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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Headscratcher (14)

Your correspondent was shipped off to Hogwarts Elementary (Without the Magic) at the age of eight. One of the things at which that institution excelled was to instill a thorough and abiding understanding of the Eleventh Commandment. It states quite simply:
Thou shalt not be found out.

Later in life, but while still young, your correspondent went to work for a former - and subsequently - very high government official. On your correspondent's first day of work, his boss called him into the office and provided the following information:
  1. There are no secrets. 
  2. Never do, say, or put in writing (particularly the last) anything that you would be embarrassed to see on the front page of the Washington Post.
Your correspondent has never forgotten the first and has generally although, admittedly, not always successfully, tried to live up to the second. 

It seems that New Jersey Governor Christie and his staff do not understand the Eleventh Commandment and, more surprisingly, it also appears that he has never had the really important conversation about secrets or the Washington Post with his senior staff.

That a man touted as a likely Presidential candidate should be so obtuse is a headscratcher indeed!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

An Abomination in the Sky

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed that airline passengers be permitted to make calls on their mobile telephones while in flight. Given that most people have a tiresome habit of speaking very loudly - often all but shouting - while on the telephone, your correspondent, who likes to sleep on airplanes, considers that the noise pollution will be close to intolerable.

If this airborne abomination comes to pass, your correspondent plans to travel with a roll of duct tape. Those within earshot who commit the annoyance of speaking loudly at their telephones, will shortly find a five inch piece of duct tape slapped over their mouths.

Duct tape, being cheap, will be distributed to all who would like to silence their neighbors too!

To be serious, your correspondent suspects that he will be one of many who becomes a former customer of any airline that is foolish enough to go along with this stupidity.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Misadventure in Syria

There doesn't seem to be a great deal of doubt that Bashar Assad is a monster who is guilty of using chemical weapons against his own people. Both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have both provided decent evidence that this is so.

Regardless of Assad's action, an attack by the United States raises serious issues. The first is the purpose of any such attack. Clausewitz, writing in 'On War' stated that war is the continuance of policy by other means. Both President Obama and Secretary Kerry have said that the purpose of any attack is not regime change.

No senior member of the United States government has provided a strategic objective that might be achieved by an attack and it is hard to see how the United States might be in imminent danger of an attack by Syria. This leaves your corespondent to think that the only reason for launching cruise missiles and bombers (troops on the ground are ruled out) is to prevent President Obama, who recklessly drew a red line in the sand concerning chemical weapons, from looking weak.

Perhaps, if an attack does take place, it might appropriately be named the Third War of Middle East Aggression (Iraq, Libya and perhaps Syria).

Then there are the legal and constitutional issues. Although the President of the United States is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, Article 1 Section 8 of the United States Constitution gives Congress the power 'To declare war, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal...' and the War Powers Act of 1973 restricts the President's authority to send troops into combat without Congressional approval. If, as spoken by Abraham Lincoln, 'Government of the People, By the People and for the People' is still a reality, then the People's Representatives in the Senate and House of Representatives must be permitted to express their views with a formal vote to approve or disapprove any Syrian adventure.

Or is our situation akin to the last days of the Roman Empire - a dysfunctional Senate and a Executive that has seized almost all power?

The British House of Commons seems to have reached the right decision although, perhaps, for the wrong reasons.  More significantly, Prime Minister David Cameron has agreed to abide by the decision even though the vote was non-binding. Before President Obama proceeds further he might want to ponder the words of John Quincy Adams: " Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." Then he should listen to the people!

Let the Syrian opposition destroy the Assad regime if they have the will and ability. Since none of the rebels are friends of ours, the United States will  gain little, if anything, from another Middle East war and has all too much to lose in terms of lives and treasure.

Mind your own business is not a bad policy!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Concealed Carry

The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin raises the question of the value of being armed in public and, specially, of carrying a concealed weapon.

Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein once wrote that an armed society is a polite society. That statement, however, rests on the twin assumptions that the vast majority of people are actually armed while out in public and that they are emotionally stable.

There are also a number of other issues to consider.

First, there is no deterrent value to a concealed weapon. Second, handguns are almost as hard to use as, for example, are violins: training and frequent practice are necessities. Too many of those who carry weapons in the public space have less training than they should and practice only infrequently.

Even worse, a significant fraction of armed citizens are emotionally unstable, if not actually mentally ill, and some of them are just plain nasty, bullies or criminals. Some, too, are drunk - which brings to mind the fact that saloons in the old West required customers to check their guns at the door.

