Monday, February 28, 2011

War Lords and Radical Groups

Where there are absolutely no meaningful operational groups, no defined alternatives, no secondary governmental structures or permitted political parties, what happens when the entire governmental incumbency is crushed? The February 27th New York Times: “Colonel Qaddafi spent the last 40 years hollowing out every single institution that might challenge his authority. Unlike neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, Libya lacks the steadying hand of a military to buttress a collapsing government. It has no Parliament, no trade unions, no political parties, no civil society, no nongovernmental agencies. Its only strong ministry is the state oil company. The fact that some experts think the next government might be built atop the oil ministry underscores the paucity of options.” The United States of Chevron?

Clearly, the Oil Ministry has little in common with any semblance of a governing body that has to deal with military and diplomatic policy, fire and police operations, agriculture, the legal system, the control of currency, border enforcement, medical and personal welfare, education… and the list goes on and on. What's worse, the government oil company is hardly able to take care of its own assets: “About 500 foreign nationals were rescued [from a drilling station], leaving Libyan personnel in charge of the valuable oil fields, experts said. Looters are making off with what they can take as local tribal leaders try to assert control over the facilities, which produce 2 per cent of the world's oil supply. ‘There's now no law down there,’ Simon Robinson, who had been in charge of one of the rigs, told The Independent today after he arrived on a Royal Navy frigate from Libya.”, February 28th.

The military is already breaking up into smaller groups of combatants, fighting amongst themselves. The obvious vulnerability of the entire Libyan society is susceptible to anarchy, resurgent tribal war lords (and there is much regional hatred) or well organized religious political organizations waiting for just such an opportunity… like Sunni-tilted Al Qaeda with Sunni-populated Libya. Libya is a sitting duck, begging for intervention. It’s not as if we don’t already have that form of regional strife in nearby Somali and the Sudan… and Afghanistan is an example that has enmeshed American forces in an unwinnable aggregation of civil wars.

Does the U.N. step in to settle the unrest and provide interim structure? Which U.N. forces would be appropriate? Western troops? Ugh! Wouldn’t go over too well with the locals. Not to mention a serious movement in the West to disengage to avoid the unaffordable costs of war. The League of Arab States? Normally, an obvious choice, but with turmoil at home… and Egypt down for the count… which Arab nations are actually able to dedicate forces and capital to such a campaign? Iran… oh you can bet that there will be Iranian money abetting chaos… but this Shiite nation is not considered a welcome sight in Sunni Libya.

What does exist within Libya? “‘It is going to be a political vacuum,’ said Lisa Anderson, the president of the American University in Cairo and a Libya expert, suggesting that chances are high for a violent period of score-settling. ‘I don’t think it is likely that people will want to put down their weapons and go back to being bureaucrats.’… There is a short list of Libyan institutions, but each has limits. None of the tribes enjo y national reach, and Colonel Qaddafi deliberately set one against the other, dredging up century-old rivalries even in his latest speeches… There are a few respected but elderly members of the original 12-member Revolutionary Command Council who joined Colonel Qaddafi in unseating the king in 1969. Some domestic and exiled intellectuals hope that Libya can resurrect the pluralistic society envisioned by the 1951 Constitution, though without a monarch.” NY Times.

Qaddafi’s Libya was a pariah for decades, contemplating nuclear weapons, giving sanctuary to the “Lockerbie bomber” whose explosives downed a Pan Am flight in 1988, fomenting, sponsoring and financing terrorist groups who blew up and bombed Western targets, even in Europe and Latin America… until the late 90s, after the years of retaliatory international sanctions drained his economy, Qaddafi began to take steps to patch up his horrific reputation… eschewing nuclear weapons, condemning Al Qaeda and generally trying to reopen Libya as a “normal” participant in the global economy. A bit of too little, too late.

For all of us, what happens in Libya has a direct and immediate impact on our entire planet, and most particularly on the “recovery” we all dream of… someday. Libya is an oil producer (notice the rising price at the pump?), and unlike many “Middle Eastern nations in turmoil,” Libya is a short flight over a very small sea to European landfall. It neighbors “very fragile” Egypt with its essential Suez Canal. For chaotic anarchy or Al Qaeda-led rebellion (insert name of other U.S./Israel-hating fundamentalist militants), think of the consequences, the risks, and the potential devastation, genocide and failed hopes and dreams if things veer out of control as they very well might.

I’m Peter Dekom, and just when you think things are getting back on course….

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Reversal of Fortunes

Just as Congress threatens to stop and un-fund the federal government in a political battle of wills between newly-elected representatives – most whom who truly believe that their one true mandate is austerity and slashing government spending – vs. an incumbency that sees the economy slipping away again, the economy is in fact getting worse. The numbers support that incumbent view… as the latest government-published growth rates that were supposed to come closer to 3.2% annualized increases dropped to a very poor 2.8%. One of the great fallacies in elections where campaigners make a clear statement and get elected is that their victory is always tied to that message, no matter what changes might subsequently occur. Sometimes, a “sweeping waive” of political change is nothing more than a voter statement of general discontent with the status quo and not really an endorsement of a specific message, or simply a momentary “feeling” whose popularity soon falls.

President Obama, who is sashaying to the center as fast as his legs can carry him, seems to have learned that lesson from his erroneous “mandate” assumptions that drove the first two years of his campaign. When that mid-term election took place, state and local governments hadn’t really begun to furlough and remove workers at the levels we are seeing today. There hadn’t been a wave of violent insurrection throughout the oil-producing Middle East that is sending prices at the pump to levels that we haven’t seen since that 2008 spike. New home sales were beginning to rise, but have plunged in all the recent report with real estate values still dropping in the majority of U.S. cities. And the unemployment statistic was still filled with workers who now aren’t counted at all because they have been out of a job so long they fall completely outside the unemployment numbers. Yet still, the fervor of cutting the federal budget even if it means stopping the government seems to have overridden a common-sense examination of the massive changes that have occurred since the mid-terms. Funny in this democracy, we have opportunities to elect leaders, but we seem only to able elect representatives… or at least people who harbor an illusion that they are representatives. When a political wind seems to be blowing, candidates loft their sails even for the most fleeting of breezes.

