Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Easy Days are Over for Obama

That is what my reading of these solid Romney victories is (in addition to potential headwinds like sustained higher oil prices, possible interruption in recovery and continued difficulties in Europe). Let us face it, Santorum victory in Michigan would have shown Republicans having absolutely no ability to distinguish between what is worse and what may be bad. Of course, it would have been way too easy for Obama if Santorum had won any of these contexts; but that would have been really bad for America. What these Romney victories show is American voters, even GOP voters, would be finally drawing a line somewhere - Michigan is not South Carolina. It is not necessary that all Americans States are like Michigan when it comes to a political choice. What is necessary is that not all states are like South Carolina. At least few of these states are ready to see through the toxic mixture of Religion & Politics Santorum is trying to bring. For someone who has been brought up in times of Babri Masjid and Rath Yatra, havoc brought in by mixing Religion with Politics is all too vivid. No civil society wants to go there and somehow Michigan managed to throw a monkey wrench in the Santorum game plan. The guy simply lost the plot despite having an  authentic story line for blue color workers - before he uttered the non-sense of 'college education being snobbery and colleges are liberalism factory'. That is willing irresponsibility to undermine our own kids in tomorrow's competitive world where a father or a mother in India is starving oneself just so as to push forward children in the education ladder. What a 'stone age' message that was from Rick Santorum! On top of it when you do the blasphemy of asking your political opponents to help you make your political case; you simply don't deserve to be in the politics.

Agreed, there is Georgia ready to elect the homegrown carcass called Newt Gingrich. Very well, this Republican Primary may stretch for a while. But there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel and finally all the low hanging fruits are gone for Obama Campaign. But that is a good development for America. Presidential election where Obama faces Romney than Santorum is bound to be at least little bit more relevant. It is better to have a political squabble about RomneyCare versus ObamaCare than discussion about merits of 'pills between legs' and college education as snobbery.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Class Act, but....

This is Hillary Clinton at her best, absolutely class act. This is why Americans of all stripe love her.

But the problem is different. If it were some domestic or American Politics, voters would simply floor at the feet of this leader with such a resolute and clear rhetoric. Alas, we do not have World Government and Hillary is not contesting next election to become some chief / representative of that government.

Of course, she is smart and she would be knowing all this - that this rhetoric is not something which will bring Russia and China along with rest of the world . What that means is all 'give and take' behind screen diplomacy is broken and Hillary does not have any choice other than going blast publicly.  Is she and Obama right in berating Russia and China so heavily in public? Have they made right choices in doing that? Did they try all means, and all types of offers to bring these 2 countries on board? I do not know and information is hard to come around. Only 'after fact' is what we will know based on the end result of this Syrian crisis.

There are way too many moving parts here. Until Putin gets re-elected emphatically and have quelled all of his nascent political opposition will he have room to concede something to Americans about Syria. The situation with China is even more grave. The new leader Xi will formally ascend only early next year and even after that it will be a while before he will be in any position to relent on this stridency. The safe route of backing Russia in this matter is a default position for China and they may prefer this status quo unless there is some lucrative offer from West and Arab League (preferred /discounted Oil for China?). The path for any resolution of this impasse goes through peeling off China from its alliance with Russia in this matter.

Beyond all this, things are even more complicated because of the Iran issue. The question for America would be while bargaining with Russia and China on international matters, where will be the first concessions consumed - on Iran or on Syria? It is unlikely that Russia and China, if at all those countries are in any mood to listen to West & Arab League; will offer concessions big enough to accommodate America on both Syria and Iran.

