Archive for the 'Government' Category


Graphics Novels, Politics, and Tropicana

I have an ongoing debate with a friend about the value of graphic novels (aka book-length comics). He lured me in initially with V for Vendetta and added to my collection with a gift of Watchmen and Y: The Last Man. I’ve read the first two, but haven’t gotten to the latter.

Perhaps I’m a snob, but there’s something that feels so adolescent about reading with pictures. Objectively, I know this issue is a personal one. Time has even gone so far as to place Watchmen on its list of All-Time 100 Novels. So, as an avid reader, why can’t I embrace graphic novels with the same abandon as the traditional book form (and why should you care)?

My graphic novel discomfort is an example of something plaguing many of us: when things we love take different forms, we aren’t always willing to share or to transfer that love equally. Translation: we’re missing opportunities.

Love Across Party Lines

Consider this application: in theory, as citizens of the United States, we love our country. However, every time a political party takes power we run the risk that our love will be compromised if said party’s ideology is the opposite of ours. For the last eight years, a growing number of people actively spoke out and campaigned against President Bush. Like all presidents before him, Obama now faces similar adversaries.

Of late, the media has been absorbed with the kerfluffle about who heads the Republican party and Rush Limbaugh saying he hopes President Obama fails. Much debate has ensued, with a large chunk focused on whether citizens who don’t agree with him should hope Obama fails and by default, don’t hope that our circumstances improve.

Whatever side you come down on, I think there’s a point being overlooked. We can still love something even as we’re critical and unsure of its different forms. For instance, I think people who say they hope Obama fails should take the time to provide an alternative. Love of something isn’t just about pleasure. It comes with responsibility

Squeeze’em Until It Hurts

We can take this attitude in multiple areas, not just politics. As companies morph into different things, or change their products, we either choose to adapt or push back (see Jackie Huba’s excellent write up on the Tropicana redesign drama). And simply because we can’t embrace the new form of our original love, doesn’t mean the new lacks value.

I will probably never choose a graphic novel over a traditional one, just as you may never choose to support a Republican over a Democrat or buy products in new packaging. However, the only person who looks foolish if I never consider the “new” honestly is me. Do you really want to be foolish?


A Bailout from Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy of Senator Christopher Dodd amazes me. Why?

The president joined politicians such as Senator Christopher Dodd, who today called for using “every possible legal means to get the money back.” The bonus pool for 2008 by New York City financial companies was the sixth-largest ever amid record losses in the securities industry, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in a report yesterday. (link)

So what’s the big deal?

It’s been over seven months since it was revealed that Senate Banking Committee chairman Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.) got a sweetheart deal on his Washington, D.C., townhouse directly from Angelo Mozilo, the CEO of troubled subprime-mortgage lender Countrywide Financial. Participating in the “Friends of Angelo” program saved Dodd about $75,000 on his mortgage, and raised more than a few eyebrows about whether Dodd should be accepting such hefty gifts from entities he’s tasked with overseeing and regulating. (link)

To be clear, Dodd wants all those naughty Wall Street peeps to give back their bonuse, but I see nothing in the news about him offering to make up the $75,000 break he received from a company involved directly in the current economic mess.

I believe we should be asking hard questions asked about Wall Street bonuses paid out in 2008, particularly if they were paid with tax dollars. However, I find it tacky that one individual who is doing so sees nothing wrong with receiving what amounts to a questionable bonus.

If we’re truly suffering from a “crisis of confidence,” according to Dodd, then how do his actions help counteract that confidence? Don’t talk to me about how Wall Street should behave when it’s still unclear whether your hands are any cleaner.

Change Congress Makes Sense

Dodd’s case is neither unusual nor limited to either political party. What makes this situation so frustrating is the lack of transparency. One of the reasons I’m enchanted (yes, enchanted) with Larry Lessig’s Change Congress movement is it’s position “that politicians should work for the people, not special interests.” You can’t get much more transparent. Even more powerful is its acknowledgment that the system itself has to be reformed in order for change to happen.

Currently, Change Congress is calling for a donor strike and they’ve hit the $500,000 mark:

“I’m pledging not to donate to any federal candidate unless they support legislation making congressional elections citizen-funded, not special-interest funded.”

