Sunday, February 27, 2005

A New Iraq Question

So, our current mission in Iraq is to arm and train the country's armed forces so that they can maintain stability and we can leave. Does this ever work out for us? Just thinking through recent examples of the US arming and training opposing armies and the inevitable result -- that we wind up having to face down the beasts we've created.

1) Saddam Hussein. We armed him and assisted him against Iran during the 1980s. You all know what happened one and then two decades later.

2) Osama bin Laden, armed, trained and assisted to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. 20 years later? Right.

3) Manuel Noriega -- our strong man in Panama. Now in a Florida jail after we invaded his country to depose him.

One could point to Germany and Japan as counter-examples. We built up their countries and amred forces after World War II and haven't had a problem with them since. Israel, another US military project has turned out well for us and given us a dependable ally.

So, there's three successes and three disasters. I'm sure there's more to be added to either side. I can't help but wonder if Iraq won't be a little of both. Will we both successfully build a dependable and non-threatening military there, but, at the same time, create, train and motivate the next Osama bin Laden? I just don't see people discussing the fact that we have, on many occasions, created our own future enemies, and since I don't see the topic discussed, I do wonder if we're doing anything to keep our history of intervention from repeating itself.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Way back in 1978...

According to the New York times, George W. Bush had this to say about Social Security, way back in 1978: "...will be bust in 10 years unless there are some changes," he said, according to an account published the next day in The Midland Reporter-Telegram. "The ideal solution would be for Social Security to be made sound and people given the chance to invest the money the way they feel."

Remember when Social Security went bust back in 1988? Me freaking neither.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Arthur Miller/Forbes on Fox

Forbes on Fox tomorrow (Fox News, 11 am eastern) has taped and they're doing a segment of my design. I finally get to argue, in a public forum, that we should open our borders to more immigrants in order to fix any problems in the Social Security system. We need more workers. There are many who want to live here. It was lively.

Now, awhile back, Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal wrote a nasty piece in the wake of playwright Arthur Miller's death. I let it slide, figuring Miller's legacy is safe from an article headlined "Arthur Miller -- the Great Pretender." One Wall Street Journal reader didn't let it slide. He wrote a great little letter which I'm just going to type in for you all because it's worth reading:

Critic's Bad Manners

On the occasion of Arthur Miller's death, your drama critic Terry Teachout calls Miller a fraud, a "pretender" without important ideas or the ability to express them. I would like to make the following observations: First, I don't know who Terry Teachout is, but it is possible to read a lot about drama without encountering his name. Second, people with manners do not criticize the dead; Mr. Teachout's comments are a personal attack, not literary criticism. Finally, Mr. Teachout calls Miller pretentious and then proceeds to quote himself in a negative review of Miller, as if this substantiates his opinion. Isn't that, well, pretentious?

David Schlossberg
Merion, PA

Well said, David. Well said.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson is Dead

No attempt at a witty headline for this one. I'll leave the bad puns based on "Hunters" or "Hunting" or "Fear and Loathing" to anyone in the major media who can write them, publish them and not feel even a bit of guilt over turning the loss of a great writer into a badly wrought one-liner.

In keeping with the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson, I will not wait the requisite amount of time to complain about how he died. He shot himself yesterday afternoon. He was 67. He didn't use a shotgun, but, I'm still disturbed that an iconoclast like Thompson would so closely follows Ernest Hemingway's path to the end. I suppose there are only so many ways to do yourself in, and it isn't nice to critique another man's suicide, but, there you go. It was one of my first thoughts on reading the news, no sense in pretending it wasn't.

No paragraph here about how Hunter's Gonzo journalism entertained and inspired so many young writers and journalists and probably provided one of the styles that would be employed by many a blogger, once the technology became available. I'll leave the task of putting him into historical literary context, as part of and apart from the "New Journalism" movement to somebody getting paid by the word.

I really liked reading his stuff, he was important to me during my college years and for a few years after and you always like a writer like that throughout your whole life.

He always seemed like a misanthrope, but really, he believed in individual freedom to an extreme degree and people who believe that tend to have few friends on either the right or left in politics or in public life.

He lived most of his life, and died, in or near Aspen, Colorado. Because of his close proximity to New Mexico he was an often-invoked pop culture celebrity in youth-- my best evidence is that one semi-literary bad girl that I met in college concocted a tawdry tale of being hit on, and abusing substances with, Thompson and his son, Juan. I am sure some other semi-literary bad girl is making the same claim to some other guy at UNM as I type this. It just seems likely. Not that any of the tales are true, but that they would be told. Because, you know, a story like that is just plausible enough, if the audience wants to believe it.

