Tuesday, August 31, 2010

May I Have a Mosque in My Neighborhood, Please!

Murfreesboro, Tennessee is a Nashville suburb with a significant Muslim community, one that has worshipped in catch-as-catch-can arenas for some time and finally figured that it might be better to build a genuine house of worship, replete with ancillary social and academic facilities. They are a peaceful lot that didn’t even generate the kind pan-anti-Islamic enmity that followed the 9-11 attacks. That is until they proposed a 52,900 Islamic center. The flying fecal matter hit a rapidly spinning fan almost immediately.

"Keep Tennessee Terror Free" read one sign at a recent protest. More ugly signs appeared: “In Tennessee, three plans for new Islamic centers in the Nashville area -- one of which was ultimately withdrawn -- have provoked controversy and outbursts of ugliness. Members of one mosque discovered a delicately rendered Jerusalem cross spray-painted on the side of their building with the words ‘Muslims go home.’... The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro became a hot-button political issue during this month's primary election, prompting failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey to ask whether Islam was a ‘cult.’ Another candidate paid for a billboard high above Interstate 24 near Nashville that read: ‘Defeat Universal Jihad Now.’ … Evangelist Pat Robertson weighed in [on August 19th], wondering on his television program whether a Muslim takeover of America was imminent and whether local officials could be bribed. (The mayor of the county where the Islamic Center is proposed called that idea ‘ridiculous.’).” Washington Post (August 23rd).

The members of the Murfreesboro Islamic community have always been the kind of “extremist-avoiding” Muslims most Americans hope is the condition of the rest of the Islamic world, but actions like these strong protests – from the “keep the Muslims out of ground zero” movement (dozens of innocent Muslims died in the 9-11 attacks in New York, by the way) to the Murfreesboro protests – pretty much exacerbate the tensions between Muslims outside the United States and us for no particularly good reason. The press in the already-vehemently anti-American parts of the Arab and Pakistani worlds is having a field day with American religious intolerance and bigotry, as Americans make a mockery of their own First Amendment. How many American soldiers or innocent civilians will die as extreme militants’ ire rises to justify their attacks on our citizens by reason of our intolerance? How many new attacks does our hypocrisy invite?

Murfreesboro is a small town with about 100,000 people. The Muslim community is small but vibrant: “The 250 or so families -- about 1,000 people -- who worship at the existing Islamic Center come from around the globe and include doctors, car salesmen and students from nearby Middle Tennessee State University. Members of the mosque have raised about $600,000 to buy land and prepare the site for a 10,000-square-foot gathering place. Plans for a school, pool and cemetery are expected to take years to complete.” The Post. The mosque pictured above, by the way, is in Los Angeles. The apartment where the Murfreesboro Muslims currently worship wasn’t quite so photogenic.

The weekend of August 28-29th wasn’t so nice to this Muslim community: “After a suspected arson and reports of gunshots at an Islamic center in Tennessee over the weekend, nearby mosques have hired security guards, installed surveillance cameras and requested the presence of federal agents at prayer services. Muslim leaders in central Tennessee say that frightened worshipers are observing Ramadan in private and that some Muslim parents are wary of sending their children to school after a large fire on Saturday that destroyed property at the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. Federal authorities suspect that the fire was arson.” New York Times (August 30th). “A group of teenagers in western New York have been accused of harassing members of a mosque by yelling obscenities and insults during evening prayers for Ramadan, sideswiping a worshiper with a vehicle and firing a shotgun outside [on Monday the 30th].” NY Times (August 31st). Yeah, America, land of the free and the home of the brave.

Either we believe in American ideals – promulgated under the Constitution or we do not. We can believe in our hearts that our system of government, protection of the minority while still allowing a rule by the majority, or not. But if what we cherish is American democracy, we must practice what we preach. It is the American way.

I’m Peter Dekom, and the Constitution is worth fighting for.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Poll Cats

Time-SRBI Poll Question: “Do you personally believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim or a Christian?” Pew Poll Question: “Now, thinking about Barack Obama's religious beliefs ... Do you happen to know what Barack Obama's religion is? Is he Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, or something else?" With differing polls suggesting differing statistics as to whether Barack Hussein Obama is or is not perceived by the American electorate as “being Muslim,” the August 20th Washington Post asked: “Obama is a Muslim - 18%, 24% or ? A widely reported poll from the Pew Research Center pegs the number of Americans who believe President Obama is a Muslim at 18 percent. Matt Drudge and others prefer the ‘shock’ Time-SRBI poll showing 24 percent holding this false notion.”

How you ask a question often presupposes the answer or maximizes a particular response. Also, whom you ask can have an equal impact. For example, the Post notes, “Fully 44 percent of those who disapprove of the president in the Time-SRBI poll picked the Muslim option, far higher than the 30 percent of disapprovers who selected Muslim in the Pew poll.” So if you don’t like the guy, for whatever reason, you’re obviously more like to pick a label that makes him look less favorable, at least in the eyes of most Americans.

But in the world where we are experiencing what famous political scientist Samuel P Huntington called a “Clash of Civilizations,” where large segments of the Islamic world see the United States and the West as mortal enemies of Islam that need to be crushed, you’d think they would be happy with this “ambiguity” that so fascinates the American electorate. They’re not: Obama is the leader of the enemy, responsible for the killing of innocent Muslim civilians in Afghanistan and clearly not only not a Muslim, but no perception as a “friend to Islam” lingers notwithstanding an extended hand in a speech in Egypt made by the President early in his term of office. So Muslims clearly don’t think Obama is one of “them,” and anti-Obama elements in the U.S. think he is. No big surprise.

