Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Al Qaeda’s New Watering Hole?

The Gulf of Aden is a dangerous but strategic trade passage. Somali pirates troll the region, and Islamist militants may be slowly taking over that mob of land seeming glued to the southern-most tip on the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen, a word derived from the Arabic word for “south.” Yemen sits on the northern mouth, however, of the Red Sea, which in turn leads north to the vital Suez Canal, Europe’s passageway for everything from Middle Eastern oil to goods from India and even China.

Yemen’s history is one of conflict and instability. The CIA World Factbook presents an historical summary of this impoverished (oil reserves are dwindling fast) desert country of about 24 million: “North Yemen became independent of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. The British, who had set up a protectorate area around the southern port of Aden in the 19th century, withdrew in 1967 from what became South Yemen. Three years later, the southern government adopted a Marxist orientation. The massive exodus of hundreds of thousands of Yemenis from the south to the north contributed to two decades of hostility between the states. The two countries were formally unified as the Republic of Yemen in 1990. A southern secessionist movement in 1994 was quickly subdued…

“In 2000, Saudi Arabia and Yemen agreed to a delimitation of their border. Fighting in the northwest between the government and Huthi rebels, a group seeking a return to traditional Zaydi Islam, began in 2004 and has since resulted in seven rounds of fighting - the last ended in early 2010 with a tentative ceasefire. The southern secessionist movement was revitalized in 2008 when a popular socioeconomic protest movement initiated the prior year took on political goals including secession…

“Public rallies in Sana'a against President SALIH - inspired by similar demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt - slowly built momentum starting in late January 2011 fueled by complaints over high unemployment, poor economic conditions, and corruption. By the following month, some protests had resulted in violence, and the demonstrations had spread to other major cities. By March the opposition had hardened its demands and was unifying behind calls for SALIH's immediate ouster. Media reports indicated that as many as 100 protesters had been killed and many more injured amid the protests. Domestic and international efforts to mediate a resolution to the political crisis had not yielded a deal as of mid April.” The Yemeni city of Jaar succumbed to rebel attacks in March, but matters have deteriorated even further since.

Until two months ago, when popular sentiments strongly suggested his tenure was unsustainable, the U.S. had backed President Sahih because of his willingness to cooperate in America’s fight against Islamist terrorists, but now the rebels are using that former relationship to vilify the President and demand his ouster. Anything “American” carries a taint, and the Islamist rebels, who are making alarming progress, are quick to capitalize on that fact and blame the U.S. for as much as possible. Memorial weekend was a time of remembrance and honor in the United States. But that weekend was a day of celebration for the rebels: a second city fell into their control on May 29th: “Islamist militants consolidated control over a second city in southern Yemen [on May 30th], seizing banks, government offices and the security headquarters as government forces responded with mortar fire… The fall of the coastal city of Zinjibar to self-styled holy warriors who claimed to have ‘liberated’ it from ‘the agents of the Americans’ fed into Western fears that militants sympathetic to Al Qaeda could exploit the breakdown of authority to take control of territory…

The fighting in the south came after a week in which tribal fighting in the capital, Sana, pushed the country to the brink of civil war. That front seemed to quiet on Sunday as the government struck a cease-fire deal with its tribal rivals, bringing relative calm here after days of fierce fighting in which more than 100 people were killed… Violence broke out between the two sides last Monday after Mr. Saleh refused to follow through on his promise to sign an agreement leading to his resignation. It was the third time since the uprising began in January that Mr. Saleh had agreed to transfer power, and the third time he reneged o n the promise. ” New York Times, May 29th.

A counter force, made up of respected tribal elders from a non-Islamist camp that opposes Saleh, has theoretically been entrusted with a transition in power: “In Sana, Yemeni officials said Mr. Saleh had agreed to a truce with his historic tribal rivals the Ahmar family, and there were tangible signs of a reduction in tensions [on May 30th, after the fall of Jinzibar]… Tribesmen from the Hashid tribal confederation loyal to the Ahmar family began … to hand over to the authorities government buildings that they had occupied last week… ‘We will hand over the other ministries one by one gradually,’ Hashem al-Ahmar, one of the 10 Ahmar brothers, told reporters...” NY Ti mes. It all seems so far away, so unconnected to things American, but control of a vital international trade route is in jeopardy, and anti-American militants may find yet another base from which to plan, train and mount their attacks. It all matters.

