Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sequester: Where The Money Goes

Mad Dog is still trying to track down where we allocate our funds as a people.
These charts are from different websites, government, conservative think tanks, Mother Jones. They seem to reflect subtle differences in how conservatives and liberals see the same numbers. Creative accounting.

Double click on them to make them more readable.

Notable, is how little defense spending takes up compared to other programs in some charts--as low as 14% in some and as large as 19% in others and even in those where it is 19% Veterans benefits are separated from defense spending, which of course is a little irrational. The cost of a soldier's prosthetic leg is a cost of war, not a social security benefit. With all the money we can see spent at the Portsmouth Naval Yard and in Norfolk Virginia and in the districts of the Tea Party Republicans from California to Pennsylvania, it is surprising that slice of the pie isn't bigger. Agriculture and farm subsidies look surprisingly small. "Education" is surprisingly, gratifyingly, large. I wonder what that includes. 

What is included in "protection" is not clear. Is terrorism, the CIA, the NSA in "defense" or in "protection?" Should Veteran's Administration be in "Health" for the VA hospitals or in "Defense?"  Or should it be in" pensions?" If you added up "defense" "veterans" "protection" then the defense slice would be bigger than Medicare.  Presumably, the Republican/Tea party/ Conservative Think Tank types split off anything they can from "defense" to make that slice of the pie look smaller. And they add whatever they can to Medicare and Social Security to make that look larger.

Before we can really understand the debate about whether we need to cut spending or increase income, Mad Dog suspects, we need to actually see what we are spending and on what.

Creative accounting likely plays a subterranean role here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wars For All the Wrong Reasons

The war we fought among ourselves from 1861-1865 was a war we had to fight. No avoiding it, and the fact it was as long and destructive as it was was important because we had to exhaust ourselves and realize no institution or States Right notion was worth that cost. Had the Union won quickly, as it could have but for the incompetence of various generals, in 1862 or 1863, the South would not have been as exhausted or convinced of its defeat. That was a war which expunged the bad blood.

And it was a good we joined the  battle against Hitler in 1942. As racist and exploitative as England and France and even the United States were, they could  not hold a candle to what Germany had degenerated into. We were a force for good in the world, even if most of the men who fought in that war did not  know it when they joined. 

They found out later just what monster they had brought down.

But since the end of World War II, we have been in more or less continuous war--with a brief hiatus during the Clinton years.

But in most of the wars since WWII, we found  ourselves in quagmires, unable to even say what winning is. 

President Obama has vowed to end the war in Afghanistan and Mad Dog believes he wants to do this, if for no other reason than its effect on our economy. His administration has voiced, through Vice President Biden, our excuse for leaving--we are not running out on the Afghans; we are handing their country back to an Afghan government which is stepping up to take our place, to keep order and to lay justice on the Afghan people.

Of course, as Americans, we understand a  lie when we hear one. There is no Afghan government. There are only some police who rape young boys, hold unfortunate citizens for ransom, sell American weapons and gasoline on the black market, traffic in heroin.  It's a nasty bunch we are handing the country over to, but then again, we never had it in hand.  It's all "Dope on the Table."  We claim victory and clear out.

As far as Mad Dog is concerned, it cannot happen fast enough. After us, the place collapses, and there is not a thing anyone can do about it. 

It's not even clear there is such a thing as an "Afghan people." As with so many failed states, Somolia, and other African "nations" there is no real nation, just a geographic area populated by warring tribes and religious fanatics. 

The lives we lost  were not in vain, if we believe all that was necessary to track down Osama Bin Laden, and without Afghanistan, without a launching pad into Pakistan, we  would likely never have got him. After the Twin Towers came down, a lot of young American men and women were willing to go to Afghanistan to help track him down and kill him. 

Now we've done it. And now we ought to get out of that part of the world  and we ought to  close Gitmo prison, a cesspool of torture which some Americans have justified because we are not torturing or unjustly imprisoning men on American soil. As if committing a crime off shore is no crime. It's the old, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. If we don't misbehave at home, well then there is no crime.

We ought to Bring 'Em Home, from Afghanistan, from Germany, from Japan, from all those bases overseas and build our economy right here. And we ought to set about the work of shutting down those huge weapons systems communities in hundreds of Congressional districts, where Americans have good, high paying jobs building weapons systems we do not need and cannot afford.  These defense workers have served us well, but as was true after World War II, it is time to study war no more and to close down the death factories. 

Mr. Obama may realize this. If he does not, we might be able to educate him.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sequester: Do We Really Need Government, Anyway?

Driving over the fiscal cliff would stall government programs, but for the Republican Tea Party, this will come as welcome news. 
It is not clear to Mad Dog  how many of the listed losses would be permanent and how many temporary, but here is a partial list of what New Hampshire would lose:
1. Teachers and schools: >$1 million for education aides
2. Clean Air Clean Water: $1.5 million for hazardous waste and pesticide contamination programs
3. Defense: 1,000 civilian employees furloughed--presumably the shipyard or is that only in Maine?
4. Army base funding $1 million
5. Law enforcement: courts, prosecution, police 
6. Public Health: $126,000 upgrading state programs in infectious diseases and natural disasters
7. Stop Violence Against Women program: $28,000.

Comments from citizens suggest there are at least some vocal citizens who say, "Good Riddance" to these programs and expenditures.

