Monday, June 30, 2014

Treat Me Right!

Some parents of children with hundreds of daily seizures have found that the use of cannabis derivatives (medical marijuana – MMJ) can eliminate all but a straggling few of those life-disruptors. But even in states where MMJ is permitted, using cannabis on kids is simply illegal. Still the United States is slowly and seemingly irretrievably marching toward rather complete legalization of marijuana, not just for medical purposes but across the board. The federal government is considering revising banking regulations for legal marijuana entities, the FDA is considering reclassifying the weed to a lesser level of controlled substances and states across the land (beyond recreationally-accepting Washington State and Colorado and the almost two dozen total states where MMJ is legal at some level) are considering opening their statutes to accepting at least MMJ. Perhaps they are looking at the tax revenues that are making Colorado legislators (most of them) smile.
There are still tons of hurdles that have to be crossed, and one of the biggest issues – hampered by federal laws that make crossing state lines exceptionally difficult – involve quality control standards and dosage uniformity. If MMJ and recreational marijuana are to be legal, at the very least we need national standards to insure consistency and consumer safety. Not later. Now! It’s pretty necessary medical preventative step, since even legal users are puzzled over exactly how much they are ingesting and what the impact of any particular product might have on their bodies.
Internationally, we have watched as Uruguay has legalized marijuana, and Mexico is now debating whether their expensive and bribe-generating battle with drug cartels – mostly protecting their trade routes into the United States – can be moderated by legalizing marijuana. They are having difficulty sustaining their laws in light of obviously increasing legal tolerance in many states north of their border.
A June UN Office on Drugs and Crime's World Drugs Report indicated that the changes in recreational drug use laws in Washington and Colorado are just too recent to ascertain their overall impact on marijuana usage. “‘In the United States, the lower perceived risk of cannabis use has led to an increase in its use,’ the report said, although global use of cannabis appeared to have fallen.
“There was a 56% increase in US cannabis-related emergency department visits between 2006 and 2010, and a 14% increase in admission to treatment centres for drug abuse over the same period, the report said, citing US government data… The percentage of people in the US aged 12 or older who admitted to using marijuana in the past year had increased from 10% in 2008 to 12% in 2012, the report added.”, June 26th. Emergency room visit statistics tell us exactly how necessary uniform cannabis standards have become.
“One reason for the increased need for medical treatment [from marijuana overdose] is thought to be an increased potency in the drug, the report said… ‘In some parts of the world we have seen that the content of the main psychotic substance, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), has increased, and this in a way makes the cannabis more harmful,’ UNODC research branch chief Angela Me told the BBC… Research showed that young people considered the use of cannabis less risky when it was legalised, the report said… However, Ms. Me said that ‘the relationship between risk perception and legalisation’ was ‘complex.’”
For many Americans, who hate the trend of liberalizing marijuana laws – despite the obvious failure of Prohibition in the last century – they prefer a head-in-the-sand approach. They would rather not deal with rather simple solutions of medical risks (including death) by reason of the absence of clear and understandable dosage and quality standards of legalized marijuana products. It’s time to live in the real world, accept the rather clearly-proven benefits (many of them seemingly unique for many people in extreme discomfort and pain) and the recreational usage patterns that just about anyone under 30 knows directly or indirectly (okay, and a good number over that age cohort!).
I’m Peter Dekom, and as world values change, attitudes and supporting pragmatics need to change with them.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Elephant in the Classroom

I’ve blogged this one before, but there are changes that suggest both a new relevance and a better solution. The notion of tenure gets mixed up with seniority. The former, born of protecting outspoken academics at a university level whose expertise at cutting-edge writing and research are essential, sounds noble.Seniority, on the other hand, sounds defensive and a tad “old world” blue collar. There is no cutting-edge writing and research at a primary and secondary school level; the faculty is in the business of generating the basic skills necessary either for life or elevation to further education. Still, the unions insist on calling keeping older teachers secure in their jobs regardless of skills tenure.