I’m Peter Dekom, and the sea of complexity surrounding international struggles thousands of miles away still impacts our lives in the West.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Could this Ever Happen Here?

The economic failures of Greece have drawn the big headlines in Europe of late, a country mired in debt whose government bonds are basically accorded “junk” status by the big rating agencies, resulting in borrowing rates north of 15%. The stench of default is in the air, and massive austerity amidst unprecedented levels of unemployment set the stage for a series of continuous showdowns between the European Union’s many governing bodies and the Greek leadership. A slight shot of measurable growth in the Greek economic, however, came as a pleasant surprise, injecting a ray of hope in an otherwise abysmal situation. But Greece has a population of a little over 11 million; the bigger problem is on the western side of Europe in Spain, with a vastly great population of over 46 million.

Ah but Spain, almost forgotten in the recent focus on Greece, may be a vastly more challenging problem than anyone has anticipated. Let’s start with hard unemployment, a factor that has led to more than a week of protests all over the country as local elections took place on the 22nd. With an official unemployment rate of 21.3%, Spain’s younger demographics appear to be bearing a disproportionate share of that pain. Approximately 45% of the 18-25 workforce is jobless. “Tens of thousands of Spaniards angry over joblessness protested for a sixth day on Friday in cities all over the country, and the government looked unlikely to enforce a ban on the demonstrations, fearing clashes…. Dubbed ‘los indignados’ (the indignant), tens of thousands of protesters have filled the main squares of Spain's cities for six days in a wave of outrage over economic stagnation and government austerity marking a shift after years of patience.” HuffingtonPost.com, May 21st. The protests (pictured above) continued.

But what may be substantially more dangerous may well be the budget deficits and hidden liabilities of its state and local governments (Spain is actually divided up in to 17 autonomous communities and two autonomous cities). It seems that the level of these financial impairments may have been profoundly underreported. “The story is that regional elections in Spain on [May 22nd] could bring new parties to power, which as … rememberers of the Greek-debt nightmare know will likely result in the shocking uncovering of a ton of hidden debt… Financial markets have for months been convinced that Spain is ring-fenced from the debt problems of the other European peripherals [The other PIIGS nations]. It had sure better be, because a bailout of Spain would be quite a bit bigger deal than a bailout of Greece or Portugal. If cracks start to form in that conviction, things could get very interesting in a hurry.” WSJ.com, May 20th.

There is a growing feeling in the European banking community that the incumbents in Spain, from the national to the local levels, have tried to contain the economic devastation by simply lying about the extent of the governmental debts and undisclosed economic ailments. There is nervous twittering within the major debt rating agencies, and if there are any disclosures that come from the newly elected officials looking to lambast the incumbents they replace, expect another the ratings to fall, the deficit to explode and the true economic to send shudders through global markets, which have already reacted in nervous anticipation of bad news. Even our own markets reflected this nervousness over at least two trading days recently.

A further impaired Europe, with more economic crises to deal with, becomes an even less likely buyer of American goods and the impact on the global debt markets will put that much more pressure on an already decimated American credit market (as Spain sucks up more capacity), making it even more difficult for consumers and small businesses to access debt. Greece, because of its relatively smaller population, is an equally smaller issue when compared to the possibilities in Spain.

The thought that distant lands and distant economies have marginal impacts on American values is a myth that seems to die hard. The rain in Spain is a big drain on the U.S. as well.

I’m Peter Dekom, and we are all so overwhelmingly connected.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

But Some Like Us, They Really Like Us

There is this notion in both the West and in the Islamic world that these two forces cannot get along and are destined to continue what began as the Crusades (there were nine of them) a millennium ago. After nearly four hundred years of being pummeled and invaded by Muslim warriors – literally pushing the Pope out of Rome and conquering large sections of continental Europe – Europeans responded with lesser attacks in the Holy Land from 1095 through 1291. While there were long-lasting cultural and economic impacts on the relationship between east and west, the Islamic forces rose again with the Ottomans, who rose in 1299 until doused in 1922 because they picked the wrong side of WWI. In their their heyday – the 16thand 17th century – the Ottomans rocked the world like no European power could.

