Friday, December 5, 2008

It's the Debt, Stupid

I'm beginning to believe that America, the whole country, has hit her debt limit. Consider:
  • The federal government owes $10.6 trillion. By contrast, the Russian government's debt is zero. That's right, zero.
  • The increase in federal debt over the last year was about $1.4 trillion.
  • Total mortgage debt is about $12 trillion.
  • Total credit card debt is around $1 trillion.
  • 110 million Americans have bad credit -- that's almost half of the roughly 240 million adults in America.
  • Total American debt (household, business, financial and government) is $53 trillion.

    All this on a $14 trillion yearly GDP.

    One consequence, the American government must come up with over a trillion dollars a year to service the debt. Assuming an average 10 year term, $1 trillion is needed to pay off bonds coming due every year. Assuming 3% interest, we need $300 billion/year to pay interest. That's $1.3 trillion per year in taxes or borrowing to get -- nothing. The money has already been spent. Unless we pay down the debt, this will continue forever.

    America has been living high on the hog by borrowing, and someday that borrowing will have to stop. That day appears to have come. We must live on what we earn, minus very large debt payments. That means we have to buy less. That's ok, our garages are already stuffed with expensive stuff we don't use.

    There's a chart of different parts of the debt from 1957 to now at The two parts that have really taken off are financial sector debt and household debt. Financial sector debt appears to have been created by clever people lacking regulation so they could get rich on commissions. The household debt has been financed by rising home values. This allows people to borrow against their home.

    Unfortunately, while rising home prices allow home owners to borrow, it doesn't help them pay off the loan. High housing prices are bad because everybody, forever, must devote a great deal of their income to keeping a roof over their head. Fortunately, prices are coming down. Before the bubble median house prices were about three times median income. Median income is about $50K, so median house prices will probably fall until they reach about $150K. They're about $200K now.

    If this line of reasoning is correct, financial rescue attempts based on getting people to borrow money will fail, although perhaps not right away. The good news is that buying more stuff wasn't going to make our lives much better anyway. The bad news is that adjusting to living within our means and paying down our debt will be very painful. The millions losing their homes, jobs or both have already noticed that.

    There is some reason to hope for better times. Specifically, the price of oil is almost back down to what it was before the big rise, and that will make everything cheaper. Second, the economy is strongly influenced by the President and the incoming guy is extremely intelligent.

  • Sunday, November 30, 2008

    Help Win the War on al Qaeda

    Here's what you can do, right now, to help win the war with al Qaeda. Contribute whatever you can to the Central Asia Institute ( This is an extraordinarily effective organization that builds schools, mostly for girls, in the remote mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here's why this is critical to the war on al Qaeda and their allies, the Taliban:

    Al Qaeda is dependent on the Taliban for survival. 'Talib' means 'student.' The Taliban get most of their personnel from radical, fundamentalist madrassas (a madrassa is an Islamic school). The people of the remote regions where al Qaeda and the Taliban are strong live in grinding poverty the poorest American can hardly imagine. These people are as intelligent as anyone, they know that education is critical for their children to live a better life. The Saudis provide the money for wahhabi madrassas (wahhabi is a radical, fundamentalist form of Islam) and the people send their children as there is nothing better available.

    Enter Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute (CAI). As chronicled in Three Cups of Tea, Greg stumbled into a remote mountain village in Pakistan after a failed attempt to climb K2. Greg was lost, in terrible shape and almost died. The villagers nursed him back to health. He asked them what they really needed and they answered "a school." Their children were studying in the open in one of the coldest places on earth, scratching their multiplication tables in the dirt. A few years later, Greg came back with building materials, the village supplied land and labor, and the school was built (1). Since then, Greg and the CAI has helped build dozens of schools in the most remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with other projects.

    The Central Asia Institute was created to fund and expand Greg's work. Greg knows the languages and cultures of the mountain people and has made the personal contacts critical to success in tribal societies. He has learned how to work with locals to deliver the projects they choose -- usually schools, especially for girls -- at incredibly low cost. For example, a primary school might cost $20,000. The costs are low because the locals donate the land, provide most of the labor, and work closely with the CAI to choose the projects. All projects must gain the blessing of the local government and religious leaders before going forward.

    While our government was busy recruiting for al Qaeda by blowing up the wrong people and invading the wrong countries, the CAI was creating allies on the ground by helping villages get what they desire above all else: a good education for their children. Just one example of the depths of that desire: when the trucks carrying building materials for one project were stopped dead by a landslide many miles short, the village men carried all of the materials on their backs, by foot to the village. These are people we can be proud to serve.

    Help them. Help ourselves. Contribute today.


    (1) The story is actually a little more complex. Read the book. It's excellent.

    Thursday, November 27, 2008

    To My Indian Friends

    I'm sending this to all the Indians who've been kind enough to give me their email address over the years. You might find it valuable.

    I want to extend my most heart-felt sympathies to you and all the people of India over the despicable attacks in Mumbai. Just as you stood with us after 9/11, I stand with you today and I'm confident the rest of the American people do as well.

    I also want to warn you not to make the same mistakes we made. The strategic purpose of attacks like these is often to provoke an over-reaction that alienates potential terrorist supporters and thus strengthen the attackers (1). This is exactly what happened when 9/11 provoked the invasion and occupation of Iraq -- al Qaeda grew stronger. Five years on we are only now beginning to recover from that disastrous mistake.

    It is likely that the attackers are associated with al Qaeda and the Taliban. The Pakistani army is putting a lot of pressure on al Qaeda in the tribal areas. This attack is probably intended to increase tensions between India and Pakistan, ideally creating a shooting war. Then Pakistan will remove its troops from the tribal areas and send them to fight India; relieving the pressure.

    President-elect Obama has pointed out that the way to win is to resolve the Kashmir problem. The Pakistani army is plenty strong enough to destroy al Qaeda and the Taliban. However, that army is trained and deployed to fight wars with India. Resolving the Kashmir problem and negotiating a permanent peace would free up Pakistani troops to regain control of their country.

    While parts of the Pakistani military and ISI (2) support the Taliban and other religious extremists, the bulk of the people and the government see them as a terrible threat, particularly as the suicide attacks and instability grow. Also, the Taliban have taken considerable Pakistani territory in recent months and there is a growing awareness that Pakistan must destroy these guys. We need an alliance of America, India, peace-loving Pakistanis (the vast majority), and others to demolish these extremists. United we are invincible, divided we will fall.

    The immediate reaction to the Mumbai attacks will likely be a desire for revenge and the most convenient target may be Pakistan. This would be a disaster, and would lead to even greater danger to India as the extremists grow strong. Don't do what we did. Don't lash out in the wrong direction. Don't fight for revenge. Fight to win.


    (1) The is one of the lessons of the U.S. Army - Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

    (2) The ISI is the Pakistani intelligence service.

    Wednesday, October 29, 2008

    Why Barack Obama Should be President

    I believe Barack Obama should be our next president because:
  • He is brilliant. He got into the best schools on merit alone. When you listen to him it is obvious that this guy has got a lot of excellent grey stuff between his ears. The Presidency is perhaps the most intellectually demanding job on the planet; we should never accept a mediocre intellect in that office.
  • He is extremely knowledgeable. In his books, in 20+ debates and countless interviews he has shown a command of the facts. Without knowing the facts it is all but impossible to navigate the dangerous waters ahead.
  • He knows the Constitution. Obama was a professor of constitutional law, exactly what we need after eight years of blatantly unconstitutional spying, signing statements, erosion of our rights and over-reach by the executive branch.
  • Everybody makes more money under Democratic presidents. This was decisively documented in Unequal Democracy by Princeton economist Larry Bartels. He shows that very wealthy people do a little better under Democrats vs. Republicans, but middle and working class people do a lot better.
  • He made the right call on Iraq before the invasion. He said "don't". If we'd done as he said we'd be a lot better off today.
  • He is focused on the destruction of al Qaeda.
  • When the Republican's took over eight years ago our military was unbeatable, our prestige was high, the government was running a surplus, the middle and working class were making more money, and the economy was humming. Republican rule has been a disaster.
  • When warned in August 2001 that al Qaeda intended to attack America, possibly with airplanes, Bush did nothing. Didn't tell anyone to investigate, didn't form a task force, didn't look into it, didn't send out an alert, didn't even ask a question.
  • Over the last eight years the value of my 401K and IRA has gone down, down, down.
  • Obama has a record of crafting legislation on controversial topics so well constructed both sides support it.
  • He is a terrific communicator. His speeches bring me to the brink of tears. His explanations make sense and clarify complex, difficult topics.
  • He thinks things through. He doesn't just jump at the first solution that presents itself. He determines the facts, listens to all sides, and makes careful, considered decisions.
  • He is calm under pressure. Calm people make better decisions.
  • He is well regarded overseas. We cannot win the war with al Qaeda, deal with global warming, or fix the economy without foreign help. We need to get our reputation out of the toilet.
  • He is steady. America is a big country. The president can't be bouncing all over the place. He needs to take his time, make good decisions and follow through with consistency. Obama has demonstrated this on his campaign and the economic crisis.
  • He is a terrific executive. He's only had one major executive position -- running a campaign for president. Even his opponents admit that he has done a masterful job.
  • He acts, thinks, and looks like someone who can lead America well.

