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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Distant Neighbors

After spending more than 20 years in Mexico as an English teacher, I returned to the States and started reflecting on the enormous difference in cultures, way of life, daily habits, religion, politics, and, above all, public perception toward government, whether local or national. Mexico was, of course, settled by Spaniards who gave the country its language, but not its culture. The resulting mix of European and Indian blood, known in Mexico as mestizos, comprises more than 90% of today's population. The Catholic Church established the main religion for most Mexicans who revere the Virgin Mary as its beloved protector. Even drug traffickers, ironically, invoke her help to carry out their sinister trade.

To understand  Mexican cynicism toward government, one must remember that this proud country has been unable to find true democracy except for very short periods of time. Invaded by the French and by Americans, plagued by dictatorships from Porfirio Diaz to the political monopoly during 70 years under the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), citizens of the Aztec country are naturally very skeptical as to their rulers' claims of democracy. Vast fortunes were made by corrupt politicians who acted with impunity and sacked state and national treasuries. No checks and balances existed to limit political excesses, no judicial system (controlled by cronies) dared interfere or ask for public accounting. The media, with rare exceptions soon quelled, reflected the government's point of view with nary an independent opinion.
minifox.jpg (8685 bytes)Vicente Fox, First non-PRI President

Things changed on December 1, 2000, when Vicente Fox was sworn in as the first non-PRI President of Mexico. The nation exhaled with relief; now things would change. Democracy, finally, was taking over in Mexico! Alas, old habits die hard. The governing machine remained the same with firmly entrenched bureaucrats who still saw their poorly paid positions as an opportunity to supplement their salary through the famous mordida (bribe). Trying to open a business in Mexico is a via crucis that may take as much as 2 years, unless you know who to talk to. Intermediaries quickly saw their opportunity to fatten their purses by "negotiating" a deal with government officials. Popular Mexican wisdom says that there is no such thing as a poor politician, only a dumb one.

Because the people has suffered so much during more than two centuries since Mexico's independence in 1810, they regard any foreigner with suspicion and sometimes with outright hostility. Poverty is still rampant, especially in major cities. Public services are deficient and very expensive. Gasolines (all types) are sold at international prices to people who make less than half of what similar positions make in the U.S. Natural gas is abundant in the northern part of the country so most homes use it to cook and heat their homes. Unfortunately, it is in the hands of a Spanish company which won the bidding when Mexican politicians decided to privatize the business. The price of gas is simply too high for the majority of middle-class inhabitants and, of course, for the poor. The cost of electricity is also based in dollars, making it prohibitive for the ordinary family. So, many homes simply "steal" power through ingenious shenanigans, such as hiding the cables which bypass the meter.

Justice is severely biased in Mexico; if you are incarcerated, you have to prove your innocence or pay a mordida to get out of jail; judges can often be bought (they make very little money), and the police is not known for its humane treatment of prisoners. An accused person may spend years in prison before they appear in court and nobody is in a hurry to pass sentence. There is no jury; it's all up to the judge. Or course, people with high-placed compadres can often obtain their early release. A simple phone call to the court will take care of business. Favors are paid with favors.

Nowadays, the only institution Mexican citizens trust (more or less) is the army which has engaged the drug traffickers in a frontal assault. Thousands of local police and low level functionaries have been arrested and accused of collusion with cartels.Thousands of Mexican citizens have fled the country and settled in our country: the very rich and the very poor. The former because of fear, the latter because of hunger.

It is difficult to conceive how two neighboring countries can be so dissimilar. Even France and Germany, to cite an example of different neighboring cultures, have achieved a decent level of prosperity for their peoples. Mexican people often say:"So close to the U.S. and so far from God," to show their dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs. We send our retirees to the cheaper life in Mexico, while they send their poor and hungry. They send us their illicit drugs and we return the favor by sending back millions of dollars.

Some American hotheads have suggested invading Mexico to pursue and destroy the cartels: that would be the most foolish thing to do. It would unite all Mexicans against us; they still remember the Mexican-American war in which they lost half their territory. No, the solution is in the hands of Mexico itself; if they can establish firm democratic institutions and an honest judicial system to punish corruption, they have a chance to grow into the prosperous nation that every Mexican citizen aspires to see one day.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Jon Huntsman Is the Man

Let the wise man guard his mind, incomprehensible, subtle, and capricious though it is. Blessed is the guarded mind (Buddha)

Huntsman is still the guy for me, even though he doesn't shine in the polls. Unlike Perry, he speaks his mind easily and guardedly. Unlike Perry, he doesn't stumble, hesitate, mumble, equivocate, backtrack, or confuse. His message is concise and clear. Yes, he was ambassador under Obama, so what! That gives him a clear advantage when it comes to dealing with China, and China is the main adversary and partner at this time. None of the other candidate has the presence, the charm, and the easy going manner that makes him a perfect candidate for the White House.