But then, international politics have never been short of multiple simultaneous demands and interests, operating all at the same time. Today is no different. In the end, Obama and Hillary will all be judged on what they achieve while all these competing demands are exerting pressure. My sense is, in the end the  issue of Iran will triumph. It is to assume Obama way too powerful to have been able to refrain Israel from attacking Iran and still get reelected. We have not been lately used to American Presidency 'so strong'. For America to allow Israel to attack Iran is a looser game - no matter what all brick bats will come American way whereas whatever is the political benefit there, it will go Israeli way; in the process eroding America's standing in the world dramatically. If an attack on Iran is inevitable, it is much better for America to lead it along with Israel. That moment of truth is coming and Obama Administration will look at all foreign policy issues through that prism, including the Syrian situation. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Greece - Simply Buying Time

That is all there - to have more time so that rest of the weaker economies of Europe can be cordoned off and USA & global economy is spared of yet another shock. Greek default along with increasing Oil prices and heating of Iran confrontation; none of that would have helped anyone. Chinese economy continues its soft landing; meaning there is no spare 'spark' on the global economic landscape. To avoid Greek default is the right thing to do.

But boy, it comes as a huge cost and Europeans are not going to let G20 free riding that. It will be interesting to see how G20 backs up IMF request for additional resources, in part to cope with more resource demand from Europe.

Other than that, there is nothing good about this bailout. Universally folks believe, Greece will not be able to make it as the assumptions in the 'base line scenario' do not have any resemblance to reality; even granting the improving global economy backdrop. This is because in the end Greece has to have surplus in primary account (more tax collection than expenses except servicing debt) and that is not there. That is Achilles heel; Greeks are so dependent on government backed wages and the economy is so restrictive that neither new avenues of growth are likely to realize early nor government would find it easy to back off from dependent population. All this in the context of not having their own 'printing press' (i.e. their own currency to devalue debt and like that). 

Not only there is any realistic chance of Greece making through this bail out, it is practically going to give up any residual control left on it's fiscal autonomy. Troika will have permanent monitors on the ground and there will be escrow accounts to take part of the revenue to service debt. National humiliation combined with shocks of reform, chances of Greece population exploding for another revolution are not trivial. Even rest of the Europe may in the end revolt against Merkel vision of austerity.

All that means, the world has simply traded immediate blow up right now to a very likely contained bankruptcy of Greece down the line in the hope that global economy will be in a better shape then to deal  with eventual Greek default. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dark Energy Survey

"...the most ambitious attempt yet to understand a mystery as perplexing as any that faces physics: what is driving the universe to expand at an ever greater rate.
It could be a 22nd-century problem we stumbled upon in the 20th century
Some researchers may begin to feel time would be better spent on other scientific pursuits.
Whether they do or not, though, dark energy—or whatever else is causing the universe to speed up—is probably too big a conundrum for one generation to crack. It will cause boffins to rack their brains for years to come."

Really great article about Dark Energy and some of the most critical problems in contemporary Cosmology. Writer(s) of this Economist article indeed have done a great job in explaining these complex details for a lay person.

In the end, what struck me is how even Science is approached in 'spiral manner' the way software is developed in recent days.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Greece - One Thought

(As it is a parlor game among wonkish people about what would you do address the Greece situation, here is my entry in that game.)

The second bailout package is 130 Billion Euros. Germany and rest of the Europe are still not convinced that Greek Politicians have any gumption to do necessary changes. When your leading politician is saying that 'elect me and I will renegotiate the deal after election in April' (wink-wink let us dupe Europeans one more time) you have every reason to doubt these Greek Politicians.

Granted that 11.3 million Greek population is getting crushed under naive, one-half measure at a time, gutless politicians - both within the country and outside the country. So here is one deal - the second bailout is coming around 11,500 Euros per person in Greece. Let Europe lend that money as a personal loan to individual Greek so as to survive through raging recession in lieu of Greek Government undertaking complete Labor Reforms, full Liberalization of Economy and tax transparency in one shot. Forget about austerity in the Greek Government budget when you would have already hallowed that budget.

