Friday, May 21, 2010

The reality of Obama's WNY visit

From the 24 May 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Like a majority of Western New Yorkers, I listened intently to President Obama’s visit as it was broadcast on the local media outlets. Being a small business owner, I was very interested in what he had to say about the private sector since it appeared to be the sole reason for his trip (well, besides throwing a bone to Senator Gillibrand and giving her some much-needed name recognition by accepting her invitation). I thought the speech might have turned into one of those few times when I actually agree with him.

But, alas, I was let down.

Unlike most star-struck locals I was able to digest the content of his speech and look past the highly-publicized hysteria over the crass “hottie” comment and his choice of Duff’s chicken wings. Only in WNY could the President’s lunch be the lead-in to news coverage. And, people wonder why our local economy has been a mess for decades: When it comes to government we focus on unimportant inanity.

It was about half-way through Obama’s monologue that I was thinking the tide might be turning. He said something that I’ve been saying for years: “…government is not the true engine of job creation and economic growth in this country. Businesses are. Especially small businesses...” He followed that up by saying, “Government can’t guarantee a company’s success, but it can knock down the barriers that prevent small business owners…” It was there that he inserted one of his patented pauses. For that second I was getting excited, thinking he might finish the sentence with, “...from growing their businesses”, followed by a focus on taking down those government-made barriers that business owners find so oppressive (high taxes, over-regulation, etc.). But, instead, he burst my bubble and ended his thought with “…from getting loans or investing in the future.” He proceeded to speak at length about the importance of federally-guaranteed SBA loans in helping companies manage their inventory, pay workers or expand their facilities.

Many would find fault in that emphasis, rightly assuming that the role of financing the private sector is solely the responsibility of the private sector. The federal government should not be in the business of helping to extend loans to new and growing businesses and having the taxpayers assume their risk. It’s up to banks to do that alone.

His speech might have been meaningful in California or Nevada where many banks folded due to the collapse of the housing markets in those states, thus creating some lending fear and causing more businesses to lean on the SBA. But, it was extremely odd (if not incredibly poor planning by his staff) to push his government loan message in WNY. Buffalo-Niagara is the cradle of M&T and First Niagara Banks, two lenders that weathered the recession like no other. First Niagara has been expanding like it’s going out of style and M&T has been a very strong performer, one that was literally forced by the feds to take TARP funds. With solid, major players like that in the Buffalo market the SBA message isn’t so important.

The speech made evident that Obama’s brand of economic theory has some holes in it. He went on and on about the importance of capital being available to businesses and that its easy access would allow the economy to flourish. That’s not the case. Sure, money helps, but having all the money in the world available for borrowing is no good if the entrepreneur has no reason to borrow it and/or no ability to pay it back. He or she will only borrow money if it is known that the economy is active enough to induce existing and potential customers to spend their income – or credit - on the products or services of the company in question. Based on what’s been happening in the local/national/global economies since the close of 2007 the consumer demand just isn’t there, whether the consumer is an individual or a business. Businesses aren’t being prevented from borrowing. They just haven’t had the need to do so. That’s something that my banker has said time and again since the Great Recession began. He’s said his bank has the money and nobody wants it.

Supply and demand (Economics 101) is something that Obama needs to understand and obviously doesn’t based on the message of this speech and others. If he actually walked the walk and dedicated his agenda to his thought that businesses are the engine of job creation he would trim our government and not expand it every chance he gets. Then and only then can our economy grow.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Uncle Sam: Drug Lord

From the 17 May 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Many people were shocked when last week it was announced that US Army personnel have enrolled in substance abuse counseling for the use of opiates at record rates. This family of drugs, which includes morphine and heroin, has caused the number of counseled personnel to rise from 89 in 2004 to 529 in 2009.

According to the US Army the rise in counseling may be attributable to painkillers related to previous deployments or maybe even increased admission of abuse. Both claims are implausible, especially the latter, as it’s foolish to believe that in 5 years soldiers have become nearly 500 percent more likely to report an addiction to just one type of drug.

The truth of the matter is the Army spin doctors won’t tell us that use/abuse is up because of where the soldiers are and what they are being directed to do.

The spike in counseling coincides with the threefold increase in the number of personnel deployed to Afghanistan. It just so happens that Afghanistan is the world’s Garden of Eden for opium. In 2007, over 93 percent of all cultivated opiates originated in Afghanistan. A quarter of all farmland in the Helmand province alone is dedicated to opium poppies and the trade – controlled by the Taliban - supports 1.4 million households in Afghanistan. By Afghan standards the financial yield per acre is impressive: An opium farmer can earn $500 to $1,500 per acre and that’s after he has paid back his seed loan to the Taliban and paid the Taliban a 10 percent cut of his profits. If he were to grow wheat (which requires more work and more water unlike the drought-resistant poppy) his earnings would be about $320 per acre.

