Point of View Columns

A billion here, a billion there….

In a story that may or may not be apocryphal, the legendary Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen was once quoted during budget discussion as saying, “…..a billion here, a billion there, soon we will be talking about real money.” Keep in mind that at the time of that possible quote (the early 1960’s) the New York City subway was 15 cents, a Cadillac could be purchased for less than $5000 and an Ivy League education cost less than $20,000. Certainly a billion dollars was a lot of money.
I was reminded of this quote when reading an article in the Wall Street Journal to the effect that more than $3 billion has been openly flown out of Kabul International Airport during the past three years- http://www.wsj.com . It appears that cash “……packed into suitcases, piled onto pallets and loaded into airplanes…..” There is a very definite suspicion that this cash comes from money provided by the United States, the European Union and NATO for security, supplies and reconstruction. While $3 billion is the quoted estimate, in my own work of searching for absconded sovereign funds, the rule of thumb is that any public estimate should be doubled if even minimal accuracy is a goal – “a billion here, a billion there…..”
The missing billions in Afghanistan is an item of more than idle inquiry of course. Dozens of American soldiers are dying there every month. At least a trillion dollars has already been spent in what has been called “the graveyard of empires (ask the leaders of the British Empire and the former Soviet Union). Yet if you asked ten members of Congress or ten members of the Obama Administration or ten people on the streets of New York
City what would define success in terms of the American military action in Afghanistan you would get a reprise of the seven blind men describing an elephant. Depending on where you stand or what you hold in your hand you might think a snake (the trunk), a rope (the tail) a wall (the side), a leaf (the ear) or a tree (a leg).
Interesting proverbs notwithstanding, the reality is that too much blood and treasure is being squandered on a war that can never be “won” because no one knows what winning looks like. In the meantime we are treated to the tragicomic demolition of the career of General Stanley McChrystal for demeaning the ability and capability of the civilian component of the war effort, right up to President Obama. Of course he had to be fired. Deference of the military to the civilian branch of government is what has prevented coups and civil wars in times of trial and tribulation. Insofar as the general’s motivation for giving an on-the-record stream of consciousness interview for a period of more than two weeks is concerned, the word hubris comes to mind. Pride certainly does come before the fall.
The McChrystal firing and the elevation of General Petraeus to be the commander of U.S. forces in the Afghanistan Theater was not the big story. The big story was that President Obama stated that what transpired was “a change of personnel, not a change in policy”. And within that the statement the blossoming tragedy that is America in Afghanistan begins to spread its blood-soaked petals, continually fertilized by stolen treasure and the lives of lost warriors and the innocents. And one wonders what further cataclysm will initiate a change of policy.
In the months leading up to the announcement of his Afghanistan policy, President Obama pondered and studied and every available policy option. His deliberative abilities are without question. Therefore one can only wonder how that deliberation missed a reflective moment or two considering the history of Afghanistan. It is not credible that the President was unaware of the military disasters sustained by invaders of that country from Alexander the Great to the former Soviet Union with the British Empire tossed in as well.
Yet the policy that was enunciated by President Obama reflected orthodox military strategy – with enough soldiers anything can be conquered. But how many soldiers is enough? How many deaths of soldiers and innocents can be justified by the amorphous mission that can barely be articulated? And how long will the killing and the dying continue to be sustained by the American public?
It would seem that the answers to these questions are wrapped in the fog of the moment. Our vision is obscured by the BP oil spill and the gross corporate incompetence and the lax governmental oversight, which seems to continue to this day. We are distracted by the drama of L’Affaire McChrystal with Lincoln-McClellan and Truman-MacArthur analogues flying through the air with the greatest of ease. The World Cup and the South Carolina political follies are like streamers and confetti strewn through our consciousness. And a woman in Nevada runs for the United States Senate and proposes that Americans pay for health care using the barter system – chickens being a suggested currency.
And all the while American soldiers and Afghan men, women and children are dying. And all the while there is yet another monthly domestic plot against the American homeland revealed, thereby revealing the bankruptcy of a policy that presumes to fight terror against America by killing some undefined number of Taliban and/or al Qaeda operatives.
The irony is that the Barack Obama was elected President of the United States on a platform of change. Change in attitude, change in spirit and change in the manner in which American policy, and foreign, is calculated and articulated. Right now, the American war in Afghanistan is, in the final analysis, more of the same. We await change and pray that it arrives soon.

