Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Electric Game Changer

One reader of this posting will recognize himself. We worked together in the investment business in the '90s, and he'll remember one of my mottos, which was to look for products and trends that would change your life.

There were some life-changers in the 1990s and this decade. Falling interest rates and budget surpluses during the Clinton years, laparascopic surgery, cellphones, Microsoft Windows, video gaming, visual computing (think "You Tube"), broadband, the convergence of computers and communication (think "the Internet"). All of these things have had major impacts on people's lives, and those who saw them early made a pile of money.

I see another life-changer coming soon: the electric car.

I've been interested in them for quite a while. A couple years ago, I drove to the middle of Oregon to look at someone's converted Ford Ranger pickup truck with a useable range of 25 miles on a charge. It was a long drive and a friendly conversation, but the vehicle wasn't reliable enough to justify the purchase. I wonder if the seller ever thinks about the guy who drove 300 miles from Seattle, didn't buy his truck, and advised him to pay off any debts because we were heading into a real estate crash and depression.

The reliability issue is about to be solved, and usable range will be extended to 100 miles. The vehicle is the Nissan Leaf, a subcompact that looks a lot like a Toyota Yaris or a Honda Fit. The main difference is that is doesn't have a gas engine. It's not a hybrid, but a pure electric car.

I saw one on display in Seattle last weekend. Nissan says they'll start selling them here at the end of next year. I hope to be among the first retail customers. Right about the same time, Chevrolet will introduce the Volt, a hybrid that will get 40 miles on a charge, with batteries then replenished by a small gas generator on board. A bunch of other real car companies have said they'll be introducing electric vehicles in 2011 and 2012.

Not All Electrons Are Created Equal

I've never been much of a believer in the current generation of hybrids like the Toyota Prius or Ford Fusion. They get 40 to 50 miles per gallon, a level of economy that I regard as trivial. Plug-in vehicles are in a different category, especially the all-electric models.

Nissan's forthcoming Leaf will be accompanied in the Puget Sound area by charging stations that, in 25 minutes, can recharge the car to 80% of capacity. At home, it'll fully recharge overnight on a 220-volt circuit. In the winter, with the heat on, the range will be 70 miles. In summer, with the A/C blasting, it'll be 80 miles. For all-city driving, the range will be 10% higher. The car will cost about $30,000 including the battery.

The average American motorist drives 28 miles a day. Give that person an electric car with a 100-mile range, and you've eliminated his gas consumption, period. That's the game changer. Before very long, you'll have a whole group of drivers who don't use any gasoline at all.

And remember, this is only the beginning. Once these things get up and running, we're going to see rapid improvement in battery technology. Performance will improve and costs will decline. Electric propulsion systems are inherently simpler and cheaper than gas. The guts of the new all-electric cars are going to ride a cost and performance curve that will look an awful lot like personal computers. I bought my first new computer in 1990 for $3,000. Today, I can get a much better one for $600.

(Incidentally, I've never been any kind of fan of the Tesla Roadster, a criminally overhyped converted Lotus Elise produced in small batches by a Silicon Valley boutique. I have been waiting for car companies to get into this game. Nissan and GM, and the next set of entrants, are car companies. Unlike Tesla, a car company -- even GM -- won't deliver a vehicle without working brakes and a range of one-fifth the claimed level, two years late and 20% more costly than expected, at a loss of $40,000 per unit.)

The Implications of the Shift

Oil companies are not going to like this very much at all. Demand for their product is stagnant due to the current economic depression, and commodity prices are always set on the margin. I expect to see much lower gas prices within the coming decade, as demand begins falling. By 2030 or so, gas consumption in the U.S. is going to decline by 75%. Just wait.

The coal companies, on the other hand, will probably do well, because those cars will need electrons. An intelligent government would be racing to erect windmills to supply the new power -- windspeeds are higher at night, when those vehicles will be recharging, and the U.S. is chock full of windy spots. But the reality is different: We live in a deeply corrupt country, and Big Coal will use its influence to block meaningful investment in alternative power generation. There will be a few prominent wind demonstration projects, but I don't think we'll see widespread implementation.