Slogans and simple “cures” for horrifically complex socio-economic variables have never worked in recent American history. To liberals who believe that solving social problems always trumps deficit responsibility comes the harsh lesson of the generally debilitating impact of rampant inflation on everybody. Deficit responsibility is always a factor, but remember that the last time we had a budgetary surplus was in the pre-9/11 catastrophe era under a Democratic President who did not have a war budget to contend with. Likewise, conservatives might want to remember that when consumer spending has fallen to unsustainable lows, and state and local governments are seemingly paralyzed from deficits generated from a combination of eroded tax revenues and past committed generosity to their public employees’ retirement plans, the only significant source of spending is the federal government.

Managing an economy is much like driving a car; there isn’t one uniform speed – with no braking or stopping or turning – at which a vehicle can be set for all time. Balance, reactive and proactive change are essential. This is why doctrinaire and static political philosophies, uniformly applied, have not and cannot succeed in a modern era; life just doesn’t work that way.

The problem is, of course, that politics is always seeking the magic bullet, and otherwise reasonably intelligent people can easily succumb to the mantra of political simplicity. Once one of these “simple solutions” is implemented, the long-term damage to the system may require and more drastic economic reversal of policy at some time in the not-too-distant-future.

Ask yourself, for example, what the consequences might be to the United States if we really do cut our education budgets, increase class size and un-fund public colleges and universities, as many “austerity” politicians insist? Will the United States continue to dominate the global economic markets with second rate value-added workers? Will we really generate enough money to pay off that massive deficit when our employment base simply cannot generate the necessary value? And remember, Wall Street does not have to deploy its capital in the United States; its money will float to the area of highest return even if that clearly is not in the best interests of the country.

What will happen if these austerity measures actually tank our economy and restart the recession? 2012 awaits. And exactly why is it when society demands sacrifice, it so often falls on the backs of the very young: soldiers, still boys and girls barely beyond puberty, dying for the machinations of their elderly politicians, and children trying read tattered textbooks, straining to hear teachers at the back of packed classrooms... and the very old, wondering what will become of their pensions and healthcare?

I’m Peter Dekom, and somewhere, somehow, Americans really do need to learn how to “keep it real.”

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Somewhere in Northern Illinois

Funny that Democratic state legislators, seeking to avoid being captured in their state capitals and being forced by local marshals back to their legislative chambers to vote on un-popular anti-union legislation, have found refuge in one of the states with the worst overall deficit and unfunded pension problems: Illinois. Faced with Republican majorities in both houses with Republican governors waiving their signing pens, these refugee senators first ran from voting sessions in Wisconsin, which threatened to emasculate public union collective bargaining forcing cuts most in healthcare and pension benefits, and were soon joined with legislators with comparable quorum issues from Ohio and Indiana.

Oddly, with the legislature still in Democratic hands, Illinois is also headed by a Republican, Pat Quinn, who mused: “We believe in hospitality and tourism and being friendly… I also believe in unions.” Fourteen Wisconsin legislators, switching hotels as fast as they are discovered, were soon joined by the Indiana contingent: “[By February 23rd,] most of Indiana’s 40 Democratic state representatives were living in rooms (‘plain but all we need,’ in the words of one) at the Comfort Suites in Urbana, Ill., about 100 miles west of the state Capitol in Indianapolis. Wisconsin’s Senate Democrats were preparing to mark their first full week, on [February 24th], somewhere in northern Illinois.” New York Times, February 23rd. Hey, Illinois is handy, well-situated and easy for family and friends to maintain supply lines.

With unfunded state and local pensions, where numbers range from $1 to $3.5 trillion dollars depending on whose numbers you believe, how to deal with these costs has become an issue that has catapulted more than one governor to the state capitol. Whether federal bankruptcy laws will be amended to cover states, or states will simply breach their contractual obligations to vested pensioners to former public employees, or states will at the least have to create a going-forward program of reduced benefits and longer tenures required for retirement, something’s gotta give.

Wisconsin is hardly the state with the worst budget deficits, and it is ironically the place where collective bargaining was born, but folks like newly elected Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, who basically campaigned on this cost-cutting issue, are digging in their heels despite massive protests on the state capitol steps. “Under Walker's plan, most public workers - excluding police, firefighters and state troopers - would lose bargaining rights for anything other than pay and would have to pay half of their pension costs and at least 12 percent of their health-care costs. Walker, who to ok office [in January], says the emergency measure would save $300 million over the next two years to help close a $3.6 billion budget gap.” Washington Post, February 25th. While the State Assembly is ready give Walker his wish, the State Senate Democrats refuse to return, and provide the necessary quorum, to allow the inevitable vote against public unionism.

There seems to be a perverse sense of delight at the Democrats’ conundrum, and the Governor is going to make sure those minority senators suffer: “For now, these senators say, most people from their home districts still seem supportive, and their families, if confused as the days dragged on, still seemed patient. But pressure is mounting: Those left in Madison this week, supporters of Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to limit collective bargai ning and cut benefits, agreed to a brand new rule about paychecks. Direct deposits to senators’ bank accounts are now barred for anyone who misses two or more days of the legislative session. Those who wish to be paid their salary must collect their checks in person, on the Senate floor… Democratic Party leaders in Indiana volunteered to pay for legislators’ hotel stays, but some of the Wisconsin senators said they were on their own, using discount travel Web sites in search of deals every time they moved to a new hideout.” NY Times. Wisconsin appears to be taking a harder line that Ohio and Indiana, where compromise is in the air.

In Wisconsin, Tea Party voters are reveling; they are getting their way. And secretly, across the board, many of those in the private sector whose pensions were seriously eroded by the market collapse or whose company benefits were replaced by ERISA-insured benefits when their companies and the underlying pension funds fell apart, are feeling a bit less pain as they may be joined in their suffering by those whom they considered to be fat cats with cushy pensions (the average public pension is somewhere around $19,000, and most public employees are not covered by Social Security). Public employees without college educations tend to do better than their private counterparts in pay and benefits, but college educated civil servants tend to do worse… although the results are skewed all over the map.