Tenure just sounds better, but at almost every primary or secondary school in the nation, it is a hubristic indulgence, an obstacle to giving children the best education from the best educators. Under the guise of a hoity-toity academic freedom, we have saddled our children with too many job-secured-seniority-touting bad teachers. Not that those who have taught for decades are in any way inferior because of the long ride, noting how many have reached the pinnacle of teaching ability (perhaps grabbing a few advanced degrees along the way), but seniority is an ugly excuse to protect the incompetent, those unwilling to embrace necessary modernity, and those who simply erode the values America needs to be competitive. Easy to get rid of those new to the system. They lack the prophylactic seniority to stay the course. Out they go!
But collective bargaining, moribund in the private sector, has blossomed in the public sector and nowhere more than among teachers in California. The California Teachers Association (CTA) appears to be the more powerful labor organization in the state. In the late 1970s, it represented about 170,000 teachers, more than doubling those numbers into the present day. Their campaign coffers are bursting with dollars for CTA-protective-minded legislators, and it is common knowledge, particularly for Democrats, that opposing the CTA and its policies is a fast road to an underfunded losing campaign. Dues are stiff, running sometimes to as much as $1000 per teacher, and those jingling coffers with the underlying political backing across the board, lure legislators to CTA-issues like a candle draws moths.
The CTA has become a “a political behemoth that has blocked meaningful education reform, protected failing and even criminal educators, and pushed for pay raises and benefits that have reached unsustainable levels.” Los Angeles Times, May 18, 2012. Given California’s size, the CTA has done more to block change in our public school system than any other organization on earth. Aside from making it generally impossible to get rid of bad teachers at every level, they have elevated protecting their misnamed “tenure” union right above all else.
How bad is this “tenure system” and exactly how does it work? My business consulting friend, Dennis Duitch (in his June 22nd RSS feed), lays it on the line: “It’s just another proud endorsement of the California public school system, where even grossly ineffective teachers receive ‘tenure’ after less than two years on the job with only a one-in-125,000 chance of ever being fired for incompetence – since ‘the worst teachers, even after being removed from classrooms, are often still paid to do nothing and when they rape students are often defended by the teachers’ unions; the process can take ten years and cost a school district up to $450,000.’   [T]he situation is… bleak and [California] student scores continue to rank last place among the 50 states.  [COMMUNITIES DIGITAL NEWS – Jun 12, 14]”
Thus, it has been commonly accepted that the California legislature would never pass reforms that might begin to solve the plunging standards of California schools, already impaired by budget cuts from impaired economic times. Current educational needs have of necessity been sacrificed to service overly-generous (and underfunded) pension obligations for people who are no longer active educators. Even as every educated administrator and legislator knows how bad the seniority system has slammed the school system, everyone is also acutely aware that nothing is likely to change because of the political realities noted above. Ah, but what if the challenge to a failed system did not have to come from voting legislators?
With support from the United States Department of Education, students picked up the issue and attacked the unions in court: “A California judge ruled [June 10th] that teacher tenure laws deprived students of their right to an education under the State Constitution and violated their civil rights. The decision hands teachers’ unions a major defeat in a landmark case, one that could radically alter how California teachers are hired and fired and prompt challenges to tenure laws in other states.
“‘Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students,’ Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court wrote in the ruling. ‘The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.’
“The decision, which was enthusiastically endorsed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, brings a close to the first chapter of the case, Vergara v. California, in which a group of student plaintiffs backed by a Silicon Valley millionaire argued that state tenure laws had deprived them of a decent education by leaving bad teachers in place.” New York Times, June 10th.
The case has a long way to go through the appellate process, but at least there is a path towards addressing not what’s best for incumbents, but what’s best for our children. The union is ready to kick back hard: “‘We believe the judge fell victim to the anti-union, anti-teacher rhetoric and one of America’s finest corporate law firms that set out to scapegoat teachers for the real problems that exist in public education,’ said Joshua Pechthalt, the president of the California Federation of Teachers, one of two unions that represent roughly 400,000 educators in the state. ‘There are real problems in our schools, but this decision in no way helps us move the ball forward.’” NY Times.
We have dug ourselves into a deep hole. With trillions of dollars of unfunded state and local government pensions, a huge segment of that obligation sitting with teachers from our public school systems, we are simply unable to support our obligations. Something has got to give. We need a new tax base (perhaps moving revenues from gangs and cartels to government treasuries through the controlled legalization of marijuana) and more realistic structures that reflect the modern era.
