Monday, December 30, 2013

Quite the Converse!

There is this, “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” mantra in the snob-appeal marketplace. Price something high, and it has to be worth it. From Aston Martins and a Chanel dress to a chi chi New York City penthouse, price screams quality. Great lawyers cost most than the shabby ambulance chasers, and a fine plastic surgeon will always command vast sums over the breast-implant specialist for those in the sex trade. But is this trend applicable to education as well?
I’ve always maintained that for the academically gifted but financially impaired, the Ivy League is almost always less expensive than that state-sponsored college or university. It’s not that room, board and tuition are less expensive, but the financial aid flows in generous streams, and many upscale schools actually eschew the loan process, which cripples too many undergraduates for life, in favor or out-and-out grants.
But pricing in private academia has long followed the snob appeal path; put a staggering number on tuition, and folks are simply going to assume that the school – though small and not-so-well-known – is a learning gem at or near the top of the intellectual achievement food chain. To make up for this unrealistic pricing practice, too many schools just routinely give “financial aid” to just about anybody who asks for it. They know their numbers are not real, so they engage in deep discounting under the guise of tuition scholarships.
“At the nation’s [genuinely] most selective institutions, discounts are usually reserved for low- and middle-income students, and a third to a half of students pay the full sticker price. But colleges without a national reputation pass out discounts, in the form of aid, with a free hand — and not just to needy students.” New York Times, December 25th. They know their numbers are too high, but then, pricing “up” has been a solid marketing tool for decades.
Until now. “Over all, private colleges discounted freshman tuition by 45 percent last year, a new high, according to a survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, and the share of freshmen getting institutional aid rose to 87 percent last year, from 80 percent in 2002, also a new high.
“For all but the top-tier private colleges, these are tough times. Enrollment is flat or declining in many parts of the country. In November, Moody’s issued a report finding that more than 40 percent of colleges and universities face falling or stagnant tuition revenue. With family incomes stalled, many bargain-seeking students are drawn to public institutions. And for colleges that are not well known, the race to lure students with big discounts is becoming unsustainable.” NY Times. As the cost of college education continues to rise well above the cost of living increases, as the availability and cost of student loans becomes more difficult (and bankruptcy law targets student loans as almost sacrosanct), there are fewer children heading for such higher education, and a high sticker simply keeps those that are price sensitive but college bound from even applying.
Oh, have times changed. “‘Schools wanted a high tuition on the assumption that families would say that if they’re charging that high tuition, they must be right up there with the Ivies,’ said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. ‘So schools would set a high tuition, then discount it. But when the schools in your peer group all have discounts, it becomes an untenable competition for students, with everyone having to increase their discounts.’…
When Converse College, a tiny women’s college here, announced that it was ‘resetting’ next year’s tuition at $16,500, down 43 percent from the current year’s published price of $29,000, the talk was about affordability, transparency and a better deal for struggling families.
“But of Converse’s 700 undergraduates, only a small number — in the single digits, its president said, paid the full sticker price in recent years. Almost everyone received a tuition discount from the college, along with, in many cases, financial aid from the state and federal governments… Now, like some other small private colleges, Converse is cutting tuition and reducing discounts. Betsy Fleming, Converse’s president, said the tuition discount rate would drop to 25 percent, well below the national average, from the current 56 percent. The college will still offer aid to talented students, but only to the extent covered by its $39 million endowed scholarship funds.
“While Converse’s reset was the most drastic, others including Concordia University in Oregon, Ashland University in Ohio, Ave Maria University in Florida, Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina and Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, have also recently announced tuition cuts. NY Times. At a time where our coming generations face the most globally-competitive work environment in our nation’s history, education has never been more critical. But our tuition practices no longer serve the national interest, and as public education slips down the performance slope at every level, we need to address our priorities if we except to survive as an economic powerhouse.
I’m Peter Dekom, and our academic needs are expanding just as our ability to pay for such requirements seem to be fading.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Volker, Volker, Who Can Break the Volker?


The 2008, too-big-to-fail collapse of mega-financial institutions like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers was just those extreme players who borrowed money at ratios of debt at 30 or more times the equity that secured those loans. Most of the other big American financial institutions had the same issues, but they were capable of being saved with a massive infusion of taxpayer money to solidify their balance sheets mixed with a pile of euphemistically called “quantative easing” efforts by the Federal Reserve (effectively selling their bad loans to the fed).
