Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Corruption, the Addiction

The handwriting is on the wall, apparently, that the United States cannot sustain its troop commitment within the Afghan NATO forces that are currently attempting to stabilize the country. And since Hamid Karzai’s regime remains wildly corrupt – such an embarrassment to the Obama administration that the U.S. President personally flew to Kabul to try an convince the President that more effective anti-corruption efforts are essential (and maybe to make “nice” too?) – Karzai had to make some assessments as exactly how he could possibly maintain power in the absence of Western troops. He has recently opted to distance himself from the United States and turned instead to a neighboring power sure to make a very clear point to our President: Iran.

Why should Karzai do anything that the U.S. wants – especially if he and his cronies are forced to give up or curtail their gorging at the corruption trough – if he knows he will be just one more regional warlord in a post-NATO world? This forces the U.S. to balance creating another regional ally to a nuclear nation that feasts on antagonizing the West (Iran) against once again supporting a corrupt and ineffective regime that it helped place in power.

If there is any doubt that Karzai will ever do “the right thing,” let’s start with his brother, Ahmed, a powerhouse in southern Afghanistan: “Senior American officials spent months weighing the allegations against Ahmed Wali Karzai: that he pays off Taliban insurgents, that he launders money, that he seizes land, that he reaps enormous profits by facilitating the shipment of opium through the area. And the officials concluded that the evidence, some compelling, some circumstantial, was not clear enough to persuade the president to move his brother out of town, two NATO officials said. ‘My recommendation was, remove him,’ a senior NATO officer said this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity. ‘But for President Karzai, he’s looking at his brother, an elected official, and nobody has come to him with pictures of his brother loading heroin into a truck.’… Some have regarded the case as a test of American will to confront President Karzai. ‘Watch what the Americans do,’ said a diplomat in Kabul. ‘If they let Ahmed Wali stay in power, it means they are not serious about governance.’” New York Times (March 31st). Ahmed isn’t going anywhere, but President Obama went to Afghanistan. In fact, the apologetic spin from U.S. officials is about how useful Ahmed might be to communicate with the Taliban; darker sources say that Ahmed takes money from wherever he can, including payments from the CIA, a fact which could be embarrassing to the allies.

So exactly what provoked the surprise Obama visit? After all, after issuing an invitation to Karzai to visit the White House in the near future, the President had recently revoked that invitation. The New York Times (March 30th) put the events into proper perspective: “The reason [for the revocation], according to American officials, was Mr. Karzai’s announcement that he was emasculating an independent panel that had discovered widespread fraud in Mr. Karzai’s re-election last year… Incensed, Mr. Karzai extended an invitation of his own — to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, who flew to Kabul and delivered a fiery anti-American speech inside Afghanistan’s presidential palace… ‘Karzai was enraged,’ said an Afghan with knowledge of the events, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. ‘He invited Ahmadinejad to spite the Americans.’”

Did the Obama trip “smooth things over” as some pundits suggest or did the parties simply iterate their antagonistic positions and create the appearance of cooperation? Karzai made a few token appointments of independent personnel to review the recent election results, but we know where that is going. Other than the feeblest attempts to stem corruption – a huge thorn in America’s search for justification for continued involvement in Afghanistan – Karzai has pretty much resisted any genuine reform movement. His power base appears to consist of a loose alliance of local warlords and corrupt administrators who trade their support of their President for ample access to flowing wealth, most of it undoubtedly generated by the lucrative opium trade that remains the mainstay of the nation’s economy.

That Karzai picked Iran is significant not only as the most emphatic means of declaring independence from American policies but that this fundamentalist Shiite country is held in disdain by the equally fundamentalist (and anti-Shiite) Sunni Taliban. An alliance with Iran could potentially give Karzai a threat against the Taliban who seeks to dispose of him and his government, a card to play in the inevitable negotiations with the enemy. Further, with civilian casualties from NATO efforts mounting, Karzai also has to cater to a growing anti-Western sentiment among his own people, who want the war to leave their ravaged villages and farms. Even as Taliban apply their legendary cruelty to negate NATO efforts and undermine local support for American stabilization efforts, the people caught in the middle would prefer to see an end to the “NATO attack followed by a Taliban retaliation effort” cycle that has made local lives almost unlivable.

American policy-makers can spin the events anyway they want, but the truth remains that there are ever-decreasing reasons for Americans to die in support of a regime that is the antithesis of everything we seem to believe in. The Times: “Iran is a neighbor of Afghanistan, and American officials say they do not object to the two countries discussing issues of mutual interest. ‘He can be close to us, have a cooperative bilateral relationship with us, and a good working relationship with his neighborhood,’ a senior American official said… But the recent visit by Mr. Ahmadinejad seemed designed to generate as much attention as possible — including in Washington. With Mr. Karzai standing at his side in Kabul, Mr. Ahmadinejad accused the United States of promoting terrorism.”

