Tuesday, November 25, 2008

It's Not 1929, But...

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pay attention to history. I believe in a linear view of history where the future is undetermined, and not a wheel of endlessly repeating events with no possibility of “new” or any real meaning for “future.” Instead of discovering a pattern in the present that fits one in the past to understand where we are and are “determined” to go, our “lessons from history” must always be suggestive and not conclusive. For historical inquiry to be helpful in addressing issues in the present, we look for patterns in the past that were and weren’t helpful in their time with a view to creating something of value to humankind in the present. This is where I’m coming from. What about you?

As the financial crisis has unfolded over the last few months, the national attention has been drawn back to the advent of the Great Depression, epitomized by the
cover of Time Magazine in its November 24 issue with the image of Barack Obama embedded in a picture of FDR. There are significant parallels between 1929 and 2008; and there are equally significant differences. It is critical to distinguish between them.

In the rush (should we say “panic”) to see in our present that earlier period, Daniel Gross wrote a
serious article with a cute title, “Don’t Get Depressed, It’s Not 1929,” in which he points out some of the obvious differences between the periods.
The credit debacle of 2008 and the Great Depression may have similar origins: Both got going when financial crisis led to a reduction in consumer demand. But the two phenomena differ substantially… the economic trauma the nation suffered in the 1930s makes today's woes look like a flesh wound.

"By the afternoon of March 3, scarcely a bank in the country was open to do business," FDR said in his March 3, 1933 fireside chat… In 1933, some 4,000 commercial banks failed, causing depositors to take huge losses. (There was no FDIC back then.) The recession that started in August 1929 lasted for a grinding 43 months, during which unemployment soared to 25 percent and national income was cut in half. By contrast, through mid-November 2008, only 19 banks had failed. The Federal Reserve last week said it expects unemployment to top out at 7.6 percent in 2009. Economists surveyed by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank believe the recession, which started in April 2008, will be over by next summer. (Of course, back in January the same guys forecast that the economy would grow nicely in 2008 and 2009.) But don't take it from me. Take it from this year's Nobel laureate in economics. "The world economy is not in depression," Paul Krugman writes in his just-reissued book The Return of Depression Economics. "It probably won't fall into depression, despite the magnitude of the current crisis (although I wish I was completely sure about that)."
Before you tell yourself not to be depressed about the prospect of depression because Paul Krugman has said that we are not in depression, consider that this Nobel Prize winning economist first wrote about a return to depression (not recession) economics, and he wrote it in 1999. As he looked at the economic crises that had swept across Asia and Latin America, he said that those crises were warning to us all, like diseases that have become resistant to antibiotics, the economic maladies that caused the Great Depression were making a comeback.

Alas, with the Wall Street boom and financial wheeler-dealers making vast profits, the international crises of the 1990s faded from view. But as Krugman points out in an expanded work published this month titled,
The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, depression economics have come to America and that a replay of the 1930s seems all too possible. Against that backdrop, don’t take too many of Gross’ valium-coated assurances that since this isn’t 1929, we are not entering a depression.

What Gross and Krugman agree on, and what the Great Depression teaches us, is that time is of the essence. Last week, Krugman pointed out
There is, however, another and more disturbing parallel between 2008 and 1932 — namely, the emergence of a power vacuum at the height of the crisis. The interregnum of 1932-1933, the long stretch between the election and the actual transfer of power, was disastrous for the U.S. economy, at least in part because the outgoing administration had no credibility, the incoming administration had no authority and the ideological chasm between the two sides was too great to allow concerted action. And the same thing is happening now.
The good news, said Gross, in his don’t-be-depressed article
After the 1929 crash, the nation had to wait more than three years for a president who simply wasn't up to the job to leave the scene. This time, we've got to wait only two more months.
If you listened to Obama’s radio address on Saturday (you can watch the 3.5 minute presentation on YouTube
here, and you can read the transcript here), or heard his press conferences yesterday and today, I think you will appreciate his sense of urgency. Obama is well aware of what happened in the 1932-1933 interregnum and seems to be doing everything in his power to prevent something similar from happening now.

It is not simply a matter of haste, but of the need for good judgment. On Friday, conservative columnist David Brooks, who was anything but a fan of Obama during the primaries and election,
wrote about his enthusiasm for the team the President-elect is building. One may not agree with them, he said, on everything or even most things, but “a few things are indisputably clear:”
First, these are open-minded individuals who are persuadable by evidence. Orszag, who will probably be budget director, is trusted by Republicans and Democrats for his honest presentation of the facts.

Second, they are admired professionals. Conservative legal experts have a high regard for the probable attorney general, Eric Holder, despite the business over the Marc Rich pardon.

Third, they are not excessively partisan. Obama signaled that he means to live up to his postpartisan rhetoric by letting Joe Lieberman keep his committee chairmanship.

Fourth, they are not ideological. The economic advisers, Furman and Goolsbee, are moderate and thoughtful Democrats. Hillary Clinton at State is problematic, mostly because nobody has a role for her husband. But, as she has demonstrated in the Senate, her foreign-policy views are hardheaded and pragmatic. (It would be great to see her set of interests complemented by Samantha Power’s set of interests at the U.N.)

