Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Travel: Setting the Objectives of Your Trip

The best trips are both entertaining and educational. But if you are looking for entertainment alone, there is no reason to go abroad. If you want to go to the beach, try Destin, not Thailand. Visiting a foreign country can be fun. The foods, accommodations, people, geographic wonders and public events all exciting. But travel exposes us to new people, attitudes, historical sites, and culture that is truly enlightening. Nothing made for good traveling experience than simple curiosity.

Study where you are going before you make your plans. I am privileged to be married to an incredibly talented traveler. When we zero in on our next trip, Monty will get out her travel books to discover what there is to see. We have a strong preference for Fodor’s series, because it discusses both the places to see and the accommodations available. It is also helpful to look at the itineraries in tour brochures to see where they go. She would also read novels written by or about people of the country being visited and leave the histories to me. The simple fact is that the more you know about the country, the better your experience will be.

To me a trip is most rewarding when connected with a special interest. Monty and I are most attracted to art. Travel is an indispensable means of enriching both pursuits. I cannot make an fair estimate as to how many art museums we have visited. It must be in the hundreds. Art reflects the history and character of a country.

We have also preferred to limit each trip destinations to one or two countries. When we took a tour to Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Chile, and Lima, it seemed that we spent about as much time on the air plane as in our destination and left too much unseen in each of those very interesting places. On the other hand, we spent over a week in Portugal, and it was one of our favorite trips.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Obama's Folly

In an earlier posting, I shared my concern that President Obama might give in to the tendency of Democrats towards protectionism. (December 25, 2008) That fear is growing. Last week, the Chinese government took the first step towards impressing tariffs of American exports of automotive products and chicken meat. This move was an apparent and immediate retaliation for Obama’s decision to levy tariffs on tires imported from China.

This may should like dull stuff, but it can set in motion a trade war with far reaching effects. Consider what the combined actions of two governments can cause. China exports $1.3 Billion worth of tires into this country. The announced U.S. tariffs can reach as much as 35% of the price, which means that if China could maintain its level of exports with the tariff, American consumers would be required to pay almost $2 Billion for the same tires as before. The $40 tire would become a $60 tire. Arguably American union shop plants would get the business without being required to be competitive. You and I will thus be paying a higher price for tires in order to subsidize a plant in Akron in an attempt to preserve jobs for some loyal Democratic voters and their employers.

Actually the above scenario is not how the real world works. China would lose its edge as a low cost competitor. Other tire makers - some domestic and some foreign - could raise their prices at least to the level of the newly crowned low cost competitor, but the higher prices would apply to all tires, allowing for a smaller increase but covering a much greater volume of tire sales.

Nevertheless, the principal is the same. All of us are called upon to pay a higher price for the product in order to subsidize an inefficient industry. China is now retaliating by increasing the tariff on $899 billion worth of automotive products and $378 billion in chicken products. (This type of measured response is typical in tariff trade wars.) These tariffs will result in increasing prices for them in China, allowing other suppliers to take our market share. The resulting reduction in exports of the automotive and chicken products will penalize American firms and jeopardize jobs in the affected industries.

I wonder if workers in the automotive industry understand that they are facing further job loss because of tariffs set up for the benefit of rubber workers. When tire prices go up, will they understand that their loss of purchasing power is not the product of greedy wall street bankers but of the stroke of the pen of a politician who seems to be more concerned about the next Ohio primary than the general good?

Nice move Barack!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Travel - Choosing a Destination

We were concluding an eleven day horse trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana, under the leadership of Jack Hooker. Monty was telling Karen, Jacks wife, that she hoped we would come back again. Karen said that people like us do not come back, but move on to see other things. She understood us well. We have moved on to other places.

The patterns of our travel have been to go in ever widening circles. It is just as well to visit the closer destinations before wandering off too far. We recently discovered that we had overlooked one of the most interesting places in Alabama - Tuskegee. I bet that most of you have not been there either. It is one of the most interesting campuses in America. The campus is dominated by structures made by the students themselves, which produces and impressive but simple landscape. Its chapel designed by Paul Rudolph, John A. Welch and Louis Frey is probably the finest contemporary building in Alabama and contains the only nationally regarded stain glass window in the state. Booker T. Washington’s home, the Museum with fascinating movies of the lives of Washington and George Washington Carver, and the airport where the Tuskegee airman were trained could all deserve at least a star or two by Michelin Guide standards. Why go to a village in Italy, if you have not seen Tuskegee?

There is as much to see in this country as any where in the world. Some of my favorites are New York, Williamsburg, Glacier National Park, and Chicago, and anywhere you can find Frank Lloyd Wright architecture.

The same principal of ever widening circles applies to foreign travel. There is no reason to seek out the exotic until after you have seen the well traveled spots abroad including, Alaska and a Hawaii, which are considered foreign lands by The Traveler’s Century Club.

There is no reason to go to remote corners of the unusual places until you have visited the obvious ones. I still believe that the best destinations are the great cities of Europe - London, Paris, Rome (by way of Venice and Florence), Madrid, Athens, Berlin. Moreover all of those cities surround a treasure trove of other great destinations. These cities are popular spots for a reason. They are unusually rich in culture and our own heritage. Once you have been exposed to our own country and Europe, it is time to venture further and explore the many places throughout the world that are worthy of your time and treasure.

The following is a list of some of my favorites. In Africa the Serengeti, Lake Victoria, Capetown, and many other superb Safari locations dominate the south while Egypt and Morocco are most prominent in the North. Asia includes China, India, Japan, and all of Southeast Asia. My favorites in South America are Peru, Iguazu Falls, Chile and Argentina. In Eastern Europe there are Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia, Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary. Travel in the Middle East has been inhibited by the conflagrations there, but Israel is a must. Leaders among the remaining parts of the world are Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, and Spitsbergen, Norway.

There are many places we have not visited that probably should be on the list, including the Philippines, Mongolia, Bhutan, Korea, Nepal and the Galapagos Islands. Maybe we can make a dent in that list before it gets even longer.