The Supreme Court has ruled that being armed in public is subject to State law and most, if not all, States permit such behavior. From your correspondent's perspective, it is desirable to know when another person is armed. When armed citizens begin to behave in strange ways, including showing signs of aggression, that knowledge provides a cue to vanish into the woodwork at a significant fraction of the speed of light.

Given that being armed in public is generally legal, open carry is just about tolerable to your correspondent. Concealed carry, however, is an abomination.

For those armed citizens who think that it is clever to carry a weapon without a safety or with the safety not engaged, I hope that you trip and fall, and, as you hit the ground, that your weapon discharges and you shoot yourself in your most personal parts. That way, at least, you will have the rest of your life, as a non-participant in the gene pool, to contemplate your stupidity while looking ruefully at your Darwin Award.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Zipper Failure

As Henry Kissinger famously said: "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac."

Among those for whom power and inappropriate sex are mixed, we can include politicians (President Clinton, Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina), businessmen (Mark Hurd formerly Chief Executive Officer of Hewlett Packard and Harry Stonecipher formerly Chief Executive Officer of Boeing) and high ranking members of the military (including former Director of Central Intelligence General David Petraeus)

That powerful people have been exposed with their zippers down - when they should be up - is nothing new. That all too many of them, after a brief period of seclusion, can attempt to return - sometimes successfully - to public life is an indictment of us as citizens.

Governor, now Representative, Sanford is a prime example. Less than four years after word leaked out of his adulterous affair with an Argentine woman (including the use of State funds for personal expenditures), the citizens of the 1st Congressional District of South Carolina overwhelming voted to return him to Washington DC.

Meanwhile, in New York City, two notorious zipper artists are running for office: Eliot Spitzer (Client-9 of a notorious high end prostitution ring) wants to be New York City Comptroller and Anthony Weiner (texter of pictures of his crotch to single women) wants to be Mayor.

In her column this week (click to read), Peggy Noonan discusses the life of former British Minister of War John Profumo who resigned from the House of Commons in 1963 following a sex scandal about which he lied to Parliament. Rather than attempting a political comeback by sleazily claiming personal redemption as a result of his travails, he simply spent the next forty years quietly doing his best to make the world a slightly better place. Most importantly, he sought no publicity and until 2003 never spoke publicly of his disgrace.

What a contrast to current American practice!

Were the voters of New York City and the nation to refuse to accept that the return to office of disgraced politicians, your correspondent might be less inclined to refer to New York City and Washington DC, respectively, as Sodom On The Hudson and Gomorrah On The Potomac.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Carbon Emissions and President Obama

President Obama's recent speech, on the subject of global warming and carbon dioxide emissions, shows that he generally understands the climate change issue. Unfortunately, he demonstrates that he understands neither the solution nor the democratic process.

He's mostly right on the idea of reducing carbon emissions but the idea of restricting emissions from existing generating plants does not make sense - at least not now. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is not yet technically feasible, mostly because the storage problem has not yet been solved, and it will not be economically feasible for some time. To shut down coal fired plants - even gas fired plants - that still have significant remaining life has an economic cost that is not necessarily justified by the scale of the problem. Certainly, the citizens of the USA (and the world) have not yet accepted the need for measures as radical, and costs as great, as implied by the President.

So, start with a modest carbon tax, increase it every year by a respectable amount for the next ten years or so. After that, increase it by a very large amount. The market, given a reasonable amount of time, will then solve the problem by encouraging conservation and the use of renewable electricity generation. Tax what is clearly bad (i.e. CO2 emissions) rather than subsidize what the government thinks might be good. Taxpayer funded research and development is good: a government that pretends to have the skills of a venture capitalist is an expensive bad joke.

The worst thing, however, is that we have a President who seems to have decided that the democratic process in the USA is broken, which is true, and irrelevant which it is not. His solution seems, therefore, to be to govern by decree like the tinpot dictator of a banana republic. That is the really scary part and, to old fashioned conservatives like your correspondent who also have green streaks, it is a matter for deep concern as well as bringing to mind the words spoken by Benjamin Franklin: "A republic, Madam. if you can keep it."

Mr. Obama would be better served by considering one of President Eisenhower's thoughts: "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it."

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The $1,000 per hour consultant.

There seems to be a major shortage of consultants who can design accessible hotel rooms and bathrooms that are actually usable.

All of the incompetents currently practicing are, I believe, paid $1,000 per hour for their work which, having memorized the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), they claim to deserve. None of them, however, has ever met a disabled person. The result, in far too many places - including all of the three hotels in which your correspondent has stayed this week, is that the so-called accessible rooms and bathrooms are really hard to get around in.

