Sunday, June 30, 2013

Wicked-Pedia

Wikipedia is that vast, relatively open-sourced reference book in the clouds. It is edited and reedited by sanctioned experts, who often disagree on the “facts.” “Brewing beneath the surface of every popular Wikipedia page is a minor war. Wikipedians bicker with each other in hidden ‘Talk’ pages about word choice and bias and, if a debate gets particularly contentious, one editor may edit over another editor's work.” Huffington Post, June 1st.
To examine the cultural priorities among controversial topics, “A group of researchers from Hungary, the UK and the U.S. determined the ‘controversiality’ of a Wikipedia page ‘by focusing on ‘reverts,’ i.e. when an editor undoes another editor’s edit completely and brings it to the version exactly the same as the version before the last version.’ Wikipedia's most controversial articles cover most of the subjects that engender controversy at the dinner table: religion, philosophy and politics.” Huffington Post.  The report is entitled The most controversial topics in Wikipedia: A multilingual and geographical analysis, and the scholars come from Oxford, Budapest University of Technology and Economics, the Central European University and Rutgers.
Across the board, the study reports that “The Islam and Muhammad pages are the most highly contested pages that are both contained the English, German, French Spanish language set and the Arabic, Persian, Hebrew languages set. Roughly 10% of the pages in each language set are also contested in another language set.” In terms of controversy, the authors say, “Politics-related articles exceed one quarter of the whole population and in addition to ‘geographical places’ and ‘Religion’ cover more than half of the most controversial articles. Culture-related articles including, literature, authors, printed and public media, movies and animations, entertainment and music industry, although ranked 8-10 according to the relative population. However putting all these categories together, it goes beyond 10% of the sample.”
A sample of the most controversial topics, by country, is presented in the graphic above. “The results are pretty fascinating. Americans are stuck in the past: the most controversial U.S. Wikipedia article is on George W. Bush. Czech Wikipedians are really interested in homosexuality; 3 of the top 10 most controversial articles deal with homosexuality. Unsurprisingly, Jesus causes controversy in most languages.” Huffington Post, June 1st.  In the end, Wikipedia is flushed with the biases and prejudices of the society around us, but it is indeed interesting how differently even Western cultures prioritize the controversies within their local purview.
I’m Peter Dekom, and understanding how many differences exist among and between cultures is often difficult for Americans living in a vast land with literally only two bordering countries.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

18% and Rising

Good News: healthcare costs are rising at 4% per annum, less than the 8% of just a few years ago, more folks are getting coverage and caps on total coverage and insurance denial or cancelation for preexisting conditions will soon be a thing of the past. End of good news. Costs are still accelerating faster than the rise in the cost of living, Americans spend 18% (Time Magazine, March 4th, the New York Times, June 1st, says 20%) of our GDP on healthcare (the highest percentage in the world and up from 16% a few short years ago), we spend more on virtually every medical procedure and every prescription drug than any other developed nation on earth and the variation of prices for common procedures within the United States can be multiples of each other. The aggregate cost in the United States is between $2.7 and $2.8 trillion a year!
When the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, except for a direct limitation on the percentage of administrative costs as a function of the total (and trade off with insurance companies in exchange for growing the number of people who would now be getting new policies), the bulk of elements dropped from the original bill were powerful cost reducers that incumbent hospitals and pharmaceutical companies wanted deleted. Stuff like allowing Americans to buy prescription drugs from places like Canada or allowing the government to provide directly high risk or affordable healthcare policies directly for those who couldn’t afford higher levels of coverage.
In a special report (Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us) in the March 4th Time Magazine, journalist Steven Brill slams the system, a proclivity of hospitals to impose massive mark-ups on common and cheap medical items, the widely disparate pricing policies of hospitals across the United States for the same procedure. More recent data from the government itself continues to support Brill’s findings. “The database released [in early May] by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services lays out for the first time and in voluminous detail how much the vast majority of American hospitals charge for the 100 most common inpatient procedures billed to Medicare. The database -- which covers claims filed within fiscal year 2011 -- spans 163,065 individual charges recorded at 3,337 hospitals located in 306 metropolitan areas…
“When a patient arrives at Bayonne Hospital Center in New Jersey requiring treatment for the respiratory ailment known as COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, she faces an official price tag of $99,690… Less than 30 miles away in the Bronx, N.Y., the Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center charges only $7,044 for the same treatment… Within the nation’s largest metropolitan area, the New York City area, a joint replacement runs anywhere between $15,000 and $155,000. At two hospitals in the Los Angeles area, the cost of the same treatment for pneumonia varies by $100,000, according to the database.” Huffington Post, May 8th. A recent routine colonoscopy in a Long Island surgical center ran up a staggering $6,385 bill. “That is fairly typical: in Keene, N.H., Matt Meyer’s colonoscopy was billed at $7,563.56. Maggie Christ of Chappaqua, N.Y., received $9,142.84 in bills for the procedure. In Durham, N.C., the charges for Curtiss Devereux came to $19,438, which included a polyp removal. While their insurers negotiated down the price, the final tab for each test was more than $3,500.” New York Times, June 1st.