    We need someone really good now. Barack Obama is no saint, but he is an unusually good politician. He just might be exactly what we need.

  • Friday, October 24, 2008

    How I'm Voting and Why

  • President: Obama. He is very smart, extremely capable, brings people together, and shares most of my deepest, most important values.
  • Vice President: Biden. I really wanted Hillary, but compared to Sarah Palin it's a no brainer. If she can't handle Katie Couric, how's she going to do with Vladimir Putin?
  • Representative: Sam Farr. He's the Democrat and the Republicans have done such a lousy job of running this country they need to be badly beaten so they make some serious changes.
  • State Senator: Joe Simitian. See previous.
  • State Assembly: Bill Monning. I heard him speak and liked him.
  • SC County Board of Education: Rachel Huff. Her statement is reasonable and I talked to her opponent. He didn't know his stuff. His focus was increased spending on the schools, perfectly reasonable, but he didn't know how much was being spent today. Governing well requires knowledge, as we have discovered with our current President.
  • Cabrillo Community College District: Susan True. I liked her spiel in the voter pamphlet. I liked Kevin McGibben too but not quite as much.
  • Santa Cruz School District: Ken Wagman. His spiel was decent and his opponent didn't bother with a Spanish translation.
  • Soquel Union School District: Kim Nadeau, Mary Glenn-Cahalen, Kathy Hees, and Cynthia Torres-Ricca. I know Kim. She's smart, capable and, based on a long telephone conversation, extremely knowledgeable, especially on finances. The others are running with her. I also really don't like the current school board. I didn't like it when they closed Capitola Elementary and I don't like their plans for Jade Street Park. Her ideas on the direction the school district should go are very close to mine: fiscal transparency, keep Jade Street a park and look into converting schools to K-8 to promote community and so hundreds of parents aren't driving their kids to school every day clogging the roads and wasting gas. She also has some ideas for increasing funding.
  • City of Capitola: Michael Termini and Dennis Norton. I talked to Kirby Nicol and liked a lot of what he said, but he wants to build three new hotels in Capitola and I don't really want that many more hotels in Capitola. Termini seems like a good guy and I liked an email on presidential politics he sent me. Norton wants to do a bunch of stuff I approve of, like a skateboard park. The kids love to skateboard and right now there's no good place for them to do it, so they tend to use New Brighton School which creates problems.
  • Soquel Creek Water District: Thomas La Hue and Bruce Daniels. They seem to understand that our water resources are finite and at their limit.
  • Initiatives: NO on 1A, 3, 10, 12 because they are all bonds. Bonds increase debt. The State of California already owes $60 billion and has the authority (from previous initiatives) to borrow $76 billion more. All this on an income of $100 billion. This is too much debt. There's always some worthy cause to borrow for, and if we do it every time we'll go bankrupt or at least have constant fiscal crises. Actually, note that we seem to have lots of fiscal crises!
  • YES on 2, farm animal welfare. The initiative seems simple and reasonable, but mostly the opposition argument in the voter pamphlet is obviously fear mongering and probably lying.
  • NO on 4, parental notification of minors having abortions. This is an area where government should tread lightly, and also looks like someone is just putting some hoops for young girls seeking abortion to jump through.
  • ???? on 5, non-violent drug offenses. I like the idea of keeping drug offenders out of our overcrowded prisons, but the initiative is very complex and I'm not really sure it's better than what we have now. However, the opponents in the voter pamphlet seem to be fear mongering and possibly lying. On the other hand the presidents of the California Police Chiefs Association and District Attorneys Association are against it. For a better legal approach to recreational drugs, see
  • NO on 6, police and law enforcement funding. It mandates major spending increases without saying where the money comes from, allows greater use of hearsay evidence in court, and putting even more people in prison. We already incarcerate about 1% of Americans, and over 3% are on parole, waiting for trial or are in prison. That's way above international standards and way too high.
  • NO on 7, renewable energy generation. This is a trojan horse. Among other things, there is a really terrible clause that will effectively wipe out alternative energy businesses generating less than 30 Megawatts. They won't count towards the renewable energy quotas the utilities must meet under this bill. It's also too complex to understand, which always gets a NO from me.
  • NO on 8, anti-gay marriage. A couple little old ladies getting married is a lot better for marriage than a couple of drunk teenagers getting married by an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas.
  • No on 9, victims rights, parole. Some of this initiative seems to be good ideas, but it's complex, mandates expenditures without providing funding, and has some legally questionable parts. However, the killer for me is in the arguments, the proponents are obviously fear mongering. They are also clearly unaware that in America people are innocent until proven guilty.
  • ???? on 11, redistricting. This would mostly take redistricting out of the direct control of the legislature. That is definitely a good thing, but I'm not sure it's done the best way.
  • YES on D. Continuing the sales tax through 2017 is needed to pay some bonds the city took out while allowing the police force to be fully staffed. The large police force in Capitola is closely related to the low crime rate. Let's keep it that way.

    There you have it. If you have a good reason I should change my vote, please let me know before November 4!

  • Monday, October 20, 2008

    Comparing McCain and Obama

    Directly comparing McCain and Obama is difficult. They are much different men, with much different experience, and have different strengths and weaknesses. But there is one executive arena where a direct comparison can be made: both are running presidential campaigns. This provides us a direct, apples-to-apples comparison, although McCain has an advantage since this is his second campaign whereas it's the first time out for Obama.

    Unfortunately for McCain, the comparison is easy and decisive: Obama has run a far, far better campaign by essentially every measure. Furthermore, Obama put his campaign together from scratch with no help from the Democratic establishment in the first year and a half, whereas McCain had the Republican party behind him until he ran out of money temporarily before the primaries.

    Make no mistake, Obama has run a far better campaign. He is better organized, has more volunteers, they are more enthusiastic, he has raised far more money, he has raised money from far more people, he has registered more new voters, and he has run a strategically consistent campaign from the beginning while McCain has a new strategy every couple of days.

    Although Obama is perfectly capable of going negative, he does so far less than McCain, and usually only in response to attacks. The polls say Obama won all three debates. Then there's the single most important decision of any campaign, who will be vice-president? Obama's pick for VP was boring and safe, but there's no question Biden is knowledgeable, whereas Sarah Palin clearly knows very little about national and international issues and, worse, seems to have little interest. Many intelligent, notable conservative Republicans, e.g., George Will and General Colin Powell, have called her unfit for the job.

    In the one apples-to-apples comparison of executive performance we can make there is no question: Obama is better than McCain by a wide margin.

    Monday, October 13, 2008

    Who is Obama?

    Who is Obama?
  • An extremely intelligent yet decidedly practical man.
  • A professor of constitutional law.
  • The author of two best selling books.
  • The first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review.
  • A self made man, who got where he is by his own efforts, his family having no money or influence.
  • A guy who made the right call on Iraq from the very beginning.
  • A family man.
  • A guy who gave up a high paying job to organize poor people in Chicago for peanuts.
  • A terrific speaker.
  • A champion of the middle class.
  • A steady hand in turbulent times.
  • A guy who can sink 3-pointers consistently.
  • A brilliant campaigner -- even his opponents speak with admiration of his organization, which he created from scratch.
  • The most successful fund raiser in modern times, without taking money from PACs or lobbyists. Most of his money comes from those with modest means.
  • A leader with a global strategic vision.
  • A counter-puncher, he rarely strikes first, but often strikes hard.
  • A masterful consensus builder who has repeatedly crafted controversial legislation to gather support from both sides of the debate.
  • A man with first hand knowledge of Islamic society, gathered on the school yards of Indonesia. This is a major benefit for the war with al Qaeda.
  • The guy who beat the legendary Clinton machine with the Democratic establishment behind it, and who is well ahead running against the vaunted Republican attack machine.
  • A man who can see all sides of an issue, and who seeks the council of those who disagree to make sure he finds the truth.
  • A master of the internet political campaign.
  • A rationalist.

    But most of all, a great American and Human Being.

    America has been fortunate in its leaders. George Washington didn't become King. Thomas Jefferson went ahead with the Louisiana Purchase. Abraham Lincoln, with practically no experience, kept the Union together. FDR led us through the Great Depression then defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in four short years. I don't know if Barack Obama is in their league, but he might be. I hope we have the wisdom to choose him.

  • Saturday, October 11, 2008

    McCain: memory problem or flat out lie?

    Watching the debate Tuesday night McCain attacked Obama for saying he'd take advantage of an opportunity to kill Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan, even without Pakistani permission. McCain said this was a reckless thing to say. Obama counter-punched pointing out that John McCain sang 'bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran' to the tune of the Beach Boys' Barbaran. So far, just the usual. But then McCain said he was just joking around with a fellow veteran, implying that it was a private conversation someone overheard.