Still, while our ancestors were burning books in the Dark Ages, Muslim scholars were preserving them in their great libraries as they busied themselves inventing algebra (an Arabic word) based on Arabic numerals (ever try and multiply Roman numerals?) and creating new strides in medicine and modern geography (and mapping). When the Ottoman’s faded in the late 18th and 19th centuries, as European powers effectively controlled vast stretches of Ottoman holdings in Africa and the Middle East, their began an era of Muslim humiliation and erosion of power that reduced them in the eyes of many in the West as primitive tribes of ignorant nomads. It was not until the discovery of oil in strategic parts of the Middle East that Arab prelates began a long process of trying to buy respect.

For Arab peasants and working class, the promise of a better lifestyle clearly shown in Western film and television never materialized. It was siphoned off by what was seen as mega-wealthy monarchs and corrupt leaders, many of the latter supported by U.S. military aid in exchange for siding with the U.S. and its anti-Soviet policies. We were loved in the Middle East once… When I was a boy, as the step-son of a U.S. diplomat stationed in Beirut, Lebanon, I was treated better by local Sunni and Shiite Muslims than I have ever been treated anywhere on earth. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, local Beirutis, wearing black armbands, mourned and wailed in the streets, shedding tears and collapsing into deep sadness… quite a bit different from the cheering one often sees in Arab streets at American deaths today.

The disenfranchised Arab masses, betrayed by their Western-supported leaders, were sitting ducks for Muslim radicals preaching violence now for eternal joy in the hereafter. Islam made that recruiting easy, since on death, most pious Muslims then have to wait an indeterminate time until the big Judgment Day for all mankind; only those who die in the service of Allah (holy war – Jihad) go directly to heaven. Most Arabs had nothing to lose, since the path promised by the West was clearly never going to materialize. The violent insertion of Israel into the Middle East only gave leaders in search of a cause a rallying cry to muster even more anti-incumbent and anti-Western violence.

But there is a change in the wind; Muslims were not born to hate the West. Our support for grassroots rebellion in the Middle East – against these malevolent dictators – has moved the needle slightly in some lands… more in others. The pro-Western sentiments in the Libyan stronghold of Benghazi cannot be underestimated. What a contrast to our reception in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As one taxi-driver told a reporter, in halting English, for the New York Times (May 28th): “ ‘America No. 1’. Americans and, for that matter, all Westerners are treated hereabouts with a warmth and gratitude rarely seen in any Muslim country — even those with 100,000 American troops [stationed in other Muslim nations, mostly waging war] — in probably half a century or more. People smile and go out of their way to say hello to them, and are almost shockingly courteous. It is that oddest of oddities, an Arab war zone where foreign joggers are regarded, not with hostility or even that sympathetic puzzlement reserved for the insane, but with a friendly wave or a toot on the horn.

“Here, even taxi drivers do not rip off foreign visitors, and when a taxi cannot be found, some passing driver will soon volunteer a ride, and will be likely to refuse any offer of payment. A big problem for non-Arabic speaking journalists who visit is trying to find a translator who will accept payment for his or her services. The rebels’ press office has signed up all the English translators it could find, and ordered them to work for free.” How much more effective is a policy of helping the true struggles of the oppressed sons and daughters of a brutal dictatorship than waging wars on our own account in distant lands that we can never win or hold? And how much latent hope is there in a world where people are just… well… people? Somewhere out there are Arabs who like us, they really like us.

I’m Peter Dekom, and it is most interesting to watch which American Middle Eastern policies really work.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

They Hate Us, They Really Hate Us

So here’s the problem in a nutshell: Pakistan has a history of providing nuclear weapons know-how to Iran and North Korea. They claim the release of this information by the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program was inadvertent, but D. A.Q. Khan only got a short period of house arrest as total punishment for this “indiscretion.” Pakistan also holds at least one hundred nuclear warheads in their arsenal. While there are Taliban attacks almost daily against Pakistani targets in an effort to unseat the purported secular government, these attackers are vastly more popular that the Americans who are flying drone missions into the Western Tribal district striking Afghan Taliban seeking safe harbor there, inflicting lots of collateral casualties on innocent Pakistanis.

Former President Zia al Haq (killed in a suspicious plane crash in 1988) made an unholy alliance with Muslim militants giving them the right to organize and pressure on local college campuses – a status protected through to the current day – in exchange for a laissez-faire permission for the government to continue in power unchecked. Thousands of Madrassa (Muslim fundamentalist primary and secondary schools, one of which is pictured above) exist all over Pakistan, teaching anti-American vitriol as a basic philosophy.

