Thursday, November 18, 2010

These are pictures of the first guitar I built, called "First Attempt", completed in 2005. The top is Sitka Spruce, back and sides are Indian Rosewood. I originally built it with a Bouchet bar; a year or so later I decided it was overbuilt so I took off the back and removed the bar. The guitar sounded much better but had a wolf tone on the 7th fret B on the high e string so I added a smaller sort of Bouchet bar back in, working through the soundhole, glued on top of the braces. This mostly got rid of the wolf note and also helped the treble response. The interior picture shows the current bracing. I am now nearly done with my third guitar. You can see my faithful Takamine C132s in the background of some of the pictures.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

a review of "Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?"

June and I spent the morning up at Powell's book store in Portland yersterday, and I was reading this book (yes, I do buy stuff at Powell's too).

What a fascinating picture of a different way things could be. Geoghegan concludes that 90% of the U.S. population would be better off with the somewhat higher taxes and much greater benefits of a social democracy such as France or Germany. He starts off by recounting the great impression the city of Zurich made on him. Again and again he advises us to look at the travel section to evaluate europe, rather than getting our ideas from the Wall Street Journal. Just walk around a city like Zurich (unfair example? then how about 50 or so other european cities he could name). Then walk a few blocks away from something nice in a great city like Chicago, for instance, where in his words it is "gulag-like". No question, I can't deny it. Believe your eyes, not your economic theories.

Geoghegan spends several chapters describing people he encounters in Paris, such as a rock-band drummer (the arts are subsidized, so this guy has a job). He talks about the feeling of joy and enjoyment of life he can see in the people he talks with.

Then he moves on to Germany and describes how worker-controlled capitalism did not try to break the unions and compete with the emerging economies on wages (a losing battle as the U.S. and Great Britain have discovered) but instead kept wages high and used their highly trained workers to specialize in high-end manufacturing, where they have a very large market share.

The five areas the state addresses in these social democracies:
Education (as in College)
Health Care
Child Care

It does make sense that a collective approach can be much more efficient and cost-effective than having everyone purchase these individually. The trade-off is some independence, or a certain kind of freedom. I do think this has some value, but I feel we have put way too much emphasis on it in the U.S.

In this book Geoghegan has a point-by-point discussion of the pros and cons. This is the conversation we should have been having over Health Care (only one of the five areas).

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Did the Democrats overreach?

If you say "yes" simply because you disagree with their policy, then I suggest that you don't understand how our democracy works. There was no violation of the normal operations of government since January 2008, everything was accomplished according to the rules and standard operating procedure for either party. If it is true that the Democrats went beyond their 2008 mandate then they certainly paid for it last Tuesday. There is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about this.

If you say "yes" because you're a Democrat and you did not want to see them lose control of the House then I'd like to meet you. I don't think there are very many of these. From what I've observed, most Democrats feel that the Senators, Congresspeople, and President they voted for compromised too much, and got nothing in return and no credit for trying to be bipartisan.

I am talking about the health care bill here, because I view the stimulus bill as something Pres. Obama and the Democrats passed because they felt they had to in order to fend of an immediate 2nd Great Depression. You may not agree with this, but at least concede that they believed this and would not have done it in normal economic times.

Was passing health care worth losing control of Congress and possibly making Barack Obama a one term President (I actually think he is still in a very strong position to get re-elected)? I think if you asked Bill Clinton if he would have traded re-election for passing his health care bill, he would say "Are you crazy? Of course!" This is LBJ-style legislation with an impact that will last for decades to come, in spite of the fixes needed.

The one problem with all this is the economic crisis we are still in. President Obama and his administration greatly underestimated the size of this problem, in spite of their massive action with the stimulus bill. In the last several months I have come to believe that they should have done whatever it took to get a much bigger stimulus and not spent political capital on passing health care. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the health care bill passed, but it's a question of priorities. In my opinion we are now looking at recession/depression for 10 years (at least).

