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Tom Murphy, November 15, 2011

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Turbulence is all around us. The uprisings that rocked the Middle East in the spring look like they'll continue through the winter, having spread from Egypt to Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria. Occupy Wall Street has become a national movement -- one that more of the middle class might support if it had clearer goals. Divisiveness rules Congress. And Europe is on the brink of a crisis -- what else is new? In reality, change has become a constant, and an unsettling one for most of us who have one eye on our savings and the other on a ever-more distant retirement. There is no sign of this letting up any time soon, despite the cheery optimistic chatter about how the recession ended and the recovery is underway. It isn't. Just look around, check the prices in the market, and ask yourself, honestly, if anything is getting better in our society. It's not. Truly, it is time for change. It's just that, like those Wall Street protesters, we haven't figured out exactly what it is that we want. Health care? Housing? Security? Yes. And while we're at it, let's wipe out poverty among the nation's elders. We simply can't call ourselves the greatest country on Earth when one in four elders lives in poverty.

Tom Murphy, June 7, 2011

We hear a lot about the Arab spring as a movement where dictators are being deposed by popular movements. But consider where this is happening. The gulf and middle east have been in turmoil for centuries, with boundaries being changed and governments changing with the desert winds. Will Libyan rebels replace Kadhafi, and who are they? Will the Yemeni uprising take down Saleh, and what will replace it? Are Jordan and Saudi Arabia secure? And will Egypt stabilize? What will happen in Syria? The only thing for sure is that there are many factions fighting for control, as there have been for many centuries. Bottom line: don't expect democracy to sweep over the area like a scirocco as the Arab spring turns to summer, or fall.

Tom Murphy, May 2, 2011

Sometimes, it's far too easy to take death in stride - like when a news story flies past us announcing that a six or 14 protesters were killed in Syria while speaking out for freedom, or when a train crashes in India, killing dozens. Sometimes, it's extremely painful - like when thousands of Americans were senselessly slaughtered on 9/11. Another US missile strike in Libya? "Ho-hum." A tornado in the South? "Horrible."  But it's rare - and unsettling - when we're happy to hear of a death, when we're "glad" someone is dead. Personally, I'm sorry Osama bin Laden was ever alive, or that he grew into the hateful soul he was.  He came as close to pure evil as anyone we might ever encounter, and he was unforgivable for his actions. The last decade has been horrible in a number of ways -- notably the thousands of lives that have been lost on both sides of the wars that followed the 9/11 attack.  This period has degraded our concept of freedom, and it's brought out the worst in many of us. We've become more accepting of death, less tolerant of those who hold different views, more likely to endorse torture, and less likely to trust a stranger.  If bin Laden's death is a step toward reversing this process, than I am happy we're ready to take that step back towards building a better world. He was just a man, and I hope his philosophy of hate died with him.

Tom Murphy, March 11, 2011

The world would be so simple if it worked the way they taught us in history class. Remember those gutsy American rebels who rose up against the British, and how the French helped them out? Pretty simple in hindsight. But things aren't that easy in the Middle East, where citizens are rising up against a variety of rulers with a remarkably familiar demand. They want the tyrant to leave, and they want to rule their own democracies. Most Americans can relate to that, but that doesn't mean that we'll help. The Egyptians and Tunisians won their freedom without a lot of outside help. But the governments fought back hard against demonstrators in Libya, Bahrain and Iran.  The US 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain, but the US didn't help the demonstrators. Western nations seem to want to help oust Gadhafi in Libya, but by the time they figure out how, it may be too late. And it's unlikely the US will help any uprisings in places like Jordan, Qatar or Saudi Arabia because of alliances with Sunni royal families there. The protesters in those countries are mostly Shiite, and there's fear they may turn out to sympathetic with the Shiite rulers of Iran. Another complication is the overt bias of certain Americans against Muslims of any political leaning. Hearings in Washington to look into terrorist threats lurking in the Muslim communities send a dangerous signal to Muslims around the world. Imagine if the French held hearings like that about Americans during the American revolution instead of sending troops, ships and guns.

Tom Murphy, February 10, 2011

"The people, united, will never be defeated." I don't speak Arabic, but just about anyone who's seen mass demonstrations anywhere would recognize the cadence in the chant that I heard in videos from Cairo. When hundreds of thousands of ordinary people come together not once, but every day for weeks, not in one city, but in many, then you can bet the end is near for whoever is in power. When protest turns to broad strikes by workers, that change is imminent. Whether it's ben Ali in Tunisia or Mubarak in Egypt of whoever is next, it's pretty clear we're turning a corner in the Middle East. Some call it a Twitter revolution because word of rallies spread through cyberspace. But the pattern goes back a long way before the days of email or even telephones. When people are poor enough, and hope of a better life turns to doubts about tomorrow, they will take to the streets and change will happen. There's a literal world of difference between the average North African and the American baby boomer. But it's good to remember the same rules apply.

