Thursday, September 29, 2011

Drooling for Dollars

Are all men dogs as they say? A fairly short NHL hockey player was always escorting vastly taller super-model types to the hottest New York soirees. When asked by an unusually frank fan how a short hockey player was so successful with the tallest beauties in the city, the player is alleged to have responded, “I’m a lot taller when I stand on my wallet.” To many, the attraction of beautiful women to older and less-than-gorgeous-waist-enhanced men of wealth or “boy-toys” hanging tightly to the arm of a wealthy-but-seriously-older matron is simply shallow gold-digging, a cut barely above simple prostitution. But what if money itself triggered a lustful “want” reaction that genuinely stimulates a carnal appetite? What if the attraction is real? What if people really drool when they think about or see pictures of money?

That’s the question that Kellogg (Northwestern University’s School of Business) Assistant Marketing Professor David Gal posited as he tested his subjects on their bodily reactions to money. The abstract of his study, reported in the current Journal of Consumer Research (Vol. 38, April 2012), entitled A Mouth-Watering Prospect: Salivation to Material Reward: “The term ‘hunger’ and terms referring to its physiological correlates, notably ‘salivation,’ are used to refer to desire for material rewards across languages and cultures. Is such usage is ‘merely metaphorical,’ or can exposure to material reward cues evoke a salivary response? Results of an experiment show that individuals salivate to money when induced to experience a low power state but not when induced to experience a high power state. A second experiment shows that men salivate to sports cars when primed with a mating goal but not in a control condition. These findings suggest that salivary secretion is stimulated by material rewards in the presence of a highly active goal to obtain the rewards and that the motivation to acquire material rewards might more closely resemble physiological hunger than previously assumed.”

The September 16th Huffington Post tells us how these experiments worked: “For the pictures-of-money experiment, Gal first primed the students by having them write about either a time when they felt powerful or a time when they felt powerless… The students who'd been made to feel powerless, it turned out, produced much more saliva when shown pictures of money, suggesting that at some level they were more focused on the question of how they might gain power.

“Similarly, Gal asked one group of men to imagine going to the barber, while he showed pictures of attractive women to another group of men and asked them which ones they'd like to date. He then showed both groups pictures of expensive sports cars. One group salivated more than the other when looking at the cars -- the men who'd been primed to think about dating… According to Gal, the findings suggest that thinking about money and luxury goods activates the same neurological reward system as thinking about anything else desirable -- food, for example, or mating… Social psychologists have long thought that many people, whether consciously or unconsciously, want to acquire money not for the financial security it brings, but because it suggests power and may increase one's sexual desirability.” You gotta admit, life is a tad easier if you don’t have to worry about the bills, but are we just shallow or genuinely turned on in those relationships.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I truly attempted to say, “woof,” but my wife won’t let me!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Getting Like Totally Wasted

It’s hard to add up the real total of direct expenditures on our Iraqi and Afghani incursions. You have to start with the actually required to pay the troops, supply the arms and support needed for the military, cover the expendables and the transportation costs, the money spend on locals – whether as bribes, construction projects, foreign aid, special projects, support for their military and governmental activities – and then add in all the military disability/death benefits, retirement and medical benefits, governmental pensions of all sorts…

Seems that however you slice it, we’ve spend over $2 trillion (all of it borrowed, since we reduced taxes as we waged war) on these boondoggles, and in my mind’s eye, we are not one whit safer and don’t have one barrel of extra oil from the effort. If anything, we have provided an active training ground for Islamist troops, provided enough collateral damage and abusive Americans to provide photographs to help recruit hundreds of thousands of anti-American combatants all over the world, and have added a huge hurdle of credibility whenever we want to serve as global negotiators of peace with third world countries.

I haven’t even addressed the losses we have faced because we didn’t invest that capital in more productive activities or the harm we have inflicted upon ourselves in excessive borrowing and building up a completely unmanageable deficit. Could a thousand 9/11 al Qaeda attacks inflict half the economic harm that such profligate spending on winless wars has inflicted upon us?

To rub salt into our puss-filled wounds, I have to add the most conservative estimates of pure unadulterated waste from the hard dollars we have spent in these distant theaters of war: “As much as $60 billion in U.S. funds has been lost to waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade through lax oversight of contractors, poor planning and payoffs to warlords and insurgents, an independent panel investigating U.S. wartime spending estimates.

“In its final report to Congress, the Commission on Wartime Contracting said the figure could grow as U.S. support for reconstruction projects and programs wanes, leaving both countries to bear the long-term costs of sustaining the schools, medical clinics, barracks, roads and power plants already built with American tax dollars…The commission said calculating the exact amount lost through waste and fraud is difficult because there is no commonly accepted methodology for doing so. But using information it has gathered over the past three years, the commission said at least $31 billion has been lost and the total could be as high as $60 billion. The commission called the estimate ‘conservative.’

“Overall, the commission said spending on contracts and grants to support U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is expected to exceed $206 billion by the end of the 2011 budget year. Based on its investigation, the commission said contracting waste in Afghanistan ranged from 10 percent to 20 percent of the $206 billion total. Fraud during the same period ran between 5 percent and 9 percent of the total, the report said.” Huffington Post, August 30th. Kinda makes you feel all warm an’ fuzzy inside, don’t it?! We should have been out of both those theaters of war… a thousand yesterdays ago.

