• Advice for Trump: It’s All About the Infrastructure

    March 21, 2017 // 25 Comments »



    Dear Donald:

    I didn’t vote for you and generally don’t support what you do, but hey, we both live in this country for now, and I don’t want to see you mess things up more than they are. So, as a public service, here’s some advice. I don’t see a lot of this in the media; mostly they just write articles mocking you. I’m pretty sure if you came out against poop the media would demand sh*t sandwiches for everyone in response.

    But we’re Americans, we look forward not behind where the poop comes out, so here goes.

    You need a grown up in the White House right away. Your team clearly hasn’t figured out how to work Washington when you need to do so. So go get yourself a James Baker. Baker was White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan, and Chief of Staff under George H. W. Bush. He may still be alive (check Wikipedia) but if not, someone like him. Not an ideologue, but someone who prefers to work behind the scenes, trusted by most in Congress, calm and steady but still enough of a conservative that he’ll fit in at meetings. He’ll be, what can we call it, a kind of Chief of Staff-concierge combo. That will also be very reassuring to your own party members.

    Next up is a new Secretary of State, in a few months. I get that Tillerson is there to debone the Department of State, and it is good that he do so. Let him get that done, make all the enemies, do the heavy lifting, and then get someone new in there who can take over the hassles of day-to-day foreign policy. It’s clear, Donald (if I may) that you don’t like the photo-ops and glad-handing with foreigners. OK, we’re not all good at everything. So outsource that part of the job, same as you’ve done pretty successfully with James Mattis over at Defense (see how that no-drama appointment thing can work out?) Get a SecState who can play nice with allies and let you be you on other stuff. C’mon, you know how to do this. As a businessman you delegated tasks all the time.

    With that team in place, get your plate clear of the ideological things you owe your base. Pass your healthcare, throw a bone to immigration reform, whatever The Wall, stop messing around too much with arts funding, just get that stuff off the front pages except in areas of the country where it being on the front pages is to your benefit.

    Then move on to the big deal, the thing that should be the signature event of your term, rebuilding infrastructure. You promised jobs, America needs jobs, the Democrats can’t be against jobs (well, they can, but at that point they’ll join the Whigs in political party trivia answers.) Don’t spend a lot of time at first sorting things out, just get money into the economy. Cut Retire one aircraft carrier, something. Have states send in proposals, or just start. Build a bridge. Fix an airport. Put people to work in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, places that really have been hit hard.

    Make it fast, make it visible, show (pardon the pun) concrete results.

    ALTERNATE POINT OF VIEW: “Forget your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap,” Kevin Williamson wrote of the white working class in National Review. “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.”

    Or from NY Magazine’s Frank Rich “Maybe they’ll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether. ”

    BONUS: For the Democrats, don’t chase away the man or woman who feels like a third party candidate. Don’t push a hack forward who you think you’ve dressed up to look like a third party candidate; it’ll just come off fake, like when Dad tries to look “cool” around the teenagers. Stop acting smug about how all those Trump voters won’t get the change they sought. You don’t have the best record there, either. Don’t tell people who have really been living with Obamacare in its imperfect form that it is not imperfect.

    Imagine yourselves taking control of the healthcare debate. Imagine saying “Obamacare has problems. We’re going to fix them, and yeah, it means working with the Republicans, but people before party.” Now there’s something to take into the 2018 and 2020 campaigns, especially if you do fix Obamacare.

    And for the love of Gawd, find something more to be in favor of. “We’re not Trump” and “Trump’s a stupid jerk” were the policy positions that cost you the election. Nobody besides your own paranoid base bought deeply into the Putin controls Trump line, and the longer you stick to that the more it will end up looking like the endless Benghazi hearings.

    See, people outside your base will see through your current war cry: July Comey bad, March Comey is good. July investigations mean nothing, March investigations are the end of democracy. Saudi money into the Clinton Foundation had no proof of quid pro quo, Some Trump guy appearing on RT.com is proof that the Kremlin controls Washington DC.

    Understand that you have to build your base out from the coasts; you will not lure middle-of-the-road voters back with #resistance. Resistance is just blunt opposition and you tried that and the result was President Trump. Don’t make it President Pence down the road.

     

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    Everything I Hate Happens Around Airplanes

    November 12, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    airline


    Everything I hate about who we have become as Americans happens around airplanes.


