New structuring of this page... Originally, it was written before Dubya had really done much of anything, so it was just predictions of probabilities. Then I started trying to update things to reflect newer developments, which was actually a bad idea. Actually, now that he's been in the White House for a while, the harms are piling up like one of his higher pies, so I'm leaving the predictions alone, and just adding new comments about the foulups at the bottom of this page. The link at the right will jump directly to the fresh meat...
This page is for listing what I think are some of the main harms likely or possible as a result of the young Bush's term of occupancy of the White House. Each area of likely damage appears in the order of seriousness of the damage, with the most serious ones listed first. I've also included an estimate as to what I think the likelihood of each harm is. Actually, the damage ranking also reflects the probability--a very serious harm with a lower probability may appear below a less serious harm that has a very high probability of happening. This is basically my considered response to the people who say they think Dubya may do a very good job, except they seem unable to give a single concrete reason why. Apart from the detail that it would be the first time in his life, these are concrete reasons why not.
This color is for the update of 29 September 2001, reflecting the short-term responses to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in NYC and Washington, DC. Perhaps some of the items should be shuffled up and down, too, but waiting for a mid-range perspective first.
|Category||Probability||Time Scale to do Damage||Time Scale for Recovery|
|Education||50%||1-4 years||Perhaps never|
|Federal Courts||80%||A few months (for confirmations)||40 years|
|Economy||75%, now to 95%||1-4 years||1-3 years|
|Environment||80%||1-4 years||10-100 years|
|The American Military||60%||2-4 years||3-7 years|
|War||45%, now to 90%||On opportunity||5-20 years|
|The Internet||75%||1-4 years||Immediate?|
|Public Trust in Government||95%||Immediate||Perhaps never, but perhaps bad is good here?|
Mostly 9 December 2001 and 20 January 2002
This is mostly speculation outside of my field, which makes it more fun, but... I have been watching the stock market for a number of years, and even own a few thousand shares of this and that—but it works funny in yen with little shares in large numbers. Yes, I'm mostly mystified and long ago concluded that the stock prices have lost all touch with economic realities, but there must still be some rhyme or reason somewhere in there. So...
The basic background information is that Enron was a young, very large, and apparently hugely successful company from Texas. At one point Enron was apparently larger (in market capitalization) and possibly more powerful and influential than Microsoft. Their official goal was to pass Exxon, which given Exxon's record of environmental damage... Can't say they weren't ambitious. Anyway, they were also Dubya's biggest campaign contributors and Enron's managers had lots of close personal ties to various GOPpies. They were originally involved in natural gas, but very rapidly expanded into many energy-related fields and then into bits of everything. And then they suddenly burst like a bubble. It actually takes a little while for such a big balloon to explode, and the problems have been emerging for several months. I actually suspect that one of the things distracting the Bushies from domestic security before the 9/11 disaster was that they were probably trying hard (and extremely secretly) to save Enron. To no avail. Enron filed for bankruptcy protection last week. Current stock price is about 1/300th of the peak value and I think they'll be delisted as soon as possible.
Though very little solid information has been released so far, my hypothesis as to what happened is that Enron was basically a kind of shell game. There were lots of companies involved, and money was being shuffled hither and yon, and each time it was counted up, the value of everything was apparently larger. The basic enabling environment was the deregulation the GOPpies had been pushing for so many years, though actually a lot of the natural gas deregulation was finally started by President Carter. Enron actually appeared around 1985, and Gramm's wife was involved from the beginning, though I'm not sure when Dubya got so buddy-buddy with them. After Dubya shuffled into the White House, the Enron folks apparently thought they had clear sailing, so they gave it one more big push and suddenly the whole house of cards collapsed. However, one of the few solid facts is that Enron needed support from the government, and they invested heavily in any politician who seemed likely to provide some. Too bad Dubya let them down, eh? A current joke relates to Dubya's nickname for Enron's chief, Ken Lay: Kenny Boy.
- Ken Lay:
- Knock, knock.
- Who's there?
- Ken Lay:
- Your old friend and No. 1 campaign donor, Kenny Boy!
- Kenny who?
The main proximate victims seem to be the employees of Enron, especially the ones with their 401(k) pensions tied up in Enron stock, which is now worth a little more than toilet paper. (Yeah, Dubya wanted to allow every to gamble their social security on the stock market.) Of course, a lot of non-affiliated companies and creditors are getting burned, too. However, the bigger danger is that a lot of what destroyed Enron is not that different from the accounting practices of many other big companies, and therefore those companies, too, may be at risk.