I’m Peter Dekom, and sometimes, you just can’t find justification for continuing our presence in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

An Independent Judiciary

When the United States was born, our founding fathers created a system of checks and balances with three very separate silos of power, each having a degree of blocking power and control over the others: we all know from school that they are the legislative branch – Congress, the Executive (which includes a pile of administrative agencies with regulatory powers) and Judicial. The guiding pillar in all this is the Constitution, and back to the very early case of Marbury vs. Madison (U.S. Supreme Court, 1803), the United States Supreme Court established that it alone is the ultimate arbiter of interpretation of that esteemed document. There is a mechanism for Congress to override the President, even remove him/her, and sufficient leeway in implementing Constitutional/statutory dictates to leave the p resident, as commander in chief of the military, sufficient to wield a lot of power.

There is the presumed battle of “strict constructionism” – reading the Constitution literally within its four walls versus looking at what the authors of that document believe was the necessity of flexibility of interpretation as time and historical contexts changed. For example, there is no basis for a separate Air Force in the Constitution, because the enabling provisions only dealt with the Army and the Navy. Further, our system of laws was built on the British system which allowed courts to apply common sense to issues brought before them – within statutory and Constitutional limits – creating precedents under the notion of “common law.” The Supreme Court often applies this theory to its decisions and often alters earlier precedents as the world changes. For example, they once held that wire-tapping phones did not violate t he Constitutional ban on unreasonable searches and seizures (Fourth Amendment), because there was no intrusion into the actual premises of the people whose phone was tapped. As technology grew more sophisticated and became a part of everyday life, they reversed that ruling.

The lack of an independent judiciary is at the core of dictatorships and elite ruling classes. The only hope for an ordinary citizen who may be the victim of some abuse of power by a governmental autocrat is the possibility that there is a higher body whose sole duty it is to overrule abuse and protect the citizenry. When a judge reports to the abusive autocrat, repression and hopelessness are the rule. You’d expect Americans to favor a strong independent judiciary in countries with democratically elected governments, but our sentiments might very well be determined by how that judiciary impacts any benefits or detriments to U.S. polices. We are famous for sacrificing democratic ideals in favor of crass pragmatism, supporting dictators who align with our interests, working to undermine and topple regimes – even popularly-elected ones – that generate policies that are antagonistic to those we support.

And so it is with Pakistan, a nation that, for all practical purposes, is governed in an almost feudalistic aggregation of rich families, whose names have been on the ballot in those times when the military has not seized power. Popular support aligns with one family powerhouse or another, but grassroots candidates achieving significant power are a rarity. When the military governed under President Pervez Musharraf, until he left office under a dark shadow, the Pakistani leadership, defying the populist leanings, aligned with the United States anti-terrorism policies. He removed Pakistan's Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who opposed Musharraf and defied amnesty laws passed to exempt the senior officials (past and current) from prosecution for corruption and abuse of office, but Chaudhry is back, and judicial reform is now high on the national agenda. Until Chaudhry and this reform movement, the judiciary had been little more than a subservient branch of the nation’s chief executive.

The battle over the complex relationships that have controlled the judiciary to date is being accelerated by a reform measure that could change the shape of Pakistani governance forever (or at least until the next military coup): “And those relationships are likely to be tested in the tussle over a package of wide-ranging constitutional reforms that was due to be introduced to parliament on [March 26th], whose purpose is to reverse changes made by previous military rulers, trim the power of the presidency, and alter the procedure for Supreme Court appointments. The bill would take Supreme Court appointments out of the hands of the president, who now makes nominations after consulting with the chief justice, and place them before a government legal committee that also includes several justices. Unlike the present sy stem, judges would have to be confirmed by a parliamentary vote.” Time Magazine, March 27th.

The Chief Justice is also threatening to pursue the corruption charges with renewed vigor if the reform measures attempt in any way to curtail the limits of his power: “The proposed reforms have widened the rift between Chaudhry and the government that has grown since the Chief Justice last year struck down amnesty decrees by Musharraf that protected many senior figures in government — including [current President Asif Ali] Zardari himself once out of office — from prosecution on corruption charges. And some saw the Chief Justice’s hand in the eleventh-hour stalling of parliamentary debate on the package on [March 26th] by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who objected to proposals on the selection of judges. Sharif's opposition, some senior politicians suggest, results from being pressured by Chaudhry, who is allegedly opposed to having his own power in the selection of judges curtailed. ‘The chief justice threatened [Sharif]. He said he'd open up all cases against him,’ a senior leader of the ruling Pakistan People's Party said on condition of anonymity. ‘He's become an absolute dictator.’” Time.

Those in power – and maybe even our own policy-makers – might not want an independent judiciary that challenges the control over the country. But if we are truly champions of democratic reform, exactly where should our sensibilities lie in one of the most import elements of true freedom? Exactly how strongly do we believe in our own system of government… in our system of checks and balances?

