Friday, September 26, 2008

Who's Right? Whose Wrong?

Disasters help people see clearly.

Even if only for a moment, people always cling swiftly and surely to what they value most just as the proverbial shit hits the fan.

Two very different disasters struck last week, one in my country and the other in my adopted country. I've come to better understand the character of the people involved as a result.

Last weekend there were several political rallies here in Budapest. The most publicized event was held by the Hungarian Democratic Charta. It was held almost in concert with a demonstration of several Roma organizations. Those rallies were held to protest against the menacing rise in influence of the far-right here in Hungary.

Far-right extremists held a counter-protest which allegedly threatened the safety of people leaving the
Hungarian Democratic Charta rally. The counter-protest led to a violent clash with the police. Petrol bombs and cobblestones versus riot gear and tear gas. Property was damaged. Police and citizens were injured.

A disaster.

Since the anti-government protests of 2006, the extreme right has been gaining political traction - slowly perhaps - but such progress is alarming nonetheless. The ideology of the far-right in Hungary is not something many Americans would recognize as a legitimate part of political discourse. Many of the far-right protesters arrive at rallies wearing
swastikas or other symbols harkening back to the days of fascism. At the protest last week, anti-Semitic chants were interspersed among the anti-government chants. The far-right is proudly racist, hating both the Jewish population and the Roma population with equal vigor. And the violent enthusiasm with which they threw themselves into last week's protest shed some light on what they're all about.

The far-right here in Hungary is cornered, threatened, and frightened. They are lashing out at anything that resembles a threat to their twisted anachronistic values, and they are doing so with the strength of an animal in its final throes.

I would normally think this was a positive sign, but I know a cornered animal is dangerous. And I thought fascism went through its final throes last century.

I am happy the left came out to protest the influence of the far-right. In a country of very reserved people that is progress, but I think it is time for more unified action against such extremism. Fidesz is the mainstream party on the right, and they will certainly win the next Parliamentary elections. They have no need for the votes of extremists. So now is the time to put that dying animal out of its misery. Now is the time for Fidesz to condemn the extremists outright... But where are the Party's leaders? No one can say. What are those leaders saying when they fail to condemn violent racist behavior?

Speaking of party leaders, what the hell is Congress doing about the impending financial disaster? The Republicans can't govern their own, and the Democrats seem to have forgotten they have the majority.

What I've learned about America's political leaders from this disaster is making Hungary look pretty good right now. It seems the panic in D.C. is going to cost Americans even more than the past decade of incompetence.

Let me try and sort this out. For all the politicians who read my blog (none), here's my advice:

Republicans: You have failed. Your fiscal policy has led to a disaster of epic proportions, and the solution is going to run counter to your core principles. So sit back and watch the Democrats make the painful choices needed to put this right again. Oh, and by the way, thanks a lot.

Democrats: You do not have to accept the Administration's Bailout Plan. If you do and people don't like it, the Republicans are going to pin the blame on you. You are the ruling party in terms of legislation. Draw up a plan that illustrates your party's commitment to the middle class.

Here's the plan:
1) Be realistic. Make it a trillion dollars.

2) Buy up the bad mortgages and re-write them, helping %80-%90 of at-risk Americans keep their homes (primary residences only).

3) Extend lifelines to troubled banks on the following conditions:
a) loans are paid back with interest, or if the bank becomes profitable again taxpayers get a percentage of that profit (whatever benefits the taxpayer more)
b) cap executive salaries for three years, but give a substantial loyalty bonus to execs who weather the storm (we need talent now more than ever)
c) Until the loans are paid, banks that receive aid must give monthly reports to a panel of financial experts appointed by a bi-partisan committee, this panel then offers recommendations to the committee which may exercise control of the bank

4) Establish a regulatory apparatus capable of overseeing the financial sector that emerges after this crisis passes

5) Use remaining funds to give a cash infusion into sectors that have been neglected while the housing market was being inflated artificially.

