Wednesday, January 14, 2009

September 2008: Political Meanderings

I have mostly avoided religion and politics in this letter project. I did try to address the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the December 2004 letter. The only politics I have addressed have been Armenian-Turkish related.

Over the past month, with the Democratic and Republican conventions, Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and the state of the US Economy have been a large part of my daily writing. Allow me to share some of my thoughts and observations on these topics.

August 28 – Barack Obama: I am sitting outside of the Hyatt Place Hotel in Atlanta. Barack Obama is just finishing up his acceptance speech at Invesco Field in Denver. He delivered the speech outside so that more people could attend. It was also the 45th anniversary to the date of the Martin Luther King March on Washington. Dr. King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech that day. That speech was a milestone in the civil rights movement. Thus the Democratic party wanted to both pay homage to that historic event and link Senator Obama’s nomination as another milestone in this progression. Thus, a large audience outdoor acceptance speech made a lot of sense.

It is a very pleasant Atlanta evening. As I came downstairs to go outside to both write this page and smoke a cigar, I passed a TV in the lobby on which the Senator was giving his speech. A black lady, one of the front desk agents, was standing in front of the TV listening to the speech. Her right forearm was parallel to the ground across her abdomen. Her left elbow was perched on her right wrist with her forearm going straight up where her fingers were touching her lips, her mouth open and her eyes fixed on the TV. This was clearly an engrossing and historic meeting for her.

At exactly the same moment this lady’s body language and Senator Obama’s speech registered in my mind, I realized that the hotel Muzak system was playing the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” This made it an historic moment for me as evidenced by the fact that I am now capturing it in my journal.

I did not plan to listen to Senator Obama’s speech. I really did not plan on watching any of the Democratic National Convention. Being an equal opportunity ambivalent, I had no plans to watch the Republican National Convention either. It is not that I do not care, but my own personal issues of survival at work overshadow any of these well crafted and staged events designed to garner donations and votes.

I did, oddly, wish I had heard Ted Kennedy’s speech earlier this week. I never really liked Ted Kennedy. I liked both of his brothers more. Senator Kennedy is near the end of his days as he is suffering from a cancerous brain tumor. This was likely to have been his farewell speech. I guess I am easing up on my opinion of Senator Kennedy. He has served a long time in the Senate and truly held steady to his core beliefs during his entire tenure. To me this was the closing chapter of the Kennedy mystique.

In thinking about Ted Kennedy, I thought about the presidential campaign of his brother, John F. Kennedy back in 1960. I was only seven years old, but I remember that it was a pretty big deal that JFK was both Irish and Catholic. I mean it was a huge deal. Until then there had only been White Anglo Saxon Protestant presidents and presidential candidates.

Now, in 2008, the Democrats had nominated Barack Hussein Obama a half black man with Moslem names. While this is truly an historic happening, I do not believe it is as controversial as JFK. Think about this, the nomination of an Irish Catholic in 1960 was arguably more controversial than the nomination of a black man whose name rhymes with Osama. The country is definitely more tolerant these days. No matter who you vote for, this must be noted as a very good thing.

August 29 – The Russian Invasion of Georgia: As the Beijing Olympic Games were beginning, Georgia, the country bordering Russia and Armenia not the state bordering Florida and Alabama, had a military operation within it’s borders: South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The peoples in these regions are not ethnic Georgians. Georgia has treated these minorities like second class citizens as they have the Armenians in Tiblisi, the capital, the Armenian region of Javakh. They want Georgia for Georgians and are looking to Georgify these minorities or drive them out. The Abkhaz, for sure, are afraid of losing their language and culture. As a people, the Abkhaz are even smaller than the Armenians.

The Georgians launched their attacks while the Olympics were opening and Bush and Putin were in Beijing. The Georgians launched a rocket attack on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Perhaps they thought that the world leaders would be preoccupied with the Olympic Opening Ceremonies and would not notice.

Russia noticed and reacted. The Russians quickly responded coming to the aid of these “oppressed peoples” or, rather, maybe looking to re-assert their influence in the Caucuses a la the old Soviet days. The words “sphere of influence” was bandied about in the media quite a bit in discussing this situation. The Russian forces easily overwhelmed the Georgians and now occupy large portions of the country.

The presidents of France and Germany went to Moscow to try to mediate the situation. They do not want a return to any Soviet style icy relations. They view Russia as an import neighbor, even part of Europe, and an important trading partner.

The US protested loudly against the Russian invasion of Georgia. They protested because Georgia was looking to join NATO. This was another likely reason the Russians attacked. They do not really want any more of the former Soviet states joining NATO.

Our protests struck me as odd. We were pretty busy intervening in the same general vicinity. We have major military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These operations are so large and consume so much of our military resources, that all of our saber rattling towards Russia rang embarrassingly hollow to the entire world. We attacked these countries trying to bring order and democracy to these predominately Moslem countries. We attacked these countries in order to “free oppressed people.” Russia intervened in a country on its border. We attacked countries half way around the world.

The US had also protested when Russian, then called the USSR, attacked Afghanistan. We helped by arming and assisting what we then called Freedom Fighters defeat the Soviets in what we were calling their Vietnam. Those freedom fighters are now called the Taliban. If memory serves me correct, didn’t we support Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran? Then we attacked him. Hmm… What is that aphorism, again, about the enemy of my enemy?
I think we are hypocritical and it is kind of embarrassing.