Point of View Columns

Mirthless Clowns

Having been a history major at Dartmouth College and having been a devoted student of history for my entire adult life, I am already looking forward to reading the historical accounts of the Obama Administration a decade or two after President Obama has completed his second term in office. We are all too close to the forest of discourse and current events and debate and vitriol to see the factual trees. But I wonder what some historian or biographer will make of the facts as they will be known in the cool dawn of reflection after the heated night of unlimited contact partisanship.

          I wonder, for example, what will be made of the institutional and political response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Will historians think that as a nation we were simply mad to let oil companies with documented irresponsible histories drill for oil in such hazardous conditions that literally no one knew of an emergency plan that would work in the event of a disaster? Will anyone actually believe that an entire cadre of oil companies would have virtually identical disaster plans for the Gulf of Mexico that called for the protection of walruses – animals not seen in that region for millions of years? Is it possible that this same cadre filed disaster plans with the same deceased expert? And is it believable that without the Deepwater Horizon debacle we still wouldn’t know about this documentary shell game. And, by the way, has anybody asked where else are there sham plans with shadow disaster plans vouchsafed by long dead petroleum wizards?

          There is Pulitzer Prize in history waiting in the year 2026 for the historian who can accurately and usefully explain how the Republican Party was able to maintain any credibility in the United States after the BP disaster. After all, it was the Republican Party that championed the “drill baby drill” mantra and, after all, the millions of gallons of crude oil that have befouled the Southeastern quadrant of the United States, killing wildlife and eviscerating the economy of the region, are a direct result of “drill baby drill” petroleum collection strategies.

          I also imagine that this 2026 Pulitzer honoree (he/she is probably in graduate school right now) will, as an extra added attraction, explain the continued and presumed legitimacy of the Republican Party, the party of “drill baby drill”, which has also managed to harbor Congressman Barton from Texas who actually apologized to the CEO of BP because President Obama pressured BP into funding an account that will only address a portion of the damage and destruction caused by this rogue company.

          For accuracy’s sake it should be noted that Congressman Barton did apologize for his apology. For accuracy’s sake it should be noted that the Republican Study Group of the House of Representatives referred to President Obama holding BP accountable as a “shakedown “ and no apology has been issued by this august body. And, as an historical footnote, it should be noted that the leadership of the Republican Party did not believe that their distinguished colleague from the Lone Star State needed to apologize to the President of the United States for in essence calling him an extortionist. But, of course, there was never even an apology, contrived or otherwise, when another Republican, Congressman Joe Wilson, the distinguished gentleman from South Carolina, called the President of the United States a liar during his address to a joint session of Congress.

          This future historian will also have to dedicate a special chapter to Michael Steele. The putative author of the “drill baby drill” mantra has made so many errors and misstatements that there may be no actual starting point in attempting to describe his minimal importance in the arena of political discourse. Nevertheless, a retrospective might find it interesting that the Chairman of the Republican National Committee criticized the CEO of BP for going to an English yacht race during the petroleum cataclysm occasioned by his imputed mismanagement.

          Given the long-running Harlequin romance between the RNC and the oil industry over the years, Mr. Steele’s criticism of BP seems hollow and contrived. But not content with simply turning irony into an art form, Michael Steele called upon President Obama to stop playing golf, or going to baseball games or hosting artists in the White House until the BP oil gusher is stopped. I can only imagine that in earlier Steele drafts Mr. Obama was called upon to fast, take a vow of abstinence from alcohol and sex and to wear sackcloth under his presidential suits.

          These historical reports will be hard to believe in the second quarter of the twenty-first century. They will hardly be credible as even casual students of history would know that in 2010 the economy of the United States was barely stable, two wars were being fought with inconclusive results at best and certainly with not certitude of success, however that might be defined. In 2010 the divisions between Americans seemed to be deeper and more profound than ever before and the BP disaster was simply illustrative of the environmental tightrope that this country is walking at this very moment as its addiction to fossil fuels continues unabated and efforts to address this very real challenge are derided as part of a “political agenda”.

          Perhaps it is possible to go on Amazon or to go to Barnes & Noble to reserve a copy of this historical account. It is sure to be a best seller.       