(An aside: Seattle is a special case on the electricity front. We get 90% of our juice from hydro, 5% from wind, and 5% from hydrocarbons burned during peak demand periods. Electric vehicles will be charged mainly at night, and won't cause the burning of any additional coal or natural gas. Where I live, an electric car really will be a "green" alternative. Major smugness points for this one!)

There is also the issue of highway construction and maintenance. It is now financed mainly through gas taxes that average about 40 cents a gallon. Stagnant gasoline demand has already pinched the funds, but they ain't seen nothin' yet. I expect a mileage-based system to replace gas taxes for owners of electric vehicles.

There are also potential foreign policy implications. If lightning were to strike and the U.S. also got serious about alternative forms of heating and cooling (through the use of ground-source heat pumps I discussed in this post a while back), the U.S. could turn its back on oil imports and the trade deficits and geopolitical messes that go with it. Not that I think this will happen, mind you. There are too many other interests conspiring to keep us in the Middle East.

The Risks to This Forecast

There are all kinds of reasons to doubt my enthusiasm. After all, the Nissan Leaf gets only 100 miles on a charge. Even people who average 28 miles will want more of a reserve. And what about long trips?

But those aren't objections I worry about. For starters, there is more than one market for cars. Electrics will begin as second vehicles. As performance improves and costs fall, you'll see more people with a primary electric vehicle. Gas-electric hybrids with meaningful electric-only ranges will appear. (Note to General Motors: 40 miles on the Volt simply isn't enough. Your new car is neither fish nor fowl, and I think it's going to flop until you extend the battery-only range.)

The bigger risks are the following: First, that the Obama administration's weak responses to the depression prove ineffective, and the current malaise deepens so dramatically that even a life-changing innovation fails to make an impact. It has happened before. Television was ready to roll in the 1930s, but the depression and then the world war kept it on the shelf for 20 years.

Second, the oil companies find a way to block the change. At the very least, people should get ready for a wave of anti-electric publicity, focusing mainly on range limitations and the expense of the new vehicles, and whatever initial performance quirks emerge as the technology is rolled out to the masses. They'll be labeled as a type of "greenwashing," simply a relocation of the smokestack from the vehicle to the local power plant.

If they are as popular as I think they'll be, electric cars will upset some big, rich apple carts, one of which is piled high with money that routinely makes its way to Congress. This is one area, however, where American corruption could benefit the rest of us. True, the oil companies will be giving it their best shot. But so will Big Coal, and so will the electric utilities. If I were a typical member of Congress who cares about nothing but the money, I'd have my hand out to all of them.

Cynical as I might be, I'm also an optimist. I realize that many of you who are reading this will scoff at that idea, having heard me go on and on (and on) with my doom and gloom about the economy and politics. But amid all of the well-justified discouragement, our best minds have a way of producing life-changing ideas and products. I think the electric car is going to be one of them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Poor, Smug Peter Watts: An Ego Bruised

To the barricades!

Peter Watts is a Canadian science fiction author whose name I'd never heard until a week ago. I still don't know who he is other than that he writes books that some people like -- and that he doesn't seem to accept the reality the guards at the U.S.-Canadian border have the right to stop you and search your car. And that if you screw around with them, you'll be arrested and maybe even prosecuted for it.

The incident happened December 8th in Port Huron, Mich., where there is a bridge and border crossing into Canada. I have crossed at Port Huron three or four times, most recently when I visited Toronto this past September. Typically, people are questioned and cars are (sometimes) inspected by guards of the country that you're entering. Cross into Canada, and the Canadians do it. Cross into the U.S., and the Americans do it.

In addition to the standard procedure, the U.S. sometimes stops outgoing travelers at random for a check. It's basically about drugs, with a dash of post-9/11 security enhancement. Peter Watts was returning to Canada, and he was selected at random for an outbound screening after paying the toll on the bridge back to Canada. That's where the jailarity ensued.

Instead of sighing and letting the agents do their thing, Mr. Watts stormed out of his vehicle to protest. The border guards ordered him back into his car. When he refused the order, the guards arrested him. He scuffled with them; the guards say Watts tried to choke one of them, and Watts claims that he was "beaten." We do know that the police impounded his rental car, threw him in their jail for a few hours, and have filed charges.

