Wednesday, December 31, 2008

As Gone As Hugh Hefner’s Virginity

Goodbye 2008, and good riddance. Over the course of the year, the DOW has suffered the worst loss since 1931, but the financial geniuses in Washington just got around to calling this mess a “recession” last month. Based on that, I’d like to offer my humble prediction for 2009. A year from now, the word “recession” will be replaced with the word “depression,” even though the official spin may still be another year behind the actual economic reality. Here’s why I’m so sure about this.

We are told that the thing holding back an economic recovery is the lack of consumer confidence. When consumer confidence returns, the economic good times will also come back. The problem is— consumer confidence will never return, at least not in the previous incarnation. For the last 30 years or so, consumers were confident that they could have everything that they saw advertised on television regardless of their ability to pay for it. Palatial houses, gigantic pickup trucks, Nike tennis shoes, jewelry, billboard-sized flat screen televisions, palm-held electronic devices that can do everything but cook dinner, and endless mouthwatering food of every variety served up in trendy restaurants full of happy, extravagant mealtime patrons— all of this purchased on the tab, thanks to unsecured credit that flowed from those miraculous plastic cards. This is the glittering picture that reflected consumer confidence, but now it’s as gone as Hugh Hefner's virginity, and it's never coming back.

What’s happened is that a whole lot of people have suddenly realized that much of the stuff they were buying was stuff they didn’t actually need. It’s this word, “need,” and the concept behind it that’s thrown the trolley off the track. Conspicuous consumerism always relied on people thinking in terms of “want” rather than “need,” and this only became possible when the bulk of the population became young enough to not remember the Great Depression. Now, the old timers who always understood the concept of “need” are being joined by several new generations who are learning about “need” for the first time. This isn’t a trend that will take us back to things as they were.

There’s an old saying from the 1930s. “Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do, or do without.” People in hard economic times always seem to discover the wisdom of this old saying for themselves, and they remember it when times get better. It’s not a bad thing.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

“Barack the Magic Negro”— Is it Lighthearted Political Parody?

Conservative comedian, Paul Shanklin, perpetual water boy for Rush Limbaugh wrote a little ditty titled, “Barack the Magic Negro,” (set to the tune of “Puff, the Magic Dragon”) and fed it to the insatiable Right Wing comedy machine just in time for Christmas. Republican apologists immediately dismissed this as lighthearted political parody. In the past, Conservative Christians (a group renowned for mirth and merriment) have showcased their taste in humor with side-splitting, knee-slapper parodies like “Mission Accomplished,” fun and games at Abu Ghraib, and “You’re doin’ a heckuva job, Brownie.” Additionally, the candidacy of Sarah Palin erased, once and for all, the notion that Republican Conservative Christians are not ardent jokesters. The Shanklin parody, we are told, is just another lighthearted joke.

Paul Shanklin dropped his donation into the lap of Rush Limbaugh at an awkward time. The entire nation was freezing in some of the deepest cold in memory, and Limbaugh was using this inordinately bitter weather to disprove global warming. If that wasn’t enough, Liberal Caroline Kennedy was seeking Liberal Hillary’s vacant Senate seat. Limbaugh’s plate was already piled high with red meat. Nevertheless, he found time to have a little fun with the so-called parody.

Chip Saltsman heard the parody and decided to give out CDs containing the tune for Christmas stocking stuffers. For those unfamiliar with Chip Saltsman, his credentials as a first-class joke promoter were established when he ran Mike Huckabee’s Presidential primary campaign. Evidently, the only Right Wing honcho who lacks a sense of humor is the RNC Chairman, Mike Duncan. Duncan denounced the parody, and already Christian Conservatives are wondering if he might not be a closet Liberal.

You can tell from reading this that I’ve had a lot of fun writing it, but I’d like to shift gears and move away from this delightful sarcasm. The truth is that Christian Conservative Republicans are not lighthearted in the least, and they’re deadly serious about their bigotry and their ideology. When they delight in a song about a negro, there’s nothing humorous or innocent or cute about it.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

How The Military Model Can Help American Business

Ask almost anyone with a long work-experience track record, in almost any business, and they’ll probably tell you that the past three months (September-November, 2008) have comprised the worst economic quarter in their memory. Commerce Department numbers seem to substantiate that, and the people who write the history of economics and business are already saying that this is the worst meltdown since the early 1930s. Nevertheless, some friends of mine, still lucky enough to have jobs in sales positions, tell me that they are under intense pressure from their managers to make their quarterly numbers, and bring in their budget by the end of the year. This is utter insanity in my opinion.

Corporations (all of them) like to make analogies between their sales/marketing efforts and military campaigns. They talk about their offensive and defensive strategies, and their frontline operations, and their intelligence capability as related to the competition. In the pharmaceutical business, Big Pharma players openly refer to their gigantic sales forces as their “army.” Carrying this analogy one step further, holding the feet of the sales force to the fire, and cracking the whip to make quarterly numbers compares to the Civil War strategy of sending troops into withering fire with the command to achieve the objective or die trying. The thing is— the military world has moved past this suicidal nonsense, and American business has yet to do so. For at least the last 50 years, military strategy has called for extensive and exceptional training to prepare troops long before they are ever tested, and then backing front line troops with the best in technology and communications capability and the full support of commanders.

If American business continues its infatuation with the military analogy model, then the corporations that emerge from this current economic meltdown will look a lot more like the current military. Sales forces will be given better training. They will be backed with better technology, and better communications capability, and the middle level managers will function more in a support role, and less in the role of taskmasters. In the instances when sales targets are not met, there will be less second guessing of the sales force, and more accountability for the people who actually set the targets. That’s the current military model, and that’s the only business model that will survive this economic mess. So here’s my two-cents-worth of unsolicited advice for those people who are under pressure to make their quarterly numbers in this— the worst economic quarter in history. Get your resume out there ASAP because your employer is about to go out of business.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Why Ponzi Schemes Work

Charlie Ponzi would certainly have understood what Bernie Madoff was doing. Now that it’s known how Madoff made off with over $50 billion in investor capital, everyone is voicing righteous anger and outright astonishment over how such a thing could have happened. My hypothesis for today is that, if you scratch the surface of an early Madoff investor, you will probably find someone who suspected that they were at the top of a pyramid scheme. My enduring hypothesis is that people who buy into pyramid schemes in the early stages usually know more than they will ever admit, and in fact, part of the appeal of Ponzi schemes is that early investors think they have the inside track because they’re either first in line, or else sufficiently high on the pyramid to avoid disaster. Ponzi schemes work on greed as much as ignorance.

About 30 years ago, my wife and I got suckered into one of those early Amway presentations where you were invited into some guy’s living room for a social get together, only to discover that you’d been ambushed when the party host started drawing lines and circles on an easel board. I don’t mean to imply that Amway ever was a Ponzi scheme, but from the earliest days it certainly was a business plan with a pyramid-type structure. That night at the Amway presentation, the presenter repeatedly stressed that the people who opted-in early would reap financial rewards far greater than those who joined the party at a later date. My wife and I didn’t take the bait, but I noticed that those who joined up that night had the confident look in their eyes of a fast zebra who knows that the lions will only get the slowpokes that are trailing behind.

Ponzi schemes are the ultimate triumph of short term profit and expediency over long term accountability (see my blog of 12/18), and in that respect, you could make the case that most corporations, as well as the United States Government, look at things in much the same way as the man who sets up a Ponzi scheme. The differences, here, are only in degree, not essence. As our nation now racks up deficits in the trillions of dollars, we all go along with it because, at some level, we all see ourselves as high on the pyramid, and we know that the base of the pyramid— those future generations who will inherit the debt— won’t come along until after we’re dead and gone. It’s for this reason that I, personally, would feel a lot better if the whole shell game was being orchestrated by Bernard Madoff instead of Henry Paulson.

See also: Recession or Depression (12/18)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Nobody Is In Control

Nobody is in control. As America careens toward a 1930s economy and a 14th century Crusading foreign policy, nobody wants to believe that catastrophic events are simply guiding themselves without very much human intervention, and this fear of no control helps explain the numbers coming out of several recent polls from Scripps-Howard and Newsweek. One third of Americans now believe that everything is under the control of a small group of all-powerful men operating behind the scenes, pulling the strings of government and commerce. These same believers (33% of us) think that 9/11 was an inside job to throw the public off the track, and to open up foreign, mostly Arab lands to an expansion of their power. But our national tendency to look for shadowy explanations doesn’t stop there.

28% of us believe in witches, and 40% of us (46% of women) believe in ghosts. 61% of us believe in Satan, 59% believe in hell, 73% believe in miracles, and more than 50% believe in angels. The astrological community which makes up 20 % of our population believes that the stars have absolute control over our destiny. And finally, let’s not forget that 35% of us believe in UFOs and the power exerted over us by aliens. Which brings me to the field of science fiction, and the writer Alan Moore who once advised us that, “The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is far more frightening, nobody is in control.”

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Recession Or Depression?

Call it what you will, a depression or a recession, because the economic mess almost defies description. The root cause, however, isn’t very complicated in my opinion. The whole economic meltdown was preordained when our management culture drifted away from the reality of long term consequences, and embraced the Holy Grail of quick results. In his lectures, Stephen Covey uses an analogy that relates to farming, pointing out that farmers can’t use the postponement technique of “cramming”— waiting until late summer to plant their crops and still expecting the harvest to be on time. But there’s another farming analogy. You can’t plant on time, in early spring, and expect to harvest a full crop in May because you’re too eager and impatient to wait until late fall. This latter analogy is beyond the comprehension of almost everyone in a position of management in modern America. Ours is the culture of short term strategy, and the economic mess is the result.