Comparing U.S. prices with those in developed nations makes the point even more clearly. “In many other developed countries, a basic colonoscopy costs just a few hundred dollars and certainly well under $1,000. That chasm in price helps explain why the United States is far and away the world leader in medical spending, even though numerous studies have concluded that Americans do not get better care.
“Whether directly from their wallets or through insurance policies, Americans pay more for almost every interaction with the medical system. They are typically prescribed more expensive procedures and tests than people in other countries, no matter if those nations operate a private or national health system. A list of drug, scan and procedure prices compiled by the International Federation of Health Plans, a global network of health insurers, found that the United States came out the most costly in all 21 categories — and often by a huge margin.
“Americans pay, on average, about four times as much for a hip replacement as patients in Switzerland or France and more than three times as much for a Caesarean section as those in New Zealand or Britain. The average price for Nasonex, a common nasal spray for allergies, is $108 in the United States compared with $21 in Spain. The costs of hospital stays here are about triple those in other developed countries, even though they last no longer, according to a recent report by the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that studies health policy.” NY Times.
There a whole pile of “for profit hospitals” in the United States, and with pressure to reduce administrative costs as a function of total care, they have simply raised the prices for the underlying care. For non-profits, dealing with limitations from Medicare and Medicaid and making sure the indigent have some care and attention, it is often a question of getting paid from whatever sources they can.
Public and universal healthcare systems from all around the world succeed or fail as the society around them is willing to pay for staff and facilities. Try and get covered under the National Health System in a major city in the UK on a busy weekend, and you will probably think that they don’t have a system at all. Better in most provinces in Canada, France and other European venues, but we know two facts: 1. We only have the best healthcare system in the world for those with lots of money and 2. For the rest of the United States, mediocrity defines the system that they have access to.
Conservative politicians will eviscerate any attempt negatively to impact the profit-making ability of their… er… campaign contributors, regardless of the toll on the quality of life and life expectancy of the average American. The system is broken, and those with the power to fix it are sworn to return to the days of old by repealing what little change the system allowed. Keep the rhetoric flowing about how “Obamacare is destroying America” and make sure that hospitals can keep those costs as high as possible!
I’m Peter Dekom, and let’s keep on killing ourselves with one of least efficient medical care systems in the developed world!

Friday, June 28, 2013

I-Ran So Far Again

The Iranian middle class and most of the urban younger generation are about as pro-American, pro-Western group as exist on earth. Some their elders remember the days, back in the 1960s and 70s, when Israel had an embassy in Tehran, bought Israeli military hardware and was squarely in the U.S. sphere of influence. But the king – the Shah – of the Pahlavi family was brutal in his own way. Savak – his dreaded secret police – was notorious in its repression of dissent, and his press to bring Iran into the modern technological world, in a Western mold, rubbed too many conservative Muslims the wrong way. When the Islamic revolution toppled the Shah and moved Shiite Iran into an ultra-conservative theocracy under the bearded and black-robed Ayatollah Khomeini, Western alliances and values were crushed out of existence. Israel became that nation’s biggest pariah.
The hope for an open and free Islamic society died almost instantly… and as time passed, another layer of brutal secret police (including intolerant religious police enforcing fundamental Shiite values though prison and violent retaliation) and the hugely powerful, Revolutionary Guards... made daily life in Iran bleak and austere. At first radio and then popping through the cracks of government controls, the Web and mobile access, brought the stark contrast between the freedom “out there” and the repression “in here” became painfully obvious. Unfortunately for progressive Iranians, the repressive forces were totally in control, a situation that endures powerfully into the present.
