The Price For Paying the Minimum

M
y father passed along a link to this table, illustrating a basic rule of credit finance that the vast majority of Americans likely fail to understand: the banks are trying to screw you. Here, they do so by lowering your minimum payment, naturally neglecting to inform you of the price of paying the minimum:

$5,000 balance on a credit card with an 18% annual rate.

Minimum payment, based on 2% of balanceMinimum payment, based on 4% of the balance
1st month's payment$100$200

Time to pay off

553 months, or 46.08 years

150 months, or 12.5 years

Interest owed$13,931.13$2,915.66

Stampede in Iraq

H
orrible news from Iraq. At a time when so much devastation is being wrought by human violence and natural disaster, the single most deadly event in Iraq since the invasion is not an act of violence, but of panic:
At least 648 people were killed in a stampede on a bridge Wednesday when panic engulfed a Shiite religious procession amid rumors that a suicide bomber was about to attack, officials said. It appeared to be the single biggest loss of life in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.

Scores jumped or were pushed to their deaths into the Tigris River, while others were crushed in the crowd. Most of the dead were women and children, Interior Ministry spokesman Lt. Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said.

Tensions already had been running high in the procession in Baghdad's heavily Shiite Kazamiyah district because of a mortar attack two hours earlier against the shrine where the marchers were heading. The shrine was about a mile from the bridge.

And the news is getting worse:

The death toll from a stampede on a Baghdad bridge Wednesday was expected to reach 1,000, a general manager at Iraq's Heath Ministry said.

"An hour ago the death toll was 695 killed, but we expect it to hit 1,000," Dr. Jaseb Latif Ali told Reuters.

The power of fear, of human psychology, is a terrible thing to behold. Though the worst suicide attacks take dozens of lives, the fear of a suicide attack takes hundreds, perhaps thousands. What a horrible state of mind to have to live in, that a mere rumor of a suicide bomber is so credibly and immediately felt as to cause a panic, a stampede, and a tragedy. In a very real sense, the victims of this stampede are victims of the insurgency just as clearly as those killed by bullets or shrapnel.

Further Guidance on Military Blogging

The Army is preparing further guidance for military bloggers, a rather diverse group (of which I suppose I'm tacitly a member) that raises uniquely difficult questions about the propriety of personal web publishing:

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker circulated a memo to all Army personnel last week saying that "we must do a better job" at operational security -- "OPSEC" in military parlance.

"Some soldiers continue to post sensitive information" on the Internet and especially on their Web logs or online diaries, wrote Schoomaker, giving as examples "photos depicting weapon system vulnerabilities and tactics, techniques and procedures.

"Such OPSEC violations needlessly place lives at risk and degrade the effectiveness of our operations," he wrote.

Schoomaker promised that amendments to Army regulations would be promulgated within a month, and that officers would have access to new training materials on the issue by Sept. 2.

In the meantime, he ordered Army staff at the Pentagon to "tracks and report, on a quarterly basis, (such) OPSEC violations."

"Get the word out and focus on this issue now," Gen. Schoomaker concluded. "I expect to see immediate improvement."

Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Tracy O'Grady-Walsh told United Press International it was Department of Defense policy that military personnel, "while acting in a private capacity ... have the right to prepare information for public release through non-Department of Defense forums or media" so long as they did it in their own time and with their own equipment, and did not use "information generally not available to the public."

I tend to think that first-person accounts of soldiers are a great asset of any wartime experience. The letters of Civil War troops still amaze as a collection of brilliance and youth sacrificed in a bloody war, and the 20th-century has seen more of the same from Wilfred Owen to Philip Caputo. America has a long history of producing tremendous correspondence in wartime. Yet never before has the combination of immediacy and publicity been so complete. These military bloggers write posts with the timeliness and intimacy of private letters, but with the audience of a published work.

