Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Clash in the Middle

You just have to look at Africa to understand where the next major chapter of colliding civilizations – Islam vs Christianity – is developing. For about four hundred plus years, starting in 622 during the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the Islamic world exploded, conquering lands in the Middle East and around and north of the Mediterranean with very little opposition. They later moved east across India and Central Asia. In 1071, after the Islamic world effectively cut off Christian access to Jerusalem, Christian rage ignited the Crusades. A series of on and off Crusades from 1095 through 1291 actually consumed about 119 years of active conflict during that period.
After the heyday of Islamic culture – where Muslims invented modern mathematics (try and multiply Roman numerals!), science and geography while preserving the great Greco-Roman books that were being burned as heathen texts by the Western world – the once-powerful Ottoman and Mughal Empires began to implode in the 18th century. The West attacked, conquered and oppressed the weakened Islamic state and Christian missionaries spread the words of Jesus Christ all over the world.
The powerful Mughals were then shoved out of the Subcontinent. Even as the Ottomans held titular control of vast lands around the Mediterranean, European powers actually controlled most of their empire. By the end of World War I, Islamic power was a distant memory as European power solidified their legal hold of these once great Islamic states, now reduced to colonies of their former Christian enemies.
In a post-World War II era, with the Europe sequentially relinquishing its colonies and with the new force of economic power – oil – rising rapidly, the Islamic world was now driven to correct the humiliation that had defined their lives for most of recent history. The “rag-heads and camel jockeys,” angry, intolerant and anxious to recapture lost power and dignity resurrected their assault on the Judeo-Christian west.
Inflamed by the creation of Israel – seemingly at their expense – and feeling betrayed by the failed perception of economic success that was part of buying into the Western concept of modernity (poverty did not end), dormant Islamic fundamentalism woke up with a vengeance. There were several paths that Islamic anger could have taken, from uniting with impoverished former Western colonies (Christian or not) based on correcting “Western oppression” to embracing purely religious ambitions. Rather clearly, these new enraged Muslim groupings chose a most fundamental religious focus, anxious to purge anything Western from their lives, rejecting all religions except their own.
We have focused heavily on the Middle East. Palestine and Israel. The Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The rise of nuclear ambitions in Shiite Iran. Syria’s struggles. The failed U.S. efforts at creating pro-American states in both Afghanistan and Iraq. We have seen Islamic anger in the Subcontinent. Pakistan’s nuclear reality and the underlying sympathies for anti-American Taliban, even as Taliban forces attacked bastions in Pakistan itself.
But Africa, well, we have felt pangs of pain and guilt in places like Somalia and the Sudan. But after all, most Americans have a perception of an entire continent mired in poverty, disease, drought, brutal war lords, child soldiers, starvation and hopelessness – beyond salvation. Sure Nigeria has oil, but to most of us, it is home to nasty internet scams. What’s “Mali” and where is it on the map? It is precisely that map that merits another look. Christian missionaries and Western conquests inculcated Christianity throughout most of the Sub-Sahara… but the lands in the north were solidly Muslim states. And angry Muslims, with arms loosened from the stores of deposed regimes during the Arab Spring, began their efforts to eradicate the vestiges of Western culture and Christianity in a powerful march south.
Northern Nigerian Boko Haram terrorists have no problem blowing up churches and slitting the throats of Christians in their midst… or those to the south. Retaliation from Christians has only made the pot boil even more violently. Terrorist cells are now able to move their efforts to whatever conflict enjoys the greatest possibility of success. Al Qaeda was eviscerated in the Middle East, but it found new roots in fomenting anti-Christian violence in the na├»ve African republics, often with weak militaries and corrupt regimes.
Mali – a land unknown to most in the West – is just one more battlefield in this clash of cultures. Islamists have taken the northern section of that nation and were having their way with the weakened government in the south. As French forces joined the fray to push these anti-Christian, anti-Western forces out of their new stranglehold, the Islamists retaliated in their attack on the natural gas facility in Algeria. Oil and gas continue to be the Achilles heel of Western economies, and Islamists know how to make the West squirm. They also know that populist sympathies in the northern African Islamic nations hold disdain for any semblance of “cooperation” with Western powers, viewed as kowtowing to the colonial past.