But those younger and middle class elements still look longingly at the west, praying for liberalization, in a world where the “democracy” permitted in Iran is completely subservient to the theocracy atop the nation… and most notably to the Supreme Lead, now the Ayatollah Khamenei. The candidates for the less-than-powerful-but-somewhat-influential presidency are all filtered by the theocracy, with true reformers and liberal culled completely from the list of acceptable alternatives. Don’t expect this to change anytime soon.
When former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was cut from the list of acceptable candidates for the recent election – he was too reform-minded – the only “moderate” candidate on the list was a cleric and former nuclear-program negotiator for Iran, 64-year-old Hassan Rowhani. His picture above pretty much tells you how “liberal” he really is… or will looks and his rank as a cleric fool everybody? sIran’s economy is mired deeply in the doldrums, significantly linked to the panoply of Western economic and financial sanctions imposed against Iran by reason of its obsessive commitment to develop a nuclear capacity that most outside governments believe has weapons as its ultimate goal. Rowhani knows “it’s the economy stupid.” And without some rapprochement with the West, the regime could only become even more unpopular than it already is. Somehow, he believes, Iran could maintain a nuclear program while building at least a few bridges back over to the West.
Rowhani blasted his way to the presidency with a 50.7% majority, avoiding a runoff. Doesn’t sound like much of a victory until you know that the first runner-up, the mayor of Tehran, pulled a meager 18%.  The hardliner most associated with following the Supreme Leader’s ultimate conservative line finished dead last. Rowhani is the best in moderation that Iran could produce. Will he have real power? Not in any way in contravention in anything the Ayatollah Khamenei will allow, and he won’t allow much. It is a western policy-maker’s worst nightmare. If we attack or support an attack on Iran’s widely dispersed nuclear facilities, many located in urban areas with lots of people forming a de facto human shield, so many of our most committed supporters will die in the effort.
Rowhani’s ascension to power is further complicated by the deep commitment of Iran, its forces and its lackey “foreign legion,” Hezbollah, in support of the poison-gas-against-his-own-people-deploying Bashir Assad regime in Syria. He steps into the swamp of global unpopularity for that commitment, staggers under the load of economic collapse and stares into the angry eyes of Western and nearby Sunni powers that have stated a flat determination not to allow Iran to have nuclear weapons. He is limited by the repressive conservative mandate of his absolute boss, Khamenei, and lifted by the hopes of his people, most of which are yearning for change. He’s not the lunatic, Holocaust-denying, Israel-baiting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but exactly how can he function to improve the lot of his people and relations with the West with the limits imposed on his power? Can he walk that line? Time will tell.
I’m Peter Dekom, and exactly when are we going to be pleasantly surprised by a moderate and pragmatic turn in Iran’s leadership and its policies.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Aggressive Tax Avoidance

Here’s the bottom line: tax evasion is illegal; tax avoidance, aggressive or otherwise, is taking advantage of legal loopholes specifically created by politicians who depend on big business for campaign contributions. Western tax codes are profoundly complicated, a compendium of “incentives” to encourage certain activities (e.g., mortgage deductions encourage home ownership), reactions to egregious practices (e.g., “alternative minimum tax” for folks with too many deductions) and benefits to those who lobby the hardest and make the biggest campaign contributions (e.g., the “carried interest” rule that allow fund managers to convert what would be ordinary income for any other job category into low-rate capital gains without the need of making an investment).
Keeping money overseas in low rate alternative nations or even in anonymous Swiss bank accounts (most probably used for illegal evasion or money laundering) is an epidemic that deprives too many jurisdictions of tax revenues to which they really should be entitled. If you are big enough and powerful enough, you can even negotiate your tax rate with a friendly government, a practice that has lured more than one multi-national to a tax situs in Ireland. Wouldn’t you like to be able to negotiate your tax rate with the government? It seems that the IRS (and other taxing authorities) loves killing the little and middle guy, but is willing to entertain “deals” with the big tax avoiders.
At the close of the G-8 (eight most powerful nations on earth) summit in mid-June which took place in Northern Ireland, a policy was passed to create the kind of open information-sharing – matching tax payments with where a company generates its profits – that could work… if the nations involved really take this issue seriously… and there aren’t a whole pile of countries striving to make sure this never works. “The Lough Erne Declaration - signed by the UK, US, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia - vows to ‘fight the scourge of tax evasion’ by ensuring automatic exchange of tax information and changing the rules to stop multinational companies shifting profits across borders to avoid paying their fair share…
“[British PM David Cameron stated]: ‘We agreed a Lough Erne declaration that has the potential to rewrite the rules on tax and transparency for the benefit of countries right across the world, including the poorest countries in the world… We have commissioned a new international mechanism that will identify where multinational companies are earning their profits and paying their taxes so we can track and expose those who aren't paying their fair share.’… Mr Cameron was hopeful that Britain's G8 partners would agree to draw up action plans showing who owns and controls the companies based in their countries.” BBC.co.uk, June 18th.
