2013

Emergency post 3.

I’ve been smushed under the writer’s block for some time, which might explain the long series of Sunday entries. But the midnight hour of the seventh day approached so here goes:

It dawned on me this weekend that I could make a living of telling people the stuff they don’t want to hear. I should hang a shingle.

Need to pass news of someone’s passing, or of some similar family disaster, but you just don’t know how? Good news– I do.

Want to break up with your significant other? Things getting too serious too fast? Things not getting serious at all? Your S.O. can’t spell “CAT” correctly or perhaps he or she is too nerdy for you? Work with someone who dresses poorly or smells like beets and he needs to be told? Want to tell off your boss, or feed some information to him/her without getting canned? Here’s my card.

That’s right: for a small fee I will break the bad news to those who need to hear it most. I will take the emotional blowback. I will take the ill-conceived death threats. I will undergo the barrage of insulting comments from your friends, coworkers, or bosses. And for a tiny additional fee, you can keep your name totally out of it, and reduce the possibility of personal or professional payback.

I figure that if you’re good at something– in my case, I’m good at not getting too wrapped up in the emotions of the situation– you should try to make that talent work for you. I think there’s some real money to be made here.

Here’s how exhausted I am. In the middle of this short entry, I wrote the following sentence:

“I’ve been told an inordinate number of times that my road leads to I-10, and that there aren’t that many useful turnouts to get around the colic cats, and diminish if not eliminate the possibly of taking 12 years.”

No idea. Gotta get to sleep.

Blerg.

Not a good weekend.

Trouble sleeping because the dripping faucet hasn’t been repaired. I’m ready to rip the damn thing off, suffocate it and nail it under the floorboards.

Clemson got rolled and then some. It’s nice to see more college teams, Clemson among them, adopting pro-style offenses, but it’s not so nice to see them adopt pro-style lackadaisicalness about individual games. It’s not a sixteen game season– one loss and you’re effectively out of national championship contention– you can’t just give up in the second quarter. That game might’ve been worse than the Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia.

The Bears lost to The NFL Team From Washington, D.C. The offense looked fine, even with Cutler out for much of the game. McCown threw well, Forte ran well, Hester tied Deion for most return touchdowns. But the defense has been atrocious, and it pains me to say that. I can no longer just blame it on an offense that doesn’t manage the clock or hang on to the ball or stay on the field. 29+ points against per game means the defense just isn’t that good anymore. Oh well.

The AC was out for about twelve hours today, and of course it was the twelve hottest hours of the day. If I were given the option to live as a king in any place or era without air conditioning, I would pass. I guess I should be grateful it’s not June or July.

And worst of all, my account on the Common Application website was messed up, and half-a-day spent writing recommendations became three-quarters-of-a-day writing recommendations.

Actually, no, worst of all was yesterday when I bit into a slice of pickle that’d been left on my cheesehamburger. That’ll ruin a trip to Wendy’s.

Oh well. I have my health.

On the possibility of default.

An anonymous reader asked in an earlier comment thread, “Could you explain what would happen if the Oct. 17 deadline isn’t met?”

October 17th is the day that the federal government expects to hit its debt ceiling. In other words, on that day, the federal government will max out its credit card and it won’t be allowed to borrow any more money until it pays off some of its old debts.

That doesn’t mean the federal government will cease all operations, or stop collecting taxes, or stop spending money. It can keep operating, collecting taxes, and spending money. It just won’t be allowed to borrow any additional money until (A) the debt ceiling is increased, or (B) enough old debt is retired to make some room underneath the debt ceiling.

The big fear now is that if the debt limit is not increased by Thursday, the federal government will default— that is, if the government owes you money on Friday, it won’t be able to pay you. That would be bad because an IOU from the federal government is supposed to be one of the most (or the most) safe and secure financial investments on Earth. And suddenly a lot of people, businesses, and other governments who’ve lent money to the federal government in good faith will realize that they may not get their money back in full. And that causes worldwide economic turmoil unless and until the federal government gets its act back together, but even then investors may no longer view it as trustworthy. And then people/businesses/governments are less willing to lend money to the federal government, which suddenly has great difficulty funding its daily operations, and has to either cut spending, increase tax revenues, or inflate the currency.

