There’s no ‘dumb ass’ vaccine

 “Evolution can be mean, there’s no ‘dumb ass’ vaccine.  Blame your DNA, you’re a victim of your fate. It’s human nature to miscalculate.” Those are some of the lyrics from a Jimmy Buffet offering named “Permanent Reminder of a Temporary Feeling”.

Lately, I have often wondered when the concept of our government providing the ‘dumb ass’ vaccine became a fundamental truth of our way of life.  Whatever the timing, I think that’s what is responsible for our current predicament.  Take the current mortgage crisis as an example.

Banks lend people money when the interest rates are very low.  They lend the money to folks who are not qualified for a loan, who don’t read the loan’s term and conditions, who don’t worry about what happens if they don’t make payments.  Interest rates go up, payments come due, payments are missed, homes are foreclosed, mortgage crisis descends upon our nation.  Our government steps in with the ‘dumb ass’ vaccine.  We print some money to help the banks.  The value of the dollar goes down. The price of oil goes up.  Purchasing power of the dollar for other things we need goes down (remember we don’t make anything here in the U.S. anymore).  Recession raises its ugly head.  Layoffs are next.  Stock market drops like 1000 points.  We need some more vaccine.

Federal money managers lower interest rates. Federal money managers lower interest rates again.  Now the interest rates are back lower than when the bad loans were made so the vaccine should work.  People can start making their mortgage payments again.  Right?  Wrong!  The homes are already foreclosed.  Bear Stearns is sold for 1/15 of its value thanks to a credit line from the Fed (more vaccine) and others to follow.  The managers of the failed institutions are given tens of millions of dollars severance pay for screwing up and the world watches the stock market vacillate like Obama’s position on the war in Iraq.

As I said earlier, it’s not clear to me exactly when the government began its role as the dispenser of ‘dumb ass’ vaccine, but it clearly believes that is the way to solve problems no matter what the cause.  Usually the vaccine is dispensed in the form of money to the ‘dumb ass’ group.  There are occasions when its administered orally in the form of a speech by a high government official.  I don’t mind those as much because I don’t see it at tax time and I’ve pretty much learned to stop listening.

I guess the point of all this is that the government needs to get out of the business of cleaning up after ‘dumb asses’.   We need to start taking care of ourselves.  My parents would have called it “taking your medicine” or when they were most upset “you made your bed, now sleep in it”.  I think most of my generation and certainly the generations preceding mine learned that no one would come in and clean up our mistakes whether personal, financial, or otherwise.

I want a government that doesn’t do much.  You might argue that I already have that so maybe the statement should be that I want a government that doesn’t “try” to do much.  I would be happy if they just focused on secure and free.  If that’s all they spent our money and their time on, I have a feeling that we could take care of the rest on our own.  Those who couldn’t – well, there is such a thing as the Darwinian Theory.

Faraday’s Law and Lenz’s Law

Hopefully you know both Faraday’s and Lenz’s laws.  If you don’t, you are no longer judged by the State of Texas to be ”college ready”.  That information comes from an article that I recently read in the Austin American Statesman.  Additionally, you should make sure you are able to “Examine the roots and consequences of decolonization in Africa over the past 100 years.”  Otherwise, you won’t score well on the new standardized tests that the state will be giving and that will hurt your chances of getting into a top school.

If you haven’t guessed by now this is another one of my blog entries about Education.  I had hoped to postpone writing another one until my blog had a larger reader base, but a couple of events of the last months have prompted me to give up on that goal.  For one, I’m only getting about 250-300 hits a week and that seems to be stable.  So, “it is what it is”.

In addition to the newspaper article that described the new tougher standards for “college readiness”, I was told about new standards for “kindergarten readiness” at a fund raiser.  Yes, that’s right. Your children may be judged not ready for kindergarten. If they are not ready for kindergarten, then the school system will just have to deal with them differently than those kids who are.  They will have to be put in remedial classes and left behind (sorry President Bush).  It gets better.

This “kindergarten readiness” issue has a tie-in to the current Presidential election.  Both of the Democratic Party candidates have spending programs aimed at early education (actually they have spending programs aimed at solving all of our problems, but that is another blog entry), i.e. additional spending on education to provide all children access to Pre-K programs so that they will be ready for kindergarten.  That should give us a chance in the future to determine that some underprivileged children are not “Pre-K ready”.  McCain supports continuing the basics of No Child Left Behind that holds schools accountable for the quality of the education and gives parents the right to move their children to better performing schools

In California if the child isn’t reading on the 4th grade level when tested, they will plan to budget building another jail cell. Based on this year’s fourth-grade reading scores,” observes Paul Schwartz, a Coalition principal in residence at the U. S. Department of Education, “California is already planning the number of new prison cells it will need in the next century.” Democracy and Equity: CES’s(Coalition of Essential Schools) Tenth Common Principle.

