Monday, September 29, 2008

Here's the picture

At the risk of over-simplifying the situation, I will try to explain what the current financial market crisis involves.

Most businesses, from local business owners to national and multi-national entrepreneurs, do not have money on hand to cover their daily obligations. The business community uses lines of credit and other short-term borrowing methods to cover payroll and other normal operating costs. Whenever commercial borrowers cannot obtain such short-term money, business is reduced to what can be done with cash on hand.

Meanwhile, every day consumers also depend on short-term credit when we make purchases with our credit cards and when we deposit our payroll checks. In other words, you and I depend on the ability to borrow money--the credit market--for the money we receive for our work and for the money we use to engage in our daily spending. The senior citizens who charge medications with credit cards and the consumers who use the equity in their houses to underwrite family spending are not Wall Street tycoons. These are our neighbors, relatives, friends, and co-workers. People of ordinary means are more challenged than ever to find short term credit to continue business operations, maintain production schedules, and pursue new business opportunities as credit dwindles, prices rise, and economic fears mount.

Many people have complained that the financial market situation is a Wall Street problem that Main Street (referring to average consumers and taxpayers) are being forced to fix. The hard truth is that this situation is as personal as the expenses you and I incur every day. The United States is already in a recession. If business owners and consumers cannot readily obtain short term credit, the recession will be even more painful and prolonged.

Many people have expressed justifiable anger about how and why the present financial market crisis happened. However, cursing darkness does not produce light. The reason for the darkness is distasteful. That does not make the need for light less real and urgent.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Not Qualified!

We have waited long enough, witnessed enough, and been patient enough. Despite the political clamor following her introduction to the world stage, it is time for Americans to admit what other world leaders, and their intelligence agencies, already know and have begun to factor in their national security calculations: Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is unqualified to be President of the United States if Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate for President, is elected and somehow unable to discharge his duties.

Governor Palin had the recent opportunity to be interviewed by CBS evening news anchor Katie Couric, who asked Palin about her foreign policy qualifications. Palin responded that she is governor of Alaska, which borders Canada and Russia, as if geographic proximity somehow bestowed her with foreign policy knowledge and judgment.

Anyone who has been forced to over-achieve merely to obtain a job interview--a category that includes people from every background including many women, persons of color, and persons from other unprivileged backgrounds--should be insulted to the point of outrage. Palin is vying for the second most powerful executive position in the world. Her organizational management background consists of running a family budget, being mayor of a town smaller than most mid-size colleges, and her eighteen month stint as governor of a state with a population smaller than lower Manhattan (as the anti-racist commentator Tim Wise stated so poignantly in a September 13 blog titled "This is Your Nation on White Privilege"). If Barack Obama was running for Vice President with that background, most Americans would rightfully consider his candidacy a bad joke when the nation is at war, facing a world economic crisis, and coming at the end of eight of the worse years of presidential leadership in its history.

But the focus should not center on Palin. After all, she is no more or less than who she is. The real focus should be on Senator McCain, the person who selected her to be his vice presidential running mate. Choosing Palin was McCain's first national security decision. That choice not only demonstrated what McCain considers important in a potential chief executive, but speaks volumes about what he thinks about the intellectual maturity of American voters. McCain is gambling that white independent voters will choose him and Palin over Barack Obama and Senator Joe Biden because Palin is attractive, female, and feisty. In short, McCain is betting that American voters will elect him because of BS: his brashness and Palin's beauty, his "maverick" swagger and her sex identity.

McCain decided to roll the dice with our nation's future by choosing a running mate who is functionally clueless about global affairs, national security, global markets, and domestic policy. Choosing Palin for the office of Vice President, given its place in our constitutional democracy, demonstrates McCain's reckless disregard for national security and makes him unfit for executive leadership under any objective analysis. Leadership, whether of a business, non-profit organization, educational institution, or a nation, demands much more than brash swagger and blissful senselessness about executive duties, no matter how colorful the swaggering and senseless aspirants may be.

Neither McCain nor Palin is qualified to be chief executive of the nation. It is time someone said so, even before Palin shows up to debate Senator Biden in a few days and provides more proof of her incompetence. Eight years ago, the nation made affable incompetence the standard for choosing its chief executive. We have no excuse for repeating that mistake.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Not your best pitch man

If your business was teetering on the brink of failure and needed three-quarters of a trillion dollars to keep it afloat, would George Bush be your choice to pitch the deal to a skeptical bank board? Well, that is what Americans saw last night. George W. Bush, the C student from Yale and graduate of the Harvard Business School who has overseen nothing but business failures across his career, made his first speech to the nation in a year to try and persuade Americans to support his administration's bailout plan for the financial markets crisis that happened on his watch, but for which he refuses to accept responsibility. If Americans buy his latest stunt, we will fall for anything.