I’m Peter Dekom, and I suspect that in the end, democracy should trump autocrats every time.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Crazy for Haiti

I remember in college, when I studied the history of mental institutions, seeing the horrific photographs of inmates in austere, prison-like environments and even barred cells, often chained or otherwise restrained, dressed in ragged hospital robes. Old black and white movies showed electroshock therapy, harsh nurses and burly attendants and forced drug treatments – real pictures of a Shelter Island world. Today, most of our mentally-ill aren’t in treatment facilities at all – they wander the streets in a daze – and our mostly-underfunded and deteriorating institutions are only for those who are a threat to themselves or others or who truly are not able to look after even their most minimal needs. If mental healthcare in the United States is this bad, I wondered, what must it be like in devastated Haiti, where poverty has never given this tiny nation the means of providing anywhere near humane treatment and care facilities… after an earthquake that has restructured virtually every minimal priority in that island nation?

The March 20th New York Times answered my question, and what they report deeply saddened me. “Inside this [capital] city’s earthquake-cracked psychiatric hospital, a schizophrenic man lay naked on a concrete floor, caked in dust. Other patients, padlocked in tiny concrete cells, clutched the bars and howled for attention. Feces clotted the gutter outside a ward where urine pooled under metal cots without mattresses… As disasters often do in poor countries, Haiti’s earthquake has exposed the extreme inadequacies of its mental health services jus t at the moment when they are most needed. Appalled by the Mars and Kline Psychiatric Center, the country’s only hospital for acute mental illness, foreign psychiatrists here have vowed to help the Haitian government create a mental health care system that is more than just an underfinanced institution in the capital city.”

The trauma of losing loved ones, seeing shanties and what little possessions existed crushed into oblivion and even slightly better-built buildings topple and fall, disease and starvation multiplied, serious medical emergencies threatening the survivors, the notion of never-ending chaos punctuated with occasional nerve-rattling aftershocks and heavy rains flooding what little remains – this is the fertile soil where mental illness can only grow.

The Times observed: “The foreign psychiatrists emphasize that they have found Haitians to be impressively resilient, but the disaster has nonetheless set off reactions ranging from anxiety through psychosis. Most worrisome are cases like that of Guerda Joseph, a 41-year-old woman who tumbled into a catatonic depression shortly after she was pulled from the rubble of her home. Mute and nearly immobilized ever since, she lies on floral sheets at the General Hospital, her Bible tucked beside her pillow, her 25-year-old adopted son by her side day and night… More common, though, is what Dr. Lynne Jones, a child psychiatrist and disaster expert with the International Medical Corps, calls ‘earthquake shock,’ a persistent sensation that the earth is still shaking, which makes the heart race and causes chest pain.”

Time marches on. The headlines speak of war and natural disasters in other regions of the earth. Our economy still shudders with pain. But Haiti’s agony doesn’t end with each new headline of devastation somewhere else. They still need our help… desperately.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I know that Americans will not forget.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Social Insecurity

One of the numerous side-effects from the financial meltdown and the heavy and sustained levels of unemployment and underemployment that followed is the earlier-than-expected retirement of many Social Security beneficiaries. We are now at the point – perhaps the tipping point of the entire system – where the system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in contributions. The Social Security Administration, in its annual report, had predicted unemployment rates below 9% and the Congressional Budget Office had projected the beginning of this imbalance between pay-ins and pay-outs as occurring in 2016 instead of 2010. They didn’t expect that the numbers would be worse.

This is not a threat of imminent insolvency, and we have time to right the ship. However, the costs that are currently overwhelming the nation – which taxpayers will cover either in higher taxes, reduced buying power of their dollar or both – leave less flexibility for repairing this retirement program. Legally, the Social Security Administration cannot pay out more than its balance in any one year, and projections are that without adjustment, the current fund will be depleted by 2037. Because there were surpluses that began in the 1980s, that “balance” is currently about $2.5 trillion – the difference between all of its contributions less all of its payments. This balance is carried as U.S. Treasury securities, and the interest generated from these instruments has more than covered the current imbalance between money received and money paid out to beneficiaries.

If the recession ebbs, the Congressional Budget Office sees the possibility of small surpluses returning in four or five years, but in the not-too-distant future, absent retooling, the whole system begins a long slow road to insolvency. While we all know that the dependency on Social Security is so intense that it can never go away, we also see writing on the wall that will probably result in reduced benefits, delays in the start of benefits, possibly higher contributions and the factoring in of other considerations in who qualifies for the benefits (why pay a rich person funds that he or she doesn’t need?).

According to an article in the March 25th New York Times, sometime after 2015, “demographic forces are expected to overtake the fund, as more and more baby boomers leave the work force, stop paying into the program and start collecting their benefits. At that point, outlays will exceed revenue every year, no matter how well the economy performs… [Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan] Greenspan recalled in an interview that the sour economy of the late 1970s had taken the program close to insolvency when the commission he led [prior to his appointment to the Federal Reserve] set to work in 1982. It had no contingency reserve then, and the group had to work quickly. He said the re were only three choices: raise taxes, lower benefits or bail out the program by tapping general revenue… The easiest choice, politically, would have been ‘solving the problem with the stroke of a pen, by printing the money,’ Mr. Greenspan said. But one member of the commission, Claude Pepper, then a House representative, blocked that approach because he feared it would undermine Social Security, changing it from a respected, self-sustaining old-age program into welfare.

