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.