Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hope for the Slopes

Yup, the snow – artificial and natural – is in the mountains again! There are lots of canaries in this economic coal mine, but one that might prove to be particularly interesting (at least visually) may be the U.S. winter sports resort sector – skiing and snowboarding to everyone else. The mix covers the ultra chic upscale slopes in places like Aspen, Vail and Deer Valley to local facilities more generally available to the public. Some are destination resorts, with all sort of extra costs, while others are usually nothing more than a day trip to the participants. Entire segments of our economy derive virtually their entire annual revenues during the winter sports season. And exactly what is expected out there, in a world mired in economic uncertainty, unemployment and vastly lowered expectation, will most certainly be a reflection, socio-economic class by socio-economic class, of how each such segment of society thinks about their well-being, their future and their ability to continue their addictive and very discretionary pleasures.

Last season was the second best on record, according to DailyFinance.com (November 14th), and the big ski resort operators tend to dominate their local economies. But there are mixed numbers when all revenue sources are considered; for example, rentals of private housing at ski resorts last year were still off 10-20% from the previous season. This overall $2 billion industry is made up of mostly the major resorts (about 450 in total), which generates two thirds of their money from usage fees and the balance from food, rentals, lessons and merchandise. Obviously, where you have a destination resort, lodging and meals become dominant. Helicopter rentals anyone? Worried about the season, most of the local operators have lowered room rates, which has apparently attracted an increase from overseas clients (the falling dollar may have helped here as well). The domestic trends have not been set yet.

There is clear pessimism in the air, however: "[S]ome longtime observers of the industry say the economic downturn will weigh on consumers. 'People are still hesitant about spending money on discretionary purchases,' says Dr. Gordon Von Stroh, professor of management at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business. 'They are downsizing their expectations and pleasures.' And most skiers, he notes, are in their '20s -- a demographic that is 'reeling from lack of employment opportunities.' Meanwhile, another important demographic for the ski industry, families, may also seek more economical forms of entertainment for winter vacations." DailyFinance.com.

Expect lots of competition, particularly if the season progresses without drawing the expected crowds. Weather experts tell us that the best snow will be in the northwest this year, and La NiƱa may dry out some resorts in other areas (let's hear it for snow-making machines). Expect some super-bargains, even in the priciest skiing villages. Also resort condominium and detached homes are hardly selling well in the current housing crisis; it's hard enough to get a loan on a basic home, much less a trendy second home. Then again, if you work for a bailed out financial institution, your bonus this year should allow you to make an all-cash purchase. Ouch! As the overall nature and scope of the American lifestyle morphs into smaller (the average house sold two years ago was 2,300 sq. ft, and this year it was 2,100), it is clear that "downsizing" is going to impact every segment of our economy for a very long time. This has indeed been a big "reset."

I'm Peter Dekom, and I am reading as many economic tea leaves as I can.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Horn Please!

Anyone who has ever plied the highways and byways of India knows this illustrious tradition. With people, ox carts, sacred cows crowding across highways… burros, camels, bicycles, motor bikes, piled high and wide with large and often heavy roads… and the buses and trucks dodging zooming cars to run the delivery routes of this huge country. Watch IRT Deadliest Roads on the History Channel if you want to see how bad it really is. The horn is simply the best way to survive on South Asia’s roads. Drivers live with their hands and elbows pressing the horn button, wailing sirens at all times of the day or night. Damn, it’s loud. And yes, most truck drivers have that “Horn Please!” sign on the back of their vehicles.

But why is that “horny tradition” now migrating into the United States? Have you noticed this trend in your neighborhood? More car horns? I live near a local high school, and kids, late for class in lines of slowly moving cars outside my door blare and bleep every school day morning, as if their noise will make the slightest improvement. Loud bass-enhanced hip-hop is punctuated with car horns. Beeping a horn in a Beverly Hills residential district is a $147 fine, but I’ve never seen a police stop for this offense. In New York, the fines go up to $350, but if you’ve been in Manhattan recently, I suspect you haven’t noticed an increase in peace and quiet! Or the NYPD pulling over a “horny miscreant.” While NYPD issued only an average of a ticket and a half a day as recently as 2006 for the “unnecessary use of horn,” there are 8 million people in that city!

When the earliest automobile drivers decided that some kind of warning device might be a good idea, there were little bells and what I call “clown horns” clamped unceremoniously near the driver. The November 24th AutosAOL describes the evolving “history of the car horn”: “As cars grew faster and became ubiquitous, a stronger horn was needed. One was the Gabriel, a multi-toned exhaust horn popular in the 1910S and 20s, but which eventually faded in popularity in favor of the Klaxon, whose sound arrived by an electric vibrating metal diaphragm and emitted the popular, familiar and goofy ‘ah-oo-ga.”

“Automakers eventually settled on a single-tone electric horn, usually tuned to an E-flat or C. Dual-tone horns were found to pieces through traffic noise more effectively by the 1960s, and the tones themselves went up to a shriller F-sharp and A-sharp. At the same time, auto cockpits began to grow increasingly quieter, due to consumer demand. Today, it’s tough for a driver with windows closed and music on to hear even an emergency vehicle, let alone a prolonged horn blast.”

Heavier traffic, congested roads, difficult times and increasing levels of frustration have produced a definite increase in blaring horns here in the United States. Parisians prefer flashing their lights to beeping away at the horn button. Hey, Americans? Good wine, great food, and no horns! And don’t think car makers don’t know exactly what they are selling, horn-wise. When Hyundai got complaints that the horn on their Sonata car was too wimpy, they quickly replaced that little squeaker with the louder dual-shell version. Yeah, folks car enough not to buy are car if it doesn’t been loud enough. Go figure… and then try and get some rest in a quiet corner… which wouldn’t be my neighborhood on a school day!

