Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Bumble and Bumble

Not the haircare products. The White House and its blind supporters in both houses of Congress. Massive shift of the tax burden from the wealthiest segments of our nation to the middle and lower economic classes and calling that “tax reform.” “Pussy grabbing” as permitted and all-too-often condoned manly activities (both parties guilty here). Cutting healthcare by hundreds of billions of dollars – all of it from the middle and lower economic classes, even the elderly – in order to fund that “tax reform” and the resulting deficit. Pulling out of multinational treaties only to watch those “other nations” refuse to engage in replacement bilateral trade agreements with the U.S., turn towards China as well as multinational trade organizations where the United States is now excluded. Pushing North Korea to the brink of deploying a nuclear weapon against us because of elementary-school-level taunts and tweets from the President of the United States of America.

The last GOP administration destabilized the Middle East by purging Iraq’s Sunni leadership, handing the country to the Shiite majority only to watch Iraq become Shiite Iran’s most trusted puppet government. Catering to those evangelicals who believe that there can be no Second Coming of Jesus Christ and that the Rapture cannot take them to heaven unless a strong Israel with hateful Arab neighbors are able to foment Armageddon in the Holy Land, the Trump administration has lost all semblance of it former status as regional neutral peacekeeper/mediator by consistently siding with whatever Israel wants.

Even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud coalition continues to weaken, as he and his wife are investigated for corruption, an exceptionally pro-Netanyahu U.S. Ambassador to Israel, former Trump personal lawyer David Friedman, has pretty much reduced U.S. influence in the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire to close to zero with statements like, ““I think the [West Bank] settlements are part of Israel.”

Contradicting decades of U.S. policy and official U.N votes, Friedman has supported a position that prevents Palestinians from claiming their Palestinian territory (mostly the West Bank) as their own… a denial of the two state solution that virtually every nation on earth – except Israel and now the United States – has declared as the correct ultimate goal for any related peace agreement. Effectively, by embracing the permanence of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Friedman (as America’s official spokesman in Israel) has rendered the potential of renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians completely futile.

Exacerbating the insult of appointing completely inexperienced and virulently pro-Israeli Orthodox Jewish Trump-son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as the architect of the American Middle Eastern peace initiative, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has added fuel to the growing sense that the United States is no longer qualified to mediate the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Knowing that Netanyahu hardly has the uniform endorsement of either his own nation or the bulk of American Jews, Trump appears nonetheless dedicated to following Netanyahu’s directives to the letter.

“The Trump administration is threatening to shutter the Palestinian Authority’s representative office in Washington based on a provision of a U.S. law that has not been previously enforced… The State Department recently informed the Palestinian Authority that if it does not reenter peace negotiations with Israel, its delegation to the United States could be closed within months, though it did not specify a timeline.

“Secretary of State Rex Tillerson informed the Palestinians that the decision was made following statements by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who called on the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel for war crimes… The State Department told the Associated Press that Abbas’ statements violate a law under which action taken by the Palestinians against Israel at the ICC could lead to the closure of their mission.

“‘This is a matter of U.S. law,’ Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. ‘We respect the decision and look forward to continuing to work with the U.S. to advance peace and security in the region.’ [Yeah, right!]

“Reached in Washington, Palestinian Authority Ambassador to the United States Husam Zomlot said, ‘I have no comment. No comment at all.’… In September, Zomlot posted a video to his Twitter feed in which he said that Netanyahu’s attempts to close down the Palestinian delegation were ‘absurd’ and that the delegation’s presence in Washington reflected the ‘will of the American people.’

“Israeli television channel KAN reported in September on a plan ‘hatched’ by the Israeli government and Republican lawmakers in the U.S. to ‘punish the Palestinians for their recent diplomatic advances, including their successful bid to join Interpol, the world’s largest police organization, and their ongoing efforts to have Israeli leaders tried at the International Criminal Court.’… The latest warning shot does not bode well for the much-heralded but not-yet-unveiled Trump peace plan [being created by Kushner], which is expected to be presented to Israel and the Palestinian Authority some time in December or January.” Los Angeles Times, November 19th.