“But the militants’ advance south, which set off an appeal for the French military intervention by the Mali government, and the hostage-taking at a gas-producing complex in the Sahara to the north have caught the United States by surprise and prompted fresh White House vows to combat terrorism in the region.
“In taking on the militants, Western nations are confronting multinational bands that are often able to move with relative freedom across porous African borders. And those cells have many inviting targets to choose from: the region is rich with oil, gas, uranium and other international ventures that clearly represent Western interests and in some cases are poorly defended…
“Forging that strategy will be far from easy, given those involved. The Algerians have an able, if heavy handed, military, but have not been eager to cooperate extensively with the United States or their neighbors. Libya’s new government appears willing to cooperate but has little ability. Mali has little military ability and any enduring solution needs to be crafted with an eye to internal politics.
“The harsh political realities of operating in Africa were evident during the hostage crisis in Algeria. Calculating that Algeria’s cooperation will be needed for the campaign against the militants in Mali, both France and the United States were careful not to complain that the Algerians had mounted their hostage rescue operation without consultation, nor did they complain about the tactics.” New York Times, January 20th. As Latin America finds its new power in the world, bolstered by its own vast natural resources, from agricultural bounty to newly-discovered oil fields, and as Asia has embraced an unprecedented manufacturing capacity, the West (including Israel and the United States) is left alone to battle Islamist rage, a global guerilla war that will not end anytime soon.
I’m Peter Dekom, and massive armies and exceptional first strike capacities that define our military seem strangely out of tune with the military necessities to counter small, highly mobile bands of desperate warriors, terrorists with no fear of losing their lives in a religious war.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Lost Decade

Even the words sound terrible. Ten years that just don’t count. Ten years where established workers earned less in buying power and where new workers started at unprecedented lower levels… where they were even able to find jobs. Basic employment statistics skipped over those who have dropped out and stopped looking and those forced to settle for part-time or below-skill-set jobs. While the stock market soared, in part because labor got a whole lot less expensive, the average American worker suffered. We just earned less. But the officially-reported job numbers said we are recovering. High-end employment and the larger increase in the number of retail clerks, hospital orderlies and food service workers were lumped into the same category. The numbers looked optimistic, but the kinds of jobs too many Americans were settling for mostly certainly could not remotely support earnings expectations, much less “the American dream.”
Wages for average entry-level American workers began to fall well before the most recent recession. “From 2000 to 2011, a period of disappointing overall wage growth, wages actually fell among every entry-level group regardless of education. Wage losses occurred for each group of entry-level workers between 2000 and 2007, as well as during the recessionary years between 2007 and 2011. This stands in sharp contrast to the extremely strong wage growth for each of these groups from 1995 to 2000.” Economic Policy Institute report, March 7th. While college grads got socked in the teeth, those with only high school degrees got truly slammed… dropouts were simply decimated.
While stars in the financial sector and in some technology companies have seen their take-home pay flying through the roof, for most Americans the last decade plus has been a period of declining buying power, a factor that has contributed to the seemingly sustained collapse of the U.S. housing market… people just cannot afford to buy homes at anything like earlier prices.
Here’s an interesting analysis of exactly how much those earnings have fallen – again well before the most recent recession – based on numbers supplied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 
The blue line shows inflation-adjusted earnings using government CPI, and shows a small but steady increase in real earnings since the mid-1990s. The green line, however, shows what inflation adjusted earnings would be today had the US Bureau of Labor Statistics not made changes to the CPI in the early 90s, and reveals that average weekly earnings have actually been in contraction for over 17 years. Forget blaming our current woes on the hangover from 2008-2009. The average American worker has been losing income in real terms since the late 1990s. This is clearly a long-term trend which has compounded itself over the last ten years. Weakness begets more weakness.” DurableFaith.com, November 1st.  Call it global competition, over-consumption, too much debt, a flood of college-educated workers taking jobs once relegated to high school grads or an economy inevitably heading for a fall… but it happened.
What makes all of this particularly difficult to stomach is that most of the policy decisions directed at improving our economy are made by politicians posted to and senior bureaucrats living in Washington, D.C., a region of the country that has been spared most of these recent economic ravages. So folks who are making policies to cure the agony really haven’t experienced that pain themselves and even live in a metropolitan district that really doesn’t provide any real world examples of the deficiencies they are expected to fix.
