Thursday, August 30, 2012

Leaders Who Do Not lead

Pick the phrase that most fits your vision of the American presidency:

1. Americans vote for presidents to lead them through the good, the bad and the ugly.

2. Americans vote for presidents to implement the specific wishes of the electorate as those feelings change over time.

With mass media in a digital world, we are constantly polled about every conceivable issue almost all of the time. A national politician has her/his choice of “results” to review and react to. When the leader’s views separate from those of her/his constituency, poll results will show an instant fall in popularity. The natural reaction of most politicians is to reverse course and maintain popularity. After all, leaders and parties in a democracy must eventually face the vagaries of a popular vote. So our leaders have increasingly been nothing more than followers of a generally under-informed electorate that is infamous for short-term, knee jerk reactions.

The overwhelming cost of managing all that mass media, a virtual necessity for anyone seeking public office, results in a huge invoice for media and marketing across their constituency, a vast multiple (corrected for inflation) of presidential campaigns in the mid-twentieth century. Clearly, with SuperPacs and big donors being the source of the majority of presidential funding, generally they aren’t making such payments because they want to promulgate a pure vision of what’s best for most Americans; they want a world that is best for themselves.

Add to this mix the fact that campaigns for this highest office begin 18 to 24 months or more before the election (as opposed to the 9 to 12 months a few decades ago), and that since secondary candidates need more money to raise their visibility into primary candidates, these wannabees need early contributors. And since the only place where extremists (left and right) can make a difference before the big boys buy the final stages of the campaign is during these early and desperate hours. By the time a candidate is elected, think of how many special interests have a hold on the new president’s policies going forward. “Democracy” is increasingly going to the highest bidders.

I’m not finished yet. Because of the way campaigns are managed, particularly with the super-sniping, swift-boating and rumor-spreading capacity of mass media and the viral Web, candidates are constantly demonized and trashed in the media. The public is barraged with such demonization. The general result is two-fold: even those who favored the candidate are often left with lingering doubts, and those who opposed his or her election never think of the victor in anything other than the demonized vision. The overall impact on the electorate is disdain for politicians and a rising lack of trust both for those elected and the system itself.

Thomas Cronin, a former White House Fellow and president emeritus of Whitman College and co-author of many books (including the recent Leadership Matters) had some particularly wise words on the subject in an August 23rd interview in the Washington Post: “Well, people have always been skeptical if not cynical about political leaders. Trust may have declined in recent years because new technologies and investigative reporting techniques make it harder and harder for officials to hide when they dissemble. Modern technologies also amplify the demonizing of one’s rival in contemporary electioneering… We can’t legislate trust any more than we can regulate or instill authenticity in candidates… We can’t love representative democracy and hate politicians. For to completely scorn politics and politicians comes very close to scorning constitutional democracy and, possibly, ourselves.”

If leadership and bold new ideas are what are needed in these stormy years, we seem to have a system the defies being led, slammed further by a polarization as evidenced by the stalemated “do-nothing” Congress that dithers even as our national credit rating drops as a result. One more note on one aspect of finding bold new ideas: flip-flopping. Changing your mind because conditions change, to solve problems and meeting new challenges, is precisely the mindset required of any solid leader. Yet, signing a pledge never to raise taxes no matter what, and you have outsourced your vote to someone else at a place in time when that pledge may have seemed acceptable; times change. “Changing your mind” because you want to say what your constituency wants to hear without a true change of heart… that’s just the disingenuous politics we all despise. But exactly how does a politician effectively change course mid-stream when all those around him or her are looking for weakness and negativity?

“This year’s candidates have done their fair share of this, and the media love these ‘gotcha’ stories. But, looking back in time, we liked that Lincoln changed his mind about how to deal with slavery and deploying blacks to fight for the Union. We liked it when FDR went back on his promise to balance the budget and when Nixon changed his mind about the best way to deal with China.” Cronin in the Post. Simply, our system of electing leaders and the strings we tie them with render our leaders over the last decade or two decreasingly effective as time has passed.

No matter who is elected president in November, the victor will be less able to lead – absent a powerful and rebellious streak that seems to have been genetically removed from our leadership – than any president in U.S. history. Among donors who expect their rewards, constituents who scream through polls, a press that is designed to demonize and a Congress that votes to block more than it votes to solve problems, exactly how is the next president going to put these variables aside and just lead? Yet we have issues that can be solved only with bold leadership that might not “go with the popular flow” for very long periods of time. The cost: we are unlikely to provide the kind of long-term solutions we need to maximize who and what we are. The system seems incapable of delivering that kind of leadership anymore.

I’m Peter Dekom, and we have done this to ourselves under a misguided notion that it will all just work out in the end… sometimes a system just implodes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Shekels for Shells

It is interesting to observe that for those Americans with an opinion on the matter, many believe that Israel and its electorate are of one mind in a commitment to use force, alone if necessary, against Iran’s nuclear enrichment program if the latter nation does not stop that effort. In some American circles, it is considered downright anti-Semitic not to champion that “attack Iran” as the right thing to do. But war always has unintended consequences and military risks. It is budget-busting. There are even strong signs that Iran’s economy is crumbling from the Western-imposed sanctions that actually may be working. This knee-jerk resort to the military option begs the assumption that new nuclear nations will deploy nuclear weapons at the drop of a hat or spread nukes everywhere. How many seconds if after North Korea elected to nuke a Western nation would it cease to exist?

According to every major poll taken this year, the majority of Israelis do not want to go it alone and attack Iran. Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak seem to be preparing their people (and of course pressing the United States to join) for such an attack. Like the Republican Party in the United States, their conservative Likud Party in Israel is very pro-military. There are, however, large segments of Israeli society that are challenging this militaristic effort, and the signs of the resulting instability in that country are everywhere.

As this saber-rattling has created the kind of high anxiety that destabilizes economies, the consequences have been quite measurable. “Concern that the Israeli moves may herald a possible strike helped weaken the shekel to its lowest value in almost 15 months... sent government benchmark bond yields climbing and pushed the Tel Aviv Stock Market (TA-25) to a three-week low on Aug. 13. The Bloomberg Israel-US Equity Index of the most-traded Israeli companies in New York sank the most in three months, making the benchmark gauge the cheapest in two years relative to the Standard & Poor’s 500.”, August 15th.

