Friday, March 30, 2012

“Little America” in Afghanistan

Very few countries that were involved in World War II came out of that conflict richer as a result. One startling exception, believe it or not, was Afghanistan. It wasn’t the drug trade that pulled it up. Through a confluence of historical accidents, it was the fur and wool business that made the difference in this mountainous Central Asian monarchy. One the one hand, the wool was a phenomenally strong fiber that served particularly well in military combat uniforms, particularly in the bomber jackets worn by U.S. airmen who faced bitterly cold temperatures at high altitudes. And on the other, with the German persecution of Jews, the once powerful European fur trade moved its center to New York City, where demand for astrakhan coats was growing exponentially. Afghan fat-tailed sheet were the source of both of these products, deemed to be superior in the eyes of the experts in the field.

By 1946, Afghanistan has amassed a dollar currency reserve of about $100 million (about $1.2 billion in today’s dollar market), and King Zahir Shah wanted his nation to step into the modern world with what he felt with the most incredible technology on earth: a giant dam, able to generate electricity and turn the land around the dam into some of the most fertile farmland on earth… or so he thought. He wanted his people to have new land to grow prosperous. He brought in a main contractor that had worked on building Hoover Dam, focused on the Helmand River.

Like many overseas sites where Americans were employed in insolated regions in large enough numbers – most notably the Arabian American Oil Company where the company towns looked like US suburbs – the Americans knew they’d be here for a while and laid out plans that looked like a normal street grid for an American mini-city. And then they built the houses that bore little or no resemblance to any other. It was “Little America” in the Helmand valley, and this model community was called Lashkar Gah. The plans were big. Lots of smaller temporary diversion dams to allow a larger structure to contain the massive anticipated water supply. Canals linked them all. Construction began on a huge scale.

But in 1949 the engineers learned about the nasty realities of the local soil. When one diversion dam flooded the plain, the earth saturated quickly, sending large amounts of plant-killing salt to the surface. The salinity destroyed the fertility of most of the land that was to be irrigated and turned into fields of productive crops. The project was untenable and the engineers all knew it then, but because the Cold War had begun and Afghanistan was on the Soviet border, it just continued.

“[A]t that very moment President Truman made a speech promising to give aid to poor countries. It was the start of the Cold War and Truman was going to use development projects and American money to stop countries from becoming communist… The Americans liked dams. They were a way of challenging the communists because they would create more fertile land - so people could be better off without having to redistribute land through a revolution. In 1952 the Helmand Valley Authority was set up. It was modelled on the Tennessee Valley Authority - the TVA - created by Roosevelt in the 1930s.

“Faced with this the engineers’ doubts about the project were buried and forgotten. Massive loans poured in from America and two giant dams were built plus 300 miles of big canals… But more problems emerged. Everything became waterlogged which led to weeds. Salt kept on suddenly appearing. And the reservoirs and the canals made the water cooler which meant that there couldn't be any vineyards and orchards any longer. In future they could only grow grain… But again all the doubts and worries were overwhelmed because the American technocrats and politicians had become fascinated by a new idea. It was called ‘Modernization Theory.’ It said that there was a way of using science and technology not just to stop countries like Afghanistan going communist, but to actually transform them into democratic capitalist societies like America…

“All this vast dream of modernity and, with it, the King's power, was entirely based on the success of the development projects - above all the Helmand dam and irrigation scheme. The trouble was that they were not a success in any way or form. In reality Helmand was a disaster… There was so much water in the ground in some areas that houses and mosques were crumbling into a growing bog. Even worse, underneath the new man-made oases, the engineers had discovered hard rock which made them even more waterlogged. So they had to dig deep bore drains - which removed 10% of the area from cultivation. Then a study showed that crop yields were steadily falling. But the academics advising the American development agencies had a new theory that explained this. It was called Dual Economic Theory. It said that you not only had to modernise the infrastructure you also had to bring agriculture up to date…

“[Years passed, and unrest was pressing for the removal of the King and his dreams of modernization.] There were student strikes. Many of the student leaders came from the engineering department which was now full of communist and Maoist cells. Then one of the communist students defected to a new group of revolutionaries - the Islamists. He was called Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, and he became notorious for his violence. Some say he went round throwing acid in the faces of women without headscarves, but he denies this and says that if he lived in the west he would sue for libel. He was given a nickname - The Engineer.

“In 1972 parliament was suspended and a year later the Prime Minister … joined with the army to mount a coup that got rid of the King. It was the beginning of the chaos that would lead the country into anarchy and disaster. And the end of the dreams of the Helmand Valley Project. The Americans began to leave, abandoning a vast infrastructure that started to decay…But during the Soviet war both sides found a use for the remains of the project. The giant reservoir was used to dump bodies tortured and killed by the Khalq communists. While the Mujahedin used the water channels for cover when fighting the Russians.

And the new soil was very suitable for a new crop - the opium poppy. It grows well in dry climates and in alkaline and saline soils, and poppy-growing increased massively in Helmand in the 1980s. And with it the heroin trade.” The Lost History of Helmand, The Soviet War, which helped collapse the USSR, followed for a decade from 1979. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, Lashkar Gah is the provincial capital. The Helmand Valley is the same area (near Pakistan) where so many Americans have died at the hand of Taliban insurgents in the recent war. The emptied canals built and then abandoned by the Americans back then have provided excellent trenches for Taliban warriors to move and mount attacks from. And you thought you really knew all about Afghanistan!

