Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Fax of Life

If you had a language with 2,000 characters and two additional alphabets, writing a letter with a traditional-type keyboard can be a bitch! Even with the advent of computer character recognition programs, which make tying into such a complex linguistic paradigm fairly easy, locals are still loathe to abandon the handwritten notes that make using such characters quite natural and personal, particularly in a culture where calligraphy and maintaining traditional customs are deeply embedded in the national psyche. Add a touch of xenophobia, a desire to maintain a clear separation with the rest of the world (probably stemming from centuries of relative isolation on an island) and a strong affinity for ritual and tradition… and you have a pretty solid definition of contemporary Japan.
Japan makes it almost impossible for persons not born in that nation to become citizens. Things foreign threaten the purity of their very ethnocentric lives. But with a severely graying population and a birth rate of 1.35 live births per adult female (2.1 is the rate necessary for replacement of the existing population), Japan’s population is expected to drop by one third in the next fifty years.
Its population has required increasing rates of pay to keep up with the complex and archaic multilayered protectionist supply chain delivery system and the need of companies to support their “job for life” commitments that are staggering under the weight of an endless economic downturn. The last good economic year in Japan was 1991, and with increasing competition from technology manufacturers in Korea, Taiwan and the Peoples Republic of China, Japanese local manufacturing has simply priced itself out of the market. Japan’s insistence on building consensus within its corporate structures has made it slow to innovate and respond to competition.
Nothing screams “out of step with change” more than Japan’s lingering obsession with fax machines in an era of Web-based communications. In the United States, the Smithsonian has added two old-world fax machines to its historical presentation of technology. In 2012, “Japanese households bought 1.7 million of the old-style fax machines, which print documents on slick, glossy paper spooled in the back.” New York Times, February 13th. Battery-run fax machines exploded in popularity after the loss of power from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, reinforcing the power of faxes in Japanese life. A Tokyo lunch-to-go delivery service almost went out of business when it tried to substitute Web-based ordering to replace faxed orders; they restored the fax tradition very quickly.
The warm personal tone of a handwritten note is lost in a digital typeface, a reluctance that seems consistent with cultural traditions. That they have a complex, character-driven written language as an excuse, but then China has the same issues, and it seems to have adapted rather well to electronic typing. Japan could have abandoned traditional character-driven words after WWII and relied much more heavily on their modern alphabetical systems instead, but that would have created too much transparency to the rest of the world.
Japan’s reluctance to give up its fax machines offers a revealing glimpse into an aging nation that can often seem quietly determined to stick to its tried-and-true ways, even if the rest of the world seems to be passing it rapidly by. The fax addiction helps explain why Japan, which once revolutionized consumer electronics with its hand-held calculators, Walkmans and, yes, fax machines, has become a latecomer in the digital age, and has allowed itself to fall behind nimbler competitors like South Korea and China...  ‘Japan has this Gal├ípagos effect of holding on to some things they’re comfortable with,’ said Jonathan Coopersmith, a technology historian who is writing a book on the machine’s rise and fall. ‘Elsewhere, the fax has gone the way of the dodo.’
“In Japan, with the exception of the savviest Internet start-ups or internationally minded manufacturers, the fax remains an essential tool for doing business. Experts say government offices prefer faxes because they generate paperwork onto which bureaucrats can affix their stamps of approval, called hanko. Many companies say they still rely on faxes to create a paper trail of orders and shipments not left by ephemeral e-mail. Banks rely on faxes because, they say, customers are worried about the safety of their personal information on the Internet... Even Japan’s largest yakuza crime syndicate, the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi, has used faxes to send notifications of expulsion to members, the police say.” NY Times.  
As we enter a sushi restaurant even in the United States and hear the greetings of the local chefs as we enter, it is a warm tradition that makes us feel welcome. But sometimes warm traditions can get in the way of growth, inevitable change and perhaps survival itself. Japan once found itself facing the need to change in 1858 as Commodore Perry sailed his technology-laden ship into Tokyo Bay. But the internal debate that followed required two full decades before Japan finally dived headlong into modernity in 1878,  after scores of top-level Japanese returned from their exploration of the Western world, all within the “enlightened” Meiji Period (1868-1912) that transformed this island nation into a global powerhouse. Perhaps it’s time for another such renaissance in Japanese history.
I’m Peter Dekom, and American bonds to Japan are strong... such that we truly want them to grow and prosper to their fullest potential.