Additionally, while Israel may not have had the benefit of former U.S. President Dwight David Eisenhower’s unheeded admonition about the unbridled power of allowing the “military industrial complex” excessive budgets and relatively free reign, their military has had a history of creating fears that naturally require high military expenditures. On August 17th, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz editorialized: “Every year, for as long as Israel has existed, the army has intimidated the ministers and the public with various threats in order to increase its budget. Once the threat was Egypt, then came Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Hezbollah and the intifada, and now the Iranian bomb.”

Netanyahu is facing the same kinds of deficit issues that plague so many countries around the world, most certainly including the United States. He is also fighting a familiar battle to increase, or at least maintain at current levels, the Israeli military budget, and the familiar pattern of posing huge threats that cannot be addressed without an enhanced military is being repeated half a world away in Israel. “From Aug. 1, when Netanyahu issued a statement saying, ‘Time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out,’ through Thursday, when Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, ‘There are risks in the situation today . . . [but] it’s infinitely more dangerous . . . to deal with a nuclear Iran in the future,’ the drumbeat from Israel has been steady and growing louder.

“On Aug. 12, Netanyahu added a new twist. He had known for six months that his defense minister would be leaving this month. After all, he had chosen him to be his new ambassador to China. He officially named a successor [August 14th]... The choice of an old army comrade, Avi Dichter, set off a new round of stories about getting additional funds for gas masks and bomb shelters in preparation, of course, for Iran’s response should the Israelis attack Tehran’s nuclear facilities.” Washington Post, August 20th.

But Netanyahu is certainly not all bluster. Iran is heading towards nuclear capacity at warp speed: “International nuclear inspectors will soon report that Iran has installed hundreds of new centrifuges in recent months and may also be speeding up production of nuclear fuel while negotiations with the United States and its allies have ground to a near halt, according to diplomats and experts briefed on the findings.” New York Times, August 23rd. Would they use this capacity to attack Israel… knowing that seconds later a rain of nuclear warheads would end the notion of Iran as they (and we) know it?

While Israel is a solid and trusted ally that we are committed to defend, we really need to understand that questioning the use of the military option against Iran is essential for American policy-makers, who have been so wrong in anticipating the cost and unintended consequences so often in initiating attacks against supposed enemies, Iraq and Afghanistan being two recent glaring examples. If so many Israelis are questioning this choice, why shouldn’t we? The last few major military efforts we have mounted have not gone our way, and Iran has operatives all over the planet ready to move. Oil prices will spike to new heights, and most certainly our economy will suffer accordingly. What exactly are the unintended consequences of such a military strike, preemptive or reactive? Are we really willing to pay that price?

I’m Peter Dekom, and our fragile economy cannot tolerate massive political mistakes with even bigger price tags anymore.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Avalanche Accelerates

When political systems begin to crumble, you can read about the big vectors of change in the news. Syria is all about the government and its operatives shelling, strafing and murdering its own people, the battles in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, the hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees, high level defections and the rough estimates of the casualties. We know about the majority Sunnis and their resentment for the 7% of the Alawites (Shiite-affiliates) who ran the country under the Assad regime. But what we don’t really see on an ongoing basis, and what really tells you that the Assad regime must fall, is that the country as a whole just doesn’t function anymore.

So many government workers have stopped doing some pretty ordinary jobs. Running the power grid and repairing damaged equipment and infrastructure. Street repair. Medical emergency services. Police and fire services. The criminal justice system. For those places where workers remain, understaffing is chronic and getting worse. For criminals, despite the overall risks of living in this country at all, the disintegration of these basic services is a time of unparalleled opportunity. It is the anarchy before the fall.

[M]any Syrians describe something … that has them cowering with fear: a wave of lawlessness not unlike the crime wave Iraq experienced during the conflict there. From Dara’a, near the Jordanian border, to Homs, Damascus and… in the commercial capital [Aleppo] — the fighting has essentially collapsed much of the civilian state. Even in neighborhoods where skirmishes are rare, residents say thieves prey on the weak, and police stations no longer function because the officers have fled… Kidnapping, rare before, is now rampant…

[A]s bloody ground battles rage throughout the city, rebel control is limited. Syrians in Aleppo and elsewhere now say they bury their jewelry and other valuables inside their furniture. Some people no longer keep money in their pockets when they venture outside; residents and business owners across the country are padlocking their property to protect against armed opportunists mingling with combatants…

Aleppo’s slide toward something resembling anarchy began months ago. Factory owners here in the country’s industrial capital said the roads outside the city went first, as armed bandits seized whatever they wanted from passing vehicles. One of Syria’s main automobile exporters recently told a Lebanese friend that he had to start sending vehicles to Iraq by boat from Lebanon because of the insecurity… Then more reports of kidnappings started surfacing. By the end of March, as the government claimed to have retaken control of nearby cities, ransom demands were a daily occurrence in Aleppo, said Amal Hanano, a Syrian writer and analyst living in the United States. Usually, she said, the kidnappers asked for around $75,000 and then dropped their price to a fifth of that after tough negotiations.” New York Times, August 9th.

The problem with this seemingly inevitable regime change is the snail’s pace we are witnessing. We don’t have the rapid falls we saw in Tunisia and Egypt during the early days of the Arab Spring, and there are too many vested interests blindly clinging to a belief that the Assad regime will somehow survive. Nobody is seriously helping the rebels with the kind of arms and munitions that they need to bring this bloodfest to a close. Russia, with huge investments in Syria, a long-standing status as premier supplier of military hardware and home to a powerful Orthodox Christian prelate fearful of the harm that might come to Syria’s 10% Christian minority, has been the been blocking power for effective aid to the rebels. China hates the notion that outsiders have the right to help dissents topple authoritarian regimes. Iran envisions increasing isolation as if its Alawite ally in the region collapses.

