Monday, March 31, 2014

Terrified of Democracy

Excluding major constituencies from participating in the political process is the time-honored method whereby incumbents (or at least those with appropriated designated power bases) are able to pretend they embrace democracy while insuring that those they oppose never have a chance of rocking the vote. You can see how the military in Egypt is touting upcoming "free elections" (with one of their own the likely victor), just as they repress, prosecute (even sentence to death, even in abstentia), arrest and torture the Muslim Brotherhood party constituency that actually elected their last president. Whether or not you have the slightest sympathy for this radically conservative faction, they do represent a large segment of the potential vote… and they are now effectively excluded from their nation’s political system.

But before we get smug in the United States, that same time-honored system of diluting and excluding those who might threaten the incumbency is as American as apple pie and a hunting rifle. In the post-Civil War era, it was carpetbaggers who slowly built a gerrymandered and closed shop political machine in the old South, a structure that insured the dominance of the Democratic Party for decades to come.

Today, these tools of exclusion now reside with those states where Republicans hold sway. Gerrymandering and voter exclusion (those likely to lean to the Democrats like the elderly, minorities, etc.) are now standard tools of a Republican party whose unbending immigration and conservative social policies have rendered them a distinct minority that could never win a national election based on the new "majority of minorities" that make up the largest segment of the U.S. population. Never win if they were relegated to true "one person, one vote" democracy.

But rather than compromise their platform to embrace diversity, the GOP has instead set itself on a course of buying publicity (rich folks with unlimited wallets saturating the airways with their right wing message, a vast multiple of those on the liberal side able to afford the cost of such marketing), implementing restrictive voter registration laws to exclude voters who might oppose them, and gerrymandering districts to marginalize their opponents. The success in this space can be measured by noting that urban (and less-likely GOP) voters have 5/8 of the effective voting power of their rural (and likely GOP constituents) brethren.

And to make sure they impact elections at the most vulnerable inflection points, Republicans are targeting the important swing states that make or break any national election. "Republicans in Ohio and Wisconsin this winter pushed through measures limiting the time polls are open, in particular cutting into weekend voting favored by low-income voters and blacks, who sometimes caravan from churches to polls on the Sunday before election.

"Democrats in North Carolina are scrambling to fight back against the nation’s most restrictive voting laws, passed by Republicans there last year. The measures, taken together, sharply reduce the number of early voting days and establish rules that make it more difficult for people to register to vote, cast provisional ballots or, in a few cases, vote absentee.

"In all, nine states have passed measures making it harder to vote since the beginning of 2013. Most have to do with voter ID laws [older folks and city dwellers are less like to have drivers licenses]. Other states are considering mandating proof of citizenship, like a birth certificate or a passport, after a federal court judge recently upheld such laws passed in Arizona and Kansas. Because many poor people do not have either and because documents can take time and money to obtain, Democrats say the ruling makes it far more difficult for people to register.

"Voting experts say the impact of the measures on voter turnout remains unclear. Many of the measures have yet to take effect, and a few will not start until 2016. But at a time when Democrats are on the defensive over the Affordable Care Act and are being significantly outspent by conservative donors like the Koch brothers, the changes pose another potential hurdle for Democratic candidates this year.

"Republicans defend the measures, saying Democrats are overstating their impact for partisan reasons. The new rules, Republicans say, help prevent fraud, save money and bring greater uniformity to a patchwork election system." New York Times, March 29th. Of course, since there is almost no measurable voter fraud anywhere in the country, and it is the GOP that has fomented the patchwork system, these arguments belie the real reason for the laws. In a world of unyielding rigidity, the GOP cannot win without manipulating our voting system to disenfranchise those who disagree with their policies. In short, they are terrified at genuine democracy.


I’m Peter Dekom, and democracy really needs a government that actually believes in that form of government to work.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