Both the “readiness tests” and the quote in the preceding paragraph provide some insight into the current state of public education in this country.  Children who enter the system unprepared for kindergarten will be identified.  The system isn’t built to deal with them and solve their “readiness” issue.  It will actually allow, even encourage, them falling further behind.  Based on tests they will be given in the third grade the system will place them in “slower” classes with other like students.  This keeps the system from falling victim to the dreaded “least common denominator” approach to education.  Smarter (i.e. ready) students progress faster and take harder courses.  They are more challenged and consequently stay more interested.  The slower students who for various reasons become victims of their environment may never attain a 4th grade reading level by the time they are tested (this could be as early as 11 or 12).  The studies cited above would predict a number of them as destined for a jail cell.  If these studies are based on valid data, then we are truly talking about an education system that has failed.  Obviously, there are many reasons why someone who hasn’t obtained a 4th grade reading level might end up in a jail cell, but accepting the reading level/jail cell correlation makes my head hurt.  We must have an education system that can accommodate various levels of readiness, learning patterns, and interests.  It must be able to deal with children who are not “kindergarten ready”.  It must find ways to keep slower children interested while they reach their highest potential.  That potential must exceed the threshold for any study predicting that a percentage of them will go to jail based on their lack of education.

So, what does this mean about our current education system? I believe the problem with all of the current approaches to improving the system is they fail to recognize that we have the wrong people teaching the wrong things in the wrong way.  We have an education system based on the norms of the 18th century.  I believe that incremental changes to the system are a waste of time and money.  We need to basically start over.  We have not adapted to a changing world. The environment that the children of today have to deal with requires a different set of skills and has different consequences for lack of early success.  That is complicated by a teacher crisis in public schools that is beyond recovery.  That has led to the children who are most at risk being taught by the teachers who are the least qualified to teach them in an environment that is the least conducive to learning. And I would add, they are being taught the wrong things.

I proposed in my earlier blog entry “Education as a starting point” that we make education the number one priority of this country.  I also proposed that one of the ways to make a major change in education was to change the role of the teacher.  I also propose that we stop trying to treat all children the same, stop trying to teach the same old tired information that has been taught since the 1700’s, and finally stop thinking that the answer to solving the education problem is to judge the performance of children and schools by using “standardize tests”.

I promise to write more about this going forward.  It should not be hard to guess that it is the subject that I care the most about.  Hopefully, some of you do too.

The Next Greatest Generation

Will there ever be one?

For those of you not familiar with Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation”, I’ll give you a short review. It’s great. It’s about the generation of people who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, built this country, and gave birth to the Baby Boomer generation.

I’m not part of the Greatest Generation (I’m a Baby Boomer) but I get to spend my Tuesdays with some of them. When I first meet them, I am able to learn about their early life and the character they possess that made them who they are. I don’t get to know them much beyond that because they are all afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. I do get to know some of their spouses who are still in good health and that helps me to further understand how different they are than my generation.

One of the gentlemen, that I got to know well, was a Navy officer in WW II. He commanded one of the landing craft that was in the first wave to land on D-Day. He had a written commendation from the French government documenting the fact that he was one of the first to reach France. He could not show me that document without crying. I tried several times to get him to tell me about what it was like, but the combination of the disease and emotion prohibited him from being able to do that.

In his book, Brokaw details the lives of many of the men and women from that generation. Since Brokaw wrote his first book about them, we have been losing them at a rate of more than 1,000 per day. We are approaching the time when there will be very few of them with us. That leads me to the question – have their values been passed on by my generation, the Baby Boomers?

That question really has two subparts. Did we (the Baby Boomers) recognize and subscribe to their values? Are any of their beliefs even regarded as “values” by our children and their children?

Probably the best way for you to understand my answer to the first part is to tell you what I’m thankful for. I’m thankful that none of today’s technology, today’s news media, and today’s politicians existed when the gentleman I spoke of earlier was guiding his landing craft to the Normandy shore. Had it been, the scenario might have been quite different. There would have been representatives from ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC … present with cameras rolling and real-time shots of the carnage that followed. Seeing first hand the horror of war, one Hillary Clinton might have instantly motioned for the termination of the landing and immediate withdrawal of all troops. That would be simultaneously seconded by Barack Obama and Ted Kennedy and passed by acclamation.

Probably a far-fetched scenario, but remember we were only entering the war to save Europe from being taken over by an ideologically crazed leader named Adolf Hitler. Hitler had not yet attacked American soil. He was just committing genocide of a group of people he felt did not meet his standards.

Basically, I believe my generation lost sight of the courage and conviction it took to land at Normandy and to run out of the landing craft onto that beach. We gave the world Woodstock, Haight-Ashbury, Chappaquiddick, Oval Office frolicking, and perfection of the concept of tax and spend – just to name a few of our accomplishments (I know, one of us invented the Internet but I’m going to ignore that for this blog). I suspect, in our haste to take advantage of the country and way of life that we inherited, we truly lost sight of the cost of that inheritance.

So, have we passed on the values of our fathers? I doubt it. I believe we have fostered a “next generation” that cherishes prosperity but does not want it to be difficult; a generation that looks to politicians to tell them want the country will do for them and not want they must do for themselves; a generation that is intoxicated by “feel good” speeches without a foundation or plan; a generation that wants everyone to be happy as long as someone else pays for it.

Is there hope? Of course, it springs eternal. You must have heard that as often as I have; but, I actually believe it. Crisis brings hope. Values can be created or at least recaptured by a crisis. There was amazing hope for this country in the days and weeks following 9/11. There are amazing young men and women in our Armed Forces in the Middle East. They are volunteers and they are fighting the fight they have been asked to fight. With luck, they will never regret their decision – no matter how their fight gets recorded in the history books. With more luck, they will return home as heroes and go on to lead amazing lives, much like the Greatest Generation.