Default is the big fear. But default doesn’t have to happen, even if the debt ceiling doesn’t get raised by October 17th. The federal government can cut spending or it can raise taxes. Neither’s a pleasant option, but default would be far worse. And perhaps because default would be far worse, default is legally and constitutionally the last resort. The feds have to pay off their IOUs before they spend a dime on any other function of the government. That’s not just my opinion, that’s not just how I read the Constitution, that’s the last few centuries of financial and legal precedent. Bondholders– the “U” in “IOU”– get paid first. Not our military. Not Social Security or Medicare recipients. Not Congresscritters or other federal employees. Bondholders. And every day, the feds bring in several times the amount of cash necessary to pay off the bonds that come due every day.

So if October 17th comes and the debt limit hasn’t been raised, expect more parts of the government to shut down because of spending cuts. It won’t be pretty, but default will still be a long ways off– unless the President unilaterally decides to shaft the bondholders, which I’m sure would never ever happen in a million years.

5011.

A hypothetical:

Say a mugger demands all of my money. If I somehow convince him to take some of my money instead of all of it, am I complicit in the mugging?

Have I consented to be mugged?

Have I endorsed mugging?

Is the mugger entitled to accost me again, take half my money, and then justify it by saying, “Hey– this was your idea”?

On the shutdown.

The looming federal government shutdown, due to hit this Tuesday if I’m not mistaken, will not be a literal, complete shutdown of the government. Plenty of agencies will keep operating, plenty of officials will keep drawing paychecks, and you’d best believe that plenty of taxes will still be collected. This suggests that some federal functions receive higher priority than others.

I’d like to think we could take the occasion of a shutdown to consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the federal government shouldn’t do as much as it does, and that we should eliminate some of those de-prioritized functions, or relegate them to the states.

I’m sure there are some pretty important programs that’ll suffer if a continuing resolution (or, dare I say it, an actual budget) isn’t passed by Tuesday. After all, how else would you make political hay out of the whole thing? We can argue about which programs should have spending priority, but the simple fact that a “shutdown” de-prioritizes certain programs should lead Congress to determine what percentage of federal spending actually shuts down during the “shutdown”– and then cut federal spending by that much. I think it’s reasonable to ask that Congress spend no more than what they consider truly necessary.

Ugly Bears game today. It ended up as a one-score game (40-32), but it really wasn’t that close throughout. The run defense needs a lot of work; I don’t care if Reggie Bush had the game of his life or not. And Cutler has got to eliminate those reckless, floating, off-his-back-foot throws from his repertoire– even one of those per game can kill you.

Back-in-the-days.

A coupla weeks back, a student asked an odd question. She asked how the members of the Second Continental Congress got to Philadelphia to work on the Declaration of Independence. Before I got the chance to answer that question, she asked another, much braver one: “Did they have cars?”

I hope I stopped the teasing and tittering before it got started by explaining that cars, as we recognize them today, wouldn’t be invented for another 100 years or so.

Anyhow, that “silly” question got me thinking. Consider that to the average teenager, cars have always been around. Their parents and grandparents grew up in a world with cars all over the place. We can easily grasp the idea that cars haven’t always been as advanced as they are today, but visualizing a world without cars– and I mean going beyond the intellectual knowledge that cars haven’t always been there, I mean really visualizing what life was like as if we were there– grows increasingly difficult with each passing generation. (Consider also that there isn’t much history taught in elementary school, and if you haven’t sought out this sort of information, and if it hasn’t come up in a history class by the time you’re in my classroom, it makes sense you wouldn’t really know when the automobile came around.)

Look at telephones. Today’s high school seniors were born in a world where cell phones weren’t ubiquitous, but they probably don’t remember it well. I remember pre-ubiquity pretty darn well: it was much more difficult to get in touch with people, cordless phones were a big deal, you used pay phones more often, caller ID was less common, prank calls were more common, and so on. My parents remember the days of someone from the telephone company coming over to install or repair your AT&T phone– and you were stuck with AT&T because there were no other phone companies. My grandparents, once they finally got phones, had party lines.