One example (two of the three hotels) relates to the roll in showers where the seat is at one end of the enclosure and the shower head and faucet (taps) are five feet away at the other end. Is it not obvious that such a separation of guest and shower head is well beyond the reach of any normal person who needs to sit while taking a shower? Then there are shower curtains which fail to prevent massive floods in the rest of the bathroom, bedside lights that cannot be reached by a person sitting in a wheelchair and a myriad of other minor, and not so minor, nuisances.

Every hotel General Manager should immediately telephone the local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans and say this: "if you send me three of your members - one a wheelchair user, one with balance issues who uses a walker, and the other one a leg amputee - I will buy them lunch at the best restaurant in town. In exchange, I would like them to inspect all of our wheelchair accessible rooms and bathrooms and tell us how to make them as easy to use as possible and not just ADA compliant."

That will be the cheapest and most effective consulting any hotel will ever receive. It will likely make the world a significantly better place and, with luck, we will see some of the $1,000 an hour consultants standing in the unemployment line where they belong.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Investing - the eight Bs

Very few miners made significant fortunes during a gold rush. The people who really made money were the suppliers of services and equipment. In the 19th century, some of the most profitable investments were in bullets, booze, brothels, buckets, barrows, burros, bacon and beans.

So, consider the merits of backing suppliers of components and infrastructure, rather than the companies in the headlines, as a key part of an investing philosophy.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Some Thoughts About the Presidential Election

In the interests of full disclosure, your correspondent admits to having voted for Governor Romney but only as the lesser (just) of two evils.

Here are a few thoughts now that the dust has settled a bit.

President Obama's performance over the past nearly four years was such that he should have been fired for incompetence and gross lack of leadership skills. A contest that any sensible and competent Republican should have won, in a canter, was lost.The only merit in President Obama's re-election is that we can be sure that he will be gone in four years.

It would also have been useful if Governor Romney had refrained from idiotic right wing(nut) remarks that merely demonstrated the ability of an American Upper Class Twit and Poor Little Rich Kid to look down his nose at the lower orders.

Your correspondent considered several of them to be personal insults and does not believe that he is alone in holding an opinion.

Notwithstanding that his wife has a seriously disabling disease (and let us all hope that it will not progress or will progress only very slowly) Governor Romney's condescending attitude towards people with disabilities was appalling. To speak of a quadriplegic as a successful entrepreneur BEFORE he became disabled misses the point. Your correspondent knows many quadriplegics who became, or continued to be, successful after their injuries: a former VP at Goldman Sachs and now sailing entrepreneur, a radiologist, a Professor of English and award winning screenwriter being only three examples.

Then there was the infamous 47% video. In 2011, your correspondent missed being a member of that group by a trivial sum but still paid thousands in payroll taxes. Further, as an International Judge for sailboat racing, your correspondent is on the same rung of the sports officiating ladder as, for example, a Major League Baseball Umpire: qualified to work a World Championship or even the Olympics. The main difference is that they get paid - a lot - and sailing judges do not even though value is surely added. Had your correspondent been paid for the forty four full days and twenty seven  half days devoted to that task in 2011 - even at a tenth of the rate paid to baseball umpires - his tax bill would have been quite significant.

There are many people in this country who work hard and add value but do not get paid: many of them are just called volunteers, others are homemakers. Republicans need to understand that not all problems can, or should, be solved by the application of cash.

Then there was the Republican attack on immigrants in which Governor Romney joined enthusiastically. Your correspondent is an immigrant (now a citizen) and proud of it. The corruption of language among Republicans is such that the term 'illegal' is now automatically implied - which is grossly insulting - when the word 'immigrant' is spoken. Where is the Republican Party's understanding of our heritage as a nation of immigrants?

Then there was his lack of trust in the American people. Admittedly the Democrats would have attacked him viciously for the content of the tax returns that he refused to release but the slow drip, drip, drip of distrust that this secrecy engendered can not have helped his campaign. Finally, to say "I have a plan to create jobs, fix the economy etc. etc." without specifics or even a decent road map is tantamount to the mantra of a con man. 'Trust me, trust me. trust me' only arouses suspicion in those of us who are paying attention.

Your correspondent is suffering from nostalgia for the 'Big Tent' Republican Party and Barry Goldwater (who likely could not win the Republican Party nomination in this day and age) whose fundamental philosophy was fiscal conservatism, strong defense and social tolerance.

