Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People

Gas prices, economics and politics

Gallup tells us that economic confidence has slumped sharply in the past two week due mainly to the spike in gas prices driven by the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.


Funny how that works, no?  Gas prices go up, economic confidence goes down.  And the rest of that goes “economic confidence goes down, incumbents suffer”.

So you’d think smart politicians would want to ensure that they’ve done everything they could to ensure gasoline prices remain as low as possible.

You’d think.   But that’s not exactly what has happened here, is it?  We’re now in the 10th month of a drilling moratorium imposed by this administration, so there’s really no immediate or impending increases in production domestically that could help ease this, is there?

Says Gallup:

The slump in confidence is likely tied to gas prices, which have risen sharply amid growing political instability in the Middle East, most notably in Libya. The U.S. Department of Energy reported an increase in gas prices from an average $3.14 per gallon nationwide during the week ending Feb. 14 to $3.38 this past week. In addition, news media focus on the challenges governments are having in passing budgets may also affect Americans’ perceptions of the economy.

Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index comprises two measures — one assessing consumers’ views of current economic conditions and another measuring their perceptions of whether the economy is getting better or worse. Both components are more negative than they were two weeks ago, but most of the change has come from increasingly pessimistic expectations about the economy’s direction.

The pessimism is being driven by the understanding that we haven’t the means to effect the problem nor have we done anything in the interim to improve our ability to effect the problem.  In other words, we’re more at the mercy of foreign oil now than we were when this administration took office.

Secretary Salazar has been on a vendetta against oil, using the unusual but certainly horrific accident on the Deep Horizon platform, to effectively shut down a critical portion of the domestic oil industry.  It has cost thousands of jobs and billions of dollars (not only to the industry but to the government in the form of royalties and taxes).   Rigs which were scheduled to be deployed in the Gulf before the moratorium are now deploying elsewhere.  It costs millions for companies when oil drilling rigs sit idle.  So they’re off to do what – exploit foreign oil fields.  And they most likely won’t be back in Gulf waters anytime soon.

The point, of course, is the entire energy situation in the US is being badly mishandled by the incumbent administration.  And while they sit and fiddle, we become less and less able to effect world pricing for oil because our capability has been hamstrung by a government and bureaucracy that is basically antagonistic to fossil fuels.

That’s a risk, especially in these economic times.  If the economy is still in this sort of shape, pessimism still holds the majority in consumer confidence and gas prices hang around the $3.50 range, even some of the so-called front runners in the GOP at this point might be able to squeak out a win.  And it would most likely, as Charlie Cook predicts anyway, mean a tough election for Congressional Democrats in both houses.

Gasoline isn’t going to go down anytime soon as the unrest continues to roil the ME and N Africa.  And if something happens in Saudi Arabia, all bets are off.  But it is interesting to see how quickly the price of one commodity – albeit a critical commodity – can turn sunshine to gloom with the public.  It is something to watch going forward.



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Kinsley restores my belief in the irony impaired left

Michael Kinsley goes on a bit of a tear about states subsidizing the film industry in an LA Times piece.  Kinsley is just flat upset that states are giving way subsidies to “millionaires”.  Frankly, I don’t think government should be subsidizing any industry.  But back to Kinsley:

Government, in order to work, must be a monopoly. The appeal of the movie industry to beleaguered state treasurers, in addition to its glamour, is its mobility. There are no huge factories. Regardless of where the movie is supposedly set, it can be shot almost anywhere. And it will employ locals and spend money.

But mobility giveth and mobility taketh away. Pit the states against one another and the subsidies will inevitably become more generous and less effective at the same time.

The same logic applies when the competition is foreign. True, we might tire of having to watch film after film often implausibly set in Vancouver. But in any attempt to outbid Canada for the privilege of hosting a movie shoot, even a successful effort will be self-defeating.

"Governors and legislatures should call ‘cut!’ on cynical efforts to kill forward-looking incentive programs for film and TV production, in New Mexico and in all other states," Richardson says.

"Cynical" is an odd word to describe people (and there aren’t many) who want deeply indebted state governments to stop forgoing billions in tax revenue in the futile effort to entice the movie business to make its next western in Erie, Penn., or wherever.