I remember a time before cell phones (yes, they were invented before I was born, but they didn’t trickle down to Joe Average until 10-15 years ago). I can imagine what the world was like without any sort of phones, but I don’t think I can truly appreciate what that world was like. And I think that makes it harder to count the ways in which the world is more awesome than ever before.

The faster technology advances, and the more that people are born into an increasingly advanced world, the harder it is for people to understand their ancestors’ everyday lives and to appreciate the material progress of mankind.

I probably wouldn’t have liked this when I was a teenager, but I’d like to see some sort of lesson or ritual or holiday that involves living with the technology of generations past. Some people might call that “camping”, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean a 1963 day (and night) where you live with the technology of 1963– no cell phones, expensive long-distance calls, music from the radio or the record player, a black-and-white TV, etc. (“Kids, this is how your grandparents lived.”) I mean a 1923 day with a party line phone, limited indoor plumbing, limited access to cars, no TV, maybe a pre-talkie movie, and no microwave or fast food. (“Kids, this is how your great- or great-great-grandparents lived.”) I mean an 1873 day with no cars or TV or phones or electric light. Let’s even throw in the clothing of the time, though I wouldn’t throw in the medicine or lack thereof of the time, because we’re trying to cultivate a sense of history here, not bring back the plague. Maybe we could also get the town/city/surrounding community to tone down the light pollution at night so we could actually see some stars.

Living that way for a day and night (though three to five days per time period would really drive it home) would do a much better job of showing kids how we used to live than any course or lecture or dinnertime story. It would be a far more powerful way of envisioning and connecting to our pasts. Sure, it’d probably be miserable to live through as a kid, but take solace in imagining your own grandchildren griping about “2013 Day” and having to make do with a smartphone that wasn’t built into your hand or not having a heads-up display projected on your contact lens.

When I went to college, I had a PS/2 with 4 MB of RAM and 128 MB of hard drive space when I went to college. When my dad went to college, he used punch cards to write simple addition programs on a computer the size of a room. When my grandfather went to college, he had a pencil, a slide rule, and some paper. My great-grandfather didn’t go to college; he had a shovel and a railroad wrench.

Some rambling thoughts on Syria.

In a comment on my post “1979a”, Blonde wrote, “This course of action is also being much more meticulously thought-out than say, Iraq or Afghanistan.” I responded, “If this is meticulous, I’d hate to see Obama wing it.”

Long story short, I invited an explanation of how President Obama’s approach to Syria is more meticulous than Bush’s approach to Iraq, which Blonde gave here, and decided to make my response a regular post instead of a comment. My minority opinion follows.

In a related comment, you said, “I can provide other sources detailing how Iraq was poorly planned, if you’d like. I assumed that was a commonly accepted observation.”

Do you really think I care whether it’s “commonly accepted”? It’s also commonly accepted that to whatever extent he’s responsible, Obama is bungling Syria, so nyah. The casualties and refugees are piling up as fast as they did in Iraq– 100,000 have been killed in the last two years, and there are already double the refugees we saw from Iraq. He talks about a limited military response that few expect will accomplish anything aside from killing more Syrians. He has virtually no domestic or foreign support for a military strike. And I think that, all by itself, the fiasco over whether he would (or even had to) get permission from Congress shows how poorly thought-out his reaction has been. And the latest deal with the SovietsRussians should seem ill-conceived given your distrust of Putin (“CAN EVERYONE PLZ STOP PRETENDING THAT PUTIN IS JUST SOME COOL HONEST WELL INTENDING SHIRTLESS DUDE?!”) and your belief that Assad simply won’t give up his WMD.

So… which part of this has gone the way Obama planned? If the deal with Putin was part of the plan all along– and now Obama’s people are saying it was, though I can’t help but hear Jon Lovitz’s “That’s the ticket” sketches when they do– then I applaud except for the part where we’re trusting Assad and Putin (who, last I heard, is planning a vacay in Tehran).