Another question: Do you think it would have turned out any different if the health care bill had not passed? I don't. This election was all about the bad economy and a false perception of big government generated by things like Fox News. Changing some of the facts (like having there be no health care bill passed) would not have altered this false perception since it was not based on the facts anyway.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Reality and Political Reality

Someone in the G.W. Bush administration once said "We make our own reality". While this revealed the source of many of the problems encountered and created during 2000 - 2008, yet there is a sense in which it is true. As when Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard and said that it was "a problem for the rest of the world", there are times when a situation makes no sense legally or on its merits, but makes total "sense" if you understand political power. Of course with the Nixon and Bush examples and others of this kind, a tension is created that at some point must be resolved, sometimes sooner, sometimes later. I'm saying that you always end up paying for ignoring actual reality.

But political reality is a powerful force, strong enough to affect actual reality. Early computer crackers used to do "social engineering" which was pretending to be a support tech and calling someone on the phone and asking them for their password. Investor and currency speculator George Soros talks about "reflexivity", how expectation can change the market, making it an imperfect measure of value. He also used this to his advantage, most famously in breaking the British pound. President Obama will have a hard time getting anything done the rest of his term because of the angry and popular protests of the "Tea Party".

I mention all this because lately I have been thinking about David Brooks' idea of a different, winning approach President Obama might have taken. Brooks suggests that Obama should have skipped health care, given up on any short-term fix for the economy, and instead taken a long view by starting to make structural changes in the country that would help our economy prosper ten, twenty, and thirty years down the road. He says that Obama should have explained his plan clearly and told the people that it was going to be difficult for a while. Knowing Brooks as a decent and reasonable man, I assume that assurances of help for the unemployed would have also been given.

I immediately like Brooks' focus on long-term structural change; he seems to be the only one talking about this. With an economy based 70 percent on retail do I need to say any more to convince you that we need to rethink and redesign our society?

For the rest of the idea, it would clearly have political appeal since with no 700 billion dollar stimulus and no big health care bill you would have no Tea Party. And it is possible that there would have been some bipartisan support for the structural change. Brooks sees the importance of this political value of good will and much less opposition.

But I remind you that if Obama had done this we would have had at least 15 percent unemployment (in my opinion) and no health care bill (which I see as a long term very good thing). But if he had prepared people for the high unemployment and promised support for the unemployed (and I think you would have to promise a freeze on home foreclosures as well), and if Republicans had given significant support to this and to his structural legislation, and if the climate in Congress was one of problem solving rather than open war, I would take it.

David, if it is true as you say that half the Republicans would have gone along with something like this, you have convinced me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Paradox of an Enlightened Society

The United States of America has some very dark times in its past. In the last century we saw Japanese Americans imprisoned in concentration camps, the runaway destructive fear of the McCarthy era, several leaders assassinated in the 1960's, and a costly, seemingly endless and pointless war in Vietnam. Not to mention the frequent murder of our black citizens by lynch mobs.

So we should take heart that today there is an absolute consensus against these evils. Politicians, leaders, and the general populace would condemn such things, regardless of party association or ideology. We have truly come a long way and have the benefit of a much more enlightened society.

So why is it that I feel our country has lost something vital, something that it used to possess, even in its more troubled youth? The root of our problem is that we no longer have a functioning democracy.

It is true that in the past the electorate was greatly manipulated, as it will always be. Real issues were ignored in favor of red-meat red herrings, as we see currently. But I believe there was much more substance there in the past, along with the usual political BS. Whatever your position on President Obama's health care bill, can you honestly say that we had any kind of useful debate over it? How come we have been in two wars since 2002 without any Congressional declaration of war? Why is it that Congress without question continues to approve funding for these (at a cost of something like 300 billion dollars a year if I remember correctly)? This is not democracy.

We face terrible economic peril but no political candidate is held accountable for half-baked plans that clearly would either accomplish nothing or would make the situation worse. Those that say we have to let it get worse and recover by itself are not required to explain how they would take care of the unemployed, nor are those who promise to cut back government expenditures.