Wallace Ford is the Principal of Fordworks Associates, a New York-based management consulting firm and is the author of two novels, The Pride and What You Sow.

Point of View Columns

The Midas Touch?

          Life has taught us to expect the unexpected. The nightly news teaches us to expect the unexpected. Waking up in the morning teaches us to expect the unexpected. And then there is the planet Earth.

          Life on this planet has not only taught us to expect the unexpected. We have also been taught the corollary, the Law of Unexpected Consequences. This Law, which is quite immutable, sometimes is expressed through cynicism, sometimes skepticism and sometimes just through pure and unadulterated doubt. Whatever the configuration of thought – by expecting the unexpected and knowing that this thought process is controlled by the Law of Unintended Consequences we can be assured that daily news briefing will provide absolute validation of the entire philosophical construct.

          Recently the Obama Administration pressed the government of Jamaica to comply with an extradition request involving an alleged drug lord who had been living openly in the Jamaican capital of Kingston. The dispute with the Jamaican government seemed to have the basic components of sovereignty issues being articulated by Jamaica in the face of a regional policy regarding criminal conduct being articulated by the United States. The unexpected result of the Jamaican government finally complying with the aforementioned extradition request is that all hell broke loose in Jamaica as the supporters of the erstwhile alleged drug lord did battle with the Jamaican security forces, virtually shutting down Kingston.

          The unexpected consequence of the pitched battles in the streets of a Caribbean capital has been the perceived destabilization of the government of Jamaica. The further unintended consequence is that the alleged drug lord has still not been extradited to the United States thereby burnishing and enhancing his reputation and legend among his many supporters. And once again, the consequences of not expecting the unexpected are seen. And once again, the Law of Unintended Consequences is demonstrated.

          Consider that the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the result of an orphaned concept as there are now no acknowledged parents of the thoughts that gave rise to an oil drilling platform 50 miles from the coast of Louisiana, drilling well over a mile beneath the ocean. But there is intellectual parentage for this culmination of bright ideas beginning with the thought that drilling further and deeper offshore would place BP beyond the closer scrutiny of the pesky government regulators. The unexpected result of this evasion is now plain to see as it washes onto the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama and perhaps soon to a beach near you.

          The unintended consequences of this oil spill may be that the citizens of this country finally understand that our uncontrolled addiction to oil and coal will result in many more catastrophes involving the harvesting of oil and coal. Oil wells will burst, coal mines will collapse and the cost accounting will be in human lives and the despoiling of the environment.

          So there is a hope that, with this reinforced understanding of the price that we all pay for oil and coal fueling our way of life, there may be a response after the reaction of revulsion. We can be hopeful that there will be a concerted effort to take energy alternatives and energy conservation seriously, as if our lives depended on it. Certainly the lives of our children certainly depend upon it.

          And now we learn that studies commissioned by the United States military with the cooperation of the Karzai regime in Afghanistan claim that there are mineral reserves in that country worth over one trillion dollars? Where does one begin with such unexpected news? Skepticism? Cynicism? Plain unadulterated doubt? Could it be that after thousands and thousands of years of conquest and settlement that gold (and lithium) have been found in them there hills? Is it possible that anything emanating with the collaboration of the Karzai regime, so redolent of corruption and fraud, could be true?

          And then there is the immutable and invincible Law of Unintended Consequences. If indeed there is something more than opium and IED’s in Afghanistan, what would be the consequences of a 21st century gold (and lithium and who knows???) rush to this godforsaken land that has seen the bleached bones of would be conquerors over the eons? One could imagine that the global mining interests of this planet would suddenly start paying attention to Afghanistan in a new and different way. Perhaps Vladimir Putin might regret the Russian exit from that country.

          We recall that when gold was discovered near Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848 not only was California changed, the entire United States was transformed and the impetus that gave rise to the Panama Canal was born. As gold diggers came from England and France and New Hampshire to find their fortune in California, it did not require much for future soldiers of fortune to go to Australia and South Africa before the century ended – and so it can be said that the California gold rush changed the world in a very real sense.

          But there was no Taliban in California. And the Zulus in South Africa did not have IED’s. And the aboriginal peoples of Australia did not have 9/11 on their collective resume. And so, we are left to wonder…….if the Karzai studies can be believed, what would be the unintended consequences in Afghanistan? It is a question worth asking today, prior to the unexpected and unintended regrets of tomorrow.

