Wednesday, November 23, 2011


by Leslie Lebl

I know that President Obama wants to shore up his base and that such a calculation probably contributed to his threat to veto any legislation undoing the defense cuts that resulted when the Super Committee failed to reach agreement. But does Obama really intend to use that position in next year's campaign?

I can see it now: "Vote for me if you want the U.S. military to undergo drastic cuts in wartime - cuts that even my defense secretary describes as devastating." And that will appeal to independents? Swing voters? Not so much is my guess.

Good-bye and Good Riddance

by Leslie Lebl

Well, thank heavens! The Super Committee just committed suicide, so we will no longer be subjected to ridiculous news stories about it. Who, aside from credulous newscasters and pundits, would ever have thought that 12 members of Congress, completely abandoned by a spendthrift president, would somehow make the difficult decisions on how to cut over $1 trillion? Especially when that same president had already ignored the conclusions of the bipartisan commission that he himself appointed?

So let's get real: such decisions are not meant to be made by 12 people meeting behind closed doors, but by the American public at large. And that exercise - known as "elections" - will take place next November. If in the meantime we receive another downgrade, there's no cause for surprise. After all, our national spending is out of control.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ask the Candidates
About These Issues

by Joseph Sternberg

Most of the questioners at these so-called Republican presidential primary debates are of the left. That has some advantages for the candidates since they get exposed to questions that would be raised later. But the choice of topics and the way that they are presented is skewed. For instance, the questioners seem to want to pretend that the Paul Ryan budget bill does not exist, yet it is certainly a top issue. The candidates should be questioned to determine how they would deal with the issues in it (if they differ from what has been written). That would also help voters to understand the degree to which the candidates have thought about these problems (if in fact they have). Foreign policy issues are still to be formulated, although the approach of the candidates to foreign policy is a prime aspect of being president.

1. National debt

What is the candidates' approach to this issue?

The Republican House passed the Paul Ryan Budget Bill earlier this year. This is a specific attempt to maintain US solvency and advances an approach to entitlement reform. If a candidate doesn't like this bill, what alternative would they propose? This kind of focus is necessary to keep the candidates from evading this fundamental issue.

President Barack Obama pushes the view that we can stop the rising national debt by taxing the wealthy, rather than decreasing expenditures. What are the Republican arguments against this position? This is important because President Obama is sure to trumpet this argument. My previous blog entry on the president's position was an attempt to contribute to our understanding of this issue.

2. Energy Policy

The formation of an effective energy policy for the US is prevented by the concern that fossil fuels are loading up the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. The illusion that green energy can be substituted for fossil fuels to alleviate the concern is rampant. But the priority countries such as China and India put on economic development shows that the control of carbon dioxide cannot be achieved in this way. Carbon dioxide is a worldwide problem, and fossil fuels will be needed by the world for a long time, My previous blog entry explains the scientific problem and the solution that can be pursued. Green energy should find its place in the US energy mix without massive subsidies.

The US national security demands an increase in the domestic output of fossil fuels. There are three compelling reasons for this. First, the US economy is vulnerable to disruptions in the Mideast oil supply. We spend billions on maintaining force in the area. The vulnerability seriously compromises national security policy. Second, self-sufficiency in fossil fuels would have a large positive effect on the US balance of trade and thereby help relieve the pressure on the dollar. In 2011 the trade deficit is projected to be $550 billion dollars. During the same period, the cost of oil imports is expected to reach $400 billion dollars. And finally third, thousands of US jobs would be created.

We should hear from the candidates on all this.

3. Health Care Reform

All the Republican presidential candidates seem to agree that ObamaCare must be repealed. It may be declared unconstitutional but, if that does not happen, it should be repealed because it overwhelms the health care system with bureaucrats and the government and increases the cost of health care.  Republicans, however, cannot stop there.  Health care, as it is now organized, has serious problems.  Republicans should assemble a package, perhaps including items such as tort reform and allowing the sale of medical insurance across state lines.  Among all the candidates, this should be especially asked of Romney.