The net impact is that this particular avalanche is a very slow one. The government dismisses the recent high level defections, and the Syrian Free Army responds that the only way that they have been effective is that large cadres of sympathizers – people the SFA says they have requested to stay at their government positions rather than defect – have been shoveling critical information to the rebels from the belly of the beast. But will the Alawite elite eventually retreat to the mountains as a band of irregulars conducting longer-term guerrilla warfare on the victors? Who will the victors be? Fundamentalist Sunnis with no tolerance for freedom, other religions and a predilection for Sharia law? Secularists? Some complex coalition? Or will there be a bloody civil war that sends Syria in the abyss into the foreseeable future?

I’m Peter Dekom, and the situation seems to be going from bad to more bad every day.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Statistics and Safety Nets

No one has the slightest doubt that European nations, particularly the PIIGS, have simply borrowed themselves into oblivion. It seems that the cost of all those safety nets and individual economic rights (job protection, holidays, pensions, etc.) have blown Europe off the economic map. Individual taxes here are lower than Europe, and raising them appears to be off the table. And while we have the highest corporate tax rate in the world, among multinationals who are given so many loopholes, the effective U.S. tax rate, what they actually pay, is among the lowest in the world.

Our debt crisis comes from fighting wars without paying for them, and a general notion that leverage was good for business… until about 2008. But really, what are the measurements of what it is like to live in the United States, statistics on social success? “Every developed country aspires to provide a better life for its people. The United States, among the richest of all, fails in important ways. It has the highest poverty and the highest infant mortality among developed nations. We provide among the least generous unemployment benefits in the industrial world. Not long ago one of the most educated countries in the world, the United States is slipping behind.” Eduado Porter writing for the August 14th New York Times.

How about the poster child for lazy excess, Italy, where nothing seems to be working? Italy may be in a funk, with a shrinking economy and a high unemployment rate, but the United States can learn a lot from it, and not just about the benefits of public health care. Italians live longer. Their poverty rate is much lower than ours. If they lose their jobs or suffer some other misfortune, they can turn to a more generous social safety net.” NY Times.

Fact is, we cannot continue to survive with the notion that we can live in a society that is aging rapidly, even with the minimal social programs we have, and not raise taxes. “[R]ich though we are, we can’t afford the policies needed to improve our [social quality of life] record. The politicians in Washington all know that we face a long-term fiscal crisis. By 2020, 70 million Americans are expected to be on Social Security, up from 45 million in 2000. The ranks on Medicare will swell to 64 million, up from 40 million in 2000. Virtually every economist knows that just maintaining Medicare and Medicaid benefits will require raising taxes on the middle class.” NY Times. When you’re 40, maybe you don’t care… but unless you are unlucky, you too will face those “once golden” years.

We are being lied to and coddled into a sense that we can have the largest military in the world, Medicare and Social Security, good schools and solid infrastructure with a graying population and not have to pay for it. Affordable Car Act or not. Lies that will compound to the extent that we let the situation get worse before we address reality. Costs that will reduce our competitive productivity until we are so far behind, we cannot catch up.

If we actually had politicians who believed in this country, enough to invest in its schools, infrastructure and its research, and if they understood President Eisenhower’s warning to us all of an overwhelming military force with the economic power to force itself to the top of our national priorities (the “military industrial complex” phrase he created) and began to scale back in supporting this monster, this country has enough spunk, drive, creativity and entrepreneurship to re-accelerate into an incredibility bright future.

Instead, we have polarized into two increasingly hostile worlds – elites who control most of everything and everyone else. The powers that be have managed to get factions within “everyone else” to battle each other… for now… but when there is nothing left to lose, exactly how will “everybody else” react? Let’s not get to that point, and let’s start caring about how long we live, how healthy we are, what education and training we can achieve and then see what America the beautiful can accomplish.

Let’s lose the SuperPacs and “stupid politician” tricks. Candidate Romney has accused his opponent of trying to turn the United States into Europe with his social programs, and obviously that doesn’t work, right? We really don’t need to live longer and have better healthcare. He prefers the other European policies of austerity that have plunged Euro zone back into the recession. And the President just doesn’t seem to know how to command his military into a reasonable long-term plan that we can afford. When is common sense going to be remotely relevant again? Ever?

In the meantime, we can just watch politicians spout the same-old-same-old worthless slogans and rehashed failed programs to a decreasingly educated and increasingly gullible electorate.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Dredge Report

With the hottest summer on record, fires raging out of control from exceptionally dry forests, dwindling water reserves and a drought that has gripped most of our farming regions (we haven’t seen a drought in the mid-West like this since the 1936 Dust Bowl era), you’d think this is all bad enough. But there is one more huge slam to the wall that most of us who don’t live by a big navigable river are likely to think of… but it does increase costs to the consumer because it takes more time to ship goods this way: the water table for many of our great rivers has fallen so much that the nine foot minimum draft required for barges to traverse these waterways has become difficult to maintain.

The Mississippi is the “poster river” for this debacle, and whether one believes that this is just one part of an ever-changing cycle or a new fact of life that will only grow worse with climate change, we really do depend on this waterway, and we haven’t seen water levels this low since 1940. The closest such strain on the system was back in 1988. The current water level has fallen by as many as 20 feet in some places. “A historic drought and excessive heat have reduced water levels and scorched wide sections of the U.S. Midwest. Flooding last year may have worsened the situation on the Mississippi by leaving deposits of silt and debris in areas that would normally be clear.”, August 21st.

The economic costs can be staggering as well, especially if the river were to be closed to water traffic for a long period of time. “[C]onsidering the fact that approximately 60 percent of our grain, 22 percent of our oil and natural gas, and one-fifth of our coal travel down the Mississippi River, that would be absolutely crippling for our economy.”, August 15th. “More than 400,000 U.S. jobs depend on the flow of river traffic, and each day that traffic on the river stops, the U.S. economy loses $300 million.”, August 21st.