This language gives me confidence in the potential for my government to be better than it is today. Dodd calling for “every possible legal means” does not instill confidence because his actions bely the words. Whether you agree with President Obama’s agenda, one piece that we can all get behind, regardless of affiliation, is that things need to change. What are you doing to effect that change?


Taking Shots at America’s Banker

As I’m fond of saying, words have power. Today, Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury Secretary, proved as much in his written testimony with a direct shot at China.

“President Obama backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists believes that China is manipulating its currency,” Geithner wrote. That stopped short of a charge that China is manipulating its currency intentionally to gain an unfair trade advantage, as the 1988 trade law requires for an official citation of “manipulation,” which in turn would trigger a United States diplomatic effort to get China to let the value of its currency, the yuan, rise. (link)

James Fallows of The Atlantic provides a succinct explanation for the potential issues surrounding this stated position. The one that sticks out to me highlights the risk of such pointed language:

Do we think that the Chinese authorities who have put some $2 trillion into US assets will respond blandly to being labeled manipulators — or to a policy that would effectively devalue the investments they’ve already made here? If Americans think that, they’re naive–in my view, based on this interview with a man at the center of Chinese decision making. (link)

Here’s where my interest lies…we have yet to see a firm economic plan from the United States government so why the strong language aimed at America’s favorite banker? I claim no expertise in foreign currency matters, but I do wonder, like Mr. Fallows, why Geithner elected to use such blunt language for something that’s been a tricky diplomacy dance for years.

While I might wish otherwise, China plays a large role in American piggy banks. What happens to our economic recovery if China decides to stop the flow of money? Think about it in the most basic of terms. If a child mouths off to a parent, odds of her continuing to receive a weekly allowance plummets. While America isn’t exactly a child, it is in a position of being reliant on another entity who has power in the relationship.

Addressing China and Chinese policy that impacts American policy is a valid role for government officials. I can only hope that in coming months said officials will show more common sense in their efforts and words.


Building Highways the Hard Way

476897084_0f66d1ef97Perusing post-holiday news, I came across two stories that highlight my frustration with status quo thinking. The first story focuses on a federal commission charged with exploring an increase in the gas tax or raising funds for road upkeep via mileage:

Motorists are driving less and buying less gasoline, which means fuel taxes aren’t raising enough money to keep pace with the cost of road, bridge and transit programs.

A federal commission created by Congress to find a way to make up the growing revenue shortfall in the program that funds highway repairs and construction is talking about increasing federal gas and diesel taxes…According to a draft of the financing commission’s recommendations, the nation needs to move to a new system that taxes motorists according to how much they use roads. While details have not been worked out, such a system would mean equipping every car and truck with a device that uses global positioning satellites and transponders to record how many miles the vehicle has been driven, and perhaps the type of roads and time of day. (link)

The second story deals with a proposed solution to raise road funds in Oregon also based on mileage:

Oregon is among a growing number of states exploring ways to tax drivers based on the number of miles they drive instead of how much gas they use, even going so far as to install GPS monitoring devices in 300 vehicles. The idea first emerged nearly 10 years ago as Oregon lawmakers worried that fuel-efficient cars such as gas-electric hybrids could pose a threat to road upkeep, which is paid for largely with gasoline taxes. (link)

Oh, the Irony.

In case you missed it, the people in charge are essentially trying to figure out how to fix shortfalls in their funding because their citizens actually paid attention to the pleas (or got tired of shelling out money) to drive less and conserve fuel. Even more entertaining is the concern stated explicitly by Oregon lawmakers that more fuel efficient cars pose a threat to road upkeep because they don’t require as many trips to the pump, lessening their owners’ contributions via the gas tax.

From an economic standpoint, I’m unsure why the option of people paying for the roads they use, without installing a government-owned monitoring device, isn’t a viable option that balances the burden while meeting the funding needs. Whether through the use of toll roads or paying a yearly fee to have a pass for traveling on Interstates, there are other ways to make roads pays for themselves.