The context of where a poll is taken creates another set of prejudices says the Post: “Priming is a third potential source of variation. Briefly, the Time poll tackles the Islamic community center issue, whereas Pew focuses on religion more broadly. The mosque controversy likely primes partisanship, which in turn influences answers to the subsequent survey items.” I’m as guilty as the next guy in taking polls too seriously, but I am “strongly cautioned” these days to look behind the poll at all the variables that might influence a result. Framing questions and placing the questionnaires in the “right” place can color the results significantly. Playing with statistics is indeed an American past-time that requires a bit more scrutiny.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I always encourage looking behind labels, slogans and naked statistics.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

$100 Million a Month

Ay carumba, that's mucho dollares! But that's the number Mexico's federal government (per Secretary of Public Security Genaro Garcia Luna) estimates is being paid to corrupt local police across the country. Luna noted: "That sum, he said at a conference on drug-trafficking, 'is the portion the government doesn't pay police officers so they can live with dignity.' With 33,000 officers in the federal police force and another 430,000 serving on disparate state or municipal forces, that estimate would mean the cartels pay out an average of more than $200 per officer each month." AOLNews.com (August 25th).

Local corruption is fatally epidemic, at virtually every level within the country. For example, in the small town of Santiago, a suburb of the manufacturing and business hub of Monterrey, seven out of Santiago's ten police officers were arrested (along with the mayor's bodyguard) for the brutal execution of mayor Edelmiro Cavazos, whose body was found bound and gagged on August 18th. Assumptions are that the hit was ordered by the local drug lords and that, allegedly, the officers in question were on cartel payroll. Estimates place the number of people killed in Mexico in the drug wars since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in December of 2006 at 28,000, almost the same number of American military casualties for the entire Iraq war since it began in 2003. 2,076 of these Mexican fatalities were cops.

Corrupting federales is not to be taken lightly, but in so many communities, the local cops might as well were cartel uniforms, because their loyalty is most certainly not to the people that they were engaged to protect. No city has been as bloody as Ciudad Juárez (across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas), and its mayor José Reyes Estrada Ferriz has struggled with a police force that has been beyond redemption in the battle against organized crime. "When he assumed the mayor's office in July 2007, Reyes Ferriz forced all Juarez cops to take 'confidence' exams. He then fired about three-quarters of the force, lured new hires with increased salaries and required that rookie cops go through police school." AOL.

The good mayor has become a vital force in a new movement that may result in disbanding the local police in their entirety and replacing and reconstituting them as a new state-level police force, all across Mexico: "Reyes Ferriz… is part of a group of local and state leaders that … [has] endorsed a fundamental reorganization of Mexico's police forces. The vote of the Special Commission of the National Public Security Council isn't binding, but supporters hope it will jump-start a more formal legislative process to refocus Mexico's failing war on the drug cartels." AOL.

The goal is to take a fractionalized 2,400 separate municipal police forces and organize them into 32 operating groups at a statewide level, not beholden to the local mayors and other "local political forces." You can bet that most cities and towns will fight this effort, tooth and nail; it deprives local authorities control over their own communities and makes mundane tasks like traffic control a bureaucratic nightmare. But when you have an effective civil war in which a huge part of the problem is the corruption of local cops, extraordinary measures are essential. Will this effort succeed? Would it really make any difference? Or is Mexico doomed to become a war lord-driven, lawless narco-state… like… er… Afghanistan?

I'm Peter Dekom, and I am grateful that at least Afghanistan is not on our border!

Saturday, August 28, 2010


China passed the United States this year in the number of cars purchased; GM in China is rapidly outstripping its U.S. counterparts, perhaps part of the impetus for GM to go public again. But China’s entering the Twenty-First Century – with intent to lead it – also brings it into head-on collision with environmental concerns. Anyone who has visited the larger cities in summer has probably noted the appalling air quality, making Los Angeles on a smog-alert day seem like a breath of fresh air. Ground pollution and the explosive growth of more cars and coal-fired power plants have become life-threatening realities for ordinary Chinese, with equally bad global ramifications.

But part of the test of China’s leadership is how she responds to and deals with the deadly environmental mix of hyper-growth and profound impact of the materials of such growth on the earth itself. For those who think over-populated China is not concerned with keeping its people alive but will never sacrifice growth, the signs that the PRC is changing focus are everywhere, particularly in the automotive world. Don’t be surprised if, in a few years, you are driving a Chinese electric car.

On August 18th, the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (Sasac) in Beijing announced a $15 billion investment plan to move China headfirst into the design and manufacture of electric and next-generation hybrid vehicles: “The government said a group of 16 big state-owned companies had already agreed to form an alliance to do research and development, and create standards for electric and hybrid vehicles… The plan aims to put more than a million electric and hybrid vehicles on the road over the next few years in what is already the world’s biggest and fastest growing auto market…

Few details of the plan were released. But Beijing said that over the next three years, 500,000 energy-efficient vehicles would reach the market each year and that more-efficient vehicles would soon account for 5 percent of passenger car sales in China. This year, analysts expect vehicle sales in China to reach about 17 million.” New York Times (August 19th). Sasac is a subcabinet-level governmental body that supervises approximately 125 of the nation’s largest state-owned companies.

Critics abound. Some wonder whether China is capable of developing a world-class automotive car, competitive with the finest Japanese, American and German engineered vehicles; to date, Chinese cars are definitely below-grade. Others believe China will favor cumbersome and politically-bound larger state industries over smaller, perhaps entrepreneurial smaller entities, while many ask who will own or have genuine access to the new engineering models and underlying patents. China has long been accused of co-opting (a polite word) patented technology developed elsewhere.

But no one will get rich underestimating the Chinese. Having watched her transition over the past three decades – from ancient to super-modern – I for one believe China will not only “get there,” but she will stun the world with her progress. “‘What you have here is the confluence of two important things,’ [Oded] Shenkar [professor of management at Ohio State University] said. ‘The car industry was long ago designated as a pillar industry for China. And the second thing is green technology or high tech; this is where the action is going to be, and China wants to be there.’” The Times. “It doesn't hurt that Asia has an ever-expanding middle class that is expected to spend $32 trillion by 2030. China has the perfect storm of cash, consumers, and a willful government. It's hard to compete with that--as the U.S. may be about to find out.” FastCompany.com (August 19th).