But tax havens aren’t going down without a fight. Entire financial systems have been built around banking secrecy, specifically designed to allow tax-cheats to deposit vast sums into local banks, far away from the prying eyes of governmental tax authorities. High on the list: Singapore, Hong Kong and most notoriously, Switzerland. But as Swiss Banks expand into multi-national operations overseas, they are increasing facing hostile governments on the prowl for “missing money” from such tax cheats. “In January Switzerland's oldest private bank, Wegelin, closed after being indicted and fined $58m by the US authorities after admitting in court to helping American customers to hide more than $1.2bn from the Internal Revenue Service… In 2009, Swiss bank UBS paid $780 million and handed over details of more than 4,000 accounts in order to avoid indictment.” BBC.co.uk
As pressures from the United States and the European Union against Swiss banking secrecy mounts, the Swiss are pushing back, even though such efforts are likely to backfire against Swiss banking assets outside of Switzerland: “The lower house of Switzerland's parliament has refused to debate a bill that would allow Swiss banks to pass client information to the US tax authorities… The bill is the result of pressure from the US following revelations that Swiss banks had helped American account holders to evade taxes… The US had demanded action by 1 July, but the Swiss parliament summer session ends this week.
The bill will now return to the Senate…The lower house decided by 126 votes to 67 not to discuss the bill. A second rejection by the lower house would effectively kill the draft law…The bill would allow Swiss banks to sidestep strict secrecy laws and release information relating to clients' accounts… It also contained secret clauses requiring the banks to pay an estimated $10bn (£6.4bn) in compensation for lost tax revenue.” BBC.co.uk, June 18th.
We really need to start with our own tax code, dismantling a system that allows the biggest and the baddest tax-avoiders the tools for “aggressive tax avoidance.” Our Congress created these loopholes, so their complaints about the “unfairness” of it all seem to be the epitome of hypocrisy. The Swiss feint is a necessary effort, but perhaps it is just a distraction that takes our focus away from the miscreant Congress that opened all these secret little doors along the way.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the unfairness in tax avoidance is something that our Congress has the power to fix.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Secret Statistics?

The problem with Gerrymandering is that you are running only against those in your own party. This applies to state legislators and members of the House of Representatives. And the primary reason you implement the convoluted redistricting in the first place is to give your party a majority in the relevant districts that it would not have enjoyed without that geographic distortion. And while it is a brilliant solution to maintain control at a district level, if the majority of the country is moving in another direction, you are mired in having to vote for stuff that a shrinking minority of American voters… like the ones that define your Gerrymandered district… believe is essential for any official to get elected locally.
Stuff like making immigration really difficult – even for highly desirable technology experts and kids who have spent almost their entire lives in the United States and really don’t know any other country. Stuff like giving bad labels to gay and lesbian relationships and opposing free choice of marriage partners – creating a cacophony of legal conflicts such as what happens when a legally married gay couple moves to a state where that rite is not recognized. Stuff like continuing to propose legislation that eliminates or severely restricts abortions. Stuff like trying to define multi-cultural America as being a “Christian” nation.
Stuff that is never going to get past the Senate or signed by the President, while ignoring dealing with issues that will define the United States for generations to come… like creating jobs for the rising younger generations, preparing them with solid education and training, fixing and expanding the infrastructure that makes America work, leveling the playing field between average and rich as well as creating new research in fields that put the United States back into a global leadership position.
With retiring Senators and Congress people, the Republican Party has an opportunity to expand their representation in both houses of Congress in the 2014 mid-term elections. Particularly in the House, their Gerrymandering efforts virtually insure that the GOP will remain the majority. But as hordes of ultra-conservatives slap down their own when they embrace a moderate stance – like an viable immigration policy or a less vitriolic response to gay marriage – they are continuing to define the GOP as the functional equivalent of the Tea Party, a once smaller constituent of the Republican Party. And Demographic trends suggest that for the GOP to be able to elect a president in future years, this is an unsustainable path.