From a logical standpoint, either the argument for raising the fuel tax or for taxing mileage fails to make sense based on the current mantra to drive less and to lower fuel consumption. In addition, the notion that people who choose to purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles are “getting away” with something is ludicrous. Again, these people listened to those who called for smarter vehicle purchases. Now the powers that be are surprised that their call to action has had a chain reaction. However, their arguments fail to address an underlying imbalance in either proposed system of raising the gas tax or taxing mileage.

When Other Option Don’t Exist

As the proponents of such measures argue, the overall number of people driving has dropped and thus fuel consumption, lowering the amount of funds available for roads and the like. In theory, the people who are still driving, particularly during price spikes, are doing so because they have to. This group includes long-distance truckers, people who work outside of mass transit systems, and farmers to name a few. Taking the example to the next step, the government wants these individuals and entities to pay more for being on the roads, making up the difference for those who did as asked and stayed home because they could or rode the bus.

Roads Paying for Themselves

Every person that drives a car must pay some related fee (e.g., vehicle registration, car insurance, etc.) to operate a vehicle legally, regardless of how much they drive. Even if I become the little old lady who only drives to the store and back, I still have to pay those related costs to operate a vehicle. I believe you can implement a similar program for roads.

People could be charged for access to specific roads, regardless of how much they’re on them in the same way that we must pay the set amount for vehicle fees regardless of how often we drive our cars. Such a system also has the attractive feature of not requiring a government-installed device to track usage, helping protect driver privacy. Also, just like you can get a ticket for expired registration or lack of insurance, you could be ticketed for not paying to be on that road.

Before you start shouting that this solution is no more fair than the other proposed systems, consider this: such an option offers the flexibility to set up a tiered system that breaks roads into different categories. Such a system could be designed to take into account the needs of people who only travel locally versus those who travel nationally or high-traffic roads in urban areas versus a small town grid. By default, those who don’t own a vehicle won’t have to pay for using the roads. Instead, if needed, their contributions could came through an additional charge on a bus or metro pass.

You Need to Eventually Get the Carrot

Regardless of the end solution, one thing is clear: you can’t ask something of people and then essentially punish them for doing what you asked. At some point, they’ll stop supporting your efforts. Why do governments believe they are exempt from this reality?

How do you think we could do it better?

Image courtesy of Thomas Hawk


American Democracy or Bust

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not sure I can vote for either presidential candidate, and I’m afraid tonight’s debate drove that home. For what seems like years and multiple elections, I’ve heard the same talking points and “personal” attacks, regardless of the actual candidates themselves. Frankly, a two-party election bores the hell out of me. We all know what the Democrats are about. We all know what the Republicans are about. Isn’t it time we tried something new?

What about a Green or a Libertarian? Well, Ralph Nadar put a nail in the Green coffin, and even though ex-Congressman Bob Barr is somewhat known (Monicagate, anyone?), he still isn’t enough to power the Libertarian party into serious competition. Let’s think about these two parties. In some ways, they represent extremes of both major parties, appealing to niches versus vast majorities, a hindrance for winning a national election. I write this even with my personal leanings being Libertarian flavored on many issues.

Candidates that have challenged and beat the establishment have done so because they represented a majority of the public’s view on a topic of interest. The Republican Party first rose to prominence in the 1800s over the issue of abolishing slavery. However, it seems like we’ve come to a bit of a stalemate. The differences between the two parties are predictable and not necessarily in a good way.

Democrats and Republicans

For all that Obama positions himself as the candidate of change, does he really represent a different version of the Democratic party or simply a more attractive, charismatic package than Al Gore or John Kerry? While I disagree with many of the Democratic positions, I’ve never believed Democrats as a party to be stupid, just somewhat disorganized with multiple voices clamoring for equal billing. Now they have a presidential candidate who’s perhaps the best orator in a generation and a fundraising machine courtesy of the Internet and millions of contributors. He’s spending some of that money this month on a personal Obama satellite channel. Maybe he is a man of the people, a candidate of change.

