Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Using Your Cane if You’re Still Able

As birthrates fall in many developed nations, as pressure grows to keep populations from decimating social support structures and food supplies in developing nations, as the cost of rearing a child in impaired economic times pushes that decision into later years for many or even negates the intent of having any children at all, there has been a bulge at in the growth among the oldest members of our planet. “For the 60-plus crowd, the annual growth rate is three times that of the world population as a whole. For the first time in history, there are more people over age 60 than under age 5.” Clyde Haberman writing in the October 9th New York Times.
On the extreme end, nations like Japan are contracting so fast that they will lose almost a third of their entire population by 2050 if current trends continue. Fully a 30% of their current population is “older.” The U.S. numbers of older citizens are half that but rising. For American-born women, they are reproducing at 1.9 births per woman, below the 2.1 rate considered essential for full replacement (zero growth). In a world of senior discounts, global businesses are losing more money. We can live with that! In a world of government and private pensions – particularly the “unfunded” kind (most of them) – and elder healthcare, essentially an increasing number of younger workers are needed to support the litany of retirees straining the system. We are going to have to learn to live with that.
Within a decade, there will be a billion of such over-60s. By 2050, the projections are for double that number. We living longer and having fewer babies. True older workers are retiring later, but that just deprives those entering the job market from opportunities that once were routinely available when older workers retired, a bigger strain on the job market. Further, those younger workers who do find meaningful employment will be charged with funding the going-forward elder benefits in both social security as well as other public and private pension plans, where benefits were promised but funds were not contributed along the way. And think of the massive healthcare costs among the elderly!
With the mobility we have seen across society, with crowded urban dwellings not providing extra space for elder parents and grandparents, the concept of extended families taking care of their own is a rare historical reference for most. Fixed incomes don’t fare well in a world of increasing prices. Decaying infrastructure makes getting around impossible for many seniors. Something’s gotta give. We cannot become a world of elders picking through garbage cans looking for food, sleeping in ramshackle homes or setting themselves on ice drifts to die “when the time comes.”
As they say, getting older is not for the faint of heart. “Women on average outlive men; many, having never worked outside the home, struggle financially on their own. Age discrimination is a constant. Older people are likely to be regarded as a burden more than as an asset. (They are also the targets of more stale codger jokes than even Henny Youngman could have supplied.) They are vulnerable to violent predators. And, obviously, their health problems multiply. Old age, as another old line has it, is not for sissies.” NY Times.
We are a nation that appears to be eager to write off large segments of our population. Damn the elderly. Children can do with crowded classrooms, steep college tuition hikes and lowering educational standards. Americans should live without healthcare unless they can afford it, many say. Infrastructure is a luxury we cannot afford to fix, expand or replace. Research for new cures, new science and new technology can wait until we are able to afford it… and then it needs to be relegated to the private sector. But then, our military – with a rather inglorious track record in international campaigns that already spends 41% of the earth’s total military budget – just isn’t big enough. Is this the country you want to live in?
I’m Peter Dekom, and I am still staggered by the complete in ability of so many Americans to be able to prioritize policies that they really will need for themselves.


Two thirds of the college class of 2012 borrowed to pay for their undergraduate degrees, averaging loans of $26,600 each for the pleasure of receiving that education. CBS, October 18th. With an abysmal job market and strict anti-bankruptcy provisions enacted specifically against student loans, repayment options are clearly unpleasant realities staring these soon-to-be-graduated students in the face. The problem is that notwithstanding the massive cutbacks at state universities in staffing and facilities, often mirrored at private universities with endowment issues, the cost of getting a college education is rising much more rapidly than any semblance of inflationary cost-of-living increases.
With average American family earnings dropping in the recent recession and state institutions replacing tax dollars with tuition increases, the cost to receive an education is only creating one more polarizing factor between the haves and the have-nots. The great American mobility machine is breaking down.
But as costs have escalated, the government has stepped in to provide support for those families unable to afford to write the checks out of savings or current cash flow. The Obama administration “has sharply increased aid to low- and middle-income students, notably through the Pell Grant program, which grew from $14.6 billion given to 6 million students in 2008, to nearly $40 billion for almost 10 million students this year. His administration also made it easier to request aid, shortening the complex federal application and allowing people to transfer their financial information electronically from the Internal Revenue Service database.” New York Times, October 17th. Congress doesn’t seem to want to increase these benefits in the current fiscal crisis, even though demand for financial aid is significant.
