Thursday, December 30, 2010

Humoring Tea Party Congress-People Elect

The Congressional mid-terms have generated an exceptionally polarized House of Representatives; more left-leaning Democrats and more Tea Party right-leaning candidates have found their voice in the new House. And now the Republican Party is going to have to figure out how to deal with a significant dissident movement within its own ranks, one that threatens to make the GOP look like the party of “no” and one that will only tolerate an unelectable ultra-conservative presidential candidate in 2012. While not all Tea Party adherents are Republican, virtually all of those running under a Tea Party banner in 2010 did so under a GOP aegis.

The movement is hardly homogeneous (ironic choice of words), but understanding what the general movement stands for is worthy of consideration. Wikipedia: “The ‘Contract from America’ was the idea of Houston-based lawyer, Ryan Hecker. He stated that he developed the concept of creating a grassroots call for reform prior to the April 15, 2009 Tax Day Tea Party rallies. To get his idea off the ground, he launched a website,, which encouraged people to offer possible planks for the contract.

  1. Identify constitutionality of every new law
  2. Reject emissions trading
  3. Demand a balanced federal budget
  4. Simplify the tax system
  5. Audit federal government agencies for constitutionality
  6. Limit annual growth in federal spending
  7. Repeal the healthcare legislation passed on March 23, 2010
  8. Pass an 'All-of-the-Above' Energy Policy
  9. Reduce Earmarks
  10. Reduce Taxes”

Christian evangelical positions – on issues ranging from gay rights to abortion to school prayer to intelligent design – have filtered into large segments of this political movement, such that the overall impact of Tea Partiers has evolved into the GOP’s most conservative elements. What started out as a “get government out of my life because it doesn’t work” movement has now addressed fiscal and social issues.

And let’s face it, whether you agree with the Tea Party movement or not, as an overall concept, they have a very good point: government has failed the American people. We seem to have elected members of the House and Senate who seem to represent special interests (who are their main campaign contributors) and not the general public (whose campaign contributions are sporadic and not dependable, particularly in the earlier phases of campaigning), and since so much legislation is carved around loopholes to benefit strong commercial lobbies, perhaps getting government out of people’s lives is just another way of saying “stop the special interest legislation.” As I said, they have a very good point, although the expression of the detailed Tea Party philosophy may be at odds with the wishes of the majority of Americans and is most certainly out of step with international pressures to curb greenhouse gasses.

Nevertheless, Wall Street has fallen in love with the Tea Party movement, since they represent both de-regulation and lower taxes, corporate America’s sacred cows… even though lower taxes have resulted only in the rich and corporate America’s hording cash and not hiring extra workers with the surplus, and de-regulation is exactly what precipitated the global meltdown based on unregulated derivatives and unmonitored over-borrowing. The Street could care less about social issues if they get the financial laissez faire they seek.

You can see that the mainstream GOP has been forced to cater to this new movement, embracing the easy button when it came to extending the Bush-era tax cuts and reluctantly are coming to grips with the elimination of earmarks (the more savvy incumbents know how to move those special allocations into other legislation and still appear to be on the bandwagon of cutting waste). The GOP appears to have built most of their going-forward efforts on repealing “Obamacare,” but public sentiment for large sections of that legislation may shift dynamically by the time 2012 rolls around, and if the Republicans have guessed wrong and tied too much of their future options around this strategy, they may have some serious issues by the next election.

So what is the GOP doing to make it look like they are responsive to the Tea Party movement? The December 30th Washington Post reveals the plan: “When Republicans take over the House next week, they will do something that apparently has never been done before in the chamber's 221-year history: They will read the Constitution aloud… And then they will require that every new bill contain a statement by the law maker who wrote it citing the constitutional authority to enact the proposed legislation… The reading of the Constitution will occur on Jan. 6, one day after the swearing in of Speaker-designate John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). The 4,543-word document, including all 27 amendments, could be read aloud in just 30 minutes. But the exercise probably will last longer.”

Of course the problem is that the Constitution is always subject to interpretation (and the U.S. Supreme Court, not the Congress, is the final arbiter of its meaning); it’s hard to say that a document that was written and primarily amended in the late 1700s is a static body of law carved in immutable granite. Under that view, the Air Force has no constitutional basis. So requiring a constitutional basis for every new bill actually doesn’t add anything and stirs prolonged debate among people who are hardly constitutional scholars. In addition to reading the document itself, to be completely in synch with the Constitution, they would have to read (and understand!) the hundreds of volumes of Supreme Court interpretative decisions. Would you trust folks who have never read a statute to interpret the cornerstone of American democracy with nothing more than their opinions to guide them through the process?

The Post suggests what’s really happening as the “old-pro” GOP leadership attempts to placate these passionate neophytes: “ ‘I think it's entirely cosmetic,’ said Kevin Gutzman, a history professor at Western Connecticut State University who said he is a conservative libertarian and sympathizes with the tea party… ‘This is the way the establishment handles grass-roots movements,’ he added. ‘They humor people who are not expert or not fully cognizant. And then once they've humored them and those people go away, it's right back to business as usual. It looks like this will be business as usual - except for the half-hour or however long it takes to read the Constitution out loud.’” And so it is going to be most interesting watching the politicos dealing with what were elected to be the anti-politicos… drama at its finest.

I’m Peter Dekom, and true legislative and constitutional reform probably needs to be addressed at the most fundamental level of campaign finance before anything else occurs.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

It’s the Lease We Can Do

We take lots of little things for granted… like deeds of trust and recording real estate transfers. Imagine how chaotic post-Soviet Russia was when folks living in dachas or large apartments decided it was time to sell to take advantage of the new capitalist marketplace. So, like you had to plop down a pile of cash – no mortgages – and take your chances, since the closest you could get to a chain of title was the fact that the dude selling you the abode was living in it when he took your money. That’s kind of the way it went for a while, and eventually people began to record transfers and note who owned what.