I’m Peter Dekom, and I bet China’s will build great rear-view mirrors so they can watch us as they go by.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Alaska: The Ingrate State

I’m not a Palin-tologist, and tracking her endorsements and philosophical rants and animal simulations ain’t my passion, but looking at a vast, resource-rich state with a sparse “tough-it-out” population does have its moments, particularly for those of us in the lower 48. Loved the “road to nowhere,” and adore the “stop government handouts” mantra that sweeps the political spectrum in this Arctic region. This is a land of hardy pioneers, braving nature at its harshest to live in this vast stretch of wilderness… largely without roads at all… is, well different and often contradictory. Beauty, splendor and rough challenges.

Many lower 48 states, reeling from unemployment (Alaska’s unemployment rate is almost two full percentage points below the national average), are generating a lot less in the way of federal dollars “back to the state” based on their relative contribution towards the federal government. According to watchdog site, propublica.org, the per capital “stimulus” money paid to some very high unemployment states is pretty marginal compared to other states that simply don’t seem to be in the same dire straits. California, with a 12.3% unemployment rate, gets $1,133 per capita; Michigan with a 13.7% rate gets $1,298; Nevada, with a staggering 14% rate gets $1,134.

But if I were to ask you which state receives the largest per capita “benefits” from the fed, based on dollars paid by residents of that state to the fed, you might be shocked to find out that Alaska, with a 7.9% unemployment rate, pulls down $3,145 per person in this stimulus world and comes in at number one (NY Times). The rhetoric is anti-government spending and tax cuts, with former Governor Sarah Palin and several prominent local politicians leading the way, but they have no trouble taking the cash.

The New York Times (August 19th) notes the typical reaction of one local legislator, Republican state lawmaker Carl Gatto: “‘I’ve introduced legislation to roll back the federal government,’ he says. ‘They don’t have solutions; they just have taxes.’… And what of the federal stimulus, from which Alaska receives the most money per capita in the nation? Would he reject it?... Mr. Gatto, 72 and wiry, smiles and shakes his head: ‘I’ll give the federal government credit: they sure give us a ton of money. For every $1 we give them in taxes for highways, they give us back $5.76.’… He points to a new federally financed highway, stretching toward distant spruce trees. ‘Man, beautiful, right?’…

“Alaska has budget woes, and, more perilously, oil production is slumping. But its problems are not mortal; the ax falls on new police headquarters and replacement Zamboni blades rather than on teachers and libraries. The state avoided the unemployment devastation visited on the Lower 48 in part because federal dollars support a third of Alaskan jobs, according to a university study.” What about Gov. Palin’s hometown of Wasilla? “Wasillans have a practiced eye for federal dollars; when Ms. Palin was mayor, she hired a lobbying firm that reeled in $25 million in federal earmarks for a city of fewer than 7,000 residents ,” notes the Times. Sigh.

Hey, I’ve got an idea! Where a state’s elected officials rail against excess federal taxes and too much federal spending, let’s consider reducing their federal tax rates and cutting all the associated local federal spending. In Alaska, they’d get a dollar back for every $5.76 we don’t spend there. Such a deal!

I’m Peter Dekom, and I guess if you aren’t comfortable with hypocrisy, better not run for elected office.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Shaker Heights – California Style

The San Andreas Fault runs down the middle of California, exiting on the northern side at San Francisco. 810 miles of terror to those who live in the state, the fault is the literal the north-south tectonic plate boundary between the North American Plate (on the continental side) and the Pacific Plate (one the ocean side). These plates sit atop the molten oceans that lie deep within the earth's core, and drift against one another, usually slowly (1.3 to 1.5 inches a year), but occasionally a friction point shift and you get an earthquake. The "big one" generally refers to a quake of at least a 7.0 magnitude on the Richter scale, but others look to over 8 as the real massive devastation that everyone fears. 7 is enough to destroy, maim and kill; the impact of an 8 or great quake is the stuff of disaster movies. Example (Wikipedia): 1906 San Francisco earthquake: About 267 miles (430 km) were ruptured in Northern California. The epicenter was near San Francisco. About 3000 people died in the earthquake and subsequent fires. This time the magnitude was estimated to be 7.8.

So scientists are always looking at that "crack in California"… particularly obvious when you see the split of land from sea in Baja California, south of the border. That's clear visual evidence of these giant plates separating, literally moving in opposite directions. Well, it seems these scientists – perhaps demons focusing on making California living even more miserable than a bad economy can cause – have looked at the history of "big ones" along this fault… and guess what? They're telling us that the next "Big One" is overdue!

A joint university study was released on August 20th based on new information gleaned in that part of the fault located in Southern California: "The long-awaited study came after scientists spent years studying the geology of the Carrizo Plain area of the San Andreas, which is about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles. It found that earthquakes along the San Andreas fault have occurred far more often than previously believed…'What we know is for the last 700 years, earthquakes on the southern San Andreas fault have been much more frequent than everyone thought,' said UC Irvine researcher Sinan Akciz said in a statement. 'Data presented here contradict previously published reports.'… The last massive earthquake on that part of the fault occurred in 1857 [the so-called Ft. Tejon earthquake, a 8.0 shaker that shook about 217 miles of southern and central California – only killed 2 in sparsely populated lands)]. But researchers from UC Irvine and Arizona State University found that earthquakes have occurred as often as every 45 to 144 years." Los Angeles Times (August 20th).