A Greek citizen will have to first pay this bailout money - ahead of Greek Taxes up to certain %. If a Greek citizen migrates anywhere in Europe,  she would be still on the hook. If a Greek citizen migrates outside of Europe, Greek Government takes the tab and be liable. A Greek citizen can surely choose to skip taking of this loan or only partial loan based on her projected incoming capacity. This European loan at much lower rate will be disbursed over a period of 3 years (around 4,000 Euros per person per year, so you are talking 16,000 per year for a family of 4) provided tax returns of past years are submitted (with some leeway for poor folks). Let few Greek or European Banks manage these special accounts at some nominal fees.

Idea is if you do not trust Greek Politicians, go to Greek People; that is what a political union would mean. This way Greek Politicians would find it easy to undertake reforms as well as Europeans would not have to work with incompetent Greek Politicians for their money to get back. On the other hand with this direct hand-out, Greek Public will be ready to accept pains of reforms rather burning historic buildings.

(Nah, if that kind of imagination was there with these European Politicians; we would not have been at this stage.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Obama Presidency

"Of course, the presidency is not a lab experiment."

But does it mean then it can only be 'care taking presidency in the second term'  protecting 2 bills passed in the first term? No, that will be kind of under selling the presidency and even Obama. Way too underselling of power and legitimacy Americans lend to Presidency, even after discounting 'spoiler games' played by Boehner and McConnell. Intransigent political opponents is not some kind of novelty. Hell, Lincoln even had adversaries who fought real war - blood, death, tresuary and bullets all in reality. 

In domestic policy, apart from protecting Affordable Care Act and Frank-Dodd; Obama needs to fundamentally alter American trajectory where the final stop is Greece style Debt catastrophe. Presidency is not a lab experiment because it is needed to answer or facilitate resolution of historical challenges faced by the nation. Obama was needed to resolve our deficit problem permanently regardless of whether he campaigned to solve that problem or not. Great Recession of 2008 prevented him from doing that. Ok, then did he try to address fundamental causes/contradictions exposed by the Great Recession of 2008? Frank-Dodd is only one piece to tame down Wall Street. Bringing down health care cost is another piece and ACA is only partial there, still a long way from implementation. What about the root cause of Great Recession of 2008 - Housing and Mortgage Sector Reforms? How far is Obama there? One can safely say that Obama Team essentially lacked necessary imagination to come up with politically suitable way to revive American Housing Finance early on. Republicans did not derail any such policy because in the first place Obama did not take pains to define, articulate, sale and execute any plausible housing & mortgage finance policy. HAMP and all that, that was all playing on margins.

During the recession, it is understandable that Obama could not afford Tax Reforms (though some would sarcastically say 'however he could afford Tax Cuts'). But then what did he do to end the recession early and permanently? He did the stimulus act, but naively allowed his sub-ordinate (Christina Romer) to set high political expectations which could not be met and in the process completely disgraced Krugman style Keynesian approach which might have helped to end recession early. Given an opportunity he played safe with his Fed choice of Bernanke without exploring or selling an option of 'an aggressive Fed chief' who would have followed more intrusive monetary policies. Not that the choice was total bad (as Bernanke is still better than Greenspan), but Obama lost an opportunity to highlight what more aggressive Fed could do. Consequence of all this is longer misery for Americans.

Beyond rectification of recessionary causes and immediate aftermath, Obama talks a good game of reorienting American economy to better suit globalization and make it competitive. But so far it is a talk only or at the best tentative measures (few Free Trade Agreements). Challenge is when globalization has broken the back of American Middle Class, how do you adopt an industrial policy (which American Politics is not used to)  that will disrupt this zero-sum game between Global Corporations and American Labor. We are no where there. Neither there is any compelling narrative nor any attempt to fundamentally re-engineer and gear American Economy to face tomorrow's hyper competitive world. Republicans do not talk all these things and simply repeat their rote prescription of tax cuts at all times, but that is not an excuse available for the sitting President who wants to make a lasting difference. 

Further, during the Debt Ceiling debate of last year, it is true that Obama had much limited set of options. But the fact is he did not dare to stop Social Security and Medicare until the long lasting Debt Accord was reached. Eric Cantor was indeed able to call his bluff and America lost an opportunity at right time to alter the course from $1 Trillion deficit per year. 

