Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Next Blog"

Sometimes when I ought to be doing something constructive, I'll push the "next blog" button at the top of this page (or from any other blogger site). I keep hoping I'll come across something interesting, even bookmark-worthy. Maybe become a reader of some blog originating from across the country or around the world. And I likewise hope that maybe somebody else out there is doing the same thing and will come across my little blog and become one of 23-or-so daily hits (the vast majority of which are people I know pretty well).

I know it's a big internet, so I'm not really surprised that my blog has never popped up from a "next blog" button-push. Nor have any of the blogs I frequent. But what amazes me is that I can sit at the screen and push the button 20 or 30 or 50 times and NEVER see anything remotely like my blog (or even my friends' blogs). First of all, I'd say over half are not in English. A huge number are just photos (usually artsy... although I should warn you if you want to try this at home, last time I did this one of the photos was a southerly view of a northbound Harley-Davidson, being ridden by an obese woman in a thong--needless to say, no bookmark there). Some folks have basically made online photo scrapbooks of their kids. But I'm not coming across people just writing stuff, least of all stuff I would characterize as thought-provoking.

Now, I'm not suggesting that everybody should blog about politics and economics and such. I realize there are (thankfully) not that many nerds of my caliber in the nerdosphere. But I would have thought I'd find some business insights, or sports, or religious musings, maybe some professor rambling on about his or her subject. So far, no luck. (I'll bet right now in some small town in Bangladesh, a blogger is writing, "I was looking for a decent Bangladeshi-language blog with pictures of cute kids and all that kept popping up is some guy writing in English about the electoral college and jogging!")

Anyway, if you have stumbled across this blog randomly, welcome. Apparently it is the only one of its kind on the entire internet.

Benefit of the Doubt

Maybe I'm just too nice (although that's very debateable). But I have a hard time getting all worked up over the gaffes of public figures, whether they are the guys I support or oppose. The most recent was where Barack Obama said that his grandfather helped liberate Auschwitz in WWII. Pundits couldn't wait to point out that the Red Army liberated Auschwitz--so, therefore, Obama was... what? A liar? The grandson of a commie? What went through my head was, "Oh, he probably was at Buchenwald." Sure enough, a day later came the clarification--his grandfather was with Ike's troops that liberated Buchenwald. Same thing when he declared a few weeks ago that he had visited 57 states. I'm sure he just meant "47." (Although I did take the opportunity to rib a couple of friends who are Obamaniacs, but that was for fun, not spite.) This past week the biggest gaffe was Hillary Clinton talking about why she's not dropping out of the race for the nomination--she pointed out that her husband didn't win out until June, and that RFK was famously assassinated in June of '68. The media pounced: "OH, she did NOT!" But anybody with two brain cells could tell that the operative part of the statement was the date (June), not the fact that Obama could somehow be killed. Indeed, if she were to drop out and the unthinkable happened, she'd still be the heir-apparent. These games of "gotcha" are so unnecessary.

Of course, it works both ways. I've been sent a youtube of McCain saying Shi'ite when the proper word was Sunni. That means, of course, that he's unfit to be commander-in-chief. And of course, every time George W. Bush misspeaks, it's taken as a sign that he's dumber than a chimp. (Although I must admit, my favorite Bush-ism is when he said that litigiousness was the reason why many Ob-Gyns could no longer practice their love with women.) We forget, of course, that Bush went to Yale undergrad (where his grades were better than the "intellectual" John Kerry) and then Harvard for his MBA. Yeah, I know his Dad went there first, so that's the "only" reason he got in. But he somehow got OUT, and I doubt very much that the tenured faculty of Harvard and Yale threw all their standards out the window just because a Bush was there. Funny how nobody points to the 57 states comment and then speculates that Obama must have somehow gotten a bump on admission to the Ivies because of his unique racial heritage.

How about this--a cease-fire on the stupid stuff. Let's just stipulate that if you reach the level of these guys (and gals, Hil), you're no slouch. Sure, if you catch somebody in a real lie or if they prescribe bad policy, fire away. But otherwise, let's lay off.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

McCain, Money, Etc.