Of his books, I most enjoyed Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the irst collection of letters from his early years. The one I enjoyed the least was his first, Hell's Angels -- not because it wasn't well done but because, by the time I read it, the Hell's Angels were no longer a meaningful part of American life. But, when you go back to the "Campaign Trail" book, to Thompson's coverage of Nixon's election charge, you see how little things have changed. Nixon led to Ford, a flirtation with Carter and then Reagan/Bush. And now Bush's son, who has built his cabinets out of former Ford people and Iran-Contra figures from the Reagan/Bush years. There's an idealogical lineage at work in Washington that stretches back to Nixon. You can see the roots of it all in Thompson's book.

And, of course, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is just plain fun. And also a good example of Thompson capturing a big moment of change in American culture -- perhaps the moment where motorcycle gangs like the Hell's Angels ceased to be our national demons, to be replaced by suited gangs from Wall Street. It used to be that a thief could make real money by knocking over a bank. No longer. Now, you get in on a stock offering. Or tell two companies to merge even though it will benefit neither one of them and result in the unemployment of innocent bystanders.

Hunter S. Thompson is dead, by his own hand. I like his work a lot. Next time you have a drink, raise a toast to the man.

Sunday, February 20, 2005


Just met a guy who is an ex-Clinton Administration member who tells me that the government, and not Wall Street will manage the annuities. He's a good guy. BUT, I think he's wrong on this one. For one thing, he readily admits that Wall Street firms will sell investment products to whatever government agency will manage private accounts. WORSE, he doesn't know which firms already do so, and, he doesn't know what public disclsures apply. I think he's a guy with good ideas but who hasn't done his homwork. I do think this... the government managing annuities is a disaster waiting to happen. But.. I hate annuities in general. I don't think people should pay to have some one else give them an allowance for their own money. The ex-=Clintonite I met said that "Ideally, everyone should buy annuities." I think he spoke with the best of intentions, but... ideally, he's wrong.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Social Security Wall Street Giveaway

One of the biggest hurdles for Bush is that he has to privatize Social Security without handing over trillions in assets to Wall Street's investment banks because he knows that voters simply won't hand over even more of their retirement security to the people who brought us the dtcom crash and 401k plans loaded with Worldcom and Enron stocks. Bush's answer is that the money will be managed by the same Federal agency that manages money for members of congress. This is a big issue. Last week, I had lunch with two investment strategists from the Charles Schwab brokerage. That company's founder has been vocal in his support for abolshing Social Security in favor of private accounts. They told me that there were larg protests outside their Chicago offices recently. This is why Bush can't just give Social Security to Merrill Lynch or Morgan Stanley.

But, there are two wrinkles here. Despite what Bush says, this is still a giveaway to the financial services industry.

First, who do you think will sell the investment products to this federal agency? Who will clear its trades? It's pretty hard to invest in stocks and bonds without help from people with seats on the New York Stoch Exchange, after all.

Second, Bush's plan will require most workers, when they retire, to buy an annuity with their Social Securiy money. Annuities are dastardly little products where to actually pay some one to take all of your money and then pay you an allowance on a fixed schedule. You buy them so that you an be assured the money will last a certain amount of time, say, between 25-40 years. The government doesn't sell annuities, folks. Who does? Insurance companies, retail banks and investment advisory firms. So, those folks who brought you Worldcome and Enron will, indeed, get their hands on the money at some point -- they'll be selling you annuities tha you might be required, by law, to purchase! And, you'll be paying them fees for the service!

There's your Wall Street giveaway. They get the money, they just get it later, when everyone's forgotten about this little debate.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Greenspan and Social Security

Well, Fed chairman Alan Greenspan has spoken and he's for the gradual abolishment of Social Security, in favor of private accounts. Much will be made of this, since he's regarded as the most successful Fed chairman of all time and was even fawned over by Bob Woodward, who dubbed him "The Maestro."

But, let's not forget who Greenspan is. For one thing, his record, though admirable, is not perfect. Remember the recent boom and bust? His monetary policies were responsible for both and he's even been criticized for that on the right wing op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal.

He's also a disciple of Ayn Rand. No good Randist would ever support a compulsory group retirement initiative, so Greenspan's comments are really no surprise. See, the one thing you can never forget about Greenspan is that even though he's been appointed by both Republicans and Democrats, he isn't some sort of philosophical centrist. He is, on economic matters, far to the right of most Republicans. It's just who he is. So, when Alan Greenspan speaks out against Social Security, as he did today, he isn't speaking as "The Maestro," he's speaking as a philosophical extremist. Don't be fooled.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

China, North Korea and that election we had.