Meanwhile, let me suggest a very special trip for you. In next year between May and September, the tiny town of Oberammergau, Germany will perform its marvelous Passion Play, for the forty first time. This is a world class event that comes along once a decade and should be seen during a lifetime. The play fills out one day leaving time to Switzerland or Austria nearby, to Italy in the south, Berlin in the east or maybe Paris in the west. You will not regret it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Travel - What is a traveler?

In 1971 Monty and I were waiting for the dining room to open in a Pesada in Obidos, Portugal,. We had been traveling around that country and had not encountered one English speaking person for almost a week. In walked a young man and woman who were about as shabby looking as possible. Their blue jeans were torn, and both had needed a haircut for several weeks. They were not promising company, but, alas, they could speak English. What the heck, we engaged them in conversation. By the end of the evening our life style changed forever.

He was an accountant and she was a school teacher from British Columbia, Canada. They had quit their jobs and withdrawn their savings to spend a year traveling though Europe and Northern Africa. They were living out of the back of a minivan they had bought in Germany and had brought only one change of clothing, including the jeans which were by then ready for the junk heap.

They entertained us with stories of places I had never thought we would ever see, such as Russia, Eastern Europe, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco and many more. It was as if we had just met Rudyard Kipling. The theme of their message was that you could go to almost any country with safety and see things that could only be found in National Geographic. That couple, whose names I have long forgot became my heroes. From that day on Monty and I broadened our horizons to the point that we came to aspire to see and experience all within the four corners of the earth.

This will begin a series on travel reflecting on some insights we have gained from traveling to 70 countries so far.

Are you a traveler? Not a tourist. Not a vacationer. A traveler relishes in the sight of new places and people. A traveler is self reliant and not afraid of the unknown. There is nothing wrong with trotting back to the same resort, playing tennis, swimming at the beaches, dressing up for the American Plan dinner. I have been there. It is fun and appropriate in many circumstances, but do not confuse such a vacation with travel. Travel is stalking the leopard hunting its prey in the marshes. Travel is reliving the history of a country as presented in its national museum. Travel is paddling in an underground river in China. Most of all travel rewards those with a relentless curiosity about all that can be discovered about the planet earth.

This series will examine some of the nuts and bolts of successful travel. In the next posting I will discuss how to select a destination. I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


The Gospel of Luke records the angel announcing to Mary that she will be the mother of the messiah, sayings, “you will ... bear a son, whom you are to name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever....” The fact that Jesus would receive the throne of David acknowledges an abiding bond between Christianity and Judaism.

Although David is at the center of several entertaining and compelling stories, many Christians fail to grasp the central role that he played in the Jewish heritage. Jesus was a Jew. He lived in the context of the Jewish heritage. It was extremely important to the early church that he came out of the line of David as had been prophesied.

The indigenous tribes were not driven out of Israel when Joshua conquered the promised land. . They were merely subjugated. Nor were the Israelites a truly united people. The land was divided into twelve sectors controlled by tribes which were descendants of different sons of Jacob. There was no single nation of Israel. No single leader.

Consequently the Israelites were plagued by chronic violent conflict with their displaced co-habitants. Tired of defending their new home from a position of weakness, the Israelites formed a single nation led by a king appointed by God.

Saul, the first king, was a capable leader, but he was flawed. David, the second king, finally accomplished the goal of uniting the people of Israel and establishing secure borders. He proved to be a ferocious general, defeating virtually every enemy of Israel at that time. By the end of his life, Israel was a legitimate member of the league of nations. Therefore, David enjoys a position in the history of Israel somewhat akin to George Washington in our country. After all, Washington converted a conglomerate of colonies into a nation.

But David’s greatness was not limited to military and political success. He had abilities that raised him above others. He was a poet. Think about it. How many generals do you know who are poets? I don’t mean roses are red and violets are blue either. His Psalms are read and beloved even today. On the other hand, how many poets do you know who could successfully lead an army into battle? They require different skill sets.

He showed remarkable capacity for compassion and forgiveness. As David’s reputation grew Saul’s jealously matured into a rage, and he sought to kill David utilizing the full strength of his army. Nevertheless, David never wavered in his devotion to Saul, who had been his patron. David declined to kill Saul when he had an opportunity, and genuinely grieved when he died.

David’s complex character is inextricably tied with his moral and ethical lapses, too. The most famous is his liaison with Bathsheba. David arranged to have her husband killed in battle so that he could marry Bathsheba and dump his wife. He was also a terrible father to Absolom.

Despite his failings, David was quick to confess to God and repent. Much of Psalms written by him demonstrates the humility and repentance which were integral parts of his character.

David’s thus presents an impressive blend of paradoxes. A general but also a poet. A powerful king who could be ruthless, but also one who was forgiving and gracious to his adversaries. An enemy to be feared, but a friend of unflinching loyalty. At times heroic and superhuman. Other times, a woeful sinner. Susceptible to sinfulness, but repentant and accepting of God’s punishments.

These paradoxes make him more than a hero. He embraces the noblest ideals of humanity along with the inherent weakness in us all. He was truly a great human being, warts and all.

God rewarded David with a promise that the House of David would be established as the ruling family of Israel. Later God, through Jeremiah, promised that the messiah would come from the House of David. The promise of the messiah carried with it the implicit hope that Israel would return to the glory once brought upon it by David. These two promises became the imprimatur of David’s enduring influence on the course of the Jewish history.

To the Jews, it was imperative that their messiah conform to the descriptions contained in the prophecies. If so, the ultimate emolument of messiahship was the throne of Jesus’ ancestor David. Jesus inherited the throne and carried it to new levels of greatness. The throne was no longer a small kingdom but a heavenly scepter. The reaches of the kingdom were not limited to the land between Dan and Beersheba, but spread to the ends of the earth. A temporal rule was extended to the end of time.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sessions and Sotomayor on Making Law

Senator Session and Judge Sotomayor agreed during her confirmation hearing on at least one thing - good judges should not make law. They were both wrong.

