Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"Von" Ryan's Express

Though not a student of popular culture, I have been known to enjoy a good movie now and then. While certainly not one of the greats, one that I seldom pass by when it's shown on TV is the 1965 Mark Robson film starring Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard, "Von Ryan's Express". 

For those of you who have never seen it, it's the story of an American P-38 pilot (Col. Joseph Ryan) who's shot down and captured by the Italians. Sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy, he joins a number of British troops that have been incarcerated there for some time. 

 Apparently now content to sit out the war himself, Colonel Ryan shows the Italians escape tunnels that his fellow prisoners have been working on in order to see medicine and clothing properly distributed to them. When soon after this apparently traitorous act, the Italians surrender to Allied troops and the guards flee, they leave behind the brutal Italian commandant "Battaglia" who Ryan spares when prisoners want to hang him. 

When German troops move in to take over the camp, the once contrite Battaglia cheers as they place the prisoners on a train for Austria, shooting the sick ones and earning Sinatra the title of "Von Ryan". In a daring bid however, Ryan and the prisoners take over the train and attempt to use it to make a run to neutral Switzerland. One step ahead of a German troop train, they make a made dash through occupied territory on the Italian railroad system. Just as the train is about to reach the Swiss border however, and after repairing damaged track that will lead to freedom, Ryan is killed while running to catch up to the last car of the train ... and reach his goal. 

I couldn't help but think of this movie as I contemplated the fate of the 'Ryan Budget' in Washington DC. For those of you unfamiliar with this story, it's the tale of a Wisconsin Congressional Representative, long held captive by a House intent on imprisoning American taxpayers through rampant over-borrowing and over-spending. When few elected officials had the courage to do so, this Ryan committed the apparently traitorous act of attempting to solve the runaway cost problems of Social Security, Medicare, and Medcaid funding. By doing so, he has attempted to lead prisoners known as taxpayers out of the internment camp of spiraling debt and taxes. His plan may have its faults and may not properly cover all contingencies, but it carries the benefit of being the only realistic plan yet proposed in any detail to solve the problems. 

Like his movie counterpart (and I'm sure that Rep Ryan would not object to being compared to Sinatra in his heyday), this leader has likewise been demonized by many of those around him. And while those doing so present no practical alternative his plan, they seem intent on accusing him of "shooting the prisoners" personified by our aging and poor; making him the modern day version of 'Von Ryan'. This latest escape is making a desperate attempt to find its way through a hostile territory filled with subsidies, grants, and entitlements.  

It's pursued through Congress by a troop train full of deficit doves in both houses, with few having anything but evil intent for someone trying to lead these prisoners to some vestiges of long-term financial freedom. Intent on recapturing the American public and continuing to subject them to a 'sweatbox' of out-of-control bureaucracy, increasing regulation, and intensified government scrutiny; they pursue Ryan with little on their minds but preserving their own power and lavish lifestyles, while spending this country into bankruptcy. 

Still, Ryan at least attempts answers for a deficit more firmly entrenched than any opposing army. He at least strikes a blow against special interest spending that has warped what was once a free market, and confronts federal entitlement programs that will surely conquer us if we don't fight back now. Republicans in the House appear to already have the train moving down the tracks, passing this budget by a vote of 235-193; but there seems little hope that it will get far enough for a vote in the Senate, let alone passage. There seems even less hope for it to cross a border where an alternative plan will be discovered, let alone discussed. 

As for the President, he seems content to remain in command of the railroad, throwing rocks at the trains as they pass. Neither he nor his party appear able to give the same detailed strategy for escape, but feel free to demonize Ryan and his. While giving a number of recent speeches on his already launched 2012 campaign, President Obama has chosen to play the role of the Italian commandant Battaglia from the movie (played to the hilt by Adolfo Celi). One moment playing the victim and repudiating the fascism of the existing system, the next betraying the spirit of compromise that he claims to foster by his constant partisan sniping. 

I can only hope that the modern Ryan does not in the end, suffer the same fate of his movie counterpart. There are an awful lot of people taking shots at him, and while their aim may not be good, the law of averages (and Congressional history) certainly seems to be against him. There are few enough leaders in this country that appear willing to take such a risk and even fewer men of courage and intelligence in Congress today to lose one when we might actually be on the verge of freedom.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

TFP Column: The Usual Suspects

The easiest pieces to write are the ones that you can find a good 'hook' for. I had been thinking about rising oil prices for some time, but just couldn't find a way to tie it all together. A combination of two classic films did it for me, and resulted in "The Usual Suspects", my first effort in over two weeks for the Toledo Free Press.  