Will there be another crisis to bring us hope? We seem to have a lot of possibilities at this point. We are about to decide to lose the “War on Terrorism”. That may lead to a “Safety Crisis” or even a “Loser’s Crisis”. It will certainly give added momentum to an “Energy Crisis”. We are about to commit to spending billions of dollars to fix all of the known problems of this country. That will further exacerbate the “Economic Crisis” that we manufactured out of the “Mortgage Crisis”. With some very bad luck, we may even have more frolicking in the Oval Office. That will lead to a “Moral Crisis”. Strike that, surely the voting public won’t let that happen.

So, will there be a “Next Greatest Generation”? Let’s hope so.

I made up what I wanted to be reality

The title of this blog entry is not the banner for the Democratic National Convention. If you read the sports pages you will recognize it as a quote from a high school football athlete who faked being recruited by several Division I schools and then was able to hold a press conference to announce his choice. I won’t repeat the story. It’s been carried by most of the newspapers and some blogs.

What I want to talk about in this entry really refers back to my previous entry “If I Could Change the World“. In that entry, I referenced a set of Washington Post interviews with the Presidential candidates that documented their position on the “important” issues of this country. I discussed my view on several of the issues. I thought those of you who have been reading my blog should know where I stand on all of them. So, I’m going to make up what I want to be reality. I promise not to be as long-winded as some of the candidates.

Health Care – If I have liberal bones in my body they may be shared by this issue and the issue of Gay Rights. On Health Care, I believe the answer lies in copying someone else’s system instead of inventing a new one. The fundamental idea is that health care should be available to everyone who needs it. The system that we put in place should not encourage fraud, deny access to quality care, or further bankrupt our national treasury. That’s a tall order; however, the United States is the only wealthy, industrialized nation that does not have a universal health care system.[1] The preceding sentence tells you that there is a long list of countries that provide universal health care. They haven’t all gone bankrupt. The argument that the systems don’t work is just wrong. I have done enough research to understand that they all have flaws but there are some workable systems in place. For instance, the United Kingdom’s system had major flaws prior to 1997. Changes in that system have resulted in major improvements and a large majority of UK citizens are satisfied with their health care.

Bottom line – we should have a universal health care system in the U.S. We should copy an existing system and then tweak it when we find flaws that cause the system not to work in the U.S.

Social Security – Keep it. Allow individuals to privatize part of their payments on an increasing scale based on their success in growing their fund. The portion an individual privatizes will affect their payments from the government when they reach eligibility. Keep the economy stable when judged over each five year period and Social Security will survive. If you hold as a fundamental truth that people are too stupid to manage their money, then you really subscribe to a different form of government than we currently enjoy.

Iraq – See If I Could Change the World for my earlier comments. I’ll add a few here. I’ve separated the issue of how we got into Iraq from what we should do about it now. Whether you believe we are there because of a malicious lie, a convenient lie (if there can be an Inconvenient Truth, then there can be a convenient lie), or an incompetent intelligence network, the fact remains we are there and we have to decide what to do now. I like to believe we are there because it served our purpose to reduce the number of sociopathic rulers in the world by one and because there are threats in that part of the world that are unlike any we have ever encountered. We can react every time something on the order of 9/11 or worse happens or we can be proactive about locating the threats and removing them. Presidential candidates who run on a platform of withdrawing the troops as soon as they take the oath of office make my head hurt.

National Security – 9/11 happened. Please don’t forget that. It was not the act of one lone nutcase. It was a well planned attack on the U.S. by terrorists who believed it would result in an all out war between the U.S. and Islam, thereby strengthening the power and position of those who planned the attack. When we get into discussions about the trade-off between civil liberties and protecting the citizens of this country (and the non-citizens who just seem to be allowed to hang around), I vote for protection. If that means profiling, I can accept that – I get checked more often at airports than my fair complexioned friends. If that means extracting information from a captured terrorist in ways that might be considered torture, then I’m for it. If that means making it harder to cross a border for a day of shopping, keep the stores open longer.

Energy – See Freedom Yes, Petroleum No.

Immigration – See If I Could Change the World.

Affirmative Action – It’s time to end it. See Bill Cosby.

Economy – Cut taxes, reduce government spending; otherwise, leave it alone or at least stop reacting to it every time the stock market slides. That’s not the government’s job. The government’s job is to regulate an environment of free and capitalistic enterprise, i.e. make sure there are not people doing stupid/illegal things like sub-prime/non-qualified lending that is bound to have long term detrimental results. It doesn’t work to ignore that sort of activity then try and fix it after the fact by driving the government more in debt. Last time I checked my economics book that ultimately causes interest rates to rise.

Budget – See Less is Better, Especially in Government. I’ll add a few additional comments here so that I get a chance to talk about taxes. I love to talk about getting rid of the IRS; however, a little bit of research will bring you to the conclusion that the IRS is one of our government’s best investments. The IRS costs about $10B and collects about $2.5 trillion. Every dollar that the IRS invests in enforcement yields about four dollars. That said, a tax system that requires a myriad of tax forms is just wrong. We are long overdue for a complete overhaul of our tax system. It needs to be much, much simpler. I suspect simpler will yield fairer and I suspect fairer will actually yield more money for our government to spend. Did I really say that? I can’t believe that voters don’t demand that each Presidential candidate include overhauling the tax system as a key component of their platform.

Education – See Education as the starting point.