You didn’t need to be a MENSA to know that people who were only minimally qualified for a sub-prime loan would default when their ARM reset to a higher rate. You didn’t need to be a MENSA to know that huge, gas-guzzling vehicles would become hard to sell if gasoline prices went above a certain level. In the pharmaceutical business, you didn’t need to be a MENSA to know that huge armies of lobbyists and salesmen, along with high priced advertising on television, would cost a lot of money without creating a single new drug. The list goes on and on, but the thread that runs through everything is the failure to look beyond the short term. Here’s the scary part. The management culture in China takes the opposite road, and never loses sight of the long term consequences.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Coming Soon To Drugstore Near You— Lower Prices, Lower Quality

IMS Health, the world’s leading pharmaceutical intelligence and data mining firm, is out with its annual report on the generic pharma industry, and the news doesn’t look good for the R&D-based Big Pharma segment where the branded pharmaceuticals are researched and produced.

Generic pharmaceuticals sold $78 billion (globally) in the last twelve months, with $34 billion of that total coming from the U.S. market where generics now account for roughly 64% of the total domestic drug market volume. Past research has shown that about 90% of sales for a given drug will convert over to generics when the branded version goes off patent, and this becomes critically important when one considers the fact that branded pharmaceuticals currently generating $139 billion annually in the top eight world markets will lose their patent protection in the next few years through 2012. Most of these patented drugs are in the “blockbuster” category. The problem is that there are few, if any, potential blockbusters in the R&D pipeline waiting to take their place. For the last decade, Big Pharma has focused on growing mediocre “lifestyle” drugs into blockbusters through gargantuan advertising and marketing efforts, and they have given much less attention to the R&D needed to keep the new blockbusters coming. If one believes the IMS statistics, the wheels are now coming off the bus. This helps explain why Pfizer, once the darling of Wall Street, saw its stock trading earlier this week at exactly one-third of its stock price eight years ago.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

It's Now Official

It’s now official. Yesterday, the members of the Electoral College met inside the 50 statehouses around the U.S.A. to certify the results of the November 4th election. This is a routine procedure that takes place every four years, and yesterday the event was remarkable only for what DIDN’T happen. The electors didn’t hesitate in the least.

For the last five weeks, the legislators who make up the Electoral College have been besieged with mail urging them not to ratify the election of Obama, on the basis that he was allegedly born in Kenya and is, therefore, ineligible to hold the office of President (see my blog of 11/11). This mail was generated by “the usual suspects”— those members of the political fringe who always think they have the inside track to the truth because they’re tuned into the voice of God, or the EIB network, or short wave radio. On one of last Sunday morning’s political talk shows, a pundit completely astonished me by giving a name to this fringe element, calling it “the Palin, Hannity, Limbaugh crowd.” Those of us who rant in the realm of blogs can get away with labels like this, but I never imagined that a mainstream TV talking head would utter such a phrase. If the fringe can actually be marginalized, maybe there’s hope for national unity, after all.

See also: Was Obama Born In Kenya? (11/11)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Why The Vatican Should Just Let It Go

This week the Vatican, operating under Pope Benedict XVI, updated its official position about the behaviors that are considered sinful in human sexuality and reproduction (the last update was 21 years ago, which tells you a lot about the urgency of this). In-vitro fertilization, human cloning, genetic testing on embryos before implantation, and embryonic stem cell research are considered taboo, along with all the newer birth control measures such as the morning-after pill, the Intrauterine Device and RU 486. These transgressions now join the classic Catholic sex-trinity of masturbation, pre-marital sex, and homosexuality in the category of sexual mortal sins which can lead to an eternal life sentence in Lucifer’s slammer, according to Vatican theologians.

Advice about sexuality and reproduction coming from the Vatican carries the same weight as advice about astro-physics and cosmology coming from the Flat Earth Society. Most American Catholics, and the entire non-Catholic world all recognize this. So why does the Vatican still feel the need to weigh in on such topics? Basically, they just don’t get it. They still think they’re relevant in today’s post-medieval world. Despite the best intentions of the men in the red robes and beanies, the stark fact is that these men sworn to celibacy, and living in the ultimate old boy’s club, cannot fully grasp the subtleties of womanhood and parenthood, and they should just let it go.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

It's The Battery, Stupid

In 2002, American venture capital invested $4.6 million in the research technology to improve the efficiency of electric batteries, and this was less than what the cosmetics industry invested in research to make better deodorants and hair shampoos for women. By this year (2008), the amount spent in the U.S. on research to build better batteries has grown substantially to about $200 million (estimated for the full year), but this still represents only a fraction of the estimated $3 billion that is spent on battery science around the world.

The majority of the research to improve battery power has always been done in China, Japan, and South Korea— driven by the need for more battery power in electronic items like laptops and iPods, most of which are produced in these Asian countries. The upside to this situation (for the Asians) was that much of this battery technology funneled down to the car industry where it was applied to hybrids at Toyota and Honda. This, in turn, helped give them a ten year head start over our big three American automakers in the rush to market “green” automobiles. As things stand now, we will probably never catch up, and cars will join television sets in the category of items produced exclusively abroad.

It didn’t need to be this way. Unlike cosmetics, batteries involve electricity, and two of the foremost institutions where the behavior of electrons is studied are right here in the U.S.A.— Argonne National Laboratory and Oak Ridge. However, these are run by the Federal Government, and are subject to Federal funding priorities. During the years 2000 up to the present, these physics research facilities have been forced to languish under the same anti-science bias that has crippled the search for stem-cell therapies and global warming solutions. The stumbling block was, and still is, the Bush Administration’s infatuation with scientific ignorance. As the big three CEOs plead for money to save their dying car companies, we all need to remember who to thank for this situation.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Economy Is Just Fine?

Yesterday I wrote a piece that was conciliatory toward the Right, but if you read this blog routinely, you knew that would never last. My question for today is this. If your ideology helped lead the nation to totally needless war and national bankruptcy, and then the vast majority of the American people turned against your position, how do you keep going in the Right direction? I guess that depends on who you are.

If you’re Ann Coulter you probably make the decision to put a nude picture of yourself on the cover of your next book. Even liberals will go along with that. If you’re Charles Krauthammer you hope that people will give you a break because you’re in a wheelchair, and maybe they’ll even think that you’re as smart as Stephen Hawking. If you’re Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly you don’t need to worry about the future of your career because you’re on FOX, and FOX is to journalism what Mae West was to romance and sexual intimacy. And finally, if you’re Rush Limbaugh you just keep doing the same old thing because your fans expect nothing different.

According to Rush Limbaugh, the economy is just fine, and all the hype about doom and gloom is just scare tactics coming from the “liberal elite media.” This exactly matches his analysis on global warming which he believes is also a liberal myth. It’s easy for Limbaugh to come to this conclusion since— for him— the economy really IS just fine. Earlier this year, he signed a contract for 400 million dollars to stay on the radio a while longer. That’s more than the combined pay for the CEOs of GM, Ford, and Chrysler, and their institutions actually make a tangible product. For you “dittoheads” out there, bullshit is only metaphorical and can’t be considered a tangible product.

The demographic profile for Rush listeners includes a great many people who fall into the categories that are being hit hard by layoffs and foreclosures. I wonder how these people feel when they tune into the EIB network and hear their oracle tell them that the economy is just fine.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Maybe We Can All Make Nice

Last night, at a nationally televised awards ceremony, George W. Bush gave Barbra Streisand a very public smooch on her (right) cheek. Ms. Streisand did NOT recoil in horror, and this sent the subtle message that maybe now is the time for the Left and the Right to bury their differences. As a hardcore Lefty, I would now like to make some concessions of my own to my friends on the Right, and I do this in the spirit of reconciliation. Yes, I do have friends on the Right.

1. In retrospect, Jesse Jackson would have been a terrible choice to be a first black president.
2. Listening to NPR will not, automatically, make you intelligent, and listening to Rush Limbaugh will not, automatically, make you stupid. Those things happen, but they’re not automatic.
3. The fact that the concept of democracy was hijacked by the Neo Cons does not diminish the fact that democracy is still a pretty good system.
4. Labor unions are dysfunctional at best, and destructive at worst. The average UAW member with a high school education earns twice what the average university professor earns with a Ph.D. That situation is just plain nuts.
5. The worst patriotic song ever written will still be a more interesting piece of music than “Hey Jude” by The Beatles.

There! Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, maybe we can all make nice.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

As Roger Ebert Once Told Me— Ignore The TV Advertising

Film critic, Roger Ebert, once gave me some personal advice at a conference in Boulder, Colorado. He said that if I wanted to enjoy a thoughtful film instead of a stupid movie, I should ignore all the TV advertising and high attendance ratings, and go with a film title that had gained little attention with mainstream moviegoers. Ignoring the TV ads was the key. I’m remembering Roger Ebert’s advice from years ago because it seems to apply to a now-timely subject that’s far removed from the movies.

This year, DTC (direct to consumer) television ads promoting prescription medications celebrated the ten year anniversary of the FDA ruling that opened the floodgates, so to speak. Today, pharmaceutical companies spend $2.60 on television marketing (the ads plus the samples to back them up) for each dollar spent on research, so when Big Pharma spokespeople justify the high cost of prescription medicines by citing research funding needs, they’re telling you less than one-third of the truth. None of this would make much difference except for the fact that the U.S. government and private healthcare insurance providers are running out of money to pay for the extravagance. But here’s the kicker— just as the most lavish television advertising promotes mostly second-rate movies coming out of Hollywood, so also the most DTC television activity is focused mostly on high-priced pharmaceuticals to treat second-rate health problems. If a person can cut through all the LCD flatscreen pharma-hype, they can save money on prescription medicines just the way that I found I could avoid watching bad movies by following Roger Ebert’s advice. Ignore the television advertising.

