Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Economic Sushi

The headlines are all about how Tokyo was almost evacuated in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown a year ago, but the real Japanese story is an even bigger elephant in the room. We all know that Japan is a very large and important economy, only slipping to third place behind China in 2010 (and obviously the U.S.). The per capita, however, puts them somewhere between 16th and 18th in the world depending on whose statistics you believe. We all know that Japan is an exporting powerhouse – with products ranging from Sony electronics to Toyota cars to Hitachi MRI machines to Elpida microchips – having not experienced a trade deficit since 1980. In terms of owning U.S. national debt, Japan as gone a long way to buy U.S. bonds, and with just shy of $1 trillion of such debt in their coffers, they are second only to China in this category (the U.K. us third with less than half of Japan’s total holdings).

But the face is Japan is changing rapidly. While many Western countries have some moderate population contraction, Japan’s contraction is profoundly dynamic. With an estimated current population of about 127 million, according to a United Nations report, by 2050 that number will drop to 105 million. What’s worse, Japan’s population is skewing older than any other country in the world (currently the media age is 44.8, and getting older fast), which will result in one of the lowest ratios of working adults against retired elders, a fact that threatens so many assumptions about how Japan could possibly support such a massive older, non-working population.

But there are other signs of displacement in Japan; notably the cost of Japanese labor is slowly making her less competitive. Consumer electronics, microchip manufacturing, appliances (especially televisions), heavy industry and automobile production are being slammed by lower labor costs and increasing quality control from global competitors, but more importantly from regional powerhouses like Korea, Taiwan and the Peoples Republic. Unemployment in Japan is tilting up, and the once sacred notion of cradle-to-grave single employer jobs is vaporizing in an era of competitive cutbacks. Subsidized local agriculture and the government practice of shepherding “cheap money” debt to its corporate giants (in lieu of more traditional access to the capital equity markets) are also taking their toll. The world’s third largest PC chip-maker, Japan’s Elipda Memory, just filed for bankruptcy.

Solid entry-level jobs, even for college grads, are hard to come by in these difficult economic times. The issue of a “lost generation” is a sore spot in Japanese politics. Kids aren’t leaving the nest as early anymore, and the general economic malaise hung over Japan for more than a decade before the rest of the world suffered economic collapse. Still, Japan remains an economic powerhouse, which, it claims, has been severely, albeit temporarily, injured from the massive damage inflicted by the recent quake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown. But the overall numbers coming out of Japan suggest that a bit more caution may be justified.

If Greece is the economic disaster poster child with a deficit/debt-to-GDP ratio of 1.64 (the U.S. is at about 1.15), what is Japan where that ratio is 2.20? Nobody really worried about that huge ratio, because, after all, Japan made things and exported them. Growth and exports would fix that, they believed. Japan had a long-standing trade surplus that was the envy of the United States. But then the news began to come in, and the quake-tsunami-meltdown excuse seemed only partially to blame: “First came news last month that the country had posted a $32 billion trade deficit for all of 2011, the first time that’s happened since 1980. Then, on Feb. 20, Tokyo announced a record shortfall for January of $18.5 billion, citing a strong yen that’s depressing exports and rising prices for energy imports. Japan may well record another yearly trade deficit in 2012. Now economists are worried that the nation’s current account could turn negative, raising questions about Japan’s ability to handle its $10 trillion-plus government debt load. That burden is equivalent to about 220 percent of Japan’s total annual economic output, the highest debt-to-gross domestic product ratio in the world…

“This slide in Japan’s trade competitiveness is far more troublesome than fluctuations in the value of the yen. Unless things turn around soon, Japan is on track to make deeper deficits in its trade account. At some point, those deficits will eclipse the country’s capital account—that is, the income and dividends earned by the Japanese factories and foreign investments. Then, Japan’s entire current account will go into deficit, and the archipelago will join the illustrious ranks of debtor countries such as the U.S., Italy, France, and the U.K.” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, February 21st.

In the end, this may be nothing more than an economic history less, one that American politicians who prefer mythology to facts may well want to pay attention to. Societies that upgrade their social standards without vast increases in productivity and quality usually run into rising economic powers that haven’t leveraged themselves into a better lifestyle. Without increasing that productivity, through targeted upgrades in technology, training and education, the insurgents are always going to rise past the incumbents.

I’m Peter Dekom, and the one true thing is that “everything changes.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Monotony and “Jobs for Life”

Europe has been a bastion of protecting workers and their jobs. 25 to 30 days of annual vacation are almost sacrosanct. Trying getting something done in August unless it involves tourism. And try and fire someone, even in Germany, who has been with the company for more than six months! But in these days of budgetary curtailment, that which was once sacred is now becoming expendable, and the failing economic powers in Europe are being forced to renege on the contractual and customary practices of lifetime employment in exchange for bailout money or sovereign debt accommodations. Austerity is the new panacea for Europe’s financial woes, and the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) are bearing the greatest burdens in this new minimalist era.

With about 60 million people, Italy is one of the scariest members of that failing European elite, if for no other reason than the size of her population (Greece only has about 11 million people). Unemployment in Italy, particularly among young people, is skyrocketing. Five years ago, Italy had a hideous youth unemployment rate of 21 percent; today that number has risen to an even more-alarming 31 percent. Discharged government employees and folks in the private sector who were sacked are becoming a growing and dissatisfied minority that could spell trouble for Italy’s ability to continue on this pathway of severe austerity.

In Italy, its credit rating falling through the floor, the scandals aggregated and the economy slid until PM Sylvio Berlusconi was forced out. The European Central Bank pushed hard as Italy sought tolerable interest rates in new loans from the ECB and the IMF. President Giorgio Napolitano asked a former economics professor, Mario Monti (above), to form a new replacement government of economic technocrats to deal with increasing European Union pressure on Italy from the for greater fiscal responsibility and to implement a mandatory austerity scheme of a government plagued with debt, mired in inefficiency and seemingly unable to break the expansive safety nets and pro-labor benefits that were threatening to collapse the already fragile economy. Monti also holds the posts of Prime Minister as well as Minister of Economy and Finance (the U.S. Treasury Secretary equivalent). As the German-led press for severe austerity all across Europe became the prerequisite for bailout cash, Monti was charged with implementation in Italy.

Although he slashed and cut, Monti also asked the EU and the IMF for some leeway to merge austerity measures with some needed stimulus money to create some semblance of growth, but his requests apparently have fallen on deaf ears. Despite his seemingly hopeless position, recent inarticulate words set off a firestorm of defiance: “It was just an off-the-cuff quip during a television interview this month. But when Prime Minister Mario Monti remarked that having a job for life in today’s economy was no longer feasible for young people — indeed, it was ‘monotonous’ — he set off a barrage of protests, laying bare one of the sacrosanct tenets of Italian society that the euro zone crisis has placed at risk.” New York Times, February 15th. Italy’s joie de vivre, it’s live and let live but enjoy life

Today, Italians are not really feeling the joy. According to the University of Michigan's World Values Surveys, applying the “Subjective Well-Being Standard,” Italians rank 35th, significantly behind Germany and even Nigeria, where half the people live on a dollar or less a day. According to the Huffington Post (February 10th), “Hungary, South Korea, Russia, Spain and Italy had the fewest number of happy people.” Dissatisfaction and a sense of hopelessness for the future pervade the Italian psyche. “Mr. Monti has touched a nerve, undermining a principle as certain as death and taxes in most of Western Europe, where politicians often deride the Anglo-American model as outmoded and cruel even as economists cite its market flexibility as desirable.

