Guns, Knives, People and Tragedy

What is the difference between 22 children in a school attacked by one man with a knife in China and the massacre, almost simultaneously, of 20 children in a school by one man with an assault rifle in the United States? Answer: no deaths in China.

The mantra by gun lobbies for years has been that “guns do not kill; people do.” Guns and knives are both lethal in the wrong hands. The obvious difference is that guns can massacre more people faster. The amazing coincidence of the Chinese tragedy and the Connecticut slaughter illuminates and illustrates this vital point to all those who have denied the fact — especially to elected members of Congress.

To make the subject more complicated, we must take into consideration (at least until a possible amendment to the Second Amendment might be achieved) the existence of the somewhat uncertain meaning of “the right to bear arms” in the Second Amendment in its present form. In the meanwhile, there are excellent precedents that can be better used for “reasonable” restrictions on ownership and use of guns such as an outright ban on assault weapons, which was in effect from 1994 until 2004. This Newtown tragedy hopefully will lead to such renewed and tougher restrictions.

Given the very nature of humans — random and difficult to predict — it may be impossible to eliminate tragedy entirely in any realistic and reliable way. That said, the statistics of countries with tight versus light controls show that there is a clear correlation between easy access to guns and causes of death by shooting. Therefore, access to guns has to be restricted, not just to remove guns in general, but to establish categories of people who must first be recognized as risks and second monitored continuously and carefully to seek to prevent their access to guns. These two goals have to be coordinated.

Teachers and other staff in schools across the country know their kids very well. They know, for example, when kids are ‘outliers’ in various ways. It should become essential to bring such kids to the attention of appropriate professionals for assessment, monitoring and treatment. This is where the present system is breaking down for two reasons: resources are skimpy (and need to be beefed up) and it is seen by too many people as stigmatizing kids, which is seen as antisocial. Which is worse: to stigmatize or to allow people to be at large with a risk of doing serious harm to others?

We have a twin problem — access to guns at large and access to guns by deranged actors, who are, or should be, known by society to exist.

One problem without the other would be a lesser problem. Therefore they really have to be dealt with together or neither may happen. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the hardest problem is the people problem because no one wants to find people guilty without evidence of intent to commit a crime and that is very difficult to have before the fact.

How to draw those these complex lines and take effective, serious steps, coupled with fair enforcement is the bigger challenge facing the nation.


Sumo Wrestling

Waiting and watching the pulling and tugging among the president, the Speaker and their respective parties conjures images of Japanese giants seeking advantage in their sumo rings. A pull here, a tug there and one or the other tumbles for a moment, but with a sudden motion, amazing for beasts their size, they are back on their feet yanking again at their adversary.

Apparently Japanese aficionados of sumo understand a lot of the loaded moves and even know how to tell who is winning or losing. It is too bad that there is no one around who has the code to interpret the current sumo game being played out for us in Washington, D.C. in front of the world.

Yes, we now all seem to know that there is a real deadline with potentially serious consequences. However, as we approach that so-called ‘cliff’, we now hear some murmurs about “well maybe we have to go off the cliff — a little bit? — to test the waters.”

What is the matter with us? Indeed the issues are many and complicated, though they do boil down to basically three elements: tax rates, debt ceilings and budget cuts. They have been raked over several times by highly trusted and competent experts; the broad outlines of formulas for compromise and how to proceed have been out there for a long time.

So what is the sumo match all about? It can only be about a few things. Which side is ‘heavier’? Which side is quicker? Which side is smarter? And, which side is tougher and has the political staying power?

HEAVIER: That one should be easy. The president has just won a tough election by a healthy margin and has a clear mandate from the people to deal with taxes his way. To deny that reality requires a magician.

QUICKER: The Speaker is quicker with quips and flips; but the president has been quick with sticking to his long-held positions. Call speed a draw if you like.

SMARTER: The Speaker is not a dumb man. At least he seems smart enough to maneuver in any way to hold his position until the midterm elections, when he is now most likely to be toast. The president is off-the-charts smart and he is no longer worried about job security. I put my money on the president for political smarts and having the substance right.