I’m Peter Dekom, and what is it about the lessons of history that American body politic finds so completely distasteful?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Buying Votes and Starving Somalis

I remember this bioethics issue from one of my earlier educational romps: is it better to cure disease that is rampant among the central African poor so that more can survive to decimate forests to farms and still have millions then starve to death later on? My simple answer, if I recall, is to do the best you can for the here and now, and perhaps the future will produce new levels of agricultural productivity to solve the problem. Indeed, we do have more productive farms, but global climate change and growing populations with unwise farming techniques and over-grazing are claiming increasing acreage, as arable land or forests become useless desert.

“Desertification is the rapid conversion of cultivable land into arid useless land. The topsoil, which is rich in nutrients and fertilizers, is easily blown away in the process. This leads to erosion, exposing the inner soil layers. These layers are not rich in nutrients and extremely hard. They will not sustain any type of life causing massive loss of flora in the region. Animals will not have plants to graze upon and will die. A loss to fauna and flora will cause colossal displacement of millions of people worldwide…

“Nearly 3.6 billion hectares of agricultural land across 100 countries have been affected by desertification causing a huge food crisis. One billion out of the total six billion have moved over in search of better livelihood due to loss of crops and inhospitable conditions. Africa, Asia and Latin America are largely affected. China is already reeling under immense land shortage due to desertification. An exposing population has made the situation worse. Annually, nearly 20,000 square miles of land on planet Earth is being converted into deserts. More than 70 percent of lands in North America have been affected. In Africa, approximately 2.4 million acres of land have become deserts.”

As nations like China, India and Brazil explode their middle classes, the desire and ability to upgrade the general diet to include greater quantities and more desirable animal protein has placed pressures on the value of foodstuffs. Commodity prices, well beyond oil, have soared of late, and for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum, the cost of food has led many to starvation.

Staples are used directly to feed billions but also as animal feed, where the efficiency of production is sacrificed to the production of meat and related products. Rice, quickly followed by wheat, is the main staple on earth. “A program sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is warning of a possible spike in international rice prices, a development that the program's analysts say could have grave implications for countries where access to food is already limited. The analysts are reluctant to make specific predictions about how high the price could rise, but they say they worry that the increase could be significant.

In Somalia, where the cost of food is already high, the effects of even a modest increase could considerably worsen the severe famine that has been ravaging the country for months. Analysts listed Somalia, Djibouti, Haiti and countries in West Africa and, to a lesser extent, Central America as places that stand to be seriously affected by such an increase. To varying degrees, all of these countries depend on imports of rice to make up for limited local harvests of grain.” Huffington Post, September 20th. Simply put, as the price of basic food rises, an increasing number of people in the poorest of countries simply starve to death.

But politics and policies designed to buy votes to reelect incumbent politicians may indirectly result in millions of additional deaths by starvation: “In July, the international price of rice began to rise as well, intensifying … concerns [from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, or FEWS NET, a USAID-funded program]. They traced the origins of the increase to Thailand, where the government recently announced a plan to buy rice from the country's farmers at above-market prices -- a scheme that at least one government member described as a strategy aimed at winning votes. The government enacted the policy earlier this month and says it will begin the buying stage in October.

“Thailand occupies a key position in the complex web of dependencies that make up the global food economy. It supplies 30 percent of the world's rice exports, more than any other country. The dependence on Thai rice is particularly heavy in West Africa, where most countries consume more rice than they produce.” Huffington Post. So how do you explain to a marginally compensated local Thai farmer that he or she must live even closer to the edge in order to preserve anonymous lives more than a continent away? The bioethics question du jure: what exactly is the moral obligation of a well-fed person to help feed a baby born to a careless farmer thousands of miles away on a different continent? If that well-fed person drives a car and uses electricity generated by the burning of fossil fuel? Or is it everyone for her/himself? Your opinion?

I’m Peter Dekom, and when did starvation ever deserve to be ignored by those who can make a difference?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Social Insecurity

Social Security was signed into law in 1935 by Franklin Roosevelt as part of his “New Deal” Depression-inspired legislation. Though the statute has been amended repeatedly, its basic structure remains intact. It covers everything from unemployment benefits to Medicaid and Medicare to disability and retirement benefits. To put it mildly, the program is huge: “By dollars paid, the U.S. Social Security program is the largest government program in the world and the single greatest expenditure in the federal budget, with 20.8% for social security, compared to 20.5% for discretionary defense and 20.1% for Medicare/Medicaid. Social Security is currently the largest social insurance program in the U.S. where in 2003 combined spending for all social insurance programs constituted 37% of government expenditure and 7% of the gross domestic product. Social Security is currently estimated to keep roughly 40 percent of all Americans age 65 or older out of poverty.

“The 2011 annual report by the program's Board of Trustees noted the following: in 2010, 54 million people were receiving Social Security benefits, while 157 million people were paying into the fund; of those receiving benefits, 44 million were receiving retirement benefits and 10 million disability benefits. In 2011, there will be 56 million beneficiaries and 158 million workers paying in. In 2010, total income was $781.1 billion and expenditures were $712.5 billion, which meant a total net increase in assets of $68.6 billion. Assets in 2010 were $2.6 trillion, an amount that is expected to be adequate to cover the next 10 years. In 2023, total income and interest earned on assets are projected to no longer cover expenditures for Social Security, as demographic shifts burden the system. By 2035, the ratio of potential retirees to working age persons will be 37 percent — there will be less than three potential income earners for every retiree in the population. The trust fund would then be exhausted by 2036 without legislative action.” Wikipedia

In the George W. Bush administration, there was an effort to move the program into the private sector, giving beneficiaries greater control of their retirement accounts. The financial collapse – including the fall of the very stock market that would have supported such privatization – put a cap on such discussions, but recent talks among GOP candidates, triggered by a Tea Party-driven focus on reducing the deficit and contracting the role of the federal government coupled with the issue of continued funding for the program itself, have reopened discussions of what to do with Social Security in coming years. Presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry has suggested that such retirement efforts might be better served by being moved to the State level, and indeed some Texas jurisdictions have had modest success in alternative retirement structures.

