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My thoughts on the world around me

Mike Wallace’s Interview with Ayn Rand

CBS’s Mike Wallace interviewed Ayn Rand, the author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, in 1959. I found the interview utterly fascinating.

In Part One of the interview, she discusses the conflict between a society whose morality is based on faith and self-sacrifice for one’s fellow man (conventional thought) vs. morality founded solely on reason and selfishness (Rand’s objectivism):

In Part Two of the interview, Rand argues in favor of a separation between state and economics (laissez-faire government):

In Part Three of the interview, she contends that the only solution is a market free of government interference:

“I have no faith at all, I only hold convictions.” Wow, it takes guts to believe in a statement like that so firmly.

At a time when women did not have many prominent voices, Ayn Rand was a luminary and a courageous trailblazer.

With that said, I’m curious to know what she would have to say about the current economic recession. Fifty years ago, she called for absolute deregulation. Look at how well that’s turned out.

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January 29, 2009 Posted by | Art, Economics, Literature, Politics, TV | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

What Obama’s Cuba Policy Ought to Be

In the ebb and flow of politics, change is the ultimate catalyst for achieving better government. As in the market, where demand for an old and unattractive product wanes, an unsuccessful political leader or policy, too, can lose favor. It is only a question of time before people realize that while one path may lead to stagnation, there is another that leads to possibility. When that time comes, the superior concept rises to the top.

In the 50 years since Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, the United States has primarily advanced protectionist policies. On February 7, 1962, following the expropriation of numerous U.S.-owned properties in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order imposing a trade embargo on Castro’s government. In 1963, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the first of many travel restrictions went into effect. Most recently, the Helms-Burton Act was enacted in 1996 to penalize foreign companies that do business in Cuba by preventing them from doing business in the U.S.

What effects have these measures had?

The Cuban people live in poverty. They have little or no access to our medicines, products and other essential items. They are silenced by a repressive government that long ago erased their freedom of expression. And yet, while Cubans feel disdain for their leaders, they are equally scornful of the U.S. The trade embargo has crippled their economic opportunities, and the travel ban has kept families apart for decades.

After 50 years and 10 U.S. presidents, isn’t it time for the U.S. to rethink its position? It may help to look at a successful model.

In technology, the Internet is a powerful tool because it is open to everyone. Its emphasis on collaboration and integration allows people from all over the world to freely exchange ideas and solve complex issues.  The Internet’s openness is a strategy that breaks down barriers, physical or not, and empowers the individual who wields its awesome power.

When applied to Cuba, the key to reforming the communist nation is to bombard it with access and information. The U.S. must allow U.S. citizens to travel into Cuba and ignite the flow of commerce. It ought to lift the trade embargo, so that Americans may benefit from the sugar and tobacco industries, and Cubans may have access to medicine, Hollywood, and apple pie. The U.S. also needs to assign a special envoy to Cuba who will oversee this transformation and assure the Cuban people that the U.S. views its neighbor’s success as a priority.

But as with the Internet, these political measures require collaboration. Once the U.S. changes its policies, it will be up to the Cuban people to act. We will provide the tools, but they will have to take the courageous steps toward democracy and capitalism. Will Cubans prefer a repressive government, or one that denies them nothing? Will they side with the local government that rations what little food they have, or follow the global economy that rewards innovation and hard work? Only they can decide that.

Communism erected walls throughout the island and in the people’s minds. We should tear them down as we once did in Berlin. If the U.S. infuses the island with hope, then there is the possibility that the inhabitants will once again dream of something larger than themselves.

After 50 years of stagnation, a different path seems very attractive.

January 27, 2009 Posted by | Barack Obama, Cuba, Economics, Foreign Policy, International Trade, Law, Obama's First 100 Days, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Earmark Ban Doesn’t Really Ban Anything

Interest groups, lawmakers and lobbyists will have to be a little more creative to get funding for their pet projects. With President Barack Obama imposing an earmark ban on the $825 billion-dollar stimulus bill, lobbyists and others will have to seek money through “ready to go” jobs eligible for the stimulus plan.