The denizens of Trumpland are becoming their own version of ineffective swamp critters, well-worthy of themselves being drained. And while Tillerson appears to be among the “best” Trump cabinet appointees, as a result of his woeful lack of experience combined with the Trump-administration preferring to shoot from the hip rather than rely on seasoned professions, the Department of State has been reduced to an impotent organization with abysmal morale. Tillerson has denied what everyone in Washington has known for months: most of those professional career Foreign Service specialists, who have spent their entire lives studying the regions and languages of their expertise, have come to hate coming to work.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert acknowledged Friday [11/17] that that there is a morale problem in the agency and offered this advice to workers: ‘Don't give up.’… Asked about a spate of critical letters to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by members of Congress, as well as recent reports about high-level resignations, Nauert conceded that some staff are feeling frustrated.
“‘I know that times may seem tough right now,’ she conceded to reporters at the agency's regular news briefing. ‘I know that the headlines coming out of the State Department do not look good, do not look promising. We have a lot of work to do here at the State Department.’

“‘It breaks my heart to hear that some feel that they aren't wanted or aren't needed or aren't appreciated,’ she went on to say. ‘If I can get somebody else to convey that message more convincingly than I can, I would love to do that. But I just speak for myself right now and say how fantastic they are.’

“Nauert did not fully answer a question about whether Tillerson is conscious of the morale issues or plans to do more personally to address them. However, she emphasized that the secretary expresses his appreciation to staff when he travels to embassies abroad.” CNN.com, November 17th.

The inmates have taken over the asylum. The government has achieved levels of incompetence we have never seen before, even as Trump’s base cackles in continuing delight in support of this parade of severe clownsmanship. But in the end, most Americans will suffer hard costs to lifestyle, economic and environmental well-being, even as the United States itself plunges in global power and prestige.

I’m Peter Dekom, and while SNL, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and a litany of comedians find humor in these outrageously stupid moves, that humor will be long-since lost on future generations forced to live with the irreversible consequences.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Waist Makes Waste

According to CBS This Morning (November 1st), Americans are wasting about $144 billion dollars of food a year. Leftovers, stuff we bought but do not fully consume, stuff that went bad on our shelves or refrigerators, restaurant excess… not to mention the tons of “expired” and/or spoiled products not sold in grocery stores plus tons and tons of farm waste. Add to that the massive garbage collection and disposal issues, landfills running out of space, and the problem is simply compounded. “America [is] wasting 40% of their food—enough to fill the Rosebowl Stadium every day. At the same time 1 in 6 go hungry every day, and we grow enough food to feed them.”Bananabank.org.  

In fact, if we were able to recover all of our wasted food, we could provide a 2,000-calorie diet to 84% of the population, said Dr. Roni Neff, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who led a first-ever study examining the nutrients we're tossing in the trash. 
“It's an ugly part of American culture, our throw away culture, and it's costing us time, money and our environment. Add the fact our waste often is filled with important nutrients many people lack in their diets, such as dietary fiber, Vitamin D and calcium, and the problem is compounded.

“‘Wasted food is a very serious issue at this point,’ said Neff, a program director at the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future. ‘We're throwing away so much money and so many resources and so much potential nutrients that can make our lives better.’” USA Today, May 16th, citing a report published in the Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics (based on 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics).  

When you think that the average North Korean subsists on a below-global standard of 1100 calories a day, the size of America’s wasted largesse is even more staggering. Simply, according to the above report, we waste more than that figure per American every day – a whopping 1200 calories of waste for every one of us. 

“It places America in a sad juxtaposition: We're hemorrhaging our food supply as communities suffer without enough to get through the day or access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  Feeding America, a hunger-relief organization, said in 2015 about 42 million Americans lived in food insecure households, which are homes with a lack of access or availability to enough food to lead a healthy life…

“So why do we throw so much away? And is it a solution to our food scarcity problems?... As Neff explains, people are tossing food out with good intentions. However, their belief foods are unsafe because they don't appear as fresh sometimes isn't grounded in reality. A 2013 report found by “Harvard University and the National Resources Defense Council found Americans throw away billions of food simply because they're confused about food expiration date labels… Among the most wasted foods, Neff said, were seafood, fruits and vegetables… ‘The foods that are particularly wasted are fresh foods that tend to be more perishable,’ she said. ‘That's a lot of money that people are using to feed their family that's going straight to the landfill.’ 