There is bi-partisan consensus that we should not be dependent on oil from other countries, yet nothing is done about this, even by our progressive President with majorities in both branches of congress.

There is not a chance in hell that anything will be done about global warming - excuse my language but this is an epochal problem that transcends every other issue. The rest of the world is poised to take action but without U.S. leadership it can't happen. Therefore my children and their children will see this planet with a temperature 3 or 4 degrees warmer than it is now, when it will be a very dangerous place, more like something from a science fiction movie, with a large percentage of the population dying off.

A democracy has the advantage of the pooled knowledge, experience, wisdom, and judgement of all its citizens. Obviously they will disagree, but that is what debate is for. We will still arrive at something better collectively than what any one of us could have come up with individually. We have given that up. Instead we have a system that guarantees that a few large corporations will decide everything for us.

Friday, June 18, 2010

My Green Future: Public Transportation and Petroleum Free Agriculture

President Obama recently proposed a full-scale technological assault on the problem of finding a replacement for petroleum as an energy source. He is criticized on one side for wasting money on blue-sky fantasies by those who believe we have plenty of oil if we had no restrictions on where we could drill.

On the other side he falls in line with people like Bill Gates who have great faith in technology and are calling for greatly increased government funding in this area.

I have less confidence in technology than Bill Gates; I think there is no guarantee that we will find an alternative to oil. Systems theory blogger Jeff Vail has also made the point that transitioning to a new energy source will require additional energy (on top of what we normally use). I.e. making a wind turbine requires a certain amount of energy, making enough of them to supply what we currently get from oil will require a lot of energy. Even if they work as a replacement there will be several years of ramp-up time before they provide much net energy; during this time we will need to use more oil than we normally use at the same time as oil production is declining. This means that we have basically a one-time shot with whatever alternative energy source we focus on. We have to use up the rest of our oil (by using it faster than we normally would) in order to make the transition to the new energy source. If this new source does not work as expected, we have lost our chance to try something else.

Vail is skeptical about the claims for the various alternative energy sources, but points out that even if they are as good as advertised, this is a big risk.

I look at this from a different angle. Even if we could theoretically find a replacement for oil, at some point we need to address the political issue that unlimited expansion is not possible. No matter how good the energy source, there will be some limit to it, at which point we need to accept this and alter our lifestyle accordingly. I think we have hit this limit with petroleum in both its supply and the effect it has on our environment. I don't think we will find a replacement for it. But even if we did, I would like to see us try to be less wasteful in how we live.

My green proposal is this: first put all our efforts into public transportation, using existing technology and restoring existing infrastructure. Get our passenger rail system working again as it worked back in the 1920's. Then convert it to electric rail. Ignore highway maintenance, forget about the car, stop spending money on this very inefficient system of transportation.

Second, provide incentive to thousands of small organic farms. A large use of petroleum is for agricultural fertilizer. Start farming the old fashioned way, put the animals back on the farm and use the manure. Use John Jeavons' techniques of growing the organic matter needed for the soil in the form of high carbon crops like corn and putting it back into the soil.

Use Masanobu Fukuoka's method of fixing nitrogen in the soil with clover grown along with the crop, and no-plow farming to avoid the loss of the nutrients.

In short, we don't need new technology, we need to change our way of life.

Monday, May 24, 2010

"It's a Team Game" - Clyde Drexler

Last Thursday Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski (a Democrat) received a report from a task force he had created to study the state budget in the coming years. The report said that under current obligations and funding the state should expect to run deficits for the next decade. This casts the governor's race between Chris Dudley (Republican) and John Kitzhaber (Democrat) in a new light; in fact it raises the question of why anyone would want to be Governor right now.

Whoever wins this fall will have to make unpopular budget cuts. Of course this may please some, but the loss of services will ultimately be painful for most citizens, probably even including those who like the idea of cuts in principal.