Whatever indeed.  I don’t disagree.  For once I can give Kinsley kudos. 

Well, almost.   In the same article he says, talking about Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico (and the “Richardson” quoted above):

Richardson might well be a candidate for one of the "respected elder statesman" seats that come open every generation (sort of an American version of the British House of Lords, only chosen by the media instead of the government), bringing with them memberships of prestigious commissions, offers of ambassadorships, opportunities to express concern on "Charlie Rose" or the PBS "NewsHour" shows (if those institutions manage to survive the current Republican onslaught) and so on.

Yes, you caught it.  He’s talking about the subsidy the Federal government gives the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a multi-million dollar corporation that helps fund PBS, another multi-million dollar tax subsidized entity.

Irony – still a mystery to much of the left.

Next Kinsley will be urging us to buy a book on how to save the trees.



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David Brooks: austerity, “death panels” and spending exemptions

David Brooks helps demonstrate the problem we face in doing anything meaningful about the fiscal mess our government has gotten itself in.  To give him his due, he is trying, at some level, to address the problems facing the country. But he manages to end up putting himself in precisely the position which seems  prevalent today among those not really serious about doing what is necessary to put the fiscal house in order (but like to pretend they are)  – that is “we want budget cuts but don’t touch my favorite programs”.

Let me give you an example from his column today entitled “The New Normal”.

He begins by acknowledging that there is going to be (needs to be?) a whole lot of deficit cutting over the next few years.  And, his first principle of austerity, as he calls it, is that lawmakers must, as he inartfully but correctly puts it, “make everybody hurt”.  He’s right – no exemptions.  Every program, department, echelon, you name it, associated with government (yeah, that means you public sector unions) are going to have to sacrifice something.  Fine to that point.  When you’re looking at 1.3 trillion in a single year deficit, everyone does have to “hurt” if you hold any hope of eliminating it.

However, in this column  he launches into his second principle of austerity and loses me immediately.

A second austerity principle is this: Trim from the old to invest in the young. We should adjust pension promises and reduce the amount of money spent on health care during the last months of life so we can preserve programs for those who are growing and learning the most.

This “principle”  is based in a very nasty premise that “we” are in control of all the money “spent on health care” during the last months and should use that power to help balance the budget (and the fact is, with Medicare, that premise is true).  In other words, “we” will decide to pull the plug on the treatment for oldsters in favor of treatment/”investment” in youngsters.  Not the old folks themselves, mind you.  They’ll have no say in it. He’s talking about the collective “we”.  But don’t you dare say “death panels” you hear me?  And note, he immediately violates his first principle of making “everyone hurt” by claiming that if we throw the oldsters under the bus, we can “preserve programs” for the young.  Where’s the cut in spending when we’re “preserving”?

Oh, it’s not “spending” … we’ll call it “investing”, shall we?

Brooks then expands his “for the children” campaign with this bit of nonsense where he takes a shot at House GOP members:

In Washington, the Republicans who designed the cuts for this fiscal year seemed to have done no serious policy evaluation. They excused the elderly and directed cuts at anything else they could easily reach. Under their budget, financing for early-childhood programs would fall off a cliff. Tens of thousands of kids, maybe hundreds of thousands, would have their slots eliminated midyear.

You’d think Brooks, someone the NYT pays to be informed about how government works, would understand that the legislation he questions isn’t a budget, but a continuing resolution (CR) to fund government in the current fiscal year.   That’s not where you make “serious policy evaluations”.  You do that in budget legislation, something which the Democrats in the House failed to pass last year.   The government has been running on a series of CRs all year.  That doesn’t remove the crying need for cuts in spending, but the only spending under their control in a CR is discretionary spending.  And that’s where they’re cutting.

Brooks prefers to ignore those facts in favor of the emotional argument that they’re going after children in favor of old folks.

What is instructive about the Brooks argument is this is precisely the type arguments that you’re going to see from now on.  Arguments like the one Brooks puts forward here are going to begin with statements like “we must make cuts” and then spend the entire rest of the time arguing against making them.   And 90% of those arguments are going to be based in emotion, not facts or sound reasoning.