4. Avoiding another financial crisis.
       a) Housing

The US has had a bipartisan policy dating back many years to have the government intervene in the market to increase home ownership. It is clear that home ownership is not for everyone. The ability of homeowners to meet the financial requirements of home ownership, including down payments, cannot be bypassed. Government guaranteeing of mortgages where lending standards were debased led to trillions of mortgage-based securities flooding the market. Well over a trillion dollars worth of these securities are now resting uneasily in the possession of the Federal reserve. Fannie and Freddie were key agents in creating this debacle and so far have cost taxpayers $170 billion dollars. To allow these organizations to continue to operate is to insure a recurrence of the housing collapse.

      b) Ending too big to fail

The financial collapse started by the housing collapse showed another serious defect of the financial system. We have to prevent financial institutions from becoming "too big to fail." This is a failure of capitalism. Now we don't seem to have any serious trouble in deciding that a company is too big to fail. The problem is preventing them from getting to that point. Financial experts need to spell out ways that this can be done. Under the present circumstances, the incentives push in the direction of massive bets. If things go well, millions are earned. If the bets turn out to be bad, the new millionaires are gone and the taxpayers are faced with the debris.  And many of the super-rich whose incomes have soared into the stratosphere are in the financial sector.  Subsidizing these salaries is absurd, yet that is precisely what we’re doing.

If we measure the presidential candidates on these issues, we’ll have a good way of determining who is the best one.  Certainly a lot better than seeing who scores more points at a “debate.”


UPDATE: About foreign policy questions that the candidates should be asked, I would start with the famous quotation from Palmerston, " Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests." So what do the candidates believe are our national interests in the Middle East, former satellites of Russia, Africa, China, etc. Such responses would help to understand how candidates would respond to developments and the degree to which they have thought about such matters.
Joseph Sternberg
Retired Professor of Physics
Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Yes, Maria, Character Does Matter

by Libby Sternberg

In the November 9 GOP presidential primary debate, Maria Bartiromo of CNBC asked Herman Cain about sexual harassment charges made against him. She suggested he address concerns with his character, pointing out that “shareholders are reluctant to hire a CEO where there are character issues.”

How true, Maria, how true. But in order for "shareholders" to make a decision about a potential CEO's character, they have to have adequate information provided to them. In the case of elections and voters, the news media -- both traditional and new -- play the role of search committee to some degree, preparing the "information packets" for those who ultimately make the hiring decision.

Into this packet would go information on past behavior, of course, everything from the candidate's accomplishments to his/her faults. While candidates will make sweeping promises during the interview for the job, those promises have to be taken with caution because, after all, promises are easy. And sometimes glibness can be mistaken for depth.

That's why I, as a voter, now like to rely on a candidate's past when making a decision about what he or she will do in the future. If they held office before, what was their record? What is their personal record, as well? Do they run for cover when courage is required? Do they count as friends people who would make me wonder about their judgment? Do they love this country and want to do what's best for it?

You see, even the best-intentioned candidate can make promises on the campaign trail that, because of changing circumstances, become impossible to keep. Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised to keep the US out of war...and then something happened on December 7,1941 that made that promise unsustainable.

So, yes, Maria, character does matter. And maybe if the news "vetters" had spent as much time examining Barack Obama's character and past in 2008's election cycle as they have recently spent on claims of sexual harassment against candidate Herman Cain (Politico famously ran 90 plus stories in six days about the scandal), voters wouldn't have been so quick to jump on the hope-and-change bandwagon with an untested, inexperienced candidate.

Hindsight is 20-20, the old saw goes, and it's easy to look back now and see the portents of what was to come in Obama's presidency...

The blueprint for the president's poor dealings with Congress were visible in his past performance as a legislator-- he had, after all, very little experience working with opposition in his Chicago days, and he avoided controversial stands by voting "present" and not "Aye" or "Nay" when he was a state senator in Illinois...nearly 130 times, sometimes joined in this cowardly vote by only a few fellow senators.

No wonder he had trouble leading even when his own party controlled both houses of Congress -- remember how hard he had to work to get his health care bill passed? People forget that the Democrats held Congress at the time. His own party members grumbled, at least in private, about his lack of leadership.

If the media had vetted his background better, they would have also raised questions about his association with former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers instead of airbrushing it to make it appear tangential and unclear. Ayers is a man who is not fond of his own country, at least many of its policies. He so loathed some of these policies that he plotted violent acts -- bombings -- against innocents. There are stories out there of those his organization, the Weathermen, tried to harm. They're at least as compelling as the tales of Herman Cain's accusers. But perhaps without celebrity lawyer Gloria Alred as a champion, they were less glamorous in the media's eyes. The president's association with a man of these views tells us something about his own character--and again, it's not flattering. And again, it's one of lack of courage--he should have disassociated himself from a man of violence and America-loathing.