    Problem is, a half hour later I was watching a video of McCain singing 'bomb bomb bomb ...' into a microphone with no one standing near him. Looked like a campaign event. The host of the program said he played the Beach Boys version at the start of the next couple of rallies.

    Either McCain's memory slipped or he flat out lied.

    Take your pick.

    Monday, October 6, 2008

    John McCain's judgement

    Watch these videos: (starts with an ad) (starts with an ad) (starts with an ad)

    In John McCain's judgement, this person is the best Republican, other than himself, to have their finger on the nuclear button, control a world wide military fighting two long term wars, handle a $14 trillion economy in deep trouble, oversee a $3 trillion budget, deal with a $10 trillion debt, and bring the international community and a deeply divided country together.

    John McCain is 72 years old, he's had four melanomas -- the kind of skin cancer that kills -- one of which got into his lymph nodes, a very bad sign. If the Republicans win, on 20 January Sara Palin could easily be president.

    Do you believe that the person in these videos can be a first-class President of the US in a few months?

    Furthermore, this is all you will get. You can bet there won't be many, perhaps no, more interviews where she answers questions,
    questions that might reveal something they don't want you to know. You'll just get rehearsed speech written and vetted by a campaign staff dominated by veterans of the Bush campaigns.

    Obama is not the most experienced politician in Washington, but he's done 20+ debates, hundreds of interviews and been put under a microscope for almost two years -- and 18 million people voted for him to be President. Only one person voted for Sarah Palin as VP, John McCain, a man who's judgement, IMHO, is deeply flawed.

    Saturday, September 27, 2008

    The War with al Qaeda

    On September 11, 2001 al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center, severely damaged the Pentagon and killed almost 3,000 Americans. In the seven years since, we have waged war on al Qaeda, yet they still control territory, run training camps, launch attacks, communicate with their followers, and have even developed a large international network. We failed to destroy al Qaeda and their Taliban allies because President Bush failed to focus America's power on the task, and, IMHO, because Americans generally, including John McCain, do not understand the conflict very well (1). In particular:
  • al Qaeda's primary weapon is the suicide bomber. Suicide bombers are hard to stop, but also hard to recruit as motivation must be very high.
  • The primary motivator for al Qaeda suicide bombers is the presence of mostly Christian American soldiers on Muslim land (2). The suicide bombers believe al Qaeda's claim that America is waging war on Islam and they must defend their religion.
  • al Qaeda's strategy for victory is to goad America with suicide attacks into over-reacting (3). This has been fabulously successful with America getting into fights with third parties like Iraq, and spending ourselves into bankruptcy.
  • The invasion of Iraq was a great gift to al Qaeda. It helps recruit suicide bombers and drives America into debt as taxes were not raised to pay for it.
  • The current economic crisis has the potential to hand al Qaeda victory. If the American economy tanks there will be no money for our vast overseas military deployment forcing an abrupt, disastrous withdrawal.

    What to Do

    First, our long term strategy must be to withdraw all American troops from Muslim lands. We are so deeply embedded that this will take quite some time. Also, al Qaeda and the Taliban must be destroyed, and this will require American soldiers in Afghanistan. However, simply announcing our intention to withdraw, along with a few near-term concrete steps, will remove most of the motivation and make recruiting suicide bombers extremely difficult. Why kill yourself for something that will happen anyway?

    Of course, there is a reason we have a massive military presence in the Persian Gulf (4). To understand why, ask yourself the following question: If the Persian Gulf had not a single drop of oil, how many American soldiers would be in the region? Answer: a few embassy guards, maybe. To withdraw we must eliminate, or at least severely limit, our use of oil. In the short term only conservation, basically driving less, can have much effect. In the medium term we can develop electric and hybrid plug-in cars and run them on ground solar and wind energy (5). In the long term we can completely solve our energy problems with Space Solar Power, which can deliver massive quantities of extremely clean energy to Earth for the next few billion years.

    Second, we must get out of debt. The bankruptcy al Qaeda seeks for us will be caused by excessive debt. Consider that the federal government owes $10 trillion, we have $12 trillion in mortgages, $1 trillion in credit card debt, and there's auto loans, city debt, state debt, commercial debt, etc. One observer calculates the total American debt today at $53 trillion -- $175,000 for every man woman and child, and growing rapidly (6). We will either reverse this trend soon or al Qaeda will win; America will go bankrupt. So spend less than you earn, get rid of your credit cards, pay off your debts, and insist that politicians cut spending and raise taxes. We must move back from this cliff or fall off.

    Third, Americans, including the elite, are woefully ignorant of the Islamic world (7). For example, the CIA suffers from a horrendous shortage of translators and none of Bush's top advisors speak Arabic. This is unfortunate as the third leg of victory is knowledge. Some sage once said 'Know thy enemy' and few truer words have been spoken. Study the islamic world, if possible learn one of the key languages then visit their web sites, get involved in the discussions, if possible visit and talk to people in person. We can only win when the suicide bombers stop volunteering, and that will only happen with overwhelming rejection of al Qaeda within the Muslim world. The government, by itself, cannot create the necessary support; but there are 300 million Americans. We can forge millions of links to the Islamic world. That's the last bit we need.

    Victory cannot come from going shopping, as Bush famously told us to do after 9/11. Victory requires hard work and sacrifice, not just by the soldiers but by everyone. Get to work.


    (1) In this discussion I assume that the purpose of our military is to defend America against attack, not run the world. If what you really want is a global empire, a much different approach is needed.

    (2) This is what McCain doesn't understand, as evidenced by his remarks about staying in Iraq for 100 years. As long as American soldiers stand on Muslim land there will be suicide bombers attacking the U.S.

    (3) The US military's counter insurgency manual notes that sometimes one should not react to insurgent attacks. Many such attacks are not designed to do damage so much as to prompt an over-reaction that kills innocents and generates hatred of the U.S.

    (4) We not only have well over a hundred thousand soldiers in Iraq, we have major military bases throughout the Persian Gulf, special forces in Iran (reportedly), trainers in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, and a major naval presence in nearby waters.

    (5) Nuclear plants are just al Qaeda targets, and nuclear fuel and waste make great dirty bombs. Oil, natural gas and coal could help, but they will run out fairly quickly. Furthermore, taking carbon out of the ground and releasing it into the atmosphere worsens global warming. Solar and wind are good for the lifetime of the Earth and are so spread out that they are very difficult for terrorists, or even enemy nations, to seriously damage.

    (6) The median family income in the U.S. is about $50,000/year, hardly enough to pay off that $175,000 per person anytime soon.

    (7) It should be noted that the Islamic world is, if anything, even more ignorant of America and the West.

  • Sunday, September 21, 2008

    Are Republicans Really Socialist?

    In times of crisis you often discover what people really believe, which is sometimes not what they've been saying in good times. For example, for decades the Republicans have been telling us they believe in small government and definitely not in socialism. Socialism means the government owns large pieces of the economy and that, the Republicans told us, was a no no.

    Then came the current financial crisis in which the Republican administration:

  • Took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, giving the federal government ownership of over $5 trillion in mortgages. [reference]
  • Took an 80% stake in AGI, a trillion dollar insurance company. [reference]
  • Proposes buying $700 billion on mortgage and other securities from the private sector. [reference]

    Taken together, in the past few weeks this Republican administration has moved to take over roughly $7 trillion worth of the private sector. It turns out, the Republicans are really Socialists.

    Who knew?

  • Saturday, September 20, 2008

    Fighter Pilot or Commander in Chief?

    In combat, a fighter pilot must make split-second life-and-death decisions. It's often better to make the wrong decision fast than the right one slowly. The commander-in-chief, by contrast, almost always has plenty of time to make decisions, at least a day or two and often months. However, bad decisions don't mean disaster for one man, they mean disaster for the whole nation.

    John McCain was a fighter pilot (1) and appears to make his decisions like a fighter pilot. When faced with the current financial crisis, one day he said the economy was 'fundamentally sound,' the next day said he'd fire the head of the SEC (2), he then railed against greed on Wall Street and called for a taxpayer supported entity to take over bad debt. McCain also abandoned his Republican decades-old commitment to deregulation. McCain is twisting and turning like a fighter pilot evading a missile; but with one difference, Bush actually controls the plane and McCain is getting in the way.

    Obama typically makes decisions by gathering the relevant facts, consulting with top-notch people who disagree with him, thinking things through, and choosing a course of action consistent with his core beliefs and principles. For example, Obama responded to the financial crisis by noting that this is the logical consequence of Republican economic philosophy (3), taking some time to think through the issues, meeting with men like Warren Buffet, and postponing publicizing his plans to avoid causing problems for the Bush administration who, however unfortunately, are actually in control and make the decisions until January. The whole time, Obama stayed consistent with the major principles he enunciated in major economic speeches he gave months ago.

