PLASTIC AND MORE PLASTIC

I know it will be hard for some of you younger readers to believe, but back in my misspent yut, (that’s “youth” for those of you not fluent in Brooklynese), there was no such things as credit cards. It was cash on the barrelhead for all commercial transactions. This was, of course, before the electronics age. My father worked for a large company and was paid every Friday in cash. He would be given a small brown envelop that contained something like $76.23 in bills and coins. This was after deductions for social security and withholding. The first widespread use of a plastic credit card did not come into existence until around 1950, a mere 65 years ago. It was the Dinners Club card which has since largely gone out of existence. But it allowed people to experience something never before experienced in mankind’s history. And that was the instant psychological gratification that comes from from acquiring a product or service at a point in time that a person didn’t have the cash to pay for such items. It became a heady intoxication and it revolutionized the world as it existed back then.

A case in point was a girl I was dating when back in college. She was one of the first persons I knew that latched onto a Diners Club card and she rarely hesitated to use it. Especially on expensive stuff, like mostly clothing. When I pointed out that her family could ill-afford the items she was buying, via her credit card, she cooly replied that: “Well, that’s why God created plastic, isn’t it?”  I didn’t acquire my first credit card until the early 1960s when I was working overseas. It was an American Express card and for many years I seldom used it, fearing that if I started charging purchases, I would fall helplessly into a debt that I could not climb out off.

How quaint were such notions when viewed from today’s perspective. Today, the cumulative private debt racked up by all Americans stands at a shade under $12 trillion. That’s a 12 followed by 12 zeros. The entire commercial world is fueled by debt. In some financial circles it’s not even referred to as debt anymore. Instead it’s called leveraging, as if a debtor’s liability has suddenly become an asset. So where has all these easy money policies and the triumph of the instant gratification mentality led us to? Well, we don’t have to go very far back to achieve a clearer understanding; only back 6 or 7 years to around the year 2007.

It probably all started around the latter part of 2006 when real-estate prices were booming and credit was being issued with little collateral to back it up. When my wife and I bought our first house in the mid-1960s, a 20% down-payment on the purchase price of the house was required in order to qualify for an approved mortgage. I was able to make the down-payment with money I had saved up while working in Europe, and I was only able to to acquire those savings because the Government, at the time, gave its employees generous housing allowances when working overseas. The amount of my mortgage also had to be no more than the amount that was considered affordable based on my salary at the time. By the early 2000s, of course, all those fiscal restraints had melted away.

After the turn of the 21st century, credit became loose and easy, especially in the housing market. People were allowed to purchase homes with little or no money down, and were approved for mortgage limits that were well over their heads, financially speaking. It was the time for the fast-buck artists to make a killing. Housing prices began exploding, and real-estate speculators were riding the gravy train for all it was worth. Prospective real-estate buyers were told not to deny themselves the instant gratification that came with acquiring that big, beautiful house they dreamed of, but could clearly not afford. After all, realty prices could only one way, and that was up, they were told. When their property value increased in a year or two, they could always renegotiate their unaffordable mortgage into something more palatable. And so it went, as the easy money and instant gratification syndrome spread like a plague throughout the country.

Reality prices continued to rise beyond everyone’s wildest dreams, until one day they just didn’t. Suddenly, the air of overinflation began to seep out of the real-estate balloon, until one day the balloon just burst. Housing prices began hurtling downward in a death spiral, until new terminology had to be introduced into the U.S. vocabulary, such as mortgages that went “underwater.” Suddenly a large chunk of the U.S. population found themselves with mortgages that were considerably larger than the shrunken value of their homes. They were underwater. To add to their fiscal woes, as a result of the deep recession that was unfolding due to the plunge of realty values, many people lost their jobs as well. Thus, people suddenly unemployed found themselves with mortgages larger than their home’s value, and with no income being received to make the monthly mortgage payments. Many in this category had no choice but to simply walk away from their house, leaving the banks or mortgage companies holding the bag.

Next up in this on-going fiscal fiasco was the bankruptcy in 2008 of Lehman Brothers, a huge Wall Street financial institution. It seems that Lehman was holding billions of dollars of financial real estate derivatives. When the housing market collapsed, these derivatives became more worthless than the paper they were written, and Lehman was forced to go out of business. Many Americans didn’t realize that the U.S. economy came within a whisker of going belly up after the Lehman bankruptcy. People would have inserted their ATM cards at their bank, with a sizable amount of funds in their accounts, but nothing would have come out. Banks would have begun shuttering their doors. Credit cards would have become useless.  The whole enchilada, financially speaking, would have been gone.

Actually, it President George W. Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury that came to the rescue. He quickly instituted the Troubled Asset Relief Program, (TARP), which said that the Government was willing to pour seven hundred billion dollars in to the economy in order to avoid economic disaster. With that action the country slowly edged away from the financial precipice it was clinging to. In the six years since then, the American economy has achieved a remarkable recovery, although it’s still short of where it should be.

In the meantime, the mindset of instant gratification through use of credit cards, unaffordable mortgages, or other fiscal instruments continues to grow. Why put off for tomorrow, that which will bring us great pleasure today. So what if I can’t afford the new and very costly Apple Watch, which I don’t really need in the first place. That’s not going to stop me from purchasing one today. On credit, of course.

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SYSTEMIC FAILURES

What the recent race riots in Baltimore or Ferguson or other cities, were really all about is poverty. Ostensibly the riots and demonstrations have occurred because of white police officers killing young black men under dubious circumstances. But in Baltimore, 3 of the 6 officers charged were black themselves, casting doubt about the racial aspect of this tragedy. There may have been negligence, even criminal negligence, but its doubtful that the young man that died in that police van that day in Baltimore, was the victim of a racial hate crime. In the other cities, the cops that shot their young black victims were eventually absolved of any wrongdoing after fairly exhaustive local and federal investigations. So why all the outpouring of often violent demonstrations including the looting and burning of stores and businesses. Some of that could be ascribed to outside troublemakers being bused in to create as much havoc as they possibly can. But most of the violence is due to the fact that large numbers of minorities have to live in drug-infested, vermin-infested, crime and gang-infested slums that are so horrific that most people wouldn’t allow their pet animals to live under similar circumstances. People living in such conditions have generally lost all hope for a better future; and with nothing left to lose, they set fire and go out to destroy the very neighborhoods they reside in. Each slum-infested community is a tinder-box ready to explode with the slightest provocation.