Gay Marriage – I don’t believe there is any place in our Constitution for regulating sexual preference. If you want to mess with the Constitution, I can suggest some other changes that would do a lot more to make our government more efficient and protect our freedom. I believe that the majority of gay and lesbian individuals are born with that preference. Therefore, it is only “unnatural” in the sense of their inability to procreate with a same sex partner. If there are government benefits that a male/female marital partnership enjoys, then a same sex marital partnership should enjoy those same benefits. I’m fairly confused by exactly what those benefits are that are worth such an emotional discussion. As I said earlier, this issue probably shares the only liberal bones in my body with the universal health issue.

Abortion – I believe life begins at conception. I borrowed that line from Mike Huckabee. I’m sorry that the issue is bound to women’s rights and that any position against abortion seems insensitive to those rights. Whether you believe in evolution, intelligent design, or some miracle of coincidence, the result is that women have been given the burden of gestating conceived children. I’m against abortion. Once you start qualifying that, you end up in court.

Poverty – See Education as the starting point.

Gun Control – Law abiding individuals should be allowed to own and bear arms; after all,criminals are. For me, that doesn’t include nuclear weapons, tanks, F-22s, B-1s, bazookas, automatic assault rifles. Those are fairly easily defined. If opening that definition up to liberals then gives them a chance to define every gun as illegal, then we have a problem with reading, not guns.

Stem Cell Research – This issue seems to be correctly or incorrectly tied to the abortion/pro-life issue depending on what you believe about conception and when life begins. It is evidently a very complex issue because of the different sources of embryonic stem cells. It bothers me a great deal when I hear words like “excess embryos” (a friend tells me we have 400,000 of them). My position on abortion does not crossover to 400,000 unused embryos that are lying around in a freezer somewhere (sounds like the beginning of a bad science fiction movie). So I’ll make what I think is a simple statement. I do not support government funding of embryonic stem cell research if it includes the stem cells taken from an artificially aborted fetus.

Top Priorities – I’ve provided these in any earlier blog entry but I’ll repeat them here.

  1. End “generational poverty” and get the government out of the practice of perpetuating it.
  2. End the relationship between our energy policy and our foreign policy.
  3. Downsize the government.

Well, if you made it this far you know way too much about me. Thanks for reading.

If I Could Change the World

“I’d love to change the world – but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you….and good luck”. This is the last line of a song (I’d love to change the world) by Ten Years After. This song was also used in the trailer for Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Both the song and the movie fall into the pessimistic category and don’t do much for me except give me a lead in to this blog entry. The question I’ll ask in this blog is – What can be done to change our world (and who can do it)?

I’m actually going to set a somewhat smaller goal and just talk about my world, i.e. the United States. I suggested in one of my earlier entries that changing public education was the starting point for fixing a large number of our social and economic problems. I’ll stick to that position and won’t reiterate what I said there, but I want to include it in a broader discussion that is relevant to the current Presidential election.

Each of the candidates is required by the election process to have a formula for fixing our problems. If you take the time to read each of their platforms you will find that there are the expected and obvious differences between the Democrats and Republicans. You will also find that there are differences among the Democrats (now only Hillary and Barack) and differences among the Republican candidates (McCain, Romney and Huckabee – notice they are not John, Mitt, and Mike. Those names just don’t fit Presidential candidates as well as Hillary and Barack).

What follows are links to their specific positions on issues that the Washington Post chose to document.

Hillary: Health Care, Social Security, Iraq, National Security, Energy, Immigration, Affirmative Action, Economy, Budget, Education, Gay Marriage, Abortion, Poverty, Gun Control, Stem Cell Research, Top Priorities

Barack: Health Care, Social Security, Iraq, National Security, Energy, Immigration, Affirmative Action, Economy, Budget, Education, Gay Marriage, Abortion, Poverty, Gun Control, Stem Cell Research, Top Priorities

McCain: Health Care, Social Security, Iraq, National Security, Energy, Immigration, Affirmative Action, Economy, Budget, Education, Gay Marriage, Abortion, Poverty, Gun Control, Stem Cell Research, Top Priorities

Romney: Health Care, Social Security, Iraq, National Security, Energy, Immigration, Affirmative Action, Economy, Education, Gay Marriage, Abortion, Poverty, Gun Control, Stem Cell Research, Top Priorities

Huckabee: Health Care, Social Security, Iraq, National Security, Energy, Immigration, Affirmative Action, Budget, Education, Gay Marriage, Abortion, Poverty, Gun Control, Stem Cell Research, Top Priorities

I’m not going to dissect or analyze any of their positions in detail but I will talk about a couple of them.

On Education (my favorite topic), the Democratic candidates see it as a money problem. They believe that spending more money earlier in the education cycle will close the gap in education between the social classes. McCain and Romney believe adding more accountability to the schools and giving more choices in venue will provide the needed improvement, i.e. they support some variation of No Child Left Behind and vouchers coupled with more Charter schools. Huckabee believes the fundamental nature of education needs to change. I won’t go into detail regarding his approach. You can do that if you are interested, but I do agree with the high level idea. At some point in time, I will dedicate an entire entry to the subject.

I’ve referenced my earlier entry on education above. What I’ll add here is that I believe we are stuck in a rut regarding our approach to education. Our system evolved from what was done in education in the 18th Century. The short version was to teach children reading, writing and arithmetic taught to the tune of a hickory stick. We legislated out the hickory stick (probably our first mistake) and have failed to understand what is needed in today’s world. If a candidate really wants to attack this problem and change our world they should ask themselves what the U.S. will contribute to a global economy going forward (it has changed drastically in the last 20 years) and what skills our children need to contribute to that.