What’s really going on with this bubbling anti-unionism, even as a majority of Americans seem to support the right of such employees to bargain collectively? Bottom line: Folks really hate suffering alone. George Skelton, writing for the February 24th Los Angeles Times, explains: “But [these public pension tussles are] merely a symptom, it seems to me, of a gradually declining lifestyle for working stiff Americans — blue and white collar, college educated or not. Except for the super-rich, our financial well-being has become chillingly shaky in the global economy and downright scary during the great recession.

“There's cheap labor overseas and job-killing technology at home… Private-sector workers have been taking it on the chin for a decade or more: Future pensions frozen for current employees and eliminated for new hires; retirees at the mercy of risky 401(k) plans and Wall Street. Plus layoffs and elimination of retiree health benefits… Now it's the public sector's turn to suffer, in the eyes of many in private enterprise. It's sort of an American civil war between government and non-government families.” [Italics added] Suffer, suffer, suffer – is this the new American way for the once middle class?

I’m Peter Dekom, and every time I watch us slip a notch, I nervously look over my shoulder at China.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Ceiling Our Fate

“Unless the debt ceiling is raised and the president signs a continuing resolution allowing government services to go on, the federal government will be forced to furlough 800,000 employees Tuesday morning. Only those deemed essential and others in jobs that are pre-funded will continue being paid.” But while this looks like something out of today’s reports dealing with the current budget impasse between a Republican-majority House of Representatives and a Democratic Present, it is actually taken from a November 11, 1995 CNN report dealing with a…. Republican-majority House of Representatives (led by Speaker Newt Gingrich) and a Democratic Present (Bill Clinton).

In short, budgetary brinksmanship, like the one facing the U.S. as the debt ceiling slams shut on March 4th, is nothing new… what is new is a very large contingent of freshmen Tea Party players, hell bent on drastic downsizing … the austerity kings & queens, who believe that cutting the federal budget will create a plethora of new jobs by keeping taxes lower, a discredited trickle-down theory that refuses to die notwithstanding mounds of evidence to the contrary and no evidence to support it. Even the new Speaker of the House, John Boehner (pictured above), has climbed onto his minority Tea Party conservatives’ bandwagon: “Read my lips,” he stressed, “We are going to cut spending!” Indeed, pork is de-porking, military cuts are slicing, but the battle remains over recent Presidential priorities in spending… it is a fundamental schism between party philosophies, brought home in the recent mid-term elections. And indeed, the House passed their reduced budget with a clear slap in the face to the President’s clearly stated goals, reducing allocations for education, environment, infrastructure and mass transit.

Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Harry Reid, is threatening to extend the deficit ceiling from that side of the legislature, where Democrats still control a majority… but not enough to stop a threatened filibuster from the Republican side. It’s ugly in Washington, and indeed, while not every government service would be shut down instantly when that cap it reached, you can expect massive furloughs of federal personnel and lots of “non-essential services” to shutdown… with numbers increasing as time passes and even the pre-funded programs run out of money. Of course, people expect some of those “pre-funds” to be diverted in the political system, and you can bet that pensions will not be funded during this period.

The Federal Reserve can indeed expand the money supply and service the national debt for a while (to stop a default), but even they have Congressional limits on their overall maximum ability to engage in such activities. What is really likely to happen is that the public will be even more frustrated and distrustful of a government that simply has lost its ability to govern. And remember, Congress’ has pretty consistently maintained a lower approval rating than the President, so “stand-by-the-principles-under-which-you-were-elected” might seem to na├»ve freshmen Congress-people like strong and positive popular representation, but if they can’t exercise that force without bringing the country to its knees, they will simply be seen as incompetent elected officials who probably shouldn’t be re-elected.

The February 20th Los Angeles Times reminds us what happened after the last federal budgetary shut-downs in 95/96: “Social Security checks continued to be mailed, although many government payments were delayed as officials struggled to keep enough employees on the job on an emergency basis, as laws allow, to continue service… Many other Social Security services halted, including responses to requests for retirement and disability claims, address changes and Social Security numbers needed for work… During that time, museums and national parks were closed and applications for visas and passports went unprocessed. A downturn in the housing market was blamed on a halt to transactions involving the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration, now called the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Government economic reports were delayed, and federal employees went without paychecks for as long as the shutdowns lasted. Claims for veterans benefits also faced delays… Some government functions determined to be ‘essential’ — such as national security, law enforcement and emergency assistance — continued. But in the sprawling federal bureaucracy, determining what fit that classification, and even who made the determination, was not clear.” Want some specifics? “[In 1995], the departments of Commerce, Justice and State kept about 63 percent of their workers on the payroll. Just over 50 percent of Interior Department workers stayed on the job, as did 42 percent of employees at the departments of Education, Labor and Health and Human Services, GAO said… [As for Social Security, the] agency made about 4,800 employees work through the 1995 shutdown to ensure beneficiaries obtained their checks, according to a Congressional Research Service report. An additional 61,000 workers had to stay home, but officials later called some in to help process new claims.” Washington Post, February 22nd.

How long have these “budgetless sessions” been in the recent past? “Six shutdowns occurred between fiscal year 1977 and fiscal year 1980, ranging from eight to 17 full days... From fiscal 1981 to 1995, nine shutdowns occurred, lasting no longer than three full days… In fiscal 1996, the first budget impasse led to a five-day shutdown from Nov. 13-19, 1995. The second shutdown, the longest in U.S. history, stretched 21 days from Dec. 15, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996.” Washington Post, February25th. The government has a sequencing plan to lay off additional personnel as any budget impasse de-funds the government. Hang on!