Protecting the Castle

China is a country marked by periods of massive transition, from the first consolidation of China (mostly the central area around Xi’an) under the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC, the millennia of dynastic rulers of the Middle Kingdom, the takeover of the mainland by Mao Zedong in 1949 to the slow and steady assumption of power by Deng Zhou Ping in the early 1980s to move China on to a track that made it into the economic powerhouse it is today.
When Deng took over his nation, it was still reeling from the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and heavily divided into provincial fiefdoms that made running the country almost impossible. He had to back away from Mao’s policy failures. Trains were routinely halted for graft as they passed through one region or another. Deng had to make a point. His stated goal was to “make the trains run on time,” but he was sending a powerful message to those he would have to subdue to bring his country from festering feudalism into modernity. He informed the local cadres that interfering with train passages for any reason would no longer be tolerated. The next spate of trains carried sharpshooters with rather crude and direct orders. Those who attempted to stop, slow or interfere with any train were simply shot with no questions asked. Some died in the test of wills. The trains began to run on time, and Deng’s subsequent commercial reconfiguration of China accelerated. Harsh but China’s solutions have often been harsh.
There’s a new leader on the block, Xi Jinping, coming into the PRC in an orderly transition of power, but not one without its opponents and factions. He faces the Bo Xilai scandal marking widespread corruption and cronyism, the momentary stall of the manufacturing economy, untenable levels of pollution, a real estate bubble, an uneven distribution of the new wealth and an on-going battle between hard-line conservative traditionalist and those seeking a modern, freer society. Where does Mr. Xi stand on such issues, the world wanted to know. Well, for those believing that China is moving more to a freer Western model and away from a tightly-controlled centralized power base, prepare to be severely disappointed. Xi is a mainstream conservative.
Despite decades of heady economic growth, Mr. Xi told party insiders during a visit to Guangdong Province in December, China must still heed the ‘deeply profound’ lessons of the former Soviet Union, where political rot, ideological heresy and military disloyalty brought down the governing party. In a province famed for its frenetic capitalism, he demanded a return to traditional Leninist discipline... ‘Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered,’ Mr. Xi said, according to a summary of his comments that has circulated among officials but has not been published by the state-run news media.
“‘Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone,’ the summary quoted Mr. Xi as saying. ‘In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.’” New York Times, February 14th. That this text was leaked slowly, in a local blog at first, is not an accomplishment of good, stealthy journalism. This was a clear and unsubtle message to the entire nation of what should be expected. Personal freedoms and liberties, under Xi’s philosophy, come at the expense of the state, impacting its very survival. Open dissent and individual agendas will not be tolerated. What remains to be seen is whether or not such proscriptions will in fact rein in the personal fiefdoms, that corruption and cronyism he has vowed to defeat, that have so blemished the rule of his predecessor, Hu Jintao.
Xi has about 18 months to consolidate his power, set his plan and prove that he can overpower those with much to lose if he indeed accomplishes his stated goals. Will he make his point with an iron fist? Is there is a less disruptive path that he might follow, and exactly what will those whose families have made fortunes because of the insider status be able to do to contain Xi’s goals? The “princelings” as they are known. Is he already pulling his punches? “... Mr. Xi has qualified his promises in ways that have already disappointed some proponents of faster market-driven change and political liberalization. In one speech, Mr. Xi said that change must be piecemeal, citing Deng’s dictum that progress is made ‘crossing the river by groping stones.’ In another, he said Mao Zedong’s era of revolutionary socialism should not be dismissed as a failure.
“He has also repeatedly demanded that the military show unflinching loyalty — a principle that, in his view, the Soviet Communist Party under Mikhail S. Gorbachev fatally failed to uphold.” NY Times. While the power elite has to inhale the same polluted air that the hoi polloi must breathe in Beijing, their homes and cars have heavy filtration systems, and life is good: “Membership in the upper ranks of the Chinese Communist Party has always had a few undeniable advantages. There are the state-supplied luxury sedans, special schools for the young ones and even organic produce grown on well-guarded, government-run farms. When they fall ill, senior leaders can check into 301 Military Hospital, long considered the capital’s premier medical institution.” NY Times,  November 4, 2011. Xi’s fears tell us as much about him as do his stated goals. But one way or another, this is a critical, make-or-break time for this ascending political leader.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the struggles within China will impact Americans in their daily lives.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Pope’s No’s

Demographic trending in Catholicism is fascinating. While the overall number of Catholics in the world grew from 757 million to 1.098 billion from 1978 to 2004, a whopping 45% increase, their global percentage feel from 18% to 17%. But where that growth has occurred is particularly noteworthy. While membership in that church is expected to drop in most of the developed Western world, according to In the Church and the World, “Decidedly more dynamic is the situation in Africa, where Catholics have almost tripled: in 1978 there were around 55 million and by 2004 had risen to almost 149 million. This growth, only in part attributable to purely demographic factors, reflects a real increase in the presence of baptized believers: in fact, Catholics, who made up 12.4% of the population of Africa in 1978, represented almost 17 % twenty-six years later.”
