Monday, April 28, 2008

Times are Really Tough--and Everyone Knows It Except the Media and the Politicans

During my 40 years in the news and investment businesses I've seen a lot. There have been good times and challenging times but I've always remained an optimist. At the end of the day, America has always had too much going for it to stay down for long.

I must still feel that way because, as always, I'm fully invested for growth and I own stocks, real estate, and part of a car dealership that are all well run and should be successful over the long haul.

Having said that, the current political and economic environment just seem to be getting scarier and scarier. Most people know this. It's just our national leaders and those entrusted with telling us what's going on that seem to be clueless.

We get daily stories about the subprime mortgage crisis and the multi-billion dollar losses that have been realized by a number of financial institutions. Even as the data gets worse, the news media reports it as a contained problem and keeps predicting that we've reached the bottom. Their story line is simple: Too many poor people were loaned too much money and the lenders got in trouble. Too many rogue traders that weren't well supervised made crazy trades and cost their employers a fortune. But now the Federal Reserve is addressing the problem and things will get better.

President Bush and his financial team are telling us constantly that we are going through a little bit of a slowdown but help is on the way. Even as I write this, checks that will total $170 billion are on the way to Americans who will go on a huge shopping spree and turn things around. Treasury Secretary Paulson said today that 500,000 new jobs will be created as a result of this great plan.

The problem of course is that each of these statements couldn't be more wrong. And as we know, when our leaders declare "mission accomplished" and it's not, they stop looking for solutions to the real problems.

The housing crisis is not just a subprime phenomenon affecting low-income people who bought homes they couldn't really afford. It is widespread and affects millions of Americans, many of whom are not used to being poor. Unwise loans were made by many more people than subprime borrowers. The biggest loans over the last five years were made to middle and upper income homeowners (like me) who had small or no mortages (like me) but were tempted to pull equity out of their homes at low rates and use the low-cost money for other things. Many of those people (like me) now owe more on their homes than they paid for them just a few years ago and will be paying those debts off for years to come. I was lucky and locked in a fixed rate but even having done that, I will not be the consumer I once was over the next several years and certainly won't be pulling any more equity out of my home. The absence of that piggy bank will have a huge negative effect on the economy--much more dramatic than the subprime mortgage problem.

As far as the trading losses and banks and investment firms are concerned, those were systemic--not the result of a few bad apples. In recent years, trillions of dollars have flowed into hedge funds and other vehicles where the managers are compensated with bonuses related to the profits they generate. Those bonuses can run into tens or even hundreds of millions for those traders that guess right. If they guess wrong, they will probably lose their jobs but they're young and can always start over.

The infamous 31-year old French "rogue trader" who gambled $75 billion of Societe General's money on a stock futures trade that lost $7 billion would have made millions in bonuses if the trade had worked. When it failed, he got fired but, according to a news report this week, now has another job. The same is true for traders at banks in the United States where our government guarantees depositer's money if things go wrong but where the banks and employees make billions if they guess right. Is it any surprise that managers and traders took wild gambles with investor's money? The game was "heads I win, tails you lose" and they played it to the hilt.

Another daily story in the news deals with the skyrocketing price of gasoline and food. The root problem is the collapsing value of the dollar which is talked about much less. Since 2001, Congress and the President have adopted a disastrous policy of spending huge amounts of money, fighting a war, and cutting taxes sharply all at the same time. We have been running up trillions of dollars worth of debt (not counting trillion more for the war) without paying for any of it or making any provision for where the money will come from.

The financial markets figured this out right away and for years now the dollar has been plummeting in value against virtually every foreign currency. The news reports tell us that currencies such as the Euro and the Yuan are up by more than 50% against the dollar. What they don't tell us is that the Mexican Peso, the Polish Zloty, and the Israeli Shekel are all up more than 30% as well.

It was shocking to me that when Kristen and I were in Poland and Hungary several months ago and in Mexico recently, small merchants who used to be thrilled when you paid them in dollars all asked for zlotys or pesos instead of dollars and would only take the greenback as a last resort. Our guides and hosts all advised us to change our dollars into the local currency right away before it dropped in value during our short stay. It's hard to describe what that experience makes you feel like as an American.