What I've concluded from studying the financial reports over the years is that the goal of the most common shell game is to make the main central part of the company look as good as possible. However, there is a fundamental problem in doing this. To 'look good' in the required sense calls for size, high growth, and excellence, and it's fundamentally impossible to do them all at once; you can raise the average, but you can't abolish it. Therefore, many companies use accounting tricks similar to those that destroyed Enron, though most companies are obviously less aggressive about it. The trick is to isolate the main central part of the company, and make sure it is excellent and tightly focused on the most profitable and fastest growing parts of the business. The truth is that it couldn't look that good without the support of various other subsidiary companies, but the accounting is done to separate things out, even though it's really all directed to the single goal. Many of those subsidiaries may be in less profitable areas, or may even be relatively poorly managed and staffed by third stringers, some of them may even be losing money and be up for sale, but none of this matters as long as the flagship company looks good. In Enron's case, several hundred were apparently offshore tax dodges, to boot. I'd like to give some examples, but I really have nothing more than suspicions... However, I'll say that I'm very glad to have gotten most of my money out of Citibank, and I hope they hold together long enough for me to recover the last bit. Anyway, most companies probably are quite competently managed and not the kind of hollow shell that Enron was. However, the point is that Enron's accounting techniques were not completely unique or preposterous, though Anderson was increasingly nervous, and at the end even destroyed some of the important records.
It's actually a question of balance, and how Enron wound up out of balance. A simple and hopefully relevant example involves the auditors for any publicly held company. You probably know that there are two kinds, internal and external. The internal auditors are employees of the company. They do the internal books and budgets, and follow up to make sure the money is spent the way it's supposed to be spent. They have to account for every nickel and dime (or yen), and they're the guys who say what the bottom line profit and loss is. They are also supposed to make sure no one within the company is playing any games with the money. However, the internal auditors still aren't to be trusted fully, which is where the external auditors come into the picture. That was Anderson in Enron's case. They are an outside company whose special expertise is checking the competence of the internal auditors. They normally don't do all the numbers again, but they are supposed to check enough to offer their official opinion that the internal auditors are giving good scoop. And that's why the external auditors for Enron are also being sued in this mess. They were supposed to detect the problems and warn the stockholders. Kind of hilarious for Enron to fire them at this late stage, but it's also supposed to be part of the external auditor's job to guide the company away from risks that could cause bankruptcy.
The complete economic situation of a company like Enron is obviously very complicated, with various competitive pressures driving things hither and yon. For example, by making its accounting position look good, Enron facilitated its ability to make deals, so sometimes the questionable accounting was a kind of prediction that could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. However, there is also a reality principle involved, and protecting reality is supposed to be one of the roles of the government—defining fair rules and making sure that every company is playing by the same rules. For example, it is basically the government that requires external auditors in the first place. And now we're back to where I think Enron messed up. With their boy Dubya in D.C., they thought they could tee up and really drive a big one. Plop. Fizz. No more Enron. But how many other companies are travelling the same road? Dubya has LOTS of big corporate donors. How many other companies have changed their actions based on their supposed friend in the White House?
An interesting question now is "Who dunnit?" When there's been a crime you're supposed to look for someone who benefitted from it. Near as I can see right now, the only folks to come out well on this one are the Enron executives who dumped hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Enron stock when it was still worth something. The executives actually started selling a while ago, but the critical questions are when did they find out the company was in trouble, and how much stock did they sell after finding out, and I can't find any hard data there. Lots of lawsuits have been filed asking the same questions, but it will surely take years before the courts decide. Some politicians benefitted from the contributions. Most especially, Dubya used the money to bad effect, and as far as I know he isn't even named in any of the lawsuits. Dubya 'wins' again, though it wasn't as good as his big trifecta.
Is there a conclusion lurking around here? Well, let's call it a hypothesis. The GOP has always been the party of big business and big money, and they still are. Doesn't work so well with the voters, since most of them aren't big-time businessmen. The GOP solution? Accuse the Democrats of being the party of big business and big money, and repeat frequently, even if it is mostly a lie. Enron is apparently just a case where big-business crooks got a too much rope from their GOP buddies and managed to hang themselves right proper. Hard for me to believe they have NO imitators. Dubya certainly has plenty of other friends with big corporations. Looking at the ones that already gave him a lot of money, Citibank is standing out again...