From Mad Dog's point of view, the impact on "civilian employees," of the military in this state-- if we are talking about ship yard workers who are hard working, well trained people who re furbish submarines--is the most worrisome. But, truth be told, at some point, America has to shift from a wartime nation to a nation which concentrates on defending against terrorism. Nuclear submarines would not appear to offer much protection against the next Al Qaeda attack. Our shipyard, like so many other defense installations around the country is part of our eternal war machine.  Newport, Rhode Island lost the Navy base there  in the 1970's, and there was a painful transition from military to civilian economy, but it happened,  and ultimately, it was tough love and it worked out better for Rhode Island in the long run. 

Where would all those New Hampshire shipyard workers find work? We ought to be figuring that out right now, before the hammer comes down on that shipyard, as it inevitably will. Working on nuclear submarines must be a specialized career, but maybe some of these men and women could take skills used in boats and sell them elsewhere. It would be wrenching and an upheaval, but if we are ever to shift to a real peacetime economy, it will happen eventually.

Our defense spending, Mad Dog suspects, is not about defense or about making America stronger or safer. It is a substantial government welfare program for the defense workers at the plants and shipyards, and a boondoggle for the corporations who profit from it. Not that we ought to bring home all the submarines and aircraft carriers next week, but we ought to bring them home over a well defined timespan. 

Most of the other  things on this list sound  like programs which may be worthwhile, but, truth be told, they sound less than essential. You know how when there is a really big snowstorm and there is an announcement on the radio that only essential government workers have to report for duty. Well, none of these sound like essential government workers. 
We may love the educational aides who help with disabled children at the public elementary school, but are they essential? Just ask Rush Limbaugh. 

The state and the towns fund education and clean air and water and police and the courts. So why do we need these federal funds?

If air traffic controllers cannot go to work, if we cannot fly out of New Hampshire, that hits home.  

Really, the Democrats have to state clearly exactly what would be lost which is convincing to the average New Hampshire voter on this point: If the federal government shuts down, even partially, you will lose things you really like. What are these things?

If Medicare, Social Security or the Center for Disease Control start shutting down, that's a problem. But we are told these will not be falling off the fiscal cliff.

 If the University of New Hampshire has to cut teachers, if Route 95 and Route 93 cannot be plowed, if national parks close, if security lines at Manchester Airport and Logan slow to a crawl, then we got trouble in New Hampshire.  If Obamacare falters in New Hampshire so people here cannot get medical insurance coverage because of the fiscal cliff, that is a problem.

Of course, in the long run, if we go back into recession and all those little factories in the Granite State have no customers, that will hurt. 

But the Republican Tea Party makes one simply argument: We do not need the federal government. The Democrats have to say why we do need the government.

Mad dog awaits the answer eagerly. He knows it's out there. He just hasn't got it yet.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Fiscal Cliff Follies: What, Me Govern?

Why does no one listen to this man?

Troika: Three Stooges

"House Republicans, on the other hand, want to take everything that's bad about the sequester and make it worse: canceling cuts in the defense budget, which actually does contain a lot of waste and fraud, and replacing them with severe cuts in aid to America's neediest. This would hit the nation with a double whammy, reducing growth while increasing injustice."
--Paul Krugman

"I've cut spending, reduced debt and made government more accountable. More recently, I've experienced how none of us go through life without mistakes. But in their wake, we can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances and be the better for it. In that light, I humbly step forward and ask your help in changing Washington."
--Television ad by Mark Sanford, for governor of South Carolina. (Mad Dog kids you not. You cannot make this stuff up.)

When you think about defense spending, if you are a Republican, you can think, "Let's keep America safe. Keep our military second to none."  Of course, we spend more on airplanes, soldiers, ships and weapons systems than the next ten countries in the world's combined, so one might ask, "To whom could we possibly be second?" We are so historically first that for the first time in the history of the world, all the other countries, including Germany, have decided they do not need any real military--just let the Americans do it.

The bald fact is defense spending has nothing to do with defense any more. It is a moderately large federal welfare program for the states of Congressmen who have a lot of defense programs in their state. New Hampshire has the Portsmouth naval yard, which keeps nuclear submarines working. It is difficult to imagine the seacoast without the shipyard, and every Congresswoman and Senator has fought to keep it open.  There is never any real thought about whether or not we need nuclear submarines any more. 

From Mad Dog's uninformed point of view, submarines have always seemed smarter weapons than surface ships, but what does Mad Dog know?

Newport, Rhode Island once had a huge naval base which Richard Nixon closed because Rhode Island was a deeply Democratic state and he took special pleasure in sticking his finger in its eye. Rhode Island had spent millions to build the Newport Bridge across the Narragansett Bay tall enough so aircraft carriers could pass under it, and then--poof! No more aircraft carriers. Shortly thereafter the Americans lost the America's cup race which brought millions to the Rhode Island economy. 

Rhode Island should have withered and blown away. But somehow, Newport did just fine without the Navy and the state actually rebounded smartly.

It's always amusing to see Republicans, who are all about free enterprise, the private sector and small government doing back flips to keep those federal dollars flowing to the military bases in their districts. They are all about small government until it means losing government dollars in their own pockets. 

If Mad Dog reads those pie charts correctly, the military is actually not even that big a slice of the federal spending budget--agriculture subsidies are far larger, and you know just how grateful those big agriculture states are to the tax and spend Democrats.  It's really amazing how Democrats cannot even buy the love of rural voters. 

Many Republicans, like the former governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford,are great anti government men, who have never had a real job in the private sector. They have been on the government dole, oh, excuse me, they have been "in government service" all their lives. Sanford had to resign, after he skipped town to hike the Appalachian trial with his Argentine mistress. Now, he is humbly asking the blessing of the God of second chances. Literally, that's in his new advertisements. He is favored to win in South Carolina, where he who eats the most humble pie typically does win. As Francis Underwood has told us in "House of Cards," humility is the coin of the realm in South Carolina, if you are a politician.