This brand of politics disgusts me. It’s the very reason why people become so disillusioned by their government and the K Street, fork-tongued crowd that compete for its power and wealth. Some will argue that lobbying is a necessary evil in politics, or perhaps not an evil at all. For every lobbyist seeking to help the “mom and pop” shops, though, there are a million Jack Abramoffs who suck the life and idealism right out of public service.

From his years in law school, Obama should know that if the four corners of a document are not absolutely airtight, clever people will have their way with the fine print. Mr. President, if you truly did not want any earmarks whatsoever, you and your staff should have chosen the stimulus bill’s words more carefully.

January 26, 2009 Posted by | Barack Obama, Economics, Law, Obama's First 100 Days, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Major Cities to be Hit Hardest by Recession

According to Associated Press, New York City leads all U.S. cities in expected job losses for 2009.

These are the statistics of the top 4 cities:

New York City – 181,000 jobs

Los Angeles – 164,000 jobs

Miami – 85,000 jobs

Chicago – 80,000 jobs

Studying the numbers, I think the AP’s column overlooks an important fact: The Miami metropolitan area is much, much smaller than the other three metropolises. According to a city population website, here are the populations of the New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami metropolitan areas as of 2007:

New York City – 18,815,988

Los Angeles – 12,875,587

Chicago – 9,524,673

Miami – 5,413,212

While Miami has less than one-third of New York City’s population, it will incur roughly one-half the job losses (181,000 to 85,000). So, while New York City may lose the most jobs in total, Miami will lose the most jobs (at least from the list above) per person.

If Miami had New York City’s population, it would lose 295,000 jobs in 2009.

January 19, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Politics | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Recession Hits the Beltway

The recession is also being felt among the nation’s political elite. With President-Elect Barack Obama taking over, loyal Bush appointees are now scrambling to find work.

In spite of their powerful positions and experience, these officials are seeing how difficult it becomes when the market shrinks:

“For Republicans, the inn is full,” lamented veteran GOP operative Ron Kaufman, a close White House adviser to former president George H.W. Bush and an executive at Dutko Worldwide. “You have lots of folks in the House and Senate on the streets and 3,000 administration appointees on the streets at a time when the job market is shrinking anyways. It’s just not a fun time.”

Of the roughly 8,000 politically appointed positions in the federal government, hundreds have been vacant since a wave of departures last spring, administration officials said. But appointees who have remained through the final days of the Bush administration have seen an already shaky job market collapse. The traditional avenues of employment for outgoing government officials — corporations, nonprofit foundations or think tanks — are clogged because of hiring freezes.

Some are choosing to forgo the job market, at least for the time being:

Bush appointees who can afford the luxury are taking time off. White House press secretary Dana Perino plans to travel with her husband to volunteer in South Africa at the Living Hope Community Center, a beneficiary of Bush’s anti-AIDS initiative.

“I didn’t want to sit around the house thinking about what I want to do next,” Perino said. “I wanted to do something that would help others.”

This recession truly does not discriminate.

January 19, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

U.S. Selling Bomb Parts to Iran

Yes, your eyes have not deceived you. The United States is selling bomb parts to Iran. How?

According to Joby Warrick, Iran is using several front companies, from the United Arab Emirates to Malaysia, to acquire weapons parts. Since Iran cannot buy directly from the US due to strict exporting laws, it’s using dummy corporations, littered throughout the globe, in order to bring western technology into Tehran.

The article notes how complex the issue has become:

While illegal trafficking in weapons technology has occurred for decades — most notably in the case of the nuclear smuggling ring operated by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan — the new documents suggest that recent trading is nearly all Internet-based and increasingly sophisticated.

Many of the schemes unknowingly involve U.S. companies that typically have no clue where their products are actually going, the records show.

“The schemes are so elaborate, even the most scrupulous companies can be deceived,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) and co-author of a forthcoming study of black markets for weapons components.