A couple of months ago I posted about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's tax returns. The conclusion--for two people competing for the votes of the "common man," they're pretty rich. In the same post, I speculated as to the answer to the famous question: "Which candidate would you rtaher have a beer with?" At the time, John McCain had not released any tax documents. He still hasn't, to the best of my knowledge, but he has taken some flak for not even intending to release his wife's tax info. From what I gather, they have always filed separate returns, and she's the real rich one. I just read that the McCain campaign has released a summary of Cindy McCain's 2006 tax return (I don't know why it's not '07; maybe she filed an extension...?) The upshot is that she made a little over $6 million. I knew she was rich, now we have some clue HOW rich. She made about 4 times Obama's best year, and about half of Hillary's average for the past 10 years. No way of knowing if '06 was a good or bad year for her, but suffice it to say she's not hurting. As to the beer question--I had forgotten that she's the president of a beer distributorship. Maybe if McCain wins, she can make a commander-in-chief brew, or executive office ale, or similar. Wait--we've already had that back in 1977!

The only reason I'm mentioning the money is for the sake of closing the loop. I knew she (and therefore he) was in the millionaire club, so there's no real surprise there. Even if he only made what they pay senators plus his income as a disabled veteran, he'd still rank up there with Obama's "bad" years, all of which are quadruple the national average. More interesting to me is that he also released 1100+ pages of medical records. To quote Jim Geraghty of National Review, they show he's been swimming with cocoons. That was too good a line not to repeat.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Reality TV

My buddy is moving, and I'm babysitting his 32" hi-def TV for him until he leaves town. It's low-def to me, as I'm not paying extra just to have a wider picture for a month. But, thanks to the extra TV in our house, the "old" TV is currently living in the master bedroom, which means I can lay in bed and watch crap TV--something we usually don't do. I still have this odd habit when channel surfing of slowing down at MTV or VH-1, in the off chance they might have actual music videos. (Ah, the good old days.) Some days they will have a top-100 songs of the 80s or such, which makes it worthwhile. But there are some incredibly stupid "reality" TV shows out there. It's hard to review the genre since I never watch for more than a minute or two... I'm embarassed to admit having paused for that long, but it's like a train wreck--hard to avert your eyes sometimes.

Last night, I'm surfing and saw a guy I could have sworn was 1976 Olympic decathalon gold medalist Bruce Jenner. Turns out (I went to google and found this out) that he has married some fashion heiress, and their blended family (The Kardashians) have a reality show now. Apparently the camera just follows them around all the time and they just do whatever mega-rich celebrities do, and this is supposedly entertaining enough to justify the show. And they are not alone in that--there are similar shows with Hulk Hogan's family and the guy who played Peter Brady. Sorry--never seen an episode. That entire concept may be the second-dumbest thing I've ever heard.

The winner, however, is the dating reality shows. These have actually been around for a few years--during our cross-country trip in 2005, we got into watching a series on Tuesdays (in a different state every Tuesday) called Average Joe. It's been a while, but as I recall, it was a bunch of regular guys competing for the affections of one or more really pretty girls, but they were also competing with a bunch of pretty-boy male model hunk-types. I don't remember how it came out, but we got sucked in for a while. Now there is the same thing with Beauty and the Geek, there's The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, and, best (or worst) of all, there are some amazingly low-class shows where a house-full of contestants compete to be the love interest of an otherwise pretty unattractive celebrity. I think the first of these was Flavor of Love, in which a bunch of ghetto girls compete for the right to date Flavor Flav, the rapper from Public Enemy. To say I don't get it is understatement of the year. Not only is Flav profoundly unattractive, the "ladies" (and I use the term VERY loosely) have almost no redeeming features. This show spun off I Love New York, in which one of the girls who (sadly) lost out on the Flav sweepstakes got her own show, where a bunch of boyz from the hood then competed for her. And her only claim to fame was having been a loser on somebody else's show! Apparently, this genre was a hit. So they made a version for aging metal-heads in which a bunch of tattooed amateur pole-dancers competed for a relationship with Brett Michaels, the 40-something lead singer of 80's hair band Poison. And now there is one in which teams of straight men and lesbians compete to be the main squeeze of a bisexual celebrity named Tia Tequila. For the life of me, I have no idea what she is famous for, besides being famous, I guess.