It’s mostly down to one lane now, and northbound and southbound traffic alternate (one during daylight hours, the other at night), but the delays are monumental. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s is keeping its aging fleet of dredges sucking out silt and spewing it off to the side pretty much constantly, knowing that if that nine foot level cannot be maintained at any time, traffic must come to a complete halt. A couple of boats have hit bottom in the channel, but they made it through, and traffic around parts of Mississippi has actually been stopped pending dredging. About 100 boats were sitting still, waiting in line as operations focused on deepening a critical part of the channel on August 20th. An 11-mile stretch area around Greenville has been prone to these intermittent stops, particularly since August 12th, but sections from the northern reaches in Wisconsin and Minnesota down to the area around New Orleans have seen traffic stops since August 2nd. The last massive pile up happened around Greenville on August 26th, and the Corps halted all traffic as they dredged a deeper channel.

A number of ports along the way, including four of the nineteen largest (eight more are in jeopardy), are no longer useable. Barge trains (“tows”) are shorter, carrying fewer goods. And one more ugly issue has come up: “The volume of water coming down the river is so much lower than normal this summer that a wedge of salt water is creeping up the Mississippi toward New Orleans, imperiling local water supplies drawn from the river. The corps is building a sill — basically, a dam of sediment — in the river below New Orleans low enough to block the flow of salt water while letting boats pass.” New York Times, August 19th.

Riverboat pilots have seen bits and pieces of this before, may not quite so bad, but the big question is whether this is just a bad year or two… or if this is just the beginning of a new reality. With the Mississippi gathering 40% of this nations entire water flow, it is indeed the “river to watch” in the coming years.

I’m Peter Dekom, and the combination of political and natural disasters “flowing” all the time can most certainly seem overwhelming.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Iran’s New Little Brother – Iraq

After my August 13th blog, Iraq, a Hard Place, I am stunned as how many people still actually think we actually won that conflict, created a “government of all the Iraqi people,” and that Iraq is a strong American ally. Wrong on all three. After the 1916 secret Sykes Picot treaty between England and France delineated how parts of the post-Ottoman empire would be allocated between those two European countries (“spheres of influence”), the future of nations was formed. Land was carved up and boundaries drawn arbitrarily and contained factions, tribes and religions with little or no connectivity to each other. The land called Iraq was no different, and the chunk allocated to this political structure (accorded to the British) contained an arbitrary mix of Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the southwest and Shiites everywhere else. That the Kurds wanted to unite into a separate nation or that Sunnis and Shiites hated each other seemed irrelevant to land-grabbing European powers.

As I have written many times before, Saddam Hussein (representing the Sunni faction) ruled Iraq, however brutally, and kept this majority Shiite nation from affiliating with its almost all Shiite neighbor, Iran. In fact, Hussein fought a stalemated war between 1980 and 1988 against Iran, despite the fact that the majority of his countrymen were emotionally and religiously connected to the enemy state. During the first Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush made sure that Hussein and his Sunnis majority did not fall into the hands of the pro-Iranian majority.

That, of course changed when Hussein was deposed (wholly through U.S. intervention) and the majority Shiites allowed to rule under the notion of representative democracy. The catch of course is that the majority Shiites hated and mistrusted the minority Sunnis (and vice versa). Shiites were particularly resentful because of Hussein’s rule, and tilted the entire nation into a very unfriendly world for Sunnis. The Kurds effectively circled their wagons and have ignored the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. The Sunnis became the prime targets, and they have responded with explosive attacks in Shiite areas, particularly in Baghdad.

As I said before, the immediate aftermath following the departure of American combat forces witnessed the immediate invitation by the Shiite-led government to an Iraqi-in-exile in Iran, radical and militant Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, to return to Iraq (and join with the Iraqi military) and the issuance of an arrest warrant for the highest ranking Sunni (a top vice-president of the country). In the months that have followed, there have been an escalating series of events that illustrate how clearly we gave the “sphere of influence” over this newly configured Iraq to Iran… how we totally and complete lost the slightest notion that what we accomplished was a victory for our regional interests.

Recently, the evidence is spilling over into how Iraq is helping Iran side-step the U.S. and European trading and banking sanctions against Iran, our effort to halt the latter’s nuclear enrichment program that seems to have weapons-grade fissional material as the only logical goal. Iraq is acting squarely in support of Iran and squarely against American interests. In July, the Obama administration cut one Iraqi bank out of the international banking community for violating the sanctions. “The little-known bank singled out by the United States, the Elaf Islamic Bank, is only part of a network of financial institutions and oil-smuggling operations that, according to current and former American and Iraqi government officials and experts on the Iraqi banking sector, has provided Iran with a crucial flow of dollars at a time when sanctions are squeezing its economy…

“Iraqi banking experts said [in mid-August] that the bank was still allowed to participate in the Iraq Central Bank’s daily auction at which commercial banks can sell Iraqi dinars and buy United States dollars. These auctions are a crucial pathway for Iranian access to the international financial system. Western officials say that Iran seeks to bolster its reserves of dollars to stabilize its exchange rates and pay for imports… Iraqi and American officials with knowledge of Iraqi banking practices say Iranian customers are able to move large amounts of cash through the auction, and from there into banks in regional financial centers like Dubai, United Arab Emirates, or Amman, Jordan, and then into the international banking system.” New York Times, August 18th. Read: tip of a very, very big iceberg.

It gets a whole lot worse: “Some current and former American and Iraqi officials, along with banking and oil experts, say that Iraqi government officials are turning a blind eye to the large financial flows, smuggling and other trade with Iran. In some cases, they say, government officials, including some close to [Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki], are directly profiting from the activities… ‘Maliki’s government is right in the middle of this,’ said one former senior American intelligence official who now does business in Iraq…

“Several American and Iraqi banking and government officials also say that Iranian organizations have gained effective control over at least four Iraqi commercial banks through Iraqi intermediaries. That gives Iran direct access to the international financial system, supposedly denied to Tehran by the economic sanctions. Even as the United States has moved to tighten the vise against Iran this summer, the Maliki government has openly sought to enhance its already deep economic and political ties with Iran. Trade between Iraq and Iran… has been growing rapidly ever since the American-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, and it is now estimated to be as high as $11 billion a year. Among other openly acknowledged forms of trade, Iraq has contracts to buy large amounts of electrical power from Iran.” NY Times.

