Sunday, March 29, 2009

Notre Dame in the news

This week, those of us newshounds who have an ear in the conservative movement were informed that Pres. Obama is going to be a guest speaker--and receive an honorary degree--at this spring's graduation ceremony at Notre Dame University.

Yes, that Notre Dame--the most visible Catholic school in the nation. Inviting a staunchly pro-choice (heck, I'll even go this far: decidedly and demonstrably anti-pro-life) politician to be their graduation speaker. And to honor him with a degree.

Naturally, this hasn't been well-received in some quarters of the Catholic church.

There's been a lot of huffing and puffing, by some pretty high-ups in the church. Heck, there's even a petition with over 100,000 signatures on it imploring Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins to dis-invite the President.

This little brouhaha reminds me of a conversation I had with an elder of mine right before the 2008 Presidential election. He is a wise man, a gentle man, and he is well-versed on the ways of Catholicism. So I asked him how can Catholics even consider voting for pro-choice candidates?

And his answer surprised me, because it didn't even come close to saying that Catholics don't know what they're doing in the electoral box. Rather, it was about priorities.

Catholics, you see, have a long history of socialism, it was explained to me.

And then it hit me. EVERY DAY that I have been in a Catholic service, I have seen a collection basket. And it is expected--pardon me, TAUGHT--that each household donates their "fair share" to the church, and that such giving is not optional.

And I know that I wasn't awake for a lot of homilies, but I'm pretty sure I wasn't told every single service about the church's stance on abortion.

Given this huge difference in the preaching department, then is it really so amazing that Catholics have such a disregard for the by-the-letter practice of their faith?

I'm confident that Obama outpolled McCain on Notre Dame campus last November. And you can't say that it was un-Catholic for that to be the case. It just wasn't in keeping with ALL of the church's teachings.

And now we know why: the head of the school apparently doesn't give a whip about being a Catholic teacher in pro-life activities.

To me, this is a watershed event in the Catholic church. Many leaders (most notably today Cardinal DiNardo) have lent their voice to the "dis-invite Obama" cause. I don't think such a disinvitation will ever transpire: Obama would be a fool to pass up the coverage of his speech at Notre Dame, and the school's leadership is already convicted in the minds of true Catholics. They gain nothing by pulling the invite.

But that doesn't mean that something won't be done period. It is up to the leadership of the Church to fire Rev. Jenkins. Not accept his resignation--fire him.

Only if the Catholic church stands firm in its message can it even have a hope of properly teaching its flock. Father Jenkins apparently doesn't understand every facet of that message, nor does he have an issue with going counter to Catholic leadership regarding the use of learning institutions as a platform for those who "act in defiance of (the chruch's) fundamental moral principles" (quoted from a letter sent by Catholic Bishops to leaders of such institutions in 2004). He is a rebel amongst a church that doesn't have much tolerance for such looseness in its doctrinal leaders; in other words, he has no business being at Notre Dame as a teacher, much less as the president.

To add insult to injury, the whole school is being played as a prop by the Obama administration. Their acceptance to the invite--and the reason why Catholics should not hope that Obama will decline the invite--is at least partly political. That Jenkins did not understand that he was being played as a political stooge shows that he should have no business determining the course of any aspect of the church.

The Church's actions need to be firm AND PUBLIC as they resolve this problem. Obama will come; he should be generously hosted; undoubtedly he will be well received. But there needs to be absolutely no question about this issue from the moment he leaves that campus onward:

The Catholic church has exactly one stance on the issue of the unborn. One.

And there is no room for equivocating or looking for "common ground". Either you believe that the fertilization of a human egg creates a life that deserves protecting. . .

. . .or you believe counter to the church.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

While I'm at it. . .

Since I solved the problem with Afghanistan yesterday, I figured I'd focus my attention to a domestic issue today. I don't by any stretch think it's the most pressing domestic issue, not by a long shot--but it's one that crossed my eyes this morning, and therefore it has me all irked and needing to get unbottled.

Reference piece: Sen. Webb wrote "Why we must fix our Prisons", appearing in this weekend's Parade news journal.

And I agree with him--we must fix our prisons. And it's not even the numbers that he quotes in the article that lead me to that conclusion.

I would love to know how the Senator thinks we should fix these problems, but he never does quite get around to it in this article. He identifies things in our penal system that he dislikes--but is mighty short on solutions. Of course, there is the ol' political fallback: he's going to introduce legislation that will create a commission to look at these problems. This, from one of our country's top 102 elected officials. That's some solution there, Senator--no wonder this country is so screwed up!