“In Italy in particular, every major political force after World War II subscribed to the idea of guaranteeing the work of the male breadwinner to preserve the traditional family structure, said Elisabetta Gualmini, a labor expert who teaches at the University of Bologna. This social doctrine was also blessed by the Roman Catholic Church, which still holds much sway in Italy… Changes in labor law under consideration by his government, he said, were intended to restore the balance between those already in the labor market — who are ‘hyper-protected,’ he said — and those struggling to enter it, redressing ‘the terrible apartheid’ between older workers and young Italians working with contracts that offer fewer rights and little job security. The government has said it wants to pass its proposals by the end of March.

But Italy’s labor unions have taken the lead in resisting many changes to existing law. Debate has been especially intense over Article 18 of the 1970 Workers Statute, which forbids companies with more that 15 employees from firing people without just cause. The unions say that line cannot be crossed… The government, on the other hand, argues that the restrictions imposed by Italy’s tightly regulated labor market make companies reluctant to hire new workers because they cannot be fired once they have been given regular contracts. Italian labor laws have also held foreign investors at bay, Mr. Monti said.” NY Times.

Italy is a nation where economic collapse and political instability are nothing new. That the country is enmeshed in a pan-European currency that deprives Italy from such effective tools as currency devaluation is a problem that has plagued all of the weaker EU economies. Instead of devaluing the currency which is a softer way of imposing austerity, Italian policy-makers can only fire employees, cut pay and reduce spending on personnel generally. Given Italy’s size, the fate of the entire EU is at stake. Failure is not an option, but what has been proposed and imposed isn’t working either.

I’m Peter Dekom, and while the European Union was formed to prevent war among regional animosities, today there is a economic war that seems to pit the proverbial “bad guy” – Germany – in an economic war with the rest of Europe anyway!

Monday, February 27, 2012

How Politically Naïve Are We?!

Candidates are struggling to keep up with the philosophies hurled at them by their Super-PAC puppet masters, trying to keep in step with the demand of “the 23 billionaires” who back them. The two issues that the billionaires care most about are deregulation and lower taxes… and notwithstanding their purported alignment with fundamentalist Christian virtues… the latter appears to be little more than insurance that there are issues that will draw voters to their side. They seem to forget that while Ronald Reagan did implement a massive tax reform act that did lower rates in one part of his term, that same Republican president also understood the necessity of raising taxes to pay for government spending. Reagan most certainly had more years of raising taxes than he had years of reducing that tax bite. He got the idea of fiscal responsibility, a notion that is apparently missing from every GOP candidate save Ron Paul.

The myth that cutting taxes for the rich creates jobs lives on, despite the lack of a single meaningful statistic that supports this assumption. Why a rich person would go on a hiring binge in the absence of consumer demand for the underlying product or service – no matter how deeply the tax rate were cut – simply defies logic. The world just doesn’t work that way. The net effect is to make the rich richer without having the slightest benefit for the rest of us. Why would we engage in such massive stupidity?

And these billionaire-driven Super-PACs have pushed three out of the four remaining GOP candidates to positions on tax cuts that are downright dangerous, threatening to balloon our deficit to staggeringly higher levels. “[According to a report by U.S. Budget Watch], a project of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget — former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich would do the most damage to the nation’s finances, offering tax and spending policies likely to require trillions of dollars in fresh borrowing.

“Both men have proposed to sharply cut taxes but have not identified spending cuts sufficient to make up for the lost cash, the report said. By 2021, the debt would rise by about $4.5 trillion under Santorum’s policies and by about $7 trillion under those advocated by Gingrich, pushing the portion of the debt held by outside investors to well over 100 percent of the nation’s economy… The red ink would gush less heavily under former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the report said — at least under earlier Romney proposals that paired $1.35 trillion in tax cuts with $1.2 trillion in spending reductions and would leave the debt rising on a trajectory that closely tracks current policies…The lone exception is Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who would pair a big reduction in tax rates with even bigger cuts in government services, slicing about $2 trillion from future borrowing.” Washington Post, February 23rd.

And no, President Obama, you aren’t getting a particularly good grade for your tax reform proposals either. While 67% of America supports your increase on the tax rate applied to billionaires, your notion of reducing the corporate tax rate and eliminating loopholes by creating another loophole defies logic. It’s true that while we have one of the highest corporate tax rates in the industrialized world, we have one of the lowest effective corporate tax rates because of loopholes, most of which allow off-shore money to accrue and be used offshore without being taxed domestically. Closing those loopholes is a terrific idea, but creating a new loophole – a proposed lower rate for manufacturing (25% vs 28% for other firms) is fighting the problem with the problem. Stop!

And where’s the legislation to stop the practice of taxing folks who make their regular living in the private equity/hedge fund business at about half the rate of everyone else who happen to have jobs that don’t carry a different rate – the very reason Mitt Romney can earn over $20 million and pay only 13.9% in taxes. It’s time to reform the “carried interest” rule that only applies to these fund managers, even though that is precisely what the 23 Super-PAC billionaires most want to preserve. It’s just not fair to tax certain professions at rates that don’t apply to any other job categories. And no, these fund managers are not going to retire and deprive America of their capital resources. What a totally stupid argument! They’ll just make a few billion dollars less.

It’s also interesting to note that underlying root word for conservative is exactly the same root word for conservation. Republican Teddy Roosevelt was the poster boy for preserving our national parks and other federally natural resources. It’s not okay to make American business “more competitive” by allowing them to dump effluents into our aquifers, lakes and rivers or hurl pollutants into the air rather than pay for the cost of preserving those natural resources. It’s not okay for there to be a “fracking exemption” allowing natural gas drillers to use toxic, drinking-water pollutants to force gas to the surface. Why in the world would the government simply give those natural resources away without charge to corporate America? The air we breathe and the water we drink and enjoy in our recreation simply belong to all of us. It’s akin to letting paper companies and oil-drillers take resources from our federally owned forests and underground reserves for free. That certainly would make American businesses more competitive, but the very notion is simply stupid.

Here’s an example, involving one of the most toxic substances that is generated as an industrial pollutant: mercury. “After 20 years of delay and litigation by polluters, the Obama administration approved in December one of the most important rules in the history of the Clean Air Act. It will require power plants to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants by more than 90 percent in the next five years and is expected to prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths annually from asthma, other respiratory diseases and heart attacks.” New York Times, February 22nd. Immediately, Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma set about getting a majority vote in both the House and the Senate to trump the regulation (the statute allows such a vote without a presidential signature) and stop this “job killing” regulation and to thwart the Obama administration’s “job killing environmental agenda.”