I’m Peter Dekom, and the history of America’s presence in Afghanistan appears to be nothing more than a continuous string of broken promises, failed dreams, and completely unrealistic expectations.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

I-raq of Ages

Even under the post-WWII Hashemite monarchy, through the series of military-led coups and even under the pre-Saddam Hussein Ba’athist, socialist takeover, Shiites and Sunnis – both with strong and often violently differing views on the interpretation of the Qur’an – lived harmoniously, side-by-side, in Iraq. Hussein, however, made it brutally clear when he ruled that the 20% minority Sunnis were in charge, and the Qur’an-is-a-mystical-holy-book Shiite 60% majority were second class members of Iraqi society. While much of the nation is clearly divided into areas of Shiite (southeastern and coastal Iraq), Sunni (a smaller, landlocked region in the southwest bordering Syria) and Kurd (the north) dominance, the capital city, Baghdad, was and is a town where at least Sunnis and Shiites lived together. The fall of Hussein destabilized the entire nation, but that harmony in the capital was particularly vulnerable.

Shiites, angry from decades of Sunni repression (Hussein actually repressed everyone, but he favored his fellow Sunnis), began attacking pockets of Sunnis, and Sunnis reacted with car bombs, suicide bombers and random attacks against Shiite mosques, neighborhoods and businesses. Pro-Sunni al Qaeda sensed an opportunity and lent fighters and weapons to the minority Sunni cause. Shiite militia countered, and the country erupted in a bloodbath, focused particularly in areas where Shiites and Sunnis overlapped, notably Baghdad. Because the United States fostered regime change and majority rule, it imposed a constitutional democracy that basically handed control of the country to the majority Shiite population.

With most of the Islamic world (80%+) practicing some form of Sunni faith, the Iraqi Shiites found affinity with the only country in the world with a massively large majority Shiite population, neighboring Iran. Their politics, political preferences and willingness to accept aid of all kinds (including support for Iraqi militia that were willing to destabilize the American-imposed government) from Iran began to move Iraq rather deliberately into the Iranian sphere of influence, a factor banged home when literally days after the last American troops left the Iraqi theater, the government issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the nation’s most power Sunni leader, on charges of terrorism while at the same time inviting back Sayyid Moktada al-Sadr, who with his Shiite-militant Mahdi Army had sought refuge in Iran, and with a wink and a nod indicated that his militia should become part of the normalized Iraqi forces. We’ve always considered al-Sadr a terrorist.

The collateral damage appears to be in those Baghdad neighborhoods where Sunnis fled in fear for their lives at the height of the anti-Sunni purges by Shiite militia, and vice versa… upon their decision to reclaim their homes in what they hoped would be a resumption of that once cordial détente, perhaps even entente, that allowed Sunnis and Shiites to live side-by-side before the 2003 American invasion. And they are coming back in droves: “In 2011, the number of returnees to Iraq soared by 120 percent from a year earlier, to 260,690, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They were drawn back by improving security and larger government payments to Iraqis registering as returnees. It was the most since 2004, when the fall of Saddam Hussein opened the gates for thousands who had fled his brutality, forced relocations and a decade of crushing sanctions…

But as [many returning] refugees have discovered, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis now seeking to go back to areas they fled during the bad times, going home again is never as simple as it seems. Instead, they find themselves perched along the next front in Iraq’s seemingly unending turmoil: the battle of return… Across the country, near-record numbers of displaced families are pouring back, but instead of kindling a much-needed reconciliation they are in some cases reviving the resentments and suspicions created by bloody purges that carved Iraq into archipelagos of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds after the American-led 2003 invasion.” New York Times, March 24th.

Instead of peace and tranquility, returning citizens face militant check-points, and bomb blasts have become a daily part of life in Baghdad for warring factions. Legions of innocent Baghdadis have perished. One example of that new landscape is the Al Adel section (administrative district) of Baghdad: “In Arabic, Al Adel means justice. After the 2003 invasion, it became a base camp for Sunni insurgents in western Baghdad. They carried out torture in seized houses and battled Shiite militias who had control of a nearby neighborhood. Nearly every Shiite family moved away, and residents estimated that 300 people were killed in a neighborhood of about 1,500 to 2,000 families.…Today, Al Adel blooms with loud markers of the Shiites’ return and ascent. Along the main streets fly black, green and red flags of Shiite mourning and martyrdom. The faces of Shiite clerics, living and dead, stare down from billboards. A new mosque for followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr has opened.

For Shiite Muslims who have returned over the past few years, these are footholds of identity. But Sunnis say they get the message: it is religious Shiites who now hold sway from Al Adel to the office of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. ‘They see us as a threat,’ said Mohammed al-Ani, 35, a Sunni government worker. ‘They are putting us through the same things that the Shiites suffered. Now, as a Sunni, I am afraid when I am home. I keep thinking that they will come and arrest me.’” NY Times.

The Americans are gone now and highly unlikely to return and fix the damage they created. It’s their problem now. Iran is laughing at our stupidity, but silently grateful that we handed them a unique new ally (Saddam had once waged war against Iran), the largest pocket of pro-Iranian Shiites outside of Iran herself… as we watch Iraq slip away from anything resembling gratitude for our restoring power to the majority Shiite population. Perhaps the collateral damage, much like the new hatred our war in Afghanistan has stirred up against us all over the Muslim world, is really on the United States of America.

I’m Peter Dekom, and having by far the most powerful military on earth does not mean that we remotely know how to use it to our advantage.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Bomb I-Ran Away From

Nobody outside of Iran and a few fanatics wants Iran to join the nuclear community. No one! Not only is there the fear that Tehran would deploy such devices against Israel and even others in the West, but there is an even greater concern that she would “lend” such explosives and the underlying technology to clandestine terrorists and rogue states with bitterness and revenge on their mind. Experts envision an arms race in the region and perhaps other parts of the world as well. After all, could even Sunni states ever trust a Shiite military power with a nuke? There is no good that would come of such capacity, for sure. But we know all that. What would happen if Iran developed the bomb anyway and either an Israeli strike failed to dismember Iran’s nukes or no such strike were attempted? What would Iran with a bomb actually do with it?