The military is being trained with an anti-American bent: “A U.S. diplomatic cable said the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, found officers at the National Defense University (NDU) were ‘naive and biased’ against the United States, a key ally which gives Pakistan billions of dollars of aid to help fight Islamist militants… Pakistan's military also controls the country's nuclear arms, and a series of attacks against military installations has heightened fears about the safety of those weapons.

“‘The elite of this crop of colonels and brigadiers are receiving biased NDU training with no chance to hear alternative views of the U.S.,’ the Wikileaks cable…quoted Patterson as saying.” HuffingtonPost.com, May 25th. But clearly, that same military appears to be totally incompetent when it comes to guarding those weapons. A May 22nd – 23rd attack by Taliban militants on a Pakistani naval base kept Pakistani forces occupied for 17 hours, and a number of the estimated 10-15 attackers managed to get away. At least four Pakistani forces were reported killed, but the attackers were well versed in the operation of the base and the location of strategic targets: “A team of heavily armed insurgents stormed a major Pakistani naval base in the southern city of Karachi late Sunday[the 22nd] night, setting off a prolonged gun battle with Pakistani security forces and, by some accounts, destroying an American-made aircraft at the base.” New York Times, May 22nd.

The local press also played out the unauthorized American incursion that took out Osama bin Laden as a violation of Pakistani territorial integrity. Televised reports showed wildly cheering Americans in the U.S., raising the local ire to burning. Clearly, no Pakistani politician could ever hold office by walking the straight anti-terrorism American line. Yet all that American aid, billions and billions of dollars worth, is vital to sustain the Pakistani military. No matter what strings American Congress men and women may want to put on that aid, no Pakistani leader could ever survive agreeing to those conditions. But… and here’s the big but… we also have to support that same Pakistani military because it is the only barrier between angry Muslim extremists who would love to take those nukes and deploy them against Israel and the U.S…. and us. Bottom line, when it comes to the Pakistani constituency and notwithstanding Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to patch things up, they hate us, they really hate us. It all really sucks, doesn’t it?

I’m Peter Dekom, and playing politics in a hostile world is really tricky business.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Engineers, Plumbers, Mechanics and Chefs

Let’s start asking some basic questions about exactly what kinds of workers are finding jobs in this impaired economy… and who’s not. First there is an “almost” myth that we don’t have enough engineering graduates to fill our needs. There is a slight truth to that, but since most companies don’t spend much time training new engineering grads and since the jobs that need filling require very specific engineering skills, there are a number of unemployed U.S. engineers. For example, according to the December 10th TechCrunch.com, in the Silicon Valley, there is a shortage of Objective C developers, analog engineers who understand low power design, and good user-interface de signers. There are also shortages of radio-frequency engineers in New York City and in Indiana.” Those jobs, and a host of comparably specific engineering specialties, go begging. But there are a lot of engineering skills that don’t have comparable job demand.

And for those students coming from overseas to get graduate degrees and then fill engineering positions here in the United States, it seems as if the grass is greener in China and India these days:

  • Nearly 60% of U.S. engineering post-graduate degrees and 40% of graduate degrees are awarded to foreign nationals. In the past, most of these students would remain in the U.S. after graduation and eventually become U.S. citizens. Now, because of flawed U.S. immigration policies, most buy one-way tickets home.
  • The world’s best and brightest aren’t beating a path to the U.S. any more. In previous years, H-1B visas for foreign nationals were in such high demand that they had to be awarded by lottery. This year, the annual quota of 65,000 hasn’t even been used yet. Instead, these workers are staying home and entrepreneurship is booming in countries like India and China. TechCrunch.com.

Further, the myths of the economic benefits of a college degree are beginning to fall into question. It’s not whether a college education is valuable, but the kinds of degrees that generate work tend not to be available for Russian studies, English and History majors. “Unemployment may be beginning to fall, but millions of people are still having a hard time finding work. But there are parts of the U.S. economy where jobs are going begging, and it turns out that half of the top 10 occupations facing labor shortages don't require a college degree, according to the ManpowerGroup's (MAN) 2011 Talent Shortage Survey, released Thursday. For the survey, Manpower conducted telephone interviews with more than 1,300 businesses in the U.S.

“For the second year in a row, skilled trades jobs such as plumbers, mechanics and chefs top the list of careers for which employees are in short supply. Indeed, there have been worker shortages in these areas not just for the past two years, but for virtually every year of the past decade.” DailyFinance.com, May 24th. Indeed, half the jobs secured by the 2010 college graduates did not require a college degree, although these students often displaced applicants with just a high school diploma.