Tom Murphy, January 19, 2011

Most Americans don't think much about Tunisia, or at least they didn't before its angry citizens drove President Ben Ali from office. Yet the revolt there reflect a risk that is ubiquitous in the Middle East - in Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Kuwait and elsewhere. Leaders who have long held power, often accumulating fortunes, are being challenged by the increasingly disenchanted working class and middle class citizens who are fed up with the status quo. That is not to say what is happening in Tunisia will happen anywhere else. It may not. But nobody thought it would happen in Tunisia, either. The risk of it happening in other countries is very real. The rulers are nervous. In Kuwait, the rulers gave out money to calm irate citizens. In Egypt, at least two men have set themselves on fire in demanding change. In Syria, the president eased back on plans for austerity measures. So while most Americans may not think much about Tunisia, what's happening there may be a window in what can happen across the Middle East. And that can have a very big impact on Main Street.

Tom Murphy, January 11, 2011

His teachers thought he was troubled, and sent a security guard to his classroom. He had minor brushes with the law. The Army wouldn't take him. And his postings online reflect a philosophy of violence. All that background exploded into tragedy outside a Tucson supermarket. Many people think the political hate speech that flowed from the far right helped to fuel this disturbed young man's plot. But an even bigger question is why anyone would let THAT 22-year-old buy a 30-bullet clip and one of the world's most deadly semiautomatic pistols. Despite the warning signs, someone put that weapon into the hands of that man, facilitating the tragedy that the nation now shares. In fact, we all did, collectively. A Gallup Poll released just three months before the Tucson rampage showed only 44 percent of Americans favor tighter gun controls. That matched a record low. What will it take to raise that number? We've argued about gun control in the US for decades as we've seen weapons take the lives of many of our finest leaders along with far, far too many innocent people in our neighborhoods. In many major US cities, it's rare to go a night without seeing teenagers shot to death in the street. Yet many states have passed laws allowing citizens to wear guns on their hips, like the gunslingers of Tucson's historic OK Corral. Should we be surprised when those guns lead to tragedy? We can do something, and we should. Political hate speech may spur people to action, but it's the guns that all-too-often transform that action into unspeakable horror.

Tom Murphy, November 9, 2010

China has been a friend of the US ever since Richard Nixon opened the doors to trade there in the early 1970s. For a communist nation, it's become awfully capitalistic, so much so that China has overtaken Japan as an economic power. One day soon, it will overtake the US, which is something that even Nixon couldn't have seen. After resisting the US war in Indochina, the Chinese have loaned the US money to prosecute the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our grandchildren will be paying them back. The Chinese also are stubbornly refusing currency revaluations that could ease world trade, and they're flexing their muscle over rights to oil in the South China Sea - and we all know Americans are - as Bush put it - "addicted to oil." It doesn't take a genius to see the tide is turning as the US courts China's neighbors - India, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and other nations, even Vietnam - with offers of increased trade, power-sharing, aircraft sales, technology sharing, defense pacts and other goodies that will unite them with the West. New fighting in Myanmar reflects another country that may shift politically in the near future. This could lead to shifting trading in trade and investment on the Pacific Rim, and that could mean the US will become a lot less dependent on China.

Tom Murphy, October 20, 2010

Visiting San Diego on a trip from home base in Northern California is something like traveling to Mars - not that I have anything against Mars. I'm sure the Martians think it's a great place. For example, when I ride my bike on a bike path in San Diego, it's made of concrete blocks rather than asphalt, so your tires go kuh-klop, kuh-klop every four feet. And my bike goes about 20 feet a second. So that's not exactly conducive to relaxing, not that you would want to given the number of junkies and trash mounds along the path. Then I flipped on the radio looking for a little relaxing tunage, but instead I get a radio talk show where the host condemns liberals for name-calling just before he blasts the Obama crowd as "socialist leeches."  I'm not commenting on the politics, just on the lack of a working brain. And this guy is really popular here.  Then it rained, prompting every San Diegan - every one of them - on the freeway to drive at 25 mph, side-by-side. Have they not seen rain before?  At my heart, I believe people are generally good and most mean well. But some things just don't make a lot of sense to me. Like guns. The Constitution guarantees the rights of people to bear arms, and we do, through the police, national guard, army, etc. Those are the people that I want to have guns. Anyone else, well, why would they need them?  So I'm glad to hear an appeals court in Northern California is taking another look at that issue. Even if it doesn't make a lot of sense to the Martians.