While the current Administration gets some of the current blame, there is more than enough to go around on both sides of the aisle in over 30 years of failing to come up with a coherent, substantive, and intelligent energy policy in this country.  All we get instead is special interest groups vying for government grants and subsidies while taxpayers get left high and dry (literally and figuratively)

This is too early in the TFP week to know what it will have in store for the Glass City; but the only way you're going to be able to keep up will be to read both the mid-week TFP Star edition and Toledo's largest Sunday circulation newspaper, the Toledo Free Press.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Moving Day

The end of April fast approaches, and this year it finds me in the final stages of packing. It seems that it's once more imperative to relocate the headquarters of Just Blowing Smoke Inc (perhaps all that smoke is getting to the neighbors); to an undisclosed location in a nondescript building somewhere near downtown Mission, Kansas. 
While not overly concerned with the efforts required by an experience that has become all too familiar in my recent past, it will present some minor inconveniences that must be dealt with. 

For example, since "Just Blowing Smoke" is in fact a web log, posting might prove a bit of a challenge until my Internet connection is properly re-establish. I have already scheduled the installation of a new rack of servers to handle increased bandwidth requirements, fiber optic and wireless connectivity for all of the access terminals, and a massive satellite dish to insure that I will have direct access to the worldwide network of information that's the heartbeat of the organization. (OK, I scheduled an evil cable company to come in and get me hooked up.) I'm also thinking it might also help to get my desk, chair, and computer moved; but I could be wrong on that. (Oh my God, I just realized I could be without Facebook for over 24 hours! What will I do? What will I do?) 

Of course, being forced to take a short break does in theory allow me to recharge my batteries and perhaps even acquire greater skill with which to dazzle my small (and some would say rather twisted) audience. The truth of the matter is that by now, this audience is probably even more in need of a break from my efforts than I am. 

This is not the end of "Just Blowing Smoke" however, but just a minor interruption in service (no matter how many might hope for it). While I will probably manage a mid-week post, it's doubtful that I will produce anything during the weekend of the move. I look forward to finally becoming settled in the new digs, to once again becoming electronically connected to family and friends, and to once more holding forth on issues large and small in the way that only I can ... badly. Until then, smoke 'em if you got 'em ...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Healthy Sense Of The Ridiculous

I am often taken by the necessity these days for a healthy sense of the ridiculous. Not only does it keep my blood pressure at relatively safe levels without the use of prescription medication, but it allows me to step back and consider some of the troubling issues of life without simply 'reacting' to them out of hand. 

Oh don't get me wrong, I probably get just as angry as anyone else at the nonsense going on in the world; but this approach allows me to consider them rationally (or at least as rationally as I consider anything). I simply think that my over-inflated sense of irony and sarcasm allow me to keep it all in something like a proper perspective. In fact, it only through them that I believe that any of us stands a chance of not falling prey to all the hype that the world seems intent to force upon us.

'Birthers' want to believe that President Obama was not born in this country. Who cares at this point? Setting aside that we should assume that someone vetted his citizenship when he first ran for office, we are failing to focus the silliness of continuing the argument at this point. Maybe we should concentrate on what the man does with the position he has been elected to and not where he was born.

Environmentalists appear to think that the planet would be better off without human beings, but refuse to take themselves out of the picture as a way to prime the pump. This seems a failure in principle as well as practice. As for me, I think that the Earth is probably far better off with me, my family and friends, and most of the people who read this blog still on it. Such thinking probably makes me a selfish bastard who would rather see the planet ruined as long as I get to live on it. OK, let's assume that this is the case, get some T-shirts printed up, and get this party started!

Organized religion, for all of the good that it has done the world, has perpetrated an equal or greater part of the evil in it in the process. Not being smart enough to understand the mind of God, the truth of His message as delivered through the Scriptures of the various religions, or the correctness of one message over another (like mi Amigo Roland Hansen looks at in one of his recent postings); I concede that an answer for the question may not even be possible to arrive at. What I do know however, is that the more something becomes structured, the more it becomes rigid (government has the same problem). Most organized religions today seemed concerned with telling us why the other guy is wrong than why they are right, and losing the original message and the moral high ground in the process.

Politics in this country has become all about political parties lately. No one seems to care if the right thing is being done as long as their team is ahead on points. Truthfully, there seems little difference between Democrats and Republicans, except perhaps the pace at which they run the country in the wrong direction. Libertarians have some great ideas, but can't seem to come to grips with the concepts of organization, and find themselves mostly on the sidelines as a consequence. And while both major parties have our attention focused on another meaningless debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, they're doing damage to all of us and lining their own pockets. (Have you noticed how many career politicians becoming millionaires while making $175,000 per year?)   

We are being told that electric cars will be a solution for our oil dependency and for the environment, but no one seems to be able to tell us where the electricity to charge the batteries on these cars is going to come from (or how to keep them from catching fire). Last time I looked, most of that electricity in the world came from power plants that burned coal, oil, or gas. Oh sure, there's some coming from wind, solar, and nuclear power plants too, but certainly not the greater portion (and we haven't built a nuclear plant in 30 years or more). So if we all buy the electric cars they want us to, where will the power come from? What strain will this put on an already over-burdened national electric grid? What will evil power companies be able to charge us for this electricity when we are forced to rely them instead of evil oil companies?   

