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Monday, December 20, 2010

Parental Failure

Columnist Jay Matthews of The Washington Post wrote a recent article about the challenges of leadership at Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington, D.C. He applauds the move by interim D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to return former Dunbar principal, Stephen Jackson, back on the job. He was terminated at the end of the last school year by the management firm in charge of the school, Friends of Bedford, for not pushing improvements in teaching.

Friends of Bedford produced a higher rate of reading proficiency at Dunbar than was achieved at any other high school in the District. However, notwithstanding the improvement in reading skills, Friends of Bedford was unable to get a grip on the high level of student disruptions at the D.C. school. Consequently, Henderson, with backing of Mayor-elect Vincent Gray, decided to terminate its Dunbar contract with the School System.

Matthews believes that the odds are stacked against Jackson, who had plenty of community support. However, the one ingredient missing in the School System’s effort to reform Dunbar and to create a fertile learning environment for the students is the involvement of the parent(s) of these unruly kids? While it is reasonable to expect our public school systems to produce a quality education, it must be understood that we cannot hold institutions of learning solely responsible for poor results when some parents have so woefully FAILED in their responsibility as the custodian of their child’s upbringing. And then those uncontrollable children are unleashed on society through the school system.

There are adverse consequences in a civilized society for failure: failing to pay taxes; failing to perform adequately on the job; failing to preserve fidelity in a marriage; yet those parents who have so utterly fallen short in what could be argued is the most important duty as a responsible citizen, are exonerated and often defended as assiduous members of society. We hypocritically use catch-phrases like, “It takes a village,” when in reality, the surrogate parents of today are too often entertainers who reinforce insubordinate behavior.

I was raised in a village, where if one of the neighbors disapproved of my actions in public, they had the unspoken obligation to grab me by the ear or arm and drag me to my parents. Once they explained my irresponsible behavior, either my father or mother would finish the task of disciplining. Today, if one of our neighbors snatched our child and dragged him/her home, many parents would be ready to file an assault charge, or worse yet, it would be the prelude to a fistfight.

I have argued that childhood delinquency is less a student problem than it is a leadership problem: leadership in the home and in the school system. Why don’t our school administrators have the courage to remove disruptive students from the class room and place them in alternative learning environments and then hold the parent responsible for aiding in rehabilitating that student for re-admittance back into the classroom? This type of remedy has a two-pronged benefit: it requires the attention of the parent(s); and it preserves a positive academic environment for our children who want to learn.

Do we really expect a fertile learning atmosphere when our educators are doubling, tripling, quadrupling, and quintupling as teachers, judges, wardens, police, and sadly…parents?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Failed National Security Strategy

In response to Jeffrey Rosen’s editorial on the TSA recently published in the Washington Post, the full body scans and intrusive pat downs are beyond his descriptions of invasive, annoying, and unconstitutional. By using these tools to thwart another terrorist attack on our nation’s airlines, the TSA fails the final exam in The Art of War 101, by not giving a modicum of credit to terrorist organizations’ war-fighting capability. Every war-hardened general would warn against underestimating one’s enemies; give them credit for their strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses.

We are still at war with a terrorist enemy; aren’t we? If so, then at least give them credit for understanding that attempting another sabotage of the U.S. airline system is not a successful strategy. It certainly should not take Sun Tzu to realize that our bridges are more susceptible to terrorist attacks, as are our trains and subway systems, as are our tunnels, as are our shopping malls and restaurants, and God forbid, so are our schools and houses of worship.

What seems to be more chilling than the government’s willingness to violate our Constitutional right of protection from unreasonable searches or seizures is the fact that few citizens seem to have a problem with it. According to a Gallop Poll, conducted days after the failed 2009 Christmas Day attack on an airliner bound for Detroit, 75 percent of Americans approve of the full-body scans. My blood curdles to consider the possibility of a dozen synchronized attacks on bridges and tunnels while our security apparatus is preoccupied with toothpaste, shampoo, shoes and underwear at the nation's airline terminals.