Finally, there are many people on this team with practical creativity. Any think tanker can come up with broad doctrines, but it is rare to find people who can give the president a list of concrete steps he can do day by day to advance American interests. Dennis Ross, who advised Obama during the campaign, is the best I’ve ever seen at this, but Rahm Emanuel also has this capacity, as does Craig and legislative liaison Phil Schiliro.
I am grateful that we have to wait only two months to wait for new leadership and not three years, as in 1929. I am grateful for a President-elect who takes history seriously. I am grateful for the use he and his team are making of the present.

I hope you have a good Thanksgiving!

- Milo

Friday, November 21, 2008

Transition—Things That Bother Me

And Things That Don’t

After this last week of Transition (week two and a half of eleven), I’m glad I took a week off to
write about dogs. Several of you told me that you were glad I did too. But I was glad that Obama and his transition team didn’t take the week off. And, I’ll tell you why.

But first I want to tell you some of the things that didn’t bother me this week. I wasn’t bothered by the decision to let Joe Lieberman keep the chair of the Homeland Security committee. While my personal preference would have been him to be appointed as ambassador to Antarctica, the likely dissent of the penguin population notwithstanding, I wasn’t bothered by the decision that was made because it was the solution preferred by the President-elect. I wasn’t bothered by all of the blithering over the blogospheres Right and Left about the possibility of Wife-of-Bill-Hillary-Clinton being named Secretary of State, at least as long as I was not coerced into reading about it.

I wasn’t bothered about that decision or any of the others that have been made-and-announced and those that have been made-but-not-announced because I want Obama to have the people around him that he believes can best help him achieve his objectives as president. I am proud that he doesn’t seem to be surrounding himself with yes-speaking-cronies. As in the
case of Lincoln, creating his own “team of rivals” says something about the self-confidence of the President-elect as well as his sense of this Union's dire straits.

As far as I am concerned “dire straits” is not an overstatement; and that brings me to the things that do concern me at this moment of transition. On Wednesday and Thursday, the Standard & Poor’s index of five hundred stocks fell by more than 6 percent, something that hasn’t happened since July 20 and 21, 1933. Floyd Norris, who
reported this happy news, added that the panic in the Great Depression was triggered by collapsing commodity prices, prices that have fallen rapidly this week.

Since I had been already thinking about
FDR’s transition in 1932-33, my mood wasn’t helped this morning when Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winner in economics and voice that I have come to trust most on the financial crisis, jerked me back in time to that other transition.
Everyone’s talking about a new New Deal, for obvious reasons. In 2008, as in 1932, a long era of Republican political dominance came to an end in the face of an economic and financial crisis that, in voters’ minds, both discredited the G.O.P.’s free-market ideology and undermined its claims of competence. And for those on the progressive side of the political spectrum, these are hopeful times.

There is, however, another and more disturbing parallel between 2008 and 1932 — namely, the emergence of a power vacuum at the height of the crisis. The interregnum of 1932-1933, the long stretch between the election and the actual transfer of power, was disastrous for the U.S. economy, at least in part because the outgoing administration had no credibility, the incoming administration had no authority and the ideological chasm between the two sides was too great to allow concerted action. And the same thing is happening now.
That “disturbing parallel” is disturbing indeed. As Krugman points out, our transition is not quite as long as it was for FDR—he was not inaugurated until March 4—but he also points out that crises move quicker now.
Most obviously, we’re in the midst of the worst stock market crash since the Great Depression: the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index has now fallen more than 50 percent from its peak. Other indicators are arguably even more disturbing: unemployment claims are surging, manufacturing production is plunging, interest rates on corporate bonds — which reflect investor fears of default — are soaring, which will almost surely lead to a sharp fall in business spending. The prospects for the economy look much grimmer now than they did as little as a week or two ago.
I wonder what FDR would have done about our “Detroit” crisis. When I polled a group of friends (who I suspect all voted for Obama) at lunch last week about bailing out the auto industry, I found no support, about what the three corporate-fly-your-own-plane execs found from the congressional committee when they brought their tin cups to Washington this week. Krugman again gave me pause.
Now, maybe letting the auto companies die is the right decision, even though an auto industry collapse would be a huge blow to an already slumping economy. But it’s a decision that should be taken carefully, with full consideration of the costs and benefits — not a decision taken by default, because of a political standoff between Democrats who want Mr. Paulson to use some of that $700 billion and a lame-duck administration that’s trying to force Congress to divert funds from a fuel-efficiency program instead.
What Krugman is saying is similar to what I heard the President-elect on his interview on “60 Minutes” last Sunday evening:
...let's see how this thing plays itself out. For the auto industry to completely collapse would be a disaster in this kind of environment, not just for individual families but the repercussions across the economy would be dire. So it's my belief that we need to provide assistance to the auto industry. But I think that it can't be a blank check.
At the risk of repeating myself, I think we need to follow Obama’s lead on this matter in order not to make a terrible situation more difficult for him. With Congress about to go into a recess that in other election years would last until January, I thought the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate hit the right notes with their “send us your plans and we’ll consider a special session beginning December 8.” I don’t know what more they could do. Why the automakers didn’t come with detailed plans in hand is another question.