26 December 2001
Didn't I already write this somewhere on this Web site? Anyway, I can't find it, so I may be repeating myself, but it's quite worth repeating that the president is not any kind of a deity or god. It would be easy to think otherwise if you read some of the commentary, though the commentary never addresses the real reasons for this deification. It's also very clear that this is NOT what the designers of our government wanted. They knew very well that any government is made of people, and they will act like human beings, not like gods, and to the best of their ability they designed the government to minimize these problems for many years. Though I do think we were very fortunate that their abilities and wisdom were so far above average, they weren't gods either, and I must sadly conclude that their design for checks and balances based on a clear separation of powers is wearing out.
Such religious commentary about the president actually comes in two flavors, negative and positive, though both are equally harmful in different ways, and both forms are increasing in their intensity over the years. Of course that means that the best examples are the most recent, and so the best examples of negative commentary are the recent criticisms of President Clinton regarding his little affair. No one is saying that it was the right thing to do, but it was a very human error. The BIG problem is that it was very ungodly. The loudest critics screamed and cried loudly enough to come within a few partisan votes of success in their destructive plans. Failing there, they continued to do everything they could to disrupt the government and even based their next presidential campaign on the issue.
For positive examples, Reagan and Dubya offer the best examples, though they were rather different instantiations. In the case of Reagan, he was nothing but a facade for the religious commentary, and his professional training was quite appropriate—as an actor he played many roles. Though he was never regarded as a great actor, no doubt he found it simpler as president, when he only had one role to play. For Dubya, the intensity of the commentary is actually somewhat stronger, but his ability to properly play the part is amazingly weaker. The cognitive dissonance is apparently getting to some of his supporters, who sometimes wind up criticizing him in the religious terms they're supposed to be saving for liberals and other 'enemies of the Fatherland.' Or perhaps they just can't remember any other way to talk now?
So now to the topic of why it happens? Simple, actually. It sounds like religion, and it IS a kind of religion, though a secular one. The president has become a kind of supreme deity. So why do people want a god? Because they encounter problems that they can't solve, so they want to appeal to a more powerful being to solve their problems. Actually, that's the lower form of motivation, but it applies to many people, and it actually makes quite a bit of sense as it applies to the president. He really does control vastly more resources than most people, and he really could solve a lot of our personal problems if he would just direct a bit of those resources our way. A higher form of basically the same motivation is to want a higher being to provide a higher framework for our incurable and unmerited suffering. As this version applies (somewhat awkwardly) to Dubya, his advisors are supposed to have the complete information that explains why our suffering can't be helped.
My belief is that the founders of our government understood these problems pretty well. It actually helped that they had so much firsthand experience with very human kings who claimed to have divine rights over others. They didn't have a perfect solution, but they did have a number of good ideas. It's really hard to see clearly from so far away, but mostly because our perspective is colored by distorted reporting and more of that idolation that they abhorred. They didn't create a perfect system, but a good system that was flexible and adaptable, and now perhaps the main source of confusion is to blur many of the resulting changes into their original intentions. Some of it was their innovative and excellent ideas, and other parts were added over the years. The most important example here is that they understood that someone had to be responsible for acting on behalf of the government, but that executive authority could be abused and needed to be controlled. The original system of checks and balances mostly involved binding the president to the laws passed by the legislature and putting the spending authority in the part of the legislature most directly linked to the voters. The idea of the judiciary acting as the arbitrator between those branches was added later, but it was a brilliant addition.
For what little it is worth, I mostly blame the negative changes on the same men who are regarded as the greatest presidents, especially Lincoln and FDR. These men faced great crises and rose to meet them, but in their need to act forcefully and effectively, they permanently tilted the balance of power in favor of the executive branch, and ultimately the presidency became imperial and supreme uber alles. It would be interesting to have a debate as to which was more harmful, though I think I'd give the nod to Lincoln for two counts. I credit him as the main creator of the modern political party, which has mostly become a regressive and even repressive institution, and he deliberately cancelled the true intention of the Second Amendment, though it is also true that his decision to oppose succession ultimately led to America's preeminence.
Time for the sad conclusion, and I'll try to keep it brief though there is much more that could be said. The current situation is very different from what it should be. Yes, the Constitution still exists, but most of the important ideas within it are ignored. Just focusing on the examples mentioned above, most of the legislation is now initiated by the executive branch to support their political agenda of the moment, and the position of Congress is basically a trivial tally board. Does the president have the votes or might he have to compromise a bit? Rather than forcing the House to assume full responsibility for the money, the president prepares the budget, and once it is approved, the latest great abuse, the line item veto, allows him to go through and individually kill any expenditure he doesn't approve of. As far as the independence of the judiciary, "our considerations are limited to" the alegal abuse of December 12, 2000. A very sad end, and I hope I'm not caught in the final collapse, which may well come within my lifetime.