Take for example the housing bubble that destroyed so many American lives. “[A]fter it burst, a remarkable inversion occurred: as the country withered, Washington bloomed. Since 2007, the regional economy has expanded about three times as much as the overall country’s. By some measures, the Washington area has become the richest region in the country. It is now home to the three highest-income counties in the United States, and seven out of the Top 10…
“How Washington managed this transformation, however, is not a story that the rest of the country might want to hear, because we largely financed it… Billions in federal spending, largely a result of two foreign wars, were pouring into the local economy by the early 2000s…. As the size of the federal budget has ballooned over the past decade, more and more of that money has remained in the District. ‘We get about 15 cents of every procurement dollar spent by the federal government,’ says Stephen Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and an expert on the region. ‘There’s great dependence there.’ And with dependence comes fragility. About 40 percent of the regional economy, Fuller says, relies on federal spending.”
It’s not really the “fault” of the government bureaucrats trying to do their jobs in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Bring in the leaders who made the wrong-headed decisions at the time. It is their fault. It was a government that had no problem declaring wars and advancing the massive build-ups to implement those decisions… without extracting the necessary tax dollars to pay for it. They even passed tax cuts! It’s about adding workers with long-term commitments to their pensions… without a willingness to pay for it with current cash flow. That legacy of rising debt has effectively been eroding buying power for years. And now, when consumer demand has crashed and burned in the absence of buying power, the government is pretty much the only major source of demand left in the country.
Which party led the country into these stupid decisions? Which party argued to wage those wars, add troop surges, extend our combat commitments while reducing taxes? Which party argued that Wall Street was already over-regulated and that we need not worry about the banks that were “too big to fail”? Which party is currently in denial over who caused this economic malaise and now wants to cut programs that impact those slammed the most by their decisions? And where does that pompous, self-righteous attitude come from… I guess by ignoring the history of their decisions.
I’m Peter Dekom, and once again we have evidence of our nasty proclivity to ignore history… even our own.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Fund-da-Mental

It’s pretty clear that the House of Representatives is going to block any significant gun control legislation proposed by the Biden report. The NRA is gunning for Republicans and Democrats who support any restrictions or limitation on oversized magazines, killer bullets or assault weapons. There will undoubtedly be legal challenges to the scope and efficacy of President Obama’s twenty-three just-announced Executive Orders on the subject, although most of his directives are more about better research on the subject and sharing of information among governmental agencies. Even requiring background checks at gun shows between private sellers seems to have generated negative reactions, although this aspect and focusing more heavily on keeping felons and those with affirmed mental illness issues appear to have having some potential of breaking through the logjam we call Congress.
First, even though there is a statute on the books requiring states to report mental illness findings to a central federal database, the system is currently failing. “Federal and state efforts to restrict firearms access to potentially dangerous people with mental illness have focused in recent years on extending the reach of states’ reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). In August, in response to the Colorado movie theater shooting, Mayors Against Illegal Guns released a report tallying the number of mental health records each state has submitted to the NICS and ranking each state’s reporting performance. Nearly five years after Congress enacted the NICS Improvement Act, only about half the states have submitted more than a negligible proportion of their mental health records.” An October 5th report from Harvard’s Public Health Law Research, Petrie-Flom Center.
The public wants to find folks who evidence clear “warning signs” of being dangerous to be identified and for them to be banned from gaining access to guns of any kind. Felons. Easier. Mental illness cases. Not so easy, even if states did comply with reporting requirements, since those clear warning signs may not really be that clear most of the time. And most folks seeking counseling might not exactly be suffering from an impairment that has any bearing on their proclivity to pick up a weapon and begin shooting.
Sure, there are occasional clear signs which have been ignored. The 2007 Virginia Tech shooter who killed 33 people had been deemed mentally ill by a court before that tragedy. He bought his guns legally, because his condition had not been disclosed to the central reporting system that conducts the background checks on those buying weapons. The recently-passed rather stringent gun control legislation in New York State requires therapists to report those “likely to engage” in violent behavior to the police, who will then confiscate weapons in such individuals’ possession. But negating the therapist-client privilege might actually dissuade those who need to be in the system from seeking help in the first place. Currently, the only elements that are required to be reported – under the relevant ethical standards – are direct threats and involuntary hospitalizations.