All the politicians are now debating whether we should raise or lower taxes but the conversations seem to be totally disconnected from the real issue which is "how do we pay our bills." It seems so simple to anyone who has had to balance a personal budget--you can't buy things unless you know how you're going to pay for them. Why is the question never framed this way in the public debate? Bush and McCain talk about keeping the tax cuts in place as though the status quo was a viable option. Clinton and Obama don't have too much to say on the issue either other than that the rich should pay more. But that's not the point. The point is that we have to find a way to behave responsibly and no one discussing that.

The Economic Stimulus plan is in fact no plan at all. It's just another giveaway of $170 billion that we don't have and will have to borrow from our children. A true plan would address our crumbling roads, bridges, and infrastructure and create real jobs that will truly help the economy. But no one in Washington has time for that in an election year so instead we each will get a check so we can buy an I-phone or pay down our credit cards.

At our car dealership sales are down and many of our salesmen haven't had a real paycheck in months. One of them is living in his car. Customer traffic is down slightly but the real problem is that the banks and credit unions are only willing to loan money to people who truly don't need it. The pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other, as it always does. One of my business associates is in a two income family but they have had to drain their retirement accounts and get a second mortgage just to pay their bills.

As I said, I've been through some major ups and downs over the last 40 years but this is the first time that people I know personally and work with are struggling in these ways.

I still believe that in the U.S. we are blessed with a unique combination of capitalism and democracy that makes us a heavy favorite to bounce back as we always have. It would be a big help if our leaders in Washington had the guts and the insight to behave like grownups. It would also be nice if the news media was less worried about personal celebrity and more focused on making sure Americans understand what the issues really are and what it's going to take to solve our problems.

One thing is for certain. Since the solution could involve real sacrifice we are not likely to hear much until after the elections. And we'll be lucky if we hear it then.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Conventional Wisdom on the Campaign is All Wrong -- As Usual

As I sit here and watch the returns in the Pennsylvania primary come in exactly as predicted, I am taken by how the pundits are interpreting Hillary Clinton's victory as being so meaningful and fraught with implications.

The conventional wisdom is that the Clinton campaign will emerge from Pennsylvania revitalized and that the game is still very much on. It seems to also be the conventional wisdom that John McCain will prove to be a formidable opponent in November and that Barack Obama's inability to "seal the deal" and put Clinton away is an ominous sign that he will have a very tough time winning the big race further down the road.

In my opinion, every single one of those assumptions is way off base.

In the first place, the Democratic Party's nomination process is over and Obama has won. The only thing that keeps the race going at all is Hillary's determination and the media's love affair with the campaign. All the talk tonight about the importance of Clinton's win ignores the following facts:

1. Obama has built up an insurmountable lead in delegates and popular votes. For the Super delegates to override the clear will of the people and nominate Clinton would require more guts than they have and would fracture the party. It's not going to happen.

2. Obama comes out of Pennsylvania with $42 million in his campaign fund while Hillary is essentially broke. Although she won in Pennsylvania, she had to spend pretty much every nickel she had in her campaign coffers to do so. She is very vulnerable going into North Carolina and Indiana where Obama is already ahead and is now in position to outspend her by an even bigger margin than in Pennsylvania.

It is over. The only question is when she will officially throw in the towel or when the media will do its job and actually report the truth which is that we are looking at an Obama-McCain matchup in November.

The other misstatement is that McCain will be a formidable foe in the November election and that Obama will have a hard time winning.

While Obama and Clinton have been attacking each other mercilessly for months, McCain has been sitting on the sidelines and attracting very little attention. He has been traveling around the country and enjoying praise and adoration from the majority of those Republicans who opposed his candidacy so bitterly just a few months ago.

Once Obama is finally recognized as the Democratic candidate that will all change.

Much more attention will be focused on the role that Republicans and the Bush Administration have played in creating or failing to effectively address so many of the critical problems facing our country today. McCain earned the Republican nomination by being a maverick and distancing himself from the Bush tax cuts and the way the war has been handled. But since then, he has flip-flopped to positions supporting these and other unpopular positions in an effort to become more popular with his party's Right Wing base.

With Bush's approval numbers in the 20's and 80% of the country believing we are on the wrong track on issues such as the war in Iraq and the economy, it is hard to see how McCain can pull this balancing act off. His party was in complete control in Washington during the six years that brought us the Iraq war, record deficits, the rewriting of the Constitution, and the seeds of the mortgage crisis we are now dealing with.