There are a couple of other things that bother me in this transition—two wars, for example. Since we have only one president at a time and Obama is not yet it, all the President-elect can do is to prepare for what his administration will do after January 20. I don’t know what that means in the case of Robert Gates who looks to be asked to continue to remain as Secretary of Defense. In a unique way, he will have two masters in this transition. How can he prepare for what Obama will want him to do after January 20 and do what Bush wants him to do in the meantime? I have a lot of respect for Gates, but this will surely complicate transition planning on Iraq and Afghanistan for Obama.

The Gates situation is there for any to recognize. Obama wants him in the Cabinet; he’ll figure out how to manage it. There is a different problem that is not so visible; and it is truly Rovian. Did you see the article in Tuesday’s Washington Post about how the Bush administration is moving to protect key political appointments in the federal agencies?
Just weeks before leaving office, the Interior Department's top lawyer has shifted half a dozen key deputies -- including two former political appointees who have been involved in controversial environmental decisions -- into senior civil service posts.

The transfer of political appointees into permanent federal positions, called "burrowing" by career officials, creates security for those employees, and at least initially will deprive the incoming Obama administration of the chance to install its preferred appointees in some key jobs.

Similar efforts are taking place at other agencies. Two political hires at the Labor Department have already secured career posts there, and one at the Department of Housing and Urban Development is trying to make the switch.
My Republican friends may argue that this is a practice of every outgoing administration, but they would be wrong, at least in gargantuan degrees. I have argued elsewhere that one of the critical problems a new administration will face is restoring integrity to federal agencies. After re-election in 2004, President Bush set about to politicize federal agencies in a way that had not been attempted since President Nixon after his re-election in 1972. Under Rove’s direction the administration was far more successful than Nixon in enforcing control over the agencies. The Bush administration is doing all it can to extend its influence through what will be “moles” (and I don’t mean the small insectivorous mammals of the family Talpidae) in the agencies. Although the action is completely in character for what we’ve come to expect of the Bush administration, it still bothers me.

A friend and I were talking about FDR in the thirties and the situation Obama now faces. My friend said he thought Obama will know what to do. What worries him is whether or not the American people will accept what is required to save the nation. I think he is right to worry about that. What's bothering you in this time of transition?
- Milo

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rescue of a Human

[Update at the end]
It is one thing to have a steady procession of cats and dogs through our house for stays as short as overnight and as long as a couple of months as Connie provides foster care for them in preparation for their being adopted at the Humane Society of Central Oregon. It is quite another to go down to the shelter on Saturday mornings and put neckerchiefs on dogs that we suspect may get passed over because they are older, not a popular color, or not a “more desirable” breed.

The cacophony of barking can be deafening. For some, the barking is an attempt to get our attention. For others, it seems to come out of a desperation not understanding why they are cooped up in this place. Sometimes, more distressing to me are those who don’t bark at all, ones that seem to be completely intimidated by their surroundings or who have given up in despair that is written on their faces.

We go in on Saturday mornings before the would be adopters come in. The neckerchiefs were cut and sown the week before. One of the attendants, whose compassion for them seems endless, opens the kennel and holds the dog while Connie ties and fluffs it. I hold the neckerchief bag. We are told that the neckerchiefs make a difference in calling attention to these dogs that may so easily be passed by. We hope so. I am always saddened when I come back the next Saturday and find dogs still wearing the ones we put on the week before. It takes all of my resistance not to take these dogs home with me and add them to the two we already have.

Maybe you’ll understand that when we received the following message today from another friend who cares for these animals, it had special meaning.

I rescued a human today.

Her eyes met mine as she walked down the corridor peering apprehensively into the kennels.

I felt her need instantly and knew I had to help her. I wagged my tail, not too exuberantly, so she wouldn't be afraid.

As she stopped at my kennel I blocked her view from a little accident I had in the back of my cage. I didn't want her to know that I hadn't been walked today.
Sometimes the shelter keepers get too busy and I didn't want her to think poorly of them.

As she read my kennel card I hoped that she wouldn't feel sad about my past. I only have the future to look forward to and want to make a difference in someone's life.
She got down on her knees and made little kissy sounds at me.

I shoved my shoulder and side of my head up against the bars to comfort her. Gentle fingertips caressed my neck; she was desperate for companionship. A tear fell down her cheek and I raised my paw to assure her that all would be well.

Soon my kennel door opened and her smile was so bright that I instantly jumped into her arms.

I would promise to keep her safe.

I would promise to always be by her side.

I would promise to do everything I could to see that radiant smile and sparkle in her eyes.

I was so fortunate that she came down my corridor.

So many more are out there who haven't walked the corridors.

So many more to be saved.

At least I could save one.