But now comes a land grab of epic proportions. Picture generation after generation of illiterate subsistence farmers, villages who have passed their land down to their sons and their sons’ families based on tribal rules and practices. Little African parcels of land that no one ever gave a second thought to. But there were no deeds, no transfer documents, no wills evidencing of who owned what. So when the government tells you that all such unregistered land belongs to them… like the government is a different body than the people who have inhabited and cultivates these farms for as long as oral history can remember… what exactly do you say?

What if they decide that they can raise a whole pile of money – for “government things” – by leasing your precious farmland to foreigners anxious to harness agricultural resources outside their own agriculture-impaired or agriculturally-insufficient homeland? Or just because they can make money in a rapidly rising commodities marketplace? And what if these avaricious foreigners tell you that you have to leave the land that has “belonged” to your family for as long as anyone can determine? Where do you go; what do you do? Welcome to the legal nightmare we call Africa. It is well-known that China, using her swollen currency reserves to buy commodities and lease land in the Great Rift Valley to grow crops to feed her massive population. But Libya? France? Canada? South Korea? Netherlands? Saudi Arabia? India? Even South Africa? Yup!

“Across Africa and the developing world, a new global land rush is gobbling up large expanses of arable land. Despite their ageless traditions, stunned villagers are discovering that African governments typically own their land and have been leasing it, often at bargain prices, to private investors and foreign governments for decades to come… Organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank say the practice, if done equitably, could help feed the growing global population by introducing large-scale commercial farming to places without it.” New York Times, December 21st. “People have been pushed off land in countries like Ethiopia, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Zambia.” Add Mali, Mozambique and the Sudan… and note that in Madagascar, a government that was hell-bent on leasing almost half the arable land to a South Korean conglomerate was toppled by angry citizens in 2009.

The changes in such African land use are massive: “A World Bank study released in September tallied farmland deals covering at least 110 million acres — the size of California and West Virginia combined — announced during the first 11 months of 2009 alone. More than 70 percent of those deals were for land in Africa, with Sudan, Mozambique and Ethiopia among those nations transferring millions of acres to investors… Before 2008, the global average for such deals was less than 10 million acres per year, the report said. But the food crisis that spring, which set off riots in at least a dozen countries, prompted the spree. The prospect of future scarcity attracted both wealthy governments lacking the arable land needed to feed their own people and hedge funds drawn to a dwindling commodity.” NY Times. Occasionally, the government agrees to pay compensation to such farmers, but it seldom is it sufficient, and most of these people really don’t know how to move and start life in another place.

In Mali, the Libyan deal isn’t going down particularly well: “[A]nger and distrust run high. In a rally last month, hundreds of farmers demanded that the government halt such deals until they get a voice. Several said that they had been beaten and jailed by soldiers, but that they were ready to die to keep their land… ‘The famine will start very soon,’ shouted Ibrahima Coulibaly, the head of the coordinating committee for farmer organizations in Mali. ‘If people do not stand up for their rights, they will lose everything!’ … ‘Ante!’ members of the crowd shouted in Bamanankan, the local language. ‘We refuse!’

“Kassoum Denon, the regional [government] head for the Office du Niger, accused the Malian opponents of being paid by Western groups that are ideologically opposed to large-scale farming… ‘We are responsible for developing Mali,’ he said. ‘If the civil society does not agree with the way we are doing it, they can go jump in a lake.’” NY Times. Cue the lake, and get those warm and cuddly soldiers ready to pound the crap out of people who really don’t understand what’s going on. Hell, I don’t really understand what’s going on or how any government on earth can justify such horrific treatment of their citizens. I guess “money talks, and #$%^& walks!”

I’m Peter Dekom, and I suspect that I really shouldn’t be surprised at mankind’s inhumanity to man… but I sure as hell am going to write about it!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Future of Work in America

The Great Recession represented a valuation re-set, an extinguishing of bloated and/or obsolete businesses and business plans, an acceleration of change in business practices and technology replacements for labor and a ground-up re-examination of the place of the “employee” in the American workforce. As a groundswell of Tea Party opposition rises against “Obamacare,” there is a hidden alteration in the “future job” landscape that might cause folks to reconsider such passionate opposition: the new job paradigm is “contract employment” (subcontractors working on a specific task for a defined period of time without any normal employment benefits), outsourcing (both foreign and domestic) where outside companies or individuals perform tasks once performed by permanent employees, and part-time employment. Independent contractors an d most part-time employees don’t get health insurance options or pension plans from their “employer.”

The lesson of the crash for many companies is how they could sustain and raise profits by cutting their workforce. They learned that having too many full-time workers requires housing them, giving them benefits and supporting them with human resources and other support staff… and sometimes dealing with union rules and pay scales. They came face-to-face with the “inflexibility” of large caches of employees in down economic cycles, the difficulty of implementing lay-offs, the disruption to morale and operational efficiency, and the natural trend of people who have jobs making themselves “indispensable” and requiring even more people to help them performing their “essential” tasks.

Add to this mix the expectations of a technologically sophisticated younger entry-level potential workforce, the ability to telecommute, the rapid changing of jobs as technology opens up new opportunities, and you begin to see a pattern of work, where benefits are no longer automatically provided by the core employer but are more likely to have to be generated by the individual. These are critical considerations as we overhaul our under-funded Social Security system and deal with how we provide healthcare to those who are not covered under employer plans.

The December 19th New York Times: “Temporary workers are starting to look, well, not so temporaryDespite a surge this year in short-term hiring, many American businesses are still skittish about making those jobs permanent, raising concerns among workers and some labor experts that temporary employees will become a larger, more entrenched part of the work force.

