Friday, December 9, 2011

How To Leave Your Big Bank


I decided to leave my big national bank and move to a local credit union. It was not easy. Here are some tips on how to do it.

First though, why do this? There are many reasons, but the main one is that the big banks don’t play fair. They are hoarding trillions in cash but refuse to make loans. Why? Because they do not want to properly value the mountains of bad mortgage derivatives they still hold from the financial crisis, because if they did that, it would be obvious that they are virtually insolvent. So they would rather perpetuate the national housing crisis than write down their own profits.

Secondly, most are indeed virtually insolvent. I had serious concerns about my big bank, which keeps announcing cutbacks and layoffs. Just because they are called “too big to fail” does not mean they are too big to fail.

Third, fees keep creeping up and service keeps declining. My bank told me the only way I could retain my no-fee checking account was to go 100% e-banking, totally online, which was fine with me, but they also said I was no longer welcome in the lobby of the bank and if I ever talked to a live person in the bank, I would have to pay a fee. Friendly!

Next, their software has become unstable. Several times I have been locked out of my accounts because of faults in their software that suddenly does not recognize me or any of my credentials. When I call the 800 number, the agent knows nothing can do nothing. Usually after a couple of days, the software rights itself and I can bank again. A financial institution must NOT have unstable software.

Next, I think it makes more sense to support banking in my own community instead of financing fat bonuses for parasites in New York.

I’ve been thinking about changing banks for a long time, but the Occupy movement convinced me to finally do it.

So here’s how it went.

1. The first thing is to write down all memorized passwords, pins, user ID’s and so on that you use at the big bank. Hide that scrap of paper in a secure location. You do this because the changeover to the new bank can take up to two months and you will forget all those secret codes as you develop new ones at the new bank.

2. Find a community bank you can work with. I surveyed several credit unions in my city for availability of branches near me, no-fee checking, ATMs and other services I need. I visited three of them. In two, I couldn’t get anyone’s attention. If you walk right up to a teller, the teller cannot open a new account and will only refer you to a “manager.” But the closest I ever got to a manager was a clerk who handed me some brochures. At the third CU, there was a greeter at the door who welcomed me and made an appointment for 5 minutes later with an appropriate manager.

3. Read the financial statement of the new bank. This is available in the lobby, or you can ask the manager for it. Just check the balance sheet to see if they are making money, not deeply in debt. If you don’t know how to read it, get a friend who does. Make sure your deposits are insured by the appropriate federal agency for that type of institution.

4. Verify that the new bank offers the services you need at rates you are willing to pay. My new CU has virtually free checking, savings, home and car loans, and they sell some kinds of insurance. The checking is “virtually” free because you must maintain a $25 savings balance to make the checking account work, so that is basically a one-time charge for opening a checking account, okay with me.

5. Open a test account with a minimal balance, just to see how the paperwork goes. I opened an account for a hobby that generates about $20 a month in deposits. With such an account, you can test the bank’s bill-paying software and other online services, get some checks printed, and you can try their ATM network. Most credit unions have collaboration agreements to honor each other’s debit cards, so even though the small bank has far fewer branches and fewer ATMs compared to the big bank, the collaboration makes a virtual network just as functional. Some of the participating credit unions charge a small fee for using their ATM with another bank’s card, but many do not. When you’re traveling, you can use the network, or use the old grocery store trick to get cash (pay with debit card and ask for cash back). The big stores will give $100 with no question.

6. Make sure you have enough money left in the big bank to pay a month’s worth of bills while you transfer your direct deposits over to the new bank.

7. If you have a credit card with the big bank, stop using it and start using a new credit card, either from your new bank, or from an airline, or somewhere else. If you have investment accounts, your new broker will roll them over. The new broker might be at your new bank, or be an independent broker, even an online service such as Fidelity or Vanguard, etc. If you have loans with the old bank, the new bank will help you move them over.

8. If all has gone well, open another account at the new bank to handle your main financial transactions (or just use the hobby account if you didn't really need it for that), then acquire and fill out the forms necessary to arrange for direct deposits to the new bank. You get direct deposit authorization forms from your employer, your pension manager, investment broker, social security, whatever. Send those in. Let a month to six weeks go by until you are sure deposits are going to your new bank, not your old bank.