We wasted trillions of dollars, lost thousands of American lives and alienated a large segment of the world to create one of the strongest possibly allies for one of this nation’s greatest enemies? And there are people in Congress who, after Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – failures without precedent in American military history – want to increase our military budget (and we are supposed to be winding down our war in Afghanistan?) so that we can be prepared to enter another such conflict and generate another set of unintended consequences that have been anything but in our best interests? Do we really love spending money that much? Do we really love deficits without the slightest logic so incredibly that we need to spend over 40% of the entire world’s military budget so we can have another go at the next Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan? What about history is so painful that those in Congress simply hate to read about it or learn from it?

I’m Peter Dekom, and it is high time that the policies choices we make, particularly the biggest commitments, serve our interests and not some ignorant slogan without the remotest ties to historical and political fact.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Healthcare – Costs Gone Rogue

I am perpetually surprised at how few union and government workers or employees with company coverage actually know how much healthcare insurance actually costs. As practicing lawyer, I know exactly how much the checks I write to my healthcare carrier are, and even with Medicare, the costs are way above what anyone who has employer-provided care I have ever spoken with believes. When I ask folks what they think they would have to pay if they did not have employer coverage, most under estimate single coverage by half and family coverage by two thirds. What do you think Congressmen and women would do if they weren’t provided with one of the best healthcare plans in the nation… if they had to buy their own coverage in the open market?

“In 2011, according to an annual survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance averaged $5,430 a year for single coverage and $15,070 for family coverage. The employee’s share of the premium averaged $920 for individual coverage and more than four times as much, $4,130, for family coverage.” New York Times, August 11th.

And while the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) mandates administrative cost reductions as a percentage of total expenditures in private health insurance plans, the reality is that the legislation was otherwise “committee compromised” to eliminate anything else that made the industry more competitive. Pharmaceutical providers made sure that Americans could not import cheaper prescription meds from Canada under the guise – and boy was it a guise – of purity control, and the insurance carriers traded off the administrative cost reduction in exchange for a mandate that people use their services (or face fines) and the rejection of a low-cost competitor that was originally supposed to be created by the government. The folks in the medical insurance industry and pharmaceutical business apparently don’t like competition.

The United States has the highest healthcare costs of any nation on earth, and among developed nations among the highest percentage of persons without coverage. The notion of healthcare bankruptcy is virtually unknown in any other developed country. Thus, for those with the money to pay for it, we have the best healthcare system on earth… but for a huge number of Americans, particularly as states now struggle with whether they want to participate in the Medicaid enhancements (which the recent Supreme Court decision seems to have made optional), they are stuck with less-than-mediocrity.

To compound the misery, the Internal Revenue Service is looking at new ways to limit subsidies in the Affordable Care Act that provide greater access to the system to so many. “Under the law, most Americans will be required to have health insurance starting in 2014. Low- and middle-income people can get tax credits and other subsidies to help pay their premiums, unless they have access to affordable coverage from an employer.

The law specifies that employer-sponsored insurance is not affordable if a worker’s share of the premium is more than 9.5 percent of the worker’s household income. The I.R.S. says this calculation should be based solely on the cost of individual coverage for the employee, what the worker would pay for ‘self-only coverage.’ … Critics say the administration should also take account of the costs of covering a spouse and children because family coverage typically costs much more. [Looking at the Kaiser numbers noted above, under the I.R.S. proposal, such costs would be deemed affordable for a family making $35,000 a year, even though the family would have to spend 12 percent of its income for full coverage under the employer’s plan.” NY Times.

We’ve lost jobs because it costs too much for employers to provide healthcare insurance to their workers, and the new legislation is intended to widen access to health insurance by spreading the burden across society. But because the competitive variables overwhelming favor the private sector, there are limits as to how cost efficient the system can ever be. Conservative opponents say mandating such insurance is a job killer, but most of the “more-than-minimum-wage” jobs out there already have an insurance component, especially where larger employers, government or unions are involved. Yet these national healthcare opponents are dead set against increasing the competitive factors that would cut costs significantly.

Canada went through the same process when it slowly moved its government-provided universal healthcare system into place, one that has much more coverage than the Affordable Care Act. They faced the same arguments, and the politicians who pushed the legislation were swept out of office because they fomented this new policy. Yet today, Canadians would no more give up their healthcare system than they would accept banning ice hockey from their nation. It is now viewed as one of their most basic and embedded rights. Oh, and Canada has used this highly cost-effective system to lure U.S. employers to their country, paying the same basic wage rates to workers with the same basic skills most visible in the automotive industry that has heavily migrated employer costs above in the Kaiser study… but the costs in Canada represent a small fraction of those numbers. We seem to be losing jobs because our healthcare system is still too expensive.

I’m Peter Dekom, and whether it is from a lack of empathy for the plight or others or a failure to understand global healthcare numbers, Americans really need to understand that we cannot afford a system that costs this much… and is getting more expensive.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Stupid Corn Tricks

Among the dumbest agricultural policies ever enacted was the a subsidy for use of corn, both a consumer food product and a livestock feed grain – and a huge net export for the United States –to produce ethanol to be used to stretch our fossil fuel availability. In short, the government paid farmers to grow valuable corn to be turned into a gasoline additive, effectively driving up the price of meat and dairy products as that feed grain was diverted into other purposes. We wouldn’t even allow Brazil to export that ethanol – made from much cheaper sugarcane – into the U.S. absent a massive tariff.

“As 2011 expired, so did a U.S. government program that for over three decades appeared politically untouchable: the federal tax credit and domestic tariff for ethanol. From its first appearance in 1978 to this past December 31st, the policy provided over $20 billion in subsidies to American ethanol producers, costing the U.S. taxpayer almost $6 billion in 2011 alone. Enacted in the spirit of ‘energy independence,’ ethanol subsidies became a redoubt for the agricultural lobby and a lighting rod for criticism from environmentalists and sustainability advocates…

Over the last decade in particular, the growth of corn ethanol as an additive to gasoline exploded …, thanks to such laws as the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which mandated an annual production of 7.5 billion gallons in renewable fuel by 2007, and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which upped that target figure to 36 billion gallons by 2022. Also introduced in the last ten years was the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) or ‘blender’s credit,’ which awarded gasoline refiners a 45-cent tax break for each gallon of gasoline they blended with ethanol.