I rescued a human today.
I know, this is projecting human emotions onto a dog, and in scientific studies that is a definite no no. But I have lived with dogs long enough to be suspicious of anyone who says they know what these creatures feel and don’t feel, or know or don’t know. My suspicion is that they know more and in ways that as humans we can’t imagine. Unlike any other animal, over thousands of years, dogs have been bred to be companions to humans; it is now, quite literally, in their genes.

So, if you have a place in your life for a canine friend, or perhaps a second one, consider one of these with a neckerchief, or one that should have a neckerchief but doesn’t. You just might get rescued.
- Milo
Update: In addition to the stories in the comments below, the posting of this piece on DailyKos has generated a lot of stories, all compassionate and some of them quite incredible.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

FDR and Barack Obama

At his press conference last Friday, President-elect Barack Obama said he had been talking with former presidents and reading some of the writings of Abraham Lincoln. I was glad to hear that he was seeking the counsel of these former presidents, especially Lincoln. I had been thinking about Franklin D. Roosevelt.

FDR had been especially in my mind because of a visit I had with an old friend on Election Day. She had her ballot out on the table and was going to make sure it was dropped in a voting box before the end of the day. She told me that she has voted in every election since she was 18 years of age. She recalled that the first time she voted was for FDR in 1932. You can do the math and figure out her age. I was struck by the historical parallels between the election in 1932 and 2008. Now I recognize that we need to be careful about making too much of these parallels; but since more and more we are hearing that we are facing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression I was drawn to a little reflection on that election seventy-six years ago.

Although stricken with polio and paralyzed from the waist down, Roosevelt refused to give up his desire to be active in politics. In 1928, seven years after he had been stricken, he was elected governor of New York. He followed the political trajectory of his relative Teddy. The first stop for both was Assistant Secretary of the Navy; the second was Governor of New York; and the third was the White House.

Roosevelt’s opponent in the 1932 election was Herbert Clark Hoover who had taken office just before the depression hit. He didn’t cause it, but he also seemed incapable of dealing with it. What else Hoover lacked was Roosevelt’s unique ability to persuade and reassure.

In a foreshadowing of Obama’s themes in the just concluded election, FDR focused his campaign on the common people who were being hurt by the depression. His speech during the campaign, “The Forgotten Man,” established the main themes of his campaign:

It is said that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo because he forgot his infantry--he staked too much upon the more spectacular but less substantial cavalry. The present administration in Washington provides a close parallel. It has either forgotten or it does not want to remember the infantry of our economic army.
And the common people listened to him. Roosevelt won in a landslide, winning 472 electoral votes to Hoover’s 59.

Two days after the election, Adolph Berle, one of those known as FDR’s “brain trust” presented the President-elect and his cabinet-to-be with three stark “either/or” statements of the dire situation they faced:

First, there would either be economic recovery or there would be a revolution.
Second, there would either be social reform of a restored economy or attempted political stabilization in a disintegrating one.
Third, either the "recovery" Hoover claimed was in progress would arrive, or FDR would have to clean up the mess.
I spent some time this week reading and listening to Roosevelt’s first inaugural address on March 4, 1933. At this “History Matters” website you can read his address, but at the “Sounds of History” website you can actually listen to the address as it was broadcast to the nation on radio. As I listened and read at the same time, I was struck by the relevance of FDR’s words seventy-five years ago for today.

I will only include some selections from his twelve-minute speech. Although I hope the ones I select convey the spirit and heart of FDR’s focus, the selection will subjective. But you do have the option of reading the entire speech yourself.

Before reading the speech, I did not realize that his words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” came from this address and from the first paragraph. I was glad to see them in context:

I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

…our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men…

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men…

Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now.

Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources…

Finally, in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order; there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people’s money, and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.

There are the lines of attack. I shall presently urge upon a new Congress in special session detailed measures for their fulfillment, and I shall seek the immediate assistance of the several States.
Roosevelt became one of America’s most beloved presidents, but he was also one of its most vilified, especially by the wealthy. Unlike Obama, Roosevelt came from wealth, which made his identification with common people reprehensible to those who, in the title of H. W. Brand’s new biography, considered him a “Traitor to His Class*.” Roosevelt was called a communist and socialist for his “New Deal” legislation that was directed at common people and that rescued the economy. Roosevelt’s failings—and he had them; the most notable for me was his internment of Japanese Americans during World War II—do not negate the assessment of his presidency made by The Economist in a review of Brand’s book:

Roosevelt was the greatest American president since Lincoln, his colossal abilities tested by personal illness, economic catastrophe and world war. He used every tool to hand to direct the United States in peace and war: party, bureaucracy, Congress and the media of the day. Whoever wins the presidential election of 2008 will find those levers rusted, weakened or twisted. His task will be to reconnect the presidency to the country and to the world—something that will take the talent and character Franklin Roosevelt brought to lead America from the nadir of economic distress to the zenith of power.
Our President-elect Barack Obama faces not only the severest economic crisis faced since the one FDR faced in 1933, he has, at the same time, to contend with two wars, and the collateral damage of an eight year assault on the American ideals of justice and civil liberties. He will need the “talent and character” of FDR, and more.