The only thing that has gone to plan is that so far, not one drop of American blood and not one pair of American boots* have touched Syrian soil. And that’s a good thing– but if you want to know beyond doubt that Assad doesn’t have WMD, or that his WMD are neutralized, that will almost certainly have to change.

That’s not to say the President shouldn’t react. But you said this was better planned than Iraq, so that’s what I’m addressing.

*I’m sure we have some CIA spooks over there, so I should specify combat boots.

You wrote, “For starters, the planning for Syria is much less complex than the planning for Iraq, and so the probability that it’s done more thoroughly (and ‘correctly’, whatever measurement of correct you want to use) increases. Iraq was an enormous undertaking, an invasion which required military and civilian planning for both short term and long term efforts.”

Obama’s plan for Syria is of a much smaller scale than Bush’s plan for Iraq, so you can fairly argue that planning for Syria is proportionately more meticulous. This assumes that you can meaningfully scale down meticulousness; at some point “coaching five-year-olds to play soccer” and “planning a four-year World Cup qualifying strategy” just aren’t comparable. But I’ll grant you that planning a minor response is easier than planning a major response, and if a minor response is more appropriate, then that reflects better planning than a major response would.

You linked to two articles (here and here) about the poor planning of the Iraq War. Long story short: the plan was to go in with as light a footprint as possible while making sure we took out Saddam, secured his WMD stockpiles, prevented any further Iraqi use or development of WMD, and installed democratic institutions. Well, turns out we didn’t send enough troops to control post-invasion Iraq, and we disbanded governmental institutions (including the Ba’athists), that could have been useful in controlling post-invasion Iraq. These were huge mistakes in terms of democratizing Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of extra troops may well have helped control and democratize post-Saddam Iraq. The concern at the time was that such a heavy US presence would provide more targets for bad guys to shoot at and it would hinder our ability to “win hearts and minds.”

However, these were not mistakes in terms of stopping Saddam from having or using WMD (which, to my knowledge, is Obama’s only goal regarding Assad). We sent in more than enough troops to take out Saddam and prevent any further use or development of WMD. The point here is that to make sure with absolute certainty that Saddam would never again have or use WMD, we had to put boots on the ground.

Yes, there were people who swore up and down ahead of the war that Saddam had already dumped his WMD, and yes, they turned out to be correct. But whenever I discuss this with anyone, I put heavy emphasis on the “turned out to be” part, because before the invasion there was no reliable, believable way to confirm it. Why? Because Saddam repeatedly refused to permit inspectors into many suspected WMD sites, and people felt the way about Saddam that you do about Assad. After we put boots on the ground, and after we looked around ourselves, we confirmed that Saddam no longer had stockpiles of WMD. (We did find that he had enough elements of a WMD program that he could reconstitute it if he were still alive and in power if/when we left Iraq, and this was widely held to be his intention.) If he’d permitted thorough, unfettered, public inspections of every site we wanted to inspect– like the US and the UN had been demanding for years, though we weren’t really pushing the matter until after 9/11– there would’ve been virtually no support for an invasion.

You said, “I think action is still called for even if Syria agrees to hand over their chemical weapons to the international community… There’s no way Assad is going to actually hand over all the goods.” So what sort of action should we take to make sure that he doesn’t have them anymore? President Obama called for a “limited” action, and SecState Kerry made reference to “degrading” Assad’s ability to use WMD, and hopefully one of them knows what any of that actually means, and both of them have insisted that we’d put no boots on the ground in Syria (unless we actually do, per the current Obama-Putin agreement). In short, they’re insisting that we won’t be able to verify that Assad has no WMD.

Furthermore, this “limited” talk reminds me of Bush41’s and Bill Clinton’s approach to Saddam after the 1991 Gulf War: a handful of missile strikes scattered over the years, some economic sanctions, some vague calls for regime change. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were dying (look up the Oil-for-Food scandal), being killed (Kurds, Marsh Arabs, etc.), there was an assassination attempt on Bush41 that we thought was ordered by Saddam (I don’t think that was confirmed), Saddam was working with some terrorist groups here and there, and– most relevant to this discussion– and there was no confirmation regarding the WMD.