Putting aside the issues of what happens to beneficiaries when the private investments fail or the alternative retirement accounts go insolvent (many simply say, “too bad” while others argue for an ERISA-like federal retirement benefit insurance policy), what does such an alternative program look like, and what have the results been? Perry has written about and touted one particular Texas area program: “In the late 1970s, county employees in Galveston, Tex., made an unusual and risky decision that they thought would help secure their financial future. They took advantage of a federal provision available at the time and opted out of Social Security…

“For the highest-earning workers in the Gulf Coast county, the personal accounts have yielded nearly double what they might have collected under Social Security. But according to independent studies, the results have been less favorable to those on the lower end of the income spectrum… In 1999, the Social Security Administration and the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) separately examined the program adopted by Galveston and surrounding counties and found that its benefits depended on income and longevity: The lower one’s income and the longer one lived after retirement, the less advantage there was to participating in the program compared with Social Security. Also, Social Security payments increased with inflation, while payments under the Galveston plan did not.” Washington Post, September 13th.

Many Democrats theorize that Republican candidates are shooting themselves in the heart – and losing at least the senior vote – by assailing the current levels of Social Security, but younger people seem either not to think that far ahead or simply believe that the system will long since have run out of money when they retire, and elders, well, don’t believe the Republicans will actually impact accrued benefits for existing seniors. This reaction is typical: “‘None of them are going to take a chance on offending this age group,’ said Bob Landino, 78, who lives in Sun Lakes [Arizona where Mitt Romney recently campaigned] and is retired from the restaurant industry. ‘They’re going to change it for 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-year-olds, but not if you’re already at the age of retirement. That ain’t gonna happen.’” Washington Post, September 15th.

In a world of hot debate, it is important to take the emotions out of the discussions and look at the facts. If there are alternative approaches to retirement, we need to be able to look at them. But even compared to this successful Texas program, Social Security doesn’t look too bad. What are your thoughts?

I’m Peter Dekom, and we need so many solutions to so many problems, but let’s start with the facts.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Keeping the Werewolves Away

We all know the old joke of the man who wore garlic around his neck to keep the werewolves away. When confronted by a friend who indicated there really weren’t any werewolves to keep away, the man replied, “See, it works.” “John S. Pistole, the TSA administrator, cites a travel industry survey that found shoe removal was second only to the high price of tickets in passenger complaints. But he is unapologetic about the practice. ‘We have had over 5.5 [billion] people travel since Richard Reid and there have been no shoe bombs because we have people take their shoes off,’ Pistole said last month.” Washington Post, September 6th. Reid, the “Shoe Bomber,” changed the way we go through a screening process when he almost took down an airliner with his explosives (he was subdued by passengers before he could detonate).

You don’t take your shoes off anywhere but in the U.S. — not in Israel, in Amsterdam, in London. We all know why we do it here, but this seems to be a make-everybody-feel-good thing rather than a necessity. Yossi Sheffi, an Israeli-born expert on risk analysis at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Washington Post). We seem obsessed with the “stuff” and not enough with the “person,” but Homeland Security tells us that this is changing.

The reality is that had common sense been applied to Mr. Bomber’s travel plans, there were sufficient warning signs to have prevented the mishap even back then: “ ‘Richard Reid left a trail of suspicion with everybody who was in contact with him during the boarding process, yet Richard Reid was allowed to board an American Airline flight,’ said Rafi Ron, former director of security at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv and now a security consultant in the U.S. ‘Both Richard Reid and [Umar Farouk] Abdulmutallab [the underwear bomber] checked into a transatlantic flight without checking any baggage, which is very unusual. Both had one-way tickets. There were a lot more red flags about them, but I’m not sure we should go into all the details in the public media. If we used these in an effective manner, they would have been identified.’” Washington Post.

The security check has created a placebo effect for many who really believe, and there are few in the West who doubt that a determined terrorist couldn’t find a way to circumvent the checkpoints. When they stage their little “tests” to see what gets by airport screeners, TSA officials have often encountered both tip-offs that tests were happening to missing most of the contraband and weapons placed into baggage to be “discovered.” “In December 2010, ABC News Houston reported in an article about a man who accidentally took a forgotten gun through airport security, that ‘the failure rate approaches 70 percent at some major airports.’” Wikipedia. For this, we are paying a handsome price: “For fiscal year 2011, the TSA had a budget of roughly $8.1 billion.” Wikipedia. Are we getting our money’s worth?

We’re moving to a plan where frequent travelers can pre-screen themselves out of such “shoe tests,” and find a shortcut through a pre-qualified line. And when you think about what “terrorists” are trying to do – disrupt the society they are attacking – was Reid’s shoe bomb attempt a failure? Vahid Motevalli, head of the department of mechanical engineering technology at Purdue University, said that even though Reid’s attempt failed, it succeeded in adding a costly and frustrating layer of security… ‘As a result of Reid, now everybody has to take their shoes off and we’ve added another expense,’ Motevalli said. ‘These events create fears, disrupt lives and change the way you’re living. By that standard, that attempt was successful.’” The Post. Remember when you could drop off and greet your guests right by the aircraft? That seems so very long ago.

