Friday, October 29, 2010

California's Government Reform Angel

In America's business world, an angel investor, also just called angel, is generally a wealthy individual who provides capital and strategic planning advice for a promising business start-up, usually in exchange for different types of equity securities, giving the investor a significant ownership interest in the start-up. In this post I want to discuss a different type of angel, one who is providing capital and advice with the noble and highly ambitious objective of successfully reforming California's dysfunctional state government.

The little known and unlikely angel's name is Nicolas Berggruen, 49, a French born businessman whose net worth has been estimated by Forbes magazine at $2.2 billion, primarily earned from investments in a number of very different businesses, including a hedge fund management company, a leveraged buy-out company, windmill farms in Turkey, a large newspaper publishing firm in Spain, and a failing German department store group he took over earlier this year. He seems to be a very eccentric fellow, reportedly owning no home and no car, but travelling around the world in his own plane and living in fancy hotels.

What's his connection to the U. S. and California? Well, he got a degree in finance and international business from New York University. In his younger days he was employed by some American companies. He's a member of the Young Presidents' Organization, the global network of chief executive officers originally started in the U. S. He sits on the board of several major museums, including LACMA in Los Angeles and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Berggruen came more into the public eye recently when he contributed $250,000 to oppose California's Proposition 23 that seeks to suspend the landmark global warming law. He has founded an independent non-partisan think tank and consultancy, the Nicolas Berggruen Institute (NBI), based in New York, dedicated to exploring new ideas for good governance suited to the new and complex challenges most governments, including California, are now facing.

Berggruen decided that California's government would be a worthy volunteer assignment for NBI and a few days ago announced that he was forming a high profile group he named Think Long Committee for California to work on pragmatic, non-partisan plans to fix the state government. The Committee's first meeting took place two days ago on the campus of Google hosted by one of its members, CEO Eric Schmidt, with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a guest. Notable among the other Committee members are former secretaries of State George Schultz and Condoleezza Rice, former Assembly speakers Willie Brown and Bob Hertzberg, former governor Gray Davis, former state treasurer Matt Fong, developer and philanthropist Eli Broad, and partner of the investment firm TGP Capital, David Bonderman.

Berggruen has committed at least $20 million for the Committee to get this project off the ground. He's indicated he envisions a California government that is competent, flexible and efficient, able to close the innovation and entrepreneurship gap that is emerging between California and places like Singapore and China, and has emphasized the importance of thinking long-term. He has apparently given the Committee six months to come up with their report and specific recommendations for implementation.

There have been some other recent unsuccessful non-government efforts to try to reform California's government. One involved organizers for a state constitutional convention which had to be abandoned because they didn't have enough funds. Another major effort was made by a think tank, California Forward, a political organization created in 2006, that was advocating for a package of statewide propositions to be put on the ballot for next week's elections. Impressively the effort was encouraged by several socio-political groups and supported by $16 million in donations from five major foundations. Hertzberg has been a co-chair of California Forward. However, the think tank lost momentum when Sacramento legislators balked at its plans and surprisingly nobody, apparently including the foundations, stepped forward to provide the extra funding needed to put the group's proposals before the voters.

It obviously won't be easy for Berggruen and Think Long Committee for California to succeed, given the degree of dysfunction involved and expected resistance from the Legislature, the public employee unions, lobbyists and other special interests. However, he has assembled a very experienced and talented group with deep knowledge of California politics and strong private sector business management and finance skills. With Berggruen's financial resources and possible access to additional resources from Broad and some of the other well-to-do members, and perhaps also the five big foundations that supported California Forward, they should have adequate funding.

It's hard to understand why it should take someone like Berggruen, from France (and homeless!), to organize a serious independent effort to fix California's government, but I think it has a fair chance to succeed. As long as the Committee members work together cooperatively on a non-partisan basis, they will most probably come up with a viable report with sound recommendations. The public is certainly ready for prudent reform and for the most part will support the effort. The prime challenges will be in overcoming the resistance from political opponents and those who will be adversely impacted financially, and, of course, gaining final legislative approval.

I would hope and expect that our new governor, whether Meg Whitman or Jerry Brown, would also support the Committee's non-partisan recommendations and would urge the Committee to invite the new governor to one of their upcoming meetings. Thank you Mr. Berggruen for your initiative and generosity. Bon voyage!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Education Reform Revisited

Despite stubborn resistance from the two large teachers unions, public K-12 education reform in this country seems to be slowly moving forward in the right direction, but there's definitely a great deal still to be done, and one has to expect that it will take many more years to complete what is needed.