For the Republicans, well, if they win this election it will be due to a Hail Mary. Nothing is in their favor. The economy has tanked. We’re still stuck in a country five years later where we were told we’d be greeted as liberators. And for a party that claims to favor a small government, one is left wondering if this is small, what big government would look like. Add in a candidate who claims to be a maverick and picks a maverick as a running mate and citizens can only wonder how many other Middle East countries might be ready to “welcome” us. One also can’t ignore that the sitting Republican president has some some seriously low approval ratings. I don’t think the White House welcome mat is laid out for McCain.

As Good As It Gets

Is this election really as good as it gets? I don’t care if you’re a Republican, a Democrat, Green, Libertarian, Socialist, or even a misanthrope. If these candidates are representative of the best this country has to offer, we’re in trouble. I write this knowing that many people believe Obama to be this country’s only hope for future success. I respect that belief. He may very well prove me wrong and be the best president we’ve every had. But what happens if he’s not? Who’s left in the Democratic party, Hillary aside, to take up the party leadership in a way that bucks the past? The same applies to the Republicans. I didn’t like anyone in that primary anymore than I liked any of the Democrats.

We’ve proven so innovative in so many areas. Why does America’s democracy continue down the same path it’s followed for years? Can’t we make it better? H.L. Mencken captures it perfectly with the thought that, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” But, one can counter with the wisdom of Winston Churchill: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

American history has shown that political parties can rise and fall. If you truly believe that either of the major parties is a perfect fit for you, more power to you. However, if you look at that status quo and potentially have to hold your nose to vote for the least bad candidate, isn’t it time we thought seriously about a new party or at least a new type of political candidate? Do you believe you deserve better?


The Bubble Popped. Now What?

I’ve held my tongue for days as I’ve watched the supposed leaders of this country try to explain how they’re going to “solve” the current economic mess. Part of me enjoys the perfect timing of everything blowing up right before an election. The other part, well, it wonders why everyone is so shocked that the bubble popped. The United States and its citizens were testing the theory that they could live on credit indefinitely.  Amazingly enough, running at a deficit has a cost that we’re all becoming intimately acquainted with.

I’ve waited with great patience for one, just one, person to accept responsibility, even if it’s only partial, for any part of the chaos. Surprise, surprise all I hear is both political parties blaming each other and talking heads on CNBC predicting a long-term recession. I hear everyone talking about Main Street bailing out Wall Street. I hear politicians assure me that they must intervene. Why?

Who Takes Responsibility

I’m not an economist, so my argument does not even attempt to address the financial side of things, but rather what I consider to be the moral and the ethical aspect of the situation. Accountability has been missing from society for a while now. Occasionally, you’ll hear about an investigation into corruption at City Hall or something similar. The prosecuting attorney gets some air time that will play well during the election and everyone gets to feel good that someone is getting the bad guys. Unfortunately, I don’t believe our current situation fits this mold.

Here’s the reality: I believe that each one of use is guilty to some extent for the situation we find ourselves facing. If you don’t own a credit card, you’re mostly excused, unless you took out a mortgage for more than you knew you could afford to pay. I believe this mess started when we started listening to the media, our friends, our family, telling us that we deserved to have what we wanted NOW, not later, but RIGHT NOW.

So we got sucked into the credit card offers that screamed, “One Year Without Interest” or payment plans that promised, “Only $88 A Month.” We bought the big screen, the boat, and all the others toys, believing that a “little” debt was ok, because our homes were worth double, triple, etc. what they were when we bought them.

But wait, why not sell my home and buy a bigger one, because my investment will increase even more in a bigger house that’s worth more. Oh, I can get in that bigger house for less with an adjustable rate mortgage that increases my payment by $1000 a month in three years? No problem. I’ll have enough equity by then that I can swing it or sell the house for twice what I paid for it.

The Gray Area

Before you jump on me for ignoring the plight of people who were taken advantage of by ruthless mortgage brokers whose only concern was earning a commission, I know that hundreds of thousands of people were misled. Everything from last minute rate changes to outright threats played a role in bad mortgage lending. However, even if you say these individuals make up 50% of the bad mortgages that still leaves another 50% who should know better.

Consider the words of consumer behaviorist Larry Compeau of Clarkson University from a Newsweek column in March 2008.