First there is the argument that why should the United States, the bigger powers in the West, Russian, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel, have the bomb and Iran not? What, ask Iranian leaders in private, gives the West the hypocritical right to be nuclear powers yet insist that Iran not be able to join that club? Israeli leaders angrily respond with the Holocaust Denial and the pledge by Iranian leaders to push Israel into the sea. Yet it was the Bush administration that openly argued for ousting the current Iranian regime, providing aid to dissidents who shared that goal, hinting that it might do more if the movement looked as if it might succeed. It was indeed the United States and the U.K. that toppled the popularly elected government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in August 1953 and installed the profoundly unpopular Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi family (and their terrifying secret police, Savak) in their place, until the Islamists removed that regime in 1979.

In addition to featuring the results of our U.S. military simulations relating to a military solution to Iran’s purported nuclear capacity, today’s blog focuses on the analysis of Paul Pillar (above), a 28-year CIA veteran who served in the Bush administration (until 2005) as an intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, summarized in the March 19th Washington Post: “Pillar, who teaches at Georgetown University, points out that despite all the ‘belli-cosity and political rhetoric’ about the issue, the idea of an Iran with the bomb ‘has been subjected to precious little careful analysis.’” Whether you agree or disagree with Pillar’s analysis, it would seem obvious that matters of such profound gravity – especially where a sudden and sustained spike in prices at the pump could decimate our own staggeringly slow attempt at economic recovery and that would inevitably result from an attack on Iran – merit some level of risk-reward thinking. Pillar has spent a good part of his life focused on understanding the decision-making process among Iran’s leadership.

Simply put, Pillar believes that an Iran with the bomb would not be much more dangerous than most other nuclear powers. Were Iran’s leaders ever to deploy such a device – directly themselves or through their Hezbollah or Hamas sympathizers – their life expectancy from the retaliation would be measured in seconds. “He cites the repeated stereotyping that Iran’s rulers are ‘fanatics who value martyrdom more than life, cannot be counted on to act rationally and, therefore, cannot be deterred.’ Pillar notes that the past 30 years have proved that although they promote martyrdom to defend the homeland, ‘they have never given any indication of wanting to become martyrs themselves.’

“As the CIA argued in 2002 about [Iraq’s Saddam] Hussein, Pillar says Iran’s leaders have no incentive to lose control over a nuke. In Iran’s case, any use by terrorists would be traced to Tehran and bring swift retaliation. Tehran, he argues, would use nukes only in self-defense… As for making Iran bolder in supporting terrorist groups, Pillar argues that Tehran’s main reason for obtaining the bomb is ‘in deterring aggression against one’s own country.’

“Pillar also questions why the argument that any Israeli/U.S. attack on Iran to set back its nuclear program uses the ‘best case’ scenario that Tehran’s response would be limited, while only a ‘worst case’ analysis is made of Iran getting the bomb. If the armed attack by Israel or the United States is analyzed under ‘worst case’ scenarios, Pillar says, ‘we would be hearing about a regional conflagration involving multiple U.S. allies, sucking in U.S. forces beyond the initial assault.’… He said such an attack also ‘would be an immediate political gift to Iranian hard-liners.’… An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities of course would disrupt oil markets and raise gas prices. Look at what just the threat of such an attack is doing.” The Post.

Aside from Paul Pillar, the U.S. military has recently played out a set of war game simulations – under its “Internal Look” program – based on the aftermath of an Israeli strike on Iranian targets. “The officials said the so-called war game was not designed as a rehearsal for American military action — and they emphasized that the exercise’s results were not the only possible outcome of a real-world conflict… But the game has raised fears among top American planners that it may be impossible to preclude American involvement in any escalating confrontation with Iran, the officials said.

“The results of the war game were particularly troubling to Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands all American forces in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, according to officials who either participated in the Central Command exercise or who were briefed on the results and spoke on condition of anonymity because of its classified nature. When the exercise had concluded earlier this month, according to the officials, General Mattis told aides that an Israeli first strike would be likely to have dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there…

The two-week war game, called Internal Look, played out a narrative in which the United States found it was pulled into the conflict after Iranian missiles struck a Navy warship in the Persian Gulf, killing about 200 Americans, according to officials with knowledge of the exercise. The United States then retaliated by carrying out its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities… The initial Israeli attack was assessed to have set back the Iranian nuclear program by roughly a year, and the subsequent American strikes did not slow the Iranian nuclear program by more than an additional two years. However, other Pentagon planners have said that America’s arsenal of long-range bombers, refueling aircraft and precision missiles could do far more damage to the Iranian nuclear program — if President Obama were to decide on a full-scale retaliation…

Many experts have predicted that Iran would try to carefully manage the escalation after an Israeli first strike in order to avoid giving the United States a rationale for attacking with its far superior forces. Thus, it might use proxies to set off car bombs in world capitals or funnel high explosives to insurgents in Afghanistan to attack American and NATO troops.” New York Times, March 19th. No one can really predict the consequences of such a military effort, but we have repeatedly miscalculated the consequences of our initial actions, often intended to create very short-term solutions but that result in conflicts lasting many years, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan. Military action is an extremely complex solution for the problem.

Yet the three Republican front-runners have indicated that they would support an immediate attack on Iran to suppress the nuclear effort (which has yet to be confirmed, by the way, and which many experts believe has not occurred), and the Obama administration has assured Israel and the American public that all possible options against Iran are “on the table.” There does not seem to be any governmental or potential governmental force of significance in the United States, and most certainly not in the current Likud government in Israel, that argues for a more moderated response. The only major relevant voices presenting the less militant view appear to be from our own military command and from those in the Israeli parliament itself, where their voices are becoming increasingly louder. Let’s hope the sanctions work, but if they don’t which side would you embrace? Are you willing to accept the consequences either way? Really?