We also cannot expect good educational results from allowing clearly inferior (even horrible) teachers to keep their jobs. If you think uncapped and undisciplined spending, supporting mediocrity simply “because,” is acceptable, take a quick trip to Detroit and look around. There needs to be a reasonable compromise to protect pensions, and there needs to be a ground-up rebuilding of a public educational system that is no longer dedicated to giving our children the education they need for a very tough future.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it is time to do the obvious to fix what we can no longer sweep under the rug.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

“The Guys with Guns Make the Rules”

Or take this little exchange at a hearing of Senate Judiciary Committee on January 30, 2013:
DICK DURBIN (D-Ill): Mr. LaPierre, I run into some of your members in Illinois and here's what they tell me, "Senator, you don't get the Second Amendment." Your NRA members say, "You just don't get it. It's not just about hunting. It's not just about sports. It's not just about shooting targets. It's not just about defending ourselves from criminals," as Ms. [Gayle] Trotter[, senior fellow with the Independent Women's Forum] testified. "We need the firepower and the ability to protect ourselves from our government--from our government, from the police--if they knock on our doors and we need to fight back." Do you agree with that point of view?

WAYNE LAPIERRE: Senator, I think without any doubt, if you look at why our founding fathers put it there, they had lived under the tyranny of King George and they wanted to make sure that these free people in this new country would never be subjugated again and have to live under tyranny.

Although the vast majority of Americans are really clustered around the political center, advocates from right and left seem to embrace a mythology that the majority of Americans are on their side. We are indeed becoming a nation of immigrants and minorities, who in the aggregate currently are a much, much larger demographic segment than socially conservative white traditionalists. But somehow, American-born governor (whose parents emigrated from India), Bobby Jindal (R-Louisiana) believes that as a member of clear ethnic minority himself, he can convince the GOP ultra-right wing that he understand and represents their interests. Perhaps, but if Bobby can’t get his way through the gerrymandered ballot box, he seems to be suggesting that it may be necessary to overthrow those left wing Fascists (a bit of an oxymoron, I admit) in Washington.

I’d elaborate, but Governor Bobby does it so much better than I ever could. Speaking in late June at an three-day annual conference hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group led by longtime Christian activist Ralph Reed, attended by more than 1,000 evangelical leaders, Jindal said: “I can sense right now a rebellion brewing amongst these United States, where people are ready for a hostile takeover of Washington, D.C., to preserve the American Dream for our children and grandchildren… I am tired of the left. They say they're for tolerance, they say they respect diversity. The reality is this: They respect everybody unless you happen to disagree with them… The left is trying to silence us and I'm tired of it, I won't take it anymore.”
Take a good look, a really good look, at the assault rifle pictured above (the infamous Bushmaster - AR-15). It has been used in several mass killings, most notably the Sandy Hook massacre that took the lives of 26 people in December of 2012. It’s not a hunting weapon. It’s a bit much as a weapon for home defense. But man, if you need to take out a look of people who disagree with your political points of view, and you really think they are destroying everything you believe in, it is really a great weapon of choice. Oh, and it is legal in a whole pile of American states! Read the above. Look at the gun. Figure out what folks who want assault rifles really want to do with them.

I’m Peter Dekom, and the marketing arm of the American small arms manufacturing industry (aka the NRA) seems to be creating an even scarier world where the left might just be forced to get guns to defend themselves from the right?!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Death by Sunni, Death by Shiite

For optimists on settling down the Iraqi civil war, the news is anything but good. And while a new nation – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (“Levant” if you prefer in lieu of “Syria”) – might be able to be able to be formed (across northern Syria all the way to Baghdad), it is still likely to face internecine struggles from rather divergent Sunni factions (ranging from Baathist secularists to ISIS and Islamic Jihad militants) for years to come. For the West, having a Sunni equivalent of Shiite Iran, a new base for global terrorism, is not exactly good news. For the Shiite world, particularly Iran, it is a natural enemy that increases pressures for developing a nuclear deterrent. ISIS is slaughtering Shiites wherever they find them.
