Sunday, October 31, 2010

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – Secret (and Legal) Campaign Contributions

Secrecy and government have always been strange bedfellows. In times of threat and conflict, spying and clandestine strategies have always been hidden behind closed doors; after all, “war is deception.” But in a plutocracy, where the greatest challenge to modern democracy is the ability of special interests to buy a government that grants them exemptions from the laws applicable to “everyman” and provides them with protected status at the expense of the general economic and political good of the nation, transparency in campaign activities would seem to be a core survival value.

We make lobbyists register in Washington, but we allow special interests secretly to dump millions and millions of dollars into political campaigns – creating an aura of legitimacy and groundswell around issues and candidates with less-than-honorable intentions. This is the legacy of the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, a narrow U.S. Supreme Court decision this year that literally took the most of the restrictions away from corporate and union campaign contributions, even the undisclosed and anonymous kind.

Secrecy and campaign machinations – the infamous Watergate debacle (1972-74) – brought down the Nixon Presidency with his resignation on August 8, 1974. But if conditions were bad then, they are horrific today. Forget about the misdirection of the anti-John Kerry Swift Boat campaign, what we have today – in the upcoming mid-term elections – may be the greatest challenge to our form of government since the Civil War or FDR’s attempt to stack the Supreme Court.

According to (Oct. 15th), citing a series of Washington Post reports, notes the challenges that secrecy brings to elections: “That’s why we’re so concerned about the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court that has opened the floodgates to huge amounts of undisclosed campaign contributions… According to a Washington Post analysis, outside interest groups are spending five times as much ($80 million) on the 2010 midterms as they did in the 2006 midterm elections ($16 million)… In addition, more than half of the money being spent this year comes from groups that do not disclose their donors.” It doesn’t matter whether you are conservative or liberal or in the middle, transparency in elections is vital for the survival of a democracy.

That mega-donors – mostly seeking candidates and ballot propositions that favor deregulation and lower taxes in pursuit of profound self-interest – are often willing to embrace social issue candidates (who passionately apply some simplistic “solution or religious slogan”) in exchange for a seemingly squeaky clean endorsement of economic issues that can only benefit the wealthiest citizens in our country, continuing to slant the economic playing field towards the elite and away from everyone else.

Shouldn’t we at least know who they are? Is there a reason that such selfish contributors – the same folks who used an under-regulated Wall Street to soak our nation in unsustainable debt and create trading instruments -- the entire derivative market -- that encouraged irresponsible investing at the expense of value-creating economic – should have the right to ply their ugly trade in the shadows? Why do we let them hide behind the seeming innocence of a candidate who may have a passionate drive for a social issue – pure enough whether right or wrong – when they don’t care a lick for the issue itself? The law must change or perhaps we should simply sell political office and ballot propositions to the highest bidder and do away with the hypocrisy of Citizens United.

I’m Peter Dekom, and we need real citizens united to change this terrible practice of clandestine and unlimited campaign contributions before it’s too late.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Great Firewall

China is known for its walls, and many of them appear to be labeled “great.” The notion of free speech has never been high on the list of Chinese values. In pre-Confucian times (before 600 BC) and continuing through most of dynastic China, folks learned to speak in flowery metaphor, laced with plausible deniability (i.e., there’s always another interpretation) to avoid divulging private information that could be used by local rulers to confiscate property or inadvertently offending a regional prelate looking to inflict head removal or more painful terminations of life upon hapless citizens. Indeed, this notion of not communicating with the rest of the world is evident in traditional Chinese architecture – four solid walls with the windows facing inwards to the courtyard for residences and walls-within-walls leading to the inner royal sanctum of the Forbidden City. The restrictions on free expression, both legal and cultural, continued through history.

Novel-writing has never been a cherished pastime with the Chinese – not really even explored until Westerner made their presence felt fairly late in local history; abstract paintings, calligraphy, very abstract theater and lots of strict essay writing permeated Chinese creativity. Abstract is more plausible denial than reality or perceived reality. Even when free speech was permitted, it often became a trap to discover dissidents, who could then be exterminated. For example, in 1956-57, China’s Chairman Mao Zedong in initiated the “Hundred Flowers” campaign and encouraged people to speak their minds under this slogan: “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.” Sequentially, his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution movements purged dissidents and inflicted violent solutions against those who threatened the status quo.

China fiercely controls mass communications, and most importantly, the Internet. Hence the name: “The Great Firewall.” We’ve watched the battle between Google and the Peoples Republic of China, the imposition of the “Green Dam” censorship software, the virtual ban on personal Websites (you can apply, but good luck), blogging and open search and surfing. Likewise, the importation of film and television product is severely limited and conducted only through governmental sources of distribution, with very tight quota restrictions… this despite the fact that piracy reigns supreme and black market copies of Western content are everywhere. With box office revenues growing in China (official sources tell us that there was a 279% increase from 2008 to 2009) and literally motion picture theater growth staggeringly fast (one new screen every day!), the West looks at content as perhaps an equalizer in the trade deficit battle that looms underneath the quest for currency restructuring. China looks at free trade as essential, but considers “content” political and cultural, unfit for consideration as an open exchange.

Enter the World Trade Organization, of which China is now very much a member nation, that has imposed sanctions on China – under appeal, but China is losing – because of its severe restrictions on the import of content and mass media. Since China relies on the WTO to keep trade barriers down as to the exportation of Chinese goods to other countries, this is serious business for the PRC. The Journal from the American Bar Association (November issue) summarizes: “China, like the 139 other countries that are WTO members, is a party to the General Agreement on Trade in Services. The treaty, which went into effect in 1995, basically requires member states t o treat foreign service providers the same as domestic service providers. Thus, if the Great Firewall discriminates against foreign companies, it violates GATS…

“The trade organization has already held that China’s commitments on audio visual services prevent it from discriminating against foreign suppliers of some Internet services. In December 2009, a WTO appellate body ruled that China’s GATS commitment on ‘sound recording distribution services’ covers the electronic distribution of sound recordings. The panel also indicated that China’s GATS commitment on ‘audiovisual products’ covers the electronic distribution of movies, TV shows and other audiovisual works… China also agreed not to discriminate against foreign companies providing a variety of telecommunications services, including electronic mail, online information retrieval and online data processing (including transaction processing). China added that ‘all international telecommunications services shall go through gateways established with the approval of China’s telecommunications authorities.’”

