From the Perspective of an Older Gentleman

This post is in response to Bob’s post – Who is This Guy and Bob’s analysis of President Obama’s deficit reduction speech.

I had lunch with an older gentleman on Friday and when I am short of things to talk about I will mention our family blog. I told him that one of Bob’s latest posts was about President Obama’s deficit reduction speech and that Bob didn’t feel the president pointed out enough specifics as to how they planned on reducing the deficit.

The older gentleman’s response was “Jim no one gives a crap about how the president is gonna do it they just want to know that he is gonna do it”. He followed that up with “besides if the president did give us specifics most of us probably wouldn’t understand the specifics anyway so why should he mention them”.

I totally agree – Bob here’s the White House fact sheet if you want to dive into seven pages of specifics addressing the tough cuts and savings they hope to achieve in the coming years. Enjoy !

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, a.k.a. the Duomo.

While I was in Florence, the dominant thought in my mind was that I was glad to be there. However, there was also a voice telling me how stupid I was to have spent ten nights in Rome and only six in Florence, which I like better.

Every corner of Rome seems to be covered with a tourist sheen, while Florence feels more like a normal city that has a few tourist hotspots. It’s smaller, more intimate, and more peaceful than Rome. Sometimes when you turn onto a street in Florence you are the only person in sight, which never happened to me in Rome. Also, many Florentines ride their bikes to get around, which helps create a friendly atmosphere, although the people there still drive like sociopaths.

Florence isn’t as agonizingly expensive as Rome, but it’s still much worse than Athens and Istanbul. I miss being able to buy an overflowing kebab pita for 1.5 euros. In Florence, I started the habit of buying a large Moretti beer every night for only 1.30 euros from a little convenience store near the Duomo and drinking it on one of the bridges.

I enjoyed my hostel in Florence much more than the one in Rome. I stayed at the Sette Santi hostel, which is in a quiet neighborhood about a 25-minute walk from the center of Florence. It used to be a convent, and it’s still next to a church, the ringing bells of which were one of the few annoyances I had to put up with there. Unlike my hostel in Rome, it was quiet and spacious, with the wide, echoing hallways you would expect in a convent, and enough showers so that some were always free. There was a nice hang-out area outside with plenty of seats and picnic tables. The walk to the city was annoying when I had to do it multiple times a day, but that was due to my own poor planning.

My only major complaint is that there wasn’t a kitchen. In Italy, where it’s hard to find a meal for less than 7 euros, a kitchen is a big plus.

Most of the guests at the hostel were American college students traveling around Europe during a break from their study abroad programs. I hate to criticize my fellow countrymen, but I did not enjoy having so many Americans around. They have a super-cheerful attitude that is somehow offensive to a long-term traveler like me. They tend to arrive in groups, so they have little interest in making new friends at the hostel.

A building in Florence.

One of my favorite things about Florence is that it has its own style of architecture. I noticed a few common characteristics in buildings in Florence. Many old buildings have detailed images painted on the outside, something I haven’t seen anywhere else in Italy. I also saw many buildings that had a distinctive contrast between white walls and dark grey stone that looks like clay that hasn’t dried yet. Many of the buildings of the famous Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi have that look, including the inside of the Duomo and the Santo Spirito cathedrals.

The inside of the Duomo.

Paintings inside a church in Florence from an early Renaissance painter.

I prefer the cathedrals in Florence to those in Rome because they are less ornate inside, which makes them feel more spiritual to me. They give the impression of having been built by a community instead of by the Catholic Church. They have a subtle but unique style, which paintings and sculptures from local artists. The exteriors of the churches often have the red and green stripe style seen on the Duomo.

I made a point of seeing Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel because I remembered my history professor giving a lecture about it in college, describing how Brunelleschi tried to give it ideal classical proportions. I thought it was a beautiful, creative little church, and there weren’t many tourists there, which was a bonus.

The Pazzi Chapel.

Another Florence landmark with the wet-stone style is the Laurentian library, designed by Michelangelo for the Medici family. On the outsides of the benches you can see in the photograph are lists of the manuscripts that used to be chained to them. The entrance to the library is a famous staircase that looks like stone oozing out the door. My visit to the library was a nice break from an itinerary consisting almost entirely of churches. It was nice to see a brilliant Renaissance design used solely in the service of knowledge, like the pope’s study in the Vatican museum (one of the Raphael rooms).

The Laurentian library.

Michelangelos famous staircase.