During the American/NATO occupation of Iraq, we built massive walls to separate Sunni enclaves from growing Shiite sections in Baghdad. They probably saved a lot of Sunni lives in a city dominated by the Shiite-centric al-Maliki government. But now, amidst a frenzy to muster Shiite militias to counter the ISIS insurgency, these walled neighborhoods are increasingly becoming inescapable cages to hold Sunnis to be dealt with later (or now?) by angry Shiites bent on killing.
As the United States is not providing the immediate airstrikes PM Nouri al-Maliki has requested, instead pressuring him to remedy his past purely pro-Shiite policies and create an inclusive government including Sunnis, he simply has balked. Instead, he has used ISIS threats to decimate Iraqi Shiite religious sites to enlist significant military aid from Iran. Even as the United States is back-channeling with Iran, it has warned regional players that they should stay out of the Iraqi conflict.
Meanwhile, considering the possibility of airstrikes and drone-strikes, the United States has sent a few hundred military advisors into Iraq to assess the risks. Preliminary reports have suggested the difficulty of “surgical strikes” against ISIS targets without causing serious collateral death and destruction to civilians interlaced with the invading army. “The Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a ‘slippery slope’ into perpetual war and sets a dangerous precedent for lethal operations that other countries might adopt in the future, according to a report by a bipartisan panel that includes several former senior intelligence and military officials.” New York Times, June 25th. Increasingly, polls of American voters are showing an increasing disapproval of any further U.S. involvement in Iraq.
While our inane invasion of Iraq in 2003 may have destabilized the region, the underlying tensions are unlikely to be peacefully resolved anytime soon. There is no short-term fix. And the above-noted report is anything but flattering to America’s use of drone-strikes and other counter-terrorism policies to date: “‘There is no indication that a U.S. strategy to destroy Al Qaeda has curbed the rise of Sunni Islamic extremism, deterred the establishment of Shia Islamic extremist groups or advanced long-term U.S. security interests,’ the report concludes.” NY Times.
Meanwhile, Iran’s involvement is clearly escalating, with a clear statement that they will do anything in their power to stop the threatened ISIS destruction of Shiite holy shrines. Is the United States simply looking the other way – wink, wink – as Iran escalates its support for the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad? “Iran is directing surveillance drones over Iraq from an airfield in Baghdad and is supplying Iraqi forces with tons of military equipment and other supplies, according to American officials.
“The secret Iranian programs are a rare instance in which Iran and the United States share a near-term goal: countering the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the Sunni militants who have seized towns and cities in a blitzkrieg across western and northern Iraq. But even as the two nations provide military support to the embattled government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, they are watching each other’s actions warily as they jostle for influence in the region.” NY Times. Clearly, no matter what happens in Iraq, it cannot be good news for American policy-makers. Europe, still reeling from the Russian threats against Ukraine, seems to be sitting on the sidelines to let us deal with this “blowback” from our missteps in the earlier Iraq War.
“‘From our point of view, we’ve made it clear to everyone in the region that we don’t need anything to take place that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension,’ [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry said… Both the United States and Iran have small numbers of military advisers in Iraq. As many as 300 American commandos are being deployed to assess Iraqi forces and the deteriorating security situation, while about a dozen officers from Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force have been sent to advise Iraqi commanders and to help mobilize more than 2,000 Shiites from southern Iraq, American officials say.
“‘Iran is likely to be playing somewhat of an overarching command role within the central Iraqi military apparatus, with an emphasis on maintaining cohesiveness in Baghdad and the Shia south and managing the reconstitution of Shia militias,’ said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
“Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the head of [Iran’s] Quds Force, has paid at least two visits to Iraq to help Iraqi military advisers plot strategy. And Iranian transport planes have been making twice-daily flights to Baghdad with military equipment and supplies, 70 tons per flight, for the Iraqi forces.” NY Times.
President Obama is asking Congress for half a billion dollars to be used to train and supply rebels in Syria who oppose both the Syrian Assad regime and ISIS. Let the games begin. To make matters worse, even if Iraq were to be separated into its three seemingly natural divisions – Kurds, Sunnis, & Shiites – the deep divisions even within those communities are unlikely to settle and create that ultimate “peaceful” solution. Battles to control oil and water suggest that there are even more reasons to expect continued regional conflicts. Most Iraqis understand the problems that partition might bring.