“‘We’re in a period where uncertainty seems to be going on forever,’ said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ‘So this period of temporary employment seems to be going on forever.’… This year, companies have hired temporary workers in significant numbers. In November, they accounted for 80 percent of the 50,000 jobs added by private sector employers, according to the Labor Department. Since the beginning of the year, employers have added a net 307,000 temporary workers, more than a quarter of the 1.17 million private sector jobs added in total.” When consumer confidence and underlying demand is anything but predictable in this marketplace, bringing back full-time employees in this period of uncertainty is a non-starter for too many American employers. But more significantly, this ability to expand and contract like an accordion to meet actual consumer demands is very likely to become a permanent part of the American labor landscape, and it will vitally change who we are and what we expect out of life. We must adapt to the obvious and find a way to prosperity through this new and obvious trend.

I’m Peter Dekom, and fundamental societal changes are truly hard to accept and profoundly disruptive, but the signs are clearly on the wall.

Monday, December 27, 2010

One Scientist and Decades of Numbers

Charles David Keeling worked his way up the academic ladder until, in 1968, he was appointed a professor of oceanography at the University of California’s prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. He died in 2005, but the echoes of his research have rocked the world. During his post-doctoral studies at Cal Tech, he had developed a system to measure accurately the amount of CO2 in the air. Keeling was obsessed with changes in our atmosphere, and in 1958, he began systematically began measuring the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere. He deployed that system on aircraft, onboard ships and most significantly in a small facility in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, a site that has pumped out data on the air we breathe ever since.

Here’s what the Scripps website says about this fascinating man: “Keeling was a world leader in research on the carbon cycle and the increase of …CO2 in the atmosphere, known as the greenhouse effect, which may lead to changes in the global climate. He was the first to confirm the accumulation of atmospheric CO2 by very precise measurements that produced a data set now known widely as the Keeling Curve. Prior to these investigations, it was commonly held that the oceans would readily absorb any excess CO2 from the atmosphere produced by the burning of fossil fuels and other industrial activities.”

With so many people in serious denial about the greenhouse effect resulting from the accumulation of CO2 in the upper atmosphere, Dr. Keeling became quite a controversial figure. Because his data has been accurately kept for over half a century, this research has been one of the cornerstones of climate change academics and government officials the world round. His initial reports of accelerating amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere were greeted with skepticism, but let’s just say his work has since been widely accepted by all but a very small minority of climate experts. The Mauna Loa Observatory was well-situated to take measurements of the ocean air currents that crossed this island chain.

The December 21st New York Times summarizes what his data revealed: “When Dr. Keeling, as a young researcher, became the first person in the world to develop an accurate technique for measuring carbon dioxide in the air, the amount he discovered was 310 parts per million. That means every million pints of air, for example, contained 310 pints of carbon dioxide… By 2005, the year he died, the number had risen to 380 parts per million. Sometime in the next few years it is expected to pass 400. Without stronger action to limit emissions, the number could pass 560 before the end of the century, double what it was before the Industrial Revolution.”

We know the likely results of this trend: melting ice sheets and glaciers, rising oceans inundating coastal communities, agricultural areas losing their capacity to produce climate-sensitive crops resulting in disruptions in food production, insects and disease migrating as climate patterns warm once cooler regions, the extinction of animal and plant life unable to adjust to the changes or migrate to new habitats, etc. And still there are skeptics, despite solutions having been pressed in both Republican and Democratic administrations: “Challengers have mounted a vigorous assault on the science of climate change. Polls indicate that the public has grown more doubtful about that science. Some of the Republicans who will take control of the House of Representatives in January have promised to subject climate researchers to a season of new scrutiny… One of them is Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California. In a recent Congressional hearing on global warming, he said, ‘The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rather undramatic.’” NY Times.

We didn’t sign the Kyoto Protocol, we diluted the recent Cancun accord, and while neither Rohrabacher nor I will around when it really gets nasty, I would have hoped with would have had greater concern for our children and our grandchildren. Commercial interests and the press to “develop” in former third world countries will extract a toll that too many will be required to pay. “[B]y the time [Keeling] died, global warming had not become a major political issue. That changed in 2006, when Mr. Gore’s movie and book, both titled ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ brought the issue to wider public attention. The Keeling Curve was featured in both... In 2007, a body appointed by the United Nations declared that the scientific evidence that the earth was warming had become unequivocal, and it added that humans were almost certainly the main cause. Mr. Gore and the panel jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize.” NY Times. When exactly will survivability press this issue to the point of meaningful global action? When it is just too late?

I’m Peter Dekom, and while economic and political chaos make environmental issues difficult to rise above the clutter, this is issue actually is a matter of life… or death.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Muslim versus Christian: the “Other” Battleground

You can look at a map of Africa and see the conflict spreading. Where Christianity displaced animism and other tribal faiths over a century ago from the onslaught of missionaries to the “Dark Continent,” Islam from the northern desert nations and the Middle East is slowly pushing its way down the African continent into the Sub-Sahara today. Needless to say from the genocide witnessed in Ethiopia, Somalia and the Sudan, much of this conversion effort results in brutal and bloody conflicts, with innocent villagers caught in the crossfire between zealots.

In Nigeria, where a new Christian evangelical movement has caught fire in the south (they’ve even sent their own missionaries to the United States seeking converts!), they have come face to face with a growing Muslim force moving in from the north. The rich Nigerian oil fields are in the middle. Bloodshed is commonplace in this escalating conflict. For example, in March of 2010, another slaughter got lost in international headlines, in the town of Jos, which is literally at the intersection of the Muslim-Christian populations: “[A] late-night attack by herdsmen [mostly Muslims] killed up to 500 people from nearby farming villages [mostly Christians]. The attack has been seen as a reprisal for attacks in January [of 2010], in which about 300 herdsmen were killed by youths from the farming community.” Christian Science Monitor, March 8, 2010.

Islam explains poverty well; this is not the life that matters, because it is just a test, a giant admission application for the next life in the Gardens of Heaven. Thus, suffering and poverty are just part of that examination process, and wealth and power mere distractions from a focus on Allah and his teachings. That you can accelerate heavenly acceptance by dying in the service of the Lord – otherwise, you have to wait for eternity until on Judgment Day, the masses may find a spot in a glowing afterlife – only sparks confrontation in search of the next generation of martyrs.

