Wednesday, October 24, 2012


I think I have a new hobby. I’m averaging a visit to a different Stonehenge every couple of decades or so.

Maryhill Stonehenge in Klickitat County, Washington, USA
(taken with my first digital camera)

My first Stonehenge was a site familiar to people in America’s Pacific Northwest. Any time I found myself driving near Goldendale, Washington, I would make a point to stop at Maryhill, especially if I had someone with me who hadn’t been there before. On the property of the Maryhill Museum, there is a replica (built to a smaller scale) of Stonehenge overlooking the Columbia River. Completed in 1929, it was built by the entrepreneur Sam Hill and named for his wife and daughter (both called Mary) and was dedicated as a memorial to the World War I dead of Klickitat County.

The real Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England
(taken with my first digital camera)

The original Stonehenge’s exact purpose is more obscure than Sam Hill’s replica. It wasn’t until 1996 that I actually got to see the real Stonehenge. My wife and I attended a wedding in Northamptonshire and the next day found ourselves with several hours to fill before it was time to catch our flight back to Dublin. I had always wanted to see Stonehenge but had never managed it. I calculated that we could actually drive to the Salisbury Plain and then back to the airport in time to make our flight. So that’s what we did. It was exciting to see such an iconic structure, although the milling crowds of tourists distracted from the aesthetics. And I did wonder why it was more famous than, say, the Ogham stones I had seen in County Kerry or the dolmens I had seen in County Clare.

Last November another Stonehenge came into existence and not too far from where I live. Over a weekend, a property developer named Joe McNamara put together his own circle of columns on a hilltop on County Mayo’s Achill Island. It was dubbed Achill-Henge and, as with the original, its purpose is somewhat mysterious. What is crystal clear, though, is the colorful personality of Joe McNamara, who lives in Galway. Two years ago he drove a cement mixer to the gates of Leinster House (where the Irish parliament, or Oireachtas, sits) as a protest against Anglo Irish Bank, to which he owed 7.5 million euro. Anglo Irish was the financial poster child of the dramatic crash of the Celtic Tiger economy. The stunt earned McNamara the sobriquet “the Anglo Avenger.” He was subsequently charged with criminal damage and dangerous driving, but the case wound up being dismissed by the Dublin District Court. In another incident, he parked a cherry picker truck outside Leinster House.

Achill-Henge in County Mayo, Ireland
(taken with my mobile phone)

It’s not clear (to me, anyway) whether Achill-Henge is also a form of protest against the Ireland’s financial mismanagement. The structure is built on commonage, and he was ordered to remove it by the Mayo County Council because he did not have planning permission. He insisted that he didn’t need planning permission because the structure (30 meters in diameter and nearly 4.5 meters high) is a piece of “ornamental garden” artwork. The courts have gone against McNamara on this one, and he is currently under order to take Achill-Henge down.

But as of Saturday evening it was still standing. I figured I better go have a gawk while it was still there and add a third notch to my Stonehenge belt. We went up and down a lot of narrow unpaved roads above Dooagh and Pollagh before we found it, but we finally stumbled upon it, almost in spite of ourselves. I have to say that there was no air of ancient spirituality about it. It looked to me like one of those round concrete visitor centers that you see at various historical locations—but with no roof or glass in the windows. The land around it clearly bore the scars of heavy machinery, and the structure itself was decorated with all manner of graffiti. One of the more coherent and printable messages read simply, “Viva Joe!”

At the end of it, there was something bizarrely impressive about this makeshift monument to crushed economic dreams. People have speculated for years whether the original Stonehenge was a burial site or some sort of celestial observatory or something else entirely. Standing at Achill-Henge, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was at all possible that its more-than-four-thousand-year-old cousin across the Irish Sea could have been thrown up by disgruntled individuals, who were fed up with the people who were supposed to in charge.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


I am still looking for a way to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt.

I’m doing my best to understand how he plans to deal with the looming fiscal calamity if he gets a second term. As far as I can tell, his plan pretty much consists of maintaining the status quo in government spending as much as possible and raising taxes on the highest earners. Full stop.

The problem is that it doesn’t add up. Or, as he and the vice-president have liked to say since Bill Clinton’s stem-winder at the Democratic convention, it’s math, it’s arithmetic.

The president warns that Mitt Romney’s policies would amount to a return to the policies that got us in the mess in the first place. But that doesn’t sound right. Romney is proposing pro-growth policies which, historically, have added revenues to government coffers. Fiddling with tax rates doesn’t affect the revenue stream as much as good old-fashioned economic growth.

It seems to me that the simple way to arrive at the best policies is to look back at what policies were in place during our periods of highest widespread prosperity. That would be (first) the Clinton administration and (second) the Reagan administration. Both were characterized by trimming the growth of government spending. (Remember welfare reform under Clinton?) Importantly, these were also periods when the tax code was fairly stable so businesses could plan and hire comfortably. Under Obama businesses have watched things lurch from one short-term stop-gap measure to another, with no assurance of where tax policy will wind up. No wonder there is so much money not being invested while everyone waits for the perpetual uncertainty of the Obama presidency to finally resolve itself.