In addition, we are already starting to see a closer look being taken at some of McCain's problems. Several of his Republican colleagues and co-workers have already started to come forward with stories about his inability to control his temper and his strong vindictive streak. In addition, he has had several "senior moments" on the campaign trail already and there are serious doubts about his grasp of key issues related to the economy, national security, the Middle East, and other critical matters.

I am going on record today with two predictions:

1. Obama will be Democratic nominee

2. He will be elected in November by a comfortable margin.

By the way, like many of my friends I share serious concerns about that prospect. I'm just making a prediction.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

There's Never Enough Anti-Semitism to Keep Some Jews Happy

A few months ago, I started to receive the first of a series of emails from some of my Jewish friends. The emails had slight differences but the main point of each was that any self-respecting Jew should be outraged at the behavior of the University of Kentucky.


Because UK had buckled to pressure from Muslim groups and eliminated their Holocaust Studies program. The outraged emailers invoked the memories of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust and said in various ways that by forwarding the accusing emails to another couple hundred people I would make sure that my ancestors hadn't died in vain.

There was only one problem with the emails. The accusation was a total lie. The University of Kentucky never did anything of the kind. None of the many people who forwarded the email bothered to check out if it was true. I actually did. The false rumor had spread like a virus to the point where the university issued a news release denying it.

The initial email apparently was the work of someone who read that the "UK" was scaling back Holocaust education programs and thought the article was referring to the University of Kentucky instead of the United Kingdom. By the way, it's not even clear that the story about the United Kingdom is true. And the person who sent this lie wanted it to go to 40 million people world wide!

I toured Auschwitz last year and it was a moving experience that I will never forget. Having said that, it boggles my mind that more than 60 years later in a country where Jews are completely accepted and have access to everything in American life that so many American Jews are obsessed with making sure that the world doesn't forget that we were victims of a horrible regime in a distant country sixty years ago as though nothing had changed.

I was surprised and disappointed recently at a meeting of the Desert Caucus--a pro-Israel PAC in Tucson asked Congressman Elliot Engel (D-NY)what he and the rest of Congress was going to do about the problem of anti-Semitism in America. The Congressman could have given an honest answer which is that there is essentially no anti-Semitism in America. There ARE people who hate Jews and there always will be, but these people are reviled and marginalized by everyone--not just Jews. Anti-Semitism is present when those bigots are supported by broader society which is clearly NOT the case here.

Congressman Engel knows this but--politician that he is--he gave the pandering answer which is that he is concerned because even though things seem OK on the surface, there is no doubt that just below that surface there is a huge problem. That was just what the questioner wanted to hear but there is no evidence that is true.

What I do know is that fifty years ago, I knew people who were getting nose jobs and changing their names so they would appear to be less Jewish. There were clubs, neighborhoods, professions, and private schools where Jews were not welcome. Today, people are very proud to be Jewish. No one is changing their name or appearance anymore--at least not for THAT reason. In addition, non-Jews seem very anxious to befriend, work with, partner with, and marry us--so much so that many Jewish leaders have declared intermarriage to be a crisis.

Intermarriage is certainly a challenge, but let's be honest. The main reason that there is so much intermarriage is not because Jews are less Jewish--it's because non-Jews are so much more willing to marry us than ever before. It's because our prayers to be fully accepted have been answered in America. How we deal with it is up to us.

Let's never forget our past but let's keep it in perspective. We are blessed to live in a time and a place where unbelievable progress has been made and our people have never had it better.

I had a friend once told me there is never enough anti-Semitism to keep some Jews happy. He was apparently right. Please forward this to anyone who sends you emails about this or other subjects about which they are so outraged without at least balancing them with other facts that show how wonderful things really are in so many ways. And let's make sure that things are true before we pass them on.

Some Thoughts on My Recent Trip to Cuba

Whenever I go on particularly interesting or meaningful trips I like to sit down and write about them to help organize my thoughts before I forget too much, which happens sooner and sooner the older I get.

I have just returned from one of those trips-- four days in Cuba with 14 other men from Tucson who went on a "humanitarian" mission to visit the Jewish community of Havana. Since virtually all travel to Cuba from the U.S. is banned, these missions are one of the few ways to legally visit that country. There are currently about 1500 Jews in Cuba and I'm certain that more than that many visit from the U.S. each year on a trip such as ours.

Although we were there a short time, I came away with some strong impressions about Jews, life in Cuba, and life in general.