When the Federal government can violate the Constitution – in this case the 4th Amendment – with impunity, then I must ask, “How far are we away from waking up one morning to a police state.” I mean, for Pete sake, even the Southern landowners fought a war before they embraced the Emancipation Proclamation. Now, I’m not suggesting an armed uprising…but then, on second thought, perhaps that is what the founders of this country urged when the government becomes destructive:

…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government (emphasis mine)…

Do you really think that the alter or abolish clause of the Declaration of Independence was referring to a well organized campaign to vote the perpetrators out of office; considering that the authors of that document were embroiled in an armed revolution of their own as a result of its succession from England? Anyway, I’ll leave that argument to the scholars. However, to be clear, in the day when the Federal government possessed little more than muskets in the national arsenal, an armed uprising from the citizens probably would have had a possibility of success. But in the day of the Cruz missile that can be targeted to hit the coordinates on one’s cell phone, an armed effort to unseat this intrusive government would be akin to suicide.

Unfortunately, and to our peril, unless the American citizen awakes from its deep sleep, this country will continue its somnambulist trek into a future with significantly limited rights.

Back to the indignity of full body scans and intrusive pat downs: here is a lesson from the third grade that I never forgot – lightening does not strike twice in the same place. And anyone who thinks that it does should be given a dunce cap and not control of our nation’s domestic security.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Predators Along Life's Highway - Part 1

What do Bernie Madoff and the sub-prime lenders have in common? They both perpetrated the largest securities fraud in their respective industries in U.S. history: Madoff swindled more investment capital than any fiduciary ever, and the mortgage companies nearly brought down the entire global economy with the sub-prime lending scheme. Though the two frauds were similar, the government’s response was vastly different: Madoff was sentenced to prison with a scheduled release date of November 14, 2139. If you’re keeping track of the math, that’s 130 years of a 150 year sentence. However, instead of prosecuting those in the banking industry who brought the world’s economy to a screeching halt as it teetered over the precipice of oblivion, the banking system received a massive injection of Federal funds. This bailout, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), was established under President George W. Bush, and was given in lieu of any jail terms.

TARP obligated the tax payers to purchase or insure $700 billion of “troubled assets,” mostly related to the sub-prime lending fraud. So in other words, unlike in the Madoff case, the perpetrators of the mortgage fraud got bailed out, while many of the homeowners who took advantage of these sub-prime loans were left drowning in a sea of debt. The term “underwater” directly relates to homeowners whose houses are now worth less than the amount that is owed on them.

While housing prices were rising precipitously during the early 2000s, homeowners came to expect 10-20 percent annual gains on the value of their homes. And as home values continued their steep appreciation, with no signs of a correction, the lending institutions used this fool’s gold to entice borrowers whose credit worthiness would have never qualified them for a mortgage under any reasonable lending guidelines. Although many pundits have blamed the homeowner for borrowing money they could not afford to repay, I would argue that the fault doesn’t lie with the homeowner, but the lending institutions.

It is no stretch to compare the recipients of these sub-prime loans with a 15 year old girl who is being pursued romantically by a 40-something year old man, who has all the trappings of wealth – expensive cars, large home, vacation villa, custom threads, international travel, an investment portfolio, and rubbing shoulders with world famous celebrities. Not many girls can resist being captured by one of the traps that have been set. In most states, if this man snares the 15 year-old girl and engages in sexual relations with her, it is considered rape; notwithstanding if the relationship was consensual or not, because society has determined that a 15 year old girl is not expected to be emotionally mature enough to resist such an allure.

Home ownership is the American dream; however, it was unattainable for many until that 40-something year old man came by flashing his no-interest, no paperwork mortgages during a time when home values were on a steady increase. Although we now see the consequences of what happened to those who received sub-prime loans, every bad risk borrower didn’t end up underwater. Some were astute enough and others were lucky enough to buy a home at the beginning of the real estate boom; sell it a few years later and realized a couple hundred thousand dollars windfall, and then they put that money down on a more reasonable home purchase. God Bless them; however, not everyone was so fortunate.

