Thursday, January 29, 2009

Money or Grass Roots?

Today's "million dollar" question is...what affects the world's politics the most? Money or grass roots activism? For sake of definition and focus, let's call this a high level philosophical discussion.

When I was young and reading all the history I could in order to learn the lessons of history in order to "not repeat them", I early on realized that so much of world history was based on MONEY. Who controlled the money controlled the governments and other institutions that run the world.

It is my contention that 90% of the world's wealth is controlled by probably less than 10% of the world's population. We have all heard the adage that "Money goes to Money". I suppose that makes sense in light of sociology and maybe a little Darwinism thrown in. The rich have always had their own clubs, neighborhoods, schools, churches and institutions. Everything from our media to government supports the idea that those who have money are "preferred". You have money, you have freedom to travel. You qualify for a visa to travel just about anywhere you want to go if you have money. No borders for YOU…and your money. Up until recently, most of the world thought that just being "American" meant you MUST be a millionaire. Now of course they are just beginning to find out how broke we actually are.

One of the scariest issues to me these days is the world money supply...who controls it? What is that money or currency based on? We have huge global mutual funds that fall under various sovereignties in our world. Managed by many "unknown" financial managers, these funds have historically had significant impact on market performances. Some of these funds play currencies against each other and can often make or break markets, at least in the short run.

Of course, under these managers fall many "super rich" investors or families who at the end of the day can probably "run" these fund managers. The owners of large positions determine often times what a manager needs to sell off or buy at a particular time. Usually, when one investment wins, another has to lose. Its part of that old science of "action - opposite reaction". It is the competition for these investment dollars that drive world markets for the most part. What is "popular" often gets funded while the crucial and necessary often gets left in the basement of financial priority. Much of that aspect is driven by what is offering the largest return in the shortest period of time. Long term prudence and critical investments for the future often get left in the dust of disinterest because of greed.

Another powerful aspect of money is its ability to control mass media. In the last 20-30 years we have seen huge consolidation of ownership in media. Governments go through cycles of regulation and deregulation like some of us change socks. Each government or dictator in the world tends to change the rules every few years. It seems in the USA we have allowed big business to buy out our government's interest in balanced use of limited bandwidths for the public consumption (which subject would demand a separate blog). Disney, "New" Viacom (and its former parent CBS Corporation, the former "Old" Viacom), TimeWarner, News Corporation, Bertelsmann AG, and General Electric together own more than 90% of the media holdings in the United States. Then on the other extreme, you have governments like China, Venezuela, Cuba and others who have "state run" control and ownership of the media. Neither extreme seems to be balanced and one has to thank God for the internet which is arguably the only media avenue that no government or corporate concern has been able to control or dominate completely. Don't worry though..."they" are working at it.

For those of us without money, power or influence in corporate America or her government, it seems that "grass roots" movements are more required than ever. Grass roots movements in the USA could say they had their start at the "Boston Tea Party" when early Americans showed their disdain for the controls and manipulations of England by throwing England's tea shipments into the Boston Harbor in protest, which became a catalyst for the American Revolution and independence movement. Then during the Industrial Age, it took grassroots efforts to unionize and organize the workers against unfair labor practices and "wage fixing" by the few powerful corporations of that era. In modern times, we have now seen the first minority President elected largely because of grassroots activism through the internet where record monies were raised and mobilization of "the people" through that clear channel of communication overcame traditional media controls and manipulation of perception. I personally believe the internet is now the most effective tool in the world for impacting the masses with objective information and decision making. No one "owns" the internet...and we should keep it that way though obviously some forces want that changed.

That being said, money still impacts and influences the grassroots use of the internet. It takes money to effectively market through that technology. A few internet "super powers" are gaining dominant controls over internet "eye balls". Google, MSN, MySpace and a very few other large tech media companies are attempting to control the internet airways and marketing databases that are growing exponentially each day. Information, AND DISinformation, can be developed and distributed in very short order with powerful results or consequences. I believe it will become more and more difficult for true "grass roots" efforts to be fruitful through that medium if our current global internet consolidation continues to happen.