U.S. newspaper account

Because Mr. Watts is a smug writer with an equally smug fan base, he was able to gin up some publicity, first on a popular blog, and then in one of Canada's newspapers that picked up on the blog account. And of course, his own blog has offered its own searching, comprehensive account biased version, complete with fawning support from his peanut gallery. Most recently, when criticized for his behavior and challenged to explain his behavior that day, Mr. Watts took the coward's way out, refusing a complete explanation and censoring his critics.

Peter, your story happened to have caught the attention of this reader, who has traveled to 25 countries, crossing national borders more times than he can count. That includes the Canadian border, where oddly enough, there are border guards and inspection stations. On both sides. Guess what? You don't screw around with border guards. Not yours, not ours, not anyone's. They don't care how many books you've written.

Be careful what you wish for, Peter. And good luck on your future crossings. Hope you're not in any hurry.


The Port Huron, Mich. district attorney apparently has said that Peter Watts won't be prosecuted for his border hijinks. Does that mean Peter will now explain why he stormed out of his car to cause a confrontation, refused an order to get back inside, and scuffled with police? Mr. Watts refuses to provide such information, calling it "evidentiary."

Now that there's no chance he'll actually be held accountable for his behavior, Peter Watts ought to be able to tell us why he chose to be such a jerk. I won't be holding my breath for his explanation, much less any actual discussion with this garden-variety juvenile. When things don't go his way, what does a child do? Like Peter Watts, he picks up his marbles and storms off in search of someone else to blame.

Second Follow-Up

The Times-Herald of Port Huron, Mich. obtained a copy of the police report on the incident. It details Watt's irate behavior on Dec. 8th, his refusal to get back into his car, and his struggle with the officers who arrested him. Watts and his fans have argued that he exited his car merely to ask the officers "what was going on." Is that a lightbulb joke, as in "How many Canadian sci-fi authors with a doctorate does it take to ask the border patrol what's going on as they search a car at the border?"

In any case, from the newspaper's rendering of the police report, it's reasonably clear that Watts intended to provoke an incident that day. Peter, if nothing else, you should have learned that America is a country where anyone's dreams can come true.

Peter Watts and Smug White Privilege

Ask a black person about white privilege, and you'll get a knowing smile. Ask a white person and they'll tilt their head like a confused dog. What are you talking about?

The idea is that, merely by being white in America, someone is surrounded by a variety of privileges, most of them minor in themselves, but which add up to a superior status. Be anything but white, say a lot of black people, and you'll find out just how unprivileged you are. Police will deal with you as a suspect. Cab drivers won't pick you up after dark. Waiters won't serve you very quickly. Shopkeepers will follow you around the store. Doormen at bars will look for ways to exclude you.

It goes on and on. And it's not just the little stuff. Try getting an interview for that crucial first job out of college if your resume mentions that you were president of the African-American Business Association. See what happens if you are stopped for speeding while racing to the hospital because your wife was hit by a car and is dying. Be the best golfer in the world, and find out how quickly it doesn't matter when it's discovered you've been screwing every blond chick on the PGA Tour.

White people see little or none of this, little or big, and tend to be incredulous and laughably defensive when it's pointed out. Yet, no matter what, they will cling to their privileges to the bitter end. One of them being the idea that they can hassle the police in course of their duties, and get away with it. And if they're Canadian, and a writer, and have a doctorate, Katie bar the door.

It reminds me of when I was driving a cab to get through college. I gave a ride to a white, female professor. We got to her destination in the middle of a driving rainstorm. Her bicycle was in the trunk, and she expected that I would get out of the taxi, in the rain, and grab her bicycle for her. It wasn't a heavy bike, and the trunk was already open. She had to get out of the vehicle anyway, so I told her she could get her bike on the way inside.

Indignant, she got her bike and started walking away. I called over to her, and she came over to the window and told me she wasn't going to pay the fare. What good would it go for me to have gotten out, I asked her. All that would've accomplished is that two of us would get wet, when only one of us needed to. Not only that, but I don't have anywhere to dry off, and I need to work for the rest of the day. You can just go inside and grab a towel.