But Nigeria isn’t the only West African nation with recent conflicts between Christian and Muslim factions… that Muslims are displacing Christians in positions of political power in several nations is only ramping up the violence. The geographically small Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) has been mired in a bloody Civil War that began in earnest in 2002 with a general xenophobic assault on foreigners living in the country (26% of the population, many being successful “large acreage” farmers), wound down somewhat in 2004, but left the country split into two major factions – Muslim-leaning people in the north, and Christians in the South. Drought and poverty accelerated both Islam and the venomous attacks on foreign-born landholders.

Wikipedia explores the strange split this way: “As of 2006[update], the region was tense, and many said that the United Nations and the French military had failed to calm the civil war. However, notably, the Côte d'Ivoire national football team was credited with helping to secure a temporary truce when it qualified for the 2006 World Cup and brought warring parties together.” After six delays, November 28th elections have placed a Muslim (Alassane Ouattara, pictured above) as President, but the Christian incumbent (Laurent Gbagbo) who lost this re-election bid refuses to step down. There are 10,000 UN troops stationed in the country, and 800 of them are holed up with Ouattara in a waterfront hotel in the coastal city of Abidjan… surrounded by forces loyal to Gbagbo. Civil war is reigniting. (December 22nd) reports exactly how perilous the situation seems to be: “Amnesty International and Ouattara's camp reported that death squads loyal to Gbagbo were abducting people off the streets and killing them… ‘The international community has declared war on the Ivory Coast,’ [said Gbagbo appealing to the nation’s xenophobia]. ‘This is not acceptable… Gbagbo did offer to allow an international committee to investigate the election results, but Ouattara's team said it was just a ruse aimed at keeping the stalemate going. ‘For the past five years he tried maneuvers to postpone the elections. Finally we got there, he lost, and he doesn't want to give up power,’ Patrick Achi, a spokesman for Ouattara's rival government, told Reuters by telephone [on December 22nd].”

On December 27th, general strikes demanding Gbagbo’s departure began to paralyze the country. The Outtara camp’s statement: “Djedje Mady, the head of Ouattara's electoral coalition, said it called on ‘all Ivorians and those who live in Ivory Coast and believe in peace and justice to cease all their activities on Monday, December 27, 2010, until Laurent Gbagbo leaves power.’” AOLNews, December 26th. It isn’t hard to see where this is heading, but given the global preoccupation with economic chaos and potential nuclear confrontation in the Korean Peninsula, this may the only article you may ever read about this conflict.

I’m Peter Dekom, and the Muslim-Christian battle lines are constantly moving and changing… but they do seem to be battle lines.

Spain, Europe’s Riverside County, California

Over the years immediately preceding the global financial collapse, Spain was a real estate speculator’s paradise, with the largest boom in new construction – particularly residential – in all of Europe. This entire sector fueled massive job growth in construction, providing equipment and raw materials for construction and in connection with the underlying financing required to build and sell these units. Why Spain? First, the period of Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s reign (1936-1975) was a time of moribund economic growth and severe political repression; even after his death, Spain was well behind her European neighbors as to lifestyle and quality of life. It would take decades to catch up.

Even when Spain became part of the European Union, she was well behind her neighbors in economic standards, eager to accelerate lifestyle and spending habits into the mainstream. This, combined with her milder, southern European, climate and lots of ocean (the Atlantic and the Mediterranean) coastline, made Spain a prime candidate for both second homes to neighboring Europeans and new homes to her own economically-aspiring population. “The boom and bust of Spain’s property sector is astonishing. Over a decade, land prices rose about 500 percent and developers built hundreds of thousands of units — about 800,000 in 2007 alone. Developments sprang up on the outskirts of cities ready to welcome many of the four million immigrants who had settled in Spain, many employed in construction.

“At the same time, coastal villages were transformed into major residential areas for vacationing Spaniards and retired, sun-seeking northern Europeans. At its peak, the construction sector accounted for 12 percent of Spain’s gross domestic product, double the level in Britain or France.” New York Times, December 17th. While Spain is hardly the largest European nation, with 45 million people, she is still very significant, and a further financial demise here could severely threaten the value and stability of the entire euro-based economic structure.

Of course, when the markets collapsed, so did the Spanish real estate boom. Today, housing developments in many planned communities lie empty, new apartments vacant and the underlying financial exposure bordering on tragic. With local borrowers unable to walk away from debt incurred to finance a new residence, the pain among once zealous buyers is immense. Unsold housing tracts resemble the now-abandoned new homes constructed for American subprime buyers (who really couldn’t afford houses at all) in outlying areas, once held too far from urban amenities and jobs to be desirable, like Riverside County, a distant Los Angeles bedroom community.

As Spain eyes the continued fall of Ireland (where debt-rating agencies have dropped that country’s credit rating to near “junk” status, raising the cost of borrowing) – even with EU Central Bank support – they are seeing reflection of possible further misery for themselves as well: “Just how big a loss the banks are facing is unknown, at least publicly, and that has investors worried — the cost of financing Spain’s debt rose 18 percent in the last month alone. But the potential costs of failure go far beyond that. Spain’s economy, the fifth largest in Europe, is much bigger than Ireland’s or Greece’s, and a bailout of its banks could be far more costly, an event that could push the government into default and end up dooming the euro itself.

The Bank of Spain says the banks have about $240 billion in ‘problematic exposure’ out of $580 billion invested in real estate and construction, a situation, they say, the banks are capable of handling… But not everyone believes that. Unlike American banks, Spanish banks have done little to open their books. Along with other banks in the euro zone, they underwent a stress test last July, and all but five of Spain’s smaller savings banks passed. ” New York Times.

While most Americans are justifiably focused on our domestic markets and our own recovery, we must all remember the linkage across the planet, where economic chaos almost anywhere has a strong ripple effect onto our own shores, particularly as we try to use exports to create new jobs at home. The European austerity strategy and the fall of Portugal, Ireland, Greece (some add Great Britain) and Spain – the PIGGS countries – have created a corresponding contraction in their willingness to import… definitely not in our best interests. The further erosion of global debt markets also impairs the restoration of our own credit structures.