So, back around to our original question...what influences our government(s) the most in these times? Money or "Grass Roots"? I would argue that first and foremost is the money factor. With money you can distribute information much faster. With money, you can make it easier to attract MORE money. With money, you can BUY media coverage with "PR". With money, you can buy off whole governments.

Much has been made of and written about the "evils" of money. As I stated in a previous blog, it is the "love" of money that is in my mind the greatest downfall of man. Money is morally neutral. It can be used for good and for evil. I continue to pursue having "some" money...hopefully to do good things with it...if only to secure my own way and freedom in this short life so as to never be dependent on another person or government. But hopefully I will never allow money, or the pursuit of it, to control every aspect of my life. Money as a means to an end, not the "end-all". And, as we have often seen and quite recently on a grand scale..."a fool and his money are soon parted".

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bad Bank + Bad Debt + Bad Bankers = Bad Idea

Once again I feel compelled to spread the "common sense" gospel as delivered by the honorable congressman from Texas, Ron Paul. This speech on the floor of the House of Representatives just 4 days ago mines down to the core problem with our new and current government's reaction to our economic condition. It really is not that complicated to analyze in my opinion.

The last paragraph of his speech sums up the issue in light of history...

The fallacy here is that we’re trying to keep prices high when prices should come down. What do we have against poor people? Lower the price of houses! Get them down, a $100,000 house get them down to $20,000, let the poor person buy these houses. That is what we want, but this is a remnant of the philosophy of the ’30s because it was thought we were in trouble because the farmers weren’t getting enough money for their crops. So people were starving in the streets, and guess what the policy was that came out of Washington? Pile under the crops, and maybe the prices would come up. Diminish the supply and it will solve our problems. It didn’t work then, it won’t work today...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Thoughts on the Inauguration of Our 44th President

Today is a historic day, the inauguration of our 44th President, Barack Obama. I have not had time in a busy day to watch much of the proceedings. I have reviewed some of the speeches and prayers which are already online. Gotta love the internet for quick, selective catching up on the news and world events.

I believe that any objective, rational American or global citizen wishes our President and country well...because if it doesn't go well, everyone in the world will be affected.

Anyone who keeps up with my blogging knows that I did not vote for this President nor find myself in agreement with a number of his positions. The man obviously deserves our respect and admiration for his quick rise to power and his intelligent approaches to getting elected and now entering the legislative phase. Unfortunately, due to the country's and world's long list of problems, I believe President Obama's honeymoon with the electorate will be a very short one.

As usual, I find myself impatient with the USA news media's coverage of this occasion. They tend to focus on the trivial while ignoring most of the important meanings of this day. So much is focused on what the family is wearing, the new Presidential Limo (did our government buy that on credit?), whether the President will walk and where during the parade, and the incessant interviews with all black leaders in Congress and without. The overhyped focus on our President's ethnicity is in my opinion covering up many more important strengths and benefits of this new President.

Let's examine this race issue for a minute (yes, I know, danger danger). Is President Obama black...or white...or neither? If neither, what is he and how important is that? A business associate and I were discussing this yesterday while driving between appointments. His question was, "why are they calling him a black President, and not a white one?". His mother was 100% white, his father 100% black. Why does that make him "black". Ok...some old timers would call him "colored" then. Well, what is that? Whites arguably have more shades of "colored" than blacks. To me, once again, we demonstrate our inane focus on external appearances and not on the behaviors or cultures people come from. To me, while I am happy his election may mark progress towards the end of extreme racism...the race “ceiling” if you will...I am also cognizant that this President is a mix and probably won the election by his appeal to and understanding of the wide range of races represented in the Melting Pot we call America. Now that he has been sworn in, he seems VERY black to everyone on both sides of the division and to the media. To me he acts and speaks like any man of any color. He either makes sense, or he doesn't.