Mr. “Make Everyone Hurt” then advances his third austerity principle:

Which leads to the third austerity principle: Never cut without an evaluation process. Before legislators and governors chop a section of the budget, they should make a list of all the relevant programs. They should grade each option and then start paying for them from the top down.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the point, but it is again inconsistent with his first principle, isn’t it?  If everyone has to “hurt”, then something must come from every spending point – to include children’s programs and education.  What Brooks wants is some sort of arbitrary “evaluation” which will – wait for it – justify or rationalize exempting certain programs, policies, departments from spending cuts.

Any guess as to which programs he wants exempted?  Certainly not those effecting older Americans.

Brooks isn’t really serious about cutting spending.   Like many politicians and pundits, he mouths the words and makes the point about all of us sacrificing something, but he really doesn’t mean it. When pressed, he falls right into the “cut everything else but don’t cut my favorite program” group in which you find much of the populace today.  That’s not “shared sacrifice”.

Its hard to take someone seriously who doesn’t seriously address the fact that we have massive debt, massive deficits staring us in the face, a huge new entitlement program on the books and and conclude there’s an urgent need to cut spending in all areas, period.   Brooks should have stopped with his first principle, if he actually wanted to be taken serious.  That is the “new normal”.



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One picture tells the US’s problem

It is sort of surprising that it is even necessary to put this up, but as most of us know, people pay more attention to visual evidence than written. And written is sometimes open to misinterpretation. I challenge anyone to misinterpret this:



If the US were a business, this would be it’s “Income Statement”.   And this isn’t a one time “it’ll get better next year” sort of statement either.  Neither income nor spending are projected by the administration to be much different in its 10 year budget projections.

Note where 58% of the spending comes from.  Do your own calculations -the most simple, of course is taking $2.2 trillion from $3.5 trillion and understanding that you have a shortfall of S1.3 trillion.

The chart comes from a very interesting report from a financial analyst at KPCB, Mary Meeker.  She takes a look at the US’s finances as if the country was a business.  Business Insider (HT: Pundit Review) lays out some of the gory details and what is discussed in the report as recommendations:

• Spending as a percent of GDP rose 3 percent each year from 1790 and 1930. Worse: It rose 24% in 2010.

• Debt levels will be three times current levels by 2030. Entitlements and interest alone will exceed total revenue by 2025.
• Only 1 in 50 Americans needed Medicaid when it was first created in 1965, 1 in 6 Americans receives Medicaid now.
• Extended unemployment benefits could set back America Inc. $34 billion in the next two years alone.
• The only good investments: technology, education and infrastructure.
• The crucial reforms: entitlement and tax policies
• There is no quick-fix to America’s deficit problem. While raising taxes could help, the only real solution is cutting costs.
• Why we should cut Medicare benefits by 53%
• Why we should increase the retirement age to 73 or cut Social Security benefits by 12%.

Emphasis mine.  Essentially the ground truth about the country’s financial situation is the only way to get it in order is to commit to massive cuts in spending. Superfluous to that argument is any argument claiming certain programs or government departments or any other aspect of government should be exempt. That said, it is clear to anyone with eyes that the major problem lies in too much spending for entitlements. For instance how is it a program that was designed to fund medical care for the poor in this country and when started had 1 in 50 Americans enrolled now enrolls 1 in every 6 Americans?  My guess is you’ll find the same to be true of most so-called “anti-poverty” programs today. 

And the billions upon billions we throw at education through the Dept. of Education which hasn’t raised the yearly results of our students one iota since its inception.  Or the Department of Energy – created in Jimmy Carter’s day to do what?  Lessen our dependence on foreign oil.  That’s worked well hasn’t it?

We’re talking drastic action here, folks.   And we’re talking getting a grip and facing reality – not this “hey, make cuts but don’t touch our entitlements” nonsense that  some polls reflect.  Nor can these cuts fall victim to whining by special interests.  And it would be wonderful, in an obvious era of austerity, if the White House could manage a little leadership as well:

Last July, Obama announced that he wanted federal workers to cut down on business travel and commuting by car in order to reduce emissions produced by the federal government:

The White House was announcing Tuesday that the government will aim to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from indirect sources like employee driving by 13 percent in 2020, compared with 2008 levels.