    Which approach do you think will work best for a commander-in-chief?


    (1) Although apparently not a very good one. He lost three aircraft in peacetime accidents, one in a wartime accident, and one in combat.

    (2) Interestingly, although the President appoints the head of the SEC, the President cannot fire him as the SEC is an independent agency.

    (3) Get the government out of the way and let the markets do their thing.

    Sunday, September 14, 2008

    Lying His Way to the White House

    John McCain, like Bush before him, is trying to lie (1) his way into the White House with attack ads. Sleazy attack ads can win elections, but they don't help you govern worth a damn as we have seen from the last eight disastrous years. If McCain wins, every four years we'll see another set of nasty lies followed by crummy government.

    The only way to stop this is for Obama to win. Obama sticks much closer to the truth, is infinitely less nasty, and IMHO will govern much better. You can do three things:

  • Email, call and talk to your friends
  • Donate money at
  • Vote


    (1) I will limit myself to one example. McCain is fond of saying Obama will raise your taxes. The truth is that Obama will cut taxes for 80% of Americans, and raise them for about 1%. Futhermore, for the 60% of households that make less than $70,000/year, Obama offers tax cuts 3-25 times larger than McCain (e.g., $567 vs $19 for those under $19,000/year). See for details.

  • Friday, September 12, 2008

    Cost of 'the Surge'

    To pull us out of a major tailspin in Iraq we sent our best counter-insurgency general and an extra five brigades. We did not send these to Afghanistan and, as a direct result, the people who actually attacked us are doing quite well. Violence is up, the Taliban operate in broad daylight an hour from Kabul, American generals are begging for more troops and warning it will soon be too late. There is a real possibility the Taliban will take over nuclear armed Pakistan. That's the cost of 'the Surge.'

    Thursday, September 11, 2008

    Bush Adopts Obama Policies

    The Republicans have painted Obama as inexperienced in foreign and national security affairs and have ridiculed many of his ideas. However, the current Republican administration seems to be systematically adopting Obama's proposals. Specifically,
  • Obama said he would attack inside of Pakistan, if necessary without Pakistani permission, if there were actionable intelligence on bin Laden or top Taliban officials. Republicans claimed this showed Obama was irresponsible. The U.S. military recently conducted just such an attack
  • Obama has proposed direct talks with Iran. The Republicans decried this as legitimizing Iran's leadership. The administration then sent a U.S. diplomat with the Europeans on a recent round of talks with Iran [reference].
  • Obama has long called for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Republicans have attacked this savagely. The current administration has accepted and is currently negotiating the details of a 'time horizon' (aka timetable) for withdrawing American troops from Iraq [reference].
  • Obama has pushed to redirect resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, where those that attacked us are fighting. Bush just announced that he will remove about 8,000 U.S. soldiers from Iraq and send 4,500 to Afghanistan [reference].

    If Obama is such a neophyte, why are Republicans adopting so many of his ideas?

  • Friday, September 5, 2008

    A Solution to the Launch Problem? Maybe.

    If you want to really blow the doors off space development, read on. This might be it.

    Transportation from Earth to orbit, space launch, is extremely expensive ($2K - 20K per kg) and dangerous (a few percent failure rate). This is what makes everything we do in space so ridiculously expensive. The fundamental reason for this difficulty is the extremely high temperatures, large forces, and fast decision making required to ride a tower of flame to orbital velocity (~28,000 km/hr).

    Floating to Space by experimentalist John Powell lays out a solution that just might work; at a tiny fraction of the cost of alternatives. The basic idea is to use three types of lighter-than-air ships. The first travels from Earth to about 120,000 feet. Research balloons do this all the time, no problem. The second lives permanently at about 120,000 feet. Research balloons have stayed this high for long periods of time, but permanence requires on-site maintenance and Powell seems to understand more-or-less how to do this. More important, he has demonstrated some of the key capabilities in ground test. The last vehicle is a km-scale, inflatable, hypersonic flying wing that uses electric thrusters to achieve orbital velocity over a period of days. This is the hard part.

    I don't know how to figure out if this works, but I intend to learn. It might be easier than many a launcher development we have already achieved. The key is that the atmosphere doesn't end at 100 km, it extends much further although it is very diffuse. The vehicle's enormous size allows aerodynamic forces generated by a diffuse atmosphere to provide lift. This lift allows very slow acceleration into orbit. Slow acceleration allows use of extremely efficient electric propulsion. Deorbit is relatively easy - pitch the vehicle up to expose its enormous cross section to atmospheric forces. This will decelerate the vehicle enough in a diffuse atmosphere that reentry heating is minor. The orbital vehicle then docks with the station at about 120,000 ft. Unlike today's rockets, there are no high temperatures, no enormous forces, and time is measured in hours not milliseconds. This just might be relatively easy to do. Maybe.

    Powell's book is written for the lay public. Although he lays out the approach and the known problems, there is not enough detail to make a technical evaluation. The good news is that Powell is very open about his failures as well as his successes. He meticulously describes the dozens of balloon launches JP Aerospace, his company, has attempted with an entertaining description of the many accidents and problems. In addition, there is an entire section of the book devoted to the challenges that must be overcome. To my mind the most difficult and critical is reducing the orbital vehicle's drag -- or perhaps providing more thrust. Current materials, vehicle designs, and engines are insufficient.

    America is spending nearly a billion dollars per shuttle flight. Flights after 2010, if funded, will cost two billion dollars apiece. For a fraction of one shuttle launch we could find out if Powell's vision will work. If it does, for far less than NASA's new launcher, we might well drop the cost of launch by a factor or 10 or more. Maybe much more. This would allow space solar power, lunar and martian bases, space settlement, asteroid mining and a thousand other applications to bloom. The wealth, power, and knowledge to be gained are immense.

    If Powell is close to right, we need to do this. Now.

    Sunday, August 31, 2008

    Space Solar Power and Iran: a Wild Idea

    Space solar power (SSP) could be the solution to our nuclear standoff with Iran. It's a long shot, but consider:

    Iran is developing nuclear energy. Unfortunately, some of the hardest problems in developing nuclear weapons can be solved by a nuclear energy program, and there is suspicion that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb. Nuclear weapons would be useful for deterring an American attack and intimidating neighbors (1).

    Attempts to convince Iran to abandon their nuclear program have thus far failed, with Iran claiming they need the electric power their program could produce. Accepting enriched fuel from Russia in place of domestic supplies was rejected; Iran pointing out that when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 America refused to supply spare parts for the Iranian's U.S.-made weapons and they don't want to be dependent on a potentially fickle great power.

    What if we agreed to supply Iran with space solar power (at a price of course)? Satellites could be turned over to Iranian control eliminating foreign dependence. SSP is fairly useless as a weapon, and certainly isn't a city killer (2). Developing SSP would put America in the energy production driver's seat and would probably be a lot cheaper than war with Iran (3).

    There are a lot of ways to structure the deal: Iran could suspend nuclear work while SSP development was required to meet certain milestones, Iran could continue nuclear work and agree to remove the systems when SSP power became available, or something in between. Obviously, this is a bit on the wild side, but it does indicate the sort of benefits SSP could provide internationally by providing a safe alternative to large-scale emissionless power production.


    (1) See Iran's Nuclear Program for an analysis of Iran's motives.

    (2) Military lasers could be mounted on an SSP satellite but this would be a major project, is easy to detect, and could only attack relatively small targets. SSP satellites are very large, fragile, and travel in predictable orbits. Any major space power could attack them relatively easily.

    (3) Depending on who you believe, the war in Iraq has cost between $500 billion and $1 trillion so far. Iran is much larger than Iraq, the terrain is much more rugged, the population is more than twice as large, and U.S. ground forces are relatively far weaker than when America invaded Iraq.

    Saturday, August 30, 2008

    Roe v Wade and McCain

    If McCain becomes president, Roe v Wade is toast. McCain favors overthrowing Roe v Wade and his choice for vice president, Sarah Palin, greatly reinforces that position. Sarah Palin is against legal abortion even in cases of rape and incest (1). The next president will almost certainly nominate one or two supreme court justices, and that's all they need to overturn Roe v Wade.

    If you think the government should force a pregnant rape victim to bear her rapist's child, then vote for McCain (2) and Palin. You may well get your wish.


    (1) To be fair, Palin is willing to put her body where her mouth is. Last April she had a child with Down's Syndrome. She knew in advance and could have ended the pregnancy but didn't. Interestingly she was at work three days later. The child is about four months old today.

    (2) The Republican Platform is anti-legal abortion. Period. John McCain has tried, unsuccessfully, to broaden the plank to allow exceptions for rape and incest. However, if McCain wins Palin will be well positioned to succeed him as president in 4-8 years.

    Saturday, August 16, 2008

    Do Republicans Really Make America Stronger?

