Monthly Archives: September 2016

THE ISSUES MISSING FROM THE CAMPAIGN

In previous blogs, I’ve suggested that the “economy” was one of four critical issues in this election.  When we look at the economy, we think first about jobs, wages, economic growth and tax code revisions.  These are critical points which need discussion and debate, but there are several other areas of our economy which need the light of day and our candidate’s attention.

Amidst all the bluster and blunder of this nasty election campaign, we have heard little or nothing about the national debt and its consequences, as well as government waste and inefficiency.

Let’s look at each of these three economic costs:

Item 1:  The National Debt and Its Consequences

In the five years between 1996 and 2001, the debt hovered around $5 trillion.  Not exactly pocket change.  In the next five years, it climbed to about $8.5 trillion.  Since 2008, it’s now on the way to $20 trillion.  Wow!  The debt is not some abstract academic number.  It has consequences which affect each and every one of us.

Mike Mueller, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “I think the biggest threat to our security is our national debt.”

There are several reasons he probably feels that way.  About 47% of our debt is owned by foreign countries.  The top two are China, who has 30% of that pie, and Japan, who owns 20%.  Does that compromise our ability to deal with them objectively?  Quite possibly!

In addition, we have the interest we have to pay on the debt, which runs about $380 billion a year.  That’s close to our annual deficit, about 80% of it.  With so much money needed to pay the interest in our debt, it hinders our ability to run the business of government.  It keeps us from maintaining our infrastructure and impedes our ability to fund our national defenses and other needed programs.

If interest rates rise as the Fed keeps threatening, the interest in our debt will increase the deficit even more.

Item 2:  Waste and Inefficiency

The Congressional Pig Book is the annual report from the Citizens Against Government Waste.  This year, they have outlined 121 earmarks that congress people slide into our budget to the tune of $5 billion—all questionable expenditures.

And that’s chicken feed compared to The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, who has identified 10 areas that could and should be cut.  Here are the areas and their annual savings:

Corporate Welfare – Farm aid distorts agriculture, harms the environment, and nearly all goes to well-off business.  Energy subsidies have been disastrous—from a $500 million loss on Solyndra to $700 million wasted on a clean coal project in Mississippi.  Phasing out farm and energy subsidies would have $16 billion.

Privatization – President Obama has suggested privatizing the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA and other businesses may “no longer require federal participation,” his budget noted, which would “help put the nation on a sustainable fiscal path.”  Other candidates for privatization include Amtrak, the Corps of Engineers, federal dams, airport screening, and air traffic control—which would save at least $11 billion.

Intelligence Budget – The budgets of the CIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies have become bloated with spending on vast and often invasive data collection efforts and armadas of drone aircraft.  Cutting intelligence spending by one quarter would save $11 billion.

Subsidies for the States – Washington runs more than 1,100 aid-to-state programs.  They are hugely bureaucratic and stifle states and local innovation.  Phasing out federal subsidies for K-12 schools would save $18 billion and free states to improve the quality of their own education systems.

Subsidies for Individuals – The government’s vast array of individual aid programs would be better handled by state and local governments and private charities.  Programs such as food stamps should be turned over to the states.  Phasing out federal food stamp subsidies would save $40 billion.

Military Overreach – The Constitution envisioned a military to “provide for the common defense” of the United States, not one that serves as the world’s policeman.  Congress should reduce overseas military commitments, avoid foreign wars, and create a leaner force structure.  Making reforms to meet the budget caps for 2016 and beyond could save at least $20 billion.

Drug War – The war on drugs wastes a huge amount of resources in our police and justice systems.  It also harms civil liberties, foments violence, and does little to curb drug use.  Ending the federal drug war and returning drug policy to the states where it belongs would save $11 billion.

Social Security – Social Security has huge unfunded obligations.  Meanwhile, spending on federal disability programs has soared as the number of recipients has multiplied.  America should move to a system of personal accounts for retirement and disability, but meanwhile we would save $64 billion by indexing initial benefits to prices, modestly raising the retirement age, and trimming the disability rolls by one quarter.