On Immigration, the candidates all will secure the border either with people or technology or both. Read – spend lots of money. They disagree on amnesty, agree on punishing employers who hire illegal immigrants (please check who’s doing work around your house), and agree on reforming our immigration laws so that they work (good idea). In general, I would classify their answers as “what can I say to get through this question and on to something I want to talk about”.

I’ll suggest a different approach, one that involves two specific actions. First, let each border state choose a new border to protect. In Texas, since it has the most miles to protect, I would choose a new border that decreases those miles. In each state, the area between the U.S. border and the new border would be designated as a “Work Zone”. U.S. companies can establish operations within these areas – probably jobs that are based on requiring low cost labor. Unions would not be allowed in these areas. Neither would OHSA, the ACLU, or any other organization that could mess the idea up. Workers from Mexico could enter this area rather freely and apply for jobs. If you get a job, work at it for a designated length of time, stay of out trouble and in general meet the standards for citizenship, you can apply for U.S. citizenship and cross the new border once you have obtained a job outside of the Work Zone.

Second, I would focus on working with the Mexican government, Mexican universities, and Mexican corporations to develop companies in Mexico that could replace the jobs we are sending to India, Vietnam, China and other places many time zones and languages away. The more people who have gainful employment in Mexico, the fewer people who will want to leave. The argument that the Mexican government is too corrupt for this to work is probably valid, but it may be an easier problem to solve that dealing with 12 million illegal immigrants.

On Iraq, the Democrats would withdraw as soon as they take the oath of office; the Republicans differ on their approach regarding the withdrawal but would follow the lead of the military Generals. The Democrats would secure our position in the Middle East and the world through their incredible gift of diplomacy. McCain and Romney would continue to fight terrorism with a strong military position. I don’t think Huckabee wanted to answer the question. On diplomacy – I don’t think there were any diplomats flying the planes on 9/11. It’s hard to be diplomatic when the other side believes their path to eternal salvation requires the elimination of all persons who don’t believe in their form of life.

When 9/11 occurred, I believe WW III began. It’s a much different form of war that we have ever encountered. As a qualifying note, remember neither Germany nor Japan had attacked American soil when we went to war with them. One could argue that Pearl Harbor was equivalent to 9/11; I think it was quite different.

I’m not exactly sure how Iraq plays into any of this. That gets into a discussion of whether we are there because Bush lied to us about WMD or whether we are there for other reasons. In any event, it seems that we have only a couple of choices relative to the Middle East. We can figure out a way to not care what happens there, i.e. find our petroleum somewhere else or find a substitute for petroleum (see my earlier post on Petroleum and Freedom). Or, we can decide that the Middle East will always affect our lives and decide how to best deal with it. I do not think diplomacy will work with the terrorist mentality. In today’s world of nuclear and biological weapons, we must identify and eliminate our enemies. If we don’t, the results will be nothing like we have ever seen. 9/11 was just a preview.

Finally, (I’m sure if you’ve made it this far you are tired) I would suggest that you at least read the candidates answers to their Top Priorities. It will give you a good idea of how one positions themselves to be a Presidential candidate.

A friend has provided me with a couple of web sites that will test your preferences for the candidates based on your opinions about some of the key issues. Happy Surfing!

http://www.dehp.net/candidate/

http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/election2008/candidate-match-game.htm

Mona Lisa’s Smile

From Wikipedia – “Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda (La Joconde) is a 16th-century portrait painted in oil on a poplar panel by Leonardo Da Vinci during the Italian Renaissance. It is arguably the most famous painting in the world, and few other works of art have been subject to as much scrutiny, study, mythologizing and parody. It is owned by the French government and hangs in the Musée du Louvre in Paris, France with the title Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo.[2] The painting, a half-length portrait, depicts a woman whose gaze meets the viewer’s with an expression often described as enigmatic.[3][4] The ambiguity of the sitter’s expression, the monumentality of the half-figure composition, and the subtle modeling of forms and atmospheric illusionism were novel qualities that have contributed to the painting’s continuing fascination.[5].”

When I look at the Mona Lisa, I try to decide whether or not she’s really smiling. I mean, can you be smiling if you don’t show your teeth? I remember in the class pictures they took of me when I was young, they would always say “smile”. If I didn’t show my teeth, then the picture had to be taken again. Also, if you’re asked to smile and you don’t have beautiful teeth (you know, the kind that shout $$$’s of professional whitening or $$$$’s of veneers) aren’t you better off giving it the Mona Lisa smile? Also, is the Mona Lisa a picture of a beautiful woman by today’s standards? Does it matter? The answer to that is simple. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve heard that a bunch of times. It has to be true. Or, is the beauty of Mona Lisa irrelevant because it’s really about the artist, the technique, the timing…..
OK, if you’re still reading you must be curious about where I’m going with this. Stay with me for a few more sentences.

Wikipedia’s description of the Mona Lisa says “few other works of art have been subject to as much scrutiny, study, mythologizing and parody”. The question is why? Answer – it’s a work of art. Art has always been subject to interpretation, study, parody and mythology.

