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I needed a little pick-me-up after finishing Jared Diamond's "Collapse," a book about failed ancient societies, so I tackled Peter G. Petersen's new book, "Running on Empty."

It lays out a scary scenario for those of us hoping to retire comfortably, because Petersen points out that the amount we are borrowing today as a country is hopelessly unsustainable. It's the first book I have read that lays out an effective timeline of economic events with cause-and-effect relationships going back to the Nixon administration, where Petersen worked in the White House and later became secretary of commerce.

Today, he is at the pinnacle of an enormously successful career -- after having been the founder of the Blackstone Group, a director of Sony, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York -- to mention but a few of many accolades. So, like a growing number of other Republicans questioning the administration, he is yet another icon of the financial community with impeccable credentials as a consummate pragmatist.

For me, the most unsettling part of the book was his direct refutation of what my U.S. representative, Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, told me when I asked her in person whether the bonds purchased by the Social Security Administration were of the same credit quality of those bought by individuals or the Chinese. Tauscher said they were.

Petersen, on the other hand, says they are effectively "junk" payable at the whim of Congress, which he is convinced will be forced to default. If true, we have a huge fiscal problem impacting retirement, as our Social Security system is definitely in jeopardy.

As I was reading "Running on Empty," a disturbing article appeared on the front page of the July 27 Wall Street Journal. It talked about the growing popularity of the Christian-Zionist movement and the extent to which people like John Hagee, one of its leaders, are essentially rooting for a global conflict between Islam and the Judeo-Christian West. His latest book, "Jerusalem Countdown," focuses on what he says is the coming nuclear showdown with Iran.

In the same vein, I attended a talk by a former CIA agent a year ago who stated that Israel would not allow Iran to build nuclear weapons and that they would take out those bomb-building capabilities using airstrikes by March of this year. Waiting any later would run the risk of hitting sites too late to avoid creating nuclear fallout from what already had been constructed.

Well, here we are in August, about four months behind schedule, with what looms as yet another Middle Eastern war on a scale that could dwarf Iraq.

However, in the April 17 issue of the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh wrote on the "revolt of the generals," describing how the Pentagon effectively refused to put together a plan to use nuclear bombs against Iraq. Those generals risked their careers by threatening to resign in an effort to put a stop to the kind of thinking that branded Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as "the crazies" during earlier administrations in which they served as a team.

Meanwhile, a fringe element of the Christian-Zionists see this war in Lebanon as the seed crystal in the mushroom cloud and the window of opportunity to drop nukes on Iran.

The "Left Behind" series of books, which have generated more than $600 million in sales from the 50 million Americans who actually believe in "the rapture," are essentially stories about what life will be like for the rest of us nonbelievers (the "left behind") after the nuclear holocaust the "believers" are hoping for.

These people are a large voting block and they are apparently ecstatic about what is happening in the Middle East right now. President Bush, according to the Wall Street Journal, sent a message praising Hagee and his supporters for "spreading the hope of God's love and the universal gift of freedom."

What is he thinking? Who does he think is going to pay for yet another ill-conceived adventure? After reading well-documented books like Michael Gordon's "Cobra II" about how the Iraq war was conducted, we come away wondering what happened to the little American flags distributed for victory parades and the plan to be down to 30,000 troops within three months back in 2003 -- all this after firing generals who said it was impossible and firing economic advisers who said it would cost "as much as" $200 billion.

Petersen points out that these wars are paid for by so-called "emergency appropriations" so they don't even become part of the budget. They don't show up in discussions about how fiscally under water we are.

At some point, all these chickens will come home to roost. Who knows what that tipping point will be? Pete Petersen is an equal-opportunity blamer who traces the roots of our problems to both Democrats and Republicans, but the fact of the matter is that we are here now with Republicans in control and in a position to do some course correcting.

As a fellow pragmatist alongside Petersen, I don't see any evidence of leadership. No gas tax increase. No effort to stop the bombing in Lebanon. Continued efforts to end the estate tax and reduce taxes in the middle of a war. Hopeless distractions like the flag-burning amendment. Incessant pandering to voters who don't plan to be on Earth much longer.

At this point, I don't care what party people vote for as long as we all stand firmly behind pragmatists rather than ideologues. The latter have gotten us into enough trouble already, and I don't want to see this country be the final chapter in the next edition of "Collapse."

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