While a college diploma generally results in better pay, if you take out the benefits of scholarships and grants, a cost analysis brings the benefits of financial sacrifice into a more accurate picture, one that is likely to distort further as tuition continues to rise beyond the cost of living, particularly taking into account the extra interest charged on educational borrowings: “A typical college graduate earns roughly $650,000 more than a typical high school graduate over the course of a 40-year career, according to the Pew Research Center study. But that figure drops to a net payoff of $550,000 four decades later, after accounting for out-of-pocket costs for college tuition and fees, and subtracting foregone earnings during the time in college cost opportunity to earn approximately $94,000 in income d uring the time while in college, versus the average annual income of $23,000 for a high school graduate during this same time period, the net benefit of going to college comes out to $550,000 four decades later, the report noted.” DailyFinance.com.

A Georgetown University report, summarized in the May 26th FastCompany.com, tracks earnings, based on majors: “Engineers are the king of the cash hill, raking in a median salary of $75K, while Psychology and Social Worker graduates beg for the trickle-down table scraps, amounting to $42K. The brightest light in the non-hard sciences is the Social Sciences, with economists earning $70K, using their savvy knowledge of money to rake in more than their compatriots in both finance and architecture...Art majors are pretty much doomed to small studio apartments, maxing out at $46K for a career in film… For (really) long term thinkers, or for those who love studying, graduate school boosts earnings roughly 20-65%, which is several hundred thousand dollars in life-time earnings--if you can make it through the debt-addled, post-grad, Ramen-noodle dirge of your late 20s and 30s.”

There is little doubt of the lifestyle and extrinsic values of a college degree. The United States has to be a better place with educated citizens. But for those looking that the immediate rewards that used to be associated with a university education, the answers aren’t so simple anymore. Clearly, the nature of the education becomes the variable that commands income.

I’m Peter Dekom, looking behind the statistics.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Class of 2010

Their families begged and borrowed, often digging deep into retirement savings, to get their sons and daughters through college, unable to tap that once traditional source of paying for college – home equity. The students themselves also have mortgaged themselves up to their eyeballs with student loans (the median debt is $20,000 for under grads), worming their way through cutbacks, larger classrooms and insufficient course offerings. Now, with degrees in hand, those that did not press on for more advanced degrees, have had almost a year to generate that golden result: a job. The spring of 2011 is a good time to see how they fared.

In the pre-recession days of 2006-2008, the average annual starting salary for a new college grad was still a modest $30,000. For the scions of 2010, it was 10% less, $27,000… for those who found a job. The May 18th New York Times reports that while the pre-recession job placement put 90% of the relevant graduating classes into jobs, 2010 fared a lot worse: 56%. What’s sad even about those who found employment, the jobs they got only really required a college degree about half the time; college grads were taking work away from those who simply graduated high school, even though there was no differentiation in skill required. The unemployment rates and levels of compensation for new high school grads entering the job market are even worse, according to the Times.

Not all educational paths produced the same results: “Young graduates who majored in education and teaching or engineering were most likely to find a job requiring a college degree, while area studies majors — those who majored in Latin American studies, for example — and humanities majors were least likely to do so. Among all recent education graduates, 71.1 percent were in jobs that required a college degree; of all area studies majors, the share was 44.7 percent.

An analysis by The New York Times of Labor Department data about college graduates aged 25 to 34 found that the number of these workers employed in food service, restaurants and bars had risen 17 percent in 2009 from 2008, though thesample size was small. There were similar or bigger employment increases at gas stations and fuel dealers, food and alcohol stores, and taxi and limousine services.” NY Times.

Students are struggling more than ever to service their student loans, while others are coming to the realization that without further specialized advanced (and expensive) degrees, a college education doesn’t mean much these days. Other young people are simply dropping out and moving back home to spend their time in depressed self-examination, giving up the job search in hopes of better times ahead. This wasn’t the life they were promised as they grew up.