I’m Peter Dekom, and when making exceptionally important decisions, it is mission critical to examine the assumptions, the options, and the probable results in full before acting.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Follow the Things that are “Sacred”

“It’s the economy stupid!” is the mantra that suggests that when push comes to shove, voters always vote their pocketbooks, and in harsh economic times, it would seem to be self-evident that the presidential candidate that offers the clearest path to that better economy will be the victor in November. So you’d think, and for a very substantial number of voters, that is clearly the case. But how do you explain voters in local school districts with young children, who are going to obviously deteriorating schools, actually voting against programs to improve those schools? Or people at the lower end of the economic spectrum who actually receive some form of government benefits or subsidies voting to reduce government (and hence their benefits), cut taxes for the richest segment of society and actually vote for politicians who openly oppose environment regulations that keep air and water from being polluted or laws that are aimed at preventing another financial collapse? Why are people without health insurance or the ability to pay for it willing to vote against healthcare proponents?

The answer to how and why so many of these voters – particularly on the evangelical side – so often seem to be voting against their own self-interests, even voting to tilt the playing field further against their near and long-term personal health and welfare is examined by University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt (currently taking time to teach at NYU’s Stern School of Business; pictured above at a TED lecture), noted lecturer in his newly released book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” He is known as a “moral foundations theorist,” looking for the underlying emotional vectors in mass political behavior as opposed to the traditional economic analyses.

According to Wikipedia, Dr. Haidt breaks these moral foundations into six groups:

  1. Care for others, protecting them from harm. (He also referred to this dimension as Harm.)
  2. Fairness, Justice, treating others equally.
  3. Loyalty to your group, family, nation. (He also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
  4. Respect for tradition and legitimate authority. (He also referred to this dimension as Authority.)
  5. Purity or Sanctity, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions.
  6. Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty.

The March 17th New York Times gave Dr. Haidt an Op-Ed page to express his views. He is most certainly not without substantial critics, particularly in conservative America, but see if you find traction with his theories... or not. “Self-interest, political scientists have found, is a surprisingly weak predictor of people’s views on specific issues… Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes”

First look at the world from a liberal and then conservative-evangelical moralistic perspective: “The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: ‘Once upon a time, the vast majority’ of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.’ These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.’ Despite our progress, ‘there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.’ This struggle, as Smith put it, ‘is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.’… This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose

“Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: ‘Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.’ For example, ‘instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.’ Instead of the ‘traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle’ and instead of ‘projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.’ In response, ‘Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.’

“This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s ‘a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.’) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.” NY Times.

The grassroots passions you see, from the left and the right, are heroic defenses of things sacred to each voting segment, and passion against all who oppose your most sacred beliefs is one of the core destroyers of willingness to compromise and a core accelerant of irreparable polarization. Passionate commitments to sacred beliefs are the most difficult to dislodge or to find harmonic balance. People are literally prepared to go down with the ship in the name of their cherished beliefs.

In his parting Op-Ed words, Haidt opines: “This is why we’ve seen the sudden re-emergence of the older culture war — the one between the religious right and the secular left that raged for so many years before the financial crisis and the rise of the Tea Party. When sacred objects are threatened, we can expect a ferocious tribal response. The right perceives a ‘war on Christianity’ and gears up for a holy war. The left perceives a ‘war on women’ and gears up for, well, a holy war… The timing could hardly be worse. America faces multiple threats and challenges, many of which will require each side to accept a ‘grand bargain’ that imposes, at the very least, painful compromises on core economic values. But when your opponent is the devil, bargaining and compromise are themselves forms of sacrilege.”

It is in these immutable and intransigent positions that nations collapse and fracture into new geographical boundaries, a process that shows up a century later in some bored student’s historical textbook. Is this beginning of the end for the United States as a political body? Does this suggest that the European Union cannot hold onto its original goals? Is there any process than can restore civility and the unity that sustains nationhood? Was Abraham Lincoln right that a “house divided against itself cannot stand”?

I’m Peter Dekom, and the real question is whether this polarization can be moderated to allow the United States of America to continue as a viable nation for the long term.

Monday, March 26, 2012

No on Chicken Feet

In the annals of colonial exploitation, Western powers maintained the seats of industrial manufacture and exploited natural resources and agricultural bounty from their distant colonies. The colonies were treasured for their vast tracts of productive farms and shockingly cheap “plantation workers.” Western Europe grew fat on that model, accumulating global wealth at an unprecedented level, while the colonies often stayed at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, complaining of exploitation but lacking the organization, willpower and modern weaponry to do much about it… until well into the 20th century.

So it is with less than mild amusement that I watch as the global patterns of the 19th and early 20th century are flipped on their hairless little heads. If there is a part of the world that appears to be upside down, it would be Europe herself, now pretty heavily reliant on currency subsidies from mega-wealthy Asia players like China. Nations that long ago represented the highest order of power and development in the early years of ascending Western culture – Italy (Roman Empire) and Greece (Sparta and Athens) – are now the decimators of European values as their over-leveraged and lethargic economies are the focus of global economic fears.

And as China has become the manufacturing Mecca on earth, the U.S. trade deficit with the Peoples Republic has risen to $295 billion in 2011, a $22 billion increase from 2010. That said, the United States is in fact growing her net exports to the PRC: “American exports to China have increased by 468 percent since 2001, when the country joined the World Trade Organization, and are up by nearly 50 percent since 2008.” New York Times, March 11th. Wow! Chinese like our manufacturers that much? Must be our design excellence and quality for the finest of products. Not exactly. China might want more of our highest technologies, but we are a tad sensitive about that, and while the Chinese people might crave more of our filmed entertainment (which they have completely available online through piracy) in their theaters, their cultural purist censors have capped that import severely.