In Cuba there was once a community of 15,000 Jews before Castro took over in 1959. After that, community shrank to only 800 before starting to grow back to 1500 a few years ago. There are now three synagogues in Havana and Jewish communities in two or three other cities. The American Joint Distribution Committee pumps almost $180,000 a year into Cuba and pays for professional staff on the ground.

The Jews of Cuba have it better than any other group on the island. In the first place, they are the most visited and get more stuff (clothes, medicine, toys, etc.) than anyone else. Second, they are the only group that gets to move away if they want. Jews are allowed to move to Israel because that is considered a religious act--not a political one. About 50 to 60 Jews make aliyah every year. At that pace, most of the vitality may be gone from the community in a few years since the people who are leaving tend to be the best and the brightest.

I was told there is no anti-Semitism in Cuba because nobody knows what Jews are.

Cuba is pretty much a wall-to-wall Communist state which is very unusual these days. The government controls all aspects of life. It decides who gets what job and where people can and can't live. The average income is about $25 a month and that's what everybody makes from a doctor to an engineer to a street sweeper. Health care is free and food staples are subsidized. The problem is that the shelves in the government stores have very little on them.

Everyone gets paid in CUPs (Cuban Pesos) which are accepted at government stores and on public transportation. In an effort to bring in more hard currency, a few years ago the government created CUCs (Convertible Pesos) which are exchanged for hard currency from foreign countries when tourists come to Cuba. The government takes an 8% cut off the top for all currencies except dollars where they take an 18% cut.

Over the last 10 years, resorts, hotels, and stores have sprung up that can only be patronized by foreigners and Cubans who have access to CUCs. Those Cubans are almost all service workers, tour guides, artists, and others who have access to tourists. So, in a bizarre twist, some of the richest Cubans are tour guides and artists who can make hundreds of dollars a week or more while doctors and engineers make $25 a month. It is a country with rich artists and starving doctors. We are used to the opposite.

The nice hotels are very nice and there are also really good restaurants and clubs. The problem is that there is nothing to buy. No one takes American credit cards and there is little merchandise. Our tour guide, Alain, made a $300 tip from our group alone and probably has thousands stashed away. Yet, he told me that other than nicer clothes and better food, there is nothing to spend money on. He can't travel, he can't buy a car, and there is no home cable TV or internet. Being rich certainly beats being poor but not by as much as is does in other places.

It seems like the ways Jews had to live through most of history. They could only live in certain places and pursue certain professions. They couldn't own land and really had no place else they could go. Some did well financially, but it really didn't do them any good.

There have been more joint ventures in recent years, but the Cuban government has been tough to work with and not very smart. Europeans and others who come in to build businesses find that the Cuban government decides who they will hire and fire and when.

If Cuba ever opens up to real development, it would be a bonanza. There is prime beachfront property and Havana was rocking in the 50's. There were great beaches, casinos, hotels, top entertainment acts. Pretty much like it's laid out in Godfather II. The problem was that most Cubans lived horribly and the dictator Batista (who had support of U.S. government) ran a repressive regime and killed and tortured hundreds of thousands of people.

That set the stage for the revolution led by Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara (whose picture is everywhere) that overthrew the government in 1959. Fidel promised the masses better health care and education and, due to his alliance with the Soviet Union, was able to deliver on that promise for more than 30 years.

The people who were most unhappy about the revolution were businessmen and entrepreneurs who had thrived under Batista and lost everything when Castro took over and nationalized all their homes and businesses. Most of those disenfranchised Cubans moved to South Florida where they have become a very influential political force in American politics. There are well over a million former Cubans in South Florida who hate Castro and who have used all their influence over the years to retain the U.S. embargo of Cuba, prohibit travel, and do everything they can to hurt Cuba economically. Here in Arizona we're not tuned into the enormous political power of the Cuban exiles, but it's out there.

Now that Fidel has passed power to his 76-year old brother Raul there is hope and speculation that there will be a thawing in the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, but the Cuban lobby in South Florida has successfully opposed all those efforts in the past and no one in Cuba expects to see much happen soon.

Havana is an amazing city with a great deal of energy. The cigars, rum, salsa clubs, and people were pretty unique but it was the energy of the people that I found impressive in view of the system in which they live. Maybe it's partly because of the baby steps toward free enterprise that are kicking in. Maybe it's because they are so athletic, attractive, and have such amazing rhythm. People look like they're dancing when they're just walking down the street.

