Monday, June 20, 2005

The Price of Surrender...
Vis-a-vis yesterday's rant about the "Surrender Now" crowd, I'd like to follow up and think a little bit about what packing up and leaving Iraq might cost us.

To begin with, we'd suffer a huge international black eye (even worse than what we've gotten already) if we leave Iraq a (bigger) basket case than it is already. We'd be in the same position as the European empires at the end of the Second World War, running off and leaving a trail of busted countries, cultures and governments in our wake. Morally, we have a responsibility to the Iraqi people to at least put things in some semblance of order and leave them in a position to fend for themselves. The United States is obligated, regardless of how long it takes or how much it costs. This point, I believe, stands on it's own, irregardless of what side of the war debate you stand on.

Cutting and running also encourages others who might have evil in their hearts to surmise that the United States doesn't have the stomach for a prolonged fight. The second we leave an Iraq still in the throes of disarray, we invite even more terrorist attacks as the terrorists at work today can claim victory for having chased the "Great Satan from the Holy Ground of Iraq". This is not the same as cutting and running on the South Vietnamese. The South Vietnamese government was corrupt sewer which deserved to be flushed down the toilet, and our enemies were not in a position to strike at he United States (the Russians were too sane, the Chinese too weak, and the Vietnamese too exhausted, at the time). The battle over Communism in SE Asia could be lost because in the end, there was no direct consequence to the United States, as opposed to the Vietnamese themselves, the Cambodians, the Laotians, etc. Leaving Iraq would have direct consequences for the US: although most countries in the Middle East couldn't muster enough military force to beat a troop of Boy Scouts with the runs, their wacky, Islamo-fascist citizens seem quite ready to martyr themselves on America's landmarks. Provided they can kill a bunch of us too, of course.
Why Do They Do It?
The news this evening made a great deal of fuss this evening about the convictions and sentencing of the Rigas, pere and son. These are the guys that once owned Adelphia Communications, a cable television empire, and looted their company to the tune of about 1 billion (with a B) dollars. Mr. Rigas, Sr. faces 20 years in the slammer, unless old age (he's 80) or his cancer, kills him first. Mr. Rigas, Jr. faces 30 years in prison.

The sentences brought about a great deal of speculation vis-a-vis Mr. Bernie Ebbers, the former CEO of World-Com, who faces his sentencing next week. If the judge in this case was not willing to show mercy to an 80 year old man, the thinking goes, then Ebbers is in a heap of trouble. World-Com, by the way, was an 11 Billion dollar boondoggle. Additional speculation related to Dennis Kozlowski (Global Crossing) and what he might face when he gets in front of a judge.

The whole situation of runaway CEO's, the huge amounts of money they seem to either borrow without promise of repayment from their companies, or waste on the mere accumulation of useless wealth, leads one to ask what at first blush to be commonsense questionsHow do guys who are supposed to be financial geniuses manage to get themselves into these situations? I mean, don't they already make a ton of money as a CEO? What leads them to loot the corporate coffers with such reckless abandon and why do their individual boards of directors allow them to get away with it?

As to why, my theory is that in this day and age, wealth by itself no longer confers any distinction. I read recently (I can recall if it was Forbes or Fortune) that the number of millionaires in the United States has doubled in the last 10 years. Once upon a time, having a million dollars in the bank was considered a big deal. Now that just about anyone can do it, it's not all that exclusive a club anymore. Ego dictates that since you cannot impress with wealth, you now have to impress with ostentatious displays of wealth. The Enron crowd, Kozlowski, the Rigas, et. al., all have multiple homes in the most tony neighborhoods (Georgetown, the Upper West Side, Aspen, Malibu, etc). They all have private jets. I'm sure they all have more automobiles and yachts than they could ever hope to drive or sail. Mere possessions no longer work as a measure of distinction. Now the idea is to have something no one else has.

So, the Rigas built themselves 18-hole golf courses on their properties. Kozlowski got himself an $8,000 shower curtain or somesuch nonsense, and a $16,000 umbrella stand, not to mention the $2 million toga party he threw for his wife at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. If it can be overdone or overblown, then rest assured, it will be. Penis envy writ large.