I could go on, but you get the idea... While these stories were covered somewhat during the campaign, they were never pursued with the doggedness the media has shown going after Mr. Cain (and other Republicans).

But perhaps the media wanted, just as most Americans did, to believe Barack Obama's promises and not look too closely at what his past would say about him. Even I, a Republican who'd voted for George W. Bush twice, was tired of Dubya and wanted something fresh that John McCain couldn't seem to offer.

Bush had disappointed us....sometimes with his policies but more often with his inability to effectively make the case for them, thus retaining public support. Too often, he turned the other cheek in the face of criticism, a patrician approach to conflict that seemed to suggest he didn't want to stoop to make the battle just about him. By doing so, he made the battle all about him, which often meant the merits of his policies got lost in the fog of Bush-hatred. And after a while, it became too hard to defend him when he wouldn't bother defending himself.

So I definitely understand the desire to bring in a fresh face, even if the fellow is inexperienced, lacks courage and has shady friends in his past. Sometimes you just want to believe.

But this election cycle, it would be awfully nice if the media turned their spotlight on the president in ways they failed to do when he ran for the office the first time around, especially during the Dem primaries when an experienced, credible alternative, Hillary Clinton, could have succeeded. Don't we all -- Republican and Democrats alike -- now look back and think how effectively Mrs. Clinton would have handled crises he's managed to botch?

Take a new look, Maria, at those character issues you're so concerned about now. In the president's case, you might be surprised to find in his past the seeds to his failures in the present.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Book Review:
In The Garden of Beasts
by Erik Larson

by Libby Sternberg

Friends and family will be shocked to learn that I read Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts in hardcover. I own a Kindle, you see, and am editor-in-chief of an ebook company. I'm on the ebook train big-time. But the growth of the ebook industry doesn't mean print books will go away, and Larson's book perfectly illustrates how the rancher (wild ebook lovers) and the farmer (staid print book lovers) can be friends. That is, how print and ebooks can coexist with diehard fans of either format buying from both. 

Of course, one of the reasons I bought this in hardcover was price. The hardcover version was the same price as the Kindle version -- leading to a lot of nasty comments from readers on the amazon website, by the way -- and I decided I wanted this nonfiction book as an object, not just as the story it tells.

I would give the book a solid 3.5 out of 5 stars because Larson doesn't really cover a whole lot of new ground or offer new insights into the early days of the Nazi regime. Rather, he tells in an almost novelistic fashion a gripping "babes in the woods" story of a naive college professor, William Dodd, thrust into the role of US Ambassador to Germany in 1933. Dodd and his family find themselves "in the garden of beasts" --  a play on words since the embassy was near the Tiergarten, which is German for garden of animals/beasts. And we all know who the real beasts were at that time.

Which brings me to Dodd's daughter, Martha. In many ways this book is really about her. She was something of a hedonist, flitting from love affair to love affair, not realizing she was being used (among her lovers - the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet spy), at first embracing the new Germany with its shiny Nazi order (what's a few beaten and bruised innocents in the face of such dazzling order and optimism!). She really comes off as a very unattractive character, someone who believed herself a literary and cultural connoisseur but who was probably more of a poseur than anything else (later records revealed what some of her Nazi and Soviet friends really thought of her, and it's devastating). Her later life, summarized at the end of the book, is no more flattering and sadly pathetic.

Meanwhile, back to our pal, the ambassador -- a Woodrow Wilson-loving Progressive, Dodd had this notion that ambassadors should live exemplary egalitarian-looking American lives, forgoing their personal riches (many ambassadors at the time were from wealthy families -- uh, maybe like today, too) and living off their salaries at their posts to demonstrate to foreign peoples how everyone in the USA valued....well, I don't know...simple lives?

As you can imagine, this approach played really well with a regime whose leaders were sociopathic bullies.