The fact is that judges, particularly Supreme Court Justices, do make law. They cannot avoid it. Judge Benjamin Cardozo wrote the definitive work explaining how judges make law. Judges rely upon precedents, which are decisions in other cases with similar facts and issues. In most cases these precedents are not “on all fours.” The court must select the most persuasive precedent which controls the case at hand. In so doing they extend the influence of one precedent and limit the application of another. Cardozo thus pointed out that the law is made in the interstices between precedents.

Consider the Firefighters case in which Judge Sotomayor’s court was reversed by the Supreme Court last month. The City of Hartford had given a civil service test to firefighters in order to determine who was entitled to promotion. All of the successful applicants were white, and if the test were allowed to stand, no Afro-American firefighters would have been eligible for promotion. The white firefighters claimed that this action was reverse discrimination. Essentially the case involved the primacy of two competing values. On the one side the City was concerned about its duty to avoid discrimination against the historically disadvantaged, primarily Afro-Americans and women. They were apparently concerned that failure to promote any non-whites would be deemed to be unlawful discrimination itself. The white firefighters challenged the city’s action as discriminatory towards them who had achieved the eligibility to be promoted based on merit. The Second Circuit panel, which included Judge Sotomayor, deemed the city’s concerns to be adequate to avoid constitutional challenge. The Supreme Court reversed.

Did the Supreme Court make law in that case? Absolutely. You can be assured that city attorneys throughout the country are writing opinion letters advising their clients that from now on, when they give these tests, they should be prepared to live with the results.

Would the Supreme Court be making law if it had ruled for the city? Absolutely. The opinion letters would have contained different advice that even after the test is taken the city must take a second look to determine whether the exam results had a discriminatory effect.

Regardless of the ruling, the opinion letters would treat the decision of the United States Supreme Court with the same respect and authority as a statute enacted by Congress on the subject.

The Supreme Court makes law in another way. There are thousands of cases filed with the Court every year and which actually hears only about a hundred of them. The decision as to which cases will be heard is highly discretionary. The court does not necessarily pick cases on the basis of whether the decision in the lower court is right or wrong. They search for the cases the are of sufficient importance for them to address the issue.

This process of deciding what case will be heard gives the court the opportunity to pick the subject which the court itself wants to speak about. For instance, when Earl Warren was Chief Justice, a liberal Court took many case involving criminal justice and civil rights. A more conservative Court under Chief Justice Rehnquist look harder as cases dealing with states rights.

Which brings me to another misstatement which Sessions and Sotomayor also cozily agreed upon. They seemed to agree that the personal values of the judge do play a role in judicial decision making. I do not know where they got that from. Court opinions are rifled with explanations as to why their decisions produce a just result. The determination of justices as to what is just is inexorably tied to their own personal moral, practical and ethical values.

Judge Sotomayor made a gaffe in her speech at Duke University when she suggested that a Latino female may be able to decide cases wisely than others. After all a gaffe is frequently an inadvertent blurting out of an unpopular truth. It is foolish to deny that judges are not strongly influenced by their own life experiences when defining what is just and fair. From her point of view I am sure that she believes that her humble beginnings allow her to bring a fresh point of view to the Court. I am disappointed that she backed down on that point.

I am not suggesting that Senator Sessions was making an improper inquiry. He simply did not frame the issue correctly. Court should act within the framework of the law and not stray into matters that are legislative. Activist courts are sometimes accused of attempting to achieve a desired result by disregarding the legal framework in which they operate. Two cases that have been heavily criticized as being non-judicial are Roe v. Wade and the presidential election case which broke the tie between George Bush and Al Gore. Sessions was addressing a concern as to whether Sotomayor acknowledged the constraints that should be placed on the exercise of judicial power. Sotomayor understood what he was driving at and professed that she knew her place. By so doing she has probably avoided a bloody fight over her nomination.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Global Warming III - What is the solution?

Even if we have the political will to address the global warming threat, what can we do about it?

Carbon emissions increased globally from a rate from about 1.1% per year in the nineties to more than 3% a year in 2001-2004. Broecker and Kunzig comment, "[N]o matter what happens in the West, the world’s energy consumption is going to increase dramatically in this century, not decrease. And most of that energy will probably continue to come from fossil fuels, above all coal. They are cheap, readily available, and incredibly convenient to use - and we have a global infrastructure of power plants and refineries and pipelines and gas stations that is built around using them." (P.189)

The environmental lobby has understandably focused on conservation measures that cut down on the volume of emissions. The list of energy saving ideas is long and growing. Each proposal has its champions- higher gas mileage, electric and hydrogen powered cars, windmills, solar systems, nuclear power, ethanol and so on. All of these proposals appear to be more of a palliative than a solution. For instance, it would require a sixty five foot wind mill for every man woman and child to meet our needs. Nuclear power is promising, but until nuclear fusion or some other safe, reliable system of waste disposal is developed, it will continue to be limited. Solar power is a long way from becoming cost efficient. It now costs about twenty times as much as coal fired energy. And then there is ethanol. The best I can tell, the chief function of ethanol is to help politicians win votes in the Iowa caucus.

A second approach would be to remove carbon emissions before they reach the atmosphere. The power industry is enthusiastic about flue-gas scrubbing that removes carbon from the emissions before they are released into the air. Scrubbing can be effective on new plants under construction but there is no economical way to add scrubbers to existing power plants. Scrubbing is not practical for automobile emissions, which represent 20% of the carbon emissions. Scrubbing may never become a universal solution to carbon dioxide removal. Nevertheless, coal is the cheapest and most plentiful energy source, and technology that can make the product environmentally friendly should be a welcome addition to the arsenal.