But this an agonizingly slow process, and strangely, the incumbent Chinese leadership is actually revered by most Chinese and have little to fear from the free flow of mass media. The ABA Journal continues with exactly where this process stands today: “A WTO appellate body ruled against China in December of last year. The ruling did not question whether China’s censorship was necessary to protect public morals or maintain public order. Instead, the WTO panel found that China could continue its censorship through less trade-restrictive means: Allow foreign entities to import and distribute works, and give the Chinese government sole responsibility for conducting content review of these works. China agreed to abide by the ruling.

“Critics who want to use the WTO to knock down the Great Firewall face a dilemma. They must convince the WTO that either China’s censorship isn’t necessary to protect public morals or public security, or there is a less trade-restrictive alternative by which China can censor the Internet. The former is a politically sensitive topic that the WTO would prefer to avoid. The latter may satisfy foreign high-tech firms that want to do business in China, but it is unlikely to mollify human rights campaigners.” But free speech and human rights advocates may just have to ride the coattails of commercial motion pictures and television productions, which are slowly battering their way into the PRC marketplace – warriors using the trade deficit and international treaties to erode the power of The Great Firewall.

I’m Peter Dekom, and at some level, sooner rather than later, this seemingly solid barrier to global communications will erode or be blown apart… this time by external sources.

Friday, October 29, 2010

“A Case for Further Action”

A quote from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (Washington Post, October 25th). While Europe pursues it job-killing austerity programs, Bernanke is trying to figure out how to implement the next stimulus in the absence of a Congressional mandate for new funding for this purpose. The mid-term elections are likely to produce a Congressional configuration focused on retaining lower tax rates and eliminating any further enhancements to government spending.

Bernanke’s plan, an expansion of his “Quantitative Easing” program, is to buy off more Treasury and mortgage bonds and to expand the Federal Reserve’s holdings of longer-term securities. Clearly, the Fed is armed with its defined set of tools to control economic trends, and while this effort might create more solidity in the market and free up more lending capital, it might not translate quickly into higher employment or stronger housing values and may add a trillion or more dollars to the Fed’s own deficit, kicking up our inflationary worries. But this may be the only stimulus plan possible in this increasingly conservative environment, and to many it is better than a sharp stick in the eye at a time when the U.S. economy is in desperate need of “more.”

But the rich are getting richer, the middle definitely getting poorer, and anger has risen to “seething and boiling.” The reasons are obvious, and the supporting data disheartening: “During the depths of the recession in 2009, as millions of Americans lost their jobs, homes and life savings, the highest-paid earners in the United States saw their average incomes increase more than five-fold from 2008, according to new data from the federal government… The 74 people who earned more than $50 million last year -- the highest income category measured by the Social Security Administration -- saw their average incomes skyrocket from $91.8 million in 2008 to a mind-boggling $518.8 million in 2009.” (October 26th).

The Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller report of the 20 major cities in the U.S. just reported that home values dropped – again – in August, with many Americans seeing their home values fall by 50% over the past few years. Our incomes have dropped on average as well, and the jobless and under-employment rates remain staggering. State and municipal government are crumbling under fixed and underfunded pension demands, while watching their property, sales and income taxes erode with falling home values (and foreclosures), eroding consumer demand has tanked sales and depressing unemployment statistics.

And we’re dog-paddling in place: “Economic growth accelerated a bit late this summer, according to new government data, even as the nation remained stuck in a pattern of economic expansion that is too slow to bring down joblessness… Gross domestic product expanded at a 2 percent annual rate in the July through September quarter, the Commerce Department said [on Oct. 29th], matching economists’ forecasts.” Washington Post (October 29th). Post-economic downturns normally require multiples of “normal year growth” to reflect any sense of real recovery, and this number is well below average pre-recession growth in the U.S.

So what does NYU economics professor Nouriel Roubini (aka “Dr. Doom” – whose accuracy in predicting economic chaos has been pretty dead-on) think about our near term prospects? In an editorial in the Financial Times (“A Presidency Headed for a Fiscal Train Wreck”), “Roubini gives plenty of credit to President Obama and his administration for preventing another depression, but he fears the president's policies were too short-term. And with the looming political change in Washington and two years of gridlock in prospect, those policies will not only expire, leaving fiscal pain, but new ones won't be implemented... ‘Obama,’ Roubini says, ‘inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,’ as well as a large budget deficit. ‘His stimulus package, together with a backstop of the financial system, low rates and quantitative easing from the Federal Reserve, prevented another depression.’...

“Still, Roubini says, none of those good moves are going to make much of a difference after the elections because fiscal policy will likely take a different route. ‘The term stimulus is already a dirty word, even within the Obama administration,’ Roubini adds. ‘After the Republicans make significant electoral gains further stimulus is even less likely.’ And this, just when the economy needs the boost most to prevent a double-dip recession.” (October 29th).

People have lived with horrific and sustained economic chaos before, but central economic planning systems didn’t exist then. Maybe we’re really not a whole lot different, even though our leaders (from both sides of the aisle) make a good case for how much worse the economy would have been without government intervention… it’s just galling that the richest segments of our society benefited way too much at the expense of average Americans. But because of all of these government programs have led the average voter to believe that the government can indeed “fix this mess” if only the right formula were followed. Right wingers seem to have one simple solution for all economic issues: reduce taxes and eliminate regulation; let free markets rule. But there haven’t been “free markets” in this country for well over a century, as certain industries – particularly agriculture, finance and petroleum – have had a statutory edge that they will not yield and that the most conservative bastions will not alter. Left wingers believe we can spend our way out of any mess by just incurring deficits without concern; they can’t envision needing suitcase full of cash to buy a cup of coffee.

The truth is somewhere in between, as it always is. First, we aren’t coming out of this mess for a very long time, no matter what we try and do. The November 1st Fortune Magazine: “There is nothing that the U.S. government or the Federal Reserve or tax-cutters can do to make our economic pain vanish overnight.” The government can nudge the economy up or down based on policy, but every decision is a trade-off with side-effects; the economy is morphing continuously and even good plans stop working after a while and have to be reconfigured. Second, the only “stimulus” likely to be implemented is what the Federal Reserve puts in motion, perhaps too little too late.