I’m Peter Dekom, and whatever happened to that “do unto others” thang?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Highest Accident Rate in Air Force History

Jargon-master, what is a “Class A” accident to the United States Air Force? That would be on which causes at least $1 million in damage. For an airplane that costs an average of $339 million each to produce (the going-forward incremental cost of each new fighter is a “cheap” $177 to $247 million each, depending on the volume of planes actually built), getting $1 million in damage is not particularly challenging. But with a limited edition, single seat, twin engine, land-based, supersonic stealth fighter once destined to become America’s premiere fighter, the F-22 Raptor, with a target production level north of 180 aircraft, this fighter’s propensity to crash or embrace major “Class A” accidents (six through 2009), but really serious class accidents, all in a world where there are only 62 planes built, is really scary... and profoundly expensive.

In the testing phase, there was a Y-22 that crashed on landed (April 1992), but once it was pressed into service, the accidents kept on rolling. Wikipedia takes it from there: “The first crash of a production F-22 occurred during takeoff at Nellis Air Force Base on 20 December 2004, in which the pilot ejected safely prior to impact…. On 25 March 2009, an F-22 crashed 35 miles (56 km) northeast of Edwards Air Force Base during a test flight, resulting in the death of Lockheed test pilot David P. Cooley.” And yes, given this track record along with a host of other major setbacks and component failures, this plane has the highest accident rate in the history of the U.S. Air Force. Trust me, those weren’t combat casualties! But wait, there’s more… On November 16th, another Raptor went down over Alaska – about 100 miles north of Anchorage – and its pilot, Capt. Jeff A. Haney (pictured above), was killed. Class A accident number seven. Anchorage Daily News (adn.com, November 20th).

For normal aircraft, the mishaps (Class A level) are often measured at how many per 100,000 hours of flying time. The legendary F-16, for example, tracks at 2 such accidents per 100,000 hours. The F-22, which has logged only 70,000 hours (measured at the end of 2009) since being placed in service in 2002, has a rate of 6 per 100,000 (but it hasn’t flown 100,000 hours yet!), a rate that is expected to drop to a more normal 2 or 3. Yeah, well, they say that the F-22 is one hell of an aircraft; there’s no other plane than can stealth and maneuver like the F-22, a pilot’s dream (if they get to land!). Wikipedia expounds: “Thomas D. Crimmins of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has written about the possible Israeli strike on Iran says that the F-22 may be the only current aircraft that can evade the Russian S-300 air defense system which the Russians may transfer to Iran.”

But these are downsizing and cost-containing times, the production of this accident prone aircraft may never extend beyond 183 planes, if it even gets that far. The government is in the process of shutting this program down in favor of the F-35, an aircraft of fewer high-level performance characteristics, but one that is both less expensive and can be reconfigured from a land-based jet to a carrier-launched aircraft under a re-engineered version, one that we aren’t worried about sharing with our allies: “No opportunity for export currently exists because the export sale of the F-22 is barred by American federal law. Most current customers for U.S. fighters are either acquiring earlier designs like the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, or else are waiting to acquire the F-35 Lightning II (Joint Strike Fighter), which contains technology from the F-22 but is designed to be cheaper, more flexible, and available for export from the start. The F-35 will not be as nimble as the F-22 or fly as high or as fast, but its radar and avionics will be more advanced.” Wikipedia, and yeah, the F-22’s radar can be upgraded to match, for a price. Can we really afford this anymore? Really? What does the cost of a couple of fighters less added to the US education budget do? Make us that much stronger and more competitive? Think about it.

I’m Peter Dekom, and when I reread the scale of the above numbers, I just thought to myself, “this is just crazy….”

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Unbearably Bleak

Nature probably doesn’t care. Lots of people who believe that God will come down and fix everything and make it okay. Most folks don’t give it a second thought. After all, how exactly would your life be different if there were no more polar bears? Wouldn’t change much, but somehow, I’d like to believe that when we lose a precious species, somehow all of humanity suffers. It is a deep loss, a symbol of the jeopardy we have placed around ourselves with our failure to contain our impact on the environment; we may be choking ourselves slowly to death.

But for the polar bear, life is hard, painfully hard. Today. Now. Climate change. Greenhouse effect. These are words, but most of us don’t see the daily changes; we don’t yet face survival issues… yet. As the bears’ ice flows slowly disappear, as their bases for hunting and feeding fade into ancient atavistic memories of species unable to understand the changes, these luxurious animals are facing the multiple prongs of lost environment and being physically ill-suited to the warmer habitats, they face inevitable extinction. On November 22nd, the National Science Foundation released a study with some facts that are, to put it mildly, hard to swallow, especially if you are a polar bear.

Among many variables, the report looked at the difference between polar and grizzly bears, their bone structures and their adaptability to different environments. Not surprisingly, polar bears have the cards stacked against their survival. The November 24th Los Angeles Times, commenting on that study, described the “3-D computer modeling that compared the skull and jaw strength of the two bruins and found polar bears ill-suited to the tougher chewing demands posed by the largely vegetarian diet of their grizzly cousins…

Polar bears already are losing habitat as rising Arctic temperatures diminish the sea ice they depend on to hunt for seals. As the ice continues to shrink, polar bears will be forced to seek additional food sources… ‘To people who say polar bears can just change their diet, we are saying … they will have to, but it probably will not be sufficient for them, especially if they are co-existing with grizzly bears,’ said Blair Van Valkenburgh, senior author of the report.” But can they change their diets; will evolution give them the ability to change their diets in time to allow the species to survive? Probably not, say the experts.