Again, the disclaimer--I've never watched even a full episode of any of these shows, so maybe they have some redeeming features of which I'm unaware. But the whole concept seems just odd to me. On The Biggest Loser, you might win $250,000 for the grand prize, or even $100,000 as a consolation prize. And if you don't win anything, your time on the fat farm is supposed to be beneficial--you drop 80 or 100 lbs and live a longer and happier life. But on these stupid dating shows, all you "win" is the right to be the main squeeze of a celebrity for the few weeks until the next season starts (Flavor of Love is in its 3rd or 4th season, so I guess none of those relationships from the first couple of seasons worked out. Sad, isn't it?). In return, you go off to live in this media fishbowl and debase yourself in public for from one to thirteen weeks. During this time, what about your job? Who pays your rent?

I'm pretty sure it's like professional wrestling--all fake (I hope that didn't spoil it for any rasslin' fans). And I know that people my age have pointed to signs that the culture is going to heck in a hand-basket for generations. But the fact that somewhere out there are people who actually tune in to Flavor of Love on purpose--who pull for their favorite "lady" and think it's real, maybe even romantic... well, that freaks me out. And the fact that Bruce Jenner could go from a world and Olympic record in the decathalon and the front of a Wheaties box to whetever he's doing now, that's doubly sad.

Guilty Pleasures

I just came from a "Princess Date" with my daughter. We do this occasionally; usually a Saturday morning breakfast date. Today we went to a little breakfast cafe near our neighborhood. I had my favorite bad-for-you breakfast: biscuits and gravy. And we're talking LOTS of sausage gravy, the thick kind with hunks of meat floating in it. And a side of bacon. When you figure that yesterday I grabbed a McBurger on the way to the movies, I'll bet my cholesterol is running to 4 digits.

Speaking of the movies, I took #1 son to see the new Indiana Jones movie yesterday. Much like the breakfast--very little redeeming nutrional value, but lots of fun. It was better than Temple of Doom (that's not tough), but probably not quite up to the level of Lost Ark or Last Crusade. At least it wasn't nearly as bad a sequel as the 2nd set of Star Wars movies. But, like them, the sense of nostalgia covered a multitude of sins.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My New Candidate

I've found my candidate. Not John McCain. John McClane. Check out his website. Yippeee-ki-yay!

Why I'm Happier Than Obama

Actually, I don't know for sure that I'm happier than Barack Obama. He makes more money and is increasingly likely to be the democratic nominee for president, and according to the polls may be our next commander-in-chief. Or negotiator-in-chief. Or withdrawer-in-chief. or whatever. (JUST KIDDING!) I, on the other hand, don't have to go to Kentucky this week or deal with the mainstream media. I'll also be on summer vaction in 10 more workdays. Still, a news item a friend sent me this past week says that research shows that, in general, conservatives are happier than liberals. Now, some wags might point out that this is likely a correlation based on other factors--more rich, married, privileged WASPy guys who go to church every Sunday vs. poorer, single, struggling, discriminated-against skeptics. But apparently this study adjusts for such factors. It seems the deciding factor is one of attitude toward the universe. Here's a news flash for those who haven't figured it out yet: LIFE ISN'T FAIR. According to the study, this really bothers liberals (who are really nice people, and want to make it better). Some, like Bill Clinton, even "feel your pain." (that is, when he isn't feeling up your daughter.) We evil conservatives, though, say, "Yep. I knew that. So what?" Makes sense to me.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Where Dave and I Differ, Part II-Practical Stuff

Following up yesterday, here are a few more specifics of where I fail to follow the Ramsey plan. This will include my reasoning/rationalization for why I don't get with the program. To quote guru Steven Covey, "when we rationalize, we tell rational lies."