Exactly why is destroying our environment good for business? Why should we subsidize corporate America with our lungs and our bodies? And what job creation? The NY Times responds further: “Yet no matter what the Republican leadership claims, the clean-energy sector is a much more likely source of future job growth than the fossil-fuel industries they are so determined to protect. And the new clean air rules Mr. Inhofe [from an oil and gas state] so abhors are likely to create far more jobs than they eliminate… It is true that the mercury rule, and other clean air regulations, will require substantial upgrades in older, coal-burning power plants and force others to close down. The power companies have had years to prepare. In addition to reducing emissions of global warming gases and ground-level pollutants, the upgrades are expected to create as many as 45,000 temporary construction jobs over the next five years and possibly 8,000 permanent jobs.” Where are Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight David Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan when you need them?!

And folks tell you we need a huge military, that we won the war in Iraq – even though that country is now squarely in the camp of our enemy Iran – or that we have crushed the Taliban for which the Afghan people are grateful. Doesn’t anybody watch the news? The Taliban are stronger than ever, knowing they will be there no matter when we leave. Anti-American riots over the Qur’an burning incident are nothing more than giving the existing anger at a conqueror that won’t leave a place to vent. Our “global policeman” efforts have created more enemies and more recruitment “posters” against us – we are the most hated country on earth. We have a military budget that is ten times the aggregate budget of the next ten big military spenders on earth… and we haven’t won a major war since WWII. The impact of this military folly on our deficit is killing us. Exactly how much more mythology will Americans swallow before they are willing to taste the truth.

I’m Peter Dekom, and never in my lifetime have I heard so many mainstream political candidates with so many absolutely absurd notions of governance.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Legitimizing Illegitimacy

From the pejorative “bastard” to the euphemistic “love child,” societies have struggled with the notion of a child born out of wedlock. But with increasing numbers of women in the workforce, no longer remotely tied to the “single breadwinner” married couple concept, the idea of bearing and raising children is no longer necessarily tied to marriage. The stigma of unwed motherhood has vaporized as well. Certainly, a very large number of such births to unmarried women, particularly in the teenaged years, are the result of unwanted or unexpected pregnancies where abortion is not, for economic or moral reasons an option. But the raw numbers of such “illegitimate” births are simply staggering.

While 59 percent of babies born in the United States are to married women, when the age demographic is lowered, the numbers reverse: “[T]he surge of births outside marriage among younger women — nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are born to mothers under 30 — is both a symbol of the transforming family and a hint of coming generational change.” New York Times, February 17th. The biggest surge in such births has been among Caucasian women in their 20s who have some college but have not finished a four year degree. With a full college degree or more, the numbers fall back into favoring the world of births to married women.

The impact on American society is obviously very significant, and sociologists are still trying to examine the cause: “The shift is affecting children’s lives. Researchers have consistently found that children born outside marriage face elevated risks of falling into poverty, failing in school or suffering emotional and behavioral problems… The forces rearranging the family are as diverse as globalization and the pill. Liberal analysts argue that shrinking paychecks have thinned the ranks of marriageable men, while conservatives often say that the sexual revolution reduced the incentive to wed and that safety net programs discourage marriage.” NY Times.

According to the Pew Research Center report (December 14th), the number of American marriages are down 5% from 2009 to 2010, with most people citing the economic downturn as a reason to postpone the marriage decision: “Barely half of all adults in the United States -- a record low -- are currently married, and the median age at first marriage has never been higher for brides (26.5 years) and grooms (28.7), according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data… In 1960, 72% of all adults ages 18 and older were married; today just 51% are. If current trends continue, the share of adults who are currently married will drop to below half within a few years. Other adult living arrangements-including cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood-have all grown more prevalent in recent decades.”

“‘Marriage has become a luxury good,’ said Frank Furstenberg, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania… Money helps explain why well-educated Americans still marry at high rates: they can offer each other more financial support, and hire others to do chores that prompt conflict. But some researchers argue that educated men have also been quicker than their blue-collar peers to give women equal authority. ‘They are more willing to play the partner role,’ said Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist.” NY Times.

Accompanying this trend away from marriage is a U.S. phenomenon that is also impacting Japan and much of Western Europe as well: declining birthrates. An October 12th Pew report notes: “The year 2007 marked a record high number of births in the U.S.-- 4,316,233. Since that time, births have been declining, even as the U.S. population continues to grow. Preliminary data for 2009 indicate that the number of births dropped to 4,131,018 -- the lowest number since 2004. Provisional data show that in 2010 births numbered just over 4 million (4,007,000).” Again, the economy is cited as the primary reason; having a child appears to be a “luxury good” as well.

A deeper analysis of these statistics reveals some interesting sub-trends: “Large racial differences remain: 73 percent of black children are born outside marriage, compared with 53 percent of Latinos and 29 percent of whites. And educational differences are growing. About 92 percent of college-educated women are married when they give birth, compared with 62 percent of women with some post-secondary schooling and 43 percent of women with a high school diploma or less, according to Child Trends.

“Almost all of the rise in non-marital births has occurred among couples living together. While in some countries such relationships endure at rates that resemble marriages, in the United States they are more than twice as likely to dissolve than marriages. In a summary of research, Pamela Smock and Fiona Rose Greenland, both of the University of Michigan, reported that two-thirds of couples living together split up by the time their child turned 10.” NY Times. In the end, this will require significant restructuring of legal rights for unmarried parents, new accommodations in our educational system and the supporting social structures that cater to children in lower economic strata. Even with the rise in religious fever, there is a countervailing reality that will change us all.

I’m Peter Dekom, and after all, a society is nothing more than a demographic aggregation that changes like everything else.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Tunnel to Nowhere

It was a perfect storm of missteps and corruption, accelerated by a 1901 state constitutional amendment focused on protecting local business interests making sure no small communities of African-Americans or poor white trash could raise or spend any tax dollars except through state control. The entire state was tilted heavily towards economic interests – small businesses, iron & steel mills and farms, but a whole lot of “old boy cronyism” has always been a part of the mix. Protecting worker or maintaining environmental safeguards were not only not priorities; they weren’t even on the agenda.

When WWII ended, and the federal government wanted to find an insular, backwater community where strangers (read: enemy agents) would stick out like sore thumbs, they picked Huntsville, Alabama as the perfect spot. In 1950, former Nazi rocketeer Wernher Von Braun and his team, were moved to what would become known as the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville to build America’s missile program. Most of the rest of Alabama continued just the way it had for decades, insular and economically and educationally dramatically behind the rest of the country. Steel production move offshore, and Alabama felt the pain.

It was no big surprise when, in 1996, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Jefferson County (the county surrounding Birmingham) to stop dumping raw untreated sewage into the Black Warrior and Cahaba rivers. Municipal officials, lacking any serious infrastructure experience or any ability to levy local taxes, railed at first… and then saw this as an opportunity to spread the wealth to local businesses. They created a series of infrastructure projects which they told the public were necessary to comply with the EPA order – some not properly engineered and many actually not even necessary – without regard to the fatted and padded bids that locals provided. So they issued bonds and borrowed to the hilt. Lots of folks profited by this massive spending. Including more than a few elected officials.