And then there will be the head-to-head confrontations, turf wars for dwindling terrain, between the grizzlies and their brilliantly white cousins? “Grizzlies, a subspecies of brown bears, have begun moving northward in Canada as their natural habitat grows milder, while polar bears are being pushed farther south by melting ice, putting the two species together in territory best suited to the grizzly… ‘These two species are already starting to come into contact,’ [Graham Slater, lead author of the report,] said. And in the escalating competition for the plant life that makes up the bulk of the grizzly's diet, the polar bear is expected to lose… The problem for polar bears is that they lack the ideal skull strength and tooth size needed for munching plants, grass, tree bark and berries, the scientists said .” The LA Times.

This is one story of one species. Multiply this tale across the thousands of species that will be forced to change. How will new tropical diseases, migrating toxic insects and bacteria also seeking more suitable climates, impact our own sustainability. When will the story of the destruction of species add human beings to the list?

I’m Peter Dekom, and these are the stories of the “future of us.”

Friday, November 26, 2010

How Much is That Contractor in the Window?

Whether it’s a cafeteria worker in some federal building in downtown Washington or a Blackwater (rebranded as “Xe”)-like paramilitary “guard” of some governmental installation, most taxpayers are not aware that for every actual federal employee, there are (according to the November 23rd Washington Post), three federal contract workers. At last count, made in 2005, the federal contractor workforce was over 7.6 million employees. That doesn’t even count the money such as what the feds pay local Afghan warlords to stay the course and fight on our side. The actual total federal workforce (including the military, the post office, and these contractors) probably places the total number of federal workers at between 12 and 13 million people.

And since we live in the time of “slogans but no solutions,” it is easy to focus on what is perceived to be the “bloated” federal bureaucracy, institute hiring and wage freezes, etc., but miss this mega-billion dollar contractor-elephant in the room issue. Writing for the Post, NYU’s Paul Light writes about the frustration of the best federal employees, who often quit early in the game out of bureaucratic frustration, and Washington’s reluctance to address the sheer bulk and mass of its workforce. Across-the-board meat-axe cuts and hiring freezes seem simple, efficient and easily implementable, but these do not implement long-term solutions to the actual bureaucratic structures themselves. And they do not differentiate among and between important services and unnecessary staffing. Further, “fire a bureaucrat and replace with a contractor” is smoke and mirrors, but it is all too common with the government.

The feds have a really bad habit, often born out of placating popular opinion. When a crisis hits, the government generally adds a new federal bureaucracy to deal with the problem. Makes folks seem like they’re doing something, but in reality, the bloat increases. 9/11 is a case in point. What did we really add to our national security with the addition of Homeland Security that some realignment of existing agencies wouldn’t have fixed? Instead, we have a new behemoth with turf wars (like with the Departments of Justice, Defense, Interior, Treasury and State) and tons of new federal employees. Are we really safer and better off? Or did we just pay for a very expensive optical comfort level that could have easily been accomplished without such a bloat? Did we make matters worse by creating unnecessary overlapping jurisdictions, where bureaucrats fight with each other rather than cooperate to solve problems?

Realize that notwithstanding the perception of overpaid senior bureaucrats, the highest levels in our government often use numbers of employees under their jurisdiction for bragging rights that would be replaced in the business world by vastly bigger salaries and bonuses. Would we better served by paying managers a bonus to get rid of workers (give them a percentage of sustainable savings, paid over years to insure that workers are not simply rehired later)? And what impact does dumping hundreds of thousands of workers off federal payrolls do for an economy looking for something to stimulate consumer demand… also a likely side effect of stopping unemployment insurance for millions of displaced workers?

Light writes about past efforts to downsize: “The Republican agenda will do much more harm than good. The new House majority needs only look back to President Ronald Reagan's agenda for the evidence. Like many presidents before him, Reagan started his term with a pay freeze, brought in a blue-ribbon commission of business experts to probe for savings, and attacked the middle-level bloat through what was widely known as the ‘bulge project.’

“Nothing worked. The federal hierarchy grew taller and wider, the federal workforce aged into higher ranks, and the bottom of government shrunk as contractors took on many of the inbox duties once reserved for federal employees. [President Obama’s bi-partisan] Fiscal Commission's notion that the federal government should adopt a 2:3 downsizing strategy [hire two replacements for every three departures] for filling vacancies will fare no better. It's a random shooting that will further eviscerate the front lines of government, where the goods and services are actually delivered, and that will fuel further growth in the contracting workforce.”

In the end, we need a systematized methodology for ground-up reexamination of entire bureaucracies, a parallel template for contractors, a reward system for instituting systemic cuts that improve and do not impair governmental operations and a mechanism to cushion the blow of displacing large numbers of workers when strong action is required. We also can’t miss the huge cost-creators and think that we can just go on maintaining our standard of living without huge sacrifices.

The Administration seems to have committed the U.S. to remain in Afghanistan until 2014 (supporting a mega-corrupt regime) with combat forces… and indefinitely thereafter with training and support forces. But when we eventually leave, is there the slightest doubt what is going to happen? Are the trillions of dollars for this campaign what Americans need or want? Can we afford more mega-stupid dog tricks?

Are we remotely competent in this theater of operations? Think so? Try this report from the cover of the November 23rd New York Times: “For months, the secret talks unfolding between Taliban and Afghan leaders to end the war appeared to be showing promise, if only because of the appearance of a certain insurgent leader at one end of the table: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the most senior commanders in the Taliban movement… But now, it turns out, Mr. Mansour was apparently not Mr. Mansour at all. In an episode that could have been lifted from a spy novel, United States and Afghan officials now say the Afghan man was an impostor, and high-level discussions conducted with the assistance of NATO [this is where we come in ] appear to have achieved little.” And we are committed to this debacle for another decade? A Department of Defense report to the Congress, released November 24th, describes our Afghan war effort as “uneven,” with the few minor advances in security vastly outweighed by “numerous challenges.” Who are we kidding? It’s not happening according to plan!

When are we going create an operational structure that deals with the biggest ticket items in government spending instead of dealing with chipping and chopping at less-than-obvious targets? On November 26th, the Afghan war that we are fighting is now longer than the war that helped bring down the Soviet Union (9 years and 50 days). We must be slow learners.