Who is to blame for the mess? I hear back-alley pundits throwing around words like, “stupid,” “dumb,” “foolish,” and “ridiculous,” referring to borrowers for purchasing homes that they could not afford. Sure, in a perfect financial world, where the lending guidelines are being strictly adhered to, most of those sub-prime loans would not have been made, and the economy would not have collapsed as a result of “predatory” lending practices. However, with the prospect of home ownership during an era of unprecedented rise in home values, was that 15 year old girl mature enough to remain in that low-rent, crime ridden apartment complex when that 40-something year old man was literally giving mortgages away?

In hindsight, we now see that this young girl was swept off her feet by her gluttonous pursuer; yet, instead of rescuing her from her assailant, the U.S. government defended the attacker and insulated him from his own destruction…to the tune of $700 billion. This, we were told by the Secretary of the Treasury at the time, Henry Paulson, was necessary to prevent a global economic collapse.


To state the obvious; “This was very serious.” It was infinitely more serious than Madoff’s ponzi scheme; and I am certainly not mitigating the gravity of his crimes. However, if we are to believe Paulson’s justification for a tax payer bailout of the banking system, then where are the Federal prosecutors who should be investigating the illicit, and possibly illegal, sub-prime lending practices? Oh, that’s right! They were busy chasing Wesley Snipes.

to be continued…

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Slaying a Herd of Sacred Cows

Here we go again! The chairmen of the presidential, bipartisan deficit commission recently offered President Obama a slew of sacred cows to be sacrificed on the altar of fiscal responsibility. What makes this abomination of desolation so hypocritical is that former Clinton White House Chief of Staff, Erskine Bowles, and former senator, Alan Simpson (R-Wyo), have hatched a plan to send tax payers to the rescue…again, to save the country from the consequences of nearly 25 years of Conservative rule since 1980. And by the way, I am soliciting suggests for a new label to replace “Conservative.” It has become increasingly difficult to define conservatism. One of the bedrock principles of conservatism has been fiscal restraint; however, this pragmatic approach was killed long ago by President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan, the consummate performer, convinced his goose-stepping followers that trickle-down would benefit the entire country. But what trickle down did was place the nation on a spending binge that nearly caused a global, economic meltdown. To be sure, Reagan’s fiscal policies did not cause the mortgage crisis, the gas crisis, the near insolvency of the U.S, automobile industry, and the banking crisis, but it was the trigger that set the entire nation on a pork-feast at the trough of hyper-deficit spending. If we consider what happened to America economically during the eight years of the Reagan Revolution, it amazes me that anyone who calls themselves a Conservative (there I go with that word again) can still pay homage to his legacy.

When Reagan succeeded President Jimmy Carter in 1981, the public debt was $998 billion, or just south of $1 trillion; however, when Reagan passed the baton to George H.W. Bush, the debt had exploded to nearly $3 trillion. This is a staggering demonstration of financial mismanagement. To place this level of reckless disregard in its proper perspective, one must consider that in eight years, Reagan tripled what it took the country 204 years to accrue in deficit spending. This is astonishing! Yet, former President Ronald Reagan is still revered in nearly mythological proportions. In fact, I understand that there is a move by Conservatives (there I go with that word again) to nominate him for a posthumous Nobel Prize.

There are three certainties in life: Death, taxes, and the requirement that every GOP leader genuflect before the portrait of Ronald Reagan that hangs in the headquarters of the Republican National Committee. Why? Because Reagan was the first president to demonstrate that you can overspend beyond your wildest imagination if you could convince the country that an enemy was looming: Reagan, of course, had the former Soviet Union; H.W. Bush had Saddam; and Dubya had bin Laden. Now watch very carefully, because the hands are indeed quicker than the eyes – During the 20-year reign of the Republican presidents since 1980, the United States has spent nearly $8 trillion on defense…you still watching?

  • · Russia disintegrated without firing one single bullet in self defense;
  • · Saddam was held up in a hole the size of my walk-in closet; and
  • · The last I heard, Osama bin Laden was last seen walking through the streets of Anacostia.

Did you see that?