Conservative critics have countered that attempting to democratize access to higher education is well and good, but by subsidizing students to pay these escalating costs of college, the government has simply increased consumer demand for the product, which has in turn supported continuing and spiraling increases in costs. They argue that withdrawing that support will, under the law of supply and demand, force colleges to reduce their costs and make the long term affordability index more sustainable. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has responded that his department’s analysis has found a zero correlation between tuition increases and government-sponsored financial aid, arguing that the drop in taxpayer support has been the biggest culprit.
College costs have risen dramatically. In the last school year, tuition, fees, room and board averaged $38,589 at private colleges, up almost $15,000 from a decade earlier, according to the College Board. At public four-year colleges, the total bill came to $17,131, up more than $8,000… But behind the headlines about soaring costs, the reality is more complex and wildly uneven, because a growing number of students receive financial aid, and only relatively high-income families pay those fast-rising sticker prices. Adjusted for inflation, the College Board calculates, the average ‘net price’ changed little over the last decade at private schools, and rose only modestly at public ones.” NY Times.
Whatever the perspective, America does better with better trained and education workers. It cannot have an economically viable future without that necessary component, but likewise, the level of cost escalations for higher education – like the costs of medical care – cannot rise at the current pace without a fundamental realignment in social strata, an acceptance of very little social mobility and a denial of opportunity that was once the signature policy of the American democracy.
We need to look behind the lines, at faculty costs, at inter-collegiate athletic programs that do not pay for themselves and admissions policies that deny opportunity while adding layer of unnecessary bureaucracy. Policy-makers also have to look at new systems to fund college education – perhaps a lifetime tax on earnings depending on the nature and level of education achieved with preliminary costs advanced by the government. Change is necessary… now… time is running out.
I’m Peter Dekom, and appropriate belt-tightening now may saving the educational systems that have supported America for decades of innovation.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Three Strikes and You’re In!

In 2010, Stanford Law School delved into the aftermath of the three strikes law (three separate felony convictions generate a life sentence) passed by California voters in a flurry of anti-crime legislation that swept through the United States in the mid-1990s. Stanford wanted to know more about what kinds of inmates were now facing life sentences as a result (with a right of parole after 25 years). The study showed that in California alone, there were 4,000 non-violent inmates treading this time, a significant observation in a criminal justice system that seems to be defined more by its excesses than by any serious reduction in crime.
With about 5% of the world’s population, the United States still accounts for 25% of the world’s incarcerated prisoners. Long sentences, tough drug laws (a quarter of our inmates are dealers and users, but half of all convictions involve drugs at some level), death penalty cases and the three strikes legislation.
With the cost of housing one inmate spiraling to approximately an average $40,000 a year (much more for death row; see below), you’d think that at least we’d want to reduce the number of non-violent prisoners when we are struggling just to afford the litany of government costs we already have. Funny how neither party has embraced this rather obvious cost-savings… being tough on crime is in just about every political platform I’ve ever seen, and even candidates who understand the folly of our pattern of incarceration are scared to point out the obvious. But something’s gotta give, and California voters are getting another crack at this rather badly drafted and implemented legislation.
Documentary filmmakers, Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway, recently filmed “[t]he case of Shane Taylor, [a three-strikes non-violent convict, which] is common in many ways, but also unusual in that his judge and prosecutor have gone on record saying that his sentence is unfair and should be modified. Under current law, revising a sentence after it has been imposed is nearly impossible. [They believe that a]lthough judges have sentencing discretion in a very narrow band of three-strikes cases, the reality is that judges almost universally consider themselves bound under California law to impose a life sentence for a third felony offense, no matter how minor…
“On Nov. 6, voters in California will decide whether to adopt Proposition 36, a ballot initiative that would reform the most draconian aspects of the law — and, in our view, restore the original intent of voters, which was to lock away violent career criminals for life, without unjustly throwing away the lives of small-time, nonviolent offenders like Mr. Taylor. Like most Californians, we believe that the punishment should fit the crime. We’re encouraged that polls show broad public support for the measure.” New York Times, October 8th.