The world has seen a much more rapid expansion of Islam; according to U.S. statistics, while Christianity has grown 1.46% annually in recent years, Islam’s number sits at a 6.4% yearly growth rate. Europe, with fairly open immigration policies to its former colonies, has seen an amazing growth of 142.35% in Islam since 1989. Among the world’s populated areas, only Latin America has seen a contraction in the number of practicing Muslims.
As a Catholicism shifts into the less developed world, the church is experiencing scandals over sexual abuse that it thought it had successfully covered up for decades, the pressure on Rome to deal with modernity on issues like gay marriage, priest celebacy, birth control and the rapid expansion of Islam, the next generation of Catholic leadership has come to a cross-roads. With the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI effective February 28th, the future of the church is very much about to see the resolution of a dispute between the more conservative cardinals and a slightly more liberal faction. The last two times a living pope left office were a long time ago. Pope Celestine V resigned in 1294, and Pope Gregory XII resigned in 1415 to end the western schism.
Saying he had examined his conscience ‘before God,’ Benedict said he felt that he was not up to the challenge of guiding the world’s one billion Catholics. That task will fall to his successor, who will have to contend not only with a Roman Catholic Church marred by the sexual abuse crisis, but also with an increasingly secular Europe and the spread of Protestant evangelical movements in the United States, Latin America and Africa.
“The resignation sets up a struggle between the staunchest conservatives, in Benedict’s mold, who advocate a smaller church of more fervent believers, and those who believe that the church can broaden its appeal in small but significant ways, like allowing divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment to receive communion or loosening restrictions on condom use in an effort to prevent AIDS. There are no plausible candidates who would move on issues like ending celibacy for priests, or the ordination of women.”  New York Times, February 11th.
Benedict is conservative, academic and generally viewed as a wise man with fewer pragmatic implementational skills. Will the next pope be less academic and a better manager? Reflective of the growing importance of developing nations? Able to rebuild a missionary tradition? With 42% of the world’s Catholics living in Latin America – verses 25% from Europe – will the conclave of cardinals, meeting in secret in the Sistine Chapel, leave the old-boy European appointments and venture into a more open selection more reflective of the actual faith? Even select a person of color to the papacy? The future and vitality of a severely challenged church living in particularly challenging times is at stake.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the very credibility and sustainability of Catholicism itself may be at stake.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Here Today, Dune Tomorrow

Climate change is real, here to stay and certainly likely to get a whole lot worse.  Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and whatever climate-related land-slam is likely to be next will unequivocally generate structure-destroying and earth eroding storm surges followed inevitably – over time – by rises in oceans and permanently inundated coastal communities. We did it to ourselves, and there is little strong evidence that global cooperation will diminish the greenhouse gasses that are the cause of it all.
So why do we have flood insurance for homes that are in harm’s way, when there is another practical way out? Why should we encourage rebuilding when we know for an almost virtual certainty that these homes will be hit again, and the flood insurance policies (backed or issued by the government) will be called upon again, that FEMA’s resources will be tapped as usual. Engineers build for structural demands up to but excluding the “once in a hundred years” events. But if someone erects a building, exactly when is that event going to occur? Tomorrow? In a hundred years? Never? Or…..?
Given the realities of climate change, all those “hundred year assumptions” on coastal flooding are simply wrong. Where temperature and fire stress factors have been determined on past historical events, they too are now wrong. How many other engineering assumptions are not completely wrong? And exactly how should we readjust?