And the path to clarity in this arena is anything but…. “One fundamental problem with looking for ‘warning signs’ is that it is more art than science. People with serious mental disorders, while more likely to commit aggressive acts than the average person, account for only about 4 percent of violent crimes over all…  The rate is higher when it comes to rampage or serial killings, closer to 20 percent, according to Dr. Michael Stone, a New York forensic psychiatrist who has a database of about 200 mass and serial killers. He has concluded from the records that about 40 were likely to have had paranoid schizophrenia or severe depression or were psychopathic, meaning they were impulsive and remorseless.
“‘But most mass murders are done by working-class men who’ve been jilted, fired, or otherwise humiliated — and who then undergo a crisis of rage and get out one of the 300 million guns in our country and do their thing,’ Dr. Stone said…  The sort of young, troubled males who seem to psychiatrists most likely to commit school shootings — identified because they have made credible threats — often do not qualify for any diagnosis, experts said. They might have elements of paranoia, of deep resentment, or of narcissism, a grandiose self-regard, that are noticeable but do not add up to any specific ‘disorder’ according to strict criteria.” New York Times, January 15th. The problem seems to be that anyone who really wants a gun can find the right weapon with little trouble. And as my December 15th blog points out (and as indicated in the above chart prepared by Mother Jones, which tracked and mapped every shooting spree in the last three decades), must of the guns that were used in such shooting were legally acquired (although not always by the gunman himself). Orange is legally obtained. Green is illegally obtained. Blue is where they were unable to determine.
Unfortunately, without getting the particularly vicious weapons out of the system, killers in this country can plan and execute with little deterrent. For those who tell you that if we make assault weapons and big magazines illegal crime rates will soar as only criminal will have those guns, my January 4th blog provides contrary evidence based on Australia’s ban of personal guns after a mass killing in that nation back in 1996. Either we care more about having the right to maintain sophisticated weapon systems over protecting society from mass killers… or we don’t. Providing better evidence of relevant mental illness is just a red herring that hardly will provide any meaningful solution to the bigger problem of mass shooters having almost open access (one way or the other) to the massive number of assault weapons embedded in our citizenry. And why anyone would object to a background check for all gun sales is completely beyond me.
I’m Peter Dekom, and as one of the comment to a recent blog points out, to most of the world, when it comes to guns, America is “insane.”

Is Democracy Really Majority Rule?

Some decry the tyranny of the majority, just as others complain that minority rights must yield to the will of the majority. Israel has its powerful, right wing, ultra-Orthodox community – exempt from military services and supported in a lifetime of religious studies by the rest of the nation. The recent election suggests that this minority’s power may be subsiding as the middle class is no longer content to carry the economic and military burden of supporting this sect.
Iraq’s Shiite majority is enjoying the new-found control they have over their Sunni minority, a smaller group that once ruled this country until their Sunni leader, Saddam Hussein, was deposed. Powerless and angry, too many Sunnis have taken to venting their rage at this Shiite control by blasting away in Shiite communities and at Shiite mosques. Alawites (the Shiite minority that is led by the brutal Assad regime) and Christians shake in fear as the Syrian Spring threatens to place a potentially vindictive Sunnis majority into power, potentially embracing the kind of intolerant fundamentalism that marks the potential of minority Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
Many Egyptians are still skeptical of their Muslim-Brotherhood-affiliated president and the constitution he seemingly railroaded to fruition. Obvious political unrest is evident everywhere. “Egyptian opposition supporters are protesting across the country on the second anniversary of the uprising that swept Hosni Mubarak from power… Police clashed with President Mohammed Morsi's opponents in Cairo, dispersing protesters outside his palace as thousands gathered in Tahrir Square.” BBC.co.uk, January 25th. People are still dying in these protests against the government, all over Egypt.
And in the United States, we are witnessing a level of polarization that we have not seen since our devastating Civil War a century and a half ago, one that pits rural against urban values, the once white majority against a new “majority of minorities,” and a willingness of extreme politicians willing to let the country slide into economic chaos rather than succumb to compromise. Even in our gun-control battles have well-armed constituents believing that they have a right to bear arms specifically to be able to overthrow a government whose policies they oppose, even if that government represents the views of the majority. Read the Second Amendment and tell me what, pursuant to an amendment passed in an era of muskets and primitive rifles, “well regulated” means in a modern context: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Nobody seems to be paying any attention to those words or their historical context.