And who pays for it? Certainly not the guy who wants it. He can simply raid his corporation and because he's a "genius", no one will question him, or press him very hard to pay it back. The shareholder is shafted so that the CEO can have platinum-plated toilet seats, and a full-time ass wiper in his 4,300 square foot, italian marbled, centrally heated, bathroom. The one on the EAST side of the 40 room mansion.

This lead me to start wondering about something else that seems to bother the financial world greatly to the point of becoming a very dangerous fixation: the fascination with corporate earnings. Now, earnings, naturally, have value as a measure of the profitability of company, which invites other investors, which attracts customers, and so on and so on, as they taught us in Economics 101. In that sense, the better the earnings, the better the company. However, when you stop to consider that the number of millionaires is doubling every few years, it brings up a very interesting proposition (and I hope someone actually does some research on it, because it's beyond my tiny brain). We live in an investor society now. Fifty years ago, when perhaps 1 in 80 people had any interest in the stock market, earnings, while important, did not mean all that much (comparatively). The only people that were going to get paid dividends were that 1 in 80, and they were happy with what they got. Nowadays, when 1 in 10 people actually own stock, those original 1 in 80 are quite pissed. They just don't quite make what they used to, having to split it with the peasants, so to speak. The only way to keep the big investors happy is to increase earnings, which gives a bigger return per individual investor.

All of which leads to some very stupid business decisions, prime among them, giving the guy who pumped those earnings up the ability to steal. That's his reward for keeping the old money happy. And what does he do with it? He buys a $16,000 umbrellas stand or gets himself sentenced to 30 years in prison when he's caught juggling the books to artificially keep those earnings up. The CEO also (not always) receives a large portion of his compensation in stock options (meaning he's also looking for the biggest return he can get) and gives him an additional incentive to steal and cheat.

What's the solution? Heck if I know. But I'd line 'em up and shoot 'em. After the concrete enema.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Those Voices in the Wilderness...
As of late, the news has been even more chock-full of anti-war screeds than usual. I can certainly think of a few reasons as to why (there's an election coming up, the typical response of people who have not "been heard" is to scream louder, etc.), but the reason, more than likely, is that there seems to be little else to actually talk about.

Going into year three of the Iraqi experiment and we still haven't had an Iraqi center enter the NBA draft (straight from high school, no less). Iraqis are not buying Doritos by the shipful. Martha Stewart has yet to unveil her new line of home furnishings inspired by Iraqi handicrafts. Bobby Flay and Emril have not been cooking up any Iraqi dishes on the Food Network. If none of these things are happening, according to most Americans, then just what is?

Well, at least once a day somewhere in Iraq a bunch of people get blown up in front of a police station or standing in line at a market. Several times a day, someone in Iraq is being kidnapped and beheaded, after being forced at gunpoint (after the mandatory torture period is over) to make an impassioned plea for G.W. Bush and Co. to get out of Dodge and let the "peace-loving people of Iraq" get on with their dreary, 7th century lives. In the meantime, anything that could possibly be classified as a "good" event in Iraq is barely mentioned. Like for example; thousands of Iraqi men lining up to take jobs as police officers despite the risk, a disparate Iraq population taking great pains to establish a fair and equitable government or American soldiers aiding Iraqis in thousands of simple, work-a-day ways like administering inoculations or building schools and hospitals.

The reasons for this are obvious: the story about an American G.I. toiling away to build a schoolhouse for Iraqi children is a) not sexy to network executives and b) starts some people in these parts to wonder why we can build schools in Iraq and not here. One reason is a simple business decision (i.e. violence sells, and the more vicious, random and misdirected the violence is, the better. Especially if it makes a back-handed political statement), and the other is merely common sense (we're supposed to be fighting for OUR children, you know).

However, I believe there are far more insidious, and yet all-to-common, factors at play. The first is the the great majority of the American public (we'll call them the Great, Unwashed Masses) has an attention span which can be measured in MPH. Unless something explodes every fifteen seconds, or unless there's tits on display, they simply lose interest. Give them anything that requires them to think, which involves patience, or which involves an historical perspective, and they immediately begin to watch The Real Gilligan's Island. Mary-Ann in a wet t-shirt is so much more interesting in the inner-workings of the new Iraqi government.