That’s for everyone else.  The Obama’s of course, are exempt from such things and as an example, fly in their personal trainer every week for a workout.  Imagine the reduction in emissions if they were to actually practice what they preach and hire a local personal trainer.

Pulling it all together, this is the problem we face in getting the country’s house in order.  Those that are talking about (and actually trying) cutting spending are now cast as bad guys.  Special interests are spooling up their sob stories.  The bureaucracy is beginning to fortify the walls around its huge and expensive kingdom.  And much of the public wants cuts without pain.  Meanwhile, other than lip service, the so-called leadership of this country doesn’t seem to understand what leadership is, what it entails and why it is important to set a good example –  that is if they’re actually serious about doing what they claim we must do.

If this were a company, as Mary Meeker lays out in her study, investors would be cashing out as quickly as they could and others would be avoiding anything to do with this wreck.  The bottom line of Meeker’s report is the road down which we’ve kicked the can for decades has come to a dead-end.  We’re there.  We can’t kick it one single foot further.

The time has finally come and the question is, are we up to the task at hand?  Do we have the political will and leadership necessary to get done what must be done?  Unfortunately,  I don’t think so – financially speaking and addressing the quality of leadership available, the election of the empty suit in the White House couldn’t have come at a worse time. 

There are at least two ways this crisis will be solved.  Deliberately through tough and painful measures enacted by a leadership that directly confronts the problem and makes tough choices, or spontaneously when we reach a tipping point and everything collapses in a heap and we’re left surveying the ruins and wondering what happened.

Any guess as to which scenario I think is most likely?



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Pure joy? Seeing Ms. Pelosi rendered "irrelevant"

There are those that are important and those that are irrelevant, and, in terms of the budget, it is delightful to see the minority leader of the House of Representatives in the irrelevant category:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is showing no enthusiasm for the new proposal from Republicans to avoid a government shutdown, putting her at odds with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Pelosi said in a statement that the GOP’s plan for a two-week spending bill cuts funding for critical programs.

“Republicans want to cut an additional $4 billion, which includes stripping support for some pressing educational challenges without redirecting these critical resources to meet the educational needs of our children,” Pelosi said in a statement. “This is not a good place to start.”

Well heck, then get the votes together to stop it. What’s that? Don’t have them?


Well, thanks for stopping by.



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Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings shoots at but misses another general

A little investigative reporting for you.

Apparently, after the article he wrote about Gen. Stanley McChrystal was instrumental in seeing McChrystal relieved of command in Afghanistan, Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone believed he had carved out a niche for himself. Going after the brass in war zones.

However his latest attempt, in which he accuses LTG William Caldwell, the general in charge of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, of an effort to use “PsyOps” (Psychological Operations) against visiting US Senators misfired badly. For anyone who read the piece and has spent any time at all in the services the picture that formed immediately in the mind, given Hasting’s source, was “disgruntled officer”. And, as it turns out, that’s pretty much on the mark.

Hastings apparently took the word of LTC Michael Holmes as the premise and theme of his article. In fact he sets it up with a quote from Holmes:

“My job in psy-ops is to play with people’s heads, to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave,” says Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, the leader of the IO unit, who received an official reprimand after bucking orders. “I’m prohibited from doing that to our own people. When you ask me to try to use these skills on senators and congressman, you’re crossing a line.”

Except LTC Holmes job wasn’t “in psy-ops” (Psychological Operations) nor is LTC Holmes trained in PsyOps. That is a very specific Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) that requires school training. The place in which PsyOps is taught is the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Ft. Bragg, NC. According to Special Operations Command, the Special Warfare School has never heard of LTC Michael Holmes.

Hastings also implies that Holmes received an official reprimand for “bucking orders” associated with the claim he was to use “psy-ops” on Senators. In fact he was instead cited for numerous violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that included ignoring orders not to go off post in civilian clothes, surrendering his weapon to civilians in civilian restaurants, conflict of interest and telling falsehoods to superiors, among others. The reprimand Holmes received had little if anything to do with the reason implied by Hastings.