Since 9/11 we hear lots about the war on terrorism, and so here's a bit more. However, the focus here is mostly on what is required to prevent it, and how goes the war, too. This presentation is focused on the anti-terrorist perspective, but almost everything here has a terrorist perspective, too, and not always the direct opposite, so things get complicated there. However, the bottom line is that dealing with terrorism is complicated, and the conclusion is that Dubya's failures in dealing with such complicated matters are no surprise. Here's the basic outline:
Let's begin with the $64 question: Could the attacks of September 11th been prevented? Actually a trick question. Remember that unless you say yes, then you are saying they can happen again. From the perspective of someone who wants to reassure Americans, this is not a good thing, but... Maybe it's just the way things are in this imperfect world. On the other hand, if you want to say we are secure now, then it must have been possible to be secure before September 11th, and you have to ask why we were not. Or in slightly different words, if it was impossible to be secure at that time, then it must still be impossible now. Well, it seems like all roads lead to to the same Rome—There's no perfect security in this perfect world.
Time to divide the issue on the tactical and strategic levels. Tactics are small scale, and easier to deal with, so that's where I'll start. Tactics are what you use to win a battle, but terrorism doesn't have regular battles. The counterpart for terrorism is the plot, which in most ways is similar to a crime, such as a bank robbery. Perhaps this tactical similarity between terrorist plots and crimes is why most legal theory regards terrorist attacks as crimes, rather than as acts of war. However, for this discussion I'm going to consider plots to be more like races between the terrorists and the defenders.
A new plot has three tactical stages: hatching, preparations, and execution. There are counterstrategies for each stage, though mostly for the last two. The plotters are racing to complete the three stages, and the defenders are racing to disrupt the plot. Very bad when the plotters win the race, but most of the time they don't make it.
For the first stage, about all you can do to abort the hatching of plots is to design systems that have no weaknesses or vulnerabilities, and that's really hard to do. Complicated systems tend to have problems and failures, including disastrous ones, even without deliberate attacks by adversaries.
Complicated plots involve a lot of preparation, and during the preparations the defenders usually have the best chance to detect the plot and break it up. You don't hear so much about these cases, though I'm pretty sure that this is as far as most plots get. This kind of very effective action just doesn't make for big impressessive stories. If it's done properly, there are just a few quiet arrests and some nice, smooth trials followed by nice, long jail sentences. In other cases, the plotters may abandon the plot during this stage, deciding it's unfeasible, or not worth it, or even irrelevant.
Disrupting plots during the executation stage is the stuff that Hollywood loves, so you've seen plenty of movies and television shows with these themes and I don't have to say much. However, I will note that there are some very big differences between real life and the movies. The most important one is that the good guys don't die in most movies. Less important, but still significant is the question of odds. In the movies the good guys are normally outnumbered and outgunned, while in real life the authorities always have more people and more force available. However, this kind of anti-terrorist action is intrinsically very dramatic and exciting.
Each of these terrorist plots is like a new race. On one side, the terrorists are rushing to complete their preparations and execute their plot, and on the other side we have the anti-terrorist forces, our defenders, racing to detect and foil the plots. Who wins a race? It comes down to preparation, effort, and luck. The joke form is that the battle is not always won by the strong, and the race is not always to the swift, but that's the way to bet.
The anti-terrorist preparations have to be broad and balanced, otherwise it's like an athelete who spends one week training one muscle, and the next week working on some other muscle. Such an athelete is not going to win many races. There was actually a very broad and balanced evaluation of domestic airline security completed just as Dubya moved into the White House. It identified a number of problem areas and offered a number of concrete recommendations. It was not ignored—at first. However, it was considered tainted, since it had been performed during the Clinton presidency, so in April, Dubya told Congress to drop the matter and wait for another evaluation to be done by Cheney. The previous report had taken a couple of years to complete, but the new one had not even been started when the attacks of September 11th shuffled all the priorities around. This actually resulted in a violent shift in directions and a sudden, imbalanced, adoption of parts of the earlier report's recommendations.
Effort is mostly a matter of motivation, positive and negative.