Point of View Columns


The Japanese ideogram for “disaster” also can be translated to mean “opportunity”. Indeed, within every disaster there is indeed an opportunity and at some point sooner than later we will have to learn that the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to change some fundamental aspects about the way that life is lived in these United States.
We can begin with how the interests of the American people are articulated and protected. During the nascent days of what will clearly be a disaster of epic proportions, it seemed as if the federal government had entered into some bizarre partnership with British Petroleum – working together to “fix this thing”. At one point press conferences and professionally congenial and collegial exchanges seemed to be the order of the day.
In a frightening and unfortunate way this kind of perceived relationship made sense in light of the fact that when it comes to the oil industry and off-shore drilling the regulatory processes of the federal government range from inept to criminally incompetent. According to the New York Times the cursory 4-8 hour inspection of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig by the United States Coast Guard (an inspection that is supposed to take 2-3 weeks) was followed by the misguided approval by the Minerals and Management Service (of the United States Department of the Interior) of the blowout preventer without specific information regarding the strength of this critical piece of machinery.
This laissez faire approach is emblematic of the Bush-Cheney days of darkness in this country. But the chummy relationship between government and the oil industry transcends elections and the soaring rhetoric of change – the permanent government is indeed that permanent. Consider that, when the Obama Administration determined to allow for a limited expansion of off-shore drilling, ironically just days before the Deepwater Horizon calamity, the reform and transformation of the historically inept Minerals and Management Service was not even an agenda item.
Of course, now that the Gulf of Mexico is going to hell in a hand basket, there is an opportunity to place the reform and transformation of the MMS on the federal agenda. But hopefully, there will be an embracing of a broader opportunity to examine the relationship between the regulatory agencies and the regulated industries and whether those relationships as they currently exist are in the best interests of the American people.
We have known for years that the MMS has been little more than a toothless and pampered tiger in the eyes of the energy industry. The scandals of a few years ago involving energy industry executives and MMS employees being in bed (literally) and generally carousing and partying as colleagues often do, do not appear to be isolated instances. The refinery explosion in Houston in 2005 and the deaths of miners and oil rig workers this year are sad reminders of the consequences of these cozy relationships.
But there is also an opportunity to look at the regulation of all of the other industries that are important to the daily well-being of the American population. The financial services fiasco of recent vintage can be traced to the shocking lack of oversight of the financial industry. The pandemic of faulty Chinese drywall in American homes, the all too frequent E-coli outbreaks in the national food supply and recently revealed transgressions involving Toyota are clearly signs that a system for protecting the American people is clearly in need of redesign.
The philosophical source for much of the reformation and regulation of the American marketplace began with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. And it might be useful at this critical point in time to ask what would President Theodore Roosevelt do if presented with today’s BP crisis? WWTRD? As a lifelong student of history I think that a fair answer to that question would entail the following scenario – first and foremost a federal receiver would be appointed to monitor all of the actions of BP America so that the federal government would have clear and unfettered access to all aspects of the response of BP to this disaster. Second, he would demand that the United Kingdom appoint a similar receiver to monitor all aspects of the activities of the parent company, particularly such questionable acts as paying $10 billion in dividends to BP shareholders last week as a multi-billion dollar liability clearly looms in the future. The U.S. receiver could certainly have questioned and quite likely blocked BP’s expenditure of $50 million on its current public relations campaign when those funds could be used for relief and cleanup efforts.
Roosevelt would certainly freeze all assets of BP in the United States pending the resolution of litigation that has barely begun but that will clearly involve billions of dollars of damages. Roosevelt would note that the United States has recently frozen the assets of Saddam Hussein and the government of Iran. Saddam and Iran, after all the rhetorical flourishes, have never visited a scintilla of the destruction and damage on this country that has already been recorded by BP.
Roosevelt would have immediately commenced criminal investigations of all aspects of the BP enterprise using the RICCO statutes so as to classify BP as an ongoing criminal enterprise given its steadfast adherence to a policy of avoiding and deferring safety regulations and procedures that have now endangered the economy of the entire Southeastern quadrant of the United States. And Roosevelt would have blocked the borders of the United States to prevent all key BP executives from leaving this country until their criminal liability could be ascertained.
Perhaps it’s time for President Obama to channel the historical personal of Theodore Roosevelt and craft an answer in his own inimitable fashion to the question of the moment – WWTRD?