So, the government will shut down March 1. That's what the Republicans/Tea Party want. They want to humble the arrogant federal government. 

And the Democrats have not been able to articulate what harm that will do. 

I guess we'll find out.
Mark Sanford Humbly Asks for Your Vote

Friday, February 22, 2013

American Education, Sputnik and New Ideas

Sputnik, 10/4/1957
Soviet Sputnik Stamp
"When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school
  It's a wonder I can think at all."
--Paul Simon, "Kodachrome"

Recently, comparative data among various nations have placed the United States somewhere in the middle of all nations with respect to the performance by students  on math exams and on other exams intended to measure the quality of education in various countries.
The usual sub rosa response to this is "Oh, well, if you exclude the scores of the inner city kids and the recent immigrants, America would be right up there on top."
In fact, analysis of the data shows that even students from the richest, best public American schools place just below the upper 1/3 of all nations, with Singapore, Korea, Finland, Norway, England and Germany all ahead of us.
Of course, we want to know more about the exams, how meaningful they are, what biases may be built into them. The last thing we want American schools doing is "teaching to the test."
In an intuitive way, Mad Dog is prepared to believe American education is simply not competitive, that it ranges from really dismal, if not worthless, in the inner city schools to just mediocre in the best public schools. It may be better in the really elite private schools--Phillips Exeter Academy, Sidwell Friends School, Georgetown Day school, but these schools cannot provide the numbers to lift and sustain our economy and innovative edge.
No better examination of the troubles besetting the lowest level of public education, the inner city schools of Washington, DC, Baltimore, New Orleans and of dozens of big cities exists than the detailed, sophisticated examination provided by the television series The Wire. Conceived and written by a Baltimore policeman who retired and then taught in the Baltimore inner city schools, this thorough going docu/drama revealed the interactions between the various dysfunctional institutions and community forces which ensure the failure of the school system in the inner city: The street culture of drugs and violence which shape the students, the absence of family, the political structure from the mayor's office to the city council to the state assembly, the competition for funds from police, public works and other governmental services which deprive schools of funding, the nature of the type of people available as teachers--all combine to make public education in these deprived, depressed places a farce.

There was a time when this was not true in the economically challenged inner cities. During the 1930's to 1940's the job of a public school teacher was a plum: It provided a reliable income at a level which placed teachers in the upper middle class when unemployment was high, and it came with pensions and benefits which were the envy of the working class. Teachers were smart, respected, on a par with engineers. And they were teaching students who had challenges, for whom English was a second language, but the culture which formed these students had strong families and parents who pressed their children to succeed in school.

As the economy changed in the 1950's, there were better jobs to be had than teaching, and the public schools slipped into complacency.

Until--October 4, 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in the setting of the cold war and this was successfully sold to the American public as the first knock on the door of American  undoing. The Soviets were graduating ten times the number of engineers churned out by the United States. Something had to be done about our dumb kids! Money and thought and urgency were focused on education and that single event did more for public education than any set of test scores could ever have done.  Of course, cynics said all Sputnik meant was the Soviets had captured more German rocket scientists than we had, but that got lost in the hysteria. The Soviets had engineers and those engineers knew how to make rockets and rockets could carry bombs and the Soviets would launch nuclear attack from the moon.

It was the classic example of the event which could be spun as a new perception, probably on spurious assumption. But it worked for a good outcome: American education became a priority in the 1960's. 

After Sputnik, new thinking about science education probably improved science teaching, at least marginally, and it may have refocused career ambitions of some talented students, and more money flowed to education. 
But money proved to be the least important factor in improvement, probably because it went to the wrong places. What would really have made a difference would have been if enough money were spent on teacher salaries. That's what attracted good minds during hard economic times.
 The best and the brightest did not seek jobs as teachers--some did, but not enough--there was simply more money and more prestige to be had elsewhere. 

So the moment was lost.  The inner city schools, bled dry by white flight, sunk beneath the waves. 
And even the rich suburban schools did not rise to the level of say, English or German schools; they just got more attention. Mad Dog attended public schools in the Washington, DC suburbs, some of the most affluent suburbs in the nation, with parents who wanted their kids going to Ivy League colleges. The problem was the teachers were simply not up to the task. There were some extraordinary teachers, to be sure, but the percentages were against excellence.  And the kids were smart enough to perceive their teachers were only one chapter ahead of them in the textbook. 

The moral of this story is simply that pouring money into schools, whether they are inner city schools or rich suburban schools is not enough. Schools do not exist in a vacuum.  For all his good intentions, President Obama has bought into some pretty unhealthy misconceptions about education, like the idea of judging teachers faced with inner city students by the test scores of their students.  You can judge students who have demanding parents by test scores, but you cannot apply that test to the teachers in inner city schools.
In fact, the test scores of the highly motivated children of tiger mothers likely reflects the efforts of the mothers more than the proficiency of the teachers.

The solutions for inner city schools, or for schools in places like Gaithersburg, Maryland, or Seabrook, New Hampshire will be different. In places like these, the problems are those of the immigrant, or of  parents working two jobs, who have no academic background themselves. The solutions for these schools will have to be very different from the solutions for the rich suburban schools or the solutions for the bombed out inner city schools.