I’m Peter Dekom, and traveling today is a whole lot less fun on oh so many levels.

Friday, September 23, 2011


Picking their noses and eating dirt would often be listed as “hobbies” if toddlers had resumes, but these activities might seem pretty hygienic compared to letting our young ‘uns play in those convenient mini-playgrounds often attached to fast food restaurants or found in mini-malls to entertain the kids while mom or dad shops their net worth away. Erin M. Carr-Jordan is “mommy” to four children and is deeply concerned at the level of germ activity in these ersatz playgrounds. She is also a PhD (in psychology) and a professor of child-development in her hometown of Chandler Arizona and a founder of an organization ( that champions safe environments for our children.

“In recent months the 36-year-old mom and developmental psychologist from Arizona said she has visited and videotaped more than 50 such playlands as well as sending swabs for microbial testing… On a humid Monday morning, Erin Carr-Jordan was crawling through the tubey slides of a McDonald's PlayPlace on [Chicago’s] West Side…When she got to the top of the colorful structure, she peered through a cloudy plastic window and mouthed the words: ‘This is bad. This is really bad.’

“A reporter crawled through a few minutes later to find sticky surfaces, filmy windows, several broken pieces of equipment, food morsels in every compartment, trapped hair, garbage and thick black schmutz in most crevices... ‘Without a doubt, this was one of the worst and definitely in the top five," she said after climbing out of the tubes. ‘There was food everywhere.’... Carr-Jordan, who is combining her playland testing with a family road-trip vacation, says she has seen similar conditions in many restaurants across the country…She's found that some fast-food companies regularly clean their playlands and are happy to provide customers with their cleaning protocols — she singles out Chick-fil-A — but that representatives of Burger King, Chuck E. Cheese's and McDonald's have either indicated they don't have any such protocols or have not responded.” Chicago Tribune, July 12th.

Since she is not a micro-biologist, Carr-Jordan sent the swabs she took from such play areas to profession testing laboratories. “What the inspections and lab analyses have revealed is the widespread presence of an array of pathogens, from coliform bacteria to staphylococcus, at levels that experts said indicated that restaurants might not be disinfecting their playlands as diligently as they should.” New York Times, September 17th. This has been a journey of passion and dedication from this Arizona professor.

“Dr. Carr-Jordan’s campaign, which has attracted the attention of the fast-food industry, began in April when she stopped at a McDonald’s near her Phoenix-area home because one of her sons needed to go to the bathroom. On the way out, her children asked if they could play in the children’s park, which McDonald’s calls a PlayPlace. She assented and accompanied her children inside… What she saw was alarming.

‘My kids were going, ‘Yuck!’ ’ she recalled of the scene, which she videotaped with her cellphone and posted on YouTube. ‘It was gross and sticky. There were curse words and gang graffiti. The windows were black. There was matted hair and an abandoned Band-Aid.’ … Despite complaints to the manager and several follow-up visits, the play area was not cleaned, she said. So Dr. Carr-Jordan, who has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology but is no expert in microbiology, had samples tested. When the results were analyzed by Legend Technical Services Inc., an environmental testing company, they indicated the presence of potentially harmful bacteria, and she began inspecting and testing the playgrounds at other fast-food restaurants in her neighborhood. Lab results — she has since switched to another commercial lab — showed that most were far from clean, she said.” NY Times.

Such nasty reports are more common than consumers might want to think. Want some more details at other yucky sites? “We found dirt and grime and rotting food and hair in clumps and swear words all over the place. Graffiti. Equipment in disrepair that is broken. Second-story windows that are busted out. Slides that have large gashes in them. You name it -- if it's a thing you don't want your child being exposed to, we found it inside these play lands… We found several strands of opportunistic pathogens, in other words, things that can cause infection or disease. We found stuff that causes meningitis, food-borne illness, skin, hair, eye infections ... fecal contamination, coliforms, quite a few things can make children ill, and several of which are multi-drug resistant and potentially fatal."” Huffington Post, September 19th.

Like Dr. Carr-Jordan, Americans who speak out for positive change can and do make a difference. It is just those of us who say, “well, that’s just the way the world is” that have to share the blame with those who cause the problems.

I’m Peter Dekom, and speaking up does make a difference.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Can We Suspend Spending?

If your country were under attack – say a major Hawaiian harbor was bombed or buildings in New York were blown to the ground in an unprovoked attack – and you were told to defend your country, no holds barred, and make sure that never happens again, how would you behave? Cost conscious and temperate or “costs-be-damned-but-you’ll-never-do-that-again”? Add to this component that you only get to be a detailed advocate and designer of specific military needs and wants if you have put your own life on the line. One more little fact: you are acutely aware that you have the most advanced and power military on earth, one that attracts folks who want to prove their mettle. It is an honorable and noble profession, one that deters critics by the boatload.

Our “permanent” military lives in a parallel universe of sacrifice with the knowledge that whatever happens in the civilian economy, they need not think too hard about food, clothing, shelter, medical care or the viability of their retirement benefits. Until most recently, the economy was a factor for politicians, an annual budgetary joust that was simply a show for taxpayer-voters, one where the military asks for more than it expects, and then settles for what it always gets.

