Sense from Seattle

Common sense thoughts on life and current affairs by a Seattle area sexagenarian, drawing on personal experience, years of learning as a counselor to thousands of families and an innate passion for informed knowledge, to uniquely express sensible, thoughtful, honest and independent views.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What If?

Some people actually get married between Christmas and the New Years. Forty one years ago today, I was one of them. I stayed married for a little over half that time. Divorce is a time of examination, and of philosophizing about mistakes and regrets and wondering why and what if. So is the end of a calendar year. Sometimes we look back one year and sometimes many more.

I recently came across my college grade prediction scores. My strong suits were foreign language at 3.7 and botany at 3.6. At O’Dea High I was required to take Latin for four years, which explains the high language score but does not predict my failure to comprehend more than 5% of the dialogue in the foreign movies I have been watching for almost fifty years. The botany score reflects my interest in propagating plants from seed. My parents raised dahlias for competition and from their literature I learned about propagation. I was fascinated by the skin color variations of the multiracial friends in my neighborhood and wanted to learn how traits were passed from parents to children, so I chose dahlia parents of different colors to see what their children would look like.

Math and English were the two majors I considered on entering college. My predicted grade for math was 3.3, and for English 2.9. As it turned out, I chose to "pre-major" and then gravitated into pre-law, concentrating on political science, for which the grade prediction was 3.2. Looking at the predictions again, I was surprised to see music at 3.3, and art and drama at 3.2, since I cannot play a note or draw a lick and I have terrible stage fright. Pursuit of either of those majors might have turned "Sense" into "Sounds", "Sketches" or "Scenes" from Seattle.

At the low end of the grade predictions was engineering at 2.3, which makes sense, since I am good at taking things apart, but terrible at putting them back together. The 2.4 in economics also makes sense now, because I have learned that economics is basically double talk, smoke and mirrors. The smartest economists got us into the current financial chaos and they do not really know how to get us out. The most successful economic idea of recent years, micro credit, was not awarded the Nobel for economics, but won the 2006 Peace Prize instead. Economics was a late comer to the Nobels and arguably is such a vague field that it should never have been included.

My shelf of books purchased but unread books includes "What If?", edited by Robert Crowley, in which various military historians speculate how history would have been changed if battles had ended differently. The book, published in 1999, does not discuss anything more recent than the communist takeover of China. More recent military what ifs could include changes such as Russia vetoing the Korean War, Soviet missiles staying in Cuba, the US not getting involved in Vietnam, coalition forces removing Saddam from power in the Gulf War and the US Congress not being fooled into authorizing the invasion of Iraq.

Prediction, actuality and reflection is the sequence. Education, marriage, career, investment and wars all are subject to prediction, sometimes inaccurate and sometimes dishonest. War and investment seem the most likely victims of bad predictions. Predictions of marriage should be fairly accurate, but the uniqueness and intensity of the relationship varies the results, sometimes for the better and sometime for the worse. Educational and career predications may be more accurate, but are underused and over-ignored.

In their later years, people often look back on their life with a mixture of nostalgia and regret. For me, not being a believer in re-incarnation means we don't get do-overs. We play the hand we are dealt as best we can, making changes along the way based on what we have learned. Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison in an AARP interview said it is bad to have regret as we age and then admitted that she is full of it and that "everything I did right, I didn't do well enough. I'm not morbid at all. It's just that I would like to do it again." Like most people, I wish I had been dealt a better hand in life, and I wish I had played the one I was dealt better than I did. But I don't think I played it that bad. Bluffing works sometimes in cards, but in life it usually just causes problems. I try not to bluff, though sometimes an honest effort to change feels uncomfortable.

I bid good riddance to the political stress of 2008 and look forward to Bush being replaced by Obama. Our country has learned from the enormous mistake of letting Bush take our Presidency. The economic losses of the year may start being repaired in the new year. Unread and new books are waiting to be digested, as are lists of movies old and new. My New years wish for us all is that our "what ifs" regarding the past be replaced with our "what ifs" for the future.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Shoeing Bush

The young Iraqi journalist who, sickened by what George W. Bush has done to Iraq and its people, hurled his ultimate cultural insult at Bush, has expressed the feelings not just of Iraqis, but of people worldwide. He has become a hero for his courageous act, and though he faces serious criminal charges, his defense fund will be enormous.