    Our Infrastructure

    Getting to any major airport not built in the last few years is a disaster. Utter lack of efficient public transportation is the norm. In most cases the best you get is an old, slow city bus with no room for luggage in place to ferry low-wage workers to their Cinnabon for the morning shift. Outside the big cities, you are lucky if you have even that. Either get there by private car, pay for a ride out the nose, or walk. Inside the airport, hah! Filthy toilets, lack of amenities, too hot/too cold/too crowded and usually smells like King Kong’s first dump of the day.


    Security Theatre

    OK, 9/11. So now 14 years later every airport is protected by petty thugs who make up rules that make little sense. We parade around dirty floors in bare feet, pour shampoo into little bottles, don’t bring water aboard but can buy it later for $5 a bottle, remove our laptops and belts, get x-rayed and scanned and whatever new was recently introduced. Or not. You can be randomly selected to just bypass a bunch of that, or if you can pay for some program so you can bypass all of that (nobody ever heard of sleeper agents?) or sometimes nobody checks and you bypass all that by “forgetting” to take your laptop out. Whatever. To avoid accusations of racial profiling while racial profiling, the occasional little old lady in a wheelchair is given the third degree.


    Our Apartheid of Money

    The airline will treat you less awful if you have money. Have it in the form of more frequent flier miles, the right credit card or the purchase of first class, and you have a shorter TSA line, get seated first, avoid the scrum when everyone else boards, don’t fight for overhead space and have your own elite potty. If all you have done is pay hundreds of dollars for a seat as a customer, to hell with you, get in the back and shut up.


    Selfishness

    To avoid the checked baggage fee, I am bringing aboard my entire drum kit, two giant stuffed pandas, a live goat and a couple of taped together cardboard boxes with grease stains. If my zone is called before yours, no overhead space for you, so Suck. It. The cabin attendants have no interest in refereeing fights, so back off or swing hard, your call.


    Selfishness, Part II

    If I want to eat fried snake bladder and garlic aboard, that’s my privilege. If I want to recline my seat into your face, I will. If I haven’t showered in a month and mouth-breathe, too bad. If I am so obese that I literally drip over the armrest, deal with it. If my kids want to kick you, vomit, scream or demand treats unavailable at 40,000 feet, throughout an entire 12 hour flight, I have no obligation to deal with that. And oh yes, waiting until you are on an airplane is exactly when you should clip your nails.


    People Don’t Care About Their Job

    Here’s a can of soda. Never ask me for anything ever again during this flight or I’ll claim you are disruptive and have security haul you away. Sort out your own carry-on and intra-passenger issues. Just stare straight ahead if your screen does not work. Once we land, fight your way to the front of the plane to get off eight seconds before someone else, I don’t really care what you do. I’ll be in the back complaining to the other cabin attendants about my job and eating Chipotle I brought aboard and which I alone am allowed to microwave.



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    Posted in Democracy, Economy

    First World, Third World: A Travel Essay

    October 8, 2014 // 3 Comments »




    You travel a bit, and you wonder what happened.


    (I)
    Streets, laid out in the 19th century, are jammed with traffic that was never anticipated. Not just more cars; Americans traveled on foot or by horse the last time these were thought through. After moving two miles in 45 minutes, we cross a bridge built in 1901.

    The bridge handles the traffic decently; it was built quite wide for the trains that used to transport Americans. The over-engineering on the bridge, common in the days before computers, would prove prescient as it would be several decades before the city, the richest in America, would build modern ones, and the last of those opened in the 1960’s.

    The infrastructure is old and tired but can’t be fixed it seems. Too expensive. Though the current Iraq/Syria war has already cost over one billion dollars, and the previous one over two trillion dollars, somehow there is never enough money.


    (II)
    The subway might be faster, but the segment I’d use for part of the journey was first opened in 1904 and is a hodge-podge of patches and repairs today. The girders holding up the street have been painted by generations of workers over the last hundred years such that when a chip appears, it is deep and noticeable, a sort of archaeological find. Theodore Roosevelt was president when the first coat of paint was applied.

    The subway isn’t really an option anyway. Public transportation to the airport, one of America’s busiest, is limited to a single bus that runs irregularly, with limited space for the luggage of the poor souls who need to check something, and drops off at stops at the airport equally convenient to no one. The bus isn’t yours anyway; it is designed for persons commuting out of the areas it passes through headed to work at the airport, staffing your Cinnabon. Some smiles there that don’t reach eyes. At least remember to say thanks.

    On your way you pass through their crumbling neighborhoods where the open businesses are often check cashing places, we buy gold cubbies and pawn shops. Some fast food places, who pay minimum wage in the neighborhood while exporting profits to midtown banks. You can actually see over the roofs into Manhattan where the money goes, and where the morning newspaper has an article on “affordable” condos priced at over two million dollars.