Indeed, today the bloated federal budget is ripe for big slices coming out of it. Servicing the national debt is a seemingly immutable obligation; how would the world react to our currency if we defaulted on the trillions we owe? But some of the really big ticket items, like military procurement budget (we spend about 46% of the entire earth’s military budget), sit relatively unscathed… Even Robert Gates’ masterful “sacrifice” of some weapons programs, while basically keeping the vast majority of the military budget intact, doesn’t remotely cut what a prudent society would insist upon, especially when funded military conflicts show no likelihood of delivering promised results. The budget battles will be the hallmark of the current Congress (notably the House, where appropriation bills must originate) versus the President. And this is year one, month two.

I’m Peter Dekom, and voters have a way of moving politicians who cannot govern out of office… we just have to wait, and wait and wait.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


That’s the reward posted by a consortium of private environmental groups for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator who shot and killed a male bird in the Alabama marshlands in mid-February, one of six such endangered birds killed in the last fourteen months. Estimates of remaining birds in Canada and the United States suggest that the entire remaining population of this species numbers somewhere between 50 and just over 400, and a breeding campaign has been mounted in the last couple of years to restore this species to the continent. “The Whooping Crane (Grus americana), the tallest North American bird, is an endangered crane species named for its whooping sound and call. Along with the Sandhill Crane, it is one of only two crane species found in North America. The whooping crane's lifespan is estimated to be 22 to 24 years in the wild.” Wikipedia

Embellished by the civil laws of many states, killing or illegally transporting a whooping crane in the United States carries a federal penalty of $10,000 and up to six months behind bars. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has been slowly breeding and releasing whooping cranes back into the wild in several states, and the bird killed in Alabama noted above, who carried federal market (22-10 – the 22nd bird bred and release in 2010), had been originally released in Wisconsin the year before.

Here is the process of breeding and reintroduction as described on the FWS Website: “The crane chicks are being captive-reared at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center [in Laurel, Maryland] until they are 40 to 60 days old. Training started from just before hatch with exposure of the eggs to sounds of crane calls and ultralight aircraft engine noise. At Patuxent, chicks will be trained to follow the ultralights in the protected captive environment and later in the out-of-doors pens at the center. When the chicks no longer need heat and protection from the elements, they will be moved to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge [Wisconsin] for flight training behind the ultralight…

“When teaching cranes to follow an ultralight aircraft they can easily become overly tame. If this happened, they could suffer an "identity crisis" when they reach breeding age and not recognize other whooping cranes, or become a nuisance because they associate people with a source of food. While interacting with the birds, the Operation Migration handlers minimize human contact time. They work in silence while covered head to toe in gray fabric costumes that disguise the human form. This is done so that the cranes will not be familiar with the normally dressed humans they may encounter after they are released.”

There is concern among those investigating these killings that somehow they might be linked. The February 20th explains the killing that immediately preceded the death of 10-22 above: “The crane discovered last month, #12-04, was an adult male who had learned how to migrate behind an ultralight aircraft flown by Operation Migration, a partner in a group formed to increase whooping crane numbers… That crane made its first migration to Florida in 2004, wintering there for five years until it started spending winters on the marshes around Weiss Lake, Ala., where the Fish and Wildlife Service said it was found dead. The crane had nested with a female in the spring, producing a chick that did not survive… ‘This is a six-year-old bird, one of a couple of dozen that are old enough, sexually mature, and could breed,’ Liz Condie of Operation Migration told the St. Petersburg Times....‘This crane had a chick. Could this be any freaking worse?’ Condie said. Three cranes -– two males and a female that hatched in 2010 -- were found shot to death in Calhoun County, Ga., on Dec. 30.”

In the end, nature remains ambivalent about extinction; she has seen it come and go millions of times before. She does not care if we destroy the planet, eliminate species, or even if we create an environment that will not even sustain human life. Nature has time on her hands. She sends us little reminders of what irresponsible environmental behavior could mean for human beings, but if we die off, she’ll let the environment recover for a few dozen millennia… and simply and slowly replace us… or not. It is our world, our environment and our responsibility… if we expect to survive in the longer term. Whooping cranes, beautiful and magnificent, are just one more reminder.

I’m Peter Dekom, and living well while still maintaining a sustainable environment is the most complex balancing act entrusted to human being.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Beware of Bearing Greeks

The major Jewish ghettos in Europe were considerably east of Athens, Greece, but nonetheless, between 1943 and 1944, 60,000 Jews were rounded up in Greece (pictured above) to be sent to Nazi death camps. Greece is famous as the cradle of modern philosophy and humanism, teachings that endured into Judaism, Christianity and Islam as time passed. Democracy and social responsibility were heavily discoursed and articulated by the ancient Greeks, from essays to plays, from ribald tales to heavenly poetry. But today, that free-wheeling and open sociological feeling seems to be falling in economically perilous times in search of a scapegoat. Bring on the money-lenders; bring on the stereotypes; bring on the Jews. Austerity and fiscal pain never seem to produce tolerance and understanding. And so it is with Greece, among the most dire of Europe’s economies.

As Athens has finally built a Holocaust memorial, it seems to have opened at an opportune time… for anti-Semitism. The February 20th Los Angeles Times explains: “But since [the memorial’s] dedication in May, synagogues have been targeted, Jewish cemeteries desecrated, Holocaust monuments elsewhere in Greece vandalized and the Jewish Museum of Greece, in the capital, defaced with swastikas. What's more, an alarming chunk of Athenians in November supported the election of a neo-Nazi candidate to the capital' s city council.”

There are a lot fewer Jews living in modern Greece, perhaps for horrifically obvious reasons, but that fact does not seem to have deterred those who need to pin blame for economically difficult times: “‘We've always been under siege by fanatics and far-right political movements here,’ said David Saltiel, president of the Central Jewish Board of Greece, which represents the country's 6,000 Jews. ‘The fear now is that anti-Semitism will get worse with the financial crisis.’ Well into the nation's worst recession in 17 years, the government in Athens was thrown a bailout lifeline of $146 billion by the European Union andInternational Monetary Fund last year in exchange for draconian reforms and cost-cutting measures designed to slash the country's yawning budget deficit, equal to 15.4% of gross domestic product.” LA Times.