Step 1: $1000 in the bank for emergencies. I like more. Seems like we're always on step one, always having to re-fill the emergency fund after some real or imagined emergency. I know that Dave points out that "Christmas isn't an emergency--it comes at the same time every year!" But in our world, there is not a separate line-item in the budget for those annual or unplanned events like appliance replacement, Christmas, or car repairs. We just toss money in savings and are happy we have it when we need it.

Step 2: Debt free except for the house. NEVER make a car payment. Pay off all consumer debt ASAP so you have that money for investment. I agree with all of these things, but it conflicts a bit with my alleged "plan" for step one. What little bit of consumer debt I have is so small that the payments are manageable (and we pay extra), but rather than load up and knock them out right away, it gives my personal "comfort meter" a boost to see the savings balance rise. I know the math of it is the same or even better Dave's way. But I personally experience more peace with more cash and the debt gradually disappearing. As for the car, I did take out a small loan to buy a van that was almost $4000 below Kelly Blue Book value. I could have bought another $1000 beater for cash, but it seemed then (and now) to be a long-term wiser decision to have at least one vehicle in my family that has a range of over 50 miles. I'll pay it off early and drive it till the doors drop off (as I have every car I have owned). In my mind, this is far different than having a never-ending car payment and swapping new cars every 3-5 years.

Step 3: The "full" emergency fund. This is the one that messes me up. I agree 100% that we should have this. However, my school scenario for the kids makes it impossible. Our financial aid package is based partly on our assets. If I were somehow to save $20,000 for "emergencies," it would just get snatched up for tuition, and we'd be back to square one. But, as I wrote earlier, private school is a high (essential) priority for us.

Step 4: Retirement funding at 15% of gross salary. My employer does 10% for me. I intend to gradually raise my own contribution, as well. But I don't have that much "extra" so long as I'm paying private school tuition and trying to stay ahead of debt and savings goals. Fortunately, my projections based on what I'm currently saving and future needs looks pretty good. We may not retire super-early or super-rich, but we'll be just fine.

Step 5: Kid's college fund. Same as the emergency fund. You can't save for future education expenses and still expect somebody else to pony up for your currrent educational expenses. I hope that the good education we are sacrificing for now, plus getting used to paying a significant sum every month for tuition, will set us up to where college isn't as big a shock for us as for some folks. But we'll have to cross that bridge later. I'm at peace with that.

Step 6: Pay off the house early (on a 15-year, fixed rate note, with a payment no more than 25% of your take-home pay). This is not a finance question, it's a geography and math question. If you take my income (which ain't bad) and start backing out the numbers to figure how much house I can afford on that formula, I have to move out of town. Charleston housing is steep, and teacher salaries are not. I took out a 25-year fixed rate loan (that pays off on time before my anticipated retirement) that has a payment in the 25% range. That's for a very reasonable house in a great location, and we've got good equity. Again, I am more comfortable with that quality of life decison than I would be with being financially further ahead but commuting an hour each way to work every day.

Step 7: take all that "saved" money and invest for wealth-building. Sorry. If I found myself with an extra $1000+ a month, I'd bank it and take my family on cool trips (debt-free, of course) every summer. I'm not looking to get rich, just to be comfortable and make good long-term decisions.

So, in summary, it looks like I pretty much screw up every one of Dave's baby steps. But really I'm in line with the big picture--live on less than you make, don't borrow to buy "stuff" you don't need, have savings between your family and the wolf at the door, invest for retirement, don't be house-poor. Got all of those. Quality of life (which for me includes a short commute, good education for the kids, summers off without working summer school or a 2nd job to meet some wealth-building or debt-retiring goal, and the ability to eat out occasionally at a place that doesn't deliver the food in a bag) trumps some of the wealth-building stuff, but I do have what Dave calls "Financial Peace."