I published two posts on education reform on my blog before which discussed most of the key problems and challenges and offered a long list of solutions. The first was titled "K-12 Public Education" published on 11/23/07 and the second was "Public Education" on 11/12/08, nearly two years ago. Certainly I agree with those who maintain that this issue should be one of America's top priorities, right behind national security and rebuilding our nation's economy.

Some of the key concerns cited were that in too many schools, especially in many of our larger urban areas, there are unacceptably high drop-out rates, disgraceful 40-50% graduation rates, poor test scores, clear evidence that a disturbing percentage of these students were not mastering the material taught, with the result that they had no chance to go to college and little chance to get any good-paying jobs. In fact, a great many of them in recent years have turned to crime and ended up in our crowded prisons. As I mentioned in my first post in 2007 as many as 75-80% of the 2.2 million people in our federal, state and local prisons and jails were high school drop-outs! Embarrassing, shameful and sad!

Just from an economic point of view, how much better off would our country and society be if our educational system, supported perhaps in many cases by better parenting and more effective community organizations, could get more of these kids to stay in school, graduate and obtain better jobs and staying out of trouble. The income and sales taxes they would pay, added to the large savings from not bearing the substantial costs of having many of them in jail or prison, could be quite substantial.

Why has this been happening? What and who are to blame? There are many different opinions. However, most knowledgeable educators, politicians and parents place much of the blame on poor performing and ineffective teachers and principals in many of our schools. This has been exacerbated by the difficulty and high expense generally involved in removing these people as result of terms in negotiated labor union contracts, particularly teachers and principals who have tenure, often achieved after just two years of employment.

The labor unions, primarily the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), have been effective in obtaining attractive benefits and job security for teachers and principals. But they have been unreasonably opposed to any significant education reforms, including meaningful objective teacher and principal evaluations and renegotiating the sensitive issue of tenure. Union leaders see their prime job as protecting their members, not providing a high quality education to their students, though, to be fair, they are of course also interested in that. These leaders don't want to see even justified lay-offs of their members because it would adversely impact the dues they receive which pays for their personal high levels of compensation and benefits. This is not acceptable and must be addressed in future contract negotiations.

Other reasons for the poor education results include, as most readers know, overcrowded classes, inadequate school facilities, starting teacher salaries that are often too low to attract more qualified personnel, schoolyard discipline, insufficient student fluency in English, negative impact of inner city gangs, unmotivated students, unsatisfactory parenting, and learning expectations for students by parents, administrators and teachers that are too low. There are two other reasons I want to add: insufficient affordable pre-K educational facilities and a bloated bureaucracy among federal, state and local education officials with overlapping responsibilities and unclear accountabilities. Obviously many schools are performing very well and these reasons don't apply to them. And, of course, the above conditions vary greatly among low performing schools.

The solutions to these problems are largely self-evident, especially: removing poor and ineffective teachers and principals, replacing them with higher salaried, higher qualified educators, more effective sharing of "best practices" by successful districts and schools, improving inadequate facilities, working with local police forces and community organizations to better combat gang interference, setting much higher expectations for student achievement, and getting rid of bloated educational bureaucracy and sharpen accountabilities. In most cases removing poor and ineffective teachers and principals will require tough negotiations and cooperation, backed by increased public pressure, with the relative labor unions.

Additional important and challenging solutions include better parenting and significantly increasing student motivation to get a good education, which clearly are closely related. Schools can contribute to better parenting by communicating effectively with parents at the beginning of each school year what the school expects of them and what parents have a right to expect from the school. This can be done by letter or by an orientation meeting for parents at school. Strengthening student motivation are responsibilities of both the school, primarily teachers and principals, and students' family, primarily the parents.

To my surprise, frankly, noted Newsweek columnist, Robert Samuelson, in his 9/13/10 column "Why School 'Reform' Fails", believes that frequently shrunken student motivation, especially in high schools, is the main reason why attempts at education reforms have largely failed in recent years. Motivation has weakened, he wrote, because more students "don't like school, don't work hard, and don't do well". I don't disagree with the latter, but the more important question is why. Parenting must be a big part of the equation in the majority of cases.