“… Iraq and Syria’s potential fragmentation along sectarian or ethnic lines is not likely to offer any solution to the region’s dysfunction, analysts say, and may well generate new conflicts driven by ideology, oil, and other resources… For the most part, Iraqis (with the exception of the Kurds) reject the idea of partition, according to recent interviews and opinion polls taken several years ago. In that sense, Iraq forms a striking contrast with the former Yugoslavia, where militias worked consciously from the start to carve out new and ethnically exclusive national enclaves. The sectarian strain may have led to Iraq’s current impasse, but it coexists with other sources of regional and ideological solidarity, some deeply rooted in history.
“Partly for that reason, many analysts say, the current division of Iraq — while it may prove irreversible in the end — does not represent a return to a more authentic or harmonious dispensation, nor is it likely to better address the Middle East’s sources of political and social failure.” New York Times, June 26th.
Tell me exactly what the United States can do to make the situation in the region any better? One way or another, given our past failed efforts in Iraq, we are going to be blamed for what is happening and what will happen, but whatever we may do now has no serious path to predictable stability. One way or another, Muslim extremists will push to expand their power in the region. Exactly how much we should spend on an irreconcilable schisms “over there” versus our dire needs on the domestic front?
Our stupid, under-thought policies of more than a decade ago seem to have supported, not defeated, the growth of Islamic extremists… giving fundamentalist recruiters a really specific villain to encourage passionate and angry Muslims, giving them a focus to vent their rage. We need to understand that nothing we do at this point will stop the violence, and the anger at our actions will continue unabated for some time to come. It is bad and will get worse no matter what we do.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we need to be mindful that most of the assumptions we have made about this part of the world have been wrong, dead wrong.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Carry Your Entire Life on Your Smart Phone?

Too many Americans do, and if you carry a smart phone, laptop or a tablet in your car, you’ve got the potential of exposing every tiny detail or your life to anyone coming into possession of those very personal accumulations of “you.” In 2001, in Atwater vs. Lago Vista, the United States Supreme Court held in a 5 to 4 decision that where a state legislature (Texas in this case) had authorized a warrantless search of a vehicle following a probable cause-supported stop in a relatively minor traffic violation, a resulting police search of the car did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment (search and seizure) rights of the occupants of that car. So if the cops wanted to check out a backpack or look into the trunk or the glove compartment after a traffic violation, without a warrant, that was cool with the court.
Slowly, police figured out that if they could find a “bona fide” reason to stop a vehicle – a seatbelt violation for example – they could use this as an excuse to take an occupant’s smart phone and either look at its contents or even download all the information on it.  For possible felons under suspicion, this was a way for police to get lots and lots of information about that suspect without having to justify a warrant to a judge. As time has passed, increasingly consumers carried just about everything about their lives, directly or indirectly, on their smart phones. Police departments were having a field day with this massive loophole, and individual privacy vaporized in the process.
On June 25th, the Supreme Court faced this technological change head on, and reached one of the rarest of the rareunanimous decisions in Riley vs. California: “The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought… Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple — get a warrant,” noted the justices.
“The court drew a clear distinction between digital and physical searches in the opinion, at one point saying it was the difference between horseback riding and space travel. ‘The United States [the government’s case] asserts that a search of all data stored on a cell phone is 'materially indistinguishable' from searches of these sorts of physical items.... That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon.’
“It also invoked aliens when describing the proliferation of cellphones in modern life. ‘These cases require us to decide how the search incident to arrest doctrine applies to modern cell phones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy,’ it wrote. ‘A smart phone of the sort taken from Riley was unheard of ten years ago; a significant majority of American adults now own such phones.’” Washington Post, June 25th.
OK, this sounds like common sense to most of us, but of late, the Supreme Court has issued rulings that seem completely devoid of common sense – like the horrific Citizens United ruling that lets the rich to use their money in an almost unrestricted fashion to influence elections. That the Riley decision was unanimous suggests that the flood of attacks on individual privacy just moved up a notch in the eyes of the law. Judges are now justifiably afraid of government intrusions into individual privacy, a suggestion that has to send the National Security Agency quivering at what that court may do to their massive over-reaching requirements and requests of common carriers to hold person phone and digital information for them to look at… whenever.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it is about time that a unanimous court sees the same outrage that appears to be pretty obvious to the rest of us.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Too Late for Us and Who Cares About Them?