Fifty years after the fall of Jim Crow, the system of segregation and racial bigotry that lasted for 100 years after the Civil War,  many blacks, Latinos and other minorities still find themselves mired in mind-numbing poverty and confined to the filth and squalor of inner-city slums, where gangs, drugs and crime proliferate. The promise of “the American dream” has never materialized for these people. The male black unemployment rate in these slums is over 50 percent. If a black male living there does show promise of succeeding in business and accumulating enough resources to move out of the slums, he is usually derided by gang members as being a “tool of whitey.” A subculture has taken root in these slums that states that African-Americans have always been, and always will be victimized by “whitey”; and especially by white police forces. When one becomes a believer of victimhood, there is usually little opportunity for betterment.

I consider this one of the major systemic failings of our capitalistic society. The fact that a relatively small number of multi-millionaires and billionaires live in the most lavish of mansions and often possess the most expensive cars, yachts, private jets, priceless art collections, etc., while millions of others live in the most deplorable squalor. Yet, for those advocating laissez-faire capitalism, this is supposed to be how the system works. And it’s not just the poverty-stricken. Our so-called middle-class, which is supposedly the bedrock of American society, keeps sinking lower and lower each year. Middle-class family income for the past 6 has been driven lower by our capitalistic machinations.

One of the reasons for dim economic prospects for those that are down-and-out, is that millions of jobs that were being performed by Americans have been shipped overseas. Most of these jobs are what’s considered blue collar work, which would greatly benefit the impoverished community the most. But according to the tenets of capitalism, you go where the product can be most cheaply manufactured. So, if it costs $5 to manufacture a widget on U.S. soil, but only $1.25 to produce it in Bangladesh, or Mexico or China, you put the factory in one of these latter countries. Even if it costs 75 cents to ship this widget back to the U.S., the cost of putting it on the market is $2 versus $5. The GOP once put forth a concept called enterprise zones. Under this idea, the Government would allow generous tax breaks to companies willing to establish factories in the worst inner-city slums. Such factories could have provided tens of thousands of blue collar jobs to neighborhoods with high unemployment. It was a good idea; but somehow it never got off the ground. U.S. businesses just found it a lot easier to ship badly needed jobs overseas where labor is so much cheaper.

Of course, our systemic failures are not limited to economic turmoil. I’ve previously written extensively about how our political operations are totally corrupt and dysfunctional, so I won’t repeat myself. Except to say that every political candidate from dog-catcher on up to president is bought and paid for by the same billionaires controlling our economic system. No one has a chance of being elected if money isn’t pouring into his or her political campaign. Once elected, the candidates are then beholden to those that funded them, such as the Koch brothers. Another way that the rich get to control the way life is allowed to function in the U.S.

Also indicative of our systemic failures is the way that religious fanatics (bible-thumpers) are allowed to influence our society. If a woman seeks to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, it should be a matter solely between her and her doctor. But not according to the bible thumpers, who have made huge strides in eliminating women’s access to abortion clinics in states throughout the bible-belt. The same is true for gay rights. While the Supreme Court will likely strike down state bans against gay marriage, look for the bible-thumpers to undertake a rear guard action against such unions. I mean, didn’t the bible say something really bad about homosexuality. And so it goes.

I think, in the end, that our systemic failures are a result of people being inculcated with various brands of ideology. And ideology is just a $10 word for fanaticism. The ideologue will usually ignore reality and adhere to a craven obedience of some form of a rigid fanatical system. When usually the only thing that works in public affairs, and in private life as well, is pragmatism. Go with what has been proven to be successful time after time. But what would be the fun in that?  If people became pragmatic, you couldn’t watch scenes on the nightly news of demonstrators rampaging and setting neighborhoods on fire.

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CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’…..OF FRESH WATER

“Water, water everywhere, and yet the boards did shrink; Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” Those immortal lines are from “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, first published in 1798. It tells the story of a crew of sailors aboard a sailing vessel, and how one of the crew accidentally shoots and kills an albatross; then considered to be an omen of good fortune for sailors when at sea. By killing the albatross, the crew’s good fortune quickly turns bad, very bad indeed. The ocean winds necessary to propel the ship’s sails die down and become nil. The sky becomes nothing but sunshine, with no rain in sight as the thirsty crew begins running out drinking water. Their vessel becomes stranded at sea, “like a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” If you’re interested in how it all turns out, read the poem. Anyway I thought I would use this literary classic to segway into a discussion of the brutal drought that is currently afflicting California; which I’m pretty certain is not the result anyone killing an albatross. Instead, it’s been brought about by decades of overpopulating and over farming one of the driest places on the planet, the Southwest United States. And it’s not just California; the drought also affects southern Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico. But it appears, at this time, that Southern California is being hardest hit.

California is well into its fourth year of severe drought, with mountains to the north that would normally contain about 6 feet snow at this time, being completely bare. It’s the runoff from these mountains in the Spring when the snow melts that replenishes California aqueducts and aquifers, and what enables the state to maintain its huge agricultural industry. California is the 8th largest economy in the world, and this country’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables. With reservoirs beginning to run dry, farmers and county officials have begun to rely heavily on tapping into underground water in aquifers, which are now also being seriously depleted. As a direct result of the drought, the California economy is expected to lose more than $2.2 billion this year. More than 17,000 jobs, mostly agricultural, have also disappeared. Some farming operations have ceased to exist, especially in the dairy and livestock industries. The news just keeps getting worse with each passing day. The “wet season” is over now in California, and it won’t be until October at the earliest, that any hope for relief from the drought will occur. If there isn’t any significant rain or snow come next winter, Americans better get used to the fact that drought in the Southwest is the new normal.