I should mention the "Race to the Top" competition initiative of President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to distribute a total of $4.3 billion of federal money to selected states deemed most successful in implementing innovative and necessary reforms. In August Duncan announced ten winners including Washington, D. C., New York, Florida and Ohio, but excluding California. It seems to be a good initiative, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, but I'm concerned about the concept of spending that much taxpayer money to incent innovation and reform. It gets the attention of states to act, but is the process completely fair and is it necessary to spend that much money, considering the widespread concern with our budget deficit and national debt?

At the outset I said I felt that reform was slowly moving in the right direction. Why? The answer is in innovative recent reform initiatives by a small group of dedicated individuals that have gotten a great deal of favorable publicity:

1. The recently released movie, "Waiting for Superman", a very compelling public education documentary film by Davis Guggenheim, whose main point is that our future depends to a large extent on good teachers and that the coddling of bad teachers by their powerful unions virtually insures mediocrity, at best, in both teachers and the students in their care.

2. Innovative educator and reformer, blunt talking Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone school in Central Harlem, New York, who was a major commentator in Guggenheim's film and a guest on one of Oprah Winfrey's highly popular recent TV programs. A former teacher and consultant, Canada became very frustrated by the bureaucracy in our education system and the difficulty of effecting change. He has provided a pipeline for his students to follow from birth to college, giving them a safety net, so they would never fall of track. President Obama has described Harlem Children's Zone as a miracle and plans to try and replicate its success in cities across the country.

3. The new partnership among the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, the Democratic mayor of Newark, Corey Booker, and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, to completely reform Newark's very troubled school system. Christie is a native of Newark who won the election for governor last November on a strong promise to fix a "failed state". The three of them also were guests last month on one of Winfrey's TV programs. Christie said on the program that he will empower Booker to be in charge of the reform project and together they will choose the right new superintendent for the school system and discuss the major objectives and priorities of the project. The wealthy Zuckerberg announced he will provide a $100 million challenge grant to support the project! When asked why he would do that, Zuckerberg said he wants other children to have the same educational opportunities that he has had, and he really believes in Christie and Booker's commitment and abilities to accomplish the reform that is needed.

4. The popularity and success of the growing KIPP ("Knowledge is Power Program") of 99 schools in 20 states plus Washington, D. C., the nation-wide network of free open-enrollment college prep public charter schools in under-resourced communities. KIPP was founded in Houston, Texas in 1994 by two teachers, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, based on the following key education principles: outstanding teachers, more student time in school, rigorous college-prep curriculum, and a strong culture of achievement and support. In 2000 the co-founders of Gap, Inc., the large apparel retailer, Doris and Donald Fisher, gave KIPP a $15 million grant to help them finance expansion of the network. It's noteworthy that 95% of KIPP students are African-American or Latino/Hispanic.

5. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of Microsoft fame is the biggest private player in the school reform movement providing a highly impressive $200 million annually in grants to elementary and high school education where innovation and reform are high priorities of its leaders!

Despite the substantial grants mentioned above, and their importance in providing needed funding for attracting top teachers and building quality school facilities, it's not always a requirement for education reform. A lot can be done by strong leadership, as was evident by what Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the school system, and Mayor Adrian Fenty, accomplished in initiating drastic reforms in Washington, D. C. Another example is demonstrated by the recently premiered "School Pride" TV program which shows what can be done by community volunteers, including teachers, parents and students, supported by local small business contributions of equipment and supplies, in renovating dilapidated schools, such as Enterprise Middle School in Compton, California.

The needed reforms will obviously not be achieved if it's left to the labor unions or even the politicians. It requires continuing public pressure and the active involvement on a sustained basis for years by tens of millions of parents and voters, supported by the local and national media. This clear conclusion is a no-brainer!!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

California Governor's Race

The nation's most populous state with an estimated 39 million residents has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best places to live, with a lot of things going for it, including unmatched climate, many excellent universities, and an incredible variety of superb recreational opportunities. Ironically, however, California these days is also a state known for its poor K-12 public school system, a generally unfavorable business climate, a very serious unemployment rate exceeding 12%, and a dysfunctional government with a lousy record in financial management.

The governor and his staff are expected to be leading the way to fix the problems in effective collaboration with the 120 members of the State Legislators, 80 in the State Assembly and 40 in the State Senate, currently controlled by a Democratic majority. For a number of reasons, the individual and collective efforts of the governor and state legislators have not been very successful in at least recent years, and many voters would probably say that their performance has been unacceptable or worse.