Today, if you are running for a House seat as a Republican, most probably it’s all about the ultra-right-wing, religious fundamentalist “Base.” Your election will be decided in the primary – against other conservatives – since the Gerrymander has eliminated any meaningful Democratic opposition in the main election. But running for a House seat means a highly focused campaign that appeals pretty much only to that Base, despite what that probably means for Republican efforts in the next presidential race in 2016.
The lessons of Mitt Romney and the failed Republican presidential platform of the last presidential election seem to have been lost. “After Republicans lost the presidential election and seats in both the House and the Senate last year, many in the party offered a stern admonishment: If we want to broaden our appeal, steer clear of divisive social and cultural issues.
“Yet after the high-profile murder trial of an abortion doctor in Philadelphia this spring, many Republicans in Washington and in state capitals across the country seem eager to reopen the emotional fight over a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. Their efforts will move to the forefront on Tuesday when House Republicans plan to bring to the floor a measure that would prohibit the procedure after 22 weeks of pregnancy — the most restrictive abortion bill to come to a vote in either chamber in a decade.
“The bill stands no chance of becoming law, with Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House. Republican leaders acknowledge that its purpose is to satisfy vocal elements of their base who have renewed a push for greater restrictions on reproductive rights, even if those issues harmed the party’s reputation with women in 2012.” New York Times, June 17th. Former presidential candidate and current U.S. Senator (Arizona), John McCain, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, ex- Florida Governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have each drawn the wrath of many of their fellow Republicans for not being sufficiently conservative on various issues that are considered sacrosanct by the Base.
While in the short term, this might keep our legislative branch in check and favoring GOP vectors, in the long term such practices will slowly strangle the GOP as the tiny minority party of the dying and bitter vestiges of America’s past. Will moderate Republicans rebel and take over? Will a new party of moderate Republicans rise from the ashes… or am I missing a set of secret statistics that will vindicate Republican conservatism as the new American policy of choice for most Americans?
I’m Peter Dekom, and no one will benefit if America becomes a one party state of Democrats without checks and balances of a second strong loyal opposition party.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Is Iran the New United States?

Sounds like a nasty comparison that just couldn’t be. No, this isn’t a blog about inculcating religious mandates into the legal and political system, that theocracy thang that defines modern Iran. It is simply about who gets to be the most hated country, the new premiere enemy, to vast pools of people who seek bullies to vent their seething anger. Between drone strikes, our wars that, of late, have only been in Muslim countries, our undying support for Israel as it continues to build communities in the West Bank (the non-Gaza Palestine), visions of Gitmo and Abu Graib, we have been the go-to “most hated nation” (okay, along with Israel) for so many in the Islamic world. Maybe there is a new “most hated” to a growing segment of Islamic practitioners, and this time it’s seemingly one of their own.
Historical reminder: Sunnis (85% of the faith) believe that the Qur’an is the literal word of God to be read, hopefully in the original classical Arabic, by each and every Muslim as his or her code to live by. Shiites (15%) believe it is a mystical book that can only be read and interpreted by the highest clerics in the land. Iran and its close allies, including the minority Assad regime in Syria, are Shiites. Sunnis are very uncomfortable with that Shiite doctrine, and over time (well into the modern era) Sunnis have slaughtered Shiites over this rift. It happens every day in Iraq and Pakistan.
But Iran and her “foreign legion” – Hezbollah (which claims greater independence from Iran than exists in fact) – have garnered major points of late in their support of Sunni Hamas in Gaza, their willingness to supply arms to be used against Israel, and their generally anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli stand. By defying Western pressure to curb her nuclear program and massive contributions of aid and military hardware to Sunni causes, Iran was steadily rising in the eyes of all but the most hardened Sunni eyes (not the extremist Sunni Taliban and al Qaeda, for example).
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has brazenly taken to the airways to pledge his organization’s military support for Assad and his murderous cronies. Thousands of Iranian-armed Hezbollah “volunteers” have crossed from Lebanon into Syria to fight on behalf of the crumbling Assad regime, and it is these forces that secured the incumbent Syrian regime’s victory over rebel forces in the Syrian city of Qusayr. These “foreign” troops have joined with the massive flow of Russian missiles (particularly a new crop of antiaircraft weapons) to support Assad who most likely could not stay in power without such intervention. And the rebels, as well as their Sunni sympathizers all over the Middle East, are acutely aware that it is Shiite firepower – funded and supplied by Iran and implemented by Hezbollah and a number of direct Iranian “volunteers” – that is killing and displacing Sunnis by the thousands.