During the election, Kerry criticized Bush for not opening up direct talks between the US and North Korea. Bush replied that opening direct talks would make for bad diplomacy as it would push China out of the process. Both men were in a bit of a quandary on this issue since Kerry, who had criticized Bush for running a unilateral foreign policy, now seemed to want to go it alone in Korea and Bush, who had, well, pursued a unilateral foreign policy everywhere else, seemed content to let China figure things out with Kim Jong Il. So, it being one of those complicated moments, in the campaign, it didn't get a lot of attention.

But, it should now. Bush got his way. We let China take the lead on dealing with North Korea. And now they have nukes.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Intelligence Failures

I won't pretend that my being a journalist makes what I do anywhere near as sophisticated as what our intelligence officers do when they provide the information that guides national policy. But, our jobs are, at the most basic level, not entirely different. A journalist talks to people, gathers information from sometimes disparate sources and connects the dots into a reasonable story.

One thing you realize, as you get on in a journalistic career, is not to overlook the simple and direct pieces of information that come to you. Sure, we all want to know what we're not supposed to know. But, most of the time, the information is out there in a very direct form and you only have to know where to look. I have only written one story that was wholly dependent on a former employee of a company handing me a folder of internal documents. And even in that story, it was the interviews that came later and the public statements that the company had made that really sealed the deal.

Iraq told us rather vehemently that they did not have Weapons of Mass Destruction. Now, Saddam Hussein was not a man to take at face value. But, there was other evidence supporting his claim and an inspection process set to verify them. Instead, we invaded and found... Saddam was telling the truth.

Now, North Korea says they have nuclear weapons. The Administration's response has been... skeptical. They've claimed this before, say the White House. Maybe this is all just a pose. Maybe. White House spokesman Scott McLellan said as much a few days ago. I'll try and find a link for you all later.

It's very odd to see the White House express publuc skepticism about North Korea's claim. They say they have them. That's free, direct and easy to understand information that requires no spy work, no digging, nothing but watching CNN, really. Should we work to verify their claims? Of course. But, given that they say they have them, we should be treating them as if they do. A lot of what I'm hearing on the Sunday chat shows this morning is people wondering if they're telling the truth. But our policy, I think, should assume they are.

While we were building up to the war in Iraq, the North Korea situation was bubbling. Kim Jon Il has been pretty vocal about wanting the weapons, about his ability to develop the weapons and about his need for the weapons in order to deter US aggression. He had means and motive all along. The Clinton Administration had been dealing with this issue throughout two terms and they briefed the Bushies on it. But, instead of dealing with the obvious and available information, we spent our energy and resources on Iraq.

It's really a basic mistake in journalism -- you miss the obvious story because you spend days and days and days (and I've done this!) chasing something that isn't there. Never ignore obvious information. Never.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Bush's Budget

A lot of the Bush budget proposal criticism I've seen comes from either Republican or right-leaning Democrat sources, who say that Bush hasn't cut enough federal spending to keep his promise of cutting the deficit in half by 2009. These critics say, rightly, that any cuts he's proposing are eaten up by increases in spending for the Pentagon. They point out that he isn't even including a budget for Iraq and Afghanistan. They point out that congress isn't going to cut the spending bill down, they're going to want to add things back in. All of this is true.

But there are some vicious cuts in this budget. I dicuss this on tomorrow's edition of Forbes on Fox (Fox News Channel, 11 am EST) but here's a more put together take, free from the panel discussion format: he's cutting $200 million from the federal program that helps poor families pay for heating oil, right at the time when oil prices have hit record levels. It's like Bush has forgotten that there are working families out there who have to sometimes choose between food, medicine, clothing and heat.

He's also cutting the food stamp's program by $1 billion over five years. Food stamps! We're talking about food that feeds people who can't afford food here! Food is, I read somewhere, necessary because without it, people can starve and die. Do I need to find link to back that up? What's wrong with this administration?

Of course, I expect the nation's senators and congresspeople to fight tooth and nail for every farm subsidy and bit of pork they can muster. I don't even blame them for it.

But, will anybody fight for food stamps? For heating fuel assistance programs? Poor people don't vote, they don't donate and they don't get much of a voice in the media. State governors, who will have to deal with pneumonia stricken children next winter, or a visibly hungry working poor population will naturally care. But will the federal reps?

I haven't seen any outrage about this. And what I posted before, about Bush telling a citizen that her having to work three jobs was "fantastic" and "uniquely American" -- that was true, but it hasn't gotten much play either. Go type "Mary Mornin" into Google news and look at the lack of coverage. If Clinton had made a gaffe like that, it would be everywhere right now. But what I fear this all means is that the media and the population at large have accepted Bush's vision for the "You're On Your Ownership Society." But I don't think anyone's really thought through the implications of the country trending towards less compassion.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

You Work Three Jobs? Fantastic!

