Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Wrong-Way Gingrich

By Tom Kando

On May 24, Newt Gingrich wrote another stupid editorial: He said that the California election a week earlier had demonstrated that the people are fed up with “Big, Corrupt Government,” and that this presages an imminent anti-government rebellion by the American people. Gingrich has it totally upside down:1. Only 15% of the electorate voted in the special California election on May 19. If 65% of these people rejected most of the propositions, and assuming that their vote reflected a “rejection of government,” this means that 10% of California voters expressed their opposition to “big government.” Hardly a mandate!

2. Gingrich urges us to look at the “record of the Obama administration,” which he blames for our current problems. This is absurd. Obama has been in charge for four months - trying to fix the mess created by his predecessors. Shouldn’t we look at the eight-year record of the Bushites, and before that, at the twelve years of Republicanism from 1980 to 1992? Over the past 29 years, Republicans have been in charge for 20 years, Democrats for 8 (and those eight Clinton years were the best in memory!).

3. The record which needs to be looked at is that of nearly three decades of unfettered, unregulated Capitalism. That is what has ruined the country, not government regulation.

4. Gingrich writes that “people are fed up with the elites.” But he picks precisely on the wrong elite. It is not the public sector’s excesses which have ruined the country, but precisely the opposite, the private sector elite - Wall Street, AIG, the Banks, America’s Big Three auto companies, etc.

5. Gingrich writes that Detroit was ruined by “Big, Corrupt Government,” and he adds that during the 50s, Motown enjoyed the highest per capita income in America. Furthermore, the Unions are what is ruining America, he continues. What utter idiocy! The facts adduced by Gingrich prove exactly the opposite of his claim: Detroit thrived precisely when the UAW was strong. Today, the unionized percentage of the labor force is a small fraction of what it was in the fifties. What ruined Detroit is the car companies’ refusal to make good, fuel-efficient, competitive cars like Honda and Toyota.

6. Gingrich avers that California’s state budget is bloated. Wrong again: Two years ago, the general fund was $105 billion. This year, it’s down to 87 billion, and it’s going to be pared down a lot more. We have had a 25% budget reduction, while population has increased. Well over half the states have higher taxes than we do in California (See Dan Walters in the Sacramento Bee, May 26, 2009).

Let me put it schematically: Bozos like Gingrich and Limbaugh say that government is the problem and uncontrolled Capitalism is the solution. In reality, uncontrolled Capitalism is the problem and government is the solution. Yes, there is a (slight) move towards more “socialism” in America - finally, thank God (Call it Keynesianism, if you prefer). We need more of it, not less. The federal stimulus package means more public works, not less. And this is as it should be, as it was also the right answer to the Great Depression 70 years ago, in the form of wonderful projects such as the TVA.

Maybe in some decades from now the pendulum will swing back to the right, but thank God we are in for a period of greater government intervention, not less. For the foreseeable future, Republican policies are headed for the dustbin, and that’s a good thing.
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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Little People

By Madeleine Kando

I teach little people. Very little people. In fact, I don’t think they qualify as humans yet. They are more like puppies or kittens or cubs. They call me Miss Madeleine (since my hair turned grey I have graduated from a Ms. to a Miss, don’t ask me why) and when they call me ‘teacher’ I explain to them that I prefer to be called Miss Madeleine because they would not like it if I called them ‘girl’ instead of Mary or Jane or Agatha. But of course my puppies don’t understand that. They just obey because they see the frown on my face, not because of my argument.Well, of course they don’t understand. Puppies don’t understand anything do they? I have tried to see the world from the perspective of little people and realized that it takes an entire reversal of self.

Take their size for instance. I tried to go about my day on my knees once (that’s how high you reach if you are 4 years old). It is as if the world were chopped off from the waist up. All the stuff we find interesting and important in the world we usually don’t put on the floor but on tables, desks, shelves etc. The only thing that little people experience without being lifted up to our level are dirty shoes, old boxes, trash cans etc. No wonder they cannot wait to grow bigger.