How about our Constitution? Is it a work of art? Should it be treated like the Mona Lisa? Does it exist to be gazed upon and hopefully admired but interpreted differently based on the reader’s background, needs, and political beliefs? Before I felt comfortable writing this entry, I had to give thought to how long it had been since I had actually read the Constitution. To the degree my memory still works, I believe the answer is high school. It was required to pass an Illinois state test. I will admit doing a search on the Constitution about a year ago to see how many times the word “religion” appeared. I, of course, found it in the only place it appears – the First Amendment. That states – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

From the phrase “respecting an establishment of religion”, we’ve determined that the authors meant the Ten Commandments can’t be displayed in a public building, the word “God” shouldn’t be uttered in public schools or events, and monuments that might be religious in nature can’t be erected on public ground. We’ve made no use of the phrase “prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. That’s just too hard to interpret.

From the phrase “or abridging the freedom of speech or press”, we have determined that the press or anyone else can say anything they want, about anyone or anything no matter what the content. When that really doesn’t work to someone’s benefit, then it can be a matter for the civil courts.

The Second Amendment states – “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed“. Some states interpret this to mean a private individual can own and possibly conceal anything short of a 1 megaton nuclear weapon. Other states (California) have decided that it means a private individual can have guns that have certain controls, i.e. those that are not automatic and will leave the equivalent of a serial number on a fired casing. Anti-gun lobbyists believe no private individual should have a gun, i.e., only those in “a well regulated Militia” should have guns. They’re convinced that “a well regulated Militia” doesn’t exist, therefore – no guns.

I can’t decide if the Constitution is a beautiful document outlining the basic right to live free or some outdated scribbling by a bunch of dead guys who really could not have foreseen mass media, nuclear weapons, terrorists, starlets with no underwear, career politicians, career criminals, Bill Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, Larry Flynt, Jerry Falwell, etc.

In my corporate days, I always believed that a company should have a well written and understandable (those aren’t necessarily equivalent) mission statement. If that existed, it made decisions by all levels of the corporate hierarchy simple. Does what I’m about to do support the mission statement? If so, do it. If not, do something that does.

With the Constitution, we seem to make decisions based on the majority party’s political agenda. Is that the fault of the system or is it the fault of the document? To some extent, the Constitution has been kept up to date with amendments. Some of those amendments have addressed basic rights – abolishing slavery (1865), allowing most everyone the right to vote (1870 for all races, 1920 for women, 1971 for 18 year olds), prohibiting liquor (1919), allowing liquor (1933), etc. I’m not sure why our founding fathers didn’t figure these out earlier. Possibly, it had to do with the issue that things change. The last time we messed with the Constitution was in 1992. Congress decided then that any pay raise they voted for themselves couldn’t go into affect until there had been an election in the House of Representatives. So, I guess nothing significant has changed since then.

Aside from the fun of writing a blog entry, the issue that I think is worth considerable thought is how the Constitution should be viewed today. Is it, as it stands, still the defining law of the land? Does it still serve that purpose after 220 years? Is it a work of art to be interpreted by the Supreme Court as stand-ins for the founding fathers? Should it be rewritten to take into account today’s media, weaponry, faceless conflicts, social norms (or lack thereof)….? You tell me.

Will the Democrats feel “Dumber than a 5th Grader” if….

Back when the media was focusing all of its attention on “The Iraq, such as, and therefore” (sorry Miss South Carolina Teen I couldn’t resist) and Bush’s malformed sentences and malapropisms, I was convinced I knew exactly how the 2008 elections would go. The Democrats would pick a candidate who could stand erect (i.e., the Party mascot would probably not qualify). The Republicans would search their ranks for a sacrificial lamb – someone who would represent the Party position well for future elections. The Democratic candidate would run against the Bush legacy (not whomever the Republicans chose) and would win in a landslide. That still may be the case but the landscape seems to have changed a bit.

The candidates have now been identified. The Democrats are going to decide between Hillary – a woman, and Barack – a person of color. The Republicans did not have to search for a sacrificial lamb. They came running out of the woods and fields from every direction. Evidently, my landslide theory was very wrong. Why? The most politically correct answer would be that the Democratic candidate will have to actually beat the Republican candidate and that running against the Bush legacy will not work. If that’s true, there could be a number of reasons for the change. The most obvious would be that the media has tired of the main story being the Iraq war and Bush’s “incompetence”. That could be because some of the new strategies being employed in the war are working and the media doesn’t like to talk about things that are working. Or, it could be that the “failing economy” now takes precedence over the war because it directly affects more of us. Or, it could be that the players in the election have made the election “The News”.

A less politically correct answer would be that the Republican candidates believe this country is not ready to elect a woman or a person of color to the Presidency. That seems ridiculous in the sense that both Hillary and Barack already hold public office. However, being elected to those offices has not tested the entire voting public and (news flash) the primaries mean very little. More simply, we’ve never gone there before. Is Hillary the right first woman or is Barack the right first person of color to be elected President? I’m not suggesting that they could not win the Presidency, but what if they don’t? That’s the point of the title of this entry. Are the Democrats going to feel “dumber than a 5th grader” if either Hillary or Barack wins the candidacy and does not win the election? My answer would be – Yes! What’s yours?

Before you answer, consider the following. Until recently, the news media had spent most of its time characterizing the Bush presidency as a disaster. From his “lying” about WMD to his general incompetence in choosing advisers and Cabinet members, Bush had been positioned to be regarded as one of the worst Presidents in U.S. history. The only thing he had going for him was a good economy, a booming housing market, and a rising stock market. All disappeared overnight. Bush is a Republican (answer to a question in one of my previous entries ); therefore, why would the Democrats take a chance on a “first to be elected” strategy? Why not run some ”conventional” candidate? Surely they have some — there’s a Nobel Prize winner who lost by a hanging chad waiting in the wings. That candidate could employ the often used “time for change” campaign and win easily. Not the Democratic way? If the Democrats find a way to lose this election, then they will really have to re-group, and “Yes” they will be dumber than….