    Russia has been a strong ally of Serbia for a long time (1). In the 1990s, Russia watched impotently as Democratic President Bill Clinton bombed Serbia into submission and dismembered Serbian-led Yugoslavia. Russia was weak, America was strong, and there was little Russia could do to help her ally.

    America is an ally of Georgia (2). In the last few weeks, America has watched impotently as Russia invaded and dismembered Georgia. Seven years of Republican President George Bush's leadership weakened America (3) to the point that, at least in Georgia, Russia is stronger, and America did little to help her ally (4).

    Remember this next time someone claims Republicans make America strong.


    (1) In 1914 Russia went to war with Germany and Austro-Hungary to protect Serbia. Ultimately, millions of Russians were killed, the government collapsed, and Russia signed a humiliating treaty with Germany.

    (2) America trained and equipped the Georgian military and pushed to integrate Georgia into NATO.

    (3) Some of the ways in which America has been weakened in the last seven years include:

  • Most US ground forces are tied up in long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The federal government has added about $3.5 trillion of debt, and is looking at another half trillion dollars of borrowing next fiscal year.
  • America's moral authority has been severely weakened by reaction to the invasion of Iraq, torture of suspects -- particularly at Abu Ghraib, the legal black hole at Guantanamo, the secret prison system, and a failure to abide by our Constitution.

    (4) Assistance was limited to flying 2,000 Georgian soldiers home from Iraq, which made no difference in the outcome, humanitarian aid, and talk.

  • Sunday, August 10, 2008

    Who's the Lightweight?

    In recent weeks McCain has accused Obama of being a celebrity with little or no substance. Let's examine that claim:
  • In 1990, Obama was elected editor of the Harvard Law Review beating out 18 other top notch Harvard students (1).
  • Obama gave up a high-paying corporate job to work for peanuts organizing poor people on the south side of Chicago.
  • Obama has written two best selling books, one about his life and another about his political philosophy (2)
  • Obama writes many, if not most, of his own speeches (3).
  • Obama grew up without much money, no powerful relatives (4), and his wife's family was strictly middle class (5).
  • Obama made the right call on Iraq from the very beginning (6).
  • Obama got into the best schools in the country, including Harvard, strictly on merit.

    This is not the biography of a lightweight. This is the biography of a self-made man who succeeded through hard work and talent.


    (1) John McCain, by contrast, was fifth from the bottom in a class of over 800 at Annapolis [reference].

    (2) John McCain's book "Faith of My Fathers," was co-written by Mark Salter. You can bet Salter did most of the actual writing.

    (3) Both of the Republican candidates have their speeches written by others.

    (4) McCain's father and grandfather were admirals, which may explain why he kept flying after losing four military aircraft in accidents -- one by flying so low he snagged power lines.

    (5) McCain's second wife was worth about $100 million when he married her.

    (6) I've seen video of John McCain predicting easy victory in Iraq.

  • Wednesday, July 30, 2008

    And the Winner is ... Iran

    Lately, some are talking as if the 'surge' is winning the war in Iraq. While the surge, among other important factors (1), has definitely improved matters, let's see who is really winning and losing. To determine this, let's compare the condition of the major players before the run up to the war vs today. Here's the short story: the winners are Iran, the Kurds, the Shia, al Qaeda and Israel. The losers are America and the Sunnis.


    Iran is by far the biggest winner, for several reasons:

  • Saddam Hussein was removed. Saddam's Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 killing half a million Iranians.
  • The current Iraqi government, far from being an enemy of Iran, is very close and friendly (2).
  • Iran is the center of Shia Islam, and Iraq is now controlled by Shia rather than Sunni
  • Iranian presence in Najaf, the Shiite spiritual center that actually controls the country, is very strong. Iran has even extended its power grid into southern Iraq [Engel 2008].

    The Kurds were terribly oppressed by Saddam. Although Kurdistan became quasi-independent after the first Gulf War with American protection, Saddam was an ever present danger. Iraqi-Kurdistan was never occupied by American troops and is independent in all but name today.

    The Shia have lived in Iraq for 1300 years under Sunni rule. Today the Shia control the central government and the southern oil producing regions.

    al Qaeda had zero presence in Iraq before the run up to the American invasion, Saddam made sure of that (3). Today their presence is reduced from its peak but still significant. The Sunni Awakening leaders are keeping some al Qaeda fighters protected for future use against Iran and the Shia, or America if we don't leave [Engel 2008]. Also, al Qaeda's strategy is to goad America into spending ourselves into bankruptcy, and the Iraq war has added nearly a trillion dollars to our debt. Excessive debt leads to bankruptcy.

    Israel suffered from suicide bombers subsidized by Saddam's Iraq. Iraq was also one of the strongest Arab countries committed to Israel's destruction. While this commitment doesn't seem to have really changed, there is no practical threat to Israel from Iraq today.


    America before the Iraq invasion had an unbeatable military, a balanced budget, a strong economy and unparalleled support around the world.

  • Today our ground forces are bogged down and no longer considered invincible.
  • We have added almost four trillion dollars in debt, with a projected deficit of a half trillion next year, pushing us closer to bankruptcy.
  • The economy's financial sector is in deep trouble, thousands of people are losing their homes each week, and the dollar is falling like a stone.
  • We have lost most of our international support and many see America as the land of torture and illegal invasion. This is very bad as international support is critical to winning the war on al Qaeda.

    The Sunnis have lost control of Iraq for the first time in 1300 years and about half of the pre-war Iraqi Sunnis are dead or have left the country. See Sunni Extermination?.

    It is possible to salvage something from America's Iraq disaster. Dunkirk was a terrible defeat for the British in World War II, but most of the troops made it home even if their equipment did not. England went on to win the war, primarily by enlisting the support of America and Russia. Perhaps we can salvage something from the ashes of our disastrous Iraq adventure.


    (1) Other factors reducing violence include:

  • Sunni Awakening, a movement that started about a year before the surge. Some Sunni tribes have, at least temporarily, allied themselves with the Americans and against al Qaeda in Iraq. This may be related to the huge losses Sunnis suffered when allied with al Qaeda in Iraq.
  • Muqtada al-Sadr, who wants the Americans to leave and leads the largest Shia militia, declared a truce in August 2007. This decision may be related to the surge and/or a belief the Americans will leave sometime reasonably soon. Why get chewed up by American firepower if they will leave anyway?
  • General Petraeus took command of US forces in Iraq. Petraeus was the guiding light for the new
    US counter-insurgency field manual. One of the lessons therein: lose the moral high ground, lose the war.

    (2) When the President of Iran recently visited Iraq, his visit was scheduled, he arrived in broad daylight to a red carpet, drove from the airport to the Green Zone, and traveled about with little or no security. Contrast this with how American VIPs visit Iraq. For security reasons, Americans arrive unannounced, usually at night, fly to the Green Zone in helicopters, and only travel with massive security.

    (3) Saddam was our de facto ally in the war with al Qaeda, but just before the invasion Saddam allowed al Qaeda to establish a presence in Iraq. This was probably related to his strategy to make Iraq ungovernable for the U.S. [Scheuer 2008]. He also let thousands of prisoners out of jail, perhaps for the same reason.


    [Engel 2008] "War journal: My Five Years in Iraq," Richard Engel, NBC News Middle East correspondent.

    [Scheuer 2008] "Marching Toward Hell, America and Islam after Iraq," Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA bin Laden unit.

  • Saturday, July 19, 2008

    The Next Commander in Chief

    "You cannot kill your way out of an insurgency, you have to turn them" General Petraeus, the most successful U.S. commander in Iraq. Without the support of the Muslim world, no matter how many al Qaeda operatives we kill, they will simply be replaced. If killing were decisive, John McCain might be a good commander in chief, but it isn't. Victory requires turning the Islamic world into our friends and allies, for that we need Barak Obama.

    Related posts

  • This U.S. Military Will Surprise You: a discussion of The U.S. Army - Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual and the rather surprising lessons it has for Iraq, Afghanistan, and the struggle against al Qaeda.
  • Winning the War on al Qaeda.
  • Monday, July 14, 2008


    I finally found out what the almost-never stated provisions of FISA are:

    1. Wiretapping of American citizens within the US requires a warrant.

    2. Wiretapping foreign nationals in foreign countries does not require a warrant. This is true even if the foreign national overseas is conversing with an American in the US.

    I'm not sure about foreign nationals inside the US or US citizens in foreign nations.

    Leaving aside abuse, for the moment, here are the questions: Is today's FISA the right balance between fighting al Qaeda and the privacy rights guaranteed in the Constitution? If not, what is the right balance? And finally, can reasonable people disagree on the last two questions?

    My answers: Probably not. I don't know (1). Yes.

    Here's the presidential question: fixing FISA will require public pressure. Is this more likely to succeed with an Obama administration or a McCain administration? (hint: starts with an O)

    (1) Here's a case to consider: we know al Qaeda has bases in northern Pakistan. Technically, we could monitor all the communications out of that region (or at least those passing through the US), and send them through computers looking for key words. When the computers find something suspicious, they could pass the communication to a human for analysis. This would be enormously useful, and is probably being done as we speak.

