Archive for August, 2007

Living the Dream

Monday, August 27th, 2007

“And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:” Acts 2:17
Maybe this is the last days.  Alberto Gonzales finally resigned.
I am not one prone to engage in conspiracy theories, but why now? 
The second set of congressional hearings pretty much eliminated any possibility of him resuming an effective role at the Justice Department, but he hung tough and refused to resign.  Then the domestic spy bill handed him and the White House everything they asked for and more. 
So he badly fumbles his attempts to defend himself and the administration TWICE.  He doesn’t get fired.  He doesn’t get indicted for perjury.  He weathers to public storm.  Then Congress makes him the overseer of whether or not any particular domestic spy activity was appropriate.  He gets a big win.  He’s over the hump.  The worst is behind him.  Then on a quiet weekend when nothing is happening, Congress is in recess, and Bush is on vacation – he resigns.
All I can figure is that there is something else buried out there in records that involved both him and Rove in the first attempts to get the Patriot Act approved by the justice department or the clumsy Federal Prosecutor purge. 
Someday we may find out.
In the meantime, it is more erosion of the neocon dream. 

Bon Voyage Alberto, it’s been good to know you.

Feet of Clay

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

“So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
John 13:12-14

Jesus had the right idea here.  Leadership is all about service.  It’s putting the good of others ahead of your own ambitions.  It is an act of humility rather than an act of arrogance or ego. 

Socrates reasoned that the best leaders were those reluctant to take power.

I think these days we would just settle for a leader that was less hypocritical.

Here’s an excerpt from a speech President Bush gave on Tuesday on Iraq and specifically the political progress being made by Prime Minister Maliki’s government.
“The fundamental question is: Will the government respond to the demands of the people?  If the government doesn’t respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government.”  This quote elicited a strong response from Mr. Maliki and the President quickly backed away from this particular argument and embarked on a new bit of revisionist history.  I’ll get to that in a later post.
In the meantime, you probably know where I’m going with this, but let me keep you in suspense a moment longer.
When Mr. Bush was asked if he was calling for a change of leadership in Iraq, he responded, “That’s up to the Iraqis to make that decision, not American politicians.”
Here are some interesting facts in the context of those statements.
A recent Harris poll says that 42% of the American people feel that the US should pull its troops out of Iraq now.  Another 21% feel that the troops should stay ONLY if the Iraqi people want them to stay.  The remaining 23% feel that the troops should stay regardless of what the Iraqi people want.
The most recent poll of Iraqi people that I could find is about eight months old.  In it 70% of the Iraqi’s polled want the US to leave.  Also telling are the 76% who believe that the US would refuse any request by the Iraqi government to leave and the 80% who believe that the US plans to establish permanent military bases in Iraq.
So the fundamental question is: Will the (US) government respond to the demands of the (US) people? 
Also, if it isn’t American politicians who are currently imposing an unwelcome military presence on the Iraqi people and as a result making decisions for them, then who is?
Fortunately, Mr. Bush has an answer for us that is hopefully prophetic.
“If the government doesn’t respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government.”

Beauty and the Beast

Thursday, August 16th, 2007

This evening’s edition of the Monroe Evening News (the paper that sponsors this blog) had a beautifully written letter to the editor. The author, Doug Stein painted an eloquent word picture of a country that used to be great but was undermined by those who took God out of the schools.

It is an interesting concept that has a lot of appeal, but just like George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, it is fantasy.

The problem is that this fantasy is being preached from many pulpits. It is where conservatives and fundamentalist Christians intersect. They agree that “liberal-activist” judges and the ACLU have ruined what was once a great country.

If you were a white protestant landholding man, this has been a great country from its founding.

The American Indian, on the other hand, is living the results of four hundred years of ethnic cleansing.

Quakers and Wiccans were tortured and killed by the Puritan Christians.

Catholics had no reliable rights until the revolutionary war. It took another 200 years for the first and only Catholic to be elected president.

It took two hundred years and a Civil War to abolish slavery. It took another hundred years for African Americans to gain equal legal status.

Women couldn’t vote until 1920.