DTC advertising has given us a new way to look at “pathology lite”—those human ills that most of us have at one time or another. Here are some of the afflictions de jure being hyped on television: restless leg syndrome, heartburn, overactive bladder, fibromyalgia, sadness, COPD, insomnia, erectile dysfunction, indigestion, aching joints, obsessive-compulsive disorder (otherwise known as adult ADHD), and common depression. If you recently found out by watching television that you have one of these afflictions, then you probably don’t have it. When you’re really sick, you don’t need an outside source to tell you that you’re sick. The medications being sold on TV for the afflictions de jure are not medications that will save your life, and probably not even improve your life, but they will eat up your bankroll. Some have actually killed people. It’s always worth remembering that antibiotics and cancer therapies— the pharmaceuticals that actually will save your life— are never advertised on television.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why Public Relations Matters

There’s a saying that “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” but that seems to be the best description for the task set before the PR teams at Ford, GM, and Chrysler. Less than two weeks ago, the CEOs of the big 3 automakers presented themselves in front of a congressional panel to beg for money, and they came away with nothing but the image of their own incompetence and narcissism burned into the mind of the American public. If one of these men had been unprepared, it would have been remarkable, but the fact that all three were unprepared is simply astonishing. So tomorrow, they get to try all over again.

There should be page in the CEO “how to” manual that tells a titan of industry to meet with his PR director before he appears before congress. Most people think of PR guys as spin-masters and slick mouthpieces, and some are just that, but the very best PR directors working at the most successful companies are paid handsomely for one very important talent— they can see things the way that people outside the company see things. They are inoculated against internal groupthink, and— most importantly— they have the personal fortitude to speak truth to power, and to tell a CEO the things that a CEO doesn’t want to hear. A good PR director would have told any one of the big 3 CEOs to cut his own salary, to sell off the corporate jets, and to carry a pen and paper to take notes so that it would appear to the congressmen that somebody actually gave a shit.

I suspect that all three American automakers have such PR directors on their payroll. The fact that they weren’t consulted explains why their companies are in financial trouble. The inept and arrogant big 3 CEOs have accepted the dysfunction in their styling departments, and their engineering departments, and their strategic planning departments, and their marketing departments— so why would they think about trusting their PR departments? The good news, however, is that Americans have the choice to not buy their products.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What If The Crazies Have It Right?

They’ve been around, in one form or another, since the early 1950s, and if most of us don’t know one of these people personally, we at least know them by reputation. They’re called by names like American separatists, survivalists, patriots, militia, Posse Comitatus or just the guys who put the Right in righteous. They’re defined by their beliefs and priorities— things like gun ownership (with special emphasis on automatic weapons and heavy munitions) and religion, although their theology can pretty much be boiled down to Revelations with the rest of Scripture seen as mere filler material so that there would be a “Book” of Revelations rather than a pamphlet. Rarely revealing themselves in polite company as bigots, they are, in fact, Klansmen without the white getups, and a black President was always their worst nightmare. As Barack Obama began to emerge as a credible presidential possibility, they labeled him as the Antichrist. I have no idea what or who the Antichrist is, but I gather that it has something to do with Revelations. And finally, when it comes to economics, they hoard gold and believe that the entire world economy is controlled by a cabal of powerful white Jews, plotting to orchestrate the affairs of the world under names like the Council on Foreign Relations, or the Federal Reserve, or the World Bank.

Here’s the thing. These were the people who built backyard fallout shelters in the 1950s, and just because they were over-prepared back then for a war that never materialized, that doesn’t mean that they could never get it right. So now we have the spectacle of Henry Paulson, and if he is part of a cabal that controls the world, then we all need a fallout shelter. What if the crazies have it right? Maybe it all really does come down to Revelations. Maybe the hokey pokey really IS what it’s all about.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Don't Believe In God?

Don’t believe in God? You are not alone. This is the message splashed across ten billboards in metro Denver, Colorado, just in time for Christmas. The promoters of this message probably would say “the holidays” rather than “Christmas.” The billboards, we are told, are meant to comfort nonbelievers, and to give them a voice in a world besieged with religion. Here’s my beef with atheism. In my view, it’s just another religion. It tells us something about a subject that we can’t possibly know anything about, namely God. There are five religions in the tradition of Abrahamic monotheism— Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, and atheism, and the only area of agreement between these beliefs is that at sometime in the distant past there was a guy named Abraham who was willing to kill his own son because he heard a voice coming from someone he couldn’t see. Abraham was not unique. Before we closed down all the mental institutions, they were filled with modern day Abrahams, and you still find them occasionally popping up on the evening news. Sometimes the sons of these Abrahams survive, and sometimes they don’t.

The monotheistic religions believe that the first Abraham heard a real voice coming from a real but invisible entity called God. The atheists believe that Abraham was just hearing a voice. Who the hell knows? And for my part, who the hell cares? What I want to know is this— on this particular billboard which I photographed, what does the graffiti say? I have a friend who claims to be able to decipher such “hood hieroglyphics,” and he tells me that the message scrawled in black spray paint reads Focus On The Family. I have a hunch that my friend is just pulling my chain.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What Didn't Happen This Week

There’s an old joke about the customer who asks the salesman, “How can you sell your product at such a low price?” The salesman replies, “We lose a little bit on each sale, but we make it up on volume.” What was never elaborated in that joke was that the salesman eventually went on to become the CEO of an American auto company, so I guess the joke’s on us as American taxpayers.

Stevedores at the shipping docks in Long Beach and Los Angeles report that there is no longer room to store the imported cars coming into the U.S. from Asia because nobody is buying the cars that are already unloaded there. Meanwhile, auto workers are facing layoffs at the GM plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky where the Corvette is manufactured because there are still unsold 2007 model Corvettes sitting on the paved lot down there, but the body style on America’s sports car hasn’t been changed in more than ten years, so I guess that GM could fudge the paperwork on those 2007 models and sell them as new. It would make about as much sense as anything else that GM is doing.

This week, the CEOs of GM, Ford and Chrysler flew from Detroit to Washington on their own separate private jets to appear before Congress, and this symbolically spoke volumes about what’s wrong with the auto industry. However, it was the things that DIDN’T happen which spoke even louder. What didn’t happen was that someone from the UAW (the “union”) was sitting there on the hot seat right alongside the CEOs. I’m sure that a top union official could have hitched a ride on any one of the three corporate jets if somebody had thought about the fact that the union is, perhaps, the most important player in all of this pathetic auto meltdown. What didn’t happen was that any of the auto CEOs thought to bring along a pencil and paper to make any notes. What didn’t happen was that any of the CEOs had the faintest clue about what to do besides begging for free taxpayer money. And most importantly, what didn’t happen was that potential car buyers saw or heard anything at all that would make them want to “buy American.”

That’s the fundamental problem, that there’s no logical reason whatsoever to “buy American.” The quality is second rate. The management is imperious and disgusting. Having an American auto service infrastructure years down the line is a highly remote possibility. The car value for the dollar spent is much less than with the foreign models, and when American car prices are actually lowered, the reduction is done with clunky rebates. Even a federal law requiring us to “buy American,” would not work because we’d still be free to drive what we already have until the American companies finally throw in the towel. When you lose a little bit on each sale, you really can’t make it up on volume.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Truth About Female Escorts

Mention the term ”Female escort,” and perhaps the iconic image that comes to mind is the Julia Roberts character in the film, Pretty Woman. That film, like the term itself, seems to have a way of perpetuating that great American myth about the whore with the heart of gold. The French know better. In truth, the whore with the heart of gold is merely the stuff of American fable, in the same class with Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. All this has come to America’s top of mind today because Ashley Dupre is speaking out on ABC television about her not-so-very-clandestine sexual rendezvous with New York Governor, Elliott Spitzer. The fetching Miss Dupre has made a curious public confession, that she was an escort, but not a prostitute.

Without firsthand knowledge of this business, I need to rely on what I’m told, and what I’m told by Miss Dupre, as well as other authorities on the subject, is that a prostitute sells nothing but sex. I guess I already knew that. So what was Elliott Spitzer buying that night? Well, if you believe the only other person who was in a position to know about this, it was about much more than sex. That’s because Elliott Spitzer was with an escort rather than a prostitute, and this entitled him to dinner companionship and intellectual conversation and even some measure of intimacy. And let’s not forget that all this was considerably more expensive than what a sane man would pay for simple sex, so there must have been some “value added”— to use a favorite term from the marketing world.

When I watched Ashley Dupre being interviewed by Diane Sawyer, she was not exactly a person that had “intellectual conversation” written all over her. But when she talked about dinner that night, her little eyes lit up, and I began to understand. Evidently, an escort sells a larger package, an expanded experience that includes anticipation and a build-up meant to simulate the seduction process, even though the outcome is never in doubt. It’s why the matador faces the bull with a sword instead of a hunting rifle. So my advice to prostitutes is to buy better clothes, wear less makeup, charge ten times as much as you’re charging now, and get ready to eat a lot of dinners.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Why Pirates Don’t Say “Arghh” Anymore

Somali pirates have seized a tanker full of crude oil, and journalists around the world are having a field day speculating about what the buccaneers might eventually do with the contraband cargo. Some writers have even found an analogy in the classic joke about the big dog who chases cars until he actually catches one. What do you do with it when you’ve got it? The truth is that, although piracy is as old as sea travel, it has never been an organized operation with a strategic marketing plan for maximizing profits from the booty. Those Somali pirates don’t plan to sell the oil anymore than a carjacker plans to put the stolen vehicle on Craigslist or eBay. The pirates will simply leave the ship and take with them all the cash and laptop computers on board, as well as some food and liquor from the galley. For them, it has been nothing more than an elaborate joyride. This is what happens off the coast of Somalia where the unemployment rate for the young Muslim men is 55%.