Tom Murphy, July 22, 2010

Remember that bumper sticker: "If you think the economy is working, ask someone who isn't."  The good news is that the economy is finally adding jobs. The bad news is that the population is growing almost as fast, so it will take a long, long time to make up for the hundreds of thousands of jobs that have been lost. The deficit is growing with the help of the wars and various stimulus programs, and we're going to have to pay that money back some time. It's like Uncle Sam lost his job, but is racking up debt on his credit cards anyway. You can see a problem ahead. Europe has started to realize it may not be able to give all its workers the pensions and benefits it promised. And there are continuing doubts here about Medicare and Social Security, which some conservatives want to raid to help pay down the deficit. In short, it's a mess. One in four workers want to leave their jobs, but not until things get better. Who can blame them. Those who have jobs are the lucky ones. If you don't believe that, ask someone who doesn't.

Tom Murphy, July 14, 2010

As a great melting pot for immigrants from all over the world, America has struggled with racial, ethnic and religious tolerance since its founding. In my life, I've seen the first Catholic president, and the first African-American. I've yet to see the first woman, gay, Jewish or Muslim president, but I hope to see all of them before my time is out. It  takes time and effort - on all sides - to overcome stereotypes and build up tolerance across a society for people we don't understand. America's struggle has led to more progress than in many other places - albeit, too slowly. Italians, Irish, Chinese, Japanese and many other groups have faced hostility in the US until they merged into the mainstream. The move by the French legislature to overwhelmingly vote for a ban on face veils worn by Islamic women demonstrates how long change takes, even in countries that consider themselves among the most advanced on a cultural level. Intolerance to other religions in some Islamic countries raises another example. We must always remember that terrorists come in all colors, nationalities and religious backgrounds. And if we want to work together to recognized the bad guys, we must understand and accept each other, so that we recognize the good guys. It is simply not enough to ban people who wear veils, or those who don't.

Tom Murphy, June 17, 2010

It's popular to bash BP, and understandable. But negativity generates more negativity. It is to BP's credit that it has admitted it caused the worst environmental disaster in US history, taken responsibility for it, agreed to pay for the cleanup, set aside $20 billion to compensate victims and set aside the company's dividend to shareholders. All that amounts to a sincere start to make amends as the horror of the spill continues. Now, what is BP and the other oil companies going to do to assure the hundreds of other wells are any safer? And, while it's good that Obama has taken responsibility to oversee the recovery, why is it taking so long? This is highly reminiscent of Katrina - and the government's horrible response then is part of the reason Obama is president now. It's not enough to blame BP and promise a clean-up. Action matters more than words right now.

Tom Murphy, June 8, 2010

The oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico points to all that is wrong with the American approach to offshore drilling. First, in a quarter-century, we've had plenty of chances to cut our consumption of oil, but haven't. Second, drilling in environmentally sensitive areas should be a non-starter. Third, when there's a problem - and there are going to be problems - there needs to be an immediate action plan to limit the impact. Clearly there was no plan here, and the long-term effects on the US coastline, business, the oil industry, nature and our national image are incomprehensible. There is also river of oil loose in the Atlantic, drifting towards Europe, raising further risks. The impact here will be decades, not months or years. And the outcome needs to be clear: never, ever again.

Tom Murphy, April 30, 2010

Isn't it ironic how the news tends to answer the questions about public policy? Just after Sarah Palin runs acround the country chanting "Drill, baby, drill," we get a major oil spill disaster off the environmentally sensitive Louisiana coast. Just after the GOP takes a stand against broad financial reform, we get the Goldman Sachs case and new economic problems in Europe. People who pay attention to the news know what's needed, and we have enormous faith in the brilliance of a well-informed electorate.

Tom Murphy, April 23, 2010

Earth Day, first and foremost, is a reminder to take care of our dear mother. But it's also a reminder of the many layers of social change that baby boomers have brought about over the past half century. The environmental movement went mainstream when boomers came of age. So did the women's movement. And Civil Rights. And gay rights. And health food. Yes, there were suffragettes and environmentalists and gay people before the '60s. But it was boomer moms who demanded equality in the workplace, boomers who turned recycling into an industry, and gay boomers who led the charge Stonewall. These are legacies that will outlive the largest generation, and Mother Earth is better off for them all.

Tom Murphy, April 6, 2010

We all have bad days when we say stupid stuff. "I could just kill him!" "You are not my son!" "I wish I never married you!" Recently, Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, told his legislature that he would join the Taliban if the international community didn't ease up on him. That was a not-so-subtle reference to President Obama, who made a surprise visit to Karzai a few days earlier to tell him he's got to clean up the corruption in his government. And Obama's push was a not-so-subtle reference to Karzai's brother, the undisputed lord of Kandahar. It's been widely alleged that Karzai frere helped get Hamid re-elected last fall through massive voter fraud, which the "international community" didn't like. Further, the brother reportedly controls lucrative government land contracts and part of the heroin trade around Kandahar, which is also the biggest Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. The tension between the presidents of the US and Afghanistan is palpable - not exactly the ideal situation as the US ramps up forces in Afghanistan with the goal of driving the Taliban and corruption out of Kandahar. This leaves four possible outcomes: a) Karzai must go, but he was just re-elected to a new five-year term; b) the US could give up in Afghanistan, but that is highly unlikely;  c) Karzai turns against his brother to appease the US. Again, that's unlikely; d) Karzai actually does join the Taliban, which brings us back to a) Karzai must go. There just aren't many good options. What's lost in all this is why the US invaded Afghanistan in the first place: to go after the terrorists who initiated 9/11. Maybe we should focus more on that and less on controlling Afghanistan. This isn't about Karzai, the Taliban or Afghanistan. It's about Osama bin Laden and his henchmen, and they're not in the news very much anymore.