When Oil Means a Little Less

For naïve citizens who believe that American foreign policy is predicated on fighting for the betterment of mankind, the spread of democracy and opposing evil dictators, it is hard to look at our long-standing support for some of the most brutal regimes on earth, totalitarian monarchies and dictators, repressive government with torture, censorship and an iron hand over their people. It is equally difficult to disassociate American support of such callous governments without looking at a map showing strategic placement or vast pools of valuable natural resources.
If there is any region on earth that represents the best and worst of American policy initiatives, it has to be the Middle East. Partially responsive to a long-standing constituency of supporters of Israel (which most certainly extends way beyond America’s tiny Jewish population – under 6 million according to recent census data or less than 2% of the total) but more particularly attuned to regional oil reserves, the American presence in Iraq and its strong support for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc. has most definitely not been based on altruism. Strangely, after our rather dramatically failed efforts in Iraq (reinforced with every bomb blast in this sad nation), non-U.S. companies are the ones who came out of that conflict with most of the relevant oil rights.
We have supplied the Saudi monarchy with the latest tanks, jet fighters and missile systems to protect this sovereign nation, which shares an extensive border with Iraq and Kuwait, against regional chaos and, most importantly, the Saudis malevolent neighbor on the other side of the Persian Gulf – Iran. Saudis have a deep fundamentalist Sunni literal interpretation of the Qur’an and consider the Iranian Shiite view of the Qur’an, as a mystical book which only the highest prelates are capable of discerning, as blasphemy of the highest order. If there is hatred by the Saudis for any nation in the Middle East, it is not the tiny Jewish state of Israel that draws most of their wrath… it is demonic Iran with what the Saudis believe is a deeply distorted view of Islam. As protectors of the faith (they control Mecca, which every Muslim faithful must visit at least once as their commitment to Islam), Saudis see Iran as a very real mega-threat not only to the region in general but to the Saudis in particular.
As the United States has fostered an increasing level of engagement and détente with Iran, attempting to diffuse a rogue state with near-term nuclear capacity, the Saudis have been sweating bullets. As the United States has encouraged the regional uprisings born of the Arab Spring, the Saudis – as conservative incumbents with no semblance of democracy – feel somewhat abandoned by the United States. Nevertheless, wanting to be on the right side of history, the Saudi government has severed relations with the Assad regime in Syria and has leaned strongly in support of the Sunni-led rebellion against this Shiite-friendly (and pro-Iranian) leader. But as the United States sits on the sidelines, literally hamstrung into inaction from domestic pressure groups, the Saudis feel that the Middle East is no longer an American priority.
American policy in Egypt has also left the United States “between a rock and a hard place,” with very few strategic options. Embracing Mohammed Morsi’s Presidency (as the elected leader), the United States was sideswiped by the coup that toppled him. So we are pretty much on the sidelines, watching the chaos emerge. Hardly a nation that truly embraces democratic inclusion, the new Egyptian military leadership has crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, the party that elected Morsi. The Saudis weren’t completely comfortable with Morsi, and they are now a major source of aid for the new regime.  Still, the U.S. sits tight.
Fracking has loosed massive oil reserves in the United States, suggesting that someday America might even be able claim its 1960s status of the largest oil producer on earth, eclipsing even Saudi Arabia. Friendly oil from neighboring Mexico and Canada also differentiate the American (in)dependence on/from “foreign oil” and other fossil fuels that plagues Europe and much of the rest of the world. But as our dependence on international oil reserves dwindles – and make no mistake, global oil prices fluctuate everywhere based on global issues – the Saudis see their importance fading from the American list of priorities.
So at the end of March, President Obama traveled to Saudi Arabia to address these Saudi policy concerns: “US President Barack Obama has held talks with Saudi King Abdullah, amid long-running tension over Iran's nuclear programme and Syria's conflict. After the meeting in Riyadh, the White House hailed the ‘strong relationship’ the US enjoyed with Saudi Arabia.
“The Saudis have been frustrated by what they see as the West's failure to tackle Syria's government, and the US willingness to negotiate with Iran… It was Mr Obama's first trip to Saudi Arabia in almost five years.” BBC.co.uk, March 29th.
But everyone can see how American popular opinion is also pressuring the U.S. to pull back on risky confrontations, efforts that could stretch our military budget to the breaking point. And it’s no secret that our foreign policy is very much driven by our need to access precious natural resources… and the Saudis have not missed the obvious. Practical reality makes the United States a partner in global diplomacy, not the controller of it anymore. The Saudis are now aware that they might need to consider making a few new friends that might not exactly sit well with the U.S.
I’m Peter Dekom, and this complex period of global power realignment has been nothing but awkward and difficult for stumbling American policy-makers.

The Free Market Liberals and Conservatives Should Want

Pretending to protect consumers in order to make sure that powerful incumbents can side-step free market competition is an American way of life. Even where there is no discernible benefit to the health and safety of consumers, regulatory boards tied to specific industries move from "protector of the public" to "protector of the powerful incumbents" all too often. It might happen when the regulators themselves, once employed by the companies they regulate where they developed their expertise, now move into the regulatory commissions. Or you might find that those who have big campaign contribution coffers somehow "convince" legislatures (very much including Congress), city council boards, various elected districts, etc. to support tilting the playing fields completely in favor of the market-incumbents.