Yes, he is a Mormon and yes, he was born rich, two qualities or two handicaps, depending on whether you are a sophisticated human being or a simple-minded citizen. Did we all become Catholics under John F. Kennedy, another rich guy who faced religious bigotry? Jon is a polished diplomat; he worked for Reagan, Bush I and Bush II, and was the governor of (gasp) Utah, where he obtained a lot of support from Independents and Democrats in the last election (2008). Is there another qualified candidate on the Republican side, more qualified than Huntsman?

Some of his opponents accuse him of being a moderate Republican; I say, bring it on! Do you want somebody who get things done in a bipartisan way? Or do you want an ineffective President, such as Obama in the last year, who hits his head against an unbreakable political wall? Since when is being moderate a political sin? Do we really want an extreme right or left in the White House and, for that matter, in Congress?

Jon Huntsman has a few black areas in his past; for example, he dropped out of high school to try and become a rock star. His signature is almost illegible in a cursive way, though there is a big loop at the beginning that could indicate excessive ambition. But the package as a whole is very pleasant and very convincing. I still believe that despite his low poll numbers he has a chance to be the chosen candidate after Romney and Perry self-destruct through their infighting.

His major obstacles are both the low name recognition and the lack of so-called "purity" in the Republican ideology. The first can be fixed easily and he is doing it through an active campaign in the key states. The second is so subjective that no speech or baby-kissing will remediate. Purity of thought was first approached by George Orwell in his famous novel 1984. Big Brother was watching what you said, what you read, and even what you dreamed about. Another famous era of purity occurred with the Soviets under Stalin; any criticism of the government sent you to the frozen tundra for the rest of your life. Those extreme-right Republicans who expect purity in their candidates would do well to study History again.

It's a shame that only registered Republicans will select (elect) their presidential candidate. If independents had a voice in that vote, Huntsman would win by a landslide. Alas, it is not to be and President Obama's team is watching and smiling, thinking that Jon Huntsman does not have a chance. He is the only candidate they really fear!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Big Change

Is our nation at a turning point in history? Are the momentous events in the Arab countries, in Myanmar, and in China a prelude to a different world? Are we facing 1,000 years of peace as foretold by ancient prophets? Is the United States of America ready to face this "brave new" world?

There is no doubt in my mind that modern communication devices are responsible for the revolts and manifestations in many countries, including the U.S. Through IPhone, IPads, and smart phones in general, rebellious elements are able to be informed minute by minute where the action is and which places are to be avoided due to governmental repression. They look at their screens and witness first hand what is happening in another part of the country. They can organize "flying" teams that evaporate as soon as official troops approach. Above all, they can transmit events to the whole world through Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail, thus guaranteeing that their cause is publicized and that government lies are unmasked instantly. Public opinion counts today as it has never counted before.

In our country, with the highest number of smart phones per inhabitant, news of the "Occupy Wall Street" spread like wildfire in the western world. These events are a prelude to a new economic, financial, and political system, since the existing ones have proven to favor a small minority of wealthy citizens at the expense of the rest of the population.

A CBO report released Tuesday--just the latest in a series of studies to confirm the massive rich-poor gap--found that income for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans had exploded since 1979, by a whopping 275 percent. Meanwhile, income for the poorest 20 percent grew by just 18 percent in the same period. (Yahoo, Zachary Roth, The Look Out, Oct 26, 2011).

Politicians and rulers are completely baffled by these manifestations of the other 99% or by the oppressed peoples in Arab countries. They don't know what to do and so they invent lies:

"Mercenaries paid by foreign powers to destabilize our nation", claim some dictators. "Troublemakers and professional agitators" says the extreme right in the U.S. "Class warfare" shouts Mitt Romney. "Rebels murdered women and children", accuses the Syrian government in order to justify the massacre at Hama where 10,000 inhabitants of that town were killed.

Serious historical changes are always accompanied by pain and violence, even when the protesters behave peacefully. The reasons in different countries may appear to vary from political change to financial demands, but the underlying cause is the same: People are fed up with the existing inequality that modern capitalism has brought. They are willing, and that should scare our rulers, to go to great sacrifices in order to be heard, in order to force the changes that will improve their lives and their children's future.