And what about the volume of their voice? Tiny squeaks, most of them. Which they HAVE to amplify by screaming all the time. They have to compete with grown-up barritones just to be heard. And their poor little legs. You cannot blame a child for running around, bumping into things, breaking items, falling down all the time. They have to go the same distance to the park as mom, but their legs have to work a lot faster to get there.

Let’s not even start on the size of their brain. Granted it is relatively big compared to the rest of their apparatus, but still.. how do you expect a little puppy to understand what ‘recital’ means? Every June my little people have to do a ballet performance for their adoring parents. So I ask them: ‘Does anyone know what a recital is?’ 4 year old Samantha volunteers to share her knowledge and explains to the group with a patient tone of voice that a recital is when you don’t throw out garbage but recital it.
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Friday, May 22, 2009

Why are we Always at War?

By Tom Kando

On May 21, President Obama and former Vice President Cheney had an exchange of speeches about our government’s approach to terrorism, including the use of torture. The two men’s positions are clear, and I don’t have to rehash them. I obviously agree with Obama. But this made me think of a more profound problem, namely that during most of my life, America has been in a near constant state of war.From 1940 to 2009, our country has been at war for 32 years, i.e. nearly half the time. This includes World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and the Iraq-Afghan War. Plus, we had the Cold War for nearly half a century.

This is tragic. I call America’s history prior to 1917 the “Age of Innocence.” Except for the Civil War and a few minor skirmishes, our country’s focus was to avoid war, to avoid entanglements in world affairs (E.g. the Monroe Doctrine), to concentrate single-mindedly on forging a fantastic new society that was materially and spiritually more advanced than anything the world had ever seen. This was the age of splendid isolationism. The age of American exceptionalism. And by and large, it was a magnificent success. Sure, there was slavery, there was Manifest Destiny, there was Indian genocide. But the beauty is precisely that these came to an end (at great sacrifice to the American people, I might add). All in all, the American Project was the most noble effort in the world.

In 1917, America joined World War One. From then onward, it increasingly became the World Power. According to America’s detractors, this was the country's gain (an empire, exploiting the rest of the world). According to me, it is a terrible loss.
After World War One, isolationism was still kicking - briefly. We didn’t join the League of Nations. There were still those who felt that it was to America’s advantage to avoid foreign entanglements as much as possible.

But the die was cast. By the end of World War Two, our country was hopelessly entangled in every problem on the planet. It had assumed the mantle of world leadership. It had become responsible for everything on earth - the good, the bad and the ugly. The nightmare had begun.

Today, we live in a constant state of war. The tragedy is not so much financial (only a small fraction of our resources go to war), but psychological. In fact, America should be far more laid back and unafraid than Europe and the rest of the world: (1) We are still by far the most powerful country and (2) we are still blessed by geography, with two oceans surrounding us. Even in the age of ICBMs, we are much less vulnerable to attack, invasion, bombing and terrorism than are other parts of the world. Yet, we are told from morning till evening to be afraid, to be very afraid. We must be afraid of Iran, of North Korea, of Al Qaeda, of the Taliban, of other terrorist groups, etc. etc.

It seems that we must be afraid of someone, at all times. First we had to beat down the fascist onslaught. Great. No question about it, it had to be done. Then we had to beat Communism. Another success story. Now we have Islamofascism and the clash of civilizations.

Don’t misunderstand me: I am not denying that there are bad guys out there. But do we always have to obsess about some external foe, who is supposedly out to get us? When I travel overseas, I don’t sense that people are obsessing from morning till evening about terrorism (or during the fifties through the eighties, about communism). People live their lives and hope for the best. People don’t fret every day about imminent attack.

Luckily, most Americans don’t either (I hope). But the likes of Dick Cheney, and a great portion of the media, keep telling us that we should - “be afraid, be very afraid.” Psychologically, we are in a permanent state of war. Isn’t this terrible? Can’t we chill out a little?