- Milo

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hope in Action

[Milo’s Note: A friend sent me this report on the celebration Tuesday night at Democratic headquarters in Bend, Oregon. But Mary also told of how she and her daughter had worked in the national and local races. I asked her if I could print her report as a guest column and she agreed. I know it is not a scientific measure, but there has not been another election where I can remember as many of my friends all over the country being actively involved “in the trenches” as in this election. I suspect that many of you have had similar experiences. Was the motivation desperation or hope? Desperation is sometimes the condition necessary to jump start our hope-in-waiting to hope-in-action. Whatever it was, the nation owes you thanks!]

I’ve enjoyed reading your articles, and I agree that one of
Obama’s unique gifts is his cross-cultural understanding. I also agree that his gift is desperately needed now. I think that the other countries of the world are so excited about him because they understand his gift and its importance.

My daughter and I were at the Bend Community Center on November 4, watching the returns with Democrats and local Democratic candidates who put on a big party for all the supporters. We had several big screen TV sets and pizza, salad, and beverages for one and all. My daughter was hired by Future PAC, a political action committee, to be a field director for Judy Steigler’s campaign, and she had a number of door-to-door canvassers working under her. It was easy for her to hire canvassers due to the economy and people’s need for work.

I did a lot of phone canvassing for Judy, as well as some canvassing for Barack Obama and Jeff Merkeley. I really enjoy talking with the voters. Of course, by November 3 people were sick of all the political calls, but I just decided that this was democracy in action and even though I sympathized with people I kept making my calls.

At the election night party we had a great turnout. It seemed like no time had passed before CNN declared Obama the winner and great rejoicing erupted from the crowd. People were jumping up and down, hugging each other, screaming, and then grabbing for the cell phones to notify their friends. People ran outside and popped balloons and cheered. It was so exciting to be part of it, and later as I talked with young people I realized that for many of them it was the first time they really felt hope and eagerness for the future.

Poor Obama now has a great load of expectation on his shoulders, not only from his fellow Americans but from Kenya and the whole world! I hope people will realize that due to the economic circumstances and the great number of critical issues that must be dealt with that they will have to be patient because not everything can happen at once. He is not the Messiah returned!

Anyway, I and many, many friends and family members are joyful and hugely relieved at the election’s outcome. My daughter told me something sad, however. A man she works with is very fearful because he is convinced that Obama is a terrorist. Obama’s election has frightened this man, and my daughter is not sure what to say to bring him comfort

We must keep in mind that there are many people who are very scared or angry. I hope Obama can reassure people and bring us together as Americans.

Anyway, we can continue to live by hope.
- Mary

Monday, November 10, 2008


[Milo's Note: I received this poem from my good friend in Anchorage, written on election day. I asked for and received his permission to share it with you. Thanks, Jim!]


James A. Campbell

I shall not forget this day….
the jaunt on icy streets
in the light of an ever fading November sun
to leave my dot of ink
and feed my judgment to the hungry machine
that counts and connects the dots to a new day.


Too long this damnable anxious night
like a stuffed head aching
and bowels churning
from an influenza of buffoonery,
this raw rash burning through the night
from an arrogance,
a cowboy insolence,
pitiful excuses and false hopes
of “mission accomplished”
uttered in cadence of
four garbled words
and a brain fart.

No ointment worked
to soothe the embarrassment of this man,
whose legacy is soon over.


You could feel it
standing in line.
This was not just any dot on the page day.
…civic duty with a yawn.
This was the day of “the mark.”
The sacrament of vote,
the communal sigh
of the fever breaking
in the echo of one once dreaming
for our children
from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
This is the day in the fading sun of winter
that I placed my dot on the swell of memory
of the long winter shared
with others waiting,
waiting to say, “yes we did…
yes we did.”


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Keeping Watch during Bush's Last Weeks - SOFA

President-elect Obama said it clearly in his press conference yesterday: this nation has only one president at a time and President Bush is it until January 20. For me that means that the Bush administration’s proven propensity for messing up the country still has eleven weeks for more mischief. I do not suggest that because of the Democratic victory President Bush is making new plans to undermine the will of the electorate that was about as much a repudiation of his policies and practices as one could imagine. No, even with this president, I am not that conspiracy-minded.

What worries me more is that the wheels of the Bush administration did not suddenly grind to a halt with the results of Tuesday’s election. Even if he wanted to, he could not bring the long and heavily-loaded train of his administration to a sudden stop.

Some things, like the Status of Forces Agreement negotiations with Iraq, continue with the same administration players seeking the same ends as before the election. In case you may be like the folks with whom I was discussing this yesterday who declared that they knew nothing of such negotiations and wondered why they hadn’t heard about them on television news programs, you might want to check out the article I wrote here about it last June titled,
“Iraq: Who’s on First?” and what I said at that time about what is at stake for both countries. In case you don’t have that much patience, here is a short summary.

As far back as five years, the Bush administration planned to get a long-term strategic agreement with the Iraqi government that would allow U.S. military presence in Iraq permanently. The negotiations on the agreement (SOFA) began early this year.