That should do it. Any questions.
Now playing: OK Go - It's a Disaster
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Not So Funny Stuff

I have the Wall Street Journal here at my desk. I get this cute little version over here, not the big broadsheet they publish in the US.

I was reading about the financial turmoil. And I'm surprised to find that the story has me in a vice grip. I don't know why. I'm not invested in much of anything beyond my apartment. So the fall of Lehman Bros. is not going to reach into my pocket much. Still, I can't turn away.

I think it's the enormity of the thing. Markets around the world were shaken. Uncertainty is the only certainty. And everyone who is plugged into an economic system anywhere in the world will be touched by this. It's a world event, right? But it's not like any of the world events we've experienced in my lifetime.

It doesn't have the feel of an attack or a war. It's not like a government falling. I'm tempted to link it to a natural disaster, but I'm afraid that's disrespectful because tsunamis and earthquakes takes lives. I just can't place where this sits in my understanding of current events. But I am straining to do so - It's just so big. So I read and I thought about it, and I think I might have been making progress.

But then what happened? The presidential candidates started talking about it, and I started thinking about politics and the political side of the economy. I started to get angry. And so I watched the following.

I don't know how to fix this, and when I look at the campaigns I do not feel reassured.

They aren't speaking to the issues, as usual. But I guess these events are the issues speaking out of turn.

I just hope we can elect someone who will put the right people in place to find our balance again. My thoughts aren't worth much, but for what they are worth: I think we need to reintroduce regulation (duh), but I don't think it would be useful to go back to the stuff Clinton repealed at the end of his term. That stuff was from the 1930's, and the repealing of it was part of what has fueled the last 10 years of worldwide economic growth. I guess someone should have thrown cold water on the mess before we got to this point, but I don't want to place blame (yet). It's too easy to say someone should have been watching. I don't think we have the kind of regulatory apparatus in place to have seen this coming. I guess we have to watch and learn (and when the market hits the bottom, get your money in there).

Seriously, however, best wishes and my sympathy go out to all who are going to be affected by the job losses and the financial strain that's troubling the world right now.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

You can't eat the Venetian blinds.

There's a story in the news about some high-end medical equipment that has gone missing from hospitals here in Budapest. The equipment was obviously stolen, and stealing it was easy because the hospitals in question are currently in the process of closing down. You see, the Hungarian government is trying to fix a broken economy, and part of that process involves closing hospitals.

To their credit, those responsible for the equipment's disappearance knew what they were doing. For one thing, only the most expensive inventory is missing. For another thing, selling this particular stolen equipment is going to be a breeze. Most medical equipment would easy to track down, but because the purchase of high-end equipment for these hospitals was sponsored by private doctors and financed by medical foundations, the paper trail for the equipment is difficult (if not impossible) to follow.

The story screams inside job.

A related story, while not as visible, hit us closer to home last month. Dóra’s colleague Mark recently finished renovating his apartment here in the city. The work was nearing completion just a few weeks ago. All that remained was the installation of the major appliances: stove, oven, refrigerator, water heater, dishwasher, etc. The equipment was delivered the night before it was to be installed, but before that night was over, someone kicked in the door and hauled off all seven of the large appliances.

Again, the story screams inside job.

I've heard more of these stories in Hungary than I ever did in the other places I’ve lived. I realize this kind of crap happens all over the world, but in corruption-plagued countries like Hungary, it happens more often and at more levels of society. Everywhere you turn in Hungary there are people seeking to infiltrate the systems where money or goods are exchanged. They find their way in and skim what they can, be it medical equipment from a pediatric hospital or some guy’s refrigerator. I used to find myself wondering why.

Then, during a recent lecture on academic integrity, one of my students made the following argument: If a student is clever enough to cheat and not get caught by the teacher, then that is reason enough for the student to get a passing grade.

The majority of the class started nodding enthusiastically. They waited for my response, and I managed a reasonable rebuttal. I don’t, however, harbor any illusions. Most of them still believe their peer won that argument.

Interestingly, many of my students come from countries where corruption is an issue at every level of government. Many of them come from cultures where business transactions are hampered by a crippling lack of trust between parties.