On Wednesday I took a train to Pisa with Dhika, an Indonesian girl from my hostel. The train only took an hour, and it was free with my Eurail pass. I got to check the Leaning Tower off my list of “famous sights I haven’t seen.” The community of Pisa surely appreciates the tourist dollars the tower brings in now, but it must have been embarrassing for them when it started tilting over centuries ago. It doesn’t look good when the tallest building in your city looks like it’s about to fall over.

I liked the parts of Pisa you don’t see painted on the walls of pizza restaurants. The cathedral next to the tower was the first Romanesque-style one I’ve seen. The city itself was like Florence except even more peaceful. It had the Italian beauty without the obnoxious motorbikes. There were almost no tourists outside the cathedral area. It was cheap, also, which led us to get a meal in a restaurant – the first time I’d been waited on since Istanbul.

Pisas tower and cathedral.

Pisas riverfront.

On Thursday I made the mandatory trips to the Uffizi and Academia art galleries. I happened to arrive in Florence during “culture week”, when all the museums were free. The Uffizi gallery helps you appreciate how much art changed during the Renaissance. From the early 1300s to the 1400s, it seems to me, art in Florence went from conservative Byzantine-style mosaics to idiosyncratic works by artists like Botticelli, beautiful in unique ways and covering diverse subjects. In the Uffizi gallery, you can see this happening when you walk from one room to the next. It’s worth the two-hour wait.

Thursday evening, Dhika gave me a McDonald’s hamburger when she returned to the hostel. I pledged not to eat fast food on my trip, but I ate it anyway because I’m not one to turn down free food. McDonald’s tastes the same everywhere, and I won’t pretend I don’t like that familiar taste. Today I took a train from Florence to Interlaken, Switzerland, and during my layover in Milan, the cheapest lunch option by far was McDonald’s, so I got a double cheeseburger there. Hopefully, it will be my last.

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Who Is This Guy? (The Defense Side)

The second part of President Obama’s fiscal policy speech on April 13 addressed the defense budget.  He dealt with that issue in two paragraphs.  In the first, he assured us that he would “never accept cuts that compromise our ability to defend our homeland or America’s interests around the world,” but noted that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has said that “the greatest long-term threat to America’s national security is America’s debt” — so just as “we must find more savings in domestic programs, we must do the same in defense.”  In the second paragraph, he stated:

“Over the last two years, Secretary Bob Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending.  I believe we can do that again.  We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but we’re going to have to conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world.  I intend to work with Secretary Gates and the Joint Chiefs on this review, and I will make specific decisions about spending after it’s complete.”

There are some politicians who seem to resist every effort to streamline the defense budget or cut any weapons program.  In my view, we cannot afford that attitude.   According to a schematic from the Office of Management and Budget, in the President’s proposed 2012 budget just under 20 percent of spending would be for various defense-related matters.  Such a large portion of the federal budget cannot be “off limits” if we mean to achieve serious deficit and spending reductions. I therefore think the President is right in saying that we must look to the defense budget for cuts.

I also think the defense budget raises much larger strategic and societal issues.  In fact, I wonder whether our focus on defense spending hasn’t encouraged generals and Presidents — including this President — to be more internationally adventurous than they should be.  At present America has troops in Iraq, troops fighting in Afghanistan, and troops participating to some extent in the NATO mission in Libya.  We seem to be involved, to some extent, in activities in Pakistan, Yemen, and other parts of the world.  We have military bases spread across the globe.  In the years since World War II — when our country was responding to a direct attack from one country and a declaration of war from another — has the United States ever tried to do so much militarily in so many far-flung places of the globe at the same time?

The nature of our military capabilities also has had an impact, I think, on our willingness to engage in some form of military action.  We have unmanned Predator drones and missiles that can inflict havoc from far away and planes that can help to discipline the outgunned ground forces of dictators like Qaddafi from a (usually) safe distance.  When you are the President and have such capabilities at the ready, isn’t it awfully tempting to agree to participate to some extent in the latest UN peacekeeping mission to help burnish your international rep, or to just lob a few cruise missiles at the distant bases of terrorist organizations and call it a day?

Obviously, it is a dangerous world, and we need a strong defense — but we also need to reevaluate what that means in a time of rapid changes.  In this instance, too, I wonder what President Obama really thinks.  His Administration has been very willing to use missiles and unmanned drones, and I’m not sure that someone who thinks we need to carefully reconsider our military role in the world would have become involved in the current Libyan venture.  I haven’t seen anything from this President, frankly, that gives me confidence that he should be the ultimate decisionmaker on how to reduce and reorient our military spending.

Who Is This Guy?  (The Spending Side)