It didn't matter. In her mind, I was supposed to get wet for her. In her case, it was white class privilege. I was a taxi driver, a servant, and for some reason I was obligated to suffer. It's a good thing for me that I wasn't black, because when I grabbed that woman's wrist through the open window of my cab, held her there in the rain, and radioed in for the police to be sent, I knew that I wouldn't be arrested for it. In fact, the police came and told her to pay the fare. She did so, and called the cab company after she dried off.

At the end of my shift, the dispatcher asked me whether I had really told her that she'd never worked a goddamned day in her life and that no one was going to take my money away from me. No, of course not, I said, with a smile. I'd never say such a thing. Not ever.

Back to poor, smug Peter Watts. There he was at the border. Apparently, white privilege doesn't cut it at the Port Huron crossing. Maybe they've busted too many mild-mannered Canadians with drugs in the trunk. Or maybe they've taken those lectures to heart about being 60 miles from Detroit and you'd better treat everyone the same, or your ass will be in a serious sling.

Who knows? I'm sure that Mr. Watts would vigorously deny that he expects special treatment, but you really have to be part of the Smug White Asshole Class to think it's okay to start a confrontation with a border patrol officer, disobey that officer's reasonable orders, and resist arrest.

And what of Mr. Watts's equally smug, lily-white fan club, some of whom have been posting blog comments to the effect that hard-ass tactics would be okay on the Mexican border, but not on the Canadian border? I could be wrong about this, but I'll be surprised if Peter Watts is getting any upsurge of support out of the African-American community for his juvenile little stunt at the Port Huron border crossing.

A Fun Fact to Know and Tell

On his blog where critics are now barred for asking inconvenient questions, Peter Watts has ridiculued the idea that he could have been screened as a terrorist.

Hey Peter, remember the millenium plot? You know the one that was foiled by a U.S. Customs inspector in Port Angeles, Washington not long before Jan. 1, 2000? Want to know how that was foiled? I have the inside skinny, told to me by a senior officer of the Canadian military who was posted in Victoria, B.C. at the time.

The U.S. Customs inspector wasn't the one who fingered the would-be terrorists. What actually happened is that they were profiled by Canadian border guards on their exit from Victoria. Interestingly enough, Canadian and U.S. law enforcement work together. The Canadians told the Americans, and the people were rousted at the dock in Washington State.

Of course, white Canadians could never, ever be involved in terrorism, just as white Americans couldn't be. Just ask Timothy McVeigh, you fool.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Economic Pessimism and a Half-Assed Stimulus

People who talked to me a year ago might recall my having said that I thought the 2009 economy would be a lot worse than the predictions, and that unemployment would be over 10% this year. In fact, I was so gloomy last year that I made (and kept) a resolution to shut up about it, partly on the grounds that no one really likes a pessimist even if he's right.

What about now? Well, there is Nouriel Roubini. He made a name for himself by being bearish during the real estate bubble. Now, the typical pattern for economic soothsayers is to ride their calls over the top, failing to recognize when conditions have changed. So, it comes as no surprise to me that he's still bearish. He thinks the unemployment rate will peak at 11% and stay there for a couple of years.

Link to Roubini's view

I recognize the danger of riding a good call over the top, but I'm with Roubini. The reason is that Obama's stimulus was a half-measure. It should have been twice as big as it was, and should have consisted entirely of spending and none of the business tax cuts demanded by Republicans, who then turned around and voted against the package anyway. Obama allowed himself to get rolled, and now he'll have the worst of all worlds: a stimulus with his name on it, but one that's too small to matter.

Beyond that, the current stimulus does nothing for the long run. There is no investment in it. Let me give a small example of what could have been done.

Some tens of millions of U.S. homes are heated with oil. This drives up our trade deficit, impoverishes the homeowners, and spews carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming. And it's unnecessary, because there is long-established technology to replace conventional furnaces.