I’m Peter Dekom, and there are elephants in so many rooms.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Is Campaign Transparency Dead?

If the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission ruling earlier this year cannot be circumvented by new federal statutes, or if the new Congress which now has a Republican majority in the House is unwilling to address the issue, it seems that special interests have just been given another preemptive priority in what we often mistake for an “equal access” representative democracy. Citizens United pretty much took the donation cap and disclosure rules for campaign contributions, mostly from political action groups and unions, and discarded them under an interpretation of the free speech provisions of the First Amendment. But it only now that some pretty good investigative journalism is providing some numbers and trends about exactly who is taking advantage of the changes.

Perhaps it is not surprising that supporters of the political platform of the party not in power (at least before the recent mid-term elections) were the overwhelming contributors to anonymous and seemingly untraceable campaign contributions and lobbying efforts. OpenSecrets.org did a trace of the nature of the big contributors, which according to federal law, where these are tax exempt non-profits, do not have to disclose donors. OpenSecrets.com looked at the recent contributions aimed at the recent mid-term elections to see which point of view was expressed and by how much. $106.9 million came from conservative groups expressing conservative viewpoints, $25.1 million were identified as from liberal sources and $418 hundred thousand came from “other.” Effectively, with about 80% of the tally, Republicans were the overwhelming contributors.

According to the November 17th Bloomberg.com, in the battle over healthcare insurance reform, “Health insurers last year gave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce $86.2 million that was used to oppose the health-care overhaul law, according to tax records and people familiar with the donation… The insurance lobby, whose members include Minnetonka, Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group Inc. and Cigna Corp. of Philadelphia, gave the money to the Chamber in 2009 as Democrats increased criticism of the industry, according to a person who requested anonymity because laws don’t require identifying funding sources. The Chamber go t the money from the America’s Health Insurance Plans as the industry urged Congress to drop a plan to create a competing government-run insurance plan.

“‘Clearly the secrecy was important to industry,’ Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, said in an interview. The group tracks money in politics and isn’t affiliated with a political party. ‘Eighty-six million dollars is an astonishing sum,’ she said.” This contribution also represented a stunning 40% of the Chamber of Congress’ annual budget. The November 22nd New York Times supplemented these observations: “Certainly the chamber, which lobbies Congress hard on behalf of big business, will make its demands known — health care repeal, no tax increases, reduced regulation and oversight. The other groups, including Crossroads GPS, founded by Karl Rove, may be more subtle in pressing the interests of their backers — conversations at golf courses, at steakhouses, at cocktail parties; the usual Washington transactions, but cocooned in greater secrecy thanks to an inert Federal Election Commission and a determined Supreme Court.

“Several news reports, including one by NBC News, have asserted that a substantial portion of the $16 million in undisclosed donations to Crossroads GPS came from Wall Street, specifically a small and very wealthy group of hedge fund and private-equity fund operators. Those stock traders, along with many others in real estate partnerships, were furious in May when the House passed a bill that would tax their compensation at ordinary income levels as high as 39 percent, rather than the much lower capital gains rate.” But this isn’t a partisan issue, for it seems overwhelming likely that Republicans will, sooner or later, be the party fully in power, and those on the outside – trying to negotiate with a Republican administration while trying to reverse policies with big contributions – will be Democrats. Will typical union support for Democratic causes follow the clandestine Republican efforts, for example?

The problem is that the American body politic has a right to know the color of the money trying to buy their votes and influence their legislators. Would a voter be a willing to listen to a point of view if he or she actually knew who was funding the publicity campaign for or against a particular candidate or issue? Doesn’t making the donors’ identities and agendas public seem like common sense? But in a world where incumbents Gerrymander their districts lines and where unfair tactics have become the political norm in this country, is making such positive change even a reasonable request anymore?

I’m Peter Dekom, and I naively believe that change for the better is still possible.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Stimulating the Dead and Incarcerated

With around 310 million people, the United States is the third most populated nation on earth, falling only behind behemoths like China and India. It is so large that many feel it is largely ungovernable, particularly with a slow moving democratic process that appears to be in a state of perpetual elections, fractured by state and local jurisdictions and mired in national blocking and bickering. And yet, here we are, damaged but not down, scared but not hopeless. Go figure. Are we going to heal the gaping wounds that separate the governmental minimalists from Keynesian stimulus seekers?

It does seem that we are likely to see a Congress snailing through critical issues over the next three years with states struggling with how to continue while shouldering untenable deficits and perhaps as much as $3.4 trillion in unfunded government pension obligations. We have a decade or more of “catch-up” for both our employment picture and our housing market. Just about every program favor by the “new incumbents” is based on some kind of reduction in government effort, a need to restore “deficit sanity” to the country.

Without more significant signs of growing consumer demand, tax breaks for employers to hire new people or general tax breaks to put more spending cash in the pockets of our citizens will probably result in increased savings, reduction of existing debt but very little in the way of job creation. What is truly missing from current and expected near-term federal policy-making is any real consideration as to how to increase the one missing ingredient in or current equation: growth, near-term and long-term. Even in the pre-crash go-go days, our modest growth was almost nothing more than a reflection of our general population increase.

To have growth, we have to do more and create more of what the earth wants and needs. In an increasingly competitive world, the most basic building block of that challenge is education. But if anything, money for schools is falling precipitously, and “inexpensive” state-sponsored college and university education is witnesses some of the highest tuition hikes in our history, pushing an increasing number of students out of school to even less prudent levels of debt. In a society where our new priorities need cash to function, that which doesn’t work in government, that which produces costs without benefit, cannot really be tolerated anymore.