We are once again in the middle of a religious holiday co-mingled with ancient pagan customs. While Christians remember and celebrate the sacrifice made on their behalf; they and others will nevertheless revel as they stuff themselves with chocolate bunnies (save the ears for me), jelly beans, and festively colored hard-boiled eggs. Few if any find anything curious in the apparently contradictory celebrations of death from life and spring fertility symbols and practices.   

But I can sit quietly in my man-cave, viewing all of this with the twisted perspective that has served me well for many years. You know come to think of it, even early in my college days, I was chastised by a tenured philosophy professor for my lack of reverence and attempts at clever asides to the pontifications of those hailed as men of wisdom. I was told in fact that I was, "the living example of the absurdity of life". Rather than becoming incensed with the remark, I found myself instead rather flattered by it. As the years have gone by, I have come to realize that life is indeed for the most part ludicrous, contradictory, and ridiculous. I find no shame in attempting to treat it as such, and in embodying such an approach to it. In fact, I would venture to state that it's only by doing so can we hope to remain healthy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fractured Fairy Tales: The Grasshopper and The Ant

It has been some time since we have delved into the world of Fractured Fairy Tales, a lapse for which I heartily apologize. It seems that the Just Blowing Smoke librarian misplaced this tome during one of the inventory relocations of recent months. Rest assured that this lackadaisical lexicographer will be properly disciplined.

But enough of ancient history. It's time once more to journey to the land of "Once Upon A Time" for a twisted little tale about economic theory and reality as understood by two common pests.

Once Upon A Time (see I told you) in the land of YouAssAye there were an Ant and a Grasshopper who ran for Congress (and you thought it was only rats). Both were elected, and soon began to determine their party's fiscal policy within government.

The Ant said that government should be careful about spending everyone's hard-earned tax dollars. He told us that he would do everything in his power to
be more responsible and thrifty with everyone's money. He also told us that it was not the job of government to spend tax dollars in a vain attempt to protect taxpayers from all of the bad things that might happen to them.

Now many said that the Ant did this in order to pander to the richest in society, and to reassure them that as little of their money would be taken from them in taxes as possible. They said that by telling them this, the Ant was not only assuring their continued support to keep him in his cushy government job, but encouraging them to contribute to his campaigns to help him do so. (... and they might be right.)

The Grasshopper had an entirely different economic philosophy. (I know, who knew that Ants and Grasshoppers had economic philosophies? But heck, this is a fairy tale. Give me break here.) The Grasshopper understood that sometimes taxpayers fall on hard times and needed to be helped. He told us that life is hard and mostly unfair, giving most of the breaks (and money) to those who didn't deserve it. He told us government needs to be there to provide a safety net for those most in need and least able to take care of themselves; and to help redress the terrible injustice of unfairly distributed wealth in the YouAssAye.

Now many said that the Grasshopper did this in order to pander to the poorest in society, and to reassure them that whether they were in actual need or just simply lazy, the government would see to their every want and need. They said that by telling them this, the Grasshopper was not only assuring their continued support to keep him in his cushy government job, but encouraging them to contribute to his campaigns to help him do so. (... and they might be right.)

Strangely enough, no matter whether the party of the Ant or that of the Grasshopper was in charge, the government of the YouAssAye continued to spend more money than it was taking in. This was bad of course, but none of the money was actually theirs, and spending it on projects large and small made a great many people very happy (you know, like lobbyists, special interests groups, and sometimes even large corporations). So they went ahead and did it, and refused to think about what harm could come one day.

Some years were better than others and some were worse of course; but even when they used accounting tricks only allowed to governments (using them outside of government usually got you some time in secure government provided housing), there was no denying that the YouAssAye was getting further and further into debt as a nation. Finally the situation got so bad that people who rated debt thought it was too much and even those in government decided that something must be done.

The Ant told us that it was imperative that we stop this runaway train perpetrated on society by the Grasshopper, and only by putting him in charge was there any way to bring it to a halt before it went off the tracks. He told us that it wasn't a problem of revenue (taxes), but one of spending that only he knew how to best handle.

The Grasshopper told us that the train was indeed a runaway, but that it was the fault of the Ant. He said that it wasn't a problem of spending, but of revenue; and only by getting those who could afford it to pay their fair share could the impending wreck of this runaway train be prevented. He said that only he could prevent such disaster.