9. While you are waiting, begin documenting your payee information for the new bank. You will find that the old bank will not reveal your payee information to you, because that is one way they make it difficult for you to leave. So when a new bill comes in the mail, or comes due online, write down all the information you need to pay it, including account number, the full address of where the payment goes, the customer service phone number, everything. Then you can enter that information in the new bank’s online bill payer service. Keep the written copy because the new bank probably will also hide most of the information from you (it’s a common bank strategy).

10. As direct deposits come in to the new bank, use them to pay whatever payees that you have set up so far online at the new bank, to make sure the bill payment system is working right. If you have authorized some creditors to debit your account directly, you need to contact them and change the debit to the new bank. Until all the deposits are finally coming in to the new bank, pay the rest of your bills out of the old bank until it is out of money, which will be after all the direct deposits have switched over to the new bank. Eventually, you will have transferred all your deposits and all your payees to the new bank.

11. Use your new bank account to pay off the balance on your old bank credit card, or, if you can’t do that, transfer the balance to the new card.

12. When all is good, write a check against the old bank to zero out the balance and deposit it in the new bank. Be sure to get an accurate current balance at the old bank, net of any fees. You can do that at their ATM. After that check clears, notify your old bank in writing or email that you are closing the account. If you fail to do that, they can continue to assess fees on you and when you don’t pay them hassle you and your credit rating. You can just cut up your old bank credit card or you can call the 800 number and cancel it. (cartoon soxfirst.com)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Are the Super-Rich Really Job-Creators?

In a New York Times op-ed column today, the ever-surprised economist, Paul Krugman, argued that it makes sense to tax the rich (“Things to Tax: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/28/opinion/krugman-things-to-tax.html?_r=1&ref=opinion). To those who say taxing the rich wouldn’t raise much revenue, he counters that “The I.R.S. reports that in 2007, that is, before the economic crisis, the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers — roughly speaking, people with annual incomes over $2 million — had a combined income of more than a trillion dollars. That’s a lot of money…” Let’s note also, that’s from just one-tenth of one percent of taxpayers.

Republican Senator John Kyl is ready with a well-worn comeback. Also in the New York times today, Kyl argues that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy should be continued because, “increasing taxes on the most affluent Americans, including small-business owners who report business income on their personal tax returns, would undermine the fragile economic recovery. The best way to hurt economic growth is to impose more taxes on the people who do the hiring…” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/28/us/politics/senator-questions-extension-of-tax-cut.html ).

This is a common Republican refrain, though patently bogus. Do the top one-tenth of one percent of income earners in America actually “do the hiring?” Notice that Kyl’s criterion is “small-business owners who report business income on their personal tax returns.” That’s a different group than the top 0.1% of income earners.

Anybody can report business income. That doesn’t mean they are creating jobs. If you sell some stuff on Ebay, you should report that as business income, even though it doesn’t make you a job creator and it doesn’t automatically put you in the top 1% of earners.

What is “business income?” The treasury department defines small business income as any ordinary income, long-term or short-term gains, from sole proprietorships, S corporations, partnerships, estates and trusts. (factcheck.org, March 6, 2009).

By this definition, are the rich the small business owners? 73% of Americans in the top two tax brackets report some kind of business income on their tax returns, but that does not mean they are “hiring employees” or “creating jobs.” They could be just cashing their trust fund checks.

It is a crude sleight of hand to suggest that anyone who is rich is automatically a job-creator. If that were true, it would be hard to explain why employment has not jumped way up over the past ten years while the incomes of the upper 1% of Americans rose 18 percent. (http://mediamatters.org/research/201110200011). It must be that all those rich people were not actually “hiring,” as Republicans claimed.

Some of the super-wealthy are corporate executives whose companies do create many jobs. It is hard to imagine that increasing the marginal tax rate on their personal income would cause their companies to hire fewer people. And anyway, they are not “small” business owners, the ones who actually create most of the jobs in America.

In fact only 27% of upper income tax returns show business income that makes up more than half of wages. Presumably, a real small business owner would take home most of his or her wages from the business (factcheck.org, March 6, 2009). The vast majority of people who report business income on their tax return are not running a small company that’s on a hiring spree. And even among those who are, only 2% of them earn enough money to make it into the top tax brackets (factcheck.org).