No export fans. In a paean to yesteryear, China is much more interested in importing traditional colonial fare like natural resources and agricultural products, and since we have mined out a good deal of the former, we have a heavy emphasis on the latter. Our massive export industry to China is… agriculture! Okay, our horrifically cheap plantation workers are mechanical and occasionally the migrant farm workers from south of the border, but the Chinese long for our crops, particularly those that support the rapidly escalating standards of living as reflected in diets with more meat and higher qualities of other products. And, despite its size, China doesn’t have the vast fertile agriculture lands or sufficiently trained managers to manage large-scale farming using the latest techniques and equipment.

Protectionist barriers in China still create an unfair “Great Wall of Protectionism” that often violates World Trade Organization rules, but we are cleaning up with our food products… except of course the highly prized American chicken feet (a PRC delicacy) which are currently banned in a nasty trade dispute over allowing Chinese tires into the U.S. And American beef is not permitted, even though the bovine infections that gave rise to the ban ended nine years ago. What agricultural products do they covet most?

“The top export last year was food, reflecting China’s insatiable demand for soybeans, which are used here for livestock and poultry feed — and are cheaper than importing feed grain… ‘China imported more soybeans from the U.S. because people’s living standard has improved and they need more nutritious food,’ said Zheng Fengtian, a professor of agriculture and rural development at Beijing’s Renmin University. Importing soybeans ‘satisfies people’s needs for meat, eggs and milk,’ he said…

“In the snack department, a major American export on the rise has been tree nuts — almonds, pistachios and, more recently, pecans, causing a major transformation in the once-struggling U.S. pecan industry, with more investment and more trees being planted… Many urban Chinese prefer imported American and other foreign goods — such as dairy products — after a series of scares here over contaminated food.” NY Times. Oh sure, as their population ages, they are also beginning to import a lot more America pharmaceuticals, but it is strange that they really see us… and most of the rest of the world… as their suppliers of raw materials and foodstuffs. As for sophisticated manufacturing, they can handle that themselves.

I’m Peter Dekom, and at least this export scenario pretty much decimates the argument that our government should continue agricultural subsidies at any level!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cheap but Cool & Digital

When the U.S. hotel industry set out to capture the older travelers about a decade years ago, they focused on comfortable beds and reasonable workspaces, and rewarded loyal travelers with upgrades and freebies. While this market remains, there’s a new kid in town… literally a new kid – a millennial – who’s yearning to travel and explore. But unlike weary and pained parental and grand-parental bones, this group of nascent travelers has been crashing on couches and floors for a while, so even having a bed is a huge plus to a lot of them. What they really want is cheap, cheap, cheap, networked and device friendly and often something “interesting” (something that might seem “off-the-wall” to an older traveler).

“Travel spending by these younger travelers rose 20 percent in 2010, making them the fastest-growing age segment, according to American Express Business Insights, though they still lag the baby boom generation in overall spending… ‘All of the major brands — Hilton, Starwood, Marriott, InterContinental — have developed hip products that are targeted at the younger traveler,’ said Chris Klauda, a vice president at D. K. Shifflet & Associates, a travel and hospitality market research company… Hotels that ignore these younger travelers, said Mark Woodworth, president of Colliers PKF Hospitality Research, will be at “a very severe competitive disadvantage.” New York Times, March 12th.

I see the trend in my own family. Even when he was in college, my son, a 2006 Duke grad, was traveling all over the states, and on occasion would dig into his summer savings and venture overseas. He’s getting married in May, and “interesting,” cost consciousness and networked have led him to St. Lucia for his honeymoon (ok, it’s a pretty romantic spot!). Ever since he was a freshman in college, he was a whiz at trolling the Web and finding every bargain on every form of transportation imaginable. He could find the best restaurants at the best prices, occasionally scoring a coupon that simply seemed too good to be true, and scoped out towns he was traveling to with uncanny expertise. He was the king of cheap, with a touch of quality and style. I can’t tell you how many of his recommendations led me to hotels where millennials were on the “very cool roof bar” socializing at a function created by the hotel to cater to that market segment.

“Many hotel owners and operators are remodeling existing hotels or introducing new ones that offer free hotelwide Wi-Fi connections; large, welcoming lobbies with plush, comfortable furnishings; state-of-the-art fitness areas; in-room power consoles to plug in iPads, laptops and other devices; and stylish bars that spill into the lobby… Some are also scheduling nightly social events, like happy hours and free wine tastings, aimed at luring the iPhone-toting generation to their hotels...

“Younger travelers also tend to visit three or four different restaurants and bars a night, so some hotels are opening up multiple bars and lounges with different themes at different times of the day to keep them in the hotel. Many also offer free daily events, including tea tastings, yoga sessions and wine tastings,” NY Times. Peace and quiet give way to bold architecture and a happening scene. No high-speed Internet or extra charges for usage, and there goes that market segment. It’s a basic as running water and electricity. Cool remotes for lights, TV, etc. – like an iPad designed to control these functions in every room (Plaza Hotel in NYC) can make a difference too. So what if the room is only 200 square feet! Think how small their dorm room was and how many years they found that sufficient. But remember, if you are indeed a more mature traveler, that bargain you found online might just provide a bit more noise than you might want… at 2 am.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I can’t wait to see these same travelers in just a few year years with their kids in tow!

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Most older folks remember the now defunct World Book Encyclopedia and perhaps the better known and vastly more information-filled Encyclopedia Britannica (note American spelling; the British spelling is below). School libraries everywhere had at least one set of that lovely multi-volume, blue leather-bound series of books, and a few of may even remember the door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen (above) looking to sell “your child’s future success in school” with a time-payment driven purchase of that wondrous set of books.