I’m Peter Dekom, and looking at Spain and our own severe economic pain, it is hard to look at the rising success and return of Wall Street with anything but anger.

Friday, December 24, 2010

“Communism, Bolshevism, Fascism and Nazism”

These are the words that the National Association of Manufacturers used in 1938 to denounce the proposed federal minimum wage, something most of us don’t even think about today. In 1935, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called Social Security a plan to “Sovietize” the United States. Public education itself wasn’t an obvious sell either. Republican President Benjamin Harrison always carried support for public education close to his heart. While a senator, he unsuccessfully tried to get federal education aid for the post-Civil War south, especially for the children of former slaves, because he considered such efforts to be a great social equalizer.

In 1892, he even asked a famous former Baptist minister of the time, Francis Bellamy, to help him sell the concept of expanding the federal government’s role in public education – Bellamy wrote the now famous “Pledge of Allegiance” as a part of that marketing effort – but there was resistance to both the Pledge and such expansion as socialist. Bellamy had been forced out of his church as being too socialist. The original words of the Pledge included these words:I pledge allegiance to my Flag, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with equality, liberty and justice for all.” You’ll notice “equality” isn’t in the Pledge today; it was removed because it suggested that women and blacks were equal. Federal support for public education is fairly well-established, despite some contemporary extremists who still decry public education as un-American socialism, but even civil rights judicial action and legislation went down hard when the concept was pushed into law.

“After Brown v. Board of Education outlawed school segregation in 1954, 101 members of Congress signed a statement calling the ruling an instance of ‘naked judicial power’ that would sow ‘chaos and confusion’ and diminish American greatness. A decade later, The Wall Street Journal editorial board described civil rights marchers as ‘asking for trouble’ and civil rights laws as being on ‘the outer edge of constitutionality, if not more.’” New York Times (December 14th). Again, legal equality for African Americans is simply the way it is and should have always been; it’s part of the definition of America today.

Republican President Ronald Reagan voiced his clear opposition to medical care for the elderly – Medicare – in this precious quote, noted in the NY Times: “‘We are against forcing all citizens, regardless of need, into a compulsory government program,’ [said Reagan.] It is socialized medicine, he argued. If it stands, he said, ‘one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.’”

But just a few years earlier, his predecessor – Republican Richard Nixon – had tried, unsuccessfully, to bring universal healthcare into law. Here are his own words, given in a February 6, 1974 special message to Congress proposing such a comprehensive healthcare program: “Without adequate health care, no one can make full use of his or her talents and opportunities. It is thus just as important that economic, racial and social barriers not stand in the way of good health care as it is to eliminate those barriers to a good education and a good job… Three years ago, I proposed a major health insurance program to the Congress, seeking to guarantee adequate financing of health care on a nationwide basis. That proposal generated widespread discussion and useful debate. But no legislation reached my desk… Today the need is even more pressing because of the higher costs of medical care. Efforts to control medical costs under the New Economic Policy have been Inept with encouraging success, sharply reducing the rate of inflation for health care. Nevertheless, the overall cost of health care has still risen by more than 20 percent in the last two and one-half years, so that more and more Americans face staggering bills when they receive medical help today.”

As repeal of “Obamacare” looms as the major plank in the going-forward GOP platform, as now courts weigh in on the constitutionality of the law, it is interesting to note this seesaw battle between two inconsistent underlying American philosophies. The New York Times summarizes this split between free-spirit entrepreneurialism and free market individuality, on the one hand, and the concept of a higher standard of living for all Americans, on the other: “The opposition stems from the tension between two competing traditions in the American economy. One is the laissez-faire tradition that celebrates individuality and risk-taking. The other is the progressive tradition that says people have a right to a minimum standard of living — time off from work, education and the like.

“Both traditions have been crucial to creating the most prosperous economy and the largest middle class the world has ever known. Laissez-faire conservatism has helped make the United States a nation of entrepreneurs, while progressivism has helped make prosperity a mass-market phenomenon… Yet the two traditions have never quite reconciled themselves. In particular, conservatives have often viewed any expansion of government protections as a threat to capitalism.” The harsh lesson of history is that big social change almost always generates strong push-back, sometimes sweeping the changing politicos out of office. Canada threw out most of the politicians who introduced universal healthcare to that country, but while those elected officials are long gone, Canadian universal healthcare is now considered a “right” few Canadians would do without.

I’m Peter Dekom, and Americans are pretty used to that swinging pendulum of change.

Outsourcer’s Apprentice

Figures that with 313 million people versus almost 1.4 billion folks in China, just on a statistical basis alone, the latter is simply going to have a greater number of geniuses, math whizzes and creative masters. It’s just a matter of numbers. We have some Chinese cultural barriers to more than a few levels of accomplishment – the complete lack of a tradition of great creative fiction writers plus the intimidation of seemingly perpetual censorship and punishment for “inappropriate” speech – that give the edge in those areas to Americans. But given that Chinese students are already culturally biased against pursuing careers in “free speech and creativity” sectors, and the necessity of finding other arenas in which to excel, it bears noting that where they have chosen in masses to focus creates a direct and immediate threat to our long-term competitive advantage.

Simply put, China knows that language barriers and cultural filtration are not significant “stoppers” to hard science, math and engineering. With their massive currency reserves, they also know that educating their young people in these areas is a super-priority, particularly with the financial collapse having put the United States in a position where it is cutting – substantially – its educational systems from pre-school on to the highest levels of post-graduate education. They have the money to educate, and they are spending it!

