Friday, June 24, 2011

"A National Crisis That Can No Longer Be Ignored"

I believe the United States of America stands on the brink of the greatest economic and social catastrophes in its history. It is time to stop whistling past the graveyard, stop the circus that keeps swirling around our heads called “politics,” and demonstrate the courage to effect bold changes that will accrue to the benefit of the vast majority, and restore confidence and trust between us and the country of which we are a part. Nothing less than bold and decisive action will do the trick; and has to begin soon.

Since the so-called “recession,” came down on our collective heads we have been witness to the “blame game” in all its glory and in all its manifestations. Lying, once a serious character flaw, has become commonplace almost to the level of a new art form. It has become an accepted means of survival in today’s world of government, business and commerce. We are no longer shocked by its use or its efficacy.

As I have watched the progression of events that seem to be taking us deeper into the morass of financial and social ruin, I have tried to distill from the sweeping malaise and growing sense of hopelessness just what it was that set this national nightmare in motion. I have concluded that nothing can happen to us that we don’t allow. In the final analysis, we the people bear the burden of this sad state of affairs because of our complacency and the willingness to allow others to determine our national priorities and the values that govern our everyday lives. Over the course of a very long time, there has been a gradual reversal in the relationship between the government and the governed. We no longer seem to have a common set of values that enable us to come together as one people and to work for the common good. Our moral base is in tatters. It no longer guides us in the conduct of our daily lives. Where we used to be one people with one purpose, we are now a collection of individuals who seem totally preoccupied with the satisfaction of every materialistic and hedonistic appetite imaginable. As long as I get mine, I really don’t give a damn whether or not you get yours. If I have to destroy and consume you in the process, so be it.

We have turned into a bunch of humanoids and automatons that no longer seem to be the least bit concerned about the other person and his/her welfare. We now have, as adults, the second generation of “spoiled brats” that come from the era of the child-centered home that spawned a sense of entitlement, which, in turn, has become the epitome of personal selfishness. Individual responsibility and discipline have been trumped by personal pleasure and the consumption of consumer goods. We have mortgaged our future in the pursuit of obtaining far more than we need and we still feel deprived in the midst of it all. We no longer define our own needs and wants. We have abdicated that responsibility to the marketing departments of big business, the creative departments of the entertainment industries and the programming departments of news organizations.

I don’t think we really know who and what we are anymore. We no longer question the motives of those who lead us. We believe they are acting with our best interests in mind. We simply accept what is peddled because it just takes too much time and effort to pause and attempt to ascertain what lies behind the sales pitch. Complacency is a terminal illness.

What happened to our sense of decency? Are we shocked and outraged by anything anymore? Are we sinking so far into the mire that we have become the product of our basest biological needs at the expense of those aspects of our nature that set us apart from animals lower on the food chain? Is erectile dysfunction really a national epidemic or is it a ploy to create a demand for prescription drugs that few really need? Is showing female cleavage really a fashion statement that elevates us to the next higher rung on the ladder of human evolution? Has the advent of electronic devices used for the purpose of entertainment, communication and social interaction really resulted in raising the human race to a higher position on the pecking order of living beings? When we no longer socialize with each other, no longer talk to each other, no longer care about each other and no longer help each other, what have we become? Animals? Is it just another manifestation of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest?”

At the end of the day, we can play the blame game until hell freezes over, but we have created the fertile ground for every vile and evil force within the fabric of the human condition in order to grow and prosper at our individual and collective expense. We have been had, big time. Why, then, do we continue to give legitimacy to the very forces that are destroying us and all that we hold near and dear to our hearts? Does any sane person really believe that the two political parties and the fringe element created by them have our best interests in mind? Does anyone really believe they are moved by anything other than ulterior motives to advance their insatiable greed and rapacious conquest of our very humanity? Does anyone really take seriously all the manifestations of that ignorant and simplistic philosophy?