STAYING POWER: This element is more based on being right and having history on your side. It looks increasingly clear that the Speaker’s position is weakening because his far right is already fading as a result of the recent election. It also looks clearer by the day that intelligent centrist Republicans are swinging in behind the kind of compromises that have been out there for months.

No one could possibly want to be blamed for pushing the nation off a cliff into another recession/depression. So why don’t we all rise to our feet, give a smashing round of applause to our friendly sumo contestants and tell them, “game over, good show; now let’s get back to real life and business.”

Confronting Extinction: Lessons from the U.S. Mail

Everyone over the age of 50, but particularly those scattered in small towns across America, has long experienced the routine, even mundane act of going to the post office to send and receive mail. And the romance of the postal service is deeply ingrained in the American psyche, the stuff of Rockwell paintings, valiant tales of “sleet or snow,” and the country’s famous “frontier spirit.” Any idea of closing all such post offices would almost certainly set off a thunderous cacophony of protest. But, given the need to ask what the U.S. Government can cut without harming bone and muscle, perhaps it is time to rethink the role of this prized institution in the 21st century.

Despite a lot of well-conceived and even well-executed modernization efforts, the U.S. Postal Service continues to bleed billions of dollars every year. If the U.S. mail was seriously supporting economic and social needs throughout our society (and especially in small-town America) the money would be at least well-spent, but that is not the case.

It’s also obvious to all sentient beings that private-sector developments in the last 20 years have vastly undermined the Postal Service’s business, and redefined the very concept of “post” in the modern era: Email has long since supplanted “snail mail” as the primary first-class delivery vehicle. And while we can loudly mourn the death of the handwritten letter, any modern executive would be hard-pressed to build a profitable business around delivering thank-you letters to grandparents and the like. Yes, there are good reasons not to use email for everything (just ask General Petraeus); such reasons are behind only a minuscule fraction of all communications and could be quite easily performed by the private sector. Illicit liaisons and etiquette really don’t warrant a multi-billion dollar taxpayer subsidy.

Private delivery services, such as FedEx and UPS, along with their networks of retail offices across the country, have taken over and made extremely efficient what was historically one of the most important functions of the post office — rail express dedicated to helping citizens receive and send their parcels and mail. When was the last time a package you ordered online showed up via the U.S. Postal Service?

The Internet has become the main platform for the dissemination and solicitation of nearly everything imaginable. Few people call the IRS for tax forms anymore (that would then be mailed to the taxpayer); instead, they download what they need online.

Once you eliminate personal correspondence, parcel service and information dissemination, all that’s left are the detritus: catalogs, flyers, the occasional bill, and suspect solicitations destined for “Resident” that have an estimated seven-second lifespan from the time they’re plucked from a mailbox or a post office box to the time they meet their demise in the trash bin. Pity the poor treehuggers!

What then, does the USPS do that is essential to the functioning of modern society? While it certainly employs a lot of people who need jobs in post offices and on the street, the basic answer is “nothing.” Instead, the U.S. mail provides a diminishing service to an ever-declining number of people who have not yet fully joined the modern world.

Although tempting, the real and psychological issues beneath the surface of this anachronistic service argue against approaching it with a meat hammer and “one strong blow.” It should be possible to phase out post offices in a calm and rational way, which would avoid putting too many people out of work at once, and would give the private sector some time to pick up the slack for needed services, and to protect the people who still rely on U.S. mail.

Or maybe we keep the post offices for a good long while, but ditch the costly carriers who deliver each day’s detritus to our doors. A return to a “general delivery” system — prevalent in the first centuries of the service — would dramatically reduce costs, eliminate the inefficiencies inherent in visiting every household every day, and still allow people ready access to the mail. A “Mail on Wheels” program or private delivery services could address the needs of homebound residents and be available to others who are willing to pay for the convenience of home delivery.

The basic point of this piece is not to single out post offices. The struggles of the U.S. Postal Service hold lessons for a number of government functions that have been, or could/should be, supplanted or enhanced by the private sector and charitable organizations. A coordinated, collaborative approach can perform fairly and efficiently, letting the government focus on its core responsibilities while relying on the private and non-profit sectors for ancillary and special services. The real point is that once businesses move in to cherry pick the lucrative parts of a government operation, it’s time to rethink our approach. “Evolve or Perish” must be the mantra of every government bureaucrat, or systems like the U.S. Postal Service will inevitably go the way of the dinosaurs.