Tom Murphy, March 27, 2010

Contrary to what you might think, "Boom Box" does not take its title from the nuclear threats that have hung over baby boomers our whole lives. Nonetheless, the new pact between the US and Russia to cut back sharply on nuclear weapons is worth talking about. There's no question this is good news for any living being with a brain. But it's only a running jump down a long road. Both countries retain enough nuclear weapons to destroy the entire world several times over, a legacy of the MAD - mutually assured destruction - thinking of the Cold War. To retain such a level of nuclear arms is absurd. To build new ones while urging developing countries to avoid nuclear weapons is a conflict in interest. And then there are so-called "defensive" weapons, like nuclear artillery shells designed to wipe out advancing armies. They aren't included in the latest cutbacks, but could be easily used as offensive weapons by terrorists or superpowers, to wipe out cities. Just think: nuclear IEDs. The Cold War is long over and it's time for the superpowers - the US, Russia, China and Europe - to move more aggressively to eliminate almost all nuclear weaponry, worldwide.

Tom Murphy, March 9, 2010

Each day, it seems, there's another hint that the worst may be behind us as far as the economy goes. But there's also a big dark cloud over our heads threatening to wipe out that glimmer of sunlight. In recent weeks, fewer people were filing for unemployment insurance, but the unemployment rate is still 9.7 percent. The stock market has climbed 60 percent from last year's low, but the volume is still very low - reflecting a lot of insecurity about where it is heading. Maybe the thing that worries me most is the $2 trillion in underfunded pension obligations held by the public sector. These are government pensions - state, local and federal - that boomers are counting on to carry them through the final third of their lives. And the money isn't there. And then there's the loss of manufacturing jobs to offshore factories. Those are the good-paying jobs that helped build the American middle class and without them, well, you can see what's coming. The federal deficit gets a lot of attention for good reason; how the heck are we ever going to pay back all that money? None of this is keeping me up at night because I know things work out. We may end up a lot poorer, but it'll be OK.

Tom Murphy, January 30, 2010

Don't you just love it when someone in the government - Republican or Democrat - says the economy is forcing us to make the hard choice of either taking bread out of the mouths of babies, throwing old people into the street or letting terrorists run rampant on the streets of New York? One day we're seeing monster truck commercials on TV and the next day the American dream is dead and gone. It's no wonder Americans have such a low opinion of Congress. The citizens know there's fat to be cut; we see it every day when we visit City Hall or hear about the salaries of a state commissioner. The deficit is a serious problem that was brought on by spending for projects we could have done without led by bureaucrats more interested in their own salaries than in cutting spending. It's time to get serious about reductions in government spending, big reductions in areas like the Bureau of Paperwork and Annoying the Citizens. Leave grandma and the babies alone.

Tom Murphy, December 10, 2009

As wars go, Afghanistan has been going badly. The Taliban fighters, when captured, have been known to tell the Americans "you have the watches, but we have the time." They plan to outlast us, and they probably will. Whether you believe the US should leave in 2011 or 2050, we will ultimately leave and the Afghanis will live their own lives. The trick is to make sure they don't go back to the ways they adopted when the Taliban was in charge. That's highly unlikely now that Afghans have tasted a better way in which daughters as well as sons are valued, where education is encouraged, and where tolerance for other ways of life is viewed as a good thing. We can only hope the Afghan people will choose a better way to live, and will reject the hardliners who turned their country into a fearful haven where terrorists were welcome but new ideas were not. And they can't make that choice at the point of a automatic weapon - that's the Taliban's way, not ours. Afghanis must find peace their own way, and 2011 sounds like a good time to start.

Tom Murphy, November 3, 2009

Sending tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan won't do much to clarify the American mission there or reduce the corruption in the Afghani government that the US has been propping up with tax dollars and American lives. There is, unquestionably, a good reason for the US to be involved in shaping the future of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Iran - but there are limits to what can or should be done. Afghan President Hamid Karzai stole his office through an election that international, Afghan and American officials admitted was riddled with fraud. His brother, a reputed drug lord, has been on the CIA's payroll almost since the Bush administration launched the invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. This certainly helps explain how Afghanistan has gone from having almost no opium production before the war to being the world's leading source of narcotics today. The US mission in Afghanistan was clear: get the people who were behind 9/11 and eliminate their base of support. America accepted an awesome responsibility in doing so: assure the presence of an honest, stable government and essential service for civilians. Those need to be the priorities going forward, and that mission needs to start in Kabul.