We need to go back to square one and define what a real alternative to the mainstream political parties would look like and stand for. I have concluded that we no longer have genuine role models we can emulate and who can appeal to the finer angels within us. I have no doubts that they are there, just waiting to be rekindled to inspire us all to the greatness we once were and can surely be again. The bedrock has to be laid for a renaissance of the virtues that set us apart from the beasts of the jungle. We need leadership that reflects back to us all that we can aspire to despite our own individual shortcomings. They walk among us and, with the right stimulus could be roused to come to our aid and restore all that is good and decent among the people of this country. However, it has to start with ideals and leadership that reflect those ideals.

The hallmark of such an undertaking must be “equality, with fairness and justice for all.” Any such effort must be upfront and forthright about all it stands for and the objectives it will pursue on behalf of the people of this country, not special interests. It must be based on solid bedrocks of honesty and integrity. The aura of omnipotence that has surrounded our government and those who comprise it must be shattered. For far too long, that mystique has served them extremely well at the expense and peril of the American people. There must be a resolve to rout out corruption, conflicts of interest and self-serving practices. The shroud of secrecy that envelopes so much of what goes on in the name of “the people’s business,” must be lifted. Transparency and exposure to the light of day must be the norm, not the exception. Some things that come to mind are ----

1. Commercial institutions must be regulated so they render service to the people. There has to be an end to self-serving practices much of which lie at the root of all that has happened to the social and economic structure of this country since 2008. “Too big to fail” is an anomaly to good business practices and the responsible conduct of business affairs.

2. The closed loop of authority held by government officials must be broken. It is utterly inconceivable in this modern age that elected officials can unilaterally determine their levels of compensation, the perquisites they enjoy and the benefit of lavish healthcare and retirement programs after having served only one term in office. There should be no opportunity for that to occur without the expressed consent of the governed by a referendum of the voters. I find it incredulous that one can go to Washington a pauper and come home a millionaire. Is this what has so shamelessly been asked of working people to support?

3. Private money, in all its forms, must be purged from the conduct of government affairs. Campaign finance reform is imperative.

4. Term limits need to be considered for every elected office in order to prevent the accumulation of power and “squatter’s rights” at the expense of the electorate.

5. The Tax Code needs to be massively reformed in order to simplify the process and to make the system fair and equitable for all taxpayers.

6. Somewhere within the vast labyrinths of government there must be an office the sole purpose of which is to determine and ensure an “arms length relationship” between all parties to government bids and procurement contracts. Objectivity and the absence of opportunities for collusion must prevail between contract negotiations, procurement and compensation for goods and services. Individual branches of government should not be allowed to unilaterally engage in such practices lest they occur at the expense of the people.

7. All government property rightfully belongs to the people. No government property should be bought, sold or leased by government officials without the expressed consent of the voters by means of the public referendum.

8. There should be no provision for “private” and/or secret meetings between elected officials and special interests. All such meetings should be open and properly documented for the record. “Special deals” have cost this country dearly and have contributed to the creation of centers of informal power and questionable practices that may have bordered on criminal conduct. There is no legitimate reason for such behavior, except in cases of national security, in which case there should be a sunset provision up front, for eventually de-classifying the records of such meetings.

9. No subsidies should be allowed for industries doing business with the government. If the free market system is to work effectively, as we have been led to believe, then let the investment of resources and the acumen of those business leaders prevail at their own peril. The taxpayers have been held hostage to this bribery long enough.

10. The revolving door between government service and service as a lobbyist must be stopped. Clearly, a blatant conflict of interest serves no useful purpose that accrues to the benefit of the citizens of this country. Where a professional assessment or study of an issue is needed, then let the government go to outside, objective sources for the knowledge and expertise required to advise them on the merits of any given issue. Our colleges and universities are replete with a wellspring of minds and talent that no single or group of politicians can equal. They are free of the constraints that exist within the Beltway. No personal stake in the game. No special deals, just sound knowledge and good judgment.

11. And last, but certainly not least, we must abolish corporate ownership of our news media. The Founding Fathers envisioned a free and unfettered press to keep the system honest. Only by shedding the shackles of the corporate mindset and the massive amounts of money at their disposal, will we restore that ideal and the safeguards to our system of government.