This entire performance took place; not because of the trillions that were spent, but in spite of the trillions it cost the American tax payers. According to one analysis of global defense spending, the U.S. spends more money on defense than the rest of the world combined. The United States spends nearly 57 percent of all military expenditures world-wide. The runner up to this dubious honor and the bronze medal winner go to China and Russia respectively with a combined military spending of $115 billion, or 10 percent of total global military expenditures. America’s closest NATO ally, France, spends about $45 billion per year, or four percent of the total global military expenditures.

Simple mathematics shows me that NATO is getting a free ride at the expense of the tax payers in this country. So let me make sure I have this right: The presidential deficit commission is recommending the elimination of the sacred mortgage deduction; increasing the age of retirement under Social Security; eliminating “all the expensive and popular deductions,” which almost certainly means cafeteria plans, charitable contributions and childcare deductions; programs to assist the poor would be drastically cut back; and an increase in the amount of income subject to Social Security taxes. To be fair, the Commission is also recommending a $100 billion cut in defense spending, but if we assume that the Military Industrial Complex will just roll over and play dead while the surgeon cuts, this would simply reduce America’s percentage of global defense spending from 57 percent to 48 percent.

But as the old saying goes, “Talk is cheap.” Therefore, in addition to my criticism of the plundering of the American treasury, I offer this recommendation: Let’s go back to where the Conservatives (oops, there I go again) ran off the track during the Reagan administration, and reduce military spending to those 1981 levels. This would erase nearly $400 billion in spending overnight, but here is the good part: The $317 billion defense budget during Reagan’s first year is still three times more spending than China and Russia combined, but what it does additionally is require NATO to shoulder more of the burden for living in a relatively safe world.

Although I do not subscribe to Marxism; I must say that Marx’s case on the misunderstood power of the working class is profound. Now that I’ve made my point, here is the overriding issue: Will you sit back and permit your congressional leaders to take the crumbs that Reagan gave you in trickle down, or will you make your political leaders accountable for the decisions that they make? Perhaps demanding that this nation’s vaunted, overpriced military capture bin Laden would be a great first step. With this nation’s almost surreal intelligence apparatus, unless bin Laden is communicating with carrier pigeon, surely we should have captured him by now…if that was a national priority. However, what seems to be most important to our leaders today is to push back the gains, benefits and amenities afforded to the working class over the last 75 years and not the capture of Osama bin Laden.

And unless a chorus of opposition is heard, over the next few years, the citizenry will be scratching their collective heads, wondering how their politicians did it to them again. Well, here is the memo in case you missed it: It is called forgetting the past.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Act of National Suicide - Part 3

Call me cynical, but when Tea Party backed candidate for governor of New York, Carl Paladino, advocates housing the poor in prisons, I must wonder if the right wing splinter group has plans to manufacture new ovens and gas couplings. If so, based on the mid-term election results, many in our nation would not believe it until they smelled the burning flesh. Although Andrew Cuomo soundly defeated his radical opponent, I do not sleep easily knowing that more than a dozen House seats, three Senate seats and the Governor’s mansion in South Carolina are now occupied by men and women of varying extreme, right-wing views.

Trent Franks, the U.S Representative for Arizona’s 2nd congressional district stated in a 2010 interview that, “Far more of the African American community is being devastated by the policies of today than were being devastated by the policies of slavery." In this interview, he stated that abortions in the black community are having a greater adverse impact than slavery. Whoa! Franks must have been absent when his American Politics 101 class was assigned to write the following phrase 100 times: “I promise to never, ever compare anything to slavery, the Holocaust, or rape.” While he laments the state of the black community, I find his hypocrisy loathsome if he wishes to condemn abortion by contrasting its adverse impact on the black community to slavery. What about its affect on the white community? or the Hispanic community? One would think, considering Franks’ lamentation of the “devastation” that abortion has had in the black community, that he would express a similar anguish for his own ethnic group; especially since it accounts for the majority of abortions in the country.

Congressman Steve King, representing Iowa’s 5th Congressional District, dishonored the election of the first African American to win the U.S. Presidency by saying, “The al-Qaeda, and the radical Islamists and their supporters, will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers that they did on September 11th,” referring to Obama’s victory. Oops! He must have also missed his American Politics 101 class on the day the professor cautioned white politicians against besmirching President Obama’s historic, presidential victory. And then to suggest that al-Qaeda took more pleasure in his victory than it did in annihilating nearly 3,000 American citizens is. . . I’m struggling for a word(s) here, but “insane” is the most print-friendly expression that I can offer.