The more the populace is forced to sacrifice, the stronger the ultra-conservative movements, a trend which is sociologically consistent all over the earth. And Jews have been the “go to” scapegoats for millennia, even though it would seem to be painfully obvious that 6,000 Jews in a nation of over 11 million people couldn’t… even if they wanted to… have much of an impact doing anything. Better to pick on the helpless and statistically irrelevant… oh and invoke Jews overseas, since Greece no longer has many of its own anymore. Jews have been a part of the Greek landscape for over 2,000 years, and they have endured much during history’s transitions.

The Times churns up plenty of sickening data in support not only of active anti-Semitism in Greece, but of the overwhelming acceptance and tolerance of the practice by just about everybody: “[As American Jewish leaders converged on Athens, the reaction was swift and negative]: ‘We're in danger!’ warned renowned composer Mikis Theodorakis, who in the course of a television interview openly conceded that he was an anti-Semite. ‘Zionism and it leaders are here, meeting in our country!’… ‘This is no laughing matter,’ he railed, berating Zionism and its ‘control over America and the banking system that Greece is now a victim of.’…

“Take the case of Konstantinos Plevris… A self-avowed anti-Semite and Holocaust denier, the 70-year-old lawyer was sentenced to 14 months in prison in 2007 for inciting racial hatred with his book ‘Jews: The Whole Truth.’ In 2009, the decision was overturned, and a year later, the Supreme Court upheld Plevris' acquittal, arguing that his ‘scientific work’ did not target the Jews as a race or religion but, rather, their ‘conspiratorial pursuit of global domination,’ according to a copy of the 2010 decision… ‘There is zip, zilch, zero reaction to any semblance of anti-Semitism,’ said human rights activist Panayotes Dimitras, ‘leaving the door wide-open for extremists to come in and exploit this phobic society, more so now, in this time of crisis.’”

Anytime misplaced blame is thrown onto minorities that are “different from the rest of us,” we all lose a bit of our humanity, more if we sit silently in de facto confirmation that “that’s just the way it is.” We Americans, as purveyors of “all men are created equal,” are particularly called upon to decry intolerance wherever it may arise. And when such intolerance exists within our own borders, it is a shame that demeans each one of us even more.

I’m Peter Dekom, and being an American is more than what kind of passport you carry.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Goo-Goo Eyeballs

In a world where parents are (or should be) deeply concerned about online predators and the privacy and security of their children, particularly the youngest and most vulnerable members of the family, according to Internet security firm, AVG, the numbers are going the other way. For example, an October 2010 report (Digital Birth) tells us that by aged 6 months most American babies already have a digital footprint. Picture the number of funny baby and toddler videos on YouTube. Throw in the funny commercials – like the E-Trade talking baby ads – featuring the little ones… wanna read the release the baby signed? Then add all the baby picture postings on Facebook. Can you imagine a young father-in-the-waiting-room without a camera?

Digital Birth also tells us that the online presence number grows quickly… 92% of children in the U.S. have an online presence by the time they are two, and even before they are born, 34% of moms have even posted their in-uterus sonogram online! Whoa! But kids’ abilities to access online and mobile content clearly outstrips their emotional ability to deal with what they might see. Surrounded by parents and siblings online and on mobile phones or sampling fare on tablets, tiny tots are highly imitative. Even the fake cell phones and play computers for the youngest set are simply preparations for an early introduction to technology.

As kids get older, the exposure grows, even as knowledge and information of the most useful variety flow down the same pipes, and computer illiteracy is simply a job-killer in later life. GPS capacity (where truants with GPS-linked phones have to text their school every few hours) can track the whereabouts of children, but still the growth and pervasiveness of this technology has far outstripped our ability to protect our children. A January 19th posting on AVG’s Digital Diaries notes that “today’s kids are learning computer skills before life skills.” AVG goes on to note the scope of the societal change:

  • More young children know how to play a computer game (58%) than swim (20%) or ride a bike (52%)
  • 28% of young children can make a mobile phone call, but only 20% know to dial 911 in case of an emergency
  • 69% of children aged 2-5 can operate a computer mouse, but only 11% can tie their own shoelaces

Perhaps the most important piece of data to come out of this survey: the fact that 69% of children aged 2-5 are using a computer in the first place.

We know that change is inevitable, and embracing new technology is always something that is easier to adopt as a part of growing up than trying to deal with such change later in life, but the threats to our most vulnerable citizens profoundly exceed our ability to generate appropriate protection mechanisms. As Congress grapples with improving COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), it reminds me of creating sailboat safety rules while traveling in a tiny boat on a vast and oiling, storm-infested sea.

I’m Peter Dekom, and sometimes, you just have to stop and look around to really see who we are and what we have become.

C’est Tray Ban!

Maybe you remember standing in line at the high school or college cafeteria, particularly with one of those prepaid, all-you-can-eat, meal plans. Hey, you paid for it so… bring it on, a little (but not destined to stay so little) voice might cry. Heaps of pasta or pancakes, sausage and scrambled eggs, and large lumps of palpitating cake… thump, thwack, grab! Do you remember considering carrying a heavy “punched out,” prison issue metal tray laden with excess food a form of collegiate exercise? One, two, three, four… lift!

Remember the “freshman ten” or “fifteen” or “twenty-five”? For some, that was a transition period that remained, you should pardon the expression, swell for life. Many blamed that late-night pizza delivery dude with pepperoni poison dripping with gooey, oil-oozing cheese. Yum, even better the next day after being left out overnight! Sitting around, late at night, chewing the fat? Comfort food… great for exam period… and pre-exam period… and to celebrate after exam period.

And who could resist, on a snowy campus, using a metal tray purloined from the cafeteria as a sled…. Weeeeeeeeee! I’m getting exercise! Weeeeeee! That means I can load the one I will use at the cafeteria with even more… lift, one, two, three… So campus administrators, wanting to save money, avoid waste and help their chubby-and-getting-chubbier students avoid waist! But, Ms. College President, the ones stamped with the college seal make such great souvenirs?! What if the carrying surface from the food line simply were smaller and held less food? Hmmm… could that diabolical plan hold water?