Here are three current examples:

Prescription Drugs: "For almost 15 years big drug companies have vigorously lobbied Congress and the federal government to stop Americans from buying foreign medicines. As part of that lobbying, they have made it seem as if all medications purchased from Canada and other international sources are the same as those that come from websites that sell counterfeit drugs. Even the F.D.A. has made that suggestion. In testimony in February before a House subcommittee hearing to explore the public health threat of counterfeit drugs, Howard R. Sklamberg, a deputy commissioner at the F.D.A., said that foreign unapproved drugs posed the same health risks as counterfeit drugs.

"That assertion is just not true and will scare lawmakers and consumers into believing that all imported drugs bought online are dangerous. The ‘unapproved’ drugs are often the exact same ones sold here. Or they’re different brands, or generic versions of domestically sold drugs. Thus, many foreign unapproved drugs — specifically those ordered from licensed pharmacies — are almost always going to be safe and effective, like their United States counterparts, whereas a counterfeit drug will almost always be dangerous…

"Destroying real prescription drugs that patients have ordered, drugs that they need, is not going to protect people. It will hurt them. Brand-name drugs that are still on patent in the United States are often 80 percent less expensive at reputable international online pharmacies. Without online access, more Americans will go without prescribed medicines.

"There are no reported examples of Americans dying by taking real, but F.D.A.-unapproved, medication bought online from a foreign pharmacy that requires valid prescriptions. This is after tens of millions of prescriptions have been filled online and internationally over the past 15 or so years, since online pharmacies were created." Gabriel Levitt writing for the March 25th New York Times.

Car Dealerships: "In one important respect… Tesla stands on the side of the free-market angels: The company’s business plan calls for selling vehicles directly to consumers, rather than through auto dealers — a major challenge to the dealers’ costly, outmoded monopoly on new-car sales in the United States.

"State laws generally prohibit anyone but a licensed franchisee from selling new cars. A 2000 report by a Goldman Sachs analyst estimated that direct sales would save consumers $2,225 per new car, assuming an average vehicle price of $26,000.

"So far, Tesla’s effort has met with mixed success. It has opened stores in Minnesota, Massachusetts and Washington but struck out in Texas and Arizona. Virginia rebuffed Tesla’s plan for an outlet in Tysons Corner last year. Tesla sued but withdrew the lawsuit in return for a chance to apply for a dealership license…

"The dealer-based distributional system divides the United States into sales "territories," each one allocated to a dealer, on the theory that a protected market compensates for the risk of investing in a brick-and-mortar building and holding a large inventory of cars.

"Long ago, this business model might have made sense, but today technology takes much of the risk out of inventory management — and enables consumers to understand their choices without ‘help’ from a commissioned salesman. In fact, the Consumer Federation of America reported in 2013 that ‘[m]isrepresentation in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes’ was the top source of consumer complaints to state officials, as it had been in previous years.

"The dealer-based system was obsolescent even before the Internet, which is why Detroit automakers tried to streamline it decades ago, only to be thwarted when dealers turned to state legislatures for protection." Washington Post, March 12th. I’m just thinking where "car salesperson" sits on the honesty-expectation scale of most consumers!

Uber vs. Taxi Cab Commissions: Despite carefully GPS, computer-linked drivers, who provide flat rate quotes for "to and from" single car transportation, no matter that the consumer has a photograph of the driver and a very specific tracking on arrival time delivered on their smart phone, and despite the fact that in many cities regulators have failed to issue new "medallions" for additional taxis for decades, bidding up the cost of the medallion transfers, creating absurd barriers to entry for new taxi entrepreneurs in the market with severe shortages of available cabs, regulation commissions do not like anyone rocking their regulatory monopoly.

The smart phone/Web-based Uber, an enterprise where consumers can open accounts (where transactions are actually processed – not in the car) and access efficient single-car taxi-like services cheaply, predictably and efficiently. People love the service, but issues like "accident liability" and "safety inspections and licenses" are high on the overall list of concerns. For anyone who ever been in a NYC cab, the notion that cabs in NYC are clean and safe vaporizes in seconds.

"Uber and its abundance of imitators represent a new stage for technology companies. These businesses directly insert themselves into the physical world, arranging on-demand transportation, meals or even clean laundry in exchange for a sweet commission. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, which thrive in the safe confines of cyberspace, these start-ups live on the streets.

"That is a much messier place. Regulators, courts and city halls are struggling to define Uber. Is it a taxi company or a technology platform? Are the drivers, who often use their own vehicles, employees, as some are arguing in court, or ‘partners’ — that is, freelancers — as Uber maintains?