Personally, I have mixed reactions to his pre-election messaging and selections of cabinet and inner circle. I truly believe he wants to be a uniter more than a divider. I believe he wants to do the right thing and quickly move our country and our world towards a rosier future. At the same time, much of his messaging so far has been in support of some fundamental errors I believe our government is committing. The continual bailouts of private industries, from the banks to the funds to the automakers, continue to bankrupt the government coffers which are totally reliant on taxpayer's income and profitability. The President's own party leaders are already expressing concerns about many of his "moderate" positions when they thought they might have carte blanche to ramrod socialism and BIGGER government right down our throats. There are significant movements and legislation designed to continually erode individual rights and freedoms. Some (mostly Democratic) congressmen are introducing bills to limit or heavily tax citizen’s money that desires to invest outside the USA system. Some continue to lobby for bail outs or free loans to their home state industrial supporters and keep stuffing bills with incestuous funding of special interests and lobbyists. Many want to completely obliterate what few semi-free trade agreements we have and turn inward into isolationist, global phobic, and statist minded wimps. These types want to take no responsibility or leadership towards moving America in a more positive direction and instead insist that their government serve THEIR particular interests and weaknesses. These are the people we should be shipping out of our country instead of hard working immigrant types.

America now needs thinkers, workers and leaders. As my friend said yesterday, "the day of everyone being "Kings" and being served is over". It is time to get back to a humble service approach to life that solves problems for the masses while potentially enriching themselves through that service. Entitlements are no longer viable. We need to start building bridges instead of walls. We need to read something besides just the "Wall Street Journal" or "People Magazine". We need to dig for the real news instead of just believing everything CNN or Fox slathers at us.

Like many generations before us, I think we are in for a longer period of difficulty than anyone wants to admit. One day's bounce of the DOW does not mean an end to recession or depression. One short uptick of the dollar or down pricing of oil doesn't signal a real end to inflation or a weak currency. I'm afraid there are still a number of dominos to fall in a row before we find a steady rebuilding of our wealth and institutions. I wish President Obama all the best in facing these many challenges...and I will try and do my part to be productive and practical in light of these interesting times we live in.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

'Atlas Shrugged': From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years

I found accord with this article in the Wall Street Journal named "Atlas Shrugged: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years" which was brought to my attention by the other most read blog on Panama happenings, Prima Panama Blog. Sam and I have both obviously practiced much of the "Objectivist" philosophy which has been best illustrated in the classic book "Atlas Shrugged".

While we all hope the best for our new American President elect starting next week, it so far seems like his ideas and programs, along with the soon to be EX President, are falling right into place with Ayn Rand's prophetical novels of the late 40s and early 50s. The plans for redistribution of wealth, the heavy use of public funds to bail out "chosen" public companies, the continued reliance on BIG government to solve huge crisis they themselves were significant participants in creating makes anyone who seriously read Atlas Shrugged shudder in their seat. I agree with most tenets of that article and was alluding to these same things in the first months of this blog such as my post on "A Is A". Maybe some people who didn't previously quite get it will get it now?

The nationalization of so many of our businesses and institutions, the continued socialist agenda of Congress and now the Executive office, the continued bailout of the "robber barons" with the funds of those who have been robbed of their jobs and tax contributions...are rewriting this scary story in a new modern version. This version is even scarier to me because without the might of the USA with it’s historically noble role and causes throughout the world, WHO is going to pick up the slack to protect the poor and downtrodden and keep the contemporary dictators and egalitarians from over running the rest of the world? What is the future of free enterprise and trade? What standards remain to measure wealth and prosperity if we have no realistic money standard and trillions of dollars of debt mean nothing to those running contemporary economies?

I ended 2008 and began 2009 with efforts to put my "positive" face and mind in motion. I am convinced that now like no other time in my life is the time to be productive and evangelize positive ideas and leadership. If some of US don’t lead, we will leave it to the dictators and false prophets to determine our pull us into false and improbable hope and/or faith. This is a time to be vigilant, realistic, demanding and focused...both within us and with our leaders. If we just duck, "they" will over run us.