If I am wrong, at least I’ll have lived a happy life until the terrorists/communists/hordes/pirates (take your pick) get me.
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Thursday, May 21, 2009

America: The good, the bad and the beautiful



By Tom Kando

Let's not go overboard about America's warts. Let's not get carried away.

Political participation? There is no country on earth where people do more volunteer work for politics, more community service, more charity, more philantropy, more civic participation, than the US. De Tocqueville knew it, and it remains true today. America is practically the only country on earth where justice is dispensed by citizen juries (as I am doing right now) rather than by arbitrary and dictatorial judges.
Women and people of color elected to public office? I know of no country on earth where this happens more than here - starting with Obama and Hillary. Nowhere on earth are women closer to men in power and status than in America.

Okay, so there is a handful of (smallish) countries like Holland, New Zealand and Norway where some things are done better, including social legislation. Okay, so France has a better health care system. Every country has its strengths and its weaknesses. But overall, the US is still among the ten best places in the world to live, at least for the 270 million - 85% - majority that belongs to the middle class. A vast majority of Americans live pretty good, happy, comfortable lives.

An annual United Nations quality-of-life survey ranks the world's approximately two hundred countries, as measured by a composite scale that includes such indicators as crime rate, unemployment, income inequality, education, public health, human rights, the environment, traffic congestion, housing affordability, etc. According to this source,year after year, the best place in the world OVERALL has been Canada. Below that, the top ten countries change a bit from year to year, but they invariably include countries like New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, Holland, France, Germany AND THE UNITED STATES. Japan is a bit lower, maybe #12 or so, you know why? Because the status of women still lags considerably behind that of men.

"Europe," whatever it is, also includes Portugal, Greece, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania and dozens of other countries where things are DISMAL. Go see Naples next time you are in Europe. It's a cesspool worse than Detroit. Italian politics are FAR more corrupt than ours. Vast tracts of that country - Calabria, Sicily - are run by the Mafia. Are things better in Andalusia than in California? It would be absurd to claim that they are. And even in our beloved and oh-so-perfect France, would you want to live in the North Paris casbah?

Like Europe, America is a continent, and it is equally diverse: We have regions the size of France where the crime rate is lower than in Europe (E.g. the Dakotas, the upper Midwest, Minnesota, Iowa), regions the size of Sweden with very little poverty (greater San Diego, Honolulu, Utah).

Let's not even discuss the remaining 80% of the world - dictatorial rule from Russia to every other former Soviet country, from totalitarian China to Venezuela to Cuba, Mysogynistic Islamofascism ruling over a billion Muslims. Poverty starvation and pandemics from India to Africa to Latin America.

Any moderatelly informed person knows that America, imperfect as it is, remains one of the better places in the world. Tony Blair didn't coin the expression, but he quoted it, saying: People vote with their feet. For every American who leaves this country to live somewhere else, five thousand immigrants move TO America. And whereas most of these people now come from Third World countries like Mexico, there are still many Europeans who move here every year as well - certainly far more than Americans moving to Europe. Why is that?
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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More Than Human

By Madeleine Kando

I remember this science fiction story as if I had read it yesterday. Theodore Sturgeon's novel is about a next generation human being that is made up of different individuals to make one 'super human'. A retarded boy with telepathic powers becomes the brain, two mute telekinetic twins become the body, and a retired army captain with amnesia becomes the conscience of this new being.This is the kind of leap that we, as a Western society need to make if we want to survive: joining forces with others to create a next generation consciousness which will solve a lot of our current problems. Think about it: our current financial, social and ideological problems stem from an overabundance of 'self'. I would even call it 'selfishness'. The economic crisis is a result of a financial system that puts the self and profit for the individual (or company or shareholder) above all else.