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has seen the folly of rebuilding structures that are exceptionally likely to be severely damaged or destroyed again in this new “climate change” universe. Though the short term costs of buying out those homes may be high, the longer term costs of allowing that rebuilding may no longer be sustainable. His proposed solution? “Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is proposing to spend as much as $400 million to purchase homes wrecked by Hurricane Sandy, have them demolished and then preserve the flood-prone land permanently, as undeveloped coastline.
“The purchase program, which still requires approval from federal officials, would be among the most ambitious ever undertaken, not only in scale but also in how Mr. Cuomo would be using the money to begin reshaping coastal land use. Residents living in flood plains with homes that were significantly damaged would be offered the pre-storm value of their houses to relocate; those in even more vulnerable areas would be offered a bonus to sell; and in a small number of highly flood-prone areas, the state would double the bonus if an entire block of homeowners agreed to leave.
The land would never be built on again. Some properties could be turned into dunes, wetlands or other natural buffers that would help protect coastal communities from ferocious storms; other parcels could be combined and turned into public parkland.” New York Times, February 3rd. The governor is right, not just for New York but for every region of the nation in severe climate change jeopardy.
But we have a huge budget deficit, and we cannot afford to buy out all those homeowners! So we still issue government-sponsored flood insurance for homes that we know will be damaged or destroyed? Are we nuts? But if homeowners don’t have an alternative, exactly what are they supposed to do? It’s pretty clear that in the longer term, we would be saving gobs of cash and that we really need to come to grips with the inevitable. We also need to prioritize an infrastructure that has both decayed and was designed in a different era with different disaster assumptions that have now multiplied. Or we can wait for the next disaster… and the next… and the next… and watch that deficit balloon and average Americans cope with tragedy… again and again… and again.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the only reason we won’t implement such a massive buyback is because having common sense is a disqualifier for most elected representatives.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Men in Shorts

The United States Postal Service has been battered by competitive factors. Men (mostly) in shorts running up and down steps and pushing great carts in elevators stocked with overnight shipments. DHL, FedEx, UPS – new levels of logistics, mostly with independent contractors effecting pick-ups and deliveries, relatively modern bureaucracies and less-than-burdensome pension obligations. Messenger services. And most of all, electronic delivery of key documents. eMail, texting, posting on social networks (the new “junk” mail, often highly personalized) and those ubiquitous “attachments,” sometimes accompanied with a toxic virus or worm, or a hacking tool that opens your private habits to public view.
The USPS even collaborates with those big carriers – yup DHL, UPS and FedEx – on pricing, and U.S. mail is often carried by those services, “the last mile.” The service is supposed to be self-sufficient, but the organization can’t just raise rates without Congressional approval. Catch-22. Cutting back Saturday delivery, which ends this August (and was started in 1863), is supposed to shave $2 billion off the USPS annual budget. With all the other budgetary cutbacks, the Postal Service is hoping to restore solvency by 2015. Hoping.
Here are some basic facts about the USPS that are just good to know: “The USPS employs over 574,000 workers and operates over 260,000 vehicles. The USPS is the operator of the largest vehicle fleet in the world. The USPS is legally obligated to serve all Americans, regardless of geography, at uniform price and quality. The USPS has exclusive access to letter boxes marked ‘U.S. Mail’ and personal letterboxes in the United States…
“The USPS has not directly received taxpayer-dollars since the early 1980s with the minor exception of subsidies for costs associated with the disabled and overseas voters. Since the 2006 all-time peak mail volume, after which Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, (which mandated $5.5 billion per year to be paid into an account to pre-fund retiree health-care, 75 years into the future, a requirement unique among organizations and businesses in the U.S.), revenue dropped sharply due to recession-influenced declining mail volume, prompting the postal service to look to other sources of revenue while cutting costs to reduce its budget deficit.”  Wikipedia.
Operating in a competitive environment is really tough for an organization that has no real control over the price of its service. A single penny increase in fuel costs adds an estimated $8 million a year in costs. And the USPS is saddled with a huge pension obligation (a weird system not like any other in the government that requires pre-funding), just as recent trends have slammed its revenue potential. The big change came over the last decade, as electronic delivery and private carrier services accelerated into the marketplace. While 2001 was the peak year in revenues from first class mail, between 1998 and 2008, revenues dropped a dramatic 29%! The USPS has slowly responded, closing smaller post offices or reducing hours of operation.