“Money Is Like Manure”

Fear not! You are not about to be subjected to a boring dissertation about agronomics or even foreign and domestic tax laws.

Suffice it to say, for the purpose of this piece, that all good CFOs and CEOs who run global businesses are obliged, for the benefit of their owners, to take optimal and appropriate steps to minimize taxes on their companies. The consequences of such perfectly legal actions (that is, those within all applicable laws) is that quite a lot of money sits quite still in banks around the world, doing nothing of consequence for anyone’s economy or jobs. Some estimates calculate the amount of this “lazy money” in excess of $1 trillion at the moment.

Some early 20th century wag once declared that “money is like manure,” because when it is left alone in a pile, all it does is stink, but if it is spread around it makes things grow.

That is where we are now, a delicate moment in U.S. history when it would be highly desirable to free up more money across the economy to rebuild infrastructure, promote innovation and advance educational endeavors. Instead, too much of our money is stinking up too many offshore tax havens and overseas accounts.

Given the enormous need, it’s remarkable that we haven’t yet pursued a solution which is simple, fair and has proven results: a “tax holiday” on a one-time, never-again basis for at least ten years on corporate earnings held overseas.

It’s an approach that has been considered previously by the U.S. and other countries. Most recently it has been used very successfully by Spain, which was increasingly desperate to generate economic activity.

This can be done in a variety of ways. One formula is to say if you bring it back by x date and pay, say, 10 percent of what you bring back in lieu of any other tax or penalty, you get to pass Go with no further liability, allowing a company to spend the full repatriated amount (less the 10 percent) however it sees fit, except that it, or an equivalent amount in excess of any existing annual dividend, cannot be distributed as dividends to shareholders for at least two years.

A tax holiday benefits the Treasury and thus all taxpayers — and quickly to boot. If, for example, the total amount repatriated were $1 trillion, a 10 percent tax would generate $100 billion — not chump change; corporations would have even more to invest, and the country would get a nice shot in the arm at a crucial time. With the holiday the Treasury would obviously have to pledge not to do anything similar for at least another ten years, or companies might not take it seriously enough and perhaps wait for another better offer.

If the $100 billion were earmarked for a new infrastructure stimulus program, we could also address a pressing need and help grow the economy and jobs.

To do the tax holiday right this should be a one-time reduced corporate tax rate coupled with other significant corporate tax improvements designed to give companies the right incentives to make forever global tax games a loser’s game.

How can such a good and timely idea remain so obscure at a time like this? Perhaps Speaker Boehner and the president, in an effort to give something to everyone, should include something along these lines in their Grand Bargain next week.

Three-Dimensional Billiards

This past weekend there was a meeting of around 100 folks — about half Americans and half Israeli — with more than a smattering of sitting, as well as former, very senior officials of both governments, plus bunches of NGO types from both countries’ think tanks as well as leading members of the press and a handful of observers full of amateur curiosity like this writer, plus a few Palestinian Israelis, Jordanians and other Middle East nationals. The subject obviously was the Middle East in general and U.S./Israel relations in particular. This was the ninth year in a row the meeting was held. The rules of attending prohibit revealing names and attributions, though everything else is free game.

If there was any consensus resembling a conclusion, it was that things are just as confusing as they were nine years ago and, according to several people who had attended all nine annual meetings, probably more complicated and risky to all parties. But, that it is just as important to keep talking — about what?

Naturally a lot of timely events drew a lot of talk: settlements on the heels of the UN Palestinian vote? The role of Egypt, Clinton, Obama and Morsi in the ceasefire in Gaza? The connections or lack thereof between Turkey and Israel? The Syrian uprising and what role of the U.S. and Israel? The January elections in Israel and who are the serious players? How to deal with Iran and their nuclear plans and ambitions? Where do Russia and China fit in the whole picture?