The underlying issues that led to the mildest form of fiscal regulation all revolved around these huge institutions’ basically trading for their own accounts. With programmed trading, automated and implemented by super-high-speed computers, these big, bad boyz – wreaking havoc that even The Wolf of Wall Street could not imagine – tilted the playing field entirely in favor of those banks properly equipped. Insider trading was now eclipsed by machines that could respond to or even create market conditions in mini-micro-milli-seconds. As the “recovery” progressed, the once-fat cats returned to financial obesity and just picked up where they left off.
With strong resistance from the GOP, out-voted in both the House and Senate until the 2010 mid-term elections, Congress passed a highly diluted financial regulatory statute (Dodd-Frank) with one provision that held out the faintest ray of hope for this “proprietary” trading that sank the entire nation into financial dust. It was a section that enabled the Securities and Exchange Commission (and other agencies) to create regulations to limit such internal machinations. The GOP used its new-found House majority (from the 2010 elections) to slow the process by underfunding the regulatory agencies charged with this rule-making obligation. But way after the outside time of even the most pessimistic projections, the new rule (the so-called Volker Rule) passed the necessary agency approvals.
“The Volcker Rule refers to § 619 (12 U.S.C. § 1851) of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, originally proposed by American economist and former United States Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to restrict United States banks from making certain kinds of speculative investments that do not benefit their customers. Volcker argued that such speculative activity played a key role in the financial crisis of 2007–2010. The rule is often referred to as a ban on proprietary trading by commercial banks, whereby deposits are used to trade on the bank's own accounts, although a number of exceptions to this ban were included in the Dodd-Frank law. The rule's provisions were scheduled to be implemented as a part of Dodd-Frank on July 21, 2012, with preceding ramifications, but were delayed. The necessary agencies have approved regulations implementing the rule, which is scheduled to go into effect April 1, 2014.” Wikipedia
Wall Street was waiting in the wings for its carefully-crafted counterattack(s). Sure the big boyz could fire a few rounds, but everybody hates these behemoths so much that, well, they decided to deploy a different approach: “The banks have fired their first salvo in what could soon turn into a war of litigation over the Volcker Rule… As expected, the American Bankers Association, an industry trade group, filed a motion in federal court on [December 24th] in Washington seeking to quickly suspend one part of the Volcker Rule, which was officially completed [several] weeks ago… The trade group claims 275 small banks will suffer an imminent $600 million hit to capital and make them less likely to lend to consumers and businesses.
“Though the current dispute centers on an obscure and complex investment product, the association’s lawsuit could become an early test of how much the industry can successfully push back against the Volcker Rule. The rule was devised to stop regulated banks from speculatively trading with their depositors’ money and other funds in an effort to avoid some of the problems that led to the bank bailouts in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis…
“At the heart of the bankers’ group lawsuit are instruments called collateralized debt obligations, the instruments that helped stoke the financial crisis. The final Volcker Rule contained language that, to many in the industry, seemed to prohibit banks from holding C.D.O.’s… The banking association says the Volcker Rule unfairly targets a special type of C.D.O. held by smaller banks. These instruments are made up of so-called trust-preferred securities, a cross between a bond and a stock that banks issued to increase their capital.
“Crucially, accounting rules have shielded banks from taking a full hit on these soured investments. But, now, the banks could lose that shield if the Volcker Rule forces them to offload the C.D.O.’s. As a result, the banking association argues that the banks might have to take big write-downs in the next few weeks that would substantially dent their capital.” New York Times, December 24th.
The Wall Street hammers and chisels are out, destined through strategic forum and issue shopping to keep these regulations from being actively implemented for as long as possible, possibly a decade or more as cases wind their way, provision after provision, case after case, up to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s the biggest baddest boyz (and their little bank minions) against the best interests of the vast majority of Americans. Wall Street figured that the issues are too complex for ordinary voters and ignorant Congress-people to understand, so they won’t care. But if you enjoyed the Great Recession, you will really love the next crisis which Wall Street seems destined to foment. After all, solid companies and most Americans cherish stability, but Wall Street makes all of its billions based on market volatility.