The moment has come for our leaders in Washington to espouse a new vision of the future United States of America, to get our country back, as some extreme right wingers exclaim, although not the way they understand it. The present members of Congress follow mediocre leaders like sheep, without questioning the big picture, for today's decisions will determine our tomorrow. It is time for a visionary leader to step forward and restore our faith in the American Dream.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Future America

By the ruler's cultivation of his own character there is set up the example of the course which all should pursue.


        How much influence do we want and expect from the U.S. in the modern world? From the heydays of isolationism before WWI to the modern concept of "Realpolitik", America has undergone profound transformations both politically, economically and militarily. We changed from a 'sleeping giant' just before WWII to the most powerful nation on earth after the demise of the Soviet empire. Can we imagine USA 2075? Will we blossom into a model nation, transcending our political bickering and reaching decisions with a rational consensus? Will we eliminate borders north and south and become truly the United States of America?

Our multiple forceful interventions in various parts of the globe have earned us the pejorative appellation of 'imperialistic'. We still have troops in Japan, Korea, Germany and another 20 countries including Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. The main difference with former empires is that we no longer seek adding more territory; we simply consider theses bases as strategically essential to our security and economic interests. That presence has not prevented us from suffering terrorist attacks on our own soil and in various parts of the world, but we should ask ourselves whether it has actually played a part in such declared hostility.

Realpolitik is the guiding force behind our foreign policy; its definition according to Wikipedia is:" .. politics or diplomacy based primarily on practical considerations". It is therefore to be expected that the U.S. will support dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the future such as Saudi Arabia, China, Jordan and Kuwait in modern times, even though our avowed ideal is to foment democracy. We did nothing to defend Tibet when Chinese troops invaded the Buddhist country because we had no special interest in that part of the world, thereby tacitly recognizing Beijing's rights to annex that small nation. Can we justify our occupation of Puerto Rico? Guam ? Samoa? Guantanamo? Etc.

Article IV of our constitution indicates the following :" the congress shall have power to dispose of, and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property of the United States;" Without being a lawyer, I can surmise that the quote refers to any conquered territory that is not a state; our Founding Fathers therefore had planned the possibility that the United States might extend the boundaries through military power, although perhaps limiting the scope of the young republic to the American continent. We actually did during the war with Mexico and with the Philippines, but these times are over. It is inconceivable nowadays that we might occupy and annex a foreign state.

The vigor and strength of the early days during the 19th century when the U.S. exploded as an industrial power, have been replaced by a certain complacency – we are the only superpower left and we can do anything – and by a political bottleneck that effectively impedes the solution of urgent national problems. We have been fortunate that the private industry has, in many cases, taken over the search for new venues in replacing fossil fuel for example; we knew since FDR and Lyndon Johnson that a large portion of the population does not have access to proper medical care and if Obamacare survives, universal coverage will correct that. As a "superpower" we should dedicate the majority of our resources, which are considerable, to the welfare of American citizens, including the fight against global warming.

We really need a new social contract and unshackle the modern American('Man is born free but everywhere is in chains' said Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment philosopher). The average citizen is chained to a big SUV, a never ending mortgage, humongous college costs that rise faster than his income, a Congress that spends his taxes and more on futile overseas ventures, an environment that has become more toxic, medical care that leaves him in debt for the rest of his working life and television programs that brainwash him day and night into buying useless trinkets.

We have been lucky to receive thousands of new immigrants every year who dream of achieving their version of the American way of life; we are still strong and vigorous as a nation, but we face the danger of failing our future generations by neglecting the basic values that made us a role model for the rest of the world. Hopefully Future America will evolve into an example of justice, equal justice not based on income, complete care of each and every citizen, and tolerance toward different races and cultures.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Shining Example From the Past

"Let civilian voices argue the merits or demerits of our processes of government. Whether our strength is being sapped by deficit financing indulged in too long, by federal paternalism grown too mighty, by power groups grown too arrogant, by politics grown too corrupt, by crime grown too rampant, by morals grown too low, by taxes grown too high, by extremists grown too violent; whether our personal liberties are as firm and complete as they should be."

May, 1962 at West Point, Gen. MacArthur in his Farewell Address to cadets.

File:MacArthur Manila.jpg

Right when the Vietnam War was beginning to heat up, the old general who died 2 years later, gave these future Army officers a vision that endures till today. His uncanny remarks about the federal deficit (where have we heard that before), his accusations of big government, excessive crime (no change), and loose morals (if he could only see today's society, he would probably have a heart attack). He even questioned violent extremists and personal liberties, a topic of heated discussions among libertarians. The man was a veritable oracle, even though Truman had to sack him to avoid a nuclear confrontation with China during the Korean War.