To a majority of climatologists, we’ve probably long since passed the tipping point where we can reverse the impact of climate change. Having come off the hottest May in recorded history, with unending droughts in significant parts of the world, punctuated by massive flooding in others, facing the spread of tropic diseases carried by mosquitos, watching big storms wreak big havoc everywhere, ice flows melting, fires raging, farmers raging at water rationing, aquifers and reservoirs drained and unlikely ever to be refilled, islands and shorelines disappearing, it does seem as if we are not really going to be able to go back to normal. Nobody wants less electrical power, fewer cars and increased manufacturing and power-generation costs from conservation measures – although there are lots of jobs in them thar changes – but we are really at a crossroads in our relationship with the earth.
Mega-polluter China marches to its own drumbeat, and it seems oblivious to the demands of outside environmentalists to take control of its toxic waterways – water used to irrigate and feed its people – unbreathable air and excessive reliance on coal-fired power generation. But China doesn’t listen to external demands, never has. However, since we are seeing local reports leaked and blogged about by local citizens, the tea leaves tell me that China’s new leadership has opened the door to allowing such criticism… for purely selfish reasons.
The Communist Party is particularly sensitive to any threats to its existence. Priority one. Falun Gong – a religious sect with a view that doesn’t jibe with Party rule – is banned. Uighurs – Muslims primarily in Xinjiang Province – who protest traditional Party rule are arrested and executed. Mega-billionaires rising in power seemed to trump Party bigwigs… until the Party demanded their membership in the party itself, pledging their loyalty to the central government. So the rule is: when something occurs that challenges the Party, ban it or co-opt it. Banning is like crushing the lifeblood out over every vestige of the threat. And co-opting the wealthy has moved China to the forefront of economic power.
The environment has become such an obvious threat to the life expectancy, survival even, of the hundreds of millions of people living in toxic PRC environments, that for a vast horde of citizens, getting the government to deal with the issue is a matter of life and death. And when issues reach this critical mass, they threaten the ability of the Party to maintain control. The trouble is that too many party officials – regulators of business and power generation – sit on the boards controlling the polluters, drawing huge financial benefits as a result. So China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has asked his own family to divest controversial holdings and has clamped down on a few very highly ranked officials to send a clear message for everyone to prepare for a big change in the way the PRC is run.
Those key arrests and clearly permitted leaks about big polluters tell me that China is about to embark on the biggest environmental clean-up in history. It will be a slow start with an astoundingly quick follow-up if China’s past implementational efforts are any measure. They won’t do this for us… they will do it to keep power. Watch!
But what about us? What are we doing? With the Supreme Court supporting most of the mandates of the Environmental Protection Agency, and a new Obama administration target to reduce toxic emissions from power plants, there are some signs that the toxicity needle might be moderating. But we are still mucking up our backyard in such an incredibly irresponsible way that generations to come will be forced to live in world that is rather dramatically less friendly than even the toxic environment we call home today.
So much damage is done and irreversible. “Over the next quarter-century, heat-related death rates will probably double in the southeastern states. Crop losses that used to happen only once every 20 years because of cataclysmic weather will occur five times as often.
“This is our future even if every person on the planet abruptly stopped burning coal, gas, oil, wood or anything else containing carbon today and we hooked the world economy onto the wind and the sun tomorrow. The change is baked in, caused by CO2 spewed into the air long ago.” New York Times, June 24th.
We know what we are likely to face. It is conveniently summarized in a report (released on June 24th) from the Risky Business Project, a coalition of political and business luminaries representing widely different political views — including the former Treasury secretaries George P. Shultz, Robert E. Rubin and Henry M. Paulson Jr. — that examines the longer-term impact of our current disdain for the environment. Here is a summary from that report (including some hard-dollar costs), telling it “like it is”:
Large-scale losses of coastal property and infrastructure 
·         If we continue on our current path, by 2050 between $66 billion and $106 billion worth of existing coastal property will likely be below sea level nationwide, with $238 billion to $507 billion worth of property below sea level by 2100.