Still another approach involves preserving the capacity of nature to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Much is made of the reduction of rain forests in places such as South America. A green world will be cleaner than not, but land sources for absorbing carbon dioxide such a rain forests tend to be overestimated as the means of containing the spewing of carbon into the air. Only about 15% of the carbon dioxide emissions are consumed by natural forces on land, less that half as much as is absorbed in the ocean. That leaves 50% to remain in the atmosphere. I suspect that the best means of retaining nature’s capacity to absorb carbon may be to avoid heating up the earth, because warm waters actually release carbon dioxide into the air. So we are in a Catch 22. The earth warms and the earth consumes less carbon. The carbon retained in the atmosphere heats up the earth in turn releasing more carbon. And so on.

There remains one more option, namely the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This alternative was once considered the most ineffective solution because carbon is far less concentrated in the atmosphere than at the source of emissions. Flue gas is reduced from approximately one part in ten to one part in a million when it reaches the atmosphere. As a result, the scientific community long ignored that alternative.

Claus Lackner, a theoretical scientist, came to the conclusion that there is existing technology available that could remove carbon from the atmosphere efficiently and economically. He sold Walter Broecker on the idea, and Broecker became his champion. Through the use of venture capital, Lackner teamed up with Allen Wright to form a company that built an air extraction prototype. The prototype has been completed and Lackner’s company has declared the project a success.

If it works, the air extraction project solves many of the seemingly intractable issues. The new technology takes only a fraction of the space of wind power and does not raise the esthetic and environmental issues that wind power presents. A carbon waste must be disposed, but it can be done without presenting the toxic threat of nuclear waste. Also, because the carbon is found everywhere, the scrubbers can be located conveniently in the parts of the world where disposal is undertaken. Most important, this technology may prove to be affordable.

Broecker believes that the Lackner project holds the best prospect for fixing the climate. I certainly hope that he is right. Under any circumstances, I am convinced the ultimate solution, if there is one, will come out of our capacity to invent new technologies and that the best investment of public and private resources lies in research and development projects such as the Lackner company.
Broecker and Kunzig Fixing the Climate (Hill and Wang 2008)
"Scrubbing the Skies," Economist.com (March, 5, 2009)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Global Warming II - Do we have the political will to solve the problem?

In 1798 Thomas Malthus predicted that the world would be reduced to subsistence living as a result of overpopulation. Here we are in the twenty first century. Population has consistently expanded and, by and large, the Malthusian projections have not materialized.

Malthus underestimated the capacity of human beings to adapt to change. He did not anticipate the industrial revolution that has allowed many more people to live on this planet.
We will ultimately adapt to global warming. The question is whether we have the capacity and will to address the threat intelligently and effectively.

There are reasons to be pessimistic. There is considerable uncertainty over when the gradual increase in temperature will reach the tipping point. Governments work best in a crisis mode.

We watched Hitler storm across Europe without making more than minimal preparations for the impending war. It took Pearl Harbor to convince this country to realize that World War II was for real.

There is a strong possibility that our government and others will slack off on the global warming issue in the same manner. A massive effort to reduce carbon emissions would carry an enormous price tag, and it is hard to believe that we will place global warming the top of our priorities soon.

Moreover, as Sam Rayburn famously stated, all politics are local. Democratically elected officials respond best to the narrow interest of their separate constituencies. Global warming is not a local issue. An effective attack on global warming will require a heavy dose of altruism, which is in short supply in the world of geopolitics.

On the other hand, the environmental lobby has been very successful in capturing the attention of western democracies. The water and air quality in this country has been transformed since the Environmental Protection Agency was created during the Nixon administration. Maybe we will wake up, but crisis cannot be avoided merely by tilting wind mills and burning corn.

A United Nations sponsored group drafted the Kyoto Protocol which, among other things, required industrialized countries to reduce emissions on the average by 5.2% below 1990 levels.

Although almost all the major industrialized countries and underdeveloped countries signed and ratified the protocol, the United States never ratified it.

President Bush was bludgeoned by many environmental groups for withholding the treaty from the Senate, but opposition to Kyoto was bipartisan. In 1997, before the protocol was submitted to the countries for signature, the Senate unanimously adopted a resolution, sponsored by Senator Byrd of West Virginia among others, condemning any treaty that failed to imposed limitations on underdeveloped countries, which is the case with the Protocol. President Clinton never submitted the treaty for ratification. President Obama deftly avoided the issue by stating that there is no reason to ratify it now because it will soon be terminated.

The Protocol has not done particularly well even on those countries that ratified the treaty. Many of them will not comply with the terms of the treaty. In the mean time, although environmental regulation has been rigorous in the United States, the emissions increased by 20% between 1990 and 2007. Moreover, it has been predicted that compliance would cause a 1% to 4% reduction in our gross national product by 2010,and even the proponents concede that compliance would have a minimal effect on global warming.

One bone of contention has been the fact that China was exempted from limitations placed on other industrialized countries. China was not even on the map in 1990 with respect to carbon emissions. It is now the largest emitter in the world, although its contribution is more modest on a per capita basis than the United States.

The Kyoto Protocol has served the useful purpose of laying bare the complex matrix of differing national interests with respect to carbon emissions. Hard choices must be made to decide what are the legitimate needs of countries in various states of economic development.

Unfortunately seems to have withdrawn from its role as leader on world environmental issues by refraining for joining the Protocol and filing to initiate constructive alternatives. Like it or not, nothing will be accomplished without effective leadership coming out of the largest economy in the world.

We are probably farther away from constructive solutions than ever, even though we have a president who ran on a pro-environment platform. President Obama’s dance card is quite full. He may talk a good game on the environment, but look at his agenda. The economy has slipped into the top spot and allowed him to find new ways to spend amounts never imagined before. But he is not through. He is trying to avoid making universal medical care another empty promise. We are told that another trillion thrown at medical insurance will still leave a gigantic gap of uninsured persons. The social security mess will most likely come up again. And, by the way, did you notice? We are carrying on two wars in the Middle East. We can now update the old cliche and note that a trillion dollars here and a trillion there can add up to real money.