The USPS can take some serious credit for America’s growth into a superpower and a super-economy. Ben Franklin set up the precursor to the USPS back in 1775-6, but he basically replicated the British system then in place with a main emphasis on sustaining and supporting the nascent revolutionary government. The real Postal Service came into being a few years later, after Franklin’s death: “[T]he Post Office Act of 1792, with a broad civic mandate, vastly expanded the postal network while admitting newspapers into the mail at an extremely low rate. No less impressively, it guaranteed the sanctity of personal correspondence by protecting letters from the prying eyes of government. In a stroke, the founders provided the entire population with low-cost access to information on public affairs, while establishing a right to personal privacy. 
“The results were astounding. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the skill with which postal administrators circulated hefty bundles of newspapers from New York and Philadelphia to the wilds of Detroit, then a thinly populated outpost on the western frontier. To his eyes, the post office was the only entity with the organizational capability to circulate the information of public significance that was essential to sustain America’s bold experiment with democracy. The German-born philosopher Francis Lieber called it an ‘element of civilization’ — worthy of comparison with the printing press and the mariner’s compass.” Richard John, writing for the New York Times, February 8th.  
Yep, it is a great and noble institution to which we owe a lot. And as I said earlier, perhaps to a great degree, our status as a world power. Some think we should just give up and privatize all such “mail” delivery, but why would someone still deliver mail to those exceptionally remote locations? And how much would privatization cost the overall economy? Are we really willing to give that up? I vote for keeping the system, and just making it more competitive. What are your thoughts?
I’m Peter Dekom, and so much of American greatness is predicated on our ability to “deliver” when we need to.

The Other Retirement/Career Planning Option

Much focus has been placed on the increasing number of military suicides, up from 18 a day in 2007 to 22 in 2010, heaviest among Marines. Concern was centered on post-traumatic stress disorder or the frustrations of fighting wars that seemed unwinnable amidst a populace that really didn’t want a continuing lingering of American occupation. The lands were foreign, exotic and anything but hospitable. That is what experts first thought, but then the medical and psychological professionals realized that military suicide statistics really had to be examined within the context of the overall times and the overall suicide statistics that plagued the civilian population as well. After all, soldiers and veterans reflect the world around them too. A Department of Veterans Affairs report released on February 1st – based on a statistical analysis of 147,000 suicides in 21 states – narrowed the inquiry.
With clear decreases in average family earning power in the United States, chronic hopeless job pursuits among older workers (but still too young for retirement) with under employment in large segments of the population, strong anti-bankruptcy provisions applied to recent student loans, a housing market that is still in relative collapse and general loss of confidence in the system, suicides as a whole are up all over the United States.
Indeed, the civilian numbers appear to be worse than in our armed forces. While there was a 22% increase in military suicides from 1999 to 2010, the increase during the same period in the civilian world was 31%. The number of soldiers and veterans committing suicide during that time period became an even smaller percent of the total. Soldiers and veterans have better access to healthcare than does the general population, but what is particularly interesting is the age at which there was a serious spike in veteran suicides – between ages 50 and 59 – that awkward pre-retirement age when many realize that life’s options are just plain running out in an economy that clearly no longer favors the middle class and is particularly harsh for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
“‘What’s happening with veterans is a reflection of what’s happening to America,’ Jan Kemp, the national mental health director for suicide prevention at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said in an interview. ‘The suicide rate in America has been creeping up… Dr. Kemp said the fact that veterans accounted for a smaller percentage of the nation’s suicides suggested that improved outreach and suicide prevention programs might have had an effect. ..The new report does not provide a suicide rate for veterans, because the department is still refining that number, Dr. Kemp said. But she acknowledged that the rate was higher than for the general population, which is 12.4 suicides per 100,000 people… Dr. Kemp said veterans tend to fall into higher-risk groups, which include: being male; living in a rural area, particularly in the West; and having access to firearms.” New York Times, February 1st.
But Congress is going to continue its cutting ways, with the House particularly believing in the necessity of austerity policies that have already tanked the European economy into a seemingly never-ending resurging recession. As the fiscal cliff legislation effort showed in the last quarter of 2012, threatening to remove and removing massive government spending from the economy freezes corporate growth, kills consumer confidence and actually contracts the GDP. The empathy-lacking focus on cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits for those who need it most – let our elected Congress members have those as their sole retirement/medical benefits – is callous and impacts those who are least able to fight back. But as Congress knows, if the retirement options are really awful, and if Medicare and Social Security do not fill the void, Americans do have another exit strategy.