"Uber compares itself to the auction site eBay, connecting a buyer and seller but not liable for what happens between them. Regulating Uber, the company told the California Public Utilities Commission, would stifle innovation." NY Times, January 26th.

While Uber does background checks and requires insurance, some insurance companies have balked claiming that traditional car insurance policies specifically exclude commercial enterprises. Local cab companies are livid at these tech-driven alternatives: "The Western Washington Taxi Cab Operators Association is suing Uber, the app-based transportation company, for operating illegally in Seattle and King County… The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, claims that Uber’s service has violated city, county and state laws, and ‘engages in an unlawful and deceptive business practice which harms the economic interests of taxicab drivers.’" GeekWire.com, March 24th.

Regulatory commissions have varied in their response from outright banning of Uber to a limitation on the number of Uber operatives allowed… with a look-back scheduled sometime in the distant future. Some commissions want to phase in the "new" over time in a less-economic-impactful manner. But is this a disruptive technology whose time has come that cannot be stopped? "The San Francisco Cab Drivers Association (SFCDA), an association for registered taxi drivers that promotes fair working conditions and business practice, reports that one-third of the 8,500 or so taxi drivers in San Francisco -- over 2,800 -- have ditched driving a registered cab in the last 12 months to drive for a private transportation startup like Uber, Lyft, or Sidecar instead.

"How have these startups been able to take so many drivers so quickly? Passengers more and more appear to appreciate these startups' superior dispatch technology, ease of use, and competitive pricing. (To wit, leaked information this December proved just how well Uber is doing overall: $1 billion annually in gross bookings, roughly $213 million a year in revenues, and growing.) Indeed, the lack of a central taxi dispatch has long meant some taxis are never connected with some passengers, a frustrating scenario businesses like Uber sidestep with smartphone apps that track the car's location on a virtual map and an ETA. Meanwhile pricing is becoming cutthroat: Late last week, Uber slashed Uber X prices again in 16 cities, including San Francisco, by up to 34%, claiming fare prices cheaper than traditional cabs." Fortune.com, January 15th. How do you feel about these new business models? Do the incumbents need protection? How big does an incumbent have to be to stop change?

I’m Peter Dekom, and everywhere you look the "that’s the way we’ve always done it" explanation rings increasingly hollow and seems indefensible.




Friday, March 28, 2014

BS or Not: Affordable Care Act Report Card

Interesting conundrum: take a flawed statute that an angry conservative House of Representatives has unsuccessfully attempted to repeal 54 times but is unwilling to repair at any level, release it to be deployed in a battery of states with their own mandates and prerogatives and watch it float or sink depending on local receptivity.
 
While every seminal piece of federal social legislation in American history has been submitted to Congress for repair, usually multiple times, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has been repeatedly denied that opportunity. While the Administration has attempted to use executive orders to create exemptions, extensions and “amendment by enforcement priorities” to ease the statutes flaws, the real success or failure of the program has pretty much been determined by state-by-state reaction. With a Supreme Court ruling giving states more rights than the statute originally intended (on Medicaid), local enrollment has been deeply impacted by state decisions on implementation… and by the technological competence level of states that have created their own healthcare exchanges.
 
“The online insurance marketplace in Oregon is such a technological mess that residents have been signing up for health coverage by hand. In Texas, political opposition to President Obama’s health law is so strong that some residents believe, erroneously, that the program is banned in their state… But in Connecticut, a smoothly functioning website, run by competent managers, has successfully enrolled so many patients that officials are offering to sell their expertise to states like Maryland, which is struggling to sign people up for coverage… [Note: Maryland seems about to replace their system with Connecticut’s]
 
“[A] review of state-by-state enrollment data and other research, as well as interviews with patients, advocates, health policy analysts, elected officials, supporters and critics of the Affordable Care Act, suggest that, for consumers at least, the state of health care under the national law depends almost entirely on where a person lives.
 
“Some states have had a flowering of competition among insurers, including nonprofit co-ops — entirely new entities that are capturing the largest market share with low prices and remaking the coverage landscape in places like Maine. But in other places, including parts of states like New Hampshire and West Virginia, consumers have hardly any insurance choices at all.” New York Times, March 27th.
 
The President tell us that 6 million people have signed on for healthcare under the act (below the 7 million targeted), and that 3.5 million American have been added to Medicaid as that program has been expanded by that statute (where states have accepted this expanded role). Sign-ups among certain minorities and the “invulnerable” younger demographics remain below expectations, and as a result, the higher use older demos that have signed up are probably going to force a greater cost-push than originally projected. But the statute really seems to succeed or fail almost entirely on how it is implemented (especially in states have actually created their own exchanges, allowing “fixes” to be more easily implemented). Hence conservative states (where they oppose the law) have created their own self-fulfilling prophecy of failure while blue states have, for the most part, created programs that work.
 