Governor Jerry Brown has called on residents to reduce by 25% all water usage. A desalinization plant is being completed and should be on line within the next few months. One theory of solution is that if California could build a string of desalinization plants along its Pacific coast, it could suck in enough ocean water to fill its needs. The problem with that theory, however, is that desalinization plants are enormously expensive to build, and then would provide only a fraction of the water requirements for the entire state. One plant costs in the billions to build, so it would take hundreds of billions of dollars to construct plants up and down the state that would still provide less than half the clean water needed. Where would that money come from. Turning salt water into the drinkable kind is apparently a very complex and costly effort.

As I mentioned previously, the Southwest is vastly overpopulated, and the population just continues to increase. The entire region is desert dry, yet it’s inhabited by tens of millions, with more continuing to relocate there every day. I’ve written several times before about the dire water situation here in Las Vegas where I reside at the present. About 2 million people live in the Las Vegas Valley, which gets, in a good year, maybe 3.5 inches of rain. Las Vegas receives almost all its water from Lake Mead, which is provided for by the Colorado River. Or, as it should be more aptly called these days, the Colorado Streamlet. The same barren northern mountains with the missing snow pack, which is supposed to replenish California’s water reservoirs, also provides for the Colorado River flow. Just this past week, the local LV newspaper had a front page article about how the water level in Lake Mead is expected to hit a new all-time low, just in time for the big fight taking place Saturday night at the MGM Grand. A fight, I might add, where scalpers are charging tens of thousands of dollars per ticket, and unbelievably, some people are actually willing to fork over that kind of cash for a ringside seat. Wouldn’t it be a hoot and a half, if, after the fight, these big spenders went back to their hotel rooms, turned on the water facet or shower, and nothing came out. After all, MGM Grand never promised them free flowing water for their $2,000 a night room.

I may be old enough to where I can ride out the water shortage and drought existing here in the few remaining years I have left. But for young people moving to Las Vegas, or Southern California, or anywhere in the Southwest for the that matter, it could be a very rough future if unyielding drought does, in fact, become the new norm. Residents here could become like those mariners in Coleridge’s poem, stuck in a “painted ship upon a painted ocean.”

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IN THE TIME OF “THE TROUBLES”

For the past few years, the world has looked on with horror and revulsion as Islamic-Fascist terrorist groups  such as ISIS or Al-Qida have beheaded or otherwise murdered thousands of Christians, primarily in the Mid-East. It’s as if such mindless killings sought to deny the very essence of what it means to be a human being. But over a period of centuries, history has also been replete with scenes of Christian slaughtering other Christians, and again using the most gruesome of methods such as beheadings or burning people alive at the stake. Ever since a young priest named Martin Luther became so fed up with what he viewed as rampant corruption in the Vatican and with various church practices that, in 1517, he posted a treatise on on a church door in Germany describing such corrupt practices, have the killings taken place. Luther’s actions, of course, led to the Protestant Reformation, and it didn’t take long after that before Protestants and Catholics were at each other’s throats. In England, alone, the failure of HenryVIII”s  first wife to produce a male heir to the throne led to the British renouncing Catholicism and thousands of deaths in wars between Protestants and Catholics.

But one doesn’t have to go back centuries to find examples of Christians killing other Christians. One only has to go back a mere decade or so to view the spectacle of Christians spilling each others blood. To a time known as “The Troubles” that took place in Northern Ireland from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, when over 3500 Protestant and Catholic lives were lost in an exercise of utter futility. To begin with, it must be noted that Ireland has had a very long history of famines, starvation, suffering, poverty and hardship. This has infused the Irish people with an overwhelming fatalistic view of life in general. So when “The Troubles” began it was just piling on more of the same. But first a little background.

After centuries of conflict, southern Ireland, which is predominantly Catholic, broke away from the United Kingdom, (which consists of Britain, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) and became a separate country, officially known as Eire, and which no longer has any formal ties with the U.K. Eire was also highly desirous of having Northern Ireland  break free of British rule and join it in one large Irish Republic. The problem is that a good chunk of the population of Northern Ireland is Protestant, with no desire to join the Catholics that rule Eire. They would rather be united with Protestant England. Further, the Catholics of Northern Ireland have historically been poor, oppressed, and often unemployed; while the Protestants have represented the oppressive British side of the coin consisting of privileged classes with better job opportunities and better wages. A scenario constructed in Hell.

Eire and the Catholics of Northern Ireland were not about to go quietly into that dark night, however, and by the 1960s tempers had reached the boiling point. The situation got totally out of hand. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was formed by oppressed Catholics as a paramilitary organization with the goal of forcing Britain out of Northern Ireland so it could be reunited with Eire. Using typical terrorist tactics against the civilian population such as bombings and random shootings, it set off a wave of Christians killing Christians, as Protestants employed even harsher countermeasures against the Catholic population. The British sent its military into Belfast in an attempt to contain IRA terrorism, which, in turn, led to IRA bombings throughout London. It was called the time of “The Troubles.” Terrorism and murder were carried out by extremists on both sides. People suspected of terrorism were often thrown in jail without a trial and languished there for years. As I’ve said, at least 3500 people died out of a total population of just 1.5 million, during this period of madness.

On a personal note, I made a business trip to London sometime during the 1980s, and was fortunate enough to stay in a hotel room overlooking Hyde Park. On the day I was leaving, I had some time to kill before heading to the airport, so I took one last stroll through the section of Hyde Park that was visible from my hotel balcony. On the way back I passed a park bench and then continued back to my room. I went out onto the balcony for one last look at the park before the taxi arrived. As I stood there gazing, a violent explosion suddenly went off under the very park bench I had walked by less than 5 minutes previously.  Obviously the work of the IRA. When I told the taxi driver about this on my way to the airport, he kept muttering-“fucking IRA.”

Finally, in the late 1990s, fatigue had set in over the senselessness of all the death, destruction and misery that had been inflicted on both sides. Negotiations began taking place between the 2 factions, engineered, in a large part, by U.S. President Bill Clinton. A peace agreement was at last reached in 1998, and was overwhelmingly ratified in a referendum among the populace. Today, that peace agreement is largely holding, but the enmity between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast continues unabated. Belfast is a city that is almost strictly segregated between the 2 sides; with huge concrete walls separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Most children go to segregated schools. The old hatreds between Catholics and protestants is still thriving.