Charismatic leaders like MacArthur cannot be found nowadays; the ex-generals who now work as consultants for public and private news organizations are drab and boring when they express their expert opinion on modern politics. The old warriors have taken arms in a different world where they can fight new battles for all eternity. Nothing like hearing bullets flying around you to make you see life with new eyes and develop a true sense of mortality. Military experience, the real kind, not just flying airplanes or buffering leather seats in a fancy office, is a scarce commodity among Republican presidential candidates.

Gov. Perry, like Bush, was a pilot in the National Guard and was able to avoid going to Vietnam. Ron Paul was in the Air Force for 5 years. The other candidates have no military background. Is it necessary to have served in order to become President? Of course not; look at Obama. He has absolutely no history to have served before becoming Commander-in-Chief. Does that make him unfit to manage two wars? Our best commanders-in-chiefs were FDR, Lincoln and Truman, and all three performed brilliantly in that capacity without an iota of battle smoke in their nostrils.

What we look for in a leader like MacArthur and Truman is the strength of their convictions; in the present group of candidates to the White House, only Ron Paul seems to fit the bill. He never wavers from his basic tenets on how to fix the United States of America. Is he right? That's another matter, but let's remember other Presidents who got us in hot water: Kennedy with the Bay of Pigs, a botched attempt to invade Cuba that almost turned ugly for us. Jimmy Carter and the disastrous attack on Iran. Lyndon Johnson who got us in the Vietnam mess with a lie. Bush Jr. who got us in a war on Iraq with another big lie. So even though Paul is convinced that his proposals are right, at least he is not suggesting getting us involved in another conflict; on the contrary, he wants us out of 150 countries where we have military presence. None of the other candidates supported him in his position; a shame, because he is totally right. We are wasting billions that could be applied to our pressing problems here in the good USA.

Am I recommending Ron Paul for President? No, not even for VP. He has other controversial views that cannot be accepted by the general public. And..he is too old, way too old. We don't want to risk another Ronald Reagan in his last 2 years in power, controlled by the visions of his wife's astrologer.

We need however a President with strong convictions who is willing to fight for them, as long as these beliefs do not cause our great country more irreparable harm. No warmonger, and no peace-at-any-cost either. The ideal executive head of our nation must be able to compromise, yes, but without seeming weak. He must be able to negotiate with anybody, yes, but without seeming cowardly. He must be respected by his opponents, unlike the present administration. The Republican leaders do not respect President Obama; their actions clearly show it. They say no to whatever he is proposing and that did not happen with Clinton's second term, when Republicans controlled Congress. The reason behind it is a matter for historians to debate 20 years from now.

Obama has faltered on many occasions; I remember in particular the extension of Bush's tax rebates for rich people. He had control of Congress, a lame duck Congress for sure, but he still had the power to act and he blinked..It is true that he showed courage with the bin Laden Affair. He also showed restraint and wisdom in the Libyan conflict, and has been vindicated with the violent death of Qaddafi. But does Obama have the vision for future America, a country that still can recover its greatness? Does he have the steely resolve of a John F. Kennedy who faced the Russian Bear?

That is the bet that voters will make next November 2012 when they cast their ballots. They will not vote for a Republican; they will vote for or against Obama.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Frame By Frame Education

Educating teens for the 21st century is the job of thousands of dedicated teachers; I am proud to be one of them. After this moving opening statement (or was it a cliche), let us examine what makes a teen tick and how we can, sometimes, fix their living clock frame by frame.

What is a frame? Imagine that a young person's life is like a movie: actors and objects do not actually move on the screen; rather, their exploits are a series of frames shown at high speed, just like a book of pictures can become a moving scene if we flip the pages very rapidly. In  the case of a real teen, each frame is composed of significant events in their lives that may be beneficial or destructive in the long run. As teachers, we can help produce such highly positive frames just as a movie director tells the actors what to do, say and how to do it.

Of course, teens will not let strangers or, for that matter, let parents dictate what they can or cannot do. They have to be convinced not only that the action will be good for their future, such as going to college, but that there also exists a strong bond of trust with the adult. Without trust and respect, nothing positive can be accomplished.

As a teacher, for that matter as a parent, we have the obligation to create positive mind frames that will perdure far into adulthood. Simply saying to the teen that he or she must go to college to get a better paying job will not be sufficient. They want to know who the messenger is and how much he/she can be counted on to give the necessary support until the goal has been reached.