So if you don’t trust the Obama-Putin agreement, and if the Bush41/Clinton approach of not putting boots on the ground (post-Gulf War) wasn’t effective, and if there’s no reliable way to ensure that Assad doesn’t have WMD without putting boots on the ground, then… I guess I’m missing out on the meticulous part of the meticulous planning.

Ensuring that Assad can’t use WMD will require much heavier military action than Obama has suggested publicly. Maybe not a full-fledged invasion and occupation like in Iraq (though Bush had additional goals that Obama has not adopted). Maybe he’s actually thinking about burying Assad under a pile of rubble, but he hasn’t said so, so we’re just left with his word that he’s thought this out.

There’s the problem of comparing the early stages of the Syrian crisis to the entirety of the Iraq War. If one is going to take proportion into consideration on the planning, then one might take proportion into consideration regarding the results. In that light, I’m not sure the Syrian situation looks that much better: over 100,000 dead in roughly a year, confirmed chemical weapons attacks in August, alleged chemical weapons attacks in March (which, oddly, Assad asked the UN to investigate). Scale that over the course of 8 ½ years (the official length of the Iraq War), and you’ve got casualties that, depending on the source, approximate or exceed the casualties of the Iraq War. The very good news, and again, hopefully it will remain this way, is there have been zero American casualties in Syria.

On the “rush” to war in Iraq: I never thought the “rush to war” in 2003 was as rushed as others did. Yes, there had been plenty of pre-9/11 discussion by the Bush folks about taking out Saddam, so folks can argue that the decision had already been made. And yet we waited 18 months after 9/11 to take out Saddam. With as much paranoia as there was floating around back then, you’d think we’d have hit Saddam a lot sooner. Bush built a coalition, he went to the UN, he went to Congress and got the AUMF five months before the invasion began. The “rush to war” folks forget that our conflict with Saddam didn’t begin with Shock and Awe, or with 9/11. It went back over a decade earlier. There had been diplomacy, 12 years’ worth. There had been inspections– granted, they weren’t thorough, and we didn’t trust the results of them. But not acting for 18 months after the “societal trauma” of 9/11 strongly suggests that we thought first and acted second. There were plans in place– they just didn’t go nearly as well as anyone hoped.

You might think that I’m glossing over the post-invasion humanitarian crisis in Iraq. That is not my intention. However, I would point out that statistically it was not as bad as the pre-invasion crisis (though not politically because the world generally ignored the Iraqi people until 2003), and again, Syria is on pace to catch it.

If you could snap your fingers and turn today’s Syria into today’s Iraq, would you?

I don’t care who gets or takes credit for getting Syria’s WMD under control, or for getting rid of Assad if it means replacing him with a better government, or for stopping the slaughter of the Syrian civil war. President Obama deserves credit for not putting Americans in harm’s way. I hope he either figures out how to or bungles his way into getting the WMD under control, improving Syria’s government, and stopping the civil war without putting any Americans in harm’s way. But I’m reminded of a question people used to ask about Iraq and Afghanistan: “What would success in Iraq (or Afghanistan) look like?” That’s a hard question, and I think it’s even harder to answer when it comes to Syria. If we’re not going to go in and flatten the place a la Volleyed&Thundered’s suggestion, and if we’re not going to stay out of it altogether a la Volleyed&Thundered’s other suggestion, and if we’re not firmly committing to regime change, and if we’re not going to put boots on the ground to make sure the WMD are neutralized, then… what is success in Syria supposed to look like?

Qualificado.

Gli Azzurri pulled off a nice little comeback earlier today to win UEFA Group B and advance to Brazil.