You do not want me to walk you through all those issues because, after listening for about 15 hours of fascinating detailed discussion, my mind was swimming in confusion. It does take a lifetime to become fully familiar with that collection of historical animosities, political and occasionally military conflicts, economic and cultural entanglements, and the bewildering cast of characters that is, uniquely, the Middle East. It also seems that it is likely to take more than my lifetime to understand them. Hence the image of three-dimensional billiards came to mind. Three dimensional chess is actually playable. I suspect no one has ever tried something similar with billiards — or even thought about trying. It seems to me, however, that it’s a fitting metaphor for the realities of the Middle East today. However, a couple of thoughts occurred to me about how the subject could be framed, without being constrained by excessive familiarity with the historical stories.

It is fatuous to say that if it were not for the existence of oil and nuclear weapons, the subject of the Middle East would not be of much interest to the rest of the world today. Yes, the Middle East was and remains the cradle of the modern world — with or without oil and nukes. Yet, without those things the peoples there would simply be a largely unmelted pot with tribal and religious distinctions and histories, constantly at each other’s throats, yet with increased visibility in the world because of modern telecommunications and other forms of modernization.

But with oil and nukes in the picture the rest of the world inevitably gets drawn into their tribal and religious issues and angers, as if it were an integral part of that past and present.

“So what?” you may be thinking. Well, if we all go back to basics and strip the billiards game back to pre-oil and nukes and then analyze how it got to now, we all might begin to see some things more clearly.

For one thing oil surely is on the way to becoming less influential. As the U.S. becomes increasingly rich again in hydrocarbon energy with massive gas reserves, the calculus will begin to change a great deal well ahead of the ultimate changes. If, and when, we all get through the knothole of restraining the Iranian nuke issue, that general overhang is bound to recede in importance, as the world is bound to/has to adjust to a nuclear world.

If the Israelis could bring themselves to thinking bigger, they hopefully could begin to think better about the smaller issues.

As this weekend’s meeting was drawing to a close, in a somewhat frustrated mood, one of the most senior Americans present, with no official connection to the issues, but with perhaps with the biggest and most insightful brain in the room, asked in a very brief compelling way, in substance as accurately as I can recall it, “How can you expect us Americans to forever keep backing you in this vexing situation if you do not make clear a rational plan for how you intend to proceed. It is not enough for you to keep telling us we are inevitably your Siamese twin who cannot be split; we need to know how you propose to solve these problems in a way that can make sense for all concerned.”

That was the unexpected dramatic moment of the weekend.

Perhaps that question may reverberate and start a process that could lead to a plan and help us all lighten the burdensome load called the Middle East.

Who for State?

Through the back door, speculation about who will follow Hillary at State has begun in earnest.
First was John Kerry, the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, in many ways, a person ideally qualified for the post by experience, temperament, and proximity to the president. He is also globally well-known after his presidential run in 2004. For several reasons his name so far has been shunted aside, in part because of the risk that the just defeated Scott Brown, who showed strength in trying to hold the Kennedy seat, might just grab the vacancy. Then, Kerry’s name surfaced again for Defense, which is strange because the same problem exists whether it is State or any other cabinet post. Perhaps Obama prefers him as Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee?

Next up: Susan Rice, current Ambassador to the United Nations. Rice, however, may have deflated her own trial balloon when she went on the Sunday talk shows to carry the “official” administration line on the tragedy in Benghazi, Libya. Whether or not she was purposely sacrificed to blunt problems of who knew what, when in this simmering dispute for blame purposes, the performance was an embarrassment all around and she has been beaten up pretty hard by McCain and others. The president, as he should have, aggressively came to her defense and in a manner both extraordinary and highly paternal, basically said if and when Rice became his choice for State, he would not be deterred by the loud voices. Things have calmed since, despite a recent “mea culpa” appearance on the talk shows that was roundly scorned by Republicans eager to draw blue blood after the red hemorrhage of the election, and she is looking more likely at the moment. In the meanwhile, one can hear murmurs of discontent about Rice’s age, experience, gravitas and temperament. Still, she is surely a serious candidate.

So who else? Some wish Dick Holbrook was still around. Others scratch their heads trying to come up with qualified names without falling back on the age old habit of identifying a grey/white-haired lawyer, professor, banker man. The list does not go on and on and is pretty sparse at the moment.