Some highlights of the article, with added editorializing when I feel like it:

-- He writes about how the country's rates of incarceration are so much higher than the worldwide average. So what? Are you saying that the other country's prison systems are better than ours? That there is some result achieved "out there" that is a more desirable ending than what we Americans are currently getting from our penal system? A number is just a number--provide some context, please.

-- He writes about how our prisons "are places of violence, physical abuse, and hate, making them breeding grounds that perpetuate and magnify the same types of behavior we purport to fear." No, sir, we don't "purport" to fear them--we actually DO fear them. Honest, hard-working, law-abiding citizens fear, loathe, and wish to vanquish those behaviors. That's why people who perpetrate actions steeped in violence, physical abuse and hate end up in prison (when the system works properly).
I hate to put it this way, but it is true: it's better that such behavior is kept behind bars than be let out into society.

-- He spends one-sixth of his column lamenting the fact that so many drug offenders are in prison--but then later writes about how there is some serious nastiness being brought into this country by the drug cartels for the drug trade. I think the point of his wistful number-dropping regarding drug convicts in prison was to point to the need for legalizing (or at least defelonizing) drug offenses--again, he doesn't actually say it, but that's what I get from it--but he totally loses me when he writes not two paragraphs later about the brutal tactics employed by drug suppliers. Why would this country want to invite trouble inside our borders? Isn't it logical to think that taking the felonious nature away from drug offenses would increase the presence and maybe influence of these cartel-paid mercenaries? I certainly can't abide a counterargument: that making drug offenses a non-starter for prison time would decrease the cartels presence in this country. If the demand increases--which is a likely result of taking prison sentences off the table for drug offenses--so will the supply. And so will the presence of the supplier's agents. Isn't that logical? And isn't that the exact situation we want to avoid?

-- Here's the biggest "what?" moment from Webb's writings: "With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different--and vastly counterproductive."

Now, credit where credit is due: he does NOT think that this country is home to the most evil people on earth. Good for him!

And I'll even allow that "we" are doing something different--but that doesn't make it wrong, or even necessarily counterproductive. Expensive? Yes. In need of improvement? Absolutely! But wrong?

I can't get there from here.

'Cuz here's what I know: I know that when an ex-convict is out of prison in any form and he or she does something that takes a serious toll on the lives of innocents, then I feel that the system has really REALLY failed the people it's supposed to protect.

Think Oakland. And then pray that the same pain going through that community right now is never revisited anywhere near you.

And if it takes "doing something different" than the rest of the world to keep that from happening again, then I'm okay with it.

-- Webb's final paragraph starts "In short, we are not protecting our citizens from the increasing danger of criminals who perpetrate violence and intimidation as a way of life. . .". What this has to do with prisons I don't know. Is he saying that we should never parole anyone because of all the lessons in hate, violence and abuse that they learned while incarcerated? I don't think so. And yes, I'm not in the law enforcement world, but if I'm not mistaken there's "law enforcement" officers and then there's "correctional custody" officers (or some variant thereof). Now if we were taking people in uniform off the streets to tend to prisoners, then I'd agree he has a point here. But I don't think that's what is happening around the country--that sentence starter appears to me to be a strawman.

Again, being served so well by the people we put into office.

Now there is something worthwhile in the article: at the end, he talks about the "tasks" the commission he wants to create will need to finish, including finding "clear" answers to hard questions. (Obviously, he's a first-term Senator--a commission with "clear" answers is normally a commission that is uniformly wrong). Now I'm not on the commission, but here are my answers to some of the questions he thinks need to be answered:

-- Why are so many Americans currently in prison compared to other countries and our own history? Because we're a country of laws, and a country that enforces those laws, and EVERY SINGLE PERSON behind bars is a lawbreaker. (I hope that's true--I know it's not, but I'd love for somebody to be able to say it and be telling the truth) I don't care about comparing our justice system with anything and anyone else, I just want to ask one thing: is our system keeping felonious lawbreakers away from those of us who live within the law? If the answer is yes, then that is all I need to hear.

-- What is this policy costing our nation in terms of:
- tax dollars. A lot, I know that, and we need to find a way to save. But if money is such an issue, that's what the budgeting process is for.
- lost opportunities? Hey, under most circumstances, these guys and gals already had an opportunity, and they blew it. Is it really up to the Federal Government to keep providing more opportunities to people who don't realize the value of their first shot? When do we stop doing that?

-- How can we reshape our nation's drug policies? I don't think that's up to you, Senator. Drug policies should be written and enforced at the local level (unless the incident goes interstate, in which case the Feds should be called in). And no matter what the result of the jurisdiction question is, the one thing we as a society should not encourage is drug use. If laws that threaten incarceration are a good deterrent to that, then I'm all for 'em!