In schools where money is not a problem, the public schools of Beverly Hills, California,  Chevy Chase, Maryland, Winiketa, Illinois, Shaker Heights, Ohio, Westchester County, New York, the problem will be finding academically gifted teachers and keeping the top heavy bureaucracy from getting in their way.

Too much money can actually be a problem in rich counties. In Montgomery County, Maryland dumbed down curricula from a central county education department bureaucracy are forced on teachers who could teach more sophisticated, better and smarter material, if they were allowed to do so. The huge education budget of this rich county supports a gargantuan, bloated administration of non classroom teachers, churning out lowest common denominator lessons sent out from the county seat.

Mr. Obama is right about one thing: It's easier to see the value of a new bridge or a new building than a new and better education.  One is concrete, the other is in the minds of children. But the GI Bill which sent returning veterans to college after WWII, and the support for public education after Sputnik, were investments which paid off, which created not just a middle class but upper classes of doctors, engineers, lawyers and businessmen.  You could not drive a car over it; you could not take an elevator ride to the top of it; you could not move your furniture into it, but the fact you could not see it did not mean it did not matter.

There will never be a perfect school, and certainly not a perfect high school, not in America, where hormones thwart some of the best efforts of teachers. 
But there could be improvements, if the right people were involved.

One last thought: Some years ago Mad Dog gave a presentation at a very spiffy, elite private school for an introductory biology course. The teachers were very attentive and they were very smart and picked up on all the things Mad Dog thought they would miss for sure. But they informed Mad Dog his course could be an "enrichment" course for seniors, not an introductory course for freshman. Mad Dog slunk out of the school, embarrassed he did not know more about teaching. But on reflection, he thought, maybe he was not as wrong and they were not as right as it seemed. Maybe even the best teachers could benefit from hearing thoughts  from outside the education world. If medicine is too important to be left in the hands of doctors, is education not too important to be left solely in the hands of teachers?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Duckworth vs Ayotte: New Hampshire Can Do Better

By some estimates, one in five veterans have received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Have you? 
I do not have PTSD, but if I watch part of a movie like “The Hurt Locker” or when I spend time around Blackhawk helicopters, I will close my eyes that night and live an entire day in Iraq, flying my missions. I remember the smell and the feel and the heat and everything about it. Then I wake up in Illinois, and I’m exhausted.

--Tammy Duckworth, The New York Times Sunday Magazine

Reading the interview with Tammy Duckworth, the Congresswoman from Illinois, Mad Dog had to reflect upon who we have representing us from New Hampshire. Senator Shaheen and Representative Shea-Porter are solid citizens, but then there is that other United States Senator, the Tea Party darling, Kelly Ayotte.

Ms. Duckworth flew a Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq and lost both her legs, below the knees. She speaks frankly about her experience and does not trade on it as if it were some "back story" to use the  Washington speak phrase. In fact, she is famous for having remarked she felt as the politicians trooped in to be photographed with people like her at Walter Reed  as if she were a part of a "petting zoo," providing photo ops for some politicians.
 But she also says Paul Wolfowitz, the Republican neo conservative, came by at nights and on weekends, and Bob Dole, the Republican Senator, sat on the floor with her and told her stories about his war wounds. She surprises you.  She does not sound as if she is saying things for effect. She sounds, to use another Washington word, "authentic," which is to say you never get the feeling she is playing you.

That is exactly not the feeling I have from Senator Ayotte. She has endorsed every right wing extremist the Republican Party has placed beside her, from Sheriff Arpaio, the Arizona Gestapo wannabe of Maricopa County, the man who marches prisoners, before they are convicted of anything, down the street in pink underwear.  When asked about her endorsement of Arpaio, she chose her words carefully and said she admired his work.  And Ayotte should know better: She was a prosecutor. 

If New Hampshire Democrats have one priority over the next two years, it ought to be tracking Ms. Ayotte, recording what she says and noting with whom she is jumping into political bed, and then making every effort to roust out this Tea Party extremist.  She has that sweet face and she is very careful about what she says. She has learned the Washington game well, a quick study, which makes her a rising star among Republicans.

But she is the legacy of the  wave of irrational disgruntlement which swept Tea Party candidates like Frank Guinta into Congress in 2010.  We are stuck with her until 2016. 

But then, we need to incise that pus pocket and drain that wound.

Somewhere, in New Hampshire, we have to find our own Tammy Duckworth. 

Here is the link to Rep. Duckworth's interview in the Times:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Why President Obama Should Not Travel to Israel

Mad Dog would like to make it a matter of public record he read Exodus as an impressionable twelve year old and imagined himself as Dov Landau, and spent much of his youth looking for the real life equivalent of Karen Hansen. So Mad Dog claims his bone fides as a person conditioned from early childhood experience to sympathize with Israel and the reasons for its founding and the suffering of those who sought to build a new life after the horrors of Germany, Poland, occupied France, Denmark and the Nazi holocaust.

Having said all that, Mad Dog is currently reading about James Garfield, the second American President to have been assassinated, of four.  There have been at least 14 assassination attempts on American Presidents and several against President Obama we know about from a brief internet survey.

Of all the places on planet earth where Mad Dog would forbid President Obama from traveling here is the list:
1. The Middle East from Iran to and including Egypt.
2. Somalia
3. Venezuela 
4. Columbia
5. Mexico
6. North or South Korea
7. Texas
8. Arizona
9. South Carolina
10. Mississippi
11. Anywhere in Georgia outside of Atlanta
12. Alabama.
13. Anywhere with a higher proportion of rednecks and guns than listeners to NPR.