A second factor in the recent upswing of anti-war "news" has to be the sheer volume of anti-war, anti-American and, more specifically, anti-Bush rhetoric from the same old circles. Democrats, of course, can be expected to wail the loudest (and they certainly do), and every piece of bad news from the front is a piece of good news for them. Every one of the political dissidents on this issue, however, can reliably expected to have a convenient barin fart when it comes to accurately recalling their own actions at the beginning of this whole thing. You know, the Congressional debates, and ultimately, votes, that allowed the President to commit American troops to Iraq, and the spending bills that continue to fund ongoing military and civilian activities in Iraq. Democrats can scream about how opposed to the war they are, but they cannot simply resort to blaming the guy on watch when he couldn't do it without their tacit support. This tactic failed when it came to pinning 9/11 on Bush (it was democrats who erected barriers to anti-terrorism incentives, who hamstrung the CIA and FBI and who defunded the military. By the way, that charge was led by John Kerry, in case y'all forgot). Let's also not forget that Iraq was a problem constantly ready to boil over during 8 years of the Clinton administration, which treated Saddam Hussein as a hemorrhoid rather than as a cancer.

Not to be outdone, of course, are the international critics. European countries (particularly France and Germany) which see the United States as a threat to their them, in all senses of the word. The do-nothing-but-rack-up-a-ton-of-parking-tickets brigade at the U.N.. Amnesty International (which hasn't met a gulag it didn't like, unless it was run by a democratic nation, and which has been dead silent on the dictatorship of Mugabe for all I know). The ACLU (which hardly exists in the American Spirit anymore and protects not so much Civil Liberties as Civil Libertines). And last, but not least, the communist and former communist states of Russia and China, which simply opposed an Iraq invasion on the basis that it would shut down a source of ill-gotten hard currency for poison gases. Add the faculty of Berkeley and three quarters of the Kennedy School at Harvard for good measure. They're still upset that Oil-for-Food-for-The-Benefit-of-France was upset by Bush, Blair, Powell, Rice, et. al. for having the temerity to insist that the United Nations actually enforce it's own resolutions.

Yet another factor at play is the fear America itself inspires when it has legitimately been aroused from it's typical torpor. September 11 not only woke America up, it gave it's politicians and military an excuse to be an active force in the world. Naturally, we'd like to be a positive force, but unfortunately, we've had to be a mostly negative force in terms of bombing, strafing, etc. The positive stuff cannot start until all the negative has been purged, and the longer the negative continues, the greater the chance that we'll just get frustrated and be done with it. Permanently. Part of this fear arises from the realization that should America actually find a justification to, it could lay waste the entire planet and there's not much anyone else could do about it. Not going to happen, but it's a fact that most astute statesmen must always keep in the back of their tiny minds. Another fear-inducing aspect is what would happen if we actually succeeded --- if you're a tin pot dictator oppressing your people, you're next on the list, perhaps. Of course, with the United States committed for the long-haul in the Middle East, keeping very close tabs on Iran and circling like a vulture over North Korea, you don't have very many places left to sell Fiats, Gitanes and Brockwursts. If these regions should fall under American sway (militarily, politically or culturally), it would literally wreck most Western economies.

Which brings us to the plaintive wailing. All of it says pretty much the same thing: surrender now. Which begs the question:why should we? The reasons given, of course, make little to no sense. Those reasons revolve around the typical stuff: we're running concentration camps, we're killing innocent people, we're wrecking our own economy, we're wasting American lives in a quixotic dream. All of these reasons were the staple of the anti-war crowd in Vietnam. And both World Wars. And the American Civil War, too. In fact, they've been the basis of every anti-war movement since the beginning of recorded history.

American Gulags? Last time I looked, not one person has died in US Custody at Guantanamo Bay. In fact, the prisoners there get three meals, prayer time, medical treatment (including dental, mental health services and eyeglasses --- it's a better deal than Medicare), hot water, and somewhat comfortable accommodations. Compare that with the mass graves in Iraq, and even in Serbia, in Europe's backyard. Compare the treatment of Islamic prisoners in Cuba to the treatment afforded Western hostages in Iraq and other shitholes across the Middle East. No one is being mutilated and decapitated on the internet in Gitmo. In the cases where there have been abuses by US troops or officials (Abu Graib, Baghram, etc), punishment is being meted out, the guilty are being called to account. Stalin never did anything like that. Meanwhile, closer to home, we're still debating the utility of the Patriot Act, and it's consequences, without mentioning that no one has yet been prosecuted under it (which also means that no case has been overturned due to constitutional review under it), and that the Patriot Act was passed in true, democratic fashion, by a majority of both houses of Congress. Let's be honest: if you're against the Patriot Act, then vote against it. But don't be cynical and insist that it's unconstitutional" or a "threat to Civil Liberties" secure in the knowledge that should it actually prevent a terrorist act, you can proudly point to your "yes" vote.

