By John F. Di Leo -
Trying to make sense of a senseless administration
Perhaps there are two kinds of people: gullible ones who listen to Barack H. Obama (D, Tupi, Brazil) and think his proposals make sense, and realistic ones who go into shock and outrage watching him misstate statistics on the television.
Back in my days in international freight forwarding, I worked for a company that had cooperative agreements with other freight forwarders all over the world. If we needed to arrange an inbound shipment from Europe or Asia, we would tell our partner the details and they’d start it on its way. If they needed to arrange an inbound from our region to theirs, they’d tell us, and we’d set it up. Obviously, enough details and time were always provided to ensure success.
Or maybe not quite always. As we were located in Chicago, with a national network of our own offices, we could handle any shipment in the United States. But we had one agent in our small island ally, Taiwan, R.O.C., who frequently failed to give us enough time.
And yet, this agent in little Taiwan would often send us a telex (yes, this was a while ago!) to happily announce on a Tuesday morning “New customer in Cleveland! Two containers. Pickup Wednesday and deliver to Los Angeles for Thursday loading. Ship sails Saturday.”
The agent wasn’t smoking any funny stuff in his office; this lifelong islander simply couldn’t grasp the size of the United States. He genuinely thought we could travel by land from Cleveland to California overnight! We sent him explanations, maps, transit time charts with averages to refer to when planning… nothing helped. I think we even sent him a globe once. It was just a lack of comprehension about size in general. He could go from coast to coast in his own country in a few hours; while he “knew” in his head that the USA is much bigger, he just couldn’t fathom how MUCH bigger it is. He couldn’t see the proportion.
A president with a blind spot
Barack Obama has a similar failing. Again and again throughout his administration, he has favored policies and made comments that make a rational person’s jaw drop. He compares the big to the small with no recognition of the difference; he cites a drop in the bucket as a legitimate solution to huge problems. And he doesn’t seem to realize it at all.
Look at his recommendations on automobile maintenance, for example. Somewhere along the way, he heard that overinflating your tires improves your gas mileage by a few mpg. And that’s usually true, of course; it certainly can. If you go from 20 mpg to 23 mpg, that’s nice; a 15% increase in gas mileage. But gasoline prices have more than doubled on his watch; in some regions, they seem possibly on their way to tripling! Fifteen percent improvement is a drop in the bucket; the only solution for us is to take the necessary measures to make gasoline prices drop.
Or consider his love of solar energy: Once upon a time, he noticed that if you open a solar calculator, it can power itself without a battery, simply from the light in the room, whether natural or artificial. So he assumes that solar power could power the nation; all we have to do is switch over.
How can he not see that there’s a difference in energy use, between a tiny pocket calculator and a car, a furnace, an air conditioner, or a lawnmower? Solar power is indeed fine for some small things, and as science progresses, perhaps that list will expand. But at the current level of the technology, it simply cannot be a replacement for traditional power sources. That’s not to insult solar power; it’s just a statement of fact, one that the president appears not to grasp, though the rest of the world does, as we watch him with bafflement.
Shall we talk about algae? There have been countless jokes during the weeks since the president’s proposal that the cure for our nation’s ills lies in pond scum (though one must admit, if it did, his would be the right political party to manage it), but we should also view it seriously. Yes, there is power potential in algae. There is in fact power potential in all carbon-based life forms; that’s what wood and coal are, after all (though he hates the though of burning wood and coal; perhaps we need to paint the briquettes green first?). Every rational American watching him speak performs a quick rough calculation in his head, and says to himself A) there isn’t enough algae to make a blip in our nation’s energy usage, and B) even if there were, it’s plain as day that the processing cost would be far greater than the power potential for recovery.
Maybe the technology will get there someday. But until then, that research costs money, and uses power. And we can’t power the lights and the computers in the algae research labs without oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear power. Those are the sources that power the American economic engine, and that fact is not changing anytime soon.
Dollars and paychecks
The president has made a very big deal over one particularly pernicious tax cut; the practice of cutting the Social Security tax by a little less than a sixth, resulting in a paycheck 2% fatter than before. He likes this tax because it applies to almost all workers – practically everyone in the country who has a job can benefit from this 2% improvement in his paycheck, rich and poor, blue collar and white, self-employed and corporate alike.