Bush was surprisingly quick in ducking the missiles, perhaps indicating he has been expecting to be a target for some time. His verbal reactions were typically Bush, giving no thought or attention to the motivation or reasoning of the launcher, but instinctively turning the incident into another ludicrous propaganda irony about bringing democracy to Iraq, and dismissing it with his sophomoric humor, "it was a size ten".

Reaction in the US seems to be amused satisfaction. This Iraqi did something many of us wish we could do, tell Bush by an insulting cultural gesture what we think of him. Some of us would do it because he has embroiled us in a needless and incompetent war. Some would do it because he has ruined our economy. Some would cite the damage he has done to our Constitutional system of government. Many of us would do it for all three reasons.

Bush deserves to be greeted with flung shoes wherever he goes from now to the time he is out of office. But if that is not done, at least we know we are near the final month of enduring him and are in the process of telling him "Shoo!"

When Bush pardons the huge groups of people who broke our laws under the direction of his Administration, as I expect he will be doing, he should simultaneously ask the Iraqi government to pardon the shoe thrower. It's the least he can do. And when it comes to doing the right thing, Bush has always done the least.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

What Should We Do about the Economy?

People of my generation grew up hearing stories from our parents about how bad things were during the Depression, and also about how poor their family was when they were kids and how hard they had to work for very little pay. I never doubted their stories. I knew they were true because I had seen the old movies on TV showing the same.

There were lots of poor people living in my Central Area neighborhood where I grew up in Seattle. But the years of my childhood were relatively good ones in our economy and I don't remember any bleak times of recession or depression. Boeing was the big employer and it's workforce size varied dramatically, but that never affected me directly since I never worked for Boeing and neither did my parents.

I remember the Boeing Bust [the Boeing workforce was cut from 80,400 to 37,200 between early 1970 and October 1971] with the billboard about the last person leaving Seattle making sure to turn off the light, but I was not directly affected. I was working for a real estate title insurance company as an attorney and my job was secure no matter what - title insurance is needed for home sales and mortgages, and title reports are needed for mortgage foreclosures.

The gas crisis in 1973 and 1974 was not an economic challenge for me. The problem was not the price of gas, but rather the availability, with gas being rationed on an every other day basis dependent on the last license plate digit. I ran dry a few times and had to walk. The associated decline in the stock market did not affect me, nor did the ones in 1976, 1981, 1987 and 1990, because in all those years I had a low overhead private law practice and a wife and four kids to support and did not have enough money to have any stock market investments.

The more recent downturns have been during my retirement years. I knew the post 9/11 slowdown was only going to be temporary, but the current problems are different and much deeper, and they have impacted me directly via my mutual fund values declining significantly. Like many investors, I am just riding it out. But many younger, working people cannot just wait around. They need work and money to make house payments and they are concerned about their economic future. People want to know what we should do about the economy.

We need to get things moving now, put people to work and restore confidence that our government is working to get us back on track. Infrastructure projects that are ready to go but need funding are a good place to start. The Depression stories I heard as a child included stories about people going to work through government programs, doing things they believed were worthwhile and that made them feel good about themselves again.

Longer term, we need technical training programs to enable people to acquire skills that can be employed locally and not outsourced, jobs that are good for people and for our economy and environment. Computer and appliance repair and home energy efficiency improvement installation are examples. We also need to encourage innovation and invention, to enable individuals to build the proverbial better mousetrap - something that could be jump started by a Federal program administered locally.

Extending unemployment benefits and increasing grants and loans for education should be a first priority. Loss of talent to school drop out syndromes should be attacked by incentives and other programs. New efforts to early match young people to a career course should be made, kindling excitement in young people as they learn what skills they possess and how they want to develop and use them.

We need to look back at the crooks and scoundrels who exacerbated this mess. Crooks should be vigorously prosecuted with the criminal system as a deterrent to future offenses, giving long terms to white collar criminals rather than soft time and wrist slaps. Scoundrels should be aggressively sued in the civil courts to go after their ill-gotten gains. Make these high-rollers pay the price in terms of legal fees, settlements and judgments. Shame the shameful, those who took the pay and assumed the responsibility but were too lazy or uninterested to actually do the job. This latter group includes many civic leaders who accept positions on corporate boards to pad their own resumes and lend civic credibility to corporate predators.