The Britannica is old and has roots that reach back beyond the founding of our own nation: “The Britannica is the oldest English-language encyclopaedia. It was first published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh, Scotland as three volumes. The encyclopaedia grew in size, and by its fourth edition (1801–1809) it had expanded to a well known 20-volume set. Its rising stature helped recruit eminent contributors, and the 9th edition (1875–1889) and the 11th edition (1911) are landmark encyclopaedias for scholarship and literary style. Beginning with the 11th edition, the Britannica shortened and simplified articles to broaden its appeal in the North American market. In 1933, the Britannica became the first encyclopaedia to adopt ‘continuous revision,’ in which the encyclopaedia is continually reprinted and every article updated on a schedule.” Wikipedia (how ironic, eh?).

A hundred editors and 4,000 expert contributors still work at the encyclopedia offices, but on March 13th - 244 years after its founding - the company announced that it would no long print that set of books, choosing instead to focus on the online version as well as the company’s related textbook business. RIP Britannica.

“In an acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age — and of competition from the Web site Wikipedia — Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.

“‘It’s a rite of passage in this new era,’ Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., a company based in Chicago, said in an interview. ‘Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.’” New York Times, March 13th. But open source Wikipedia has offered an online “sufficiency” for those who don’t need the depthy and detailed accounts for which Britannica is and was famous for. Search engines and “how to” sites have led to a new digital era. Sigh.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I remember as a boy just pulling random books from the encyclopedia shelf and thumbing through one till I found an article I liked.

Friday, March 23, 2012


Post on the March 11th Homeroom blog at the Department of Education: “What do national security, military readiness, and education have in common? It turns out that national security and quality education are closely tied together. A recent study [a December 2010 report by the Education Trust entitled Shut Out of the Military: Today’s High School Education Doesn’t Mean You Are Ready for Today’s Army]found that 75% of America’s youth are NOT qualified to join the Armed Forces. This could have serious effects on America’s ability to defend itself.” Some of this is because of an epidemic of obesity, but most of it is over educational standards. Bad news, but the message for the nation as a whole suggests that there is even a greater peril facing the United States from a failing public educational system that is being further eroded by never-ending deficit-reducing budget cuts: our very security as a nation is at risk because of our inability to prepare the next generations for the future.

A follow-up study to the “A Nation at Risk” report issued thirty years ago – by an independent task force cochaired by former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein – suggests that America’s future might be dark and murky without key changes in our attitudes and educational institutions: “Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk,” says the report.

“Some of the key factors that the report cites in linking education shortcomings and a weakened national security: insufficient preparation of children for the highly technical jobs that both the private sector and the military increasingly need to fill, scant and declining foreign-language education, and a weakened ‘national cohesiveness’ as a result of an under-educated and unemployable poor population.” The Christian Science Monitor, March 20th.

Former Secretary of State Rice noted that “[e]ducation is ‘the glue that keeps us together,’ she said at an event in Washington Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations, which sponsored the task force. A factor weakening that glue, she said, is the ‘perception of a smaller and smaller group that is advancing in America.’ She added, ‘If we are not one nation, we cannot defend one nation.’

“The report cites a series of indicators of America’s educational weaknesses – [including] US students’ disappointing placement on international rankings of math and science competencies… The US is not producing enough foreign-language speakers to fill key positions in the Foreign Service, in intelligence agencies, and in America’s increasingly global companies… And yet, Rice said, ‘We are the most monolingual major society on Earth.’

To reverse the nation’s education slide, the task force offers a number of recommendations, one of which is a longer school day and a longer school year. ‘We have the shortest learning day and the shortest learning year practically of all [countries] in the industrialized world,’ Rice said.

“The task force’s three main recommendations:

• Putting more emphasis on children learning science, technology, and foreign languages, in addition to reading and math.

• Preparation by the states, in conjunction with the federal government, of what the report calls a “national security readiness audit.” This would measure how schools are doing at teaching “the skills and knowledge necessary to safeguard America’s future security and prosperity.”

• Increasing school choice and competition, namely by charter schools and vouchers – within an environment of “equitable resource allocation.” Christian Science Monitor.

How much more mediocrity can we tolerate before we look at the United States as the great supplier of unskilled labor to the rapidly growing Asian markets? How well will we adapt to being a third-rate nation? And why do we seem not to care?

I’m Peter Dekom, and I am appalled that the obvious doesn’t seem to be with most voters.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Fat and Overlap

The Government Accountability Office is constantly studying and analyzing the cost of the federal government, issuing reports and providing testimony before various Congressional committees on the relevant financial subjects they cover. For the second year, they have issued their analysis of overlap and duplication in federal services. Their report (“More Efficient and Effective Government: Opportunities to Reduce Duplication, Overlap and Fragmentation, Achieve Savings, and Enhance Revenue” whew!) is tough and slow reading and their testimony on the subject before a House committee was sparsely attended, thought by some to be a cross between looking at paint drying or watching grass growing.

But one intrepid reporter at the Washington Post (March 15th), Joe Davidson, thought they had some very good ideas, probably resulting in vastly greater savings than freezing federal pay levels (the latter which program pretty much guarantees that unless you were born rich, the best and the brightest will eventually leave for the private sector leaving… guess who… behind). Davidson’s extracts from the report are verrrrry interesting:

 There were “20 different entities that administer 160 programs, tax expenditures, and other tools that supported homeownership and rental housing in fiscal year 2010.”

 Duplication of Defense Department and Veterans Affairs health-care programs has led to “inadequate information exchange and poor coordination between these programs” and “confusion and frustration for enrollees, particularly when case managers and care coordinators duplicate or contradict one another’s efforts.”