“So how do we prevent this?... ‘One of the biggest things is just really being aware of it,’ said Neff, who completed the study with John Hopkins fellow and doctoral candidate Marie L. Spiker…. That involves creating and sticking to a shopping list and being proactive about eating leftovers. She also wishes for retailers to bring more ‘imperfect’ food to the market, those fruits and veggies that don't look great, but are still fine to eat.

“While using leftover food to help feed the hungry is noble, Neff suggests it's not the antidote to food scarcity… ‘Although only a portion of discarded food can realistically be made available for human consumption,’ said Neff, efforts to redistribute surplus foods where appropriate and prevent food waste in the first place could increase the availability of nutrients for Americans, while saving money and natural resources." USA Today. 

It’s about the law of supply and demand. We demand more, but when we get the products, we waste them. So it’s not so much about donating our food waste to the poor as it is to moving that excess food, to those who need it most, farther up the supply chain before it become marginal. If we’re not going to eat it anyway, and if we learn not to buy that which will inevitably be tossed in the garbage, life gets better for just about everybody.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I think that most Americans would like to save a few bucks while helping those who might otherwise go hungry, particularly children who are still growing.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Corruption with American Characteristics

According to Transparency International’s Corruption Index, in 2016 United States of America is the 18th least corrupt nation out of 175 countries. That Corruption Rank in the United States averaged 17.77 from 1995 until 2016. But as business and Donald Trump continue to mix, and as higher courts continue to toss out corruption cases against elected officials, we just might see that number wiggle us down the “good” part of that list.

Today, America correctly focuses on the blatant double standard that seems to have condoned men in power using that position physically to impose their sexual proclivities on women. After the Hollywood revelations, politicians moved to center stage on these sexual abuse cases. Most appropriate! But for whatever reason, we seem to be turning an increasingly blind eye to down and dirty “politicians on the take.”

We are witnessing courts blurring the line between political contributions and according those constituents with what we perceive with untoward political and economic advantage. Our courts have increasing stated that representing constituents is precisely what politicians are elected to do, and as long as there isn’t a clear “pay for play” agreement when the political contribution is made, well, ok then! Some states, with fuzzy statutes concerning personal gifts to politicians, have discovered that such fuzziness might make for ugly perception and reflect poor judgment but that vagueness simply voids any potential criminal prosecution of the offending elected official.

The most visible case of late involves the Governor of Virginia and his wife. The United States Supreme Court, the last judicial venue you would expect to become the great corruption enabler, reversed a litany of lower court decisions upholding a criminal conviction: “[The] court’s most substantial opinion on corruption came last year when it redefined the very nature of political graft in throwing out the bribery conviction of Bob McDonnell, the former Republican governor of Virginia. A jury determined that Mr. McDonnell had helped a wealthy businessman by setting him up with influential people in an effort to promote a dietary supplement he was selling. But even though the businessman had given the governor several gifts and loans, the court concluded it was not illegal. It ruled that Mr. McDonnell’s part of the arrangement — making introductions and setting up meetings — was not in fact a betrayal of his office, or what the law describes as an ‘official act.’….

“‘For years, the court has been hacking away at the prosecutorial tools for combating bribery and corruption,’ said Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University in New York who has written extensively on the issue and who ran for governor in 2014. ‘Increasingly, the court has made it really hard to bring cases against anyone but the most inept criminals.’

“The trend began in 1999 when a Supreme Court case called United States v. Sun Diamond Growers of California chipped away at the government’s ability to prosecute officials for taking what are known as gratuities — or minor gifts given to them by businesses or allies. The opinion found that gratuities were illegal only if the government could connect the gifts to specific favors by officials, establishing a visible quid pro quo.

“In 2010, the court attacked another anti-corruption tactic, narrowing the definition of what is known as honest services fraud. The ruling in this case came as the justices reversed parts of the criminal conviction of Jeffrey K. Skilling, the former Enron chief executive who had been found guilty of charges related to his company’s collapse. Although Mr. Skilling was a private citizen, the opinion had a political effect: the newly limited fraud law had frequently been used to go after politicians who served themselves at their constituents’ expense.” New York Times, November 17th.

