A Forward Thinking Government

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In the U.S.? You have got to be kidding. Possibly with a new president but I will not be holding my breath. Wealthy, established interest groups trump long-term change every time. Even when the writing is on the wall our leaders have found a way to deny, deny, deny.

Not so in Holland. The impact of climate change matters when it causes water levels to rise and much of your country is below sea level. As recently reported on NPR, Holland is trying a couple of innovations to help cope with the coming reality.

In his report as part of an ongoing series on climate change titled “In a Strategic Reversal, Dutch Embrace Floods” reporter Joe Palca raises a question we should be asking of our leaders.  ” How do you get people to focus on an enormous but slow-moving threat?”  (He was referring to the very gradual phenomena of the rise in sea level.) First, Holland is evolving from its decades old strategy of  building strong barriers to keep the water out. The Dutch government “has decided to lower the dikes in about 40 parcels of land, allowing them to flood when the rivers rise. This will take the pressure off existing dikes farther down river.”

Palca found it interesting to have a government more interested in the effects of climate change than the general public.  How different than a government that toadies to big business and changes policy with every poll.

The second thing happening in Holland is that “architects are designing a new Holland that will float on water, and the Dutch government seems willing to try out the scheme. Innovation being supported by the government? What a concept.

Who knows if any of this will keep Holland from becoming Atlantis in 100 years. I just like the fact that they have recognized a future problem and are investing today in the solutions. As a country we have so much to learn.

Despots 2, People 1

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This was intended to be topical but I am weeks behind. Let me take you to the not too distant past in my Way Back Machine.

Putin, Musharraf, Chavez. Three despots , two of whom were democratically elected, all manuvering to become Ruler for Life. Two are well on their way. One hit a wall.

Let’s start with Putin. He is in the last months of being the Russian President. Russia’s constitution limits the number of consecutive terms. What are the choices. Retire or change the constitution are the two that most quickly come to my mind. But that is the reason, or at least one reason, why I am not ruler of a major country.

Instead, why not take plan to the prime minister job, one not as powerful in Russia as President but that can be manipulated. Then throw your considerable political muscle behind someone you have mentored his entire governmental career for the president role. Not that you suspect that you can control him. Of course not. Then after one four year term by his hand picked lackey Putin is eligible to run for president again. Brilliant.

What does all this political maneuvering get you? First,  an article in the December 13 issue of The Economist subtitled:

“Vladimir Putin’s bid to remain in power is bad for Russia, for democracy and for the world”

(Yes that is the entire world being referred to. A really big place.)

Oh, btw it also gets you Time magazine’s Person of the Year award. At least they had the sense to subtitle the article “A Tsar is Born”.

Or you can take Musharraf’s approach. Take control in a military coup. Get on the good side, and substantial funding side, of the world’s most powerful country by becoming an indispensable piece of the War on Terror, from time to time use a little military force and police action to put down opponents, practice (and fail once) at removing the head of the supreme court who is one of the few people willing to stand in the way of absolute power, rig an election to make sure you win and then just before you might be booted out by the courts you declare martial law in order to save democracy. I believe that he found this recipe in the Rachel Ray’s new cookbook 30 Minute Democracies under the dictator for life section between lite appetizers and desserts.

I take very little comfort in how he has given up leadership of the military or supposedly restored the constitution. He has already stacked the Supreme Court with people who have sworn loyalty and made changes to the constitution which among other things hold that nothing that happened during martial law can be declared illegal. Key members of the opposition are still under house arrest and I do not have great faith that the upcoming elections will be truly free and without manipulation.

Then there is poor Hugo Chavez, the democratically elected, socialist president of Venezuela. he has been riding high. Locally popular, his country’s economy and status raising with oil prices. He seems invincible. But no. First, the King of Spain tells him to “shut up” and the bit of video on this becomes a YouTube hit. Then he tries to take the more conventional route to ruler for life by holding an election to change the constitution in ways that would give him more power and no term limits. Amazingly he loses. How did that happen? Simple. He was so confident in victory that he forgot to rig the elections.

Here is what amazes my very jaded view of much of the world. It seems that in many countries there either exists an absolute ruler or the ones that come to power find ways to stick around for as long as they like. Therefore Chavez’s loss provides incredible hope.

Now look at the U.S. for the last eight years. Perhaps some rights have been stepped on. The Bush administration has certainly pushed the limits of executive power and privilege to move the President’s agenda ahead.  And yet, even with 2 Supreme court appointments no one is going for the Ruler for Life title. I admit I had expected another Bush would have made it to the presidential campaigns but I was wrong.

It is hard to tell whether or not the mere fact that our term limits work are a large or small victory. I would still rather be here than Russia.

Big Brother

This opening line gave me chills.

“It used to be easy to tell whether you were in a free country or a dictatorship.”

It is well past 1984 and yet the government can check up on us in ways Orwell never imagined. And you and I make it easy for them.

The line above is from the article titled “Learning to live with Big Brother“. This was the second in a series published in The Economist. It does not focus on the illegal or border-line illegal methods practiced by the current administration. Instead it describes the myriad of information available that we put out there. Everything we do electronically, every payment with a credit or debit card, every website we visit leaves a data trail.

Data mining is being conducted with increasingly sophisticated mathematical formulae that can sift through large data sets to uncover patterns and even predict certain behaviors. This may be helpful for uncovering terrorists but the information can also be used to keep tabs on us non-terrorists.

Even those of us with nothing to hide can be cursed with incorrectly entered data or be mistaken for someone with the same name. Senator Ted Kennedy was denied boarding a plane because his name came up on some list. I get asked if I am “the actor” all the time when I meet new people. (It never ceases to be “funny” no matter how many times I hear it. He is dead btw.)

I am not sure what to do. All we can really do is hope that each future administration uses the data for our good and not for their own evil ways. Or, we can become cave dwellers.

Passport Thoughts: I and II

 Part I: The Quest

passport.jpgMy passport expired and I needed to go to Canada. I knew about the trip 4 weeks in advance but in case you are unaware, the passport office is backed up. You used to be able to expedite the process through the mail in a week but now even expedited service is taking 4-6 weeks. Mail was no longer an option.

Fortunately, I live in one of the cities with a regional office.  Once I was within 2 weeks of my international departure I could schedule a date to go to the office and, I thought, get a passport in one day. The appointment is for a specific date and time. For some reason, I went temporarily insane and I forgot that I was dealing with a government agency. I had this idea that I would show up, be taken to a private office, give them my forms and money and soon be on my way. Instead I show up to a large room with about 60 people and am given a number. Most of the people ahead of me come in various stages of unpreparedness. The time drags on. 90 minutes later I get my turn in line and, since I am prepared,  the process then takes less than five minutes. One problem, I do not get my passport until the next day. Minor inconvenience since I no longer work downtown but not a bad process overall.

Part II : The Revelation

The passport leads to a revelation. In the 10 years I had this passport, I did not use it up. I left blank space where the stamps of the countries I should have visited should have been. A work associate mentioned that he has twice needed to get extra pages.

I resolve to travel outside the U.S. frequently enough to need extra pages before my next ten years are up. There are a lot of places I still have yet to see and a few I would like to see again. Rest of the world, here I come.