What is never acceptable and also unavoidable is massive government error and concomitant government waste. The hard fact remains that a government making huge fiscal decisions has to rely on voluntary compliance (think about the tax code) and some kind of complete and total link between every government agency as to each and every member of society. For example, when $250 tax-stimulus checks were sent out by the government, it would really have to know the exact status of each recipient at that moment. If anyone died and the relevant federal agency was not notified, guess what?

By way of example, the November 17th Washington Post looked at some examples where such errors have become almost an unavoidable reality: “The federal government's improper payments totaled about $125 billion in fiscal 2010 as unemployment insurance and Medicaid payments increased, officials said Tuesday. But agencies also recovered about $687 million mistakenly paid to delinquent government contractors and beneficiaries.

“The government's total improper payment amount climbed $15 billion from the previous year, according to statistics from the Office of Management and Budget. The payments included about 89,000 checks for $250 each sent to dead or incarcerated people as part of the economic stimulus program.”

We know we cannot afford such mistakes, but they will not stop. But the bigger mistakes we pursue with knowledge of our folly, throwing boatloads of good money after bad, do not seem to raise the ire of taxpayers as do the smaller incidents of governmental waste and perceived excess spending on social programs. Iraq is a failure; it cost about a trillion dollars. The government is unraveling and violent insurrection (fomenting the growth of both al Qaeda and Iranian influence) is now commonplace. Afghanistan promises to be with us until a planned withdrawal in 2014… encompassing three more years of waste on a country that will return to malevolent status quo ante – empowering Taliban and corrupt war lords as before – when we are gone. Indeed, even today most of Afghanistan is clearly in enemy hands, and our “liberation” of local areas is almost always temporary (returning to “bad” when our thinly stretched troops move on to the next battle). In a battle of budgets, it would seem, however basic, to establish a hierarchy of budgetary essentials, and begin cutting those elements, particularly the big and the costly, that do not jibe with our longer term necessaries.

I’m Peter Dekom, and every budget conscious families know that spending is always based on priorities.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hundreds and Hundreds of Centrifuges

We’ve been here before – dire enemies with nuclear strike capacity. This time, it’s Iran and North Korea, the latter having already detonated nuclear test weapons. And we are deeply concerned that the estimated 70-100 nukes under Pakistani control are vulnerable to an Islamist takeover of that unstable nation, which in turn could serve as a feeder to radical Islam seeking to destroy Israel and the Western world. After all, it was Pakistan’s Dr. A.Q. Khan who leaked essential plans for building nuclear enrichment facilities to both North Korea and Iran almost a decade and a half ago.

We faced an arms race with the Soviet Union for decades, both nations building on the vestiges of Nazi scientists purloined after World War II, but the United States is the only nation on earth ever to have deployed such weapons – in the closing days of World War II over the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The stalemate with the Soviets – the “Cold War” – was simply referred to as MADD (mutually assured destruction), and the mutual threat seemed to work.

But today, there is a fear that ripples down policy-makers’ spines: either that religious zeal – where death in a military exploit against non-believers creates life eternal through martyrdom dampens the underlying protective value of MADD – or sheet arrogance of mentally unbalanced leaders – will undermine our national safety in a rather huge way. Indeed, the realignment of nuclear treaties based on these new fears has shifted significantly of late; old enemies have found common ground. The November 20th Washington Post reports: “Russia agreed [November 20th] to cooperate with NATO on building a U.S.-planned anti-missile network in Europe as part of what was described as a new era in security relations between the former Cold War enemies.

“The accord, announced at a NATO summit in Lisbon, symbolized a conclusion by the United States and its main European allies that Russia is not a threat to be protected from but a potential ally in girding the continent against possible ballistic missile attacks from Iran or elsewhere… ‘We see Russia as a partner, not an adversary,’ President Obama said, hailing the NATO-Russian accord. President Dmitri Medvedev warned, however, that Russia's cooperation must be ‘a full-fledged strategic partnership between Russia and NATO’ and not just a nod in Moscow's direction to spare Russian feelings while Europe tends to its own defenses in tandem with the United States.”

To make matter worse, a report from a scientist visiting North Korea surfaced recently with more bad news: the North has built another uranium enrichment facility. The November 20th New York Times: “The scientist, Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor who previously directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an interview that he had been ‘stunned’ by the sophistication of the new plant, where he saw ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of centrifuges that had just been installed in a recently gutted building that had housed an aging fuel fabrication center, and that were operated from what he called ‘an ultra-modern control room.’ The North Koreans claimed 2,000 centrifuges were already installed and running, he said.” The plant didn’t exist in 2009, the last time international inspectors were allowed in the North.

Sources in the Obama administration speculate why the Koreans rushed this plant into production: “The most obvious is to create a new bargaining chip to try to force Mr. Obama to pay off the country. ‘It’s typical of North Korea, to see if we will reward them’ for suspending operations or dismantling the facility, said one senior administration official… But there are other possible explanations. Just as the North used the sinking of a South Korean warship this year to build the credentials of its leader-in-waiting, Kim Jong-un, the son of the current leader and grandson of the country’s founder, this effort could be designed to show that the North must be accepted as a nuclear state along with the major nuclear powers and Pakistan, India and Israel.” NY Times.

Disarmament discussions with the North – the “six party talks” – have collapsed, and tensions between North and South are exceptionally high (see below for descriptions of recent military conflicts). North Korea could even be on her way to building bigger bombs, perhaps even a hydrogen device with vastly greater destructive power. The United Nations inspectors are long gone. And in the midst of the lowest level of American prestige in modern memory, the question is whether it will be the United States that even has the power to wrangle concessions from these rogue nations, whether in this impaired economy anyone really can, or whether these nationalistic ego trips are to remain dangerously unchecked or perhaps even provoke “take out” strikes from affected nations resulting in unknown global consequences.