·         There is a 1-in-20 chance—about the same chance as an American developing colon cancer; twice as likely as an American developing melanoma—that by the end of this century, more than $701 billion worth of existing coastal property will be below mean sea levels, with more than $730 billion of additional property at risk during high tide. By the same measure of probability, average annual losses from hurricanes and other coastal storms along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico will grow by more than $42 billion due to sea level rise alone. Potential changes in hurricane activity could raise this figure to $108 billion. 
·         Property losses from sea level rise are concentrated in specific regions of the U.S., especially on the Southeast and Atlantic coasts, where the rise is higher and the losses far greater than the national average.
Extreme heat across the nation—especially in the Southwest, Southeast, and Upper Midwest—threatening labor productivity, human health, and energy systems 
·         By the middle of this century, the average American will likely see 27 to 50 days over 95°F each year—two to more than three times the average annual number of 95°F days we’ve seen over the past 30 years. By the end of this century, this number will likely reach 45 to 96 days over 95°F each year on average.
·         As with sea level rise, these national averages mask regional extremes, especially in the Southwest, Southeast, and upper Midwest, which will likely see several months of 95°F days each year.
·         Labor productivity of outdoor workers, such as those working in construction, utility maintenance, landscaping, and agriculture, could be reduced by as much as 3%, particularly in the Southeast. For context, labor productivity across the entire U.S. labor force declined about 1.5% during the famous “productivity slowdown” in the 1970s.
·         Over the longer term, during portions of the year, extreme heat could surpass the threshold at which the human body can no longer maintain a normal core temperature without air conditioning, which we measure using a “Humid Heat Stroke Index” (HHSI). During these periods, anyone whose job requires them to work outdoors, as well as anyone lacking access to air conditioning, will face severe health risks and potential death. 
·         Demand for electricity for air conditioning will surge in those parts of the country facing the most extreme temperature increases, straining regional generation and transmission capacity and driving up costs for consumers. 
Shifting agricultural patterns and crop yields, with likely gains for Northern farmers offset by losses in the Midwest and South 
·         As extreme heat spreads across the middle of the country by the end of the century, some states in the Southeast, lower Great Plains, and Midwest risk up to a 50% to 70% loss in average annual crop yields (corn, soy, cotton, and wheat), absent agricultural adaptation.
·         At the same time, warmer temperatures and carbon fertilization may improve agricultural productivity and crop yields in the upper Great Plains and other northern states.
·         Food systems are resilient at a national and global level, and agricultural producers have proven themselves extremely able to adapt to changing climate conditions. These shifts, however, still carry risks for the individual farming communities most vulnerable to projected climatic changes.
In the end, climate change deniers may be among the least patriotic Americans in the nation, willing to sacrifice their very country and its future to their current selfish consumption needs. They may think they have a “good explanation,” often religiously-based, to support their position, but I doubt that there are very many of them who really believe what they are saying, particularly elected politicians (How can you tell if a politician is lying? His/her lips are moving.). If we love this country, we need to take care of God’s gift to us: planet earth which we share with a whole lot of other creatures and lifeforms.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the tipping point between extreme selfishness and “love thy neighbor” is now upon us!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Don’t Middle in My Affairs

The only thing growing in the American “middle” is our waistline. As American obesity statistics reflect one growth statistic we do not want, the ones about middle class earning power and job growth… even the numbers of people who constitute our middle class… are going the wrong way. The principal social mobility driver (education) is eroding. The numbers of college applications and graduations are falling, unsustainable student debt rising, educational standards in public education continue to disappoint. Few in the remaining middle class actually expect their children to increase their standard of living (most will live less well) over what they have enjoyed.
Compared to comparable developed economies, our middle class simply makes less than it did. “[According to the Luxembourg Income Study Database (LIS), median] per capita income was $18,700 in the United States in 2010 (which translates to about $75,000 for a family of four after taxes), up 20 percent since 1980 but virtually unchanged since 2000, after adjusting for inflation. The same measure, by comparison, rose about 20 percent in Britain between 2000 and 2010 and 14 percent in the Netherlands. Median income also rose 20 percent in Canada between 2000 and 2010, to the equivalent of $18,700.