Hmmm… let me add those numbers. 1857 + 144 = 2001. Oooops! All those other Southern California shakers that have made the news in 1971 (Sylmar, 6.6, the quake claimed 65 lives and caused more than half a billion dollars in damage, including the destruction of two hospitals, two freeway interchanges and the Lower Van Norman Dam) and 1994 (Northridge, 6.7, seventy-two deaths, with over 9,000 injured… Wikipedia) were big, but they were not the "Big One"… not even 7s… and they weren't even on the San Andreas Fault!

I'm Peter Dekom, and I'm shakin' over the thought that I may soon be shakin'!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Can-Didly Speaking

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear can, happy birthday to you! August 25th! 200 years old, my can is, she is! The Washington Post (August 23rd) notes the humble beginnings: “1810. A Frenchman named Nicolas Appert discovers a way to preserve soups, produce and dairy products in glass bottles using boiling water to force out air, and sealing the contents with cork, wire and wax. Other inventors soon adapt the process to tin cans, which are lighter, cheaper and more durable… Kick the can. Shoot it off a fence post with a BB gun. Put it under the grill to collect dripping grease. Construct a string telephone with it. Get 60 percent of your daily value of sodium from it. Get five cents for it (in NY, CA, ME, CT and VT). Puncture a hole in it and shotgun the beer. Make a purse out of pop tops. Stock your bunker full of canned goods. Eat as cheaply and with the greatest variety possible.”

From mundane pragmatics to Andy Warhol’s high art, the tin-to-aluminum container is ensconced in global history far more than the Internet – a “technology-come-lately” if you will – that is still paying its dues and may be outmoded long before cans outlive their usefulness. Take our cans away, and civilization can damned well get cantankerous, indeed a jarring experience!

In the U.S. alone, 130 billion cans are produced annually, and while many are recycled for the “next round,” many other lie corroding (can’t saying “rusting” anymore) in inappropriate landfills or casually-strew garbage leavings all over the globe. The Post lets us in on the details of our can-tinlevered obsession: “Forget botulism (not the can's fault!). Forget ozone depletion by aerosol can (fixed!). Forget the Colombian drug smugglers who can cocaine for incognito transport (canny!), or scientists who've canned feces so it would stay fresh for later study (ew). Forget the fact that plastic has duly rocked the world (in the mid-1950s a third of a supermarket was canned goods; today it's only a tenth)… You eat the contents of 85 cans of food a year and you don't even know it…

“What if gold prospectors relied solely on foraging on their treks out West? What if tinsmiths didn't handcraft 35,000 cans a day for meats and condensed milk during the Civil War? What if Chef Boyardee and Hormel Spam didn't nourish Patton's armies, whose soldiers wore can openers around their necks in communion with their jangling dog tags? What if canned food had never freed the American homemaker from time-consuming dinner duties?”

When armies traveled over the past two centuries, cans were there. When natural disasters slammed food supplies, cans came to the rescue. When Monty Python needed new material, canned Spam found its place in comedic history. Indeed, humanity appears to have become can-ivorous for the last two centuries. Can the modern world really live without cans? Can’t! Can too! Can’t! Can too! Oy!

I’m Peter Dekom, hoping that I too can be well-preserved without getting canned!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Smaller Canaries Chirping

On July 26th, I blogged about the fattest canaries in the coal mine – the richest consumers in the U.S. marketplace – voting their insecurities about economic recovery by reducing their average consumption expenditures from May to June by almost 18%. Bottom line, if the rich don’t have enough confidence to spend money on consumer goods, most certainly no one else does. And if folks are not willing to buy, employers are still sittin’ on cash (July 28th blog), unwilling to hire now matter how much cash they have on hand from profits, or if the government were dumb enough to cut their taxes and make the deficit worse (it won’t be, even though government can be pretty stupid) to give them more cash.

As the August 21 Washington Post discovered in a series of interviews with CEOs in the Chicago heartland, a mood the Post believes is fairly reflective of the nation as a whole, business just doesn’t see that needed spike in consumer spending anywhere on the horizon: “Corporate profits are soaring. Companies are sitting on billions of dollars of cash. And still, they've yet to amp up hiring or make major investments -- the missing ingredients for a strong economic recovery… They blame their profound caution on their view that U.S. consumers are destined to disappoint for many years. As a result, they say, the economy is unlikely to see the kind of almost unbroken prosperity of the quarter-century that preceded the financial crisis…

“Across the industrial parks and office towers of the Chicago region, in a more than a dozen interviews, senior executives said they see Americans for years ahead paying down debts incurred during the now-ended credit boom and adjusting spending to match their often-reduced incomes. .. [When many businesses do decide to make] an investment, it's usually designed to lower the need for labor. Instead of expanding capacity, such as building a bigger distribution center and having to hire more workers to fill it, [one CEO] is looking to serve existing customers more efficiently… [E]xecutives now project more gradual economic growth and are making less ambitious investment decisions.”

More canaries are at work signally a contraction; smaller investors are leaving the stock market in droves: “Investors withdrew a staggering $33.12 billion from domestic stock market mutual funds in the first seven months of this year, according to the Inv estment Company Institute, the mutual fund industry trade group. Now many are choosing investments they deem safer, like bonds… If that pace continues, more money will be pulled out of these mutual funds in 2010 than in any year since the 1980s, with the exception of 2008, when the global financial crisis peaked… After past recessions, ordinary investors have typically regained their enthusiasm for stocks, hoping to profit as the economy recovered. This time, even as corporate earnings have improved, Americans have become more guarded with their investments.” New York Times (August 21st).

On August 24th, figures by the National Association of Realtors showed a precipitous drop in the sale of existing U.S. homes – a 27.2% plunge in July from June numbers (the mid-West dropped 35%!) – reflecting a vastly worse-than-expected (17% was the projection) reaction to the removal of the first-time homebuyers tax credit. This was the lowest level of such sales since 1995 and represents a 25.5% drop from a year ago. With 32% of the sales based on foreclosures and other distressed sales, the numbers show terrified consumers, worried about job growth and other economic fundamentals. The press has been rife with reports that real estate is unlikely to recover its status as America’s savings account… ever again.

