Saturday, July 26, 2003

Captive of the One

Wyatt Erp, the new sheriff came to town.  Most just call him W.  He's a real tough cookie and it doesn't take much time till he plasters the trees with the picture of his most wanted – that singular bad guy whose demise will transform Dodge into a safe a peaceful place.  "We're going to get him, dead or alive!"  W sends forth his posse, canons in tow, guns a ‘blazing.  Lot's of destruction, lot's of bodies "theirs" and "ours" – fortunately fewer of ours.  But no enemy number one.  No matter, just as the townsfolk are getting antsy, beginning to ask questions, W has the perfect distraction.  Down come the old pictures to be replaced by another, a guy sporting a mustache and hiding untold boxes of TNT or worse.  The posse will have to go out again, but there is good news -- less mountains and (shhh) lot's of oil.  More loud noises, more destruction and, guess what, no bad guy dead or alive.  We could have sworn that we got him eating in a restaurant, driving in a wagon train, but things just didn't turn out.

I don't know if Osama or Saddam will be caught.  I don't care, nor should you.  W's bravado notwithstanding, it is of little global consequence.  Leaders do make a difference, but in large measure they simply reflect those whom they lead.  Sure some of them are tyrannical, but even the most evil example Adolph Hitler, represented prevalent public sentiment.  Demonizing and personifying the "enemy" makes for good sound bytes and PR, but is totally out of sync with the current reality or with history.  It leads to the illusion, astoundingly expressed in Washington, that one simple act, the elimination of an individual, will turn things around.  What is so disconcerting about the current situation is that W's team talks with certainty and feigned erudition, but is so clueless.

Ask the Israeli's about the impact of their leadership assassination program?  Did the killing stop when we "got The Sons?"  Of course not.  Five more young Americans have died so far this weekend.  We have lost more kids since W's war ended early in May than during the hostilities that preceded his proclamation of victory.  Perhaps Saddam was a threat, but the fact is that Iraqi's, like almost every other people in human history, don't like being occupied, even by "friends."  Look at the dismal history of Colonialism, and you'll find that not one occupation proved successful long term.  People may not like their own dictators, but they seem to like dictation from the outside even less.  And it's people, not a single individual.  There are no magic bullets in deep seated human conflict.  The idea that there is a "one" has made us all captives – we are the one's imprisoned by circumstance.  And it isn't the first time.  Remember Ho Chi Min?

Paul Bremer was in town.  He made the talk show circuit like someone on a book tour or touting a new Hollywood film.  It was clearly a piece of theater aimed at reassuring us that we had a sound man on the job.  Meanwhile, people are still getting killed (something that's escalating rather than receding), water and electricity remain problems, the kind that hurt ordinary Iraqis, and there seems no discernable light at the end of the tunnel.  So W and the guys (excuse me Condi) keep on talking about the One, when they should be sending Bremer back to Saigon (oops, Baghdad) to figure out how to get us out of the Iraqi's hair and of our own captivity of the one, sooner rather than later.

Friday, July 18, 2003

The War Dividend

Isn't it hell the price we pay for war, the sacrifice?  Well not for everyone.

I have done a lot of interesting things in a multi-faceted career, among them almost a decade on Wall Street working, often directly, for the fabled Sandy Weill.  To the surprise of many, perhaps even including himself, Sandy announced his phased retirement earlier this week.  Stepping aside is not quite in his nature, but I guess the past couple of years have not been that much fun.  Needless to say, there was a lot of ink expended on the Citigroup Chairman and his career.  It's a great story, but it was one little line in the Times that caught my attention.  It seems, with more than 22 Million shares in hand, many of them acquired through a super generous option program, Sandy will be looking forward to more that $30 Million in annual dividend income.  Now let's not get into the coincidence that Citigroup had announced a 75% dividend increase just two days earlier, a change that materially effects his post retirement income.  What really struck me, perhaps more concretely than anything else I've seen on the subject, was the total one-sided absurdity of the recent cut in dividend tax rates.

Sandy will be pay only 15% on this enhanced dividend.  That comes to a hefty $4.5 Million or so, but far less than the $12 Million he would have paid just a year ago.  So here we are, spending $1 Billion a week in Iraq (with wonderful results), mired in a recessionary environment in which 3 Million Americans have lost their jobs (income), watching a growing number of military families losing their loved ones and we're paying stockholders like Sandy a huge tax dividend.  So much for sacrifice.  Now don't get me wrong, I own a few shares of Citigroup and am happy to have both the increased payout (good for Sandy, albeit vastly less, good for me) and reduced tax burden.  But Sandy's windfall, along with those of all the other Sandy's, just shows how absurd and wrongheaded is this so-called economic policy. 