Monday, May 12, 2008

Where Dave and I Differ, part 1-Philosophy

Disclaimer first: Dave Ramsey is a millionaire. I am not. He is a nationally known financial expert. I once taught his stuff in watered-down form to an adult Sunday-school class. So there is no doubt in my mind that his plan is better than my modifications, nor that I would be better off if I would just follow his tried-and-true format to the letter. That said, I don't. Here are a couple of reasons why:

First, I began the program in a different position than many people. I have been very fortunate to ride up a pretty good period in the real estate market, and was able to dump some debt that way before I discovered Dave. If I had been dragging around $800 a month in debt service, then naturally freeing that cash up in the budget would have given me a really big tool with which to build wealth. But with minimal debt, I was only able to make minimal change to my budget. When you have a tiny shovel, it takes longer to fill a big bucket.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, I live in arguably the worst school district in the state which is 49th out of our 50 in education (thank heaven for Mississippi). I also teach at arguably the best (and also most expensive) private school in our area. Having my three kids safely in school where I work rather than in some of the other choices in this town is simply non-negotiable. It is more important to me even than making wise financial decisions for the long-term. Therefore, I do some things differently than I would otherwise.

Finally, I'm not quite as willing to "live now like no one else" so that sometime in the far future I can then "live like no one else." I don't mind being a good bit more frugal, saving more than average, driving less car, living in less house, etc. But I don't want to miss out on the opportunity to do SOME things NOW, rather than when I am retired. I admit, I borrowed a little money so I could take a $10,000 trip to Rome for only $1500. I want to travel to the islands with my wife while she still looks great in a bathing suit. And I don't want to do Disney with my kids when they are in their 30's. If that means fudging on the baby steps a bit, I'm fine with that.

There's one more consideration, too. My "job" is not just a vocation, but an avocation. I work for my alma mater, coaching my old team, teaching my favorite subject. My employer contributes a good chunk to a good retirement plan on my behalf, and I get 10 weeks off every summer. And if, heaven forbid, something bad were to happen to my school, there's always a market for teachers. So my goal is not exactly to zip through to the point where I can chuck my job and travel. I can travel now, and I may teach till I'm 70+. I'd like the OPTION of not doing so, but for now, I'd be fine if we can make ends meet comfortably, take good vacations, and make solid progress toward eventual retirement (and all that entails, including a paid-off house, etc.)

Later I'll post some specific things we do, or don't do, based on these factors.

Dave Ramsey

I'm a big fan of the financial philosophy of Dave Ramsey, the author of the books, Total Money Makeover and Financial Peace. I wish I did a better job of following his advice--which, as he describes it on his radio show, is "the same thing your grandmother said, only I keep my teeth in." Simple common sense. I wanted to throw out there what his basic philosophy is, and then spend a couple of posts on how and why I've had to modify the plan.

Dave basically operates on the premise that one's income is his biggest asset. And that most of us have a significant portion of that income tied up in paying revolving debt. Basically, if you can get out of debt, you can free up that cash to then use for other, far wiser, pursuits. Dave suggests getting on a tight budget (he calls it "beans and rice") until debt is retired, and working gradually up the following ladder of "baby steps" until financial peace is achieved:

  1. Save (ASAP) $1000 in a liquid emergency fund. Otherwise, every time you have a problem, you'll have to go back in debt.
  2. Pay off all non-home debt using the "snowball" method. (more on this later). Never borrow again.
  3. Take the money you used to spend on debt and save 3-6 months expenses in a liquid investment as a "full" emergency fund. This will cover anything up to a job loss or disability.
  4. Once debt-free, invest 15% of gross income in a mixture of mutual funds, preferably tax-advantaged, for retirement.
  5. Only after retirement is covered, save for kids' college funds.
  6. Pay off mortgage (which should only have been a 15-year note at a fixed rate with a payment of 25% or less of your monthly take-home pay).
  7. Once that is all done, you have zero payments... take all that money and invest for wealth-building... as soon as your investments can throw off enough return to pay your expenses (which are low since you're debt-free), you have reached the point of total financial independence.