This economic meltdown is different. Even during and after the Great Depression, the United States was poised for exponential growth – from excess electrical capacity to the utter WWII destruction of infrastructure from our likely competitors in Europe and Japan. Our rising competitors today – the so-called BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) – are building modern infrastructure almost as fast as our older industrial capacity and national infrastructure grows obsolete with the passage of time. As we cut our educational budgets at every level to meet the financial crisis, our competitors are ramping up their capacities. What appears to be sinking into the American psyche is a belief that global economic power is being permanently reset, and that the U.S. is the country with the most to lose. Is a “jobless recovery” a recovery at all? I noted to a friend of mine that if one were really to examine the pre-recession growth years in the U.S., the numbers pretty closely mirrored the increase in our population, not true growth for everyone.

Have the chickens of over-borrowing and over-expectation come home to roost? Are we truly a nation stepping into a bottomless decline… or at least a decline that would parallel Britain’s fall from grace following the industrial revolution? My personal belief is that many vital and entrepreneurial Americans will step up and create magnificent new industries, products and services… rising to the top of global markets based on this “spirit of American innovation”… but that a lot of Americans won’t be a part of that new prosperity, their skills outdated and their pay demands out of step with global competition. I see success, but in an increasingly polarized society.

I’m Peter Dekom, and reading these tea leaves is difficult and disturbing… but necessary for us to grapple with the future as best we can.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Is A-Roma Really a Smell?

Boxcars were used to ship Jews to death camps before and during World War II. German police and military forces swept through Jewish ghettos, at first in their own nation and then in the lands of the conquered, where they engaged in wholesale "round-ups" of Jewish citizens for slave labor, mad experiments and ultimate annihilation. The image of "passengers" being herded into tight quarters for banishment or worse is an historical image that lingers in the hundreds of photographs, films and books published about the holocaust. Never Again! is the cry that is oft-repeated.

Illegal immigration brings images of undocumented workers, vilified in their quest to survive, but creating fears when concentrations of "illegals" are accused of everything from taking jobs and sucking up social services to committing crimes of terrorism, drug trafficking, gang violence, thievery, fraud and extortion. There are many among us who would like nothing more than to fill locked boxcars and airplanes with as many undocumented aliens as possible, shipping them "back to where they all belong" (yes, those are lyrics from a Beatles song that was initially aimed at British residents from the Subcontinent). In some parts, this "mass deportation" effort is alive and well, being implemented by a government with a plan. Where is this? Arizona? Texas? Not exactly, but to you they definitely have an accent: Europe.

As austerity measures are contracting available safety nets – even "socialist" Denmark is cutting unemployment benefits from four to two years – and where the mood is running very conservative these days, Europeans are becoming decreasingly "open-minded" about foreigners settling in their midst… they have enough trouble, they believe, with legal residential shifts from poorer European Union nations to the richer "have" countries, especially German and France.

The most recent targets of this immigration "austerity" move are known to us as "gypsies" – who wander in bands and create their own make-shift communities – but are known in France as Roma (because of their probable country of origin, Romania… although more than a few also hail from Bulgaria). Two planeloads of Roma – 700 strong – were "rounded up" to be flown back to Romania and Bulgaria, one flight departed on the 19th and the next is scheduled for the 26th of August. France made it easier for the first 100 deportees by anteing up $385 and a one way ticket to Romania if the departure were “voluntary.” On the 19th, police descended on an encampment in La Courneuve, France “taking names and filling out expulsion orders. Fully padded, but without helmets, the officers were aggressive but polite, accompanied by a Romanian policeman and three interpreters.” New York Times (August 19th).

The government is sensitive to the press using the word "round-up" – in French, it's les rafles – and French Immigration Minister Eric Besson is asking for a nicer word, since images of Jews being "rounded-up" isn't what the government wants to project. 79% of those polled in France favor a tough crackdown on these Roma communities, but the images of police at work may alter that current statistic. "Besson said [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy [who ordered a crackdown on illegal Roma encampments] is not out to stigmatize the Roma people, but merely trying to cut down on crime. Police have broken up some 40 encampments and squats in the past two weeks and have vowed to dismantle a total of 300 through October. The crackdown targets not just Roma, but also more numerous so-cal led 'travelers' of French nationality." AOLNews.com (August 17th).

Critics claim that the French move actually violates the law: “Robert A. Kushen, executive director of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre, said that by providing this essentially false choice [paying a small sum for a perceived “voluntary” deportation], ‘the French are trying to insulate themselves from legal challenge, arguing that those who leave are doing so voluntarily and are not being expelled as a group.’… Mass expulsions based on ethnicity violate European Union law, Mr. Kushen said, and the failure of France to do individual assessments of each case — as opposed to cursory examinations of papers by the police — also violates European Union rules.” The Times.

Other critics are also stating the obvious: "It wouldn't be correct to link everything: integration, religion, terrorism and foreigners coming to France. There are French terrorists, there are French criminals," [a deputy in Sarkozy's own Union for a Popular Movement, Bernard Debre] wrote. "It's clear that we need a reasonable immigration policy and integration policy." AOLNews.com. Sound familiar? Don't even need a mirror to find a U.S. reflection of those sentiments. History confirms that harsh economic times clearly do not favor immigrants – legal or otherwise.

I'm Peter Dekom, and I wonder how it feels when someone really wants you gone… and you believe that you have done nothing wrong other than try and survive?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Chocolate Moose, Anyone?