The piper has waited a long time to get paid, and the cost of a modern Western society cannot compete against the economies of nations with few social benefits, low labor costs and increasing educational standards. A few harsh facts: “recovery” will take more than a few years, our lifestyles are permanently altered and we are now living in a nation which has begun a decline that only our educational system and entrepreneurial spirit have any chance of correcting. Without shoring up those core values, we will watch the emerging Asian economies spurt past us and watch us in their rearview mirrors.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I would love to see us believe in ourselves enough to preserve and grow our educational systems into the competitive force they must be.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Europe's New Aus-scarity Program

Nothing terrifies a European finance minister like "it takes a suitcase full of currency to buy a cup of coffee" inflation fears, much like what happened in Germany after World War I. You get fear-mongering statements like this quote from the May 18, 2010 "Europe will soon be in economic ruins, wracked by hyperinflation, social upheaval and prone to wars and totalitarian regimes. The nightmarish history of the 1930s, the Great Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany will repeat itself, but this time on an even larger continent-wide scale." Indeed, the over-borrowing – from credit cards to mortgages, from corporate take-overs to government deficits – gave rise to the current meltdown and threatens to devalue currencies based on such unsustainable debt levels. This is the emotional morass where the current austerity programs gripping Europe were born.

But there is the very considerable reality that excessive austerity programs can actually trigger or prolong the very economic collapse that was the Great Depression; Britain managed to snatch a nascent recovery from that huge 1930s debacle and plunge the UK back down into the depths of economic collapse by invoking the very same kind of job-killing austerity programs that it is embracing now. It seems that hyperinflation is a greater "terror" to this conservative British government than mass unemployment and the resulting economic malaise that could linger for many years more than economists initially predicted.

Strangely, the very nation that gave birth to Keynesian economics – England – appears to be the most hell-bent on ignoring this historical economist's admonitions: "The British economist John Maynard Keynes may live on in popular legend as the world’s most influential economist. But in much of Europe, and most acutely here in the land of his birth, his view that deficit spending by governments is crucial to avoiding a long recession has lately been willfully ignored… In Britain, George Osborne, chancellor of the Exchequer [which is British for "finance minister"], delivered a speech on Wednesday that would have made Keynes — who himself worked in the British Treasury — blanch… He argued forcefully that Britons, despite slowing growth and negligible bank lending, must accept a rise in the retirement age to 66 from 65 and $130 billion in spending cuts that would eliminate nearly 500,000 public sector jobs and hit pensioners, the poor, the military and the middle class because of what he insisted was the overwhelming need to reduce the country’s huge budget deficit." New York Times (October 20th).

So rises the Tea-Party-esque tone of most of the balance of Europe, a factor which plays hob with America's own desire to stimulate exports – reviving a moribund consumer economy – by exporting, including to Europe. The problem, of course, is that the austerity programs in Europe are likely to kill of consumer demand down to a level that would make the U.S. consumer look like spendthrift drunker sailor. Clearly, the American incumbency has taken the Keynesian perspective, seeking to use government stimulus to create jobs or at least incent job-creation. There is a healthy balance in all of this, but the European model appears to mirror killing malignant cancer cells by killing the patient as well. Trust me, if history is any indicator, no good will come of these misguided efforts.

I'm Peter Dekom, and someone keeps dumping dirt in the hole we are trying dig out of!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Corruption – Where Sunnis and Shiites are Best Buddies

Iran is the seat of the unpopular Shiite minority of Muslim worshippers. As you know from earlier blogs, this 15% constituency of all Islam (Sunnis make up almost the entire balance) has mystical views of the Qur’an that conflicts strongly with the literal reading of that holy book attributed by Sunnis clerics. Iran also seeks to become the most powerful political and military power in the Middle East, a threat that is not taken lightly by Sunni neighbors like Wahhabi-fundamentalist Saudi Arabia or Taliban leaders. Iran has poured untold stacks of cash and weapons, provided training and other support, to its terrorist arm, the Hezbollah, a group that has proven particularly challenging to Israel in bordering regions. What Hezbollah is to Shiites, al Qaeda is to Sunnis.

The fact that Iran is a Shiite Islamic republic would thus normally seal its fate as a regional powerhouse, but Iran’s leadership is undeterred. It has funneled tons of money and weapons into such Sunni strongholds as Palestine’s Fatah struggle against Israel. It has symbolized one Muslim nation’s willingness to confront Israel, the United States and the rest of the Western world on the battlefield (see my recent Iran’s New Protectorate – Iraq blog) and on the international stage (as it foments its nuclear weapons programs in bold defiance of global sanctions). Iran has achieved a populist folk-hero status among grassroots Sunnis populations throughout the Middle East and beyond, to Sunnis in places like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia, much to the consternation of powerful governments with strong ties to Sunni purism.

And so we come to the Sunni stronghold we call “Afghanistan.” The Taliban are profoundly anti-Shiite and have long set Iranian leaders into defensive strategies. At one time, with Afghanistan on one side, and Saddam Hussein’s Sunnis government on the other (Iran fought a ten-year war against Hussein), Iran was surrounded by hostile forces and antithetical religious practices. Thanks to the United States, Iraq has been at least neutralized if not actually added to Iran’s direct sphere of influence (the majority of Iraqis are Shiites). The attention has shifted to Afghanistan; Iran has no pretentions that it will generate a strong entente with Saudi Arabia in the south.

But since the Taliban – who are increasingly becoming political pragmatists to regain power – are heavily aligned with anti-Shiite sentiments, Iran has moved to that “man who plays ball with anybody with cash” – Afghan’s mega-corrupt Hamid Karzai and his band of Merry “Swiss Bank Depositors.” Karzai leads a strong Sunni nation; Shiites have long been persecuted in his land. But money talks. This little excerpt from the October 23rd New York Times: “One evening last August, as President Hamid Karzai wrapped up an official visit to Iran, his personal plane sat on the airport tarmac, waiting for a late-running passenger: Iran’s ambassador to Afghanistan… The ambassador, Feda Hussein Maliki, finally appeared, taking a seat next to Umar Daudzai, Mr. Karzai’s chief of staff and his most trusted confidant. According to an Afghan official on the plane, Mr. Maliki handed Mr. Daudzai a large plastic bag bulging with packets of euro bills. A second Afghan official confirmed that Mr. Daudzai carried home a large bag of cash. ‘This is the Iranian money,’ said an Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ‘Many of us noticed this.’…

“The bag of money is part of a secret, steady stream of Iranian cash intended to buy the loyalty of Mr. Daudzai and promote Iran’s interests in the presidential palace, according to Afghan and Western officials here. Iran uses its influence to help drive a wedge between the Afghans and their American and NATO benefactors, they say… ‘Karzai knows that without the U.S., he is finished,’ an associate of the president said. ‘But it’s like voodoo. Daudzai is the source of all the problems with the U.S. He is systematically feeding hi m misinformation, disinformation and wrong information.’… The payments to Mr. Daudzai illustrate the degree to which the Iranian government has penetrated Mr. Karzai’s inner circle despite his presumed alliance with the United States and the other NATO countries, which have sustained him with military forces and billions of dollars since the Taliban’s ouster since 2001.”