As such, they raise troubling questions about the safety and propriety of individual voices of wartime soldiers rising out of the theater. Troubling because it implicates the amount of frank discussion and/or dissent that a country should tolerate or encourage within the ranks, the proper venue for such discussion, and the free speech rights of those who put their lives on the line for the very freedoms at issue.

I am encouraged by what seems to be a slow, methodical, reasoned approach to this complex question. There appears to be a fundamental respect for the free expression of those who serve, restraining any reactionary instinct to shut the whole thing down. I hope that restraint is not unnecessarily tested.

MT 3.2 Upgrade / Redesign

You may have noticed that I did quite a bit of redecorating around here. I thought a bit of spring-cleaning and a redesign would be just the thing to kickstart a renewed effort at regular blogging. I had been down to a post or two every couple weeks, which is pretty pathetic. Now that the summer is winding down, the bar exam is a distant memory, and my wife and I are fully settled into our condo, I've got a bit of time to spare.

What you likely have not noticed is that I finally upgraded the Movable Type software that serves as the backbone of this site. I had been lingering on MT 2.65 for months (years?) while I waited to see if MT 3.0 would be worthwhile. Now that it has gone through several iterations, I thought I would take the plunge.

I am very pleased that I did. There are numerous benefits to the upgrade, many of which I likely have not yet seen. The one that stands out the most is the new "save and rebuild" button at the bottom of all of the templates. Sure, it is a small change. But being able to edit and rebuild with one click, a task I do dozens of times a week, will be one of those simple pleasures that make an upgrade like this worthwhile.

Governors Fight Guard Base Cuts

Many of the contentious issues surrounding the current wave of base closures have survived the BRAC votes. Now the battle may shift to the courtroom as state politicians seek to fight cuts in the Air National Guards:

Governors and legislators from several U.S. states are vowing to fight proposed Pentagon cutbacks at Air National Guard bases after a military review commission approved stripping aircraft from dozens of units.

In one contentious move, the independent panel reviewing proposed military base cutbacks voted Friday to close the Willow Grove Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base near Philadelphia. That came despite a federal court ruling barring deactivation of a Guard unit at the base without Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell's consent.

The commission changed wording in its motion to leave the Pennsylvania Air National Guard 111th Fighter Wing intact but ordered it stripped of its A-10 attack jets.

It sounds like the BRAC Commission might have a lawyer or two on staff. Of course, this is just another round in the continuing tug-of-war between the state and federal governments over control of the national guard units. The increased mobilization of those units for military duties overseas has been a source of strife for months:

When summer wildfires burn out of control in the vast forests of the Rocky Mountains, the Montana National Guard has always been available to act as a fire force of last resort, sending its soldiers deep into the wilderness to help fire crews, protect evacuated property, and transport supplies to the front lines.

But as fire season approaches this year, the Montana Guard faces what its commander describes as an ''unprecedented" shortage of firefighters and helicopters, prompting the state's governor, Democrat Brian Schweitzer, to ask the Pentagon to return more of the state's troops from Iraq this summer for what he fears could be a particularly dangerous fire season.

This difficulty has been highlighted again in the wake of Hurricane Katrina:

"The juxtaposition of the mission to Iraq and the response to Katrina really demonstrates the new and changing character of the National Guard," Daniel Goure, a military analyst at the private Lexington Institute, said Monday.

The war has forced the Guard into becoming an operational force, a far cry from its historic role as a strategic reserve primarily available to governors for disasters and other duties in their home states.

At 1.2 million soldiers, the active duty military is simply too small to carry the load by itself when there is a large sustained deployment like Iraq. Nationally, 78,000 of the 437,000 members of the Guard force are serving overseas.

As part of the transformation during the war effort, the National Guard has promised governors that at least 50 percent of soldiers and airmen will be available for stateside duty at all times. In most cases, the rate is well above 50 percent.

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said the Gulf states have adequate National Guard units to handle the hurricane needs, with at least 60 percent of the Guard available in each state.