What are the answers? Here are a few of mine anyways...

• Let the failures fail. Quit bailing out the losers, liars and "gamers" in our system.

• Get back to the basics of sound finance. Don't lend to those who are high risk or can't realistically pay back borrow themselves into oblivion.

• Let the chips fall first...then pick them up, carefully.

• The Fed should help renegotiate all the bad contracts between banks and buyers. This step should have been taken MONTHS ago before just bailing out the bad guys who offered these insane contracts to begin with.

• Make the USA competitive again by REDUCING taxes on foreign AND domestic business so they have incentive to stay and produce inside the USA. When this produces more jobs and income, the tax coffers will actually grow higher at lower rates. In addition, cut the pork spending in our government and make a balanced budget a constitutional amendment. The rest of us have to in order to stay alive.

• Give entitlements to the truly needy. Those on unemployment or on public support of some kind who are able bodied or minded should have to provide some public service or work for their support. No free rides to the healthy and able! There are a lot of things these people could do with their “unemployed” time besides eating and drinking. There should minimally be educational expectations for self improvement for those who cannot get work in their chosen or qualified field.

• Finally…I am currently changing my position on a couple issues. I think government MUST act on providing all minor CITIZENS an effective education and health care benefits. Children and elderly who are obviously not able to care for themselves should have free or inexpensive healthcare, including preventative checkups. To fund this government should simply send less overseas and show more reluctance to spend on undeclared wars abroad. Also, quit wasting money on the unwinnable wars against “drugs”, gaming and other moral issues that were never intended for our government to legislate about. Instead, spend those BILLIONS annually on the afore mentioned programs.

If we don’t reverse the current trends soon, I fear that America will start seeing a financial and brain drain unprecedented in the history of our young nation. The stakes are high and action is the only option at this point to keep the fabric or our country’s economy and integrity at an acceptable level.

If you want to understand what is going on in the current world…take some time to read the 52 year old story of “Atlas Shrugged”. It might be the new “Revelations”…

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Oprah and Me...2009

New Years has come and gone and for many of us we have new "resolutions" to either make or break in 2009. If such a tradition of New Year's resolutions causes us to change positively within or without ourselves, so be it.

My main resolution is unfortunately similar to the one I made for New Years 2008...get myself in better physical shape!

Much ado has been made in the press in the last week about Oprah's new battle with her weight problems. Here is an obviously successful and intelligent lady who is probably one of the most visible celebrities to underscore the cultural problem we Americans have in controlling our consumption. While I realize that many people have physical or genetic tendencies towards obesity, MOST of us are overweight because of our own daily choices of consumption and lack of physical activity. We tend to rationalize our acceptance of our less than optimum personal conditioning, but in the end it is always about OUR choices. No one else to blame here.

Personally, I can't blame genetics as some members of my family are in great shape while others of us have let ourselves droop way more than necessary. I realize that for me it is more about lifestyle. Too much of my time in front of computers, focused on business and money, feeding the brain more healthy stuff than I am feeding my body. Meanwhile, I am not balancing those activities with the other active things I like to do. I think this battle, and answers for it, are different for each person. Some of us like to run or jog. Not me. I enjoy a nice brisk walk and if it weren't for this warm year around climate that affords me comfortable opportunities to walk a bit, I can't help but wonder what weight I would be at still living in the cold North Country where I would get out less because of inclement weather.

I think everyone needs to find the exercise they ENJOY...and do it often. The healthiest sport I used to enjoy a lot is racquetball. I have heard of a club here and I am going to pursue that activity again because I don't have much discipline to do things I don’t enjoy, and I want the best work out in the shortest amount of time. To run, I have to be chasing a ball. I used to be fairly fast on my feet, and used to have the body type of a "Greyhound" dog. Much like them, I enjoyed racing as long as I was pursuing "something". Just running for running sake in space and time has never inspired me. Plus, I have inherited weak knees in my family and know many long term runners who ended up having used up ligaments before they were very old. So, hopefully I can find that racquet club. In addition, I enjoy hiking and if I can make more time for hiking and fishing this year, I think that will contribute to a healthier lifestyle.