The October 25 New York Times continues, noting that the Karzai regime doesn’t care if the world knows about this practice, but they’re only admitting to a measly $2 million a year: President Hamid Karzai acknowledged [October 25th] that his chief of staff had taken money from the Iranian government, confirming a report in The New York Times. He said the cash was used to pay for presidential expensesHis government will continue to receive the payments, which amount to no more than about $1 million twice a year, he said at a news conference with the visiting president of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmonov, adding that the money is part of a relationship between neighbors… ‘They have asked for good relations in return, and for lots of other things in return,’ said Mr. Karzai of the Iranians.” Yup, that seems to say it all. We have many enemies; too bad we keep supporting many of them, letting them increase our deficit with almost no benefit to us in return, and giving us the honor of having kept one of the most corrupt regimes in history in power. I’m hearing that State Farm jingle in my head: “Like a good neighbor, Iran money is there…..”

I’m Peter Dekom, and I just wonder if and when this truly incompetent foreign policy direction will end.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Noble Motivator – Revenge

Revenge is a dish that is best served cold. It is also a coach’s tool to push his team to the edge of their performance capabilities, how body builders retaliate to those who kicked sand in their skinny, bony faces in that cool-beach-dude ad, what starts wars, gang wars and corporate takeovers. And it turns out, in cold hard experiments by the University of Zurich – from those neutral Swiss no less – that it just might be nature’s fuel to make the world go round while keeping populations in check. Yup, the need to kick evolution in the butt and climb to the top of the hill… no matter what… is often followed up by an equal and opposite reaction from those you kicked on the way up. It reignites their evolutionary zeal to remove those at the top of the hill, a feeling which is equally strong. Whoa! Hey, aren’t prison and the death penalty all about “revenge”? How many folks do you see coming out of prison “rehabilitated”? Why exactly do you think the recidivism rates are so damned high?

Tell me about those experiments, Peter. You’ll like this University of Zurich special: 14 volunteers were enlisted to cooperate with each other in a series of competitive money-earning games, but one of these players was a planted turncoat, who, using unfair advantage, glommed on to most of the cash. Players were then asked whether if they could, they would punish the perp. The October 18th Los Angeles Times (Health section) provides this summary of the results: “All 14 volunteers chose to retaliate if they could do so at no charge, and 12 out of 14 did so even if it cost them additional money. When they decided to seek revenge, the dorsal striatum lighted up on a PET scan. Those whose brains were activated the most were willing to spend the most to punish the double-crosser, notes study co-author Ernst Fehr, whose research was published in Science in 2004.

“It's not surprising that our brains signal ‘pleasure’ at the prospect of punishing someone who wronged us, says Michael McCullough, a University of Miami psychologist and author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. Although it can be a misguided, costly craving in the modern world, evolutionary psychologists believe the thirst for revenge ensured our ancestors' survival — retaliation was the only way for victims to deter aggressors from harming them or their tribes in the future… Still, the delicious pleasure anticipated from taking revenge is such a powerful drive that it appears to be hard-wired in the brain… University of Zurich scientists found that merely contemplating revenge stimulates a region of the brain called the dorsal striatum, which is known to become active in anticipation of a reward or pleasure, such as making money or eating good food.” The Times.

But actually wreaking revenge doesn’t carry the rewards one might expect. In a study by Kevin Carlsmith of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., that sort of mimicked the Zurich test, participants were queried about their relative levels of satisfaction at actually having carried out their acts of revenge: “Although players predicted they'd feel much better after they retaliated, the reverse turned out to be true. The researchers measured their mood on a seven-point scale (with 7 being extremely satisfied) and found that avengers scored 1.5 points lower than other players who didn't get a chance to retaliate, according to results published in 2008 in the Journal of Personality and Social Technology. That's probably because they kept thinking about the ringer, while those who couldn't retaliate didn't dwell on the incident, says Carlsmith, who conducted the studies with colleagues at Harvard University and the University of Virginia.” The Times. It also seems that folks who typically stew in thoughts of revenge tend to increase their need to retaliate… folks who let go more easily didn’t get caught up in an obsessive desire to retaliate. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, don’t it?!

I’m Peter Dekom, and whatever happened to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Somebody Hates My Son?

Chris Dekom is about to turn 27; he holds a double-major B.A. from Duke University (econ and poly sci), has passed all three levels of the Chartered Financial Analyst certification program (tough course of study with one test per year for three years; 10-15% pass all three the first time; he did) and attends night and weekend classes at Johns Hopkins towards a master of science in energy policy & climate. He is also a federal bureaucrat working as an Investment Officer at the U.S. Department of Energy headquarters in Washington, D.C., watching taxpayer dollars like a hawk while maximizing the use of federal stimulus loans to find new and more efficient energy technologies, trying to make sure he brings the best skills he can to his job. He has a modest apartment, gave up his car because it cost too much to maintain, and lives a pretty frugal lifestyle. But he is a federal bureaucrat, and the perception of that vast category of workers (1.9 million) in this recession-wracked economy is pretty negative these days.

Yeah, I’ve blogged how our governmental pension structure is unsustainable at virtually all levels of state and federal government. And while undoubtedly some government folks might be overpaid compared to what they might have earned in the private sector, my son also tells me of the cadres of fellow workers, educated at the nation’s best schools often with solid experience at some of our top investment banking and consulting firms, who most definitely aren’t in it for the pay or the benefits; they actually want to make our nation stronger, more competitive and economically sound. Civil servants who care? As a child of Washington (I was born there, and both my father and mother worked for the feds as did my step-father), I’ve heard it all. Yet my memory only provides with visions of people who really cared, who were dedicated to the United States of America.