Albright said the deceptions can be even more elaborate when the target is nuclear technology. “That’s where the stakes are the highest,” he said. “If Iran is successful, it ends up not with an IED but with a nuclear weapon.”

This issue has a sad, dramatic flair to it:

Iran in the past two years has acquired numerous banned items — including circuit boards, software and Global Positioning System devices — that are used to make sophisticated versions of the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that continue to kill U.S. troops in Iraq[.]

American technology is killing American soldiers.

As I read the article, two things struck me in particular:

1. How much research is going into finding out where these parts are going?

2. Weapons trade is a monster that the US has no control over.

First, do US companies know who they are selling these sensitive materials to? It does not seem as though much research is going into it. The article notes this very same point:

Typically, the new front companies will not be discovered until long after crucial technology has left American shores aboard ships ultimately bound for Iran, Albright said.

Based on the above statement, US companies apparently do discover, at some point, that Iran is the end-user. How long does that process take? Couldn’t they just hold on to the technology until they are absolutely certain where the parts are headed?

Second, the US has no control over their weapons market. According to the article, they’re selling parts out of “California, Florida, Georgia and New Jersey.” Are these plants all operating under the US government, or are they separate private entities. I think that’s an important distinction that needs clarifying.

I find the distinction important because, presumably, the US would be looking out for US interests. The US would have to think in terms of national security, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, a private company is ultimately looking to turn a profit. A private engineering firm will be focused on the bottom line, and not take the risk of losing potential buyers if their turn-around proves too slow.

Ultimately, the article points out the difficulty the US is having in reigning this issue in:

“The current system of export controls doesn’t do enough to stop illicit trade before the item is shipped,” he said. “Having a law on the books is not the same as having a law enforced.”

The article makes a dangerous revelation: the war on terror is escalating, not just in intensity but in complexity. Worst of all, the US is being outmaneuvered.

January 11, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Foreign Policy, International Trade, Law, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Bailout and the Media: A Circus Coming to a Town Near You

Arianna Huffington’s latest blog post was a slap in the face. Directing her scathing remarks at the media, she wonders why reporters are so enamored by the Blago-Burris and Kennedy-Paterson-Cuomo stories, yet have put such limited effort into uncovering the colossal mystery that is the nearly trillion-dollar bailout.

I give Ms. Huffington high marks for her compelling argument. Here’s a sample on display:

“[T]he bailout is a fascinating story. Not so much a whodunit as a who’s-doing-it. This mystery is unfolding right in front of us, and the size of the victim pool could very well depend on whether we unravel the mystery in flashback or while it’s still in progress.”

Here’s a quote that blew my mind:

“As a GAO report last month dryly concluded: ‘The rapid pace of implementation and evolving nature of the program have hampered efforts to put a comprehensive system of internal control in place. Until such a system is fully developed and implemented, there is heightened risk that the interests of the government and taxpayers may not be adequately protected and that the program objectives may not be achieved in an efficient and effective manner.’ In other words, the money is flying out the door but no one is watching where it’s going.”

As Ms. Huffington points out, the bailout is a poorly-hatched plan that is spiraling wildly out of control. Worse yet, we don’t know anything about it because the government won’t tell us.

That’s where the journalists should come in. You see, the media ought to be America’s watchdog. It’s supposed to represent what Thomas L. Friedman, in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, has coined the “democratization of technology” and the “democratization of information”: innovations in computerization and telecommunications that have made it possible for hundreds of millions of people around the world to get connected and exchange information, news, knowledge, money, etc.

Now, a second news article is reporting that the soon-to-be Obama administration, and senior Democrats, are talking to the current administration about requesting the remaining rescue funds ($350 billion).

According to the article, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Service Committee, will soon be proposing legislation that would overhaul the remaining funds.

Here are some important points to the overhaul:

1. Treasury must develop foreclosure relief plans for owner-occupied homes by March 15 and start committing TARP funds to it by April 1. The plans can include government guarantees for modified loans, paying down second liens and outright loan purchases to bring down payments.