California voters will also have a shot at repealing the death penalty (Proposition 34), although that proposition appears to be trailing in the polls. But the costs of this extreme sentence are horrifically high as well. “California has spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment since it was reinstated in 1978 (about $308 million for each of the 13 executions carried out)… California spends an additional $184 million on the death penalty per year because of the additional costs of capital trials, enhanced security on death row, and legal representation.” When I hear politicians scream that we need to live on what we can afford, and then I hear about the increases they want in defense spending or all the new prisons they want to build, I just wonder if these folks actually passed their basic arithmetic classes in elementary school!
I’m Peter Dekom, and there are real series of options we can embrace and even improve our society… while still reducing our absurd deficits… but that would take common sense.

BRIC a Brack

We use the acronym “BRIC” to refer to those developing economies on a surge, but in fact this is a formal association among Brazil, Russia, India and China sharing that economic leadership, holding summits to discuss mutually relevant issues. In 2010, South Africa, that continent’s economic lion, lobbied the association for membership and was admitted, and the group became known as BRICS. We’ve noted in recent blogs how China’s growth, notwithstanding optimistic (albeit revised) statistics seemingly to the contrary, has stalled, and how internal political wrangling and corruption have tanked the Indian economy. It’s time to look at another BRICS nation facing severe economic struggles.
South Africa, a supplier of gold, platinum, diamonds and a host of other vital mineral wealth to the world, is now hitting an economic wall, inflicting more pain, inviting more violence and causing more disruption that at any time since the battle to overcome apartheid (a statutorily and brutally enforced racial divide) in the 1980s and 90s. Despite her vast wealth, there is a still a major schism in South Africa between the haves and the have-nots. Poverty is pervasive, unemployment always high and the nation ranks among the top ten countries in economic inequality. And since South Africa is a powerful exporting country, the crash of the global economy has drawn down demand for its exports.
The crisis in Europe, its largest trading partner, has taken a grim toll. Amid the slump, hundreds of thousands of jobs have disappeared. Economists are cutting their already anemic growth forecasts for South Africa, the continent’s biggest economy.” New York Times, October 13th. The tension between falling demand and abysmal wages has produced new levels of public disapproval that have resulted in police shootings, protests and strikes.
[T]ens of thousands of workers [walked] off the job in the biggest wave of labor unrest to hit South Africa since the end of apartheid. Wildcat strikes by gold, platinum and iron ore miners have crippled one of South Africa’s most important industries, prompting the nation’s first credit rating downgrade [citing political instability] in nearly two decades and a slide in the country’s currency, the rand, to a three-year low.
And the troubles are far from over. The truck drivers have ended their nearly three-week strike, but not before causing food and fuel shortages that sent shudders through an already struggling economy. The mine strikes have dragged on, and some municipal workers have announced plans to join the picket lines as well.” NY Times. The post-1994 political scene led by activist Nelson Mandela, where apartheid was finally quashed, was supposed to bring new opportunity, lifting millions of impoverished Blacks into the mainstream. But to maintain significant profitability, the mines fought strongly to keep wages to a minimum, and the governmental pledges and union efforts have failed to stem the tide of a growing wave of anger and frustration that really, little has changed.
“South African employers and unions have long had rancorous relations, and strikes are a common feature of life here. But this time seems to be different. While the unrest is specifically about pay, it has tapped a deep well of anger among the employed, who are frustrated with the [leading political party in power, generally taking 60-70% of the vote, the] African National Congress, which came to power in 1994 at the end of white rule promising ‘a better life for all.’
“Nowadays, the party is increasingly seen as interested mainly in self-enrichment, an impression underscored by reports that the government is paying for $27 million in renovations to [President Jacob] Zuma’s private village home, ostensibly for security reasons. The project is the subject of multiple investigations…  Altogether, the labor unrest, broad disillusionment, dimming economic prospects and political inertia represent perhaps the most serious crisis South Africa’s young democracy has faced.” NY Times. Political in-fighting at the ANC and challenges from smaller parties seem to be accelerating. A horrific incident in August at the Lonmin platinum mine (above) in Marikana resulted in the police killing of 34 rock drill operators engaged in an illegal strike, a moment that seemed to open the floodgates of frustration.