The slogan is, "if you'll live like no one else (frugal, below your means, debt-free), later you can live like no one else (wealthy)."

In later posts I'll tell what my family does and doesn't do according to this plan.

I've Been Tagged!

Apparently, I have been Tagged in one of those silly internet games. Since the "tagger" was my wife, I'll play. Here goes (copied and pasted directly from Ann):

Post the rules at the beginning... 2. Answer the questions about myself.. 3. At the end of the post, I tag 5 people and post their names 4. Then go to their blogs and leave a comment, letting them know they’ve been tagged and ask them to read my blog for the info.

1) What was I doing 10 years ago? I would have been 29. I probably was celebrating the end of track season with my team at Garrett Tech. And running. Fast, because I wasn't an old fogey yet.

2) Five things on my TO DO list today? Just for starters--copy all handouts till end of school year, file medical FLEX plan reimbursement for $133, lecture all day on the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, run with XC team (slower than I did 10 years ago, but further than I did last week), and hopefully get to bed before 10 PM.

3) Things I would do if I were a Billionaire: Set up investments that made work optional. Give a lot away. Set my Dad up in the nicest assisted living situation around. Travel--lots. Put in a really good all-weather track at PG. Build a new middle school building and insist they name it after Maje Richardson and Randy Clark. Who am I kidding? If I won a billion dollars this payday, by the 21st of next month I'd still need to be careful not to eat out until payday again. That's just life.

4) Three of my bad habits? I procrastinate. I'll get to the other two later. :-)

5) Five places I've lived...Charleston, Columbia, Greensboro, NC. That's all, unless you count different addresses. I may have been in Florida for a short time as an infant, but I'm not sure.

6) Five jobs I've had ...Going backwards: teacher and coach, grad assistant (teaching, and also as a glorified clerk in the USC Legal Dept, Student Health Center, and Graduate Admissions Office), bookkeeper and grunt laborer in a lumber yard, bagboy/stock clerk in a grocery store, school bus driver, dishwasher/shrimp peeler in a seafood place.

People I "Tag:" Nobody. If you read this and want to play, feel free. But I never forward chain letters.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Success! (and feeling a bit old!)

I got a little positive feedback in the past 24 hours that made me feel pretty good about this crazy job I do. (And anytime you can feel good about teaching in MAY, that's pretty cool.) Last night we ate out, and a young lady came up to our table. I recognized her immediately--had to have a little help with the name, but it was one of my very first students. She's over 30 (which makes sense, if I taught her junior-year US History 14 years ago), and has an 11-year-old son. THAT made me feel old. She told me that my class was her favorite, and she still remembers it. THAT made me feel proud. I met her husband, her mother-in-law, and her children. Wow.

Then today, our school yearbooks came out. I didn't get one (since my kids will bring home three of them), but I was able to sneak a peek. Of course, I only had eyes for the track team page, and the senior pages of my captains. Almost every one of the seniors I coached this year had put down one of their favorite high school memories was something involving the track team. They ranged from "track practice" (with the quotes... the girl told me later she meant that to indicate she LOVED going to practice with the team, but that didn't necessarily include the gut-busting workouts), to "track season '06," to "winning the 4x4 state title." But it was very encouraging to know that, at least for now, the kids I have had a chance to work with in track value the experience. I know I sure do (both my experience as an athlete 20+ years ago, and what I'm doing now).

Steven Covey (the guy that wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) wrote that the four universal human needs are "to live, to love, to learn, and to leave a legacy." It's nice to feel sometimes that where we spend our time really does contribute to a real legacy.

Friday, May 2, 2008

War! What Is It Good For?

... absolutely nothin', ya'll! (Edwin Starr, 1970). That is, except for gaining independence, freeing the slaves, saving the union, stopping Hitler, and a few other minor things.