The Washington Post (reported October 18th) recently conducted a poll (with others noted below) to determine exactly what Americans feel about their bureaucratic brethren in federal service, especially as angry voters, many unemployed or underemployed, approach the mid-term elections: “In the new Post survey, 52 percent of Americans think that federal civil servants are paid too much, a view held by nearly two in three Republicans and about seven in 10 conservatives. Far fewer Democrats, independents, liberals and moderates hold this opinion… Half also say the men and women who keep the government running do not work as hard as employees at private companies…

“Three-quarters of those surveyed say they think federal workers are paid more and get better benefits than their counterparts outside government, an increase of seven percentage points from a Post-ABC poll conducted in 1982, when the country also struggled in a recession… The survey shows public views of federal workers deeply split along party lines, with Republicans the most apt to see a disconnect between government pay and that in the private sector. Republicans' more negative views in the poll reflect the party's souring view of government in general. Fully 80 percent of Republicans say federal priorities are misplaced, in a recent study by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation and Harvard University on Americans' views of the role of government… Nearly six in 10 Republicans say federal civil servants do not work as hard and nearly half say they are of lower quality than workers at private companies, both double-digit increases over 2001.”

Can we... and should we… cut and furlough federal workers? I suspect we must; in times of economic impairment, accountability and frugality are simply a part of modern life, and the federal government is no different from the rest of the country, whose hard-earned tax dollars are even more precious in this horrific economy. But in terms of attitude and generalities, it’s probably a safe bet to believe that the vast majority of federal employees care about their jobs, the people they serve and are hardly the over-compensated buffoons the polls suggest they might be; most live pretty modest lives.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I am reminded of the story about the “baby and the bathwater…”

Sunday, October 24, 2010

An $850 Million Mistake

In 2006, when the Bush administration authorized the project, it was a $4.4 billion effort to create a "virtual" wall – technologically at the cutting edge – across substantial portions of the two thousand plus mile section of our border with Mexico. 600 miles of this length is covered by a physical fence, but the legislation that gave rise to the funding – the Secure Border Initiative – was based significantly on the assumption that detection technology (labeled, appropriately, SBInet) would be a vastly more effective solution to illegal border crossing. The SBInet efforts started with a 53 mile stretch, and Boeing was the main contractor engaged to build this "invisible fence" with all of its tracking and targeting systems, intrusion identification and location software and sophisticated electronics and optics that no smuggler or trafficking coyote could penetrate.

So far, Boeing has invoiced Homeland Security $850 million for a system that not only has missed almost every production and deployment deadline… by miles… but simply doesn't work. Somehow, in this rugged terrain, the brains forgot to factor in such obvious factors as high winds and tumbleweeds. The super-expensive cameras, motion/vibration detectors and radar simply failed to discern between these natural phenomena and people. On September 31, Homeland Security elected not to extend Boeing's contract to the next phase. Insert: pictures of frowning Border Patrol officers. "Some of the technology, such as remote cameras, night-vision video and mobile surveillance, is being used by agents in the Arizona test areas, which see a high level of cross-border traffic. But the effectiveness is far from what was requested by Homeland Security officials and promised by Boeing when the project began… Daytime cameras are able to monitor only half of the distance expected. Ground sensors can identify off-road vehicles, but not humans, as initially envisioned by the government." Los Angeles Times, October 22nd. Oh, and the incredible computer interface between agents in the field and detection technology didn't take into consideration the transmission "dead zones" where contact was difficult or impossible to maintain.

What's the official reaction? "Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler would only say that a new way forward for the program 'is expected shortly.' [Du'oh!]… But given that the virtual fence has yet to pass muster even in the 53-mile test area — two sections in Arizona that officials acknowledge won't be fully operational until 2013 — and the government's lack of interest in extending Boeing's contract, most do not expect the department to invest billions more in a project that has continually disappointed… Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he hoped Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano would act soon. 'The program is headed in the wrong direction,' Thompson said… 'It would be a great shame to scrap SBInet,' said Rep. Michael McCaul (R- Texas), who has encouraged the department to bring to the Southwest the technology the U.S. military is using on the Afghanistan- Pakistan border. 'Technology is key to solving these border issues.'" Los Angeles Times. Yup, I'm sure it is, but why in hell do we have to spend so much money to fail?

We seem to have a bad habit of not taking the obvious into consideration when we greenlight expensive new technologies. Back when the crudely built AK-47 assault rifle was decimating our "superior firepower" in Vietnam, the Army rushed the AR-15 assault rifle into service (under the M-16 moniker), spending millions, to be deployed in muddy and rainy jungle, without adjusting to these conditions; while they saved a ton on chrome and higher level finishes, the soldiers who died because their guns rusted or jammed paid the price for this military folly. And yes, the later versions of the M-16 were adjusted for this combat reality. And also yes, technology is the solution to our border issues, but why do sophisticated scientists have to spend so much money to discover such simple truths? There really has to be a better way, and it is clear that the U.S. is no longer able to afford such expensive failed experiments.

I'm Peter Dekom, and I am thinking of so many better uses for that $850 million.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Iran’s New Protectorate – Iraq

The Western powers – who had long-since had occupying forces (long before World War I) in many of the lands of the Muslim Mediterranean-Middle Eastern world ruled by the once powerful Ottomans – were carving-up that post-WWI empire, knowing that the Ottomans were finally about to collapse. In 1916, with a wink and a nod from Imperial Russia, France and England signed the very-secret Sykes-Picot Agreement allocating their “spheres of influence” over the spoils. In late 1920, as the League of Nations made carving up the Ottoman Empire official, England was awarded control of a country with very artificial boundaries called the “State of Iraq,” made up of the an awkward ethnic mix of multi-religious Kurds in the north, Sunnis mostly in the southwest and Shiites in the rest.

Throughout history, Sunnis – who believe that every Muslim should read the Qur’an and that a the government was there to protect the faith but not to be the faith – and Shiites – who believe that the Qur’an is a mystical book that only the highest religious leaders (who are also the supreme governmental authority) can interpret – have been exceptionally uncomfortable with each other; slaughter and persecution was a way of life for the majority Sunnis (about 85% of all Muslims) against a very unpopular Shiite following. In the 10th century AD, when the Shiites lost their supreme leader – the 12th Imam under mysterious circumstances – they became rudderless and marginalized until 1979, when an Islamic revolution in Iran, gave their faith new legitimacy and new military power.