Maybe I'm reading more into things than I should, but I felt the same way in Eastern Europe last year and in China the year before--about capitalism, not the dancing part. People who have never known capitalism and free choice seem to appreciate it so much more when they get it. In America these seem to be blessings that we take for granted. Unfortunately, until the last couple years, we seemed to feel it was our God-given right to be economically superior. Now we've watched the value of our dollar and financial institutions collapse and it has been a little bit humbling. Maybe it's just me--I've got a lot to be humble about.

Visually, Havana is amazing. There are miles of oceanfront property and hundreds of amazing buildings and cars that were built in the '50s and are either crumbling or being restored. But, like me, they were hell in their day.

Everyone seems to be licking their chops over all the money that's going to be made when Cuba "opens up." I can tell you for sure that I'm not one of them. There will be a ton of money made and ten tons of money lost when that happens just as there always is when an investment seems to be a "can't miss" proposition.

Some Thoughts on Barack Obama, Reverend Wright, and the Frenzied Jews of America

I have received several emails about Reverend Jeremiah Wright's comments over the last couple months and I have to admit that the number and tone of the emails bothered me much more than what Wright said. Of course the issue has become less relevant since the main point of the authors was that Obama was getting a free pass from the press regarding his relationship with Reverend Wright. That situation is now quite the opposite after a full-month of non-stop coverage.

It is also obsolete because Obama responded in an amazing speech dealing with the subject and the issue of race in general which I believe should be mandatory viewing for all Americans. You can find it on You-Tube or the Obama website. I didn't have a lot of concerns in the first place, but for those who did it is hard to imagine those issues weren't put to rest by Obama's comments on the subject.

Here's what REALLY bothers me. Every time I received these emails they were addressed to anywhere from five to fifty other Jews (judging by the addresses) and they had the same ominous tone of so many others these days.

The common theme seems to be that Jews have a special responsibility to be super-aware and constantly on the lookout for Jew-haters and those who want to do Israel harm because we all know that anti-Semites are everywhere and we are very vulnerable at all times. No gentile can ever truly be trusted because we all know that if you scratch a goy, you'll find an anti-Semite.

It seems like I am getting more and more of these passionate warnings with increasingly urgent tones expressing greater and greater levels of fear and alarm at a time when life for Jews in the U.S. has never been better. We have never been more accepted, more sought out or more loved by any mainstream society in history. A recent poll has shown that Jews are the most admired religious group in the U.S. and that more than 80% of non-Jews would be moderately to extremely pleased if their child married a Jews. That is almost the exact opposite of the poll numbers in a similar survey taken in the 60s. It has gotten so "bad" that the organized Jewish community has declared intermarriage to be a "crisis" but the rising numbers are the result of how well we're doing and how accepted we are.

But let me get back to the email that prompted my response in the first place. The writer says he was thinking of voting for Obama but now he can't because he discovered that many years ago, Obama's pastor made anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks. He goes on to unfairly compare Obama to David Duke or Cynthia McKinney. Each of them made offensive remarks themselves. In the case of Obama, it is a case of guilt by association.

Obama has made it clear that he has had a long-term relationship with Reverend Wright. He has also made it clear that he finds the remarks in question to be offensive and has clearly stated that he thinks it is wrong for anyone to feel or speak that way. But he also points out that the important relationships in our lives are also complex. Most of us have many friends and family members who say and do things that make us cringe but who are also there for us when we need them or who have other qualities that make them important to us.

I want to share two personal anecdotes that I think are relevant.

The first is a story about the only time I ever got to hear the late Lubavicher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson, speak. I remember it vividly for two reasons: first because he spoke at the same time as the NCAA Final game when Villanova upset Georgetown (23 years ago today) and second because of what he said.

As you know, many of his followers believed that the Rebbe was in fact the Messiah. They may still believe that for all I know. There is no doubt that Lubavich has done a great deal of good for many Jews in the U.S. and around the world. I know several individuals whose lives have been transformed in a positive way by their contact with Lubavich.

So, as you can imagine, I was excited to hear the Rebbe speak. He devoted most of his talk to explaining how anyone who is involved in a non-Orthodox conversion to Judaism is committing a crime against the Jewish people that is worse than what the Nazis did. He explained that such a person is committing a sin that will have impact for many generations whereas the Nazis only killed a single generation. If I hadn't heard him say this with my own ears, I wouldn't have believed it.

