Monday, February 16, 2009

The Problem with Republicans in Washington, D.C.

The biggest problem in Washington is the simple fact that only about six or seven rational Republicans are left in the Senate. And only three stepped forward to vote for Obama's stimulus package while the other three or four caved in to the radical right (though they may join Obama on other votes). Keep in mind that around the nation, there are rational governors and other Republican officials who clearly support the stimulus. Rational people know our nation is in deep trouble and they know that right wing conservatives who hope President Obama fails are complete fools. Republican obstructionists in the Senate and House are not on the side of average Americans. They are certainly not on the side of the Republican 'base' we hear so much about. If these Republicans were real leaders, they would sit down with the 'base' and explain the mess we're in and the work we need to do to get out of it.

What's worrisome is that there also seems to be a disconnect on Wall Street. Here's a quick economic assessment about investors in today's Los Angeles Times:
Wall Street has been busy focusing on companies' quarterly numbers and the developments in Washington. Now, investors are faced with finding less obvious answers to the question "What's next?"

Any jitters about what might be the next major bit of news to drive the market could extend the back-and-forth trading seen in the nearly three months since the Standard & Poor's 500 index finished at an 11-year low Nov. 20.

Stocks fell sharply last week to end at their lowest levels since November as investors factored in the stimulus bill and looked to other uncertainties about the economy.

If we set aside the inane quality of most financial news stories that are usually nothing but a conventional boilerplate about the day's financial news, this sounds like restless herd behavior, like people looking to other people for leadership. Today, there is no leadership in the private sector.

I'm going to add another somewhat unnoticed factor: there are still a lot of investors out there, usually elderly, who have no clue how much the economy and the markets have changed. I know investors who have no computer or no internet connection who are still doing everything themselves. Instead of continuing to invest in the stock market as they have been doing, it's obvious they should have been putting everything into CDs in the last year. The point is not whether the market will go down further—it easily could—but that we're in uncharted waters. That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't plenty of facts out there to help figure a few things out. Here's a key point made today by Paul Krugman:
Last week the Federal Reserve released the results of the latest Survey of Consumer Finances, a triennial report on the assets and liabilities of American households. The bottom line is that there has been basically no wealth creation at all since the turn of the millennium: the net worth of the average American household, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than it was in 2001.

At one level this should come as no surprise. For most of the last decade America was a nation of borrowers and spenders, not savers. The personal savings rate dropped from 9 percent in the 1980s to 5 percent in the 1990s, to just 0.6 percent from 2005 to 2007, and household debt grew much faster than personal income. Why should we have expected our net worth to go up?

Krugman's point reminds me of my oldest brother who was very pleased a few years back as the value of his home kept rising. That is, until he started thinking about retirement and what he could do with that money. The answer was: not much. The price of everyone else's home was also rising. As long as money kept flowing in from places in Asia, people had the illusion of growing wealth. But it wasn't real. And that is the problem with the Republicans in Washington. Republicans are infatuated with deregulated free market ideology as well as the wheeler dealers who grab headlines. Whatever the free market once meant, it has slowly been transformed over the years into the free-money-for-well-connected-rich-guys market. Loan fraud, ponzi schemes, no-bid contracts and insane bonuses have been the rule in recent years.

Ideally, senators and representatives are sent to Washington to serve the people, not their egos and back pockets. Some Democrats and some Republicans have always been guilty of abuses. In recent years, however, the Republicans have turned self-interest into an art form. They even act indignant when Barney Franks hurts their feelings (all he did last fall was tell it like it is). So let's list the problems with the Republicans:

1. They either fail to acknowledge the enormous crisis we're in or they barely acknowledge it. ("The fundamentals of the economy are sound," said McCain a few months back before taking other erratic positions.)
2. If they acknowledge the crisis, they are unwilling to admit the role that deregulation and lack of oversight has played. And they are still adament, despite evidence to the contrary, that more tax cuts for the rich will turn things around.
3. If they blame anyone, which is always the fallback of authoritarians who finally acknowledge a problem, they blame Democrats, immigrants, poor people, low income home buyers or messengers like George Soros. Republicans are emotionally invested in policies that have failed. They cling to those policies despite their obvious failures. Republicans once prided themselves as the party of pragmatists but they are pragmatists no more.
4. There is nothing clever about tax cuts but Republicans are obsessed with them despite obvious issues. Tax cuts do not pave our highways. They do not educate our kids. They do not provide alternative energy. They do not fund unbiased pure research that can lead to new solutions. Take out 'tax cuts' and put in 'corporations' and not much has improved (don't get me going on privatized roads and schools which are usually a fiasco; actually, just look at Iraq). Corporations of this era rarely care about the public interest. That is what we, the American people, have allowed them to become.
5. Now here's the bottom line and I can't emphasize this enough. If the so-called big brains who lead the Republican favor doing something about the American economy, it's generally in the direction of turning the United States into a third world economy. These are the same clowns who thought the neoconservatives had something intelligent to say about foreign policy.