    However, it's impossible to get probable cause for an entire region of the Earth, so warrants in the current legal framework don't work. How do we craft a law that allows us to go after al Qaeda in this or similar ways and that also passes Constitutional muster?

    Sunday, July 13, 2008

    Obama and the media

    Lately, the press is going through one of its periodic bash Obama phases (to be fair, they are bashing McCain too). Here's my take:
  • Iraq. The media claim Obama is reversing course because he says he'll 'refine' his position based on the unfolding situation. This is exactly what I want my president to do -- respond to changing conditions. Obama has been crystal clear from the start that he wants out of Iraq. If anything, recent events (1) suggest that 'refinement' may well mean an earlier withdrawal.
  • FISA. Much is made of Obama's vote for the flawed FISA bill. For the life of me, I cannot find a simple list of all of FISA's provisions. While there are some obvious problems, Obama is a constitutional lawyer with a history of supporting the little guy. Furthermore, we face a real enemy, al Qaeda, using modern communication systems and new approaches are needed. Finally, even the telecom amnesty does not include amnesty from criminal prosecution. All in all, I trust Obama's judgement that these compromises are the best we can do right now. That said, I'll give money to the ACLU to fight the worst provisions.
  • Some media outlets say Obama and McCain are starting to look the same. This is ridiculous. It's true that McCain is closer to Obama's positions on the environment and stem-cell research than Bush; and McCain has even proposed a pull-out date for Iraq (2013). However, McCain is very conservative and Obama is fairly liberal. Just one example, if McCain becomes president, Roe v Wade is toast.

    (1) Obama has suggested a roughly 16 month withdrawal period, but that was when violence was much higher and before the Iraqi government started insisting on a timetable. It was also before a senior U.S. commander suggested that we could withdraw in 2009. Any refinement will probably mean a quicker redeployment.

  • Sunday, June 22, 2008

    Winning the War on al Qaeda

    On 11 September 2001 al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and severely damaged the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. This was the most successful attack on any state of the Union since the British burned Washington to the ground in the War of 1812. Although al Qaeda is a tiny organization with a vanishingly small fraction of America's power, nearly seven years later al Qaeda is alive and well, and America is severely weakened. The traditional strengths of the US military, firepower and maneuver, have failed us. The dirty war, featuring torture, secret prisons and Guantanamo has failed as well. To win this war, we need to change course. We need to understand al Qaeda and Islam and we need to apply America's power at the critical points, where victory can be achieved.

    Understand al Qaeda

    9/11 was not only a tactical success, killing almost 3,000, but a strategic success as well. It successfully goaded America into over-reacting, thereby losing vital support and becoming bogged down in the wrong places.

    al Qaeda's strategy is to goad America into overspending ourselves into bankruptcy [Scheuer 2008]. This is succeeding. U.S. government debt ballooned $3.5 trillion to a total of about $9 trillion and counting.

    The lack of major attacks on America since 9/11 means little. First, such attacks are rare, so a few years without one means nothing. Second, America is doing what al Qaeda wants - especially getting bogged down in Iraq - so there is no strategic need for attacks since such attacks are often intended to provoke an over-reaction [ U.S. Military Field Manual, page 294].

    al Qaeda does a lot of recruiting on the internet using web sites to organize and communicate.

    Applying Smart Power to Win

    Focus on al Qaeda. Bush has responded to 9/11 by widening the war to include terror and Iraq. The result has been failure on all fronts (1). Congress should declare war on al Qaeda and ensure this war gets first choice of all resources.

    Pay our bills. If we continue to rack up debt we will go bankrupt and al Qaeda will win.

    Cut off the supply of men. Killing al Qaeda members doesn't do much if they can be quickly and easily replaced. To win, the world's billion plus Muslims must regard America as the good guy and al Qaeda as the bad guy. It's easy to paint al Qaeda as awful, they are. However, America looks about as bad to many Muslims. To correct this we must:

    • Stop attacking countries that haven't attacked us. We lose allies and waste resources.
    • Stop torturing people. Makes us no better than them, with predictable results.
    • Get American soldiers out of Muslim lands (2). Nobody likes foreign soldiers running around the country, particularly soldiers who don't speak your language, don't respect your culture and/or shoot up the place. Withdraw will also eliminate most of the suicide bomber threat as suicide attacks are characteristic of peoples occupied by armies of a different religion.
    • Stop bad-mouthing Islam. In a high-quality Gallop poll of Muslim attitudes towards America, the number one complaint was a lack of respect for Islam [Esposito and Mogahed]. It's difficult to get people on your side when you insult them constantly. Every time a right-wing pundit trash-talks Islam we suffer a defeat. It would help if they understood that.
    • Live up to our highest ideals (3). Our Constitution is our best weapon in the PR war, but we've been trashing it not using it. This war can't be won by fighting dirty.

    America could also neutralize the recruiting web sites. This can't be done by bringing them down, others will simply pop up. It can be done by flooding them with American patriots. A few months ago Wired magazine featured an article about a woman who learned Arabic and started interacting on the al Qaeda-related web sites. She poses as a radical, gains their confidence, and turns them in. If we had 10,000 like her, al Qaeda's web access would be neutralized. The government could supply English-Arabic translation software, identify al Qaeda recruiting sites, provide lessons learned and tips, and the President could ask us to do it. We would respond.

    Cut off the supply of money. al Qaeda is funded by a combination of drug and oil money. Eliminating drug profits can be accomplished relatively easily using the civil court system. Reducing the oil money will be hard, as we are so dependent on it. Conservation is the only immediate way to reduce oil use and prices, and price will get that done. Most of al Qaeda's money appears to come from members of the Saudi royal family and we could at least stop propping up their dictatorship. In the medium term, plug-in hybrid cars could shift about 2/3 of our auto transportation energy to electricity which can be supplied by solar, wind, coal, etc. In the long term, only Space Solar Power can supply vast quantities of energy without severe environmental problems. Nuclear power should be avoided as it provides great targets to al Qaeda and the fuel and waste are critical materials for dirty bombs.

    Most of all, this war cannot be won by going shopping, as Bush famously told us after 9/11. Prepare for a lot of work, taxes, and, most of all, don't expect to win without learning a lot about Islam. Don't expect to win without making a deep connection between America and the Muslim world. Don't expect to win without becoming personally involved.

    There are over a billion Muslims, and, as General David Petraeus (4) says, you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency, you must turn them. It only took 19 hijackers and a half million dollars to bring down the World Trade Center. Without the support of the vast majority of the Muslim world, it will be impossible to defend this country.

    Get to work.


    (1) We have failed to neutralize bin Laden. Failed to destroy al Qaeda. Terrorist attacks world wide are way up. Iraq has improved lately, but is now effectively an ally of Iran. U.S. officials sneak in and out unannounced with heavy security. The Iranian President came on a scheduled visit, was greeted with flowers and a red carpet. Drove from the airport (U.S. officials have to fly in helicopters). And traveled around with minimal or no security. More telling, Iran has extended it's electric grid into southern Iraq [Engel 2008]. This is a massive failure.

    (2) Obviously, withdraw will take awhile and must be accomplished very carefully. However, it must be our strategic objective. Anything else guarantees a steady supply of dedicated manpower for al Qaeda and similar organizations.

    (3) [Esposito and Mogahed], in a high quality poll, found that even Islamic radicals admired American freedom and democracy.

    (4) General David Petraeus is an expert on counter-insurgency warfare and has been the most successful U.S. general in Iraq. He is responsible for the recent reductions in Iraqi violence -- by applying the principles found in the [ U.S. Army - Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual].

    [Engel 2008] Richard Engel, War Journal

    Esposito and Mogahed] John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks For Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think

    [Scheuer 2008] Michael Scheuer, Marching Towards Hell

    Tuesday, June 10, 2008

    Obama's Actual Tax Plans

    McCain and others have claimed Obama plans to raise everyone's taxes. This is false. There is also a dirty little not-so-secrete about McCain's tax plans you might like to know. First, what are Obama's actual tax plans and what might they mean to you?
  • If you make less than $75,000/year you will probably pay less tax because Obama plans to lower taxes for these taxpayers.
  • If you make between $75,000-250,000 and have stocks in 401K and IRA plans, your taxes will probably stay the same.
  • If you make more than $250,000 your taxes will probably go up as Obama opposes extending the Bush tax cuts for these taxpayers.
  • If you have stock outside of tax-deferred retirement plans, your taxes might go up if you sell for a profit (realize capital gains) (1). However, stocks in 401K and IRA programs will not be affected because they are treated as ordinary income, not capital gains

    Of course, not all plans come to fruition so who knows what will actually happen.

    One thing that is very likely, though, is that the next Congress will have a Democratic majority. To extend the Bush tax cuts will require an act of Congress. Even if McCain wins the presidency, it's extremely unlikely he will convince Congress to extend the Bush tax cuts. Thus, regardless of who wins the White House, if you make more than $250,000/year your taxes will almost certainly go up.