My wife and I actually have some firsthand experience with piracy on the high seas. We routinely ride as passengers on freighter ships around the world, and since freighters are almost always the chosen target of piracy, we’ve personally seen how the drama plays out. Freighter crews don’t carry weapons on board, and most shipping companies have instructed their personnel to not offer any resistance if the ship is boarded. There are, however a few preventative measures that can be taken. Fire hoses can be deployed to be used as water cannons, and bright lights are sometimes lowered over the side at night so that anyone approaching the ship in the dark will be unable to see anything up on deck above the bright light. Recently, some freighters and almost all cruise ships have been armed with acoustic cannons which can incapacitate a human being a mile away with a non-lethal beam of sound. What makes modern piracy such a one sided conflict, however, is that light munitions have become so deadly, and so widely available to the pirates. A water cannon or sound gun isn’t much of a match for an AK-47 or an RPG launcher. And when pirates strike, closing on a freighter simultaneously from several directions in high speed motorboats, everything happens in an instant, and pirates don’t say “Arghh” anymore because there isn’t much time for small talk.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Viagra Turns Ten— A Decade of Hard Times

It started with a run of unbelievable luck. A month or two before the Viagra launch in late 1998, someone at Pfizer in a pre-launch meeting said out loud, “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if one of the late night comics did a joke about Viagra? It would be like free advertising.” What followed was an unbroken string of nightly Viagra jokes from both Letterman and Leno, week after week, with the result that Viagra— in its first year on the market— achieved a brand name recognition around the world equal to the Coca Cola brand. It was the kind of branding phenomenon that could truly be understood only in a business curriculum at the graduate level.

Pfizer’s advertising firm, Cline Davis & Mann, took this global brand recognition, along with the 100% market share that comes with entry into a new therapy class, and they promptly leveraged all of this with— drum roll please— a televised testimonial from Senator Bob Dole. This was followed by three years of TV ads for Viagra in which baseball and NASCAR played a prominent role. The entire ad campaign from day one was structured to implant the term ED, for erectile dysfunction, into the medical lexicon as well as the everyday vocabulary of otherwise macho guys who might benefit from a better erection. To be fair to Pfizer, using a DTC television ad to promote a prescription drug directly to the consumer was an experiment still in its infancy during these years, and Pfizer was cautious not to push the envelope too far by talking openly about S-E-X. And so we watched handsome men and white-jacketed medical doctors pussyfoot around the term, “erectile dysfunction,” in much the same way that a solitary white guy would utter the words, “African American,” inside a seedy Bronx billiard hall.

By 2003, Viagra had competition, first from Levitra (GSK), and later from Cialis (Eli Lilly). Grey Worldwide of New York, the advertising firm used by Lilly to promote Cialis, immediately put something into their TV ads that had never been seen before— a horny woman! The clear implication was that guys who took Cialis got layed. Who knew? Over at Pfizer, Cline Davis & Mann watched the Viagra market share drop from 85% in early 2004 to 75% by late summer of that same year. So Pfizer honchos decided that, if someone was going to get screwed, it might just as well be someone on Viagra, and they transferred the Viagra TV account over to McCann Erickson. This was the start of Viagra ads that began to look like Cialis ads, and today in late 2008, Viagra sales are up 13% year to date over last year, so the new ads seem to be working. There’s a lesson to be learned here. A man with an erection is better off if there’s a woman somewhere around.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Where's The Love?

On the night of the November 2008 election, California voters restored the ban on gay marriage and closed the opportunity for same-sex unions. That twang you heard was the sound of the collective undergarments of the Religious Right, snapping into a knot to guard their tight little sphincters in the wake of their election victory. “Gay marriage”, we were told, “Is an assault on traditional marriage”. It’s fair to ask just why these religious zealots hold traditional marriage in such high esteem.

The path to traditional marriage involves something called the great American courtship, a ritual that yields the highest out-of-wedlock birth rate on the planet. Here, natural hormone-induced urges are compounded by a lack of sex education, unfamiliarity with birth control, and totally useless abstinence pledges— all courtesy of (you guessed it) the Religious Right. And then, once the traditional couple gets around to tying the knot, the statistics working against them are formidable. In today's America, 43% of all first marriages end in divorce. The failure rate for second marriages is 65%, and for those who believe that three strikes and you're out, they're right 75% of the time. Three quarters of all third marriages fail. When the numbers are aggregated, the divorce rate in America is 52%. It's the highest divorce rate for any nation or culture in the world by quite a wide margin. And the road to divorce can be cruel indeed, for public health statistics tell us that 17% of all wives suffer some level of spousal abuse.

It's no better for the children. Anybody who has taught in public school for more than 25 years will tell you, without exception, that students have diminished in their behavior, their work ethic, their respect for authority, and their overall learning ability. And this diminution has built upon itself incrementally, year by year, until American youth is now the most poorly educated in the industrialized world. The reason behind this decline is that fathers and mothers have abdicated their parental responsibility and left it up to the school system to tend to the upbringing of their children. Mothers no longer consider it a pleasure to dish up a hot meal for the kids, with the result that an astounding number of students get all three meals on weekdays from their school. And if parents are blessed with a high-energy child, they would prefer to medicate the kid with Ritalin rather than use good parenting skills to focus and develop the child's energy.

The California vote which went against gay marriage had received lavish funding from the Mormon Church. This, of course, is the self-righteous theology that believes that if one heterosexual marriage is good, more is better, so we have the Mormon phenomenon of "plural marriage." While exercising their religious faith, some offshoot Mormons begin turning their daughters into sex slaves at age 13 or 14, and for the next few years the young girls are bred like canine bitches in a puppy mill. They eventually grow up into clone-like women who appear on television as brain-dead Stepford wives with their lifeless zombie eyes peering out under Victorian hairstyles. It ain't pretty, but it's, sure enough, heterosexual, and I guess that makes it traditional.

So here's my question. When it comes to the debasement of traditional marriage, and the ruination of the American family, what can gay marriage possibly do that hasn't already been done? And could someone please tell where there's any love to be found in all of this?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Was Sarah Palin The Victim Of Biased Media?

Now that deconstructing the Palin candidacy has become a kind of national pastime, the question of liberal media bias keeps coming up. Did the media treat her unfairly? I think not.

In dealing with the media during my career, I came away with the certainty that most reporters and journalists tend to be lazy in their craft, but they do NOT tend to be stupid. For a journalist, conducting a personal interview is hard under any circumstances, but especially when the person being interviewed plays difficult with the game. Avoidance tactics like using spin to dodge questions is always considered part of the process, and while it offends the lazy component in the interviewer, making them need to work harder to get a straight answer, it is generally accepted as part of the job. But when a person grants an interview to get media exposure, and then flat-out refuses to answer any and all questions, sometimes by totally changing the subject, it offends the intellectual component of the interviewer. This is the essence of the Palin problem and her treatment by the media. Given the choice of being seen as devious, or being seen as ignorant, Sarah Palin wisely chose to be devious in most of her interviews. It masked the fact that she is ignorant about a great many subjects, and not subjects that are inconsequential. Supreme Court decisions and Foreign Policy doctrines in a time of war are things that should be on the mind of a person seeking the nation’s second highest office. Put simply, Sarah just doesn’t know a lot of stuff. After a while, the media tired of her game where every question was dismissed as a “gotcha” question, unworthy of an answer. Eventually, the majority of the voters tired of it too.

There was further evidence of a lack of deep substance in her non-verbal performance as well. Striding onto a public stage while winking and blowing kisses and pointing a finger to give recognition to special people in the audience— these are characteristics of outright flirtation, not of professional personal presentation. This is the way that Oprah enters the studio set on her television program because Oprah is a TV personality. The thing of it is, if Oprah was walking onto a stage to participate in a vice-presidential debate, Oprah would present herself like Madeline Albright or Margaret Thatcher, because Oprah is smart enough to know that the American people want more than a flirtatious TV personality in a high national office with a lot of power.

So, was the media unfair to Sarah Palin? The media was simply being logical. If it looks like fluff, and it moves like fluff, and it sounds like fluff, and it acts like fluff— then it probably is nothing but fluff.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

GM Needs More Than Bailout Money

Question from an American taxpayer. “After we cough up our tax dollars to bail out GM, will we subsequently be required by Federal law to buy GM cars?” because that’s the only way to save this pitiable and dysfunctional company. The problems like poor economy, unpredictable gas prices, and diminished disposable income are only secondary reasons for the lagging auto sales at GM. The fundamental problem is the perceived second-rate nature of the vehicles coming off the GM assembly line, and the failure of the GM marketing people to lock in clear customer targets. Here are some examples.

The GM flagship offering, the Corvette— so identifiable that it requires no television or media advertising— has a body style that’s basically unchanged since the middle years of the Clinton administration. Each year, the new Corvette comes to market with ever more powerful engines packaged in the same old body. I, personally, have six close friends with modern Corvettes who tell me they would trade up to a brand new model to get a snazzy new body style, but who are unwilling to trade their 180 MPH vehicle for one that goes 210 MPH in a land where the speed limit is 75. My six friends are, admittedly, a very small customer sample, but the marketing people with the larger customer samples are the ones who are about to go out of business, so their proven insights are not exactly stellar.

There was a time when the Cadillac brand was the darling of the country club set, and was driven by affluent people with retirement-swollen bankrolls. The modern Cadillac customer still has a fat bankroll, but he also has saggy ass pants, and after buying his Escalade with cash, he routinely has the windows replaced with smoked glass. As a high-end customer demographic, this doesn’t exactly attract a lot of new buyers wanting to emulate the image.

Then there’s the Volt, the car that will save the company— or so they say. Anyway, that’s their story, and they’re sticking to it. Readers of this blog have read a lot from me about the Volt, so I won’t drive over the same old road on this topic. Suffice it to say that the hype has gone on so long that there’s no way the Volt, if and when it comes to market, can ever live up to the expectations. Moreover, prospective Volt customers are keenly aware that there is unlikely to be an infrastructure of GM service departments in five or ten years when the Volt starts to need some mechanical attention. People still remember the lessons from the 1930s, learned the hard way by Hupmobile and Whippet owners— you don’t want to buy the last car from a dead company.

We hear a lot about the idea of firing most of the incompetent and overpaid GM top brass as a prerequisite for giving bailout money to the dying car giant. If we’re placing blame for GM’s failure by looking for revenge, I personally believe that everyone would be better served by firing the strategic marketing team, as well as the styling department people who did their bidding. More than money, GM needs imagination and new ideas.