Why does the U.S. need such an agreement? The Bush administration didn’t seem to think it needed one when it invaded Iraq over five years ago. But once power was handed over to the newly elected government of Iraq the Bush administration found it convenient to have the blessing of the United Nations. So on June 8, 2004, the UN Security Council
approved resolution 1546, endorsing the formation of the interim government, welcoming “the end of the occupation and the prospect of elections in January 2005.” The UN resolution has been renewed in more or less the same language for each year since, but the legitimation of international occupying forces in Iraq expires at the end 2008. Rather than get another extension of the UN resolution, which might prove troublesome, the Bush administration chose to negotiate a “status of forces” agreement directly with Iraq, analogous to ones the U.S. has with South Korea, Germany, and Japan, but with some special privileges for the U.S. in Iraq.

As far back as January, Newsweek’s Michael Hirsch
saw what the Bush administration was trying to do.
Most significant of all, the new partnership deal with Iraq, including a status of forces agreement that would then replace the existing Security Council mandate authorizing the presence of the U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq, will become a sworn obligation for the next president. (bold mine)
At the time, Senator Hillary Clinton warned the President not to take such action without congressional approval. The Bush administration claimed that the agreement did not need Senate ratification. As Hirsch saw last January, it
“…would be difficult if not impossible for future presidents to unilaterally breach such a pact.”
The administration’s plan was to have the new agreement signed and sealed by early in July. Alas, the democratically-elected-under-American-tutelage government of Iraq decided to exercise some of its sovereignty and has resisted many of the provisions the U.S. wanted, which brings us up to the present with no signed agreement, and the prospects of having one by the end of the year not bright.

Two days after the election of Barack Obama, the Washington Post
Iraq's chief spokesman said with unusual forcefulness Thursday that his government will continue to insist on a firm withdrawal date for U.S. troops, despite American demands that any pullout be subject to prevailing security conditions.

"Iraqis would like to know and see a fixed date," spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in an interview in which he also reiterated Iraq's position that American forces be subject to Iraqi legal jurisdiction in some instances.

Iraqi officials, who see President-elect Obama's views on the timing of a U.S. withdrawal as consonant with their own, appear to be leveraging his election to pressure the Bush administration to make last-minute concessions. Dabbagh said negotiations to reach a status-of-forces agreement, which would sanction the U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond 2008, would collapse if no deal is reached by the end of this month.
There was a time when President Bush confidently asserted that the U.S. would stay in Iraq only as long as the duly elected Iraqi government wanted. We haven’t heard that from him since the Iraqi government said they wanted a fixed date to get out of the country.

At issue in the negotiations is not only the “fixed date” but a host of other issues as well. Although the U.S. proposal and their revisions over the months have never been made public, Iraqis have released parts of the terms. By all accounts, the U.S. has made major concessions from the terms offered earlier in the year. According to the Middle East Times, the draft on which the U.S. thought it finally had agreement
includes the following provisions:
- All U.S. military operations would need the agreement of the Iraqi government and must be coordinated with Iraqi authorities. A joint U.S. Iraq committee would be set up for coordination.

- U.S. military forces would not be allowed to arrest or detain people without an Iraqi court order, and those arrested must be turned over to Iraqi authorities within 24 hours.

- U.S. troops would no longer be allowed to enter and search homes without a warrant in hand from Iraqi authorities except in combat situations.

- U.S. troops must end their presence in Iraqi cities and towns by June 30, and leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

- Before the end of the agreement, Iraq can ask the United States to maintain forces in the country for training and support.
Even these concessions by the Bush administration have not made the agreement palatable to many Iraqis:
Provisions of the draft agreement have apparently sparked a firestorm within Maliki's Shiite-dominated coalition government. Some factions apparently object to the clause allowing the possibility for U.S. troops to remain after 2011. Maliki has reportedly called for proposed amendments from members of his cabinet.
The U.S. negotiators have taken the position that they have made all of the concessions they are prepared to make.

In his interview with the Washington Post Abadi said it remained unclear how Obama’s election will ultimately affect the negotiations.
"It can go either way," he said. The Bush administration, the lawmaker explained, might have refrained from making some potentially controversial decisions during the run-up to the U.S. election. Conversely, he said, "maybe the political will in Washington will be weaker" now that the election is over.

Iraqi officials say it is also unclear how much support there is in the 275-member parliament for the agreement because many lawmakers are afraid to reveal their positions publicly. The Kurdish bloc, which has 53 seats, supports an agreement. Thirty lawmakers who are followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are staunchly opposed.
While I do not assign any particular virtue to the Iraqi government, I hope they resist signing an agreement unless it has a fixed date of departure for U.S. forces. If the year ends and the U.S. is in the position of not having a legitimized role in the country, that will be the best indication of our real status there.