In the panoply strategies building towards the approaching mid-term elections, the GOP path appears to be based on the negative perception of Obamacare among a large segment of the electorate… often biased by their state’s literally following a failure path and then using that self-directed failure to make the case against Obamacare.
 
When it comes to such major issues, it would be nice if we could approach the problems – and of course there have been problems – objectively. I guess that’s not going to happen. “‘The whole narrative about Obamacare — ‘Will they get to six million? What is the percentage of young adults going to be?’ — has almost nothing to do with whether the law is working or not, whether the premiums are affordable or not, whether people think they are getting a good deal or not,’ said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, whose analysts are closely tracking the measure… ‘It’s almost like trying to predict the local weather from national averages,’ Mr. Altman said. ‘This is really now a state and local game, not a national one.’” NY Times. And just think of the mess that we would have if the Affordable Care Act somehow were repealed.
 
I’m Peter Dekom, and I am reminded about the four blind men describing an elephant, when they have only been allow partial contact with the beast.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Are You Living on a Time Bomb?

Urban pipes for water, sewage and gas began penetrating cities in the United States in the first infrastructure phase, between 1830 and 1880. By 1880, nearly half of the urban waterworks were publicly owned. The worlds of sewage disposal and gas delivery lagged behind, much remaining in the private sector, because cities were unable to embrace the costs at the same time. But cities kept on building into the next phase of infrastructure development.
By 1945, 100% of the cities in the United States has public sewer and water systems. By 1970, 75% of Americans lived in and around cities. And as the western cities grew, they too added these capacities over time. Clearly, the newer cities with newer levels of expansion had relatively more modern systems simply because they were developed more recently. Today, we are seeing about 85% of American living in and around cities.
Gas delivery remained a function of both public and private utilities. Oh, and natural gas makes for excellent explosive potential! Natural gas and other volatile substances (like crude oil) are also transported by pipelines (some above, others below ground) between and among various regions within the United States as the above map indicates (from Propublica.org – hazardous liquid lines are in red, gas transmission lines in blue). There are oil spills and gas leaks of varying levels of significance making the news on a constant and continuing basis.
We watching our overall infrastructure decay around us. And while highways, dam, levees and bridges are easy to see because they are on the surface, the erosion of underground pipes aren’t so observable and require a lot of highly specialized monitoring and maintenance. To put it mildly, the relevant engineers don’t remotely catch all the problem areas, and even when issues are found, the money to fix the problem completely might just not be available in these economically impaired times.
In early March, a massive explosion took down two buildings in East Harlem, New York City, killing eight people in the mess. It was apparently a leaking gas pipe that provided the fuel that created such a massive destructive force. New York is one of those older cities with older infrastructure, although most of the relevant gas mains were rolled out in the 1940s. But gas leaks are nothing new to New York, a big city with big evidence of an infrastructure plague that impacts so many other cities in the US.
Consolidated Edison, whose pipes supplied the two buildings leveled by the explosion, had the highest rate of leaks in the country among natural gas operators whose networks totaled at least 100 miles, according to a New York Times analysis of records collected by the federal Department of Transportation for 2012, the most recent year data was available… The chief culprit, according to experts, is the perilous state of New York City’s underground network, one of the oldest in the country and a glaring example of America’s crumbling infrastructure.
“In 2012 alone, Con Edison and National Grid, the other distributor of natural gas in the city, reported 9,906 leaks in their combined systems, which serve the city and Westchester County. More than half of them were considered hazardous because of the dangers they posed to people or property, federal records show. (There are more than 1.2 million miles of gas main pipes across the country. Last year, gas distributors nationwide reported an average of 12 leaks per 100 miles of those pipes.)
Elsewhere in the country, a rupture in a major pipeline in San Bruno, Calif., in 2010 caused an explosion that killed eight people. In 2011, a leak from an 83-year-old cast-iron main in Allentown, Pa., caused a blast that killed five people…. ‘It’s like Russian roulette,’ said Robert B. Jackson, a professor of environment and energy at Stanford University who has studied gas leaks in Washington, D.C., and Boston. ‘The chances are, you are going to be lucky, but once in a while, you’re going to be unlucky.’” New York Times, March 24th.
As time passes, we are only going to see more death, destruction and injury from infrastructure failures. As we face more than $2 trillion in need infrastructure upgrades and repairs, the big question remains as to how proactive, versus reactive, we are going to be to modernize America. Strange to see how countries like China are leap-frogging the US by adding state-of-the-art infrastructure as they expand their urban footprints.
To be safe and competitive, we need to be equally aggressive in our infrastrcuture upgrades. The opportunity to build that infrastructure offers better jobs and greater economic competitiveness… and will save countless American lives. We need to understand that building infrastructure is not a cost without a measurable return; it is an investment with a pretty clear rate of return, both in lives saved and in economic productivity efficiencies captured. Investments in America are good for us all, and in the long run not only pay back the costs of repair and expansion but add a productivity return that makes money for us all.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if you really think you are safe from such consequences, take another look around.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Death Sentences that Probably Aren’t