And if you think this is all meaningless bluster, on Tuesday, November 23rd, North Koreans, claiming the South was planning an “invasion” of the North, opened fire on a populated South Korean island with an artillery barrage that immediately killed two S. Korean marines and injured nineteen, including civilians. The island is not far from where the South had been practicing naval maneuvers. The Los Angeles Times (Nov. 23rd) reports the immediate S. Korean response: “South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called an emergency session of his national security-related ministers in an underground bunker at the presidential residence late Tuesday to devise a response to the attack, which occurred near the disputed western border between North and South… The Seoul government later called North Korea's artillery attack a ‘clear military provocation’ and warned that the secretive regime would face ‘stern retaliation’ should it launch further attacks.”

South Koreans returned fire, mustered their air force and went on high alert. This strike followed a North Korean strike against a S. Korean patrol boat in March of this year that killed forty-six people. 1,300 island residents were evacuated to the South Korean mainland. While the U.S. immediately condemned the attack and asked for Chinese intervention, it is unlikely that China will take any meaningful steps; there are no signs that the growing tensions between North and South have any chance of abating anytime soon. AOL News.com (November 23rd) noted how the revered (and soon to be succeed by son Kin Jong Un) and ailing Kim Jong Il is portrayed in the local press: “He commands a cult of personality in North Korea, where state media have at various times reported that the ‘Dear Leader’ can control the weather with his mind, that his birth was foretold by a double rainbow and that he regularly shoots three or four holes-in-one per round of golf.” All this and nuclear weapons too. Il is definitely ill. Wonder if Un is a golfer too?

I’m Peter Dekom, and it is indeed an understatement to say that we live in perilous times.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Not in the Lap(top) of Safety

As a lawyer who often travels, I and thousands of lawyers like me, take their laptops everywhere. We actually don’t get any days off; when we are on vacation or on a business trip on behalf of another client, our remaining clients never want to be believe that their chosen legal representative is beyond a phone call or an email. They most certainly want to know that that certain “matter” that might need a tweak why the attorney is away will not get ignored on the journey, and God help the lawyer if an emergency arises and the client desperately needs a matter handled immediately and personally. 24/7/365 has been my lot for many years, interrupted by surgery now and again, but even that isn’t something that lets a client feel good about your not being there. And so our laptops are often filled with privileged communications – under the so-called and statutorily sanctioned attorney-client privilege – and so we guard those computers as if our lives depended on their security. And those laptops are also a key to our vast reservoir of stored emails, even if they are not on the computer itself.

So when the Federal Ninth Circuit (Arnold vs. USA, involving child pornography) recently reversed a trial court’s challenge to border guards having the right to confiscate (for a couple of days) any computer crossing our border in order to scan the contents, shudders of fear coursed down my body. Hey I want to stop traffickers in kiddie porn and terrorists just as much as anyone, but hey… there are other risks to our fundamental rights at stake. “The ruling reversed a lower court’s finding that laptops are ‘an extension of our own memory’ and too personal to allow government searches without some reasonable and articulable suspicion.” New York Times, November 15th. I cross borders all the time with my laptop; could client confidences become divulged as a result of such an action? How could I stop such an event from happening? The policy was born in the Bush administration as a part of the war on terror, and the Obama administration kept the rule intact adding only that a supervisor had to make the requisite decision to examine the computer.

As you can tell, I’m less concerned with my own privacy than I am with the privileged information with which I have been entrusted by clients. I don’t feel that my travels should prejudice their legal rights, but as of now, the U.S. government seems to disagree with my position. Hopefully, this anomaly will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court or perhaps be checked by an act of Congress before such a decision becomes necessary. For me, the only consolation is that such searches are rare: “Although the number of travelers whose devices are searched is small compared with the many millions who cross American borders each year, the problem is real. Between October 2008 and June 2010, mo re than 6,600 travelers — nearly 3,000 of them American — were subjected to such searches, according to government records released in response to a Freedom of Information request.” The Times.

Probable cause, a warrant, an “articulable suspicion” or something legally relevant would be nice. And if the laptop is actually being taken for a more than a quick examination, shouldn’t the standards be even higher? Shouldn’t the fruits of such searches be limited to avoid violating legally sanctioned rights? “The American Civil Liberties Union has now filed a lawsuit challenging the policy on behalf of press photographers, criminal defense attorneys and a doctoral student in Islamic studies whose laptop was searched and confiscated this spring.” The Times. And there is a billed stalled in Congress – Travelers’ Privacy Protection Act – that would require some reasonable suspicion of illegal activity to trigger a right to search a laptop. Let’s nab criminals and terrorists by all means, but let’s also be aware of society’s Constitutional rights to basic privacy just as well… searches at the border should not be open for all matters at all times; a Constitutional balance is required.

I’m Peter Dekom, and my concerns might also be your concerns, especially if I am traveling with your personal information.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Well-Hung Juries

As a practicing lawyer (although not a litigator), I’ve had many occasions to watch our system of justice at “work.” There are lots of arenas for improvement, and I’ve watched big defendants with deep pockets mercilessly uses our courts to run up opponents’ (especially those with not-so-deep pockets) legal fees through unnecessary motions and excessive requests for discovery… knowing that absent a specific statutory or contractual right, they will never have to pay their opponents’ legal fees. How nice it would be if courts were able to award legal fees against such abusive practices, but alas, this is one of the tragic flaws of the American judicial system. But there is one part of our system, trial by jury, that still sort of works. Folks on juries, however ill-prepared some might be for this service, tend to care about doing the right thing.

Our system of justice rails against jury tampering, making it a serious felony, and jury misconduct is often grounds for a new trial. Juries are our humanizing safety net, and globally, legal systems have often resorted to jury trials in an effort to reform legal systems that once decided cases based on the dictates of the strong-arm government in power. So it was when the Soviet Union fell, and in 1993, Russia adopted for greater transparency and balance by adding juries to their legal mix. But Russian leaders have never really been comfortable with the ability of laymen to interfere with their efforts to derail and contain, often eliminating completely, defendants that the state has labeled “enemies.” The sad reality, however, is that the Russian government has worked harder at subverting their own jury process than in encouraging it; the old Russian philosophy – that the government’s will shall always be followed – has seriously disrupted this trial-by-jury system, particularly in the criminal courts.