This list could go on, but I think I have made my point. This is not rocket science. There is nothing that ails our government that a good CPA and a Business Lawyer couldn’t remedy. That this and much more could be written is all well and good. However, nothing of a positive and lasting nature can result until we accept nothing less than absolute honesty and integrity in government by those elected to serve us. The standards that apply to one must apply to all. Meaningful standards can only be the result of reasoned and sane minds. Screaming lunatics spouting the wrath of god and the trite solutions to all that ails us just won’t do the trick. Credibility is totally alien to all they espouse. They are demagogues using religious zeal in which to wrap their perverse goals in the cloth of respectability. The only thing they will do for us is a further erosion of our ideals.

Any real effort to bring a new political party to life must clearly and unequivocally state exactly what their agenda is and how they expect to realize its fulfillment. Latitudes and platitudes just won’t cut it. Vague, nonspecific rhetoric can no longer be the order of the day. Surely, we have had enough of that to last us for a very long time. However, let us not delude ourselves into believing the change we need will come easily or quickly. Make no mistake about it. It is going to be a labor of love, the only reward for which is hard work and the satisfaction of knowing the country is a little bit better because of their commitment to higher ideals.

I just don’t see how we can put off serious consideration of a real governing alternative in the form of a completely new political party, free of the encumbrances of those who have had “squatter’s rights” on our government for far too long. The “old boys club” must give way to “servants of the people and for the public interest.” Service must be seen as a badge of honor and pride, not an opportunity to engage in the wholesale plundering of the nation’s treasury and indentured servitude to every special interest seeking to profit at our expense.

Where do we begin and how do we start? I would begin by convening a group of people of like mind for the expressed purpose of laying the groundwork for the party. That group must, of necessity, be in an age group where ideals are seen as within their grasp. They must have that fire-in-the-belly that other greats have manifested in the heyday of their careers. They must do the work of giving birth to a new political party, nurturing it to maturity and giving it a lasting life on the American political scene. They must believe it can set this country on a new and lasting course for the benefit of all the people in this republic.

I mean this with absolutely no respect. There is a nucleus of mature people whose hearts and minds are kindred spirits to any such endeavor. They have grown and evolved into what I regard as the great sages of our time. However, it is simply a fact that, as people rise in prominence and affluence, they become a part of a social stratum that is more staid and less revolutionary. That doesn’t, however, mean they are any less willing to share their experience and wisdom with a younger generation wanting to make the radical changes we so desperately need.

Permit me to engage in a bit of name-dropping:

Bill Moyers is one of the pre-eminent journalists and intellectuals of our time. I would be surprised if he wouldn't gladly share the benefit of his knowledge, experience and wisdom with any viable group of dedicated individuals seeking to make this country better. His contacts, alone, would be an invaluable reservoir of helpful information.

David Stockman, former Budget Director in the Reagan Administration probably has a better grasp on the sorry state of our economy and the institutions that comprise it than any other person in the business.

Jonathan Turley on the staff of Georgetown University is probably one of the best constitutional lawyers around.

Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman are both Nobel Laureates in the field of economics. Robert Reich is well schooled and highly respected in economics and public policy.

Elizabeth Warren would be an excellent source of knowledge in terms of consumer protection policies.

Brooksley Born is probably the most knowledgeable person in the world when it comes to the regulation of derivatives and hedge funds.

Madeline Albright has excellent experience in international affairs and foreign policy.

Wesley Clark would be able to provide some valuable insights into issues pertaining to the military establishment and ways in which the relationship between the military, the intelligence apparatus and the political system could be improved.

Russ Feingold, former Senator from Wisconsin, would be the one to help in revamping campaign finance laws and practices.

Bernie Sanders would be an invaluable resource for advice in creating a party that is more responsive to the electorate and the needs of the country.

Peter Morici would be an excellent resource person in matters pertaining to international trade and monetary policy.

Ed Rendell, former Governor of Pennsylvania would be an excellent resource in forming a new political party.

Alan Grayson, former Congressman from Florida is a real firebrand and would be a great influence in the formation of a new political party.

Eliot Spitzer would be an outstanding resource person on government regulation.