So why doesn’t every president simply emulate the policies that were in place under Clinton (and, it should be added, a Republican Congress)? Beats me. When I try to read between the lines, I get the sense that Democrats think they can do better than just copy Clinton-era policies. That there is a better way to spread prosperity throughout all of society. My first question is, where is your historical precedent? Point me to the country and era that demonstrate the viability of your policies. The problem is, there is no time and place to point to that exceeds the general standard of living of America during the last two decades of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the precedents for current policies that do come to mind tend to be countries like Greece and Argentina.

That means what Democrats want to undertake is basically an experiment. They want to use the United States as a laboratory to see how much better they can make things by putting their theories in practice. That is, of course, not without considerable risk—considering all the failed economic experiments we have seen around the world over the past century or so.

Am I being too cautious? Maybe. When I was younger, I was more inclined to see grand new ideas tried, never mind the risks. Now I’m at a point in my life when my first thought is of all the people just trying to get by and earn a living. They don’t need or want to become collateral damage in someone’s grand experiment.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Counting Down

Voting for the November election in the United States has already begun. As an overseas voter registered in the state of Washington, I have already received my ballot. I can fill it in and post it back anytime between now and Election Day.

I take my vote seriously. I always vote as if my vote was the only one that counted. On the other hand, I have no illusions about the practical effect of my vote. Washington is not a battleground state. My vote will have absolutely zero effect on the fact that all of Washington’s electoral votes will go to President Obama.

If the media and polls are to be believed, nearly half the country has firmly made up its mind to vote one way, and nearly half has made its mind up to vote the other way. The election then comes down to a relatively small number of voters who can be seen and heard in news stories telling reporters that they don’t know which side to believe and they don’t have enough information. Of course, in this day and age no one can realistically say that there isn’t enough information out there. What they really mean, I think, is that they don’t have enough time to investigate it in depth and to weigh it.

Personally, I think most people arrive at their voting decisions out of habit or through their gut. They generally stick with the party or the candidate that makes them feel comfortable. To the extent that they read up on issues, they tend to seek out facts that support positions their heart has already taken. I don’t say this as a criticism. I think it’s just human nature.

But what if you were starting out as a blank slate and were trying to figure out whom to vote for? How would you go about deciding? Here is the process I would—and actually do try to—use.

First, if there is an incumbent, you would have to give him preference. He is a known quantity and he has experience in the job. If he is doing the job well, why toss him out in favor of someone who has no experience being president and would have to start with a learning curve?

But what if things are not going well and the country is on a trajectory toward disaster? Then you have to weigh the alternative. And, as far as I can see, that is where the U.S. is. The gap between government revenues and outlays keeps widening. The point where Medicare becomes insolvent is clearly viewable on the horizon. The deficit has grown close eclipsing the entire economic output of the country. And the current administration has put forward no plan that makes any serious attempt to correct the situation and has offered none for a second term. The administration’s plan is very short-term and does not address the Medicare problem.

The problems that aren’t getting solved aren’t just ones looming in the future. Right now today unemployment remains high. This is causing real hardship throughout the country. Yes, the official rate is edging down, but the rate that includes people who have stopped looking for work has remained constant at over 14 percent.

Of course, responsibility for the lack of progress in solving the country’s problems has to be shared between the White House and Congress. But only the president is in a position to exhibit the leadership to reach a resolution. And in this area, the president’s striking lack of experience has clearly proved to be an impediment. Remember that, before his election, his federal experience consisted entirely of three years and ten months in the Senate. And during that time he authored no significant pieces of legislation and spent much of his partial term campaigning for president. Exhibit A for how this lack of experience has been detrimental can be found in Bob Woodward’s recent book The Price of Politics, in which he describes how the president botched negotiations for a debt deal.

Still, even if the president came into office with little experience, he certainly does now have the experience of being president for nearly four years. But has he given any indication that he has actually learned from his presidential experience? I see no sign that he would do anything differently in a second term.

The president’s own defense of his first-term performance consists of a couple of basic points. One is that he was blocked from solving problems by Republicans. The problem with that argument is the fact that, as of the end of this term, in addition to controlling the White House, the president’s party will have controlled the Senate for six years and the House of Representatives for four of the past six years. The other basic point in the president’s self-defense is that electing a Republican president would amount to a return to the policies that created bad economy. But on examination, this argument devolves into the notion that low tax rates caused the 2008 financial crisis. That makes absolutely no sense.

So there is plenty of justification to at least consider replacing the president. But would that actually be the best thing to do? There is no way to know for sure. A change could well improve things. On the other hand, no matter how bad things seem, they can always be made worse.

In the end, the decision comes down to a leap of faith. Many will put their faith in the idea that President Obama will perform better in a second term. Many others will put their faith in the fact that Mitt Romney has successfully run large organizations, including the mostly Democratic state of Massachusetts, and demonstrated his problem-solving abilities with turning around the 2002 Winter Olympics.

In the end, though, most of us will go along with what our heart tells us. Or, as political journalists put it, the “direction” we want for the country. Personally, at this point I am not too interested in “directions.” My main priority is not having the United States turn into Argentina.