I’m Peter Dekom, and how strange is it for America to pursue a heartless austerity policy that has failed so completely miserably in Europe?

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Plutocracy’s Mouthpiece: The United States Supreme Court

Notwithstanding the cries of so-called “strict constructionists,” the U.S. Constitution – a product of the 18th century! –– is of necessity a fluid instrument rife with its own internal inconsistencies. Without that fluidity, allowing Congress to raise a standing army and navy wouldn’t stretch to accommodate permitting an air force. Inconsistencies provoke the court to engage in a balancing of interests. Also for example, one provision of the constitution allows for the creation of monopolies in expressions of speech (the effective purpose of copyrights), while another allows for unabridged free speech. The court is obviously charged with creating reasonable interpretations to reflect inevitable modernity and to apply this incredible anchor of our judicial system to situations never contemplated by the original draftsmen.
To those who suggest that any nuances of interpretation require an amendment, the process of securing that amendment is so cumbersome and so time-consuming that changes are not only exceptionally unlikely, but no such amendment could be passed quickly enough to matter to anyone dealing with a pressing and challenging case. In fact the last amendment (the 27th - deferring the impact of a Congressional raise until the next session of Congress) was ratified in 1992, although it was originally proposed in 1789! Mississippi just ratified the anti-slavery 13th Amendment (passed in 1865).  
As spelled out in Article V, the Constitution can be amended in one of two ways. First, amendment can take place by a vote of two-thirds of both the House of Representatives and the Senate followed by a ratification of three-fourths of the various state legislatures (ratification by thirty-eight states would be required to ratify an amendment today). This first method of amendment is the only one used to date. Second, the Constitution might be amended by a Convention called for this purpose by two-thirds of the state legislatures, if the Convention's proposed amendments are later ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures.” Whew! And if the issue is anything that would negatively impact the those who support the moneyed conservatives in this country, think there’s a shot in hell of getting such an amendment through today?
What this means is that the court has a delicate responsibility, occasionally even repealing earlier precedents seem out-of-step with practical modernity (for example, replacing the 1896 “separate but equal” Plessy vs. Ferguson doctrine in segregation cases with a ban on such practices in schools under the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education years later).
Among the stickiest cases that the court has faced over the years deal rather directly with who gets elected to the most powerful offices in the land… and how. Aside from the court’s direct intervention in the George Bush vs. Al Gore presidential election decision in 2000, which effectively resolved a dispute over the validity of Florida ballots in favor of Mr. Bush, the court has of late slowly but rather obviously used its discretion to move itself to become the single most powerful political advocate for the rich. In stepping into the political fray and taking sides consistently favoring one constituency over any other, the court has unraveled its own recent more egalitarian decisions in this heavily political arena and threatened the very credibility of the court itself.
By recognizing that corporations and other such organizations have sufficient personhood to fall within the protective cover of the First Amendment, the court effectively took the dollar lid off of corporate campaigns embracing issues and candidates that are not controlled directly by the candidates themselves. Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (2010), which reversed its own Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990), effectively allowed such large structures an unrestricted right to buy the airways and media to sway election results. Despite some dictum in the case that such permissive contribution policies were unlikely to create a corrupting influence to “buy elections,” when faced with a small population state (with about one million people) that limited campaign contributions to prevent a corrupting influence, the court refused to back down - Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Montana (2012).
In 1976, in Buckley vs. Valeo, the court faced a determination of whether federal campaign limits were lawful or not. The court ruled that while there were no restrictions on rich candidates’ spending their own money on their own campaigns, otherwise those campaign limits were sustained. To effect an equalizer, Congress passed the so-called Millionaires’ Amendment, allowing independent candidates to raise money outside of campaign limitations if their opponents were using their own money to run. The court struck down that equalizing statute in Federal Election Commission vs. Davis (2008).
As onerous as the process is to amend the U.S. Constitution, the grassroots sentiments against the Supreme Court and its billionaire boyz club might just strong enough to effect a change. “California Assembly member Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) introduced a bill, AB 644, Wednesday to put a measure on the state's 2014 ballot urging Congress to [initiate] a constitutional amendment to overturn the 2010 Citizens United ruling, which lifted restrictions on political spending by corporations and labor unions. Independent spending in federal elections has exploded since the ruling…‘It's one thing for a legislator to say he wants this,’ Wieckowski said. ‘It's another thing for Congress to have direct instruction from the voters. There comes a tipping point where people are upset with billionaires having a disproportionate impact on our electoral system.’” Huffington Post, February 21st. But would the plutocracy ever allow such a vote to happen? Think getting a two-thirds vote in the House for an amendment that would strike down the greatest source of GOP fund-raising in years is going to happen?!
