Sunday, April 5, 2009

I'm Back, So Let's Get Down to Business

Thanks to everyone for waiting for my return from Jamaica. It was all at once beautiful, relaxing and enlightening but more on that later.

So much has happened in the past week, I can't possibly cover it all in depth in one post, so I'll try to hit on some highlights in 5 parts below and then share some of my thoughts from the past week:

The Last Week's News in 5 Parts
(okay, not all of it, but the parts I find interesting)
(1) The Obamas in Europe
Okay, it may have been a foregone conclusion, but Europeans, both heads of state and the general population, love the Obamas. President Obama drew intense praise not only from expected allies like British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, but also from potential detractors like French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy who drew a very positive and no so subtle contrast between President Obama and former President George W. Bush. Obama held town halls in France, spoke in Prague and did a presser in London all of which he knocked out of the park, as we've come to expect.

First Lady Michelle Obama was also a star, drawing praise for her speech at a London lower-middle class public school and creating controversy about touching the Queen of England. I don't pretend to understand the rules of dealing with British royalty, so I'll just leave it as the Queen didn't seem too bothered.

Okay, so did Obama get what he needed out of the trip? We already knew the Europeans loved him, right?

He got some of the things that he wanted, including a commitment of $1.1 billion from the World Bank to aid developing nations, finance in part by gold sales. This is important because it will act as a kind of global stimulus, although it clearly falls short of what President Obama seemed to be seeking going into the summit. The G20 also agreed to essentialy create an advisory board to warn of future financial collapses versus the global financial regulatory framework that France and Germany had sought but the U.S. has opposed.

I've said it so many times that it borders on fawning at this point, but I feel compelled to say it again -- President Obama is the best that I have ever seen in my lifetime at public forums. Calling on foreign journalists. Witty banter with journalists and in town halls alike. This guy has it. It doesn't make him any more or less right on substance, but it sure is impressive.

So, let's call it an absolute victory on style and a partial victory on substance. Clearly President Obama has increased the stature of the US within the G20 and NATO nations, but that's a fairly low bar. And like I said, we already knew that the Europeans loved him.

(2) Minnesota Senate Decision
A decision came down in the Norm Coleman / Al Franken legal battle for Minnesota's second senate seat while I was away. The ruling essentially puts 400 of the ballots Coleman had sought into the count. With Franken ahead by over 220 ballots after the recount, 400 ballots is probably not enough to tip the balance, unless they break overwhelmingly for Coleman, so this ruling is probably a set back for him.

Coleman is sure to appeal the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court, so don't think for a second that this thing is over.

For an excellent write-up and history of this dispute, please read the comment posted under my March 7th post (thanks for the reader post on this topic.)

(3) Gary Locke Confirmed, Sebelius Road Bumps
Gary Locke was confirmed as Commerce Secretary last week by voice vote (without objection) in the Senate. This was no surprise as he was widely praised in his confirmation hearings.

This leaves only Kathleen Sebelius at HHS to be confirmed. Also last week, during her confirmation hearings it was revealed that a complete audit by the President's team during the vetting process revealed just shy of $8,000 in tax errors on her last 15 years of returns.

Frankly, this is no big deal on substance -- if I had a CPA audit my last 15 years of returns, I'm sure I would find some of the same problems (missing receipts for charitable deductions that I actually made but might not have the right records, deductions that I misunderstood, interest from small accounts where the earnings statements got lost, etc.) $8,000 in 15 years is scarcely $500 per year and I don't know of two CPA's who don't come up with numbers on any two tax returns.

On politics, however, this just continues to contriute to the public perception of Obama appointees who don't pay their taxes. They did it to themselves by leading with Daschle and Geithner, who both had real and substantive discrepencies. Now everyone will be scrutinized.

Sebelius will likely still be confirmed next week by a wide margin (at least 70 yea votes), but these things divert attention, energy and press from the things the President would like them to focus on.

(4) North Korea Launches It's Rocket
Despite broad warning and condemnation from the NATO community, including direct appeals from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, North Korea went ahead and launched the rocket, which it alleged contained a communications sattelite this past week. The launch itself might sound innocent enough, but the capability North Korea is building to launch long range missles is incredibly concerning in light of the nuclear capability and the fact that Kim Jong Il seems to be certifiably insane.