Who doesn't remember the first driving lesson? The first swimming lesson? The first heartbreak when parents divorce or die of a premature illness? The first bicycle ride, or pony ride, or visit to Disneyland? Our life as a child should be full of pleasant frames that we bring back into our conscious memory whenever the appropriate stimulus appears. The smell of recently cut grass in the country reminds me of my vacations on a farm. The delicious aroma of roasted chestnuts evokes a cold winter night in Geneva, many years ago.

I remember my significant teachers with great pleasure and nostalgia and try to bury the memory of my mediocre ones. Sitting on my easy chair in my autumn garden in the warm twilight I let my mind wander to the fantastic fall colors of tall oak trees in my teen years while listening to a Vivaldi concerto. As we get older, say, above fifty winters, we have, usually, more time to reflect on our childhood and on the key adults who had a hand in our personal growth. It can be a teacher, of course, but other figures appear in my subconscious mind: the leader of my boy scout group, a friend of my parents who offered me a wonderful role model of success, unlike my father, the live-in maid of my grand uncle who taught me proper hygiene and how to discern between nonsense and common sense, the cousin (female) who gave me a lesson on how to kiss, the old fisherman by the lake who showed me how to untie the knots in the tangled nylon line, the pretty secretary who completed my sexual education, all of these frames remain vividly engraved in my memory as a child and teen growing up in Switzerland.

Making a difference in a teen's life, a very positive difference of course, is our sacred duty as teachers and parents. We can do it better by making sure that the frames have three essential components: Visual, Emotional, and Personally Significant. Visual because most people are visual learners. For example, don't just talk about becoming an engineer; find a way to take the teen to a factory or lab where engineers actually work. He or she will always remember the experience whether they decide to follow that career or not.

Emotional because for a frame to perdure in the subconscious mind, it needs emotional energy. It could be a family celebration when the teen achieves a life goal, such as high school graduation or appearing for the first time on stage or scoring the first touchdown or goal in soccer. Even smaller accomplishments must be recognized by parents, teachers and siblings. A simple "good job" may be sufficient to fixate the moment indelibly.

Personally Significant because what is important to father may not be for the son or daughter; a friend of my wife's spent six agonizing years in dentist school just because her father was "convinced" that she, the only child, would follow in his footsteps. She never touched a dental instrument again in her life.

Let's create these mind frames while we have them at home; once they leave, other people will do it, although not necessarily with our children's welfare as a goal. If teachers and parents alike work together to create these beautiful memories in our children and teens, who knows how far they may go?

Will you pitch in?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Social, Socialist or Capitalist System?

Capitalism: Economic system where property is owned by individuals. An economic system in which property, businesses, and industry are owned by individual people and not by the government.

Socialism: a political movement based on principles of socialism, typically advocating an end to private property and to the exploitation of workers.

Let's see: President Obama has been accused of socialistic tendencies, of advocating socialist measures, such as health care insurance for all Americans. According to the above definitions, the president has not proposed to abolish private property of insurance or of any other industry. He has simply tried to make it fairer and more equitable, more affordable to all citizens. Social Security, for example, is a social program designed to help those who paid into the system during their working years so as to make their retirement years less stressful income-wise. For any politician to call Social Security and Medicare a socialist plot to eliminate private property is simply absurd and a good reflection of their profound ignorance. Ask the common man and woman what they think about these social safety nets and they will respond vigorously in favor.

Public education is another target of those who advocate the end of social programs; they want the State to give every parent a voucher so as to choose any private school of their choice. That proposal smacks of socialistic tendencies; use tax dollars from the rich and give that money to the less fortunate? Wasn't John McCain deriding candidate Obama's suggestion to tax rich people and give it to the poor?  To spread the wealth as the Republican candidate called it? Isn't the school  voucher, favored by many Republicans, precisely that, spreading the wealth?

It's a shame when fire breathing politicians hoping to appear knowledgeable confuse social safety nets with socialist politics; or maybe they know the difference but simply act in bad faith. After all, they have hundreds of researchers who are most likely better informed. They even accuse Obama of  "Europeanizing" America; would that be so bad? Don't they have a free market society on the Old Continent? Shouldn't we imitate what works for other countries?

Do we really want a return to savage capitalism, to robber barons, and to heartless factory owners who gleefully exploited children, men, and women in the early 1900's? Look at the faces of those victims in early photographs and you will thank your stars that you are not living during that period.