At the Qwest Center in Omaha, Nebraska this morning, at 8:40 am, the President met a citizen named Mary Mornin. And he seemed not at all worried that she has to work three jobs to support her children. Not in the least bit. Not even a little.

Why, here's the transcript, from PR Newswire:

THE PRESIDENT: It's an interesting point, and I hear this a lot -- will
the system be the same for me? And the answer is, absolutely. One of the
things we have to continue to clarify to people who have retired or near
retirement -- you fall in the near retirement.

MS. MORNIN: Yes, unfortunately, yes. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't know. I'm not going to tell your age, but
you're one year younger than me, and I'm just getting started. (Laughter.)

MS. MORNIN: Okay, okay.

THE PRESIDENT: I feel great, don't you?

MS. MORNIN: Yes, I do.

THE PRESIDENT: I remember when I turned 50, I used to think 50 was really
old. Now I think it's young, and getting ready to turn 60 here in a couple of
years, and I still feel young. I mean, we are living longer, and people are
working longer, and the truth of the matter is, elderly baby boomers have got
a lot to offer to our society, and we shouldn't think about giving up our
responsibilities in society. (Applause.) Isn't that right?

MS. MORNIN: That's right.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, but nevertheless, there's a certain comfort to know
that the promises made will be kept by the government.


THE PRESIDENT: And so thank you for asking that. You don't have to worry.

MS. MORNIN: That's good, because I work three jobs and I feel like I

THE PRESIDENT: You work three jobs?

MS. MORNIN: Three jobs, yes.

THE PRESIDENT: Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that
you're doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)

MS. MORNIN: Not much. Not much.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, hopefully, this will help you get you sleep to know
that when we talk about Social Security, nothing changes.

MS. MORNIN: Okay, thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: That's great.


Bush has NEVER met with a Palestinian Leader!

Slate's "Today's Papers" summarizes: "President Bush will also host Abbas this spring, the first meeting between the president and a Palestinian leader in nearly five years."

Five years, eh? The time Bush has been in office, give our take a few waning months of Clinton's last term. Amazing, given that the war between Israel and the Palestinians is, even if not a prime cause of terrorism emanating from the Middle East, is definitely an excuse used by terrorists to justify their attacks. You would think that a President committed to ending terrorism in the region wouldn't completely ignore the diplomatic component of that mission. Yet again, Bush has failed us.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Forbes on Fox tomorrow (Social Security)

Well, they've had me on back to back! I'll be appearing as part of a panel, with Steve Forbes among others, discussing whether or not the "Social Security Crisis" is real. 11 am eastern on Fox News. But, many of you don't have Fox News, so here were my two arguments:

1) I pointed out that I've seen timelines for global warming disasters that are more pressing than Bush's timeline for the Social Security collapse, but he hasn't done a thing about global warming. I also called Bush "a drama queen."

2) I tried to get this in, but it was quick -- people keep saying that Social Security is just a bunch of "IOUs" and that the government borrowed the Social Security money we've all paid, so there's really no money in the Social Security Trust Fund. True enough, but how does the government borrow money? With Treasury bills. Treasuries are our national debt. They are known throughout the world as the safest investment you can buy, almost akin to stuffing cash under a mattress, but you get interest. The reason is that, through the Civil War, two World Wars and the Great Depression, the US government has NEVER defaulted on its Treasury bills. Never even once. Never even missed an interest payment. Now, the Social Security Trust fund contains $1.3 trillion worth of Treasurys. To believe that those Treasurys don't represent actual money is to believe that the US government will default on about 1/5th of its debt! And not, only that, but that it would default on the portion that's meant to pay for the retirement of its own citizens! Many a country's economy has been completely tanked over far less an infraction. Honestly, if our government defaults on the T-bills in the trust fund... we have BIGGER problems to face than Social Security.

And here's one argument I didn't make, but wanted to: People keep saying this is a demographic problem. Because of the Baby Boom, and because our generation hasn't had so many kids, we have less workers paying in than will be retiring. Fair enough. The same is true in Europe. You know what the solution for both the US and Europe is? Cloning! No. Immigration. There are plenty of babies being had around the world. They might not be born here, but they might want to move here, buy a condo, and use their cultures to save our own ailing pop culture. The history of progress in the US (if you're not a Native American) is the history of immigration. The only reason we have the financial wherewithal to have Social Security in the first place is... the sweat and labor and ingenuity of immigrants. Maybe it's time we faced reality and started inviting people in.