I start by noting that if you dig six feet into the ground, it's almost always 55 degrees down there. If you dig a 75-foot trench, lay pipe, and run anti-freeze through it, you can draw the heat from the ground and replace the oil burner with a heat exchanger. It has the added appeal of being an air conditoner in the summer time. The only energy you use is to run the pump, which is 70% less than if you burn oil (or natural gas, for that matter). These systems are called "geothermal heat pumps," and they've been used for a long time to heat homes in Scandinavia and Eastern Canada. An American company located in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Water Furnace International, is a major manufacturer of the systems.

Water Furnace International's website

It costs about $6,000 to replace an oil burner with a gas burner. It costs about $16,000 to replace an oil burner with a "Water Furnace," the extra cost being mainly of digging the 75-foot trench and laying the pipe. But you save 70% on your energy bill, which makes for roughly a six-year payback on one of these systems.

Here's the sort of thing the government should have gotten involved in: Cut a deal with Water Furnace and others to make these things in huge volume at lower prices -- in that regard, take a page from Wal-Mart -- and then totally subsidize them, in return for sharing the energy cost savings. There'd have been an up-front investment of $50 billion or $100 billion to do it, but it would be recouped over time by sharing the savings on energy bills. Side benefits: Lower oil imports. Long-term reductions in energy use. Reduced carbon output. Give lots of jobs to unskilled unemployed to dig those trenches. Stimulate an American industry.

Is anyone even thinking about stuff like this? It sure doesn't seem like it. Instead, we have a half-assed stimulus package that is doing little but (maybe) keeping the really big wolf from the door in the short term, and nothing over time. Chalk it up to the timidity and lack of imagination of a Democratic Party that's thoroughly scared of its own shadow and bereft of the spirit of innovation

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Beta-Male's Imminent Health Care Failure: Hey Obama, Would You Grow A Pair?

The White House is signaling that it will abandon the centerpiece of President Obama's health care program, the so-called "public option" that would allow people to ditch their insurance company for a government-run insurance plan similar to Medicare.

Obama and his surrogates are trying to save face by arguing that a public option wasn't so important after all, that it was a time-wasting liberal litmus test. The reality couldn't be more different, as Obama himself had recognized until now. Without a government option, there will be nothing to keep the health care industry honest. There will be no effective means for the government to control costs. At least 20 million people will remain uninsured. What a joke.

I expect that Congress will pass "health insurance reform," and that the Obama administration will try to put lipstick on that pig. Democrats will support it, and the Republicans will walk away laughing. They will know the truth: The plan will do nothing other than to transfer the blame for America's health care crisis from the healthcare industry that created it, and the Republicans who protected them, to the Democrats who failed to do anything about it.

Why did President Obama and the Democratic Party allow themselves to fall into this trap? What on earth were they thinking?

Is It Congressional Math? Maybe Health Reform Is Unpopular? Try This Instead: Can't Means Won't

To hear congressional Democrats explain it, it's all about the math. There wasn't enough support for actual health care reform, they say. That's absurd on its face. There are 257 Democrats and 178 Republicans in the House, and 60 Democrats and 40 Republicans in the Senate. This wasn't a failure of means, it was a failure of will. The Marine Corps has a slogan that covers it: Can't Means Won't.

It's certainly true that some Democrats are "DINO," or Democrat In Name Only. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, is a creature of the health insurance companies that finance his campaigns. So is Kent Conrad, the North Dakota Democrat who has declared the death of the public option.

In the House of Representatives, a group of so-called "Blue Dog Democrats" have played the same role, working against actual health care reform. On the surface, therefore, it would seem that we must adjust the math on party affiliation. But I think that's only the beginning of the issue, not the end of it. I lay this failure at the doorstep of President Obama and the institutional Democratic Party, both of whom are failing their principles, and their country, at a time of acute need.

But why? What about these people has made it impossible for them to stand up for what they say they believe, which is that government should step into the breach when the free market has failed? Why such a display of clay-footed cowardice by Democrats recently elected on a promise of change?

Is it that health care reform is too controversial and unpopular, as evidenced by the ragtag disruptions at congressional town hall meetings? Don't be ridiculous!

The Democratic Party has enacted much more controversial programs than a public insurance option, which last spring polled 76% in favor. This is the party, mind you, that enacted the New Deal over vicious and ongoing Republican opposition. The Democratic Party passed a civil rights and Great Society agenda at a time when most of the public opposed major elements of it. And it wasn't only after Democratic sweeps, either: This is the party that started impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon barely a year after he had won biggest landslide in American history.