It hit me close to home because my ex-wife and I had just adopted our daughter Sarah (now 30 years old and a day school graduate) and had had her named in our Reform Temple. What the Rebbe said was about as personally insulting and distressing as anything I had ever heard.
So let me pose two questions: First, does the Rebbe's hateful and repulsive insult to liberal Jews offset all the great works he had done for the Jewish people in other venues? Reasonable people could disagree. But that's not a good analogy to the Reverend Wright situation since Wright is not running for office.

The fair analogy would be if a follower of Lubavich or any Jew, including myself, had later run for public office, would it be appropriate for someone to vilify him because he hadn't repudiated the Rebbe or the organization? As horrible as the Rebbe's comments were, did it totally negate all the good Lubavich has done? I think the answer to that question is clearly "no" and the subject is so flimsy that it would never be raised.

Second story.

When I served in the Air Force 35 years ago, my best friend was a guy from Louisiana named Warren Duffy. He was loyal, open, and always there for me at a very tough time in life. He once physically protected me when I was in a very precarious situation. Warren had a major shortcoming, however. He was a life-long and incurable racist who used the N-word constantly. It made me cringe every time I heard it and it did cause me to think less of Warren. But he was still my friend. It never reached a point where I went to him and said that unless he stopped speaking that way we couldn't be friends. Maybe I should have said that, but I didn't and I think I made the right decision-for me-to remain his friends based on the totality of our relationship.

If Warren ran for president, I don't think any of the black men in our unit would have voted for him and they could have legitimately called him a racist. But if I ran for president, could the blacks in our unit rightfully vilify me for not ending my relationship with an unrepentant and outspoken racist and claim I was not qualified to serve and should never be trusted by a Black person? I don't think that would be logical or fair.

I also find the reaction of the media to this Wright episode to be quite alarming. The video clips we have now all seen dozens of times are quite old. They have been part of the public domain for years and Obama has been a candidate for many months. And yet, the news coverage went from non-existent to constant--overnight. This may have been the work of the Clinton campaign at first, but it clearly has developed a life of its own.

I was thinking of the scenes I have viewed in Fahrenheit 911 and elsewhere of President Bush and his family in intimate family-like settings with the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia. They have apparently been very close family friends and business partners for decades.

As you may recall, on September 11, 2001, our nation was attacked by terrorists who were almost all Saudis who got virtually all their funding from Saudi government sources and who were educated in Saudi schools which taught them to hate Israel, Jews, and America with all their hearts and beings.

I have yet to see any of the news media focus on this subject or even mention it. Isn't this far more disturbing than Sen. Obama's relationship with his pastor. I have never heard a single call for the Bush family to repudiate the Saudi Royal Family or anyone calling for Bush to resign because he can't be trusted to be loyal to America in view of his long-time relationship with those who funded and educated the terrorists who attacked us.

At the end of the day, I worry that way too much energy is expended by Jews spreading emails that are full of hate and fear at a time when those of us who are fortunate enough to be Jews in America should be focused on how to use our unprecedented power and affluence to fulfill our most important mission-Tikkun Olam-leaving the world a better place that it was when we got here.

Israel is equally blessed regarding the position it now holds in American public and political opinion. I was at the AIPAC Conference in Washington last spring where virtually every member of Congress (including Obama) was present to make sure the whole world knew they stand squarely behind Israel. You have to look very hard to find a political figure today who is not supportive of Israel because Israel enjoys broad-based support from most Americans.

Regardless of what Reverend Wright might have said, neither Obama nor anyone else will be elected President without being a strong supporter of Israel. Our job is to keep our elected officials informed and on the right track-not to try to scare each other.

I hope and expect that my Jewish friends and their families are focused on that obligation. Instead of spreading incendiary emails that end up sounding racist and by applying a double standard, we should be working harder to keep our fellow Jews focused on the amazing opportunities we have-not worrying about other Americans who are out to get us.

Friday, April 11, 2008

My Flight to Milwaukee -- and What it Says About America(n)

I had a lot of time to think on Wednesday as I sat in airports and on three flights in my effort to get from Tucson to Milwaukee. It was supposed to be a lot simpler but since my ticket was on American and since all their planes had suddenly become unsafe to fly, I was shuffled to Frontier and Midwest for a day-long adventure. I guess I was lucky--most American ticket holders were stranded altogether and Frontier went broke this morning just two days later. At least I'm here.