The whole concept of corporations needs to be re-examined and reformed. In theory they are limited entities subject to marketplace democracy. But in fact they are eternal monoliths run by oligarchies using money of under-informed private persons and abetted by public subsidies.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Presidential Transition Memories

As we transition from the nightmare of Bush to the hope of Obama, I recall past Presidential transitions in my lifetime, as felt then and as viewed from time.

Roosevelt to Truman

Roosevelt died when I was too young to understand. History has shown that our only fourth term President had done practically nothing to prepare Truman for the possibility he would have to take over the Presidency, and that Truman rose to the occasion, a fact more recognized in later years than it was during his Presidency. His unexpected election in 1948 ushered in a rough ride that sent him into retirement with a very low public opinion, but again time has salvaged his reputation. I remember the newsreels at the movie theaters showing a feisty little old man walking fast with reporters in pursuit, and I understood he was President Truman.

Truman to Ike
I remember being in downtown Seattle for a dental appointment when General MacArthur was being given a hero's parade. As kids, we played Army a lot, but we were always the guys in foxholes, not the Generals, so I was not sure I knew which was MacArthur and which was Eisenhower. As MacArthur faded from the news, Eisenhower rose so high that it was apparent he would win election regardless of what party he chose. "I Like Ike" was the slogan and he did seem likeable, but by then I understood I was a Democrat like my Mom, and Ike was a Republican, so we had to be for the less appealing Stevenson. Ike's years seemed pleasant enough, with the Korean War fighting stopped and relative prosperity. The Democrats seemed to throw in the towel in 1956, by putting Stevenson up again. I remember the air raid sirens and drills and the talk of hidden communists. I could understand the danger of a bomb being dropped on us, but I never did get the connection between somebody in America with unpopular ideas they tried to keep secret and the dropping of the bombs.

Ike to Kennedy
By the end of Ike's years, I had come to understand how Republicans were for business and Democrats were for workers, and I was glad Ike was leaving. Vice -President Nixon seemed unlikeable and had a reputation as a two-faced scoundrel, which seemed to fit his physical appearance also. Enter Jack Kennedy, who at first I confused with his brother Bobby, who got more TV time as counsel on the Senate Kefauver hearings. JFK was incredibly handsome, heroic and for the working man. He had a beautiful, cultured wife, though personally I was not drawn either to her looks or her country club background. As a Catholic, it was exciting to think of a Catholic President, and after a bunch of grandfatherly types, it was really exciting to see more of a handsome uncle type running. The fun of boyish war games had given way to a young college student's appreciation of peace, so the Peace Corps proposal was thrilling. My 21st birthday fell a few days after the election, so I was extremely disappointed not to be able to vote. Though the Peace Corps sounded exciting, I was too much of a home comfort lover to seriously consider joining.

Kennedy to Johnson
No adult American at the time can ever forget the assassination of John Kennedy. It was the most terrible of terribles. Then the shooting of Oswald, the Kennedy funeral, the numbness of it all. I could not avoid the suspicion of Lyndon Johnson involvement. I was prejudiced against Southerners anyway, and LBJ was not really a Kennedy man, and the shooting just happened to occur in his home State. Many people were wary of Johnson, but it soon seemed he was trying to get civil rights legislation passed in honor of Kennedy. Then he actually accomplished it. And there was more, the Great Society with Medicare and Medicaid. Kennedy had the charm and popularity, but did not actually accomplish much in his short time in office, but LBJ did great things. Unfortunately, our domino theory thinking had sucked us into the spot previously filled by the French in Vietnam, and Johnson and most of his advisors failed to see the stupidity of it, though privately they recognized the ultimate futility. As potential cannon fodder, I educated myself quickly and opposed our involvement early. Vietnam escalation put an end to Johnson's social progressive agenda, and took such a personal toll on him that he declined to run in 1968. If not for Vietnam, LBJ would have carried his Great Society agenda forward, much to the betterment of America.