But it’s a small amount of money, at a huge cost. The stimulative contribution of a 2% tax cut is tepid – better something than nothing, certainly, but still tepid. And the cost of this reduction is enormous, theoretically at least. Social Security funds most of America’s retirees, plus lots of our disabled and otherwise down-on-their-luck segments. Aid to young families, non-workers with disability, etc. – all these programs eat into the larger pie, so that retirement benefits are no longer entirely for senior citizens. As we have grown the beneficiary list, we are cutting its funding. Does this seem wise? Especially since Social Security has been enjoying the bubble of the Baby Boomer generation for decades, a bubble that is fast correcting itself as Baby Boomers retire, leaving the ranks of the funders to join the ranks of the beneficiaries.
The president counts on people being grateful for this tiny tax cut, even as its temporary savings are dwarfed by the permanent price increases in fuel, tuition costs, food, and other goods and services. Does he believe that this $40 average monthly benefit for one class of workers, for example, will outweigh the hundreds of dollars per month his policies have cost them in raises, prices, and economic opportunity? He’s counting on it!
We in the public watch this, and understand. Why does our president fail to?
The Chevy Volt
Like most car companies, Chevrolet was working on a concept car – electrically powered, with a regular gas engine for when the battery ran out. It was something to display at car shows, but it wasn’t yet ready for prime time. It needed more study; it needed a better battery.
Among the first priorities of the Obama presidency was to get America making “green” cars, so they took over GM so they could give the orders – destroying old low-mpg product lines that sell well, replacing them with new high-mpg product lines that won’t sell at all. No problem if people don’t like them, the government can just write tax rebate checks to make up the difference. The rebates won’t be enough (by some counts, the Chevy Volt’s federal tax rebates really total over $100,000 per vehicle, when you count not only what the government pays the buyer, but also what the government has paid Chevrolet and the battery manufacturers to produce it); even after all these rebates, the car is horrendously overpriced.
The car would allegedly go forty miles on a battery charge. In practice, real users report eighteen to twenty-five. The car would allegedly be good for people’s average commuting needs, but would be admittedly insufficient for vacation travel. And on top of it all, the car is small and uncomfortable, and must be plugged in overnight to power up from the nation’s coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear grid. Not for nothing is it nicknamed “the coal-powered car.”
But it doesn’t even meet the few needs that it promises to meet, perhaps partially because the president doesn’t understand how America works. Yes, some people have a two mile commute. But a huge percentage of Americans live in rural areas with a ten or twenty mile commute, or are suburbanites with even more (I live and work in the Chicago suburbs, seventeen miles each way; one night’s charge would get me to the office, and I’d be on gasoline the whole way back). We do errands on our lunch hour, or after work on the way home, adding a few miles. These details are none of the government’s business, but these general issues need to be considered by a manufacturer seeking to meet the needs of its consumers.
For all these reasons, Chevrolet knew that the car wasn’t ready for prime time, but the administration forced their hand, made them go into production on a car suitable only for further research. Why? Because the administration didn’t know what the automobile industry executives did: that all production vehicles have to fit some balance of pricing and practicality that will draw enough buyers to be worth producing. The huge Tahoe, midsized Taurus, and tiny Focus are very different vehicles, but each one produces a balance that works for some group of buyers. The Volt works for none, but the president ordered it into production anyway.
Four years of anguish
The punditry has been given a plethora of statistics to use against this president. We hear that in three years, he built up more national debt than the preceding 43 presidents put together. We learn that unemployment is worse than ever, because of the way the administration plays with the counts; the publicly declared eight to nine percent unemployment level is really sixteen to eighteen, if we calculated it honestly, the way we used to. We know that we have some twenty percent of the world’s known oil available for recovery, more than the entire middle east, but the president botches even that simple statistic and lops off the zero, claiming repeatedly and ridiculously that we have only two percent of the world’s oil, so there’s no point in drilling for more of it. We all know better.
These four years have been an endless parade of misunderstood statistics, of misinterpretations and misjudgments. The president dismisses numbers as irrelevant, perhaps because he simply doesn’t understand them?
We know he was never challenged in school or career; he’s never shared his school records. Perhaps he never passed a math class in his life, or perhaps he received the social passes so popular in some schools, where the child’s self-esteem at the moment, however fictionally established, is considered more important to society than the student’s future responsibilities as a parent, employee, or (Heaven forbid) elected official.
But that’s not the cause for alarm. If a political candidate is clueless, there’s a simple solution: the voters just won’t elect him.
Is our nation’s grasp of the most basic mathematics so weak that a majority would re-elect someone this out of touch, this unable to comprehend the effects of his decisions? Is our electorate unable to understand the damage that double-digit unemployment and geometric increases in debt are doing to our nation’s future?
We’ll find out in November. That’s just months away… or hundreds of days away… or an eternity away, depending on how you look at it. It’s all a matter of proportion.
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer. Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included. Follow me on LinkedIn or Facebook!