North Korea seems hell-bent on pushing itself to the front-burner as a concern not only in the Asia Pacific region of the world, but across the globe.

The question is -- now what? What can President Obama, the EU, NATO, Japan or South Korea do about any of this? North Korea is already isolated economically and none of us are crazy enough to suggest going to war with a nuclear power with an egomaniac at its helm. Hope our world leaders have some tricks up their sleeves.

(5) House Passes Budget Blueprint
The House of Representatives passed this past week the outline for the Fiscal 2010 budget (the budget year that begins in October.) The resolution passed by 233-196 with no Republican support and 20 Democrats voting "no". The outline is in large measure in line with the proposed plan from the White House.

This outline isn't that significant in that it doesn't appropriate any money -- that process and the real fights begin potentially later this month, when the House takes up the individual appropriation bills for each cabinet department that make up the federal budget.

Thoughts from Jamaica
A week in Jamaica is mostly about spending time at the beach, the bar and the buffet and I did plenty of that. I also re-learned some basic lessons that I wanted to share.

(1) We Have It Really Good
Jamaica is a poor, poor country. Unemployment is high and they have been decimated by the double-whammy of declining global tourism dollars (their primary industry) and the exodus of manufacturing jobs from very cheap Jamaica to even cheaper China and India. Those who are employed can expected to earn the Jamacian minimum wage of around $35 / week. In Montego Bay, the average apartment rent (and not a great apartment either) is about $360/month, so you do to the math on what that means for standard of living. And that's for those who are fortunante enough to find work.

Incidentally, the U.S. Minimum Wage is set to rise again in July to $7.25/hour, fully implementing the three year increase of $2.10/hour that was passed three years ago. Is it too high or too low? Depends who you ask, but I plan to do a future blog about how both the real dollar value and the percentage of per capita GDP of our minimum wage has changed over time and how we stack up against the rest of the world. But first, I owe you a complete update on 2010 and 2012 races and a full rundown on President Obama's approval numbers.

(2) America is Still Full of Heroes
Sad to say that during my vacation I witnessed the death of a staff member on the resort at which I was staying, but I got to see full-blown American heroism in the process.

The resort at which I was staying offered glass-bottom boat rides, during which people could ride out on boats and look down towards the bottom of the ocean. The boats would ride out, stop and drop anchor, then pick-up anchor and return to shore. During one of the trips out, a young Jamaican man who worked on the boat pulling up the anchors somehow got stuck under water and was unable to resurface. When a rescue boat finally pulled him to shore (I won't Monday morning quarterback and talk about all the poor judgements that were made in the heat of the moment in bringing him to shore), it was clear the staff at the resort were ill-equipped to deal with the situation.

In steps a true American hero, a young EMT from Boston who was on th beach that day, who takes command of both the staff and the crowd, coordinates resources, administers CPR and gives this young man his best chance at survival.

Regrettably, the Jamaican man did not survive and our hero then goes a step further and organizations donations to the man's wife and young son.

Did I mention that the EMT was on his honeymoon?

A true American hero, if I ever met one. And such an unassuming guy. I had lunch with him the next day after everything calmed down and it was evident that he didn't want any recognition or praise and that he simply felt he did what he needed to do. The best heroes are usually that modest.

Site Update
I frankly expected site traffic to completely die while I was gone, and while it was down modestly on some days, it stayed strong on others. By month, site traffic is as follows:

Last Week in January (from the 24th-31st) -- 179 visits (22.4/day)
February -- 235 visits (8.4/day)
March -- 257 visits (8.3/day)
April-to-date (through the afternoon of the 5th) -- 21 visits (4.2/day)

Note as I've stated before that the January numbers are abnormally high due to the very high level of hits that the site got immediately following the inauguration.

Next up: I still owe you that numbers rundown on President Obama's approval, 2010 house and senate races and a 2012 Presidential map

After that (sometime in the next few weeks): My minimum wage rundown

And, of course, commentary on all the news I can get to.

Thanks for continuing to read, comment and recommend this site. I hated to leave Jamaica, but it sure is good to be back.

1 comment:

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