The US downed Mexico 2-0 (dos a cero, again) just a little while ago, and assuming Panama doesn’t win, that’ll be good enough to get us through…

[10:57 PM] Yep. Honduras 2:2 Panama. We’re through to Brazil next year. Both my favorite national squads qualify on the same day. That probably doesn’t happen too often. I wonder if this is the earliest we’ve clinched a spot in the Finals.

1979a.

I will grant that Presidenting is not the world’s easiest job, and that you can’t possibly know what it’s like unless you’ve sat in that chair, but…

In a time of crisis, there are tough calls to be made. Sometimes the most you can do is act with wisdom and resolve, and then hope and pray that you’re making the right move.

If leading a reluctant nation into battle is the right thing to do, I hope the President does it.

If doing nothing is the right course of action even though his countrymen call for war, then I hope the President does nothing.

If the President genuinely believes that he needs Congressional permission to strike at an enemy, then I hope he would ask for a Congressional vote on the matter and then abide by that vote.

And if the President genuinely believes that he doesn’t need congressional permission to strike at an enemy, then I hope the President would act as his wisdom would dictate, and that he would act with courage and resolve even as Congressmen denounce him for not seeking their approval. Furthermore, I hope that he wouldn’t draw a line in the sand regarding WMD, then, after Tyrant X steps over that line (possibly; remember that Terrorist Group Y is among the opponents of Tyrant X and may have false-flagged the whole thing), say that he might do something about it tomorrow or maybe in a few weeks, or a month or so because not following through would, like, totally make him look bad, and then remind everybody that he can use military force against Tyrant X without Congressional permission, and then audaciously ask for Congress to rubber stamp the military actions he plans on taking anyways even though he doesn’t really need them to, and then announce that he’s merely proposing a very limited action that would somehow degrade Tyrant X’s ability to use WMD, but not actually involve any American boots on the ground, and etc., etc., etc.

Does anybody have any sense that in this crisis, President Obama is acting with resolve or wisdom? I hope he is, but the optics suggest otherwise.

On Leci’s.

Down and across the street from St. Vincent’s South (formerly St. Luke’s) there’s a tiny little strip mall, the easternmost shop of which never seems to stay in business very long. One restaurant after another opens there and one restaurant after another closes there. The current tenant is an Italian place called Leci’s; here’s hoping it lasts.

Maybe the location’s the problem. It’s easy to drive right down Belfort without thinking about or even noticing it because, again, it’s in that easternmost spot on the back corner of the parking lot. Seems like you’ve got to plan to eat there in the first place because checking it out won’t occur to you simply by driving down the street. Perhaps a big gaudy neon sign would help.

Even if the location isn’t the problem, it’s probably doomed to fail because they pile far too much food on your plate for the money they charge you. This financial sin is especially egregious at lunchtime; I first ate there at noon whilst on vacation and I almost felt guilty getting such a good deal.

So I strolled into Leci’s around eight this evening and ordered some calimari and chicken scarparella. Maybe my hunger was making me see things, because I’d only had cereal and a sandwich and peaches and a peanut butter cup and yogurt and a lollipop to eat today, but it looked like they piled the food on the plates. And this was no optical illusion– the appetizer and entrée plates were a foot in diameter. I managed to get through half the calimari and a good chunk of the salad before they brought out the main dish.

The scarparella was glorious. Linguini doused in a wine lemon butter sauce lined the big-ol’ plate, four sautéed chicken breasts perched atop the pasta, slices of Italian sausage surrounded the chicken, and roasted peppers and olives and artichokes adorned the whole lot of it. It was delicious. There was plenty left over– I’m not ashamed– and between that and the rest of the calimari, my next two lunches are covered.

It didn’t look much like an Italian restaurant, by which I mean there were no red checkerboard tablecloths or rolling-pin-bearing moms wearing black aprons. But near the end of my meal, a man shaped like my long-dead Uncle George rolled in and ordered something to-go in an obnoxious accent, and the place felt a little more right.

Anyhow, I hope Leci’s is still around the next time I think about stopping in, but despite the heaping helpings of pretty darn good food, I’m not optimistic. Someone must’ve given that location the malocchio a ways back.

I’ll have something about our next war tomorrow.