When asked by his immediate supervisor, a Colonel, whether LTC Holmes had permission to leave post in civilian clothes, Holmes told his his boss that the former Chief of Staff of the US’s Afghan Training Mission had given he and MAJ Laural Levine permission to wear civilian clothes off post. However, when contacted by the officer who conducted the Command’s AR 15-6 investigation into the matter, the former Chief of Staff, in a sworn statement, denied ever giving anyone blanket permission to wear civilian clothes or dine off post. For one thing, he didn’t have the authority to do such a thing. The former Chief of Staff stated that any such permission would have to be given by a general officer as required by the two different command policies. In this case that permission would have had to come from LTG Caldwell. No such permission was ever given. By claiming that the Chief of Staff had given them permission when that wasn’t the case, Holmes and Levine were in violation of Article 107 of the UCMJ – making a false official statement.

Another officer who was invited to go out with LTC Holmes and his subordinate, MAJ Levine, gave a sworn statement that Holmes said that he and Levine routinely went off post to restaurants in civilian clothes for social purposes not official business, that they surrendered their weapons at the Afghan civilian establishments and that they drank alcohol. All of those activities are in direct contravention of standing orders and policies in Afghanistan. The officer who gave the sworn statement declined the invitation to go with them.

The conflict of interest charge came about when Holmes and Levine decided they could use their experience in strategic communications to start a civilian business. On its face, there’s nothing wrong with that if you wait until you’re in a civilian capacity to do so. But when you use duty time and DoD assets to promote your business, or misrepresent your duty as something other than it is, that raises definite ethical problems. Holmes and Levine did both of these things. And as such were in violation of numerous parts of the Joint Ethics Regulations.

For instance, they used their DoD positions for their own personal gain, namely to pass off their work in training Afghans from the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Defense as work done on behalf of their company SyzygyLogos LLC. On the company’s Facebook page, in an entry dated April 8th, 2010, you’ll see pictures of Holmes, in civilian dress, under a post title which says, “SyzygyLogos LLC, A Strategic Communications Firm – Images from our training sessions with the Afghan Government.”

That was clearly done with the intent to generate business for their private company. Additionally they listed either the US Government or the Afghan MoI and MoD as their “current clients”. All of this activity violated UCMJ article 92 (Failure to obey an order or regulation – i.e. the ethics regulation). Both the article 92 and 107 violations also lead to a third UCMJ charge for LTC Holmes, violation of article 133 (conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman).

As to the implication Hastings has in his article that the punitive action was taken because Holmes and Levine thought the use “psy-ops” on US Senators was illegal, it is obviously false. Neither were cited for anything to do with what the general had allegedly asked nor did they “buck orders” related to that situation other than to ask for legal clarification. Additionally, in a Wall Street Journal article by Julian Barnes, it is clear that LTG Caldwell had determined that PsyOps was inappropriate for a training command:

Several officers said that almost immediately after taking command, Gen. Caldwell determined it was inappropriate for a training command to try engage in information operations or try to influence any audiences with deception or other psychological operations techniques.

Military officers said that following that decision, Lt. Col. Holmes was reassigned to a strategic communications team that was tasked, in part, prepare the command for visits by congressional delegations.

Another officer who worked with Holmes and under Caldwell said that what Holmes was asked to do was anything but inappropriate:

Col. Holmes said he was asked to prepare background briefings on how to persuade congressional delegations on the importance of the training mission. But asking an officer trained in information operations to do the job of a public affairs officer is improper and illegal, Lt. Col. Holmes said.

“What they wanted me to do is figure out what we had to say to a congressional delegation or think tank group to get them to agree with us,” he said. “Honestly this is pretty innocuous stuff. If I was a public affairs officer, it wouldn’t be that bad.”

Lt. Col. Holmes compared the request to asking a CIA officer to investigate a criminal in the U.S. It would be illegal for the intelligence officer to do tasks that are perfectly appropriate for a regular police officer.

But a military officer who served with Lt. Col. Holmes and under Gen. Caldwell said the accusation is baseless, and that the officer was specifically told not to use information operations techniques. The officer declined to allow his name to be used because the command in Afghanistan has asked people not to discuss the case.

“I don’t know of any regulation that would say someone trained in info ops or psy-ops couldn’t put together a briefing packet,” said the officer who served with Lt. Col. Holmes. “There wasn’t any subliminal messages here. It was just look at what issues a lawmaker was championing so we can get our message out.”