The truth of the matter is that both the Ant and the Grasshopper were right. There are economic realities that must be faced no matter how grim they are. There are likewise some people doing better financially than others and there always will be. There will also be some people who pay little or no taxes (both rich and poor), some people who pay a lot of taxes (mostly the top and middle earners who can't get Congress to rewrite the tax code with them as winners instead), and some people get more money back in tax refunds than they paid in (usually those who have learned how to best game the system).

There are also people that at times in their life need a little help in order to survive. The best way to do this of course, is to have those who choose to do so give a portion of their wealth in support of others. There are many groups to assist them in this and they mostly do an excellent job. Not only is it not the business of government (and I use that term in its broadest sense), to demand those contributions (taxes) at the point of a gun; or to pick the winners and losers in life; but if the truth be told, they do a lousy job of it.  Come to think of it, they do a poor enough job at the things they're supposed to be responsible for and cannot be trusted with matters of such far-reaching consequences.

As a rule in fact, the larger the group that attempts to solve such problems, the worse these solutions become. Governments (especially ones like that of the YouAssAye) are far too large, self-serving, and greedy to wield such authority. Their efforts, no matter how well intentioned, are usually doomed to fail. When not contributing to fraud, abuse, and waste; they overlook, misdirect funds, or reject out-of-hand the claims of the very people that require their help.

For all that Governments say that they care about people, the truth of the matter is that they don't. They care about growing in size, getting votes to stay in power, and controlling as much money (another name for power) as they can. The more we turn to them for solutions, the more power that we give them and the more we get away from the individual responsibility and freedom that make nations (and governments) truly great.

You know, sometimes I think that this is actually two different Fairy Tales told in two different languages that will never be reconciled.
For example: when the Ant talks about economic Darwinism where only the strongest will survive, the Grasshopper tells us that such a world cannot exist; and that if it did, that a loving and caring government (which many worship in place of a Supreme Being) must seek to change it. When the Ant talks about a world which must surely have a Supreme Being that orders and guides it (and they are not referring to government), the Grasshopper tells us that facts points to the truth of biologic Darwinism. Both are right and both are wrong, and the truth of the matter will probably never be reached by those who fundamentally and purposefully choose not to understand each other.

For while understanding the nature of the problem, coming to grips with it, and attempting to solve it are the right things to do; none of these things wins elections for either the Ant or Grasshopper.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Stuck On Stupid Dictionary #29

You know, Webster had it easy. By the time he got around to compiling his Dictionary, most of the words were already known, as were their definitions. Here at the SOS Dictionary Board, we are not only tirelessly working to keep up with new 'Stuck on Stupid' terminology, but must spend endless hours pouring over reference material in order to attempt to understand what politicians mean with the nonsense that they seem to spout in a fire hydrant-like torrent, twenty-four hours a day. But enough of the staff complaints at 'Just Blowing Smoke', which no one (including myself) pays the slightest bit of attention to. 

Now for those of you who have somehow managed to miss previous postings in this area (shame on you, now go back and read all of the postings under the title of dictionary), the SOS dictionary is a reference guide to terms which nominally mean something to the rest of the English speaking world, but appear to mean something entirely different to those us who have come to understand the often peculiar political vernacular of Toledo and Northwest Ohio.

1. Something that is unusually large, severe, and of cruel intent 
2. A spending cut of $38 billion (less than 2% of the total federal budget), that actually turns out to be $352 million (less than .02%). 
3. Rules or obligations proposed on the sale piece of property owned by the City of Toledo (paid for in cash, by the way) by Toledo's City Council which insist upon specially trained workers doing any work on it (Union workers) and a business plan that none of those Council members would read or could understand if it was produced by the prospective buyers. (Those prospective buyers are now attempting to walk away from the deal as a consequence.)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Diminishing Returns

Simple interpretation of The Law of Diminishing Returns tells us that a something can be reduced by changing only one factor while holding the others constant. This is important because of all of the scrutiny being paid to the sorry bit of accommodation called the Budget Compromise of 2011. It seems that in inverse relation to the cautions spelled out on a rear view mirror, objects may in fact be far smaller than they appear. But we might be getting ahead of ourselves. 

Let's go back a few months to before the elections of 2010, when Republicans were promising budget cuts of $100 billion for 2011 if they were but given control. Of course they all but knew by then that Congress, with both houses firmly controlled by Democrats, had no real intentions of voting on a 2011 budget before the election (and as it turned out, little after)

Flush with victory in November in the House however, these Republicans boldly announced in effect that 'there was a new sheriff in town', and things were going to change. Yeah ... not so much. Five months later we find that Republicans who controlled the House never even tried to pass a budget with the $100 billion in spending cuts promised, reducing their eventual request to some $61 billion in order to have a chance to get it passed. 

A Senate still controlled by Democrats refused to take up this weakened effort, even if only to reject it. Eventually the two sides (with the President acting as critic-in-chief), were called to the White House and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid finally agreed to some $38 billion in discretionary spending cuts. 