Let’s start with this ego-shattering report from (December 7th): “Fifteen-year-olds in the U.S. ranked 25th among peers from 34 countries on a math test and scored in the middle in science and reading, while China’s Shanghai topped the charts, raising concern that the U.S. isn’t prepared to succeed in the global economy… The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development, which represents 34 countries… released the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment . For the first time, the test broke out the performance of China’s Shanghai region, which topped every country in all academic categories. The U.S. government considers the test one of the most comprehensive measures of international achievement.” Given that Shanghai is the growth model for the rest of China, we have every reason to be worried.

What’s worse, as China tries to jump start its move from being a purely servicing economy into being “the land of invention and growth,” it has taken more than a few liberties – perhaps even defying international law – in its “rules” concerning tech companies that wish to access the Chinese marketplace. For those drooling businesses, eying the 1.4 billion potential customers in a country that by 2030 is expected to be the largest economy on earth, the concessions that they are forced to make to sell in China clearly put the long-term value leverage in the hands of the locals at the expense of the foreign entities.

The impact of such rules, requiring local manufacturing and revealing patents to local companies, can have both dire and beneficial consequences for the companies seeking a PRC market presence. Such is the experience, noted in the December 14th New York Times, of Spanish wind turbine manufacturer, Gamsea: “Nearly all the components that Gamesa assembles into million-dollar turbines here, for example, are made by local suppliers — companies Gamesa trained to meet onerous local content requirements. And these same suppliers undermine Gamesa by selling parts to its Chinese competitors — wind turbine makers that barely existed in 2005, when Gamesa controlled more than a third of the Chinese market.

“But in the five years since, the upstarts have grabbed more than 85 percent of the wind turbine market, aided by low-interest loans and cheap land from the government, as well as preferential contracts from the state-owned power companies that are the main buyers of the equipment. Gamesa’s market share now is only 3 percent… With their government-bestowed blessings, Chinese companies have flourished and now control almost half of the $45 billion global market for wind turbines. The biggest of those players are now taking aim at foreign markets, particularly the United States, where General Electric has long been the leader.” Challenges to these local marketing rules are being pursued within the World Trade Organization, but by the time that body rules, the smoke will have long be released from the jar, and China will be way down the competitive race track.

What does this mean for the United States? It’s pretty obvious that if we can’t figure out how to create new edgy technology that fills our export machine, China will leave us in the dust. And if our students just can’t compete with the engineers of China’s future, guess where that edgy technology will originate? When you combine history’s vicious cycle of prosperity followed by arrogance followed by decline followed by the rise of a replacement power – a process which has recycled since the first groaning of recorded history – with the above realities, the future trend is obvious. What is particularly confounding is that, knowing all of these realities, the United States isn’t really doing much to counter these trends and seeming to be consciously taking itself out of the competitive race in future years. In my mind’s eye, that is profoundly un-American, but the choice remains ours.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I am wondering exactly what it will take to constitute an appropriate “wake-up” call… and if we are remotely going to make that choice on time?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Abusing Privates

Duty-Honor-Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, and what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.

General of the Army Douglas MacArthur (Speech at West Point, May 12, 1962)

Our service academies have long-standing traditions of honor and sacrifice. They have produced Presidents and distinguished warriors on the field of battle. Their curricula is rigorous, the required discipline legendary and the demands for physical strength and courage enormous. They are training some of the most important leaders that the United States will have in the coming decades. But with the admission of women to these institutions comes evidence of frailty and failure at one of the most confounding levels: the practice, seemingly increasing over the years, of sexual assault.

The numbers are bad enough, but when you factor in the Department of Defense calculation that as few as 10% of such assaults are ever reported, the probable actual numbers are staggering. The December 15th Washington Post gives us the officially reported statistics (from an annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies prepared by the DOD - “A total of 41 sexual assaults involving students were reported to authorities at West Point, the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy in 2009-10. In the previous academic year, 25 were reported…. The Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo., had the largest increase, from eight reported sexual assaults in 2008-09 to 20 in 2009-10, a jump of 150 percent…. West Point - officially, the U.S. Military Academy - in West Point, N .Y., reported 10 assaults in 2009-10, an increase of one…. The Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Md., reported 11 assaults in 2009-10, an increase of three.”

A sample survey suggested that 56% of female cadets and 12% of males have experienced sexual harassment at their respective academy. What’s wrong with this picture? A couple of guys just blowing off steam in the pressurized machismo academy environment? Is there really more stress these college years than on a battlefield where civilians are particularly vulnerable to well-armed soldiers? Can we ever trust a field commander who cracked as an undergraduate? Of course not! The academies have all emphasized sensitivity training, but the numbers are going the wrong way. Why?

Some suggest that more “victim-friendly” rules are simply encouraging more women to make reports, that the numbers have been this bad since women were admitted. And indeed, the Air Force Academy, with a vastly higher approval rating as to its sexual assault response coordinator, may have more reported violations as a result: “The survey showed 47 percent of female respondents and the same percentage of males at the Air Force Academy regarded the coordinator as a valuable resource to ‘a large extent.’… At the Naval Academy and West Point, the percentages for the same answer ranged from 14 percent to 19 percent for female and male respondents.” The Post. Perhaps a new telephone “hot line” will make it easier for women to make the report… no eye contact or being seen going into the coordinator’s office; it will be in effect starting in March.

But while it takes time to change the macho ethos – some say a decade, and the anti-assault program is only halfway there – there needs to be a much greater effort to weed out potential future officers who believe, sober or inebriated, that it ever OK to assault sexually, humiliate or harass anyone, much less someone who has no or little power to resist. The photograph above from the Abu Ghraib military prison (Iraq), with one version or another printed or telecast or Webcast in every country on earth, did more damage to our credibility than any loss of any battle fought during that entire military campaign. Who were the officers who allowed such conduct? The DOD needs to dig deeper, screen better and send a vastly clearer message to young men and women who think that they should find a career through one of these great institutions.

I’m Peter Dekom, and a U.S. military commander is a person in whom this nation places a most sacred trust.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Can Hezbollah be Ignored?