As I said earlier, the Irish people have experienced an enormous serving of human suffering throughout their history. Classical Irish writers such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett have brilliantly chronicled this aspect of the human condition among the Irish populace. And if one ever makes a visit to Belfast, they can view first hand, how “The Troubles” in Ireland just keep rolling on and on. And also view up close, the results of what it looks like when Christians were killing Christians.

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DONATING TO THE PIZZA JOINT

In about 500 to 1000 years from now, when historians begin to chronicle the demise of the American Empire, similar to the way author Edward Gibbon chronicled “The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire,” I hope they take into consideration 2 recent minor events that, nevertheless, speak volumes about the American psyche. The very mindset that will ultimately lead to American self-destruction in a manner similar to the way ancient Romans brought about their own downfall. In the American case, it’s about individuals clinging to power through the deployment of religious fanaticism, and a gullible public that buys into the trappings of such fanaticism.

The first event took place on August 1, 2013, which was proclaimed Chick-fil-A day by former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee. Chick-fil-A is a chain of fried chicken joints, mainly in the South and Mid-West, whose CEO, Dan Cathy, felt compelled to come out publicly against the “sin” of gay marriage. He uttered statements to the effect that if the U.S. goes against God’s will by allowing such “atrocities” as gay marriage to become legal, then God will stomp on us in retribution. He will simply crush us like a bug. Huckabee, a bible thumper going back to his days in Arkansas, was so impressed by Dan Cathy”s proclamation, that he stated on his TV show that God-fearing Americans should turn out on Aug.1 at Chick-fil-A outlets to show their appreciation. And turn out, they did. Most Chick-fil-A diners were so swamped with demand that they ran out of food before closing time. At the franchise outlet in Augusta, GA, the lunch line was several hours long. People were willing to stand on line for 2 hours or more, in the broiling summer heat, only to end up with a greasy fried chicken sandwich, if that’s what it took to stick it to those “queers.”  Huckabee said on his TV show after, that he was “giddy” about the outcome. In areas where there were no outlets, evangelicals had arranged for caravans of people to schlep for hours to the closest Chick-fil-A and then wait in hot sun, just to show their solidarity with Dan Cathy’s statements about gay marriage. What this episode tells us is that the delusional fanaticism surrounding the bible thumpers ideology has no boundaries.

The second event is on-going even as we speak. As we all know, the Indiana legislature felt compelled to show its appreciation to the evangelicals of that state that elected them to office in the first place, by enacting what is called the freedom of religion act, or some such phony nomenclature. Remember that Indiana is in the heart of the Mid-Western bible belt, so due homage must be given to these Christian ideologues, that always vote Republican by the way. In any event, despite all denials to the contrary, what this legislation does is simply promote bigotry.  It states that any business open to the public can deny service to anyone, if providing such service somehow conflicts with their religious beliefs. So, any shopkeeper that’s opposed to gay marriage, can deny providing food or a wedding cake to, or refuse to provide photography for, a gay wedding ceremony. This time, however, instead of rolling over and playing dead, the gay community and their supporters have attempted to fight back. Business conventions scheduled to take place in Indiana have been canceled, as well as a slew of other commercial activities. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, who replaced Steve Jobs, has also threatened Indiana with business losses. The uproar has caused the Indiana state government to somewhat modify the legislation in question, but, in essence, it’s still on the books in its basic form. Sort of reminds me of the 1960s when blacks attempted to de-segregate Southern lunch counters by sitting down and ordering off the menu. The white establishment owners would refuse service to any Afro-American by stating that since they owned the business, it was their constitutional right to deny service to whoever they wanted. Eventually those Jim Crow protections were struck down by the courts who ruled that any public establishment must provide service to the entire public without discrimination.

As an added wrinkle to all this fiasco, a pizza joint somewhere in Sticksville, Indiana, population 2000, has come out and publicly proclaimed that it would not provide any catering services for any gay marriages. Like gay couples from all over the country are just dying to have their wedding celebrations catered with pizza from Sticksville, Indiana. But the most fascinating aspect of this story is that, because of their stand on gay marriage, people from all over the country have been sending in cash donations to the pizza joint. So far, it’s claimed that over $850,000 has been collected with more coming in. Most of that money, I’m certain, is from people who are likely living hardscrabble existences. Nevertheless, their evangelical fundamentalism is so deranged, that they will gladly part with what fews dollars may have, if it feeds into their anti-gay bigotry.

Who knew that it would be that easy to have people part with their money once you can tap into their ingrained hatreds. I periodically get e-mails from places such as Nigeria, offering to deposit millions of dollars into my bank account if I would just give them my account number. Does anyone fall for these scams? It’s so much easier and even legal to scam people out of their money, the way they’re doing it at the Indiana pizza place. The deep-seated hatred of people making these voluntary donations is only superseded by their gullibility. As P.T. Barnum of circus fame once said, there’s a sucker born every minute. But the fact that such hatred and bigotry still seem to thrive in our so-called enlightened age, does not bode well for the long-term prospects of this country. The thing about hatred is that it corrodes from the inside out, until nothing but a shell or facade is left.

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APATHY AT THE POLLING BOOTHS

The very core foundation of a democratic republic as the United States pretends to be, is that the people get to choose who will govern the country through impartial elections. In short, the voting process becomes the overriding essence of democracy. But what if the people don’t show up to vote? What if they couldn’t care less? That, in a nutshell, is what happened in the 2014 congressional elections in which the Republicans not only swept both houses of congress, but almost all governorships and state legislatures as well. It turns out that only 36.5% of eligible voters made the effort to cast their ballots. Over 60% of eligible voters couldn’t be bothered. Most of those that stayed home tended to vote Democratic; hence the Republican sweep. Older people who are generally more conservative tended to vote in higher numbers; what else do they have to do with their time. The poor and sick, whom Democratic policies generally favor, comprised most of the non-voters, while the more affluent classes, whom the GOP favors, again voted above the norm. Add to that the endemic corruption of the American ballot process to begin with, through the powerful dominance of big money interests, and the growing movement in red states of voter suppression efforts such as picture ID requirements, and you have in the U.S. what I call a faux democracy. Turning out one’s base block of voters is not the only way to win elections. Keeping the other party’s voters from entering the polling booth in the first place, also works.