Or, in other words, Holmes was asked to gather information about incoming visitors that would be useful for his commanding general in preparation for their visit. It is a task every general officer command would task subordinates to do for their boss. Apparently Holmes resisted this for reasons other than those given to Hastings.

Holmes superior stated in a sworn statement for the 15-6 investigation that he had a hard time getting either Holmes or Levine to do other duties beyond teaching STRATCOM (Strategic Communications) to Afghans. Reviewing their ethics violations, the reason becomes pretty clear. Doing what the general asked interfered with their “company” business.

Hastings either never checked out Holmes’ background and was unaware of the nature of charges against him or preferred to use Holmes version of the truth as his basis for the article because he liked what he heard. And his apparent unfamiliarity with the role of the NATO Training Command is also evident in passages like these:

According to experts on intelligence policy, asking a psy-ops team to direct its expertise against visiting dignitaries would be like the president asking the CIA to put together background dossiers on congressional opponents. Holmes was even expected to sit in on Caldwell’s meetings with the senators and take notes, without divulging his background. “Putting your propaganda people in a room with senators doesn’t look good,” says John Pike, a leading military analyst. “It doesn’t pass the smell test. Any decent propaganda operator would tell you that.”

At a minimum, the use of the IO team against U.S. senators was a misuse of vital resources designed to combat the enemy; it cost American taxpayers roughly $6 million to deploy Holmes and his team in Afghanistan for a year. But Caldwell seemed more eager to advance his own career than to defeat the Taliban. “We called it Operation Fourth Star,” says Holmes.

First, it wasn’t a “psy-ops” team, it was an Information Operations team. And they weren’t “propaganda people”, they were trainers and instructors. As the Barnes article notes, early on “Gen. Caldwell determined it was inappropriate for a training command to try engage in information operations or try to influence any audiences with deception or other psychological operations techniques.”

PsyOps are for use with operational units engaged with the enemy. Caldwell understood that wasn’t his command’s mission and changed the section’s mission to the more mundane of roles of information operations and strategic communications. Holmes was on the STRATCOM side. But none of that precludes a general officer from assigning other duties to his staff officers in addition to their primary duties. All staff officers fulfill a myriad of extra duties in addition to their primary functions on any staff. And that appears to be what happened here. Holmes, for fairly obvious reasons, resisted that.

Secondly, Caldwell’s mission was to train Afghan allies, not “defeat the Taliban”. That again is a job for operational units, not a training unit. The fact that Hastings accepted the Holmes quote above at face value and even tried to expand on it is indicative of his lack of knowledge about the role of Caldwell’s command. It is certainly a sensational quote, but to the knowledgeable, it is utter nonsense.

In short Hastings was gulled by Holmes. If anyone was a victim of “psy-ops” here, it was Michael Hastings. His lack of knowledge about the command plus an apparent desire to put another general officer notch in his journalistic belt left him open to a sob story from a disgruntled officer that may have sounded good to him, but appears to have little or no basis in fact. A story from an officer who had already been reprimanded for making a false official statement.

LTG Caldwell is being investigated now on the basis of these charges by Hastings and Holmes. Most people knowledgeable of the situation expect absolutely nothing to come of it. When Holmes questioned the legality of the directive issued by the command, the command’s Staff Judge Advocate (military lawyer) was asked to look into the legality of the directive. The SJA issued an opinion finding the directive to be legal.

Holmes received a General Officer Memorandum Reprimand for his violations of orders and policy and making a false official statement. Many consider that to have been lenient given his rank and what he did. When you reach the rank of field grade officer, you’re expected to understand how the system operates and to comply with both orders and policy. Willfully ignoring such orders and policy and then making false statements about it are serious offenses to the good order and discipline of the Army. LTC Holmes, as it turns out, got off lightly.