-- How can we better diagnose and treat mental illness? Maybe I'm an idealist here, but shouldn't that be a part of the convicts' legal defense work-up? I would think that this area is already covered in spades before imprisonment.

-- How can we end violence within prisons? I've got a radical idea: how about every cellmate goes into isolation? They've already proven they can't function in society--why are we giving them another society in which to live? If you want to stop the violence, abuse and hate from warping their minds any more, then how about--for the sake of the prisoners, for crying out loud!--we just leave them be? I mean REALLY leave them be.

-- How can we build workable re-entry programs so that our communities can assimilate former offenders? How about taking advantage of all that non-socializing time they now have and try to TEACH THEM A TRADE? In fact, make their release into the real world dependent on the level to which they learn something productive? Gone would be the days of serving time and then hitting the bricks. If you haven't learned anything worthwhile during incarceration, then you're still the same guy or gal who got in trouble in the first place (with the added detractor of being more desperate). If you have to actually ACCOMPLISH something as a precursor to release, then by gum, you're probably going to learn something. This would open opportunities for real job placement based on the skills someone has learned. And if you want to talk about getting rid of the "stigma" of being an ex-con, then ex-cons need to branch out into jobs other than off-the-street jobs--teach them something valuable, and they will be valued.

-- How can we defend ourselves agains tthe growing scourge of violent, internationally based gang activity? Well, this is a multi-faceted question, but within the realm of prison reform, how about this: don't give these gangs an opportunity to network! Currently, any open population prison is a prime place for criminal enterprises to build contacts and infrastructure for use beyond the prison walls. Cutting out open population assignments for gang-bangers or violent convicts would help end this consorting. Prison should be about improving society one person at a time, not improving the strength and reach of unlawful activities. Don't let 'em talk to each other--and make them learn something productive.

In short, make prison a place that forces a convict to turn their back on their prior life--the one that got them into trouble in the first place--while opening doors to another life. It's still up to the convict to show that he wants to walk through those doors, but prison CAN provide him or her the means to succeed if the individual so desires.

Self-determination is the answer. What a concept!

Now tell me: did I just save the taxpayers money by voiding the need for a commission?

Friday, March 27, 2009

learning from your mistakes

I believe I have said it before. Yes, in fact, I said it here: Afghanistan portends to continue to be a nasty little war.

Now don't get me wrong: American troops in combat can do amazing things. Given a strategy to win, they will win. Every time.

It took us a while to figure things out in Iraq, but eventually that puzzle was pieced together.

And what was part of that puzzle? The surge--but NOT JUST THE NUMBERS! There was much more to that game-changing strategy than merely increasing our footprint. A change in fight tactics was critical to the success those new troops found.

Enter Afghanistan, the most obvious "next stage" in what used to be called the War on Terror.

The Administration is putting together its own plan right now, and I honestly and sincerely wish them all the luck in the world.

And I also offer them this advice, free of charge and probably worth every penny:

Don't play by the rules.

One of the lessons that I, personally, took from Iraq is that you can't worry about the hearts of the natives until the natives aren't so worried about their necks.

This lesson has applicability in Afghanistan, to be sure. We are up against a great deal of obstacles, one of which is a "central" government that has absolutely no sovereignty over large swaths of the country.

And those remote areas are the hardest areas in which U.S. forces will fight.

And it won't help our fight if we have to act with one hand tied behind our back.

So here's what I propose: President Obama uses some of his much-ballyhooed international credibility to "influence" NATO to pay plentiful dinero to the Afghani and Pakistani governments to allow the organization to temporarily "annex" all the provinces along the border of Pakistan from Nimroz to Nuristan--on both sides of the border.

And THEN, we use a massive full-bore military operation into the provinces to hopefully achieve some serious clearing action.

With the combat troops focused on the border regions, the more civil-affairs elements of our presence in-country can help the central government of Afghanistan get it's act together.

Crazy idea? Of course it is--but let's look at what it might enable:

-- a strong cash flow into the central governments might not be the best thing in terms of getting real increases in services to the citizens of the countries-but at least it will keep the government from openly stoking anti-"invader" sentiment;
-- by decreasing the amount of land that the central government is responsible for securing, we can only help the short-term self-governing ability of the Afghan government. By the time they resume control of the now-troublesome border regions, those areas should be completely devoid of troublemakers;
-- by taking sole sovereignty over the border regions, NATO forces (with the US in the lead) would be unfettered in establishing a military infrastructure most likely to help achieve combat victories;
-- I don't think I can state strongly enough how making the "virtual" border between Afghanistan and Pakistan disappear will help in our fight against insurgents;

and many many more.