The “mission mentality” of protecting your country under any and all circumstances does carry the seeds (full bloom?) of a bad habit: feeling that whatever you want to buy, however you want to spend money in the “defense of the homeland,” is morally correct, necessary and should prevail against all else. There is no notion that spending 44% of the world’s entire military budget might actually cause more damage to your country than a direct attack never enters your consciousness. Your mission is clear. If the military budget is excessive, it is up to Washington to cut their “other” spending.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned that additional significant cuts to the Pentagon budget will result in a “doomsday mechanism” that will undermine the ability of the United States to protect itself. Super-Committee member John Kyl (R-KY) has threatened to resign from this budget-reduction group if there are any proposals to cut the military budget further. And on September 22nd, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen said, “If you took a trillion dollars out of defense right now, that would break us.” Well, guys, if we don’t start cutting at least a trillion dollars from that budget, it might just break the whole country… and you wouldn’t actually have a viable country to defend. You gentlemen simply have no clue how much economic damage spending almost half the world’s global governmental arms budget can inflict. $1.2 trillion of deficit alone are attributable to the incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that doesn’t even begin to cover the cost of weapons systems we really don’t need but that seem to tempt us into military reactions that drag on for years.

We really need to look at the results of our massive spending activities and see if we got the necessary “bang” for the mega-bucks. The United States has failed to generate global respect and stability through every major and sustained military effort it has fomented since Vietnam. Vietnam fell to a complete communist takeover shortly after our departure, Iraq is now squarely run by pro-Iranian Shiite politicians and bomb blasts have become a way of life, and the Taliban have not has as much power in Afghanistan (laboring under a staggeringly corrupt regime installed by Washington) since the government fell a decade ago. When specialized technology is desired to quell any military target, other countries call on the U.S. to step in, even though we are usually resented as a bully for having done so.

Our humanitarian efforts in Bosnia and recently Libya are shoved into the background of “collateral damage” to innocent civilians, torture in the prisons of Iraq and failures to achieve longer-term military objectives. Very little of this is the fault of the U.S. military, I might add; it stems from the stupid, under-thought, over-reactions of the politicians in Washington who believe that with the most glorious military on earth, we can and should impose our will where we feel justified. Make no mistake, we need a powerful military… but does it really have to be so big that it literally tempts politicians to resort to force when alternatives may be the better route? Exactly how big does our military have to be to serve as a deterrent?

One of the few members of Congress who can speak the truth without coming across as an anti-American retrograde is Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who earned the right to speak through his own courageous military service during Vietnam. Addressing Defense Undersecretary for Acquisitions Ash Carter, who was before the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of his confirmation process to become No. 2 at the Pentagon, deputy defense secretary, on September 13th, McCain called for an “‘end to the department’s systematic tendency to spend the taxpayers’ money in a manner that is far too often disconnected from what the warfighter actually needs and what is in the taxpayers’ best interest’...

“He went on, ‘This will require not just good leadership; it will require a change in the culture at the Defense Department…’ Part of that culture over the last 10 years, McCain said, is that ‘senior Defense management has been inclined to lose sight of affordability as a goal and has just reached for more money as a solution to most problems.’

McCain offered examples to prove his point: a $1.1 billion cost overrun on the first 28 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; a $560 million overrun in building the newest nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford; $10 billion in reprogramming requests to Congress the past two months to reallocate money to cover cost overruns and ‘authority to start dozens of new programs never before presented to Congress.’… He cited the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting report that said at least $30 billion had been wasted on ill-conceived and poorly overseen contracts and grants in Iraq and Afghanistan. McCain also pointed to a study of procurement which said over $3.3 billion ‘had been wasted by the Army every year since 2004’ for developing weapons that eventually were canceled.

“‘A culture that has allowed massive waste of taxpayers’ dollars has become business as usual at the Department of Defense,’ McCain said… He also discussed how solving these problems may face another hurdle: ‘The revolving door of retired flag and general officers, top Pentagon officials and mid-level bureaucrats who had overseen weapons procurement programs before leaving government to join [the] private sector defense industry.’” Washington Post, September 19th. Hey, John, when you’re right, you’re right.

The day of reckoning is upon us. “Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last May started a Defense Department process which he said would entail a ‘fundamental review of America’s military missions, capabilities, and security role around the world.’” The Post. As much as he and the rest of our military policy-makers may resist and predict dire consequences resulting from budget cuts, the largest solution to long-term spending cuts reside significantly in our Pentagon budget, and not cutting that level of expenditure will impose more political and economic instability than a dozen Twin Tower attacks. We must keep our people safe, but we must also make sure that there is a strong and surviving country that will endure.

I’m Peter Dekom, and the threats to our continued survival are not all military.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Aside from Two Failed Wars, What?

Waste appears to be the new American pastime, often piggybacking on our proclivity to fail to prepare, choosing instead to react… and usually overreact. Yup, our leaders read the polls, check the headlines, look up at the weather vanes and then decide what they should do. We haven’t had a real set of leaders in Washington for a very long time. To make matters worse, undereducated (yes, America, there is an anti-intellectual groundswell that has gripped the nation for over a decade) and misinformed elected officials look for sound bites and slogans that create false causation and equally false solutions for complex problems. The result is the very “waste” they always tend to rail about at every election in recent memory.