“Birmingham, which had thrived from Reconstruction to the mid-1960s as an iron and steel town, had been declining for years. Why not embark on a giant public works project, a Taj Mahal of sewage systems, to foster jobs and development? … Rather than replacing more than 2,000 miles of decrepit sewer pipes, the county dispensed contracts to build water treatment plants, pumping stations and administrative buildings, some on slag heaps left behind by closed steel mills… All this debt was supposed to be paid off with revenue from the new sewer system — in other words, by fees the county would charge residents whose homes were hooked up to the system. As the debt grew, so did those fees — and the public outcry. By 2002, the average sewer bill in the county had doubled, to $18 a month.

“One thing led to another. In an attempt to expand the system and add new ratepayers, the county tried to bore a giant tunnel beneath the Cahaba River, Birmingham’s main source of drinking water. But the tunnel was so unstable that the endeavor was abandoned. The county spent millions just to extract the boring machine, which had become entombed underground… ‘That cost $19 million,’ Mr. Young told the bond analysts. ‘Now it’s called ‘the Tunnel to Nowhere.’’” New York Times, February 18th. The theory of having users pick up the tab became solidly unrealistic, so a local tax was created to fill in the void.

As 17 local officials were arrested and ultimately convicted of graft and corruption from what had now ballooned into a $4 billion debt, folks in Jefferson weren’t too keen on paying off that corrupt legacy debt. Financial resources were being strained, and with the recession and signs of governmental weakness across the country pushing muni-bond rates higher to cover the anticipated increase in risk, Jefferson County was teetering. In the summer of 2010, when the state used that 1901 state constitutional amendment to pull Jefferson’s right to that special local tax, the house of cards collapsed. Jefferson County file for federal bankruptcy protection in the fall, but even months later, no one really knows what the roadmap is to returning that government back to any semblance of a normal community.

What’s life like in Jefferson County these days? They had to move prisoners from one jail to overcrowded conditions at another because there was no money for staff for two facilities. “The county roads here need paving, and the tax collector needs help… There is no money for them, either… There is no money for a lot of things around here…There is no money for holiday D.U.I. checkpoints, litter patrols or overtime pay at the courthouse. None for crews to pull weeds or pick up road kill — not even when, as happened recently, an unlucky cow was hit near the town of Wylam… Ordinary citizens can’t do much at this point. Jefferson County has even canceled municipal elections scheduled for this August. It seems that there’s no money for voting booths, either.” NY Times.

As some states are beginning to find surpluses (like even Michigan), it is easy to forget and write off other communities where educational standards make even mediocre an unachievable dream, where the system has simply failed. These people are Americans too, betrayed by corrupt or incompetent local officials, but every-much deserving of the kind of local government that most of the rest of the country has or is close to restoring. How much in our deficit reduction efforts will continue to deny these people the live the rest of us enjoy? Are you really comfortable with that?

I’m Peter Dekom, and harsh choices and difficult times can create exceptionally difficult decisions and sacrifices from the rest of us.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Tenuous Tenure

Academic tenure was created at a university level to protect the intellectual freedom of superior professors who had earned the right to be protected from the whims of political storms and popular protests, to teach their courses and conduct their research even though their findings and philosophies might not jibe with mainstream critics. Simply, at the edge of high level academic exploration, research and reasoned opinions often produce startling social conclusions, and without tenure, many brilliant minds could be dismissed before they were permitted to complete their work. But there is nothing particularly cutting edge about primary and secondary education; the goal is to prepare younger minds for either further study or to step into society to begin what is hopefully a life of production contribution. Tenure at this level is not about academic freedom; it is about seniority and little else.

The justification for primary and secondary tenure (which I will call “seniority-tenure” to differentiate the concept from the university concept) is born in the notion of civil service protections and union collective bargaining agreements. Except for seniority-tenure, the unions argue, long-standing and more highly compensated teachers would constantly be at risk for being replaced by their considerably less-expensive younger counterparts. And the teachers unions are exceptionally powerful organizations, with millions of dollars to parse out to sympathetic candidates – almost always Democrats – with deep and powerful lobbying forces at just about every level of political endeavor, from local and state to federal. They are a force to be reckoned with. Ask Michelle Rhee (now chairing the StudentsFirst non-profit and pictured above), former head of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools, what happens when you challenge the seniority-tenure system and incur the wrath of the local unions.

At a time when our deficits are staggering and budget-cutting is sweeping the nation, the fact is that without a first rate educational system at all levels, the United States of America will lose what remaining competitive edge it once held and slide into the realm of “nations that once were great.” The 2006 standardized Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test (given in the industrialized nations only), indicates that 16 other industrialized countries scored above the United States in science, and 23 scored above us in math. Sad news for a nation that placed first in the 1970s on standardized tests. The plea for immediate attention to stem that slide and to take steps that might even replace us at the top of the heap appears to fall on a lot of deaf ears these days. Aside from the radical or overly-wealthy candidates (who don’t need two parents in the workforce) suggesting that home schooling is the alternative (“it’s the parents’ responsibility, not the government’s”), the big reason so many voters have no problems slashing public educational budgets knowing that education is key to our future is summed up in one word: waste.

That lazy, underperforming or just plain ornery and incompetent teachers – sometimes even those with criminal charges against them – at the longer-reaches of the seniority-tenure spectrum survive every attempt at removal (an expensive process than can consume years at full pay) and are virtually immune to layoffs because they have been in the system so long. We’ve seen that there are in fact complex but reasonably accurate metrics to evaluate teacher quality and performance based both on test scores and other objective performance criteria as well as the success of their students in the following years, but seniority-tenure blocks the application of those criteria even to some of the most egregiously unqualified teachers.

These aren’t your archaic “teach to the test” No Child Left Behind standards, but newer and better performance measurements that go well beyond simple testing and that take many variables into consideration. An April 26, 2011 report (Passing Muster: Evaluating Teacher Evaluation Systems) from the Brookings Institute explains: “A new generation of teacher evaluation systems seeks to make performance measurement and feedback more rigorous and useful. These systems incorporate multiple sources of information, including such metrics as systematic classroom observations, student and parent surveys, measures of professionalism and commitment to the school community, more differentiated principal ratings, and test score gains for students in each teacher’s classrooms. The latter indicator, test score gains, typically incorporates a variety of statistical controls for differences among teachers in the circumstances in which they teach. Such a measure is called teacher value-added because it estimates the value that individual teachers add to the academic growth of their students.”

I’ve blogged on how pockets of outstanding teachers often make huge differences in their students’ subsequent academic lives as well as the hard-dollar earning power of their students. Studies now show that the best teachers always pay for themselves in the increased earning power of their students. But so many voters today hate the system that suborns waste and incompetence that they are loathe continuing what they perceive to be bloated budgets supporting unqualified teachers. They’d rather unravel the system than continue such manifest wasteful practices. This profoundly negative view prevents a number of voters from supporting the very thing that teachers unions say they want: better schools, smaller class size and obviously more teachers. In short, these unions have created the very atmosphere that derails their goals. By enabling the “few bad apples,” the unions are threatening the viability of the entire system.