Also see: “Why The Merger With Chrysler Can’t Save GM” (11/3/2008) and “It’s The Infrastructure, Stupid” (7/31/2008)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why We Should Exit Iraq ASAP

On March 19, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, with 94% of the American public in full support of the mission. Three weeks after that, on April 11, 2003, I personally attended a lecture by 1972 presidential candidate, George McGovern. His talk was titled, “The Wrong War, In the Wrong Place, At the Wrong Time.” In two hours of speaking time, McGovern predicted, with near-perfect accuracy, everything that would unfold in Iraq over the next few years. The insurgency, the sectarian violence that would escalate into a civil war, the ineffectiveness of the elected leaders in Iraq, the utter incompetence of the U.S. commander-in-chief and the Secretary of Defense, the loss of public image in the eyes of the world, the outrageous cost, and even the inadequacy of the poorly-armored vehicles that would cost so many American lives- all this was laid out by McGovern. And this was in front of an audience that, like the greater American public, disagreed with his message by a margin of 94% to 6%. He was right that day, and we were wrong.

Based on that experience, I now listen when George McGovern speaks. At a private reception this last August, during the DNCC in Denver, I again heard McGovern talk, and this time he put forth his plan for leaving Iraq. He said simply, “Load the troops on trucks and drive toward the nearest border.” I believe that’s how it could be done, and I firmly believe that’s how it will be done. As things stand right now, both Iraq and the United States of America are disintegrating, and the one is causing the other. Iraq has made a trillion dollars of American wealth evaporate just as surely as if it was piled up in paper currency and set afire in an all-consuming blaze. The loss of that national wealth has been felt in ripples through the economy, and been accelerated by bad real estate loans and astronomical oil prices and the meltdown of Wall Street, but beneath the surface, it’s all tied together. This isn’t my opinion. This comes from the 2001 Nobel Laureate and former chief economist for the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz.

The Iraq War will probably end sooner rather than later, especially now with Barack Obama as the next president. We need not wait for a totally stable Iraq, because when the choice is one of possible disintegration in Iraq or continued disintegration right here in America, we must choose to let Iraq disintegrate. When Americans realize that their economic pain and their agony over the war are both symptoms of the same disease they will demand an end to it. It's like cutting off a limb infected with gangrene to save the rest of the body.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Was Obama Born In Kenya?

The Apollo 11 had not yet returned to earth in late July of 1969 when the rumors started floating around that the entire moon landing was a hoax, having been faked on a giant phony moonscape set in a vast soundstage at some secret location. If true, the illusion would have required that 80,000 NASA engineers and flight controllers were secretly collaborating with the entire news gathering infrastructure of the global media to perpetrate a fraud which, but for the efforts of a few amateur sleuths, would have fooled the world. The event was repeated five more times, continuing through the Apollo 17 flight, but this did nothing to disprove the hoax theory according to the truth squad, and today, the fraudulent moon landing theory has taken its place with the cover-ups of the Roswell crash and the JFK assassination conspiracy.

Four days ago (11/7) I wrote about the outpouring of celebration and global good will following the Obama election victory, comparing it to the positive feelings around the world about the U.S.A. on the day of the Apollo 11 landing. It seems, now, that the two events have something else in common. The conspiracy theorists are hard at work trying to get the word out that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, thus making him ineligible to take the oath of office as President. Obama’s American citizenship, according to the amateur truth seekers, is just as fraudulent as the moon landing 40 years ago. Once again, the so-called truth seekers are asking us to believe some ideas that are very hard to swallow. First, the global news gathering apparatus completely missed this story, despite the fact that a Pulitzer would surely have been waiting for anyone who broke the news. Second, the Clinton political machine missed the story even though the revelation of the Obama fraud would have given Hillary the nomination, and probably the Presidency. Third, the incredibly efficient and professional dirty-tricks and muckraking team within the GOP under the leadership of Karl Rove— not exactly an amateur at political intrigue— missed the opportunity to bury Obama and put McCain/Palin in the White House. Lastly, we are asked to believe that a few independent lawyers and Internet bloggers are the only people brilliant enough to get at the truth.

There’s a principle in science called “Occam’s Razor,” which states that the simplest answer is the right answer. The simplest answer is that Obama was born in the United States and is, thus, eligible for the nation’s highest office.

Also see: A Moment Of Global Joy (11/7/2008)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Why Some Of Us Voted Against Our Own Self-Interest

Growing up in the 1950s, I was aware of a group of adults who were known as “The Country Club Set.” For the most part they were college educated, working at very high paying jobs, and they always voted Republican. They were the opposite of the poor blue-collar working class, and while my father toiled within this latter group and never belonged to a country club, he nevertheless always identified with the upper strata of society, probably because he was very intelligent. Intelligence seemed to be another quality of the Country Club Set, at least to the uninformed mind of a child in the 1950s, and for that reason I wanted to grow up and be a member of that group. Last Tuesday, the Country Club Set did an amazing thing. They voted for a man who will deliberately raise their taxes, probably by quite a lot. Understanding why these people voted against their own financial self-interest by switching their vote from Republican to Democrat is the key to understanding why the Republicans are in deep trouble.

Now that the election is over, the media pundits have been unusually candid and free in using the word, “incompetent,” to describe the Bush administration, although they are still reticent to use the other appropriate adjective, “stupid.” Whether or not the Country Club Set is truly intelligent I can’t say, but I do know that they understood at some gut level that the Bush incompetence was directly caused by his fundamental personal stupidity. I can say this since I’m not an official pundit, and speaking for myself, I can also say that it would be difficult to overstate the sheer dreariness and embarrassment of living for eight years in a nation governed by a globally-recognized fool. I don’t speak for the Country Club Set, but I myself finally came to the point when I wanted smart, intelligent governance more than I wanted governance which would be financially advantageous to me. The other alternative was to pick up and move to the Cayman Islands.

This discussion about intelligence leads back to the Republican Party. In the GOP, the Country Club Set was, until the last election, one of the two fundamental “base” groups that could always be counted on to pull the “R” lever. The other GOP base group has always consisted of those who are content to let James Dobson define the Word of God for them, and let Rush Limbaugh explain the Constitution as well as everything else. It was this latter group that was appeased by the pick of Sarah Palin, and was made to feel especially comfortable with the realization that she could never make them seem intellectually inferior. She was, after all, one of them, and it was good riddance to those intellectuals who were driven away by just her wink and a smile. The Republicans are now openly predicting that Palin will be a major force in their party in 2012, and this sends the message that the GOP is casting their lot with the dittoheads who tune in the EIB on radio stations down there below the Mason Dixon Line. I just can’t see this having much appeal for the rest of us, especially after we have four years to see a glow of grace and intellect in the White House.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The End Of The Libertarian Dream

Pat Buchanan said that the Obama election is symbolic of the end of Conservatism, but that’s not to say that Obama caused Conservatism to end. The credit for that goes to George W. Bush. And if Buchanan is right, then Libertarianism is also finished.

The Siren’s song of Libertarianism, that glittering appeal of little or no government intrusion on our lives, has always held a particular fascination for Americans. One had only to go around the country and count the Ron Paul signs in American front yards to see the depth of the pro-Libertarian feeling, but a nasty reality had set in years before this last election. What George W. Bush accomplished was to give us a peek at an America relatively unfettered by government regulation, and it was not a pretty sight.

The mortgage meltdown and the collapse of Wall Street banking houses, as everybody now knows, was enabled by relaxed regulatory oversight on the part of government people charged with keeping an eye on financial institutions. Nobody disputes that. American citizens, however, now tend to look at the SEC failure as a singularity, not recognizing that the last eight years have seen the disintegration and outright collapse of almost all government oversight functions within almost all regulatory agencies. This should be a Libertarian’s dream, but it’s become a national nightmare.

Because the FAA relaxed plane inspections, airlines like Southwest and American were forced to ground entire fleets and cancel thousands of flights over the span of several days to accomplish repairs that should have been enforced as a matter of routine. Even Libertarians recognize that it’s unsafe to fly on an uninspected airplane. The FDA approved only 18 novel new drugs in 2007, the lowest number in the last dozen years, despite the fact that the pharmaceutical companies had developed more new drugs than ever. Fearful of the embarrassment of another Vioxx, the FDA simply sat on its hands more often than not, basking in the culture of non-regulation that came down from the White House. FEMA showed, during Katrina, what a dysfunctional government agency could really accomplish. It wasn’t much. And make no mistake about it, “Heckuva Job Brownie,” far from being the only incompetent guy in government, was only too typical of the kind of person that Bush wanted. The FCC allowed radio and TV stations to do pretty much whatever they wanted when it came to mergers and consolidations. When it came to CO2 emissions, the EPA allowed American industry and power companies to kick the can down the road. Under the supervision of ICE and the INS, our border with Mexico came to look a lot like our border with Canada. The list goes on and on.

Here’s the deal. Like it or not, we’re not a nation of Thoreaus living at Walden Pond. As the population of many American cities now swells into the millions, and as the services and infrastructure supporting those increased numbers deteriorate, only the government can regulate the mechanisms that keep everything from falling apart. My wife and I travel the world, and I like to see what works in other countries. Four of the best and most successful sovereign nations on earth are the three Scandinavian countries and Singapore. All are tightly controlled by their governments. Conversely, there’s one country that has the hands-off approach by the government that Libertarians would like to see in America. It’s called Pakistan. You’ve heard a lot about it lately, and not in glowing terms. There isn’t a single nation on earth successfully using a Libertarian model, for several fundamental reasons. Cultures are too complex, nations are too interconnected, and institutions— which tend to have all the flaws of individuals— are too self-interested. The Libertarian dream is really nothing more than a nostalgic yearning for simpler times, and those times are gone forever.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Why One American Industry Is Thriving

Within the avalanche of pre-election polling data, two statistics shocked me. According to public opinion samples, 10% of Americans think the country is on the RIGHT track, and 27% approve of the job done by George W. Bush. So I began to wonder how these people would respond to the Obama win, and even more important, I wondered who these people are. Not surprisingly, it turns out that they’re almost all conservative Republicans. Most of them are evangelical Christians, and all of them would describe themselves as patriots. And as for how they’ve responded to the Obama win— they’ve gone on a shopping spree. They are buying guns and ammo, Big Time.