This leads me to wonder if I, someone who plans to vote for Kitzhaber, would really be better off if Dudley gets elected. Chris Dudley has made statements very supportive of education, and seems to be casting himself as a moderate. During the Republican primary debate Emily Harris of "Think Out Loud" asked if any of the candidates had considered moving out of Oregon, since they thought the tax code was so onerous: no one said yes. This reminds me that sometimes loyalty and ties to a community are worth something too. I also remember that it was Republican Governor Vic Atiyeh who, after making all the cuts he felt he could, actually raised taxes during a recession.

A Republican would have an easier time getting away with this than a Democrat. My bet is that a decent person guided by common sense rather than ideology would do something similar. I don't know much about Dudley as a politician, but I do know that as a Portland Trailblazer he was the ultimate team player.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Society's Character Matters

Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson does an analysis of societal collapse for "Foreign Affairs".

He begins by discussing "The Course of Empire", five paintings by Thomas Cole which depict various stages in the life cycle of a society. The paintings are set in the same location and show in succession a river bank in the wild with aboriginal people, a simple farming community with a large columned temple in the background, the temple turned into a palatial city with ships coming up the river, festive activity, and opulence bordering on decadence, the great city being ransacked by invaders, and finally the overgrown ruins of the city with no humans in sight. This closely parallels the history of Rome over a period of maybe one thousand years.

Ferguson then makes the argument that in spite of the narrative suggested by the pictures, the reasons for a society's collapse are more incidental than structural. Instead of an inexorable calamity years in the making, a civilization's demise can be brought about quickly simply by poor management and decision making.

I disagree with this as a general rule and I think he misses the point as to why the explanation brought to mind by Cole's paintings is so compelling.

First of all, I don't deny that terrible government can quickly destroy a society. However I think this is less likely for society that has the staying power to become an empire; there must be some inherent stability and redundancies present or it never would have gotten this far. But the story of the nation with simple beginnings grown into a behemoth that overreaches is very believable because we have so many examples of this pattern.

Ferguson says that if Rome had been better managed and had the sense to take preemptive military action against the Vandals, or had raised taxes to pay them off again, maybe things would have turned out differently. I think he ignores the fact that the character and characteristics of the Roman empire at that time guaranteed that if they avoided one danger, another would soon come along and eventually they would succumb.

Rome's size alone made it vulnerable. It was slower to adapt, harder to govern, and harder to defend than when it was a small settlement. Its success led to a softness that became a weakening of character, so that it was more difficult for its people to accept hardship.

Does this mean that it is impossible to be successful without being doomed to eventual catastrophic failure? No, but I think you have to consciously avoid the temptation to take the easy way out at the pinnacle of success. Therefore this is not common. Most people will not voluntarily check themselves or undergo some hardship when they don't have to. But this is necessary because growth cannot continue forever.

I think Great Britain is an example of a fairly graceful transition from world power to world nation.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Government or not? A review of Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell

This recently published book (2010) makes a very thorough case against government action of most any kind, with the exception of war. I spent over an hour looking through Sowell's latest book at Borders. The blurb inside the jacket caught my attention because it mentioned how intellectuals influence our democratic process by shaping the thinking of the electorate, rather than directly persuading elected officials. I saw this as a significant insight into how our system works. I extend the theory to any media person with a large audience, the impact of their ideas is greatly amplified. Rush Limbaugh could be an example. A good communicator with a big audience has diproportionately expanded political speech, similar to the expansion of speech rights for corporations under the new Supreme Court ruling. I would argue that the media figure actually has greater power than the corporation. Remember the clashes between GOP chairman Michael Steele and Rush Limbaugh over which of them speaks for the Republican Party?

We have all understood how big business and lobbyists are dominating our political debate and many of us see this as very bad for our nation. But I haven't heard much discussion about the great influence of the very small minority of opinion shapers. So I was disappointed to see that Sowell turned from what could have been a full analysis of this phenomenon and instead chose to pursue a one-sided attack on government. That said, he makes some very good points that should give pause to anyone attempting to govern. There is no question that history is full of examples of unintended consequences, government actions that backfire and make the situation worse, and "public intellectuals" being proven totally wrong by unfolding events. Sowell lists these out with relish. It is a truth that we cannot generally see weaknesses in our own beliefs. People with different convictions are only too happy to point these out, and we can learn from them. Sowell is not immune to this, he sees none of the failings of his own hands-off dogma. I will point these out and show that his overall conclusions are incorrect even though much of what he says is true.

One of the main arguments of "Intellectuals and Society" is that there is far more intelligence distributed among the many actors in the market than can be contained in a small group of experts. This makes sense in a certain way, and is really just a restatement of the Adam Smith's invisible hand. Yet we have an example right before us in recent history where the invisible hand guided market players to make extremely risky loans against no collateral. I have heard Wall Street experts describe how in this climate even prudent managers were basically forced to participate because if they didn't they would be outperformed in the short term by those who did, due to the bubble economics at play. In fact, any bet against the bubble would be impossible to collect, since if you were right then the counterparty to the bet was bankrupt. So experts may frequently be wrong, but the market can also be "wrong", or at least lead us somewhere we don't want to go.

When experts attempt to tinker with complex systems they can easily cause big problems, sometimes bigger than the problem they're trying to solve. Sowell uses this to argue against intervening in the system. Taken to the extreme, this means essentially no government. But what is government other than a very greatly expanded version of a group of people combining forces for greater efficiency? If a neighborhood gets together and decides to take care of their own garbage service to save money, this takes some organization, a group decision, and a willingness to abide by that decision. We accept leadership and top-down decisions in the corporate structure (and all of us who have worked in this environment know how disconnected from day-to-day reality these can sometimes be). Yet corporations can have great success being guided by an elite at the top. Believe me, I'm very much in favor of keeping things simple and keeping an organization lean and small. But does that mean that you should forgo any consolidation of forces to protect individual freedom? This is the trade-off. If you never want someone to tell you what to do, then you are reduced to a lone-wolf status, with no benefit from others resources or know-how. I am arguing that good government may sometimes tell you what to do, but you are getting a great benefit from its efficiencies and combined resources. (I know the idea of efficiencies and government in the same sentence seems ridiculous, but bear in mind that we have a huge country here and so obviously there is a fair degree of waste in this process when you consider the many levels of government involved).

I would grant that our government is too big and too centralized, so we can easily find problems with it. I would be happier with a much more local level of organization. However, this is what we've got, I don't think that means that it is useless. I don't think it means that we would be better off with nothing.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Fanaticism is more destructive than extremism

Normally we seem to apply these terms to religious people in the non-Christian world. I am talking about a particular home-grown example I saw on last night's Charlie Rose show. The guest was former U.S. Representative and House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Armey is currently active as a leader of Freedomworks, a political organization that is a significant backer of the Tea Party movement.

I had never heard Dick Armey speak before, I only knew him by reputation. I must say that he turned out to be more intellectually honest than I expected, and in many ways this makes him scarier. Let me elaborate: I expected him to use any argument that was convenient as long as it supported his anti-Obama attacks. Instead he turned out to be remarkably consistent in his opposition to rules and government of almost any kind. He really believes this.

Armey holds extreme positions on personal liberty and the (lack of) need for government. He objects to almost any rule that would regulate personal behavior, with a few exceptions. He sees government's role as mainly enforcement of property rights and maintaining a stable currency. This puts him way over on the fringe of our political spectrum (maybe not among economists and pundits, but at least speaking of the general populace) but there is a sizable group with him. What I don't like is that he sees anyone who believes otherwise as a danger to the American way of life, and feels they must be stopped. This is fanaticism.

There is something wrong with holding a belief so strongly that you don't consider that you might possibly be mistaken, and that anyone who disagrees is unfit to govern. Charlie Rose called him out with outrageous quotes from speeches he made at CPAC (a recent far-right political convention) and he stood solidly behind those statements. These were things like saying that almost every official in Washington aggressively hates the constitution.

We are a democracy of many different types of people and belief systems. Any kind of government is by definition a compromise. This fanatical allegiance to a single idea leaves no room for any compromise and by nature is anti-democratic.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Signs of change

Update: Oregonian writer/associate editor David Sarasohn had an interesting column in Sunday's paper observing that the voting on the two tax-increase measures did not follow the usual demographic of solidly opposed throughout the state and solidly in favor in Multnomah County (the Portland area). In this case the non-Multnomah County votes were opposed by a slim margin on one measure, and I think actually in favor on the other.
Something very surprising happened yesterday: voters in Oregon passed two tax increases, upholding action by the State Legislature, raising 750 million dollars in order to balance the state budget without further cuts.

The two ballot measures passed by solid margins, along the lines of 55% to 45%. I have lived in Oregon for 30 years and I expected both measures to fail. The normal way it works around here is:

slightly progressive bill has early support

corporate money runs scare-add campaign

bill narrowly or solidly defeated

This time the same script was followed but with different results. I should say that these tax increases were in my opinion quite modest and no great hardship, and that significant cuts to state spending were made to complement the added tax. To me this seemed fair, and I view it as a reasonable adjustment of financial burden. I should also disclose that I work for the state and that I do not have to pay either of the taxes. I have a friend with a small business who is affected, and he still voted for them.

So what was different this time? As I said, based on past experience I had little hope that these would go through. My answer: I think the electorate is willing to hear some new ideas, and with high unemployment in Oregon, a little more desperate than in the past. They don't want state services further slashed because many more of them now depend on those services.

Let me also point out that what happened in Oregon is pretty much the opposite of what happened in Massachusetts when Scott Brown defeated the Democratic candidate for Ted Kennedy's Senate Seat.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The real issue: we need to value truth

I have mentioned before that our political system is non-functional, that we are not able to have productive, intelligent debate about the issues, and that something needs to change if we ever expect to deal with the many problems our country is facing. You could put this another way: why is it that a country with all the advantages of America - an open society, great wealth, the most powerful nation in the world, the only remaining superpower - has a social structure significantly poorer than the other developed countries, an infrastructure unprepared for higher energy prices, and is bogged down in two wars with no end in sight?

I have been reading George Soros' "The Age of Fallibility"; he has given this question a great deal of thought. Soros pins the blame on a lack of regard for truth. This resonates with me because it explains so much: how come the media and politicians are allowed to steer the public debate into meaningless side-tracks and frequently present a picture that is an outright lie? Why do we fall for it again and again? Now I understand why pundits like Paul Krugman and Glenn Greenwald are so frustrated. I understand now that we cannot expect logical outcomes and behavior until we deal with the root problem.

George Soros is quite an interesting character. He has a deeply philosophical approach to life, it might not be what you would expect from a hedge fund manager. Indeed, his philosophy and life experience have formed the basis for his approach to financial speculation. He lived under Hitler's Nazi government as well as the Soviet Communist government, so he has seen the result of totalitarianism and of ideology dogmatically and relentlessly pursued. The key to his philosophy is what he calls "reflexivity", which is the idea that reality can never be perfectly understood because your own actions and thoughts and the actions and thoughts of others alter reality. This should lead you to realize that you may be wrong, i.e. you see your own fallibility. His ideal of an open society is based on the realization that we are all fallible, no one has the absolute understanding of the truth, and so we should not suppress ideas. He also talks about "far-from-equilibrium" situations, where the normal rules don't work anymore. He has had great success recognizing these times and capitalizing on them.

Why then with a philosophy based on being unable to perfectly know reality, does he value the search for truth? Because the further your actions stray from reality the more likely that reality will at last intrude and you will pay the price.

The philosophy acknowledges that we can manipulate reality to a certain extent. We have seen this in the various financial bubbles, and as someone in the George W. Bush administration said, "we make our own reality". This can be true to a point, but eventually the Iraq war looked unsuccessful even to those who championed it.