Now do you still want to call job of Obama Second Term is to simply guard few laws passed or to undertake all the unfinished business of the first term? Or to rectify the mistake of missing more important work (like speedy recovery of Housing and fixing competitiveness of American Economy)? Obama got carried away by Rahm Emmanuel and his insistence that 'they wanted to fire on all cylinders simultaneously'. Bit of political instinct and sense of historic duty were required to prioritize and serialize policy execution. Obama's second term is an opportunity to undertake what was missed in the first, not just to guard what was done partially in the first term.

All this is without mentioning equally challenging problems to be solved in foreign policy - stabilizing Afghanistan without any further deep involvement, containing nuclear Iran and help move forward Arab-Israel conflict towards its resolution. World is grasping at the lopsided nature of global institutes (UN or IMF or WTO) where victors of WWII are lingering far too much on the world stage without commensurate capabilities to contribute nor abilities to compete with new power brokers like Brazil, Germany, Turkey, India apart from China. To think of an American Presidency where it is not instrumental in bringing any of these monumental changes in world affairs, is to believe GOP derision of Obama - he does not realize America's true potential and abilities in helping the world toward more perfect union. At that point it will not be just under selling of Obama, it will be under selling of America.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Romney - Finger in the Wind

If one reads his Op-Ed decrying Obama Auto-bailout one can see how sheer ideological blindness prevents GOP candidate Romney to aim for downfall of American workers. Obama Auto-bailout policy is one of the few policy successes of Obama Administration. GM and Chrysler are saved companies which are back on their feet and making profits, making cars wanted by Americans and in rest of the world too. Not only it has allowed American grown automobile companies to retain their relevance in globally competitive industry, it has retained direct jobs in these companies as well as in many indirect jobs. What is there not to like unless you have your purity test?

Romney's gripe is:
- Obama bailout helped Unions,
- Non-unionized Labor lost jobs,
- Chrysler bond holders got haircut.

Unions took many pay cuts, accepted pension in the form of GM stock and their health benefits were drastically rationalized too. After that union remains, then what is your problem man? Except of course, Wisconsin Governor Walker style ideological blindness to unions. Romney can continue to argue that we still need rationalization of excessive union bargaining at these auto companies if they were to remain globally relevant and competitive. But that is not the argument he makes. He is just wants unions to be demolished and he feels bad that Obama Government gave them a hand. All this means, it is all OK if workers loose job; but my ideology must be adhered. How myopic!

Since when Romney started to worry about non-unionized Labor? Wait a minute, was he not the one doing same things at Bain Capital while earning millions for himself - rounds and rounds of layoff of both unionized and non-unionized labor? So then why this blame to Obama Auto-bailout when some jobs were lost to save others. Otherwise both unionized and non-unionized jobs would have been lost.

Same thing with bond holders getting haircut. Whole of private equity driven corporate raid and revival is based on bond holders, share holders and workers getting haircut so that few 'corporate raiders' like Bain Capital would benefit. Besides, if Bain Capital was one of the equity holders of GM and Chrysler; it would have been pleading with Government to provide those bailout dollars!

Ya, Romney has been opposing bail-outs since 2008. But all that means is the guy has not learned anything and refuses to see 'what works, what does not'; but goes with a blind ideology which can proverbially please conservatives. But in the end many of these conservative voters would be more happy to have money in their pockets rather than following someone's ideological trips. After all it is about their life and their survival. No wonder, more and more voters are basically turning away from Romney. He is just a pile of incoherent policy prescriptions to please what he thinks conservative voters wants. So disconnected from the reality and very opportunistic. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Obama - Still Stumbling

I do not see any smarter game plan in Obama course correction about the contraception ruling unlike how Andrew Sullivan sees. Americans must be wondering, why is this President creating these avoidable controversies instead of keeping his politics clear? Need of the hour is to steer clear of these cultural wars and continue focus on job creation and Economy. Granted, this is an election year and people know that it is quite possible that nothing much can be attained by a divided government. But that does not mean  head of the state gets luxury in not keeping his policy proposals ready and on table for his opposition to respond. Even if elections are about these important policy decisions - growing economy amid globalization and deficit control in medium to long term - unless the president vigorously engages about these issues on stump how are we going to face these issues? It is about setting the tone and Obama critics are right in saying that practically he is running away from the governance.