It appears that like many of the numbers released by elected officials and employees of the government, this number too appears to be compromised, and in a way that no one outside of Washington perhaps expected. According to an AP story in the Washington Post, the actual number might be considered to be a couple of orders of magnitude smaller. It seems that according to the Congressional Budget Office, with the lateness in the current fiscal year and the areas from which funding was proposed to be cut, only some $352 million of $38 billion will be cut through the end of September. Evidently the compromise reached in this negotiation was only on discretionary government spending and not actual government spending. 

Now apparently this was done to protect defense spending for all of the military efforts that the US is involved in around the world; and because of this protection, very little of the $1.36 trillion of government's discretionary spending was subject to the compromise agreed upon. 

If that were not enough to make smoke come from your ears, it appears that approximately $8 billion of the immediate cuts to domestic programs are being offset by equal increases in defense spending. In fact, when all of the defense spending for the year is calculated, the government will actually spend over $3 billion more in 2011 that was originally proposed. 

In another tidbit offered in NETRIGHT DAILY, "Budgeting Apples and Oranges", we find that due to the lateness of the hour in which Congress acted, some of the cuts to Washington can and will be ignored by the dedicated bureaucrats that are the real power in government. Budgets to most of these bureaucracies were already locked in to the budgetary process and will be spent regardless of cuts made. "... Labor, Health and Human Services and Education will spend $202.5 billion in 2011 even though Congress has only authorized $156.5 billion this year. The additional $46 billion was already authorized, and not subject to the CR that passed Congress. Another example is that the Transportation and HUD will spend $131.76 billion in 2011, but the CR only authorizes $55.49 billion. The other $76.26 billion was previously authorized." 

To the credit of those in the current Congress, the cuts made should in fact affect future budgets; but like so many things in Washington, that can change quickly as discussions of the 2012 budget are taken up in the days ahead. Few bows should be taken by either party however, when considering the mindless and profligate spending by a government about to once again begin discussions to raise its own credit limit (debt ceiling)

It seems that Washington is the set of conditions that remains the same, and that the longer we look at the budget cuts of the 2011 compromise, the smaller they become. The Law of Diminishing Returns has set in with a vengeance, and wisdom dictates that we stop contemplating the sorry nature of such compromise, lest the last bit disappear entirely.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Redefining Leadership

"Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost" 
- Thomas J Watson 

Reading this quote, I was struck on how it captured the very essence of leadership; something that seems in rather short supply these days. Of course many of you finding yourselves agreeing with this sentiment are now asking who Mr Watson was, not having heard the name before. He was not in fact Sherlock Holmes trusted associate and housemate at 221B Baker Street, that was Dr John Watson. 

Thomas John Watson was the president of a company of no small import to the US and the world from 1914 to 1956, International Business Machines. When the president of IBM during its heyday says something on the subject of leadership, you might well want to listen. Certainly some of those in Washington DC could stand a bit of tutelage on the subject. How else would you describe most of what has been going on in recent days, except of as a lack of this rather critical attribute in any elected official? 

Certainly no one would say that the Democrats who controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House showed leadership for failing to pass a budget in 2010 for the first time in this country's history. Neither would many say that the President showed leadership in brokering what has become the budget compromise that brought this particular drama to a close. That is unless of course, you would call it leadership to accuse both sides in the discussion of being little more than petulant children rather than putting forward a legitimate plan of your own. 

The nation's chief executive likewise showed no signs of primacy in dealing with the situations in Egypt and in Libya, instead allowing events to unfold before attempting to take any role at all. (A role he seems content to play as the rest of the Middle East and Africa continue in turmoil.) Having finally assumed that role in Libya however, he then abdicated such responsibility almost immediately, taking a second chair position to NATO while US soldiers were (and are) put in harm's way. 

Even now as 2011's budget will set aside in favor of the beginning of discussion over raising the debt limit and trying to come up with a budget for 2012, the nation's leader appears only now ready to unveil a plan of his own for the period. While one could say that he enters the fray before Congress begins its debates on the subject, others would point out that he does so a full week after Republicans in Congress (in the person of Paul Ryan) unveiled their own vision of the future. 

Lest Republicans decide to take pride for having now assumed the mantle of leadership in the nation, let us remind them that at no time during the last Congress did any member of the GOP in either House step up and put themselves forward with a budgetary blueprint; even as the jumping off point for discussion. And while I applaud the principles put forward by Rep. Ryan's effort, many with a knowledge of what goes on in DC have said that the timing of the 2012 budget announcement was little more than political expediency to divert attention from the compromise that was eventually reached over the 2011 budget. 

Neither have Republicans, while in the majority in the House, brought any legislative pressure to bear on the ongoing military madness masquerading as the current foreign policy in North Africa and the Middle East. Nor have they chastised the president for unilaterally creating the Libyan no-fly zone without consulting or even informing Congress; or pressed the president, as their counterparts did in Iraq and Afghanistan, on defining the mission goal or devising an exit strategy for this affair before entering it.