According to pollster Afrobarometer, almost half (47%) of all South Africans describe their country’s economy as bad or very bad, heading in the wrong direction (46%),  and 41% said their lot in life was fairly bad. Although timing for such economic disruption may have been particularly heavily based on the fall in global demand, clearly, the general perception of inequality and the country’s failure to meet its most basic pledge almost two decades after the fall of apartheid needs to be addressed.
The vast mineral wealth will still be in South Africa, regardless of global issues, and will regenerate in better times. But unless the underlying system changes radically, that wealth will remain at the top with very little filtering down to the bottom of the economic ladder. The mood in South Africa tells us that this radical change is about to happen. How this will impact this vulnerable nation has yet to be seen, but there are lessons in this for us all.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the less people have to lose, particularly when they are surrounded with the trappings of wealth in others, the more volatile the political system that supports the inequality.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Subtle Shuttle and LA Traffic

In 2011, Richard Plumb and his team from Plumb Engineering had a problem: how to move a 340 ton rock 106 miles to its future resting place at the Los Angeles Museum of Art. Permits, logistics and load analysis. Slam dunk. Noooo problem. In October of 2012, team Plumb had a slightly bigger problem: moving a comparatively “light” aircraft – a mere 170,000 pounds (about the weight of 56 cars) on a 350,000 transport vehicle – from its landing site to the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles.
The ship was the space shuttle Endeavor, and it wasn’t the weight that was a challenge. 122 feet long, 50 feet high and with 78 foot wingspan. Big. So exactly how did team Plumb do it? Travel speed 2 miles per hour. Expected problem. Lots and lots of curious onlookers. But serious planning and lots of permits and local coordination required.
“On Friday [October 12th] morning at 2 a.m., the hulking transporter inched forward to start the journey. Plumb, who was part of a team that included engineers, utility and construction workers and local police, followed in a vehicle behind the shuttle, making sure it stayed in the designate position in the street. In the months leading up to Friday, he had poured over old drawings and surveys studying what lay beneath Manchester, Crenshaw, and Martin Luther King Boulevards. There were sewer, water, and storm water pipes made of concrete, even clay. ‘Some of them date back to 1920 or 1930,’ Plumb said. ‘You have to be careful.’
“Using 3-D modeling, Plumb’s team had analyzed what the road and the pipes could handle and determined where steel plates were needed to disperse the heavy load--2,600 steel plates in all. Above ground was another story. Teams surveyed every type of obstacle: light poles, power lines, traffic signs, parking meters, and trees. Many were removed in advance, including 400 trees in Englewood and South L.A., which the science center will replace with nearly three times as many to appease local activists.
“But some obstacles needed to return to normal more quickly. So crews working ahead of the shuttle raised, lowered, or removed them. The most serious issue was three major power lines. They hung too low for Endeavour to clear. Each had to be lowered, “de-energized” and then brought back online as the shuttle passed. The catch was not having fewer than two power lines in use at once…The risk? ‘A possible blackout for the city of Los Angeles,’ he said… Fortunately, there was no blackout during this endeavor. Unless you count naps. Crew members dozed during two five-hour breaks.”, October 15th. For team Plumb, another day, another job. For the rest of us, a spectacle without equal. Actually, even to Plumb, this was a “once in a lifetime job.”
When American engineers set their minds to it, we can be pretty awesome. Much of what they design and create folks never see. Occasionally, it is a whole lot less subtle.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I thought you might just be curious.

Reality Bytes

Virtually every major business and government function is connected and often fully operated through a constant array of analytical sensors, computers and/or servo-control mechanisms. Right down to the level of the computer brain in your car to the mobile device in your hand to your financial life (online or not), you are connected to the vast network of electronic bits and bytes that pretty much govern every facet of your life. Grids and networks overlap, speak to each other, as medical records cross wires with interbank transactions passing stock trades and electrical power grid control signals slide by. Maybe the federal government has a “second Internet,” black cables buried in unmarked underground passageways – an interesting phenomenon particularly in and around Washington, D.C. – but it is hackable and vulnerable nonetheless. Somewhere, even that system is connected to the rest.