Point of View Columns

Blindness of the Mind


          We learn so much about ourselves during times of adversity. We learn about our sense of self and purpose. We plumb the depths of our determination and perseverance. We learn the truth of the friendship and the love and support of our collective acquaintances, friends, family and loved ones. The same can also be said of a nation.

          During times of stress and trial and tribulation the character of a country makes itself known. The resiliency and resolve demonstrated by the United States during and after the Great Depression and World War II are hallmarks within the entire span of global history. The national capacity for reform and intransigence as demonstrated during the height of the modern civil rights movement also revealed certain American character traits – and the impermanence of imperfection. And as we view the excruciating unfolding of the greatest single environmental disaster in American history there is an opportunity to learn more about this country and about its president and its citizenry and those who would presume to comment on the meaning of it all.

          President Obama has moved with characteristic competence drama-free excellence. As always, his belief in, and commitment to, institutional process and transformation can be seen in the various steps that have been taken by the myriad of governmental agencies and military forces that have been mobilized since the very beginning of this latest crisis in his presidency. Of course commitments to institutional process are rarely the source of inspiration or comfort even though it is institutional transformation that will ultimately mitigate the BP Gulf disaster and it is institutional transformation that will lessen the opportunity for the next disaster.

          Unfortunately, commitment to institutional process and transformation does not serve as a useful platform for the soaring oratory that propelled the President Obama into the political stratosphere. Describing the steps that need to be taken for institutional transformation must seem like the reading of the phone book to the people of the Gulf region who are experiencing immediate and profound suffering.

          If President Obama were more tactile it might make a difference for the moment. If he could more clearly articulate that he “feels the pain” of the fisherman who has lost his livelihood or of the hotel owner who has lost her way of life, it might make a difference. But that difference would be transitory. The institutional transformation needed to manage the energy industries so that coal miners don’t have to die and the wildlife of an entire national quadrant doesn’t have to be destroyed will mean so much more for generations to come.

But that is difficult to explain in a country that has been seduced by sound bites. Transformational process doesn’t translate well in a country that thinks “Where’s the beef?” and “Drill baby drill” are articulate presentations of useful political discourse.

And in the midst of this adversity the critics of the Obama Administration make themselves known to us in a unique and different manner. It was to be expected that the BP Gulf disaster would be billed as “Obama’s Katrina” almost as soon as the first thousand gallons of oil bubbled to the surface. The facts are that the governmental response of the Obama Administration to the oil spill is far superior to anything that occurred after Hurricane Katrina. But facts have never gotten in the way of the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh.

But during the last week of national pain and suffering there have been other revelations. During the past few days Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal and David Brooks of The New York Times have engaged in philosophical extrapolations in order to advance their political ideology. That would be remarkable if it were not also so transparently self-serving. Somehow they have come to the conclusion that the fact that the Obama Administration has not been able to part the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and march on the ocean floor to stem the oil flow proves the inherent limitations of government in addressing the needs of Americans. Incredibly, we are supposed to believe that all of the right wing of the right wing arguments regarding the need to limit the growth of “big government” are ratified by the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.

I have written in the past about this argument against “big government” and it may be that repetition is akin to whistling into the wind. Nevertheless it should be clear to even the casual observer that the genesis of the BP disaster is related to the lack of sufficient government oversight of the energy industry. It should also be clear to such renowned writers like Ms. Noonan and Mr. Brooks that the root cause of the disaster can be found in the need for a comprehensive and transformative (there goes that word again) change in this country’s energy policies. This is change that can only be effected by the government.

Moreover, only “big government” has the resources and institutional capacity to address huge crises and disasters whether they are in Nashville or the Gulf of Mexico or at the World Trade Center in New York City. Only “big government” can manage the social security system, student loan programs, Medicare in all of its palliative manifestations and, of course, there is national defense.

But I have to wonder at the timing of these commentators who want to take advantage of the suffering of the people of the Gulf to advance their political philosophy. That rhetorical exercise that might be appropriate at an exclusive cocktail reception in Georgetown. But in the real world now is simply not the time to score cheap points when the crisis and the people of this country need real solutions.

Wallace Ford is the Principal of Fordworks Associates, a New York-based management consulting firm and is the author of two novels, The Pride and What You Sow.