2. Toughen executive compensation rules and make some of them retroactive for banks that have already received funds.

3. Give smaller banks access to TARP funds and set benchmarks for institutions to meet in expanding their lending.

Will there be greater oversight and accountability over how the second half of the bailout package is utilized?

Ms. Huffington notes in her post:

“There is an all-too-real economic drama playing out behind the drawn curtain — a mystery waiting to be unraveled. And journalistic careers to be made by those doing the unraveling. So what are the media waiting for?”

Hopefully this post helped to pull the curtain back just a little bit.

January 10, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Law, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Obama’s Vision for US Foreign Policy

President-Elect Obama’s inauguration is now just 11 days away. The dilemmas that await him are by now well-documented. I would, however, like to revisit Obama’s thoughts on what the United States’ foreign policy ought to be in the years to come. Here is the July/August 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, in which Obama wrote a piece titled, “Renewing American Leadership.”

Here is a summary:

After Iraq, we may be tempted to turn inward. That would be a mistake. The American moment is not over, but it must be seized anew. We must bring the war to a responsible end and then renew our leadership — military, diplomatic, moral — to confront new threats and capitalize on new opportunities. America cannot meet this century’s challenges alone; the world cannot meet them without America.

January 9, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Foreign Policy, Politics | , , , , , | Leave a comment

American Progress or American Dilemma?

The theme of the day (I commented on this subject, to a certain degree, in “The Washington Post’s Ann Telnaes’ Cartoon“) appears to be that the United States, at least with respect to its interaction with foreign governments, has a tendency to impose its value system.

In Fareed Zakaria’s most recent article, he notes some of the late Samuel P. Huntington’s most important work: “the most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government.” Of Huntington’s findings, Zakaria goes on to say that “American-style progress – more political participation or faster economic growth – actually created more problems than it solved.”

From Vietnam to Afghanistan, from Iraq to Pakistan, the United States’ foreign policy has been fatally flawed. The self-proclaimed notion that the United States is a liberator, and that it is in every country’s best interest to follow its Protestant Work Ethic, is not only a fallacy, but the very reason why its foreign policy has failed to adapt over the past 50 years.

We are a secular, capitalist society. Such principles work for us. That does not mean, though, that those same ideals would function under varying political landscapes, religious beliefs, and socioeconomic structures. As Zakaria states, Huntington, on tours to Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, observed that the Vietnamese people felt “secure within effective communities structured around religious or ethnic ties.” The United States viewed such sources of authority as “backward,” and took a different route. We now know how well the military campaign in Vietnam turned out.

In two months, it will be the 7th anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq. After nearly seven long years, where do we stand? The number of recent fatalities due to suicide or car bombings are mind-numbing. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban grow stronger in the areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But fret not, Americans. Our soldiers, who are already on their fourth or fifth tour of duty, will likely be re-deployed to Afghanistan.

Are these examples of American progress or an American dilemma? Samuel P. Huntington warned us of these flaws decades ago. Empires throughout history have fallen because of such short sightedness.

Only time will tell what the United States’ legacy will be.

January 5, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Foreign Policy, Politics, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hundreds of Brazil’s Eco-Warriors At Risk Of Assassination

Hundreds of Brazil’s Eco-Warriors At Risk Of Assassination, Says New Report.

According to a report compiled by Brazil’s Catholic Land Commission (CPT), at least 260 people live under the threat of murder due to their fight with a coalition of loggers, farmers, and cattle ranchers.

Is this really going on in the 21st century?

The individual cases are absolutely startling. Brazilian police are investigating claims that there’s a £14,000 price on the head of a French priest because of his fight against slave labor. An Austrian bishop has been under 24-hour surveillance for two years because of his clash with developers and child prostitution in his Amazonian diocese. Also, a leader of the landless movement was assassinated earlier this year with a single shot to the head.

According to the article, in the 1980’s there were over 1,000 murders in the Amazon.