“However, the growth in federal support for ethanol and the consequent surge in corn ethanol production have attracted no small amount of criticism, and for good reason. Corn ethanol production is, for the most part, energy intensive and inefficient. Sasha Lyutse of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has demonstrated that when the direct and indirect effects are taken into account, the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of corn ethanol can easily exceed those of conventional gasoline. A 2008 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) concluded that the combined climate-change and health costs, for every billion gallons of fuel produced, ranged from $472-952 million for corn ethanol as opposed to $469 million for gasoline. Also harmful are the indirect land use effects of expanded ethanol production, which can include nitrogen runoff from crop fertilizers, soil degradation, and a loss of biodiversity. Furthermore, the federal subsidy and tariff regime has barred more energy-efficient forms of ethanol from competing with corn, such as Brazil’s sugar-derived variety.”, January 26, 2012. Tax credit addiction can kill you… or at least a few million others.

If you are not throwing up already, here’s a biggie. The hottest summer on record, the massive droughts have plagued not only the United States, but Europe, Africa and Asia as well, have resulted in projected (by the United Nations) food shortages that could add hundreds of millions of additional hungry mouths to those already suffering from starvation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also projected the lowest U.S. corn yields in 17 years. With feed grain diverted into expensive energy production, and with the drought decimating other feed grains as well, the impact on American ranchers and livestock growers has been devastating. Short term, beef prices are probably going to drop as ranchers cull curds for lack of feed… but future beef costs will eventually skyrocket from the shortages.

Severe weather has also hurt agriculture production in other major export countries, including Brazil, Russia, Australia and India. That means higher prices for commodities including sugar, soybeans, corn and wheat, as well as the food products produced from them. The United States grows about 40 percent of the world’s corn and soybeans as well as 20 percent of the wheat.

The worldwide surge in food commodity prices is stoking fears of global inflation and food shortages in some developing countries. A surge in food prices in 2008 resulted in widespread social unrest in several countries including Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria… On [August 9th], the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said global food prices had jumped 6 percent in July, with the price of corn up 23 percent. It said that countries that rely on imports of corn and soybeans – including China and Mexico – would be the areas worst hit by the price increases.” New York Times, August 10th.

More of the world is starving, grain prices are soaring, and the even United Nations sees the U.S. corn-ethanol mandate as absurd in this perilous time. “In a letter published in the Financial Times on [August 10th], José Graziano da Silva, the director general of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, wrote: ‘An immediate, temporary suspension of that mandate would give some respite to the market and allow more of the crop to be channeled towards food and feed uses.’ … The ethanol industry said calls to waive the fuel standards were premature. ‘So far we have nothing more than speculation about what the danger to the corn crop is going to be,’ said Matt Harwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol industry trade group. ‘We need to take a wait and see approach.’” NY Times. How many people need to die before “we have nothing more than speculation” vaporizes?

I’m Peter Dekom, and there is absolutely no excuse for this wasteful policy to continue.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Isolation and Iran

I’ve blogged about the differences between Shiites and Sunnis – the former believes the Qur’an is a mystical book that only the most supreme religious leaders can interpret; the latter believe that it is the literal word of God that must be read by all devote Muslims – but it is hard to convey the hatred between these two sides of Islam that has raged since just after the death of the Prophet Mohammad in 632 AD. While the vast majority of Muslims (85%) are Sunnis, the largest concentrations of Shiites and their affiliates are in Iran (90%+ Shiite) and Iraq (60%). Iran has funded groups that are violently opposed to the United States, Israel and the West – from their surrogates Hezbollah (Shiite) to the mostly Sunni Hamas that govern in Gaza under a loose Palestinian coalition with the more moderate Fatah. By defying the West and taking very hostile positions to anything in the region embraced by the West, Iran hoped to overcome the fact that it represents the Sunni-hated Shiite faith to become the Middle East superpower.

Iran has embraced what they refer to as the “axis of resistance,” joined by Syria’s Assad regime, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement and Hezbollah… and generally generating the sympathy of the Shiite majority in Iraq. On the other side of the equation, proud Sunni traditionalists, heavily funded by Saudi Arabia (which sits across the Persian Gulf from Iran), have pushed back against this Iranian Shiite influence. Even the fundamentalist Sunni Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan are strongly anti-Shiite, and hence anti-Iran. Recent rapprochements from the newly-elected President of Egypt (mostly Sunni) to Saudi Arabia have begun to tilt the political spectrum away from what had once been a growing Iranian power in the region.

Sanctions against Iran, imposed by the West because of their seemingly weapons-oriented nuclear fuel enrichment program, have really brought the standard of living down dramatically inside Iran. With ships unable to get needed transportation insurance and vendors unable to generate traditional pay-on-delivery structures operated by the international banking community because of the sanctions, shortages and high commodity prices are the rule in Iran. Folks switched out of beef and lamb consumption by substantial margins, because of the cost of feed grains, and changed to chicken. But when chicken feed couldn’t get paid for, even that commodity surged in price by 40%. Though Iran is rich in oil, its lacks refining capacity and has to import gasoline… Yup, another shortage.

Iranians are restive, and the Ayatollahs are coming down hard on President Ahmadinejad, threatening to abolish the office of the Presidency entirely. The Revolutionary Guard is clamping down on anyone protesting the harsh conditions, but unhappiness reigns supreme. Indeed, Ahmadinejad has all but painted targets on his nuclear refining sites, effectively begging Israel and/or the United States to attack. He needs something to rally support for his leadership, and probably nothing short of such an attack has the remotest chance of doing the trick.

Which brings me to Syria and the possibility that an overthrow of a tiny minority sect, the Alawites (an off-shoot of the Shiite movement, who represent a mere 7% of the entire population), and the turning over of control to the huge Sunni majority (75%; 10% are Christians, by the way) would end Iran’s alliance with this nation. The Assad family and most of the higher-ups in the military and business are Alawites. Like the impact of the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime (which represented Iraq’s 20% minority Sunnis) shifting control of Iraq to the Shiites, removal of the Assad family would hand over control of Syria to the pretty anti-Shiite Sunni majority.