In the internet age, there is simply no reason for Mr. Obama to step out from behind the bullet proof glass and shake hands with citizens.

He can do that after his next 4 years in office.

We need him to complete his term. As Mad Dog has advised, Mr. Obama should spend plenty of time outside of Washington, D.C., embarrassing Congressmen where they live, but he ought to confine these visits to places where there are at least as many sane people as lunatics.

The Middle East does not need Mr. Obama to be personally present. Jimmy Carter brought the Egyptians and Israelis to Washington. If anybody in Israel or Palestine or Lebanon or Syria or Egypt really wants American advice, they can travel to America to get it. Our intervention in that part of the world should be restricted to Skype and the occasional drone strike (fully vetted.) We do not need to step into a dog fight to prove we love dogs.

Now, if I can just get Barack Obama on the phone.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

State of the Union: A Sacred Effort

I knew there was something about this President.

Tonight, I listened for 60 minutes to the man I voted for, and I felt fortunate, nay, privileged,  to have had the chance to mark my own ballot next to his name.

Not since that thrilling speech at Lincoln Park, the night of his first Presidential victory in 2008, has President Barack Obama been as moving or as spine tingling.

For me, at least, the 60 minutes were as one. 

It wasn't the litany of programs, although these were important.
It wasn't the selection of topics, or the inclusion of key phrases to address the priorities of particular interest groups, who were represented by people shown on camera around the room.  All those little phrases are important to various stake holders, people who run associations, unions, companies, for whom the night is complete if they can raise a fist because their little group got a line in the speech. All that is now de rigeur  for the modern State of the Union address.

No, the excellence of the speech lay in the simple logic of its arguments, the clear enunciation of a sense of fairness in simple phrases. 

And, of course, there was that building emotional crescendo, as he went around the room telling stories of a policeman who was shot 12 times trying to save Muslims worshiping in a Sikh temple, a cop named Murphy or something Irish, an Irish American trying to save Muslims. Or the 102 year old woman, who had waited on line 6 hours to caste her vote in Florida,  despite the best efforts of shameless Republican politicos who conspired in Florida, as they did in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, to deny the vote to those who were determined to vote against them.

The peak, emotionally, came when Mr. Obama said victims of gun violence, and their families, since Newtown and before "Deserve a Vote." And of course, as the chant went round the room it was like a repeated rapping on the door of the National Rifle Association's undoing. It was brilliant, on pitch, emotionally and intellectually correct. The President followed it with a shake of the head, a Reagan like shrug of the shoulders, as he said we will not prevent the next Newtown with laws or programs, but we owe it to our citizens to try.

It reminded me of Reagan's remarks after the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all on board, including a school teacher from New Hampshire. Reagan spoke the lines written for him by Peggy Noonan about the space ship breaking the surly bonds of earth, or some such and then he said, very matter of fact, "But there will be other shuttles launched. This will not be the last. They would not have wanted our efforts at exploration to die with them." And so Obama, in his humble  acknowledgment we cannot control the lunacy, but that should not stop us from trying, echoed that wisdom of humility but determination.

And you looked around that room, with those aged, no aged is too neutral a word, at those failing, decrepit Supreme Court justices, at those old white men, like John Dingle and Mitch McConnell, and at the young Republican lions, dumb as sticks, like Eric Cantor and the T party bimbo, Kelly Ayotte, and you had to think, the guy at that podium is so much more vigorous and brighter than any of them. How can he accomplish anything, trying to teach ballet to these hippos?

Then he got to the idea of The Citizen, and that is where he really had me. That simple, neglected idea, of the humble citizen as the inevitable, central, indispensable unit of our democracy.

I could not turn off the television, watching the President make his way through the crowd after the speech, although I had to turn off the sound because Judy Woodruff did not have the good sense to tell the yammering David Brooks to simply shut his mouth, as he opined the speech was "prosaic."  David Brooks, evidently, would not recognize a historic speech if he were hit over the head with it. He would undoubtedly judge the Gettysburg Address as underdeveloped and lacking emotion, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address as long winded and too partisan. 

The sad fact is, David Brooks may be a loving father and a kindly man, but he is one of the most clueless white men who  ever pooped between two shoes. And Mark Russell, the liberal token,  is wearyingly droll, trying to hard to coin a quotable phrase with every sentence, where a simple, "Memorable," would have done.

President Lincoln asked Frederick Douglass what Douglass had thought of his Second Inaugural Address, the evening of the inauguration.  Douglass, who had had his differences with the ever-cautious and lawyerly Lincoln replied, "Mr. President, that was a sacred effort." 

From out here in New Hampshire, that's the way I heard the President's speech tonight.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Northern Pass Sorting Out Reality

Justice Douglas
Sock it to those robber barons

Public land is a public trust

How does a citizen of New Hampshire, living on the seacoast begin to sort out the competing claims flying back and forth about the efforts to bring hydroelectric power down from Canada across pristine New Hampshire scenery in the form of power wires strung between steel derricks, cut through forests?

Listen to the men who work for the power companies, the people who stand to profit from power lines running across their land (and on to their neighbors' land) and you would think those who oppose the power lines are foggy minded, tree hugging types who would thwart economic growth, who are willing to put the nation at risk for increased dependency on foreign oil, all in a misguided attempt to see themselves as the heroes in a passion play which pits the virtuous environmentalists against the avaricious capitalists who care only for making a profit and leaving town, with no concern about the rape of the environment. The power company men say they are being hard headed, smart and they are, ultimately operating in the public's interest because you need power to drive the American economy, and this Northern Pass power line will bring power from Canada, not from Saudi Arabia. 