 The Navy “plans to spend more than $3 billion to develop the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] rather than the already fielded Air Force Global Hawk system on which it was based.”

 Promotion of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education has produced 209 programs in 13 agencies. Eighty-three percent of the programs “overlapped to some degree with at least 1 other program in that they offered similar services to target groups . . . to achieve similar objectives.”

Obviously, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but government waste has been a bi-partisan song that we have been hearing for years. “The 2012 report identifies 51 areas ‘that could either reduce the cost of government operations or enhance revenue collections for the Treasury,’ Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro said in his Feb. 28 testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.” The Post. And it seemed that bi-partisan support could actually implement many of the recommendations.

One bold Congressman who testified before the committee asked the right question: “‘Who is to blame for this maze of government programs?’ asked Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in his testimony. ‘Very simply, it is Congress. We are all culpable. And to be sure, the blame does not rest on one party or the other, it lies with both. Duplication in this country has been created by the ruling class of career politicians seeking to slap short-term fixes on problems in order to claim credit at home and recognition in Washington.’” The Post.

But another laid down the party line that pretty much stops any progress as some in Congress have only one goal: to bring down the Obama administration by blocking all meaningful legislation unless it is desperately necessary: “Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the committee, injected a lonely note of partisan discord into the hearing when he said Obama’s ‘request for reorganizational authority is dead on arrival in this committee unless the administration is willing to be much bigger in their thought.’” The Post. Can’t we move the election up… to next week?

I’m Peter Dekom, and in a time of financial crisis, you’d like to think that our Congress can rise above pettiness and govern the nation in the best interests of the people… you’d think!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Stand and Deliver

Under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Americans have the “right to keep and bear arms.” To many in the United States, it is a sacred right, but for virtually every other nation on earth, there is no such fundamental right embodied that such nations’ constitutions. In fact, other than the U.S., there are only three other national constitutions that protect the right to bear arms: “Mexico, Haiti, and Guatemala all enshrine the right to pack heat in their constitutions. Guatemala's Article 38 is the only one that's as broad as our Second Amendment (it guarantees "the right of possession of arms for personal use"). Article 10 of the Mexican constitution and Article 268-1 of Haiti’s constitution limit the right to the confines of the home and allow the government to pass laws significantly restricting ownership. Mexicans, for example, are supposed to get a permit, renewable every year, from the military, and all firearms must be registered. (The law is widely ignored. Only 4,300 licenses have been issued for Mexico's 105 million people.) Handguns must be .380 caliber or less, shotguns can't be greater than 12 gauge, and rifles must be .30 caliber or smaller.”, December 14, 2010.

But in the United States, the mere thought of regulating or reigning in the free flow of weapons in the country is an anathema to so many Americans, to the point where one particular organization, the National Rifle Association, seems to have more power than all other such non-governmental organizations. When they speak, candidates shudder and state legislatures fall in line like little puppets. And even when there is overwhelming evidence that the virtually unregulated ability to buy pretty sophisticated weapons from guns shows in border states like Texas has supplied most of the murderous weapons used by Mexican drug cartels (in Mexico and increasingly in the U.S. itself) in their never-ending killing spree to maintain clean and unblocked access to the drug routes into the U.S., nobody in the U.S. lifts a finger to stem this absurd tide of death-inflicting weapons.

To make matters infinitely worse, the NRA has successfully managed to lobby 21 states into passing truly malignant “stand your ground” laws that seem to be nothing more than a license to execute people you don’t like. Florida is one state where this law has resulted in the untimely death of a popular high-school student, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin (above) who was coming home from a convenience store carrying nothing more than Skittles and a can of iced tea, a boy with no criminal record, minding his own business. He was shot dead by George Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic crime watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, who seemed to be suspicious of an African –American child walking through the neighborhood such that he followed the lad until ultimately some sort of confrontation erupted. Zimmerman stood his ground, claimed he felt his life was threatened, and shot Martin on the spot. Justifiable homicide or racial profiling?

How is this possible? How does a man seeking confrontation with another, when the latter is clearly minding his or her own business, even remotely claim that such a killing is anything but cold-blooded murder? “In Florida, [the “stand your ground’ statute] was pushed heavily by the National Rifle Association but opposed vigorously by law enforcement… It gives the benefit of the doubt to a person who claims self-defense, regardless of whether the killing takes place on a street, in a car or in a bar — not just in one’s home, the standard cited in more restrictive laws. In Florida, if people feel they are in imminent danger from being killed or badly injured, they do not have to retreat, even if it would seem reasonable to do so. They have the right to ‘stand their ground’ and protect themselves.” New York Times, March 20th.

The local police department didn’t even bring charges against Zimmerman, and the local prosecutor was so conflicted on whether a law might have been broken that he was unable to make a call for an arrest by himself. “But late [March 19th], the [U.S.] Department of Justice said it had opened an inquiry into the shooting. It will run parallel with one announced on [March 20th] by the state attorney in Seminole County, who said a grand jury would be convened. State attorneys use grand juries in cases when they cannot make a clear independent call, or when a case is explosive.” NY Times.

In the end, the NRA has pursued a profoundly misguided policy that blindly promotes guns at all levels of society, usually without regard to or in complete denial of the consequences. They seem to forget where the Second Amendment came from – the Congressional reluctance to keep a large standing army, relying instead on action by citizen-soldiers operating within local militias. It was these militias that were designed to protect the country from her enemies. Here are the precise words of the Amendment: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” It’s time to reign in the NRA, repeal these incredibly dangerous and ill-conceived “stand your ground” laws and begin to clamp down on the seemingly free flow of weapons into the wrong hands.