In an era of budget-cutting and shifting priorities, military and civilian operatives vying for dollars, everything is a priority to somebody. We are also so good at crying “wolf” that the litany of horribles if we don’t do this or that is increasingly looking like white noise that seems too easy to tune out. We scream this threat or that threat, go to war or launch missiles or saber rattle all the time. Sometimes the threat is real. Sometimes, government has a Pinocchio moment (remember Colin Powell at the United Nations with his clear evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction?). So what if our digital connectivity is vulnerable? So what?
But there is hacking going on all the time. From criminals trying to get your credit card and social security numbers, to sport-hackers trying to seek how far they can go, to data scrapers pushing to the edge of what’s legal to find out everything they can about you so that they can sell that information to advertisers and __________(???), to U.S. governmental operatives looking for more threats to foreign governments trying to break in and perhaps break the system. More damage could be inflicted on the United States by killing our financial system and/or shutting down our power grid and/or stopping modern telecommunications… well you get the picture. And it’s not as if hostile forces out there aren’t trying.
Congress seems to embrace deadlock, each side holding out on the other because the willingness to compromise has left the building, a reality that is unlikely to change no matter who is in the White House next January. The GOP has told the Dems that after the election when “Mitt is President,” he will reach across the aisle for their support… within his parameters and limitations of course and only if they follow his agenda… and the Dems have retorted that they are no more “Mister Nice Guy” when it comes to compromise, that they will continue this horrible game of political chicken in the new administration, when “Barack is reelected.” Meanwhile a fiscal cliff looms, and neither party is likely to have a sufficient hold on Congress next year to be able to blow away the log jam.
Combine all these variables and get back to cyber security. What do you get? Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls the threat a “cyber Pearl Harbor” in the making. “In a speech at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, Mr. Panetta painted a dire picture of how such an attack on the United States might unfold. He said he was reacting to increasing aggressiveness and technological advances by the nation’s adversaries, which officials identified as China, Russia, Iran and militant groups…  ‘An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches,’ Mr. Panetta said. ‘They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.’
Defense officials insisted that Mr. Panetta’s words were not hyperbole, and that he was responding to a recent wave of cyberattacks on large American financial institutions. He also cited an attack in August on the state oil company Saudi Aramco, which infected and made useless more than 30,000 computers… In August, a cybersecurity bill that had been one of the administration’s national security priorities was blocked by a group of Republicans, led by Senator John McCain of Arizona, who took the side of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and said it would be too burdensome for corporations.
The most destructive possibilities, Mr. Panetta said, involve ‘cyber-actors launching several attacks on our critical infrastructure at one time, in combination with a physical attack.’ He described the collective result as a ‘cyber-Pearl Harbor that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life, an attack that would paralyze and shock the nation and create a profound new sense of vulnerability.’ ” New York Times, October 11th. Yep, but they want more available boots on the ground, more “they aren’t as reliable as we had hoped” F-22s in the air and a whole lot more swanky stealth ships on the sea. What if they have nothing left to protect? Do you believe Mr. Panetta this time?
I’m Peter Dekom, and the entire notion of global conflict is profoundly different today than at any other time in history… and we need to understand the new rules of engagement.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

120 Countries

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was born in communist Yugoslavia in 1961 – good to know for all you Marshall Josip Tito fans out there (he was flexing his “independence” from the Soviet Union) – and the early-stage bigwigs included Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno; Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser; Ghana's first president Kwame Nkrumah; and India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The words themselves were born in a UN speech by Indian statesman, V.K. Krishna Menon back in 1953. The assemblage of nations was dedicated to walking an independent course between the feuding Soviets and its Western counterparts that was known as the Cold War. Not that these nations were above “aligning” their pockets with “aid” from one Cold War faction or another, but they at least gave lip service to the notion of not being in either camp.
Sometimes the factions seemed a tad more “aligned” than even an outstretched definition of that term, but the group trundled along, picking up and dropping member nations along the way. And lots of seemingly “aligned” nations had their say. “In a speech given during the Havana Declaration of 1979, Fidel Castro said the purpose of the organization is to ensure ‘the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of non-aligned countries’ in their ‘struggle against imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference or hegemony as well as against great power and bloc politics.’” Wikipedia.
When the Soviet Union unraveled and the Cold War purportedly ended,  the notion of a large block of nations grappling in a world of mega-if-not-super powers still seemed appealing enough to continue the concept, and today that organization comprises 120 non-aligned nations. The leaders from these states met at the end of August at a convocation hosted by the warm and fuzzy Iranians in Tehran. Since a number of the non-aligned states are predominantly Sunni Muslims, the choice of Shiite-dominated Iran, a staunch ally of the cruel Assad regime in Syria, created some awkward moments.