The greatest near-term government debacle in my opinion, beyond a war in Iraq (against WMDs?) that handed virtual control of this predominantly Shiite nation to our Shiite enemies in Iran and a battle in Afghanistan to support a super-corrupt regime resulting in the strongest Taliban insurgency since the war began, is the Department of Homeland Security. Aside from layering in additional bureaucracies to perform jobs that had already been covered in other agencies, the DHS has wasted more dollars than any governmental agency in memory. When there are more agencies to coordinate, more employees to supervise, more governmental turf and fiefdoms created with concomitant internecine rivalries, the resulting inefficiency combines the false sense that someone is looking out for our security with a waste-creator that has to be making terrorists laugh hysterically at the disruption and costs they have manage to impose on America.

DHS: Billions and billions of dollars of waste and failed programs. The Sept 9th Huffington Post reports: “In July, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security quietly scuttled a multi-billion dollar program to install high-tech radiation detectors at the nation’s ports. A top priority of the Bush administration, the advanced spectroscopic portal (ASP) devices that the Raytheon Company was being paid to build weren't just way behind schedule and enormously over budget -- they didn't actually appear to work. The failed project cost taxpayers well over $230 million.

“DHS had already pulled the plug on its SBInet program -- an effort to build a ‘virtual fence’ of sensors, cameras and radar along the nation's border -- in January, after paying more than $1.1 billion. The Government Accountability Office, among others, had concluded that poor management and an over-reliance on the prime contractor, Boeing, had caused staggering delays and cost overruns while producing inadequate results.

“And earlier in July, DHS had scrapped its unfinished and dysfunctional Risk Assessment Management Program, a computer application intended to help officials distribute their small army of private security guards between federal buildings, based on the chances of those buildings becoming terror targets. DHS had already shelled out $35 million over three years for a project that contractor Booz Allen had promised to complete in one year for $21 million. With the program axed, some eight years after DHS was founded, the department still isn't able to do something as basic as assess which federal buildings are more vulnerable to attack than others… These are just a few of the most recent -- and in these cases, now staunched -- examples of how DHS has hemorrhaged money since its creation in 2003… According to an estimate by Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller and Australian engineer Mark Stewart, the cumulative increase in U.S. domestic homeland security spending since the 9/11 terror attacks totals about $580 billion.”

TSA only accounts for about $8 billion a year, and the rest, well, is… er… a very, very large number. Just think what our economy would be like if we hadn’t waged two failed wars and had relied instead on the FBI, CIA, Border Patrol and a few other agencies to do what DHS was mandated to accomplish? Can you say, “layoffs” loud and clear? We don’t need this bureaucracy! We should have made the ones we had work better and talk to each other more.

I’m Peter Dekom, and before we listen to kooks telling us to disband Social Security, Medicare and the Department of Education, perhaps we should think about dismantling the Department of Homeland “Security” instead.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Citizens Disclosed

In Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, the Supreme Court seems to have granted big business, big union and big special interests the unbridled right to spend whatever they want to embrace political views under a notion that such entities are “people” within the meaning of the First Amendment to our Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Fourteenth Amendment carries this provision to the states as well. Thus, such companies, unions and political organizations are entitled to a right to form political action committees (PACs) to support issues and candidates without limit. As long as the candidates themselves do not seek de facto contributions through these structures, they also do not run afoul of statutory limitations imposed on campaign contributions.

Speaking before a Carter Town Hall assembly on September 14th, former President Jimmy Carter called Citizen United, “one of the stupidest rulings ever consummated or perpetrated on the American people.” There has been massive condemnation of this ruling on the grounds that it accords rich corporate and comparable organization structures disproportionate power to peddle influence and “buy elections” that is generally unavailable to the rest of the individual electorate. And indeed, giant self-interest campaigns from pharmaceutical companies and Wall Street players have exploded the notion that somehow regulating their activities is both un-American and economically unwise, even though every cogent argument to reduce the cost of prescription drugs and prevent the Wall Street excesses that brought down the global economy supports an entire new and rigorous revamping of our relevant regulatory schema.

But wait, there is a silver lining to Citizens United that may have been overlooked by the vast majority of its critics, but which has most certainly not escaped judicial review. If those big PAC contributors think they have a constitutional right to remain anonymous, perhaps they need to think again. In John Doe vs. Sam Reed, a June 2010 Supreme Court case concerning the right of a citizen to speak anonymously concerning a local referendum (where petition signatures were sought to be kept confidential for fear of reprisals), conservative Justice Antonin Scalia (pictured above) wrote this in a concurring opinion: “And it may even be a bad idea to keep petition signatures secret. There are laws against threats and intimidation; and harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance. Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism.”

There is nothing in Citizen United that precludes a requirement of full and complete disclosure of all contributors, and indeed where there are statutory disclosure requirements, courts appear to be lining up to enforce those provisions. Indeed, the solution to the egregious impact of this Supreme Court debacle, short of reversal, may in fact be in passing legislation that mandates disclosure of the contributing parties, particularly major contributors: “It is probably true that the more important issue is not which laws have been upheld, but rather which bills were never passed. But it is also true that the Supreme Court is likely to sustain aggressive disclosure laws if they are enacted. The part of Citizens United that everyone remembers was its main ruling, allowing unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions. The court decided that part by a 5-to-4 vote, split along the classic ideological fault line. People forget the second aspect of the decision, this one favoring disclosure and decided by a lopsided vote. Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented…

“It is a small step from that reasoning to saying, as eight justices did, that it helps to know who is advancing the ideas you are evaluating. You probably trust some sources of information more than others, for instance, and you may examine an argument more skeptically if it happens to align with the speaker’s self-interest.