The question I asked myself most often was "how did this happen?" The disintegration of our airlines seems to have a lot in common with the collapse of the dollar and our financial system, the morass in Iraq--pretty much everything having to do with government.

What we have, it seems, is not a failure of government as much as a failure of imagination. No one is coming up with the right answers because no one is asking the right questions.

People on the Right keep saying that taxes and government regulation are bad and that Democrats hate America and don't understand that we are fighting an evil enemy that wants to destroy us. People on the Left keep saying that Bush is an idiot and that Republicans just want to make the rich richer and have no regard for the plight of the common man or woman. It is increasingly a dialogue of the deaf where people on both sides believe they are 100% right and those who disagree with them are 100% wrong.

The problem with demonizing the other is that it relieves people on both sides from feeling any responsibility to create an environment that could lead to a solution. The ensuing paralysis keeps any progress from being made until a true crisis develops and then drastic emergency measures are taken that address the catastrophe but not the underlying problem.

As far as the airline crisis is concerned, lax enforcement of existing safety guidelines led to a situation where maintenance and inspection of planes was either deferred or ignored for a number of years. When this suddenly became apparent then the FAA responded with a widespread sudden crackdown that caused American to ground hundreds of planes overnight and essentially a system failure.

At no time was there ever a conversation about the problem as it emerged and without that conversation there was no chance of heading off the crisis before it couldn't be avoided. Instead we went from a situation where everything seemed to be fine to a full blown emergency.

The same lack of productive conversation guaranteed that nothing would be done about our country's emerging economic problems until they led to the current multiple crises. Until a couple months ago, the position of the Bush administration and the Federal Reserve was that the economy and housing and mortgage industries were going through a normal and healthy correction that was bottoming. These folks felt there was no problem and, therefore, nothing to discuss. Anyone who offered a more dire assessment of the situation was dismissed as naive and politically motivated.

Then, when investment firms started taking mulit-billion dollar writedowns and Bear Stearns was suddenly on the verge of collapse, the Fed shifted into full crisis mode and started throwing billions of dollars at the situation like it was trying to put out an out of control fire. There was no point in the public debate for a rational discussion that might have led to preventative action since there was never an acknowledgement that there was a problem until it was too late. We went from being reassured that there was no problem on a Wednesday (when Bears Steans stock was at $70 a share) to a point 72 hours later when government regulators assured us that all was lost and that the $2 a share being paid for Bear by J.P. Morgan was a fair offer.

So now we're getting an economic stimulus plan that will drive our country deeper into debt and won't stimulate anything because there is no plan. It is simply a cash giveaway that won't repair a single crumbling bridge or road, won't create a single job, and won't address any of the issues that we face. It is the result of an approach that precludes rational dialogue and discussion and only leads to frantic, stop-gap measures taken in times of panic by politicans and regulators.

I have never heard a tax-cut advocate address the issue of how to pay our bills and get out of the immoral and self-destructive death spiral of buying everything we want and making our children and grandchildren pay for it. Don't those who want low taxes have a responsibility to show how we are to pay our bills if Americans are being asked to contribute less while we have to spend more? Don't those who call for more sacrifice and higher taxes have an obligation to look hard at the impact that would have on our struggling economy?

Instead of those important conversations, all the energy is spent demonizing the other and denying or ignoring the challenges created by proposals on either side.

The talk about the war in Iraq has become so partisan and slogan-driven that it is difficult to find any rational discussion anywhere. Those who defend Bush and the war keep talking about "victory" and how those who want us out of Iraq want America to "lose." Meanwhile, John McCain and others have a hard time even identifying our allies and enemies much less what it means to win or lose.

I heard a news report yesterday that an American soldier had been killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. It never mentioned who had set the bomb or who was considered responsible. Was it Al-Qaeda? Was it one of the Shi'ite militias were are fighting? Was it one of the Shi'ite militias we are supporting? Was it an Iranian? Was it a Sunni? Does anyone even know--or care?

If we are really at war and our soldiers are dying and we are spending ourselves into national bankruptcy, isn't it important to know who we are fighting and why? Apparently not. What wasn't said in that news report was far more telling than what was said. The focus is all on the meaningless slogans and determining which side one is on--not on what it means.

It is discouraging that our leaders don't seem to have the right answers. But it's far more discouraging that nobody seems to be asking the right questions.

I'm flying back to Tucson on Sunday--or at least that's the plan. Hopefully the planes will be back in the air and I won't have as much time to think about all this stuff.