So why not try the purloined letter approach?

The right person is there not only under the president’s nose but virtually in the same house. That man is extremely well known and respected around the globe, outstandingly qualified and experienced in foreign affairs and has been dying for the job and probably would have swapped places with Hilary in a heartbeat, if given a chance earlier in the year. The only “problem” is that person is the vice president.

Why is that a problem? No vice president in history has served simultaneously as a cabinet officer (despite what all agree is a wealth of free time for the incumbent in the position). As far as I have been able to determine, however, there is no clear and obvious constitutional, legal or even practical reason why it can’t be done, and the best argument against it — simply that it’s never been done before — is as flimsy as Republican assertions that the administration, and not the House-imposed cuts in consulate security, is to blame for the tragedy in Benghazi. Among other smaller side benefits, such a “twofer” would save the Executive Branch quite a bit of money by combining the two jobs together. One salary, not two; one airplane, not two; probably some fewer in staff overall. A great example for the president to set!

Biden would make a superb Secretary of State. He deserves the opportunity. He would do a great job and take quite a burden off the president, except for the few occasions when the president might have to clean up some small verbal miscue.

Why not give the idea a chance to bounce around a bit? At least it might take the president off his Rice hot seat and give him an opportunity to find a better alternative, if the stodgy greybeards shoot down the idea.

Horseback vs. Internet

An odd bit of early American history is how the size of a county was determined in the United States in the late 1700s. It was measured by how far an ordinary man could ride his horse out and back home in the same day. That made good sense then because, for an executive to manage his county’s affairs and be a family man, that was the only way. This, otherwise irrelevant but intriguing fact, dramatizes how different our society has become in handling the information that drives and informs our lives.

Remember that at the time of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia the basic structure of our governance process was laid down in a context very different from today’s world. The fundamental idea was a three-part system: the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches. That was the easy part. Then there were the all-important legislative arrangements, where citizens could rub shoulders with their elected representatives.

Having just broken away from a despot King of England, the American public desperately wanted a truly representative government. A two-house system was finally agreed on. One was to be a small body of more senior citizens to serve for long terms to give stability and a longer perspective. The other was to be a larger body, each of whose members would represent only about half a million constituents and thus would feel quickly and closely the voices and pulse of their districts.

The Senate was given six-year terms with one third of the senators to be selected every two years. (Note not elected. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that all Senators were elected by popular vote in their states. Previously they were selected by their state legislatures and governors.)

From the beginning of the nation the whole House of Representatives was the only body at the national level that stood for general reelection by all the citizens of each congressional district every two years. The intended result was to quickly reflect the broadest electorate sentiment into the national political process.

Then an unexpected thing crept into the system early in the 19th century. There was a shrewd politician from Massachusetts named Gerry — hence came the word gerrymandering — who dreamt up the idea of fiddling with the boundaries of congressional districts to favor political aims and interests, a practice that became very popular. Over time the process has evolved to the point that today about 80 percent of the 435 House seats have ‘designer’ districts, which favor one party or the other, generally in about a 60/40 ratio.

As it does take two to tango, both parties have played that game vigorously, with tacit reciprocal agreements to protect their beloved status quo. The result is that it takes a rare and virtual political earthquake — sudden or slow — for the House to shift between which party has control in sync with public sentiment.

All of this brings us to today. This fall’s election reelected the Democratic president strongly; the Senate Democrats increased their majority by three seats (despite the fact that fewer Republican seats were in play); yet, the House remained strongly in the hands of the Republican Party.

That fact suggests that the Senate, despite its longer terms, has become the body most reflective, at the moment at least, of changing public sentiment. And, here is the surprising fact: Across the whole country for the House of Representatives more votes were cast for Democratic candidates than Republican. In a reasonably ‘districted’ and truly representative democracy, ex-Mr. Gerry’s devious genius, that was not supposed to be the way it works.

The result is that at a time when we already have a badly stalled and congealed political process, the people’s will in the House of Representatives has been largely thwarted and might seriously interfere with solving today’s very pressing fiscal problems.