I suspect that a really serious effort to handle global warming is decades away, unless we can find a way to deal with the issue in a simpler less expensive manner. But that is the subject for another posting. See you next time.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Global Warming I — Is Global Warming a hoax?*

Wallace S. Broecker wrote an article in a 1975 issue of the Science magazine in which he asserted that "We may be in for a climatic surprise." That sentence has instigated a maelstrom of scientific activity related to what we now know as global warming.

Critics have frequently commented that environmentalists are more concerned about the snail darter than human beings, but global warming is not simply an effort to preserve ecological balance. True, the polar bear is endangered, but human habitats are also directly at risk. Our grandchildren may witness an abrupt rise in the sea level that will submerge coastal areas and turn lowlands into swamps. Desert areas would expand dramatically, further reducing the livable areas in the world. The Arctic and Antarctic regions would melt and become more moderate climates causing adverse effects on the ecological system. The destruction of major habitats for humans may well result in gigantic economic catastrophes as well as land wars among millions of people displaced by the revamped earth. To help understand how people can fight over living space consider the ferocity of hostilities generated the last sixty years over a relatively small geographic area in Israel-Palestine. It is not a happy prospect.

We cannot afford to underestimate the threat. Nevertheless skeptics are alive and well. Politicians and various special interests believe that the cost of reducing carbon emissions is not justified by the evidence produced by the scientific community. The question is whether global warming is like the swine flu where the alarmists anticipated an epidemic that never came or more like the levees of New Orleans where the warnings were oft repeated, but nobody listened.

It appears to me that in order to disbelieve Broecker’s science, you must successfully challenge at least one of three premises. They are as follows:

1. Carbon dioxide and other gases collectively known as the greenhouse gases preserve heat in our atmosphere. The first proposition has been an accepted fact since the nineteenth century. Without these gases, heat from the sun would bounce off the earth, and we would freeze like other planets. On the other hand excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will overheat the earth. I understand that even the severest critics do not contest the existence of the greenhouse effect.

2. Over the last century, industrialization has been accompanied by carbon emissions of unprecedented amounts. This second premise is based on a plethora of scientific measuring that has been thoroughly documented for at least fifty years. Fossil fuels are far and away the principal contributor to this increase. I am not aware of much dissent on that issue either.

3. If the greenhouse emissions continue to grow, the livability of the planet will be materilly affected at some time in the future. This third proposition is the bone of contention. Are gases being emitted of sufficient quantity to cause a material alteration of climate?

The mean temperature on the earth has been rising over the last century. The year 2005 is reported to be the hottest year on record. Glaciers are melting, and rain forests are receding. The dissenters contend that the rise is fully explainable by the natural rhythms which occur in nature. They deny that fossil fuel deposits are a significant factor. It is noteworthy that the critics have not been very successful in convincing their peers. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the most influential worldwide body in climatology, concluded that greenhouse gases are responsible for most of the rise in temperatures in recent decades. That conclusion has been endorsed by 40 scientific societies and academies of science, including all of the national academies of science of the major industrialized countries.

I do not claim to have any expertise on a subject so complex and futuristic as global warming. Nevertheless, I have more confidence in the scientists of academia than those employed by political lobbies to come up with a specified result. Scientists, good scientists, are loyal to the advancement of knowledge regardless of the consequences. When Galileo declared that the earth revolved around the sun, he was merely reporting his findings. The church that forced him to recant had a fixed view on the universe and expected science to affirm its own dogmatic vision.

It would be unfair to characterize any one who disagrees with the scientists as seeking to alter the truth. Nevertheless, the case for an impending global catastrophe seems to represent the work product of the best minds in the world who have dedicated their professional lives to the study of our environment.. Moreover, the skeptics are up against Pascal’s wager. If the skeptics should persuade us that global warming is a hoax and they are wrong, the consequences would be horrendous. On the other hand the risk of error by the scientific establishment is not so great. Admittedly the collective cost of a wild goose chase would be significant, but the reduction of carbon dioxide would still produce a more pleasant, healthier climate. On balance, I consider it risky for our society to ignore the warnings of a coming global warming surprise.

[I have relied on Broecker and Kunzig Fixing the Climate (Hill and Wang 2008) and the article on global warming in Wikipedia for most of the material of a technical nature. Both are provocative, informative and excellent reading for a mainline novice such as me.]

* This posting is the first of three installments discussing global warming.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Restraints on Power

There is a certain freedom afforded to the loyal opposition. The opposition can stay on the attack and constantly criticize incumbents without the need to be consistent or even responsible for the consequences of an action proposed. There is nothing new about this phenomenon. Politicians from Thomas Jefferson, to Benjamin Disraeli to Richard Nixon would not want history to judge them based on their behavior during the time when they were ascending to power.

Moreover, a negative position is always easier to sell than positive change. Lobbyists will charge their clients much more to push legislation through, than to defeat a bill.

Nevertheless, the day of reckoning comes when the minority party seizes the reins of power. That day has arrived for President Obama. A case in point is the consternation brewing within the Democratic Party over the so-called torture issue. This appeared to be a perfect issue for the Democrats. They were claiming the moral high ground when they protested that prisoners were not being treated humanely. Because the military intelligence apparatus operate in secrecy, their defenders would not reveal what was actually going on. Therefore the Democrats could conjecture and make accusations of all sorts of misconduct and the military would not fully respond. It was not a fair fight.

President Obama is now charged with carrying out his promises to get rid of torture, to abolish Guantanamo, to try those charged with crimes in American courts applying our constitutional principles, or to send some of the accused terrorists to other countries for trials governed by their laws. He is discovering that reform is not quite so simple either as a matter of policy or practicality. Other countries are refusing to bail him out by accepting these hot potato inmates. (Their politicians want to be reelected.) Senators are willing to authorize trials in our courts but not in their state. (They want to be reelected, too.) He is learning that the maligned military tribunals serve a useful purpose, so he is replacing them with a newly reformed tribunal. I suspect that the principal reform is that he will give them a new name. His first attempt at transparency was to renege on his agreement to release pictures of torture.