Listen to the opponents of the power line proposal and you hear a simple message: This is environmental rape for private profit.  As for any economic gains, these will be scarfed up by the men employed by the power companies, and the stockholders, but the citizens of New Hampshire will lose, in the end, because the pristine wilderness which draws the tourist dollar will be defiled.  Their argument is essentially aesthetics, but they stretch it to cover an economic argument as well.

So, who do you believe?

On the face of it, one would think the power from Canada argument has lost its force, now that fracking has produced an energy boom in the United States. We are about to become energy independent without the Northern Pass. We don't need it. 

A similar fight is happening over a different sort of line, a pipeline,  across some Western states, but there the source of power is dirty oil shale in Canada, so the environmental impact, globally may be an easier case to make.

So, who do we believe? And how do we go about figuring out how to know who to believe.

For enlightenment, Mad Dog looks to...Fiction. Movieland. Chinatown, to be precise. In that story, a private entrepreneur wants to corner the market on water in the Los Angeles basin, but his virtuous partner resists that notion, insisting things like water (and one might substitute here "power") ought to belong to the people, in the public domain, not be owned by private capital.  So, to Mad Dog, the power people who want the Northern Pass look like Noah Cross in Chinatown.

Or, one can look to that other form of fiction, history.  In the mid 20th century, road developers wanted to run a big highway 180 miles from Cumberland, Maryland, right down into the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., paving over the C&O canal and its towpath, which runs hard by the Potomac River. The road building companies had a bunch of Congressmen in their pockets.   Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas, a liberal and a fervent outdoorsman, led a group of newspaper reporters, Congressmen, wildlife enthusiasts on a week long trek along the canal, where they saw fox, beaver, great blue heron, deer, eagles, osprey.  By the time Douglas reached Trav's tavern at Glen Echo, Maryland, just a few miles from Georgetown, the newspapers had daily front page stories depicting the road builders as killers of birds, beaver and Bambi.  Congressmen who had supported the road were running for cover and the road plan collapsed. The canal and towpath became the most intensively used national park in the entire National Park system.  Even today, just a few miles from the Capital building, along the canal you can see beaver and fox.  In fact, beaver hump up the hill and are occasionally spotted foraging around the campus of Georgetown University. The towpath is part of an extensive bicycle path and you can ride your bicycle from Georgetown more than a hundred miles north without ever crossing a road with an automobile. 

So, knowing nothing more about the details of the Northern Pass, until proven otherwise, Mad Dog chooses to believe the environmentalists on this one and he tends to see the power company entrepreneurs as just so many Noah Cross types, looking to rape and profit.

Friday, February 8, 2013

George Packer, Hillary Clinton and Prestige

Writing in this week's  New Yorker , George Packer describes Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State as valiant but doomed in her efforts to sustain an effort to mold a foreign policy which would return the United States to international "respectability" and to restore America's "standing" and "prestige" and "presence" in the international community, among the nations of the world. 

"Obama and Clinton wanted to 'pivot' away from the Middle East, toward the Pacific, but a bloody hand keeps reaching out to pull America back.  Sixty thousand people have died in Syria's civil war, Egypt is on the brink of state collapse, and the region is moving toward Sunni-Shiite confrontation. These are not problems that can be addressed by drone strikes and fitful diplomacy."

As if...As if America could or even if it could, should attempt to do anything about Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Tunisia or Libya. Good Heavens, man, have you not heard of a little country called Vietnam?

Or how about Afghanistan?  Does the word "quagmire" mean anything to you?

Now Mad Dog is a longtime fan of Mr. Packer, who is usually well informed, analytical, thoughtful and astute. But this is the sort of tripe which gives liberalism a bad name. 

Mad Dog grew up going to school with the sons and daughters of foreign service officers, and he knew many people who served bravely and tenaciously in the Foreign Service for many years.  Having had these friends, he wonders where Mr. Packer gets his idea of what diplomacy is capable of doing. 

If you lose your passport traveling overseas, you need an American consulate. If you get thrown in jail, you need some American diplomat to help try to get you freed. If an American company wants to sell stuff overseas, American diplomats and government employees from other departments and agencies may be able to help you. 

But restoring "prestige?" As soon as you see that word, your antennae ought to shoot up and the needle on your bull detector should gyrate wildly. 

Apparently, Mr. Packer has read a book by Mr. Vali Nasr, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, and Mr. Packer has been much impressed.

Anyone who wants to become dis enthralled with the possibilities of diplomacy and power need only tune into any  News Hour interview on Youtube and plug in "Henry Kissinger" or" Zignew  Bryshenski" and you will hear the ultimate in Chauncey Gardner (Being There) in pseudo wisdom, baso profundo, coming at you. Or, if you really want a very sad version of this, where the speaker is not even aware she is in deep doodoo, plug in "Jean Kirkpatrick," and pick a date toward the end of her life, when she was in the firm grip of Alzheimer's, but still appearing on the Sunday morning news shows intoning deep thoughts like, "The American government must proceed cautiously and judiciously, ever aware of the many ramifications and far ranging implications of any precipitate action," with gray heads all around the table nodding sagely in agreement with these pearls.

The fact is, this is not rocket science or even medical science; nobody knows anything among the foreign policy pundits. Pundits in this arena simply describe a world as they would like to imagine it, usually a world which has a place for themselves as the trusted adviser to the king or president, and that becomes "fact" for them. Kissinger was the most obvious example, a man who created a persona and milked that phony wisdom for all it was worth.