So assuming for a moment that there is some justification for the union fear that the older, more highly-paid teachers would often face job-loss if they could be replaced with younger teachers, is there a way to protect teachers without having a system that coddles the wasteful incompetents? Let me propose a compromise that, in some form or another, may provide enough protection to competent teachers and opportunities for newer pockets of excellence. Applying the above objective criteria, accord de facto seniority-tenure to any teacher who achieves a top 25th percentile in two consecutive years or two out of three consecutive years… and implement seniority-tenure forfeiture for any teacher who falls into the bottom 25th percentile in two consecutive years or two out of three consecutive years. For the rest, seniority-tenure can continue as it currently is. Oh, and for good measure, take away the teaching certificates and right to teach of any teacher who falls into the bottom 5th percentile in two consecutive years or two out of three consecutive years.

You can bet that many teachers unions would oppose such a system tooth and nail, even though they would continue to incur the wrath of the public whose support they desperately need to preserve and grow their educational budgets to implement smaller classrooms and better schools. Some would challenge the efficacy of the tests (particularly when applied to teachers in hard-core failing inner-city schools) – not so easy anymore with the improved metrics (even in the tougher schools) – and argue that contractual seniority-tenure is a vested constitutionally-protected property right. But whatever it takes, from bankrupting offending school districts to state and federal constitutional amendments, if the teachers unions cannot find a voluntary path to improve this system, the risks to our future are simply too great to ignore this issue any longer. I would deeply hope that, in fact, it is these very unions that can help configure a new system that generates enough support to enable their most noble goals.

I’m Peter Dekom, and the threat to our continued existence as a viable and economically competitive nation from our educational failures is as real as a massive military attack against our shores.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Pest Control Ain’t Swatting a Wasp Nest with a Baseball Bat

One of the problems with unleashing the big military stick to solve thorny geopolitical issues is the wave after wave of unintended consequences. Despite our lettuce bowl of cultural diversity, the United States appears loath to engage in deep cultural and historical analysis with Americans from the lands we are threatening to attack because we are suspicious that they may in fact “be the enemy” or worse, we find former locals with an agenda or an axe to grind and use them to set our policies. For example, Afghanistan’s incredibly corrupt President, Hamid Karzai, was our secret CIA contact during the Soviet Afghan war, a man whose father was murdered at the hands of Taliban-supported al Qaeda operatives. As we fomented our post-9/11 anti-Taliban strategy, he was our key advisor. We listened to him and helped him achieve that presidency where, to this day, his government has almost no sway outside of the capital city and its immediate environs.

Black sunglasses-wearing American-engaged security “contractors” operating in Iraq blemished our country with callous and unthinking use of their weapons against innocent civilians. A few bad apples in our military provided Taliban recruiting posters as our soldiers humiliated and tortured al Qaeda prisoners at Abu Graib in Iraq in 2004… and took pictures of their efforts, photographs that were published all over the world. In January of this year, a video of U.S. Marines urinating on Taliban corpses in Afghanistan provided more recruitment fodder for Muslim extremists. “Collateral damage” to civilians from drone attacks on Taliban and al Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s Western Tribal District has pretty much turned Pakistan into little more than an enemy sympathizer for the Taliban cause in Afghanistan. We installed a Shiite majority-controlled government in Iraq, and in a world where only 15% of Muslims are Shiites (most are Sunnis, and the two sects do not get along), it should come as no surprise that immediately after the U.S. forces in Iraq, that country slid instantly into the pro-Iranian (Shiite) camp.

It was bad enough that 2010 a misguided Florida evangelical preacher (Terry Jones) thought it would be a good idea publicly to burn the Qur’an, but late February brought another – purportedly inadvertent – Qur’an-burning incident to the global stage: “Afghan laborers at the sprawling Bagram airfield spotted bags containing copies of the Koran among trash that was bound for the installation's giant incinerator. They managed to prevent some of the copies from being burned, but showed the scorched remnants of others to people living near the base, prompting a groundswell of outrage.” Los Angeles Times, February 22nd. Americans were just cleaning up and preparing to leave the country, explained the military leadership, getting rid of masses of stored materials as part of the process.

Demonstrations followed the Terry Jones incident; twelve people including seven U.N. workers were killed when protestors overran their compound. And of course, demonstrations followed the recent inadvertent burning as well: “In demonstrations that spread to several sites across the country, hundreds of Afghans burned tires, threw stones and chanted ‘Death to America!’ At least a dozen people were reported injured, and foreign embassies and organizations urged Westerners in the capital to keep a low profile.” LA Times. That we were just careless with the holy books only seemed to make things worse: “President Hamid Karzai has long chastised the NATO force for what he calls a persistent failure to respect Afghan cultural norms… Even some Afghans who said they believed the action had been the result of error, not malice, found it difficult to accept [a U.S. military] apology… ‘They are careless with our holy things, and they are careless with our country,’ said a grim-faced Wali Aziz, who closed down his shop early, fearing crowds might try to march on the nearby complex housing the U.S. Embassy.” LA Times.

We’re good at blowing stuff up, deploying high tech weapon systems and inflicting damage with pretty scary accuracy. We are terrible at implementing regime change – the more we are involved with setting up replacement governments, the less effective we are – and even worse containing unintended consequences when we deploy “boots on the ground,” particularly when we linger. The longer we stay in an offending country these days, the more we are perceived as bullies and invading conquerors, and the less we accomplish any semblance of winning over hearts and minds. In fact, the longer we stay, the more negative our image, the more enemies we cause to be recruited and the more hated we are. Our “hanging on” appears to defeat the very policies we are trying to pursue, providing incentives to extremists to join the cause against us.

We have little choice when we are attacked than to strike back at those who have perpetrated against us, but why oh why do we really believe that retaliation should always be followed by boots on the ground and forced regime change? And why or why are we so often the country that proposes military solutions in countries so far from our own. Isn’t there a lesson in China’s hyper-accelerating rise to power without once the modern regime’s engaging in military intervention outside of her own territorial claims?

And if we think that Iran’s recent cutback of exports to European nations and the resulting spike in oil prices could kill our recovery, think long and hard how expensive oil would be if either the U.S. or Israel attacked Iran. Iran has also seen to it that its nuclear facilities are sufficiently spread out that Israel probably lacks the capacity to mount the necessary strike (involving massive refueling of jets over hostile neighbors) without our direct involvement. If that is our only option, so be it, but know that there will be even greater consequences than our most strategic planners foresee.

I’m Peter Dekom, and this “global policeman” mantra has serially gotten the United States into a whole heap o’ trouble, decimating our deficit with unnecessary costs.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

You Are! Am Not!

One of the many, many unintended consequences of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission is not just the volume of hard cash that has escalated the cost of getting elected into the stratosphere or even the fact that these mega-rich messengers are now telling the candidates what they stand for (it’s not “leadership” we elect folks for these days, it’s “followership”!), it is what kind of campaign rhetoric they are actually funding. “Four years ago, just 6 percent of campaign advertising in the GOP primaries amounted to attacks on other Republicans; in this election, that figure has shot up to more than 50 percent, according to an analysis of advertising trends.” Washington Post, February 20th.