    (III)
    The airport, originally built in 1939 (Franklin Roosevelt was President and WWII was just starting for the Greatest Generation) and randomly added to over since, is chaotic at best. At security, foreign tourists look around for validation as they are yelled at to remove their shoes. It all seems inexplicable to many from Third World places the U.S. can’t bully into following America’s security theatre script. The floor we walk on in our socks is still a bit sticky from some spill. Everyone holds their hands over their head inside the scanner, a position of submission prisoners assume. The analogy is only slightly an analogy. But people either believe in it for their freedom as they are told, or just put up with it to avoid the bullying that follows displays of even quiet resistance. Be glad you are allowed to fly at all and have not been put without your knowledge on the No-Fly list for some Josef K. offense.

    Everyone on the plane, which departs late without explanation offered to you, is sorted into class. Those with the right credit card, or those who paid more, are treated one way, right down to a silly scrap of red carpet at check-in that to be fair does seem to validate something to some of them, judging by the smiles and the glances back into the lines. The other people are pushed onto the plane in a scrum of unintelligible “groups” to struggle against one another for the limited resources of space to sit, or to store giant amounts of luggage they are forced to carry to avoid usurious fees. The fee has nothing much to do with the airline’s biggest cost, fuel, as the weight is the same in or under the plane. The fee just is there. It’s a kind of modern icon, in other places called disingenuously a “convenience fee,” a fee you pay to buy something else.

    On the plane everyone speaks in a bully’s (that word again) passive-aggressive verbiage. Sit down or we won’t take off, and it’ll be your fault, and God help you if the other flyers turn on you. You can’t congregate near the restrooms, even though there is only a tiny space anyway, because supposedly 13 years ago that’s what the 9/11 hijackers did. You are not passengers, or customers. You are all potential terrorists and will be treated as such. Here’s half a Diet Coke as a reward for being compliant.


    (IV)
    Flying over the Midwest, even at 25,000 feet midday on a Tuesday, you can’t miss the huge factories and warehouses, all surrounded by empty parking lots. No jobs it seems, even at this altitude. On the ground, in three different cities over a week, you see neighborhood after neighborhood that has been “gentrified” as part of what seems like a last gasp to salvage the hunk of America that isn’t New York, the L.A.-San Francisco corridor or wherever the federal government is still hiring.

    In these neighborhoods tens of thousands of skilled blue collar jobs that once paid a living wage have been replaced by only hundreds of minimum wage, part-time jobs for baristas and waiters, many serving a few. A lot of people now in America don’t really make anything, besides a few apps maybe, so they serve a very few who only make deals. See it all the time. Did you enjoy your meal sir (please tip, I don’t get paid much)?

    The people on the ground still hope it might work. They are not stupid and this is not to mock; they know they have been handed the dirty end of the stick in the long con and are trying what they hope might work, though hope takes time and that is another thing they don’t have. You don’t have to be an economist to see how it can’t really work, do the math, but you’ll enjoy a decent cup of coffee on the way down.

    There are exceptions, good ones. The young mayor of Louisville has dedicated himself to attracting companies to his city. He talks like a man running for his city’s life, in about the best way you can run for your life. But it is a tough race.



    (V)
    Oh, these are “first world problems.” That’s the point, true to a point, but indeed America claims to be the most exceptional nation in the first world, so the problems are worth talking through. And this all isn’t nostalgia; it’s history.

    America also has its third world problems– lack of equitable health care (The U.S. ranks 56th internationally in infant mortality, worse than Cuba, Poland, Bosnia, and Serbia), malnutrition among the poor (one of five kids in America is food-at-risk), homelessness, murder and drug abuse rates rivaling any outside of combat zones, the highest percentage of a population in prison in the developed world, acts of random violence in our schools and workplaces, racism and inequality that regularly erupt into violence suppressed by militarized police.


    First world, third world, you see them all and you wonder what happened, now, to us.




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    Hard to Swallow: Optimism on Iraq Investment

    August 16, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    Well, the Bachmann picture is just a metaphor, OK?

    The State Department held an Iraq investment conference in early June, a forum for the Secretary herself to strong-arm US companies into investing in the US government’s investment in Iraq. Say what you want, folks at State are optimists. Here’s the take from June:

    While businesses entering the Iraqi market continue to face hurdles, including a greatly improved but still difficult security environment, some positive developments, such as rising oil revenues, expected double-digit domestic economic growth, significant investments in infrastructure, and a stable democratic government point to the conclusion that Iraq represents a unique business opportunity.