As a side note, this is the second election in my history of being able to vote where I would like the ballot to contain “None of the above”. The first was when Jimmy Carter ran against Gerald Ford. As a sign of rebellion, I did not vote in that election. That really doesn’t work because, until now, I’m the only one who knew that. If “None of the above” was a choice, I could have cast my vote there and had it counted. If enough people did that it would make election night a lot more fun. The media would have an opportunity to discuss whether “None of the above” was going to carry a particular state. If it did, those electoral votes would not be given to a candidate and, of course, they could color the state “purple” on the election map.

Congress on Steroids

The latest set of meetings between Congress and Major League Baseball (MLB) led me to ask myself if I wanted Congress to spend its time policing MLB. It didn’t take long for me to come up with the answer – NO! I actually have a better list. It follows:

  • Getting hookers off the street in Las Vegas – it really makes it crowded
  • Passing some laws that would help Al Gore lose weight – its just not right for a Nobel Prize winner and the inventor of the Internet to look like that
  • Finding a market for our surplus coats, gloves, long underwear, boots, etc. – because of Global Warming they won’t be needed
  • Outlawing treble hooks in fishing – not fair if a world record that was caught on a barb-less hook is broken by someone using a treble hook (but maybe an asterisk would suffice for that case – Never mind!)
  • Having all major sports ban Jessica Simpson from attending their events – she’s just too dangerous
  • Granting a perpetual pardon to O.J. Simpson for all past and future crimes – dealing with him just wastes too much of the Court’s time

When they’re finished with these, there are actually a couple of others that I would like them to work on. They are:

  • End “generational poverty” and get the government out of the practice of perpetuating it.
  • End the relationship between our energy policy and our foreign policy.
  • Downsize the government.

But wait, I’ve already said that in an earlier entry.

Back to reality or at least some serious words. The argument that I’ve heard justifying the time Congress is spending on the steroids issue is usually centered on saving our youth, i.e. our young people look up to these athletes and Congress needs to make sure MLB is not holding these chemically endowed cheaters up as role models. That’s a decent argument; however, from my point of view the only thing the hearings have accomplished is making sure that everyone knows how beneficial steroids and HGH can be to an athlete. Additionally, our young athletes can be absolutely certain that if they stick to HGH, their coach won’t have a test for it. If that isn’t enough, we found out recently that our MLB heroes also take Ritalin and other drugs associated with ADD and ADHD. It gives them an edge and gets them through their grueling schedule. So, “Mom, I’ve got a tough game this week, and I’m really feeling distracted and nervous. Could we go to the local Doc in the Box and get me some Ritalin?”

My final observation:

Steroids, HGH, Ritalin, etc. are illegal when not prescribed for specific conditions. Medical practitioners who prescribe them illegally are committing a crime. Heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, speed, and numerous other drugs are illegal. Congress could spend every waking moment just dealing with the problems these drugs cause, but there’s the rub. Congress is supposed to be in the business of making laws. There are other people tasked with enforcing them. The enforcers may not be very good at it, but that’s another issue and possibly another blog entry.

I haven’t decided what the subject of my next entry will be.

Postlude to “Salvaging the Perfect (Political) Storm- PPS”

If you read my three entries on helping President Bush turn his current negative legacy into a positive legacy, you are probably wondering whether I believe President Bush could bring about any of the changes I discussed. Simple answer – No! Another question would be whether or not I believe there are easy answers to the hard issues I addressed. Simple answer – No! For those of you who have worked with me or spent much time around me, I’m sure you have heard me say at least once – “For every complex problem, there is a simple, but elegant solution that is wrong”. It’s not an original statement, but I’ve lost the identity of the originator along the way. However, it is a statement that has served me well.

Does that mean that I believe complex problems require complex solutions? No, the solutions to complex problems need not be complex but they are typically not simple. Is there a difference? I have always believed there is.

I also strongly believe that every complex problem can only be solved if you pick a single starting point. I think that the gray matter expended in selecting this starting point should exceed all other thought that goes into attacking the problem. That’s another way of saying – Pick the correct starting point for a problem and the probability of solving it will far exceed the probability of solving the problem if you pick the wrong or multiple starting points.

So, what were my first blog entries really trying to say? There are a couple of things that I hope you can find in them that characterize some of my strongest beliefs relative to the social and political issues of the United States.

First, I strongly believe “Education” is the starting point for solving the growing socio/economic gap of the U.S. Whether I’ve picked the correct solution is unlikely; however, I believe in it. I also believe that diminishing this gap pays huge dividends that can be applied to many of our problems.

Second, if you look at the three steps that I proposed for Bush to take in salvaging the Wreck of the PPS, it clearly defines what I think the three top priorities for any President should be at this point. They are:

  1. End “generational poverty” and get the government out of the practice of perpetuating it.
  2. End the relationship between our energy policy and our foreign policy.
  3. Downsize the government.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the first set of topics enough to continue reading.

Less is Better, Especially in Government

This is the third post in the series on helping President Bush salvage the Wreck of the Perfect (Political) Storm – PPS. If you have not read the lead-in and the first two posts then you should. It will help you understand what the context of this entry is. An alternate title might have been – “President Bush, you are a Republican, Right?”