We all know it is the GOP who rejected his reasonable offer in addressing the deficit last year during the debt ceiling debate. We also know practically GOP might be gunning for down drafting our economy in order to blame it on Obama and defeat him in 2012. But still all that does not preclude Obama in keeping a genuine offer on the table about how to grow American Economy in the short term while managing debt in medium to longer term. And if indeed he has any such plans, he is being way too coy in articulating these proposal emphatically. Until then, for lot of Americans Obama politics will be an exercise in awakening Left voter base only. It is possible that coming budget presentation by Obama might fulfill some of these expectations.

Fortunately Economy is on mend. Given that it is understandable that Obama's opposition would like to pivot from 'economy management' (Romney's strong suite) to cultural wars (ascend of Rick Santorum). But in spite of all that, progress in Economy is a classic story for Obama to focus on and keep it in the news. What is the need of creating ruckus about a wedge issue? Why at this time? Is he listening too much to unaccountable advisers like Valarie Jarrett in wowing votes of independent women; a critical voters class for eventual electoral victory? Seems like Obama way of let a crisis to fester so as he can claim the mantle of Superman, might be in play. If that is the case, then Obama is still stumbling and is hardly of use to Americans in addressing their longer term problems.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Queen Adele

Based on these reports, tomorrow is the coronation night for the British Singer Adele. (Sorry Romony, you still have work to do for you coronation). This is a perfect build up.

Even without Adele, British Music Scene has been super rich, extraordinarily endowed already with bands like Coldplay, Mumford & Sons and many more. Adele just puts a cherry on the top, with the deserved praise and hype. With just piano, her voice and mastery of singing; she brings tears. And of course there are those words. It is so great to see that Adele and these contemporary English Musicians are wanting to bring back the soul of popular singing - great poems at the heart.

Now it is a different matter that as concept of paid records and albums going to history books, how the music industry is going to make money and how relevant are Grammys. Right business models in the era of 'iTunes and going viral on Internet' are still evolving. I suppose it will be an era of artists reaching directly to their audiences with whole layers of middlemen going out of the business. There is Apple ready to slice up it's cut of that pie and I suppose possibly Facebook and Google and those other Internet giants may carve out their shares in manners which we may not be able to envisage today. While all this is happening as if to confirm the 'great music status of her songs' Queen Adele reigns on the global English speaking mind-share.

Update - So much for the coronation and a blogger's tendency to race ahead a reality - reality where we confront a death of another talented artist.  Oh ya, the way America works (and that is perfectly human) tomorrow's Grammy ceremony will be all dedicated to Whitney. RIP Whitney Houston.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

No, Obama does not get that break....

"Romney has defended himself by saying that he did everything possible under Massachusetts’s laws and constitution to avoid subsidizing abortion. Santorum seems to think there was more that could be done, but it’s not clear how Romney was going to overcome the state constitution and the Democratic legislature on this point."

-- Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post

But Obama is expected to overcome Constitution, do-nothing Congress and do miracles like growing Economy from Great Depression within months! These same conservatives, always ready to pounce on Obama while Republicans in Congress continue their  'monkey business'; are ready to give slack to their own people. But no such luck for Obama. That is the reason you have jokes like this - heads I win, tails you loose!

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Super Bowl 46

Ok Tom Brady, it is not always about you. You played great and we know you are the Bay Area guy. But you know, anytime Journalism looks down upon a certain player who is playing his normal good game - Eli Manning - it is time to show places to some folks. That is what NY Giants did today.