Sometime in the early 1980s, a number of fundamentalist, profoundly anti-Israeli, Shiite extremists began to congeal under a new organization, Hezbollah. Centered in Lebanon, Hezbollah has drawn weapons, training expertise and cold hard cash primarily from sponsor states like Syria and Shiite-dominated Iran. Neighboring Syria maintains virtual hegemony over Lebanon (see my December 6th Seriously Simmer Syria blog), even though its forces have technically withdrawn after an international controversy alleging a Syrian-supported assassination of pro-Western, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, in 2005.

Hezbollah is one of the two most powerful political and military elements in Lebanon, the other being the official government of the country. But Hezbollah’s forces are better-funded, better-trained and more powerful than the official Lebanese army. Bottom line: nothing can happen in Lebanon without some collusion with or consent from Hezbollah. Indeed, as time has passed, the power of what the United States, most of the Western world and most certainly Israel has been marginalized at best as this terrorist-labeled organization (Hezbollah) has grown unstoppable. Even the formerly pro-Western political forces in Lebanon, notably the last vestiges of the former Christian majority and the pragmatic Druze community, have come to the rather obvious conclusion that refusing to work with Hezbollah is no longer a realistic political position for anyone trying to survive in this war-torn nation. And allying too closely with the United States and the West is no longer consistent with that political survivalist desire.

Indeed, as a United Nations tribunal investigates the Hariri assassination note above, it is likely that Hezbollah and Syrian perpetrators will be named in an international indictment. Interestingly enough, the current Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, is Rafik’s son… and he is head of a government that may contain his father’s killers. The United States remains unwilling to deal with any “terrorist” organization (including Hezbollah), but its choices are increasingly being narrowed. In 2006, after Israel flattened a significant portion of Beirut (the Dahiye southern suburb, a Hezbollah stronghold) in retaliation for Hezbollah attacks on Israel, U.S. influence on moderate local leaders began to wane. “Four years on, Hezbollah is stronger than ever. It has the more powerful of those two armies (the other being the Lebanese armed forces), a presence in government, veto power over Lebanon’s direction, and a leader — Hassan Nasrallah — whose popularity as the proud face of Arab defiance has never been higher.” Roger Cohen writing for the December 13th New York Times.

Indeed, no real politician in the country these days can afford to ignore Nasrallah, and former anti-Hezbollah leaders are beginning to switch positions and move closer to this “terrorist” leader, a position which infuriates American policy-makers: “Even Walid Jumblatt [pictured above], the leader of Lebanon’s Druse community and the ultimate Middle Eastern survivor, [who once] spoke of the ‘start of a new Arab world,’ went anti-Syrian and was a strong advocate of the tribunal. As he’s a Lebanese bellwether, that seemed significant… Now, over an exquisite lunch in his Beirut villa, I found the twinkly-eyed Jumblatt speaking of the ‘madness’ of that moment, his brief sojourn on ‘the imperialist side,’ his sense that he had ‘gone too far with the Americans and the Arab moderates,’ and his realization that the survival of his small community depended on taking the familiar road to Damascus.” Cohen in the NY Times.

Hezbollah-controlled sections of Lebanon are modernizing at a furious pace, suggesting moderation in this terrorist-labeled organization. Dahiye “now bustles with construction and commerce, including state-of-the-art juice bars and risqué lingerie stores. It feels about as threatening as New York’s Canal Street.” Cohen in the NY Times. With Lebanon flanking Israel on the latter’s northern border, it would seem imperative that Israel would have some reliable conduit for indirect communications with what is now the de facto superior force in Lebanon. Yet an unjustified American belief that Hezbollah power in Lebanon will wane (it’s done the opposite) and its refusal to deal with Hezbollah as a terrorist organization have pretty much eliminated any meaningful influence the United States might have in Lebanon and pretty much left Syria and Iran as the unchecked dominant players in that country. Is it time for a reassessment of American policy? At some point in conflicts, isn’t it inevitable that one must negotiate with one’s enemy if there is any chance at defusing such conflicts?

I’m Peter Dekom, and deciphering the Middle East – particularly Lebanon where I spent most of my teenage years as a foreign-service brat – is exceptionally difficult… but very necessary.

Monday, December 20, 2010

How to Waste Another $413 Billion

I know you love to pay taxes! Almost as much fun as watching the value of the dollar fall as deficits soar and Congress extends tax reductions for the rich. Weeeeeeeee! And we are soooo clearly not winning in that field of combat. While we may enjoy momentary triumph's against entrenched Taliban forces, our inability to leave sufficient forces behind every time we clear a region of sufficient Taliban operatives leaves the locals very much in doubt as to the value of NATO forces in that worn-torn nation. A new poll of Afghan locals "conducted by The Washington Post, ABC News, the British Broadcasting Corp. and ARD television of Germany [… provides the following general results:] Nationwide, more than half of Afghans interviewed said U.S. and NATO forces should begin to leave the country in mid-2011 or earlier. More Afghans than a year ago see the United States as playing a negative role in Afghanistan, and support for President Obama's troop surge has faded. A year ago, 61 percent of Afghans supported the deployment of 30,000 additional U.S. troops. In the new poll, 49 percent support the move, with 49 percent opposed." Washington Post (December 6th).

And it's not like the locals are the only ones expressing doubt about the likelihood of NATO success in Afghanistan. "Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Afghanistan, said he doubts the Taliban will be defeated before NATO troops are withdrawn in 2014… 'I don't think there are any sure things in this kind of endeavor, and I wouldn't be honest with you and with the viewers if I didn't convey that,' Petraeus told ABC commentator George Stephanopoulos in an interview broadcast today on "Good Morning America." (December 6th).

Since our conflict in Afghanistan began in 2001, we've spent roughly $360 billion in that military effort (according to, but with recent troop increases, our monthly Afghan war costs have risen from $5.5 billion to $6.7 billion (USA Today, May 12th). At a time when we are facing massive budget deficits, you'd think we'd pay attention to locals who want us gone and listen to our most senior military advisors who are glowing with a strong lack of confidence at the likelihood that all this will be remotely worth the cost – in money and human lives.