Chuck Hagel is, in my opinion, one of the finest men ever to have served in government. He is the former U.S. Senator from the State of Nebraska, and is currently on the faculty of Georgetown University. He has served this country in the military with distinction and has demonstrated the leadership qualities essential to the political process. In his book, America: Our Next Chapter, he suggests that the United States should adopt independent leadership and possibly another political party.

Keep in mind that I am thinking of people who have the reputation, stature and countenance of real leaders, not politicians or community organizers.

A new political party is simply going to have to begin by committing to a bold set of objectives in order to restore confidence and trust in government as an instrument for all the people.

1. Declare a national fiscal emergency. Break up all the financial institutions that have been deemed “too big to fail.” Re-instate the provisions of the Glass/Steagall Act for the purpose of regulating financial institutions and limiting the scope and power of their activities.

2. Restore the tax brackets that were in effect during the Clinton Administration, preparatory to a massive restructuring of the tax code.

3. Declare a moratorium on the sale or lease of public assets to private interests by elected officials, with a goal of legislating all future actions subject to a referendum of the voters.

4. Preparation of a Constitutional Amendment that will clearly define a “person” as a living human being who is a bonafide citizen of the United States of America. No legal entity or organization can be accorded the same privileges to act on behalf of those rights and privileges that are the exclusive purview of individual citizens.

5. Embark on a serious and comprehensive goal of complete campaign finance reform.

6. Advocate and support a ban on the “revolving door” between government service and working as a lobbyist for special interests. If any branch of government needs the help of experts, then the government should find the means to call on the reservoirs of that expertise by contractual arrangements that are fully transparent.

7. Seek legislation that will prohibit secret meetings by the various branches of government, except in matters of national security. In all such cases, there should be a reasonable sunset provision that would expire and remove the shroud of secrecy, thereafter making the records open to the public.

8. Except in cases that clearly deal with issues of national security, complete transparency must be the order of the day. No more “private” meetings between members of Congress, the President and other agencies of government, with private organizations having a vested interest in the outcome of any legislation or regulation specific to those industries.

9. Embark on a massive study of trade policies and practices with the objective of restoring our national priorities and welfare to the process.

10. Restore fairness and equality to labor laws so those who produce as well as those who invest in the economy share a level playing field. Indentured servitude died with the Dark Ages.

11. Every effort must be made to break up the “military/industrial complex,” so that entire part of our government is transparent and can withstand the light of day.

I believe we need a division within the government that evaluates proposed legislation in order to ensure no process becomes a closed loop. One part of the process cannot be allowed to influence or control any other part. The outcome should be a cost/benefit analysis that clearly establishes the best interests of the people are being served. A sister bureau within the Department of Justice should evaluate what is being done in the name of and on behalf of the electorate so as to preclude any and all self-serving practices and conflicts of interest that may accrue to the detriment of the electorate.

Beyond these few considerations, the party should make a solemn commitment to the voters that the hallmark of everything the party stands for has the objective of restoring accountability and control to the people of this country. The era of exclusivity that has dominated our national politics for far too long must end. A healthy democracy requires no less, which I believe are the underpinnings of what the Founding Fathers intended.

A study by an appropriate mix of constitutional scholars should, I believe, re-examine the intended role and powers of each branch of government against those now in place, with the goal of restoring the balance that served us so well in the past. Democracy is much too precious and too fragile to countenance the coveting of power, privilege, influence and imperial aspirations. At the end of the day, we are and should remain one people, united in our common welfare.

I am asking nothing of you except that you take the time to read what I have written. If you see merit in these words, that you will take the time and effort to share it with others who are in a position to make it happen. Time is not on our side. If real change is to happen, it must start now. Three guiding principles that can make it happen come to mind.

The first is, “Anything is possible as long as no one cares who gets the
credit for it.“

The second is, “The message is more important than the messenger.“

The third is, “There is nothing stronger than a simple belief.“

I do believe we must do something bold, with a strong sense of purpose and a cast iron will to make it happen. It can and must be done.

1. A new political party must have a name that reflects our most noble ideals (“The Egalitarian Party”) It must have a motto that reflects its core objective (“The Voice of America.”)

