Thursday, May 21, 2009

US Terror Detainees – Prison or Frat House?

I find it peculiar to read, yet again, ad nauseam, about U.S. treatment of detainees in facilities in Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and super-secret CIA-operated prisons across the globe. The epicenter of the discussions, of course, radiates from Washington, as members of Congress and the Senate race to take their positions, get their names in the paper, and pad their campaign contribution funds. After all, politicians are in the business of getting re-elected.

I’m resigned to having to put up with the topic in the press for another 12-18 months, though, as it looks like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is going to run this through the public hopper in an effort to cleanse herself of that dirty feeling she wakes up with every morning. The Washington “Gang of 4,” and what they knew, when, will be debated in a public forum, and it won’t be short and sweet. Pelosi is viewed considerably less favorably than President Obama and the rest of the Democratic Party – a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of Americans showed favorability ratings of Obama at 64%, the Democratic Party at 45%, and Pelosi at 31%. This data suggests the Democratic party will be happy for Pelosi to be the face of this public battle; they’ll allow it to stretch out and have her bake in the heat of public indignation while they smoke contraband Cuban cigars and sexually harass young pages and interns.

It’s the public indignation part I’m beginning to wonder long and hard about. Waterboarding, I’m sure, is a real bitch. I imagine even fish don’t like it. But, in the relative context of a post-9/11 world, I’m not going to stand up and say its evil. If one just one life was saved by having one bad guy feel for a minute like he was drowning, I think I’m probably cool with it (it’s important to note that the bad guy doesn’t actually drown – he just feels like he’s going to until he coughs up more than name, rank, and serial number, or, as is more likely the case in the war on terror, the name of the tailor who makes custom-fitted, suicide bomber vests).

However, you never see pictures of waterboarding; ditto for pictures of sleep deprivation. What you do see are pictures like those below:

Okay, before you react, stifle that angry sneer (or amused chuckle). There’re a couple of very important points that need to be made.

First and foremost, it’s PRISON. Prison is not supposed to be dinner and drinks at The Plaza. It’s supposed to suck, and really suck badly at that. It’s supposed to send a message to wannabe scumbags everywhere – that message being, regardless of your circumstances right now, you do not want to be here. As the theme song to Baretta stated, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

Now, I’ve not been in prison. Yet. But, I have seen Midnight Express and a number of episodes of Oz on HBO – enough to know, or, rather, suspect, that there’s a whole host of pretty bad things that happen in prisons – in Turkey, in the United States, wherever. It’s not an evil U.S. government thing. It’s a prison thing. If you don’t want to be stacked in a buck-ass naked human pyramid, don’t do bad things and get tossed in the clink.

Second point that needs to be made, is the very real fact that many of us have similar photos in a shoe box hidden under our bed, either from bachelor parties, honeymoons, weekends in Las Vegas, or our 4 (or more, and you know who you are) years spent matriculating in campuses of higher education all around the world. Don’t look up – just think back to the pictures above. Every fall, those scenes, and worse, are repeated all over the United States. People actually pay for the privilege of being victimized, knowing down the road, they get to be the headmaster at this particular school of humiliation. It’s call “Pledging,” and it goes on beyond closed doors at fraternities everywhere.

Now, I know some of you reading this are shaking your heads and thinking, “No it doesn’t.” Just keep telling yourself that, particularly you mothers of teenage boys.

There is one hope that maybe all of this goes away as a nasty bit of “family business,” something that we just don’t talk about at family gatherings. As you’re aware, in his first week in office, President Obama ordered Guantánamo closed. Yeah, even his Democratic buddies are beginning to fight that now. Where are the “bad guys” going to go, the mainland U.S.? Sent back home to fight us again? Maybe Gitmo is the right place afterall?

There are no good answers to the quandary, which can mean only one thing – break out the restraints, edible undies, and digital cameras – we got a party on our hands!

Now it’s possible I could be wrong – it’s just this guy’s opinion.

Hey Tweeples, tweet me up on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Messy Divorce in the Works: GM's Arranged Marriage

Soon after taking over the helm at General Motors, CEO Fritz Henderson introduced the GM of the future – “Lean, flexible, and customer-focused.” During the same “rally the troops” announcement, he also introduced its new largest shareholder, the United States government. Hmmm. Something seems out of place there: Lean, flexible, customer-focused, and the United States government. Can you pick out the one that doesn’t fit the series?