I've been blogging for over a year and have studiously avoided blogging anything about the war in Iraq. I know it's an issue that provokes a great deal of passion, and I would never want to offend anybody. Let me preface my comments by saying that I don't think everybody who is in favor of staying in Iraq is a baby-killer or warmonger, nor do I think that those who oppose it are unpatriotic traitors or any other such straw man argument. Good people can disagree on this. But here's what I think, on this , the 5-year anniversary of "mission accomplished."

I was in favor of invading Iraq. I thought, based on the information that we had then, that Iraq under Saddam Hussein represented a potential threat as a state sponsor of terrorism who had once had and used chemical weapons and was currently in a long-standing violation of the cease-fire at the end of the Gulf War. I don't feel duped by the Bush Administration about that... I feel like the CIA, the British, the IAEA, Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton, and a large majority of the congress and the American people believed that on good faith. When we didn't find large stockpiles of WMD in Iraq, I believed (and still do) that Saddam probably had used the long period between our initial deadlines and our arrival to get rid of whatever he did at one time have, possibly to Syria. I also never faulted the Bush Administration for "going it alone" when the UN Security Council refused to give a specific authorization for invasion... the French and Russians, with their vetoes (as happened all the time during the cold war--the UN being worthless is nothing new), overrode a clear majority of the security council, and I always belived that both the presence of the "coalition of the willing" and the admittedly weakly-worded resolution 1441 that promised unspecified "consequences" was cover enough.

Of course, the toppling of Saddam took about three weeks and minimal loss of blood and treasure. Bush was greeted with the infamous "mission accomplished" banner on board the aircraft carrier, and "major operations" were over. Despite the embarassment of not uncovering any huge cache of WMD's, I felt like we had done a good thing. Saddam and his murderous, torturing regime were out of power, his sadistic sons were dead, and the rape rooms and torture chambers were out of business. When the Iraqis held their elections, I felt further vindicated.

Then came the long slog to put humpty dumpty back together again. Despite my approval of the initial invasion, I am the first to admit that there was a long period during which our reconstruction strategy was quite flawed. The sectarian fighting (bordering on civil war) and the importation of foreign terrorists calling themselves AQI (Al Quaeda in Iraq) threatened to overwhelm our efforts to build a stable Iraq, and the Iraqis didn't seem to be doing enough quickly enough to warrant our loss of life. It was tempting during that time to "declare a victory" and get the heck out. Many folks who had been against the invasion from the start were ablet to say "told you so." As one who had supported the invasion, I felt then (and feel now) that I was stuck with what Colin Powell called the "Pottery Barn" theory--you break it, you buy it. We had birthed this mess, and had an obligation not to abandon those tens of millions of Iraqis to their fate. Besides that, I felt (and still feel) that the idea that we would somehow be better off had we never gone was simply not true. Had we never gone in, Saddam would still be running the same evil, totalitarian, and potentially dangerous regime. But it was a lonely place to make a stand.

Then came David Petreaus and "the surge." I was, of course, hopeful that it would work, but I was skeptical. Then, miraculously, casualties came down, and things began to get better. I have a friend who is serving in Baghdad who emails me regularly, and there is no doubt from his letters that things are much, much better. Far from perfect, of course. But I think Harry Reid's oft-repeated quote of "this war is lost" was more than a little premature. What's more, we now have this AQI group repeatedly calling Iraq the central battleground of the worldwide jihad. Even if we brought that group into the area by our own poor choice in going in, that's where they are now. And it looks to me like we're beating them.

That's why I oppose a precipitous withdrawal from the region. Some troops are already home, others are on their way, and I hope more will follow as the generals on the ground decide it is safe. But I envision an immediate pullout ending with the equivalent of helicopters lifting off the roof of the US embassy in Saigon in 1975. And let's not forget that following that evacuation, there were the boat people, the refugees, the re-education camps, the killing fields in Pol Pot's neighboring Cambodia. I feel the US was at least partially responsible for those things then, and would not want to do the same thing now. (As an aside, I don't think it would have been necessary to go 100% back into Vietnam in 1975... aid to the south and air power might could have done the trick.) I think that a withdrawal followed by chaos in Iraq would be viewed (and correctly) as a retreat, and as weakness that would embolden those who hate us.