Perhaps there is a degree of “plausible deniability” when a Super-PAC mounts the attack (as opposed to the candidate him or herself); after all, the candidates themselves are forbidden from directly controlling these floating political Taj Mahal behemoths. “Data show that super PACs, which have run more advertising than the campaigns themselves, have spent 72 percent of their money on negative ads. The figure for campaigns is 27 percent, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from Kantar Media/Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks television advertising across the country. (…ads were considered negative if they mentioned another GOP candidate.). The Post.

But if there is one clear “queen of mean” in this campaign, it clearly has to be Mitt Romney and his retinue of sympathetic PAC followers. All you have to do to generate a massive increase in Super Pac contributions for Mr. Romney is beat him in any serious caucus or primary, and watch that money laser in on the winner’s many and obvious imperfections.Romney’s campaign began running an ad [February 17th] in Michigan showing a limp body sinking in murky water while a narrator intones: ‘America is drowning in national debt, yet Rick Santorum supported billions in earmarks.’… All of this invective is flowing in an election season when Republicans had hoped to train their resources on beating President Obama. Candidates typically save their sharpest attacks for the general-election campaign, largely sparing their fellow party members.” The Post.

When Gingrich was the Romney Super-PAC victim following Newt’s primary victories, Romney’s Super-PAC went into high gear, and Newt’s Super-PAC – which had begun the race with more positive messages – fired back. “Once the tone of the race turned negative, it stayed that way. One Ron Paul campaign ad calls Newt Gingrich a ‘serial hypocrite.’ Another spot, from a group backing Romney, asks, ‘Haven’t we had enough mistakes’ from Gingrich?... A group supporting Gingrich accuses Romney of being a ‘corporate raider’ and shows footage of an elderly woman saying, ‘I feel that is the man who destroyed us.’ Another spot from the group accuses Romney of making “blood money” from a company that was found guilty of bilking the government for Medicare payments.

“Romney and the groups backing him have led the trend, spending two-thirds of their money on negative ads. Gingrich and the Winning Our Future PAC backing him have spent half of their funds on spots attacking other Republicans. Santorum and the PACs behind him have devoted one out of four dollars to attack ads… Winning Our Future spokesman Rick Tyler said his group’s message was positive until it was forced to counter Romney’s ‘scorched earth’ strategy.” The Post.

Surely there's voter backlash against all this negativity, enough to deter this madness from escalating. Not exactly. “Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson said he would give up to $100 million to Newt Gingrich or another GOP candidate, according to a rare interview in Forbes magazine published [February 21st]. 'It’s unfair that I’ve been treated unfair — but it doesn’t stop me. I might give $10 million or $100 million to Gingrich,' he said.” LBNelert, February 21st.

Try this: “[At a Republican invitation-only retreat in California at the end of January,] conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch and about 250 to 300 other individuals pledged approximately $100 million to defeat President Obama in the 2012 elections... A source who was in the room when the pledges were made told The Huffington Post that, specifically, Charles Koch pledged $40 million and David pledged $20 million.” Oh goody; our political process is now subverted in to more of a cash-and-carry trade than it has ever been, and I suspect as the November elections rolls around, there will be a groundswell of Democratic Super-PACS with their most negative messages. Huffington Post, February 3rd. I’m trying to think of one good thing that the Citizens United decision has added to our great nation. I’m sorry, I can’t.

I’m Peter Dekom, and the “one true thing” about the way we are running our elections these days is that you get what you pay for… and not much else.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Devil You Know

One of the unpleasantries of meddling in the governance of a nation you oppose – literally fomenting a regime change – is that the replacement government may or may not be either grateful or consistent with the very reason you helped overthrow the old government in the first place. Iraq is a classic example. In the 1991Desert Storm operation in the Gulf War, U.S. President George H.W. Bush very intentionally left a malevolent Sunni dictator – Saddam Hussein – in power in Iraq. Allied forces stopped short of deposing the regime, knowing that Hussein represented an anti-Iranian minority faction (traditional Sunnis accounted for about 20% of the population) that would place a hostile military between the Shiite-leaning Syrian leadership (the Assad family) and the virulently anti-American Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran.

The day H.W.’s son, George W. Bush, deposed Saddam Hussein and replaced the regime with a majority-rule government, the pro-Iranian Shiite majority (representing 60% of the population) began a process which is just culminating (after our forces have gone) in a realignment of Iraq into the Iranian camp, a horrible we never intended but literally placed in motion. A few years earlier (during the 1980s), as we funneled high-tech weapons to Afghan mujahedeen (through Pakistani Intelligence Service) in order to destabilized our Soviet enemies (and the Soviet Union did topple), little did we know that those same well-armed rebels would take over Afghanistan and create the staging area for a new wave of anti-American terrorism that produced the deadly 9/11/2001 attacks on the United States. We called it “blowback.”

We’ve spend most of the post-WWII era backing just about any national leader, regardless of corruption or repression, that opposed our enemies du jour. Now, as some of those governments topple, a particularly interesting rising phenomenon most recently exemplified by the Arab Spring at its aftermath, we are faced with replacement regimes that don’t particular fit with what we thought those revolutionary regime changes were going to produce. Witness for example that rather significant majority of Muslim extremists who now control the Egyptian parliament, as that Egyptian government has now arrested and is trying 16 U.S. citizens for crimes in connection with operating pro-democracy movements in Egypt with foreign funding, something they have done for years, without government authorization. “The Egyptian prosecution’s summary of the case …focuses largely on the testimony of their accusers, with evidence primarily limited to proof that their organizations used American and other foreign funds on payrolls and rent.” New York Times, February 20th.

Or look at the chaos in Libya, a nation where a brutal dictator was crushed by armed rebellion with massive military support from the West, including the U.S. The ruling council that has replaced the ousted regime has simply not been able to co-opt the local militia that still dominate their regional bases of operation: “The Libyan government has been unable to control groups of armed men, many of them former rebels who fought to oust Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi last year and who now commit crimes with impunity, operate detention facilities outside the reach of the law and regularly engage in torture and revenge attacks, according to a report by Amnesty International released on [February 16th].” New York Times, February 15th. According to (February 16th), “Detainees at 10 facilities used by militia in central and western Libya told representatives from Amnesty International this year that they had been tortured or abused. Several detainees said they confessed to crimes they had not committed in order to stop the torture, Amnesty International said…. At least 12 detainees held by militias have died after being tortured since September, the human rights organization said, adding that authorities have not effectively investigated the torture allegations.” The new government couldn’t even proceed with scheduled trials of some of these Qaddafi regime perpetrators because the militia simply wouldn’t turn them over for prosecution.

We want regime change in Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, to name the obvious, and indeed ending repression and human rights abuses must always remain an international priority. But what we get once a government topples may not be a kinder, gentler state and seldom will carry the pro-American banner high above. Very few elected officials on earth today can generate massive waves of popular support by backing any meaningful American policies these days, and even as we deploy American arms and munitions to crush dictators, we are still viewed with distaste and as bullies, ready to use force to implement policies that we favor… at the moments we choose to favor them.