Here is why I am not impressed.

For starters, President Bush doesn't have much credibility anymore, if he ever deserved any before the financial markets mess occurred. This is the same fellow who insisted seven years ago that we invade Iraq following 9/11. Bush told us the war in Iraq would be paid for by oil revenue from Iraq. Bush and his vice president said that Saddam Hussein was partially responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bush said that there was no insurgency in Iraq. Bush said that the American economy was not headed into recession as little as a year ago. Aside from John "the fundamentals of our economy are strong" McCain, can you name a less credible person in the country on the nation's economy or any other subject of public policy than George "the Decider in Chief" Bush?

So why did President Bush address the nation last night? Consider the following likely reasons, but don't expect anyone to admit them.

The Bush Administration went to the last player on its bench. The star players (Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Benjamin Bernanke) cannot convince to Congress to make a $700 billion grant to the financial market that caused this mess on Bush's watch. Vice President Dick Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten can't browbeat Republicans in Congress to go along. Even Senator John McCain is telling people that the $700 billion grant stinks. When everyone else strikes out, the team has to send in the worse player even though it knows he can't play worth a hoot. After all, would you really send George Bush to make a $700 billion sales call if there was anyone else in the world to do it?

The legacy thing. Let's see, George Bush can't point to his success in international affairs as the crowning point for his presidency. He can't point to his national security prowess--remember that he decided to remain on vacation in Texas after receiving a national security briefing with the headline stating that Osama bin Laden was determined to strike the United States only weeks before 9/11. Mr. Bush can't point to his success as a war-time president, having started a war against an essentially defenseless Iraq for discredited reasons, mis-managed it, and prevented the U.S. military from pursuing and eliminating bin Laden. Bush can't point to his successful handling of domestic affairs, having let New Orleans drown. He can't point to his success with the U.S. Supreme Court because the Court has struck down his attempt to deny due process to the people caught up by his post 9/11 dragnet. The Bush Administration is running out of time, has run out of international allies, and has practically been abandoned even by Republicans in Congress. The financial markets bailout appears to be a last ditch try to restore some stature to a presidency that is widely viewed as a bad joke. Bush came out last night trying to put a dignified finish to a misbegotten presidency that worsened with age.

To play on American fears and sympathy. Would the the Bush Administration resort to fear-mongering and sympathy appeals in the interest of bad policy? Has it happened before? Hmmm. Do you remember Bush telling the nation in a State of the Union address about nuclear material from Niger that Saddam Hussein was supposedly trying to acquire? Do you remember the USA PATRIOT Act and claims about needing to suppress civil liberties, snoop on libraries and electronic communications, and spy on our phone conversations to avoid having a "mushroom cloud" over some American city? Do you remember repeated appeals to fund the misadventure in Iraq by pleas to "support the troops" even while the Administration was denying wounded troops decent facilities, needed mental health care for post traumatic stress disorder, and forcing our fighters to scrounge for metal to protect their vehicles from improvised electronic devises (IEDs)? History clearly shows that Mr. Bush has neither shame nor regret about playing on our fears and appealing to our emotions.

George Bush, the last player off the bench because he is the worse player on the team, came out last night to do what he has always done--try to scare and bully Americans into giving him his way so he can leave office claiming credit for something else the rest of us must endure. Last night, George Bush told us to give him $700 billion to save us from his trillion dollar mess. If the American public falls for this ploy, we need more than fresh money to fix our woes. When you trust the person whose policies helped wreck several of your cars after a career of other wrecks to oversee the auto recovery and repair industry and then give him a $700 billion dollar grant to do it, you need a guardian.

Heaven help us!

Monday, September 22, 2008

$700 Billion Deja Vu!

The current situation crisis in the U.S. financial markets has produced what looks like a 2008 version of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that the Bush Administration sought and obtained from Congress one week after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Remember how after 9/11, Attorney General Ashcroft and President Bush demanded fast congressional action in the name of "keeping the homeland safe." Recall how Congress slavishly passed a joint resolution authorizing the President to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorst attacks: or "harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent future acts of international terrorism."

We should recall that history now as well as its known and yet unfolding consequences. Based on the AUMF, President Bush committed the U.S. military to invade Iraq based on intelligence that was inaccurate, if not knowingly falsified. Based on the AUMF, the Bush Administration countenanced warrantless detention and torture of persons deemed "enemy combatants" at the unchecked will of the Secretary of Defense. Based on the AUMF, more than 4000 U.S. military personnel have died and tens of thousands more have been maimed and psychologically scarred. Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths range into the hundreds of thousands. Based on the AUMF, the United States has spent more than half a trillion dollars in the Iraq misadventure. Hundreds of people remain detained at the Guantanamo Bay naval base used to hold persons designated enemy combatants. Seven years after 9/11, the nation finds itself bogged in Iraq militarily because of the AUMF.