We need to keep watch in these last weeks of the Bush presidency.* I’ll try to keep late-breaking developments on this agreement posted here because I don’t think you can count on hearing about them on the nightly news.
- Milo

*For my friends who supported Obama and those who didn’t, I’ll tell you that we also need to keep watch on the Obama presidency because a “watched” presidency is more likely to be a more responsible one. With their priorities on “entertaining” rather than “informing” the major networks cannot be trusted to give us all of the news we need. Had we done our jobs of watching and reporting better in the early years of the Bush presidency, he might not have won re-election in 2004. Scary to contemplate our own complicity isn’t it?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Suggestions for the Inaugural Address

[Milo’s Note: An old friend, extended family member, and financial consultant in Ohio, Jerry has been thinking about how the Obama administration might begin its work. In this guest column he has suggestions for Obama’s inaugural address. Thanks, Jerry!]

Were I advising Obama, here’s what I’d suggest. In your Inaugural Address, make the following points:

Based on our common values, Americans agree on the following goals:

* A viable, affordable health care system for all

* An environmental policy that quickly reverses the terrible risk of global warming and instability

* An energy policy that supports our environmental goals and no longer sends trillions of dollars to the Middle East to finance terrorism, bigotry and inequality

* Economic policies based on the Constitutional imperative to “promote the general welfare”.

For decades, however, we Americans have engaged in fierce and often partisan debates about how to accomplish these shared goals. It is my responsibility as President to lead all of us to agreement on the “how”, and to then work with Congress to put those agreements into workable laws.

In order to begin this process, I am today calling on the governors of our fifty states to join with me in a process that begins at the bottom, with the people, and moves upward to our national government, a process that draws the people together to find the solutions we need.

My administration will work with each governor to create a six-month process of public hearings and discussion, throughout every level of every state that will show us how the American people wish to solve these problems.

At the same time, my administration will be working from the top down, with commissions staffed by both experts and politicians, to come up with their own feasible solutions to these problems.

At the end of the six months, I will ask the governors to join me in Washington to express the voices of their citizens. I will ask them to meet with our commissions, to debate the issues, and to publish their conclusions.

It is my belief that from this process, the voice of the people will be heard and the knowledge of the experts will be brought to bear, with the result that I, working with Congress, will be able to frame a set of legislative proposals that will have the support of all Americans.

We have many other pressing problems, including extricating ourselves responsibly from a disastrous war, solving a terrible immigration problem, assuring that our civil rights are protected, de-militarizing our economy, and so on. I will address all of these problems in due course. But today, I am focusing on the long terms challenges that must be solved if we wish to grow and prosper as a nation.

In proposing this process, I do not intend to abandon my responsibilities to lead and to propose legislative solutions; to the contrary, I believe the American people have given me a mandate to find ways to bring us together to meet the challenges and accomplish the goals that I have identified. This is how we will begin.

The Audacity of Hope

As President-elect Barack Obama said in his speech at Grant Park in Chicago late last night, his was a victory for young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled.

It was that indeed; but please indulge me to linger on images of what Obama’s election meant for African Americans. I am not black but I remember the fifties and sixties in the South and in Chicago. I could only imagine what emotions were flooding through Jesse Jackson in the crowd at Grant Park, tears streaming down his face. I too wept as I heard John Lewis recall, “Some gave their lives and some of us gave a little blood to make this night happen.”

And then, as Obama began to speak, he let the image of a 106 year old black woman be the paradigm for the change that is possible.

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing - Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons - because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves - if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes we can!
We will need all of the “Yes-we-can!” spirit we can muster in these days ahead as Obama has to lead us in confronting a plethora of problems unlike any other in our nation’s history. As he reminded us earlier in the speech,

I know you didn't do this just to win an election and I know you didn't do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor's bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.
But there is something about this man who had the audacity to hope for himself and his nation. “Hope,” he well knows, is not supine; it is a call to action and requires fearless daring. Although I haven’t heard him mention his name, Obama understands what St. Augustine (354-430) meant by the “two daughters of hope,” one named Anger and the other Courage: anger so that what cannot be, may not be; and courage, so that what must be, will be. That’s why the Obama campaign was successful.

Two days before the election, when Frank Rich was musing about Obama and the old movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” he concluded,

...we are a people as practical as we are dreamy. We’ll soon remember that the country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to dig us out.
If Obama is to dig us out, those of us who supported his candidacy are going to have to pick up shovels and use them. We’ll be well served if we get better acquainted with those two daughters of Hope.

- Milo

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Cross Cultural Understanding - Obama's Unique Gift

Barack Obama and his Grandparents

(See update at the bottom)

One day away from the election that will mightily impact our nation and the world, I am emotionally on pins and needles. I don’t apologize for it because I believe that if you are the least bit casual about the decisions (especially, but not only, about the next president and vice-president) to be finalized tomorrow, then you are either high on tranquilizers or something else; or you simply do not understand the stakes.

I have heard of a few who say that who wins the presidency matters little. There were doubtless also those who said that prior to the Herbert Hoover vs. Franklin Roosevelt campaign in 1932. I can appreciate the sentiment expressed by others that our nation is mired so deeply in the muck of war, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and the shambles our national institutions after the greatest attack on the rule by law ever that the presidency may not be a prize worth winning. I can understand that sentiment but for me it simply underscores how critical the decision is about who we elect as president.