It appears that leadership as Mr Watson defined it is in rather short supply in today's politicians in Washington. Rather than accepting the mantle of leadership granted to them by gaining elected office, they instead seem (paraphrasing Mr Watson's words) always ready to accept the stigma of conformity for fear of being called a crackpot. 

In fact, those on both sides of the aisle seem far more concerned with keeping their jobs than with doing them. Unwilling to throw the first punch in the ring of public debate, they seem instead content to circle their opponent, endlessly dancing. Instead of wading into fight that they chose by running for office, they appear instead to be waiting for an opening, ready with a counter-punch when and if the opportunity presents itself. And while this may make for good political strategy, it makes for bad government. 

Truthfully, it seems more like a football game where both sides are trying to play a 'prevent defense' in the hopes of keeping the other team from embarrassing them by executing the big play. Not only has history shown that such attempts regularly fail, but ultimately it makes we spectators the real losers, regardless of which side wins the game. 

The resulting nonsense takes on little more importance than Olympic competition of rhythmic gymnastics. While it shows skill and may be mildly entertaining at times, throwing out the high and low scores in this event normally results in an average score of little more than '0'. 

But perhaps this is how leadership shall be defined as in the 21st Century (and more's the pity). It's a sad commentary of the quality of the leadership (and of the politicians) that we are presented with these days. It seems in fact, more in keeping with the words of French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin:

"There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

TFP Column: Congressional Fight Club

I was working on the final notes for this weekend's blog post when they were interrupted with a conversation about the Congressional stalemate over the budget process. We soon found ourselves talking about the early days of Congress, when dueling was still in fashion, and when honor was something that had to be served. Of course the case of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts being beaten with a cane on the floor of the Senate by Rep. Preston Smith Brooks of South Carolina over remarks that Sumner had previously made that humiliated a relative of Brooks came up as part of that discussion. (Ah, the 'good old days'.)

As is often the case, this interaction stimulated some additional thought, and I soon began to wonder if the solution to the partisan log-jam in Congress might be achieved by simply allowing elected legislators to kick the crap out of each other. After all, we're already hearing about the lack of civil discourse and the increasingly rancorous debate, why not take it up a notch and let them draw some blood.

Such thinking led not only to endless possibilities, but to many potential solutions for some of our nation's current crises. It resulted in a piece for the Toledo Free Press which literally seemed to write itself, "Congressional Fight Club".

There's much more in this weekend's TFP however, including a massive section on the Toledo Mudhens and their impending opening day on the 14th. (Of course I haven't received my invitation to the TFP Opening Day gathering, but I'm sure that this can attributed to an oversight.)

The weather appears to be warming up just in time, and it seems like the perfect weekend to enjoy it while spending a little time with Toledo's largest Sunday circulation newspaper, the Toledo Free Press.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


One popular legislative theory today holds that if you create a bill that's massive and all-encompassing, you will be able to create a law so complicated that not only will no one be able to fully comprehend it (including the lawmakers who ostensibly wrote it), but no future legislature will be able to walk it back. Equally popular is another theory, that says that the best way to achieve this goal is to instead create a multitude of single purpose laws dedicated to a grand design, in the knowledge that by doing so future legislatures will find it impossible to discover and repeal all of them and allow the original purpose to be served. 

Both legislative theories have proven themselves correct, though they deserve no credit for doing so. Rather than proving to be of benefit to the governed, what they've mostly done is to pile insult upon injury. What none of these legislators and legislatures seem capable of acknowledging is their own potential fallibility.  

What in fact, would make any elected official believe that they are capable of (or required to) create a body of laws to cover every aspect of life; and protect the electorate not only from life's toil and trouble, but from themselves? The harm caused from such legislative theory is not restricted to legislatures however. There are after all three branches of government in this country, and the other two are not to be so easily kept from the party. For their part, the Executive branch at every level of government attempts to filter this fire hydrant-like stream of legislative excess (and assert their own control over the process) by selectively enforcing the bills passed into law. 

Those in control of enforcement watch and approve as legislatures across the country pass laws banning cell phone use and texting while driving, while failing to enforce existing laws against 'driving while distracted' that cover a far greater variety of equally dangerous actions. The federal government chooses which parts of immigration law it will enforce and aggressively attacks state governments who seek to enforce the rest. That same federal government selectively pursues voter intimidation law in the case of the Black Panthers in Philadelphia in spite of its own Department of Justice establishing a prima facie case. 

When legislatures fail to serve the grand design of the Executive branch's vision of the country, it simply bypasses the legislative process and resorts to 'Executive Orders' and bureaucratic regulation to get its way. 

