwoven through the remainder of this campaign.

I disagree with Ignatius that our economic anxieties will subside by November. If anything, I think they will probably get worse.

Nevertheless this article is worth reading if you want to spend time on some of the issues that we should be considering when choosing our next leader. Ignatius discusses the possibility of war with Iran (and the shocking wish of some Saudis that it happen), a possible peace between Israel and Syria and the role that diplomatic intermediaries (such as Turkey) could and should play in the region. (Incidentally, I wrote on a similar idea last year).

You can read the article here.