I’m Peter Dekom, and as our educational standards continue to plummet, it becomes easier and easier for the banks to tear up the regulations that we really need to protect us against the Bank of Evil!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Coal, Clams and Crabs

North Korea has been left behind in a world of global competition and rising living standards. With the largest body of armed forces on earth and a nuclear program that you might expect from a much larger nation, this land of under 25 million has a GDP that is considerably less ($40 billion estimated) than the net worth of some of the world’s wealthiest individuals and certainly a whole lot less than lots of multinational corporations. The North relies very heavily on the fact that its powerful ally to the north, the People’s Republic of China, will tolerate its roguish, embarrassing and brutal brinksmanship in order to avoid sharing a common border with a nation clearly in the American orbit: South Korea.
The limited resources in the north are used to keep the power elite in luxurious decadence and the army strong to keep those elites solidly in power. No one enjoys the good life more than the little leader, the brutal Kim Jong-un, a man who has six “prison” slave labor camps of about two hundred thousand tortured souls and their families generating “stuff” for the elite, providing easy sadomasochistic outlets for cruel soldiers with evil on their minds. The above satellite photo pretty much says it all, a visual contrast between north and south that staggers the mind.
Agricultural resources, needed to feed a severely undernourished populace, are often diverted to harvest narco-crops that the government uses to generate hard currencies by selling drugs to dealers operating in their “enemy” countries. To keep the little leader in Western luxuries, the North developed an all-cash (yup, armored trucks filled with U.S. currency cross over all the time!) assembly plants within the Kaes┼Ćng Industrial Region, six miles north of the Demilitarized Zone, under a cooperation agreement with South Korea and a few of the latter’s biggest industrial giants. A few experiments with privatization have been heavily limited. The KIR facility has been closed on occasion when tensions between North and South have escalated.
Dennis Rodman notwithstanding, the recent execution of Kim Jong-un’s trusted Uncle seems to have less to do with his purported corrupt lifestyle or even his suggestion that the North would do well with a regime change than it does with who gets the cash from a battle over a few more natural resources in this sparse and Spartan nation. “North Korean military forces were deployed to retake control of one of the sources of those exports, the rich crab and clam fishing grounds that Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of the country’s untested, 30-year-old leader, had seized from the military. In the battle for control of the fishing grounds, the emaciated, poorly trained North Korean forces ‘were beaten — very badly — by Uncle Jang’s loyalists,’ according to one official.
“The rout of his forces appears to have been the final straw for Mr. Kim, who saw his 67-year-old uncle as a threat to his authority over the military and, just as important, to his own family’s dwindling sources of revenue. Eventually, at Mr. Kim’s order, the North Korean military came back with a larger force and prevailed. Soon, Mr. Jang’s two top lieutenants were executed.” New York Times, December 23rd.
It’s the economy stupid! As Jang vied with the military over resources, the underbelly of theretofore hidden schisms in the North bubbled to the surface. “The open warfare between the two factions has revealed a huge fracture inside the country’s elite over who pockets the foreign currency — mostly Chinese renminbi — the country earns from the few nonnuclear exports its trading partners desire…
During a closed-door meeting on [December 23rd] of the South Korean National Assembly’s intelligence committee, Nam Jae-joon, the director of the National Intelligence Service, disputed the North’s assertion that Mr. Jang had tried to usurp his nephew’s power. Rather, he said, Mr. Jang and his associates had provoked the enmity of rivals within the North’s elite by dominating lucrative business deals, starting with the coal badly needed by China, the North’s main trading partner.
“‘There had been friction building up among the agencies of power in North Korea over privileges and over the abuse of power by Jang Song-thaek and his associates,’ Mr. Nam was quoted as saying… [Just north of the western sea border between the Koreas], the North harvests one of its major exports: crabs and clams, delicacies that are also highly valued by the Chinese. For years the profits from those fishing grounds, along with the output from munitions factories and trading companies, went directly to the North Korean military, helping it feed its troops, and enabling its top officers to send cash gifts to the Kim family…
“But when Mr. Kim succeeded his father two years ago, he took away some of the military’s fishing and trading rights and handed them to his cabinet, which he designated as the main agency to revive the economy. Mr. Jang was believed to have been a leading proponent of curtailing the military’s economic power.