Of course, nostalgia is one thing but there is no going back. Our memories are unreliable and honesty demands that we admit that things never actually were the way we think they used to be. Your correspondent merely hopes that the leaders of the Republican Party will think deeply about the good of the country rather than the blind pursuit of political power.

Are you listening Senator McConnell and Representative Boehner?

Friday, November 2, 2012

American Socialism (8)

A common characteristic of all market economies is that scarce products and services can best be rationed by means of price. Students who attend Economics 101 will learn that concept in an early discussion of supply and demand. In socialist economies, by contrast, rationing is achieved by coupon books and by waiting in long lines.

What, then, to make of the long lines to buy currently scarce gasoline in New York and New Jersey?

The United States prides itself on being a market economy but as soon as there is a shortage, then the shouts of 'profiteering' and 'price gouging', sometimes supported by state and local laws, become overwhelming. The result is the same as in a socialist economy: long lines and miserably poor allocation of scarce resources.

Should not the market not be permitted to work? Those who really need - not just want - gasoline might consider $10.00 (or more) to be a reasonable price for a gallon and would find it easily available while those who merely want gasoline, or consider such a price to be too high, can wait until the buying panic is over.

But what about the poor people? Since, at least in this situation, they could have planned ahead and bought gasoline (at its more or less normal price) before the storm, your correspondent has little sympathy for them.

There is such a thing as individual responsibility. Socialism, however, with all of its ugly consequences, seems to be the regrettable solution for those to whom such a virtue is little known.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Dictator of the World (2)

As the not-so-outer edge of Hurricane Sandy passed through the Washington DC area, the power went off. and your correspondent was literally (and metaphorically?) in the dark for about thirteen hours.

Being well stocked with candles, batteries, flashlights and bottled water as well as having previously cooked all of the perishable food that could plausibly be eaten cold, this was no great hardship.

Once the power returned, however, resetting all of the electric clocks (stove, microwave, many clock radios etc.) was a tiresome chore. As a result, here is a resolution for the future.

When I become Dictator of the World, there will be a single absolute standard for the number, purpose and location of the buttons used to set the time (and the alarms) on all appliances and radios. There will also be a standard for automobiles since, twice a year, the clocks must be reset to account for daylight savings time.

The punishment for industrial designers who decide to be "creative" will be the intense boredom generated by being forced to judge - and write a four hundred word critique of each of - one hundred watercolors painted by a randomly selected group of six year old children.

The world will be a slightly better place.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Reluctant Conclusion

To understand a problem is the first step to solving it - but only the first step.

To be in a position to solve a really critical problem - and then to take no action, demonstrates such a lack of leadership skills that that person is unfit to hold the office of President of the United States of America.

On March 16, 2006, then freshman Senator Barack Obama, addressed the United States Senate on the topic of the debt ceiling. The first and penultimate paragraphs show his understanding of the situation, his final sentence expressing opposition to raising the debt ceiling (see also Tea Party and default) indicates that his understanding of the solution is woefully lacking:

"The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the US Government cannot pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government's reckless fiscal policies...

 ... Increasing America's debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that, "the buck stops here.' Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.

I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America's debt limit."

[Note: unlike many of these quotes that circulate in conservative circles, this one is validated by Snopes. Your correspondent did not have the time to wade through the Congressional Record but you can read the Snopes piece here including Senator Obama's entire statement]

Governor Romney's actions and words have insulted many, including your correspondent, but he does at least have a record of leadership. He built a significant business, Bain Capital, beginning when he was only 37 years old and he averted a significant disaster in the making, the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, whose failure would have greatly reduced our standing in the world.

On the other hand, Romney's lack of trust in the American people with regard to releasing his tax returns, his refusal to spell out the spending cuts he would propose and his tiresome refrain 'I know how to...' without further explanation make him a person whom it is hard to trust in return.

On November 6th, your correspondent will hold his nose (not too hard because pain is not part of the program) while he votes for leadership (even though he is not quite sure where Mr. Romney is going) and the retirement of President Obama.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fixing Things

As we come to the end of the sailing season, at least for those who do not live in California, Florida and the Antipodes, we are faced with the task of putting away our boats for the winter and repairing the damage from the season. There are many of us who are mechanically challenged and for whom fixing things is hard, really hard.

There are some who claim that anything can be fixed by hitting it with a hammer. That is largely true but knowing where, and how hard, to hit takes great skill and training. It is also worth noting that, if you can't fix it with a hammer, you have an electrical problem.