There have been several efforts in recent years to correct this problem. So far they have mostly foundered in the quicksand of historical precedent and political bickering among the parties in the state legislatures, which hold the power to draw district boundaries. Despite that resistance a few states have created bipartisan, non-political commissions that have the final say on their boundaries, and some small steps have been taken in the right direction. That suggests a way ahead, but presently does not show much life.

The significance of the failure in this last election to properly reflect the people’s will in the House of Representatives hopefully will bring more attention to the important need to attend to the basic political problems of districting, as well as the Siamese-twin problem of campaign finance reform.

Those two crucial issues must get moved up on our national agenda in the next four years and it would be best if they are dealt with together.

Election Day Dawned Clear and Bright

Thank goodness it is over. It sure looked close, but with hindsight it really never was as close as it seemed.

It was a colossal waste of money. When will the public wake up to the pointlessness and waste in campaign finance? Just saying no to all contribution requests could help a lot. For example, one small population state, Montana, saw $50 million spent, which budged no needles. Good for TV stations, but no one else.

There were surely several ugly under themes in the election: party politics trumping national interest; real but covert racism; repetition of fabricated “facts” creating wicked distortions; constant painting over personal portraits; media convergence on apparent trend changes making them appear more real than they were.

The most damaging aspect of the aftermath is the absence of any clear-cut mandate rising from such a murky debate about the real and serious problems facing the nation.

While the president can take the result as a decisive choice by the country to stay the course with his policies and plans, it is less clear that he can carry the day with a Republican House determined to prevent him from implementing his plans, particularly with respect to the fiscal cliff.

That said, the first order of business should be to quickly and visibly resurface Messrs. Simpson and Bowles and present to the Congress their now completed plan, which is 1,000 pages of legislative drafts, and demand that it be passed by December first.

The moderate Republicans who were strong-armed a year ago by the Tea Partiers to block a grand bargain then should be ripe now to give up the now defeated party mantra of “do not allow him any victory and that will drive him from office.”

If the president can now strong-arm the Congress to pass a close version of the original Simpson-Bowles plan, the election will have been a success and the headwinds we have been facing should swing to become tailwinds, making the next four years fair sailing.

Perhaps a New, Different Obama?

It is rare that a leopard changes spots. It is also rare that a re-elected President of the United States emerges in a second term with a new and different persona. This may be a moment for an exception to the rule.

Obama emerged in 2004 as a young, untested, relatively inexperienced Senator from Illinois. He had tried and failed in an initial run for a Congressional seat. Then when he took on the challenge of a Senate seat, he got lucky. Both of his two main contenders blew up and were eliminated. He coasted into his sudden seniority in the political system at a young age with little experience.

He was and is smart, cool, ambitious and capable of sensible self evaluation. When his speech in Boston at Kerry’s convention in 2004 propelled him into national stardom well ahead of his expectations, he began to see that there might be an opportunity for the Presidency in 2008. He hit the jackpot in offering the right antidote in the aftermath of the W Bush years of failure: he sold hope.

He got lucky when Hillary could not get out of her own way. He got even luckier when McCain, a true fighter pilot hero, got the nomination and he got even luckier when McCain picked Sarah Palin as his VP running mate.

Perhaps you are getting my drift. When Obama was elected in 2008, despite his reputation for being aloof and even arrogant, he may (probably did) have heard some inner voices say, “Wow, how did this community organizer from Chicago get so lucky? Is this a dream? Can this be real?”

If he did hear some such voices, most likely his intelligent, rational reaction would likely have been to do just what he did. He was accommodating (many say to a fault). He was cautious, with exceptions like health care. He rarely, if ever, attempted strong arm political tactics in the tradition of Lyndon Johnson and FDR.

He hoped to be a post-partisan and post-racial President, but those two goals were probably his most serious miscalculation. Neither really is a Presidential program. Rather, they might be an historian’s observation after the fact of his Presidency.

So what does all that big windup have to do with today’s new second-term Obama?