Expensive? Heck yes. But this is going to be a costly war, period. The only way to decrease the cost is to make sure it doesn't turn into a Soviet-style multi-year occupation.

And the only outcome that I find acceptable is the defeat of the Taliban, and the end of insurgent or extremist strongholds all along the Afghani-Paki border.

How to win in a place that no army has ever won before? Don't fight the way any one has fought before.

What we need is to find a way to bring the superior ability of the Western military to bear in a fashion that will achieve sustainable progress. And since Afghanistan is a big country, we need to focus that power where it's needed most: at the strongholds of the bad guys.

We have to find a way to "clear and hold" lands that have never even been cleared. What better way to "hold" than to have bases of operation in the hill country? We can do that IF we aren't overoccupied with keeping the more populated areas under wraps. Let the Afghanis do that--they should be able to handle it. All that extra cash will hopefully buy a job or two in the security business for the locals, you know--and maybe even buy some competent law enforcement too, if we're lucky.

We need to shut down the border--and the best way to do that is to take responsibility for both sides of the line.

And MOST IMPORTANTLY: we have to convey an "all in" attitude. I am thoroughly convinced that the victory in Iraq was as much about persistence as it was anything else. When there were voices the world over that were calling our efforts there a total failure, there was unwavering direction from the oval office.

Now Pres. Obama talks a good game on Afghanistan. Heck, the additional troops is more than talk--that's pretty darn close to a flat-out walk of the walk. And SecDef Gates has put it on paper that the Unites States cannot be seen as losing in Afghanistan.

But until there is a STRATEGY--a break-the-mold strategy--to accompany the somewhat unimaginative increase in troops, there will always be a question about the will of the administration.

Doing something as bold, as risky, and as potentially game-changing as what I recommend above would take all hope away from the enemy.

And THAT is a victory all its own.

Friday, March 20, 2009

My favorite vitamin

Quick, someone spot the irony:

President Obama, on the AIG bonuses: "But what's just as important is that we make sure we don't find ourselves in this situation again, where . . .the wealth generated in good times goes to those who are at the very top of the income ladder."

(Courtesy: CNN)

. . .but ALL THE WAY BACK in January, then President-elect Obama got a $500,000 advance to allow the publisher of his book to release a made-for-teens version of his book.

Isn't that like a retention bonus? And how much will that bonus be taxed on next year's returns?

Hypocrisy for breakfast, anyone?

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Wishful Thinking

Two observations to share today:

1) I spent a lot of time today at a local garage getting my car worked on. A good portion of that time I was talking to a guy who was, in his own words, "just sick of all those damn politicians in DC." Commiserating with him was fun, although we approached solutions to those damned folks from very different directions. Anyhow, all the talk shows this morning were focusing on the economy. Mr. Bitter says to me "have you ever seen so many smart people look so dumb?" Indeed, it is amazing. . .it's almost as if they don't mind that the economy is totally in the tanks. Hmmm. . .

Which brings me to point #2: Apparently, round-table discussions are all the rage on the Sunday morning shows. (I haven't really watched them before, and, to be honest, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be dying to do it again) During one of the round tables (I saw two of 'em, so long was my wait), some smug economist was saying with absolute certainty that the markets will eventually turn around. "People need to buy houses, they need to buy cars. These things will help turn the market around." Now, for the record, I'm no award-winning economist, but I can't help but think that his smugness was far from deserved.

First, to my cynicism: I don't believe that people need to buy houses. Yes, they need to have somewhere to live. But that doesn't necessarily mean purchasing, does it? And it DEFINITELY doesn't mean purchasing homes in a manner or volume such that we'll start seeing equity building up in our homes again. And THAT'S what we need out of the housing market to help the economy: equity. An awful lot of it has been destroyed in the last 30 months--a sale here and a purchase there ain't going to bring it back.

Cars are probably a similar story: There will be car purchases out there--but they don't have to be new cars. In fact, I am even thinking of making my next purchase a used car--which would be the first time that happened in a decade. And with the exception of used car salesmen, I don't think there's a lot of industrial strength out there gained from buying used cars. I could be wrong. . .anyhow, I can't help but think that I'm not alone in thinking the next "new" car in my garage will not be new at all.

But here's the real crux of this guy's idiocy: STOCKS DON'T NECESSARILY GO IN THE DIRECTION OF A COMPANY!!! Yes, companies that have a good bottom line are normally darlings of wall street. But the strength of a stock depends entirely on the company's ability to draw INVESTORS into the fold. And yes, maybe all it takes is a single good earnings report. . .or MAYBE even just some buzz.