Tom Murphy, October 17, 2009

Eight years, thousands of lives, and hundreds of billions of dollars later, it's easy to forget why the US sent troops to Afghanistan. The Taliban-led government had given sanctuary to al-Qaeda, culture was under attack, and there was no freedom for women or anyone who challenged the mullahs. Today, the Taliban is gaining strength, corruption is rampant, opium - banned under the Taliban rule - is now grown openly, and America is no closer to winning its "good" war than it was when it arrived. It may even be harder now that much of the country has grown weary of NATO and US bombings. The regional picture is far more complicated, with serious crises in Pakistan, Iraq and Iran. Those problems are linked to other issues in India, North Korea, Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, Turkey and other states. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has lost credibility as the UN threw out a third of the votes in his re-election due to fraud. It's no wonder the US is taking its time to decide an appropriate next step. It seems clear the whatever path is taken must be in a different direction and must lead back to the reasons we went to Afghanistan in the first place.

Tom Murphy, October 17, 2009

The health care reform debate hasn't ended. It's on hold. But things could get much, much uglier very soon. Doctors and insurance companies don't like this thing because they may make less money. Republicans don't like this thing, in part, because they get a lot of donations from doctors and lawyers. And then there's the president's own party, which is divided between those who think reform may go too far, and those who don't think it goes far enough. Almost everyone agrees the system is badly broken, that doctors make too much money, and insurance companies are making it hard for people to get affordable insurance. There are two ways to fix this: have government take it on or slap price caps the medical-insurance world. President Obama is trying to do something in between to appease as many people as he can, and has asked for patience. But the time for compromise is running out. The vast majority want change, and they want it now. It's time for Congress to deliver meaningful reform that will ensure that no American is without quality care at a low cost.

Tom Murphy, October 11, 2009

President Obama's repeated calls for global cooperation have signaled a major turning point for America and have been recognized by the Nobel Committee, which gave him its Peace Prize. But not everyone would say he deserves it. There are those who say he's dangerous and an extremist. I'm not talking about al Qaeda or the Taliban or the president of Iran of North Korea's dictator. I'm talking about conservative TV commentators and street protestors who've called him a socialist and compared him to fascists like Adolf Hitler. Like him or not, that office deserves respect. I watched Fox News for over a half-hour, through the top of the hour, and the network never mentioned the award except in the tiny crawl at the bottom of the screen. They were too busy covering a police chase on a Dallas freeway. They even had time for a clip from a Nebraska football game. But no Nobel Peace Prize, no Obama. The president's critics enjoy the right of free speech, but it can only be hoped this unexpected honor for Obama will remind them who he is: the president of the United States, an office that deserves our respect. The Nobel folks didn't just honor a man, they honored the American people for choosing a man of peace as its leader. We should all be humbled by this award, and work hard to live up to its expectations.

Tom Murphy, September 14, 2009

If tens of thousands of African Americans protested loudly in the streets of Washington during the Bush administration, you can bet the media would have reported loudly on the racial gulf between the president and the black community. If African Americans showed up a Bush rallies with rifles and pistols, you can bet they would have been locked up. But in the past few weeks, as conservative commentators and the insurance industry spread misleading information about Obama's plan to reform health care, the mainstream media has carefully avoided mentioning race. Watching video of the recent street protests in DC, and the raucous public hearings over healthcare, it was striking how many of those speaking out the loudest against health care reform were white - almost all.  Some carried signs comparing Obama to Hitler, or showing him in white face, or saying he should die. They denouced him as a communist, a socialist, a Nazi. Meanwhile, the president has listened to critics, tried to balance the reform measure and repeatedly tried to separate the cold facts from the disinformation spread by opponents. While most Americans have come to respect our first African-American president, it's worth asking: are some of the others just looking for reasons to denounce him?  The last I heard, it was a federal crime to threaten the life of the president of the United States. And frankly, I'd like to see that law enforced before some nutcase goes too far.

Tom Murphy, August 18, 2009

I've always resented parents who reward the problem child. Cry? Get some candy. Throw things? Get to watch TV. Stamp feet? OK...you can stay up another hour. We've been watching that behavior recently in the health care debate as a bunch of loud-mouth extremists - egged on by right-wing media outlets and conservative insurance companies - screamed, shouted and engaged in otherwise antisocial conduct at public hearings where senators came to answer the public's questions about health care. Not only did they treat our elected officials with gross disrespect, they shouted down the majorities of Americans who support health reform. Everyone agrees that all sides should be heard. But to act like spoiled bullies isn't in anyone's best interest - except that of the spoiled bullies. These folks represent a tiny minority; polls show Americans overwhelmingly want reform, including a government-run option. In fact, most Americans favor a single-payer system that would virtually eliminate the billing systems we have today - systems that eat up one-fifth of our health care dollars. But it looks like the angry children will get their way, with Democrats admitting they may hold off on a public option in the plan, even though as the majority party, they could push through a comprehensive reform package that most Americans want. It's a shame. And it's sure to encourage more bad behavior in the future.