The categories, “rich” and “job creator” are almost non-overlapping. Yet Republicans routinely equate them. It is a spurious equation and I can’t understand why the news media let it go uncommented. Even Krugman doesn’t mention it. It is a completely false argument that taxing the rich destroys jobs. How Republicans continue to get away with spouting such nonsense is a mystery.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why the Wheels Fell Off

Three years after the financial collapse of ’08, the American economy is still on life support. The main devastation occurred in unemployment, which remains above 9% nationally, as high as 25% in some regions and much higher among some age and ethnic groups. Even among those employed, the mortgage crisis limits economic growth, with almost half of mortgages worth more than equity, and tens of millions of houses in foreclosure. GDP has been limping along at 1% for years, with no prospect of an upturn as long as consumers don’t spend (what would they spend?) and retail credit remains inaccessible. There is talk about continued recession for at least two more years, more likely six.

What happened is that rich people took all the money. They left next to nothing for the rest of us. They played the capitalist game and won. They are still winning, and I expect will continue to do so, barring the unforeseen. This does not make the rich, bad people. The whole point of the capitalist game is to get rich. There are winners and there are losers. But the present outcome, painful recession for most people, is the inevitable consequence of the rich siphoning off America’s wealth over the last thirty years. It could have been moderated, but it wasn’t. Now here we are.

First, let’s make sure we understand that in fact, the rich have siphoned off the country’s wealth. According to G. William Domhoff (http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html),

As of 2007, the top 1% of American households (the upper class) owns 34.6% (more than a third) of all privately held wealth in this country.

The next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) holds 50.5% (more than half).

This means that the wealthiest 20% of Americans hoard 85% of the country’s wealth, leaving only 15% for the rest of us (wage and salary workers).

If you exclude the value of one’s home from the calculations (because the rich often have very expensive homes), then you see that just the top 1% of households owns 42.7% of the all the nation’s financial wealth. The richest 20% hold more than 93% of financial wealth. That’s basically all the money there is! Nearly all of the country’s money is in the personal bank accounts of just a few people. The rest of us are left to squabble over the remaining 7%.

The rich are the big winners in the game of capitalism, and the winnings have been huge. A hundred years ago, the richest 1% of Americans owned only 18% of the nation’s wealth (Noah, http://www.slate.com/id/2266025/entry/2266026). Today’s huge wealth inequality is a recent phenomenon, since about 1980. It is the most obvious outcome of a capitalist system gone awry, and an explanation of the current economic recession.

Today’s painful recession is the consequence of the richest people having sucked all the money out of the economy since 1980. The rich are not having a recession. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is about 11,000 today, down a few percentage points from its bubbly high of three years ago, but by no means disastrous for the companies indexed, such as American Express, Chevron, IBM, Microsoft, Verizon, and others. Some of the big banks are having disasters recently, but that is a separate situation, and long overdue anyway. Most large businesses are doing well, making plenty of money. It’s ordinary wage-earners who are hurting.

How did nearly all the money in America flow to the top 20% of bank accounts, leaving the rest of us in recession? In my opinion, the main factors since 1980, in order of importance, were:

1. The information technology revolution.
2. Failure of education.
3. Government corruption and incompetence.
4. Globalization of economics.

The rise of the computer put a lot of people out of work from automation. I made much of my personal wealth doing just that (although not for that reason – I plead na├»vete). I spent many years automating the pulp and paper industry with computer controls and robots, putting scores of hard-working people out of jobs forever. My bad. As a possible redemptive factor, I spent many more years using networked computers trying to educate the youth. However, I had far more success with the former than the latter.

Other aspects of the computer and information revolution made it easier for those who understood and controlled technology to separate people from their money, through deceptive and unscrupulous advertising and marketing (e.g, Big Pharma, Big Finance, etc.), and accumulation and exploitation of information about people. Technology and information resources are expensive and knowledge-intensive. Those who could understand it, and who could afford to put it to work, reaped wealth. Those who couldn’t, suffered. The technology revolution was not neutral – it favored the economically privileged and the well-educated, and still does. It was a primary factor causing wealth to flow from the bottom to the top of the economic pyramid.

And that brings me to the second cause of today’s financial crisis: failure of education. I have been a lifelong educator of youth and adults (except for my two-decade stint as a technology raptor). From personal experience, I can say that the educational system in this country is largely ineffective, virtually moribund. The basic cause of that is economics. Teachers are not well-paid because their product is very long-term (tomorrow’s leaders, movers, and shakers) and as we know, future value is heavily discounted. Also, students don’t vote, so why worry about them? Consequently, society as a whole has little incentive to properly finance education. Granted, many teachers are incompetent and curricula laughable, but those are consequences of economic underdevelopment, not causes.

There are plenty of smart people in this country who would become educators if they thought they could make a living at it. But except for the most elite, it is not possible. I myself dropped out of academia for twenty years because I needed to make some money. If a starting college teacher made $75,000 a year (instead of 30,000), and could expect salary growth comparable to a business or legal career, there would be qualified candidates. Actually, if there even were such a thing as a starting college teaching position, it would be an improvement. About half of college teachers are now “adjuncts,” which means part-time, with no health-care or pension, and that percentage is on the rise. Currently, postsecondary education is not a viable career for a principal earner. The situation is comparable for K-12 education (but much less so for educational administrators, who do better).

This economic analysis assumes that talent in education, as in any other field, costs more than lack of it. It is simply not reasonable that widespread, high-quality education in this country is impossible. The problem is that inadequate investment is made in classroom and administrative talent. There are also profound structural flaws in the educational system that entrenched interests are loath to address. In addition, political corruption favors the status quo (see #3: Corruption). The failure of education ultimately makes it easier for the economic elites to separate ordinary people from their wealth.

Third on my list of causal factors is government corruption and incompetence. The corruption is a direct consequence of how American politics is financed. The rich pay the politicians, who in turn, write laws that favor the rich. It’s an incestuous system that works well for both sides, selling power for money, trading money for privilege, all at the expense of ordinary people. It is not overt bribery, usually; this is not suitcases full of money. No, just as racism and sexism have moved from being overt to subtle, government corruption at all levels is now only detectible to the discerning. Just a special-purpose clause in a bill here, an appropriations contingency there, a blind regulatory eye, a tax loophole, and plenty of rhetorical obfuscation. It doesn’t take much to shave points off a game.

I’m not saying that illegal things are being done (though recent history suggests some of that goes on too), only that corrupt things are being done. Actions are corrupt when they violate the trust that ordinary people grant to politicians when they ask them to work on their behalf. Anyone who doubts that the American political system is corrupt is under-informed (see #2: Education).

The fourth and final causal factor in my list is globalization of economics. This came about mainly as a consequence of the technology and information revolution (see #1), which allowed rationalization of labor markets and currencies. As a result, jobs flowed out of America’s expensive labor market to cheaper markets abroad, to the great benefit of many millions of people around the world (e.g., in China, Mexico, and elsewhere), but to the loss of high-priced American workers.

Globalization of labor will continue, eventually consuming the livelihoods of the American affluent. We are already seeing this as jobs like legal research, financial trading, and X-ray interpretation move offshore. That trend will continue as global economics reaches equilibrium over the next couple of centuries, when even the most wealthy will find it difficult to exploit market anomalies to their own advantage.

Beyond labor market equilibration, globalization of trade, especially in oil, has sucked money out of the economy and funneled it to Big Oil. It is largely due to government corruption and incompetence (see #3) that America’s addiction to oil has not been treated in the past half century, despite numerous and obvious warnings.

What should be done, what can be done, about the current economic recession and its dark shadow of unconscionable wealth inequality? I have ideas, but that’s a different essay. Here I want only to enumerate my perception of the fundamental, distal factors causing the deep economic hole we are now in and from which we may never fully emerge.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Paper Training David Brooks

In today’s New York Times, Op-ed columnist David Brooks, the last rational conservative in the country, claims that the Republican party is unable to make a decision that does not even require a brain: compromise on the negotiations to raise the national debt ceiling. Republicans have the opportunity to significantly cut government spending and put long term limits on the growth of the federal government, with negligible harm to current economic growth. (www.nytimes.com/2011/07/05/opinion/05brooks.html?_r=1&ref=opinion).

These are all allegedly goals that Republicans hold in high priority. Yet they reject the opportunity to achieve them because the word “tax” has been mentioned. They are so religiously, irrationally, fetishistically, unreasonably opposed to any sort of revenue increase, they literally will walk out of negotiations if even the phrase, “closing tax loopholes” is mentioned. (http://articles.boston.com/2011-06-24/news/29699882_1_budget-talks-jay-carney-debt-limit)

Are Republicans mentally deficient, then? Brooks notes that they do not accept the logic of compromise, reject clear evidence, won’t hear expert opinion, deny the legitimacy of scholarship, have no economic theories to back up their position, lack moral grounding, indulge fanatical “fixation” on worshiping “their idol” of resisting all forms of government revenue increase, and are “not fit to govern.” Other than that, though, I wonder how he feels?

Now, I am no fan of these Republican tactics either. I would add to Brook’s litany of complaints that the Republican behavior is hypocritical, even extremely cynical. They care nothing for governmental fiscal responsibility, as the previous eight years of Republican rule amply demonstrated (two unfunded wars, unfunded tax cuts for the rich, failure to regulate the financial industry, unfunded drug benefits for the elderly, untrammeled military spending, and on and on and on). The record speaks for itself: Republicans care only for money and power, nothing else. Their talk about fiscal responsibility is transparent cover for their greedy pursuit of personal gain through economic rape of the country. Touche, Brooks.

Nevertheless, purely as an exercise critical thinking, it might be interesting to consider: what could they be thinking in the current negotiations about raising the government’s debt ceiling? Surely they realize that if the U.S. government defaults on its debt, the worldwide consequences would be catastrophic. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that these Republican negotiators are not mentally deficient and that they do have a rational strategy. What would it be?

I think it might be the same strategy one uses in paper-training a puppy. You want the dog to stop peeing on the floor, so what do you do? You whap it on the nose with a rolled up newspaper in the presence of its smelly offense, and you reward it with a dog biscuit when it goes on the paper. Simple, and effective.

Here is what you do NOT do: You do not try to reason with the animal, explaining why it is better for everyone’s health and state of mind, and for the relationship itself, that peeing should take place only on the paper. You also do not give a dog biscuit reward when the puppy pees a little closer to the paper than usual, because it was “pretty close” or “at least in the right direction.” It’s pee on the paper or nothing. You also do not refrain from the painful and humiliating swat on the nose when the animal pees “just a little”on the carpet. It’s swat if you missed the paper, no compromise.

Republicans believe, let us suppose, that discussion on the matter of federal spending, is pointless. Many discussions have been had in the past, all to no avail. Spending continues to increase and so do taxes to pay for it, they believe. The Republicans may also realize that they have no legitimate standing to argue for restraint, given their own history of profligacy.

So if discussion is pointless, that leaves only behavioral control. Like any good animal trainer, they will enforce a painful and humiliating government shutdown as long as the government continues to pee money on the carpet, and they will only allow the biscuit of revenue when the government shows proper restraint, which is to cut Medicare and Social Security.

There is a logic to this strategy, even though it incorrectly presupposes that Republicans have the intellectual, moral, or political authority to arrogate the role of trainer. But they do have a bit of leverage with the debt ceiling limit looming and control of the House. Of course the proper way to train the government is to win a popular mandate at the ballot box, but they haven’t been able to accomplish that, so this is an opportunistic substitute. It’s a flawed logic, but it is a logic, and a case could be made that the Republicans are being canny, not retarded.

However, I do agree with Brooks that this animal training strategy is so primitive, so flawed, so misconceived, that it will backfire and result in their own humiliation in November, 2012.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Afghanistan Pullout

The U.S. is scheduled to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in about a month, after a decade of fighting there. Full withdrawal is supposed to be by 2014. Everyone expects the July 2011 withdrawal to be a token number, more symbolic than a meaningful proportion of the 100K troops there, because the battle against the Taliban is still at high pitch and the Afghans are not yet competent.

However, with the recent decapitation of Al Qaeda, there is opportunity to rethink the Afghan plan. The U.S. could plausibly declare the “war on terror” essentially won, because we got the perpetrator of the 9-11 attacks. Then we can get out of Afghanistan (and Iraq too!) much more quickly. Those were Bush’s wars of choice, which Obama inherited, and promised in his presidential campaign to end quickly. This is his chance to do what he said.

There is talk among the punditocracy that we must not “abandon” Afghanistan. We must “stay the course,” and make withdrawal sensitive to “conditions on the ground.” What is behind this kind of cautionary talk?

The fear is that as soon as we leave Afghanistan, the Taliban will take over (probably under the leadership of our man, Karzai). If that happens, then Pakistan may well go Taliban too, and then you’d have nuclear terrorists. Who they would attack first, the U.S., Israel, or Europe, is beside the point; we assume they would attack. Bad scenario. Therefore, do not pull the troops out of Afghanistan “prematurely.”

But that logic can be rethought. There are two sets of arguments for simply declaring victory and pulling out all the troops as quickly as possible. Argument set one is domestic: The war is very unpopular in the U.S.; it is bankrupting us, and Obama needs to win in 2012. One reason for the 2014 date for a “serious” drawdown in troops is that it would be after Obama’s re-election, so couldn’t hurt him, and might give Democrats a boost in the midterms. But that is chicken thinking.

The second set of arguments for pulling out now/soon from Afghanistan is that we are not accomplishing anything significant there anyway. We cannot kill or capture every Taliban terrorist in the country. They breed too fast. They can easily wait us out. As for “nation-building,” we aren’t doing much of that either. We’re trying, with clinics and roads, to make life better for the people, but we are not winning hearts and minds; the populace is ethnically divided and not susceptible to democracy; and it is an opium-based economy. Even the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, doesn’t’ want us there. Hawks like senator Joe Lieberman insist we need to “build a country we can be at peace with.” But he doesn’t say how to do that, and he can’t, because it is not possible, at least not in his, mine, or Obama’s lifetime. Our position there is unsustainable as a practical matter. We cannot win militarily and we cannot be successful politically. The writing is on the wall: Afghanistan is going to be an anti-western, fundamentalist, Islamic theocracy. Let’s plan for the reality, not the fantasy.

Once Afghanistan has gone over to the dark side, the Taliban probably will influence or virtually take over Pakistan too, which is already halfway down the slippery slope to a failed state. Maybe we could continue to prop up Pakistan, just as we have propped up Israel for decades, and keep the nukes out of the hands of the Taliban. That would be much cheaper than what we are paying to keep troops in Afghanistan. But even that plan is not a sure thing. The Pakis are extremely ambivalent about us. They love our money, but that’s about all. Many are sympathetic to the Taliban. It is not for certain that we can buy their allegiance for much longer, and it is seriously not clear if Pakistan can survive as the pseudo-democracy it is now.

Conclusion:

Let Obama put his silver tongue to work and convince Americans of the real problem: We are stalemated in Afghanistan and so we should get out and plan instead for surgical retaliations when the Taliban acts up, as they surely will. We can, without being public about it, switch from a “global war on terrorism” to more of a police footing, where we kill and capture perpetrators, but do not invade whole countries and fight literal wars on their soil. We need to keep our legal options open. The president probably does not want to give up his “war” authority to pursue badguys to the four corners of the earth, across international borders where necessary, but there is probably some kind of slippery political language to finesse the legal points.

We should also prepare to prop up Pakistan (with the money we save by ending the war!) and also prepare for a failed Pakistan and even for nuclear terrorists. How will we react? Why not plan for the real probable future world, rather than hanging on to the status quo like some talisman that lets us avoid lifting our heads. A “stay the course” policy in Afghanistan is like a child’s superstition: Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Hey, that won’t save us. It is pure superstition, not realistic policy.

Obama could pull virtually all the troops out of Afghanistan now and be ready to react to the next move. Yes, it’s a reactive approach, but we cannot be proactive against the Taliban in Afghanistan. That is amply demonstrated by the “facts on the ground.” The Taliban will not act rashly before 2012 because they know a Republican victory would probably bring the troops back in. They will wait. That gives Obama time to be ready with a thunderbolt response. Meanwhile the troops stop dying, and the money stops hemorrhaging in Afghanistan, and we’re no worse off geopolitically.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

It's Not About Libya

France, Britain, and U.S. forces (“The Allies” according to the New York Times, as if we were still in World War II), invaded Libya today or yesterday, establishing a no-fly zone to protect civilians being slaughtered by Qaddafi. The action was authorized by the United Nations (with the BRICs abstaining) and endorsed by the Arab League. The Arab League has now reversed itself, saying, essentially “Mashalla! We didn’t realize it would involve bombs!” But the no-fly has apparently been established, despite Arab racism and/or spinelessness. (Photo: Christian Science Monitor)

The political and military consequences of the attack, in Libya and internationally, remain to be seen. For example, will “The Allies” maintain the no-fly zone indefinitely, with one or two planes being shot down every few months, as was the case in Iraq's no-fly zone? Maybe that’s not too expensive to tolerate. And since Qaddafi is a nut job, you can expect him to violate the intentions of “The Allies” in some way, bringing more grief upon himself and his country. Maybe that is ok too. There is, as usual, no clear exit strategy for impulsive acts.

Why did Obama do it? Why did he urge “regime change” and offer to lead the operation? The man has a friggin’ Nobel Peace prize for God’s sake. I thought he understood more clearly than anyone, that an “optional” war is never justified. What was he thinking?

Sure, he acted like he was dragging his feet, and that the invasion was a “last resort” and a “humanitarian necessity,” blah, blah, blah. And no question that Qaddafi is a bad actor, just as Saddam Hussein was. It was a righteous move, as they say. But the fact is, war is hell, and Obama invoked it, and he didn’t have to do it.

This is yet another U.S. war of choice. And make no mistake, we have committed an act of war. Ask Secretary of defense Gates. Sure, Libyan people were being killed by the brutal government. Terrible thing. But what’s that got to do with the United States Government? People are being killed in Yemen. Should we bomb Yemen now? How about Syria? Things are pretty bad there. Let’s bomb Syria! Bomb Bahrain! How about Venezuala? Hey, lots of people are being killed in Mexico right now by the federal government there…. What’s the rule for bombing the crap out of other countries? There are other ways to deal with problems besides bombs. Obama has got to know that.

Perhaps Obama calculated that he did not want to appear “weak” by standing aside as Quaddafi slaughtered his people with impunity. Bill Clinton took a bad rap in the history books by standing by too long while the slaughter continued in Kosovo and Serbia. Obama did not want to appear “weak.” But I thought Obama was intellectually above that disease: the slavishness to future history that seems to infect every president. Is he already writing his memoir?

Obama has made a huge mistake, one that mocks his Nobel prize, aggravates even further relations with the Arab world, immensely complicates U.S. foreign policy (if there is one), and greatly diminishes the U.S.’s moral standing, and Obama’s personal moral standing. But the man is not stupid. So why did he do it?

What if this is all about Pakistan, and ultimately, getting the troops out of Afghanistan next year? My guess is that Obama's end game is ending both the Iraq and Afghan wars by 2012. This has nothing to do with Libya, or at least, very little. Pakistan, which often seems on the verge of anarchy, is a nuclear power that harbors al Qaeda and the Taliban, who we are fighting in Afghanistan. Why does Pakistan do that? Because leaders there think the U.S. is “weak” and will leave Afghanistan too soon and that the Taliban will take the place over. Pakistan is therefore currying favor with what it assumes to be its future neighbor, the Republic of Taliban. Essentially then, we are in a tacit war with Pakistan. We even bomb them every few weeks, have been doing so for months. Pakistan is the third war we are fighting that nobody talks about.

The Paki’s think the U.S. is weak because they read the papers the same as we all do. They know we are in a recession, that the two overt wars are killing us fiscally, and that those wars have lost whatever popular support they ever had at home, and that Obama (“man of peace”) has vowed to end both wars, and that Obama faces a fierce election in 2012. They know all that, and they also know we are covertly at war with Pakistan. They calculate that the U.S. has neither the nerve nor the resources to force Pakistan to play ball with the U.S. in fighting the Taliban either in Afghanistan or in Pakistan itself. That is Obama’s bind. He is stalemated in the covert war on Pakistan.

Solution? “Send a message” to our nominal allies in the war on terror, the Paki’s, one that will also be heard and seen in Teheran, on the other side of Afghanistan: We still have the will and the way to bring a world of hurt down on you at any time. Do not “misunderestimate.” That, I think, is Obama’s rationale for invading Libya. It’s not about Libya.

Is Obama’s presumed strategy justified and is it smart? There is insufficient information to assess, but we can say, it is extremely risky. We’ll have to wait and see what future historians say!