November 25, 2012

How are we doing? Not so good.

Here are a few items that while not directly related to each other do provide some insight into the challenges our culture, society and country are facing:

- In 2011, the total fertility rate in the U.S. was 1.89, the fourth year in a row it has been below the replacement rate of 2.1. For context, demographers have learned that a society must produce at minimum 2.1 live births per woman of child bearing age to maintain a stable population size. Higher fertility rates mean a population is growing while a rate lower than 2.1 means the population is gradually dying off. In general, the relatively rich and developed countries like those in much of Europe (mid-to-upper 1.X's) and even Japan(a depressing 1.4) are dying while the 'poor' but dynamic countries of Africa and the Middle East are statistically young and growing. Alarmingly, nearly 41 percent of babies in America were born out of wedlock. Short story, we're not making enough babies and half of those who are born are born into single-parent families. Full report here.

- Our education system is failing us, both in terms of actually providing a practical education in areas that lead to job potential (especially in the maths and sciences) but also in an understanding of the "hows and whys" of our country, its place in the world, and the themes that comprise Man's experiences in the world - i.e. a classical 'liberal arts' education that includes immersion in history and political science. Undermining any effort to correct this deficiency, perhaps even understanding that a deficiency exists, has been the rise of 'multiculturalism' and its lethal cousin 'campus censorship' both of which have dramatically reshaped what passes for 'education' on our college campuses. For more on this, see this item by Sohrab Ahmari. 

- Of more immediate concern, Act II of this Administration's approach to federal control of and/or involvement in all aspects of America's commercial and private sectors (i.e. our business and personal lives). I'll simply direct your attention to the Wall Street Journals' take on the upcoming 'Regulatory Flood.' Scary reading especially when one considers the already heavily-discussed 'looming fiscal cliff' comprised of expiring tax cuts, mandated budget cuts, implementation of 'Obamacare' mandates, and a likely slide into another recession during 2013.

To what cause do I chalk most of this up to? A disinterested, uninvolved, and willfully uninformed public. Politicians, academics, and activists will do what they want unless checked by the public at large. If 'the people' want something different than what we have--and what we are soon to get--then they have to make that known. Otherwise, they'll get what someone else determines they should have. Pointing fingers at politicians, political parties, and extremists at both ends of the spectrum misses the point. The blame for our national problems lies with us, 'The People', who get what we ask for or don't oppose in sufficient numbers. Something to think about.


I've just returned from seeing "Lincoln." It is an extraordinary film. Spielberg, Lewis, Jones, Williams and crew deliver a masterstroke of film making. Throughout this epic we see Lincoln's moral and spiritual courage underpinning and driving his absolute dedication to doing the right thing, for the right reason, against extraordinary odds. Even though we know the outcome of the story, I couldn't help but be on the edge of my seat awaiting the final count of the House vote on the 13th Amendment!

    "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
    With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
                                                                                                      - Abraham Lincoln
                                                                                                        Second Inaugural Address
                                                                                                        March 4, 1865

Our National Problem in Micro

If you are interested in the future-story of our country, check out this item about the slow-motion suicide of San Bernardino. I think the particulars embedded in San Bernardino's woeful tale of self-interested groups; an apathetic, detached public; and a local media that seems entirely absent from the mounting crisis stand as warning signs re scarily similar situations at local, state and national levels. 

As observed by the authors: "[The] city's decades-long journey from prosperous, middle-class community to bankrupt, crime-ridden, foreclosure-blighted basket case is straightforward — and alarmingly similar to the path traveled by many municipalities around America's largest state. San Bernardino succumbed to a vicious circle of self-interests among city workers, local politicians and state pension overseers...No single deal or decision involving benefits and wages over the years killed the city. But cumulatively, they built a pension-fueled financial time-bomb that finally exploded."

Our country is currently saddled with a mind-numbing level of 'unfunded liabilities' - that is, promises that have been made to various groups (in the form of pensions, subsidies, benefits, etc.) that exceed plausible revenues and numerous (and growing) mandates, usually from Federal to State and local governments, that require certain expenditures but make no provision for how they will be paid. Estimates of these liabilities range from $100 trillion to three times that depending on what one includes, the long-term time horizon used, and assumptions made about future economic (and therefor tax revenue) conditions. 