In the last 12 months, deforestation in the Amazon has risen by 64%. Inside a reserve, nearly 7,500 acres have been deforested, mostly illegally.

This story reminds me of a book I read a few years ago: Killing Pablo. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Pablo Escobar was the king of the Colombian drug trade. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were killed during the reign of the Medellin cartel. Those murdered included politicians, judges, policemen, and anyone else who tried standing in Escobar’s way.

Here, the case is eerily similar. Law enforcement in Brazil seems to have little or no impact on the rampant lawlessness and threat to human life. In the case of Pablo Escobar, a special task force was sent from the US to help in the hunt. A similar maneuver may be called for in this circumstance – a special group of law enforcement focused on this, and only this, matter.

Knowing how the political landscape works, though, both in the US and abroad, such proactive measures seem unlikely. In spite of recent efforts, such as the production of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the issue of preserving the environment has yet to elevate to the sort of global awareness that the war on drugs and terror have.

Hopefully, articles like this one will slowly awaken people to the unacceptable practices that are compromising both people’s lives and our environment.

January 4, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Politics | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Israel, Watch Your Step

According to this NY Times article, Israel is facing a political quagmire: how far should it take this military campaign against Hamas?

Israel’s main concern is addressing the rockets being fired into southern Israel. So the question becomes: can the rockets be stopped for any length of time while Hamas remains in power? If not, then is the operation to remove Hamas entirely, at any cost?

In 2006, Israel was unable to defeat Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and the terrorist organization was legitimized. Here, it seems that Israel is facing a very similar problem. Aluf Benn, a political analyst for Haaretz, contends that if the war ends in a draw, then Hamas will be legitimized and grow stronger.

Most people, including many Israelis, would prefer that a truce be brokered. Any potential truce would likely have to include an end to the economic boycott that Israel has imposed on Gaza. However, such a result would build up Hamas. If the boycott remains in place, though, 1.5 million Gazans will remain living in poverty.

The article goes on to say that Israel can only achieve victory if it were to once again occupy Gaza.

As several political insiders point out, though, removing Hamas would be unrealistic. Hamas won a democratic majority four years ago, and the group has 15,000-20,000 armed men.

What about the Fatah party? Couldn’t it just take the place of Hamas, as it once did? The article points out that Fatah is likely too disorganized to take over. Complicating this matter further, the longer Israel retains a military presence in Gaza, the weaker Fatah becomes. In the minds of Gazans, it would appear as though Fatah were collaborating with Israel.

Ultimately, the article notes that the destruction of Hamas’ infrastructure would likely result in chaos. With no influx of capital, and no political party to maintain order, Gazans won’t know which way is north.

If Israel’s goal is to reach a peaceful accord with its surrounding enemies, it had better calculate its moves very, very carefully.

January 3, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Law, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The New Global Financial Architecture – The Davos Debates

This video was submitted recently to the World Economic Forum in response to the economic question: Will the world economy be restored in 2009?

I like everything about this video. From a creativity standpoint, the cut out letters, music, and pace of the video are original and effective. As for substance, I like that the person addressed the question by presenting an economic game plan step by step. Judge for yourself:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

January 1, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Media, Politics | , , , | 1 Comment

World Economic Forum and YouTube: Make Your Voice Heard

World leaders and thinkers, from Bill Gates to Bono, will be attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 29, 2009. They will be meeting to address some of the key issues facing our planet: the economy, ethics, environment, and politics. The theme for the forum is “Shaping the Post-Crisis World.”

Through YouTube.com, you can submit a video weighing in on these contentious issues, and possibly win an opportunity to attend the forum in Davos:

Here are the FOUR questions you can respond to…

1. The Economy:

Want to see how others answered that question? Click HERE

2. Corporate Ethics:

Want to see how others answered that question? Click HERE

3. The Environment:

Want to see how others answered that question? Click HERE

4. Politics:

Want to see how others answered that question? Click HERE

This is our chance. Let’s make our voices heard.

December 31, 2008 Posted by | Economics, Education, Law, Politics | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment