Thursday, April 27, 2006

Name Games

It seems that a Senate investigation has found that FEMA is completely beyond repair. The only way to correct the disastrous performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is to junk it completely, and start from scratch – build a brand new agency to do the same job. They’ve determined a new name for it – National Preparedness and Response Authority. And just to make it totally clear that this is a new a different agency, they’ll put it under the authority of the Department of Homeland Defense – oh, no, wait, that’s not the different part, FEMA fell under Homeland Defense. What was that new part? Oh, yes! The new agency boss will be authorized to report directly to the President in crisis situations, bypassing the Secretary of Homeland Defense. Cutting out that step should dramatically speed response time and eliminate the problems of communicating the urgent nature of a disaster.

But where are they going to get the employees to staff this new agency? With experience and training in handling natural disasters and terrorist incidents? Not to mention the administrators, mid-level managers, clerks, janitors, receptionists, and so on. Well, rather conveniently, it seems that a great number of current government employees are about to be let go. Since they’re mostly union members, they will need to be given equivalent positions somewhere within government service. It should work out very well – odds are pretty good the employees won’t even have to change desks…since they’re “transferring over” from FEMA.

While I suspect that for the most part this name change will result in little more than changing the stationery and business cards, it may actually prove beneficial. After all, the most senior leadership of FEMA will not be able to transfer over to NPRA, lest that expose the nature of the “rebuilding.” And changing the leadership may indeed result in changing the organization. I think we could save a lot of money by leaving the sign outside the building alone, though, and just firing everyone on the top floor.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Where's The Shortage?

As I mentioned yesterday, the reason the oil companies claim that they were forced to raise prices is because there is a temporary shortage, and they need to raise the price to reduce demand. But does that really work? Has anyone really cut back on driving as a result of those suddenly higher gas prices?

I know my driving patterns haven’t changed. I haven’t heard any of my co-workers or friends talk about changes in their habits. The roads still seem just as crowded where I live, and the daily traffic jams are unchanged. The airlines are still flying. Trucks are still delivering goods all over the country. My observations are certainly not scientific, but it really appears to me that there’s been no real change in demand. In the long term, that might change, as people could switch to smaller cars, hybrids, and and so on…but the price changes aren’t long term, they’re an immediate response to a temporary shortage, and only make sense if they produce an immediate effect.

So if demand hasn’t changed, but there’s a shortage, we should be seeing signs of that shortage. Where are those signs? I haven’t seen a single station shut down. I’ve heard about a few, but they seem to be scattered individual stations – I haven’t heard about any cities shut down because no one can get gas. As best as I can determine, the solution to the shortage in those few places that are experiencing it is to drive an extra block or two to the next gas station – or at worst, buy mid-grade because the station is out of regular…which of course increases your costs and the oil company’s profits.

So, once again, tell me where I’m going wrong. The prices have been raised as a solution that doesn’t work to a problem we don’t have, caused by the people who profit most from the price increase. And they wonder why people are upset and asking Congress to intervene. Unfortunately, Congress is much more likely to make a lot of noise about the issue than to actually put a crimp in the profits of their biggest financial contributors.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Planning To Fail

As we’ve all noticed, gas prices are up again. Follow this logic with me and help me see where I’m going wrong.

The reason prices are up is, again, the Law of Supply and Demand. There’s a crimp in the production line, dropping supply. In order to keep demand down and prevent widespread shortages, the industry raises prices. As a result of this selfless action to prevent panic, the oil companies also bring in massive profits, but that’s just an unavoidable side effect, not at all the intent.

But the press has also reported the reason for the shortage – a delay at the refineries in switching over to a “summer formulation.” The refineries change the formula for the summer months in order to reduce pollution – largely in response to government regulation, which explains why some states are not experiencing shortages.

Here’s where I start to have a problem, though. This changeover happens every year. The companies know ahead of time that summer is coming, and certainly have ample time to prepare for it. In fact, they’ve been doing it for years. By now, they really ought to have a handle on it.

So, if I’m understanding this correctly, the oil companies are forced to raise prices because of a shortage that they created by their own incompetence. A cynical and suspicious person might wonder if this annual delay in making the switch is intentional. Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be any real incentive for them to hurry.

It appears that in this case, contrary to the old adage, a failure to plan is planning to…profit.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

When Generals Speak

There’s been a number of former flag officers (that’s Generals and Admirals, for the military-speak challenged out there) speaking out about Secretary Rumsfeld and his handling of the war in Iraq. And of course, there’s been a flood of editorials and stories in the press about them. While I don’t intend to discuss my opinions on their claims and demands here, I thought that some of what the press is saying deserves a little explanation.

Many pundits have claimed that the number of Generals speaking out is insignificant, and that they obviously represent a fringe element that can be ignored. I have to disagree. There is a deeply-engrained tradition in the military NOT to speak out against our political leaders regarding military matters, even after we return to our civilian lives. Remember, the principle of civilian control of the military is written in the Constitution. It is taught in detail in each service academy and ROTC class. Every unit orderly room has pictures posted of the entire Chain of Command – and the people at the very top of that chain are the ones without uniforms, who nonetheless rate a salute from any soldier that they encounter. In addition to their civilian duties, they are by law and custom our superior officers, ranking above even the most senior General or Admiral.

For six retired officers to break that tradition over a single issue in such a short time is a major shock to those of us who live in that environment. It forces me to take their concerns very, very seriously.

I read another editorial that complains that the Generals took the cowardly path by waiting until they retired to make their statements. The writer claims that the officers were protecting their “sweet retirement packages” by waiting until they were safely out of the service to speak up. Again, I have to disagree.

First of all, that “sweet retirement package” isn’t all that sweet. Let’s take a Major General “Smith”, in charge of a Division. He’s effectively the CEO of a company employing as many as 20,000 people. His annual pay comes in at around $180,000. Yes, he also gets some benefits – travel allowances, expense accounts, and so on, much like any other senior executive does. For comparison, I found that the Goldman-Sachs Group employs about 19,500 people. Their CEO, Henry Paulson, Jr., made out a little better than our MG Smith – he made $21,400,000 last year, or almost 120 TIMES as much. Plus, of course, whatever expense accounts come with THAT position. Of course, MG Smith gets the bonus of getting shot at. But we were discussing retirement pay…well, a military retirement is not a “Golden Parachute.” MG Smith, after 30 years of service, will get 75% of his base pay. When you take out the various allowances that are not part of the base pay, and then take away another 25%, that works out to around $102,000 a year…before taxes. I’ll grant you, that’s a significant chunk of change, but odds are pretty good that any random Major General can get out and make over a million a year by working for a lobbyist, or contracting firm, or maybe taking a CEO slot at a smaller company. Even half a mil is a pretty impressive pay raise, even if his retirement pay gets taken away at the last minute.

So our Generals did not hold their tongues to protect their financial future. Why did they wait? Well, remember that I said those civilians at the top are effectively our superior officers. It turns out that Disrespect to a Superior Officer is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, punishable by Court-Martial. A conviction by Court-Martial, by the way, is considered a Federal felony conviction. I’m sure that, depending on the wording, various other felony charges could be added – Conduct Unbecoming an Officer, Incitement to Mutiny, and so on…some of those carry the death penalty in time of war, too. When a soldier still in uniform speaks out against his civilian leaders, he isn’t just risking his job and his retirement, he is potentially risking his life. Remember I said that we have a tradition of respecting our civilian leaders? I wasn’t kidding. This is an example of just how engrained that tradition is.

So, anyway, six or so former General Officers are speaking out against our civilian leaders and the conduct of this war. Whether I agree with them or not, I believe they have earned the right to be taken very seriously.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Rice vs. First Amendment reports that Secretary of State Rice has removed Playboy and Penthouse from the magazine racks of State Department. Apparently she was concerned that the existence of the magazines in the newsstand at Foggy Bottom undermined the Department’s attempts to champion the rights of women worldwide. She also believed that their presence in the lobby, with the covers mostly hidden in brown paper wrappers, could contribute to a hostile work environment, according to her senior advisor Jim Wilkinson.

Last I checked, those magazines are perfectly legal. The models pictured in the photos are all over 18, paid for their work, and have signed releases to allow the photos to be published. Also included in both magazines are a wide selection of interviews with important or celebrated people, men’s fashion and shopping advice, sports articles, and fiction. Playboy, in particular, frequently publishes science fiction (my favorite genre) by very well-recognized authors – I suspect the same is true for mainstream short fiction.

So why are these magazines singled out? And if they are so horrible and dangerous, why are they still allowed to publish? I could understand an objection to employees reading them during working time. But to remove them entirely?

In my opinion, this entire incident is more posturing by the current administration in their effort to appear morally superior. Maybe Secretary Rice is truly offended by the pictures in those publications, maybe not. But if she were not part of an administration trying to display a tender regard for religious sensibilities, this issue would probably have never come up. It is, of course, equally possible that this is an attempt to attract the “women’s vote.”

In fairness, I have to admit the possibility that Secretary Rice ordered the removal because she was truly, personally offended by them. That, however, is the most frightening of the possibilities that occurs to be. If that is the case, then it is a clear example of a government official abusing her power to censor a segment of the press within her domain. An attack on the First Amendment by a government official is even more scary if it stems from personal motives.

The article hints that Maxim, FHM, and other men’s magazines that feature pictures of non-nude women may be next to go. From a standpoint of taste, I could agree with that – while I don’t read any of these magazines on a regular basis, I’d rather read a Playboy with all the pictures removed than a Maxim left intact. But taking the censorship to that next level would be an interesting sign of the real motives behind it. Would she be so obvious as to remove Maxim…while leaving Cosmopolitan on the stands?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Planning Ahead

There have been several stories in the media lately claiming that the Pentagon is updating plans for an attack on Iran.

Well, duh.

For those of you whose knowledge of the military is based on Hollywood movies, let me fill you in. Every unit in the Army, from the Battalion level on up, has a section devoted to planning. The other services have similar systems. Those planners naturally focus on responses to the most likely future events. At the lower levels, that’s all they have time for. At higher levels of command, though, the planners think about all sorts of possible operations, and write up plans to carry them out if and when it becomes necessary.

Naturally, if a potential trouble spot starts to look more troublesome, the planners haul out the old paperwork, blow the dust off of it, and update it to better fit the current situation. And also naturally, when the military writes up a plan to respond to a trouble spot, they write it up as a military solution. That doesn’t mean they particularly want to carry it out. It doesn’t mean they think a military solution is the best or the only option. It simply means that if things go bad in the political and diplomatic arenas, and the civilian leadership gives the order to take action, a good soldier does not intend to be caught saying, “Um, well, we’re not sure if we can do that, let me get back to you in a week or two…”

I’ve never seen the files of plans in the Pentagon, but I suspect that if the press got a look at them, our diplomats would be working overtime for years to smooth the ruffled feathers. There are probably plans in the files to carry out all sorts of horrible operations, too dreadful for anyone to contemplate – but the planners have to contemplate them, that’s their job. There may be plans to bomb Iran, and to invade it. Odds are pretty good that we have plans to attack China. To bomb either India or Pakistan, or both, in case their bickering goes nuclear. There’s probably plans to invade France or Germany, too – those protests they have from time to time might blow up, after all. There might even be plans on the books to destroy or conquer Canada, just in case they get tired of us stealing all their acting and comedic talent and declare war on Hollywood – which, unfortunately, we are still obligated to defend.

In the United States, the military functions under civilian control. We maintain plans to do all sorts of horrible things, because we never know what sort of stupidity our civilian leaders may get us into. All we know for sure is that when it starts to get ugly, it’s our job to fix it. And when that happens, we don’t have time to start from scratch.

Monday, April 10, 2006

When Is a Crime Not a Crime?

I’m a speeder. I admit it. I almost never drive under the speed limit. Usually in a 55 m.p.h. zone, I’m running between 65 and 70, and if the limit goes up to 65 or 70, I may be doing 80.

I know it’s a crime. I also understand the costs to society for my criminal behavior. I’m using extra gas, thus increasing demand and raising prices for everyone else. I’m creating more pollution. I am a greater risk for accidents, due to the longer stopping distance and reaction distance resulting from my higher speed. And of course, any accident I’m in will be worse due to the greater impact energy. And yet, I persist in my crime – and quite successfully. I haven’t gotten a ticket in my last several years of speeding.

In fact, I’ve persisted so long and so successfully, that I feel it should no longer be a crime for me to speed. After all, I’ve been doing it for so long, I should now be entitled to keep doing it. I feel the government should issue me a card that authorizes me to go up to 10 miles an hour over the limit from now on.

Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t really make sense to me, either. It doesn’t make sense to grant immunity to a speeder just because he’s been doing it awhile. Most businesses will fire you for lying on your resume even if you’ve done a good job since you were hired. If you lie to the Army when you enlist, you can be thrown out years later for Fraudulent Enlistment, and not only be convicted of a crime, but also be required to give back your paycheck for however long you were in. And staying in the United States illegally for several years should not suddenly make you a legal immigrant.

I know a lot of people feel that a person who has been here for years, has put down roots, contributed to the community, and so on, should be allowed to continue their life here without the threat of deportation. I’m sorry…but they knew the risks when they started. They knew they were subject to deportation at any point. In order to secure that position in society, they’ve had to lie to their employer (who probably knew better, and ought to face some prosecution, too) and either lie to the IRS or just avoid them entirely – while still benefiting from tax-funded services, like roads, schools, police and fire departments, and so on. Some of them have even collected money directly from the government, and Immigrants’ Rights activists seek to increase that.

I’ll skip lightly over the national security issues. Certainly a border that is porous enough to allow several hundred thousand people through illegally every year is far too porous to keep out a single dedicated well-funded terrorist – or a dozen, or a hundred, or a thousand. But that’s not really the issue, since the border security measures that WOULD serve to keep out most of the illegal immigrants would still not prevent terrorists from getting in. It would only make their task a little more difficult and a little more expensive – worth doing, but not a real national security solution.

The biggest reason for keeping illegal immigration illegal, though, is simply to discourage more of it. As long as we continue to legalize the illegals from time to time, we encourage more people to enter illegally, and then wait for the next amnesty. The current policies remind me of drawing a line and daring someone to cross it…then when he does, drawing another line, and another, and another…I’ll admit that it worked for Bugs Bunny when he got Elmer Fudd to walk off the cliff, but should we be developing our national policies by watching Loony Tunes?

I’m also aware of the benefits that illegal immigrants bring to our society. Cheap labor doing jobs that legal Americans won’t do. Keeping farm costs down, yard work costs down, maid service costs down. Enforcing our existing laws would end a lot of that, and raise prices throughout our economy in an ever-expanding ripple effect. Well, I’m sorry for that – but we need to decide what’s important, and then find a legal way to get there. If we cut illegal immigration, maybe we can expand LEGAL immigration. Or maybe we’ll just have to accept higher prices for everything. But a law that isn’t enforced isn’t a law. Either police the border, PREVENT illegal immigration and get rid of the illegals that are already here, or admit we can’t do it, open the border to everyone, and deal with those consequences. Meanwhile, I’ll keep speeding…but with the knowledge that sooner or later, I’m going to get a ticket.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

The Tomb of the Unknowns

My office had a Staff Appreciation Day outing last Friday. As part of it, we went out to Arlington Memorial Cemetery to see the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

I’ve been there before, but as always, I appreciate the solemnity of the ceremony. In itself, there isn’t that much to it – one soldier inspects another, then marches him up to his post and marches the previous guard back off duty. The true importance of it is in knowing what’s behind it – the guards perform the same duty exactly the same way all day every day. Some of the incidentals are different – the soldiers wear the more comfortable tactical uniforms at night, the shifts are longer when they aren’t providing extra photo ops for the tourists – but the duty itself never changes. Twenty-one steps to the left. Face the Tomb and pause for twenty-one seconds. Twenty-one steps to the right. Face the Tomb…the whole point of the duty, the honor of it, is to do it the same way every time. Every hour. Every day. In all types of weather – I saw a picture in the Pentagon of a Tomb Guard standing his post, with two inches of snow on the brim of his hat. His face showed nothing but the same steady expression of every other Tomb Guard on every other day.

I noticed something that gives me a little more hope for our society than I normally have, too. The Cemetary was filled with all sorts of people, including many groups of high school and middle school students on field trips. In most other places, one would expect yelling kids, loud adults on cell phones, litter all over, and so on. For the most part, it wasn’t there. Throughout the entire cemetary, the huge groups of kids…were subdued. The adults mostly left their phones in their pockets. At the Tomb itself, people stayed silent when asked, stood when asked, and stayed still until the end of each ceremony. In part, that was a result of strict enforcement – the Park Guards were quick to let people know about small violations like stepping over chain barricades, and quicker to stop worse violations, like people taking pictures of funerals. But I think the solemn nature of the place has an effect even on today’s cynical and rude populace.

While I was there, though, I found myself wondering about the full details of the Tomb Guards’ Special Orders. I’m sure there are pages and pages of details about how to march, how to conduct inspection, how to announce a wreath-laying ceremony, and so on. Those guards, though, are soldiers first, on the most important guard post in the Army. I don’t know for certain that their rifles are working models, nor if they are issued ammunition. I DO know that the civilian Park Guards would be happy to stop someone who wanted to do something stupid, so that the Honor Guard could continue to walk his post undisturbed. But I also know that those rifles have a perfectly functional bayonet, and the importance of this duty is drummed into each Guard for months before he or she gets to perform the duty. If some idiot decided that throwing paint on the Tomb would make a beautiful political statement, and a picture on the front page of the paper…I would not bet that the orders preclude lethal force. And if I were writing them, it would be specifically allowed.