One of the reasons for this very unsatisfactory situation is that the politicians have been too ideological, have lacked pragmatic problem solving skills, and have not focused properly on meeting the needs of the state and its residents and taxpayers. It would also seem the majority of them were not independent enough to do what was right on too many issues, because of undue pressure from important campaign contributors, especially businesses in case of Republicans and public employee and labor unions in the case of Democrats.

The current governor, famous body-builder, actor, businessman and philanthropist, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, assumed office in November 2003 as result of a recall election removing Gray Davis, a Democrat. Schwarzenegger finished Davis' term and then was reelected in 2006 to serve through 2010. The upcoming election on November 2nd to determine the new governor is primarily a race between experienced business executive Meg Whitman, a Republican, 54 years old, trying to become the first female California governor, and veteran politician Jerry Brown, a Democrat, a still vigorous 72, whose father, Pat Brown, served as governor from 1959 until 1967.

As most California voters know by now, Whitman, one of the wealthiest women in the state, was CEO and President of eBay Inc., the large and successful internet auction and shopping firm, from 1998 until 2008. Before that she was an executive with The Walt Disney Company, DreamWorks, Procter & Gamble, and Hasbro. She was educated at Princeton and the Harvard Business School. Brown is the state's current Attorney General, assuming this position in 2007. Before that he was Mayor of Oakland, Chairman of the California Democratic Party, Secretary of State, and Governor from 1975 until 1983. He was educated primarily at U. C. Berkeley and the Yale Law School.

It looks like it will be a close race. According to polling by Rasmussen Reports as of October 4th, Brown had the support of 49% of likely voters and Whitman 44%, with 4% undecided and the remaining 4% for other relatively unknown candidates. On Tuesday Brown and Whitman had the third of their three debates over the past few weeks at Dominican University in San Rafael just north of San Francisco. The moderator was the well regarded retired NBC anchor and journalist Tom Brokaw. There were no special surprises and no outstanding performances, though I thought Brokaw did quite well. Democrats will probably feel that Brown won, and Republicans that Whitman did. Having watched all three debates, I thought they were about even in the first, Brown won the second, and Whitman had a slight edge in this last one.

As often happens in political debates, there was too much time devoted to relatively minor and insignificant issues and too little to the major substantive issues, such as specifically how the candidates will create the millions of new jobs they promise, keeping in mind that the governor has limited ability and authority to deliver, especially for private sector positions. Whitman clearly was more articulate with well rehearsed remarks, but I wish she didn't smile continuously throughout the debates. It seemed contrived. Brown, very passionate as usual, seemed to speak on-the-cuff most of the time, seemed overly serious and didn't smile hardly at all. Like most politicians, both Whitman and Brown have unfairly exaggerated the positions of their opponent on several issues.

Whitman's business experience is a big plus, but her complete lack of government experience and fact that she apparently didn't vote in political elections for the past 28 years are noteworthy negatives. I don't like the fact that she has spent more than $120 million of her own money financing her campaign, although it's not her fault that it's perfectly legal to do that. Furthermore, she makes a sound argument in saying that financing the bulk of her campaign herself makes her more independent from special interests compared to Brown, who has been much more needy of contributions from unions and others. Her changing and current position on reforming illegal immigration with no path to citizenship for any of them will most likely hurt her prospects with the Hispanic voters she has been courting in recent months. It may also hurt her with some non-Hispanic Democratic and Independent voters, although it will solidify her existing support from many Republicans.

However, I like Whitman's position that California needs to implement a comprehensive, innovative and effective program to retain and recruit new businesses to the state by making the business climate much more attractive by such as lowering corporate income taxes and streamlining state regulations to make us more competitive with other states such as Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Texas. While most owners and senior executives of these businesses might prefer to live in California, the overall economics too often makes it attractive to move their factories and distribution centers, as well as most of their non-executive jobs to these other states. I witnessed this trend in my career as a corporate and investment banker in southern California.

Whitman is right to think that the new governor needs to find ways to reduce state expenditures to help balance our recurring budget deficits and laying off people whose jobs are not really needed is certainly one way to do that. But laying off as many as 40,000 of the current total of 239,000 employees seems drastic. I think voters should have an idea of where those 40,000 workers are employed and what would be the financial and service consequences of laying them off when all the relative costs like pension obligations and potential termination litigation expenses are tabulated.