Non-Democratic China has used a complex centralized government to push through economic reform that has exploded the standard of living for the majority of Chinese. Highways and infrastructure have been un-democratically imposed on communities that have simply been “reassigned” to other housing. With the United States, Japan and Western Europe experiencing massive deficits, untenable debt loads, intense fractionalization and polarized political decision-making that has often left democratically-elected government frozen into inaction, unable to deal effectively with the crises that surround them, traditional Western democracy has been taking it on the chin.
Indeed, many emerging nations seem to be casting an admiring eye towards the centralized and undemocratic Chinese model. Some argue that absent educated masses, democracy cannot function. They point to the corrupt and infrastructure-impaired machinations in India and Pakistan as prime examples of this failure. Others maintain that the rapid change needed to modernize cannot be implemented in a lethargic democratic process… that harsh decisions must be made to accelerate economic progress. And there are other political scientists who question how democracy can function in countries with large populations or where there are diverse ethnic and religious differences. They are questioning the very assumption that democracy is the best form of governance for everyone.
Obviously, the risk of overly-centralized governmental control is a nasty combination of potential brutality, tyranny and massive corruption. While the above criticisms of may have validity, and democracy suddenly imposed on a feudalistic and undereducated populace might be an experiment doomed to failure, the fact remains that effective democracy does work provided that: 1. Minority rights are protected (even at the expense of majority opposition), 2. There is a trusted legal/judicial system that sufficiently allows predictable commercial transactions and a fair and just criminal justice system, and 3. The overwhelming majority of people within the system trust and cherish their form of government.
It is interesting to examine our own basis for our legal system: the United States Constitution. The notion of judicial “strict constructionism” hasn’t ever been applied across the centuries, just differing views on exactly how much interpretation is appropriate. Even the most conservative judges would find it difficult to deny the ability of the government to create and maintain the Air Force, since the constitution only gives Congress the right to raise a standing army and navy. But if strict constructionism were to be applied, that would be a necessary result. To suggest that a document with its roots in the late 1700s must be strictly applied as implemented centuries ago simply defies logic and the rather clear intention of our forefathers to create a viable and flexible form of government built to endure through the ages.
In his personal correspondence, Thomas Jefferson opined that a viable constitution has a useful life of about nineteen years, and that each generation should have the ability to amend and update that cherished document. Unfortunately, Jefferson signed off on a constitution that is hideously difficult to amend, with concomitant plusses and minuses. The plusses are the sustainability of the protection of individual rights even at the expense of majority opposition. The minuses reflect decisions made in a very different era, where communications and general modernity were profoundly absent from that society.
In the end, we are either going to have to find a way to make that constitutional form of government work for us, to accept the necessity of compromise as the ultimate democratic solution, or watch this country unravel and splinter into the obvious factions that are digging in their heels, left, right and center. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Abraham Lincoln, June 17, 1858. Those unwilling to embrace compromise are effectively voting to end the great American democratic experiment.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I am indeed puzzled why so many Americans believe that they can stop change and keep this country together.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Younger and Deader

Virtually all of the life expectancy statistics you read are either from birth or some other younger measure of viability. Sometimes, life expectancy is measured at age 50. But there are very few analyses of life expectancy differentials among people under the age of 50. And if you are a powerful NRA adherent, you really won’t like the numbers when the United States is compared to other nations in these younger ages. The title of a 378 page comparison study entitled U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health released on January 9th says it all. It was researched and written by a panel of experts from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.
The online summary reads: “The United States is among the wealthiest nations in the world, but it is far from the healthiest. For many years, Americans have been dying at younger ages than people in almost all other high-income countries. This health disadvantage prevails even though the U.S. spends far more per person on health care than any other nation. To gain a better understanding of this problem, the NIH [National Institutes of Health] asked the National Research Council and the IOM [Institute of Medicine] to investigate potential reasons for the U.S. health disadvantage and to assess its larger implications.
“No single factor can fully explain the U.S. health disadvantage. It likely has multiple causes and involves some combination of inadequate health care, unhealthy behaviors, adverse economic and social conditions, and environmental factors, as well as public policies and social values that shape those conditions. Without action to reverse current trends, the health of Americans will probably continue to fall behind that of people in other high-income countries. The tragedy is not that the U.S. is losing a contest with other countries, but that Americans are dying and suffering from illness and injury at rates that are demonstrably unnecessary.”