    So, some 10 weeks later, let’s have another look at investment in Iraq.

    Security

    Security just keeps on sucking the air out of any investment plans. Just yesterday a string of coordinated bombings across Iraq killed 80 people, injured 250 and showed the bad guys, whoever they are, retain the ability to strike as they wish. The number of civilians killed by violence in Iraq rose to 159 in July from 155 in June, matching January with the highest toll so far for 2011.

    It is unclear if these attacks are designed to encourage American forces to stay or leave, but people do keep dying. Worse than a falling Dow for encouraging foreign investment.

    Oil Exports

    Oil exports, which were to drive the economy in Iraq, dropped in July compared to June (2.16 million barrels a day versus 2.75 million). Oil prices rose, so in dollar terms Iraq still did OK, but the oft-promised increases in output show no signs of coming true. Any drop in worldwide oil prices will whack Iraq hard upside the head as their output levels seems stuck.

    Infrastructure

    As for that developing infrastructure, well, that’s also part of the problem. Demand for electricity is still very high, high enough in fact to divert some of Iraq’s crude production to meet growing local demand for fuel to drive power plants. Kind of like borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

    Bureaucracy

    In addition to the show stoppers above, investment in Iraq seems to run into bureaucratic hurdles.

    Basra is the focus for most of the West, because of oil, oil and oil. Unfortunately, while many projects are announced, fewer are implemented. According to head of investment in Basra, Haider Ali Fadel, while reports indicate that the investment authority agreed to the implementation of 40 projects since its founding in 2008, more than half have not been implemented.

    Fadel cited the lack of land allocated for the implementation of investment projects as the major problem (foreign companies cannot own land in Iraq, and the ever-so-slow Ministry of Oil controls most real estate in Basra). Somehow obtaining visas for foreign investors to enter Iraq remains a major challenge as well. The latter problem is related to corruption, poor relations between the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs, just bad communications or all of the above, depending on who you speak with.

    Local-Central Coordination

    What might be called other “coordination” problems between local and Baghdad bureaucrats also seem to be thwarting investment. In April, Iraq awarded the China National Machinery Equipment Import & Export Corporation a $204.4 million contract to build a 500 megawatt electrical power plant in Basra.

    However, the head of the electricity committee in Basra province, Ziad Fadhel Ali, said that “the electricity ministry did not signthe final contract, and we don’t know the reason for the delay. Since the signing of the initial agreement, the company has not taken any step towards implementing the contract because of the obstruction of the electricity ministry,” Ali said. Baghdad authorities blamed a failed financial guarantee from a Korean bank.

    Such problems are not limited to Basra. On July 2, Canadian company Capgent signed a $1.66 billion contract with Iraq’s electricity ministry to build 10 power plants over a period of 12 months. Four days later, Baghdad signed a $625 million contract with German firm MBH to build five power stations in 11 months. But Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Hussein al-Shahristani told a news conference that Capgent was “a company on paper only” and MBH was bankrupt and facing legal trouble. “The contracts with the phantom and bankrupt companies have been cancelled and lawsuits filed against them,” Shahristani said.

    Contracting Problems

    The construction contracting business, needed to actually build those investments that get past the bureaucrats, remains a problem as well. Iraq Business News reports that changes in legislation have led to an explosion in cheesy building companies.

    In 2003, the US’ Coalition Provisional Authority made changes to the existing Company Law No. 21 of 1997 because, as then-CPA head Paul Bremer wrote, “some of the rules concerning company formation and investment under the prior regime no longer serve a relevant social or economic purpose, and that such rules hinder economic growth.”

    Bremers’ amendments were supposed to liberalize the economy but had unintended consequences. Within a fairly short period, 925 construction companies registered in Basra alone with another 5000 waiting for registration.

    The growth in numbers allowed for the creation of companies that only existed on paper. The amendments allowed any Iraqi with a minimum of one million dinars (around US$850) to register a company. While the law does not allow a company to implement projects with costs three times more than its capital, any company can temporarily increase its capital by utilising a temporary deposit from one of the local banks. The bank deposits the needed amount, charges a commission and then withdraws the cash from the company’s account after the deal is signed. A foreign investor would be none the wiser.

    Hard to Swallow

    Investment in Iraq remains hard to swallow. We’ll check back again in a few weeks for an update. Until then, save your money.



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