Brown's long experience in government in California and intimate knowledge of leaders in the Legislature and how issues are solved or not solved are significant positives for him, although it's also true that a "fresh approach" by a business experienced outsider such as Whitman might work well. Brown will most likely get more support from the increasingly important Hispanic block of voters, given the incident with Whitman's maid and the fact that he supports a path for citizenship for the illegals under prospective immigration reform legislation. I also suspect he will have most of the support from California's environmentalists, given his track record and Whitman's positions on the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB32) and Proposition 23, which seeks to suspend implementation of AB32 relating to air pollution controls.

The business community, most Republicans and many Independents are likely to support Whitman because of her perceived strengths in dealing pragmatically with improving the economy, contributing to job growth, being effective in cutting expenditures and moving the state toward a balanced budget. These perceptions are reasonably justified and will have an adverse impact on Brown's prospects. However, she may well have a difficult time getting needed legislation through the Democratically controlled Legislature, depending on the composition of this body after the upcoming elections.

There are not likely to be any new campaign surprises to impact the election between now and November 2nd. As is often the case, the outcome will largely depend on the components of the voter turnout, only 61.2% in 2008, and how Independents and political moderates decide to vote. Both candidates have the ability and potential to be effective governors, but whoever wins needs to prioritize improving the state's economy with a much more acceptable unemployment rate, restoring prudent financial management, and fixing our K-12 public education system. The winner also badly needs a State Legislature whose leaders will pragmatically collaborate with the governor in solving these issues. It will largely be up to Independents and moderates to decide which candidate can best deal with California's priority needs.

Friday, October 8, 2010

U. S. Energy Plan

President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu need to get going on finally putting together their comprehensive national energy plan. They have acknowledged it's an important priority, and have begun to implement a few good initiatives like funding clean energy technology and research. I'm fairly confident they'll get to it in the next several months, but the clock is ticking. No doubt the main reason for the delay is that the president has had his hands quite full with the weak economy, foreign policies, including the two wars, health care and financial regulatory reform, among many legislative issues.

The energy plan issue got a lot of provocative publicity about two weeks ago when General Electric's Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt made a speech in Washington, D. C. at the Gridwise Global Forum, which happened to be co-hosted by Chu's Department of Energy. An article in the Wall Street Journal on 9/24 discussed his remarks. Immelt warned that the lack of a comprehensive U. S. energy policy and its "stupid" current structure are causing America to fall behind in new energy fields. He indicated that China is moving faster to develop clean technologies such as nuclear power, electric vehicles and wind power. New York Times journalist and author Thomas Friedman has commented on this as well in his recent book "The World is Flat."

In my blog post back on May 6th I also commented on this subject, emphasizing that the U. S. can learn a lot from other countries who are leaders in their respective fields of energy development: Germany with solar, France with nuclear, Denmark with wind and biomass, and China with electric vehicles and most of the others.

Important reasons why China is moving faster than us, Immelt pointed out, is that they, as well as Canada and Australia, have a much simpler regulatory structure for energy development and the government policies provide more support to the industry, handicapping opportunities for American companies like GE. Of course, China's centrally controlled government system doesn't have to deal very much with public opinion, special interests, and an independent judiciary, compared to the case in the U. S.

Immelt was also particularly critical of how the U. S. has failed to maintain and expand our nuclear power industry. He apparently indicated that only one new nuclear power plant is being built in the U. S. now, whereas there are close to fifty being built in the rest of the world, many in China. As is widely known, there are a number of key reasons for this situation: huge costs, limited appetite from prospective lenders to provide financing, environmental resistance, safety concerns, and lobbying by the utilities and coal mining industry. Right now there are 104 commercial nuclear power plants licensed to operate in this country and they currently provide roughly 20% of the nation's total electric energy consumption, coal-fired power plants providing 50% or so.

In some defense of President Obama, it should be noted that in February of this year his administration approved an $8 billion loan guarantee for the construction of two nuclear reactors in Georgia. If the project goes forward, these would be the first plants to start construction in the U. S. since the 1970's! And in May last year he announced a national fuel efficiency policy aimed at increasing fuel economy and reducing greenhouse gas pollution for all new cars and trucks sold here. The new standards, covering model years 2012-2016, ultimately require an average standard of 35.5 mpg in 2016 for cars and were intended as one step to move us closer to his goal of national energy independence.