The sad part is that the torture issue was somewhat mooted even before the 2008 campaign, for the simple reason that most of the work had already been done in the Bush Administration. It now appears that the Bush administration had gone a long way to eliminate the worst abuses. I understand that the last water boarding occurred in 2003, and none is contemplated in the future. There was no need for the Democrats to engage in this debate on that technique other than to preserve an issue for the 2008 political campaigns.

Moreover, I suspect that the Democrats are learning that public support for so-called torture is broader that they realized. I cannot remember an instance where a suit against law enforcement officers for violation of civil rights of persons in custody was sustained by a jury. In one prominent instance, a federal jury in Birmingham refused to award damages against police officers who allegedly used electric cattle prods on the prisoners. I thought that perhaps the strong pro law enforcement sentiment is limited to the conservative South. But when a California jury ruled in favor of the police officer defendants who were caught on tape beating a Rodney King while he was lying on the ground, I decided that jury unwillingness to hamper law enforcement efforts, even when violent and abusive, reflects a national rather than regional attitude among middle class voters. (Democrats are politicians, and they want to be reelected.)

What conclusion is to be drawn from all of this? If you are not an Obama fan, I am sure you can enjoy watching him squirm. I believe, however, that there is a more important message coming out of this mess. It is simply that our President is willing to back off when he sees that a former course is going awry. To me, his actions of implicit retraction are signs of strength. It is better to be strong in the face of criticism from his own party, even if he is called a coward, than to be cowardly in order to appear to be strong.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Every decade some politician proposes to cut back on the tax deduction for charitable giving. Previously it was Steve Forbes with his flat tax. Now the Obama administration is floating the idea. In the previous post, Vastine discussed the impact such a proposal would have on the arts. I will examine its impact on other areas of charitable giving.

Proponents seem to be driven by two motivations. First, it would allegedly generate revenue for the Federal government. Second, there is a desire to punish the rich in order to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. Unfortunately, restricting charitable giving is a clumsy tool for accomplishing those purposes.

The treasury may benefit at first, but the government should weigh what it would lose when charitable giving is lowered. Private giving plays an enormous role in supporting various eleemosynary organizations in fields such as health education, and aid to the disadvantaged.

The walls of hospitals are plastered with the names of benefactors who contribute major support for the construction of ongoing capital improvements. Private funding has joined with government in seeking and finding ways to cure many diseases which were once deemed fatal or permanently disabling. Universities, even public universities, depend on private funds to support faculties, research, capital improvements, scholarships and even routine maintenance of their schools. In fact university giving for scholarships have allowed more and more universities proudly claim that any qualified applicant can earn a degree regardless of the level of their family income. United Way has been embraced by the business community and become an a dominant force in identifying and supporting the many social services in the local community.

As the world grows flat, so does the benevolent spirit. Multi billionaires such as Ted Turner and Bill Gates, have addressed the problems of world poverty. Rotary International joined with the World Health Organization and others to eradicate polio. The United Methodist Church founded Africa University in Zimbabwe, which has dramatically opened the doors of opportunity to young African that could not have been dreamed about a few decades ago. Doctors Without Borders are bringing the blessing of modern medicine to remote parts of the earth.

These and many other examples underline the fact that private giving has created a gigantic infrastructure which, if it did not exist, would drop into the lap of government agencies. Therefore, the effort to raise money for the government by reducing charitable giving deductions would contribute to new demands on the treasury in the long run.

Private is extremely effective in identifying causes meriting support. The donor tends to support the cause that is most important to him or her. Thus private support is spread in different directions. Many eyes looking at the needs of society should be preferred over leaving the decision making power over the use of available funds to handful of bureaucrats.

Moreover, much has been said about a trend toward a widening gap between the income of the rich and the poor. Assuming that the gap is growing, philanthropy tends to counterbalance that trend. After all, philanthropy involves giving by the rich to the poor.

Finally, charitable giving has the effect of lifting the human spirit. I submit that sharing our resources encourages us to be more understanding of each other. Monty and I had the privilege of participating in a mission trip to Panama, not long after our government had bombed Panama City. Each member of the group contributed money and labor toward the construction a community center in a small development that had been constructed by our denomination for families whose homes had been bombed out during the raid. When it was time to return home, one of our members removed his shoes and give them to a young Panamanian who had worked beside him that week. Reversing roles, my friend left Panama barefooted and the Panamanian said goodbye to him wearing shoes.

In the mean time, if you are ever in Birmingham, please come by our church, Highlands United Methodist Church. We try to do our part. We feed over a hundred homeless every day, give them clothing, wash their clothes, and obtain identification cards for those who need them to get jobs. We provide Santa Claus for children in one of our economically depressed areas. Some of our members participate in an annual medical mission to Central America. Our youth travel to Appalachia every year where they repair run down houses.

These programs are supported by our members— and their gifts are tax deductible.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Arts and the Charitable Deduction

Sorry about the delay. I blame technical difficulties with the computer. I recently received an E-mail from my son, Vastine, concerning funding for the Arts and the charitable tax deduction. It is worth reproducing here. I plan to follow up in a few days with another discussion concerning the charitable deduction. Here it is:


Arts advocates like to point to the funding of the National Endowment for the Arts to demonstrate how poorly our government supports the arts. In the textbook I use in my introductory theatre class, the authors compare the funding for the NEA with the governmental support for the arts provided by other countries to demonstrate what they see as an indefensible lack of federal support.

It may be shocking to learn that the level of federal support for the arts in the United States is most likely the highest in the world. To understand why you need to know how non-profit arts are funded in the United States. Approximately 50% of the financial support for the arts comes from earned income and another 10 % comes from non-federal government support. The final 40% of arts funding comes from private donations. It is this 40% where the US government makes its true impact on the arts. Depending on the donor’s tax bracket, up to 35% of individual donations are funds diverted from the US Treasury to the arts through tax deductions. This amounts to a multi-billion dollar investment by the federal government each year. While many are unaware of the largess of Uncle Sam via these deductions, the fact has not escaped our current administration.