When the United States occupied Iraq in 2003, it did what Americans often do; we assumed that Iraq was a potentially functioning political entity that would prosper under a constitutional democracy, even though at no time did the people of Iraq ever vote to be a single nation. 15-20% of the population are Kurds (a mix of faiths, including Christianity, Islam and several unique blends) with little in common with the remaining almost-all Arab nation, of which Shiites are the majority (around 60-65%) and Sunnis (30-35%) the rest. Under Saddam Hussein’s brutal leadership, Sunnis ruled through his dictatorship. And of course, with an American democracy, majority rules – Shiites trumped both Kurds and Sunnis. Iran, which had fought a ten-year war with Hussein in the 1980s, was smiling, perhaps giddy with the opportunity; their brethren were in control in neighboring Iraq.

Al Qaeda is an alliance of Sunnis terrorists; Shiites have their own assemblage of terrorists, mostly operating under the Hezbollah banner with lots of financial and other support from Iran. When Iraqi Sunnis began turning to al Qaeda for support against Shiite death squads and violent Shiite-enforced redistricting (literally pushing many Sunnis out of their homes), the U.S. responded by recruiting, training and arming bodies of Sunnis to protect themselves and to purge al Qaeda influence from their midst, mostly under so-called “Awakening Councils,” giving locals much more control. U.S. fighting forces have now exited Iraq, leaving the military and police powers to the Iraqi government, a government that is very pro-Shiite. The Awakening Councils and vast numbers of Sunnis now feel abandoned by the U.S., left to fare for themselves in hostile Shiite territory. The Shiites have little to fear; they are not only in power, but there are very much under the protective wing of Shiite Iran, particularly those factions which believe in religious rule.

The latest batch of “WikiLeaks” documents (from U.S. military sources) reveal waves of supporting evidence as to Iran’s heavy involvement in Iraq: “[The leaked U.S. government] field reports disclosed by WikiLeaks, which were never intended to be made public, underscore the seriousness with which Iran’s role has been seen by the American military. The political struggle between the United States and Iran to influence events in Iraq still continues as Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has sought to assemble a coalition — that would include the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr — that will allow him to remain in power. But much of the American’s military concern has revolved around Iran’s role in arming and assisting Shiite militias.

“Citing the testimony of detainees, a captured militant’s diary and numerous uncovered weapons caches, among other intelligence, the field reports recount Iran’s role in providing Iraqi militia fighters with rockets, magnetic bombs that can be attached to the underside of cars, ‘explosively formed penetrators,’ or E.F.P.’s, which are the most lethal type of roadside bomb in Iraq, and other weapons. Those include powerful .50-caliber rifles and the Misagh-1, an Iranian replica of a portable Chinese surface-to-air missile, which, according to the reports, was fired at American helicopters and downed one in east Baghdad in July 2007.” New York Times, October 22nd. Kidnapping, training and cold hard cash also were and a re part of Iran’s extensive involvement in Iraq, part of what the Times calls “the shadow war between the United States and Iraqi militias backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.” Through surrogates, the U.S. has been in a shooting war with Iran for a long time; based on who runs Iraq today, we lost.

The October 17th New York Times reports this disturbing reaction among an increasing number of Iraqi Sunnis: “Although there are no firm figures, security and political officials say hundreds of the well-disciplined [Sunni] fighters — many of whom have gained extensive knowledge about the American military — appear to have rejoined Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Beyond that, officials say that even many of the Awakening fighters still on the Iraqi government payroll, possibly thousands of them, covertly aid the insurgency... The defections have been driven in part by frustration with the Shiite-led government, which Awakening members say is intent on destroying them, as well as by pressure from Al Qaeda. The exodus has accelerated since Iraq’s inconclusive parliamentary elections in March, which have left Sunnis uncertain of retaining what little political influence they have and which appear to have provided Al Qaeda new opportunities to lure back fighters.” These Sunni militants have reached beyond their borders for an extrinsic ally to balance the clear relationship between Iraqi Shiites and Iran.

The U.S. had tried to get the formal Iraqi government to hire these Awakening-trained militia to balance the government forces: “As of July, less than half — 41,000 of 94,000 — of the Awakening’s fighters had been offered jobs by the government, according to the United States Defense Department. Much of the employment has been temporary and involved menial labor. The government has hired only about 9,000 Awakening members for the security forces, with officials blaming budget constraints.” The Times. The government is trying, for obvious reasons, to disarm the rest without giving them meaningful work. “‘At this point, Awakening members have two options: Stay with the government, which would be a threat to their lives, or help Al Qaeda by being a double agent,’ [said Nathum al-Jubouri, a former Awakening Council leader in Salahuddin Province who recently quit the organization]. ‘The Awakening is like a database for Al Qaeda that can be used to target places that had been out of reach before.’” The Times.

Haven’t we been down this road before? Wasn’t there a civil war that began when we unseated Saddam? Didn’t we say that this democratically elected government was a viable nation? Oh, yeah, we also said that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction too. It looks as if this unstable political “alliance” foisted on the country by the U.S. is beginning to unravel… again. Iran has much to celebrate; this time, it may get the whole pie directly or indirectly. I wonder when we will get that “thank you” note from Iran’s President?

I’m Peter Dekom, and we really have got to stop thinking that our “solutions” are always the best solutions.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Meddling with the Middle

The United States is defined by its middle class, an educational system that is supposed to be the great equalizer and a tax and retirement system that is designed for the middle. But this recession has taken away the American dream for millions, pulling them voluntarily or involuntarily out of their homes in a foreclosure nightmare. The contraction of jobs has been primarily borne by those in the middle, and the literal death of consumer spending is a reflection of both of the above phenomena. When you look at the numbers, at exactly who’s making the big and the little bucks, you may be shocked at exactly how close to an endangered species the American middle class is today. Could we be a viable nation with a minuscule middle class? Really?