Despite the ridiculous positions that these and other Tea Party members subscribe to, my favorite for pure absurdity, with a massive dose of hypocrisy goes to Tea Party backed, Alaska Senate candidate, Joe Miller. Miller has advanced the outrageous notion that government aid, like unemployment compensation, is unconstitutional; however, after leaving his employment at the end of 2002, his wife, Kathleen Miller, received unemployment payments. By the way, Miller has yet to concede his race against incumbent, Lisa Murkowski, because write-in and absentee ballots are still being counted.

What is chilling about Miller and his Tea Party colleagues is that they churn out these radical viewpoints with straight faces. Perhaps they really do believe them: housing the poor in prisons; abortions having a more harmful affect on blacks than slavery; President Obama’s historic victory igniting more revelry in the al-Qaeda training camps than the sneak attack of September 11th; and Unemployment benefits being unconstitutional.

Is this really who you want running America during its current fiscal, employment, international, and leadership crises?

Former president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, in his book Perestroika, admitted that the country’s leadership realized as early as the 1970s that it was headed on a collision course with disaster: “Back in the 1970s many people realized that we could not do without drastic changes in thinking and psychology, in the organization, style and methods of work everywherein the Party, the state machinery, and upper echelons.”[1] This concession by President Gorbachev that the Russian leadership was aware that the country was on track for collapse as early as 1970 is very significant. It seems to suggest that the entire U.S. military build-up to contain the so-called “Soviet threat” was marginally needed on one extreme and superfluous on the other.

However, notwithstanding the Soviet Socialist Party’s observation, that there were cracks in its foundation, what is more significant is their response to the hemorrhaging. According to Gorbachev, “Certain personnel changes at all levels were needed. New People took over leadership positions, people who understood the situation and had ideas as to what should be done and how.”[2]

Can you see where this is going?

The reason that the Soviets’ response to their dilemma of the 1970s is so significant is because within four years of Gorbachev’s announced wholesale restructuring, or the duration of a U.S. presidential administration, the Soviet Union disintegrated into 15 separate countries. In other words, Russia committed suicide! Will America be next? Perhaps another country will outrun the United States to the grave, but death, and most likely by a self inflicted wound, is inevitable.

I grew up in a nation that revered names like John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Sam Rayburn, Barry Goldwater, and Walter Cronkite. However, today when I see names like Carl Paladino, Trent Franks, Steve King, Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly establishing the national agenda, I wonder if Thomas Cole’s prophetic, allegorical depiction of national destruction will happen in my lifetime. But what is really scary is that if Sarah Palin is the face of modern politics, then maybe America is only waiting for the pathologist to pronounce its cause of death.

[1] Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika, New Thinking for Our Country and the World, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1987), p 14.

[2] Ibid.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

An Act of National Suicide Part 2

What do the BC period of the Pharaohs, the ancient Grecian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Incas, the Aztecs, and the former Soviet Union have in common? According to British historian Arnold Toynbee’s universal theory of civilization, they all migrated through a life cycle of challenge, response and suicide. Machiavelli, the Italian philosopher, whose name is often used as the adjective Machiavellian, to mean merciless cunning, demonstrated that empires rise, expand and fall because of an overreach by the military. The late Carroll Quigley, history professor from Georgetown University, demonstrated a greater complexity to the life cycle of civilizations by showing a progression from mixture to gestation to expansion to conflict to universal empire to decay to invasion and then destruction.

Each of these models, to varying degrees, show that history follows a certain inescapable rhythm. There may be no better illustration of the life cycle of great powers than the series of five paintings by Thomas Cole – The Course of Empire. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Cole weaves a fascinating story of judgment that will befall all societies that refuse to resist the imperial urge to expand its borders and the temptation to engage in international commerce.