I’m not saying the government is not exactly the best equipped to literally stick its nose into someone else’s business. Not yet; I’ll get to that in a minute. Before I do, let’s build a bit of a case by taking a look at some recent headlines:
- In the first quarter of 2009, General Motors saw its revenues fall by nearly half to $22.4 billion. Remember, that’s a drop of nearly 50% off a less-than-stellar first quarter ’08.
- Those $22.4 billion in revenues did absolutely nothing to stem GM’s hemorrhaging $10.2 billion negative cash flow over the quarter. Think about that - $22 billion in sales, yet $10 billion more went out of the company than came in. No household, run by us ignorant tax payers, would dare spend 50% more than it takes in. Nobody with any financial responsibility and wherewithal would.
- Uh oh. The U.S. government is currently sporting a nifty $11.2 trillion national debt (that’s $11,200,000,000,000. Assuming a U.S. population of 305 million, per person that’s – uh, never mind, my calculator won’t accept 11.2 trillion as a value).
- Let’s call a mulligan on this year; what about next? Oops, the new federal budget for fiscal 2010 weighs in at a hefty $3.6 trillion. At a minimum, that ’10 budget will add $1.2 trillion to the national debt. That’s in addition to the record $1.9 trillion (again, a minimum) that the debt will grow in fiscal ’09.
- By the time the Iowa presidential caucus rolls around in 2012, the projected national debt will be $17 trillion. If you take the New York Yankees’ opening day payroll this season of $202 million and kept it unchanged, the national debt in 2012 could pay for the next 84,158 seasons of Yankee baseball, with just a pinch left over to cover the first half of the next season. [The good news is that over the next 84,000 or so baseball seasons, the Yankees will probably figure out how to sell their $2,500 front row seats]
- Okay, budget aside, how about the “lean” aspect? Let’s see here, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 5 million private-sectors workers have lost their jobs in the last year, and the unemployment rate in that sector tops 9%. On the public-sector side, government, employment has grown in nearly every month of the current recession, and its unemployment rate is just 2.8%. I know what you’re thinking - you’re thinking those aren’t all federal government jobs; that they include state jobs. Yes, but many of those jobs are funded by federal economic stimulus grants.
- Good luck with the federal influence in union negotiations, GM, where your healthcare benefits for retirees and workers add an additional $2,500 in cost per car (Prescription drugs alone cost GM $1.9 billion.). Remember those jobs referenced in the public sector – lots of union influence. In California, unions spent $50 million in 2005 to help defeat ballot measures that would cap government spending (i.e.; protect public-sector jobs). The school system of Los Angeles County faces a $600 million budget deficit this year alone. Too many votes for politicians to not spend tax payer money there.
- As far as austere spending, GM is not going to learn a whole lot from the U.S. government, those famed purchasers of thousand dollar toilet seats. Remember the outrage on Capital Hill and in the public eye when the heads of the Big Three (what a misnomer, huh?) auto makers each flew to Washington on private planes? Well, you’d never catch a fat cat Washington politician flying in a private aircraft – particularly on junkets sponsored by campaign contributors.
- Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi regularly flies coast to coast on “business” at tax payer expense in a military aircraft (read: private). By the way, for you “greenies,” each one of those flighst produce an estimated 80,000 pounds of carbon, much more than the average American produces in a year.

I love the U.S. government – I wouldn’t want to live under any other kind of system. It does a lot of things well. But, looking to the government to help managing a lean, flexible, and customer-centric organization is like hiring Courtney Love to protect your liquor and medicine cabinets. By June 1, General Motors will propose a sweeping business reorganization plan to Uncle Sam, whereupon, the government’s economic wizards (I know, I’m laughing too), will, if the proposal so convinces them, grant the company a new lifeline of federal dollars. That money, in the billions, won’t be used to create a sustainable enterprise; rather it will be used to float GM as it enters bankruptcy.

With our high powered journalistic machines at every media outlet in the U.S. fixated on whether Ms. California was going to loose her crown over a couple of booty call photos this week, you probably missed a juicy tidbit that slipped in under the slamming car door. General Motors decided to push up its next scheduled payment to suppliers. Ordinarily, its key suppliers would be paid June 2. GM is pushing that date up, sooner, to May 28. Now, you might be asking yourself, why would a company that so desperately needs cash look to spend their hard earned, or rather hard begged, cash early? GM is doing so because it knows it’s declaring bankruptcy on June 1, and wants to ensure that suppliers will continue to ship needed parts – needed so GM can continue to build cars that no one particularly wants or needs.

Bankruptcy is going to be a mess, just like the Chrysler bankruptcy is currently. A couple of GMs will eventually emerge: A “bad” GM with outdated brands and defaulted debt, and a “good” GM with union ownership, even more outdated brands, and an uncompetitive offering in an already overcrowded car marketplace.

An arranged marriage not exactly made in heaven – is it too late to stand up and object?

The government – you and I, and all the other tax payers – have already floated billions of much needed working capital to companies. It’s a necessary evil to keep companies afloat and workers employed. It’s an investment. When it’s an investment in a company with a somewhat promising future – in the banking industry, for example – it’s likely a good investment. When it’s an investment in a company that saw its glory days fade decades ago, it’s a “learning experience.”

Okay now, learning! Now that’s something the U.S. government can teach the private sector.

Just this guy’s opinion.

Like what you read? Hate what you read? Either way, I’d like to hear from you - tweet me up on Twitter @RayHartjen.