The Supreme Court has slowly inveigled its way into the political process, pressing hard to enable and support the mega-rich to have a disproportional power to determine the outcome of political campaigns, reversing even their own precedents that get in the way of their supporting the new plutocracy, a nation where 1% of her citizens own 42% of her wealth. Polarization is not evil to this court, it is a mandate. Among the principal advocates of such continued polarization is ultra-right-wing Associate Justice Antonin Scalia (pictured above). He addressed an assembly at Southern Methodist University at the end of January, where he “dismissed the modern vision of the U.S. Constitution as a living document... ‘It’s not a living document,’ he said, according to theDallas Morning News. ‘It’s dead, dead, dead.’” Huffington Post, January 29th.
On February 19th, the court accepted a case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which may well be decided to give the mega-rich even more power to buy media influence in elections. The case revolves around the overall cap (not the per-candidate cap) on individual campaign contributions in federal elections: $123,000 per two year election cycle.
If indeed the court’s majority continues to step towards a society in which the mega-rich have clearly-defined rights and political abilities well beyond those accorded to average citizens, the court will become a mockery of the intentions that were the very underpinnings of its creation: to use the constitution to protect those unable to protect themselves, to support American justice, democracy and equality for all. Instead, this majority is now nothing more than a mouthpiece for those at the top of a highly polarized society, stepping into political issues that were never supposed to be within their purview… crushing the individual liberties of those who do not have the money to counterbalance the efforts of the narrow cadre of rich at the top.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the extreme politicization of the Supreme Court is toxic to the  survival of the kind of democracy our forefathers intended.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Happy Fortieth, Roe

One of the most passionately challenged Supreme Court decisions is celebrating its fortieth anniversary. Roe vs. Wade, a decision made on January 22, 1973, rocked many deeply conservative Christian communities and took abortion out of the hands of unscrupulous dilettantes and put that socially difficult practice into the hands of the medical profession.
Conservatives have been battling the concept ever since, trying repeal, withholding funding, changing definitions of viability and conditions under which it can be addressed. There was a time when it was such a powerful single issue that legislators and Congress people could be elected by pledging only to fight to eliminate that right as much as possible. “Murders to stop murders” – fundamentalists willing to execute doctors involved in abortion clinics and firebomb the facilities themselves – ignited every now and again. Four decades later… how do Americans feel about the subject?
The Pew Research Center was curious and conducted a controlled national poll of 1502 Americans over 18 (the sampling error was presented as plus or minus 2.9%). The results (released on January 16th) are not particularly earth-shattering, but interesting nonetheless. 63% of those polled didn’t think the decision should be completely overturned; 29% did. Folks have pretty much stabilized in their opinions, and the numbers are consistent with earlier Pew-polls from 1992 and 2003, a consistency over time that is rare in such measurements. 47% of Americans find abortion morally wrong, but many of those still favor leaving Roe vs. Wade intact. But it is interesting how different segments of the population responded.
Unsurprisingly, conservative religious groupings oppose the decision the most. But only white evangelical Protestants produced a clear majority – 54% – that believed Roe needed to be entirely eliminated from American law. When other religious constituencies are measured, however, the numbers favor upholding that Supreme Court edict: white mainline Protestants (76%), black Protestants (65%) and white Catholics (63%). Catholics?
But the decision is four decades old, and too many Americans don’t even know the case. Among Millennials (those under 30), 44% didn’t even know what Roe vs. Wade was! 62% of Americans, 74% of those over 50, recognized the precedent. Age and gender didn’t matter much in determining support of this legal decision. 69 percent “Baby boomers” and 68% of Millennials favored upholding the case.
Pro Life vs. Pro Choice. They are both “pro” something. But the fact remains that abortion is high on the radar only for a small number of voters, and that the passionate rhetoric on both sides of the issue do not mirror the simple acceptance of the 1973 decision by most Americans. For those with passion about the subject, politicians who don’t toe the line in accordance with such strong beliefs face committed opposition to their election. The case is still a great polarizer, even as it may fall from the highest levels of visibility it once controlled.