All over the country, schools & universities are shedding those seemingly efficient, one-tray-as-a-plate-holds-all, and replacing them with… tum-tee-dum… with… er… plates. Smaller, right? And oddly, students are shedding pounds and reducing waste/waist. The February 17th Washington Post writes: “Without a tray, students have to be pickier during the first sweep of the cafeteria line and make trips back for more. It results in as much as 25 to 30 percent less wasted food, according to a 2008 study of 25 campuses by food services provider Aramark.” Yeah, and a few kids consider the extra walking back and forth to get seconds and thirds to be a new form of exercise!

Young men and women faced with losing their favorite ftv (food transport vehicle) for a small plate and a single cup are often upset… and even protests can emerge. Not exactly like a Bahrain bash or a Cairo cabal, but reflecting not being consulted. “At Virginia Tech, administrators recruited the student government and campus environmentalists to help [sell the plan]. It started as an Earth Week experiment during the 2008 spring semester, when student volunteers weighed the amount of food waste in dining halls with and without trays. Without trays, students wasted 38 percent less food. By summer, the trays were gone in the two main dining halls on campus, D2 and Shultz.” The Post. Perhaps, loyal readers, you are finding all this much too difficult to swallow! Chances of the world’s staying the same are… er… slim… to none!

I’m Peter Dekom, and with commodities prices destined to soar, perhaps this really is one of my economic blogs after all!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

On Replacing Dictators

Explosive and violent riots have shaken the Middle East to its core, sent a couple of dictators packing, and threaten to topple additional strongmen and monarchs alike. The patterns are the same – high unemployment, particularly among the educated classes with the knowledge and the networking tools to incite, corrupt privilege accorded to the connected few at the expense of the hopeless many, all accelerated by the regional success in Tunisia and Egypt. As the Chinese curse suggests, Middle Eastern prelates are living in “interesting times.” The names roll off the tongue: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen and Bahrain… and maybe Lebanon, where an election in a violence-plagued country has placed a Hezbollah prime minister at the helm.

American policy-makers fear that this sequential litany of power vacuums will be filled with vitriolic and violent anti-American and anti-Israeli Islamists, resentment reinforced because it was often U.S. military aid that tipped the balance to allow such greed-invested regimes to maintain their repressive control. The U.S. has a long-standing practice, administered by Presidents on both sides of the aisle, of granting aid and support to any regime that advanced U.S. goals, willing to look the other way at the nefarious and corrupt hands reaching into local pockets, executing and imprisoning “dissidents” who resisted. Indeed, the numbers of pro-American charismatic leaders waiting in the wings for “their turn” to replace the regimes that have fallen or that are teetering are particularly small, secular or Muslim.

While anti-Americanism is almost a mandate for any modern Middle Eastern leader-wannabe, the survivalist incumbent power elite (facing anger and scrutiny from the masses), willing to sacrifice a few of their own in a grand gesture seemingly in support of radical change, are also the ones reaching out to American largess for foreign aid grants in exchange for mediating and moderating the degree of change. The most obvious case-in-point is the Egyptian military, the ultimate power that sanctioned populist change, removed the last vestiges of the Mubarak regime, and is administering the arrest and trial of former cabinet members accused of waste and corruption. Yes, the same Egyptian military that controls the Suez Canal, is allowing Iranian military traffic through that canal and that… and here’s the biggie… still has its own corrupt stranglehold on privileged economic benefits that it is most unwilling to relinquish. Their hands are outstretched to the U.S. to continue that military aid package, willing to agree to maintain the existing treaty structure with Israel in exchange for hardware and cash.

Yet even as Mubarak and his cronies are gone, protests and strikes continue to rock Egypt. Didn’t the people get what they wanted? The evil and corrupt leader is gone, his henchmen unseated and elections are looming after things “settle down.” What’s the problem? The notion of a strict Islamic Republic, mirroring the Iranian revolution, strikes fear in the heart of American policy-makers, but the reality of repression represented by Iran seems to have taken that political structure off the table, at least for Egypt and the other threatened powers in the Mediterranean Muslim world. Even the rhetoric of those able to congeal a Muslim radical focus seems strangely at odds with an Islamic Republic a la Iran.

A banished 84-year-old Muslim cleric (pictured above), Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, 84, who fled Egypt for Qatar in 1961 after spending significant time in Egyptian prisons, returned home to deliver a much awaited sermon. As a regional televangelist, Qaradawi served as an “intellectual inspiration to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood… His prominence exemplifies the peril and potential for the West as Egypt opens up. While he condemned the 9/11 attacks, he has supported suicide bombers against Israel and attacks on American forces in Iraq.” New York Times, February 18th. But his opening words on February 18th suggested how from Islamic intolerance the possible “next powers” to lead Egypt are likely to be: “Oh Muslims and Copts [referencing the Coptic Christian minority],” he extolled, “I invite you to bow down in prayer together.”

Make no mistake, Qaradawi’s message is and continues to be anti-American, but his sermon “praised Muslims and Christians for standing together in Egypt’s revolution and even lauded the Coptic Christian ‘martyrs’ who once fought the Romans and Byzantines…He urged the military officers governing Egypt to deliver on their promises of turning over power to ‘a civil government’ founded on principles of pluralism, democracy and freedom. And he called on the army to immediately release all political prisoners and rid the cabinet of its dominance by officials of the old Mubarak government.” New York Times. Radical Islam knows that it can no longer sell the repressive Islamic Republic; Iran’s example ended that structure as viable, and even in Afghanistan where the resurgent Taliban is taking over, they are able to do so only with violence and threats… filling a power vacuum created by an horrifically corrupt and very unpopular American-supported regime. The Taliban aren’t “selling” their system of government to the people; they are shoving it down their throats.