There is a proposal by the administration that is currently in committee that makes significant cuts to the tax credits given to the top income bracket for charitable donations. Currently, someone who is in the 35% tax bracket can deduct 35% of their donations to officially designated non-profits. In the current bill the most donors can deduct is 28%. This differential will make monumental changes to the giving patterns of our largest donors. As Bob Lynch, the President and CEO of Americans for the Arts, recently said on NPR, our system of arts giving is based on “incentives”. Lynch goes on to say that a little incentive would add a “massive additional blossoming of private donations…”

Note that these changes have no affect on the final take home pay of the top tax bracket. It only affects where the tax money goes. In fact, in a perfect arts world, the deduction rate would rise with the planned elevation of the top bracket to nearly 40%.

Now all of these numbers have asterisks and provisos so this is a very general explanation of the changes. On the web you can find a few news articles that go deeper into the mechanics of the changes. But the best way to demonstrate how much money the administration expects to raise with this change to the donation cap is to look at what it plans to do with this money. One of the centerpieces of the new administration’s legislative agenda is healthcare reform. It is an ambitious plan to restructure the American healthcare system while providing health coverage to the tens of millions of uninsured. Peter Orszag, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told CNN’s John King that the new health plan will be “budget neutral”. In other words, this massive new program will not add to the deficit. He said that there are two components to financing health reform. Part one will be eliminating waste in the current healthcare system. Orszag said the other part would come from the lowering of the deduction cap for charitable giving. Think about it, there will be enough money returned to the US Treasury from the reduction to charitable deductions to be one of only two components for financing healthcare reform.

I think the majority of Americans recognize the need for a healthcare reform that would provide for the uninsured. The problem is that this plan pits non-profits against healthcare. I believe this a tragically miscalculated approach. Already thousands of worthwhile groups are lining up to receive their allocation of the nearly trillion dollar budget non-neutral stimulus plan. At the same time, non-profit organizations have been lumped together with the oil companies, the healthcare industry and the rich are those responsible to pay for it. We need to get in the other line.

With the devastation to the funding capabilities of foundations caused by the halving of the stock market, the plummeting of the aggregate take-home pay of the American worker due to job cuts and the marked reduction in business income in this failing economy, the giving base in the United States is in the process of being decimated. When individuals face a diminishment of their giving capabilities they not only reduce donations but they also reassess their giving priorities. The arts have traditionally found themselves behind religious institutions, educationally focused charities and other worthy non-profits on the priority tree. Instead of cutting back the percentage of their giving to each of their favorite charities in equal proportions, many donors limit the number of groups they give to. The church and the alma mater beat out the little theatre on the corner almost every time.

We in the arts world permanently reside near the line between survival and failure. One of our greatest talents is the ability to make a lot out of a little. At the same time, a small loss in income can be catastrophic. There is no way around the fact that there will be major damage to the arts world during this economic crisis, it cannot be avoided, but if the changes in the tax code proposed by our government are enacted we could see an unimaginable devastation of the arts community.

So why have our arts leaders been so quiet? There is a genuine feeling among most in the arts world that the new Obama administration represents a needed new direction for our country. One of the first acts of the new administration was to increase the underfunded NEA budget by $50 million and there is a further $10 million in the Omnibus Bill. But that pales in comparison to the loss of billions. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue, this is an arts issue.

A. Vastine Stabler

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Gran Torino

Movies are so bad nowadays, it is hard to find one worth the price of the ticket. It was thus a welcome sight to learn that Clint Eastwood was coming to town with still another of his highly entertaining adventures.

Gran Torino, however, was a surprise. It far exceeds the boundaries of merely escapist entertainment. It has a simple story line that resonates into multiple layers of meaning.

The first layer is an entertaining Clint Eastwood story of personal courage when one man takes on the corrupt establishment, much like the westerns and detective stories that have made Eastwood so popular. Walt Kowalski is a retired, widowed automobile worker in bad health living in a changing neighborhood. What was once dominated by a mainly caucasian working class is now occupied by Asian and African Americans. The new establishment appears to be gangs that roam the street clashing for control of their territories. Walt is a tough guy, sort of a Dirty Harry after retirement. A marine war hero, he had killed at least thirteen “kooks” in the Korean War. He exudes toughness in his exterior, but he has never let go from the torment he suffered during his war experiences. The story focuses on how this tough and savvy warrior responds to the violence and intimidation visited upon him in his neighborhood. It is deftly told with a combination of suspense and humor that provides good entertainment.

A second story kicks in involving Walt’s fractured relationship with his children and grandchildren. We are spared the details of how that family had grown so distant. The children try to be good children, but they do not know how, because they do not know their father any more. The relationship is so deteriorated that we do not know where the fault lies. There is so much water over the dam that all generations are both the victims and the perpetrators of their broken relationships. I found myself profoundly sorry for every one involved. Thus the story becomes a good parable on the consequences of a breakdown of the nuclear family.

The third layer, however, makes the movie something special. Gran Torino is, in the final analysis, a morality tale. Walt is lonely, though he can not bring himself to admit it. His closest neighbors are Vietnamese who he consistently abuses with genuine bitterness. A young girl in the Vietnamese woman reaches out to him, and he finally melts. He becomes involved with her, her brother, her family and ultimately the entire Vietnamese community. In so doing, he learns that they are in danger of succumbing to destructive forces which can destroy their dreams.

I have to leave the story at this point. I hope that I have not spoiled it for you, because I did not realize until the movie was almost over that I had been sucked into a morality tale, and now you know. Suffice it to say that he had to reach into his own soul to save this family, and in so doing he came to understand the essence of life abundant.

The viewer must tolerate a bucket load of bad language. I am weary of gratuitous vulgarities, but the language in this case serves to fill out the landscape of the world Walt lives in. Moreover, I the swearing and vulgarity is a dramatic sign of Walt’s separation from God.