“Richard L. Hasen, an election law specialist at the University of California, Irvine, added that political science research had shown that disclosure could provide voters with useful information. ‘If all I tell you about a candidate is that he is backed by the N.R.A. or Planned Parenthood, that is all many voters need to know,’ he said. ‘The disclosure serves a shortcut function.’” New York Times, September 19th. I will go one step further in suggesting that the mandated disclosure should require that contributors be featured no less prominently than any information contained in public advertising or publicity, that their names and organizational affiliation be clearly presented and enunciated such that a reasonable man listening to or reading such materials would be clearly and obviously informed as to the primary financial contributors that gave rise to the materials.

I’m Peter Dekom, and the sooner we take steps to mitigate the disproportionate power of special interests by adding such disclosure requirements, the better.

Monday, September 19, 2011


A friend of mine, a die-hard San Francisco any-sport fan who lives and works in Los Angeles, wrote me after a recent baseball-excursion to that Golden-Gated city how much he loved the place… except folks just aren’t as nice anymore. I hear that a lot from people these days, and perhaps it’s just result of several very difficult economic years – with no real relief in sight that makes Americans a tad ornery. Understandable. It gets nastier when you start looking for definable religious or ethnic groups whom you can use as scapegoats… very reminiscent of pre-WWII Germany finding blame and “inferiority” in its Jewish population.

“We are a Christian nation,” exclaim politicians on the right, a statement that bring squirms to my Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Baha’i, and Muslim friends and acquaintances, most of whom (including their ancestors) came to the United States seeking opportunities and freedom from persecution believing, apparently incorrectly according to these political factions, that America was an open society in which freedom of religion and the Constitutional ban on governmental religious activities were basic rights and principles. Who are we without our basic values? And where is the Christian virtue of “love thy neighbor”? Does the above image make you uncomfortable? Really?

Playing golf recently with two other friends who expressed how dangerous it was for Muslims to be allowed to live in the United States, since it wouldn’t take too many of them to inflict serious damage to our people and infrastructure. They wondered openly about how many America Muslims secretly cheered at the attacks on 9/11. I cringed. I wonder if they remembered that there were Muslim victims in the Twin Towers: “Indeed, among the many victims of 9/11 were several dozen innocent Muslims, ranging in age from their late 60s to a couple’s unborn child. Six of these victims were Muslim women, including one who was 7 months pregnant. Many were stockbrokers or restaurant workers, earning a living to care for their families. There were converts and immigrants, hailing from over a dozen different countries and the U.S. There were heroes: a NYPD cadet and a Marriott hotel worker, who sacrificed their lives attempting to rescue others. The Muslim victims were parents to over 30 children, who were left orphaned without one or both of their parents.”

Maybe they forgot about Timothy McVeigh, whose ultra-right wing anti-government beliefs, resulted in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that left 168 dead (including 19 children under the age of six) and 680 wounded. He was about as American as you can get. Perhaps they weren’t aware that most of the victims of Muslim radical suicide bombings are other Muslims. Perhaps they weren’t aware of the rising tide of anti-al Qaeda sentiments all over the Islamic world, decrying the senseless killing of innocents under a brutally unacceptable philosophy. Al Qaeda has exceptionally limited appeal in most of the Middle East. It wasn’t the American focus on killing them that did them in; it was their complete and total disdain for the collateral damage they were inflicting in the name of an extremist cause. Most folks just want to live their lives in peace. That many foreign Muslims might not love the United States and might oppose our policies is hardly the defining grace of terrorism. Most countries in the world today no longer believe in or follow the foreign policy aspirations of the United States anymore.

“Report any suspicious activity” has become a patriotic cry, and indeed, you have to be pretty stupid to ignore certain forms of obvious behavior. But we are increasingly looking at each other with suspicion, looking for differences and what we perceive to be behavior that mandates official inquiry. On September 7th, NPR broadcast excerpts from a recent report about how authorities deal with such reports that have been generated at our local malls:

On May 1, 2008, at 4:59 p.m., Brad Kleinerman entered the spooky world of homeland security… As he shopped for a children’s watch inside the sprawling Mall of America, two security guards approached and began questioning him. Although he was not accused of wrongdoing, the guards filed a confidential report about Kleinerman that was forwarded to local police…The reason: Guards thought he might pose a threat because they believed he had been looking at them in a suspicious way.

Najam Qureshi, owner of a kiosk that sold items from his native Pakistan, also had his own experience with authorities after his father left a cell phone on a table in the food court. .. The consequence: An FBI agent showed up at the family’s home, asking if they knew anyone who might want to hurt the United States.

One Iranian man, now 62, began passing out during questioning. An Army veteran sobbed in his car after he was questioned for nearly two hours about video he had taken inside the mall.

Mall of America officials say their security unit stops and questions on average up to 1,200 people each year. The interviews at the mall are part of a counterterrorism initiative that acts as the private eyes and ears of law enforcement authorities but has often ensnared innocent people, according to an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting and NPR.

In many cases, the written reports were filed without the knowledge of those interviewed by security. Several people named in the reports learned from journalists that their birth dates, race, names of employers and other personal information were compiled along with surveillance images.

Ever wonder if someone has your name on such a list? How would you ever know? Is this the United States of America that stands for freedom and opportunity? Really?

I’m Peter Dekom, and how much better off would America be if we no longer sat in judgment of those who might be “different” and instead focused on what brings us together.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Men at Work?