Not to be outdone in this contest of wills, the Courts likewise take their turn in the theoretical mayhem. They decide who has standing to challenge existing law (whether they agree that such law violates state or federal Constitutions or not), thereby passively allowing bad laws to stand and good laws to go unenforced. Judges likewise make quick, indecisive, or arbitrary decisions; knowing that doing so is good 'politics' for positions that require re-election, and that regardless of their ruling, the losing side will appeal the decision to a higher level. 

The Judicial process at local, state, and federal levels has become so over-burdened and interminably slow that by the time any final determination is made, the law is firmly entrenched in society and impossible to walk back regardless of the ruling. No matter however, for whether the Judicial branch is able or chooses to rule on the rare challenge made, many more laws remain on the books long after they have become obsolete, ineffective, or just plain stupid.  

For example: In Kansas it is illegal: 
- To shoot rabbit from motorboats. 
- To fish with your bare hands. 
- If two trains meet on the same track, neither shall proceed until the other has passed. 

Ohio instead finds it is illegal: 
- To fish for whales on Sunday. 
- To get a fish drunk. 
- For women to wear patent leather shoes in public. 

In Illinois however, you may be arrested: 
- For vagrancy if you don't have at least $1 in your pocket. 
- If you fail to contact the police before entering a city in an automobile. 

In Chicago: 
- It's illegal for any business to enter into a contract with the city unless it has first checked its records and reported any dealing that it had with slaves in the era of slavery. 
- It's likewise illegal to fish while sitting on a giraffe's neck. 

In New York on the other hand, it's illegal: 
- For citizens to greet each other by putting their thumb to their nose and wiggling their fingers. 
- To throw a ball at someone's head. 
... and my favorite 
- The punishment for jumping off a building is death. 

The whole sad process often seems little more than a comedy of political errors, when not an attempt at forced behavior modification by legislative fiat. Legislatures have long sought (and failed) to establish societal morality by legislative fiat with the force of government behind them. Once you get past the pettiness, the self-righteousness, and lunacy; the only law that ultimately triumphs from these efforts is the one of unintended consequences. It is small wonder consequently that when considering the legislative theory that legislatures at every level of government use, they are held today in so little regard.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Revolutionary View of History

On the commute to the office recently, my thoughts turned to the coverage of events in the Middle East. I couldn't help by wonder about the coverage of recent events in Egypt, in Yemen, in Bahrain, and in Libya. In what most will recognize as my typically twisted thought process, it occurred to me to wonder how the media today would look at the American Revolution.
  • In light of the dangerous ideas of a colony freeing itself from European control, I wonder how the predominant media of the day in Europe would have portrayed the struggle.
  • Would King George be a tyrant and evil dictator or a monarch with a duly elected legislature trying to govern an unruly mob?
  • In light of the early tactics used by colonials, fighting from behind trees rather than in the conventional 'line-abreast' formation, would the soldiers of the Continental Army be viewed as an army, as freedom fighters or terrorists?
  • What opinion would the world in general have of the rag-tag army of General Washington, many of whom left at the end of extremely short enlistments to return to their homes?
  • How would the entertaining (and dare I say carousing) of Benjamin Franklin while attempting to negotiate France's aid to the Revolutionary cause be viewed?
  • What would the world opinion have been of a Continental Congress that seemed almost constantly on the run from British troops? Who who slept in warm comfort, entertained, and dined graciously while troops in the field were starving, freezing, and marching to battle in the winter without shoes?
  • What would the media pundits say of the generalship of George Washington, and of the many battles that he lost on the way to winning the war?
  • What of Horatio Gates and his plots with members of Congress to subvert Washington's command of the Continental Army, or Charles Lee and his purposeful ineptitude in the field in hopes of taking Washington's role?
  • What would they make of characters like 'Mad' Anthony Wayne or of the French aristocrat Lafayette?
  • What would they have made of Benedict Arnold, a hero in the early battles of the war who suffered considerable personal injury, insult, and accusation before finally succumbing to the pressure and turning traitor to the Revolutionary cause?
The Founding Fathers are viewed today with a mixture of reverence and scorn, depending on your political point of view. By and large this is done by many on both sides without benefit of studying the history of the time, but instead by using images that have been planted throughout the popular culture in TV and movies. Facts seem of but little concern, as long as the characters are interesting and the plot entertaining. The trouble with doing this of course, is that unlike historians, directors aren't so much concerned with the facts as they are with telling a compelling story. This seems to be much the case these days with news as well in a world so caught up in 24 hour a day coverage. I therefore cannot help but wonder, in light of the controversy over regime changes (and possible changes) in so many lands throughout the Middle East and Africa, what coverage of those days would look like; and how tomorrow's history will view today's revolutions.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Quote of the Day

As many people know, I love a good quotation; and am proud of the fact that I have been known to come up with a witticism or two of my own. I seldom include 'Quotes of the Day' however, since I added the 'Quotes of the Week' section to the blog. Like all rules, there are always exceptions, and this one seemed particularly exceptional. I hope you find it equally interesting. 