If we truly want to fight for human rights, we can never “go it alone” and should seldom dominate the military forces that may be used to implement regime change. We don’t need American boots on the ground to take and hold governments while we install our view of what the correct form of government and leadership should be. If you think we’re good at it, look at the now fiercely pro-Iranian regime in Iraq and the mega-corrupt Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan. We really need to understand exactly how to maximize American policies and values around the world without blowback, resentment or the creation of new enemies we just didn’t expect.

I’m Peter Dekom, and wouldn’t it be nice if American policy-makers would actually look at the relevant cultural, religious and historical patterns of countries we seek to change before we deploy our forces and spend billions and billions of the most ineffective dollars imaginable

Monday, February 20, 2012

Not so Suddenly in the Sudan

Sudan is a northwest-central African country that borders the Red Sea. It could be in the dictionary as the standard for perpetual civil war and human injustice. Sudanese refugees are ubiquitous, and since 1983 “[m]ore than 2.5 million people have been killed, and more than 5 million have become externally displaced while others have been internally displaced, becoming refugees as a result of the civil war and war-related impacts.” Wikipedia. Dirt poor and lacking any semblance of meaningful infrastructure, Sudan also defines hopelessness. A nation the size of France, it is estimated to have fewer than 5,000 miles of paved roads.

The Nile courses through the country, providing some reasonable agricultural areas, but war and strife had made traditional farming exceptionally difficult. Rape, plunder and war are not conducive to stability and growth. The landlocked south – populated mostly by Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk tribal groups – felt a cultural distance from their brethren in the north. Islam, which dominates the northern repressive regime, didn’t cross the vast geographic barriers into the south, and southerners pretty much cling to their traditional religions and cultural practices. And the south wanted separate nation, a solution born of blood and civil war, armies battling each other in a seemingly interminable conflict. The war finally settled in 2005. “A referendum took place in Southern Sudan from 9 to 15 January 2011, on whether the region should remain a part of Sudan or become independent. The referendum was one of the consequences of the 2005 Naivasha Agreement between the Khartoum [in the north and the Sudanese capital] central government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M).” Wikipedia.

And while the north still struggles, a semblance of relative calm has settled in the south, at least within its own borders and with its own population. Oh, did I mention one very important and economic development: Oil in the south provides a revenue base for the future of this war-battered country. Oil is now the economic lifeblood of the south. But there’s a catch. Because South Sudan is landlocked, it has moved its oil up through a pipeline through the north and into the global markets. The north, sensing a great loss of this incredible natural resource, has seized on a mechanism to get a very significant part of that southern oil: a prohibitive transmission tax as southern oil crosses over their land to the Red Sea for export.

“Sudan and the breakaway nation of South Sudan have been locked in an exceedingly dangerous game of brinkmanship over billions of gallons of oil, seizing tankers, shutting down wells and imperiling the tenuous, American-backed peace that has held — just barely — between the two countries after decades of war… After emergency talks to prevent a full-fledged conflict, the two sides agreed to a vague nonaggression pact late on [February 10th], yielding to intense pressure from the African Union, the United States and China — a major oil partner for both sides — to move beyond the language and tactics of mutual destruction. But few analysts see any easy solutions to the heated push and pull over oil, and it is not clear how the nonaggression pact will be any different from previous security deals that have led nowhere. In May, the two sides agreed to demilitarize the contested border. But just days after that, Sudan began heavy bombardment along the border, occasionally dropping bombs in the south, while the South Sudanese rushed in weapons to rebel allies fighting just across the divide.” New York Times, February 10th.

With the north effectively applying a confiscatory tariff on oil flowing through the pipeline from the south, South Sudan simply stopped pumping oil, shutting down its production until a solution could be found. “The conundrum of the two Sudans is that 75 percent of the oil is in the south, just across the border, but the pipeline to export it runs through the north. Because of this, oil was once thought to be the glue that would hold the two nations together and prevent a conflict. Now, it seems, oil is becoming the fuse. .. When South Sudan broke off from Sudan last year, after years of guerrilla struggle, its independence was heralded as the triumphal capstone ending one of Africa’s deadliest civil wars. But the question of how exactly the two sides would share oil profits loomed ominously over the separation, unresolved. Now that both nations are struggling to make it on their own, the issue has proved to be as prickly — and perilous — as many feared…

“South Sudanese officials have admitted they are using their oil to squeeze Khartoum to make concessions on all sorts of issues, including the disputed area of Abyei, insisting that oil production, about 350,000 barrels a day, will resume only after ‘all the deals are signed.’ … The south has even threatened to sit on its oil for years while it builds an alternative pipeline through Kenya. But it is not clear how the new country will survive that long; oil provides about 98 percent of government revenue. And experts question whether the Kenya pipeline is even feasible. It would have to run uphill, requiring many expensive pumping stations, and most likely slice across Jonglei, a South Sudanese state that, with all its militias, is essentially a war zone.” NY Times.

NY Times, February 17th: “Negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan over billions of gallons of oil have ended with very little progress, prolonging a dispute that is undermining the fragile economies of both nations and straining the tenuous peace between them after decades of war.” The tensions are escalating: “The [northern] Sudanese government says it is going to strip all southerners [living in the north] of their citizenship starting in April. If they want to remain in Sudan, they must apply for a visa, work permit, residency papers and the like, all of which will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get for impoverished, illiterate people… Facing all this, more than 350,000 southerners have recently relocated, by bus and by barge, from the north to the south, part of a huge migration facilitated by the United Nations and the South Sudanese government. Many others are in line to go.” NY Times, February 19th. Troops are massing on both sides of the border. The smell of war is certainly in the air.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I wonder if policy-makers would even care if oil prices weren’t at the core of global concern.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Worst Decision in Recent History

With statistics and clear corporate practices now falling within the public light – where disclosure is possible (and that is hardly the uniform rule) – it is beyond a reasonable doubt that the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission, may just be the most destructive blow to American democracy in the last 100 years. Effectively, it held that mega-rich players, from sugar-daddy billionaires (there are 22 such individuals who have rallied millions and millions of dollars each behind their favorite candidate) to corporations to unions, to form political action committees (PACs, and the ones that can ply their trade without most restrictions are Super-PACs), are (i) provided the same free speech, First Amendment rights, of other “people/citizens,” (ii) have the right to spend unlimited sums of money in support of any cause or candidate as long as there is no direct connection with such candidates (who are subject to campaign restrictions themselves).

Because such Super-PAC-driven campaigns are so huge, their profoundly biased and self-promoting lobbyist-like messages are heavily “repackaging” (read: clever ad campaigns and good writing twisting the truth) their extreme self-centered programs to look like democratic rights with uncompromising success. When hundreds of millions of Supreme Court-enabled “fresh cash” dollars are poured into our system like never before, often pushing corporate messages generally about reducing all forms of environmental and financial regulation, lowering employee rights and continuing massive tax loopholes and favorable rates as the gospel, candidates who speak otherwise are now seen as out-of-step with a media-purchased “impression” of what is now considered conservative mainstream. Say otherwise and risk being marginalized and losing PAC support. Candidates are tripping all over each other trying to appear in step with these oversized Super-PAC messages, and no budding presidential candidate has the slightest ability to generate a real number of convention delegates without massive special interest PAC money.