Since last Tuesday, gun sales and background checks for prospective gun owners have increased three fold across the country, and ten fold in certain parts of the country. In my state of Colorado, there have been 1500 background checks completed since the election. That’s 500 per day. Sales of AK-47s have depleted the nationwide supply, but only temporarily. Since the AK-47 is made in China, it’s safe to assume that more are on their way in the pipeline.

It’s reasonable to ask, “Why do so many people feel the need for a household arsenal?” Keep in mind that many of them are in that 10% group who saw the country as being on the RIGHT track before the election. America is on track to lose a million jobs in 2008. The cumulative deficit is now 10 trillion dollars. Almost all of the products we buy come from China, and we are ranked dead last in the industrial world on healthcare and education. But for 10% of our citizens, everything is hunky-dory. They want the comfort of having an AK-47 tucked away in the living room closet just in case the country starts to go downhill.

I’ve been saying for ten years that American politics would look very different if guns were used to perform abortions.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Moment of Global Joy. Let's Not Blow It This Time.

The nice thing about televised images is that they sometimes convey the truth. What I saw Wednesday morning was genuine— pictures from around the world of people in other countries and other cultures as they celebrated the election of Barack Obama. I had seen this once before, in July of 1969, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. The moon landing, like the presidential election earlier this week, was an event undertaken by the United States—purely in its own self interest— that, nevertheless, transcended the moment and the motive, and inspired the rest of the world with the example of what we could do when we were at our best. Both events came at a time when our national image had been badly degraded by our own hand, in poorly conceived wars undertaken for all the wrong reasons. But then, after a long period of much-publicized preparation, in the space of a single day, America proved that it could do almost anything. Maybe any country is capable of going to the moon or changing its culture 180 degrees in less than half a century, but so far, no other country has done it, and this— more than anything else— explains why the world could see Tuesday night as victory for the human spirit, and something more than a simple American political outcome.

Following the momentary global celebration in July of 1969, Richard Nixon responded to that reservoir of potential good will by doing three things. He canceled the last three planned moon landings. He ramped-up the war in Southeast Asia by extending the bombing from Vietnam into Cambodia and Laos. And he began recruiting the team of burglars that would be arrested three years later in the Watergate.

Sometimes, the world sees us better than we see ourselves. Let’s hope that this time we use our momentary global good will to better purpose than we did in 1969.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Payback For Payback

Dixiecrat was a term you heard a lot 40 years ago, and then it went away. In the 1968 presidential election, Nixon embarked on what he called his, “Southern strategy,” to woo away disgruntled Democrats and turn them into Republicans. Prior to that time, the Deep South had been solidly Democratic. Following Tet in February of 1968, the Vietnam Nam War was being recognized as a losing effort, and Nixon promised to turn that around by painting the Democratic liberal administration of Lyndon Johnson as the reason for the military failure. Sometime later, in the 1970s, Roe V. Wade gave the Republicans yet another liberal millstone to hang around the neck of the Democrats. The underlying reality, however, is that national defense and abortion were the polite and acceptable issues, but not the only issues, that one could talk about when discussing the switch in the South from Democrat to Republican, and from liberal to conservative. The dirty little secret was— and has always been— that Republicanism and conservatism flourished in the Deep South as a payback for the Civil Rights Movement, led by liberal Democrats.

Last night’s election was revealing. White voters of all ages, and of both sexes, gave the majority of their votes to Obama— everywhere but in the Deep South. But down in the belly of the old Confederacy, white voters went more than 2 to 1against Obama. The Republican party, now in shambles, has been reduced to mostly a regional institution rooted in the Deep South, with nothing to sustain it but vitriolic anti-liberalism. It may be another generation or more before that Republican bastion puts the Civil Rights Movement behind it, but meanwhile the rest of the country has moved on. If Nixon’s Southern strategy exploited the urge to see a payback for Civil Rights, then Obama’s victory can be seen as a payback for the payback.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Why The Merger With Chrysler Can't Save GM

It looks like the proposed GM—Chrysler merger will have to wait for the next administration now that Bush has decided to kick that can down the road. Sadly, however, it probably won’t make much difference. Of course there will be new economies of scale and synergies to be leveraged from the merger, and thousands of United Auto Workers will lose their jobs, but the fundamental problem (especially from the GM side) lies in the products which consist of inferior cars and unmarketable trucks. Take the case of the much-publicized Chevrolet Volt, the car that is supposed to be GM’s salvation.

The Volt started out about eight years ago as a snazzy concept car to be shown at the Detroit Auto Show. The body was a subtle blend of the futuristic and the elegant, with just the right touches of both familiarity and creativity. In a master stroke of innovation, GM engineers had designed this body to sit atop a rolling low-platform chassis which would have the flexibility to run on fuel-cell-generated electricity, or conventional gasoline, or a hybrid of both. But then, the fuel cell idea was trashed when someone realized that it would take 100 years to build out an infrastructure of cryogenic filling stations that could supply liquid hydrogen across the country (see my blog of 7/31). After that, bit-by-bit, the Volt morphed in the way that often happens when something is designed and redesigned by very large committees with divergent points of view. The Volt that has emerged from this committee process now features a battery pack to be recharged at the plug-in socket on the garage wall at home, and a reconfigured body which now closely resembles the Prius and has none of the original futuristic charm. Evidently, GM honchos figured that if it looked like the Prius, it might sell like the Prius.

Recently, one of the national networks sent a TV crew to the GM proving ground to do a video piece on the development of the Volt. With the camera rolling, the little Volt finished prototype began to climb a very slight hill on the test course. And then it slowed, unexpectedly. And then it stopped dead in its tracks and refused to move any farther. To make matters worse, the GM spokesperson started to spin the episode by saying that the car was still very experimental, completely ignoring the fact that the Volt has been floating around the drawing boards at GM for all of the 21st Century. Nothing could better underscore the fact that GM is no Toyota, and while a GM—Chrysler merger would create a company bigger than Toyota, the quality gap would probably still persist.

Also see: “It’s The Infrastructure, Stupid” 7/31/2008

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Obama Landslide, The Conservative Reaction

Democracy and free market capitalism are the two ideals that have guided America since the beginning of the country. Then, three weeks ago, things began to change. Nobel prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, said that the meltdown of Wall Street was to free market capitalism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was to Communism. He probably has it right, but only time will tell. And now, with the 2008 presidential election just three days away, I wonder if the other shoe isn’t about to fall.

More than any other single factor, Democracy depends on having the losing side in an election freely concede the loss and willingly accept the outcome. For the last dozen or more years, when the contests ran, essentially, 50-50, the losing side could console itself with the belief that things would turn in the next election cycle. But this year, the prospect of a true Democrat blowout makes me wonder if the losing side would peacefully accept the outcome. Fueling this worry of mine is the venomous and vindictive nature of the opposition to Obama. I’m not talking about the stuff that you hear in McCain and Palin stump speeches, although some of their tone, even more than their words, pushes the line on civility. The hostility to Obama that frightens me is the material that reaches the true right-wing believers via talk radio and printed pamphlets. I’ve seen numerous pamphlets that depict Obama as a blackface minstrel, in racist imagery that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s. A paradox lies in the fact that an Obama victory would prove that almost all of America has moved past the old race-based doubt and hatred. But if the victory becomes a landslide, then the broad-based conservative and fundamentalist Christian paranoia about liberalism will meld with the lingering racism in that small right-wing minority, and the cumulative result will not be pretty. I hope I’m wrong about this, but when the conservative talk-radio ayatollahs pour their gasoline on the fire, I just can’t see their listeners giving a liberal black President any kind of fair-minded acceptance.

As I’ve watched the liberal-conservative, Democrat-Republican tug-of-war degenerate into a deep polarization over the years, I’ve come to believe that America is just one Democratic presidential landslide away from a good old-fashioned civil war, complete with shooting and widespread riots— and that was before the face of liberalism had a black complexion. Most Americans would say that civil war can’t happen, and that Democracy is more precious to us than liberal or conservative ideology, but most Americans also thought, until three weeks ago, that free market capitalism was solid as a rock.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

New Evidence on Global Warming

I had always wondered why Evangelical Christian fundamentalists were so resistant to the concept of global warming. Since most of them vote Republican, and since the Republicans side with business on most issues, and since business interests have been slow to accept the evidence on global warming— I just naturally assumed that this chain of political logic was the reason for the Evangelical position on climate change. Today, however, I was exposed to a different chain of logic on the subject.

Televangelist, Kenneth Copeland, was the man who opened my eyes. According to Brother Copeland, there’s a passage in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah where God promises to keep the ocean in a “perpetual” state. To bible readers, “perpetual” means that the sea level will remain constant. So here’s how Copeland’s chain of logic refutes the idea of global warming. If the climate gets warmer, the polar ice will melt. If the polar ice melts, the sea level will rise. If the sea level rises, the ocean will not be “perpetual” in the biblical sense, and it would not be consistent with Jeremiah. You can’t make this stuff up. The fact that the polar ice is melting right in front of our eyes isn’t relevant, any more than the fossil record is relevant to the discussion of creation versus evolution.

I do have one unanswered question. What happened to the “perpetual” ocean in the time of Noah?

Friday, October 24, 2008

If Obama Is Elected, All Is Forgiven

“If Obama is elected, all is forgiven.” At the 2008 Conference on World Affairs, Wendy Chamberlin (U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan at the time of 9/11) was asked in a Q&A, “What is the rest of the world saying about the upcoming presidential election?” Her response: “If Obama is elected, all is forgiven.”