The Obama administration has “has appointed a bipartisan commission to examine the [overall national] debt problem, including Social Security, and make recommendations on how to trim the nation’s debt by Dec. 1, a few weeks after the midterm Congressional elections.” The Times. The issues surrounding our national borrowings are going to be political hot buttons for the foreseeable future, but as this nation gets grayer, there is another battle looming: the willingness of younger active taxpayers to fund retirees.

I’m Peter Dekom, and the big issues never go away.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The North Korean Solution

Exactly what happens to major American bureaucrats and politicians when they recommend policies that fail in a colossal way, present incomplete or woefully inadequate bases for major policy shifts, even the very basis for a declaration of war, or act in a manner that sinks an entire economy? You might ask that of the commissioners at the SEC who, on April 28, 2004, voted to exempt the biggest of the big financial institutions – those too big to fail – from the ceilings on borrowings imposed on everybody else… which resulted in the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros. (and the rest of the American economy). You could ask Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, respective Chairs of the Federal Reserve, how they could allow banks to lend into a system of over-inflated appraisals, under-qualified borrowers with no down-payments without any intervention by the Fed. You might ask the Bush administration how they could commit the United States to a seemingly endless war in Iraq – a bottomless pit of budgetary deficits – based on a theory that the “enemy” had a stash of “weapons of mass destruction” that didn’t really exist or the Obama administration how the Taliban seem only to grow in strength as the America surge in Afghanistan presses on.

In this country, bureaucrats seldom lose their jobs for bad decisions, regardless of the scope and consequences, and politicians might simply not be reelected for their colossal blunders. These penalties are particularly light if one were to apply North Korean standards to bad governmental decisions. Take for example the North Korean decision last fall to reconfigure and revalue the currency in order to stem inflation and assert the government’s control over the nascent grassroots market economy. The results weren’t pretty: “The measure reportedly worsened the country's food situation by forcing the closure of markets and sparked anger among many North Koreans left with piles of worthless bills.” March 19th Washington Post. Not to mention skyrocketing food costs.

This little negativity came at a time when the ailing Kim Jong-il was planning for an orderly transition of power to his son, Kim Jong-Un, which made the elder statesman fall in the eyes of both the populace, but, more importantly, in the eyes of the senior Korean military officers who would have to accept Jong-Un as his father’s successor. Dear Leader needed a scapegoat and fast. That would be Pak Nam Gi, the ruling Workers' Party finance and planning department chief who was in charge of this the currency reform. Mr. Pak was apparently executed (firing squad, we are told) in the state capital, sometime during the week of March 8th. Hmmm.

In a note of profound understatement, the above Post article noted that: “It is not unprecedented for the [North Korean] communist government to execute officials for policy failures… In the 1990s, North Korea publicly executed a top agricultural official following widespread starvation…” Aren’t we lucky that we do not live in such a brutal and oppressive nation? I bet our “deciders” are even happier about this fact. Did I mention that in North Korea, the “leader” of everything never gets punished? There’s always a better receptacle for a well-aimed bullet.

I’m Peter Dekom, and even when we are stupid, we are a whole lot nicer than some folks!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Loopholes, People Who Love Loopholes

I’m a lawyer. Sometimes, when a great injustice is eliminated, I’m proud to have that professional calling. Sometimes, when I see how some of my brethren twist the clear intention of the law to aid some client in search of an exemption from legislative mandates, I feel like hiding in a corner, even though I did not partake of the ignominious evasion. When limits were placed on certain bonus compensation paid to executives of bailed out institutions, some legal wag noted that this exemption did not apply to bonuses in the form of stock. Guess what happened.

When the pharmaceutical industry reached an accord with the Obama administration mandating a ten-year, $80 billion reduction in the cost of prescription drugs, someone noticed that nothing precluded massive price increases before that legislation passed (if it does), so the cost of prescription drugs skyrocketed almost instantly. Tax lawyers find big holes so that big rich fish can swim out of their intended tax liabilities, something that drops the jaws of good faith taxpayers who simply watch their own paycheck stubs with massive and automatic withholding deductions.

Take a look at the pre-February 22d interest hikes and cancellations in the credit card industry, and the way they are charging annual fees, etc. That was the date that the new credit card regulations took effect. And when a law simply cannot be loopholed out of existence, lawsuits are filed by those affected, usually in the most anti-government regulatory venue possible (a friendly court is always a plus), challenging the law even if the likelihood of victory at an appellate level is unlikely… a delay in implementation of a statute is often just as valuable as extinguishing its very existence.

Since litigation is the most expensive form of entertainment known to the rich, easily eclipsing the cost of a private jet or a luxury yacht, it is abundantly clear that our legal system favors the wealthy overwhelmingly at the expense of the middle class. The under-classes have access to legal aid and government legal support; the middle classes face exorbitant legal costs (and often bankruptcy) to protect themselves or simply have to live with what life deals them without legal redress. Sure, there’s the personal injury arena where lawyers charge 25%-40% of the recovery to pursue a claim, a game the insurance industry knows how to play, but for most civil wrongs, the cost of litigation usually is a deterrent to justice for most folks in the middle.