The truth that should guide such decisions is this: don't make promises you can't keep. Sadly, we seem to ignore this with regularity.

South o' the Border

(Click on photo for interesting statistics)
Every once in a while the 'drug war' in Mexico makes the news here in the U.S., usually on the heels of some really nasty gun battle between cartel and government forces or between the cartels themselves as they battle for control of key 'plazas', the townships along the U.S.-Mexico border through which illicit drugs, people, and contraband are transported into the U.S. market. The issue largely fell by the wayside in our media during our Presidential election but that doesn't mean it went away. On the contrary, it is as troubling a situation as ever and seems poised to become an even more challenging threat to the U.S. proper in the months and years ahead. 

When Calderon, the PAN nominee, won the Mexican Presidency in 2006, it was the first time in 70 years that the PRI party lost control of national power. On entering office, Calderon initiated an aggressive war against the controls, largely waged with national military forces since local police departments had become so corrupted or cowed into submission by the Cartels. During the war, Mexico suffered in excess of 35,000 deaths with some estimates much higher. Though advances were made against the Cartels, public outcry about the increased violence steadily mounted much like U.S. public concerns about our casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan influences U.S. operations in those countries. This past summer, the PRI regained control of the Presidency with their man, Enrique Peña Nieto, set to take office next month. Among the many promises made during the campaign was one devoted to reducing the level of violence, something the public seized hold of. Of course this begs the question 'how?' but that doesn't seem to have mattered much in practical terms. One would have to believe that either the cartels will reduce, if not cease, their destructive behavior or the government will somehow magically find a way to bring them to heel...but of which seem highly improbable. I think what will actually happen is that the government will withdraw from its aggressive efforts against the cartels thus resulting in reduced violence if only because the cartels won't have to combat government forces. The actual effect will be to cede large swathes of Mexico to Cartel control thus cementing Cartel presence and control. Short term win, long-term loss.

For those interested in the issue, Stratfor has the go-to graphic used by everyone else:
Business Insider has a very interesting post that shows how Cartel control of Mexico has expanded since the mid-1990s.

The two best blogs I've found that track this issue are Borderland Beat and the Los Angeles Times' Mexico Under Siege. Readers should know that Borderland Beat does not shy from the graphic truth of the drug war; it's photos/postings can be quite disturbing. The Economist also tracks the issue here

Much has been written here in the U.S. regarding the best approach to solving this problem, whether it's a supply issue (implying operations to stop the source of drugs at their point of origin), a trafficking issue (go after the Cartels and related gangs, improve border control, etc.), or a demand issue (address the problem of drug use in America). Any real solution will have to address all three issues, of course. Our national budget woes will certainly effect our efforts vis-a-vis supply and trafficking. Our cultural woes will effect our approach vis-a-vis demand, i.e. so long as our society tacitly approves of a drug culture (in our entertainment and academic sectors, especially) I think it unlikely we'll see any significant progress in this area.

The recent votes in Colorado and Washington to legalize 'recreational use' of marijuana certainly weren't helpful.

Two Americas

Coming along not too far apart, these two items really piqued my interest as I seen them as reinforcing each other. The first is a short item by Michael Barone, published in the National Review about the "Two Americas" reflected in our recent national election. In the article he briefly describes the two perspectives of the people populating each "America" but also mentions that in our past we got along as a single country because we collectively chose to 'leave each other alone', increasingly not the case today. Mitt Romney implied this same argument in his '47% comment'; as impolitic as it was, it was nevertheless a pretty accurate summarization of Barone's thrust in that Romney was commenting about a portion of the electorate that benefits in some way from government subsidies and is unlikely to vote itself free from such support. 

With this in mind, the following two graphics rather starkly illustrate another aspect of the 'Two Americas,' urban vs. rural. Mark Alexander comments on this divide in a recent issue of The Patriot Post, in the section entitled The Real 2012 Election Map. In the first map, election results are shown by county, with BLUE representing counties won by Romney and RED won by Obama. (Alexander switched the normal blue/red associations for reasons he explains in his post.)