In the aggregate, I don't think too many ordinary Americans (that's 99% of us) have benefited from the Bush tax cuts.  This doesn't mean their benefits aren't being touted on the Treasury Department's website -- our taxpayer dollars used for thinly veiled partisan spin.  We're all seeing the bill for War as will our kids and grandkids, but none of these specially targeted benefits.  Those youngsters at risk on the killing fields come from small town America, off Main Street not on Wall Street.  Sandy Weill's retirement in affluence is assured, while most of America's pensions have been decimated or eliminated.  And they say with a straight face that this is not a benefit for wealthier Americans.  But of course, they also said the still illusive WMD's were a present and imminent danger.  Can you believe just yesterday these same people sanctimoniously impeached Bill Clinton for lying about his personal and private sex life?  The theater of the absurd, which sadly is the stage on which we play every day.  What has happened to our national sense of balance not to mention of outrage?

No matter, I want my dividend too.  We all do.

Monday, July 7, 2003

The Doctor and The General

Have you noticed the growing number of wags predicting a decade of Republican rule, essentially writing off the Democratic Party?  When everyone joins the band wagon, predictions are usually wrong.  Nevertheless, the realist in me is deeply concerned.  While Karl Rove and his well oiled company spend all their waking hours laying the ground work for George Bush's first election to the White House (wonder if they will suggest that term limits don't apply to the unelected), the Democrats seem in total disarray. 

Too many people are running.  Most of them know they can't win but that doesn't get in their way.  They claim to represent an important point of view, and perhaps they do, but in the face of political reality it's hard to not see more than an act of hubris.  We may all pay a very high price for their self indulgence.  To win back the White House my party can't continue to act like a rudderless ship.  It's time to get our house in order.  That means most of the want-to-be Presidents need to take a good look in the mirror, perhaps conjure up the image of Ralph Nader, and get real.  I'm not suggesting that there be no contest, but that there be a manageable contest so that we can begin to sort things out without the distraction of extraneous noise.

And here is the rub.  I've listened to a number of "debates" between the current candidates and have yet to find a standout.  I've seen the possibilities but have failed to fall in love, which of course in the days of anti-charisma may be asking too much.  Not that all the seemingly viable pretenders are not decent or credentialed, but let's cut to the chase.  John Kerry, who has it all, war hero and war protester, has failed to ignite.  John Edwards still seems more surface than substance.  Claims of electability notwithstanding, I don't think Joe Lieberman or Bob Graham can win.  I respect Dick Gephardt but, hard as he tries, the never-to-be Speaker seems yesterday, not tomorrow.  Most important in the current context, none of these candidates had the courage to oppose a highly questionable war, choosing political expediency over conviction. 

That brings me to the Doctor, Howard Dean.  Dean is new to the Presidential game and has made a few gaffs.  That's pretty common first time out and hardly a disqualification.  Remember the current occupant of the White House's appearance at Bob Jones University?  Some say Dean is too dovish, too left, the latter belied by his public record.  His stewardship of Vermont was essentially in the Bill Clinton mode, fiscally moderate conservative, socially progressive.  His State is among our smallest, but I sense he himself can grow in the absolute, grow on me and on the electorate emotionally which is ultimately what counts.

The dove issue in these hysterical times may be more problematic.  It's a troubling that anyone questioning placing untold numbers of human beings in harms way without proven good reason is so discredited?  Chalk one up for the heirs of the Gipper.  Dean was against Iraq and so far his skepticism appears to have been more than justified.  No WMD's and no post-War plan.  Nevertheless, in the post 9/11 real politic that doesn't cut it.  Which brings me to the General, Wesley Clark.  I know there is continued talk about Clark for President, and perhaps that's where it will end out, but I'm suggesting a Dean-Clark ticket.

Promoting a Vice Presidential candidacy at this juncture may seem odd.  The Constitution gave the office short shrift.  Jack Garner, its one time tobacco chewing incumbent thought it wasn't worth spit. But Jimmy Carter changed all that, making Walter Mondale his full and active partner with a real role to play.  George H.W. may have been out of the loop and Danny Q out of it altogether, but Bill Clinton brought the idea of partnership to new heights with Al Gore. The current Vice President, Dick Chaney is the most powerful of them all.  He may be spending a lot of time in undisclosed locations but no one can doubt the defining role.  Consequently, it is not too early to think running mate.  I don't know how you can consider one without the other.

The truth is we don't know very much about Wesley Clark's domestic politics, but we know a lot about his record as a balanced Military man who had a fine reputation as both a thinker and administrator when he led the Alliance.  We also know that, like Howard Dean, he had substantial reservations about Iraq.  No one could suggest that he lacked military credentials or having led our forces in the Balkans, the will to use power when truly justified.

I don't know if Dean-Clark is a dream ticket (dream ticket and I say Gephardt is living the past), but it seems a compelling one.  Two men of talent and apparent conscience.  Perhaps they could win.