The Free Syrian Army recently took 48 Iranians (who Tehran claims are “pilgrims” to religious shrines) hostage and is interrogating them to see if any are affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that has purportedly lent military aide to Assad. The FSA suspect that they were on a recon mission against the uprising. If they are “infiltrators,” they will be judged harshly and if they are not, the FSA will use intermediaries to negotiate their return to Iran (they refuse to deal directly with Iran, whom they consider to be the enemy). Three of those hostages were reportedly killed in an artillery barrage from government forces.

On August 7th, Tehran sent Saeed Jalili, its most senior nuclear negotiator, secretary to its Supreme National Security Council and a personal representative to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to Syria. Jalili “told reporters that Iran continued to support the Assad government, which contends the uprising is the work of foreign-backed terrorist gangs. Iranian state news media said Mr. Jalili, who is also, had also come to Damascus to secure the release of the Iranians. How he intended to achieve that goal was not clear.” New York Times, August 7th. Iran claims that the uprising in Syria is the product of U.S. and Western meddling and has vowed to hold the United States and Israel responsible for any harm that might befall the hostages.

But is Iran on the losing end of a massive regional realignment? If you just look at a map of the Middle East (Iran is the big green blob on the right, separated from pink Syria by blue Iraq), you can see why the loss of Syria would be devastating to Iran’s regional ambitions. It not only borders its sworn enemy Israel, but it provides access to the Mediterranean, Hezbollah-governed Lebanon and easier continued access to Hamas/Islamic Jihadists in Gaza. Shiite-led Iraq, thanks to U.S. efforts that eliminated Saddam’s Sunni rule, is very friendly with Iran these days. Turkey (primarily Sunni and represented by the big yellow blob at the top of the map) is also seeking a growing power in the Middle East and is none-too-friendly with Iran. Syria breaks the Iranian line to the sea if it falls. And if this erosion in Syria further isolates Iran, how long before the rumblings move into that country to its own uprisings?

I’m Peter Dekom, and the world is nothing but roiling seas and shifting sands.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Public School Teachers are Precious, But…

As school systems across the country begin another academic year in an impaired economy, there is one huge issue looming over classrooms everywhere. Tenure is a concept that grew out of the university system to encourage professors to embrace the new and controversial without fear of losing their jobs. Since higher education is where the “new next” is often born, from political theory to stem cell research and even broaching the subject of global warming for the first time, tenure was viewed as the academic equivalent of the First Amendment. But the concept of tenure and seniority got mixed up along the way, and unions seized on that high-sounding word as a rallying point for their constituency… feeling that it was intellectually more appealing than calling it “job security.”

Particularly in the fields of public primary and secondary education, where fundamental research and cutting edge writing and experimentation are not relevant – it’s about preparing children for their next steps in life and supplying them with the basics they will need – tenure was simply the wrong concept. Further, there are a whole lot more public school teachers at this level, with fringe benefits and pension plans to match, that the overall burden on society – without the off-setting benefits of the “new next” – is staggering. With somewhere between $1 and $3 trillion in state and local unfunded pension benefits, the pension money owed to “tenured teachers” is a clearly and unsustainably rising debt.

To make matters worse, as we increase class size and allow some unqualified tenured teachers to remain at their post, our public educational system is failing, and we are hardly producing the bevy of prepared students that this country needs to sustain its economic position. If you want to see the numbers, check out my “Unqualified!” March 23rd blog. The simple headline (from the Department of Education): “‘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.

In my “Tenuous Tenure” blog on February 24th, I delved even more deeply into the negative consequences of using this seniority-based tenure concept in public school systems to protect unqualified teachers who simply cannot deliver the educational goods to our children. I discussed that new metrics, which evaluate in-class observation, changes in student performance both on test scores and in subsequent years and apply other objective criteria, that can effectively identify the productive teachers from those who are below par. And I suggested the following paradigm: “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.”

Whatever else it said, we need pension reform to move to a level that we can actually afford, but we also need to reexamine the entire notion of tenure in our public school system. New York City, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has pledged eventually to phase that concept entirely out of his school system. In the meantime, he is requiring performance evaluations in NYC drastically to reduce according tenured status under the current system. “Only 55 percent of eligible teachers, having worked for at least three years, earned tenure in 2012, compared with 97 percent in 2007… An additional 42 percent this year were kept on probation for another year, and 3 percent were denied tenure and fired. Of those whose probations were extended last year, fewer than half won tenure this year, a third were given yet another year to prove themselves, and 16 percent were denied tenure or resigned.” New York Times, August 17th.

To some liberal thinkers, taking seniority out of the system is unthinkable, but the long-term damage to the lives of students is too catastrophic to be permitted to continue. There are states where the unions have too much power, blocking every attempt to impose accountability and responsibility to a seniority system gone rogue: “The California Teachers Assn. was a key voice in last year's state budget. It has large amounts of cash, and one Democrat says it views itself as ‘the co-equal fourth branch of government.’” Los Angeles Times, August 18th. California’s fiscal problems are more serious than those of most states, and such inflexible political clout is one of the primary reasons.

My suggestion to restructure the concept of “seniority” noted above protects reasonably-performing teachers while removing those who cannot provide what is needed. While California buries its head in the sand, other states are addressing these issues from an entirely different perspective: “Idaho last year did away with tenure entirely by passing a law giving newly hired teachers no expectation of a contract renewal from one year to the next. In Florida, all newly hired teachers now must earn an annual contract, with renewals based upon their performance… [In July] in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation overhauling the nation’s oldest tenure law and making it easier for teachers to be fired for poor performance.” NY Times.

In the end, this cannot be a liberal vs. conservative issue – which unfortunately it has become in many jurisdictions. We need balance, but the goals have to be to create a public educational system that serves their children entrusted to its care and the society that they are being prepared to enter at a reasonable and affordable cost. We have no choice. And rather that battle this out in a left vs. right confrontation, unions, educational policy experts and governments need to come together to fix the system, before the voters, sick of the whole mess, destroy the vestiges of what was once the best educational system on earth.