The long term impact of an unskilled job or a particularly low pay level is unfortunately significant: “Those who do not go back to school may be on a lower-paying trajectory for years. They start at a lower salary, and they may begin their careers with employers that pay less on average or have less room for growth… ‘Their salary history follows them wherever they go,’ said Carl Van Horn, a labor economist at Rutgers. ‘It’s like a parrot on your shoulder, traveling with you everywhere, constantly telling you ‘No, you can’t make that much money.’” ”

“And while young people who have weathered a tough job market may shy from risks during their careers, the best way to nullify an unlucky graduation date is to change jobs when you can, says Till von Wachter, an economist at Columbia [University].” NY Times. Is the class of 2010 destined to become part of a bitter and lost generation? Is this the hidden explanation about why even the gradual improvement in the Dept. of Labor’s unemployment rates isn’t really showing too much in the way of significant recovery at the consumer level?

So these young adults can take consolation that preceding older generations have done sooo well in the recovery? “Mark Cole, chief operating officer of CredAbility, says that net worth is a ‘ticking time bomb,’ as many Americans over the age of 50 have less time and opportunity to recover financially from the recession. The average jobless spell for Americans over the age of 55 lasts longer, and new jobs may pay less.” DailyFinance.com, May 19th. Du’oh! Oh well, at least the younger set can prepare for misery early in life… so when it hits them at the end of their peak earning years, they will remember.

Aren’t we really ignoring the real issue in our economy: underemployment? Graduation ceremonies are happening all over the United States right now. Welcome to the job market, class of 2011.

I’m Peter Dekom, just keeping it real.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Putting a Spin on Tornadoes

People are dying, lives are being crushed, homes and businesses demolished and entire communities are wiped off the map in seconds. Twisters are nothing new to the United States, particularly the vast plains states. What is new the ferocity and sheer numbers of powerful tornadoes slamming into American communities, even beyond their traditional target areas. It helps to understand historically how they have impacted the United States, how they are formed and what seems to have changed.

To start, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) National Weather Service (part of the U.S. Department of Commerce) provides this basic information: “Although tornadoes occur in many parts of the world, these destructive forces of nature are found most frequently in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains during the spring and summer months. In an average year, 800 tornadoes are reported nationwide, resulting in 80 deaths and over 1,500 injuries. A tornado is defined as a violently rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm to the ground. The most violent tornadoes are capable of tremendous destruction with wind speeds of 250 mph or more. Damage paths can be in excess of one mile wide and 50 miles long. Once a tornado in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, carried a motel sign 30 miles and dropped it in Arkansas !

“Thunderstorms develop in warm, moist air in advance of eastward-moving cold fronts. These thunderstorms often produce large hail, strong winds, and tornadoes. Tornadoes in the winter and early spring are often associated with strong, frontal systems that form in the Central States and move east. Occasionally, large outbreaks of tornadoes occur with this type of weather pattern. Several states may be affected by numerous severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.

“During the spring in the Central Plains, thunderstorms frequently develop along a ‘dryline,’ which separates very warm, moist air to the east from hot, dry air to the west. Tornado-producing thunderstorms may form as the dryline moves east during the afternoon hours.” But on Sunday, May 22nd, one single tornado in Joplin, Missouri inflicted more deaths – 122 to be precise – than the average annual fatalities for the entire United States. In NOAA parlance, the Joplin storm was an EF-5 generating winds as fast as 200+ miles per hour. And the twisters just kept coming, with 13 more fatalities days later in tornado attacks in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Tornado warnings have been issued for east coast regions and parts of the south where such weather patterns are hardly typical. What’s happening here?

The May 25th Los Angeles Times put the question to some very credible meteorologists: “Warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico moved north until it encountered cold air brought south by the jet stream. When the warm and cold air from different altitudes come together, it creates wind shear and circular air motions that lead to a tornado… The air from the south was unusually warm and moist for this time of year, according to Stu Ostro, a senior meteorologist at the Weather Channel. Some experts say this is because waters in the gulf are about 2 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year.” Warmer water in the Gulf is also a precursor to stronger, more virulent hurricanes, not a particularly welcome sign for the coming season.

The Jet Stream, which generally carries cooler air, has move southward just as Gulf water temperatures have risen significantly. This has proven to be a deadly combination. It’s too soon to declare that this confluence of twisters is the result of global climate change heating up the Gulf, but we should keep our eye on this region to see if a longer-term pattern is evolving. If so, that would be strong evidence of such global warming: “It is impossible to link specific storms and weather events toclimate change. But one of the predictions of the climate change models is that we'll be in for more intense storms as average global temperatures climb. That is what appears to be happening, both in summer and in winter.” LA Times.