In Louisiana, which took the brunt of Katrina, some 3,000 members of the 256th Combat Brigade are in Iraq, while 3,500 members of the Guard were deployed to help hurricane victims and another 3,000 were on standby.

In neighboring Mississippi, the Guard had 853 troops on hurricane duty - a small slice of the more than 7,000 Guard troops in the state's ground and air components. Some 3,000 National Guard troops from Mississippi are in Iraq, another 300 in Afghanistan.

The states in the hurricane's path have relatively large Guard forces. But some states with smaller Guard forces and a high percentage of soldiers in Iraq have expressed concern that they may be stretched too thin.

The continuing controversy about the proper role and control of the National Guard is really only a subset of the problems posed by a military structure designed during the Cold War, equipped to respond to an entirely different set of contingencies than those faced today. The BRAC process is one method of altering that structure, but I would not be surprised to see a major shift from our current Active/Reserve/Guard division of units. We are already seeing shifts within that structure, moving certain functions that were thought of as 'reserve' functions into the active force. But more macro changes loom as a possibility.

Spirituality in America

Newsweek has what looks to be a very interesting issue out this week, featuring a series of articles on "Spirituality in America," a topic that has been of increasing interest to me in recent months. It seems almost serendipitous to see these articles in the same week that I've been adding Merton and Aquinas to my book project.

Though raised in a secular Jewish household, I did not have much interest in the Jewish faith until my teen years. What interest I did have was essentially crushed when I arrived at Harvard and found Hillel to be a singularly unwelcoming place for a curious novice who was raised in Utah instead of Long Island.

It was not until I finally took a look at Buddhism, after years of avoiding Eastern religions as the stomping ground of drug-addled hippies and angst-ridden teenagers, that I started to connect with a spiritual practice. And in the last months of law school, I connected with a classmate who had come to Christianity around the same age I came to Buddhism, and he helped me begin understanding that faith. Though my practice (or what is left of it after years of neglect in law school) still centers on Buddhism, it is wonderful to be exploring so many influences.

One of the Newsweek articles in particular caught my eye because the subject took such an unusual route to Buddhism, which I think goes to show the versatility and diversity of faith in this country:

Willis had always cherished the ideal of peace and in 1963 marched in Birmingham with Martin Luther King Jr. In college, inspired by the images of monks in Vietnam setting themselves on fire to protest the war, she became interested in Buddhism. But by the time she graduated from Cornell in 1969, Willis was faced with a stark postcollege choice: go to Nepal and study Buddhism or join the Black Panthers and fight for black rights-"peace or a piece," as she puts it. She opted for peace. And everything in her life changed. Buddhism taught her compassion and self-acceptance. It led her to her current job, teaching Buddhism at Wesleyan University. And it even taught her how to make peace with the Baptist church.

Her journey wasn't easy. Arriving at a monastery outside Katmandu in 1969, she was the lone woman among 60 monks; everything around her was strange. She learned to adjust to the sounds of gongs and conch shells, of chanted prayers. She hiked miles up a mountainside to study with Lama Thubten Yeshe, who taught her that she already had the nature of the Buddha within, if only she could be still enough to find it. It was a powerful message. The bias she faced in childhood "had convinced me that I was unworthy," she says. "I felt humiliated and undeserving." But through Buddhism, she learned to empty her mind of negative thoughts and self-doubt. Whites in Alabama might reject her, but Lama Yeshe came to call her "daughter."

Talking about spirituality is almost by definition an intensely personal thing, and it is made more difficult by the hesitation to appear as if one is claiming to speak on behalf of one's religion, rather than about it. I think this is especially troublesome for those who explore less understood faiths. Numerous friends, with the best of intentions, have asked me "What do Buddhists think about this?" as if that were a question that I (or anyone!) was qualified to answer.

Nonetheless, as I seek to further explore the spiritual side of myself and of humanity, it seems fitting that some of that exploration take place in this space.