Medicare – Medicare is the largest factor pushing the budget into crisis.  Raising premiums and increasing cost-sharing would save $33 billion.  Policymakers should also restructure the program by directing payments to enrollees, not insurers or providers.  That would generate greater choice, spur innovation, and improve access to care.

Medicaid – Medicaid’s open-ended matching grants to the states have led to huge cost growth, but not better health care.  Congress should give each state a fixed amount of funding and free them to experiment with better ways of providing care for the needy.  Limiting annual growth in the block grant to five percent would save $76 billion.

That’s a grand total of $289 billion a year that could be saved and reduce our annual deficit by 75%.  Then there’s the debacle of overlapping agencies and the inexcusable waste they create.

Consider how the U.S. government stores data…

Like businesses, the federal government sets up data centers.  Also like businesses, different departments set up their own data centers, which wastes money.

We had 432 data centers in 1999.  By 2010, the number had ballooned to more than 1,100.  In 2015, that number was up to 11,700.

In 2009, the Office of Management and Budget estimated utilization rates as low as 5% across federal data centers.

Different departments chose to run their own data centers, no matter what the cost, rather than sharing facilities with other agencies.

David Powner, the Information Technology Director for the General Accountability Office, estimates that closing just 2,000 unnecessary data centers would save $5 billion per year.

That’s real money!

There are a dozen or more examples just like this—$5 billion here, $5 billion there.  Pretty soon, you’re talking about real money.

Boondoggle HQ

Of course the military has always been famous for wasting money.  Right now we spend just over $100 million per year to maintain and heat unused buildings in Afghanistan.  This includes buildings that American troops occupied but left behind, along with buildings that were built but never occupied by anyone.

One such building is dubbed “Boondoggle HQ” by ProPublica (the independent, non-profit newsroom).  It cost $25 million to build even though the military didn’t want it and three generals tried to kill it.

The worst part?  The general who approved the construction was eventually appointed as the Army’s Inspector General.  He’s in charge of identifying waste, fraud, and abuse.

ArtSchwartzSig

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ISLAM AND JIHAD – PART IV – WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE

In our series on Islam and Jihad, we provided an overview in Part I of the ISIS worldwide threat.  In Part II, we outlined a litany of what is going on here in America.  We followed that with a perspective from Andrew McCarthy about the real meanings of the Islamic rhetoric.

Here in our final part, we try to offer a common sense menu of what needs to be done to not only contain ISIS but to effectively destroy ISIS and its influence here in America and the world.

Independent journalist Steven Brill spent a year exploring the question, “Are We Safer?”  His analysis in the September issue of the Atlantic Magazine concludes “the results are mixed.”

“We are definitely stronger and tougher after spending over a trillion dollars on our homeland defenses,” Brill says; however, he notes, “we face a more dedicated, aggressive enemy.”

He cites two steps we should take to help make us safer.  I’ll add 11 more to make it a baker’s dozen.