“Mr. Jang appears to have consolidated many of those trading rights under his own control — meaning that profits from the coal, crabs and clams went into his accounts, or those of state institutions under his control, including the administrative department of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, which he headed.
“But this fall, the long-brewing tensions that arrangement created broke into the open. Radio Free Asia, in a report last week that cited anonymous North Korean sources, reported that Mr. Kim saw North Korean soldiers malnourished during his recent visits to islands near the disputed western sea border. They say he ordered Mr. Jang to hand over the operation of nearby fishing grounds back to the military.” NY Times. Was Mr. Kim being nice or making sure that the guys with the guns knew that they should protect the little leader against anything and anyone?
No matter how you look at this corrupt and selfish regime, it is a bleak and desperate society with not a scintilla of humanity in its value system. What’s worse, with communications and information squarely within the control of the government, the people sincerely believe that their suffering is wholly a product of a hostile West and that they are protected by the benevolent largesse of a battling pro-people Kim Jong-un. They truly hate us and blame the United States and its “cronies” for their deprived quality of life. If the North collapsed tomorrow, the people in the north would take decades to convert to a modern society, and there would be more than a few martyrs along the way.
I’m Peter Dekom, and despite the struggles in Syria and in Africa, North Korea is a constant reminder of how inhumanity simply endures amid the spotlight of the rest of the world.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The New Contact Sport

Okay, blog fans, raise your hands if you’ve ever been on a flight with someone with bad cold or flu sitting next to you. Typical commercial aircraft recirculate air to effect a change in that lovely breathing gas between 20 and 30 times an hour. Yes, most of them do use active charcoal, HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters to be sure, but occasionally they try and minimize the amount of fresh air that is added (because it has to be pressurized and heated before being blended in with the existing air). Ideally, the mix is 50% fresh with 50% recirculated. But it’s nasty up there.
Recently, trends in design and operation minimize the introduction of outside air into the cabin.  This is principally because outside air must first be pressurized through the engines, and this ‘bleeding’ of air reduces efficiency and increases fuel consumption.  For this reason, a higher ratio of ‘captive’ cabin air is being recirculated.  The tradeoff for fuel cost savings is that people aboard the craft are subjected to more particulate pollutants as well as viruses and bacteria.  Because of the confined atmosphere, low humidity conditions, reduced oxygen level, fatigued/jet lagged passengers and many other factors, potential ill-effects from airborne contaminants is far greater in this environment.” From the website of HEPA-filter-maker, Purolator Facet. Sounds good, but as competition pushes unnecessary costs literally out the window, airlines are inclined to change those filters a little less frequently and recirculate a little bit more.
Which is all fine and good except for one additional variable that impacts modern air travel, particularly in economy class. Sardining more people into smaller spaces. “Over the last two decades, the space between seats — hardly roomy before — has fallen about 10 percent, from 34 inches to somewhere between 30 and 32 inches. Today, some airlines are pushing it even further, leaving only a knee-crunching 28 inches.
“To gain a little more space, airlines are turning to a new generation of seats that use lighter materials and less padding, moving the magazine pocket above the tray table and even reducing or eliminating the recline in seats. Some are even reducing the number of galleys and bathrooms.
“Southwest, the nation’s largest domestic carrier, is installing seats with less cushion and thinner materials — a svelte model known in the business as ‘slim-line.’ It also is reducing the maximum recline to two inches from three. These new seats allow Southwest to add another row, or six seats, to every flight — and add $200 million a year in newfound revenue.” New York Times, December 22nd. Oh, yum! But at least most of Southwest’s service is short-hop flights.
On the other hand, Americans a definitely filling up more space: “Travelers are also getting bigger. In the last four decades, the average American gained a little more than 20 pounds and his or her waist expanded about 2.5 inches, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The dimensions of airplanes, however, have not changed and neither has the average width of a coach seat, which is 17 to 18 inches.” NY Times.
Okay, blog fans, raise your hands if you’ve ever been on a flight with someone with bad cold or flu sitting next to you. Typical commercial aircraft recirculate air to effect a change in that lovely breathing gas between 20 and 30 times an hour. Yes, most of them do use active charcoal, HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters to be sure, but occasionally they try and minimize the amount of fresh air that is added (because it has to be pressurized and heated before being blended in with the existing air). Ideally, the mix is 50% fresh with 50% recirculated. But it’s nasty up there.