The October 17th puts the numbers out there for all to see: “On the surface, the scenario sounds unlikely. But a growing cadre of economic analysts note the steady erosion of the middle class, and the loss of its massive buying power… [T]he top 20% of the American populace holds roughly 93% of the country's financial wealth, and the top 1% of the country holds approximately 43% of the money in the U.S. Meanwhile, the middle 20% of the population -- what would, officially, be called the middle class -- holds only 6% of the country's total assets. While disturbing, even this minuscule share of the wealth pie dwarfs the bottom 40% of the country, who control less than 1%.”

Why? In additional to the above realities: Declining educational values, people in debt up to their eyeballs and global competition providing manufacturing values that are so remarkably low that Americans have lost an incredible competitive edge: “When looking at the declining American middle class, a good number to start with is 42,400. That's the total number of factories that the U.S. lost between 2001 and the end of 2009. Put another way, this translates into the outsourcing of 32% of all manufacturing jobs in America… Other numbers illuminate the impact of this massive job drain. At the end of 2009, 15.7 million people were unemployed, while 12.6 million -- 20% fewer -- worked in manufacturing. This represented only 9% of the American working populace; at manufacturing's height in 1960, 29% of Americans were employed in the sector.”

China’s economy is slated to overtake ours in 2040, and India should be right behind, moving ahead by 2050. Sure the per capita isn’t comparable, because both these nations have populations that are vast multiples of that of the U.S., but just three decades ago, these countries weren’t even on the radar! As past blogs have supported, we’re nineteenth in educational standards, fourth in productivity, sliding backwards every year. Our dollar is about to be part of a new blended reserve currency – a special drawing right script in which the U.S. dollar will be just one component – and the value of the dollar has no place to go but down. Our deficits are horrific and our trade imbalance has begun to return to the horrible days typified by over-consumption without off-setting exports.

We’re seeing political factions seething at the profits made by Wall Street, supported by U.S. taxpayers in what can charitably be described as financial blackmail; we restored these bankers and financial gurus to mega billions of profits as they threatened to take the recession down to a full depression if the financial system weren’t rescued. They’re rich – look at the numbers above – but most of America is terrified at the future. We’re watching Americans on the left, right and middle lambaste the government for any program it might embrace, from healthcare to social security, because seemingly nothing they have done has brought benefits to the masses, but rich folks are richer than before.

Whether you are aghast at the Tea Party movement or sympathetic, their message is clear: we don’t trust the government to solve our problems, so government stop spending and taxing, and leave us alone, because we can’t screw it up any more than you have and might if we let you continue. The left screams for more direct efforts, decrying the tax incentives and financial stimulus expenditures that somehow have eluded the pockets of anyone but the upper classes. Indeed, all these tax incentives and stimulus payments have resulted in massive stockpiles of idle cash, increased layoffs because there is no middle class willing or able to buy anything that we might want to sell or make, and a prolonged economic stagnation that could take more than a decade to undo… one that will leave the older Americans in the mix completely out of the real recovery, which will occur too late for most of them to benefit.

Well, we already know that cutting taxes for the rich results in hording cash. We know that giving banks almost zero interest fed loans results in their paying off their own debts, buying up their competitors and, of course, hording cash. Big Fortune 500 companies can borrow inexpensively as well, and more than a few are borrowing money at the lowest interest rates in decades… and, of course, hording cash. Trillions of dollars are sitting on the sidelines with virtually none of that horded money likely to be used to create needed jobs.

So while I understand the very real frustration of the Tea Party movement, I also know that some mighty rich folks seem to have convinced these believers that less regulation and lower taxes will bring us back. And oddly, even though the subprime mess and the over-leveraged derivatives marketplace that exploded and decimated our economy occurred precisely because of the absence of regulation, and even though the richest sectors of our economy have enjoyed the benefits of laying off workers and used tax cuts to horde cash, these tired and worn-out mantras are still being touted as having incredible economic benefits for the masses. Sounds very much as convincing as the medical profession might in threatening to bring back the “incredible benefits of being bled through the application of leeches” that was so common in the 1700s.

I’m Peter Dekom, and while we have massive economic problems, the solution is most certainly not to give us more of the same that caused this mess in the first place!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Am Americans Dumb?

No, the inspiration for this piece isn’t release of the latest Jackass film, in 3D no less. Nor is it GOP/Tea Party Congressional candidate, David Harmer, running in California’s 11th district, who simply thinks public education is socialism and shouldn’t be a government function; back in 2000, he wrote an Op-Ed piece for the San Francisco Chronicle saying: “To attain quantum leaps in educational quality and opportunity, however, we need to separate school and state entirely. Government should exit the business of running and funding schools.” Harmer’s run for this office three times, but now polls put him in front of his Democratic opponent.

No, the inspiration comes from a feeling deep inside of me that if we don’t fix our schools now, not only will the young people being under-educated in schools with collapsing performance results have no ability to generate an economically viable and competitive “United States of the Future,” but the hard dollar cost of increased social welfare nets, an overwhelmed judicial system processing our failures and the sheer cost of incarcerating the dropouts and unskilled malingerers will impair the earning capacities of the few able to a make solid living. Nothing could polarize our country more than uneducated masses clamoring for economic relief from their unskilled poverty.

As school districts contract in this [insert word that means “horrible recession that never ends” which doesn’t contradict the really “dumb” economists who tell us the “recession” has been technically over since 2009], as federal programs infuse vast too little, vastly too late into the public school system, and as public (and private) colleges and universities lay off faculty, cancel classes and downgrade obsolete science labs, we are all staring down the double-barreled shotgun of national failure at a level no American alive today can genuinely contemplate… and by the time the flying “bodily waste product” hits the fan with results even more obvious than school ratings and record trade imbalances, it will be too late.

But in my lambast against our true stupidity at killing our own future by failing to educate, I also know that rays of hope must shine through. And the October 15th Washington Post might just have suggested one difficult but obvious solution. In most of our programs, we are trying to fix schools that simply underperform, improving teachers and holding them accountable. We aren’t really able to deal with social environments where education is neither treasured nor rewarded, where the local role models are not boasting their success based on education, where gang affiliation or athletic prowess trump intellectual achievement and where geeky invites brutality.