Secretary Chu did acknowledge at the Forum that an energy policy overhaul is needed. Components of this must include close collaboration with Congress, the private sector, environmental interests, and the public on how we can best move forward aggressively to meet our energy needs as efficiently and prudently as possible.

Priority objectives should include maximizing clean and renewable sources and becoming as independent as possible of imports from the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, but excluding Canada, a major supplier. Surely this means over time a much lesser reliance on coal-fired power plants, more reliance on natural gas, more selective drilling for oil in the U. S. and certain offshore areas, much more nuclear power for electricity, more electric vehicles, and much greater production of electricity from clean coal technology, solar, geothermal, biomass and wind power sources.

The tricky part is fairly balancing the needs of the private sector, consumers, taxpayers, environmentalists, and our government. This energy transformation cannot come at the undue expense of our state and federal governments. The ultimate though obviously challenging goal must be to manage this transformation so it fulfills the reasonable needs of all the above players, and promotes economic growth without a federal budget deficit and without adding to our national debt. Easy, right?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Afghanistan Exit Strategy

I spelled out my many continuing and serious concerns about the Afghanistan war in a post published on June 24th. I feel even more concerned now and would not at all be surprised if President Obama is already thinking about having one of his most trusted aides begin drafting up a highly confidential exit strategy. As I see it, this would be in anticipation of his planned December meeting with Defense Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen, and General Petraeus to discuss the latter's war strategy review.

Why do I think Obama may be doing this? There are many reasons and several are discussed in Bob Woodward's newest book, "Obama's Wars", released just a week or so ago. The war is still not going well with almost daily reports of Taliban or other terrorist group attacks and continuing coalition casualties. One would have to be very skeptical of any claim at this point that we are winning the war. Cooperation with President Karzai, who has met recently with Taliban moderates and certain warlords to see if they can work out a joint political program, remains problematic.

Almost everyone agrees there is no real military solution in Afghanistan. Just a political one. Obama's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, recently stated that no political deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban can be successful without clear Pakistan support. Many of the top Taliban leaders are believed to be based in Pakistan. Furthermore, there is widespread belief that elements within Pakistan's CIA, called Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are closely collaborating with the Taliban, even though we consider the Pakistan government a close ally of ours and we provide the government and military with billions in financial aid. However, the collaboration is denied by senior government representatives. All these factors make for a very complicated and fragile situation.

Obama has a large number of other important issues to deal with over the next few months that will require much of his time, starting with the upcoming mid-term elections that could give control of the House of Representatives, if not also the Senate, though that's less likely, to the Republicans. Another critical issue for him is the outcome of the very difficult peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that, not surprisingly, are not going well. Another important issue is rebuilding and realigning responsibilities for his senior staff in the White House, following several key departures, with rumors that Secretary Gates and Obama's National Security Adviser, General Jones, may be leaving in the next several months as well.

In terms of more direct evidence, according to Woodward's book, Obama recently was quoted as saying that he wants an exit strategy. Reportedly Obama said "This needs to be a plan about how we're going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan." Moreover, the White House is populated by Democratic political aides who don't want to continue the war who were reportedly outvoted by Secretary of State Clinton and Pentagon counterinsurgency enthusiasts last December when the escalation strategy was agreed to. There is no doubt the next three months will be extremely difficult for both Obama and Petraeus personally. Very probably it will also be very difficult for our 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, which is even more disturbing.

It is apparently generally accepted by those experienced in counterinsurgency strategy that if the government side is not winning against the rebels, it's losing. A tie goes to the insurgents. That would be the Taliban and other terrorists. A Taliban spokesman has reportedly said that while the U. S. and our coalition allies have watches, the Taliban have the time. They know the American public is increasingly unhappy with this war and that this will pressure the government to withdraw at least the bulk of our forces within the next two to three years, if not sooner, beginning next August. So the Taliban can be patient.

Unfortunately the odds are not in our favor to achieve a political "victory" either. That has been defined as development of Afghanistan as a viable democracy that can remain independent and at peace, with a competent publicly elected government that can provide basic services to all its people. This apparently will require a workable agreement with at least moderate elements of the Taliban, clearly supported by Pakistan, and include many of their leaders in a new coalition government. It will probably also require a significant amount of further foreign financial aid and advisory services. If the Taliban continue to be successful with their insurgent attacks over the next several months, my guess is that they will not want to negotiate with the Afghan Government. If Pakistan doesn't step up in a unified manner supporting the U. S. and Afghanistan, a victory is not going to have much of a chance.