Most legal systems have a mechanism to award legal fees to the victorious party. Absent a statute or a contractual obligation to the contrary, the American system of justice does not. So those pursuing the crushing of legislation that negatively impacts their lives or business operations generally have massive cash reserves allocated to such litigation and have well-funded industry organizations that lobby legislators heavily and provide political campaign support of staggering proportions. I personally don’t actually have a lobbyist in either Sacramento or Washington. Hmmm.

When I recently asked a candidate for New York State Attorney General, a person with a terrific track record in pursuing corporate financial miscreants on behalf of wrong investors, if he were willing to take Wall Street to task for the mega-trillions of dollars of financial chaos they directly caused by their irresponsible if not blatantly illegal activities, his was response was scary: “We can’t take down an industry that is a vital tax and revenue base for the State.” Big loophole.

So when travelers were stuck in planes on runways for hours with flight delays, lacking food and dealing with overflowing bathrooms, Congress passed legislation that could fine the airlines up to $27,000 per passenger for flights delayed by more than three hours unless passengers were allowed to deplane. So I guess that means that airlines would simply return to the gate and allow passengers to use airport restrooms and buy airport food – the easy button, right? Not exactly. Continental Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek has another plan to teach the federal government a lesson: “Here's what we're going to do: We're going to cancel the flight.” No fun being incontinent on Continental. Yup, the feds are the bad guys: “Smisek said at an investor conference [on March 9th] in New York that long delays are rare , and mostly caused by an outdated air traffic control system that the government has failed to upgrade.” March 9th New York Times. Teach those feds a lesson! Yeah! Think of that next time you book on Continental. And maybe you’d like some loopholes of your very own. Or you could just hold your breath until you turn blue… probably an equally effective vent for the middle class.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I love the two sets of rules: one for us and another for the rich and the big corporate structures out there.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The New Afghanistan

NATO forces handily defeated insurgent forces as they took over the Afghan Taliban stronghold of Marja in the unstable province of Helmand on the Pakistani border last month. They installed a new government, one they believed could hold the area even as U.S.-led military forces slowly handed over the policing to local forces. Marja was a shining star in the American “surge” that was bringing the battle back to the Taliban’s front door, a policy that would confront these fundamentalists and at least set the stage for some tough bargaining with them as NATO forces began the anticipated troop reduction in the near term. I suggested that the Taliban could and did simply wait across the border in the safe havens in the Pakistan for the allies to depart, returning without having to lose troops in this angry war, but I was wrong…and not in a good way.

Combined with thousands of Afghan troops, over 6,000 NATO soldiers took over this region in mid-February. With one allied soldier for every eight local residents, the prevailing theory was that at least during this intensive NATO military occupation, the Taliban would not dare attempt reasserting their power over the city. The prevailing theory was wrong. The day belongs to NATO, but the night belongs to the Taliban, who are shaking out horrific threats – punctuated by at least one gruesome beheading – at the local residents. “‘After dark the city is like the kingdom of the Taliban,’ said a tribal elder living in Marja, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of the Taliban. ‘The government and international forces cannot defend anyone even one kilometer from their bases.’… The new governor of Marja, Haji Abdul Zahir [pictured above], said the militants were now holding meetings in randomly selected homes roughly every other night, gathering residents together and demanding that they turn over the names of anyone cooperating with the authorities.

“Mr. Zahir said the Taliban also regularly issued ‘night letters,’ posted at mosques or on utility poles, warning against such collaboration, and often intimidated residents into providing them with shelter and food, even in densely populated neighborhoods of the city, which has a population of 80,000… ‘They are threatening and intimidating these people who are cooperating,’ he said in a telephone interview. ‘They have been involved in the area for a long time and they know how to intimidate people. They threaten them with beheadings, cutting off hands and feet, all the things they did when they were the government.’… Mr. Zahir said it was difficult for the authorities to counter the Taliban’s campaign because the militants were mostly moving around without guns, relying on fear rather than threats. ‘If they are detained, they claim they are just ordinary citizens,’ he said. ‘At the same time, they still have a lot of sympathy among the people.’… He said it was impossible to estimate how many Taliban fighters remained in the city. ‘It’s like an ant hole,’ he said. ‘When you look into an ant hole, who knows how many ants there are?’” March 18th New York Times.

To make matters worse, what little effort Pakistan has made on our behalf (and for their own cause and as to local Taliban who have focused their attacks inside Pakistan itself) may actually have made them less valuable as intermediaries to the Afghan Taliban: “Kai Eide, the former special representative in Afghanistan for the United Nations secretary general, told the BBC in an interview broadcast on [March 19th] that, for the past year, the United Nations had been quietly involved in early discussions with the Taliban in Dubai. He said those talks were upended by the arrests of senior Taliban leaders [by Pakistani authorities], including the group’s second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in February… Mr. Eide, who stepped down earlier this month, said the arrests undermined efforts to start talks and to build trust that are necessary for substantive peace negotiations… ‘The Pakistanis did not play the role that they should have played,’ he said in the interview…” March 20th New York Times. Pakistan denied this impasse and indicated that they are still involved in an Afghan-led reconciliation effort with the Taliban leadership.