BRAC Independence

The base-closing commission considering the Pentagon's recommendations has been surprisingly independent this week, keeping open two of the Pentagon's biggest targets in the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and Naval Submarine Base New London. Today they also voted to spare Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, which has been the source of tremendous political fighting:

The surprise decision on Ellsworth was a setback for Pentagon leaders, a blessing for South Dakotans who feared losing about 4,000 jobs, and a victory for Sen. John Thune and the state's other politicians who lobbied vigorously to save the base. Thune, a freshman Republican, unseated then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle partly on the strength of his claim he could help save the base.

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds called it "a great day for South Dakota."

Ellsworth is home to half the nation's fleet of B1-B bombers. The Pentagon had wanted to move all the bombers to their other location, Dyess Air Foce Base in Texas.

But the commission found that closing Ellsworth wouldn't save any money over 20 years, and that it actually would cost nearly $20 million to move the planes to the Texas base. The Pentagon had projected saving $1.8 billion over two decades with the closure.

I don't know the details, but it seems rather amazing that the Pentagon could project nearly $2 billion in savings, and have the commission find that there wouldn't have been any at all. That's some crazy math.

In my neck of the woods, former President Jimmy Carter is taking some heat for going to bat on behalf of Naval Submarine Base New London, where he served in his younger days as a submariner:

Former President Jimmy Carter was the target of scorn in his home state after he lobbied to save a Connecticut submarine base at the expense of thousands of jobs in Georgia.

One member of an independent panel said Carter was part of the reason it voted to reverse a Pentagon recommendation to close the Naval Submarine Base New London, which would have shifted six subs and 3,367 jobs to Georgia's Kings Bay base.

"What was he thinking?" Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue said Thursday.

The Pentagon estimated that shifting fast-attack submarines, a maintenance facility and the Naval Submarine School from Groton, Conn., to Georgia would grow the overall work force in St. Marys, a coastal town of 14,000, by 22 percent. That was the largest predicted percentage gain for any military community in the nation.

But Carter - a former Georgia governor and the only president ever to serve as a submariner - sent a letter to the Base Closure and Realignment Commission last week, pleading to keep open the Connecticut base where he had been stationed as a young engineer in the 1950s.

You have to love just how heated sectional politics can get when there are big bucks at stake. Representative government at its best? Worst? Who knows. Edmund Burke would probably be rather displeased with most of it, though Carter seems to have risen above the chains of his neighbor's (if no longer his constituent's) interests.

Besides, for those communities that do lose their military infrastructure, a new article from Time suggests that things will probably turn out just fine.

Increasing, Decreasing, Unceasing

There has been quite a proliferation in recent weeks of stories about future troop levels in Iraq. First we heard from General Casey, who suggested that we could have a fairly substantial pullout by next spring. Then we heard from General Schoomaker that the Army was planning for a further four years at current troop levels. Today, however, the director of operations at CENTCOM, General Lute, suggested that this worst-case scenario was unlikely and we are expecting to withdraw significant numbers of troops out of Iraq in the next 12 months.

There is nothing inconsistent with anything of this. Even if the military is planning for a reduction in troop levels next year, it also ought to have a plan in place for more dire situations. I cannot help but wonder, however, if the somewhat confusing way in which this information keeps coming out has something to do with the difficult place the administration is in re: public expectations regarding American troops both at home and in Iraq.

As had been made clear, the President is very concerned that any firm timetable of troop withdrawal will simply give the Iraqi insurgents a timeline for how long they need to hold out before plunging the country into civil war. On the other hand, opinion polls are making equally clear that many/most Americans are not satisfied with an open-ended mission. Thus the delicate balance of conveying our desire to have this successfully wrapped up soon, but making perfectly clear that we have the plans and capacity to stay for years to come.

GM and Ford = Junk

Alright, I drive a Pontiac and love it. But Moody's, the other major credit rating agency, has followed S&P's lead and downgraded the debt of our beloved automakers:

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., the two biggest U.S. automakers, were lowered to junk by Moody's Investors Service following two quarters of losses at both companies' North American auto operations.