Brown vs. Board of Education (Supreme Court, 1954) held that separate is not equal when it comes to public education, fostering a massive “bussing” move integrating all black schools with outlying white campuses (the above photo was taken in Little Rock, Ark. in 1957). Folks hated bussing, but education and racial relations sort of got better. But a recent study, noted in the Post, of a neighboring Maryland county pilot program suggests that “economic integration” may be another path to covering those intangible “outside forces” that often destroy education efforts in the bleak sections of the inner city: “Low-income students in Montgomery County performed better when they attended affluent elementary schools instead of ones with higher concentrations of poverty, according to a new study that suggests economic integration is a powerful but neglected school-reform tool.” Note that this program starts “early,” letting students know from the inception – those moments when the building blocks for the rest of their schooling are set – what the overall educational expectations might be, across all levels of social class, providing peer models and pressures that go a long way to undo the negativity of a bad environment.

“The study tracked the performance of 858 elementary students in public housing scattered across Montgomery from 2001 to 2007. About half the students ended up in schools where less than 20 percent of students qualified for subsidized meals. Most others went to schools where up to 60 percent of the students were poor and where the county had poured in extra money… After seven years, the children in the lower-poverty schools performed 8 percentage points higher on standardized math tests than their peers attending the higher-poverty schools - even though the county had targeted them with extra resources. Students in these schools scored modestly higher on reading tests, but those results were not statistically significant.” The Post.

The notion of leaving the best schools in tact because they work and focus on those that do not may no longer be a tolerable luxury, and I can hear the parents in the better schools screaming. But this program probably won’t work unless it is started in the earliest years, and it would take years to phase in. Likewise, this strategy cannot be the “only fix,” because we cannot abandon those older students in dilapidated schools and impaired learning environments; it is one more choice we need to make. “‘Today, 95 percent of education reform is about trying to make high-poverty schools work,’ said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank based in New York that published the report. ‘This research suggests there is a much more effective way to help close the achievement gap. And that is to give low-income students a chance to attend middle-class schools.’” The Post. Think about it.

I’m Peter Dekom, and we really do need an educational wake-up call!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sayin’ You’re Gonna Win When You Know You’re Gonna Lose

Politicians do it. Sports teams do it. In fact it’s supposed to be a part of the “never say die” ethos that keeps Americans pushing harder, often doing what others say just can’t be done. That’s the honorable side of effort, but there’s stupid side that shows itself when folks who say they’re winning actually behave in a manner that makes it clear they really know they’ve lost the game.

And when it comes to war, the cost of playing a stupid game and not owning up to a stupid loss comes at a staggering price, in lives lost and money spent. According to, Afghanistan alone has cost us to date over $355 billion in direct costs alone; Iraq about $738 billion. According to, over 2,100 coalition military fatalities (over half American) have been recorded with untold civilians and hostiles killed in this Afghan theater. Yet the U.S. and her allies control little more than the area around the capital city of Kabul; the Taliban are more entrenched today than they have been when they openly ruled the entire nation in 2001. They are still despised by most of the populace, but their knowledge of the local scene, familiarity with the names and faces of their unwilling constituents and tactics of fear have moved them back into the catbird seat of Afghan power.

Without hundreds of thousands more troops (read the candid dispatches of oh-so-many American generals) and the willingness to stay for perhaps decades, without eliminating the safe havens in neighboring “ally” Pakistan, ungovernable tribal districts where Pakistani troops (many with pro-Taliban sympathies anyway) are loathe to deploy, the coalition efforts to unseat the Taliban return appear less than futile. We seem to be going the way of the Soviets in the decade-long debacle in the 1980s; their effort too drained their coffers and contributed to their political collapse. To make matters worse, the horse we picked, once pro-American Hamid Karzai who (despite massive evidence of election fraud) as our “democratically-elected” President, seems to be hell-bent to shatter the record for governmental corruption, making sure that any bon a fide probe into finances never succeeds.

Karzai wasn’t the first to notice that his government wasn’t on solid ground just relying on U.S. support, but he was most definitely an “early mover” when it came to effecting a rapprochement with the Taliban leadership. Now, it seems, despite statements to the contrary to the American people that we “can win,” the U.S. seems to be moving towards accepting the inevitable: “United States-led forces are permitting the movement of senior Taliban leaders to attend initial peace talks in Kabul, the clearest indication of American support for high-level discussions aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan, senior NATO and Obama administration officials said… While the talks involve senior members of the Taliban, officials emphasized that they were preliminary, and that they could not tell how serious the insurgents — or the weak government of President Hamid Karzai — were about reaching an accord.” New York Times (October 13th).

Sorry folks, we have done a lot more than look the other way: “The Taliban leaders coming into Afghanistan for talks have left their havens in Pakistan on the explicit assurance that they will not be attacked or arrested by NATO forces, Afghans familiar with the talks say. Many top Taliban leaders reside in Pakistan, where they are believed to enjoy at least some official protection… In at least one case, Taliban leaders crossed the border and boarded a NATO aircraft bound for Kabul, according to an Afghan with knowledge of the talks. In other cases, NATO troops have secured roads to allow Taliban officials to reach Afghan- and NATO-controlled areas so they can take part in discussions. Most of the discussions have taken place outside o f Kabul, according to the Afghan official.” New York Times (October 19th).

The groundswell towards such peace talks, clearly supported by neighboring Pakistan, is abundantly clear at all levels: “‘The Taliban want talks to take place,’ the peace council leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani [pictured above], a former Afghan president, told a packed news conference in Kabul. … ‘Today ther e is a special agenda that exists here,’ he said. ‘Today the government and the international community are here with us.’” When we pulled significant forces out of Afghanistan in 2003 to fight the false war in Iraq over non-existent WMDs, we lost the only momentum we had to take out the Taliban quickly and permanently; the rest of the campaign waged by the United States and her allies – recommenced as we de-escalated in Iraq – was relegated to the pages of repeating mistakes indelibly etched in history, a very menacing recurrence that seems to have begun with our Vietnam War.

We have a recession to fight, energy needs to be met, infrastructure and education that need to be repaired and a thousand other noble goals that spending money on a losing cause delayed, hampered or even prevented. America has become a highly polarized, back-biting assemblage of “slogan-mongering” purveyors of false simplistic solutions to exceptionally complex problems. We’re no longer able to tolerate mega-billion-dollar policy errors, much less trillion dollar aggregate costs, as we might have been in the past. Prudence (okay, “discretion”) is indeed the better part of valor.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I wonder what exactly it takes for America to learn from its mistakes and the obvious mistakes of others.