Tom Murphy, August 4, 2009

The US stock market traditionally has served as a "lead indicator" for the rest of the US economy. So the fact that the S&P 500 Index is up a whopping 34 percent over the last five months bodes well. Afterall, that's the best five-month run-up since the Depression in 1938. Combined with stabilizing housing sales and only a modest decline in productivity during the second quarter, it has many people - including Newsweek magazine - predicting the recession is over. Well, not so fast. Something like 16 percent of American adults remain unemployed or underemployed. And US stocks (as well as boomer nest eggs) are still about one-third below their 2007 highs, depending what index you inspect. Housing prices have fallen by as much as half in many places, wiping out the equity that most homeowners had stored in them. A lot of the gains of the last five months have stemmed from Obama's stimulus plan, which included a few things like pumping cash into the clunker-trade-in program and bailouts to banks, which made money by leveraging all that money. That short-term relief will evaporate soon, and the economy - banks, carmakers, consumers - will have to make it or break it on its own. What then? Will consumers still want to buy cars when they aren't getting $4,500 back on each clunker? Will banks still be posting big earnings when they have to earn the money the old fashioned way? And will stocks keep heading up? Or will the big rally of 2009 turn out to be the biggest bear market rally of all times. Look out below!

Tom Murphy, July 18, 2009

In my three and one half decades of being a wage dog, I've commuted in almost all the ways you can: bus, ferry, subway, walking, motorbike, car and bicycle. I even tried jogging for a while. So far, I haven't flown anywhere on a daily basis, and I hope I never will. Of the methods I've tried, I prefer cycling. I get exercise. I save money. I feel liked I'm doing something for the environment. It makes me feel cool, even if I look silly to some people. But perhaps the biggest advantage is something that you hear a lot from people who exercise on a daily basis: it gives me time to think and it helps me relax. These factors weren't measured in a recent study that showed "active commuters" tend to be healthier people. But I think, perhaps, I'm a healthier person - mentally, at least - because I have that time to unwind between the office and work, and because I have time to use my brain to go over complex issues while using my muscles to power my bike. It isn't that hard to commute by bike. I wish more people would try it. I'm convinced we would all benefit if they did. To me, commuting on two wheels means a quick trip to a healthier society.

Tom Murphy, July 1, 2009

Maybe I'm a little slow, but it's taken me a half a century to recognize the best thing about Americans is that they're at their best when the world around them is at its worst. We're in two wars, one of which is going badly. The recession is still getting deeper with unemployment heading to double digits. Many cities and states - once-proud places like Detroit and California - are struggling and may never recapture their glory days. Poverty is soaring, along with hunger, homelessness and abandoned elders. It would be easy for a lot of the world's population to feel helpless and hopeless. Many countries would be ripe for social upheaval, even revolution. Not Americans. We're borrowed a couple of trillion from our Chinese friends with optimistic plans to fix up our homeland, put people to work and rebuild the health care industry. More important, an old sense of humility seems to have returned, with most of us finding new pleasures in old past times - like hiking, biking and spending time with friends - than in hocking our futures to buy gas-guzzling SUVs and 50-inch plasma TVs (hey, there's nothing on anyway!).  I don't know if we've seen the worst of times yet - that may be many years off. But I'm sure of one thing this Fourth of July: I'm proud of the ways Americans respond to hard times.

John McGowan, June 20, 2009

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There are serious issues in trying to create effective health care reform, and then there are the red herrings. Republicans are playing the “rationing” card as if the current set-up, where 45 million (at least) uninsured Americans don’t get adequate care, is not rationing. Just the market at work, I guess.  Can’t we just admit that a system where some people can get everything they need and others only what they can get from a public hospital’s emergency room is unacceptable? Probably not, unfortunately. The serious issue is that Americans spend twice as much for medical care (per capita) than most industrial nations and have almost nothing to show in the way of better results.  Real reform will figure out how to provide more service for less. It can be done. Whether it can be done here is another question.  I’d say the Obama administration and Congress has about a 10 percent chance of pulling it off. A sad commentary on our political system.

Tom Murphy, June 2, 2009

Bye-bye, Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levy, and then on to bankruptcy court. Has the American way of driving come to a screeching halt with the bankruptcy filing by GM? Or did it really end years ago, when most of us pointed out the insanity of driving gas-guzzlers in an era when consumers clearly wanted fuel-efficient compacts? I can recall as early as 1960 - when boomers were still being born - that my dad drove home our first Volkswagen and boasted how it got more than twice as many miles per gallon as the ugly old Plymouth it replaced. Then he bought another VW. But then he bought a Ford Fairlane 500, and a Buick Electra. Like my dad, Americans knew better, but couldn't resist the power and ego-charging effect of a big car. Detroit couldn't give up its fat profits, at least not as long as there were any. But the hard times have made us all think about our wasteful ways. I have no doubt that GM will emerge from bankruptcy soon, humbled and ready to compete more sensibly with Honda and Toyota. But it won't be easy. Their brand still screams 1960 to most of us while the Japanese car makers have convinced us they know more about what we want in the 21st century. GM will get its new models on the road, but they may be heading down a dead end.