The present financial markets crisis now finds the Bush Administration demand once again that it be given quick and essentially unfettered discretion. In the present instance, the federal cabinet agency involved is the Treasury Department. Now, as after 9/11, members of Congress from both major political parties appear eager to enact something to show that they are effective, not engaging in partisan obstructionism, and to avoid adverse political consequences during the upcoming federal elections to Congress and the White House.

Perhaps it is naive to expect most Americans to resist being bullied, bossed, and brainwashed into believing that the complex financial markets crisis can be fixed with a two-page plan. Even so, it should not be too much to ask of elected officials to demand a closer and much more rigorous look at the plan proposed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. To use a sporting comparison, this problem was not caused by one play, nor will it be corrected by one play. In sports and in policy-making, rushed judgments are usually the least reliable.

Another reason why Americans should encourage their elected officials in Congress to look under the hood and kick the tires of the financial markets bail-out plan that is being so urgently pushed by the Bush Administration is that the U.S. Constitution demands such oversight by Congress of executive action affecting commerce. The Constitution does not authorize the executive branch to influence monetary policy free from congressional oversight and judicial review. President Franklin Roosevelt was so frustrated by having the courts review the validity of his New Deal measures to overcome the effects of the Great Depression that he attempted to expand the Supreme Court to as many as fifteen members. That was a controversial move, but nowhere close to the astounding notion advanced by President Bush that Congress enact legislation to address the financial market situation which prevents congressional oversight and judicial review of what executive branch officials do to bailout the financial markets.

However politically unpopular or incorrect it may be, Americans and their elected officials in Congress should remember that the Bush Administration now seeks totalitarian-like powers over the financial markets mess like it asserted the unfettered right to disregard due process and other civil liberties in the so-called "war on terror" the week after 9/11. The history of the past seven years demonstrates the folly of granting such power to this or any other administration. Even if that history was different, elected officials in Congress from all political parties should reject the latest Bush Administration demand for blank check authority out of respect for the Constitution and separation of powers.

At some point, love of democracy should trump expediency, political or otherwise. That is what patriotism means.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Competence versus Cosmetics

It is a fundamental principle of human resource management that competence has no substitute when evaluating prospective co-workers. As much as we value personal charisma, congeniality, and cordiality, serious work demands competent workers. Charisma, congeniality, and cordiality, however appealing, are not what makes jets take off, tractors plow, trains stop, bullets shoot straight, and food taste right. In these and every other important activity, competence is essential. Good leaders know this and discipline themselves to recruit and select competent associates as a matter of course.

Thus, Senator John McCain's selection of Governor Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential running mate in the 2008 presidential election is a telling indicator about his commitment to competence. A Vice President serves to exercise the duties of President in the event of Presidential death or disability. Thus, the Vice Presidential candidate should have the experience, wisdom, judgment, and other qualities needed to lead the nation as it faces the myriad challenges of 21st Century public policy. There is little evidence, if any, that Governor Palin has that experience, wisdom, judgment, or other necessary leadership qualities.

Rather, the Palin selection resembles the choice of Michael Brown by President George W. Bush to be Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Brown had no experience in emergency management at any level. He had no record of commenting about federal policy on any subject. He was cordial, reasonably photogenic, and politically connected. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that he was also incompetent.

Governor Sarah Palin appears cordial in her media interactions, is photogenic, and is politically connected. However, she has no experience dealing with international relations, strategic defense policy, national economic issues, or many of the serious other concerns that are integral to shaping and executing federal public policy. It is not unfair or unkind to make that observation. However, it is both unfair and unkind for Senator McCain or any other leader to thrust a charming and photogenic political crony on the nation.

Senator McCain has demonstrated what he thinks about competence. It remains to be seen whether American voters will imitate and institutionalize his poor judgment in the November 4, 2008 presidential election. Planes fly properly, meals are prepared well, and equipment works correctly because of competent pilots in the cockpit, competent cooks in restaurants, and competent mechanics repairing our vehicles and other machinery. By contrast, the United States is viewed by most Americans, and by people outside the United States, as not working well.

Senator McCain, like President Bush before him, appears determined to repeat the mistake of confusing the cosmetic factors of cronyism, congeniality, and glamour with competence. American voters will make a fundamental mistake in human resource management by following his example in the coming presidential election.