    Finally, Obama is committed to pay-as-you-go budgeting, meaning that he doesn't intend to borrow money every year to run the government (2). This will reduce taxes in the long run because when you borrow money you must pay back what you borrowed plus interest. Since all government income is from taxes, sooner or later taxes will be required to pay the loan off, including extra for the interest. This is why the Bush years increased our taxes in the long run. The Republicans certainly cut taxes for now, especially for Paris Hilton, but they failed to reduce expenditures and borrowed the difference (3). This saves taxes now, but requires us all to pay even more taxes later.

    Obama's fiscal policies are middle-of-the-road, boring and sensible. Probably what we need.

    (1) Obama may, or may not, try to increase capital gains tax. He favors an increase because it's unfair for billionaire Warren Buffet, who makes his money on capital gains and dividends, to pay a much lower tax rate (15%) than his secretary (probably 28%). However, there is some evidence that increasing capital gains taxes can, in some cases, actually decrease revenue because people make fewer trades if the tax is higher. Unlike some, Obama seems to understand that the purpose of taxes is to raise money to pay for the government.

    (2) Because the government is borrowing so much money each year it will take even the most dedicated reformer years to end massive government borrowing.

    (3) Total federal government debt today is about $9 trillion, meaning sooner or later we will need $9 trillion in taxes to pay it off and in the meantime we need about $400 billion in taxes every year to pay the interest.

  • Sunday, May 18, 2008

    Should America Talk to Her Enemies?

    When deciding whether to do something, it's useful to see how similar acts have fared in the past. Consider:

    • Ronald Reagan talked to Gorbachev, the head of the 'evil empire,' also known as the Soviet Union. A few years later the Soviet Union collapsed and America won the Cold War.
    • The Bush administration talked to Muammar al-Gaddafi, the leader of Libya, a state sponsor of terrorism. Libya subsequently gave up their nuclear weapons program, turning over documents and hardware.
    • General Petraeus, American commander in Iraq, talked to the Sunni insurgents who were killing American soldiers. Many of these insurgents subsequently joined the Sunni Awakening, allied with America, and drove al Qaeda in Iraq to the brink of extinction.

    With all of this success, why are the Republicans so upset that Barack Obama says he'll talk with America's enemies? To score political points, of course. They are trying to attach the label 'appeaser' to Obama. Appeasement was a spectacularly unsuccessful policy followed by Britain and France before World War II where they gave territory to Hitler's Germany in exchange for false promises of peace.

    The Republicans mistakenly think appeasement refers to talking, which is false. The most hysterical example is an MSNBC Hardball discussion where conservative radio talk-show host Kevin James calls Obama an appeaser (see video). When questioned, it turned out James was completely ignorant of the history of appeasement and, in fact, didn't even know what the word meant. Specifically, he didn't know that Britain and France gave Hitler half of Czechoslovakia at a conference in Munich in 1938 -- the most famous actual case of appeasement.

    If you want ignorant name-callers to run the country, Kevin James and his ilk are for you. If we allow them to define our political discourse, we will lose the war with al Qaeda, because you can't win tough wars with bullshit. If you want an extremely intelligent president who has real knowledge of the peoples we must bring to our side to win (1), vote for Barack Obama.

    (1) "You cannot kill your way out of an insurgency, you must turn them," David Petraeus, the most successful American commander in Iraq.

    Sunday, May 11, 2008

    Is Space Weaponization Inevitable?

    In the May fifth issue of Space News, Gopalaswamy and Ghoshroy ask "Is Space Weaponization Inevitable?" and provide a lot of evidence that space is becoming more weaponized but never really answer the question.

    The answer is no. Space is and will be weaponized to the extent that we, the people of Earth, weaponize it. We can continue on our current path, lead by China and the Bush administration, towards space war, or the space powers can sit down, determine what is verifiable, ban it, and watch each other like hawks for violations.

    Had we done this a few years ago, it is quite likely China would never have tested an ASAT, because ASAT tests are very easy to detect.

    Further weaponization of space is not in America's interest. We depend on our satellites more than anyone else and they are extremely vulnerable for fundamental reasons. We successfully tested ASAT weapons decades ago and modified current systems for an ASAT role in six months. America would be much better off locking in something close to the status quo than a ASAT/space weapons arms race.

    There is a deeper issue driving limits on weapons and warfare. Modern weapons, including today's nuclear bombs and tomorrow's biological and nanotechnological weapons, are an existential threat to humanity. Given enough time, soon or later someone is going to make a mistake and use them. We have a choice: retire war as a human institution or face extinction. I choose life.

    Saturday, May 3, 2008

    Iran's Nuclear Program

    This was originally a letter to Space News, which was published in April.

    Discussing Iran's nuclear and space launch capabilities Victor Zaborskiy, Space News 24 March 2008, writes "... security guarantees from the United State, possibly including a commitment to launch a strike against Iran if Teheran's attack against Israel is presumed immanent, " emphasis added.

    This is a call for war with Iran based on an assessment by a security apparatus that couldn't tell the difference between an Iraq with or without WMD -- whilst conducting daily overflights. The chance of this same apparatus getting the intelligence right on Iran's intentions should be regarded as approaching zero. Zaborskiy is a calling for war with Iran whenever the president feels like it.

    We know that Iran is developing space launch, and the only difference between a launcher and a missile is the software in the guidance computer. We know Iran is developing nuclear power, and the hardest problems of nuclear weapon development can be solved developing civilian nuclear power. It is quite likely that Iran will someday develop nuclear weapons. There are at least two potential reasons:

    1. They wish to launch a nuclear attack on Israel or Europe. In either case, Iran would be obliterated within days by hundreds, if not thousands, of nuclear weapons launched by the victim and America. Maybe it's just me, but this seems unlikely. Supporting a few hundred suicide bombers is one thing, committing national suicide is another.

    2. They wish to deter an attack by the United States. Why would they believe America would attack them? Well, the U.S. has been openly discussing an attack on Iran for years. At one point, there were discussions of nuclear attacks on Iran to destroy underground bunkers. That is, of course, just talk. Then there is history. America overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953 and the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein 1980s war of aggression against Iran, a war which killed a million people. To be fair, Iran did imprison a hundred or so U.S. diplomats for in 1979-1980.

    The second option seems, at least to me, a couple of orders of magnitude more likely. After all, the Iranian government has an obligation to prevent attacks on their territory and America has demonstrated a willingness to invade Iran's neighbors based on faulty intelligence (Iraq). Iran can't possibly match America's conventional military strength. Iran probably remembers that nuclear weapons successfully deterred America from invading Cuba and the more recent change in U.S. policy towards North Korea after a single, partially successful nuclear bomb test. A few dozen nuclear tipped missiles would almost certainly prevent an American attack.

    This has profound implications for U.S. policy. We'd better get it right.

    Iraq Casualty Figures?

    The Bush administration claims that 'the surge,' a temporary increase in American troops in Iraq, has reduced violence substantially. The best evidence of this is monthly totals of Americans killed, which went down a great deal then increased recently (see here for data). This is the only really reliable figure, as all other monthly measures of violence are subject to a great deal of reporting error (i.e., are probably wrong).

    The number of Americans killed per month is an imperfect measure because there are many things American commanders can do that affect the figure regardless of the level of Iraqi violence. The April 2008 Aerospace America, primary publication of the AIAA, America's primary professional association for aerospace workers, detailed one of them.

    The article concerned problems with the US fighter aircraft fleet. The older fighters are wearing out, in part because of being used extensively in Iraq. On page 27 the article states: "Because of a concerted effort to avoid casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, strike missions have increased markedly." In other words, U.S. casualties are down, in part, not because of less Iraqi violence, but because aircraft strikes are used in place of ground action. That said, reducing American casualties is obviously a good thing.

    Unfortunately, not only does this mean 'the surge' is less successful than advertised, it also means more 'collateral damage,' a term meaning killing the wrong people, because air strikes tend to be less accurate than foot soldiers. Killing the wrong people tends to make surviving relatives and friends distinctly more anti-American, which is how you lose counter-insurgency wars (see the U.S. Field Manual).

    The lesson: when someone tells you their war is going well, look closely before you believe.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008

    Will McCain fall into bin Laden's trap?

    Al Qaeda's strategy for winning the war is to bleed America into bankruptcy (1). The way you go bankrupt is to spend more than you earn and borrow too much money. We've been doing this.

    John McCain has called for tax cuts similar to the Reagan and Bush cuts -- both of which were followed by massive deficits and played a major role in creating our $9 trillion debt. McCain also wants to stay in Iraq more-or-less indefinitely, at about $100 billion a year in borrowed money. This is exactly what bin Laden wants.