What exactly happened in Martin’s case? “Just moments before Trayvon Martin was shot and killed, he was on his cellphone talking with a 16-year-old girl. For the first time, the girl is speaking out about the last, horrifying moments of Martin's life...‘He said this man was watching him, so he put his hoodie on. He said he lost the man,’ the girl told ABC News. ‘I asked Trayvon to run, and he said he was going to walk fast. I told him to run but he said he was not going to run.’

According to accounts gleaned from 911 audio recordings made the night of the killing and the teenage girl's statements, Martin eventually did run. But George Zimmerman wasn't far behind, and soon the two would be face to face. Zimmerman, the self-appointed captain of the neighborhood watch, was armed with a 9 mm pistol. Trayvon had little more than a bag of candy in his pocket... ‘Trayvon said, 'What are you following me for?' and the man said, 'What are you doing here?' Next thing I hear is somebody pushing, and somebody pushed Trayvon because the headset just fell. I called him again and he didn't answer the phone.’ The line went dead, according to the girl's account.” Huffington Post, March 21st.

Want to know how well that new law is working in Florida? In the five years before the law’s approval, Florida averaged 12 justifiable homicides a year, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. In the six years since, the average is 33.”, March 20th. Shame on the National Rifle Association. Shame on the legislators who care more for guns that human lives, and shame on us for letting them!

I’m Peter Dekom, and the notion of responsibility seems to have left the gun-lobby entirely.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

New Age Media

In a world where privacy is at best illusive, more likely illusory, the question of exactly what personal information can be released to the public remains sticky at best. What exactly rises to the level of “fair game” in revealing personal data has always been measured against the backdrop of the famous 1964 U.S. Supreme Court defamation case, Times vs. Sullivan, in which a higher standard of responsibility had to be assessed against the publishers of false information to the extent that person who is the subject of the false revelation may have been deemed a “public figure.” The court held that “actual malice” (generally viewed as knowing or reckless disregard of the truth, a factor that changes as the immediacy of the publication changed; breaking news as opposed to an historical review). In 1988, the Supreme Court (Hustler Magazine vs. Falwell) extended this standard beyond slander and libel to cases which alleged infliction of emotional distress. Public figures had less protection than mere mortals, even if they were thrust into the limelight other than by their own choice.

But what happens when what is revealed is actually true but reflects a private fact that the subject doesn’t really want the world to know about? Will this standard be applied to privacy as well? We were taught at an early age not to ask a woman’s age, because that just wasn’t polite. Yet if you are casting a movie, you might not want to audition women in their 70s for a role more appropriate for a teenage ingénue. So in a motion picture industry database, one might think that listing a fully accurate date of birth for an actor would be a truthful depiction (no defamation possible) which is not presented to torment the subject, but rather to inform various entertainment industry professionals of relevant information (including a photograph, list of film and television credits, etc.) might be appropriate. Film and television companies might find this useful in making good casting decisions. No negligence. No malice. No recklessness. No negative intentions whatsoever.

Ah, but what happens when an actor has one of those “looks” that encompasses roles that might be much younger… someone like actress Junie Hoang (her stage name, anyway, pictured above), whom the New York Times (March 4th) called “B-movie actress who used to get nameless roles like the Headless Woman in ‘Domain of the Damned’ or the Zombie Postwoman in ‘Z: A Zombie Musical.”” Though she is over 40, Ms. Hoang clearly looks significantly younger than her physical age. When Amazon-owned IMDB (an entertainment Website/database, with a “for pay” enhanced site: IMDbPro) accompanied Ms. Joang’s profile with her birth date, pretty normal information for that site, Ms. Joang was outraged, filing suit in federal district court in Seattle under a “Jane Doe” pseudonym against the site and Amazon. She claimed that with this older age posted for all to see, she lost roles that she might otherwise have been offered just based on her looks. As time passed, her name was finally identified, and a form of mini-celebrity ensued.

“According to Ms. Hoang’s suit, the IMDbPro professional portion of the site, which charges an annual access fee, used her credit card information to learn her real name, Huong Hoang. Then, she asserts, the site ‘scoured’ publicly available data to find and publish her birthday, July 16, 1971 — which remains posted… Amazon’s lawyers and a company spokeswoman declined to comment, citing a company policy against public discussion of pending litigation. But in their multiple legal responses, they have alternately dismissed Ms. Hoang’s claim as ‘selfish, contrary to public interest and a frivolous abuse’ of the court, and bluntly denied the assertion that credit card information had been used to identify her.

“What the Amazon team has not done yet is to disclose how IMDb did, in fact, link the actress Junie Hoang, a stage name, with the IMDb Pro subscriber Huong Hoang, one of perhaps 600 people in the United States with the same name, according to a public records database maintained by Nexis. If credit card information had been used, Amazon’s lawyers say in court filings, there still would have been no violation of law or the company’s privacy agreement...

“But IMDb looms large because of its reach — it claims more than 110 million monthly unique visitors worldwide and is often at or near the top of movie-related Google searches. And while its publication of vital statistics might not affect the stars, whose lives are widely scrutinized anyway, many second-tier performers and film workers believe the site exposes them to a film industry bias against older people… The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists both criticized IMDb last October for its habit of publishing ages. ‘It is time for IMDb to step up and take responsibility for the harm it has caused,’ they said in a joint statement.” NY Times.

The bigger question looms: how much of your data-mined private (non-celebrity) information should be made available to companies that have an economic interest in as much of that information as they can generate? How much data-scraping (trolling the Web aggregating as much personal information as can be generated) and information-sharing is justified, and if there is a line somewhere, exactly how is it determined and drawn? Who gets to decide? While surface issue might draw a few guffaws, the underlying issues go to the very core of living in an electronically-networked fishbowl world. Medical records, anyone? Tax returns? Exactly what you bought with your credit card? Your address?

I’m Peter Dekom, and exactly how much detailed private information would you like open to anyone with a “sort-of” justification for wanting to know?