Osteoarthritis seems to run in my family. I can feel its warning signs as I try to make that bunker shot out of thick sand – by the way, “golf” is my handicap – a sharp pain in my hands at the point of contact. And osteo is a quality of life killer, adding billions of dollars every year to the cost of medical care as knees and hips are routinely replaced, having outworn their ability to carry the human frame. 27 million Americans are afflicted, one out of seven over the age of 25, and the statistic is growing. Theories abound on what causes this serious deterioration of the cartilage that pads the joints where bones intersect. Obesity is a “big” one, since extra weight on bones would seem to cause crushing long-term damage. Heredity is next on that list. But recently, medical researchers have pointed to a possibly different cause: diet.

The hints came as scientists began to examine the bones of moose who perished in their natural environment on Lake Superior’s Isle Royale; the study embraced fifty years. A limping arthritic moose is quite literally “dead meat” in a land of fast-moving packs of gray wolves. So when arthritis appeared in moose bones, researchers began to compile statistics. Shock! They discovered smaller meese (ok, moose) were susceptible to the disease. It appeared that the fate of these soon-to-be-eaten-by-wolves moose may have been sealed as early as the months they were carried in their mother’s womb. Nutrition appeared to be the determinant.

The August 17th New York Times: “[T]he moose work, along with some human research, suggests arthritis’s origins are more complex, probably influenced by early exposures to nutrients and other factors while our bodies are developing. Even obesity’s link to arthritis probably goes beyond extra pounds, experts say, to include the impact on the body of eating the wrong things… Nutrients, experts say, might influence composition or shape of bones, joints or cartilage. Nutrition might also affect hormones, the likelihood of later inflammation or oxidative stress, even how a genetic predisposition for arthritis is expressed or suppressed. ”

Indeed, correlations between “small” and osteoarthritis can be found in humans, notes the Times: “British scientists studying people born in the 1940s found low birth weight (indicating poor prenatal nutrition) linked to osteoarthritis in the men’s hands…” Does genetic predisposition toward arthritis accelerate the impact of bad nutrition, as many experts suggest, or can nutrition alone be the determining factor? And if we can identify the nutritional deficiencies in humans, think about the impact on both the quality of life for millions and the reduction in medical costs that would result.

Dr. David Barker, a British expert on how nutrition and early development influence cardiac and other conditions, said ‘studies of people in utero during the Great Chinese Famine’ of the late 1950s found that ‘40, 50 years later, those people have got disabilities.’ … Overeating can be as problematic as under-eating. Dr. Lisa A. Fortier, a large-animal orthopedist at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said she saw ‘abnormal joint and tendon development from excessive nutrition’ in horses overfed ‘in utero or in the postnatal life,’ probably ingesting ‘too much of the wrong type of sugar that may cause levels of inflammation.’” The Times.

We’ve got a long way to go in identifying the precise nutritional links, but the key word for future generations, anyway, is “hope.” While stem cell research may ultimately give the body the capacity to regenerate joint cartilage, perhaps prevention is a better and vastly more cost effective solution.

I’m Peter Dekom, and “hope” is a very attractive word.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Playing Sports or Doing Other Strenuous Activities

Female virginity. Just say “no.” Pledge abstinence. The moral creed, mostly imposed on women, of so many societies. Never works, as Sarah Palin discovered in her own family. Some cultures will even forgive (even require) a father or brother who deals harshly (read: kill) in the name of family honor. Taliban, running around with a surfeit of stones to hurl at adulterous lovers, have horrible plans even for the unmarried who indulge. Quick to judge, quick to punish, and slow to forgive... unless you are an adulterous Congressman or governor – mayors, of course – and even those presidents who do more than lust in their hearts. They’re just being boys! Or is that, “all men are dogs, except those who are pigs.”

I tripped across this article in the August 17th Washington Post: Knowing cultural view of virginity, Chinese women try surgical restoration. That’s a headline if I ever saw one. It seems, notes the post, that the venerable and vulnerable hymen can be lost through that initial sexual encounter or by “playing sports or doing other strenuous activities.” Like carrying heavy rocks for a Taliban stoning festival. Not from sitting on a dirty toilet seat? I have been misled! What millennium are we living in?!

For those who can afford the very best, there is the alternative – “Even as China has flung open its doors to the West and modernized, a deeply conservative and chauvinistic attitude persists. Many men, including white-collar professionals, say they want to marry a virgin. And increasingly liberated Chinese women have found a way to oblige them… ‘We can fix it so everything is perfect, so the men can believe they are marrying virgins,’ said Zhou Hong, a physician and director of gynecology at the Beijing Wuzhou Women's Hospital. ‘We don't advertise it; we don't publicize it.’” The Post. Yup, a good marriage is one that starts with surgically enhanced lying! My fave. Forget, “nice personality” or “brilliant and accomplished” or even the age-old “drop-dead gorgeous.” Perish the thought of all three… if she’s not a virgin!

Sorry Chinese dudes, but this little note from CBS (April 16, 2006) will put a crimp in that “it’s not really aftershave” suave technique for bride-finding: “With more than a billion people, China has too many men. According to the latest census, an average of 120 boys are born for every 100 girls, the greatest imbalance in the world.” Ouch, mister low-earning ugly guy! You go, girl-frien’! You poor ugly dudes are out, but for those with the cash to find a thoroughly modern girl restored to her less-than-glorious best, you win the woman with the great big medical restatement of history.

The procedure costs about $737 (Boeing Boeing!), takes less than half an hour and is performed with relative frequency in the “big cities.” “The surgery, known as hymenoplasty, has been around for years, although it is considered rare and is illegal in some countries. It is performed primarily in Muslim countries, where the traditionalists place a high value on a woman's virginity. It also has become common in France among French Muslims, usually for young women about to enter a traditional marriage. There are no statistics available in China on how often the surgery is performed. But sociologists and other experts, as well as anecdotal evidence, suggest it has gained in popularity.

“For women who do not want to have surgery, a cheaper, faster path to ‘revirgination’ is available in most sex novelty shops: a Chinese-made artificial hymen that purports to create a physical sensation for the man and emit fake blood when ruptured.” The Post. Wow, that would be a really cool addition to a swag-bag given away at a posh Hollywood soiree!