Mohammad Morsi (above right) was elected President of Egypt in 2012. His faction was a group that many nations in the West had labeled a terrorist group – the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi claimed that he represented all Egyptians and that severely Islamist policies were not to be the new Egypt. Still, he attempted to ram through a new constitution that shifted once-secular Egypt severely into an Islamist mode while simultaneously walking a more moderate path in his application of Egyptian policy on regional politics.
With Egypt’s economy in shambles and rising fear among both the more sophisticated educated young, those slammed by harsh economic realities and, finally, the all-powerful military, the nation became increasingly unstable. Peaceful protests rapidly became violent. Egypt was teetering on anarchy, when the military followed an all-too-familiar pattern of post-World War II history, deposing Morsi and his party. A year after taking office, he was arrested and has been put on trial as the military began a purge of the Muslim Brotherhood itself. The party was banned and protests from adherents were viciously prosecuted.
Caught in the middle, the United States, trying to show the Muslim world that it could tolerate a moderated Islamist presence in the Middle East, continued to show support for “lawfully elected” Morsi despite a rather clear new direction in Egypt that seemed to want to crush such Islamic fundamentalism. US military aid to Egypt was cut back, even as the new military government seemed to be embracing an anti-Islamist path that had been US policy since the early 1990s. But as Morsi and his followers seemed to be permanently pushed out of Egyptian politics (again), the United States began to downplay its rhetoric and let the changes simply unfold.
Any government that claims legitimacy based on a mandate from God – the very definition of Iran’s form of religious governance as an Islamic Republic – will sooner or later override any other power voice in any government. After all, how can you overrule God – conveniently dictated by those “ordained” to speak to the Deity, often self-appointed or appointed by a narrow elite? So as Morsi attempted to Islamize his ascendency to power, locking this reality into a new constitution, secular and military leaders realized that sooner or later their voices would superseded by those claiming religious legitimacy and supremacy. Morsi’s fate was sealed by these powerful incumbents.
But the purge of Muslim Brotherhood operatives has continued. Blamed for any damage done or people killed in pro-Morsi demonstrations, about 1200 adherents were tried for all kinds of criminal activity with the penalty for most being the death sentence. The verdict (all but 147 in absentia) against 529 supporters (including senior leaders) was just announced: death. “The verdict now goes to Egypt's supreme religious authority, the Grand Mufti (a senior Islamic scholar), for approval or rejection, says the BBC's Orla Guerin in Cairo… Campaigners say that while death sentences are often handed down in Egypt, few have been carried out in recent years.
“The final trial session will not be held until 28 April, so there is some time left before the sentence is confirmed and there will be time to appeal in that period, our correspondent adds… The Muslim Brotherhood's spokesman in London, Abdullah el-Haddad, told the BBC the sentences showed that Egypt was now a dictatorship.” BBC.co.uk, March 24th. Another 700 supporters of the Brotherhood began a new set of trials on March 25th. Spokespeople for the Brotherhood called such trials flatly illegal conducted by “Kangaroo courts.” The trials were all done in two days, defense lawyers mostly not there either.
But for democracy fans, there’s “good” news: “Egypt’s powerful military commander Abdel Fatah al-Sissi formally announced his plan to run for president, in a long anticipated address to the nation on [March 26th].” Washington Post, March 26th. Kind of “déjà vu” all over again, huh? And trust me, al-Sissi is no friend to the Brotherhood, to put it mildly. Still, ultra-conservative Islamists press and more modern secularists push back, all across the region.
We are watching a strong movement of Muslim fundamentalists in their commitment to impose Islamist rule under harsh Sharia law in increasing number of countries or sections of nations. You can see the violent attempts in northern Nigeria as Boko Haram Islamist adherents slit throats and set fire to civilians who engage in acts (like getting a western education) they oppose. And as radical as al Qaeda might be, its spin-off, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is even more violently committed to the imposition of religious governance on the world. Taliban have their eyes set on ruling Afghanistan and perhaps Pakistan. The clash of civilizations continues.
Even in relatively democratic and secular nations, signs of creeping Islamist policies and practices becoming the law of the land are growing, with strong push-back from those who have more modern leanings. You can see the struggles in Turkey as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, himself under a cloud of possible corruption, uses government power to crush dissent and turn off as much critical social media as he can in an effort to claw back his country into conservative Islamic practices and laws.
Radical conservatism has accelerated well-beyond the Islamic faith and is present in popular right-wing anti-immigration parties in the Netherlands and even parts of liberal Scandinavia. As our own middle class is eroding and there are perceived threats to traditional, rural American values from a more liberal and ethnically-diverse urban population, the rise of uncompromising, gridlock-committed Tea Party candidates is threatening to bring our own government to its knees. To many in the US, it is a battle of ethnic Europeans (read: traditional whites) against immigrants and people of color. Such political macrotrends are fascinating to study and understand… but when the conflicts and polarization rise to current levels, they are amazingly difficult to live with or live through. The unwavering commitments to specific courses of action are so rigid that such movements often undermine the political system itself.
            I’m Peter Dekom, and while such changes are the very definition of history itself, kindness and looking at the world from your opponents’ perspective is a reasonable place to start to mollify the pain.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