2. The process must begin with (a) strategic plan, (b) an operational plan, (c) a list of possible candidates who might consider taking up the banner.

3. The hallmark of an initial campaign should be a clear and definitive statement of what the party stands for, what the party intends to address (in rank order of priority) and a time frame for accomplishing those objectives.

4. Do not hesitate to name individuals who will be called upon to join and support this new adventure, and to endorse candidates affiliated with other political parties whose goals are consistent with this political party.

5. Leaders must be squeaky clean and free of scandal. The public must have confidence in “what you see is what you get.”

These and legions of others with whom I am not familiar could, I am sure, be brought together to wage and win this war against the very soul of this country. Despite our many warts and bumps, the American people are a good people. Their hearts are in the right place and they deserve a fair shake that has eluded them for much too long. They are deserving of so much better.

It is time to stop the circus that has become the center of American politics, and the approach to the myriad personal and political agendas being proffered as panaceas for all that ails us. To any reasoned mind, those are gross over simplifications that just don’t pass the smell test.

The crisis we face is ominous. There is a sense of urgency to what we face that can no longer be ignored. The time to get serious and the time to get started are upon us.

Cowboy Bob
June 24, 2011

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Personal Meanderings of an Expat in 2004

I was moved to write the following a few years ago. You might find it interesting.

Cowboy Bob
June 18, 2011

November 16, 2004

The weather here is as nice as it gets anywhere in the world. The daytime temperatures are in the 80’s and the nighttime temperatures are in the 60’s. A fitting reward for four months of searing heat.

The Holy Month of Ramadan came to a close last Friday. We are now in the 4th day of a 5-day celebration of the Eid holiday following Ramadan. Virtually nothing is going on, so time weighs heavy for those of us who have to man our stations. I will be glad when it’s over and we are back on a regular work routine. Boredom has its limits.

One side benefit to this particular time is that there is practically no traffic on the roads. I can actually relax and enjoy the drive. Unless you have experienced driving over here, that statement doesn’t mean much. Suffice to say that, normally, it is a never-ending exercise in defensive driving. For the young who see themselves as immortal, a car is a toy. For those of use who have to keep an eye out for them, it is a lethal weapon. Come Saturday, that will be the rule. I dread it.

The last 20 kilometers of the drive to work is open desert. It is a barren landscape with a mysterious beauty. During Ramadan the Bedouins move to the outskirts of the city and there is a proliferation of tent encampments. Gone are the beautiful black and white goat hair tents which have historically been their nomadic homes. In their place is the same old grey canvass commonplace in other parts of the world. I have enjoyed watching the large camel herds as they move slowly and majestically across the landscape. Every morning I see the same lone shepherd with his flock of sheep, followed by his faithful black donkey. I often ponder the hundreds of years between his life and mine. I doubt they would want theirs to be any different. Perhaps they have a secret to the good life that is yet to be discovered by the likes of me. I will never know.

They have already started breaking camp and moving back into the desert. As they do, their campsites are tidied up and all that remains are blackened spots of earth left from their camp fires. Were it not for those, you would never know they had been there. It is almost as if they were an illusion; never existing in reality.

Life has changed dramatically for western expats what with the rise in religious zealotry and terrorism. It has started to wear on me. A routine limited to life behind razor wire and armed guards, with the daily drive to and from work, and a trip to the supermarket once a week just doesn’t cut it. It isn’t necessarily the freedom to go about at will, but the knowing that I can when I want to - that is the issue. In a country where all the men dress the same, it is hard to discern friend from enemy, something that cannot help but engender a constant level of anxiety.

I have long maintained that a person can be alone without being lonely. I tend to be a loner. I am not charmed by trite conversation and cheap small talk. I find it boring, and the people who inflict it on others even more so. Besides, if socializing requires attire of more than blue jeans, a sweat shirt and a pair of Birkenstocks, I consider that a formal occasion. Not my cup of tea.