Since one party is running an incumbent for president (who is already the presumed nominee for the Democratic ticket), it only stands to reason that between the desire for an unregulated environment with low taxes, on the one hand, and the ability to ingratiate billionaire interests with a president who will never forget, Republican candidates are clearly drawing a massively disproportionate amount of Super-PAC money. If the roles were reversed, and the Republicans were fielding an incumbent, one would expect Democrat-leaning PACs to crawl out of the woodwork and, if not dominating the media, at least to step up the ante to a multiple of current Democratic spending. This cannot be about muzzling either conservatives or liberals; it has to be about not putting the Office of the President of the United States (and all the other candidates for other offices) up for sale. Did Citizen United really turn our political scene into a commercial bidding process? What do the numbers show? As of February 19th, the New York Times reports on the ten top Super-PACs (named below) focused on the Presidential race over the past 12 weeks:


Restore Our Future

Created by former aides to Mitt Romney, this super PAC recently pledged to spend $2.3 million in South Carolina. Main activity: Attacking Newt Gingrich (84%)


96% spent on attack ads

45% of all Rep. spending


Winning Our Future

This super PAC was created by Becky Burkett, who served until last year as chief development officer for American Solutions, a PAC that Newt Gingrich founded. Main activity: Supporting Newt Gingrich (42%)


36% spent on attack ads

21% of all Rep. spending


Make Us Great Again

A super PAC that was supporting Gov. Rick Perry of Texas before he left the race, headed by Mike Toomey, Mr. Perry's former chief of staff. Main activity: Supporting Rick Perry (100%)


0% spent on attack ads

9% of all Rep. spending


Endorse Liberty

No known ties to candidate

Endorse Liberty supports Ron Paul's campaign and has spent money on online advertisements. Main activity: Supporting Ron Paul (98%)


2% spent on attack ads

8% of all Rep. spending


Red White and Blue Fund

This committee, founded by a former Iowa advisor to former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, is one of two super PACs supporting his candidacy. Main activity: Supporting Rick Santorum (97%)


3% spent on attack ads

7% of all Rep. spending


Our Destiny

This super PAC supported Jon M. Huntsman Jr. before he left the race. A former Huntsman campaign aide, Fred Davis, helps run the committee. Main activity: Supporting Jon M. Huntsman Jr. (100%)


0% spent on attack ads

5% of all Rep. spending


Citizens for a Working America PAC

No known ties to candidate

First organized for the 2010 midterm elections, this super PAC was reported to be raising money to help Michele Bachmann's campaign, but in late December began paying for advertisements supporting Mitt Romney. Main activity: Supporting Mitt Romney (100%)


0% spent on attack ads

1% of all Rep. spending


9-9-9 Fund

This super PAC supported the candidacy of Herman Cain, the former C.E.O. of Godfather's Pizza, before he suspended his campaign in December. Main activity: Supporting Herman Cain (100%)


0% spent on attack ads

1% of all Rep. spending


Priorities USA Action

Bill Burton, a former Obama White House aide, heads this Democratic super PAC, which has not been as active as its Republican counterparts. Main activity: Attacking Mitt Romney (100%)


100% spent on attack ads

97% of all Dem. Spending


Santa Rita SuperPAC

No known ties to candidate

A Texas committee that supports Ron Paul's candidacy, this super PAC aims to buy television advertising time in crucial primary states like South Carolina. Main activity: Supporting Ron Paul (100%)


0% spent on attack ads

1% of all Rep. spending

But lest we believe that such Super-PACs are focused only on major federal issues and candidates, the effect of billionaires and corporations recasting states as their friendly playgrounds is also reaching sinister proportions, to the extent that the best interests of individual voters and most Americans have never been less important. By way of illustraton, New York Times (February 12th) examined one such Super-PAC and its focus on legislation in Virginia. “The American Legislative Exchange Council was founded in 1973 by the right-wing activist Paul Weyrich; its big funders include Exxon Mobil, the Olin and Scaife families and foundations tied to Koch Industries. Many of the largest corporations are represented on its board.

ALEC has written model legislation on a host of subjects dear to corporate and conservative interests, and supporting lawmakers have introduced these bills in dozens of states. A recent study of the group’s impact in Virginia showed that more than 50 of its bills were introduced there, many practically word for word. The study, by the liberal group ProgressVA, found that ALEC had been involved in writing bills that would:

¶Prohibit penalizing residents for failing to obtain health insurance, undermining the individual mandate in the reform law. The bill, which ALEC says has been introduced in 38 states, was signed into law and became the basis for Virginia’s legal challenge to heath care reform.

¶Require voters to show a form of identification. Versions of this bill passed both chambers this month.

¶Encourage school districts to contract with private virtual-education companies. (One such company was the corporate co-chair of ALEC’s education committee.) The bill was signed into law.

¶Call for a federal constitutional amendment to permit the repeal of any federal law on a two-thirds vote of state legislatures. The bill failed.

¶Legalize use of deadly force in defending one’s home. Bills to this effect, which recently passed both houses, have been backed by the National Rifle Association, a longtime member of ALEC.

“ALEC’s influence in the Virginia statehouse is pervasive, the study showed. The House of Delegates speaker, William Howell, has been on the board since 2003 and was national chairman in 2009. He has sponsored or pushed many of the group’s bills, including several benefiting specific companies that support ALEC financially, like one that would reduce a single company’s asbestos liability. At least 115 other state legislators have ties to the group, including paying membership dues, attending meetings and sponsoring bills. The state has spent more than $230,000 sending lawmakers to ALEC conferences since 2001.

“Similar efforts have gone on in many other states. The group has been particularly active in weakening environmental regulations and fighting the Environmental Protection Agency. ALEC’s publication, “E.P.A.’s Regulatory Train Wreck,” outlines steps lawmakers can take, including curtailing the power of state regulators.” I cannot think of anything more un-American than tilting the playing field so that ordinary Americans are now marginalized in the running of their governments to the voices of the richest segment of our society. This is state-sanctioned corruption of the democratic model of government.

One potential constitutional amendment giving Congress the right to regulate campaign spending has been introduced in the Senate, but since the U.S. constitution is the most difficult such document to be amended in the democratic world, passage is exceptionally unlikely (three quarters of the state legislatures have to pass it after a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate). Another bill would require full disclosure of contributors, still a long-shot in a deadlocked do-nothing Congress. Critics say the Supreme Court was simply out of touch with reality: “‘I’m not sure they grasped the practical effects of the decision they were rendering,’ Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), a co-sponsor of the constitutional amendment on campaign finance, suggested last week.” Washington Post, February 13th. The magnitude of that understatement is staggering.

I’m Peter Dekom, and when a small group of rich people run the country at their whim and pleasure, we begin to look less like a democratic powerhouse and more like a banana republic.