He probably has forgotten those early days of doubt and tentativeness. He took office in a moment of turmoil and panic. He made mistakes along the way as all Presidents inevitably do. His insecurities were masked in aloofness, seeming indifference and allowing others. such as the leaders of Congress. to take the lead in crafting details of many of his policy proposals.

But, boy, did he learn a lot (or at least we all hope he did), dealing with a wallowing economy, unwinding two wars and a population that had invested a lot of hope in him.

On this November 7th as he headed back to the White House he must have heard those little voices again. “Yes, I guess I am still lucky. But this time it had little to do with luck. They had good cause to question conditions today. I did make the case that things were getting better and this was not the moment to change course. A nice majority of folks saw through all the rhetoric and saw the progress we have made. So I am not a lucky accident this time. This time I have had a lifetime of experience in four years. This time all eyes everywhere were fully open and they picked a now grey-haired, old community organizer to be President again because they trusted me. Now I have every reason to trust myself and go full out to deliver everything! And, it helps not to have to think about another election. Better get rolling fast!”

The scenario imagined in this piece obviously is by no means provable. Yet it is easily supported by plain, old fashioned good sense.

Whether he can now escape his bubble enough to hear vital feedback from a wide range of people (as he did during the 2008 campaign) remains to be seen. Whether he can lift enough beers and slap enough backs to make new friends in Congress is also unclear.

His personal habits may be too ingrained to accommodate changes. Despite that, he did wake up enough to hear his critical advisors after his somnolent first debate. That is grounds for hope!

And, perhaps it also does not hurt to suggest this scenario, because, even if he did not actually hear those voices, hearing about such voices now might just offer some useful inspiration.

Political M.A.D.ness

Surely the biggest, most important issue in this year’s presidential election is, or should be, what to do about the so-called fiscal/economic cliff looming on January first.

The issues that are being talked about are of course important to a lot of people and I am not suggesting for a second that they are not important to talk about. The problem is that if we do not seriously address the cliff issue properly, a lot of those other issues will suffer as well. We cannot, must not, be ostriches!

So why are the two candidates not talking more about the cliff and what they propose to do about it in sufficient detail to give voters a better basis on which to make an informed choice?

Sadly, the answer, in part, is that the cliff is such a big complex of fiscal, economic, financial, defense, health and tax issues, which have already been kicked down the road for years now. It truly has become a topic about which only a very few super experts can speak with sufficient knowledge, experience and wisdom to make sense of the subject as well as be credible.

The other reason it is not being talked about by the candidates, other than to berate each other for not being specific about their plans, is that it could be political madness if they actually did get specific.

The cornerstone of arms control doctrine, which many believe has kept the world free of atomic weapons since the end of WWII, is called mutual assured destruction or simply “MAD” for short. In the same vein both candidates realize that talking about the specifics of their plans is likely to assure their political destruction because as they enumerate those specifics they start to lose, not gain, votes in almost all instances across the board.

The result has been a tacit compact to not get specific and instead simply complain that the other guy will not get specific. That may suit their needs but leaves the voters and the country in the dark.

Imagine the political consequences of losing the tax deduction for interest on home ownership. Imagine the political consequences of severely limiting charitable deductions. The furthest either candidate has gone so far is to suggest some cap on all deductions. And, then when it comes to cutting government funding, recall the hubbub created by Big Bird’s prospective demise if support for PBS were eliminated — even though it turns out that Big Bird really now flies without help.

While there absolutely will need to be cuts, large and small, from many parts of the Federal budget to deal with the cliff, no political candidate is likely to speak out loud about those subjects unless and until they are forced to by some independent bi-partisan process.

As we have eased our way over the past 50 years into accepting that there must be presidential debates and now have a serious Commission in place to manage and produce those debates, perhaps we need a similar commission to ensure that all the critical questions in presidential races be asked and answered.

For example, such a commission could produce a formal questionnaire for both candidates, for which they would have to supply answers or risk exposure and serious criticism for refusing to do so.

Today we have to suffer through debates at which the questions come only from ordinary citizens or journalists who seem reluctant to ask questions about such a complicated subject. Perhaps they worry that they might not understand or like the answers.

The result is that we are going into this year’s election largely ignorant because of lack of honest openness from both candidates on the most important question facing the nation at this time.