Cole’s allegorical work depicts the same expanse over the course of an empire’s rise and fall: The Savage State shows a rock formation in a near pristine natural state where hunters are gathering their daily sustenance; The Arcadian or Pastoral State depicts a society emerging, where the inhabitants work towards the goal of organizing an empire; The Consummation of Empire is the third painting that shows huge marble palaces dominating a metropolitan landscape filled with merchants and consumers; Destruction precedes the end as a fleet of enemy warriors have overthrown the city’s ability to defend itself; and then comes Desolation where the remains of the once bustling city are no match for nature as she reclaims the landscape and the rock formation from the Savage State can be seen once again in all of its majesty.

Cole’s warning of inevitable decay is serious and should motivate this nation to hold its political leadership to a higher level of accountability, because one irresponsible decision by the President, or one intractable policy by Congress, or one unfavorable election result could lead to decline and then the unavoidable fall. If we fail to hold our political leadership responsible for harmful decisions, then we invite social annihilation. This is why I am so stunned at the election results on November 2nd. Most political analysts predicted the wholesale slaughter of the Democratic Party; however, I am still asking myself, “How could America return the keys of the hen-House back to the Fox?”

When I consider the damage, perhaps irreversible, that was done to America the last time the Conservatives controlled any part of the national government, I shudder to think that the voters have given them another opportunity to peddle their bogus corn cure. The last time the Republicans had plenary control of our government under President Bush, America lost its standing as the world’s only superpower. If we examine the before-Bush America and the after-Bush America, we will see that President Bush was handed a goose that laid golden eggs, while he tied a millstone around President Obama’s neck:

  • · Bush received a balanced budget with a $236 billion surplus from his predecessor Bill Clinton; he delivered an additional $6.5 trillion in debt to President Obama.
  • · Bush inherited a middle class whose income rose by an average of $6,000 from 1993 through 2001; he handed Obama a nation whose median household income dropped by $1,000 during his tenure;
  • · During his eight years in office, health care premiums doubled from about $6,000 to $12,000 per family;
  • · Clinton handed Bush a military that was at a high state of readiness, prepared to fight a two-front war; however, Bush delivered a military to his successor that had such low morale it has been unable to meet its recruitment goals;
  • · Bush inherited a nation where gasoline prices were less than $1.00 per gallon in many places; however, after his ‘secret’ energy commission, gas prices rose to as much $5.00 per gallon and in some parts of the nation, consumers are still paying nearly $3.50 for a gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel;
  • · America was respected as an international leader when Bush took over as President; but during his administration some countries believed that the United States was the biggest threat to world peace;
  • · Bush inherited a country that had a blazing economy; however, he delivered a nation to Obama that must rely on foreign investments of treasury bonds to stave off liquidation;
  • · The housing market was blazing when Bush took the oath of office and the economy was growing at a robust pace; however, he handed Obama a country where 1 in 5 homeowners were underwater with their mortgages;
  • · The Bush administration overthrew the leader of a sovereign nation and had him summarily executed, because he claimed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and participated in the attacks of September 11th; however, nearly 5,000 dead troops, more than 32,000 wounded troops, and more than 100,000 dead, “innocent” Iraqi citizens later, the military still has not uncovered any WMD or any linkage between Saddam and September 11th. (Yes, Saddam was a very cruel dictator, but American self interest does not overthrow leaders because they are bad. If that was the standard for military operations, who’s next? Amadinejab? Kim? Medvedev? Or to listen to the propaganda machine coming from the right; Obama?
  • · Ninety-seven percent of all troop deaths in Iraq have come since Bush announced “Mission Accomplished”…and that was May 1, 2003.

I could continue to make my case regarding George Bush’s reckless administration, but that is not important now since the damage has already been inflicted. However, what is imperative and essential to altering the course of this nation’s somnambulist path is for the electorate to understand that the Bush administration took us over the precipice of oblivion.

Do they get it?

An old wise man once told me, “You can be on the right track, but travelling in the wrong direction.” If we don’t wake up and reverse course, Coles Destruction and then Desolation will come sooner rather than later, and stamped on the autopsy’s report will be “Death by suicide.”

to be continued...