  1. The security of all the radioactive materials now used in hospitals and throughout industry needs much tighter safeguards in order to avoid their use as a component in a dirty bomb.
  2. We can go a long way to reduce the number of lone-wolf incidents as we have seen in Orlando, San Bernardino and Boston, by taking assault rifles out of the hands of the public. (There is no need for them for sport or defense.)
  3. Have our government stop insulting our intelligence by calling acts of violence in the “name of Allah” as workplace violence. It is clearly terrorism done by deranged Muslims.  They have made their Jihad clear.  We must call if for what it is.  You cannot win a war without naming your enemy as the first step.
  4. Challenge the Muslim community and its leaders to:
    1. Renounce Sharia Law in our courts that contradicts our constitutional freedoms. Religious organizations that refuse to do this, or are found to be teaching these aspects of Sharia, should be immediately reclassified as political organizations, not religious ones, and made subject to all the accountability to which political groups are ordinarily held.  Religious organizations that continue after this to teach Islamic Jihad should be closed and prosecuted.
    2. Denounce Islamic terrorism and the Jihad crimes against Muslims and all humanity.
    3. Start teaching in their schools and mosques that ISIS’s understanding of Islam is wrong
    4. Take steps to excommunicate the extremists.
    5. Reach out to tell Muslims who have come to America to assimilate into the American culture. The “millions of patriotic Muslim-Americans who reject their hateful ideology” are not doing anything to counter it.  There is no program in any mosque or Islamic school in the U.S. teaching young Muslims why they should reject the understanding of Islam that the Islamic State propagates.  Thirteen people were killed at Ft. Hood because U.S. Army officials were afraid to buck the politically correct culture and act against a Muslim officer who was in touch with Anwar al-Awlaki and had frightened his coworkers with his talk of Jihad.
  5. Tell the American people the truth about the ISIS threat and why we need ground troops, as well as air strikes, to destroy the caliphate. You cannot contain evil, you must destroy it.  The first step in truth-telling should be to declare war against ISIS.
  6. Send NATO troops to destroy ISIS and retake all the territory they are ravaging. An attack on any of NATO’s 28 countries is considered an attack on all of them.  So after the killings in Belgium, France, Turkey, and other member states, NATO should declare war on ISIS and the Islamic Jihad.  NATO also must challenge all Muslim nations to contribute troops and hardware.  We would then see which Islamic countries are truly interested in justice.  Right now, a small group of savages is terrorizing the world without much fear of reprisal.  ISIS believes it is winning, which leads to more recruits eager to blow themselves up in the pursuit of some fanatical religious goal.  American troops should be included in this NATO force; if necessary, all volunteers.  ISIS is a black plague marching through a permissive Europe killing at random.  If we do not attack these savages, the world will continue to absorb their violent terror and we will see more incidents here as well.
  7. Revoke the citizenship—of all U.S. citizens who attempt to join ISIS.
  8. Vet carefully all Muslim refugee entrants to America. If in doubt, decline admission.
  9. Restructure our foreign aid programs and alliances. America’s global alliances are still based on outmoded Cold War models.  They need to be reconfigured in light of the global jihad.  The old Cold War arrangements simply don’t make any sense today, and lead to ridiculous situations such as our NATO ally Turkey shooting down a Russian airliner that was on a mission against the Islamic State.  Is Turkey on the side of the United Sates or the Islamic State?  If the latter, as seems abundantly clear, Washington should not pretend otherwise.  Very simply:  No state that oppresses women or non-Muslims in accord with Sharia provisions should get a penny of American aid.
  10. Expand new energy sources—oil fracking has made a significant contribution to our energy independence. We must continue to explore all sources of energy, including expansion of oil drilling, as well as alternative sources, as long as we can keep them as environmentally safe as possible. We must achieve energy independence to insure our national security and have a more balanced foreign aid program.
  11. Pass congressional legislation HR3052 to ban the use of Sharia Law in all U.S. courts and petition the Supreme Court to annunciate their same position.
  12. End U.S. government cooperation with groups linked to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Fourteen years after 9/11, Muslim organizations with proven ties to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), exercise extraordinary influence in Washington (particularly the Obama Justice Department), as well as in the mainstream media.  Government officials should be banned from having any contact with organizations that the Justice Department had designated unindicted co-conspirators in cases involving jihad terror activity.  Would the Roosevelt Justice Department in 1943 have held outreach programs with groups that had demonstrable ties to the Nazis?
  13. Have Congress declare war on ISIS or, at the very least, “the use of military force” resolution. This will go a long way to open the door to educating our public about the danger and severity of this threat and clearly demonstrate our commitment to do everything possible to eliminate this deranged group of terrorists.  The arguments against this action are, in my opinion, without merit.

Well, I hope our series on Islam and Jihad has helped you gain a broader and better understanding of what is happening, as well as what we need to be aware of and what steps are needed to eliminate this threat to our culture and our democracy.

ArtSchwartzSig

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THREE VIEWS OF MARRIAGE

Writing in the N.Y. Times recently, David Brooks had an interesting take on the state of our marital unions.

“Two years ago the Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel had an article describing how marriage is polarizing:  The best marriages today are better than the best marriages of generations ago; the worst marriages now are worse; overall, the average marriage is weaker than the average marriage in days of yore.