The first sitting U.S. Senator to be charged with bribery in almost a decade, Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), faced a trial that ended in mid-November. “Menendez, 63, accepted an abundance of campaign donations, gifts and vacations from Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist, according to prosecutors. In return, prosecutors claimed, he used his position to lobby on behalf of Melgen’s business interests.

“Melgen allegedly directed more than $750,000 in campaign contributions to entities that supported Menendez, according to the indictment, which prosecutors said were inducements to get Menendez to use his influence on Melgen's behalf. Prosecutors have also accused Menendez of trying to hide the gifts… Both Menendez and the doctor, Salomon Melgen, maintained their innocence.

“After the jury again informed the judge they could not reach a decision, a federal judge declared a mistrial in Sen. Bob Menendez's corruption and bribery trial. Earlier… the jury told Walls that they were unable to come to a verdict, but he implored them to continue with deliberations. On Thursday [11/16], the jury again informed him of their inability to come to a decision. .. U.S. District Court Judge William H. Walls said Thursday afternoon that he found ‘no alternative to declaring a mistrial.’” Fox News, November 16th. Huh? Given the new jury instructions, required since the above Virginia corruption decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s getting pretty hard to convict politicians accused of corruption.

Back to that Virginia debacle: “‘Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time,’ [Supreme Court] Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote in his opinion.

“From the court’s point of view, the McDonnell decision was meant to put the brakes on what Justice Roberts called a ‘pall of potential prosecution’ that could disrupt the healthy functioning of ‘democratic discourse.’ In drafting his opinion, he quoted a group of former White House lawyers who worried that the ‘breathtaking expansion of public-corruption law would likely chill federal officials’ interactions with the people.’

“But what has actually been chilled, experts say, is the ability of prosecutors to win convictions against men like Mr. Silver and Mr. Menendez… The McDonnell case opened the door to the point where selling access is now essentially legal,” said Jessica Tillipman, an assistant dean at the George Washington University Law School who teaches an anti-corruption seminar. Ms. Tillipman noted that the government has repeatedly gone after companies like Walmart and Alcoa for bribing foreign officials. ‘But our Supreme Court,’ she added, ‘has made it incredibly difficult to prosecute corruption in our own country.’” NY Times.

The luster that once shone in the light American democracy is fading. Deeply polarized and sporting some of the worst income inequality in the developed world, the vision of “America”seems to be less positive, less influential, that we have seen since such measurements have been made.

In terms of overall image, the election of Donald Trump and his early-term actions have dropped the favorable perception of the United States – we had the best image before his election: “The country with the best brand and image is no longer the United States. It’s Germany… According to a newly released study by the Nation Brands Index survey by German-based market research firm GFK and British political consultant Simon Anholt.

“The U.S. dropped from the top spot to number six. France, Britain, Canada, and Japan took spots two through five… The study calculated how well people viewed a country across six categories: people, governance, exports, tourism, investment and immigration, and cultural heritage.” AOL.com, November 17th. The prestigious UK publication, The Economistrelabeled the U.S. government, over the machinations of the 2016 presidential election, a “flawed democracy.” Hey, I wrote this blog without mentioning the seemingly revolving door of the State of Illinois and its growing list of convicted governors… oooops... couldn’t help myself.

I’m Peter Dekom, and as we continue to misbehave, engage in international hubris, abuse our own democracy, disenfranchise voters and suborn corruption, we have increasing reasons to be ashamed at who and what we have become.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Ain’t No Elephantasy – Almost!!!!

Well, it’s not exactly an attack against the GOP, whose resplendent symbol is ironically the elephant… more like an attack by the GOP on that revered animal. First, let’s get our terms right. We’re looking at African elephant, which are considered a “threatened” species under international, and more particularly American, law. “Under the Endangered Species Act in the United States, ‘threatened’ is defined as ‘any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.’” And an endangered species is one on the verge of extinction.
 I have been traveling to Africa since the 1970s. Sadly, with every trip, that former abundance of cheetah, rhino and elephant, to name just a few, has rapidly dwindled from large numbers to modest to… you have to drive and search hard to find any. I’ve watched elephant adopt an abandoned calf, after the mother was taken down by poachers. It is a touching sight, to say the least. I’ve watched a noble matriarch lead her litany of mother and calves to the bones of a departed elephant, carefully caressing the bones with a palpable feeling of sadness. The powerful memories I have of those moments still brings a tear to my eyes. Elephant are intelligent and caring. They understand their vulnerabilities. You can see it in their eyes.