An Imperfect Crystal Ball



Big Data… the macrotrend of tracking consumer behavior, being prediction models for political campaigns and marketing campaigns to name a few uses… has redefined privacy, trending, media and marketing. I wrote a book about it (see the upper right hand corner of this blog). But as scientists comb through human digital expressions with a large dollop of other generally-available public information, a new possible use for Big Data is bubbling to the surface: predicting where insurrection and genocide are likely to occur.
“Australian researchers say they have developed a mathematical model to predict genocide. A Swiss sociologist has sifted through a century of news articles to predict when war will break out — both between and within countries. A Duke University lab builds software that it says can be used to forecast insurgencies. A team assembled by the Holocaust Museum is mining hate speech on Twitter as a way to anticipate outbreaks of political violence: It will be rolled out next year for the elections in Nigeria, which have frequently been marred by violence.
“What makes these efforts so striking is that they rely on computing techniques — and sometimes huge amounts of computing power — to mash up all kinds of data, ranging from a country’s defense budget and infant mortality rate to the kinds of words used in news articles and Twitter posts.” Somini Sengupta writing for New York Times, Sunday Review, March 22nd.
Anyone who believes that this creates digitally certain models, unambiguous and totally accurate forecasts, would still be disappointed. These digital crystal balls remain flawed, but what they can say about ourselves and our world at the very least tell us when trouble is brewing, when there are intervention opportunities to prevent “bad and worse.” And even where the predictors are more than clear, the ability to intervene often slams into the wall of sovereign integrity, malevolent dictators with powerful police and military forces at their disposal or well-funded zealots deeply dedicated to misguided murder and mayhem in the name of God who are not remotely ready to deescalate.
How do these systems work? “Predicting mass violence is yet another frontier. Among these efforts is a 2012 project funded partly by the Australian government in which a team from the University of Sydney looked at more than a dozen variables that could point to the likelihood of mass atrocities: Had there been political assassinations or coups; were there conflicts in neighboring states; is there a high rate of infant mortality? (Infant mortality turns out to be a powerful predictor of unrest, a signal that state institutions aren’t working.)
“Using machine-learning tools to draw inferences about the effects of each piece of information they analyzed, the researchers compiled a list of 15 countries facing the highest risk of genocide between 2011 and 2015. Central African Republic, which had been on no one’s radar at the time, came out at the top, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad. Also on the list were some obvious contenders with continuing strife: Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. They didn’t get everything right: Sri Lanka was on the list, but has witnessed no outbreaks of mass violence since 2011 — not yet, anyway…
“Kalev H. Leetaru, a computer scientist based at George Washington University, has constructed a huge trove called the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone. It scours the Internet to catalog news coverage of major events from 1979 to the present. It can be used to study what might happen in the future — or to produce a snapshot of what’s happening now, as in the case of a map that Mr. Leetaru produced to show outbreaks of violence in Nigeria.
“Whether any of this fortunetelling will actually help stave off violence is another matter. That ultimately has less to do with mathematical models than with the calculus of power.
“A handful of projects are trying to deploy predictive tools in real time. Michael Best, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, helped develop a tool for Kenyan elections last year that mined reports of political violence on Twitter and Facebook. Nigeria has agreed to let the researchers sit in the election security headquarters when its voters go to the polls next year: They will mine social media for hate speech, using automated tools, and combine the results with the findings of election monitors on the ground.
“Social media speech cannot pinpoint violent outbreaks, Professor Best cautions, nor would it be ethical to censor what Nigerians post online. But words are like smoke signals, he argues, and he hopes they can help the authorities get to the right place at the right time.” NY Times.
Even as the certainty of violence rises in the predictability, what do you do with the information? Is it strong enough to engage international concern? Is the data sufficient bases to justify tangible action, even military intervention? Or are we bound to know where terrible things are about to happen so that we can send our journalists in to watch the death and destruction unfold? We truly need how to use our new predictive models to create diffusion strategies that can be more globally accepted.
I’m Peter Dekom, and indeed, solutions do in fact start with education and information.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Life vs. Profits