With corruption in Kabul, internecine tribalism almost everywhere in Afghanistan, civilian casualties still mounting – albeit at a lower rate than before new “civilian-sensitive” military policies were implemented – and Pakistan’s populace, military and intelligence services still showing an obvious sympathy for the Muslim Taliban despite their ostensible alliance with the U.S. against such forces, the debacle in Marja is just one more piece of evidence in an overwhelming litany of proof that unless the United States is prepared both to expand its military presence over a very long, almost indefinite term – perhaps even risking incursions directly into Pakistan (which will enrage Pakistan) – the effort in Afghanistan is both unwinnable and only serves to focus region anger on the Western world. Our efforts – widely interpreted as a war on Islam – are the recruiting tool for Islamists everywhere. It was not without ironic glee that Pakistan arrested five American citizens from Virginia – Muslim fundamentalists by their own actions – and charged them with supporting terrorism.

Our “surge” seems only seems to prove to the local Afghans that the Taliban are only getting stronger. At what point does the United States government actually stop “throwing good money after bad” and allowing the slaughter of human lives (including U.S. forces)? At what point does the back-channel peace process yield the slightest dividend? At what point does our government recognize the obvious? We need our soldiers here and the money wasted on this unwinnable war to be used to rebuild this nation here at home.

I’m Peter Dekom, and sometimes you have to fight a war… and sometimes you shouldn’t.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

India’s Excellence

India is a huge country (with just under 1.2 billion people), and its impact globally in the fields of science, medicine, technology and finance is profound. My belief is that if you took the Indian Diaspora out of the United States, it would be a matter of days before our information super-highways collapsed, scientific and medical research slowed to a trickle and our banks and financial institutions simply stopped working. How does a country where only 12.4% of its 186,000 students (a pretty bad ratio) produce such incredible academic results? Chalk it up to volume and competition.

You see, in a country where there are relatively few college spots and a vast horde of applicants, the selection process has become one of the most brutalizing on earth – all based on series of standardized tests that has college-bound teenagers living in a hyper-pressurized world of seriously competitive academics. Life for pre-college kids is stressful enough to result in suicides when test scores disappoint. Parents and students alike experience medical issues with surges in blood pressure and even blood sugar issues (diabetes). Children have to take these tests to get out of high school, but the same tests are used to weed out those who get to go on to higher education… and those who don’t.

The issue of who gets in is a barometer of social standing as well. The March 24th New York Times: “For parents, the anxiety derives from fears that a bad score could derail their child’s future, but also from a social competitiveness for a child to score above the coveted 90-percent level. ‘The score of the child has become a status symbol,’ [one middle-class mother] said. ‘If we go to a party these days, everybody asks me, ‘How is your child doing?’ No one asks about my health. The question is, ‘What is your child’s academic status?’ ’” College prep courses, practice tests and constant studying are the lot of those who want to go on. And more tests.< /o:p>

While this selection process puts the best and the brightest into college, almost half of India’s colleges and universities are substandard with pressure building for more schools for increasing numbers of students. But then, there are those academic institutions that shine as world-class institutions that sit atop the “best” list on a global basis – the fifteen Indian Institutes of Technology (the first was founded in 1951), comparable to our MIT or Cal Tech but even more selective. According to the Times, in 2008, 320,000 students took the specialized additional test (for those focusing on science and technology) for the 8,000 openings at these schools. The worse students at these campuses have math skills that are staggering. These elite students are sought after by the best grad schools and the highest paying companies on earth. A disproportionate number go on to become the mega-billionaires who have generated wealth in technology and financial expertise.

What this all means for the United States is that this is the playing field in which American students will compete in the future. As we cut our school budgets and push higher education out of reach for more students, increase class size and decrease the quality of our educational experience, remember exactly who our competition is and will be for the foreseeable future. And that’s just India.

I’m Peter Dekom, and looking over my shoulder is beginning to hurt my neck.

Is it Spring or Fall?

Democrats are chirping, Republicans are sniping, healthcare plans are blooming, unemployment is rolling steadily in “bad,” and existing home sales have fallen for the third straight month in a row, taking the housing market down a further 1.8% from the same time last year. People, the economy is going the wrong way! Get real! And there is about to be an explosion of cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. Houston… and every other city and town in America… we have a big problem that requires our elected representatives to work together. Yeah, right!

Still the war rages on. Embittered factions lobbing blasts against the other side. Not Iraq or Afghanistan – Washington! On Main Street, casualties mount. Snipers take aim. Bodies fall. It’s a virtual bloodbath… Republicans completely rejecting any piece of significant legislation from the Democrats; Democrats figuring that their unpopularity in passing healthcare may be overcome by attacking Republicans as the “party of no.” We’re back-channeling with the Taliban in Afghanistan, but we don’t seem to be able to get our government to channel anywhere to create a unified American vector for survival.