In their occupation of Afghanistan our forces have taken a hands-off approach to the opium farms. Whereas they would destroy them in the Western Hemisphere, they leave them alone in the East. The catch-phrase in the military is that they “tolerate” opium production. They say they do so because it’s the main livelihood for a majority of the Afghan farmers and were they to take away their cash crop and force them to take down their standard of living a few notches the Afghans would rebel and turn on all attempts to free (read “Westernize”) their society. Things are so out of whack that our soldiers have even been directed to guard numerous poppy fields with their lives. They are, in essence, fighting to keep heroin flowing to the United States or, as the statistics show, into their veins. These are things that our young soldiers definitely didn’t sign-up to do. To many of them, the guarding of the plants is morally and/or logically reprehensible. But, they must do as they are told.

This protection of the poppies proves that if anyone needs counseling it’s Uncle Sam as he seems to be suffering not from drug problems but rather from schizophrenia. On one hand, while abroad, our government enables and empowers the growth and distribution of opiates from the world’s Number One source. And then back home, it turns on its own people and incarcerates recreational drug users in droves, people who use the very drugs that were grown before our soldier’s eyes.

What could account for this hypocrisy, this dedicated effort to play both side of the fence in regard to the drug trade? It’s definitely not national security. Are overseas terror regimes so dangerous to Americans that we’re better off by sacrificing our citizens through a drug war that arrests 1.9 million of them per year? No. It’s probably money driving this whole thing. It’s blatantly obvious someone is profiting from this two-sided affair, and it’s not the American taxpayers who are funding the wars on terror and drugs. It’s the opium farmers and traders in Afghanistan who export $64 billion of the substance every year. It’s our own government (and the industrial complex and contractors that feed it) which spends an average of $34.9 billion per year on the Afghan occupation. It’s our federal and state governments who combined blow $50 billion annually on the drug war.

You can’t help but look at this mess through the eyes of a conspiracy theorist because it just doesn’t add up. By doing what it’s doing in the Middle East and in Middle America, the federal government is both drug lord and drug buster, fashioning a self-perpetuating war on drugs.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


From the 10 May 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Michael Bloomberg may be a billionaire and the mayor of New York City, but that doesn’t mean he can’t say some stupid things. In an interview held last week with Katie Couric of CBS News he speculated on the make-up of the mastermind behind the attempted car bombing of Times Square. Despite his city once being horrifically attacked by Islamic extremists, he said the car bomber was "homegrown, maybe a mentally deranged person or someone with a political agenda that doesn't like the health care bill or something." It was announced within minutes of the close of that news broadcast that the perpetrator was nothing of the sort. The suspect is Faisal Shahzad, a Muslim who was born in and was heading back to Pakistan.

To confidently assume that the bomber was a government critic – a Tea Party type of person - shows what Bloomberg and countless other elected officials think about the American citizenry. In their eyes, those who are critical of the government are deranged (and therefore can’t be taken seriously) and/or one step away from inflicting violence upon their fellow citizens and their government. Many politicians are guilty of thinking this way, from town halls to state houses to the White House.

Our past two presidents perfectly exemplify this rapidly growing disrespect that our government has for those critical of it. The role of the presidency is supposed to be something above such politicking and posturing, but, alas, Bush and Obama have made it acceptable to throw barbs at dissenters and viciously label them as anti-American and anti-human. Bush played that card ad naseum, he and his cronies painting those against the Patriot Act and other similar atrocities as classless individualists who value the trivialness of self over the supposed well-being of everyone else. Obama has followed suit, saying the same about those who are against bailouts, health care, and climate legislation.

The mainstream media, specifically at the national level, helps push this whole thing along. Katie Couric of course had nothing to say in response to Bloomberg’s outlandish comment. Anyone worth their salt as a reporter would have asked him to expound on it or broach the greater possibility of the suspect being a Muslim. She and her ilk also give Obama a free pass with his constant derision of naysayers and folks of the Right mindset (half the US population mind you) by at once fawning over his agenda and his methods. Also, the press is somehow influenced into splitting its priorities: They spew relentless negative coverage of peaceful Tea Party demonstrations yet haven’t touched the countless illegal immigrant protests that are a real threat to America, full of known lawbreakers who actually threaten – and commit - violence against our country and its legal citizens.

Tactics such as these have been used by the ruling class for as long as we’ve been a nation, though not in the volume and relentlessness that it is today. What accounts for this ever-growing purposeful silencing by minimization? It’s definitely because the government feels more threatened than ever before. In just the past ten years the Internet has made it extremely easy for people across the nation to connect with and educate one another on the goings-on in their communities and in Washington. And, not only is our electorate now more educated, but they’re a lot angrier, too. Just look at what’s fed their rage since the turn of the century: Domestic spying, 2 wars, inflation, higher energy costs, clean energy fiascos, a debilitating recession, trillions in giveaways to Wall Street, a public sector that won’t make sacrifices, new and higher taxes, and much more.

We have just cause to be mad and we have the right to do something about it. So, if you are a dissenter – which I hope you are - don’t be discouraged by those in power who look to silence you. Keep yourself informed on the issues. Keep complaining. Keep introducing new ideas. Above all, keep up the fight...somebody has to.