But now health care reform is too hot to handle? I don't think so!

The Real Reason: Obama Has Been Neutered

So, what in hell is it? Why is the senior leadership of the Democratic Party so afraid of doing something that most of the public supports? I offer this hypothesis: Barack Obama has allowed himself to be neutered, and in doing so he has set the tone for other Democrats to follow.

I was in Washington when Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. were president. I didn't vote for either one of them, but I respected their leadership skills. They didn't get everything they wanted, but no one pushed those men around. In symbolic terms, they stood tall. They lost some votes, especially Bush Sr., but they were rarely, if ever, defeated.

Reagan, in particular, was far more aggressive than currently viewed. The man was relentless, not just on the policy front but on the rhetorical front as well. I saw him give plenty of speeches that no one ever heard about, and the man never lost an opportunity to stick a knife in Jimmy Carter's back and twist it hard. He was amiable, but relentlessly partisan. There was utterly no doubt where he wanted to take the country, and what he was opposed to.

Obama? He's the weakest president since ... hmm, Jimmy Carter. The Republicans have been rolling him since the day he was sworn in. It started with the stimulus package, which was half as large as it should have been, and which included $250 billion worth of Republican tax cuts that did nothing to stimulate the economy. The Republicans were happy to accept Obama's peace offering, before turning right around and biting the hand that fed it to them.

When Obama failed to exact a penalty for that faithless behavior, the Republicans were emboldened. Politics is kindergarten writ large. Give them an inch, and they'll take a mile. The Republican Party has just run a 5K race against Obama, and shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, now that it looks like they've defeated health care reform, Obama had better not expect much success on the rest of his "change" agenda.

"Complaisance: The disposition to please or comply"

Last year, I was very attracted by what I perceived as a steadiness within Obama. The man looked to me as if he could walk through a tornado and emerge without so much as a scratch. Nothing seemed to perturb him. Holy Commander-in-Chief, Batman, that's my guy! And he's a frickin' Democrat, for chrissakes! Can you believe our luck?

Alas, the Greeks knew that every heroic character trait contains the seeds of tragedy. With Obama, his calm, consensus-seeking demeanor has turned this "change agent" into an "agreement-seeking missile." That's fine if the differences are minor and there's a stable and civil atmosphere in the land, but when gaps are wide and your opposition has directly proclaimed its wish that you fail, steadiness can easily turn into something very different.

The word I am looking for is complaisance, which Webster's defines as the "disposition to please or comply." What if President Obama's steadiness isn't a byproduct of strength, but of a desperately cautious urge to do nothing that will interfere with a driving need to ingratiate himself with the public?

If that's what we have as our president, then we should all get ready to watch as Barack Obama chases one "compromise" after another with a Republican Party that wants nothing less than to publicly humiliate him and drive him from office amid howls of laughter and derision. And, who knows, at this rate he just might wind up deserving it.

Leadership and the Alpha Male: Lead, Don't Plead

It is said that the Republicans act as America's stern father, while the Democrats act as our soft-hearted mother. Funny, that's not something I ever recall hearing about Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, or Lyndon Johnson. I only ran across that characterization during and after the Jimmy Carter years, which were characterized by a whining, pessimistic vacillation that virtually begged for a tough guy to step into the breach.

After nominating two beta males in a row -- Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis -- the Democrats seemed to learn their lesson when they gave us the amiable yet steely Bill Clinton. Then, they reverted to post-Nixon type, offering us Al Gore and John Kerry, one too weak to stick to his persona, and the other too weak to stand up to attacks on his war record. Last year, Obama looked like a throwback to JFK, but this year he's looking more like a cross between Bill Cosby and Jimmy Carter. You'd love to have them as neighbors, anyway.

In the health care debate, or what passes for one, Obama has been pleading, not leading. He has been attacked by mobs of nutcases funded by Republicans and corporate interests. Rather than calling them on the carpet for their outrageous statements and tactics, he has actually tried to flatter the whackjob fringe that will never respect him -- and which, in any case, is serving as nothing more than a pawn for corporate lobbying interests.