"You need only reflect that one of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go about repeating the very phrases which our Founding Fathers used in the struggle for independence." 
- Charles Austin Beard

Saturday, April 2, 2011


While certainly not caught up in much of popular culture, one would have to be blind and deaf to overlook the ongoing saga of actor Charlie Sheen. The amusing thing to me about the whole situation is the derision of his unfortunate behavior by a popular media attempting to exploit it at every opportunity for ratings and revenue.

Now it can be funny as well as tragic when you see someone with everything make a mess of things in their life. (Can you say Brittany Spears and Lindsay Lohan?) It's far less amusing when the same behavior is being exhibited by members of Congress where the ongoing budget debate is concerned however. Let's remember after all, that it was a lack of common sense, responsibility, and good judgment led the last Congress to a failure to even vote on a budget bill for the fiscal year of 2011 (the first time that this has happened in this nation's history)

Now that a new Congress is in session and the year's more than half over, you would think there would be a desperate scramble to reach some kind of agreement. You'd be wrong however. Oh, there's something going on in DC where the budget's concerned, but not anything that makes any sense or recognizes the reality of the situation. 

To date, the Senate still has yet to find the time to vote on a budget proposal of any kind. They do however, appear to have the time to throw stones at the House for passing one that they don't like. Rather than proposing an alternative budget or trying to come to some agreement with the lower house however, they would rather demonize House Republicans for doing their jobs

It now begins to appear that they are finally growing tired of passing the continuing resolutions that allow things to go on pretty much as usual, and will soon allow the federal government to shut down. (Oh that we could make such a situation last...) 

Politicians it seems recognize that this shutdown may, as it did in 1995, hold political advantage for one side or the other. They are therefore are using the situation as a strategy to allow posturing for the election still 18 months off. 

Interestingly enough, in the midst of this we find the Senate's Charlie (Schumer of New York), behaving much like the star of "Two and a Half Men"; and revealing similar behavior by being caught with his political pants down. He rather idiotically outlined his party's backroom strategy on the continuing budget debate on a cell phone call without realizing the mainstream media (which were supposed to jump on the call at some point) were already listening to and recording it.  

Forced to deal with the fact that he had been caught in public in what most would consider a rather embarrassing position, like his entertainment counterpart, Chuck merely shrugged off the whole affair. After all, while his actions were shocking, irresponsible, and juvenile; they remain a 'winning' strategy. That after all, is what much of politics appears to be about these days. Not running the country effectively, attempting to deal with important issues like the runaway deficit, shrinking the size of government, or even doing the job you were elected to do. No, this is about competing with members of the other party, making the other guy look bad, and insuring your chance to do a job a couple of years from now by refusing to do it now. 

The worst thing about the whole despicable mess is that just like Charlie (Sheen and Schumer), the rest of these adolescent assholes (yes, I used a bad word) are sitting back and laughing at us while continuing to make a mess of things. But hey, enough of my words. Being a huge fan of quotations, I think the best way to end this "Tale of Two Charlies" is to share some of the wit and wisdom of one of them, and let Charlie Sheen share a few things about life in his own words:

"But you can't focus on things that matter if all you've been is asleep for forty years. Funny how sleep rhymes with sheep. You know." "I don't have time for their judgement and their stupidity and you know they lay down with their ugly wives in front of their ugly children and look at their loser lives and then they look at me and they say, 'I can't process it' well, no, you never will stop trying, just sit back and enjoy the show. You know?" "I'm dealing with fools and trolls and soft targets. It's just strafing runs in my underwear before my first cup of coffee. I don't have time for these clowns." "That we are to stand by the President right or wrong is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." "Boom, crush. Night, losers. Winning, duh." 

Couldn't have said it better myself ...

Friday, April 1, 2011

TFP Column: The Beam In Our Own Eye

I sat down Tuesday evening with every intention of writing my normal mid-week rant on society. (I really did!) The next thing I knew, I had penned an effort worthy of submission to my friend and hero, editor-in-chief of the Toledo Free Press Michael Miller.

I think that it was the result of the President's non-explanation of why we are shooting missiles and dropping bombs on Libya, the assumption that somehow the United States has somehow been appointed as the world's policeman (mostly by those in the US government), and the combination of ignorance and indifference to the history of this country that I see constantly exhibited these days.

The result of these efforts was some 750 words that seemed to write themselves: "The Beam in Our Own Eye". Agree or disagree if you will, but I hope at least this effort will inspire some to pick up a history book every once and a while and stop viewing the history of this country through the rose-colored glasses of a Mel Gibson movie.