The only justice for the mistreated females who buy into this chauvinistic crap has to be the end, the glorious end, for Muslims martyred in the service of God: seventy-two sexually inexperienced women with one inexperienced and profoundly sexually inept man. So what happens when Mr. Inept deflowers number seventy-two; is a replacement flown in? Where are they supposed to they find these virgins, anyway? And if there are no replacements, if they remain the seventy-two virgins, who really gets the last laugh? Or is it just more perpetual pain for women at the callous hands of callous men?

I’m Peter Dekom, and exactly why is equality so completely threatening to so many?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Old, Bold but Cold

It’s official; China has now passed Japan as the second largest economy on earth, with the U.S. slated to fall to China sometime between 2030 and 2050. Japan has been experiencing a lot of fallen records of late, but their long-lasting economic malaise – one that began long before the current recession (noted in my August 12th blog) – appears to be quite secure for the foreseeable future. There’s another record that might – you should pardon the expression – die an ugly death as well: Japan’s claim to a disproportionate number of centenarians (folks who live past 100) because of their claim to healthy living habits and a fabulous diet (not the their parliament, silly!).

Tokyo alone claimed to have over 3,000 residents who have lived past the century mark. Wow! Except… well… maybe not. The New York Times (August 14th) reports that things are not always what the records reflect: “[P]olice found the body of a man thought to be one of Japan’s oldest, at 111 years, mummified in his bed, dead for more than three decades. His daughter, now 81, hid his death to continue collecting his monthly pension payments, the police said.” Ewwww! At least when papa turned over in his grave, he did so on a comfortable mattress (futon?)!

The Times continues, noting the reaction of authorities to the above discovery: “Alarmed, local governments began sending teams to check on other elderly residents. What they found so far has been anything but encouraging… A woman thought to be Tokyo’s oldest, who would be 113, was last seen in the 1980s. Another woman, who would be the oldest in the world at 125, is also missing, and probably has been for a long time. When city officials tried to visit her at her registered address, they discovered that the site had been turned into a city park, in 1981… To date, the authorities have been unable to find more than 281 Japanese who had been listed in records as 100 years old or older. Facing a growing public outcry, the country’s health minister, Akira Nagatsuma, said officials would meet with every person listed as 110 or older to verify that they are alive…” The Times.

The graying of Japan is simply adding to the burdens of a society in which the population (and obviously the birthrate) is severely shrinking, placing a greater burden on the older citizens and creating a crushing contraction on business growth as numbers for both workers and consumers fall precipitously. The BBC – reporting back on December 22, 2005 – noted that “Japan's population of 128 million is projected to fall to 100 million by 2050 if current trends continue.” And current trends are definitely continuing. The missing centenarians are merely a symptom of a greater problem: “Some health experts say these cases reflect strains in a society that expects children to care for their parents, instead of placing them in care facilities. They point out that longer life spans mean that children are called upon to take care of their elderly parents at a time when the children are reaching their 70s and are possibly in need of care themselves.

“In at least some of the cases, local officials have said, an aged parent disappeared after leaving home under murky circumstances. Experts say that the parents appeared to have suffered from dementia or some other condition that made their care too demanding, and the overburdened family members simply gave up, failing to chase after the elderly people or report their disappearance to the police.” The Times. As population trends in many Western countries seems to follow suit, this notion of fewer young (working) people around to care for an increase in the proportion of seniors is a recurring theme that will haunt government planners for decades. As our Social Security system is now 75 years old, the fund has begun to draw down more than it earns, threatening to bankrupt the present system in a quarter of a century. The world, she is changing at every level.

I’m Peter Dekom, and it is interesting to watch as the traditional “have” nations struggle to keep what they… have.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Flashpoint in the North

Partition. In 1948, as the British government believed that a unified Muslim and Hindu India represented an unsustainable nation, Muslims were given their own country – splitting into East and West Pakistan (East Pakistan eventually split off and became Bangladesh) in the north. While many Muslims elected to remain in what was to become modern India, the vast majority left homes, businesses and belongings and took a terrifying and often violent journey to their new homeland in the north. A large number of Hindus made the same troubled trip from their homes in the north to the new country of India. In the decades that followed, wars, border skirmishes, terrorist attacks and stockpiling nuclear weapons on both sides – India versus Pakistan – defined the future relationship of these two hostile nations, who were twins from birth. To this day, India is Pakistan’s most hated enemy, despised even more than the dreaded America or Israel.

Nothing has kept salt in old wounds more fervently that the northern India border state of Kashmir, that little pointy part at the top of a map of India. There is a continuation of Kashmir into Pakistan as well, and where the actual border rests has always been a bone of contention. To the average Pakistani, partition’s biggest mistake was leaving any part of this still-primarily-Muslim state as a part of India. And most of the military and terrorist violence between these nations is directly linked to bringing Kashmir into Pakistan, where every Pakistani school child is taught it should be.

The large Muslim population of Kashmir lives in a state of virtual siege. Hundreds of thousands of Indian troops – “security forces” – have crushed local rebellion and struggled to root out insurgents and “foreign” terrorists sent on missions of insurrection and sabotage. This summer, tensions have boiled over again, as locals have turned this season into another “summer of rage,” marked by violent protests and harsh retaliatory repression. Fifty fatalities and 900 separate protests mark this latest time of violence; it is the third such summer reaction, and the signs of growing discontent magnify every day.

The August 12th New York Times simplifies the conundrum; Indian occupying forces “face a threat potentially more dangerous to the world’s largest democracy: an intifada-like popular revolt against the Indian military presence that includes not just stone-throwing young men but their sisters, mothers, uncles and grandparents… The protests, which have erupted for a third straight summer, have led India to one of its most serious internal crises in recent memory. Not just because of their ferocity and persistence, but because they signal the failure of decades of efforts to win the assent of Kashmiris using just about any tool available: money, elections and overwhelming force .