“‘Expectations about marriage have risen,’ Finkel wrote.  ‘People now want marriage to satisfy their financial, emotional and spiritual needs.  But while some people spend a lot of one-on-one time working on their marriage, and reap the benefits, most people spend less time, and things slowly decay.’

“The way we talk about marriage is polarizing, too.  If you read the popular literature, there are three different but not mutually exclusive lenses through which to think about marriage decisions.

“Most of the popular advice books adopt a psychological lens. These books start with the premise that getting married is a daunting prospect. Forty-five percent of marriages end in divorce; 10 percent of couples separate but do not divorce.

“The psychologists want you to think analytically as well as romantically about whom to marry.  Pay attention to traits.  As Ty Tashiro wrote in The Science of Happily Ever After, ‘you want to marry someone who scores high in agreeableness, someone who has a high concern for social harmony, who is good at empathy, who is nice.  You want to avoid people who score high in neuroticism—who are emotionally unstable or prone to anger.’

“‘Don’t think negative traits will change over time,’ Tashiro wrote, ‘because they are constant across a lifetime.  Don’t focus on irrelevant factors, like looks.  Don’t filter out or rationalize away negative information about a partner or relationship.’

“The second lens is the romantic lens.  This is the dominant lens in movie and song. More than people in many other countries, Americans want to marry the person they are passionately in love with.

“Their logic is that you need a few years of passionate love to fuse you together so you’ll stay together when times get hard.  It’s a process beautifully described by a character in Louis de Bernières’s novel Corelli’s Mandolin:

“‘Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and fortunate accident.  Your mother and I had it.  We had roots that grew toward each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.’

“In The Good Marriage, Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee concluded that 15 percent of couples maintain lifelong romantic marriages.

“The third lens is the moral lens.  In this lens a marriage doesn’t exist just to exist or even just for procreation.  It exists to serve some higher purpose, whether it is seeking God’s kingdom for the religious or in service to some joint cause or humanity-enhancing project for the secular.

“In The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller argued that marriage introduces you to yourself; you realize you’re not as noble and easy to live with as you thought when alone.  In many marriages there’s an unspoken agreement not to talk about what you don’t admire in the other, because the truth from a loved one can be so painful.  But in a good marriage you identify your own selfishness and see it as the fundamental problem. You treat it more seriously than your spouse’s selfishness.

“The everyday tasks of marriage are opportunities to cultivate a more selfless love.  Everyday there’s a chance to inspire and encourage your partner to become his or her best self.  In this lens, marriage isn’t about two individuals trying to satisfy their own needs; it’s a partnership of mutual self-giving for the purpose of moral growth and to make their corner of the world a little better.

“It’s probably best to use all three lenses when entering into or living in a marriage.  But there are differences among them.  The psychological lens emphasizes that people don’t change much over a lifetime.  Especially after age 30, people may get a little more conscientious and agreeable, but improvements are modest.

“In the romantic view, the heart is transformed by love, at any age.  In the moral view, spiritual transformation—over a lifetime, not just over two passionate years—is the whole point.  People have great power to go against their own natures and uplift their spouses, by showing a willingness to change, by supporting their journey from an old crippled self to a new more beautiful self.

“The three lenses are operating at different levels:  personality, emotions, the level of the virtues and the vices.  The first two lenses are very common in our culture—in bookstores, songs and in movies.  But the moral lens, with its view of marriage as a binding moral project, is less common.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons the quality of the average marriage is in decline.”

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO OUR NATIONAL PARKS

Here on the 100th birthday of the National Park Service, we salute the 58 national parks and the treasure each one provides.  We’ve personally seen about 17 of them and never been disappointed.

Each of the parks has campsites and various levels of lodging and eating facilities.  Reservations are usually required for overnight stays.

You should try to see as many as you can.  They are a special treat.  In no particular order, here are the ones we’ve visited.

Yosemite, right here in California, offers a beautiful array of waterfalls, rivers and great hiking trails.  The Ahwanee Lodge and its spectacular dining room is a must to stay or visit.  In winter, there’s nearby snow for ski or play.  It is truly a wonderland.