 Boys in a cigar factory

No sane American wants to end the free enterprise system; we all saw what happened in the Soviet Union and, nowadays, in Cuba. Even the Chinese communist junta recognized the need to introduce private ownership and a market driven economy. We all accept that savvy individuals can flourish when allowed to invent and invest; but we must also recognize that not all citizens are gifted, whether intellectually or economically. A free market society must establish a safety net for those less able to provide for themselves. It is a profound shame that the most powerful nation on earth allows people to get kicked out of their homes and thrown, literally, into the streets with their meager possessions. It's a shame when uninsured American citizens lose their savings and their lives due to a severe illness. It's shame to let homeless people freeze to death or starve in the pitiless streets of our rich cities.

It is time to regain our original dream, to make America once again the country of the free, the country of the compassionate, the country of the just. How many politicians are willing to espouse such lofty ideals? Are you, personally, willing to write about it, to work in your community to make it a better place to live and work?

Let me know, this is your space.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Fall of the American Dream

September 11, 2001 established a benchmark, the end of an era and the beginning of another, much less attractive. We lost the joy and giddiness that accompanied our victory in World War II, which was followed by 50 years of economic prosperity - with a few hiccups on the way, and an apparently never-ending growth of our influence on the rest of the world. The bubble of optimism on Wall Street began to burst with the downfall of Silicon Valley in the year 2000; it took another hit when 9/11 exposed us to the crude reality of a failed foreign policy, and it disappeared completely when recession hit us full in the face in 2008, brought about by Wall Street scoundrels who still enjoy the billions they stole from the middle class.

Our most dangerous enemies are not without, they are within our national boundaries. As the mightiest military force the world has ever seen, we can deal with terrorists and jihadists. We have the best soldiers and the best military technology. But we can't deal, or don't want to deal, with the covert operations of financial soulless wizards who only consider the bottom line without regard for the common man. The whole economic team assembled by President Obama has had a hand, big or small, in the derivative scandal from its inception. Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers, Bernanke, and other economists, as shown in the brilliant movie "Inside Job" by Charles Ferguson, are or were on the payroll of large corporations before joining the White House team. The financial debacle, which started with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on Sept 15, 2008, was compounded by the choice of Henry Paulson, banker and ex-chairman of Goldman Sachs, to save the day by our ineffable George W. Bush. Talk about putting the fox in the hen house.

Alan Greenspan, another misunderstood figure (that's not a compliment), was recommending the deregulation of financial activities by banks long before the collapse of the whole system and the humongous sums of money wasted to "save" AIG and other institutions such as Fanny Mae. More than 20 trillion dollars were lost during the Second Great Depression between 2008 and 2011 (It's not over).
If a common man steals bread from the supermarket to feed his family, he goes to jail for at least 6  months. If a bigwig gains one hundred million through fraudulent means (subpar mortgages), he remains free. What a lesson in morality for future generations.

The thousands of "ordinary people", i.e. middle class, who try to occupy Wall Street, are furious and with reason since the federal government has failed to indict one single individual in this economic mess. Extreme right commentators keep telling them to manifest their rage in front of the Federal Reserve (Bernanke), and with good reason. Billions have been used by our central bank for "mysterious" purposes; apparently OUR bank is not accountable for the spending of OUR tax dollars. Newton Gingrich, our supersmart candidate to the presidency, said it well on the Oct. 11 debate. He would fire Bernanke instantly, a decision that the other members on the panel apparently cannot understand. Newt won't be president and that's a shame, because he is by far the best man for the job.

Our country's preeminence, according to Larry Elliott of the Guardian is fading:(
"The high levels of violent crime, epidemic of obesity, addiction to pornography and excessive use of energy may be telling us something: the US is in an advanced state of cultural decadence."

I would add the high levels of poverty, unacceptable in a superpower, politicians in the hands of corporations, the unemployment rate, the lower quality of public education,  the alarming rate of foreclosures, the apparent indifference of voters (less than 50% bother to do their duty), and the growing selfishness and greed that permeate every level of society, exacerbated by a very mediocre television fare and a sense of entitlement that leads to terrible abuses of food stamps and Medicaid.

It has become more and more difficult to realize the American Dream and we can only hope that a fresh infusion of recent immigrants will bring their strong work ethics and save the day.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

File:Lt. John F. Kennedy aboard the PT-109.jpgJohn F. Kennedy on his PT boat
"For no government is better than the men who compose it, and I want the best, and we need the best, and we deserve the best." (Senator John F. Kennedy, speech at Wittenberg College, Oct. 17, 1960)
"Elephant": Everybody knows about it but nobody wants to touch the topic. In this case, the "elephant" is the constant erosion of a wonderful and unique experiment: the United States of America. Politicians often cite the Founding Fathers in their speeches and interviews as if they alone knew what these illustrious and daring men would do nowadays to stop the clear decline of what represented then an audacious social experiment. Imagine that! "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.."