The Internet has been a boon to me. I am probably better informed than I have ever been in my life. I never cease to be awed by the sheer volume of information available. The downside is that books tend to stay on the shelf and gather dust. A forgotten treasure. I don’t listen to music like I used to. Music nourishes my soul. I feel better when I listen to music regularly. Perhaps that accounts for some of what I like to perceive as creeping eccentricity rather than openly acknowledging the realities of the aging process.

I would like to think I am a realist. I tend to accept life pretty much as it is and I am not easily swayed by what others may think of me. I don’t mind looking and acting my age so long as it reflects an active mind and a sincere concern as to where all of the crap in the world is taking us. I am offended by the youth cult. It is pathetic that people feel like they have to dye their hair at the first sign of grey. What is even worse are the humongous amounts of money being spent on face lifts, Botox injections and eye jobs at the first sign of a wrinkle, particularly among men. Vanity is endemic to the industrialized world and I think we are the poorer for it.

I do think about my age more than I used to. I don’t cook as much now. It isn’t important anymore. I nod off faster and more frequently in front of the television set. I am annoyed about so much of what goes with the aging process. The worst are people’s inclinations to patronize me more than in years gone by. That is insulting and I am not very gracious about it. I hate the fact that hair now grows where it shouldn’t and doesn’t grow where it should. The ears are particularly fertile ground. I swear the hairs grow an inch every night. Thank God for tweezers, Isopropyl Alcohol and a good pair of eye glasses. Have I become what can aptly be described as a “biological compost pile?” That is a sobering thought!

One of the great injustices of the life process is the fact that hormones are wasted on the young and wisdom is wasted on the old. I would have been a real dynamo if I had the wisdom at 30 that I have at 68. On the other hand, if I had the hormones at 60 plus that I had at 30 I would no doubt have suffered a massive vascular blowout long before I reached 68. Where is the justice of it all?

I am put off by older people who constantly talk about it. Alright, so you are old and getting older. What is the big deal? I honestly believe that deep within each of us lies that vibrant specimen of what we were in our prime, which requires constant nurturing. I think talking about getting older all the time hastens the aging process. An active mind, a never-ending curiosity about life and this world, and a sincere desire to make this crazy mess just a bit better where and when we can is a tonic. Maybe that is why I always had such an aversion to golf. What is there to emulate in a bunch of silly old men in gaudy clothes hitting their balls down a fairway (not to mention that small talk issue again), when they could be immersed in all of the other exciting things going on in the world? An added bonus is they just might be able to make a change for the better.

One last thought. Condoleezza Rice for Secretary of State !!!! And we thought things couldn’t get any worse.

Well, this workday is drawing to a close. I think I will go home, change into some comfortable clothes and fix some brown rice and beans for dinner. That’s a bill of fare, rich in fiber, that should make for a good BM in the AM. Life’s pleasures are few.

November 17, 2004

I was in pretty good spirits when I wrote this. Admittedly, it is no literary masterpiece, but it is honest.

With the passage of time, it is easy to regress to a state of complacency after each assault on the senses. I have experienced it and observed it in others with each bombing and targeted assassination. It is amazing at how quickly we adapt and settle into a new routine.

In the long run I tend to believe all the palatial splendor around me is made possible by the wealth generated from the massive oil reserves under the surface of this peninsula. Not so. I stopped to fill my car with gasoline this morning, As I am predisposed to do from time to time, I casually struck up a conversation with the guys manning the gas pumps. I was hit yet again, right between the eyes, of the other reality behind all this opulence. It is a given that all of them are from Third World countries. They are the poorest of the poor. In this case, they are all from the Indian subcontinent. Each of them is on a 6-year employment contract. They work 12-hour days, 365 days per year, and never get to go home, even once, during that entire time. They are paid the equivalent of 186.47 US Dollars per month, which equates to 51 cents per hour. They live in absolutely squalid conditions, and subsist on such gourmet delights as fish heads and rice, chicken necks and rice, etc. Enough to make Wolfgang Puck salivate.

All of this perpetrated by yet another population that knows, with absolute certainty that God is on their side, the excesses not withstanding. True faith is humbling. Zealotry is frightening. Like most religions, both manifestations are to be found here just as they are in the U.S.A.