Johnson to Nixon
I cannot remember who I voted for in 1968. I had been a Eugene McCarthy supporter from day one. When Bobby Kennedy entered the arena I got excited for him. I have a letter from him agreing with my opposition to the Vietnam War, written about a month before his assassination. I beat the draft by enlisting in the Reserves under Johnson. Then as the Congress began to tighten the purse strings on the War, the sneaky Johnson did an end run by calling up the Reserves, so I was on active duty during the 1968 campaign, driving around McChord Air Force Base with my McCarthy for President bumper sticker, when most of the "lifer" sergeants had George Wallace signs. I think I did vote for Hubert Humphrey, in spite of his support for the War, because he was a true labor backed Democrat and I did not want to see Nixon win. Nixon was a crook and a phoney and it was depressing to envision him as President. My active duty time expired on his watch and my disappointment continued as he won in 1972 over McGovern, who was my kind of progressive. I followed Watergate closely, believing that Nixon had finally gotten caught and would have to pay the price, I was parked on Mount Rainier, getting ready for a hike, when I heard Nixon resign. If Nixon did a few worthwhile things while President, they are more than buried by his continuation and expansion of the War in Southeast Asia and his fundamental disgracing of the office of the Presidency.

Nixon to Ford
Gerald Ford was a decent man, though I completely disagreed with his politics. Why he pardoned Nixon we will never know for sure, but it undermined his credibility and prevented him from rising above caretaker status. We could have done a lot worse than this caretaker, so he deserves credit.

Ford to Carter
Carter came in as an unknown outsider. I was nervous about anther Southerner, but I voted for him. Carter inherited an inflationary economy he was unable to rein in, and also got caught in the Iranian revolutionary overthrow of an ineffectual Western imposed Shah. History has shown Carter's greatest skills are as a diplomat, and it was only in that area that he had some lasting Presidential accomplishments. His work after the Presidency is easily the most impressive of any American President.

Carter to Reagan
To me, Ronald Reagan as a President was a bad joke. I could not believe it. The scoundrel actually undercut President Carter, by dealing under the table with the Iranians, an ethically challenged tactic he used again in the Iran-Contra matter. Reagan is the most overrated President of modern times, when he in fact should be considered one of the worst. His trickle down economics and destruction of our governmental work force have proved devastating through the years. He was in the right place at the right time for the collapse of Soviet communism, but he grandstanded and postured instead of doing the important work of controlling nuclear arsenals and preparing for a better post-Soviet world.

Reagan to Bush I
This was the Reagan third term, except Bush does get credit for finally realizing Reaganomics had created such a mess that Bush had to renege on his "no new taxes" pledge and agree to a tax increase to prevent an even bigger mess.

Bush I to Clinton
Bush was not a good sport loser. Clinton thought he had all the answers, but his transition was not that successful. His accomplishments are actually incremental, some undoing Bush-Reagan errors, and some toning them down, but nothing of progressive significance. In fact, many of his more far reaching programs, like welfare changes, free trade agreements and sale of the public spectrum are more regressive. I have written here several times that the good economy of the Clinton years is more illusory than legitimately progressive. Granted his successor has taken us to new lows, history will show Clinton should get his share of the blame. I have also written here about the sexual failings of Clinton, which will be forever chronicled in history as part of his being only the second President ever to have been tried on impeachment charges. A less ego driven man would be sensitive enough to spare us the continuing sight of his face at political events. He supposedly wants to pattern his post-Presidency after Jimmy Carter, but seems to have forgotten that Rosalyn Carter never ran for President.

Clinton to Bush II
The only President ever elected by the Supreme Court, this squatter, as I have written here, deserves to go down as the worst in history. Under the illegitimate circumstances, this transition was quite awkward and Bush came in with the attitude that Clinton had been an interloper in the dynastic reign. Hopefully we have learned from this never to let the Supreme Court elect our President again.

Bush II to Obama
Bush is so unpopular that even he is eager to get himself off the stage. About the only thing Bush has left not to screw up is the hand off of the baton. He seems to have just dropped it on the ground and told Obama that he won't touch it again, which is probably about the best way for it to pass. As Bush stumbles to the wayside, Obama is quickly getting up to speed and is poised to grab the stick on January 20th.