But with an exceptionally-pro-gun administration with few environmental concerns, willing to turn a blind eye to autocrats and the corruption that they represent, comes a stunning new policy: “Partially reversing an Obama-era ban, the Trump administration will now allow U.S. hunters to bring home the remains of elephants they’ve killed in Zimbabwe and Zambia in southern Africa… The [recently announced] move was greeted with cheers by hunters and firearms groups but was derided by animal rights advocates as the government argued that conditions for elephants in parts of Africa had ‘changed and improved’ in recent years.

“The sides starkly disagree over whether the move helps or hurts elephant conservation efforts in the long run, with one animal advocacy group already threatening to sue the Trump administration over the decision… [The] U.S. Endangered Species Act… limits American hunters bringing back trophies — body parts — unless ‘the killing of the trophy animal will enhance the survival of the species.’

“Hunter groups argue that pricey exotic-animal hunting trips help elephants by providing tourism revenue to African nations that bolsters conservation programs… Animal rights advocates say that encouraging trophy imports only encourages more hunters to kill elephants.

“African elephants have lost more than 50% of their range across the African continent since 1979, and have been slaughtered for trophy hunting and their ivory tusks, which are banned from international trade.

“African savanna elephants saw their population decline 30% between 2007 and 2014, according to a wildlife survey called the Great Elephant Census… Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suspended elephant trophy imports in 2014 from Zimbabwe and Tanzania. The agency singled out Tanzania for ‘questionable management practices, a lack of effective law enforcement and … uncontrolled poaching and catastrophic population declines.’

“In Zimbabwe, ‘limited’ data suggested there had been ‘a significant decline in the elephant population,’ the agency said in its 2014 announcement. (The Obama administration decided to allow trophy exports in Zambia in 2012, but then Zambia’s government temporary suspended trophy hunting.)

“Gun groups protested the Obama administration’s decision as hasty. The National Rifle Assn. and the Safari Club International, a hunters’ advocacy group, tried to block the bans in court, arguing the government failed to gather enough data to make its decision.” Los Angeles Times, November 11th. That reference to “questionable management practices” goes well-beyond underfunded and under paid enforcement officers. The ugly side of elephant poaching, the lucrative ivory trade which, though diminished, still flourishes, is the money that top government officials in those “developing” nations receive either to “look the other way,” keep enforcement to a minimum, or, even more devastating, as direct participants in the bounty and practice of poaching.

Sometimes, the cache of seized illegal ivory gets an official stamp that the tusks were part of a legal culling or from natural deaths of elephant… and slips from absolutely illegal to legitimately tradeable. At a price that is deeply hidden. For nations charging hunters for the right to take elephants legally, ostensibly to use that money to sponsor greater enforcement, it is not unheard of that more than a little of that cash finds its way into the pockets of high-ranking local government officials. In short, the program often fails the very animals it was designed to help. But then man-accelerated global climate change is a Chinese hoax! Empathy is in short supply.

What could possibly stop Donald Trump from rewarding trophy hunters with this spectacular bonus? How about an absolutely overwhelming outpouring of tweets, Facebook postings and emails, from right, left and center, screaming “no.” Soooo… ” In the wake of widespread criticism, President Trump tweeted Friday [11/17] evening that he’s putting his administration’s decision to reverse the ban on import of trophies from elephant hunts on hold for now… ‘Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts,’ Trump wrote. ‘Under study for years. Will update soon with Secretary Zinke. Thank you!’” AOL.com, November 11th. Death sentence still pending. A momentary or permanent reprieve? Keep that pressure up!!!

The environmental damage inflicted on the earth by the Trump administration is not only devastating… much of that decimation is irreversible.