It can be argued with good reason that our country does best when we have a two-party system. But we have a problem. One of those parties, at least at the national level, has become totally dysfunctional. It has no solutions and it has no ideas. It doesn't even have a clear understanding of what is going on in the world. The right wing side of the Republican Party still has money and it still has big mouths. And it seems committed to doing everything it can to obstruct any effort that might address our problems.

The forty percent of the Republican Party that is not right wing has some thinking to do. The only way to shut down nonsense from the Republican right wing is to put them out of business. The only way to do that is for the more sane, pragmatic side of the Republican Party to refrain from aiding and abetting fools who thought Bush was a great president. More important, it would help to stop paying the salaries of right wingers whether they're in Congress or in think tanks. Those who are not Democrats need to think long and hard about how to rebuild a viable second party. By the way, the 'base' is not as stupid or as difficult to reach as some seem to think. Despite the phony bipartisanship calls of the Republicans while they obstructed any meaningful discussion of the crisis we're in, we still need people to come together to some extent in our country—that includes at least some of 'the base'—while having real dialogue based on real facts with some serious thought about the enormous problems facing all of us. The United States is in crisis and too many people either do not want to deal with that fact or they want to play games for their own self-interest.

The American people quite literally cannot afford another George W. Bush, nor can they afford the Republican Party as it now exists. The Democrats, no doubt, could use an opposition but that opposition needs to be based on real ideas, without scapegoats, and with a reasonable understanding of where we are.

I didn't ask for Bush to be a failed president. The fact is that his failures have cost me money. Those failures have cost nearly everyone I know. Now I still think it's possible to dig our way out. I certainly hope so. I know it's possible that we have become the Titanic and that we have hit the iceberg of our own complacency. It certainly seems the rich, with their huge bonuses, are already sailing away from the Titanic in their fancy yachts. That wouldn't leave much for the rest of us except for the balloons from the party Republicans have been throwing for 28 years. Those balloons, of course, wouldn't help much. They would be too full of Republican hot air. Not too useful if we had to jump in the cold water.

It will take more than Barack Obama to turn our economy around and deal with our other issues. But I will say this: every American better hope President Obama succeeds.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

We Need Creativity and Jobs, Not Tax Cuts

For the last number of years, Wall Street has had a simple formula for making money: take a cut of the money pouring in from Asia looking for a safe haven. It's nice work if you can get it. Now that the Chinese and others are having their own economic trouble, much of that money has disappeared along with our economy. For two hundred years, Americans were great at figuring things out useful things.

I'm one of those who grew concerned awhile back when Heath Electronics stopped selling their electronic kits to consumers looking to figure out and build their own devices.

Now I'm not impressed by gadgets for the sake of gadgets but I picked up my newspaper this morning and there was a story of one guy who created a solar car. It wasn't a cheap solar car but he dreamed of it, planned it and built it. The problem? Well, it's not really a problem but it's worth noting that he's Canadian. It will have to suffice for our purposes that he's a North American. Anyway, here's the story of Marcelo da Luz in our local paper:
The low-slung car, called the Power of One, or Xof1, invites comparisons -- it looks like a UFO, or it looks like a crab with headlights.

Mostly it is a unique, spaceship-sleek craft with a small bulge surrounding da Luz's head.

"It is one of the most fun cars to drive," he said. "The seat was molded to my body, it's like someone hugging you all the time. Because the windshield is so close to the driver's head, you have a view like you're wearing glasses."

The story includes a video here so check it out.

Da Luz has been all the way up to the Arctic Circle (I assume he was up there in the summer months and not running the car on starlight).

Out of curiosity, I goggled da Luz on Google News to see how many newspapers were picking up the story. He was last in Oregon and before that in Washington state. Makes sense. I'm lazy today but I'm sure if I followed the thread, I could probably follow his news trail over the last year or so.