The highest U.S. rate differentials could be traced to three targeted areas: gunshot mortality, automobile accidents and drug addiction. With shooting incidents drawing national attention, and the NRA arguing that we need more guns in the system (their membership appears to have grown by an average of 8,000 new members a day since the Sandy Hook massacre), “The rate of firearm homicides was 20 times higher in the United States than in the other countries, according to the report, which cited a 2011 study of 23 countries. And though suicide rates were lower in the United States, firearm suicide rates were six times higher.
“Sixty-nine percent of all American homicide deaths in 2007 involved firearms, compared with an average of 26 percent in other countries, the study said. ‘The bottom line is that we are not preventing damaging health behaviors,’ said Samuel Preston, a demographer and sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who was on the panel. ‘You can blame that on public health officials, or on the health care system. No one understands where responsibility lies.’” New York Times, January 9th.
“We don’t fare particularly well in the disease area either or in the general comparisons of life expectancy under the age of 50: “Panelists were surprised at just how consistently Americans ended up at the bottom of the rankings. The United States had the second-highest death rate from the most common form of heart disease, the kind that causes heart attacks, and the second-highest death rate from lung disease, a legacy of high smoking rates in past decades. American adults also have the highest diabetesrates.
“Youths fared no better. The United States has the highest infant mortality rate among these countries, and its young people have the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy and deaths from car crashes. Americans lose more years of life before age 50 to alcohol and drug abuse than people in any of the other countries.
“Americans also had the lowest probability over all of surviving to the age of 50. The report’s second chapter details health indicators for youths where the United States ranks near or at the bottom. There are so many that the list takes up four pages. Chronic diseases, including heart disease, also played a role for people under 50.” NY Times. Our eating habits suck. We seem to be nutzoids behind the wheel (but we do have more cars per capita, which is a partial explanation). And we love, I say love, to shoot each other and even ourselves. We even have a constitutional amendment to support that vicious proclivity. So join the NRA, contribute hard cash to lobby against gun control and keep the tradition of sinking life expectancy as one of the things America seems to be doing better and better every year.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we also seem to be pretty good at “stupid” too!

Iran, an Export-Driven Nation

Although of late, Iran’s oil exports may have dwindled by reason of the sanctions, in normal times Iran is the world’s third biggest exporter of petroleum products. It is the lifeblood of their economy, which has now been excluded from the international banking system. As their currency tanks and their ability to pay for needed refined gasoline, foodstuffs and medicine through traditional trade systems has vaporized. But Iran is a huge exporter of another set of “commodities” – sometimes to her own traditional enemies – that at times appear obvious and at times simply surprising.
We are aware that Iran enjoys fighting surrogate wars – replete with the underlying ability to issue continual denials – against the United States, the Western world and, most of all, Israel. There’s no secret that through what was once a sieve-like border with Egypt and by sea lanes, Iran funneled massive supplies of rockets and missiles to Hamas and it cronies in Gaza for deploying in a deadly shower of explosives into Israel. Because this is military aid to an ally, the transfer of such firepower to Hamas or Iran’s field operative, Hezbollah (which is the ruling party in Lebanon), doesn’t generate hard currency to the motherland.
It’s not as if the world’s superpowers have been abstemious in their military/industrial trade or that “foreign aid” from the biggies is all benign. Picture all those military leaders watching jets with sophisticated weapon systems flying overhead at the annual Paris Air Show. The next one, scheduled between June 17th through the 23rd, will be the fiftieth such event. The global arms trade is dominated by the United States, Russia, China, several European Union countries with sophisticated systems emanating from places like Israel and South Africa… and now Iran.
Still, with so many bullets flying around in various conflicts around the world, most notably Africa and the Middle East, it was clear that the “little” contributions to the munitions trade – small arms, RPG rounds, landmines [pictured above], cluster bombs and bullets – were increasingly coming from somewhere other than traditional suppliers. When a mass of new bullets were streaming through places like the South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda in 2006, a researcher in the U.K. wondered where they were all coming from. He and his team began the search. Years passed and the places where these mysterious bullets appeared carried names like Darfur, Congo, the Ivory Coast, Afghanistan, Niger and Guinea… sometimes rebels, sometimes incumbents and even al Qaeda and Taliban forces.