The statistics prove out how different criminal actions in Russia are under the jury system (with a 15-20% acquittal rate) from the judge-dominated processes of old (with about a 1% acquittal rate). The jury system is slipping away, according to the November 15th New York Times: “Some juries skeptical of a prosecution have been dismissed on the verge of important verdicts. When they vote to acquit, their verdicts are routinely overturned by higher courts, allowing prosecutors to try for a conviction before another jury. Lawmakers are continuously chipping away at what types of criminal offenses merit a jury trial… Meanwhile, the number of jury trials remains so small — around 600 a year out of a total of more than one million — that they vanish into a justice system that in some important ways has changed little since Soviet days.”

For those sitting on juries, being approached by intimidating “operatives” in civilian clothes with advice to convict the “awful” defendants… or simply to “get sick and don’t show up”… are more commonplace than anyone on the outside might believe. Authorities are also notorious for racking up a multiplicity of criminal charges after a defendant is incarcerated, necessitating new trials on a rolling basis, even though the defendant’s ability to commit the charged criminal activities is at best suspect (because such crime are committed while he/she is in jail awaiting trial). A favorite tactic of prosecutors is to paint the defendant as such a bad guy that the jury is likely to convict “just because.”

And so it was in the trial of an oil oligarch, billionaire Igor V. Izmestiev, who wouldn’t play according to Prime Minister (then President) Putin’s rules. The criminal system was used to send a signal to other oligarchs to play ball. The charges were serious: “Whatever the reason, charges against Mr. Izmestiev accumulated until they included attempting to bribe a Federal Security Service agent, organizing and leading a criminal gang, ordering five murders and six attacks, burning down a printing business, and attempting to kill Ural Rakhimov [Izmestiev’s partner and son of a Putin-enemy oligarch]. A new charge, terrorism, was tacked on in 2008. The jury trial was closed to the public, another move that caught the attention of legal activists.” Times.

At least four jurors were willing to tell the NY Times that they were not convinced Izmestiev was really guilty; outsiders shared the view as well: “‘I don’t know if he is guilty or not,’ said Lev A. Ponomarev, founder of the group For Human Rights, ‘but I can say for sure that it is a political question.’… In the jury room, a few on the panel were beginning to say the same thing. They were split, occasionally arguing so passionately that the bailiff had to come in, said Lidia S. Vasilyeva, one of the jurors. She felt that Mr. Izmestiev was probably guilty of some wrongdoing, but not the list of charges he was facing. ‘You don’t get that kind of money without getting your hands dirty,’ she said, ‘but everything they tried to hang on him, it was absurd.’” Apparently half the jury couldn’t see the conviction either.

The trial dragged on for months, deliberations longer. Some jurors dropped out, others became sick, but the court kept them in “deliberations” nonetheless. Fall turned to winter turned to spring: “But the filaments that held them together were fraying. The fourth juror submitted a note saying she was leaving for Siberia, and offering to return to Moscow if testimony resumed, said her fellow jurors. On May 12, the panel was dismissed.” The case is still pending, but the results this time are much more certain: “This spring, while the jurors were playing cards in the jury room, Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled that terrorism cases were too important to be trusted to ordinary citizens — they are, the court reasoned, too vulnerable to intimidation…. So this time, the verdict will be decided by a panel of three judges.” Times.

As Americans, we have very reason to be proud of a legal system, however flawed, that at least strives for justice. A nation without clear laws followed by all is indeed a scary place.

I’m Peter Dekom, and what we have here in the United States is a precious system that we should never take for granted.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

An Extra Layer of Identification

I can hear the theme playing in the background… dun DUN, dun DUN… as the hero steps up to a robotic interface, which scans his eyes, turns the light green, a heavy iron door slides open as and he enters the inner sanctum. Repeat theme: dun DUN, dun DUN. The “old” hero had to use fingerprint ID scanners, but we’ve seen so many movies where they peel the tips of fingers off of prematurely dead government agents to fake entry. Dun DUN, dun DUN. Okay, okay, enough with the theme. But biometric and iris scans have been with us for a while, most famously used in Atlantic City and Las Vegas casinos to recognized professional gamblers who have been banned from sneaking in using in disguise. Computers scan the distance between eyes, the side of the skull and other obvious facial topography. Retinal scans are said to be as different and unique as fingerprints. Combine all of the above, and you have an interesting police tool that can ID miscreants from a distance.

Why haven’t law enforcement agencies adopted these techniques en masse? Why aren’t these routine in an era of global and highly mobile terrorism? Well the City of New York, reeling from some recent embarrassing cases where criminals – scheduled to be arraigned on serious charges convinced officers that they were supposed to be there for only minor offenses – were inadvertently released... is trying the new technology. With a system now being used only in one borough (Manhattan) but about to be used in all five boroughs by next month, a suspect has an iris photo taken on arrest with a hand-held scanner used later to verify his/her identity later when presented for court. Civil libertarians were up in arms, fearing mix ups with a system that has yet to be completely proven effective. Could innocent people accidentally have the same iri s patterns? Is there a large enough database to be even remotely sure?

“‘It’s really distressing that the Police Department is once again undertaking a new regime of personal data collection without any public discourse,’ said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, ‘and we don’t know the reason for it, whether this is a necessary program, whether it’s effective to address the concerns that it’s designed to address, and whether in this day and age it’s even cost effective, not to mention whether there are any protections in place against the misuse of the data that’s collected.’… Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, said his office learned about the program on Friday, in a phone call from the mayor’s criminal justice coordinator.