Now I know perfectly well that solar cars are impractical, particularly ones that look like flying saucers, but 90% of the things built in the first quarter of the 20th century were not too practical. Despite making history, that contraption the Wright brothers made wasn't particularly safe. But trying things out is the way to get things moving again. In The Olympian, da Luz is quoted as saying: "The most difficult part of the project wasn't building the car, it was believing I could do it," he said.

So it's a bit sad to read articles like this:
Once, as many as 18 big banks and financial institutions were willing to help finance installation of wind turbines and solar arrays, taking advantage of generous government tax incentives. But with the banks in so much trouble, that number has dropped to four, according to Keith Martin, a tax and project finance specialist with the law firm Chadbourne & Parke.

Wind and solar developers have been left hunting for capital.

"It's absolutely frozen," said Craig Mataczynski, president of Renewable Energy Systems Americas, a wind developer. He projected his company would build just under half as much this year as it did last year.

We need new energy. In the years to come, there will be no booming economy unless we have new energy. It is a fundamental part of the crisis we're. Clearly, the Republicans in Congress are not interested in their fellow Americans, they're not interested in solving problems and they're not interested in creating jobs. They are only interested in playing games (is there now such a thing as right wing anarchy? When Rush Limbaugh wishes the country ill, one has to wonder about the Grand Ostrich Party). So it's up to Democrats. They need to get with it. The Chinese are already moving forward with their stimulus package. It was our idea. It's time to implement it.


Sunday, February 01, 2009

Confession: I Am Not Technology Savvy

I'm happy with the iMac I bought a year ago. The screen is huge, I can work on two things at once without moving things around and in general it's a pleasure to work on. I get the feeling, though, that I know only about 5% of what the iMac can do. Just after the New Year, my wife and I had a friend visit from Italy for the weekend and he had his iBook or whatever the latest Apple laptops are called. He was showing me some things on his computer and zipping around and doing things I had no idea the computer could do. Cool stuff actually.

Now I'm not a total ignoramus. Something like only 48% of the nation uses the internet regularly. Even without using the latest search widgets, I can manage to find useful things, useful enough to earn some money and pay some bills now and then. But there's no real technology savvy to doing research from home.

The other day I came across an article in Wired and I have been thinking about it since; here's a bit of it:
I wanted to know more about this new frontier, so I became a geo-guinea pig. My plan: Load every cool and interesting location-aware program I could find onto my iPhone and use them as often as possible. For a few weeks, whenever I arrived at a new place, I would announce it through multiple social geoapps. When going for a run, bike ride, or drive, I would record my trajectory and publish it online. I would let digital applications help me decide where to work, play, and eat. And I would seek out new people based on nothing but their proximity to me at any given moment. I would be totally open, exposing my location to the world just to see where it took me. I even added an Eye-Fi Wi-Fi card to my PowerShot digital camera so that all my photos could be geotagged and uploaded to the Web. I would become the most location-aware person on the Internets!


I was starting to revel in the benefits of location awareness. By trusting an app (iWant) that showed me nearby dining options, I discovered an Iraqi joint in my neighborhood that I'd somehow neglected. Thanks to an app (GasBag) that displayed gas stations with current prices, I was able to find the cheapest petrol no matter where I drove. In Reno, one program (HeyWhatsThat) even gave me the names and elevation profiles of all the surrounding mountains. And another (WikiMe), which displayed Wikipedia entries about local points of interest, taught me a thing or two about the San Francisco waterfront. (Did you know the Marina District exists largely because a land speculator built a seawall in the 1890s?) These GPS tools were making me smarter.

Take a look at the article. Just those two paragraphs were enough to make me dizzy. Here's a thought: with all this technology, how does one write a decent detective story these days? "We found the body in an alley next to a dumpster. The murderer had smashed the victim's cell phone, probably with a heavy boot. Idiot. I took what was left to the crime lab and in five minutes the tech had the gps track for the last five hours. The last stop for the poor guy was the warehouse office of Eddie the Lip. Eddie's gun matched the bullet. Case closed." And it won't matter if the murderer throws away the cell phone. The gps records probably exist in several places. In this age, Sherlock Holmes would have been a rich Silicon Valley computer game programmer.

Well, I think I'll hook up the horse and buggy and mosey on down to the General Store and see if anyone knows what's going on in the world.