Of course, the main culprit for our weight problems is what and how much we consume. From what I have read, it seems that Oprah's biggest issue over the years has been extreme "fad" diets that change her appearance drastically in short order and she has probably made mega millions as a poster celebrity for these various diets. Unfortunately, when the diet ends, it seems quite obvious she blooms right back to or heavier than she was before. So, for me, I am not interested in extreme or fad diets. I think the solution needs to be total and forever lifestyle change. Eat less, eat better, and get more exercise to burn off fat.

So...I now go public with my New Year's resolution with you my friends, family and extended network. I start the year at 201 lbs. First time I have ever topped 200. It's hard to believe I graduated high school at around 120. I think I read somewhere that after age 30 the average person adds 1-2 lbs per YEAR. Well, I'm much beyond that and it's time to reverse the trend. My biological father lost a lot of weight at about my age...but only after a heart attack and quadruple bypass. I think I want to avoid that route to weight loss if I can. So, it's time to act.

My goal is lose 5 pounds per month for the next 5 months...and then keep it off. I think I will be comfortable at between 175 and 180 for the duration. I don’t expect to look or act like 25 again, but in my brain that's my feel and have the attitude I had at 25. I think it's doable. And I even made a competitive bet with my wife who has agreed to join me with a friendly competition of who can lose the most in the next month. Friendly wagers sometimes add to the motivation as well.

That being said, at the core of staying in shape is personal pride and self respect. I've read many of the studies that say some people get obese as a psychological mechanism to protect themselves from the outside world or certain relationships. In reaction to other things in life they have been forbidden to pursue, they pursue food instead…even as an addiction. While I think there is merit in some people having this cause for being isn’t mine. I have just gotten too focused on business, computers, poker and other sedentary activities. If I want to prolong my life and retain my overall good health, I must balance things out. I actually DO want people to WANT to hug me...and be able to get their arms around least mostly:).

Here are a few observations I have made or experienced about how NOT to deal with overweight or obese people. I think it is generally rude and insensitive to comment about people who have added weight. I think you have to be very close to someone and "earn the right" to comment on someone's physique. Even then, making critical or negative comments even to spouses or significant others are a great risk. It is best for the overweight person to recognize in themselves the need or desire to change...than it is for those closest to them to make comments or badger them about their appearance. While it is healthy and positive to look our best, it is not the end-all to being a wonderful or productive human being. It has been quizzical to me a few times where people FATTER than I am have made wisecracks or comments about MY weight gain over the years. Especially when it has come from people I have not seen in many is amazing how free-wheeling some people are with their interpersonal comments about weight gain. As if somehow they think they need to make the person aware of their condition? And isn’t it a little funny in our human condition that the first thing we notice about people when we meet them is our "differences" of weight or appearance? If someone is missing an arm or a finger...or an eye...our minds right away want to know and understand what happened. We are so focused on such things that we miss the color of someone's eyes or whether they are smiling or frowning. How petty we humans can be sometimes. These behaviors are what cause many people to retreat from life, or ridicule themselves, or go into weight loss and other behavioral modifications solely for the purpose of measuring up to OTHERS expectations. Personally I think that a negative motivation and believe that it is better to have a more selfish purpose in keeping ourselves healthy and productive. Believe me, I am making changes for ME...not for you.

So, here's to a more balanced and healthy 2009. Anyone else that wants to join the sentiment or share their struggles or experience in this, feel free to share your comments. I think positive reinforcement from our friends and family is very helpful in reaching our goals though we can't always depend on that being there for us. To lose weight and be healthy is a very personal decision. To that end, I hope both Oprah and I are successful in our New Year’s resolutions, though I am quite sure that she will make much more money reaching her goals than I will:)...