“Recently, trends in design and operation minimize the introduction of outside air into the cabin.  This is principally because outside air must first be pressurized through the engines, and this ‘bleeding’ of air reduces efficiency and increases fuel consumption.  For this reason, a higher ratio of ‘captive’ cabin air is being recirculated.  The tradeoff for fuel cost savings is that people aboard the craft are subjected to more particulate pollutants as well as viruses and bacteria.  Because of the confined atmosphere, low humidity conditions, reduced oxygen level, fatigued/jet lagged passengers and many other factors, potential ill-effects from airborne contaminants is far greater in this environment.” From the website of HEPA-filter-maker, Purolator Facet. Sounds good, but as competition pushes unnecessary costs literally out the window, airlines are inclined to change those filters a little less frequently and recirculate a little bit more.
Which is all fine and good except for one additional variable that impacts modern air travel, particularly in economy class. Sardining more people into smaller spaces. “Over the last two decades, the space between seats — hardly roomy before — has fallen about 10 percent, from 34 inches to somewhere between 30 and 32 inches. Today, some airlines are pushing it even further, leaving only a knee-crunching 28 inches.
“To gain a little more space, airlines are turning to a new generation of seats that use lighter materials and less padding, moving the magazine pocket above the tray table and even reducing or eliminating the recline in seats. Some are even reducing the number of galleys and bathrooms.
“Southwest, the nation’s largest domestic carrier, is installing seats with less cushion and thinner materials — a svelte model known in the business as ‘slim-line.’ It also is reducing the maximum recline to two inches from three. These new seats allow Southwest to add another row, or six seats, to every flight — and add $200 million a year in newfound revenue.” New York Times, December 22nd. Oh, yum! But at least most of Southwest’s service is short-hop flights.
On the other hand, Americans a definitely filling up more space: “Travelers are also getting bigger. In the last four decades, the average American gained a little more than 20 pounds and his or her waist expanded about 2.5 inches, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The dimensions of airplanes, however, have not changed and neither has the average width of a coach seat, which is 17 to 18 inches.” NY Times.
How about this solution: “The Sydney Morning Herald explains that passengers on Samoa Air, a small regional airline serving the Samoan islands in the South Pacific, are asked to punch in their body weight and the weight of their luggage when booking. Rates range from $1 (Australian) per kilogram on short flights to $4.16 per kilogram on longer ones between Samoa and American Samoa. Passengers and their luggage are weighed again when they get to the airport to make sure they weren't fibbing.” DailyFinance.com, April 2nd. Ouch for most Americans! Butt weight, there’s more!
When you have the ability to recline your seat, after the pilot has given the sign, most folks correctly believe that they have purchased the right to recline that seat to the max. Of course the person sitting behind that reclining passenger might just be sitting up a bit more to do some work on their mini-table… and well, that’s a bit uncomfortable. Like this little vignette from the NY Times: “Rory Rowland said he was rudely rebuffed after he asked the person in front of him not to recline his seat on a red-eye flight. When he later got up to use the bathroom, and the other passenger had fallen asleep, ‘I hip-checked his seat like you wouldn’t believe,’ Mr. Rowland, a speaker and consultant, said, then feigned innocence when the enraged passenger complained to a flight attendant…
“There are ways of resolving conflicts other than bumping into other passengers, as Mr. Rowland, the speaker and consultant, found… ‘I lean forward and tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘I’ll buy you a drink if you don’t push your seat back,’ ’ Mr. Rowland said. ‘It’s made flying very pleasant.’” Some European carriers have taken to eliminating the ability to recline that seat entirely.
Let’s see. Economy class. You aren’t getting free meals on most domestic flights anymore, no pillows or blankets, less leg room, less reclining ability, more people sharing the overhead compartments but extra charges if you want to check a bag, and we are seeing some new aircraft surcharges being added by the new budget bill that will add even more costs to that torturous flight invoice. Oh, and some fool wants to let crammed and jammed people use their cellphones during the flight. Oh, yeah, travel is sooooo much fun. Tell me about some of your horror stories in sardine land.