A little while ago, President Obama suggested that legislation should be passed requiring all eligible voters to cast their ballots at election time. Good luck with that. He pointed out that Australia has such a law that works well. But it’s a much too rational act for the U.S. ever to adopt. First of all, it would defeat the GOP strategy of voter suppression of likely Democratic adherents. Secondly, it could initiate a wave of sanity within the U.S. electoral process which would also be detrimental to Republican interests. Such as a constitutional amendment that would move Election Day from November to late September or early October, when the weather would likely be far more conducive to large voter turnouts. Farmers harvesting their crops is no longer a factor in the polling process as it was in the late 18th century when our constitution was written. Or how about making election time on a weekend when most people are home from work or school, and are thus, more available. And as long as we’re in this phase of sanity-fantizing, how about changing the nomination process so that all states would have their primary ballots cast on the same day in June or early July; instead of a handful of really small states essentially deciding early in the year, who will be one of the two people that will become the next president of the U.S. But, of course, all this is pure fantasy, and will have to probably wait for another few hundred years of human evolution to become a reality.

Thus, come election day 2016 we’ll be stuck with the same mess and clutter inherent in our polling system. As I wrote last time, since the Republicans are so much better at the politics of personal destruction which will become especially potent considering all the political baggage that Mrs. Clinton carries, the GOP would literally  have to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory to lose the 2016 election. I’m still going with my prediction that Senator Marco Rubio will be the next president, with a long shot possibility of Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin. Jeb Bush, who is supposedly the current favorite for the GOP nomination, will fade out quickly once Republican voters realize that he might possess a modicum of sanity and common sense. Can’t have something like that going on with Republican candidate, can we?

So assuming the GOP wins the White House and all of Congress, what would life in America look like come 2017. Let’s first start with the Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who’s well into her 80s, and has had some very serious health issues, apparently is determined to leave the bench the way Justice William Reinquist did many years ago, which was feet first. But how long can she last. One way or another, she’s almost certain to be gone during a Rubio presidency. That would give the the Republican president the opportunity to appoint another anti-abortion Justice to the Supreme Court, which would almost certainly be the death knell for Roe V. Wade. In the nearly 45 years since the Roe V. Wade decision came into existence, nearly 60 million abortions have taken place in the U.S. All that would be largely gone. The bible thumpers would be dancing in the streets with celebration. Immediately, the entire South and most of the Midwest would do away with legal abortion. It might still remain permissible in Northeastern and West Coast states, and perhaps in the upper Midwest. But it would be history everywhere else. So, a poor woman, in say, Alabama, who needs to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, and who couldn’t afford to travel to say, New York, would have no other option than to visit some back-alley butcher, as they used to be called. I’m sure they would begin to proliferate once again.

Continuing on the values page, every effort would be made to reverse whatever progress has been made in accepting gay marriage and non-discrimination of homosexuals. Guns and gun ownership laws would proliferate to the point of potential gunfights at the OK Corral nearly every morning with breakfast. I could go on but I’m sure you get the picture. On the budgetary side of the fence, those that are most down-and-out and most in need of government assistance will also suffer the most, while tax cuts for the rich would almost certainly be enacted. But the financial side deserves a whole chapter unto itself, which I will write about next time. Stay tuned if you care about what your future will look like.

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THE DEMISE OF THE DEMOCRATS

After the 2008 election the Democratic Party seemed to have it all. It had just won the Presidency with the first black ever to occupy the Oval Office, and it had elected overwhelming majorities to both the House and Senate. They had a clear mandate to enact their main policy objectives that had been bottled up for so many years under the Bush Administration. Or so it seemed. What could possibly go wrong. In a word – everything. Now, the Democratic Party is barely hanging on by its fingernails, and faces further electoral disasters come 2016. So let us go back a few years into recent history and examine how the Democrats managed to paint themselves into this unfortunate corner.

In 2008, the Democratic Party made history by nominating a young, inexperienced Barack Obama to be its candidate for president. It was the first time either major party had nominated an Afro-American for the highest elected office in the land. Obama, however, had only been in the Senate for 4 years, and had no real significant accomplishments. Prior to that he was a law professor. The inexperience shone through as he made a number of rookie mistakes during the campaign. The Republicans chose veteran John McCain, whom the polls indicated was reasonably ahead all summer long and into early September, and would likely coast to victory if circumstances remained the same. Of course, as we well know, they did not. The cracks in our economic wall began to grow ever wider, with the wall finally collapsing under a torrent of dismal economical news. The highly inflated housing bubble, along with the derivatives associated with that bubble began disintegrating. Lehman Brothers, a huge Wall Street financial giant, and a holder of much of these types of housing derivatives and other worthless securities was forced to go bankrupt because the Federal Reserve refused to bail them out, as it had with done other Wall Street enterprises. With the collapse of Lehman, financial panic came flooding in as stocks and bonds and other commercial paper plunged in value, almost over night. Companies started going out of business, the unemployment rate skyrocketed, and the housing market collapsed with large numbers of people being “underwater” on their mortgages. Some economists claim that the U.S. economy was just inches away from total disaster which would have included huge bank failures with people not having access to their accounts. Perhaps those that stuffed their life savings into their mattresses might have been immune.

Of course, when the economy goes south, the party in power takes the blame. In this case it was George W. Bush and the Republicans. With a tidal wave of bad economic news spreading over the landscape, the Democrats rode to impressive victories in 2008, and their future as being the dominant force in government seemed impenetrable. But, human nature being as it is, a huge victory often leads to hubris, which, in turn, sows the seeds of inevitable reversal and defeat. The Democrats main policy goal, at that time, was the enactment of universal health care legislation, which no previous president had been able to achieve. So, after much gnashing of teeth, the Democrats finally passed the Affordable Health Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which was neither affordable nor universal. The act was so cumbersome and distasteful to so many Americans, that the Democrats already began sustaining huge losses during the 2010 Congressional elections.