Another path to a sort of "victory" would to my mind be if in the near term we could somehow deal a death blow to Al Qaeda, including killing or capturing Osama bin Laden, Chief of Operations Adnan Gulshair el Shukrijumah, and Deputy Operations Chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Given how long we've been trying to do that without success, it obviously won't be easy. We would need luck, reliable informants, and assistance from Pakistan's military and ISI. We'll take any and all of those.

We need to pursue both paths urgently with a great priority being limiting civilian and American and coalition casualties. The earlier we can get any kind of honorable "victory", and get at least all our combat troops out of there, the better. I trust the great majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents can all agree on that.

Capital Punishment

The recent news about a judge postponing the execution of Albert Brown at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County just north of San Francisco on a technicality got me to rethinking my view of capital punishment. Brown, who was convicted of murdering a young California girl in 1980, has been on death row for as long as 28 years. This is crazy! Obviously something is very wrong with our current system of criminal justice. Should we retain capital punishment in this country, or make other changes with our system?

Currently 15 states in this country, including New York, have abolished the death penalty, while the other 35 states still permit it, and that includes California and Texas among the largest states. In 2002 the U. S. Supreme Court held that those judged to be mentally retarded while committing their crimes could not be executed, and in 2005 the Court held that juveniles under 18 when they committed their crimes also could not be executed. However, all others could be, depending on the law of the state in which the crime was committed.

It's interesting that as many as 137 countries have abolished capital punishment altogether and this includes every country in western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Also noteworthy, of those much smaller number who still have capital punishment, the three countries who have had most executions are China (by far the highest number), Iran and Saudi Arabia, followed by the U. S., Pakistan and Iraq.

A majority of Americans still favor retaining capital punishment, but my understanding is that this majority has declined in recent years, probably as a result of news coming out that quite a few prisoners on death row in various states have been found innocent as a result of new DNA evidence.

Proponents of retaining capital punishment usually cite deterrence, better closure for the family and close friends of those killed, making sure that a killer cannot kill again, and elevation of the value of life in our society. Sometimes they also make economic arguments relating to costs of keeping prisoners on death row. Another perhaps more compelling argument is that executions can lessen the rising concern with overcrowded prisons, requiring new unaffordable prisons to need to be constructed.

Those who favor abolition point to a long list of reasons. The most compelling, it seems to me, is that quite a few prisoners on death row have been found to be innocent, especially as result of new DNA evidence, but also recantation of testimony by key trial witnesses. Since 1973 the number of wrongfully convicted American prisoners released from death row totaled 138! That's a lot of innocent people who were close to being executed. Several people have been executed and later found out to have been innocent! That should, of course, never happen!

The other two most compelling arguments have to do with deterrence and relative costs. Scientific studies have consistently failed to demonstrate that executions deter people from committing crime any more than lengthy prison sentences, especially sentences where there is no possibility of any parole. From the evidence I've seen, the total costs of death penalty cases are substantially higher than non-death penalty cases, primarily because of the much higher costs of lawyers and trial expenses with death penalty cases, especially due to the generous rights of appeal that we have in our system. In a 2003 legislative audit conducted in Kansas it was 70% higher, in Tennessee it was estimated at 48% higher, and in California a 2008 analysis by a credible commission concluded even more convincing results.

There is also a serious social justice issue to be considered. The quality of legal representation received and the jurisdiction in which the crime is committed seem too often to be more determining factors than the actual facts of the crime in death penalty cases. Almost all defendants in capital cases cannot afford their own attorneys. In a high percentage of cases the court appointed attorneys are overworked, underpaid and less experienced than those engaged by middle class or upper income defendants.

Life in prison without parole is a sensible alternative to the death penalty. It's a lot less expensive for the taxpayers and leaves open the possibility, no matter how slight, of prisoners being released if later found innocent. The overcrowding in our prisons is a real concern, but I think that can be ameliorated by other means, such as deportation of many of the illegal immigrants in our prisons, releasing some of our non-violent prisoners into community service programs, and changing some of our sentencing guidelines.