‘We will not forget what Hassan Nasrallah did,’ said Abu Zaid, 40, a fighter from Qusayr. ‘We will take revenge from him and his organization even after 100 years.’ … While taking Qusayr could infuse Mr. Assad’s forces with momentum and embolden him to push for more military advances — just as Russia and the United States are pressing the antagonists in the Syrian conflict to negotiate — the intervention by Hezbollah could be problematic for that organization, which historically has been revered in Syria for its opposition to Israel. Now, in the eyes of the Syrian insurgency and its sympathizers, Hezbollah has turned its guns on fellow Muslims and taken on the form of an occupying force.
“In the fight’s final days, as a [NY Times] reporter traveled through villages around Qusayr, rebel fighters and their civilian supporters vented rage not only at Mr. Assad but at his allies — particularly Iran and the well-trained Shiite Muslim fighters of Hezbollah, whom they largely blamed for the casualties they had suffered…  The mostly Sunni activists and rebels expressed bitterness toward Shiites generally, but they reserved particular anger for Mr. Nasrallah. The Hezbollah leader had exhorted his followers to come to fight in Syria against what he portrayed as a jihadist-Israeli conspiracy to topple Mr. Assad and subvert Hezbollah’s ability to attack, or defend against, Israel.” New York Times, June 5th. And everyone knows that without Iranian cash and military supplies, Hezbollah would be a small and toothless force of little or no consequence.
Now while this sounds like good news for the United States, and in part perhaps it is, this anti-Shiite/Iranian fervor sweeping large sections of the Sunni world also place increasing pressure on Iran to continue to develop its nuclear potential. They not only want to hold possible Western aggression in check, but now have some real concerns about their regional Sunni neighbors who have rekindled their hatred for Iran and her paramilitary extensions in the Middle East. This regional tinder box has a continuing proclivity to ignite with far greater frequency than most of us can imagine.
I’m Peter Dekom, and United States, step back; Iran, step forward.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Immigratitude

With too many Republicans throwing amendments at the proposed Senatorial Gang of Eight (including powerful GOP leaders) – ranging from impossible requirements for border protection to instituting voter ID requirements that have already been rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court – the reality of immigration reform is going to hinge on strong Democratic support plus “enough” Republicans who are truly committed to expanding the reach of their party. But not if the House Speaker has anything to say about it: “I don’t see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn’t have a majority support of Republicans.”
“House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said [June 18th] that he will not advance any bill that did not have the support of a majority of the House GOP, which will mean engaging some of the proposal’s biggest detractors and harshest critics… ‘I have no intention of putting a bill on the floor that will violate the principles of our majority and divide our conference,’ Boehner told his party colleagues in a closed meeting [June 18th], according to GOP aides present. ‘One of our principles is border security. I have no intention of putting a bill on the floor that the people in this room do not believe secures our borders. It’s not gonna happen.’” Washington Post, June 18th.
It seems as if the post-2012 Presidential election pledge from the GOP leadership to expand its constituency didn’t resonate particularly well with the socially conservative Base that defines both the Tea Party and the new GOP. With recent statistics showing that there are more deaths than births among American Caucasians, our economic growth may in fact depend on immigration.
But for those who claim opening our doors in a pragmatic solution for immigration reform will cost this country billions, a new report challenges that assumption: “A long-awaited analysis by the Congressional Budget Office found that the benefits of an increase in legal residents from immigration legislation currently being debated in the Senate — which includes a pathway to citizenship — would outweigh the costs. While the report was a clear victory for immigration proponents, it came just hours after Speaker John A. Boehner raised potential new obstacles for the bill, saying he would not bring any immigration measure to the floor unless it had the support of a majority of House Republicans.
“The report estimates that in the first decade after the immigration bill is carried out, the net effect of adding millions of additional taxpayers would decrease the federal budget deficit by $197 billion. Over the next decade, the report found, the deficit reduction would be even greater — an estimated $700 billion, from 2024 to 2033. The deficit reduction figures for the first decade do not take into account $22 billion in the discretionary spending required to implement the bill, however, making the savings slightly lower…
“The budget office also found that in the next decade the legislation would lead to a net increase of about 10.4 million permanent legal residents and 1.6 million temporary workers and their dependents, as well as a decrease of about 1.6 million unauthorized residents.” New York Times, June 18th.