The problem with Obamacare is that it focused on providing health insurance to almost everyone, instead of providing health CARE for all. Once Congress became enmeshed in the insurance markets, it guaranteed there would be unbelievable complexity and dysfunction. Instead of trying to navigate through the details of insurance policies, Congress could have merely extended Medicare to everyone, and paid for that with a modest value-added tax on most products. No applications to process on-line, no forms to fill out. If you got sick, you would go to the doctor of your choice, who in turn would submit his form to the government for reimbursement. Have a toothache, visit your favorite dentist for treatment, who would likewise seek reimbursement from the government. That way, if you liked your doctor, you could really keep your doctor. But that would have been too smart and uncomplicated; virtues not in possession of most politicians.

The albatross of Obamacare continues to weigh heavily on Democrats. Obama did win re-election in 2012, but that was mainly due to Mitt Romney’s incompetence, and his ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In 2014, however, the Democrats suffered huge losses at the polls, and are now the minority party in both houses of Congress. The Democrats further extended their losing streak to state elections. There are now Republican governors in 32 states, and most state legislatures are in GOP hands as well. Only 18 states have Democratic governors. The mood of the populace, and the election tidal wave seems to be flowing red. So now, a year and a half from the next presidential election in 2016, I’m going to make a flat-out prediction. I’m going to predict that Marco Rubio, Republican senator from Florida will be the next President of the United States.

The Democrats, once again, operating with colossal ineptitude and incompetence, have put all their eggs in Hillary Clinton’s basket. The problem is, that Hillary possesses so much political baggage from dubious schemes from her Arkansas days in the 1980s, to the whole Monica Lewinsky fiasco of the 1990s, to her time as Secretary of State when 4 Americans were murdered in Libya, including our Ambassador, in the 2000s, to the latest flare-up about her using a private server to process government e-mails while Secretary, that I don’t believe she’s electable. Plus the fact that at 69, Mrs. Clinton is showing her age. Not to be unkind, but the way Hillary appears in her later years is no match for the appearance of the youthful, handsome, smiling and friendly Rubio. He may not have a lot of charisma, (what Republican does), but he’s friendly enough to exhibit some degree of charm.

When men age, even if they look like beasts, it’s only to be expected. Everyone knows that down deep, all men are animals. So if they look the part, who cares? But if women begin to lose their beauty as they age, it does become a big deal. It’s the good old double standard, and it will work well to Rubio’s advantage. Unfortunately, the Democrats appear not to have a viable candidate outside of Hillary. If she goes down in flames, the Democratic Party will be on the verge of implosion. Perhaps they can convince New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to convert to being a Democrat and nominate him in 2016. It might save the party from total destruction. I’ll have more to say on this topic next time. Stay tuned.

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ANOTHER WIN FOR DYSFUNCTION

Last time I wrote about the deal emerging in negotiations to limit Iran’s capability to achieve nuclear weaponry. I pointed out that in its efforts to reach some sort of nuclear arrangement with Iran, the Obama administration is very likely to reach some terribly wrong agreement. Like allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium which is at the very core of a nuclear bomb. Or like setting a term-limit on the agreement reached to only 10 years. Which means that at the start of the 11th year, Iran could very easily start to assemble nuclear weapons on their assembly lines. In the meantime, Iran gets the benefit of a relaxation of all economic sanctions that most of the world has placed on it. Oil production would dramatically increase, and the Iranian economy would boom. But even worse than this deeply flawed treaty is the action of 47 Republican senators in sending a letter to the mullahs that exercise iron-clad control over that country. The letter, in effect, stated that any agreement reached between the Obama administration and the Iranian government will be short lived because when the Republicans take power in less than 2 years, they will likely chuck it into the garbage can. For mind-boggling recklessness and sheer outright stupidity, this action is almost beyond comprehension.

Let’s start with the premise that has supposedly been woven into the American landscape since the end of WWII. That premise states that the political divide in this country stops “at the waters edge.” This means that we can bicker internally about all sorts of political issues; but when it comes to dealing in foreign relations and with foreign governments, we speak with one united voice. How else can we successfully achieve our foreign policy objectives? As an analogy, lets turn back the clock to early 1940, when the Nazi military was on the march throughout Europe. The Roosevelt administration had established a “lend-lease” program to supply England with the vital weaponry it needed to fight Hitler’s troops as they threatened to invade the British Isles. If isolationist Republican senators who were opposed to this program had sent Hitler a letter at the time, saying “don’t worry about lend-lease. When we win the election slated for later this year, we’ll just toss that whole lend-lease operation into the trash bin.” One can only imagine the tragedy that would have ensued. Fortunately for us, and the rest of the free world, no such letter was ever sent. But that hasn’t stopped modern day Republicans, whose antipathy, or outright hatred of everything Obama, from going deeply beyond the waters edge.

The GOP excuse for writing that letter was that they wanted to explain to those crazy kids, the ayatollahs, that so-ruthlessly run Iran, about the intricate points of the U.S. constitutional form of government.  Right. If you believe that one, I’ve got a bridge that connects Brooklyn with Manhattan that I’ll sell you real cheap. First of all, by writing to the ayatollahs, the most fanatical and hate-mongering segment of Iranian society, and telling them that any pact reached with the current administration isn’t worth the paper its printed on, only reinforces the ayatollahs doctrine that the U.S. can never be trusted. That the U.S. is the great satan that must be destroyed, along with Israel, of course. That it’s an absolute moral imperative for every Moslem to seek the total destruction of the U.S. and Israel. So, any effort on the part of our current administration to reach some form of reasonable accommodation with Iran is now pretty much out the window.

At the heart of such recklessness is the GOP’s undying antipathy toward Obama and his administration. It explains the daily gushing river of vitriol and venom directed against not only Obama, but his Attorney-General Eric Holder, as well. The first black President and the first black Attorney-General of the United States. Day after day, this vitriol pours forth from Fox News and right-wing-whacko talk radio. But who could possibly infer that there’s anything racial going on here. A Rush Limbaugh or any of his wannabes would, of course, never admit to that.