I’m Peter Dekom, and human beings live on this planet as a guest of Mother Nature, and sometimes she can be a brutal hostess.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Got Xingfu?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,

that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,

that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

The notion of happiness as a right has for the most part been a part of Western classical values, reflected in the writings of the ancient Greeks and carried down through multiple generations of Judeo-Christian religious prelates and scholarly philosophers alike. The Asian notion, ranging from the peaceful detachment inherent in Buddhist thought to a more generalized accepting doctrine of “contentment,” harmony and being satisfied with your lot in life, always appeared more realistic, if not a touch sad. But as the Chinese leadership lays out the plans for the coming years, there’s a new concept in the air: that the Chinese people have a right to be happy.

The wave of “Are you happy?” is sweeping China and rapidly replacing that old greeting, “Have you eaten?” The May 20th Los Angeles Times describes how this concept is now an official policy of the Chinese government: “[H]appiness is on the tip of every Chinese politician's tongue. ‘Everything we do is aimed at letting people live more happily and with more dignity,’ Premier Wen Jiabao declared in his New Year's address to the nation. During the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in March, it came up so often that the official New China News Agency proclaimed, ‘No doubt, 'happiness' is the keyword for the two sessions.’” It’s a whole new way of looking at the world; xingfu (happiness) has not been the normal road of inquiry in China.

But when a rage sweeps China, it’s like a plains wildfire carried to extreme in flowing gusts. “At the local level, municipal governments are drawing up happiness indexes and competing with one another for the title of ‘China's happiest city.’… ‘It even sounds a little weird in Chinese to ask, 'Are you happy?' but now there is so much talk about happiness, it's almost become a cliché,’ said Christopher K. Hsee, a Chinese-born University of Chicago professor who is credited with bringing happiness studies to China…Why is the Chinese government suddenly jumping on the happiness bandwagon? Cynics might argue that officials are looking for an alternate measure of success for that inevitable point when economic growth plateaus. But Hsee believes the concept of happiness is a natural corollary of the Communist Party' s propaganda about creating a ‘harmonious society.’” LA Times.

Money can’t buy happiness, but Chinese peasants’ clinging to a survivor/subsistence lifestyle for centuries couldn’t be very mirth-inducing or joyful. In half a generation, the real earning power for the average Chinese worker has increased by a factor of five, just as the American standard of living appears to be in some serious long-term jeopardy. As Chinese workers are smiling and laughing a lot more – a fact to which I can attest having visited the Peoples Republic repeatedly since the door swung open – Americans are bickering among themselves, much more quick to anger, seeking scapegoats to blame for our recent malaise.

In the big Chinese cities, skyscrapers gleam, new cars on the road congest, theme parks and modern malls are opening all the time. It’s a new glorious world to the average Chinese, although there are millions in the hinterlands yet to taste of their nation’s new prosperity and others, breathing foul air and watching seething pollution destroy waterways, who are less than convinced that this is all for the betterment of the Chinese people.

But when it comes to proving that the Chinese are vastly happier, the various polls and “happiness” indices have yet to support the theory: “In advance of the National People's Congress, a state-owned information portal, China.com.cn, polled 1,350 people and discovered that only 6% listed themselves as ‘very happy,’ as opposed to 48% who were distinctly ‘not happy.’ (The rest were ‘so-so’ or ‘unsure.’ ) A news story reporting the unhappy results in the English-language China Daily was promptly zapped from the Internet.

“The results of another poll must have been even more alarming to the powers that be. Gallup last month ranked China 92nd out of 124 countries in a poll in which people assessed their own ‘well-being.’ Only 12% of Chinese described themselves as ‘thriving.’ That put China roughly on par with Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, countries where the discontent bubbled up in the form of popular uprisings. Denmark led the pack with 72% of people reporting that they were thriving, while the United States came in at No. 12, with 59%.” LA Times. Hey, at least the Chinese are thinking about being happy for a change!

I’m Peter Dekom, and I think we need to start conducting “misery” polls to reflect the American mood these days.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Too Little, Too Late

From an office is the Department of State on May 19th, President Obama spoke to Israel and the Middle East, opposing tyrants, championing populist uprisings and commanding the parties to the Palestinian dispute to return to the negotiating table to work out a two-state solution along the lines of the 9167 borders… adjusted with a few land swaps. Mired in Afghanistan and having fundamentally failed to establish a working balance government in Iraq, the United States drew mostly skepticism at these remarks.