    We are expending vast resources to do very little damage to him. Bin Laden's al Qaeda can't lose the Iraq war because they never invested much. At the beginning of the Iraq war, al Qaeda had one small base there (2). Even destroying al Qaeda in Iraq won't do much, because al Qaeda in Iraq is home grown and cost bin Laden nothing to create. McCain will take America deeper into bin Laden's trap, and further along the road to bankruptcy and defeat.

    McCain is a military man and should understand that to win wars you need overwhelming force at the critical point. To achieve overwhelming force at the critical point you must use economy of force everywhere else. There are two critical points in the war: the Afghanistan/Pakistan border and Muslim public opinion. McCain never talks about increasing forces at the critical point and shows no indication he can mold Muslim opinion any better than Bush could. Instead, he favors applying massive force where we can't win and should be economizing: in Iraq. That's a formula for defeat.

    Obama, on the other hand, has publicly called for increased forces for the fight with the Taliban and al Qaeda where they can be destroyed, their main bases. He has also called, in the latest debate, for paying off some of the national debt which will put us further from bankruptcy and defeat at the hands of al Qaeda. Obama has the right strategy. He also has a major asset due to simple luck: his name.

    The Muslim world thinks very poorly of America, perhaps because we bomb them (3), kill them, occasionally torture them (4), overthrew one of their democratic governments (5) and support some of their tyrannical governments (6). The Muslim world thinks they know what America is about, but they are wrong. They have seen the dark side of American power, but I know that America can be a huge force for good (7). Electing a man named Barack Hussein Obama would rock their very incomplete impression of America to the core, and create an opportunity to change the dynamics. If combined with a foreign policy that treated the Muslim people with respect and less violence we could turn around the vital PR war we are losing so badly (8).

    If you want to win the war with al Qaeda, vote for Barack Obama.

    (1) "Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq," Michael Scheuer. Michael Scheuer is the ex-CIA head of the bin Laden group and extremely conservative.

    (2) This base was in a portion of Iraq that Saddam did not control.

    (3) Attacks by American forces on Muslim people: Bombing: Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan. Shelling: Lebanon. Rocket attacks: Yemen and Pakistan. Misc killing: Somalia. However justified we may think these actions were, those on the receiving end may view them differently.

    (4) Abu Grab

    (5) In 1953 America overthrew the democratically elected government in Iran and replaced it with a dictator.

    (6) Saudi Arabia and Egypt among others. BTW: of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers, fifteen were Saudi and four Egyptian. This cannot possibly be a coincidence.

    (7) Consider World War II and it's aftermath. There are many other examples.

    (8) Contrary to Bush's assertion, they do not hate us because of our freedom. In a recent, high-quality Gallup poll of the world's Muslims, when asked what they most admired about America, even radical anti-American Muslims said "freedom and democracy." When asked what the liked least, they cited disrespect for Islam and American foreign policy in the region. See "Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think," by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed.

    Sunday, March 30, 2008

    Reverend Wright

    Reverend Wright is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who volunteered to give years of his life to America, in spite of growing up in pre-civil rights America, which treated him and other blacks terribly.

    Recently, Barak Obama's presidential campaign was rocked by short video clips of offensive statements by his pastor, Reverend Wright, the Marine Corps veteran. Senator Obama responded by denouncing these statements and giving a very thoughtful speech on race which, I believe, has helped make America a better place. Nonetheless, the video clips of Reverend Wright make many Americans, particularly white Americans like me, extremely uncomfortable, to say the least. Although many whites attend his church and the denomination is 99% white, some accuse him of racism and anti-semitism. This article explores my take on this.

    One of the objectionable videos show Reverend Wright suggesting that 9/11 was brought on by American actions, particularly foreign policy. This clip is taken from a sermon built around the phrase "America's chickens are coming home to roost" to sum up what (white) U.S. diplomat Edward Peck said in a TV interview. While right-wing pastors such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have blamed 9/11 on feminism and gay rights, Reverend Wright suggested that U.S. bombing of HIroshima, Nagasaki, and other places played a role in 9/11. It is unlikely that World War II played a role in motivating the 9/11 terrorist. However, consider the following facts:

    • Of the 19 hijackers, 15 were Saudi and 4 were Egyptian.
    • Osama bin Laden is Saudi.
    • The Saudi and Egyptian governments are tyrannies.
    • Support for Egypt and Saudi Arabia has been a pillar of American foreign policy in the region, including, but not limited to, money, weapons, and protection by American soldiers.

    It seems likely that these facts are closely related. Although Reverend Wright may not be correct in his analysis, at least it is plausible that 9/11 was payback for American actions in the region, which is more than can be said for what Reverend Robertson and Falwell say.

    The second really objectionable video features Reverend Wright repeatedly saying "God Damn America" for killing civilians, oppressing blacks and so forth. The language is ghastly, but Marines tend to use strong blunt language. What is not clear from the clip is that Reverend Wright is referring not to America the country, but rather to the U.S. government. The section of the sermon just before the "God Damn" bit is built around the phrase "governments lie," a sentiment most conservatives agree with whole heartedly.

    Wright also understands that governments can change, consider this phrase from the same sermon: “Prior to Abraham Lincoln, the government in this country said it was legal to hold African in slavery in perpetuity…when Lincoln got in office, the government changed ... But I stop by to tell you tonight that governments change.”

    “Prior to Harry Truman’s government, the military was segregated. But governments change.”

    “Prior to the Civil Rights and equal accommodation laws of the government in this country, there was backed segregation by the country, legal discrimination by the government, prohibited blacks from voting by the government, you had to eat and sit in separate places by the government, you had sit in different places from white folks because the government said so, and you had to buried in a separate cemetery. It was apartheid, American style, from the cradle to the grave, all because the government backed it up.”

    “But guess what? Governments change.”

    For a fuller view of the sermon look here.

    Reverend Wright is accused of being an anti-white racists for saying things like "rich white people run this country." Well, that's not racist, it's true. The vast majority of presidents, congressmen, CEOs, etc. etc. etc. have always been white and are usually rich. But Reverend Wright is more broad minded than his critics would let on, consider this phrase from the link above: “All colonizers are not white. Turn to your neighbors and say that oppressors come in all colors.”

    We deserve to give this U.S. Marine veteran a fuller hearing. He is not the man the media is trying to cram down your throat.

    Finally, Barack Obama is not Reverend Wright. Unlike Wright, Obama grew up after the civil rights movement, and in tolerant Hawaii at that. He does not share the righteous anger of those who have been deeply and unfairly oppressed, although I'm sure he's felt the sting of racism from time to time. In any case, by his words and actions Obama has proven that he can help heal the racial wounds this nation has carried for 400 years. Vote for him.

    Thursday, March 27, 2008

    Sunni Extermination?

    Before the US invasion of Iraq there were about 5 million Sunnis in the country. There are currently about 2-2.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, both are Sunni states so these refugees are probably Sunni. In addition, the best available data 1 suggest that about 500,000 Iraqis have died due to the invasion, mostly to violence. Assuming at least half of these are Sunnis, a pretty safe assumption, roughly half of all Iraqi Sunnis are either dead or have left the country.

    In this context it's clear why some Sunni's are at least temporarily allying themselves with US forces, they are well on the way to being completely removed from Iraq. Allying themselves with America may be their only hope for survival 2

    1. This is from a study done a year or two ago that used nation-wide interviews to determine total deaths. The data aren't that good, there are very wide error bars, but it's the best we've got. Totals based on newspaper accounts, for example, are known to be major undercounts since many war deaths are not reported in newspapers.

    2. The alliance is against al Qaeda in Iraq, which are bunch of scum bags if there ever were any. Reaction to al Qaeda in Iraq's excesses is probably an additional motivation.

    That 3AM Call

    I'd like Obama to answer it. Why? Watch the debates. The more intense things get, the calmer he gets. In many debates, when things get heated you can see McCain getting angry and Hillary getting aggressive. Angry people tend to do stupid things. Aggression is great on the soccer field, but it can get a super-power into a lot of trouble. When the s--t hits the fan, I want my president as cool as a cucumber. Obama is the guy.

    Saturday, March 22, 2008

    How Arabs View the Iraq War

    Winning the war on al Qaeda requires understanding and eliminating their appeal. Otherwise, they can easily recruit terrorists faster than we can kill them. Central to al Qaeda's appeal is their claim that America is waging war on Islam. Exhibit A for this claim is the war in Iraq. Thus, winning the war with al Qaeda requires, among many other things, that Americans understand how Arabs view the war in Iraq so al Qaeda's claim we can be effectively countered.

    One of the best expositions of the Arab view I've seen is 'Iraq is a war-torn nation' by Faruq S. Ziada. If you want to win the war with al Qaeda, I strongly suggest you read it, whether you agree with the author or not.

    A note on the war deaths figures: the figure Ziada uses appears to be the high end of a estimate made based on Iraq-wide interviews a year or two ago and extrapolated to the present. Americans are accustom to a much lower figure based on either the low end of the same study or figures based solely on newspaper reports, which are known to be a significant undercount.