One final note. Clint Eastwood is amazing. This man is seventy eight years old with the grit and muscle to convince you that if chooses to take on a teenage thug, it would be no contest.

By the way, the Gran Torino is pretty nifty, too.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Economic Sanctions Against Cuba

Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post wrote an article last week, that I have been waiting to see for fifty years.

Robinson writes about Cuban-U.S. relations after fifty years of Castro rule. He complains about the “wrongheaded policies that have unwittingly helped shield Castro’s revolution from historical trends which long ago should have forced the regime to give way or at least compelled it to evolve.”

The policies to which he refers are laws and regulations forbidding trade and travel between the U.S. and Cuba. It is clear that these policies have failed. Instead of either bringing down the Castro regime or forcing them to see the error of their ways, these sanctions have induced a despotic government to become more isolated and oppressive. He contrasts our Cuban policy with the rest of the communist world which “was always to push for more contact and exchange on the theory of exposure to the Western ideas, freedoms and prosperity would hasten communism’s demise. It worked.”

It will not be easy to reverse course. The primary reason for retaining the policy is to mollify the disillusioned and angry exiles living here who have an understandable hatred of the Cuban government. Ironically they were probably exiled in this country in part because of our policies that gave comfort to the hard liners of Cuba, who had a convenient scapegoat in the US to blame for whatever failures have surfaced in the Cuban economy.

Moreover, the policy has been costly to the U.S. economy, which has been denied the opportunity to participate in a potentially profitable relationship with a country a mere ninety miles away. The beauty of open trade is that both buyers and sellers profit from the bargain. Concomitantly, when trade is suspended, both countries suffer. Because of the embargo, we cannot buy Cuban cigars and they do not purchase our products ranging from tooth paste to automobiles to computers. The benefits from open markets is insidious and hard to see some times. We can immediately calculate costs resulting from a tax or a factory close down resulting from foreign competition. But the loss of jobs and profits cause by the closing of a market and the lost buying power obtained by the purchase of more expensive products is difficult to see. Therefore, the accumulated cost of the sanctions to our economy is staggering and unnoticed.

I do not follow Robinson enough to identify whether he has jumped into the free trade debate consistently. If so, he has plenty fodder to work with. What about Iran and Korea? We have shut down the availability of our markets to them, and I see no evidence that our policies have had the least positive effect on their conduct.

We are at a cross roads in Venezuela, which has the potential for the same meltdown in our response to at tin horn dictator who is, frankly, too big for his britches. Then there is Columbia. Obama has indicated that he opposes the treaty opening up the Columbia markets. Hopefully his opposition is only campaign rhetoric, because of union opposition to the treaty. If Columbia is cut back, they will continue to trade with us, but the primary product may well be cocaine smuggled into the country, and the primary beneficiaries will be the cartels and their criminal counterparts in this country.

Time and again, when our foreign policymakers choose what is euphemistically called a “diplomatic” option, they trot out the time disgraced economic sanctions. Maybe they should look at the Cuba experience before they jump into another morass.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Legacy of W as President

It is time to reflect on the legacy of George W. Bush. He originally promised to reach across the aisle to all parties to work for the common good. If unity was to be the mantra of his administration, he failed miserably. The brief consensus after 9/11 was permanently erased by the Iraq war. Now his legacy will be defined by the ultimate consequences of the war he started.

W certainly made some monumental mistakes. His sabre rattling “axis of evil” State of the Union speech in January 2002 irretrievably placed the US in a hostile, almost warlike, stance against Iraq, Iran, and Korea. This country had neither the resources nor the political will take on those three regimes simultaneously in addition to much unfinished business in Afghanistan. In the end he chose to invade Iraq, which proved to be all this country was prepared to handle. Reagan’s strength was his ability to use power. Every one knew that when he made a threat, he was prepared to carry it out. Even the most powerful country in the world is weakened when it expends much of its energy and resources on a war that does not produce the expected results.

Second, he, or at least Cheney, claimed that the Iraqis would welcome the US in open arms because of the tyranny of Sadam. W should have talked to his father who made the same mistake in Somalia. The fact is that people fight with unrestrained determination on their own soil . I know of no example where a foreign power sought to dislodge a domestic government and did not meet the fierce resistance of the people. There may be some, but I cannot recall.

Third, he thought he could turn Iraq into a western style democracy, reversing thousands of years of nomadic culture which operate under paradigms quite opposed to democracy. Other colonial powers had tried and failed to westernize the Middle East. He thought he could do better, and he fought a war with an unrealistic goal.

All that being said, do we conclude that W was the worst president in American History, as Senator Harry Reed proudly declares? Not so fast. Opponents of the War blandly seem to assume that the Middle East would somehow have muddled along quite nicely without the American intervention. W should be measured by a comparison of where we are with where we would have been if the Iraq War had never happened. This involves a lot of speculation, but there are clues worth looking at.

In the first place, if America had known the day after 9/11 that there would be no further terrorist attacks on its soil for the next seven years, we would have been inclined to canonize W. Now that this has been accomplished, the feat is pooh poohed. With all the bumbling, W put the terrorists on the defensive, and at least they are trying to infiltrate Iraq rather than New Jersey.

Moreover, W has turned over to Obama a vastly improved military and intelligence community adept in combating terrorism. With all the talk about how W is disliked in Europe, I get the impression that the European military and intelligence communities work very closely with us to repel terrorist threats. and that the coordinated efforts of the western democracies is a formidable force that has been highly deterrent against the terrorists.

Furthermore, we can assume that Sadam would still be alive doing his thing. He obviously had imperialistic ambitions. He had already engaged in a bloody eight year war with Iran and invaded Kuwait. He had an aggressive missile development program, which evidenced a desire to dominate the Middle East militarily. His destabilization potential was immense.

I do not believe that history will fully excuse W from some of his mistakes. Nevertheless, there is a good possibility that when future generations will that his administration responded well to the changes in military goals and strategies needed to counteract terrorism. If so, many of his miscues will not loom as large as being characterized by his contemporary critics.