Another huge issue revolves around the reluctance of undocumented aliens to report even horrifically violent crimes against them for fear of deportation. George Gasc√≥n, district attorney for San Francisco and the former chief of police in San Francisco as well as Mesa, Arizona, told CNN (June 19th):  In the absence of federal action, states have taken immigration law into their own hands, implementing laws that drive a wedge between law enforcement and the people we are sworn to serve. A new study commissioned by Policy Link found that 45% of Latinos in Chicago's Cook County, Houston's Harris County, Los Angeles and Phoenix's Maricopa County were less likely to report crime because they fear police will inquire about their immigration status. More disturbing is that 70% of undocumented immigrants surveyed reported they are less likely to contact police if they are victims of crime.
When immigrants -- unauthorized or authorized - feel isolated from the protection of law enforcement, the entire community suffers. I saw this evidenced during my tenure as police chief in Mesa, Arizona, where local Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s reign of terror over the Latino community led to increased crime rates in his county. Arpaio blamed most crimes in Maricopa Country on undocumented immigrants and made racial profiling a common practice. He frequently detained people who ‘looked Latino’ until they could prove their status in the country.
“In direct contrast to this approach, I worked side by side with community groups and civil rights organizations to foster a sense of trust between the Latino community and the Mesa Police Department. The effects of a broken immigration system were a constant thread in the stories of Latino mothers, fathers and workers who refused to report crime for fear of being detained or deported. In Mesa, we lowered crime by some 30%, according to FBI data -- a result of the trust our police department created with all communities, and not because of immigration enforcement.” Allowing criminals to ply their trade without fear of retribution in some communities most definitely spills over to our society in general.
So noting that most new American jobs in the last decade have been created under the leadership of immigrant entrepreneurs, from Google to corner restaurants, combined with the fact that we cannot fill our technical jobs from our domestic graduate base, immigration has a definite benefit to the nation as a whole. By voting for mythology and slogans as opposed to the practical reality that actually benefits this great nation, with positive statistics to support the notion, our Congressional leaders need to embrace a whole lot more common sense.
I’m Peter Dekom, and watching the House vote for policies that don’t even get to the Senate floor, a grandstanding show for the Base, we are wasting time, energy and making a mockery of our Congressional process.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Where Does It Say That?

The Evangelical right appears to be pretty convinced that the Bible defines marriage as between one man and one woman. They have instructed their elected Congressional and state legislative theocrats to insure that this purported Christian mandate is carried through into the laws of each state and of course, the United States. Gay marriage is, therefore, contrary to these direct Biblical proscriptions and must be banned accordingly. There’s just one little catch, according a joint editorial written by religious scholars Hector Avalos (who teaches at Iowa State University), Robert R. Cargill (University of Iowa) and Kenneth Atkinson (University of Northern Iowa) and published in the Des Moines Register on June 9th: The Bible does not, they contend, actually say that anywhere.
They wrote: “As academic biblical scholars, we wish to clarify that the biblical texts do not support the frequent claim that marriage between one man and one woman is the only type of marriage deemed acceptable by the Bible’s authors… The fact that marriage is not defined as only that between one man and one woman is reflected in the entry on ‘marriage’ in the authoritative Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000): ‘Marriage is one expression of kinship family patterns in which typically a man and at least one woman cohabitate publicly and permanently as a basic social unit’ (p. 861).
The phrase ‘at least one woman’ recognizes that polygamy was not only allowed, but some polygamous biblical figures (e.g., Abraham, Jacob) were highly blessed. In 2 Samuel 12:8, the author says that it was God who gave David multiple wives: ‘I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom. ... And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more’ (Revised Standard Version).
“In fact, there were a variety of unions and family configurations that were permissible in the cultures that produced the Bible, and these ranged from monogamy (Titus 1:6) to those where rape victims were forced to marry their rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) and to those Levirate marriage commands obligating a man to marry his brother’s widow regardless of the living brother’s marital status (Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Genesis 38; Ruth 2-4). Others insisted that celibacy was the preferred option (1 Corinthians 7:8; 28).
Although some may view Jesus’ interpretation of Genesis 2:24 in Matthew 19:3-10 as an endorsement of monogamy, Jesus and other Jewish interpreters conceded that there were also non-monogamous understandings of this passage in ancient Judaism, including those allowing divorce and remarriage… In fact, during a discussion of marriage in Matthew 19:12, Jesus even encourages those who can to castrate themselves ‘for the kingdom’ and live a life of celibacy… Ezra 10:2-11 forbids interracial marriage and orders those people of God who already had foreign wives to divorce them immediately.”
Perhaps those who fight so hard to define the private lives of others should simply be more honest about their approach to their God-fearing elected representatives. “We want the Bible to define marriage as between one man and one woman.”