Moody's lowered GM's senior unsecured credit rating two levels to Ba2 and the rating on its General Motors Acceptance Corp. unit to Ba1. Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford was reduced one level to Ba1, a step below investment grade. Ford Motor Credit Co. fell to the lowest investment grade. The Ford cuts affect about $150 billion in debt, Moody's said in a statement today.

GM and Ford have struggled to maintain U.S. market share this year, resorting to offers of employee discounts to all buyers in an effort to boost sales. Moody's gave Ford its second high-risk, high-yield rating, which will push it out of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.'s most widely followed investment-grade bond index. That may spark selling of the bonds.

I'm not a master of corporate finance, but my sense is that this is particularly troubling because it hinders the future fundraising of these companies that are already suffering present financial difficulties. This will only compound those difficulties, and likely mean that broader and deeper structural changes need to be made before any recovery becomes feasible. It ought to be noted, however, that the last paragraph of the story says that neither GM nor Ford has had a AAA rating (the highest) since 1981. It would be interesting to see if/how the ratings have fluctuated since then. Whatever the case, not good news for those companies today.

My New Congressman

Among the most pleasant unexpected benefits of having moved to the heart of Atlanta is that I now have as my congressman an individual I have greatly admired for some time, Representative John Lewis.

I doubt there remain a great many Americans who feel genuine pride in the man or woman who represents them in the House of Representatives, but I can now count myself among them. It is high time that I get around to reading Congressman Lewis' much lauded biography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, and explore the origins of this great man.

The Half-Blood Prince

A friend wrote to ask what I thought about the new Harry Potter book, and I thought my reply sufficiently lengthy (and spoiler-free) to post here, even if it is a few weeks late. I apologize for the lack of blogging the past few weeks. My wife and I closed on a condo two days after the bar, and we've had a busy time with painting, buying furniture, and moving.

Anyhow, on to Harry Potter.

I finished it just after the bar exam. I was not terribly impressed, which was also how I felt about Order of the Phoenix. Strangely though, for opposite reasons. I though OOTP was much too convoluted, with too many characters, too many plots, and a loss of focus on the central themes and characters of the earlier books.

With Half-Blood, I thought there was too LITTLE action, and too much rehashing the central themes of the earlier books without adding much. Giving JKR the benefit of the doubt, I assume books 6 and 7 will ultimately be best read together, and that would explain why there was so much setup in Half-Blood without much payoff.

I did like that she returned to a slightly more complex take on Snape, who I've always thought was the most interesting character in the books. I thought he came off just childish in OOTP. Obviously that was not true in Half-Blood. Still, I continue to be afraid that his complexity will never fully be explored.

In fact, that last point, combined with my distaste for the silly romantic entanglements in OOTP and especially Half-Blood, has reminded me of a rather obvious point about the books: they are written for children.

Now of course, all of the books in the series have been written for children. Why then did I find the earlier books (esp. 2-4) so much more compelling that the most recent? I think it has to do with the expected pace of evolution in the story and the characters.

In a long children's story, the amount of complexity that will be explored as the story progresses does not increase nearly as much as in an adult novel or series of novels. Thus while a children's novel might be expected to reach and maintain a lower plateau of sophistication, an adult novel can be expected to provide increasingly high-level payoffs as it gets to the fifth or sixth volume.

While the main characters in the Harry Potter books have certainly aged, and thus the things that concern them have changed since they went through puberty, the level of sophistication in dealing with those issues has not changed much at all. Thus the discussions of death and sex in Books 5 and 6 seem about as sophisticated as the discussion of evil relatives and bullies in the first book.

Thus an adult reader can read the first books and enjoy the relatively unsophisticated approach to what are, essentially, unsophisticated problems. Now that the series is attempting to deal with truly difficult issues, the books seem a bit, well, mediocre.

That's what I think, anyway.