Alignment within the non-aligned seemed heightened as newly-elected Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi (tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, Pictured above with the Iranian President… before the former’s speech) became the first Egyptian leader to visit Tehran since the latter nation became a fundamentalist Islamic republic in 1979. Good news for Iran… not exactly. “‘We should all express our full support to the struggle of those who are demanding freedom and justice in Syria and translate our sympathies into a clear political vision that supports peaceful transfer (of power) to a democratic system,’ Morsi told the 120-country summit.
“Morsi said the world had a ‘moral duty’ to back the Syrian opposition, whom he provocatively likened to the Palestinians, in their struggle ‘against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy.’ Forceful intervention (he did not propose military action) was essential to prevent a further descent into civil war and sectarianism, he said. The fractured Syrian opposition must unite under one banner… Morsi’s fierce condemnation of the Syrian regime, Iran's close ally, was as eloquent as it was piercing, and it came like a bolt from the blue. He didn't just rain on the Iranians’ parade. It was as if Hurricane Isaac had taken a sharp turn north across the Caspian and unleashed its wrathful furies on an unsuspecting Tehran.
“The Syrian delegation walked out. The Iranians did not have that option – they could hardly boycott their own meeting. Instead they were forced to listen as Morsi, a Muslim Brother, an Arab, and lifelong critic of western policy in the Middle East, thumped out an uncompromising speech that could have come straight from Hillary Clinton's playbook.” Guardian UK, August 30th 
The Iranian leadership was stunned. Farsi translations of the speech provided to the Iranian public were apparently severely and purposefully inaccurate. The final communiqué (“The Tehran Declaration”) didn’t address the Syrian debacle, but it wasn’t signed by the Syrians either. Despite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s subsequent attempt to muster some support for the Assad regime, seeking only that the NAM use its efforts to bring a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict, the plea fell on deaf ears.
But lest we in the West gloat over Iran’s obvious awkward and isolated position among its peers, the powers in Tehran did have one huge reason to gloat back. “[T]he final result of the Nonaligned Movement’s meeting, the biggest international gathering in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, amounted to the strongest expression of support for Iran’s nuclear energy rights in its showdown with the West. The unanimous backing of the final document undercut the American argument that Iran was an isolated outlier nation… The Tehran Declaration document not only emphasizes Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy but acknowledges the right to ownership of a full nuclear fuel cycle, which means uranium enrichment — a matter of deep dispute…
“Iran, which has repeatedly asserted that its nuclear program is peaceful, contends it is already in compliance with its obligations as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has countered that Israel, which is not a signatory, has an unacknowledged nuclear weapons arsenal. Israel, which regards Iran as its major enemy, has threatened to attack Iranian enrichment sites.” New York Times, August 31st.  In some of the statements quietly uttered among some of the leaders, the subtext was even less comforting for American policy-makers. Why, went the train of thought, do those huge superpowers think that it is acceptable for them to have nuclear weapons… and but not for the smaller nations, often held hostage to interests of these military behemoths?
I’m Peter Dekom, and while the world is hardly rewarding Iran’s regional goals, neither is their the slightest sign that the United States will remotely be able to force its directives on the rest of the world.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Country Values vs. Urban Realities?

Act of God means a whole lot more to a farmer whose crops depend on the vagaries of nature than to a shopper in a city grocery store wincing at the rising prices. Excepting the massive-scale corporate farms, individual farmers live very individually off the bounty or the scarcity of weather patterns and supply/demand chains more directly than just about any other category of American citizen. Global demand has been good to our farming community of late. Weather and drought have not.
When you think of the kinds of values you need to endure such unpredictability, when the balance between making a living or losing your farm is often a difficult balance that environmental regulation, water control and import/export policies can push in any direction at any time, you see why voters in these agricultural regions tend to be Republican and conservative. Our very form of government, with two senators from every state regardless of population, leans heavily towns these workers of the land at the expense of heavily urban-populated states like New York, California and Illinois.