Like his daughter, Dodd went to Germany with a lot of sympathy and love for the German people. He'd studied in Leipzig and remembered affectionately his lederhosen-wearing days. (Actually, I don't know if he wore lederhosen, but let's imagine he did.) As soon as he arrived, though, he had to deal with the unsettling issue of Americans being beaten up on the streets when they failed to salute as various SA and other military parades went by. Despite regular occurrences of this sort, though, Dodd refused to issue a travel warning through the State Department, not wanting to upset the Nazis, convinced that he just needed them to feel part of the brotherhood of man, teaching the world to, wait, that's a Coca-Cola commercial. Anyway, he was timid and remarkably blind to the implications of Nazi actions, even when they occurred right in front of his eyes.

To his credit, the veils were lifted from his eyes eventually, and he spoke out about the dangerous situation in Germany and the Nazi persecution of the Jews. "Eventually" being the speaking tours he did after he left the ambassadorship in the late 1930s. 

While he was ambassador, Dodd had to deal with several adversaries, the State Department being one. Having a sister-in-law who worked in the foreign service for many years, I have to say the stories of State Department backstabbing -- which seemed to rise to the level of an Olympic sport in this book -- didn't surprise me. From my reading of other histories, neither did the casual anti-Semitism that permeated the ranks. (Dodd himself suggested to Hitler that perhaps he should handle the Jews the way we did in the US, which was giving them some positions but not letting them dominate a sector. What a guy!)

For me, one of the most ironical moments in the book occurred when Martha Dodd brags about her family's lineage as slave-holding southerners. The totalitarian who hears the story is shocked -- she's proud of the fact her family owned slaves?

While Larson doesn't break a lot of new ground in this book, he does add to a discussion that's been going on for some time now -- how could a cultured society tolerate the rise of a totalitarian regime headed by sociopaths? It's a question worth analyzing over and over again, and those with smug answers--such as the "Nazis = right-wingers" canard I discussed in the previous post -- should be surprised at how easily liberals and even progressives tolerated anti-Semitism and, on occasion, embraced or at least admired the new world order National Socialists offered German citizens.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Using a Broad Brush

by Libby Sternberg

On Facebook the other day, I took part in a discussion of the OWS crowd, and eventually we got around to discussing its anti-Semitic elements and whether they were representative of the crowd. I was trying to make the point that Tea Party gatherings had been painted with the broad brush of racism for a few outlandish fringe elements, whereas the OWS crowd seemed to get off scot-free on the anti-Semitism charge despite some signs with messages decrying Jew Bankers and the like.

This discussion eventually led to one poster claiming: "Anti-Semitism is a right wing sickness."

I didn't ask her why she thinks that, but I know that many people think of Nazism as a "right wing" movement, one that was responsible for the slaughter of millions of Jews.

As the holder of center-right views, I have often bristled at the conflating of a movement like Nazism with "conservative" or "right wing" ideals--at least in the understanding of those ideological labels today.

Today, conservatives, or "right wingers" are the ones favoring freedom and limited government. The one broad link between conservatives, right wingers, Tea Partiers and the like, in fact, is that belief in limited government, especially fiscal restraint in government.

I know that opponents would argue that a limited government outlook doesn't jibe with some conservative views, such as restrictions on abortions. But it's a mistake to assume these conservative pro-lifers favor government intervention on a grand scale. They see abortion restriction as necessary in protecting the "life" in that "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" ideology they hold dear. (It's worth noting that other movements to restrict "happiness" and "liberty," such as Prohibition, were advanced and supported by liberal Progressives.)

Using these broad brush definitions, then, Nazism was never a right wing movement but, rather, a left wing one, if you define the term "left wing" the way it is used today--an ideology that favors more government.

But before my left wing friends start throwing bricks at me, hear me out! I don't think Nazism was any more left wing than it was right wing, any more liberal than it was conservative.

Yes, it was ultimately a totalitarian state governed by sociopaths, and in that regard it lies to the left of what I view as a broad stroke political ideology continuum:

Totalitarianism<--Communism<--Socialism    --   Dem/GOP     --       Libertarianism-->Anarchy

But it did not represent current left-wing thought any more than anarchy -- no government at all -- represents conservative thought.

Nazism was precisely the opposite, in fact, of conservative, right-wing limited government views. It was government everywhere and all the time, even down to the stipulation of how to use words as aids in spelling out other words (anti-Semitic laws stipulated that Germans could no longer say "D as in David" or "S as in Samuel," because those were Jewish names -- you don't get much more "big government" than that.).

So, I hope we move past the linkage of Nazism with "right wing" or conservative views as they are understood and meant today. It's awfully tiresome and downright wrong.