“Forgiven for what?” you might ask. The short answer is that the world might forgive us for George W. Bush. In case you don’t travel abroad, I can tell you that the United States of America is now the most hated nation on earth (with the possible exception of Sudan, because of Darfur). Na├»ve self-proclaimed patriots like to say, “Foreigners don’t hate Americans. They love Americans. They just hate our government,” and there was a time when that was absolutely true. But one of the drawbacks of democracy is that— when a president like Bush gets elected to a second term— the electorate must share the blame for everything that happens in the second term. Right or wrong, the world sees the average American as a rich, spoiled, redneck goober, and this can translate into some nasty consequences. Recent statistics (from the FBI unit that monitors foreign crime against Americans) show that 24% of all American tourists traveling in Third World countries report falling victim to burglary or assault.

Since my wife and I write about living conditions in Third World slums, based on our travel experiences to those places, this gets very personal for us. We protect ourselves by wearing jackets emblazoned with the Canadian flag, and we carry luggage with Canadian shipping stickers plastered all over, and we flat-out lie about our citizenship. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, we are Canadians. If Wendy Chamberlin was right, and if Obama becomes the next president, maybe things will change for the better. We can only hope that’s the case.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Merck Cuts 7,500 Jobs

Yesterday, drug giant, Merck, announced that it was cutting 7,500 jobs, and it’s a sure bet that most of those job eliminations will be in the sales positions. The unfortunate sales reps who lose those jobs will feel acute loss in their income and maybe even their lifestyle, but the brutal fact is that they will not be missed by either their company (Merck) or the physicians and the greater medical community.

Imagine yourself going to four different Walgreen drugstores just to purchase toothpaste, toilet paper, aspirin, and body lotion— because no single store can sell more than one item. That’s analogous to the relationship that has evolved between the doctors and the drug companies. By duplicating and triplicating the sales presence in every medical office and clinic, the drug companies reasoned that each doctor could be bombarded with three or four sales pitches from the same company in the time that it usually took to get in one good pitch. Each sales rep would sell just one or two drugs rather than having one rep sell six or seven drugs. But, like most big ideas that get spawned in upper management, the plan totally failed to consider the needs and wants of the customer. As a result, physicians simply stopped fielding sales pitches altogether.

My personal physician told me that she limits herself to seeing no more than eight sales reps in any single day. She averages about 25 per week, or 100 per month, but nearly all of those so-called “sales visits” are nothing more than sample drops lasting two or three minutes. Drug industry internal statistics show that the average pharmaceutical sales call results in less than five minutes with the prescribing physician. I retired from a job in pharmaceutical sales ten years ago, and back in the good old days my sales visits averaged 25 minutes, and I sold every drug in the company product portfolio. But now, Big Pharma with their manager-driven big idea has managed to alienate the medical community, and has pretty much made their sales force irrelevant to the product promotion process. That’s why companies like Merck can feel comfortable with 7,500 person layoffs.

Keeping The Tundra Tootsie Looking Good

It’s been 60 days since McCain picked the Tundra Tootsie as his Vice-Presidential running mate, and there’s still a dozen days to go until the election. Assuming that she never wears any piece of clothing more than once, and that she changes complete outfits twice a day, that means that Palin will go through about 150 dress-up cycles during her run for the nation’s second highest office. What makes this relevant is that we now know that the RNC has spent $150,000 to make her look good, or $1,000 per wardrobe change. Since she never does sit-down interviews, it’s unlikely that she gets a lot of wrinkles.

Hillary Clinton spent her own money to keep herself in pants suits because, being a Democrat, she probably had some understanding of the kind of American family that could buy clothing to last a lifetime for less than $150,000. In a normal election year, none of this would make much difference, But now, there are people—and a lot of them— who have lost their home, and who have gone on food stamps for the first time. This is not a normal election year. I’m not suggesting that the Tundra Tootsie should be given the old Marie Antoinette treatment for her wardrobe excess. Simply sending her back to live among the rapidly-diminishing polar bears will be sufficient.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Republican Conservatism — What Happened?

In 1994, when the Republicans swept into majority positions in the House and Senate, it seemed that a long-awaited Republican conservative era of dominance was at hand, and that it might last for a very long time. Back then, I hoped that such a scenario was actually the case. Back then, I listened to Rush Limbaugh. I admit that now with some degree of shame.

2008, by all accounts, promises to be a bloodbath for the Republican Party, and I fervently hope that’s the case. Needless to say, I no longer listen to Rush Limbaugh, and here’s the reason why. Somewhere in the early part of the 21st century, I realized that when I listened to Limbaugh for 3 hours, it made me feel stupid for doing it. Rush Limbaugh claims that his listeners are more informed politically than those who listen to NPR. He’s probably right, in much the same way that pure carnivores eat more red meat than those who eat a balanced diet. NPR listeners spend part of their time learning about things like foreign news and European politics and (dare I say it?) scientific discovery. In Limbaugh’s mind, how can that compete with the ranting of a man who professes to have one half of his brain tied behind him?

Which brings me to the question— if Republican conservatism was such a big deal, then how come it lasted for a measly 14 years? I think I have a five word answer: Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. These two clowns have done more for Democratic Liberalism than all the Al Sharptons and Jessie Jacksons that ever graced then ranks of the Democrat Party. Limbaugh and Hannity have given a face to ideological fanaticism. It’s the fanaticism of Republican conservatism, but it could just as easily have been the face of fanatic socialism. They have reminded Americans why we’re not a Fascist nation. It’s because we just don’t like Fascists, but more than that, we just don’t like fanatics. In two weeks, The Republican Party gets to pay the price for having the wrong people on their team.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What Happened To Uncle Sam?

Those of us who look at The United States through cynical and realistic eyes have known for a dozen years or more that the U.S. government had both the willingness and the capability to bring down our nation. What we didn’t know, until the last two weeks, was that our government could pretty much destroy the whole world as well. I’m not talking about unleashing our nukes. I’m talking about exporting financial dysfunctionality and economic stupidity on a scale never before seen on the planet.

Bright people saw it coming. In a NY Times editorial two weeks ago, Paul Krugman described The United States as a “Banana Republic with nukes.” Like most of what Paul Krugman says, his words were attacked by the usual Bush apologists (BillO’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh) as NY Times liberalism. Then, yesterday, Paul Krugman won the Nobel Prize for economics, and for most of us this validated what we’ve always suspected about Krugman—that he knows what he’s talking about. The Bush-loving conservatives, however, are now saying that the Nobel Prize selection committee is just another egghead group dominated by liberals.

All of this brings me to a caricature poster that I saw over the past weekend. The image on the poster was a rendering of a naked man, and sitting on top of the shoulders was the head of Uncle Sam with his Lincolnesque gray beard, and his red, white and blue top hat. The implication of the cartoon image was that Uncle Sam has become the emperor with no clothes. This made me realize that we just never see Uncle Sam anymore. You would think that, with an all volunteer military, we might see the old familiar image of the bearded man pointing his finger out from the poster and declaring, “Uncle Sam Wants You.” But we never see that anymore, and I think I know why. I asked myself whether Uncle Sam represented a liberal, or a conservative. My answer was that he represented neither. He represented the government at a time when such ideological divisions—if they existed at all—were not the dominant features of the political landscape. Those days are gone.

Now that we have a Banana Republic with nukes, maybe we need a new personification of our dysfunctional and ideologically-divided government, and I can’t think of anything better than the caricature of naked Uncle Sam wearing nothing but his top hat.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

In One Short Lifetime

In an antique store last week, I purchased a Colliers Atlas and Gazetteer from the year, 1942. That’s the year I was born, and I wanted to see this snapshot of the world as it was then, to compare with my world of today, and try to grasp the magnitude of change that can occur in one short lifetime. The continents have changed not at all. Several of the national borders have changed in the years since the end of WW II, and many of the names of the nations today are entirely different from what they were back then. The real difference, however, is in the populations of the cities of the world.

In 1942, the largest city on earth was greater London with a total population of 8.3 million, followed closely by New York City with 7.4 million. The rest of the top twelve, in order, were Tokyo (6.4M), Berlin (4.3M), Moscow (4.1M), Chicago (3.4M), Osaka (3.1M), Paris (2.8M), Hamburg (1.6M), Los Angeles (1.5M), Sydney (1.2M), Warsaw (1.2M), and Rome (1.1M). It’s no coincidence that these same cities represented all of the major players in the war at that time, hence the term, WORLD War II. The war decimated much of the population of all but the American cities of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, with the result that most of these cities (especially the European cities) are not substantially more populous today than they were in 1942.

What the gazetteer population charts showed in these cities was a demographic very similar to what we see in the same cities today— with one dramatic exception. The city of Los Angeles, 1.5 million in 1942, is now over 20 million for the greater L.A. basin. This puts L.A. into a class with the next set of cities that I want to mention. Here are the population numbers for a second group of cities that were only marginally involved in the Second World War. At that time, these cities were all considered, Third World.

Bombay (1.1M), Cairo (1.3M), Calcutta (1.2M), Mexico City (1.5M), Sao Paulo (1.2M), Rio de Janeiro (1.8M), Shanghai (3.2M), Tientsin (China) (1.4M), Chunking (635,000), Johannesburg (554,000), Delhi (347,000) and Nairobi (20,400) — these were relatively small cities in 1942. Today, all of them are at or near the 20 million level, and Mexico City with its 30 million inhabitants is now the largest city on earth. That’s a huge change in one short lifetime, but more than the numbers have changed. The quality of life in these cities has changed as well, as might be expected.

If you think that providing water and sanitation to a brand new group of 20 million people presents a challenge, you’re right. My wife and I have spent time in each of these new mega-cities to expand our expertise on living conditions in Third World slums, and I can tell you that the smell of human excrement is never far away in these places. Mexico City has a phenomenon called, “fecal snow.” Many of the 30 million people use open land that gets sporadic rainfall (the city, however, sits on onetime swampland), and their human waste desiccates into dry powder that gets carried aloft in the wind. I mention this because I often wonder about those folks who disagree with the notion that overpopulation is a problem. Would they change their mind if their own backyard became a community latrine?