Killing innocent people? Last time I looked, Arabs are killing more Arabs than American troops are. Iraqi "insurgents" (let's call them what they are please, which is terrorists) kill more Iraqis on a daily basis than American bullets do. In fact, those self-same car bombers are more likely to come from other places around the Middle East to engage in a massive bloodletting of fellow Muslims. When the scumbags do manage to show themselves in any numbers, we do manage to kill them, and unfortunately, some innocents do happen to die as well. But ask yourself this: is that because the US goes hunting with the intention of killing innocents or is it because the bad guys insist on fighting from inside hospitals, mosques, schools and residential neighborhoods?

As for the economic arguments, the United States can easily afford to fight the war in Iraq. With one hand tied behind it's back and it's eyes closed, no less. What's being spent in Iraq is a fraction of what we spend on indoctrination (i.e. education) in this country every year. If you believe that the difficulties in Iraq are directly tied to recent economic problems here, particularly the price of gasoline, then you're an idiot. Many of the same people who complain about $2.50 gasoline were also the first to shout "No blood for Oil!". They're also the same dolts who find $2 gasoline abominable but who say nothing about $4 milk. You can't have it both ways: you can't come out and say we fought a war to steal Iraqi oil, and then complain that you can't drive 4sblock to work without taking out a second mortgage.If anything, the recent spike in the price of gasoline should put the "Haliburton" conspiracies to rest. The actual causes of the rise in gasoline prices have very little to do with war. The are, in no order whatsoever:

1. There has been no new oil refinery built in the United States since the 1970's. Even with the one we have running over capacity, they still cannot meet the demand.
2. The EPA has regulated us into a gasoline crunch by mandating that gasoline come in 16 different varieties, each specially blended to match conditions in individual regions of the country.
3. The emerging economies of India and China are consuming ever-increasing amounts of oil.
4. OPEC has slowed production of crude to a) take advantage of the higher process, and b) try to reign in US policy in the Middle East by indirect methods. Saudi Arabia does not want to be next on the list of "terror-sponsoring nations" but cannot directly confront the United States.
5. There have been at least two major fires at one Texas refinery site in the last three years. That has to slow production down greatly.

The American economy could very easily take $3 gasoline and not be too adversely affected, if we were honest about it and willing to make the sacrifice.

As for the sacrifice of American soldiers, well, that's what they're there for. They all volunteered with the knowledge that they might have to go to war one day, subject to the orders of those duly elected. The duly elected make decisions regarding war and peace, and while Bush might be the Commander-in-Chief, he didn't just wake up one day and send 150,000 Americans to Iraq. It was a decision made by means of debate; in Congress and in the public square of the media, and in the end, the American people gave him permission to do it through their elected leaders. Of course, the nature of any military operation is that it's near impossible to pull one off without losing anyone. At the end of the day, 1,700 American dead (to date), while tragic, is not anything near to a military disaster, and that sacrifice has not been in vain when you stop to consider the potential they have unleashed in the Middle East: Iraqi elections, Lebanese democracy movements, Libya playing ball and the Saudis extending the franchise.

The voices very often have salient points to make, and they should never go unheeded, however, this is not one of those times to listen. When it comes to Iraq, we also have to take into account a moral imperative. Iraq may not have been a functioning, stable, free state in the terms that we understand, but now that we've knocked out what passed for a government, bombed the place flat, disrupted commerce and removed simple services like electricity and running water, we do have a duty to stay until a modicum of those things can be restored, either by our own force, our own treasure or by the Iraqis themselves. For those who believe that the Iraqi "adventure" was mistake, ask yourself how much worse it would be if after having destroyed, we then abandoned.