It would surprise me if either the thieves from the hospital or the thieves from Mark’s apartment were ever apprehended. They studied the system. They identified a weak spot. And now thanks to their efforts, Hungary lacks machinery for its hospitals. As a result of their talent, homeowners in Budapest can’t trust contractors.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s government is trying to fix a broken economy.

Finally, please check out my brother Myles's music store. He's quite good, and by quite good, I mean excellent. But you don't have to take my word for it...

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Clarity, From a Distance

This is a shot Lili, Szóda, Dió, and me on the island of Brač. That was the last trip of the summer, and it was a good one. Dóra’s got the album up here on Picasa if you’re interested.

We’ve been back for over a week now. School’s started up, and I’m teaching two classes of seventeen. Twelve different countries represented in the classroom, and a theme of inter-cultural exchange in the Writing Skills course. It makes for an interesting day at work.

Dóra’s folks are here in Hungary until the middle of October, and we’ve spent some quality time with them. So things are busy, but there is one thing we can’t escape: The US elections.

I’m fairly certain our exposure is not as overwhelming as it is for those in the States, but it is exhausting none-the-less.

Exhausting for two reasons:

First, people actively seek out my opinion because I’m actually able to vote.

Second, and certainly the more exhausting reason, the European view of American politics is so skewed that I’m often asked to re-explain the issues I'm concerned about. "You mean it about more than just race?"

I’m not saying I live in a vacuum or that I am the only expert over here. I have friends at work who are more up-to-date on this than I am.

Then there’s Dóra, her folks, and the e-news all keeping me humble. But the repeated experience of breaking down my views for people who are unfamiliar with America’s issues has had an effect on me.

Warning! This post will now address politics!

I’ve been politically-minded for years now, and my opinions are important to me. However, I’ve always done my best to hear out and weigh the arguments of those who disagree with me. Not only is this the polite approach, it also allows me to shift my stance if I come across hard evidence that runs counter to my opinions. I don’t think such a maneuver signals weakness, but strength.

You see, I have close friends and family who sharply disagree with my politics. I respect the intelligence and opinions of these people. And in deference to them, I try to keep an open mind on the issues. When they are correct, I’ve learned to swallow my pride and accept their take.

But then yesterday I experienced something for the very first time. I was explaining my choice for president to yet another European who thought a white person was more qualified to be president than a black person (he didn’t seem to care about who the candidates were). I was halfway through my bare-bones explanation of the issues when I experienced – for the first time – absolute certainty and complete clarity.

It was mind-blowing. For the first time in my life, I realized that nothing could change my opinion: The Republican Party as it exists today cannot run the executive branch of the US Federal Government.

I think I reached the tipping point when I started describing the FDA’s inability to contain the Salmonella outbreaks, but it might have been when I got through summarizing the complete lack of oversight on Federally-insured loans.

Whatever it was…

Funding a war with borrowed money,

Failing to maintain basic infrastructure,

Allowing speculation to drive up the cost of oil,

A weak-dollar policy,

Bailing out buddies at a private investment firm with taxpayer dollars (which creates expectations from other firms that want the same kind of treatment) despite the Party’s hard line against government interference in the private sector,

Expanding the powers and size of the central government despite the party’s claim to favor small government

…I cannot think of any reason someone would vote for the Republicans. The blunders I listed are not Bush blunders. He may have taken us to a war on false intelligence. He may have over-politicized the judicial branch. He may have made more mistakes than that. He’s administration has stumbled, sure. But the Republican Party’s arbitrarily enforced small-government policies are responsible for too many of America’s largest problems today.

I will remain registered an independent and keep an open mind on other matters. But this issue is closed for me. You can like or dislike McCain. You can feel energized or deflated by whoever that disaster of a VP nominee is. You can say Obama is the president we need, or completely un-presidential. But you cannot get me to believe that the Republican Party is capable of wielding executive power at the Federal level in its current state.

Finally, please check out my brother Myles's music store. He's quite good, and by quite good, I mean excellent. But you don't have to take my word for it...