The fact is, power grows out of two related things in this world: The barrel of a gun and the economy which can produce guns.  No nation's leadership embraces or respects the United States out of love or admiration--not even, especially not the United Kingdom. Poor nations look to the United States as the rich uncle who never hands out enough money. Rich nations look at the U.S. as a competitor,  and hostile nations look at the U.S. of A as the great Satan.

The best thing the United States can do overseas is to get out and mind our own economy. Get those troops home, and close those bases and withdraw our Navy, at least the surface ships.  Come home and grow our civilian economy and stop fighting endless war.

The reason the United States was able to help win the war against Hitler, which was mostly won by Stalin and the Red Army, was we were in a position to build 15,000 airplanes a month, a number Hitler refused to believe, but we helped Britain first, and then on our own we filled the skies over Germany with bomb droppers. 

Now we have drones and that is what makes a difference to Al Qaeda. 

We can worry about what happens when Al Qaeda gets drone technology.

But to say Hillary Clinton could have made a difference in the world, if only President Obama had allowed her to do this is to betray an infantile credulity unworthy of an estimable author writing in a  high quality magazine whose editors should have known better.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

President Obama Out of Washington

Mad Dog is not a political scientist, nor a journalist, nor well connected, but he has a political thought, unsolicited, but offered for free.

It seems to Mad Dog the only times Republicans seem to really wail and gnash their teeth is when Mr. Obama leaves Washington and speaks in the Republican back yard.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama went to a bridge between Mr. Mitchell's state of Kentucky and Mr. Boehner's state of Ohio, a bridge which became a symbol for the deterioration of American infrastructure, a bridge which is creaking and groaning and which is now so inadequate lines of trucks carrying goods from Michigan to New Orleans back up for miles and vital commerce, goods and business from the upper Midwest to the South and back again wither on the vine.  So Mr. Obama goes to this bridge and says if only Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Boehner would get out of the way and stop obstructing efforts by the government to widen and repair this bridge, both Ohio and Kentucky would benefit, as would the entire economy of the middle of the country. 

That really seemed to shake Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Boehner. They must have heard from their own locals. 

When Mr. Obama gets on the road and talks about gun control to people in Detroit and Chicago, in Arizona and Virginia, his supporters rally and is it not possible, that scares his opponents? 

The trouble with urging Mr. Obama to travel around the country to engage real people, who then shout at their own  Congressmen, is getting Mr. Obama out among the people puts him at risk for physical harm.  If he could be whisked in for lightning strikes and then whisked out again before the local lunatics with guns can react, this might be a technique to bring the rabid Right to heel.

If the most effective antiseptic is sunshine, then putting Mr. Obama's own radiant star shine out there, pushing for the big issues--gun control, Supreme Court reform, economic stimulation, immigration reform--might be the best hope for moving these things forward. 

The President will give his State of the Union address next Tuesday. Mad Dog urges you to look around that room at the assembled Senators and Congressmen.  When you see the faces of the Congress, you will understand why Mr. Obama is wasting his time in Washington.  

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Mr. Obama: We Still Love You, But...

Mad Dog is so happy President Obama is not President Romney, President Republican, the T Party President.

That having been said, we have to now get down to business.

As much as  Mad Dog agrees it makes sense to make it more difficult to buy guns, he is under no illusion this will effectively thwart either the madman, or the street thug. 

If trying to restrict the proliferation of guns is like trying to comb hair in a strong wind, that does not mean no attempt at control should be made.  A hat, perhaps.  And then there is the  suggestion by Mr.La Pierre and his co conspirators at the NRA the solution is more guns, guns at every school, guns at every shopping mall, stadium, swimming pool and public place. Of course, Mad Dog is not the first to observe: if guns could make us safe, then America should be the safest country on earth.  Even if it is not likely to work, restricting guns only inconveniences the lunatic fringe gun owners and we do not care about them. A pox on that house of the NRA and their frothing defense of every gun in every situation. Turn the screws on them just to shut them up. Open your mouth again and we will come take away your guns for saying such foolishness.

Let us simply vote against the NRA and move on to  the more important items which ought to be on the President's agenda, which effective legislation can affect:

1. Change the fundamental nature of the Supreme Court without amending the Constitution. Pack that sucker. Two new justices for every 4 year term of each President and allow only the 9 most recent to vote. Let this new court undo Citizen's United, Heller v District of Columbia, Bong Hits for Jesus etc.

2. Forbid strip searching in jails or prisons by whatever means it takes.
3. Press forward with single payer, Medicare for All.

4. Bring the troops home within the next three months from Afghanistan, Germany, Japan and basically every overseas base save, possibly, Korea. Close Gitmo for good measure. Dismantle and downsize the standing Army and Navy. Convert our armed forces to a smaller, Marine/SEAL style highly mobile force designed to intercede with pirates, terrorists and small cells rather than sitting around in bases waiting to fight Russian army divisions.

5. Legislate a dismantling of too-big-to-fail-banks.

6. Prosecute the money lenders who phonied up mortgages  for mortgage backed securities. Send those white collar liars to jail.

7. Launch a campaign now to unseat every single T party Republican in Congress, specifically, one by one, in every state where there is any prospect for success. This means don't waste your time in Alabama, but go after those  in California, Michigan, Ohio who might be vulnerable.

8. Challenge the whole concept of district Gerrymandering, and, ultimately, geographic representation in Congress, as opposed to one vote, one voter.