But I'm thinking that with the market in its current state, buzz isn't going to get a ton of capital off the sidelines. First of all, I'm not sure how much capital is still out there waiting for the right opportunity--remember, there's been a lot of wealth destruction in the last few months. Secondly, those who do have capital are probably looking for the right LONG-TERM opportunity, and with the exception of stocks that mirror directly the cost of energy, I'm not sure there's a lot of optimism out there that anything will be a good long-term player.

And all of this discussion is assuming that the government doesn't become a majority owner of every single aspect of this economy. Because I can think of nothing that would kill investment more.

And personally, I bet the fact that nobody knows exactly when the administration is going to stop with their power grab is one of the main reasons why there aren't people trying to take advantage of the "great deals" available in the market today.

AND WHILE I'M ON IT: I can understand "bargain hunting" in real estate, where you can purchase something with a physical presence. I don't think the same thing applies to stocks, though: all you own is a piece of paper (or more accurately, a couple pixels that tell you that you have the right to own a piece of paper). Stock investing is virtual gambling, plain and simple: real money out of your pocket that may or may not be returned at all.

And I, for one, am not surprised to see that people WITH money are being a little cautious with gambling.

My guess is they probably will be cautious until they get a better read on what Team O is thinking. While they wait, we will explore the depths of a "capitalism is still alive" market.

Let's hope the message sent from DC isn't a "this isn't the capitalism I thought we knew". Such a move would make us long for the 6,600 point market of yesteryear.


Monday, March 02, 2009

The light finally clicked

I've been wrestling for DAYS now about the single undefined event that happened that made this country turn in the direction that it did.

Yes, I know Nov. 4th, a day that may someday live in infamy, is the standard benchmark.

But that's just a figurehead. Something had to happen BEFORE then that allowed us to elect as President a man with as scant a record as Barack Obama.

And it took a quick refresher from An American President to wake me up.

So here it is: this country opened itself to its current state the day that the majority of the country decided it would be easier to quit being free--and all the responsibility that freedom entails--and would rather trust in others to provide.

The line that sparked it? "America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship", taken from President Andy Sheppard's press conference at the end of the flick.

And the line rings true: America ISN'T easy. . when it's done right. But when people stop wanting to work hard, and when they sacrifice their freedom to inform themselves in the name of the desire to "be part of something". . .well, that isn't the America our forefathers envisioned. That country MAY be easy--where the citizenship doesn't require intellectual investment but rather accepts the belief in platitudes spoken with a rich tenor as an act of patriotism--but it isn't the land of the free.

Now to be sure, Obama made a very strong pitch to traditional blocks of liberal voters.

But HORDES of first-time Dem voters were part of the wave that brought Hope and Change to our Capitol.

How do you feel about your candidate now, Douglas Kmiec? Christopher Buckley? Heck, even Colin Powell?

And I mention Powell because he rose from hardship in Harlem to the highest ranks of service in the government and to--what I imagine--is a good deal of personal wealth, all though hard work and dedication. But Obama has done as much in the last 6 weeks to DESTROY any such chance for a kid walking the streets of Harlem right now to follow in Powell's footprints as could have possibly been done. This, from a candidate that Powell supported because of, among other things, "his ability to inspire". What inspiration has the President given to today's youth, General Powell? "Work hard and you can spend the rest of your life supporting others living off the government's teet?" Suddenly the American dream looks entirely less enticing, no?

But that's kind of what happened, too. The American dream was always uniquely individual--it meant different things to different people.

But all those individual dreams were pushed aside in the name of one man's vision.

And while I'm not going to go anywhere NEAR calling Obama un-American--nor do I believe him to be un-American--I will say that the idea of sacrificing HAVING an individual dream in favor of devotion to the President is pretty contrary to a freedom-loving citizenry.

It's not the same as devotion to a document or an ideal, the direction of which are relatively constant.

Humans are fallible. Or even worse, they can be just downright deceitful.

I don't want to call every person who voted for Obama a "sheep". As I said before, Obama made a very strong appeal to traditional blocs of voters.

But to the "crossover" voters that enabled this change: if you are not proud of the direction this President has taken this country, you were played. All of these moves were easily predictable, had you been interested in doing some research. You sacrificed your individual right to information. . .

. . .and now you are watching your hopes for an individualized American dream evaporate.

America IS hard. But it's worth it.

Here's to hoping a lot of people figure that out over the next 3 years.