The American public, says Soros, is too easily manipulated. We value success too much in this country, and tend to have an end-justifies-the-means attitude. We are not as concerned as we should be about the truth and reality. This should be our focus if we hope to change our country.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Where we stand at the end of 2009

UpdateII: President Obama should also get credit for engagement with Iran and the Muslim world, something that is politically risky at home but does great good for the U.S. image in the world and steers us away from yet another ill-chosen confrontation. Also, under his administration the EPA has begun taking on climate change, a very significant development.

4/17/2009: "The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday formally declared carbon dioxide and five other heat-trapping gases to be pollutants that endanger public health and welfare, setting in motion a process that will lead to the regulation of the gases for the first time in the United States."

In summary he is doing some significant good. I'm not sure if this outweighs the bad of the decision to escalate in Afghanistan. And the economic situation is a whole other level of problem, something which demands much more than we usually expect from a President or from our political system. But here it is - it must be dealt with.
Update: Forgot to also give Obama credit for the stimulus which although too small, kept us from immediate bad times. Also should have mentioned that the health care bill would be a huge accomplishment in normal times, but right now it is not as significant because of the economic threat. Should have also pointed out that the bold economic and structural action required, which Obama has not taken, would not have been taken by anyone who could get elected President. Remember that FDR had 3 years of inaction and its consequences before he came into office. This greatly discredited the argument for inaction and gave a strong argument for large-scale intervention.
What a year it has been. The scary financial events of the fall of 2008 were not matched in 2009, but U.S. government spending and intervention this year seem unprecedented in modern times. Barack Obama begin his presidency with promise but after a year of what I would call Washington business-as-usual I am convinced that he will not be an agent of change. He and his administration have behaved as politicians always behave, trying to insure future power for their party and collaborating with big business in exchange for financial support. That is not to say that it doesn't matter that Obama was elected president instead of John McCain. It appears that we are going to get health care coverage for many more people thanks to the flawed health care bill now in the works. This is definitely good, although much more work is needed here to control costs. The health care bill is the only difference so far between an Obama presidency and a potential McCain presidency; the troop increase in Afghanistan seems like McCain's policy, and on most other fronts Obama has continued the policies of the second half of the George W. Bush administration, with some exceptions for things like the Bush tactics of using Justice Department appointments as a partisan instrument or actively suppressing scientific findings. John McCain would also have ended these abuses.

At the end of 2009 we remain waiting for the full effects of the 2008 financial meltdown. These have not been put on the books yet, so we may have the false sense that things are turning around. While the workout seems to proceed very slowly, it must happen eventually. I think we will start to see some of it this year. There is no way you can lose a trillion dollars of real wealth without some change in standard of living. Some people have already experienced this change, but we are ultimately headed for a national leveling.

The saving grace about having Barack Obama as President is that he does seek input from a lot of people, including Paul Krugman. Krugman was quite impressed with Obama's ability to understand an analysis. If things get bad enough he may change his approach. So far he has listened to people like Larry Summers and has not understood how bad our situation really is (if he did understand he would have taken bolder action).

Unfortunately our country has forgotten the scare of 2008 and has lost the sense of desperation that helped us be willing to listen to new ideas. Instead we have polarized along out-dated lines of conflict based on economic schools of thought, of all things. This must be contrived, I think the real conflict is more of a cultural one: conservative-religious vs. non-religious (or even mainline protestant or socially liberal catholic), or intellectual elites vs. working class average Joe.

Because of this polarization and the intensity of hatred that it generates, President Obama is reviled as a would-be-communist for very moderate increases in the power of government (like the health care bill), and is given no slack for the big government intervention that was necessary and done only because of the severity of the economic calamity. Instead this is also held against him, although it is clear that he never would have done this in normal economic times.

In this climate, the bold action that is needed is politically impossible. That is, unless things get bad enough; then I think it becomes possible again - remember the fall of 2008.