9. Launch a new stimulus package to repair bridges, roads, internet, hospitals.

10. Use the bully pulpit to attack the Demented Right, point by point. Encourage the enlightened left by strategic visits to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Are you with Mad Dog? 
Do we have a Movement? 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Women and Combat

Today's New York Times has an article about efforts to lower standards soldiers must meet to qualify for combat, in order to allow more women to qualify.  There is always the strong suspicion the "qualifications" for combat soldiers have little to do with today's battlefield. Why should today's soldier need to have upper body strength to do 20 pull ups? Does every combat soldier have to be able to do every combat job? Having said that, Mad Dog has seen, ever since Title IX became law, some women at the gym, on the fields, on the courts, and in the swimming pools who are every bit as powerful as most men, and if the Army and Marines are finding women cannot pass the pull up test or the running tests, Mad Dog would say they are testing the wrong women. 

The one thing Mad Dog hasn't seen addressed is the scenario described by Kayla Williams, where the convoy was moving 12 hours without stopping and the men in the trucks could urinate into bottles, but the women were in agony, and for some reason even a three minute pause was deemed untenable.  So the women had to simply pee in their pants. 
Not having been in combat, or in Desert Storm, Mad Dog has a difficult time imaging how a three minute pee stop in the midst of an 12 hour trip could undermine the success of a military operation, but if the Marines say it is so, Mad Dog will stipulate it may be. In that case, appropriate urine bottle equivalents might be developed for female urination. If they can do it for space travel, why not military travel?

But Mad Dog suspects the refusal to stop had more to do with male Army sadism and an attempt at putting down women than it had to do with military necessity. 

The fact is, Kayla Williams, who did not have her infantryman's combat badge, was riding along in that convoy, carrying a gun, as much a target of hostile fire as any of the men riding with her. She was there to interpret Arabic. They really needed her, but they would not stop to allow her to pee. In fact, in today's asymmetric wars of occupation, there are no front lines and the image of charging up a hill carrying a 50 caliber machine gun and 60 pounds of ammo boxes rarely pertains, as far as Mad Dog knows.  But then again, Mad Dog has never been to Afghanistan.

Personally, Mad Dog is humbled every morning at the swimming pool, as young women steam by him in the pool, hit the wall with a flip turn which propels them back in the other direction, fifteen meters down the lane and disappear in a cloud of bubbles. Mad Dog may be able to do more pull ups than those women, but Mad Dog would be happy to have them in his foxhole any day.  Mad Dog has been passed in road races by women, has played on hardball teams with women. The women who can compete with the men are exceptional women, but that is what the Army should have.  The few, the proud, the brave, or whatever their slogan is.

It is true, Mad Dog believes, most women cannot compete in certain ways with the strongest men. Watching girls compete in wrestling is the only example Mad Dog can bring to mind which illustrates gender differences, even across the whole spectrum of female athletic prowess. Before puberty, girl wrestlers do just fine, often by using leg power to defeat shoulder power. After puberty, there are simply no women wrestlers who can compete  with the upper 80% of men. They simply do not progress past the first one or two rounds of high school or college tournaments. They can beat the weaker males, but cannot beat stronger, quicker males who are  fueled by testosterone. The question is, is today's  battlefield more like a wrestling match, mano a mano, or it is more like a video game? 

The best women's basketball, football, hockey and rugby teams might defeat weak male teams, but in combat will they be fighting weaker teams? Are any of these assertions, even if true, relevant to the 21st century war?

The Army women Mad Dog has met have, for the most part, are not been physically exceptional.  They tend to be ordinary women with physical power well below the average male. But they may be able to shoot the wings off a fly at 50 yards and they may be great at operating a computer to find an enemy on the other side of the hill. 

There is a certain amount of gung ho rah-rah which the Army claims is essential to killing efficiency. That sort of phony toughness is not seen in the Israeli army, which has had women for years. The Israeli army seems to be a pretty effective killing machine. Mad Dog suspects the Israel army has succeeded by fighting smart rather than by fighting as blow-hard macho men with big chests and broad shoulders. 

Mad Dog realizes  Full Metal Jacket, the movie, is fiction. But is based on Short Timers, a book written by a Marine about his Vietnam tour of duty and his training for it.
Watch the scene where a 100 pound Viet Cong woman with an AK-47 dismembers a mean-green-killing-machine Marine platoon with stealth, marksmanship, determination and courage, and you will see what Mad Dog means.  Of course, as Mad Dog has said, he has never got any closer to real combat than paint ball and the Emergency Room. 

On the other hand, you do not have jump off a cliff to understand the experience and the outcome. What Full Metal Jacket was all about was phony toughness. It depicted, in great detail, the misguided theory underlying the training of combat Marines. The theory goes something like this:  The most effective warrior is a physically intimidating person who will kill on command without hesitation, in face to face combat, after storming across a field and up a hill. The fact is, soldiers today may not do much storming up hills carrying sixty pounds of ammo.  The nature of the battlefield in Afghanistan may be different from Vietnam or WWII.  History is rife with examples of officers insisting on the wrong tactics, based on the last war and getting their men killed. Soldiers died in heaps during the Civil War because officers believed the qualities which won prior wars still applied to 1861.  What the officers had not adjusted to was the rifled barrel and 1861 artillery. 

You need different tactics and different qualities in your soldiers to fight the war involving new weapons and tactics.  

Do we still need Captain America and Rambo to defeat the insurgent with his Improvised Explosive Device? Does today's soldier, carrying a plastic rifle, patroling the dusty streets of some Afghan village need to be able to do 20 pull ups? Or does she need to be able to assess the looks in the eyes of villagers and know when to pull the trigger?