For the rest of us, with limited mechanical ability, there are only two tools: duct tape and WD40. If it moves, and it’s not supposed to, use the duct tape. If it doesn't move, and it should, use the WD40.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dictator of the World

When I become Dictator of the World, there will be a very substantial Ugly Boat Tax. Starving artists will be hired, at a modest daily rate, as tax assessors.

Jet Skis will not be taxed but will be confiscated and given to the military for use as targets for automatic weapons training.

The world will be a slightly better place!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Message to the Democratic National Committee

How come you never call?

I live in a very Democratic part of the Independent Peoples Republic of Northern Virginia and I expected you to be annoying me constantly. The Republican National Committee calls me twice a day - at least - and really makes me feel wanted. (Well, actually, annoyed but never mind.)

That's OK because I really don't want to talk to you or to listen to one of your robot messages. I know that you will only try to get me to vote to re-elect a President who could not lead a tribe of starving Somalis to a free all-you-can-eat buffet dinner. If you are not pitching for Mr. Obama, then you will want to persuade me to vote for a man who was a barely adequate Governor of Virginia and for Congressman Moron (sorry Moran) who is a wife beater, kid slapper, anti-Semite, and taker of loans from lobbyists with business before his Congressional committee.

Don't ask me for money either. I never contribute to politicians (it only encourages them) and I am not planning to start now.

But I will be voting on November 6th and the topmost thought in my mind is 'throw the bastards out - all of them'.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Message to the Republican National Committee

Go away!

For the last two weeks, I have received from the RNC at least two, sometimes more, telephone calls every day. I don't want to get any more robo-calls from you and I am not very interested in talking to a live person.

I get the message! You want me to vote for Mitt "The Twit" Romney, 'Poor Little Rich Kid' Ryan, George 'Macaca' Allen and the clown who is running against Congressman Moran (Moron?).

Not only do I not want to hear from you anymore, please be advise that the likelihood of my voting for any of your candidates declines with every telephone call. In fact, there is a lot to be said for renting a cottage at an isolated lake, with no radio or television, from November 3 - 10 and just spending the week immersed in some of the books that are stacked up on my desk waiting to be read.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Foreign Policy - Advice to Governor Romney

Governor Romney would do well to take heed of the wise words of two former Presidents:

First, spoken by John Quincy Adams: "America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

The second thought to be remembered is Theodore Roosevelt's classic remark: "speak softly and carry a big stick." 

Perhaps both of these should be engraved on every bathroom mirror in the White House!

On Writing

I asked a friend, who is an author of excellent fiction and a number of interesting blogs, whether writing was an incurable disease or merely an addiction that could, with some effort, be overcome.

Her response was delightfully simple: "why resist?"

So, after more than a year of hibernation, I have returned to comment on public affairs, to skewer the pompous, and to challenge those who, to steal from Winston Churchill, engage in excessive flights of terminological inexactitude.

Watch this space!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Time for a Wholesale Change in Congress

Left wing - and even relatively moderate Democrats - seem to think that it is reasonable for our country to adopt a financial position akin to a person facing the ocean while standing on one leg at the extreme edge of a high and crumbling cliff.

Their actions and policies have not yet culminated in a fall but, without real action to address our uncontrolled spending, disaster will surely happen. Right wing Republicans seem to think that the problem can be solved overnight and without raising any additional revenues. There is nothing in their program that recognizes the fact that turning around and moving back from the edge of the cliff must be done somewhat slowly and carefully while using every available foot and handhold. That means both cuts in spending and increases in revenue.

We, The People, elected these politicians and, therefore, must take responsibility. While our next opportunity to thank them for their service (service?), and wish them good fortune in their new lives, is not until the elections in November 2012, we must express our displeasure firmly, and frequently, up until that point.

Otherwise, we may find ourselves in the predicament that Benjamin Franklin foresaw. When asked what the drafters of the Constitution had produced, he responded: "A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it."

The growth of 'Big Government' and the Imperial Presidency has been almost uninterrupted since the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. As a result, we are in danger of losing our Republic.

Whether that be as a result of bankruptcy and chaos followed by authoritarian rule or merely by a process of increasingly large and intrusive government, with us playing the role of frogs in a pot of slowly heated water, as politicians responds to demands for 'more, more' is as yet uncertain. What is certain is that there is still some time to act to trim the government but less time than we would like.

Without prompt action, however, we will have to conclude that President Bill Clinton was engaged in wishful thinking when, in the 1996 State of the Union Address, he said that the era of Big Government is over.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Raising the Debt Ceiling

That the United States urgently needs a program to reduce its annual budget deficit is a given. That this should be done mostly by cutting spending, but also by rationalizing the tax code to eliminate outrageous giveaways - including, but hardly limited to, ethanol subsidies and, to kill some sacred cows, both mortgage interest and state tax deductions whose benefit goes primarily to those who need it least, is also reasonably obvious.