I see the man in shabby clothes driving to the supermarket, where he buys shabby food to feed his shabby family. His shabbiness is the price he pays for living in a society where rules are few, the sky is supposedly the limit and individual freedom is cherished above all. Nobody told this shabby man that the sky is the limit for the lucky few who have strong wings. For this shabby man, as for the majority of the flock, grazing the surface of the land is all that they will ever accomplish. The sky will always be a far-away unattainable goal. But others will not feel sorry for him. They will say: 'if you are shabby, it's your own doing. Get with the program or get out. It's not our fault that your wings are small and weak. You should have been more selfish and looked out for your own interests better.'

The irony is that with all its focus on private wealth, unfettered Capitalism has dug its own grave. The world is no longer capable of sustaining the selfish model. Too many people with too few resources. A 'More than Human' entity with the ability to pool its resources is the only option.

Social Democrats seem to be standing on a higher rung of the ladder towards the evolution of this 'more than human' super-being. They have accepted the fact that living your life to pursue things that are only good for the 'self' are ultimately going to bite you in the ass.

Some will argue that a more socialized economy would become "stagnant." That because of too many regulations the workforce would lack flexibility and adaptability. That the welfare state is "unsustainable" in a global economy. And that as our population ages we will become underproductive. But you only have to look at more ‘socialized’ societies to see that they are not stagnant, and that they often provide their citizens with a better quality of life. They work less hours so they can spend more time with family and friends. Societies based on the ‘self’ are doomed to fail. We can no longer afford to look out for just the individual and disregard the group.

As the protagonists of 'More Than Human' struggle to find out whether they are meant to help humanity or destroy it: will our society be able to give up its tradition of individualism and replace it with a mentality of belonging? Is Capitalism meant to survive or is it meant to destroy itself? Time will tell...
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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Laughter is the Best Medication

Tom Kando

I’m an immigrant. English is not even my second or third language. It is my fourth language! My teachers learnt me to speak and write reasonably well, but you know what’s most difficult to get right? The idioms! Those wonderful, shorthand expressions which capture the spirit of a culture so well.I know, to you Americans it seems as easy as cake. Piece of pie, right? Not to me. I still feel like a baby in the woods.

But please, don’t correct me. It would be like putting pepper in the wound. Adding oil to the fire! Sometimes I finally get it right, and that makes me so happy, I feel I am on cloud seven. In ninth heaven, really (or is it the other way around?)

I just flew back across the lake. Spent a month in Europe. When I fly, I like to chew the meat with the person sitting next to me. You know, time flees, when you’re having a toast. Although sometimes I get cold toes, if the person next to me seems unfriendly. Of course, occasionally the chairs are turned, and I am the one who turns someone the cold elbow.

I was really frugal in Europe, you know. I spent very little. I lived on a shoelace. I have always believed that a dollar saved is a dollar earned. As Benjamin Franklin said, an idiot and his money are soon departed. I don’t believe in living high on the pig. But sometimes it’s a Catch 32. Sometimes you see things that sell like hot pies ( or is it hot cookies?) and you just want to take the steer by the horns and spend money like a marine. After all, you can’t carry it with you!

I realize that talking is cheap, and sometimes I want to have my pie and eat it too. I guess it’s best to let sleeping cats lie, and not to let the dog out of the bag. Believe me, I’ll leave no moss unturned in order to get this ape off my back!

But I suppose I shouldn’t sweat the little stuff. It’s not a large deal. I shouldn’t put all my eggs in one pot, or compare apples and pears. After all, laughter is the best medication.
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Friday, May 15, 2009

'California Special' To Go (Down the Drain)


By Tom Kando

Polls predict that most of the six ballots measures on which we (at least some of us) will soon vote, will be rejected. Proposition 1F is the only one likely to pass. That’s the one which will punish elected officials, by denying them salary increases whenever the state budget has a deficit. Fine.Things are tough. The global economy is in the toilet. California is in some ways worse off than many other places. Our economic conditions are aggravated by the fact that we cannot govern ourselves. People are mad, and so they are going to vote against anything, no matter what. Or they won’t vote at all. Anger is the only thing people know. They blame politicians. Why not? You have to blame someone (although I prefer to direct my wrath at Wall Street, AIG, and corporate gangsters like Bernie Madoff).