“‘This is an unnecessary process,’ Mr. Banks said. ‘It’s unauthorized by the statutes, and of questionable legality at best. The statutes specifically authorize collecting fingerprints. There has been great legislative debate about the extent to which DNA evidence can be collected, and it is limited to certain types of cases. So the idea that the Police Department can forge ahead and use a totally new technology without any statutory authorization is certainly suspect.’” New York Times (Nov. 15th). Still in this era where threats are coming from unexpected places , shouldn’t we be forging ahead with more studies to ensure that innocents do not get swept up into net of unjustified suspicion? What if iris scans are as unique as fingerprints? What if they are accurate and can have the potential of saving lives?

And you know the FBI and the Department of Defense are all over this technology, since they have lots of trouble tracking insurgents on the ground, much less being able to stop and analyze fingerprints. “The iris database has other implications as well, potentially providing the department with a tool in the fight against terrorism. The military has been using similar biometric technology in Iraq and Afghanistan to develop a database of potential insurgents, though [Paul J. Browne, the NYPD’s chief spokesman] said the Pol ice Department’s data was not intended for that use and that there had been no coordination with the Defense Department or the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the program.” Time. Yet, anyway. Time to take some timid steps into this new world… and if privacy and innocence concerns can be allayed… why not?

I’m Peter Dekom, always looking for that common sense balance thang.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Melting More than Your Heart

Water and energy – and the interrelationship between them – are the big environmental issues facing our children and grandchildren. Rainfall patterns have shifted, as many of us can testify, dropping more precipitation in our eastern states and less in the west… and wreaking havoc in floods around the world (e.g., Pakistan) while drying out in other agricultural areas of the planet (e.g., northern Kenya and Somalia). Access to diesel powered pumps has siphoned off the water in our massive Ogallala Aquifer (the underground body of water from the Dakotas to north Texas – once the size of Lake Huron – that irrigates much of our grain belt) should be dry in 30 years at current usage rates; we could have a new dust bowl in a few decades.

And the more we burn fossil fuel – an exhaustible resource that some serious academics believe will not be commercially replaced in economically sufficient quantities by the time that we run out of readily available sources of that category of fuel – we do indeed appear to be creating a thicker layer of atmospheric gasses making the planet act like a greenhouse, changing temperatures significantly enough to melt glaciers – a very clearly established reality with a huge data base of unequivocal supporting evidence. Sea levels are rising, but how much by when is anything but clear.

Part of warming seas is reflected in the rise of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico (clearly, warmer water creates more and larger hurricanes, since this natural phenomenon is the product of air and water of differing temperatures interacting; typhoons are the Asian equivalent), and if the decimation of coastal vegetation from the area in and around the Mississippi Delta is not reversed, there will be little in the way of slowing or stopping the kinds of storm “surges” we have seen in that region from continuing to move inland. Those mangroves living in the Delta waters have been slowly dying; their numbers are not enough to stop the vicious surges anymore.

The November 13th New York Times examined the most recent scientific research concerning the water temperature and glacial melting in Greenland, and the numbers were troubling. Utilizing a helicopter, hovering above the area where temperature reading are taken, scientists took their measurements: “To the right, a great fjord stretched toward the sea, choked with icebergs. To the left loomed one of the immense glaciers that bring ice from the top of the Greenland ice sheet and dump it into the ocean.

“Hanging out the sides of the craft, two scientists sent a measuring device plunging into the water, between ice floes. Near the bottom, it reported a temperature of 40 degrees. It was the latest in a string of troubling measurements showing that the water was warm enough to melt glaciers rapidly from below…. ‘That’s the highest we’ve seen this far up the fjord,’ said one of the scientists, Fiammetta Straneo.” But what does it mean? Three feet of higher seas by 2100, some experts claim, or double say others since there will be fewer icy white patches to reflect the Sun’s heat away, with darker oceans absorbing more heat? No one is sure.

Even at three feet, we’d lose beaches and coastal zones, have more devastating coastal flood and lose a lot of fresh water that is inland near the oceans: “In the United States, parts of the East Coast and Gulf Coast would be hit hard. In New York, coastal flooding could become routine, with large parts of Queens and Brooklyn especially vulnerable. About 15 percent of the urbanized land in the Miami region could be inundated. The ocean could encroach more than a mile inland in parts of North Carolina… Abroad, some of the world’s great cities — London, Cairo, Bangkok, Venice and Shanghai among them — would be critically endangered by a three-foot rise in the sea.” The Times. At six feet, the consequences for coastal regions would be staggering; but no one is sure exactly what the correct assessment should be.

However, at least one man with political power is not concerned, according to the November 10th theStar.com: “U.S. Representative John Shimkus [R- Ill.], possible future chairman of the Congressional committee that deals with energy and its attendant environmental concerns, believes that climate change should not concern us since God has already promised not to destroy the Earth.” Citing God’s pledge to Noah after the Great Flood (Genesis 8:21-22) and Matthew 24:31 suggesting that only God will determine when the earth will no longer serve man, Shimus said: “The Earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over. Man will not destroy this Earth. This Earth will not be destroyed by a Flood… I do believe that God’s word is infallible, unchanging, perfect.” TheStar.com also noted: “On [November 9th], Shimkus sent a letter to his colleagues burnishing his credentials by saying he is “uniquely qualified among a group of talented contenders to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee.”

Great comfort, John, but exactly why are killer floods and hurricanes/typhoons increasing and why are glaciers already melting in unprecedented numbers and amounts? Clearly, mankind is better advised to prepare for the expected changes and do their best to slow down the continued devastation of the ozone layer which burning fossil fuels seems clearly to augment. Or you can just trust in John.

I’m Peter Dekom, and it is hard to remember how much we need to do environmentally when we are mired in an economic struggle for our very standard of living.