History tells us that sweeping change is almost always unpopular. “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” Machiavelli. Incumbents are always impacted the most by major shifts in policy; they have the most to lose since their interests are vested. They fight change for obvious reasons, often desperately. And the vast horde of “the rest of us” may or may not benefit from the change since they have no experience with “the new.” Fear is easiest to cultivate when the unknown looms. Mythology and dogmatic responses predominate. So let’s see, incumbents don’t like change and most of the populace is fearful of change… Who’s dumb enough to favor the “Big New”?

Wasn’t it Ronald Reagan who said that Medicare would foretell the end of American freedom? As liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman points out (March 21st), “[H]ere’s what Newt Gingrich, the Republican former speaker of the House — a man celebrated by many in his party as an intellectual leader — had to say: If Democrats pass health reform, ‘They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years’ by passing civil rights legislation… Think about what it means to condemn health reform by comparing it to the Civil Rights Act. Who in modern America would say that L.B.J. did the wrong thing by pushing for racial equality?” Okay, we know there are folks who continue to oppose racial equality.

So both Republicans and Democrats have made a big bet. The Dems have a few pre-midterm election months to convince their constituency that the healthcare program has real benefits for everyone. But there’s a catch: it’s going to take much more time to actually see that happen. The Republicans are doing everything they can to slow down the implementation of the new law (13 Republican state attorneys general have filed lawsuits against the federal government maintaining that the 10th Amendment – see my earlier blog – reserves the relevant powers to the states). So Republicans are betting that the current distrust of the “big change” will sweep them into office and hoping that they can be seen as more than the party of negativity.

Republicans who clearly favored healthcare reform – Mitt Romney, for example, as governor of Massachusetts shepherded a healthcare package there that looks a lot like what was just passed by Congress – are now campaigning to repeal the legislation. Democrats are seeking to expand that program as time passes. The truth probably lies in the middle. Healthcare is probably here to stay in some form or another, but each new Congress and each new President will seek to amend, expand or contract sections of the law as their term in office applies. Anyone familiar with big change legislation is generally aware that the first pass at a major new policy is almost always “far from perfect.” It will require fine tuning for decades to find the functional stability that will make it work, and changing times will mandate additional tweaks… forever. But the biggest battle of all is to debunk the mythology and spread the truth about what just happened. If only there weren’t so many people, left and right, married to the propagation of mythology!

I’m Peter Dekom, and looking at historical perspectives is a valuable in times of change.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Happy Hospitals

With the new healthcare legislation, there will still be questions. Will the procedural issues that kept Republican Congressmen and women occupied late-at-night of late produce the “out” that can override the seven vote House margin that pushed the massive healthcare legislation Sunday night both to the Oval Office and to the Senate for reconciliation? Are the deficit-reduction numbers real or are we kidding ourselves? Is this bill evidence of creeping demon socialism or is it simply another iteration of government benefits akin to public education and Medicare? And will the American people resent the passage of this bill or come to understand that the criticisms leveled at this legislation were mostly inaccurate?

Behind the ruckus is the quiet reality that many corporate interests from the private healthcare industry were cheering in the background. Think about it. “That would mean millions more Americans buying private health insurance and better able to pay for their hospital stays, doctors’ visits, prescription drugs and medical devices… And some analysts said as the vote neared that the final legislation was shaping up as much kinder to the industry than many initially feared. Hospitals and drug makers, which supported the final legislation, would be clear beneficiaries, analysts say, even if the outlook for insurers was less certain… Yet the bill would not create the thing that insurers feared most: a government-run public option, a health plan that would compete with the private insurers.” March 21st New York Times.

Pharmaceutical biggies are winners too: “Drug makers, meanwhile, may have the most clear reason to celebrate the legislation. Pharmaceutical companies are going to be asked to contribute $85 billion toward the cost of the bill in the form of industry fees and lower prices paid under government programs over 10 years. But they can look forward to tens of billions of dollars in additional revenue as more people with insurance visit doctors and fill prescriptions.” The Times.

Yes, business will be more difficult for insurers, but do you really want these corporate monoliths to turn down coverage for pre-existing conditions, knowing that sooner or later the associated costs will be shunted back to the public? Do you really want to see insurers cause medical bankruptcies by limiting annual or lifetime benefits? Isn’t this a reasonable trade-off for getting as many as 16 million new customers without any competition from a government-run “public option” plan?

The insurers (not the hospitals and pharmas) were the ones protesting the most: “One place where the rules of the insurance game may shift most significantly is in a new kind of state-supervised marketplace, called exchanges, in which insurers would be required to sell their policies for individuals and small businesses. The exchanges are expected to involve much greater regulatory oversight than insurers now typically face and to alter their business models drastically. Currently, insurers seek to protect profits by trying to enroll only the healthiest individuals, while also charging enough to recoup the expense of covering sick people. But the legislation requires insurers to cover even people with potentially costly pre-existing conditions… The new law would also place strict limits on how much more an insurer could vary premiums among the people taking out the same policy, largely to factor in age differences… To help spread the costs and risks of insurance, the legislation would eventually require most Americans to have insurance or pay a federal penalty. But insurers have worried that the penalties are too low or will not be enforced. The Times.