The Egyptian Army is still sweating bullets, and while Bahrain and Libya are willing to apply lethal force to repress the populist uprisings, Egyptian military forces are trying to broker a new and vibrant future… well maybe a tad less vibrant if the top military leaders are able to maintain their existing economic privileges. It is a careful balancing act, but as the continued strikes and protests suggest, the people know what is going on… and they may add the Army to the list of political elements that must let go as well. Indeed, as an increasing number of soldiers identify with the populist movement, the Army may face that change from inside as well.

I’m Peter Dekom, and the lesson of our long-standing policy efforts around the world requires us to rethink supporting anyone, at any cost, simply because they are willing to adhere to our regional goals.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Burning lives Away

Here in budget-impaired California – home to quakes, fires and resulting mudslides – an explosive forest fire is attacked from the ground and the air by every modern fire-fighting piece of equipment and trained volunteers and professionals, not only from California, but from neighboring states dedicated to mutual cooperation. News reports blister containment statistics from every medium known to man, and Californians track the devastation vs. containment battles on interactive maps that are constantly updated. As climate change has seeped and then flowed into our lives, fire season has grown longer every year. With the massive rains we have had this year, the hills are festooned with beautiful and inevitably dangerous kindling, simply awaiting the inevitable long, dry season.

So it is in a relatively wealthy Western society, but where fires burn across drought-stricken African plains, where grasslands and forests feed and shelter both people and wildlife, impoverished peoples watch with passive acceptance as their resources burn away. They are used to inhaling the toxic clouds of black smoke that smolder unchecked, sometimes for weeks on end… growing into unstoppable blazes. Feed grasses, livestock and farms become fuel. Species, a mass of individual feelings and fears, slowly are deprived of their habitats, face extinction in a modern and unforgiving world. There is no money for firefighters here.

For photographers, the orange sun blocked by thick clouds often form magnificent silhouettes in mid-day heat. But while fire has always been a cyclical natural phenomenon necessary for the very survival of the land, climate change has pushed “necessary and cyclical” to “never-ending drought followed by the seeming permanence of desertification.” Fire is simply an accelerant of this life-destroying climactic shift.

Daniel and Sindiso Mnisi Weeks expressed their vision in the February 15th New York Times as they honeymooned in Zambia, a gorgeous if impoverished nation in southern Africa: “Tucked in the middle of southern Africa, Zambia is burning because life south of the equator is becoming dangerously hot and dry. That is in large part because since the Second Industrial Revolution of the middle 19th century, the West has been pumping billions of tons of climate-changing carbon into the atmosphere with impunity, leaving Africa hotter and drier than at any time since our earliest ancestors found their feet and began to walk away….

“There wasn’t a fire truck or helicopter in sight…small wonder in a country where the average individual earns $850 per year and it costs nearly $100 to fill up a tank of gas. Even if Zambians could afford the trucks and choppers to fight the fires, where would they find enough water to fill the other tank?

“… When Zambia burns by fire it burns by poverty too. And one cause, at least, is shared by both. The rise in concentration of atmospheric carbon from 284 parts per million by volume (ppmv) 150 years ago to nearly 400 ppmv today is hastening drought and desertification in sub-Saharan Africa to a shocking degree. It’s a cause which cannot be addressed by improving governments or building schools or staffing clinics on the ground, desirable as those things might be. Rather, it’s a cause for which we in the industrialized West must take a large share of the blame.” In the end, Americans are unlikely to do much about this anomaly for which we are partially responsible. People and animals will starve to death. Families that were poor will sink to new depths of poverty. Species will disappear from the face of the earth. But nature is agnostic; she accepts whatever happens to the scarred surface of her planet, and if a few animals or species disappear now and again, so be it; it just is. She sends us messages, but we often don’t listen or look.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I cannot turn my eyes away.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Motivated to Learn

If you want to see a wild experiment in self-motivation, click on this now-famous TED presentation by University of Newcastle (U.K.) Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences. Sugata Mitra; it should blow you away:

The good professor donated an Internet-connected laptop “kiosk” (pictured above in the background) to a community of under-educated children in southern India. The kids were given a genetics problem, vastly beyond any possible capability they had… and were left alone with the device. Basically, they taught themselves how to use it, enhanced their language skills, actually began to understand the question, mastered “search,” and solved the problem.

“Mitra discovered that groups of children spontaneously formed supportive learning communities when given access to Internet stations and challenged to answer scientific questions… Mitra tells how a humble pre-teen girl led him to believe that he had underestimated his first experimental group of Tamil-speaking children. ‘So a 12-year-old girl raises her hand and says, literally, 'apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecules causes genetic disease, we’ve understood nothing else.'’ Emboldened by findings that one academic reviewer called ‘too good to be true,’ Mitra is seeking billions in funding and millions of voluntary man-hours to launch his educational vision into a global movement.” Fast, February 1st. By the way, the kids are still Googling away; they’re addicted to it.

So like, computers can replace teachers, right? I mean with one-on-one interactivity with a cool device, kids can pace themselves, are immediately tested as to their mastery of a particular subject, and can move through a course of study in they own way… backing up and going forward as they develop understanding. Teachers cost money, computers represent a much cheaper alternative, and as school districts face massive budget cuts, programmed learning is the answer, right? But it feels so wrong…

Nevertheless, “Districts all over are experimenting with teacher-less computer labs and green-lighting entire classrooms of adult-supervised children exploring the Internet--an Android powered tablet designed specifically for students. Teachers' unions' protests notwithstanding, the cybernetic takeover might mean a redefinition of ‘teacher’ as a research assistant or intellectual coach, since subject-matter lecturers are no match for access to the entirety of human knowledge.” The Department of Education, in a 2009 report, observed that: “Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.” That’s it, then, right? Hey, add sexy visuals, interactive game-like learning systems, and kids will learn so fast, we’ll be handing out PhDs to teenagers!