However, I would be very, very happy to see the whole thing over as soon as possible. The sooner, the better. But the part I want to see over is 100,000+ troops on long-term deployments taking regular casualties. It wouldn't bother me at all to have 30-50,000 troops stationed there as a regular duty station, without a full war footing. After all, we've got bases in Germany, Japan, South Korea, even the infamous Guantanamo Bay (a relic of the Spanish-American War of 110 years ago). All of those are after-effects of wars we WON. And some (like Korea) are still in harm's way. Notice that we don't have a base in Vietnam... because we lost that one.

Anyway, I guess that makes me "pro-war." Or at least "anti-withdrawal." It's one more reason (along with my personal key issue of being pro-life) that I can support John McCain in spite of my numerous other issues with him. Please notice before you drop flaming vitriol in the comment section that I have tried very hard not to disparage those who feel differently, only to walk through what I personally believe out here in public.

Econ 101

It amazes me how little average (and even above-average) people understand some of the basics of economics. For example, this "recession" we're in. The standard definition of a recession is "two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth." Translation: if the economy shrinks for 6 months, we're in a recession. But it hasn't shrunk yet. Last quarter, the economy grew at 0.6%. Now, admittedly, that's crummy, especially compared to the robust growth we've gotten used to for years. Yet everywhere you turn, allegedly smart people think we're on the verge of another great depression. I even had a friend (and a guy who should know better) opine last week that the primary reason for "this recession" is the war in Iraq. Now, it's fine to be anti-war, and even to think that the cost of the war is a good reason to get out. But to think that the main reason our multi-trillion dollar economy is sputtering is the war--not the housing bubble, not the price of oil, not inflation--that's just amazing to me.

Speaking of the price of oil, that's another one that gets me. EVERYBODY thinks something oughtta be done about the price of gasoline. But nobody seems to understand the law of supply and demand. We want to wave a magic wand and just have the price go down. Yet supply is low, and demand is high. We are unwilling for a variety of reasons to do anything about supply... won't drill offshore, won't drill in ANWR, won't build new refineries, won't even use certain kinds of Candian oil. So price goes up, which is supposed to temper demand (and it does, just like it's supposed to). Then we complain. In a logical world, we should want the price to keep climbing, as that's what will make alternative fuels relatively more competitive.

Then there is ethanol policy. The government subsidizes corn used for ethanol. So farmers, who are not stupid, would rather sell corn at a high price than the lower one for feed corn. Currently about 28% of US corn production goes for ethanol (which costs roughly the same as gas or diesel). Of course, supply and demand means that there's less corn for everything from people food to cow food to chicken feed. At a time when some of the poorest people in the world are literally starving due to an insufficient fuel supply, we burn our corn up so we can feel "green." Of course, you can make ethanol out of sugar, too. And sugar is cheap. But not US sugar, because we subsidize the domestic stuff and put huge tariffs on the imported stuff.

Meanwhile, the Fed just cut rates... AGAIN. This to "stimulate" spending, because of the not-quite "recession." So we increase the money supply. And once again, the magic of supply and demand works, causing each dollar to fall in value. The US dollar is trading like a glorified peso on the world market, and our brilliant government keeps devaluing it. How a bout a rate hike? We could slow inflation, strengthen the dollar (and therefore each dollar would buy that much more oil...) No. That would make too much darned sense.

I don't have an answer to this. None of the major candidates have put forth anything like a sensible strong-dollar policy. McCain would (foolishly) give us a gas-tax holiday. Hillary would, too. Obama would raise the capital-gains tax rate (love to see what THAT does to the market). All will dance to any tune the environmentalists play regarding fuel. And nobody will touch the sugar tariff. I'm just griping. But at least I'm not griping that this is the "worst economy since 1932." Nonsense on stilts!