These unalienable rights, i.e. that cannot be changed, eliminated, or diminished, have in fact been seriously affected by recent legislation under the guise of "protecting us." What we need is protection from the present batch of politicians in Washington who are only interested in their reelection chances. John Kennedy would be aghast at the spectacle offered almost daily by both houses. He would also be pained by the current President who has tried indeed, but who has not presented a clear vision of what the role of the mighty United States should be in the 2lst century.

"Today, three main threats exist to America’s dominant position in the global economy: loss of economic clout thanks to a shrinking share of world trade, the decline of American technological innovation, and the end of the dollar's privileged status as the global reserve currency." (Alfred W. McCoy

Friday, October 7, 2011

American Spring?

Allow me to compare the "Arab Spring" to the "American Spring". Thousands of protesters, most of them peaceful, take to the streets to demand a better life that would allow them to pursue their dream. Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus, Athens? No, it's New York and dozens of important cities in the U.S. It's corporate greed versus Joe the Plumber, Main Street versus Wall Street.

Come on! Ever since the last economic downturn revealed the dirty laundry of financial wizards, the shenanigans of major banks, and the sloppy oversight by the government, a growing anger has been simmering inside ordinary people who call themselves the 99%. Millionaires and billionaires pay less in taxes than 99% of us, because they can take advantage of numerous loopholes through their high-powered lawyers. Republicans refuse flatly to close these unfair advantages for rich people and for corporations, calling it a disguised tax increase. But don't believe that Democrats in Congress are any better; they may fume and rant against their opponents for saying no, but they are just as much "bought" by special interests. Just as the Greek philosopher Diogenes hunted in vain for an honest man with his lantern, we the people hunt in vain for a congressman who is not in the clutches of powerful lobbies.

Becoming rich is not a sin; look at all these TV preachers who live in luxury, sitting on gold-stitched Louis XIV chairs while asking for more money from their "captured" audience. OK, that was pure sarcasm! Let's instead look at "honest" and compassionate wealthy Americans such as Warren Buffet or Bill Gates. They share their treasure with the less fortunate through their very important charitable foundations. They have more than they could spend in five generations, because money attracts money.
File:Warren Buffett KU Visit.jpg Warren Buffet, a compassionate wealthy icon

The Wall Street protesters often have no idea what they want; they just know that something is not working. The media is unfair when they ask a young man what economic system should replace the present-day capitalism. They try to portray the chanting crowds as ignorant rabble rousers, forgetting that not everybody can graduate from Princeton. And yet, the great minds of this country have failed to rally in support of the nascent movement that some commentators baptized the "tea party" of the left. If that's the case, good for them; we need a balanced political system in which all of us are represented. While the very rich can buy influence and votes, the rest, the 99%, can only take to the streets and voice their discontent with politicians who are in bed with corporations.

Interestingly enough, President Obama recently mentions the 99% manifestations as having a serious impact in 2012 elections; did he mean in his favor? And why does everything have to relate to elections? Would any congressman (woman) gladly sacrifice reelection if such act guaranteed a return to prosperity for most Americans? 99% of them would say yes (assuming they are capable of giving a straight answer), while thinking just the opposite. I hereby suggest that every politician should be hooked to a lie detector machine when giving interviews; the upshot would be a suddenly very busy senator unable to grant CNN his/her views on the most pressing matters.

Yes, capitalism has many positive facets because it appeals to a very human trait: greed; through greed people invent new gadgets, take more risks and create more jobs. Do you know of any CEO who can retain his job if the bottom line says "We have not increased our profits"? But capitalism, through greed again, is also tremendously destructive as people will sell their grandmother to make a buck.


What is the alternative? I turn my attention to Germany, where unions sit on the board of major companies with the bosses to decide on a course of action that will benefit shareholders and workers alike. Their welfare safety net protects the weak, the handicapped, and the sick. If you work hard, you gain hard. If you are lazy, a quality abhorred by most Germans, you'll "suffer" until you perform. The result? An economic and industrial powerhouse that has become the engine of the European Union.

Why be afraid of copying what works in other countries? Why sully the political environment with stupid accusations of being a socialist? Do they even know what the word means?

We could also change our political system into a Parliamentary Republic, just like the Germans!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Good, Very Good Old Days

In matters of discipline and values, I simply cannot imagine a better training than in the good old days. Call me old-fashioned (or just old) but I'll stick to my guns even if Dick Cheney threatens to waterboard me. Granted, many aspects of life in the 40's and 50's are considered unhealthy today and with reason. Smoking was in vogue, eating red meat tainted with banned insecticides was common for those who could afford it every day, polluting the atmosphere was not even in the vocabulary, abusive parents and priests went unpunished, the welfare safety net didn't work properly, excessive amounts of lead in the water endangered our lives, and, worst of all, we lived under constant threat of an atomic holocaust.