That these tasks are complex and will take time to complete is also true. If not done carefully, the Law of Unintended Consequences will govern and, as usual, it will do so to the detriment of us all.

Unfortunately there is a significant number of Congressional Republicans (mostly of the Tea Party variety) who seem to believe that allowing the USA to default on its obligations is perfectly acceptable. Some of them claim that no default will actually occur because the Treasury can manage the available funds so that interest on the national debt continues to be paid and maturing bonds are rolled over without the need to increase the national debt.

They are wrong: in August alone the ugly difference between expected revenue and scheduled expenditures is approximately $134 billion.

They are also right but only in a strictly technical sense. To avoid default on portions of the national debt, however, will require that others are not paid. What is a refusal to make payments, to recipients of Social Security, to doctors who treated patients covered by Medicare, to government contractors of all stripes, or to so called non-essential government employees who are furloughed, other than a default? That the government does not default on its debt is a mere technicality if it is also in default on other obligations. Who, then, will go unpaid?

To be a debtor is bad but to be a deadbeat is dishonorable.

These politicians should take a lesson from the millions of citizens whose houses, bought at the peak of the housing bubble, are worth less the mortgage balance. These people have not defaulted or mailed the front door keys back to the bank. Instead, they keep making their payments because it is the right thing to do.

They might also want to consider the case of President Harry S Truman. His haberdashery shop in Kansas City, Missouri, failed in 1923 leaving a pile of debts. When he became President of the United States in 1945, Mr. Truman was still making payments on those debts.

Most modern commentators would likely describe him as foolish for paying debts that he could have repudiated in bankruptcy court. That is a measure of our diminished morality. Your correspondent, on the other hand, thinks that he was an honorable man.

We urgently need all members of the House and Senate to recognize that there are two major tasks - and that there is no direct link between them. First, eliminate the possibility of a default and, second, set about the process of matching expenditure to revenue.

If our politicians refuse to act, then We The People, must ensure that they are duly punished at the next possible opportunity. November 2012 is not far away.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Thought for Today

Most politicians and senior executives find humility and a little modesty - even false modesty - too much to endure.

All of us, not just those mentioned above, might be well served by contemplating the fact that most of us are born bald, naked and incontinent. When we die many of us are again bald, naked and incontinent.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Two Hundred and Thirty Five Years Ago...

... Congress approved the Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies.

As our great nation, although far from insolvent but cursed with politicians who lack both courage and the ability to lead and who seem to prefer posturing and self-advancement to serious work, faces the possibility of defaulting on its debts, it is well that we consider the commitments made by those who signed that iconic document.

All of them knew that they were liable, if captured, to be tried for treason, hanged and their assets confiscated. They did not act selfishly or seek preferment nor did they shrink from the task, stating in the last sentence:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

For those who do not have their copy of the Declaration close at hand, here is a link to the National Archives.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

War in Afghanistan (3)

President Obama will speak to the nation this evening. He will tells us that he intends to begin the process of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Reports are circulating that the number is between five and ten thousand soldiers.

If the reports are accurate, then President Obama has got it wrong - again. Afghan President Karzai, referring to NATO troops as occupiers, has made it clear that he doesn't want us there. The Taliban, pressured by the combat capability provided by an additional thirty thousand troops in 2010, has reduced its activity but has not been defeated in detail. Nor, even with thousands more troops, will it ever be. Mostly the Taliban is keeping its powder dry as it awaits our scheduled departure in 2014.

Worse, while our stated objectives are to support the Karzai government in its efforts to establish control over the entire country, current levels of corruption and incompetence make this unattainable. To describe Mr. Karzai now, and in 2014 if he is still President, as no more than Mayor of Kabul is not entirely unfair.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, our objectives were to destroy al-Qaeda and to capture or kill Osama bin Ladin. Now, Osama bin Ladin is dead and the original al-Qaeda so severely weakened that it is effectively unable to attack us. Admittedly, the branches of al-Qaeda that have sprung up in other countries are a problem but they will have to be dealt with in those countries: our continued presence in Afghanistan certainly does not help to weaken them and may even provide ideological succor and support.

A year ago, your correspondent suggested that we take the advice of the late Senator George Aiken (R-Vt) by declaring victory and leaving. The deal that we would want to strike with the Taliban has barely changed and there is no rational reason, if the Taliban is serious about controlling Afghanistan, for them to attempt to inflict a humiliating defeat on us.