“People in their 30s haven’t really experienced a significant or long recessionary period…I am concerned that they won’t be able to respond quickly enough to mitigate what may be the damage ahead.”

The column’s author Eve Conant continues, “Not only do people under 40 save less, but they have less to save.” Indeed, savings as a percentage of disposable income have plummeted in the United States, from between 7 and 10 percent in the 1960s and ’70s to just 0.4 percent in 2007.” (link) Note that it’s savings measured against disposable income. Doesn’t that make us complicit?

I can also hear the argument that the cost of living has increased as wages have flattened, making regular use of credit a necessity. Health care, the cost of food, the cost of energy. You name it, most everything costs more. But let’s be honest, how many people are surviving on credit cards alone as a sole source of funds? Isn’t it more likely that the credit cards are paying for the vacations, the clothes, the iPods, and the toys of life?

I’m the first to acknowledge that the credit market is screwed up and not aimed at protecting consumer interests. (I strongly encourage Maxed Out, both the book and the documentary, for a look at the credit industry.) However, we keep going back for more. I find it telling that because I pay my balance in full each month, credit card companies refer to me as a deadbeat. Their number one customers are the ones caught in the revolving door of minimum payments, never touching the principal and only paying the interest. Doesn’t this outlook tell us something important about credit card companies?

Make Something Happen

Don’t we owe it to ourselves to protect our individual interests? For those who believe more government regulation is the answer, good luck. The $700 billion bailout started as a three page document in the White House and after the House and Senate got through with it, the number had increased, going from 110 to 451 pages. The Senate, because it’s constitutional barred from initiating finance bills, slapped multiple bills together to create a package that skirted that pesky rule. Any regulation will come with strings that may or may not benefit individuals, regardless of which party controls Congress and the White House.

So I say start small. Go to and get your name removed from the list that the credit agencies provide to businesses extending credit offers or insurance. You can opt out for LIFE if you want. Start a savings account even if it’s pennies in a jar (example of government stupidity, it costs roughly 2.5 cents to make each penny, a loss of 1.5 cents per coin).

Finally, the thing I believe will save us, as it has in the past, is our ingenuity and willingness to innovate. Some have suggested, for example, that if the U.S. could create a green energy revolution through technology innovations, swinging things back to the positive side. At the foundation of whatever proves the solution will be people who made something, who didn’t just consume. We talk about the scales of justice being balanced. Doesn’t the same rule apply to what we do with our lives? If we take, doesn’t it make sense to give back?

UPDATE: If you’re curious, I wrote a post a little over a year ago about the history of credit cards and their role in the economy.


Broken Politics

I’m been quiet the last few weeks on the presidential election. Recent events in both parties, however, have made it worth revisiting the campaigns and the language associated with them. To clarify my position before diving in, I support none of the candidates (even the ones no longer in the race), and I believe both the Republican and Democratic parties are broken. With that out of the way…

The New York Times Contradiction

Less than a month ago, The New York Times (NYT) endorsed John McCain. Here’s bit of what it had to say:

…there is a choice to be made, and it is an easy one. Senator John McCain of Arizona is the only Republican who promises to end the George Bush style of governing from and on behalf of a small, angry fringe. With a record of working across the aisle to develop sound bipartisan legislation, he would offer a choice to a broader range of Americans than the rest of the Republican field.

We have shuddered at Mr. McCain’s occasional, tactical pander to the right because he has demonstrated that he has the character to stand on principle. He was an early advocate for battling global warming and risked his presidential bid to uphold fundamental American values in the immigration debate. A genuine war hero among Republicans who proclaim their zeal to be commander in chief, Mr. McCain argues passionately that a country’s treatment of prisoners in the worst of times says a great deal about its character. (link)

Clearly, the NYT expressed some reservations. After all, there’s no love lost between it and the Republican party. A close reading of the endorsement shows no sign that the NYT had any concerns about the moral fiber of McCain, which makes this week’s NYT story, less than a month after the endorsement, so interesting:

Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship. But to his advisers, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity.

It had been just a decade since an official favor for a friend with regulatory problems had nearly ended Mr. McCain’s political career by ensnaring him in the Keating Five scandal. In the years that followed, he reinvented himself as the scourge of special interests, a crusader for stricter ethics and campaign finance rules, a man of honor chastened by a brush with shame.