The two candidates have made their cases for why they should be elected. I do not need or want to repeat the case I’ve been attempting to make since I started this blog last January. But as we come down to this last day I’ve been thinking of the unique gift that Barack Obama offers this nation. I know that we could have a long conversation about his genius at organizing, his grasp of highly complex and interwoven issues, his temperament, his conscience, and other qualities. But standing on the precipice of this election, I think Obama’s unique gift that has enhanced his other gifts is his cross cultural understanding.

Ironically, that understanding frightens many Americans. From every angle, he has been attacked for being “different.” Although we say we are “a melting pot,” what that has been popularly meant is that diverse ethnic groups should become one English speaking culture. Diversity in the “melting pot” has been little prized and appreciated. It is not by accident that native-born United States citizens speak fewer languages than most any other nation in the world. “Ethnocentrism,” using one’s own culture as the measuring rod for other cultures without being consciously aware of it, and “naïve realism,” the belief that our perceptions of reality are not colored or mediated by anything else, continue to thrive in the ideological soil of this country. In this cultural climate Obama’s gift has not been celebrated as it might have been or held up as a gift that offers promise to the American people and the rest of the world.

Cross cultural understanding” refers to the ability of people to recognize, interpret and correctly react to people, incidences or situations that are open to misunderstanding due to cultural differences. When the Peace Corps was established in 1961 it pioneered in an effort to equip Volunteers with the appropriate skills to understand cultural differences and enhance respect and tolerance of those differences. (Click here to see current training materials.)

As far as I know, Barack Obama never had any formal cross cultural training. He had the most important kind: he grew up in multiple cross cultural contexts. And he learned from them. In his
Dreams from My Father (1995) Obama chronicles those contexts. He was born in 1961 to a white American woman and a black Kenyan student. In 1967 his mother took Barack to Indonesia as she followed a new husband back to his homeland, only to return to Hawaii five years later in 1971 where Barack was reared by his mother and her parents. His are also the stories of a lonely voyage to racial identity, tensions in school, struggling with black literature, and a month-long visit from his father when he was ten. After college, Obama became a community organizer in Chicago, where he learned enough about himself and the people he worked with to commit himself to being a civil rights lawyer there. He tells about how after his father’s death he visited Kenya, discovering and embracing more of his family roots.

Obama’s is the story of a bi-racial man growing up in both white and black America; his viewpoint is unique. His cross-cultural experience includes not only race, but also economic class. Should he be elected tomorrow, what he has experienced, how he learned from it, and, as an excellent writer and speaker, his ability to communicate it, will make him unique in the long line of American presidents.

A president with this gift could not come at a more critical time in our history. The United States needs a new image in the world. In his recent article, “
Rebranding the U.S. with Obama,” Nicholas Kristof suggests that Obama’s success could change global perceptions of the United States,

redefining the American “brand” to be less about Guantánamo and more about equality. This change in perceptions would help rebuild American political capital in the way that the Marshall Plan did in the 1950s or that John Kennedy’s presidency did in the early 1960s.

In his endorsement of Mr. Obama, Colin Powell noted that “the new president is going to have to fix the reputation that we’ve left with the rest of the world.” That’s not because we crave admiration, but because cooperation is essential to address 21st-century challenges; you can’t fire cruise missiles at the global financial crisis. In his endorsement, Mr. Powell added that an Obama election “will also not only electrify our country, I think it’ll electrify the world.” You can already see that. A 22-nation survey by the BBC found that voters abroad preferred Mr. Obama to Mr. McCain in every single country — by four to one over all. Nearly half of those in the BBC poll said that the election of Mr. Obama, an African-American, would “fundamentally change” their perceptions of the United States.
I am not interested in a change of image that does not reflect actual changes in the values and policies of the United States government. Neither, I suspect, is the rest of the world. However important who Obama is for changing our image in the rest of the world, the full breadth and depth of his cross cultural understanding will be required to implement policies here at home—the ones that he has campaigned for—that express this nation’s ideals.

A “President Obama” will be responsible for giving the American people a broader, more realistic, and more respectful view of the world and how we find our way in its complexities and ambiguities. In my view, it is a task for which he is uniquely qualified. His gift might be the most important that a president elected in 2008 could give to the nation and world.

If you haven’t already voted, don’t miss this chance to exercise your duty as a citizen and cast what may well be the most important vote of your lifetime.

UPDATE: Obama's Grandmother died this morning, one day from the election. Madelyn Payne Dunham was 86. Obama and his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng issued a joint statement sayhing that Dunham died peacefully late Suday night after a battle with cancer. They said, "She was the cornerstone of our family, and a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, strength, and humility. She was the person who encouraged and allowed us to take chances." She was a unique gift to Barack and through him to the rest of us!

- Milo

In Case You Haven't Already

Take a look at this video. It'll make you smile, and if you haven't already voted, it might move you to do so. Thanks, Bud.


Have a great day!

- Milo