Cities by their very definition are complex organisms where division of labor is seemingly infinitely fractionalized, where interdependence is the very basis of urban living and where folks living and working so close together need to be regulated much more stringently that those in more isolated communities “where everybody knows everybody” – where anonymity has its plusses and minuses. Infrastructure and urban services, gang turf wars, concerted criminal activities, massive overlapping of rich and poor and concentrations of wealth and opportunity are vastly different than can be found in the agricultural heartland of America (and even in the towns built to service the surrounding farms and agribusiness).
What is particularly interest then is how Republicans and Democrats address this difference. In his editorial on October 6th, Kevin Baker analyzed the differences in an astounding piece in the New York Times. His conclusion? That the Republican Party overwhelmingly embraces these “country values” at the almost total exclusion of concerns for urban problems.
He writes: “The very word ‘city’ went all but unheard at the Republican convention, held in the rudimentary city of Tampa, Fla. The party platform ratified there is over 31,000 words long. It includes subsections on myriad pressing topics, like ‘Restructuring the U.S. Postal Service for the Twenty-First Century’ and ‘American Sovereignty in U.S. Courts,’ which features a full-throated denunciation of the ‘unreasonable extension’ of the Lacey Act of 1900 (please don’t ask). There are also passages specifying what our national policy should be all over the world — but not in one American city.
“Actually, that’s not quite true. Right after ‘Honoring Our Relationship With American Indians’ and shortly before ‘Honoring and Supporting Americans in the Territories,’ the Republican platform addresses another enclave of benighted quasi-citizens: the District of Columbia. Most of what it has to say is about forcing the district to accept school vouchers, lax gun laws and the fact that it will never be a state. It also scolds the district for corruption and ‘decades of inept one-party rule.’ Only a city would get yelled at…
Unsurprisingly, the chairman of the Republican platform committee, Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, is from a state that has no city with a population of 500,000 or more. One of his two “co-chairmen” was Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota, which ranks 47th among the states in population density. The other was Marsha Blackburn, who represents a largely suburban district of Tennessee. .. IT could hardly be otherwise. The Republican Party is, more than ever before in its history, an anti-urban party, its support gleaned overwhelmingly from suburban and rural districts — especially in presidential elections.” NY Times.
But if 4/5 of America lives in and around cities, how do such policies find sufficient traction among urban voters? Back in the late 1920s, the big cities went to the Republicans: places like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Detroit. The GOP seems unconcerned. A strong loss in November could, however, force a change in that focus. “The Republican refusal to contest the cities has left them in a permanently defensive stance in national campaigns. This can’t continue. The courts have already struck down many voter suppression laws, and the party’s 2008 presidential results read like an actuarial table, with Republicans increasing their percentage of the vote mainly in aging districts that are losing population. In the meantime, as urban areas continue to grow, they become more and more intertwined with what were once distant suburbs, making ‘urban’ issues all the more pertinent to everyone.” NY Times.
There is much in this presidential campaign about who represents what constituency… the big 47% debate. Despite denials and reversals of statement, the electorate understands that the GOP isn’t particularly sympathetic to the values of the lower echelons of American economic strata. The bigger and unstated issue, however, is the rather clear line of demarcation between urban and rural values represented by the two major parties. It will be interesting to see if folks from those communities recognize the difference, and exactly how the votes would reflect those values.
I’m Peter Dekom, and while going back to earlier values is indeed attractive, it might not be possible in a new globalized economy.

Monday, October 22, 2012

See Car-Go

Picture a time when at least a third of all cars on the road are electric and when the largest car manufacturer in the United States makes only all-electric vehicles. Are you picturing that time? Yes, those were the days! “Were”? Yup, were. Cars were invented in the 1880s, and by the turn of the century, 34% of the vehicles in our biggest cities were electric (half were steam-powered); the largest U.S. automaker was the Electric Vehicle Company (E.V.C.). E.V.C. only rented their cars out, however, because they thought folks really didn’t have the sophistication to repair them. But for most purposes, given the limited infrastructure, the battery charge on one of these puppies took you pretty much anywhere you might want (or be able) to go.
Electric cars might have dominated the marketplace thereafter had E.V.C. not tripped itself: “[W]hen a series of shady business dealings [and spotty performance] drove the New York-based company into bankruptcy, it took electric cars down with it. Investors, soured by their experience with the E.V.C., swore they’d never put money into the industry again, and in the lull in electric-car development that followed, gasoline-car companies improved their technology and made their vehicles cheaper. Over the next 20 years, Americans formed a new idea of what a car was. And from that point on, right up to today, it was hard to get them to try anything else.” New York Times, October 2nd.