Reminding the electorate that California’s problems are systemic and structural is like whistling in the wind. For one thing, we have this asinine two-third majority requirement. 47 of 50 states pass their budgets by simple majority, but California requires a super-majority. And most years that process doesn’t work. Additionally, California governs by referendum. Year after year, the electorate is asked to make momentous decisions. Without realizing the consequences, the electorate passes ballot measures such as prop 13 which freezes property taxes, prop 98 which freezes education funding, and so forth. And after decades of such thoughtlessness, the State has painted itself into a corner. Its legally mandated commitments far exceed its receipts, even during the best of times.

The problem is simple: the electorate wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants all the services, but it doesn’t want to pay for them.

So, at the risk of re-stating the obvious, let me remind you why it would be good if the remaining propositions also passed on May 19: Because without them, the state deficit will be even larger, i.e. it will grow from $16 billion to $22 billion.

Without going into the details of Propositions 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D and 1E (check out http://www.voterguide.sos.ca.gov/ for a summary), let me sum up by saying that some of them would require a modest amount of “revenue enhancement.”

But the electorate has been brainwashed by America’s plutocracy (a.k.a. the Republican Party, Wall street, the Chamber of Commerce, the Business community) into knee-jerk opposition to ANY tax increases. An overwhelming majority of public opinion now agrees that when a state budget has a deficit, the solution must consist ENTIRELY of cuts in spending, NEVER of revenue enhancement.

But where is it written that our taxes are too high? Where is it written that a modest increase in taxes will hurt business? Have people compared the quality of life and of public services in low-tax countries and jurisdictions with those in countries and places with higher taxes?

On May 19, the electorate will take another giant step towards starving the beast (the state, the government). As a result, there will be a further deterioration in services (education, health care, corrections, law enforcement, transportation, etc.), more hardship for the millions who depend upon the state’s safety nets, a further decline in California’s overall quality of life.

I am sorry to have to tell you this, folks, but politicians aren’t the problem. You are. Keep it up. Soon California will be a Third World place similar to most countries south of the border.
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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Is Barack Obama going to be a Lyndon Johnson?

By Tom Kando

I am worried about the Obama Presidency. Its foreign policy is endangering its economic policy. The latter should be the paramount concern. America is a sick baby. Depleted, exhausted, as the Dutch NRC Handelsblad describes us. President Obama has focused on the economy, of course, and his first 100 days have been great, BUT...But, there is this nagging problem - the Middle East - including the two wars inherited from the Bush Administration. Obama’s initial stance has been: (1) de-escalate our involvement in Iraq, and (2) escalate the war in Afghanistan. I already had a problem with that. But now, there is a 3rd country for which we are assuming increasing responsibility - (3) Pakistan!

I am aware of all the reasons given for continuing to fight, and to fight even more, in Afghanistan and in Pakistan: The Taliban are monsters, Pakistan has nukes, the world is a global village, if we don’t beat terrorism there, we won’t be safe at home, the world’s oil supply and commerce must be safeguarded, etc., etc.

But here are reasons for NOT continuing to fight those wars: (1) We will NEVER win. No one has ever won in Afghanistan, not Alexander the Great, not the British Empire, not the Soviet Union, not us. (2). There is token support from a few Europeans (for example, so far 19 Dutch soldiers have died in Afghanistan), but by and large the rest of the world doesn’t give a damn. We carry 95% of the burden. (3) America should not feel responsible for all the troubles of the world. Those countries are on the other side of the GLOBE, for crying out loud. We have drug wars on our own borders, spilling over into Texas and California, killing twenty times more people!