September 20 – Sarah Palin: On August 29th, John McCain named Sarah Palin as his vice-Presidential nominee. Sarah Who? Never heard of her. Governor of where? Oh, Alaska. Alaska?? OK, Alaska. For some reason, all I could think of was Dan Quayle.

I couldn’t be further from the truth. The choice of Sarah Palin was a brilliant move on McCain’s part. Her speech at the convention was electrifying brought a lot of interest to the ticket. The Republican poll bump coming out of the conventions was greater than the Democrats. All such bumps are temporary. As this one subsided, McCain was essentially dead even with Obama. Before Palin, he was behind.

Sarah Palin appeals to the conservatives and seems to fit the mold that has energized the religious right as well. She counters Obama’s blackness with her feminity. According to a poll result I heard about on the radio, Sarah Palin has brought a majority of white women to the McCain ticket. As further evidence to her popularity, women are seeking both Governor Palin’s hairdo and her rectangular glasses.

Not everyone is as enamored with the choice of Sarah Palin. The opposition complains about her lack of foreign policy experience. She only got her first passport in 2006 and that was to go to Kuwait and Germany to visit our troops. Secondly, if elected, she will be a heartbeat from the presidency. People question her experience in governing as well. She has been Governor of Alaska for less than two year. Before that she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska with a population of a whopping 9,000. Lastly, she just rankles feminists. Check out the following website to see just how rankled they are:

No matter if you are a Sarah Palin supporter or not, it has been a pretty rapid rise for the 44 year old Governor. Maybe it is even more rapid then ascension of a 47 year old Senator named Barack Obama.

What amazes me, however, is reaction to the pregnancy of Palin’s 17 year old daughter, Bristol. On September 1, it was announced that Bristol was five months pregnant. She was intending on having the baby and marrying the father of the child. Up until perhaps this century, such a revelation would have disastrous to the McCain ticket resulting in Palin having to withdraw. Now everyone thinks it is kind of OK.

The religious right is kind of dichotomous here. First, they are both right and consistent in supporting Bristol’s decision not to have an abortion. Yet, I am mystified that they advocate family values and do not criticize the Palins for failing to live them and instill them in there family and children. She got pregnant, out of wedlock, as a teenager. I am wondering what the reaction might have been from this same constituency if this had been Barack Obama’s daughter or Chelsea Clinton. I think the religious right would have been much more moralistic and vocal.

This is simply more evidence that this country is much more tolerant and understanding. We have a half Black man with Moslem names running for president against a ticket with a woman Vice-Presidential candidate whose 17 year old daughter is pregnant out of wedlock. No matter who you are voting for, you have to admit that the country has changed.

September 21 – US Financial Companies: Bankruptcies, Mergers, and Bail-Outs: The state of financial companies is pretty dismal. Lehman Brothers went out of business a week ago. Bear Stearns was acquired by JP Morgan Chase earlier and Merrill Lynch is being acquired by Bank of America. AIG is being bailed out by the US Government to enable them to sell off the pieces. Now, Congress is considering and will undoubtedly pass a massive bailout at the taxpayers’ expense to stabilize the US financial infrastructure. It is very tough times. The stock market has been on a roller coaster mostly in a downhill direction.

This crisis is the result of the irrational and greed related mortgage mis-management of the new century. With the booming real estate market in US, people were given mortgages larger than the tried and true rules of thumb of yore i.e. a borrower had to put 20% down and mortgage payments should not exceed 30% of one’s income. People were taking mortgages for amounts that violated both parts of this rule of thumb. To compensate, the lending companies concocted a variety of variable rate and interest only mortgages that allowed people to “live the American dream,” the modern American Dream, of owning a house you cannot afford. As the economy changed, the housing market stagnated, and interest rates began to go up, the risk of these loans being all too apparent hurting both households and the aforementioned financial companies.

I have certainly oversimplified this. The mortgage business is a complicated morass of bundling and selling “the paper” in ways that the common man cannot fathom how money is made and lost in these deals. My neighbor, friend, bike buddy, and business guru, Ken Hachikian, told me that his father ran a savings and loan in the Boston area. Back in the 1960s, this bank and others gave loans in their geographic region. They knew the market, the neighborhoods, and the borrowers. They were careful to manage the risk of the money they were lending and thus were concerned about the borrowers’ having the appropriate down payment and then the ability to afford the mortgages. This kind of basic management horse sense has been lost and probably needs to be regulated back into this business.

I am impressed with the leadership the Secretary of Treasury Henry J. Paulson is showing. He took the job just two years ago and now only has a few months left. He was, before taking this job, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs which hints of the fox watching the henhouse. But, honestly, he seems to be doing such a good job, Barack Obama said that if elected president he would keep Secretary Paulson on long enough to ensure a smooth transition.

When this crisis was forming in the past few years, I formed the opinion that the Federal Government should have made the banks re-finance the risky mortgages to help out both citizens and the banks. Either this idea was too naïve or too practical to ever have been implemented.

Either way it seems to me like it will get worse before it gets better. Whether we have the first black President or the first female Vice-President the new administration will have their hands full.

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