My home team SF 49ners lost to Giant. So folks in Bay Area may not have been particularly pleased to see those same Giants taking the Lombardi Trophy. But I thought Brady-Belichick dynasty was getting too strong for football's sake and hence needed a reality check. Good to see that Giants indeed complete their unusual run this time too.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Syria - Cold War Two?

What this Russian veto means is
- either USA and West never bothered to keep intact Russian geopolitical interests in post-Assad Syria by preserving its last Naval base with access to Mediterranean sea
- or mechanics offered there by USA would not have been believable / trustworthy for Russia.

It is true that it will not be just the case of Russian access to Mediterranean power projection, but in general retaining the last 'client state' in the Arab World. As of now Russia clearly does not see any dependable partner in Syria than the discredited and genocide driving Bashar Assad. May be Russia does not see that much of a possibility Assad losing to regime opponents. Only when it sees that the tide becomes irreversible and it risks to lose all of its influence unless it joins the new incoming rulers of Syria; it will abandon the Assad ship. 

This whole thing is such a throw back to the Cold War era that it sounds and feels surreal in this century. Russia does not have a strong democratic political system where genocide in Syria can have any electoral consequences. Putin is still cruising to his victory in March to become President second time. His opposition cannot take advantage of 'blood on hands' which Putin caused with this veto. On the other hand if someone tries to open this topic in the Russian Election, very likely Putin would hammer that opposition by portraying how someone is 'giving away Russian assets' to bring down the country; the classic nationalism card. 

I could not understand Chinese rationale behind their veto. I fail to see any reasoning here apart from simple foreign policy incompetence and failure to lead / imaginative on part of China. May be abstaining on this vote - when it was clear that Russia would veto - might have been more profitable to China. But of course, for such a high profile vote these veto holding powers generally do not go alone. Single Russian Veto would have exposed Russia very much and the case seems to be a clear tacit understanding between China & Russia to protect Russia even though China has much less skin in this game.

To average Western and American voter, China seems slowly moving in the axis of Iran-Syria in Middle East. That is a very dangerous game for China to engage into. The world where revived Cold War with West and it's old adversary Russia joined by another equally potent rivalry between China & America is extremely explosive. May be as Obama's America starts pushing more into Pacific, China's policy in Middle East seems to raise a raucous with USA. All this does not look any encouraging and signals possibly renewed geopolitical tensions unless these powers handle these situations better.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Wall Street Journal

Can there be any other emphatic front web page from WSJ in support of Obama?

Pretty soon, the time will come for these Conservatives to start talking something which is really important - a positive agenda to make this country a respectable place to live. Tax cuts for everything - we will see how far it can take them. End of that 'canard' may be nearer than these Conservatives think.

(BTW - WSJ video about Katie Brickman and Ian Welch is a truly romantic and highly moving story of a timeless classic script against the tragic background of Texan hubris - George Bush's Iraq War. Truly beautiful journalism. It would not taste well if it was for NYT to play it, but appearing on WSJ; that makes it rich. Great piece of work.) 

Take me to your leader

At times, week-end starts early at my household, Thursday night. And this is how I catch up with in this Super Ball Weekend - who should talk next once we have the contact with Aliens?

- Is it the guy who has fingers on buttons with maximum destructive means to obliterate Humanity? (Vladimir Putin)
- Or the guy who's press bestows him with the title 'leader of the free world'? (President of USA)
- Or the guy who runs the political show in some ram-shackling fashion over the maximum number of folks under a single flag? (Chinese President)
- Or the guy who lords over $75 to $100 Billion valuation company with 800 million users of his Website? (Mark Zuckerberg)
- Or the folks who entertain this inherently sorrow world by their gamesmanship and artistry? 

Who are the leaders we really want us to represent?

We may not know the answer with confidence. But what we know for sure is with every passing day, our so called 'national leaders' are less and less in the picture. To play further on  fears of Right-wing - 'World Government' is coming!