In my short lifetime, the global population has skyrocketed from 2 billion to 6.5 billion. The next 65 years simply cannot handle a comparable gain in the number of human beings here on earth.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Way To Go, CBS

I was just another immature teenage boy in the 1950s, and most of us at that time held to the philosophy that, “If a gal was good looking, and she wasn’t snobbish, then it was okay if she was stupid.” As a matter of fact, a certain measure of stupidity was actually an advantage. Such was our 1950s worldview filtered by the screen of immaturity. By the 1960s, we had totally dropped such notions to avoid being labeled “chauvinistic pig” and “sexist.” So imagine our surprise to find—50 years later—that we were right all along, as evidenced by that dim-witted little cupcake named Sarah Palin. John McCain, it turns out, shares our 1950s worldview.

Trading on nothing more than her glamour, fertility, and smart-aleck attitude, she has gathered about her a flock of female followers who want desperately to be associated with Sarah’s posse. I suspect that many of these followers wish they could have a big posse of their own, just like Ms. Palin. But happily, there’s one woman who hasn’t been fooled by this hot-looking and empty-headed Nanuk of the North, and that’s Katy Couric. I wasn’t a big fan of Katy Couric before the Palin interviews, but I’m a fan of hers now. Sarah Palin might be a big game hunter, but little Miss Katy is the one who knows how to trap a deer in the headlights. Way to go, CBS.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

We The People

We, the people, have spoken. The U.S. voting public bombarded congressional representatives with e-mails and phone calls voicing opinion on the proposed 750 billion dollar bailout to save our financial system, and the opinion ran 80% against approval for the scheme. Congress listened to the electorate and failed to pass the measure. It was a triumph for our democracy and a shining example of the democratic process to the newly democratized people of Iraq. Goody, goody.

Just one small problem. The U.S. is a republic, not a democracy, because the Founding Fathers knew that the American public could be trusted to elect representatives—and nothing more. Modern Americans aren’t smart enough to know that they can decide what to eat BEFORE they actually get to the front of the line in a fast food restaurant. Listening to the voting public’s opinion on something as astronomically complex as the bailout package is like listening to a five-year-old’s opinion on nuclear physics. Hell, even Bush and Paulson don’t understand the ramifications of the bailout plan, and they’re the guys who cooked it up. We, the people, are idiots, and congress needs to take that into account. If 80% of us are against the bailout plan, it probably means the plan is pretty good.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Petroleum Science 101

There’s a political TV ad running in Colorado right now, and it claims that there’s more oil under the Colorado mountains than under the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As Jack Parr used to say, “I kid you not.” Actually, this is more of a half truth than a falsehood. The deception lies in the fact that there’s such a thing as oil—and then there’s OIL. The stuff under the Arabian peninsula is called, “sweet crude.” It’s pure petroleum, and it’s in liquid form. The stuff under the Colorado mountains is called, “oil shale.” It’s petroleum that’s locked into solid rock layers. There’s lots of it, but here’s the deception, the oil needs huge amounts of water and heat to be released from the rock. Colorado, despite its winter snowpack, is a desert environment. There simply is not enough water available to unlock the oil from the oil shale in quantities that would be significant. The required electricity to generate the heat is also in short supply, so the oil is “there,” but unavailable. Petroleum industry honchos aren’t stupid people. They wouldn’t have spent the last half-century investing in petroleum infrastructure on the other side of the planet if their product needs could be met right here in this country (see my blog 7/28). Most of the political rhetoric about unlocking domestic oil sources seems to ignore this basic fact.

Everything about the global energy problem involves possible solutions that are deeply rooted in science and engineering, and thanks to the Christian Right’s influence working through the Bush administration, science has been crippled in the United States during the last eight years. Only 18% of our high school students study any kind of science, and the majority of the world’s scientists and engineers are no longer working in this country. By following influencers like Dobson and Limbaugh, a nation can’t let a fanatic religious and ideological fringe take it back to the Dark Ages, and then expect to face the challenges of the 21st Century with scientific enlightenment. We’re either going to be medieval, or we’re not, and we can’t have it both ways,

Also see: $4.00 Gas—Soon A Cause For Nostalgia

Friday, September 19, 2008

Too Stupid To Be Governed?

Bill Maher said, last night on television, what many of us have wanted to say for some time- that the American electorate is too stupid to be governed. While I agree with the sentiment, I wonder if there might not be a better explanation for the fact that Karl Rove can work his Pavlovian magic, seemingly at will, on the gullible voting public. Then I discovered the following passage in a new novel by Brad Thor. The title is, "The Last Patriot." I am quoting.

"Up until the 1950s, American children yearned for adulthood. When their time came to be adults they stepped into the role proudly, leaving childhood behind and taking up the mantles of responsibility, honor, and dignity. They embraced and championed the ideals of those who came before them while valiantly tackling new ideas and problems that their families, communities, and nation faced. Those days were long gone.

"Americans now shunned adulthood, preferring to remain in a state of perpetual adolescence. By failing to move forward with grace and dignity, they left a gaping hole in American society. They treated relationships like disposable lighters, tossing marriages away when they ran out of gas. Children were left without families, and even worse, they were left without adults who could be role models of responsible behavior. With this lack of willingness to step forward and embrace adulthood, the nation had lost sight of its core values and ideals."

I admire Brad Thor for his insight in writing this. Bill Maher almost got it right, but not quite. In my opinion, Americans are not too stupid to be governed, they're too immature. Americans choose their political candidates the way that teenagers make their selections for class officers and homecoming royalty. Popularity, not competence, rules the process. How else can you explain the fact that a ditzy, glamor-puss cheerleader is now running for vice president?

Monday, September 15, 2008

I Just Don't Get It.

I'm confused. Recently, I've been present at two public events of the type that would customarily be kicked off with The National Anthem. At these events, however, the kick off was accomplished, not with The Star Spangled Banner, but with the song, America The Beautiful. Not an anthem, but a song. Just a song. Nevertheless, everyone at the event (everyone but me) stood at attention and placed their hands over their hearts. I felt like an outsider, and I wondered if the day would come when some of the patriotic C&W songs like God Bless The U.S.A. would elicit a similar response. I just don't get it.

This recent experience of mine ties into my feelings about the political news these days. Out of nowhere comes Sarah Palin, a kind of political version of Britney Spears or Paris Hilton, and the country falls all over her because she shoots a hunting rifle. These members of the Palin Posse are pretty much the same people who don't know that John Wayne was never a cowboy. I just don't get it.

Then, this morning, it was announced that Lehman Brothers went belly-up (financially speaking) while we all slept last night. The old banking house went back some 150-plus years to a time before the American Civil War, and it survived The Great Depression, but it couldn't survive the mortgage meltdown that George W. Bush describes as a "sound economy." Much of the mortgage banking business has been nationalized already (Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae) but evidently the Feds decided at this late stage of the game that nationalizing business institutions didn't look quite right in a free market capitalism. Somehow, the news this morning didn't look much like America The Beautiful, and God didn't seem to be blessing the financial sector of the U.S.A., but I doubt if the Palin Posse paid much attention. I just don't get it.

Here's what I know: all democracies are temporary. No democracy has lasted more than 250-300 years. The democratic form of government goes away when the elected officials cease to put the public good above all else. We all know that, but what we don't know is this: do the citizens in a dying democracy maintain their patriotism to the bitter end? Do they see things the way they want them to be, rather than the way they are? I suspect so. But I just don't get it.

Monday, September 8, 2008

It Will Take More Than Money

The United States government does one thing well— and one thing only. It can spend money like a Doberman can eat a prime rib roast. The U.S. government spends money, not with simple commitment, but with unbridled enthusiasm. So, today, when the Feds took over Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, we could all rest comfortably in the knowledge that a huge portion of the mortgage mess would be alleviated by the infusion of good old-fashioned government greenbacks. Never mind that those greenbacks would eventually need to come from inflation-generating government printing presses, or Chinese lenders, or that kind of surreal and mysterious metaphysical transfer system that defers the whole wad of cash into the future, and places it on the backs of our children and grandchildren. For the time being, this particular economic crisis proved that it could be smoothed-over by the one thing the government is good at— spending money.

I wish that all of our problems could be amenable to the same solution. Specifically, I wish that the energy crisis could be solved with big government money. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Pulitzer Prize winning writer and brilliant thinker, Thomas Friedman, is proposing that our energy problems can be solved by something he is calling, the ET revolution. ET stands for Energy Technology. He sees the ET revolution unfolding much like the IT revolution in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when home computers and the Internet transformed the way that we gained and shared information. Friedman’s analogy is interesting, but I see a drawback that might prove to be a deal-breaker. The fact is that 20 to 30 years ago, the majority of the best scientific and engineering minds in the world were doing their thinking and working right here in the United States. Not so anymore. Just like the Nazi regime in Germany drove away the best German scientific thinkers in the 1930s, and pushed many of them across the sea to our shores, so has the Bush administration has pushed scientific thought out of the United States and sent much of it across the sea to Asia. I don’t mean to imply that the Bush administration is the equivalent of Nazism. No way. But George W. Bush and his cronies have created an almost medieval, Spanish Inquisitional, modern Dark Ages where it comes to science— stifling research and even simple discourse on scientific subjects ranging from stem cell therapies to global warming.

Today, our public educational system is a pathetic failure in the teaching of language and mathematics, but it fails even more spectacularly in the teaching of science. Only 18% of high schoolers take even one science class during their years in the classroom. If (as the Republican presidential candidates are proposing) supernatural divine creation is inserted into the school curriculum, scientific learning will suffer even more. So the question is this— if an ET revolution is going to save us from energy catastrophe, then how will the technology (the T in ET) come about without a strong community of scientists and engineers? The answer is that the ET revolution will take place where science has now found a home. Unfortunately, that place is Asia, not the United States.