The Republican mantra of hating everything Obama is further illustrated by the Attorney-General situation. Toward the end of 2014, AG Eric Holder announced that he was resigning and would leave office as soon as a new AG has been approved by the Senate. President Obama thereafter announced that he was nominating a New York prosecutor named Loretta Lynch to be the replacement AG. She would be the first black woman to occupy that office. The Senate panel overseeing such nominations declared that she was well-qualified and approved her nomination for a full Senate vote. The problem is that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky, refuses to schedule such a vote. On the one hand, confirming Lynch’s nomination would be the quickest way to be rid of the despised Eric Holder.  On the other hand, Loretta Lynch would just be another Afro-American carrying out Obama administration policies. A female Eric Holder. What a conundrum. To vote her down would allow the racial disease within the Republican Party to become too obvious, even for voters that hardly pay any attention to such matters. So, at this point, it appears that the GOP has no end-game strategy, other than endless delaying tactics, until, they hope, time runs out on the Obama presidency.

Such is the state of of American politics in the year 2015. Every time one might think that we’ve hit a new low in political dysfunction, polarization, and hyper-partisanship, the political class seems to sink us even deeper into the quagmire of mud and slime. And it’s only going to get worse in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

 

 

 

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THE NUKES IN OUR MIDST

When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, he spoke of his aspirations of having all nations that possessed nuclear weapons to begin the process of dismantling their nuclear arsenals. A lovely sentiment to be sure; but a highly unrealistic one, given that man is still pretty far down on the evolutionary chain. The U.S. and Russia have made some token reduction of their nukes; but each country still has an arsenal sufficient to destroy every living plant and animal on Planet Earth about 2 dozen times over. So while we can all dream of what a joyful relief it would be to live in a world without nuclear bombs, it likely will never happen in most of our lifetimes. Imagine what celebration there would be if the crazies that have turned North Korea into a giant concentration camp could be stripped of their nuclear weapons. It’s just not going to happen, however.

The subject of nuclear arsenals has become germane because the U.S. has been negotiating for perhaps over 2 years with Iran, to supposedly prevent that nation from acquiring “the Bomb.” Those of you that have read previous entries on this blog know that I’ve often referred to Iran as being the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Which they undoubtedly are. The ayatollahs that run that country possess a bottomless pit of hatred toward Israel, the U.S. and all western culture. The ultimate destruction of these countries and their culture is their undying passion. So Iran has been constructing deep underground sites all over the country where it has been furiously building atomic bomb capabilities, such as enriching uranium to nuclear explosive levels. This has been going on for over 15 years. These sites are buried so deeply underground, that it’s doubtful that even our most lethal bunker-busting bombs could destroy them. Israel wanted to bomb Iranian nuclear development sites in 2006 when it still might have been doable; but President George Bush would not give his approval. Already immeshed in 2 unpopular wars, (Afghanistan and Iraq), the last thing Bush felt he needed was a third military front. Today However, Iran has so improved its military capabilities that an Israeli strike would result in nothing but the destruction of the Israeli air force.

At the present, the Obama administration appears to be in its endgame of negotiations aimed at precluding Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state. However, the details emerging from the results of these talks are highly disturbing. Apparently any agreement reached would allow Iran to keep enriching uranium, as well as spinning thousands of centrifuges, and continue building a giant plutonium reactor. All the ingredients necessary for a world-class nuclear arsenal. Wait, the news gets even worse. If an agreement is reached, it would contain a sunset clause, wherein any restrictions placed on Iran’s nuclear development would expire in 10 years. After that, those fanatical mullahs running the country can crank up their nuclear program at will, and produce enough enriched uranium to build a 1000 bombs. Now for an old guy like me, 10 years may be enough to squeeze thru this lifetime without a nuclear holocaust. But for you younger people, or those of you that have young children, it means living in a world where a country that despises us has a vast nuclear arsenal with an itchy trigger-finger.

But wait, this apparently deeply flawed treaty would produce even worse results. All economic sanctions and restrictions that we’ve placed on Iran during the past few years would be gone. These sanctions have taken a large bite out of the Iranian economy; but now they would be dissolved. This would allow the Iran to flourish; with trade relations resumed, oil pumping and sold on a world-wide market, and foreign investment pouring into a restored economy. The Iranian government would have additional resources to further enhance their military and nuclear capabilities. But wait, the situation is even worse than that.

Along with its nuclear bomb development, Iran has also accelerated a program of building intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are not even part of the present treaty negotiations. Now, why would Iran be desperate to possess an arsenal of ICBMs when its present collection of rockets could easily reach and destroy Tel-Aviv or any other Israeli city.  Here’s a hint. You don’t build ICBMs to put a stick dynamite on its warhead. However, a nuclear tipped ICBM could reach just about any target in North America, and destroy the despised western culture once and for all. And if such aggression would be too obvious and thus invite military retaliation, Iran has another option. Just build a suitcase sized nuclear device and hand one or two off to a terror group such as ISIS. Who, you can be certain, is working day and night to get their hands on such a nuclear device. Once a terrorist slips inside the U.S. with a nuclear suitcase bomb in his possession, the rest is easy. Just place the bomb inside a hotel room in Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, or any other major U.S. city, and slip back out of the country. When the bomb is detonated killing hundreds of thousands or more, and rendering that city uninhabitable for decades, Iran could deny any knowledge or responsibility for the calamity; and claim that it was solely the work of those crazy and barbaric ISIS terrorists.

If this scenario should ever come to fruition, the U.S. stock market would plunge to zero, and our entire economy would be as devastated as the city in question. The U.S. and the rest of the western world would be a whole different place, and not for the better. The Prime Minister of Israel is due to address Congress tomorrow and will likely warn how deeply-flawed is the treaty being negotiated with Iran. The Obama administration and various Democrats have loudly protested the PM’s address, believing it’s an undesired interference in the American political system. Nevertheless, the U.S. would be wise to heed his concerns. Apparently this administration is desperate to reach any nuclear arms treaty with Iran, no matter how deeply flawed that treaty may be. It’s true that there may be no desirable options regarding Iranian nuclear development other than more tightly increasing the economic sanctions we’ve place on Iran. But at least that’s something.

I used to think that the only thing positive about growing old was that I didn’t have to undergo colonoscopies anymore. But I think I’ve found something else. I likely won’t have to be around when the roof finally caves in.