Our primary objectives in Afghanistan have been achieved and we have no further strategic interests there but, if the Taliban decides to shelter our enemies, we do have the ability to undertake devastating punitive raids. There is, therefore, no reason to spend hundreds of billions of dollars (which we do not have and can not afford) in the next three years only to find Afghanistan in substantially the same condition as now.

If Mr. Obama tells us that he is ordering the immediate return of twenty thousand troops this year and that all, except perhaps for a small group of advisers - if the Afghan government wants them, will be home by the end of next year, then he will have got it right.

Your correspondent, however, regrets that he only sees more good money (and lives) being thrown after bad.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Headscratcher (13)

Rarely does a week go by without Sarah Palin demonstrating her total unfitness to serve in any elected office - or even as an elementary school history and civics teacher. Her latest version of "history as she is wrote" is captured in this news report. According to Ms. Palin, Paul Revere's famous ride was to warn the British that they would not prevail.

That there is significant support f0r Sarah Palin's as yet unannounced campaign for President is a true headscratcher but an expanation may lie in H.L. Mencken's definition of democracy:

"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

Enough said.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Temporary Hiatus

Your correspondent will be taking a temporary leave of absence while he recovers from a fall and the ensuing hip fracture.

Surgery tomorrow.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Raising the Ceiling on the National Debt

Consider a car racing down a highway at 150 miles per hour. Then consider that the highway leads to a river - quite a few miles away - and that the bridge over the river has collapsed. If nothing is done, the car will wind up in the river. The solution to this problem is relatively simple: slow down and stop before disaster occurs.

That analogy quite reasonably describes the United States government's twin deficit and debt problems. The rate of government spending is well over any sensible speed (the annual deficit is around ~ $1.5 trillion per year) and, as the national debt increases, the time approaches when lenders vanish and our car, as it were, sails into the river where we all drown.

The solution is for the driver of the car to take his foot off the accelerator, apply the brakes and stop before reaching the river. Admittedly this will take a bit of time and distance but both of these are still available - at least for a while. So too, for the government: stop out of control growth in spending (foot off accelerator) and start making serious cuts (apply the brakes). It will take a few years but, properly executed, the deficit and debt problems will be solved without major damage to the economy.

To claim that the problem of excessive government overspending can be solved by refusing to raise the debt ceiling is the equivalent of proposing that the best way to stop a speeding car is to run it into a tree. Undoubtedly that course of action will work but, as is too often the case, the side effects of the cure are likely to be worse than the disease.

Perhaps the ideologues - on both sides - will pick the sensible solution, before the bond markets over-react, but your correspondent does not believe that holding his breath will do anything other than make him blue in the face.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Headscratcher (12)

The most important feature of Hong Kong's tax law is a flat income tax with a universal rate of fifteen percent. Their entire tax law is written in about two hundred pages.

The United States tax code, as of 2010, filled seventy one thousand, six hundred and eighty four pages.

Taking into account all forms of revenue, the tax burden in Hong Kong is just under 16% of Gross Domestic Product. In the United States, taxes raised by the Federal government, between 1970 and 2009 averaged a little over 18% of GDP while inflicting top marginal rates of as much as 70% (prior to 1981) on the better off and rich. That the top marginal rate of tax is now "only" 35% is an improvement but still higher than is either fair or economically effective.

Few complain much about the relatively simple Hong Kong tax code, which raises almost as much as does the IRS, while almost everyone complains about the insane complexity of the IRS Code.

The difference, of course, is that the United States uses the tax code to engage in social engineering while partially - but only partially - mitigating the punitive effects of the higher marginal tax rates with a bizarre array of deductions, exemptions, and credits designed to reward favored groups and buy votes.

It is strange that there is not a single Representative or Senator who has dared to introduce a Tax Reform Bill based on the Hong Kong Tax Law. There are two features in every word processor that should make the task easy: they are 'copy' and 'paste'.

President Reagan made a good start with the 1986 Tax Reform but, in the past twenty five years, self serving politicians have largely emasculated that excellent piece of legislation. That Mr. Reagan's professed admirers are so disinclined to act is a headscratcher indeed!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Where Next?

Since the beginning of George H.W. Bush's Presidency in 1989, the United States has been in involved in major military actions in Panama, Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq (again), Afghanistan, Somalia (again but at least only naval forces protecting against piracy in the Indian Ocean) and Libya. One may also suspect that small groups of special forces have been active in other countries.