I’m Peter Dekom, and when it’s a drivable distance, it’s almost always better than flying these days!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Going Rogue on the Natives


“Pregnant women were sent off by ambulance, at times giving birth along the side of the road. Elders died before they even reached the hospital. Accidents in the evening and early morning — once handled by emergency-room doctors and nurses — started to fall to a team of emergency medical technicians .
‘We handle everything from the common cold to broken bones to suicides now,’ said Kenneth Pete, an EMT who directs the clinic’s team… Since the hospital emergency room closed, calls for EMTs have shot up from 130 to 500 each year. The three ambulances each have more than 100,000 miles on them and will need to be replaced soon…” Washington Post, December 22nd, on the state of a former Shoshone-Paiute tribe health clinic that downgraded in 2007 from a full-blow hospital. Today, ailing members of the tribe face a nasty three hour drive to Boise, Idaho or a two hour plunge to a smaller facility in Elko, Nevada to get true hospital care.
Prior to 1975, Native American tribes relied on the big brother largesse of the federal government for their educational and medical needs. The Bureau of Indian Affairs doled out what it felt it should, Congress’ having abrogated the treaty agreements with most of the tribes, substituting its judgment and practices instead. Native Americans slowly began to oppose their disenfranchisement, rising to major activism in the troubled social unrest that coursed across the nation in the 1960s. By the 1970s, the tribes finally got Congress’ attention, securing a right to handle those federal funds themselves, taking over the administration of schools and medical facilities in their own lands. It was called the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975.
But we live with a stupid and heartless Congress that tends to cut budgets and ask questions later, not much of an improvement over their shoot first and ask questions later mantra of over a decade ago. Congress simply hit the easy button and told the Indian Health Service of the Bureau of Indian Affairs that it would simply have to live with a severely reduced budget, a reneging of signed contracts with lots of tribes, pretty much mirroring a practice of limiting financial payouts that has gone on for decades. According to recent calculations, the aggregate breach has generated unpaid debt to the tribes and their contractors of about $2 billion. It was easier not to pay these financial obligations and let the poor, little guys struggle with less. Morally reprehensible, but was it illegal?
Now, more than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for a second time in favor of the tribes and ordered the government to pay up, the two federal agencies that are on the hook — the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs — have settled fewer than 1 percent of the claims, agency records show. The Obama administration, meantime, is asking Congress to approve a proposal that would permanently limit how much Native Americans could be paid in the future for certain costs associated with government contracts… All this has federal contractors on edge again.
“‘This should put some fear into the small, medium and large contractors,’ said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who represents 229 tribes that have unpaid claims estimated at $350 million. ‘This was a Supreme Court case, not based on Indian law, but contract law, and the federal government decided it could make partial payments.’… At issue are contract support costs that are spelled out in the agreements, under which the government pays tribes to run education, public safety and health programs on reservations. The support costs — which include items like travel expenses, legal and accounting fees, insurance costs and worker’s compensation fees — typically account for 20 percent of the value of the contract, according to Lloyd Miller, a lawyer who represented the tribes at the Supreme Court.” The Post.
It would be a cold matter for cold judicial determination if so many people weren’t suffering rather directly from this breach. But everyone is suffering with this Congressional march to slash school budgets, let vital infrastructure deteriorate below the danger zone, while continuing to order massive weapon systems and fight the big losing battle in Afghanistan. We don’t have the money to take care of our own or honor our contractual obligations anymore, say those charged with administering the dwindling funds authorized by Congress. “‘There is not enough money to go around to do all of the things the United States should do in Indian Country,’ said Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian affairs with the Interior Department, during a congressional hearing last month about the unpaid claims… The tribes, not surprisingly, call that excuse unacceptable.
“‘Can you imagine telling your landlord, ‘Sorry, I’m only going to pay you 80 percent of the rent this month?’ ’ said Noni Manning, a Shoshone-Paiute tribal member and former tribal finance manager. ‘In the rest of the world, a contract is a contract.’” The Post. Personally, I’ll take the medical and pension benefits accorded to the Grinches in Congress who hypocritically voted to constrict the helpless and the needy while slorpping at the trough of government-benefits and perks, traveling all over the world in total luxury on various missions “to see for themselves” regarding issues that really don’t need personal viewing (but are located in wondrous vacation spots).