 
To get the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) passed in 2010, even a Democrat-controlled Congress required a whole lot of compromises and concessions to the profit-driven private sector. Private insurance companies pushed aside a potential government-supplied, ultra-low-cost competitor, and the pharmaceutical industry – pretending to be concerned about lax quality control (in Canada and Europe???) of non-US prescription drugs – managed to relegate approved prescription drugs to those sold in the United States (where the same drugs are sold at prices vastly higher than those found overseas).
There’s no question that developing new pharmaceuticals is expensive and risky, but large foreign pharmas (particularly in Europe) seem to be able to ply their trade, develop extraordinary new treatments and cures, but retain their rather substantial cost advantages nonetheless. But as long as American pharmas can get Congress to protect their rather extraordinary pricing practices, why should they change? And if a little lobbying and campaign support is required, it is a small price to pay for the profitable result.
Yet our pharmaceutical sector is terrified that a popular uprising, a sudden focus by US consumers on how much more they are paying for their prescriptions than almost anyone in any other developed country, could bring national attention to these expensive practices. You can see this sensitivity by looking at how the stock market reacted recently when a Congressional inquiry drilled down on a new potential cure for the often fatal Hepatitis C. A 12-week curative course would cost a patient a whopping $84,000. But is that a fair or excessive price for such a dramatic treatment?
“A new drug to treat hepatitis C that costs $1,000 a pill has caused rising concern among insurers and state Medicaid programs. It has now also spurred interest from Democratic congressmen whose queries about the drug prompted a sell-off in biotechnology stocks on Friday.
 “Three Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have demanded that Gilead Sciences, the developer, justify the price of its drug, which is called Sovaldi… ‘Our concern is that a treatment will not cure patients if they cannot afford it,’ the congressmen said in their letter, which was sent on [March 20th].
“Gilead’s stock fell 4.6 percent, to $72.07 on [March 21st]. Nervous investors took down the shares of some other big biotechnology companies as well, worried that pressure on drug prices would increase. Biogen Idec and Alexion Pharmaceuticals both fell 8 percent, Vertex Pharmaceuticals 5 percent and Celgene nearly 4 percent… ‘The fear that Congress may begin a program of meddling, one drug at a time, doesn’t affect just one drug,’ said Andrew A. Bogan of Bogan Associates, which invests in science and technology stocks. ‘It kind of scares everyone.” New York Times, March 21st.
Sorry, but such an investigation doesn’t really scare me. Yet there have always been forces on both sides of the aisle – beneficiaries of pharma’s political support – who are being pressed into an uncomfortable corner. GOP conservatives, arguing a jingoistic “buy American” in a free market, are going to have to make their stand under the harsh reality of truth: it’s not a free market if Americans are denied access to most of it!
Medical costs are continuing to rise, because it appears that preserving private profits has a much higher national priority than containing healthcare costs or saving lives. And since there is little or no hope of getting reform through a House of Representatives that has tried 54 times to repeal the entire Affordable Care Act but truly has no interest in supporting the obvious required fixes to a statute they just hate, what exactly do we expect will change?
Every other piece of seminal legislation (from Social Security and Medicare to the entire federal tax code) has passed through a process of continuing legislative refinement to correct unanticipated flaws and unforeseen and undesirable results. Not so the Affordable Care Act. Our American right wing wants the Act to look bad, to fail, and doing what Congress has done on every other social legislation at this level through our history, fixing the law through amendment, is simply not on the table this time. This law appears to be the basis of the big battle expected in the upcoming mid-term elections. And the GOP wants that bill to look bad, without the slightest concern of what is really best for America. Why are polarization and gridlock the new badges of honor in our Congress these days?
I’m Peter Dekom, and are we, as Americans, ever going to have a nation where most of us are on the same page?