They say that automobiles invented suburbs, residential hubs that were just too far away and too spread out to have existed without that personal form of transportation. If gas prices continue to soar, and we don’t find alternative viable energy forms, we might just find ourselves being pushed back to the cities where the jobs tend to be centered.
We crossed the billion car mark on this planet back in 2010, and there’s no sign of that trend abating anytime soon. There are lot of reasons why electric motors were so much more important in the early days of cars besides the cheap power and the dominance of E.V.C. An electric motor didn’t need gears or difficult starting mechanisms; they were easy to learn to use and easier to drive. Gasoline engines were complex, mixing fuel and air to get controlled explosions to push pistons, etc. Gears were needed to move from a standstill to cruising speed on an open road. You also had to learn to shift, and the clutch was a necessary addition to keep from ripping the gears out of the box.
Had General Electric, rich with the revenues from Edison’s myriad patents, drilled more into the car business, there is little doubt that we would be driving mostly electric cars today. Their huge capital resources pushed gas-powered refrigerators out the door pretty quickly, and electricity was the household standard for most appliances thereafter. But apparently, they were making plenty of money everywhere else. They didn’t need to get into making cars and layering in another set of expensive infrastructure to make them more useful. The author of the NY Times piece quoted above – Maggie Koerth-Baker – also likes author and Professor David Kirsch’s (U. of Md.) analysis that we like infrastructure that we can take for granted, that’s basically “invisible.” But when we have to install that infrastructure ourselves – like adding an electrical charging station to our home garage – it’s an added inconvenience when all we really wanted is a “car.” It becomes way too visible and intrusive.
The U.S. census provides a number of filling stations that we had back in 2007 – 128,887. Just think of the hundreds of billions of dollars we have invested in those monsters. Think of the oil wells, the drilling equipment, the tankers (sea and land) needed to move fossil fuels around, the financial system used to finance it all… and you can see how tough it would be to replace this massive commitment with a technology that uses very little of this pile o’ stuff. There are a whole lot of folks, with a whole lot of jobs and a huge pile of wealth, who really don’t want to change that system anytime soon. They don’t relish the obsolescence of all that invested capital.
Not that consumers are diving into all-electric-all-the-time either. Electric car companies are having a rough time, facing limited production capacity and increasing costs and complications to find a viable market. Range is a big deal, and even if you can get 125-250 miles on a charge, you have to stop for about an hour (depending on the car) or more to recharge. Not great for those long road trips, and you have to time the trips around the few charging stations available. How about a battery swap? Possible but far from an attractive or easy choice.
Hybrid car makers are having a bit of an easier time, but the transition from gasoline to electric might just benefit from an intervening technology with a flare of the familiar about it: “You can change the technology. You can change the infrastructure and culture. And sometimes, you have to change both, easing people into accepting a new tool by making it look and feel like the old one you want to replace. It’s this, Kirsch says, that will enable electric cars to finally succeed. The trick is to not expect people to jump straight from all-gasoline to all-electric. What’s necessary is a transitional step that makes electric cars operate more like the cars we’re used to driving.
Kirsch thinks hybrids will ultimately help us make that jump. You can use a hybrid without building a separate infrastructure. You don’t need to learn new habits of driving and maintenance. Hybrids are even designed to mimic the feel of a gas engine. If you’ve ever ridden in a Prius, you may have noticed that it creeps forward when you take your foot off the brake. There’s no technological reason it should do that; engineers just added the feature for the sake of familiarity.” NY Times. Hey, those pure electrics are so silent they sneak up on people, who don’t know that such cars are there… so they have little recordings of engine noise that mimic a gas engine… a sound option the driver cannot turn off!
In the end, despite the setbacks and the struggle of the plug-ins to find a U.S. market, we are making that transition one way or the other. It may be slow. It might not please those seeking shorter-term solutions to greenhouse emissions, but it is happening.
I’m Peter Dekom, and sometimes living at the beginning of a transition obscures the magnitude of the inevitable transformation of the technological basics of our day-to-day world.