I’m Peter Dekom, and will we ever prioritize the American people and their needs over the failed militaristic policies that have resulted in our global unpopularity and involvement in a litany of losses in major wars since the late 1960s?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The New American Value: Ignorance is Golden


To some, it’s just a fiscal necessity. Gotta cut spending, even if it hurts, with token cuts to defense (but lots of new technology and expensive replacement weapon systems) and some government pension plans. But education is so far off the back burner, it seems to have fallen off the stove!
“American 15-year-olds continue to turn in flat results in a test that measures students' proficiency in reading, math and science worldwide, failing to crack the global top 20… The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, collects test results from 65 countries for its rankings, which come out every three years. The latest results, from 2012, show that U.S. students ranked below average in math among the world's most-developed countries. They were close to average in science and reading.
“‘In mathematics, 29 nations and other jurisdictions outperformed the United States by a statistically significant margin, up from 23 three years ago,’ reports Education Week. ‘In science, 22 education systems scored above the U.S. average, up from 18 in 2009.’… In reading, 19 other locales scored higher than U.S. students — a jump from nine in 2009, when the last assessment was performed…. The top overall scores came from Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macao and Japan, followed by Lichtenstein, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Estonia.” NPR.com, December 3rd. But think how much money we saved by not educating the next generation!
“Across the country, public schools employ about 250,000 fewer people than before the recession, according to figures from the Labor Department. Enrollment in public schools, meanwhile, has increased by more than 800,000 students. To maintain prerecession staffing ratios, public school employment should have actually grown by about 132,000 jobs in the past four years, in addition to replacing those that were lost, said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.” New York Times, December 21st.
And that’s assuming you want to keep our standards at the pre-recession levels, when we were already falling in international statistics. We probably needed to hire more than a million additional public teacher then, and 1.5 million today to stop the hemorrhaging. “‘We can’t have the doublespeak where everybody talks about how important education is to our being globally competitive,’ said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, ‘and then education is not a priority when it comes to funding.’” NY Times.
When school budgets are replenished, sometimes the money doesn’t actually go to educating our children. “In Pennsylvania, although the state’s education budget is now above prerecession levels, a large proportion of money is being diverted to replenish underfunded pensions, leaving less for actual classrooms, said Michael Wood, research director at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center… The cutbacks have been particularly pronounced in less affluent school districts, which have trouble raising local property taxes or asking parents’ associations to fill in gaps.” NY Times.
The net result is overcrowded classrooms, less individual attention to those students who need the most help moving on and even fewer teachers to teach the most difficult and necessary subjects to a generation that will be relegated to menial jobs with little hope for advancement or decent compensation without the necessary skills to compete with developed and emerging countries whose children have not only mastered the basics but have gone on to excel in more complex and demanding skills.
“Teachers say the delicate balance of a class ecosystem, with its range of personalities, academic abilities and social skills, can be upset by just a few more students in the room. Still, research on the importance of class size in helping students learn is mixed. Although a study in Tennessee in the 1980s showed that children benefited from smaller class sizes of 13 to 17 students in the early grades, other studies have shown few effects. NY Times. As we continue to grow our deficit to cover non-essentials, particularly wasteful defense spending that accumulates our deficit at an alarming rate, we are denying future generations the skills they will need to earn enough to pay back that debt.
“In 2012, the most recent year for which complete data is available, the U.S. approved $645.7 billion in defense budget authority (fiscal year 2013 dollars). This figure includes funding for the Pentagon base budget, Department of Energy-administered nuclear weapons activities, and the war in Afghanistan.
“This number is six times more than China, 11 times more than Russia, 27 times more than Iran and 33 times more than Israel. Though China is often cited as the country’s next great military adversary, U.S. military spending currently doubles that of all of the countries in Asia combined. In 2012, the U.S. consumed 41 percent of total global military spending. The U.S. also remained in the top 10 highest spending countries as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), one widespread measure of military spending, trailing behind countries such as Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, all of which have a significantly lower total military expenditure as well as a lower total GDP.” ArmsControlCenter.org, April 24th. Exactly what is that military designed to protect? A system that is collapsing on itself because it spends so much on military excess?


I’m Peter Dekom, and we really need an entirely new set of priorities for this nation if we expect to the see the United States continue as a viable nation 50 or 100 years from now.