Still, no one in the Obama administration, or even in the Republican opposition, seems to be looking at this obvious waste of taxpayer money: "'I don’t think anyone is seriously talking about cutting war funding as a way of handling the deficit,' says Todd Harrison, a defense funding expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. But higher war costs 'could hurt the base defense budget [and] the rest of the discretionary budget.'… So how much extra would it cost if the bulk of the withdrawal starts rather than finishes around 2014? About $125 billion, says Mr. Harrison at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, at that's just through 2014. He uses two different troop level scenarios – one high, and one low. He calculates costs based $1.1 million per soldier per year, which reflects the five-year average in Afghanistan.

"The lower cost – $288 billion – assumes that the troops involved in Obama’s surge would be withdrawn by 2012, and that by the end of 2014 only 30,000 US troops would remain. The higher cost – $413 billion – assumes no drawdown will happen until 2013, and 70,000 US troops would remain by the end of 2014. The difference: $125 billion." (November 19th). 70% of the NATO military forces are American, as are the vast majority of civilian contractors are signed with the U.S. Department of Defense: 112,000 according to an October 7th report from the Carnegie Council. It would not be unfair to assess a 90% cost factor to U.S. involvement in the Afghan theater, so about $371 billion of the above $413 can easily be allocated to U.S. taxpayers. It's time to take a good look around our nation, at struggling school systems, states being destroyed by unmanageable debt, decaying infrastructure, a massive federal deficit and unraveling governmental programs… and re-prioritize where we put our precious tax dollars.

I'm Peter Dekom, and I think it's time to bring our troops back home… now!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Big Hang-Ups in Little India

India has producing some of the most extraordinary engineering and technology experts, literally ramming home cutting edge telecommunications research and development. And America imports those brainiacs by the planeload! Hey, you can some of the best curry in the United States in California’s Silicon Valley Indian restaurants! So if you’re gonna have a nasty political scandal in India, heavily laced with powerful business interests bribing the highest levels of the Indian government, why not stage that show in the ever-lovin’ telecommunications sector?!

Yeah, baby, and the allegations in New Delhi make Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (RIP) and his corruption convictions look like a piker. I mean, a mere $250,000 in payoffs and a lousy seven felony convictions isn’t even globally competitive! This is more like our Tea Pot Dome or Watergate scandals – BIG! We’re talkin’ at least two major cabinet appointments are likely takin’ a hike! Maybe some corporate bigwigs are gonna get free room and board, amazing in a nation where payoffs are simply a way of life.

The allegations – as I said – BIG. What’s the story here? “The issue is how a minister allied with the party sold cellphone operators the airwaves to provide their service in 2008. But the amounts involved, and subsequent revelations of how some of India’s richest men sought to exercise influence over political appointments and regulatory decisions, have surprised a nation seemingly inured to reports of corruption in politics… An independent auditor estimated that the government may have left almost $40 billion on the table by selling the rights too cheaply… The political fallout seems to grow each day. The telecom minister, Andimuthu Raja, has already resigned. On [December 1 3th], the focus expanded to India’s minister of highways, Kamal Nath, after the retired head of India’s most powerful trade group suggested on secret tapes connected to the telecom scandal that Mr. Nath skims 15 percent from projects he oversees.” New York Times (December 13th).

Everything in India is BIG… like 700 million cell phone subscribers (in country where it is estimated that 800 million survive on less than $2 a day), but even with those numbers, they are number two to China (with a full billion such subscribers!). Ain’t nuffin’ like a scandal to reignite the political opposition; in this case, the conservative Hindu rights party – BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) – is on the attack, trying to nail the mega-powerful Congress Party as corrupt and doing too little too late as a result: “The scandal has energized a once-moribund opposition, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has blocked normal business in Parliament. [Sound familiar?] The opposition is demanding that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh create a parliamentary commission to investigate, a step Mr. Singh has resisted, promising that the government will clean house.

“Beyond the political infighting, the scandal has broad implications for India, the world’s second-fastest-growing major economy. Growth depends increasingly on turning whole swaths of the state-directed economy over to the private sector, whose capital and expertise are critical as India embarks on plans to build roads, bridges, ports and power plants.” The Times.

Singh is worried about more dirt, and the conservative Hindu nationalists have a huge new issue for the next parliamentary elections. And if you need a new Tea Party conservative movement, where better to have it than where we get the tea in the first place?! When and where did this seed of corruption get planted? The NY Times summarizes: “The telecom industry in India was essentially born in the mud pit of corruption. Telephones were once a rarity in India — made rarer by the plodding intransigence of the government service provider, which might take one year, or three, to fulfill a customer’s order for a new line. Then in 1994, three years after India began embracing market reforms, telecom was opened to the private sector.

“The move unleashed nothing short of a revolution, eventually providing hundreds of millions with their first telephone service. But corruption also soon surfaced: in 1996, the minister overseeing the telecom field was charged with accepting bribes. Investigators searching his home discovered more than 24 million rupees, or roughly $550,000, stuffed inside trunks, pillowcases and toilet tanks.

“Nearly 15 years later, the style of corruption is far different, as is the money. This year, India’s cellphone customers are expected to pay nearly $20 billion in bills, according to the technology research company Gartner. Most of this revenue will go to a handful of big players — Reliance Communications, Airtel, Vodafone, Tata Teleservices and Idea Cellular — which together account for almost 80 percent of the market… With the exception of Vodafone, a British corporation, these giant telecom companies are all subsidiaries of India’s biggest conglomerates, headed by some of the nation’s most powerful tycoons. Their companies reach into steel, autos, natural gas, power plants, mining, construction and media. Today, India has 66 resident billionaires whose combined wealth of roughly $244 billion is equivalent to more than a fifth of the country’s $1.1 trillion gross domestic product.” Are we having fun yet? Big countries growing way too fast often take even bigger shortcuts.

I’m Peter Dekom, and this little scandal is most certainly adding a bit of insult to India.