Democracy is messy, contentious, and wildly emotional. Don’t let these revisionists whitewash our history of struggle in an effort to make some self serving argument that our current problems are the result of turning away from God. Nothing could be further from the truth. The United States stands alone among industrialized and educated countries in our overwhelming belief in God.

We also possess a vote, a constitution, respect for the rule of law, and a belief that we have the ability to make a better life for our children. It’s that belief that drove the colonists and the pioneers that built this country. It is that same belief that drives immigrants (legal and not) to come today. It may not be as romantic or tidy as the story told by Mr. Stein, but I’m proud to be part of a country where every generation has their story of how they made things better.

Bless the Child that has his own

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007

“For I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him.”
Luke 19:26

This parable from Luke was hard for me to figure out for a long time..

It was the one about the servants whose master left them some money to invest while he went on a trip.  When he returned, those that invested wisely were rewarded.  Those that didn’t were punished.  The advice listed above is what we should learn from this story. 

In modern context it just didn’t seem fair that those that didn’t understand investing and were fearful of taking a loss were punished.  They didn’t steal the money.  They just didn’t do anything productive with it. 

I think that I better understand it now, however.  What I think Jesus was trying to tell us is that we are all given an opportunity in this life to learn more about ourselves and our Creator.  Learning these lessons involves taking a risk because you could fail.  But those who are so fearful of how their world might change that they are unwilling to take any risks not only lose the opportunity to grow, but won’t be able to relate to their maker any better after they die than they were able to while they were here.  In effect they will have to start all over again in the next life because they learned nothing in this one.

Unfortunately the current administration seems to have taken this Bible verse literally.  Those that trusted in government banking regulation were misled into very risky investments which made those in the banking industry very wealthy, but now threaten the financial stability of the country.

Five or so years ago, financial deregulation and a rapidly appreciating real estate values spawned a market for high risk (called sub-prime) adjustable rate mortgages.  Now five years later many people, who may not have been able to purchase a home otherwise, are discovering that as their rates adjust upward, they can no longer afford to make the mortgage payments.  Worse than that, they are also discovering that the house they purchased with that mortgage can’t be sold for even the price necessary to pay off the mortgage.

This was a sweet deal for those in the banking industry because those that sold these risky loans could do so without all of the credit checking normally required for more conventional loans.  So they were selling to every warm body they could find.  The banks and mortgage companies that they worked for were able to easily sell off the loans to other institutions, so they didn’t have the risk of loans going bad.  The institutions packaged up big bundles of loans and sold them off on the stock market, so they made money and didn’t have the risk of the loans going bad.  The banks that bought these securities felt that the risk of any individual loan going bad was minimized by the huge numbers of loans in these packages.  Everyone was happy as long as interest rates stayed low and real estate prices continue to go up.

The problem is the all pyramid schemes eventually topple.  By the time this one did, there were huge amounts of money are tied up in these securities.  When the loan defaults began to rise, the value of those securities went down.  The even bigger problem is that many banks invested their customer’s money in these securities.  When the value of these securities decline, the bank’s ability to borrow money to fund its own operations declines.  As the financial markets began to discover how many banks were at risk, the banks that lend money to banks stopped making new money available until they could determine the real asset status of the securities which backed the bank-to-bank loans that they provide.  As a result, the financial markets pretty much ground to a halt last week.  Governments lead by the US had to step in and provide more credit in order to allow banks to keep everything going.

How does the US provide credit?  It borrows money too through the sale of bonds.  Who buys those bonds?  Why our old buddy China

Some estimate that China now has the financial ability to bankrupt the US if it chose to sell all of its holdings. How do you think that will affect our ability to exert political influence over the Chinese about things like export safety, Taiwan,  greenhouse gases, or say sale of arms and technology to Iran?

How did this happen?

It happened the same way a lot of things like this happen in Republican administrations.  The current administration felt that government shouldn’t be in the banking regulation business.  Lots of financial people made huge amounts of money.  Lots of individuals made very bad mortgage/purchase decisions.  Lots of banks made very bad investment decisions.  Some were deceived by fraudulent practices. 