Now you know I’m spinning this in another direction, but it’s not a bad direction, after all is said and done: “Yet, student-driven classrooms do have serious flaws. In the condition without any adult supervision, Mitra found that children achieve only half of what their peers in face-to-face instruction can. The lure of video games and other mindless online activity quickly eclipse the fleeting intrigue of scientific exploration. Children, it seems, still need the encouragement (or coercion) of an adult to keep them from drifting off….” Miami-Dade County, Florida is conducting a really big experiment in programmed learning: “[O]ver 7,000 students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools enrolled in a program in which core subjects are taken using computers in a classroom with no teacher. A ‘facilitator’ is in the room to make sure students progress. That person also deals with an y technical problems.” New York Times, January 17th.

With state-mandated class-size limitations, the school district felt it had to find a labor-saving method to comply with the law. But this e-learning solution was imposed on students, and the reaction has not been as positive as administrators might have hoped; the NY Times presents this response: “Alix Braun, 15, a sophomore at Miami Beach High, takes Advanced Placement macroeconomics in an e-learning lab with 35 to 40 other students. There are 445 students enrolled in the online courses at her school, and while Alix chose to be placed in the lab, she said most of her lab mates did not… ‘None of them want to be there,’ Alix said, ‘and for virtual education you have to be really self-motivated. This was not something they chose to do, and it’s a really bad situation to be put in because it is not your choice.’”

The problem might be mitigated if the “facilitators” were actually “teachers” who actually… er… “teach.” This blended approach would allow adjustments, humanizing the educational experience, while still bringing the advantage of a resource-rich computer-learning-system to the classroom. “Michael G. Moore, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, said programs that combine virtual education and face-to-face instruction could be effective. This is called the ‘blended learning concept.’

“‘There is no doubt that blended learning can be as effective and often more effective than a classroom,’ said Mr. Moore, who is also editor of The American Journal of Distance Education. He said, however, that research and his experiences had shown that proper design and teacher instruction within the classroom were necessary. A facilitator who only monitors student progress and technical issues within virtual labs would not be categorized as part of a blended-learning model, he said. Other variables include ‘the maturity and sophistication of the student,’ he said…. Despite some complaints about the virtual teaching method, administrators said e-learning labs were here to stay. And nationally, blending learning has already caught on in some areas.” NY Times.

The truth is that this teaching system is in its nascent stages, but clearly, there is something wonderful buried deep in this field of “some of our ideas work, and some just don’t.” We really need to succeed in this noble effort, or the United States will fall farther behind those “better than we are” educational models in developing nations. Our future depends on it.

I’m Peter Dekom, and these are questions to which we really, really need good answers.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

$555 Billion

On October 15, 2010, I blogged about the massively unfunded and unsustainable aggregation of state and local pension benefits (A Pension for Failure). Today, I’d like to continue with an analysis of a comparable deficit of unfunded post-retirement health benefits – $555 billion – reported by the Pew Center on States (A Trillion Dollar Gap, February 2011). The big picture, however, remains the pensions – “[A]t the end of 2008, there was a $1 trillion gap between the $2.35 states and participating localities had set aside to pay for employees’ retirement benefits and the $3.35 billion price tag of those promises.” The recession has only amplified the harm as state and local property, sales and income tax revenues plunged.

But the big shocker in this mess has been the almost 20% annualized increase in post-retirement healthcare, benefits which so many local jurisdictions simply can no longer afford. Just as one segment of American politics is pushing to eliminate a more generalized availability of so-called “Obamacare,” a very large group of retired individuals is about to discover that they are either without such benefits or are going to be required to pick up a much greater piece of that cost formula, just at a time in their lives when they can afford it least. The problem with state-provided retiree healthcare is that it is generally a “pay-as-you-go” unfunded liability (only 5% of such programs are funded), and the capacity of states and municipalities to continue along this road has dropped to “impossible.”

The pain is not equally divided among the states (95% of the liability comes from half the states); California (what a surprise) leads the list with an estimate $68.9 billion with New Jersey a close second at $62.5 billion of unfunded healthcare retirement benefits. While 14% of states pick up 100% of such retiree costs, it is no surprise that states are massively moving towards making retirees pay more, and for new workers, to have such benefits (if they are permitted at all) kick in later and after many more years of service: “In state after state, the changes are occurring rapidly. For example, New Hampshire has stopped financing health insurance for many future retirees, while North Carolina has begun requiring state employees to work 20 years, up from five years, to qualify for full retiree health benefits. Michigan officials complain that retiree health obligations consume one-seventh of the state’s payroll costs, and New York City is slated to pay $2 billion toward retiree health next year.

“Overall, the Center for State and Local Government Excellence found that 68 percent of city and county officials surveyed said they were pushing to have retirees assume more of their health costs, while 39 percent said they had eliminated or planned to eliminate retiree health benefits for new hires… In many cases, states and municipalities are not required to negotiate these changes with retirees, and lawsuits challenging the cutbacks as a breach of contractual promises to retirees have resulted in mixed decisions. Many state or local workers retire before age 60, making them too young to turn to Medicare, prompting them to rely heavily on state and local plans for retirees.” New York Times, February 13th. Last month, I blogged (State of Confusion: the “B” Word) about the growing need for federal bankruptcy law to allow for a new form of state-filed bankruptcy protection, mostly to accommodate these long-term pension and healthcare retirement benefits, many of which have contractually “vested” and cannot be changed without drastic legal measures.

All that said, these numbers are still fighting two very clear trends: (i) a graying population where Baby Boomers are retiring or set to retire in droves over the next few years and (ii) a complete and utter failure to contain rising medical costs. Couple these demands on our safety nets with the growing practice of “hiring” workers on a contract or part-time basis with no retirement or health benefits, and you have a huge looming healthcare debacle. Indeed, if the much-maligned “Obamacare” package doesn’t survive either court or legislative challenge, the very people who are battling to remove this cost from our federal ledger may be the ones struggling to find a way to cover these “out of control” medical costs long before they could possibly expect.

I’m Peter Dekom, and no matter how catchy a slogan might sound, there are no easy buttons in a world of decreasing choices, increasing needs and an economic future that, under any scenario, is unprepared for what is happening.