“‘Most people have realized that what the U.S. does or does not do is no longer important because people took matters into their own hands and decided their own future,’ [said Fares Braizat of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Qatar] ‘So why should people care what he says? America is no longer an issue.’ Quoted in the Washington Post, May 20th. Hey, wasn’t it American cruise missiles and jets that settled the no fly zone over Libya? Ah, note the skeptics, it certainly wasn’t the United States that made that initial decision, was it?

Israel’s conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Washington for a meeting with President Obama, was less than amused at the American President’s suggestion that Israel cede territory consisting with the ’67 borders. With terrorist-designee Hamas blending with moderate Fatah (see my May 15th blog – Fatah Accompli) in advance of a UN General Assembly vote on recognizing Palestine as a separate state slated for this September, Netanyahu was hoping for a US Security Council veto at the United Nations (mustering some allies along the way) and pressure mounted in the General Assembly (which is veto-proof) in support of Israel.

Israel’s disappointment with Obama’s proscription, notwithstanding the President’s admonition that Hamas must relinquish its basic position demanding the destruction of Israel for negotiations to be productive, was politely worded, but anger lurked behind these diplomatic words: “‘While there were many points in the president’s speech that we appreciate and welcome, there were other aspects, like the return to the 1967 borders, which depart from longstanding American policy, as well as Israeli policy, going back to 1967,’ Michael B. Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview.” New York Times, May 20th. The bottom line from Tel Aviv was a little more definitive: “Reacting to Obama's speech, Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a full withdrawal from the West Ban k, saying the 1967 lines were ‘indefensible’ and would leave major Jewish settlements outside Israel. Netanyahu rejects any pullout from east Jerusalem.” HuffingtonPost.com, May 19th.

President Obama has since tempered his speech, while calling the current unresolved Israeli-Palestinian dispute “unsustainable” and that Israel has to make some “hard choices,” he has indicated that the emphasis on pre-1967 borders in the May 19thpresentation was also to be tempered with the realistic “land swaps” to reflect post-1967 realities. Obama iterated America’s “iron clad” commitment to the survival of Israel. On May, Netanyahu will address the U.S. Congress on May 24th, and doubtless he will get a very warm reception.

Having just returned from a European trip, I was struck by exactly how negative the local press was regarding things American. The underlying sentiments still seem to place the unforgiving burden for the global financial collapse on the United States and other countries mirroring America’s proclivity to borrow. The message was clear, “America, get your own house in order before you tell others what they ought to do.” There is this less-than-subtle projection – tempered with Europe’s own catastrophic PIIGS economic failures – that the United States is in severe decline and need not be followed with remotely the same degree of seriousness as in past years.

When reminded that it is American military might behind even Europe’s efforts to stabilize the Middle East (notably Libya), that the U.S. still spends about 44% of the world’s military budget, there is a grudging acknowledgment and an undisguised suggestion that we remain the world’s biggest bully. Sensing the pressure of possible large budget cuts, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, speaking at the Notre Dame Commencement ceremonies, warned against any significant reductions in our military expenditures saying: “Our military credibility, commitment and presence are required to sustain alliances, to protect trade routes and energy supplies, and to deter would-be adversaries.” But almost half the world’s military budget with little to show for it but the death of bin Laden after a decade-long hunt? Can we really afford to remain the world’s policeman?

American policies are seen as ineffective in the European press. The Middle East peace process has been going on for a very long time under the aegis of America without the slightest hint of any progress in recent years. World leaders and their constituents seem to have written off America’s ability to do anything, and the endless unsatisfying American military expeditions in Iraq and Afghanistan (now America’s longest conflict) are portrayed as the actions of a naïve, bumbling bully with less creditability that at any time since the beginning of World War II. And yet, the United States acts, critics note, as if the she still had the same perceived power from its halcyon days. They seem to be waiting to see how China will step up to the plate.

The world seems to have adopted that good old American “results oriented” valuation strategy, and in the eyes of so many – allies and enemies alike – in recent years, the United States has come up short. Our political system is more polarized that at any time since the Civil War, and cost-saving pressures threaten to dismantle what had once been our educational jewel in the global crown, the driver of American innovation, creativity and triumph. We are acting desperate, we no longer speak with anything remotely sounding like a unified American voice, and our leaders are more interested in short-term poll results than in long-term leadership. We have a choice: either reaffirm our commitment to our nation’s ability to retake the path to greatness or bicker among ourselves as the country slides down a precipitous slope.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I thought the world was coming to an end on the 21st!