“The most recent year in the LIS analysis is 2010. But other income surveys, conducted by government agencies, suggest that since 2010 pay in Canada has risen faster than pay in the United States and is now most likely higher. Pay in several European countries has also risen faster since 2010 than it has in the United States…
“Three broad factors appear to be driving much of the weak income performance in the United States. First, educational attainment in the United States has risen far more slowly than in much of the industrialized world over the last three decades, making it harder for the American economy to maintain its share of highly skilled, well-paying jobs.
“Americans between the ages of 55 and 65 have literacy, numeracy and technology skills that are above average relative to 55- to 65-year-olds in rest of the industrialized world, according to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international group. Younger Americans, though, are not keeping pace: Those between 16 and 24 rank near the bottom among rich countries, well behind their counterparts in Canada, Australia, Japan and Scandinavia and close to those in Italy and Spain.
“A second factor is that companies in the United States economy distribute a smaller share of their bounty to the middle class and poor than similar companies elsewhere. Top executives make substantially more money in the United States than in other wealthy countries. The minimum wage is lower. Labor unions are weaker.
“And because the total bounty produced by the American economy has not been growing substantially faster here in recent decades than in Canada or Western Europe, most American workers are left receiving meager raises.
“Finally, governments in Canada and Western Europe take more aggressive steps to raise the take-home pay of low- and middle-income households by redistributing income… [T]he American rich pay lower taxes than the rich in many other places, and the United States does not redistribute as much income to the poor as other countries do. As a result, inequality in disposable income is sharply higher in the United States than elsewhere.” New York Times, April 22nd.
While sheer numbers of people working may have increased of late in the United States, the numbers are heavily skewed in favor of bottom-end employment in hospitality, food services and healthcare support. “The recession eliminated many mid-wage jobs, leaving moderately educated workers to take low-wage jobs if they can find work at all… While the Obama administration has trumpeted job growth in recent months, the middle class is taking home a shrinking portion of the country's income. Deep job losses in occupations such as construction, information technology, manufacturing and insurance are not likely to recover. Middle-class families also saw nearly 30 percent of their wealth disappear over the past decade, while the cost of goods and services they rely upon steadily climbed.” Huffington Post, June 6th.
The above graphic really illustrates how opportunities here have reduced the basic job opportunities that used to support our glowing standard of living. The global economy has provided better-educated, smartly-priced competition, and the U.S. seems committed to keeping our competitive standards low to save money.
The sheer size of the middle class, as a percentage of the overall populations, has shrunk about 15% over the last few decades. While 50.3% of working Americans were taking home a middle class income in 1970, the Huffington Post reports, by 2010 that number was down to 42.2%.
We used to make fun of Latin America as a land of under-paid stoop labor agricultural and mining workers, digging for copper and harvesting bananas and coffee beans. And while the poverty in Latin America is often dire, their middle class is expanding rapidly. “As the United States grapples with growing inequality and poverty rates that remain higher than in the 1970s, Latin America’s middle class has grown 60.3 percent since 2003, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. During that period, the population living in poverty declined by 34 percent. Altogether, the World Bank puts the middle class at about 30 percent of Latin America’s population.” New York Times, June 23rd.
No one has summarized the dire consequences of tax and regulatory policies that definitely favor the highest income and wealth class in the United States over the balance of the population than one of the chief beneficiaries of that anomaly. “The CEO of Goldman Sachs thinks the economy isn’t doing enough to benefit those at the lowest end of the income spectrum. Lloyd Blankfein, in an interview with CBS, said that income inequality is ‘destabilizing’ and ‘responsible for the divisions in the country.’ Calling it a ‘very big issue … that has to be dealt with,’ Blankfein said that whether or not the economy grows faster, ‘too much of the GDP over the last generation has gone to too few of the people.’”, June 10th.
Blankfein said he would not be surprised if that income disparity continued to widen. Still, we elect folks to Congress who argue for increased tax cuts and reduced regulatory control over this wealthy segment, under the absolutely disproven mythology of trickle down, job creation – which just never, never materialized. One common definition of insanity is repeating past behavior while expecting a different result.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the gerrymandered American electorate continues to send representatives to Congress with the wrong instructions!