But the concerns about Mr. McCain’s relationship with Ms. Iseman underscored an enduring paradox of his post-Keating career. Even as he has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest.

Obvious contradiction, anyone? In this instance the issue isn’t about the candidate, but about the media. I’d love to have witnessed the discussions on the second story, mainly to see if anyone pointed out that less than a month ago, no mention was made of any character issues in the NYT’s endorsement.

I’m personally no fan of McCain. I admire his service, both in combat and as a senator, to this country, but I do not believe it qualifies as an automatic pass to the White House. However, the NYT’s ought to be ashamed of itself. If the lobbyist story is true, it needs to revoke its endorsement. And if the story is mostly innuendo, they owe McCain an apology. At minimum, I could have done without the sexual overtones. I’m more concerned about what politicians do out of bed for lobbyists versus in bed.

The Democratic Dilemma

The majority of my friends are Democratic, or at least lean that way. I’m more of a small ‘l’ libertarian. However, I’ve watched with some compassion as the Democrats ask themselves who is best suited to head their party. Whichever individual they choose, makes history, but whichever individual they choose has potential issues with a national electorate.

With Hillary, everyone knows the mud will fly, but she’s capable of managing it…I think. She also faces a divided nation. I can’t imagine how it feels to know that people, individuals you’ve never met, hate you. Even voters who might support her are convinced she’s too polarizing. Erin Kotecki Vest actually published a letter at Huffington Post asking Clinton to step aside. (link)

For Obama fans, I feel the most sympathy for you, because in spite of the excitement he generates, he hasn’t been truly tested. Yes, he’s a powerful speaker. Yes, he’s probably capable of great things. However, I believe the media isn’t doing him any favors by not asking the hard questions or closely examining his voting record. Such things will come up in a national campaign. I’m not convinced that he won’t do what every other candidate has done at some point: make a mistake. He’s human, and with his lack of experience and depending on the size of the mistake, it could seal his fate.

If he should win, I’m worried you’re in for serious disappointment based on what I’ve seen out the Democratic Congress for almost two years. I’ve been thinking about something Dave Winer posted last week:

The Dems should be aiming at running the table, taking solid majorities in both houses and a mandate-level plurality for President Obama, an LBJ-level landslide. We need a government, not more bullshit. The Republics need to move over for four to eight years so we can resume our position of leadership in the world, the new world, not the old one. The one where our workers have to compete for the business. We used to get all the business by default. That’s not the world we live in anymore folks. The Republics don’t get that. (link)

As I noted before, I think both major parties are broken. I don’t think the question is whether the Democrats want to effect change, but whether they can. Amongst my Democratic friends, there’s often the lament that the party as a group has a hard time getting it together. Individual Democrats may step out from the party and shine (Obama at the ’04 convention comes to mind), but as a group, they have trouble working with themselves.

I’ll grant you that the majorities in both houses of Congress are incredibly slim, but in theory, why aren’t the Democrats voting “no” to everything that comes from the Bush White House? Does having a greater majority actually fix the underlying problem highlighted by slimmer margins? The same problems exist in the Republican party, but they do a better job of sugarcoating it. I think Warren Beatty had the right of it: “We don’t need a third party. We need a second party.” (link)

Change Bigger than a Candidate

This year’s race has fascinated me. So many people, voices, words, etc. The one thing lacking, in spite of all the rhetoric, was change that’s bigger than a candidate. No matter who you’re rooting for, these individuals are ultimately the leaders for two parties not committed to change unless it’s to their benefit.

I know good men and women are serving in Congress, trying to be real representatives for their constituents. I also know that not so good men and women are serving in Congress, doing their best to profit from their positions of power. How do you put your faith in one person to swing the balance in favor of the good? Doesn’t long-term change demand something more, something that starts at the foundation and works its way to the top?

I don’t know the answers. And perhaps I’m not helping by posing the questions. I simply think we shouldn’t kid ourselves when we step into the voting booth that candidate selection alone is enough to effect the change we so desperately seek.


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