When that handful of Democratic leaders who do have a backbone, such as Nancy Pelosi, tried to fight back by counterattacking the Republican "town hall" tantrums, the White House cut them off at the knees. When Democratic "net roots" activists offered to crank up efforts to put pressure on Blue Dogs and other clay-feet, the White House told them to go away. Now, Obama stands alone, his reform plan undefended, as wolves rip away the last hunks of flesh.

Americans Don't Respect Weak Leaders

Any appearances to the contrary, I have a great appreciation for those who sublimate their egos and draw the meaning in their lives through service to others. They are often very appealing people, usually ignored and often mocked, yet they do some of our most valuable things. The meek shall inherit the earth. I really believe that. But for now, the meek are not going to run America. They never have. That power accrues to a different sort: the firm, the determined, the clear-eyed. These are not necessarily the nicest guys in the room, but they get things done.

It might have been noble for Jimmy Carter, in 1979 when Iranian students held Americans in Tehran with the support of that country's revolutionary government, to declare that the lives of the hostages were paramount and that he would do anything possible to avoid endangering them. But it was an unforgivably stupid position for a leader to take, because there are times when leaders need to engender some fear in their opposition.

It might be noble for Barack Obama to rise above racist taunts, and signs comparing him to Adolf Hitler, and corporate-funded mobs of Republicans who have invaded public meetings to shout down elected officials and other citizens. But it's not very smart, because it has made Democrats look weak and vacillating. And now that Obama is responding by cutting the guts out of his plan, he can be certain that future initiatives will be met by the same unruly mob tactics.

The end result: Change stopped dead in its tracks at a time when we need it very badly. Make no mistake: The Republicans didn't do this, Obama's weakness did. And while Americans grew tired of George W. Bush's recklessness, we detest weakness in our leaders.

Bottom Line: Obama, Grow A Pair

From the looks of things, it's probably too late. I'll be surprised if President Obama's health care plan survives in anything but name only. If he does intend to resuscitate it, Obama had better toughen up, and fast. Especially within his own party. He'd better lay it on the line to his "Blue Dogs" and to the corporate Democrats in the Senate, and vividly lay out the specific costs to them of crossing this president on his most important priority.

President Obama, and the Democrats, retain a key advantage here: The math. Regardless of what anyone might say, they can pass any health care legislation they want to with or without Republican help. If Democrats get together, the Republicans and their opposition will be nothing but a stain on the highway where some luckless raccoon kissed the bumper of a passing Cadillac late one night. But they have to want to do it. The Democrats that is. Pass health care reform, not kiss the bumper of a passing Cadillac. You have to wonder.

Obama, now's the time to find out what this steadiness of yours really is. Are you going to grow a pair, or will you be our dear friend who never should have gone off to that vicious city in the first place?

By the Way: Is Obama's Race A Factor Here?

I've asked myself whether Obama's weakness is partly a function of the tenuous position of black men in American society. It's an odd question, given that we've supposedly "overcome" our prejudices and put a black man into the most powerful job we've got. How "tenuous" can it be when we're willing to put a black finger on the nuclear trigger, anyhow?

Consider this, though: When Obama criticized a badge-heavy cop in Cambridge, Massachusetts for his unwarranted arrest of a black Harvard professor for nothing other than acting in an obnoxious, condescending, and rather stupid manner, some elements in this country went crazy. So did the media, which ignored W.'s opposition for years but now seems to just loooooooove the wingnuts, and as a result Obama's approval rating dropped by 5 points in one week.

We're okay with black men, or so we think. As long as they're polite, non-threatening, and don't rock the boat. Tell me, if there had been a dozen black men carrying guns outside of a George W. Bush speech on Social Security reform four years ago, rather than a dozen white men carrying guns outside of an Obama speech on health care, would you have "gun rights advocates" on CNN lining up to defend their second amendment rights? Be honest. Especially my white readers.

I want Barack Obama to toughen up, grow a pair, kick some ass in Congress, and save his health care plan. If he granted my wish, how long would it take until we began hearing about the "angry black man" in the White House?