In a following graphic, he adjusts the map to show how each county compares when weighted for population, clearly highlighting just how much of an impact the urban counties have on the outcome of national elections. 
For me, it is a reminder of the importance of our Electoral College system for the reasons I discussed at the link. 

One can only muse about the implications of all this as we think about the future of our country. It does seem to suggest that the populations of urban areas are more reliant, or chose to be more reliant, on government programs and are more keen to support politicians who promise to sustain and expand such programs. Conversely, rural areas are populated by people who prefer smaller government and less government involvement in local and personal affairs. My view: the former is inherently more expensive both in terms of money (cost to taxpayers) and loss of personal liberty while the latter is less bureaucratic and expensive but makes greater demands on the individual, i.e. increased personal responsibility. Over the long-term we're so much better with the latter perspective. The challenge, of course, is the related necessity for people to say 'no' to the government lifeline upon which they've grown dependent. Any bets on how this turns out?

November 12, 2012

"...and not to yield."

If you've not yet seen the new Bond movie, Skyfall, spend the money and the time to do so!  It is a first-rate film of several layers and a very worthy addition to the Bond series, perhaps one of the best.  In one of the most memorable scenes (for me, at least), 'M', played masterfully by Judi Dench, provides testimony to a government committee about the necessity to preserve the ability to confront the faceless threats that plague our modern world, closing her remarks with the final stanza from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses":

                Though much is taken, much abides; and though

                We are not now that strength which in old days
                Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
                One equal temper of heroic hearts,
                Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
                To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

If you aren't familiar with the full poem, it is Tennyson's treatment of Ulysses (Odysseus) in his old age as he muses about his past adventures and his current aged state. But rather than spend his twilight years reminiscing about the past, he calls for his shipmates to strike out with him one more time to seek the next great adventure and to show that even though their youth may have passed they still had the heart and the will to strive for noble things. 

Much has been written over the past few years about the supposed 'decline of America.' I, for one, refuse to accept such. Though I was deeply disappointed in the outcome of our most recent election cycle I still believe there are enough people in our country who remain committed to the original ideals upon which this country was founded that "Some work of noble note, may yet be done"; that even though we may have been 'made weak by time and fate' (most clearly seen in our grossly irresponsible spending habits) there is still a heart in our Country 'to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

We are facing truly incredible odds. We have accumulated more debt by any measure than any other great country in history that I can think of. Our government is expanding at a breakneck pace and our people are willfully becoming more dependent upon it. We are gradually withdrawing from our security commitments of the 20th Century and reducing our security capabilities in a naive belief that the world is a less dangerous place than it was during the Cold War. But it is not  a less dangerous place. The dangers have changed in their form and method of attack and have been made more lethal, thanks to 21st Century technologies, even as they have become more difficult to identify, define, and defend against. As the U.S. withdraws, the world becomes more destabilized. Just look at what is happening in the Middle East, North Africa, the South China Sea, in Russia, and even in Latin America. 

For the past 70 years, the Free World looked to America for leadership, example, and protection. Today, it questions the ability of America to fulfill any of those roles. Perhaps America has grown tired of shouldering such responsibility. Perhaps the lack of a clearly understandable existential threat since the dissolution of the Soviet Union has caused us to become distracted and to become soft. There is ample evidence to support such a view. But I hope that at our core there still smolders an ember of the fire that once animated the American Spirit to do great things, to 'strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield' to the darker forces of our world. I hope so. And I hope we find the ability to not only preserve that ember but fan it back into the flame the Free World needs. If we let it die -- smothering it with layer upon layer of encumbrance -- then as Ronald Reagan warned in 1964, we will lose the 'last best hope of man on earth' and 'sentence [our children] to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.'

November 10, 2012

Drawing a Line

With the upcoming debates on sequestration, mitigating the impact of our 'fiscal cliff,' dealing with the consequences of our debate...all of which limit our options and constrain our abilities when faced with the inevitable 'surprise' challenge to our interests...where will we draw the line?

Happy 237th Birthday Marines!