Who is going to pay to clean this up?  The same folks who paid to clean up the last big savings and loan scandal in the 80’s – you and me.  Ronald Regan was the guy who created the last scandal with the same Republican deregulation philosophy.  Neil Bush (brother of George) was one of the guys who made money off that scandal.  It cost us $1.4 Trillion dollars to clean up. 

It isn’t clear yet what this one will cost.  But we’re already seeing some of the costs.  The stock market is afraid that this financial crisis could bring down companies like Countrywide and folks like Walmart are concerned that many of their customers will have less money to spend because more of it is going to pay their mortgage bills.  This is just the start too, because another $150B in loans will adjust up an average of 35% by the end of the year, and $250B next year.  That’s why the stock market is heading south in a hurry.  If this tips our economy into a serious recession, life could get very interesting for our buddy China who is depending on us to buy all the stuff they are geared up to make.

Please think about this the next time you hear  the next great Republican talking about how we have too much government regulation.


Thursday, August 9th, 2007

“The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” James 3:17
You gotta love democracy and citizen journalism.
Earlier this month the Republican Majority Leader in Michigan, Mike Bishop, was unhappy with the criticism he was getting from a particular blog.  Rather than participate in the process by posting comments to the blog, he did something really stupid.  He had staffers block access to the blog from legislative computers.  Then he justified the act with the comment that “The use of state time and taxpayer money to surf sites that are not applicable to the jobs staff were hired to do is not an acceptable use of state time or funds,”.  When asked why they didn’t block a similar blog another staffer replied, ““ doesn’t matter. They don’t say bad things about us.”
Fortunately power plays like this only confirm everything about Mike Bishop that he was trying to hide.  As soon as this action became better known, he had to back down and restore access.
The more disturbing thought, though, is why he thought he could get away with it in the first place.  After all, as an educated man, he has heard about the first amendment and the concept of free speech.
I submit it is because of the general climate set by our country’s leaders.  It started with an active campaign by conservatives and evangelicals against “liberal” judges that suggested that those who held these positions of trust in our government had some sort of personal agenda which affected their judgement.  This resulted in a loss of respect for our legal system in general.  It has continued as the current administration asserts that the executive branch should be able to do pretty much whatever it wants without oversight of congress or regard to law.  So it isn’t surprising that we’ve seen others in positions of power assume that the law doesn’t apply to them either.
Socrates and Plato were skeptical of democracy because in its earliest incarnations it was messy and unpredictable.  Towns were holding votes every day.  Those that won one vote were at risk of being put in jail or worse based on the results of the next vote.  It was not all that far removed from mob rule.
What tamed democracy and made it workable is the tempering influence of law and the recognition that the majority may rule, but the minority still has rights.  So even though Mike Bishop had the power, by virtue of his elected position, to shut down access to a blog he didn’t like, he didn’t have the right to do so.
My hope as we emerge from a dark two decades of divisive politics is that the American people will recognize that we need laws to manage the balance between majority rule and minority rights.  We also need judges far enough removed from the daily tug of politics to interpret those laws in a consistent and thoughtful manner.  That means we have to be willing to accept those interpretations, even if we don’t agree with them. 

I hope that we will rediscover an understanding that our strength as a country comes from our ability in our political and legal system to embrace our differences.  I hope that we see a return to active respectful public debate where greater understanding is the goal rather than victory.  Where the expectation is not that we all agree on everything, but that we all are willing to honor every point of view and make decisions based on what best serves the greatest good.  We have to be willing to accept the decisions that don’t go in our favor.  We have to demand leaders who can explain to all why some have to sacrifice more than others so that all can have a better life.

We have to be willing to hold our leaders to this higher standard in order to see democracy start to work again.  Fortunately you have a say in the direction this country will take every time an election is held.  Use it wisely.