In the end, the state of healthcare was bound to change one way or the other. 10-30% annual increases in healthcare premiums were slowly pushing affordability and reasonable access to insurance out the window. Change is/was inevitable. And if you think this legislation will remain unchanged, remember that part of this is a colossal new process that will require fine tuning for decades… changes requested by Republicans and Democrats alike. It is now the law of the land, and perhaps we might just give it a chance to take root.

I’m Peter Dekom, and it’s time to put this great debate behind us, unite and move forward.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

“Never Again” Laws

Public outcries and politicians looking for gut-wrenching issues upon which they can ride a fast horse to reelection are usually a bad mix. Easy to get the laws passed, but often difficult to undo the longer-term damage of sending too many people to “graduate-level crime schools” – we call them “penitentiaries” or “ prisons,” accelerating gang membership, which long survives the sentences of those eventually released, and providing thousands of hours of free instruction is scamming, stealing, dealing, hurting and killing. Angry and bitter incarcerated prisoners, their ability to get post-prison solid employment decimated enough by a bad economy is all but gone, don’t make for a safer society. That the United States has about 5% of the earth’s population and one quarter of the world’s prison population should tell you we a re most certainly doing something wrong.

With the cost of prison running between $30,000 and $45,000 a year per prisoner, and with state and federal budgets strained beyond the breaking point, the cost of sending people behind bars for longer and often unwarranted periods is no longer a tolerable burden. States are busy reexamining the definition of “habitual criminals” under the oh-so-popular-when-they-were-passed “three strikes and you’re out” statutes, where a relatively petty property crime often triggered the same result as an armed robbery – a third strike was a third strike. Socking the taxpayers with ever-increasing costs associated with incarceration was fine in prosperous times, but under a tight economic reality, we can no longer afford the difference.

Pre-2007, when the U.S. Supreme Court restored some sentencing discretion to federal judges, conviction of possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine were the same as possessing 500 grams of cocaine in its pure form, an anomaly that Congress is addressing as it considers revising its statutes. People with five grams of crack were getting ten year mandatory sentences for first offenses, while criminals with 495 grams of cocaine were getting vastly shorter penalties.

Sexual predator laws – especially involving children – are almost always automatic with any legislature. Take the name of the victim – Megan, Jessica, Amber, etc. – add a horrific sexually-linked criminal activity, and there isn’t a legislator worse his/her salt that could ever vote against the result. Common sense told legislators and voters alike that keeping these predators from living anywhere near where children congregate was absolutely essential.

Jessica Lunsford was a 9-year-old Florida girl who was raped and murdered 150 yards from her home. Deny the opportunity, the reasonable assumption would be a decrease in these heinous crimes. Jessica’s Law was born, carried across state legislatures like a legal tsunami. But no one actually asked if the underlying assumption – a statutorily mandated distance between convicted sex offenders’ homes and children – actually made any difference. No one really questioned how these statutes could be enforced, what the consequences might be and what the associated costs were likely to approach.

The March 14th Los Angeles Times addressed these concerns: “A January report by the [California’s] Sexual Offender Management Board portrayed the effect of Jessica's Law as difficult to determine at best, and wrong-headed at worst… The requirement that offenders live away from children has required many to stay away from their own relatives or to become homeless -- both instances of instability that put them "at increased risk of re-offense,’ the report said… The report also challenged the premise of the law's residency restrictions…‘The hypothesis that sex offenders who live in close proximity to schools, parks and other places children congregate have an increased likelihood of sexually re-offending remains unsupported by research,’ the report said. ‘On the contrary . . . there is alm ost no correlation between sex offenders living near restricted areas and where they commit their offenses.’”

Clearly, we need solid statutes and appropriate penalties for criminal activity, but these cannot be born where legislatures are riding populist emotional trends with no real information upon which to base their “convictions.” Leadership is precisely that: leading… not following a momentarily popular anger with a statute that not only fails to fix the problem, but leads the population into a false sense of safety, satisfies a need for vengeance but presses taxpayer burdens well beyond any possible justification.

The majority of American criminal activity is drug-related. The majority of those in prison can link their incarceration directly to narcotics, yet drugs proliferate more than ever, gang-related turf wars and killings are almost all related to control of drug trafficking and tough laws with long sentences, for users and dealers alike, have done little to restore the peace and stability that the statutes were intended to create. These are thugs and violent criminals with little concern for “civilian” lives, but the tough laws surrounding drug use have made their “trade” economically viable. They are paid not so much for the distribution of drugs but for their willingness to defy the law at any cost.

In the end, regardless of the criminal statute or the anticipated sanctions, there needs to be a balance between the harm to society, the cost of prosecution and incarceration, and our willingness to pay the hard dollar cost for our decisions. It would seem that in harsh economic times, it might well be worthwhile if our legislatures actually considered more cost-effective alternatives to ever-increasing incarceration.

I’m Peter Dekom, and common sense is elusive when you are angry.