My consulting friend Dennis Duitch ( brought up an interesting if not disturbing employment trend that is taking place in the United States: as manufacturing and a whole pile of servicing work moves overseas, and as U.S. corporations slim down their costs significantly by combining moving operations overseas with cutting legions of middle managers, the percentage of males in the workforce is plunging. He provides this quote in support of this premise:

“WORKING MEN ARE DISAPPEARING FORM THE AMERICAN WORK FORCE. The portion of men holding any job – full or part-time – is now around 63%, lowest level since WW II. Forty years ago, 95% of men in the prime working years (age 25 to 35) worked; today it’s just above 81%. Moreover, their median wages have dropped nearly 27% during those decades, after inflation. What’s happened? ‘The economic downturn has exacerbated this long-term trend: (1) Companies have cut costs by moving manufacturing jobs, routine computer programming, and even simple legal work out of the country… (2) The production jobs that remain are increasingly mechanized and demand higher skills… (3) A strapped public education system leaves many young men unprepared for this workplace (let alone college)… (4) Technology and efforts to reduce the number of layers within corporations are leaving fewer middle-management jobs… and (5) women, who’ve made up a majority of college students for three decades, are adapting better to a data-driven economy that values education and collaborative skills more than muscle.’” [BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK – Aug 29, 11]

Combine these realities with a political system that not only has fractured along party lines and deadlocked but has completely abandoned any semblance of long-term goals to focus on band aids and blame. Congress and the President have literally been forced to play towards the 2012 elections and nothing else. If these elected officials don’t make it past this seminal vote, they are out, and keeping their jobs is overwhelmingly a greater priority to every one of them, from the President on down, than preparing the United States for the future.

The President’s expensive job bill drills down somewhat on infrastructure and a lot on job-related tax incentives… Employers are rewarded to add jobs, but jobs to do what? To build products and provide services to whom? With business and consumer confidence at an all-time low, exactly who is going to purchase what these new jobs create? America is sitting at home, with substantial unemployment or under-employment, doing nothing. Television viewership is up to an all-time high, according to consumer metrics company Nielsen, to 5 hours and 13 minutes per day on average.

With nothing but remedial and short-term fixes in the works, with unemployment for the youngest workers bordering on 25% (46% if you happen to be an inner-city African American), what exactly are we doing for the future? Just cutting the budget on educational programs alone is decimating on long-term prospects. And for those at the bottom of the American economy, things have gone from bad to much worse: “The Census Bureau reports the number of Americans in poverty jumped to 15.1 percent in 2010, a 17-year high. About 46.2 million people, or nearly 1 in 6, were in poverty. That’s up from 43.6 million, or 14.3 percent, in 2009. It was the highest level since 1993… The number of people lacking health insurance increased to 49.9 million, a new high after revisions were made to 2009 figures. Losses were due mostly to working-age Americans who lost employer-provided insurance in the weak economy.” Washington Post, September 13th.

And look at the housing mess; nothing is happening and the situation is getting worse. The very banks we bailed out are squeezing underwater homeowners, making resetting mortgages exceptionally difficult. Who forgot that so much of American hope, self-esteem and motivation has come from homeownership. What’s being done to help homeowners?!

Think of the holes in our democratic system. Members of the House of Representatives, who have two-year terms, are perpetually running for office. “Long-term” has been discarded as irrelevant to such political realities. A state like California, with about 37 million people, has exactly the same number of U.S. Senators (two) as does South Dakota, with a few over 800 thousand people. Anyone who believes that America is the land of “one person, one vote” has to explain this to me. That Ben Franklin “New Jersey compromise” to protect sparsely populated agricultural states from the densely populated manufacturing states may have worked a couple of hundred years ago, but makes no continuing sense in today’s world.

The Supreme Court took the lid off corporate and union contributions to political action committees, and with cheap Senators in smaller states (it costs a whole lot less to elect a Senator in South Dakota than New York or California) and most of our elected representatives always out raising money for their perpetual election efforts, special interests have never had it so good. If a law passes and they don’t like what it says, they can apply their “we have too much regulation” and budget reduction lobbying to make sure that such laws are never implemented. They have the money to make that message appear everywhere. The Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation has resulted in about 10% of the financial regulations that Congress expected because of budget cuts to the regulatory agencies.

Wall Streeters are doing today exactly the kind of debt-packaging that got us into this mess in the first place with no one making them stop. Our individual credit habit, encouraged by this phenomenon, has resume to “horrible.” “According to's, Q2 2011 Credit Card Debt Study, U.S. consumers accumulated a staggering $18.4 billion in credit card debt in the second quarter -- 66% more than they accumulated in the same quarter a year ago, and 368% more than in the second quarter of 2009. Based on the study, Americans will end 2011 with around $54 billion more in credit card debt than they began the year with.”, September 12th. Are we living today as if there were no tomorrow? Deeply troubling, and yet we want folks to spend more to create more jobs. Scary, isn’t it?

In the end, what is really needed – and what is extraordinarily unlikely to take place – is deep reform, from our Constitution to our most basic financial institutions. The mega-financial conglomerate structures have failed us profoundly. Size and sanity must be restored. The big boyz need to be broken up and returned to the era before the relevant provisions of Glass-Steagall (which separated commercial banking from investment banking and securities trading) were repealed. Our Constitution must reflect “one person, one vote,” our Congressional terms need to be longer (but perhaps with term limits), and free and unregulated speech accorded under the First Amendment must be relegated to natural persons and not mega-wealthy companies that can buy advertising and influence with virtually no limits. And how about a one-term, six year president?

I’m Peter Dekom, and I wonder how deep our misery must be, how profoundly our loss of our way of life must fall and how big the calamities of our own making must rise before such fundamental reforms are enacted?