I’m Peter Dekom, and sometimes “none of your damned business” is a pretty sound policy!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

China’s Rose Garden

As we look to China to mount the global stage, take her place among leader nations helping to grapple with global hotspots, and as the developing world continues to idolize her centrally-directed economy in a single party system, China seems to be particularly uncomfortable in her newfound status. She has been brilliant in providing aid to those lesser nations, the ones the United States and the West seem to have forgotten, in marshaling raw materials, energy assets and commodities from all over the world, and in taking over a billion human beings out of abject poverty.
But rose gardens have thorns, and China’s hyper-growth has created levels of corruption and polarization that seem the antithesis of a “people’s republic.” Too many of her cities and their environs have been impaled on air, water and ground pollution that have exceeded our ability to measure the relevant toxic level, killing and sickening millions along the way. And as China’s growth slows, still pinning the needle by Western standards, she faces a plague that is anything but new to the rest of the world: unemployment among its newly-educated elite.
A record seven million students will graduate from universities and colleges across China in the coming weeks, but their job prospects appear bleak — the latest sign of a troubled Chinese economy… Businesses say they are swamped with job applications but have few positions to offer as economic growth has begun to falter. Twitter-like microblogging sites in China are full of laments from graduates with dim prospects.
The Chinese government is worried, saying that the problem could affect social stability, and it has ordered schools, government agencies and state-owned enterprises to hire more graduates at least temporarily to help relieve joblessness. ‘The only thing that worries them more than an unemployed low-skilled person is an unemployed educated person,’ said Shang-Jin Wei, a Columbia Business School economist…  Lu Mai, the secretary general of the elite, government-backed China Development Research Foundation, acknowledged in a speech this month that less than half of this year’s graduates had found jobs so far.” New York Times, June 16th.
With staggering unemployment rates dragging down too many European nations, particularly the debtor nations, unemployment among the young – regardless of educational status – often rises to 40% or more of that demographic segment. Even in the United States, for those recent college grads lucky enough to find jobs, 55% of those are working at jobs that really do not require advanced education. Look at civil unrest in the Arab Spring and even at the new rise of rebellion in Turkey, and you will see that it is led by waves and waves of unemployed youth, many of them educated. New American social policies embraced by the rural-values-directed conservative political forces seem to foster an “every man for himself” (occasionally embracing women) philosophy without government safety nets, which contracts the spending that opens the door for new employment among the young, even as we massively cut the quality of the education available to all.
Has the planet elected to follow in this new and rather harsh direction, abandoning youth in favor of those older segments of society? Are we really forced to choose one or the other? Apparently, China’s leadership senses the danger of allowing a generation of disenfranchised youth to rise through society with bitterness and hopelessness: “China quadrupled the number of students enrolled in universities and colleges over the last decade. But its economy is still driven by manufacturing, with a preponderance of blue-collar jobs. Prime Minister Li Keqiang personally led the cabinet meeting, on May 16, that produced the directive for schools, government agencies and state-owned enterprises to hire more graduates, a strategy that has been used with increasing frequency in recent years to absorb jobless but educated youths.
“‘Any country with an expanding middle class and a rising number of unemployed graduates is in for trouble,’ said Gerard A. Postiglione, the director of the Wah Ching Center of Research on Education in China at Hong Kong University…  A national survey [in the PRC] released last winter found that in the age bracket of 21- to 25-year-olds, 16 percent of the men and women with college degrees were unemployed.” NY Times. Well, that cannot be relevant to the United States then, since the U.S. Census tells us that we don’t have a growing middle class… our middle is sinking and losing membership, a demographic trend never before experienced in American history.
With bad news echoing throughout the global stock markets from our own Federal Reserve, China’s banks seemed on the verge of precipitating a new credit crunch by not lending to each other. This has massive implications not just for the local Chinese job markets but for global economic stability. Stock markets around the world crashed and burned. “The interest rates that Chinese banks must pay to borrow money from each other overnight surged to a record high of 13.44 percent [on June 20th], according to official daily rates set by the National Interbank Funding Center in Shanghai. That is up from 7.66 percent [just the day before] and less than 4 percent last month.” New York Times, June 19th. Expect the government to step in and restore order. But if the next generation cannot secure meaningful employment, trust me, political heads will roll!
I’m Peter Dekom, and I remain amazed at how few lessons American politicians learn from either history or the world outside the United States.