Here is a scary analogy: When Lyndon Johnson came to the Presidency in 1963, he was a good and promising man. His agenda was labeled the Great Society. This was a wonderful and progressive package of policies, including a War on Poverty, tremendous progress on the Civil Rights front, Medicare, aid to education, and much more.

And then, you know what happened? The Johnson Administration got bogged down and totally sidetracked in the Vietnam War. By 1969, the Great Society agenda was in tatters. Johnson had spent most of his presidency escalating and running the Vietnam war, influenced by the bad advice of his generals (William Westmoreland), and of his Secretary of Defense (Robert McNamara).

In 1969, President Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election, which was tantamount to an ignominious resignation and an admission that his presidency was a failure. The Great Society had been sacrificed to the Vietnam war, a war which was lost anyway. Was that stupid or what?

It’s too bad if the Taliban wants to take that part of the world back to the 5th century. Yes, they are monsters. Yes, what they do to women is monstrous. But we can’t prevent any of that. It’s too bad if we never capture Bin Laden. But we can’t.

We couldn’t win in Vietnam, and we certainly won’t win in Afghanistan, much less be able to control Pakistan (a country of 170 million people!). It would be nice if we could, but we don’t have the strength, the resources, the capability.

Let others, closer to the region, do what they can. Maybe India can play a role. Or some of the Middle Eastern countries. Or even the Europeans, who have a lot more at stake there.

President Obama: Please don’t become another Lyndon Johnson.
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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Is Smaller Better?

by Madeleine Kando

The most important goal of every child is to grow bigger and the most exciting event for a 3 year old is to turn 4, for a 4 year old to turn 5, and so on. By the time a child runs out of fingers to count their age with, the novelty is wearing off somewhat and growing bigger becomes less of a priority.

But the obsession with getting bigger is not confined to our child population. Growing bigger is a synonym for growing richer, stronger, smarter. Bigger is simply better and everybody looks for ways to grow. My car is bigger than yours, so I am better than you. My house is bigger than yours so I must be more important than you.But if you answered the title of this post with ‘yes, smaller IS better’, you might be thinking of the many things in our current society that would work better if they were smaller. Large airline companies, for instance, are doomed because of their size and are being creamed by smaller ones (Jet Blue). Enron happened because it was too big. Even the World Trade Center happened because it was the symbol for BIG.

Americans have a fascination with big things: cars, skyscrapers, highways with 12 lanes, what-a-burgers… You want BIG? You come to America. But nowadays the formula ‘bigger is better’ has become a liability. I just returned from Europe, and even though things over there are smaller, from cars to streets, from food portions to health care costs, everything seems to work better.

Take a country like Holland for instance. Granted, SUV’s and limousines the size of a small train wouldn’t fit in Dutch roads. Out of necessity Holland had to think ‘smaller is better' (except for their ‘Delta Works’, the largest system of dykes, sluises and dams in the world to protect their small country against flooding). I have a suspicion that Europe is leading the way in this new age of ‘smaller is better’. America is far behind in innovations in the field of transportation, energy and farming. Europeans drive smaller, more efficient cars. The police force in Paris goes about on roller blades! The common mode of transportation in this beautiful, busy city is motorcycles, not even smart cars. America is far behind Europe in that respect and probably already has missed the boat by not being able to compete with other countries that have seen the light a long time ago.

Is America just too big? Do we have too much territory? Too much individual freedom that goes at the cost of collective responsibility? Do we have too much economic inequality? Do we need big things to fill this big country?

Americans have big hearts. In the past, they could afford to be generous. When America had the luxury of accepting any immigrant that wanted to come here, when it had enough resources to satisfy everyone’s appetite for bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger hamburgers, then ‘bigger’ WAS better. The sheer size of this vast country is a double-edged sword. Americans have a big back yard. They might not use it very much (I only travelled out West twice over the past 20 years), but just knowing that it’s there, makes you think big. But things have changed. A big lush back yard, if not properly cared for can quickly turn into a big desert. And where will America be then?
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