Tom Murphy, May 17, 2009

I've driven across the US at least a half-dozen times and crossed it another half-dozen times by train. And I've found myself riding thousands of miles through scores of towns by bicycle. So I've seen America close up, and I've always been impressed by the pride of individuality that the people in even the most humble small town can show. It's ironic, because - as most of us know - most small towns are pretty much the same. They have the same box stores, brick schools, Main Street storefronts and a library tucked behind a nice green lawn. Most have well-trimmed parks where kids play on the same play equipment. Yet if you ask someone how they like it there, more often than not, they'll smile and talk about how nice it is - like there's just no other place like it. Another fixture in these towns is the Miracle Mile - the inevitable stretch of car dealers ready to make you a deal on wheels, whether it's a Chevy, Chrysler, Jeep, Buick, Caddy, Oldsmobile or Saturn. I've never really liked that part of town, but I know the tax revenue from those cars helps to keep the park's grass green, the schools in good repair and Main Street looking spiffy. Those dealers employ some strange salesmen, sure. But they also employ bookkeepers, janitors and mechanics - good, salt of the Earth people just trying to get by.  All those people send their kids to the schools, shop along Main Street, eat pie at the cafe and take in a show at the theater.  On the Fourth, they come out and watch their small town parade, drink beer, eat barbecue, argue politics and take some time to appreciate what they have. So the news that GM and Chrysler will shut down 1,900 dealers that offer all the brands I listed makes me a little sad. I know that when I roll into those towns in a couple of years, I'll find less pride. And if I ask someone what it's like, they may say, "It's nice. But not as nice as it used to be."

Tom Murphy, May 10, 2009

If we've learned anything in the past eight years, it is how hard it is for Americans to understand what life is like in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Along with a good deal of humility, perhaps we've also learned to be more sensitive to difficult lives that so many people live there. During the worst days of the Iraq war, more than 4 million people were forced to leave their homes because of imminent danger from militant groups or US forces. Afghanistan, which had virtually no opium production when the US invaded, now leads the world in turning out narcotics as the country itself struggles against a corrupt government that has strong American support. And in Pakistan, up to 500,000 peaceful civilians may be forced from their homes because an estimated 4,000 Taliban troops have invaded their province. Compare that to Santa Barbara, where 30,000 people fled a wildfire - a major disaster by American standards.  Truly, we cannot imagine what life is like on the other side of the world, even though we share in the responsibility for what happens there from day to day.

Jennifer Meacham, April 30, 2009

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As a former treasurer for the Young Republican Party in Pennsyslvania, I'm delighted to see Arlen Specter come out on the side of the Democrats. I have long supported his moves to rehab the welfare system (he rolled out a work-for-benefits program more than 20 years ago) and when Specter was eyed for VP to run under McCain I considered him to be one of the rare independent Republicans who could have pulled McCain through to victory. Yes, it's too bad that the Republican party that Specter once knew has not embraced his views on reforming social services, rather than axing them, and is opposed to his higher-education-learned economic strategy that has repaired America in other times of economic distress. But then again, there are a lot of former Republicans in the same boat - which is why Specter's district leaned increasingly Democrat in the last general election. My view? Congress needs someone like Specter on board, Democrat or not. He's doing the right thing by moving to the Democratic Party, where come next election he'll have a shot at the general election rather than being voted out of the running in the Republican Primary.

Tom Murphy, April 20, 2009

It's really hard to overestimate the differences between Barack Obama and George Bush. Bush authorized secret "harsh interrogation" and denied it was torture. Obama opened up records that described grotesque acts and let Americans make up their own minds. (And any sane person saw that it was torture.) Bush instituted the Bush Doctrine that allows the US to make a first strike against foreign government, and Obama shakes hands with Hugo Chavez and tells the world the US is no threat to any legal government. Bush maintained an iron curtain between the US and Cuba, and Obama seems eager to tear down that wall. The election has been over for a while now, but it's good to think about what might have been if McCain won. Would he have released the torture memos? Shaken hands with Chavez? Reached out to Cuba?