“‘We need a complete revisit of what our policies in Kashmir have been,’ said Amitabh Mattoo, a professor of strategic affairs at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and a Kashmiri Hindu. ‘It is not about money — you have spent huge amounts of money. It is not about fair elections. It is about reaching out to a generation of Kashmiris who think India is a huge monster represented by bunkers and security forces.’… Indeed, Kashmir’s demand for self-determination is sharper today than it has been at perhaps any other time in the region’s troubled history.”

Why is any of this remotely relevant for American policy-makers? Doesn’t this help our Central Asian/Afghan policy with a touch of “divide, conquer and distract”? Perhaps, but we are in a constant and untenable balancing act – trying to enlist formal Pakistani efforts against the Taliban and al Qaeda (which, though Pakistan is a purported “ally,” many of their branches of government covertly or even overtly support) against the reality of India’s clear global economic supremacy and massive Diaspora, particularly within the United States at the highest levels of entrepreneurial success. India challenges the Islamic militants who seek partition of Kashmir, but who are also the clear enemies of the United States. There is something in these most recent protests, however, bordering on the greatest desperation that Kashmir has ever known; it’s almost as if a fuse has been lit.

So is it clear that the U.S. must side with anti-Islamist India at all costs? Even if the mass of Kashmiris seems to want the very partition that India is unwilling to consider? There was a time – even recently – where diplomatic entreaties looked like they might take root, but that time seems to have passed: “Secret negotiations in 2007, which came close to creating an autonomous region shared by the two countries, foundered as Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan’s president, lost his grip on power. The terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, by Pakistani militants in 2008 derailed any hope for further talks.

“Not least, India has consistently rebuffed any attempt at outside mediation or diplomatic entreaties, including efforts by the United States. The intransigence has left Kashmiris empty-handed and American officials with little to offer Pakistan on its central preoccupation — India and Kashmir — as they struggle to encourage Pakistan’s help in cracking down on the Taliban and other militants in the country… With no apparent avenue to progress, many Kashmiris are despairing that their struggle is taking place in a vacuum, and they are taking matters into their own hands…

“Indian officials have tried to portray Kashmir’s stone-throwing youths as illiterate pawns of jihadist forces across the Pakistan border and have suggested that economic development and jobs are the key to getting young people off the streets… But many of the stone throwers are hardly illiterate. They organize on Facebook, creating groups with names like ‘Im a Kashmiri Stone Pelter.’ One young man who regularly joins protests and goes by the nom de guerre Khalid Khan has an M.B.A. and a well-paying job.” The Times. Two countries with nuclear weapons who hate each other embroiled in a large dispute involving millions of unhappy Muslims seeking separation from India in a disputed border region that has sparked wars, violent protests and terrorism for decades; what could possibly go wrong?

I’m Peter Dekom, keeping an eye on sparks that could easily get out of hand.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hire Expectations

Damned stimulus package just doesn't seem to be creating a whole pile of jobs. And the administration isn't particularly optimistic about the situation, at least not near-term. Take for example an August 3rd interview of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner by Good Morning America's George Stephanopoulos: "When they see a little hope that there may be jobs out there, they start to come back in again. And that can cause the measured unemployment rate to go up — temporarily… But what we expect to see, and I think most forecasters expect this…is an economy that's gradually healing, gradually strengthening, businesses starting to add people back.," said Geithner. Geithner also admitted it's a "tough economy" and that the unemployment rate could get worse for a few months before it gets better.

You know, it might seem way too obvious, and, in this world where Congress men and women are tripping all over themselves to prove that they don't spend money – except on unwinnable wars – maybe an unlikely choice, but if the object is to create more jobs, why not… er … hire more people directly? Yeah, why doesn't the government just become the direct employer and provide infrastructure repair or social service jobs or whatever work that needs getting done? Like what the government did with the WPA during the Great Depression: "The Works Progress Administration (renamed during 1939 as the Work Projects Administration; WPA) was the largest New Deal agency, employing millions to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads, and operated large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. It fed children and redistributed food, clothing, and housing. Almost every community in the United States had a park, bridge or school constructed by the agency, which especially benefited rural and Western populations. Expenditures from 1936 to 1939 totaled nearly $7 billion." Wikipedia.

Sounds too "socialist"? Cost too much? Really? What would it cost? Okay, here are the numbers, according to the August 3rd DailyFinance.com: "[S]traightforward suggestions that can actually help put the country's record long-term unemployed back to work tend to get far less glory. And one such far-more-levelheaded recommendation comes from Yale economist Robert Shiller: The U.S. government should simply hire workers directly for public services, much as it did during the Great Depression… Bringing aid to those at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid -- where job losses have done the most damage -- would hardly break the budget, either. The $30 billion it would cost to hire a million people at $30,000 a pop, for example, would amount to 0.2% of national debt and 4% of the entire stimulus package spending package, Shiller points out.

"Hiring a million people at home would cost roughly the same as what Congress set aside last month to send 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan despite an avalanche of recent criticism about the U.S. strategy there. For the estimated $1 million a year it costs to station one U.S. solider in Afghanistan beyond salary and equipment, the country could provide jobs for 33 workers at home.

"Much as the vast majority of the American public has suspected, stimulus measures so far have been ineffective at creating jobs. To illustrate this point, Shiller uses the anecdote of a road-construction site funded by stimulus dollars that's packed with steamrollers and heavy equipment but light on workers… 'Like many such stimulus projects, it could be justified if you accept the idea that gross domestic product, not jobs, is central – a misconception rooted in economic theory, or at least in the way Keynesian economic theory has evolved,' he wrote." Sometimes, the obvious is… well… the obvious solution.

I'm Peter Dekom, wondering why straight lines appear to be so mysterious to so many elected officials.