For six years, a group of independent arms-trafficking researchers worked to pin down the source of the mystery cartridges. Exchanging information from four continents, they concluded that someone had been quietly funneling rifle and machine-gun ammunition into regions of protracted conflict, and had managed to elude exposure for years. Their only goal was to solve the mystery, not implicate any specific nation.
When the investigators’ breakthrough came, it carried a surprise. The manufacturer was not one of Africa’s usual suspects. It was Iran  Iran has a well-developed military manufacturing sector, but has not exported its weapons in quantities rivaling those of the heavyweights in the global arms trade, including the United States, Russia, China and several European countries. But its export choices in this case were significant. While small-arms ammunition attracts less attention than strategic weapons or arms that have drawn international condemnation, like land mines and cluster bombs, it is a basic ingredient of organized violence, and is involved each year and at each war in uncountable deaths and crimes.” New York Times, January 11th.
While some of these munitions are in the form of military aid to Tehran’s allies, the demand for such supplies generates substantial cash flow from desperate sources with the ability to pay. And since such trafficking is mostly illicit, buyers are used to circumventing international watchdogs and legal restrictions. “The independent investigation also demonstrated the relative ease with which weapons and munitions flow about the world, a characteristic of the arms trade that might partly explain how Iran sidestepped scrutiny of governments and international organizations, including the United Nations, that have tried to restrict its banking transactions and arms sales… The United Nations, in a series of resolutions, has similarly tried to block arms transfers into Ivory Coast, Congo and Sudan, all places where researchers found Iranian ammunition.” NY Times.  
In fact, it is precisely because these malignant exports are illicit that Iran can prosper in this field – high prices with folks used to hiding their trade. This also illustrates Iran’s amoral position in the world of nations, her willingness to provide arms even to those who hate her (Taliban and al Qaeda) for the right price and a national desperation that suggests a level of moral corruption even greater than even the United States and her allies had previously assumed. But do not forget that this tyrannical regime is equally adept at repressing her own people with little concern for their well-being.
I’m Peter Dekom, and Iran’s practices have generated a rogue’s gallery of allies and a litany of enemies at every level from all over the world… and from within their own borders.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Big Waist and Big Waste

In a world where vast populations face a daily struggle with chronic persistent hunger, the United States has a massive (pun clearly intended) weight problem. If you visit the Weight-control Information Network on the National Institutes of Health Website or the Centers for Disease Control site, you will learn that 35.7% of Americans are actually obese, two-thirds of adult Americans are overweight (including obesity), and one third of children between age six and nineteen are overweight (half of those obese). And half the food grown in the United States never gets consumed. The statistics for many Western nations track our own, although we tend to be on the extreme “heavy” end of comparisons.
Looking at other resources used in food production, every year worldwide 19.4 trillion cubic feet of our dwindling fresh water supplies are used to produce food crops that don’t make it to the dining room table. Almost two and a quarter billion tons of food are wasted. The British Institution of Mechanical Engineers recently issued a report, Global Food; Waste Not Want Not, which provides a litany of such wasteful practices. The study gives you statistics that are shocking but not surprising, and notes other practices that would be laughable if not for starving millions in third world nations. Like 30% of vegetables in the UK never get harvested because they don’t look good.
In a recent BBC interview, Dr Tim Fox (one of the authors) said, “The amount of food wasted and lost around the world is staggering. This is food that could be used to feed the world’s growing population - as well as those in hunger today…It is also an unnecessary waste of the land, water and energy resources that were used in the production, processing and distribution of this food.
“The reasons for this situation range from poor engineering and agricultural practices, inadequate transport and storage infrastructure through to supermarkets demanding cosmetically perfect foodstuffs and encouraging consumers to overbuy through buy-one-get-one-free offers… If you're in the developing world, then the losses are in the early part of the food supply chain, so between the field and the marketplace… In the mature, developed economies the waste is really down to poor marketing practices and consumer behavior.”
The January 10th, BBC.co.uk continues: “The United Nations predicts there will be an extra three billion mouths to feed by 2075 as the global population swells to 9.5 billion… Dr Fox added: ‘As water, land and energy resources come under increasing pressure from competing human demands, engineers have a crucial role to play in preventing food loss and waste by developing more efficient ways of growing, transporting and storing foods… ‘But in order for this to happen governments, development agencies and organisation like the UN must work together to help change people's mindsets on waste and discourage wasteful practices by farmers, food producers, supermarkets and consumers.’” Go to your refrigerator and look inside. What are you going to throw away… sooner or later? How did it get there? And is there anything that you can do to reduce that waste?