I’m Peter Dekom, and the surest way to destroy America is to fail to educate our future generations sufficiently.

In Defense of the Realm

As Congress nears the cliff that the sequestration budget would require – that “if you don’t come up with an alternative budget plan, we are cutting the federal budget by $1.2 trillion, including $407 billion from the military” automatically that an embattled Congress imposed on itself – it is interesting to watch how our elected representatives are backpedaling. Facing a job cut that would add over 1 million workers to the unemployment rolls (depending on whose numbers you believe), decimating any semblance of a recovery, Congress is trying to figure out how to come back from the edge. It isn’t pretty.

Clearly, meat axe cuts are stupid and cause massive displacement on an unacceptably accelerated basis. Cutting the military isn’t about an instant solution, but a slow and deliberate reduction in annual military expenditures – particularly since the Iraq War is over and Afghanistan winding down – over time. We need to drop from spending well north of 40% of the world’s entire military budget to a more realistic 25-30% or less… slowly and in managed process. For nations that fall under our military umbrella, it’s time we started getting them to share some of the massive expense that we are paying… or the umbrella needs to fold. We have a fleet for every major body of water on earth, expensive aircraft carriers, submarines and a major supporting battle group. We have airbases in every corner of the world, and we have artillery, armor and infantry almost equally deployed.

But history has taught us a valuable lesson that our leaders seem to be ignoring. There comes a time when the cost of having such a powerful military presence actually begins to drain the society that pays for it, slowly pulling it down. Whether you look at ancient Sparta, Rome, the Ming Dynasty or the more recent military costs to the Soviet Union of fighting their own Afghan war that was the straw that broke their back, having too big of a military can so weaken the economic ability of the country that pays for it that collapse is accelerated. Further, having such a big military invites others to request its involvement and allows policy makers to resort to military solutions way too fast. Imagine if we could only fight major battles and wars with a draft-driven military how seldom we would be at war. We pull out and use our guns – with the resulting massive military expenditures – long before we should. The field is littered with the “unintended consequences” of our actions.

But the military is watching the looming storm with horror. Prized new weapons systems will be cancelled or put on hold. Many in the military will be denied the ability to re-up. Layoffs by the hundreds of thousands await communities all over the United States that depend on the ancillary revenues of have such installations in their midst. So the military is trying to salvage money wherever they can find it… even if they really should return unneeded funds or money that still sits in accounts after their underlying programs have been cancelled or abandoned.

Walter Pincus, writing for the August 6th Washington Post, asks the tough question: “How can the Pentagon keep $2.5 billion left over from a canceled program sloshing around for ‘reinvestment by the Army’ when Capitol Hill and the White House are worried about Pentagon budget cuts and national security?... How does the Pentagon get to simply hold on to that money without greater scrutiny? … The food stamp program could not get away with that, nor could the WIC health and nutrition program for women, infants and children, both of which are facing deep cuts.

“That $2.5 billion was money the Army once planned to spend between 2013 and 2017 on its Autonomous Navigation System (ANS). The system, begun in 2003, was ‘to serve as the autonomous navigation system for as many as 13 unmanned vehicle types as part of the FCS [Future Combat System],’ according to a Government Accountability Office report released [August 2nd].” Bottom line, “re-programming” military budgetary allocations have to be a Congressional prerequisite, not one relegated to command. It’s a tough world out there, but we really have to manage this process better.

I’m Peter Dekom, and our Congress has never been particularly good at understanding how to reconcile military priorities with our ability to pay for them.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Bribe vs. Campaign Contribution

The Supreme Court has spent gaggles of time dealing with the right to make campaign contributions, freeing up SuperPacs to do their elitists’ bidding with virtually no meaningful limitations, but they haven’t set standards for the line between bribery and political contributions, a line that seems to beg to be crossed. Federal anti-corruption statutes (and a host of state ones) criminalize soliciting or accepting money with the intent by the paying party of being rewarded or influenced in official actions. Such prosecutions often involve charges of bribery, extortion, and mail and wire fraud, among others, some of which involved campaign contributions alleged to be bribes. Politicians seeking “campaign contributions” are often charged with corruption under that standard when they cross that “pay for play” line. But exactly where is that line clearly drawn?

The billions of dollars funding lobbyists and political campaigns, especially from well-heeled special interests which have regulations, lucrative federal contracts and taxes in their focus, are not always being spent by folks simply expressing their political views. They want something. It appears that the more generic the want, the more it falls on the correct side of the law, and the more specific it is (particularly if there is some sort of tie between the expectation and the contribution), the more likely it crosses that nebulous line.

“The Supreme Court’s guidance on the issue is thin. In 1991, it ruled that a campaign contribution could be a bribe if prosecutors proved a quid pro quo — that the contribution was ‘made in return for an explicit promise or undertaking by the official to perform or not to perform an official act.’… In a subsequent case, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the quid pro quo need not be expressly stated. But lower courts have differed, since then, on exactly what standards apply…

“‘The Supreme Court needs to address this issue and provide guidance to the lower courts, prosecutors, politicians, donors and the general public,’ wrote U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1980… He added: ‘Much ink has been spilled over the contours of campaign finance law. Far less attention has been paid to what actually constitutes a ‘bribe.’ ’ ‘A precise definition, Thompson wrote, was needed to bring cohesion to campaign finance jurisprudence, ‘as the government’s interest in curbing corruption is now the sole basis for placing limits on campaign contributions.’” Cited in the Washington Post, August 12th.

If you can spend your money in vast piles without meaningful accountability to press your personal agenda under the guise of free speech… anonymously even… what’s the difference in spending your vast piles of money with a direct wink and a nod to the candidate enjoying the benefits? They know the rules, and they know that if they don’t play your game, these politicos won’t get money for their next campaign. You don’t even have to say anything. Who’s kidding whom? The Supreme Court has created the perfect vehicle for well-funded special interests to make clear purchases of the policies they seek with a perpetual “get of jail free” card, an exemption from prosecution for corruption.

I’m Peter Dekom, and we seem to be living in a “cash-and-carry” approximation of what was once a democracy.