However, my parents taught me to be thrifty, to polish my shoes every day, to eat everything in my plate even if I didn't like it, to obey and respect my elders, to be honest - even brutally honest, to be tough in the face of adversity, to wash my hands before every meal, and especially to work hard, very hard. As survivors of the GD (Great Depression) and the rationing of the second world war, my mother and father knew very well the value of a penny saved after earning it with sweat and tears. I went to school either walking or on a bicycle, rain, shine, or snow. Both my parents occasionally slapped and/or spanked me when I deserved it and I thought at the time that it was perfectly O.K.

So when I travelled alone to America at the bottom of the Queen Elizabeth transatlantic and reached the tough shores of New York with $200 in my unpressed pants, I felt some trepidation of course but without losing the faith that I could survive in this strange land of skyscrapers (my first). I spoke some English which got me to the bus station and my next destination: Los Angeles. The year was 1959 and the Civil Rights movement had not fully developed yet. The lady who rented my first apartment made sure I was the right color before admitting that she had a vacancy. Of course, I had never seen a Black man or woman except in magazines and Hollywood movies. And wouldn't you know it, my first friends were precisely African-American, a married couple who were extremely helpful in my adaptation process.

Growing up without television was also a blessing, as I was "forced" to create my own "mental shows" through the numerous books I devoured as a child and a teen. Try telling your child that he/she can only watch 1 hour a day. "Mutiny on the Bounty" is nothing compared to wails of despair you'll have to endure. Video games? 1 hour a day, after homework, and I APPROVE THEM BEFORE YOU PLAY. Does this sound like a revolution in the making and you are the king and queen about to face the guillotine? But remember, you have the power: use it, with love and care. The rebellion will soon subside and peace will return. Their grades will improve and their future will shine more brightly. Isn't it worth it?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Let's Become Good Parents

I have noticed that some of my readers come from distant countries such as India, Latvia, and Russia. I thank them for taking the time and encourage all my visitors to leave a comment or e-mail. For example, the mother from Florida who was concerned about her children, now adults, who don't know how to act as parents and blame everybody else for their problems (See my article on a permissive society). Indeed, the "job" of making children is a lot easier and a lot more pleasant than educating them. As a teacher, I have to deal with parents on a daily basis and some of their observations sadden me enormously.

There is the grandmother who cares for three children because the father is in jail and the mother has a new "boyfriend." The State takes away parental privileges in these cases and a judge will eventually place the young siblings in foster care; I usually applaud the measure, though I am a bit concerned about a bureaucrat making such a crucial decision. Some adults do business with foster kids and fail to provide them with the most important element: love. Children who grow up without love and affection will usually fail to develop self-esteem. How can you love yourself when the important people in your environment don't? It means that you are not the kind of human being that can be or deserves to be loved.

In many cases, however, there is no gross negligence, no drugs, no jail; among affluent neighborhoods, some parents are too busy enjoying the social life to care for their children. The mother has her clubs, her friends, her charitable activities, the father must attend meetings till late at night, and while the kids lack nothing physical, they lack everything that counts: affection and loving care.
Children must eventually become responsible adults, a difficult task in a very permissive society. I have 18 year old students, too many, who still behave like 6 year old kids. They don't see the need to become responsible because they have everything they need (they think). The best way to make them age very quickly is unfortunately the military. I say unfortunately because they will be exposed to great danger. Why don't we ask ourselves why the Armed Forces succeed where we failed. Soldiers have to care for each other's back; they didn't learn that in civilian life. Soldiers have learned to obey orders, even if they disagree with them (with the exception of orders that clearly violate morality).

When I joined the Army many years ago, I knew that it wouldn't be easy to get along with so many different personalities, cultures, and races. I knew that some sergeants would abuse their power; but that's what real life is all about. When you learn to live in relative harmony with thirty men in the barracks, when you learn how to share responsibilities and dirty jobs, when you know that their life may be in your hand and vice-versa, you become a man.

Parents, while not sergeants, must heed that lesson and educate their children by instilling civic values, social mores, and a sense of personal responsibility. They can add what my top sergeant never could or wanted to give me: love. If you have to punish, make sure the child understands that you do it with love, not with anger. Be proud (and show it) when they do well; scold when necessary; teach always what an honorable man or woman is expected to do.

How can I not love my granddaughter?