I’m Peter Dekom, and massive (in a good way) results often come from massive individual action.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Austerity

With spending cuts being the only thing that Republicans in Congress will discuss – having taken further changes in the tax code off the table – it is clear that a new austerity program is the GOP priority, job one if you will forgive the pun. If history is our teacher and the recent mistakes of failed policies in other developing nations a valuable lesson for American lawmakers, perhaps it is time to see the results of the policies that the GOP is championing under the guise of fiscal responsibility. Thus, it is valuable to look carefully at the impact of austerity measures adopted all across Europe, most of which has now returned to recession by any economist’s measure. The International Monetary Fund had long championed this belt tightening as a necessary evil, but their forecasters seem to have completely missed the boat in anticipating the very harsh impact of such policies on the Continent.
IMF top economist Olivier Blanchard issued an ‘amazing mea culpa’ for failing to foresee how austerity measures would undermine economic growth. ‘Forecasters significantly underestimated the increase in unemployment and the decline in domestic demand associated with fiscal consolidation,’ Blanchard and co-author Daniel Leigh, a fund economist, wrote in a paper on growth forecast errors. The authors essentially admit that they failed to consider important factors about how regions might react to austerity in times of financial crisis when they advised IMF austerity policy.” Salon.com, January 4th. So negative growth (recession) is expected to continue into 2013 as well. To put it mildly, most of Europe is miserable.
If you are lucky enough to live in the Nordic economic powerhouses, unemployment is not so bad –unemployment is lowest in Austria (4.5%), Luxembourg (5.1%) and Germany (5.4%). But God help you if you are in one of the countries that were forced as the price of a European bailout package to adopt very stringent cutbacks in government spending. The Eurostat report released on January 8th showed staggering unemployment with massive increases in 2012 in the softest European economies: “The highest increases [in unemployment] were registered in Greece (18.9 per cent to 26.0 per cent between September 2011 and September 2012), Cyprus (9.5 per cent to 14.0 per cent), Spain (23.0 per cent to 26.6 per cent) and Portugal (14.1 per cent to 16.3 per cent).” Sofiaglobe.com, January 8th.
If you are entering the job market, the statistics create a world of despair and hopelessness. “The youth unemployment rate was 24.4% in the eurozone [countries who have accept the euro as their currency], and 23.7% in the wider European Union. Youth unemployment - among people under 25 - was highest in Greece (57.6%), followed by Spain (56.5%).” BBC.co.uk, January 8th.  Overall, the unemployment numbers are moving in the wrong direction. “This is a slight rise on 11.7% for the 17-nation [eurozone] region in October. The rate for the European Union as a whole in November was unchanged at 10.7%... More than 26 million people are now unemployed across the EU. For the eurozone, the number of people without work reached 18.8 million said Eurostat, the official European statistics agency said.” BBC.
Having cut taxes and elected to fight two wars at the same time, the last Republican administration took a Clinton-era budget surplus and created a deregulated escalation into astronomical budget deficits that could not be stopped even after the economy collapsed. That was GOP fiscal responsibility then. Today, they seem hell-bent on a policy sure to tank growth. In a time of wavering and inconsistent consumer confidence (and hence consumer demand), the government has been the demand-side generator that has kept this nation going. And as I have pointed out many times before, looking at raw deficit-reduction numbers without comparing these numbers to their impact on GDP is not the relevant measure of success.  If the GDP falls into recession, that the deficit has come down may in fact make little difference… except that a reduced GDP makes it even harder to repay the deficit that still exists.
And so this battle for deficit reduction is nothing more than a policy battle of the role of government. The deficit reduction argument is simply an excuse to reconfigure the United States and its priorities the way the GOP wants to reconfigure our nation. They gave us a deficit pattern that continues to this very day… and now they want to use their Bush-era failed policies as an excuse to implement a new level of polices seemingly equally destined to fail… Although if you totally ignore history and the clear results of parallel policies in Europe, you might buy into slogans that seem to make sense of the proposed cuts under the guise of “fiscal responsibility” and face the dire consequences. Or you could simply face facts. Pick one. They are mutually exclusive.
I’m Peter Dekom, and facing facts can be exceptionally painful when your entire policies and priorities are based on false assumptions.