Point Reyes National Seashore, 30miles north of San Francisco, offers 80 miles of coastline and a variety of sites and terrain.  It’s the second foggiest place in North America; and when the fog lifts, you can see a spectacular sunset.  Don’t miss the old lighthouse built in 1870.

Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, in Juneau, Alaska, is a 5,100-square-miles treasure trove of glaciers and ice sculptures.  Mt. Fairweather is the tallest peak at 15,300 feet.  There are no roads in to the park.  You have to go by air or water.  There are 15 tidewater glaciers.  It’s worth the trip.

Mesa Verde, in southwestern Colorado, is probably the best example of Native American cliff dwellings available anywhere.  It’s a fascinating picture of the tribal culture and our early apartment houses and condos.

Grand Canyon National Park.  This is the granddaddy of all the national parks.  It is spectacular!  You should try to stay 24 hours so you can see the awesome changing colors.  If you’re game, you can ride a donkey or hike to the bottom—or float through the bottom on a seven or 10-day trip.

The El Tovar Lodge is a great place to eat, stay or visit.  Been there four or five times and enjoyed every time.

Grand Teton National Park, right outside of Jackson, Wyoming, is an awesome vista towered over by 13,770-foot Grand Teton Mountain and it’s slightly smaller brothers and sisters.  There’s skiing in the winter and an adjoining Elk Refuge.

The whole Jackson Hole area is quite beautiful as is Lake Jackson.  It’s a great place to visit.

Yellowstone National Park, just north of the Tetons, is perhaps the most famous of all the parks.  It features the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Old Faithful, the grandest geyser that operates almost like a clock.  It has Yellowstone Lake and diverse landscaping, hiking trails and occasional wildlife that includes brown and black bears, bison, elk, big horn sheep and mule deer.  Don’t miss it.

Zion National Park, in southern Utah, just east of St. George, is another gem; 229 square miles of mountains and greenery, and great hiking on a variety of trails.  Very beautiful!  The tram tour is worthwhile as well.

Everglades National Park, in the center of Florida, is completely different from all the rest.  It’s swampy and usually hot.  Air boat rides provide a great tour of the largest tropical wilderness we have.  It’s home to the Florida panthers, American crocodile, the manatees, 300 species of fish and 50 reptiles.

Mt. Ranier, right outside of Seattle.  This 14,411 foot volcano is the highest point in the Cascade Range and is surrounded by waterfalls, green valleys, old growth forests, and 25 glaciers.  The Paradise area is the snowiest place on earth.  In 1971-72, they had over 1,100 inches.

Denali National Park & Preserve with snowcapped Mt. McKinley looking over its vast expanse of six million acres.  At 20,310 feet, Mt. McKinley  is the highest mountain in North America.  Glaciers occupy about 16% of the park.  It’s a great photo op visit.

Arches National Park, in east-central Utah on the Colorado River four miles north of Moab, is a special place of 2,000 orange, natural sandstone sculptures that are a sight to see.  This is a real sleeper.

Acadia National Park, not far from Bar Harbor, Maine, is a beautiful park with about 50 miles of roads, originally built as carriage trails by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  If you’re in the area, don’t miss it.  It’d love to go back.

Bryce Canyon National Park, east of Zion in Utah, is a glorious sculpture garden of red, orange and white rock formations.  Great vista views and a wonderful, nervous horseback ride to the bottom.  It’s a series of natural amphitheaters rather a canyon, but you’ll never forget it.  Well worth the out-of-the-way location.

Redwood National Park, just north of San Francisco, combines with a number of state parks.  It offers a wondrous old-growth rainforest of giant sequoia trees.  There’s nothing else like it!

Rocky Mountain National Park, located northwest of Boulder, Colorado, includes the Continental Divide and the headwaters of the Colorado River.  It features grand mountain views, lakes, wildlife, forests, river rafting and great hiking trails.

Canyonlands National Park, near Moab and Arches National Park.  It has a colorful landscape of canyons, mesas and buttes by the Colorado and Green Rivers.  It’s big; over 500,000 square miles and much to see and view.

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