I’m Peter Dekom, and important society-changing decisions generally become part of a national ethos... sooner or later.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Love for Sale!

There are so many aspects of our expanding plutocracy that are disturbing, a country that is governed by special interests for special interests very much at the expense of Joe and Josephine Average. Notwithstanding attempts by Democrats to shade their opponent with the favoritism cloud, the traditions that have side-stepped meritocracy in favor of that plutocracy are not just the hallmark of the Republican Party. From Tammany Hall to the machinery in the Chicago political grist mill, Democrats reflect that same dull luster of cronyism with which they love to lambast and label their opponents.
But one American tradition is so embedded in our political system – for it has impacted every presidential administration in living memory – that it supports the kind of cynical statistical examination that can make you wince… but most certainly won’t surprise you. To wit: Political appointments to juicy diplomatic posts allocated – without a formal “pay for play” agreement (which is flatly illegal) – to people who contributed significant sums or organized events that generated significant contributions to the campaign of that victorious presidential candidate. These are the face of America to our allies and to significant posts all over the world.
A Pennsylvania State University Study, funded and printed by ERSA (Economic Research Southern Africa) last September, by Johannes W. Fedderke and Dennis C. Jett (professors of international relations at the university), under a title that asks the question: “What Price the Court of St. James’s? Political Influences on Ambassadorial Postings of the United States of America.” That “Court” is jolly old England, by the way, but you knew that. The ambassador’s residence (on 12.5 acres) to that significant post is called Winfield House, and in a city of outrageous real estate costs, look at the picture above and tell me what you think this building is worth. That dynamic professorial duo delved into this long-cherished process to discover what makes the posts attractive and what is required to win the appointment. The focus was on the Obama administration, but the practice applies to all recent presidents regardless of party affiliation.
Well you can bet (and win) that the posts that political appointees seldom ask for are in dangerous countries, not particularly attractive to tourists where poverty and living conditions for the general public are “harsh.” Duh-oh! You can also bet that high profile Western nations, places with lovely golf and beachy amenities and safe countries not too far from the United States are high on the “I want that” list.
“Not surprisingly, the authors found that politically connected ambassadors, including former aides as well as donors, were statistically more likely to be posted to countries in the Caribbean, North America and Central America. But those whose political connections to Mr. Obama were measured in dollars, rather than administration service, had an increased chance of representing the United States in Western Europe, and a markedly smaller chance of serving in, say, Central Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. The study found that political ambassadors who had made campaign donations of $550,000, or bundled contributions of $750,000, had a 90 percent chance of being posted to a country in Western Europe.” New York Times, January 31st.
The authors correlated posted contributions and other publicly available data with resulting appointments, based on several qualities of the nations in which the appointments were made to see where the “values” were. “When isolating a country’s wealth over other factors, Luxembourg came in at the top of the chart, with a posting there valued at $3.1 million in direct contributions, while an appointment to Portugal was predicted to have a value of $602,686 in personal contributions. The model suggests that [campaign contribution] bundlers can get the same posts for less: Portugal was valued at about $341,160 in bundled contributions, Luxembourg at $1.8 million… When factoring in a country’s tourist trade, however, France and Monaco top the list, with the level of personal contributions at $6.2 million and bundled contributions at $4.4 million.
“The prices, authors note, vary considerably depending on which factors to emphasize. And in some cases, the actual nominees appeared to ‘overpay’ for their positions — raising or giving more than the model would suggest was necessary — and in some cases ‘underpay.’ That is because some donors bargain poorly for their positions, the authors suggest, while others may possess attributes (business experience, a personal connection to the president) that aid their case. But regardless of the model, Dr. Fedderke and Dr. Jett found, political ambassadors are more likely to be appointed to those countries that are wealthy, popular tourist destinations and safe.
“And what price is the Court of St. James’s — diplomatic-speak for Britain, the nation’s most prestigious post? ‘The price for the Court of St. James’s,’ the authors find, ‘appears to lie between $650,000 and $2.3 million.’” NY Times. I’m picturing the humble beginning of this great land, and then I think of the patronage system that we simply accept, pouring opulence on the cherished few with money and clout on either side of the aisle who can qualify for such appointments… and wonder how we really got this way… and more importantly, how long this system of government can actually endure.
I’m Peter Dekom, and exactly how do you feel about a practice that is so accepted it is openly and obvious practices by every president… without a hint of shame.