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Kristof reflects the left’s naiveté on democracy in Middle East and Africa

Nicholas Kristof manages to roll up all the naiveté of the left into one article in which he explains why he thinks those who don’t think democracy will be the final outcome of the unrest we’re seeing in North Africa and the Middle East are selling the people there short.  He’s pretty sure all those who’ve said that democracy  most likely won’t be the product have got it wrong.  Because he’s looked into the eyes of those who’ve protested the authoritarian governments there and, well, let him tell you:

I don’t think so. Moreover, this line of thinking seems to me insulting to the unfree world. In Egypt and Bahrain in recent weeks, I’ve been humbled by the lionhearted men and women I’ve seen defying tear gas or bullets for freedom that we take for granted. How can we say that these people are unready for a democracy that they are prepared to die for?

Well, sir, because they haven’t any tradition of democracy nor do they have any democratic institutions ready to ensure the outcome of the turmoil is democracy … that’s how.

There have been thousands … millions even … of “lionhearted men and women” who’ve braved tear gas or bullets in the name of freedom, only to end up suffering under authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.  Take the way back machine to Hungary in 1956 for instance, when a scenario much like this played out there ultimately to be crushed brutally by oppressive communism.

It certainly isn’t for the lack of wanting to see something like democracy flourish in the Middle East and North Africa.  Heck, that would be wonderful.  But it is an appreciation for history and an analysis of that history that ends up pointing out that probability – because of conditions beyond the protesters control – doesn’t bode well for a democratic outcome.

Kristof’s premise is many in the West think Arabs, Chinese, etc. are “unfit for democracy”.   Not at all. In fact, he misses the point completely.

It has nothing to do with the fitness or unfitness of any people.  I’m of the opinion that all people yearn for freedom and, if introduced into a democratic system, would flourish (and millions have, emigrating to free countries).

It isn’t their fitness or unfitness that’s in question, it’s the fitness or unfitness of the culture in the country or region in which they live.  Does it indeed support the principles of freedom and liberty, does it allow equal access for all, does it indeed allow all to participate equally and finally, does it contrive to protect the rights of the individual over the power of the state?

Look at the present regimes in the area and history of the countries in the area and you tell me.  For the most part the cultures in many of them don’t support the principles that underlie a democratic society.  That’s obviously not to say that can’t change, but the question is what is the likelihood, given the specific country’s culture and history, that it will change?

That is where the examination has to take place – not in the hopes and aspirations of a relatively few “lionhearted” people who yearn and fight for such freedom.  Is there a chance?  There’s always a chance.  Is it likely?  Well, history says no.  I’d like as much as anyone to see history proven wrong in the case of all of these countries.  But like Egypt, where the real power behind the throne – the military – is still in charge of the government they’ve essentially run for 50 years, it appears unlikely that the essential pillars of a democratic society will be allowed to be erected and strengthened.  It just goes against human nature and the dominant political culture that still holds power in that country. 

Do I hope democracy is the product of these protests and revolutions.  Yes.  Do I expect it?  No.  And the reasons given are why.  What the US should be preparing for is the probable outcome while working to encourage the hoped for outcome.  Unfortunately, I don’t see it doing either.



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Duke Snider dead at age 84

I’m not one to memorialize the dead usually, although some are significant in history and my life.  And it may seem strange to choose a former baseball player when I do decide to do so.  But Duke Snider was one of my  all time baseball heroes as a kid.  This was back in the era of 3 major league teams in New York and rivalries that simply were  unmatched.  I caught the fever early and young, and Duke Snider was one of those I most admired:

Duke Snider, the Hall of Fame center fielder renowned for his home run drives and superb defensive play in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ glory years, died Sunday in Escondido, Calif. He was 84.

From 1949, his first full season, until 1957, the period generally considered the golden age of New York baseball — the last time the city’s fans were divided into three camps, and when at least one New York team played in the World Series each October — Snider was a colossus, one of three roaming the center fields of New York.

The others, of course, were Willie Mays of the New York Giants and Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, and the three became symbols of their teams, as the city’s fans argued over who was best: Willie, Mickey or the Duke?

History has since settled Snider in third place, but at the time, he had a good case to make. The Dodgers, known fondly as Dem Bums and immortalized by the writer Roger Kahn as “The Boys of Summer,” won six National League pennants during Snider’s 11 seasons in Brooklyn.

It was the era of Mays, Mantle and Snider and history may have put Snider in 3rd place, but not to an impressionable young kid he helped fall in love with the game of baseball. 

Rest in Peace, Duke.



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