Message in a Bottle

Tuesday, August 7th, 2007

This past week Congress passed a bill which gave the White House unfettered access to all electronic communications (domestic and international) in the name of national security.
This is deeply disturbing on two counts.
The first is that the legislative branch again failed to exercise their role as a check on the executive branch.  It was understandable during the first six years of this administration because of the Republican majority in both the Senate and the House.  So the American people got the sort of government that they voted for.  Now that the Democrats have the majority in both houses, I expected more.
Rather than confront the White House on the issue and run the risk of being labeled as soft on security, the Democrats ran and hid.  They promise to come back in six months and fight again.
The second is that the Democrats tacitly agreed with the Republicans that this issue was too complicated for the average American voter to grasp.  So instead they allowed a government agency to read anyone’s e-mail without a warrant or any court oversight. 
What’s really disappointing about the whole thing is that this won’t make our country any safer.  We know, for example, that bin Laden only communicates using human messengers.   If you were a terrorist and knew that world governments had the ability to snoop e-mail what would you do?  That’s right.  You’d either encrypt or code your messages or more likely use some other method to communicate.  DUH! 
The reality is that the government isn’t stupid either, so why go through the exercise?  If this isn’t about catching terrorists, what IS this about?
Two thoughts come to mind.
It is about appearing to do something even if that something is ineffective.  That’s the least sinister motive.
It is more likely about spying on people who might become terrorists someday, but aren’t in the process of planning anything today.  You know the general group of suspects – Muslims, survivalists, white supremacists, criminals, sexual deviants, immigrants, radicals, cult members, political activists, and yes – bloggers.
So here’s a little something for the government’s search bots.   

انني دون “تي لكم الثقة وسأبذل كل ما استطيع ان (قانونيا) لتشجيع الناس على التصويت خروجك من منصبه. 

  Here’s a link if you’d like to translate it. 

   I’ll let you know how this turns out. 

Good Foundations

Sunday, August 5th, 2007

“Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.” I Tim 6: 17-19

Sorry for being away for a while. I was on vacation in Northern Michigan at a spot that didn’t have very good Internet or phone service.

I, like everyone else, was shocked and saddened by the highway bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

I had an opportunity in my “disconnected” state to wonder how something like this could have happened.

Isn’t it the job of government to build and maintain our infrastructure for the common good?

So what happened to government that built this infrastructure?

I’m sad to say that the government of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and even Nixon is gone. Those were the administrations when our current national infrastructure was built. When we made the commitment to freedom and opportunity for all citizens. When we made the investments in world-class public education for everyone. When we went to the moon. When we promised our kids cleaner air and water. When we first began to discuss the concept of energy independence and publicly financed elections.

When you think about what this administration has accomplished in it’s past seven years, it’s disturbing. Instead of making something, they have spent most of their time “unmaking” what has gone before. They aren’t alone. We’ve not only let them do it, we’ve encouraged them. We now have a check book government which came into office promising to make government smaller, but in fact has turned out to be the most fiscally irresponsible in history.

Here are just a couple of examples

Estimates put the cost of fixing all of the nations bridges at $9.4B/year for twenty years. Sounds like a lot? The last five years Congress approved and the President signed an estimated $55B in what are euphemistically called earmarks. That’s just another name our elected representatives use for stealing from the public treasury to benefit friends and relatives.

Worse than that, we have already spent $500B on the war in Iraq and estimates are that it will cost us another $500B before we are out.

Got your attention yet?

Here’s a final one for you to think about.

The President’s tax cuts for the rich are costing the country roughly $200B per year. Yup, that’s right. The money to fix all of the bridges in the country was given away last year to the richest people in this country in the form of reduced taxes.

Fixing bridges isn’t sexy. Paying teachers a living wage isn’t what conservatives like to talk about. Neo-cons don’t care if poor kids go to college. They feel poverty is the appropriate punishment for some past sin. Trying to be a good steward of the environment is portrayed as just another example of soft-headed liberalism.

The governments that our parents elected did care. They gave us the best public education system in the world and we broke it. They gave us the best transportation system in the world and we’ve allowed it to decay. They gave us a country that could put a man on the moon and we outsourced that skill to India and China. They gave us a country that knew how to heal the wounds of segregation and war. A country dedicated to world peace. We turned it into a country more deeply divided than any time in recent memory. A country which started a war that it now does not know how to finish.

Clearly we have some work to do.