Tom Murphy, April 6, 2009

One of the first group games I learned - in kindergarten, I think - was musical chairs. I never expected that amusement to become a way of life, but here we are mired in a recession. The music has stopped, an I see tens of millions of people scrambling for some semblance of security. State and local governments are thinking of raising taxes and payroll deductions on employees to cover the cost of pension plans they promised. And although they're $1 trillion in the hole, they're still promising pensions to new employees. Companies like GM and Chrysler are trying to convince the Obama administration they can again dominate the auto world if they can get just one more bailout. Somehow it all sounds like a junkie saying he'll get straight after just one more fix. And then there are the "honest" criminals who simply steal, cheat and rob old people. Surely, there's a lower circle of hell where we can put them along with other people who probably never should have been on Earth in the first place. Almost forgotten in all this are the hard-working people who resisted the temptation to borrow more money than they can afford to pay back, who've saved carefully for 40 years so they can enjoy modest comforts in retirement and who believed the government when they promised pensions, Social Security, Medicare and other benefits in exchange for their good citizenship. When the music's over, I hope to see this last group smiling broadly in comfortable loungers while the others count their losses on the sidelines.

Tom Murphy, March 25, 2009

As the US war in Afghanistan rages through a seventh year, the opium production has never been higher. Afghanistan now accounts for most of the world's heroin. This comes to mind as we read the US will send money, guns and technology to try to prevent the horrid drug violence from Mexico from crossing into the US.  South of the border, more than 7,000 people have been killed by drug cartels, mostly with weapons smuggled in from the US. Those drugs may happen to come from South America, but does it matter? In Washington, lawmakers are horrified, but not horrified enough to enact tough restrictions on high-velocity automatic handguns or assault weapons that are designed to hunt and kill human beings. The world is smaller than it used to be - too small for us to ignore our role in the spreading violence linked to drugs in Mexico or to the lost souls who use those drugs in American cities. We can help to break this chain of violence, or we can help sustain it. Which will it be?

Tom Murphy, March 15, 2009

There's a lot of talk these days about how to manage your money, and most of it is lousy advice - at least IMHO. The president is even telling investors to have confidence in the market - the same investors who've just lost half their money in the worst market decline since the Great Depression. China's premier is expressing doubt about US Treasuries, which have declined about 2.7 percent this year. (China owns about $660 billion worth of them, so I guess Premier Wen feels a lot like other baby boomers these days.)  I don't usually give a lot of financial advice in columns because I always believe that individuals are best served by sitting down with an independent counselor who can look at their specific situation. But I will say this: If you ain't got it, don't spend it. The subprime borrowers who bought homes they couldn't afford wouldn't do it again. So why would you want to go out and buy a big-screen TV you don't really need? Or a vacation that you'd be paying off for the rest of the year? Instead, use your cash to pay off your credit cards - every month. Never spend more than you have in the bank. And try easing your pain with nice home-cooked comfort food instead of a night on the town. If you do, you just might get through this thing with some cash in your pocket. Oh, and a personal note to President Obama and Premier Wen: That advice works for governments, too.

Robin Evans, March 5, 2009

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While the President considers what he can do to help reduce health care costs, the situation becomes increasingly dire as millions of laid-off workers find that they can't or can barely manage to keep their health care. The "low-cost" insurance available through a federal program called COBRA is too high for some people. COBRA, which continues you on the program you had as an employee for up to 18 months, can still be as high as $400 for a single person. So some people are cutting back on food to afford COBRA. Some are just cutting out health insurance. As the unemployment numbers swell and the economy continues to slide, there's a disaster in the making for county emergency rooms, which are not allowed to turn people away yet are already under horrible financial pressure from the legions of people who didn't have insurance in the first place. The health care situation needs to be as high on the President's priority list as the economic stimulus.

Tom Murphy, February 28, 2009

As the US turns its military towards Afghanistan instead of Iraq, a political war is brewing in Washington. President Obama has changed the country's direction more dramatically than, perhaps, any president since FDR. He wants to reform healthcare, a goal Bill and Hillary Clinton abandoned at in 1994. He wants to end the trickle-down economics adopted during the Reagan era. He wants to cure cancer in the greatest technological challenge since Kennedy's vow to land on the moon. Republicans have made it clear they will fight him at every turn, despite polls showing Americans overwhelmingly support these steps, and despite Obama's frequent overtures at bipartisanship. To be truly inclusive, government must consider all points of view, but all must then be willing to contribute to the solution. Dissent is a cornerstone of this society. Standing in the way of progress during these hard times is unimaginable.

Tom Murphy, February 15, 2009

You know you're a boomer if "The New Deal" immediately summons up memories of grade school even before images of breadlines. We learned all about FDR's giant stimulus plan and the amazing things it accomplished - new dams, giant public arts programs, job training and so much more. Even now I can't believe that the government paid Dorothea Lange to take pictures and Woody Guthrie to write songs. But I also recall it wasn't the spending plan that go the US out of the Depression. It was World War II at a cost of millions upon millions of lives. Now as we embark on the biggest stimulus plan since The New Deal, I have high expectations. And great fear. All we know for sure is that there are times ahead that will test our souls, and I dread that day more than any grammar school quiz I ever got about the alphabet soup of The New Deal.



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