A serious Wreck salvaging operation could be carried out if President Bush would initiate steps to begin downsizing the Federal government. That has been included in the campaign platform of all Republican Presidential candidates since I can remember caring. It was known as being a “Fiscal Conservative”. However, it seems to have been lost along the way. Ron Paul is currently the only candidate who dares to wear that moniker, but he’s considered un-electable, at least by Fox News and Sean Hannity (did you watch the South Carolina Republican debates – he clearly won)?

(Federal Budget in millions of $s)

Year

Receipts

Outlay

Surplus/Deficit

1981

599,272

678,241

–78,968

1982

617,766

745,743

–127,977

1983

600,562

808,364

–207,802

1984

666,486

851,853

–185,367

1985

734,088

946,396

–212,308

1986

769,215

990,441

–221,227

1987

854,353

1,004,083

–149,730

1988

909,303

1,064,481

–155,178

1989

991,190

1,143,813

–152,623

1990

1,031,969

1,253,116

–221,147

1991

1,055,041

1,324,310

–269,269

1992

1,091,279

1,381,614

–290,334

1993

1,154,401

1,409,487

–255,085

1994

1,258,627

1,461,855

–203,228

1995

1,351,830

1,515,821

–163,991

1996

1,453,062

1,560,535

–107,473

1997

1,579,292

1,601,227

–21,935

1998

1,721,798

1,652,598

69,200

1999

1,827,454

1,701,913

125,541

2000

2,025,218

1,789,067

236,151

2001

1,991,194

1,863,033

128,161

2002

1,853,173

2,010,972

–157,799

2003

1,782,342

2,159,917

–377,575

2004

1,880,071

2,292,215

–412,144

2005

2,052,845

2,479,404

–426,559

2006

2,177,550

2,567,617

–390,067

2007

2,344,154

2,656,275

–312,121


The preceding chart illustrates the Federal budget, both spending and revenue along with the resulting surpluses (not many) or deficits. The figures for the last three years are estimates. The numbers speak for themselves. Since Reagan took office in 1981 we have nearly quadrupled Federal spending. That sounds bad, but the magnitude of the numbers is even more shocking.

There is an argument that spending must increase as a result of inflation. That’s an interesting discussion, but let’s ignore whether or not it is a valid argument and look at the math that results from accepting it. Federal spending in 1981 was $678,241M. The total inflation rate from January 1981 to January 2007 was 132.6%. If you apply that inflation rate to $678,241M, the 2007 equivalent is $1,577,995M. In 2007, we spent $2,656,275M. Ouch! So, we are only spending $1,079,280M (read 1+ trillion) more than the inflation rate would dictate, and that is in a single year. If you add up the rest of the years (exercise left to the reader), it’s one big chunk of bread (or taxes, or food, or homes, or health care, etc.).

To give you a better idea of the magnitude of how efficiently we’ve been at growing the government, consider the following. In 1914, the federal spending was $725M. The total inflation rate from then to January 2007 was 1,924.1% (gasp!). If you apply the inflation rate to $725M then the 2007 equivalent is $14,675M. That’s $14 billion compared to $2.6 trillion!

Of course the simple math I’ve used doesn’t account for population growth, especially the recent population growth that includes immigrants who don’t pay taxes (some day I might dedicate another blog entry to that subject). Just a few more numbers for you to consider, I promise. In 1981, the population of the U.S. was approximately 229M. The estimated population in 2007 was 290M. Applying the inflation adjusted Federal spending rates to those numbers, translates to $6,890/capita in 1981 and $9,159/capita in 2007. As a side note, the inflation adjusted number for 1914 is $141/capita. We have evolved.

To help Bush salvage the Wreck, I feel compelled to offer some suggestions on how to begin downsizing the Federal government and, hence, the budget. Hopefully, you are still reading after the magical statistics tour.

The previous numbers would lead to the conclusion to adjust the budget based on population growth or inflation. The question would be how far to role it back. I like the idea of knocking off about a trillion dollars. That’s a lot of people out of work and probably a lot of countries out of foreign aid. The last of those sounds appealing. A more “now” idea is to move the budget and consequently the people around. That always worked in the corporate world. So, I will suggest moving programs out of the federal budget into the state budgets. That would accomplish a number of desirable results (at least in my way of thinking).

First and foremost it would result in State governments transforming from a burden on the Federal budget to an asset. For instance, if most (possibly all) welfare programs were moved to the state level (not just the administration but also the funding), it would result in a form of natural selection. That is, some states (color them blue) would feel compelled to make sure everyone feels good and is dependent on the government for that feeling. Those states would collect more taxes and set up better (from the point of view of the recipients) welfare and social programs. People who felt good about that approach would move into those states and be happy to pay the taxes that would be necessary for the programs.

Other states (color them red) might take approaches where people would have to depend on themselves for their well being. They would tax and spend accordingly. These states might even create work programs to improve facilities in states and possibly even employ people to administer some of the programs for the blue states. People who think this is the right approach would move into those states and pay the appropriate amount of taxes.

The result of this approach would take some time as people relocated. The resulting population shifts would begin to affect the Presidential, Congressional, and State elections. This would result in a set of elected officials who represented the majority of the people. President Bush could have this included in his legacy and be viewed positively from a historical perspective. Mission accomplished!

This is the final entry in the “Salvaging the Wreck of the Perfect (Political) Storm” series. Hope you’ve enjoyed it. I’ll move on to more fun things. The next entry will be entitled “Congress on Steroids”.