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DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN

That famous quote from 1961 belongs to Yogi Berra, all-star catcher for the New York Yankees, and was made in the context of on-going baseball events. Yogi had a way of mangling the English language, (or in this case, the French) but in a humorous fashion that sports writers loved to quote. If you’re interested, you can Google for other Yogisms. The trouble is, however, when deja vu keeps occurring in the unfolding events of mankind, it no longer becomes funny, but instead takes on tragic proportions. And the funny part is how it keeps happening over and over and over again.  Today, we have history repeating itself, with devastating consequences, but with hardly anyone seeming to learn from the lessons of the past. Let us then try to understand how and why this is occurring.

I’ve written many times before about how Adolf Hitler and his Nazi thugs came to power in Germany in the the 1930s, and the ensuing consequences  for the rest of Europe; but the 1930s so closely parallel today’s world events, that it bears repeating. Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1932, largely through the democratic process. But upon taking office in 1933, Hitler swiftly abolished all semblances of freedom and democracy in Germany, as well as any future elections, and became dictator for life. If you opposed his regime, it was off to the concentration camps, or you were just simply executed. In contravention of the Treaty of Versailles which ended WWI, Hitler started to militarily re-arm Germany, soon after he took office. If the French had sent troops into Germany at that point, as they were legally obliged to do by the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler could have been quickly deposed, WWII could have been avoided, and 60 million deaths in Europe as a result of that war would have also been avoided. But the French did nothing but just stood by as the Nazi military grew in strength. After all, who wants to undergo the messiness of war when one could luxuriate in peaceful endeavors. So, seeing that both France and England were essentially paper tigers, Hitler made his next move in early 1938 by invading and swallowing up Austria. The pretext was that Austria was a German speaking nation, so they should have belonged to Germany all along. Never mind that Austria was a separate country with its own government; it now became part of the Third Reich. That event came to be known as the Anschluss, as the Allies (France, England, and now the U.S.) rationalized Hitler’s aggression as being no big deal. A policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany could forestall military engagement. Or so it was thought.

Hitler, now convinced that all of Europe was his for the taking, in 1938 moved his Nazi war machine into northern Czechoslovakia, again on the pretext that most of its inhabitants were also of German ethnicity. This time, the leadership of France and England started to become “concerned.” A conference was arranged in Munich, Germany between Hitler and Prime Ministers Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, of England and France respectively. The Munich Conference, as it came to be known, would go down in history as the ultimate failure of a policy of appeasement when dealing with aggressor tyrants.  A pact was signed there in Munich on that day in 1938, that allowed Hitler to retain the spoils of his adventurism in Austria and northern Czechoslovakia as long as he committed no further acts of aggression. After the conference, Chamberlain came home to cheering crowds in London and proclaimed he had achieved “peace in our time.” The British were in ecstasy because they wanted so much to believe this was true. Daladier also returned to Paris and was similarly greeted by mobs of elated Frenchmen at Orly Airport. But Daladier didn’t delude himself. He knew that a long, bloody war was just around the corner. Looking haggard and sleep-deprived as he gazed upon the cheering mobs, he was heard to mutter-“the damn fools.”

The ink was no sooner dry on the Munich pact than Hitler moved his troops into the rest of Czechoslovakia and gobbled up the entire country. Might as well, since nobody was around to stop the Nazi war machine. France and England continued to look the other way. The U.S. Congress continued to follow a policy of strict isolationism, despite President Roosevelt’s desire to become militarily engaged. It wasn’t until 1939, when Hitler formally invaded Poland, that the Allies were forced to come to terms with the fact that WWII was officially underway, and they had better deal with it quickly. By that time, it was almost too late. In the East, the Nazi army drove to the very gates of Moscow. If Russia had fallen, all of Europe would have been under Nazi rule, except for Britain, and the British were hanging on by their fingernails. The German Luftwaffe was bombing London on a daily basis, until it was mostly a pile of rubble. It was only the long, bitter cold Russian winter that stalled the Nazi onslaught in the East, and allowed the Red Army to regroup and begin to push back against German troops. In England, Neville Chamberlain was quickly thrown out of office and replaced by Winston Churchill who rallied the British to engage in a stout-hearted defense of their homeland. But it wasn’t until U.S. forces finally entered the war in late 1941, that the tide began to turn in favor of the Allies. At the height of WWII, the U.S. would have 10 million troops fighting in both Europe and the Pacific, at an horrendous cost of lives and treasure. So much for waiting until the last minute to do what has to be done.

Now comes the deja vu part as we fast forward to present day. In Europe today, there is another tyrant who is on the move against his neighboring countries. This time it’s, of course, Vladimir Putin, the Godfather, or Boss of Bosses who rules Russia with an iron fist. For over a year now, he has decided to slice and dice neighboring Ukraine, annexing chunks of it into what he hopes will be another Russian or Soviet empire. The first chunk he bit off was Crimea, a sizable portion of what was once the Ukraine. France, Germany, Britain and the U.S. pretty much stood by and proclaimed that well, that’s how the cookie crumbles. The Allies did put into effect some mild economic sanctions against some of Putin’s cronies, but none have had any significant results. Next, Putin began supplying Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine with heavy weapons as they battle government forces that are trying to prevent the eastern part of their country from falling under Russian domain, as the Crimea has. Russian troops, undercover, have also joined the battle with the separatists.  Thousands have already died as the war continues to rage. So last week, the PMs of both Germany and France, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, schlepped to Moscow to sign a peace accord with Putin that was supposed have put an immediate cease-fire into effect in the Ukraine. But once again, the ink was was barely dry on the accord when vicious fighting broke out and hundreds of government forces were slaughtered. Sounds a lot like Munich to me. Deja Vu. All over again.

All the while, the consummate evil of terrorism in our time continues to spread. Isis, Al-Qaeda, Boko Harem, Taliban or whatever you want to call these mass serial killers, are on the march and growing stronger. They’ve officially spread their wings in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, and to a some extent in Jordan and Egypt. If the U.S. and its European allies struck militarily against these barbarians now, i.e. by putting boots on the ground, instead of just engaging in token bombing raids, destruction of these terrorists is within reach at a relatively small cost. Every day that we hesitate, however, they grow stronger and the cost of confrontation becomes more expensive and deadlier. But, after all, who wants to become engaged in an all out war. It’s so much messier that the peaceful pursuits we’re all engaged in. Who needs that. As I said, it’s deja vu. All over again.

 

 

 

 

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