In 1859, responding to a group of New Jersey legislators who were pushing for him to run for President, Cornelius Vanderbilt wrote:

"I am well satisfied that all of the results that have attended the labors of my life are attributable to the simple rule which I early adopted, to mind my own business…

Nor can I suggest one more appropriate for the regulation and conduct of the foreign policy of the American people."

Were our leaders to learn from the wise words of the Commodore, the question 'where next?' could, mercifully, be put to sleep - at least for a while.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

Reducing government expenditure is critical but those who would cut budgets need to remember the old adage that it is easy to be penny wise and pound foolish.

In a short sighted attempt to save a relative pittance - at the expense of reliability and performance - the Pentagon and Congress have canceled the development of a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter which, in various versions, will replace all existing fighters (except the F-22) used by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. It will also be sold to a number of allied nations. The total production run is expected to be at least 3,000 and possibly as many as 4,000 aircraft.

The history of sole source procurement provides a simple lesson: it is rare that the frequently conflicting goals of quality, reliability, performance and cost are met. When the F-15, F-16 and F-14 fighters first went into service, the engines were procured on sole source contracts. Verne Orr, Secretary of the Air Force and John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy, were instrumental in developing second engines for these aircraft. John Lehman, in an article published in the New York Post (click here to read the entire article), describes what happened:

"Nowhere was the wisdom of annual competition better demonstrated than in the establishment of an alternative engine for the Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighters. Despite strong opposition from his own bureaucracy, Air Force Secretary Verne Orr, fed up with constant cost growth and repeated grounding of all fighters due to flaws in the sole-source engine, forced through the qualification of an alternative engine and contractor, and had the two compete every year thereafter.

The benefits from this annual competition came swiftly, were many and have endured. There was steady improvement in reliability, performance and fuel economy and a dramatic drop in engine-caused accidents. By the second year of full competition, the cost per engine had dropped 20 percent. The Navy soon followed suit in choosing an alternative engine for the F-14 with similar benefits."

Following the Congress's refusal to appropriate funds to continue the development of the second engine for the F-35, the Pentagon bureaucracy has issued a 'Stop Work' order, as of March 31, 2011, to General Electric and Rolls Royce. The result is to leave Pratt and Whitney as the sole source provider. Given relentless pressure from the military for more features - and yet more features, all of which cause the sky to be blackened by streams of criss-crossing [and extremely profitable] change orders and contract modifications, it can reliably be predicted that the resulting engines will suffer from performance and reliability issues. Meanwhile costs will escalate uncontrollably.

The only small consolation is that General Electric has decided, at its own expense, to keep a small development team at work on the second engine. When politicians and the bureaucracy realize, or are forced to accept the fact, that competition in defense procurement is essential, it may yet be possible to realize some of the same benefits that Secretaries Orr and Lehman obtained for us in the 1980s.

Karl Marx claimed that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce but the F-35 situation simply seems to embody both tragedy and farce in equal portions.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Courage and Failure

Senator John McCain, in a lengthy article published in 2004 - a year in which he was not a Presidential candidate, discusses courage, failure, and responsibility. What he wrote then is more applicable now than ever.

"Courage is like a muscle. The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets. I sometimes worry that our collective courage is growing weaker from disuse.

We don't demand it from our leaders, and our leaders don't demand it from us. The courage deficit is both our problem and our fault. As a result, too many leaders in the public and private sectors lack the courage necessary to honor their obligations to others and to uphold the essential values of leadership. Often, they display a startling lack of accountability for their mistakes and a desire to put their own self-interest above the common good.

That means trouble for us all, because courage is the enforcing virtue, the one that makes possible all the other virtues common to exceptional leaders: honesty, integrity, confidence, compassion, and humility. In short, leaders who lack courage aren't leaders."

Later, he touches succinctly on the fact that, now, there is little accountability for failure:

"When no one takes responsibility for failure, or when responsibility is so broadly shared that individual accountability is ignored, then failure in public office becomes acceptable. It's hard to see how that serves the country."

Of particular note is what drives him, as often as possible, to do the right thing:

"In the past, I've been able to overcome my own fears because of an acute sense of an even greater fear -- that of feeling remorse. You can live with pain. You can live with embarrassment. Remorse is an awful companion."

The President and Congress will need all of their courage - and sense of accountability - as they address the extreme financial problems of our nation. If we are lucky, Senator McCain (although, in his own words, no economic expert) will be in the forefront - leading by example. Even though his two presidential campaigns were unsuccessful, Senator McCain still has much to give his country.