Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Hidden Balancing Act in the Middle East

To many Arab leaders, Israel is: a way to distract their people from the problems of their own failed or failing leadership, a source of humiliation by reason of Israel’s technical and military proficiency, a necessary demon based on decades of habitual negativity among Muslim states and, most recently, a whole hell of a lesser threat to their existence than Islamist, stop-at-nothing, extremists who seek to topple these old world Arab states. Yes, even Egypt’s spanking “new” military president in a “new” government, is simply following a decades-old tradition of Egyptian leaders coming only from the military.
What you are hearing is criticism of Israeli “excess” in Gaza from other fundamentalist groups, non-Arab nations, the United Nations, humanitarian groups, etc. What you are not hearing is massive regional incumbent Arab support for Hamas or concomitant Arab criticism of Israel. Hamas is violent. They don’t mind wasting their own citizens as publicity-driven sacrificial lambs, and they look, feel and smell a lot like those other extremist groups, from ISIS (now, just the “Islamic State,” but dedicated to a pan-Sunni fundamentalist republic) to the Taliban (still trying to unseat the powers in both Afghanistan and Pakistan), al Qaeda (ready to topple Western-friendly governments from Yemen to… well anywhere), Boko Haram (their sights are set on taking over northern Nigeria or more), etc., etc. Wow!
“After the military ouster of the Islamist government in Cairo last year, Egypt has led a new coalition of Arab states — including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — that has effectively lined up with Israel in its fight against Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip. That, in turn, may have contributed to the failure of the antagonists to reach a negotiated cease-fire even after more than three weeks of bloodshed.
“‘The Arab states’ loathing and fear of political Islam is so strong that it outweighs their allergy to Benjamin Netanyahu,’ the prime minister of Israel, said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington and a former Middle East negotiator under several presidents… ‘I have never seen a situation like it, where you have so many Arab states acquiescing in the death and destruction in Gaza and the pummeling of Hamas,’ he said. ‘The silence is deafening.’” New York Times, July 30th. But Hamas is drawing so much support from sympathetic regional private “deep pockets” paying guilt money and other extremists who are goading them on, that they see no reason to stop.
You don’t have to look too far to see what the big Arab powers feel about Hamas, and Egypt – literally bordering Gaza – has much to fear from extremists with so much violent local power at their fingertips. Indeed, if Egypt’s hidden agenda (not so hidden) doesn’t destroy their mediating credibility, it is probably Egypt that will have the most “settlement” power to stop this horrific war. “Although Egypt is traditionally the key go-between in any talks with Hamas — deemed a terrorist group by the United States and Israel — the government in Cairo this time surprised Hamas by publicly proposing a cease-fire agreement that met most of Israel’s demands and none from the Palestinian group. Hamas was tarred as intransigent when it immediately rejected it, and Cairo has continued to insist that its proposal remains the starting point for any further discussions.
“But as commentators sympathetic to the Palestinians slammed the proposal as a ruse to embarrass Hamas, Egypt’s Arab allies praised it. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt the next day to commend it, Mr. Sisi’s office said, in a statement that cast no blame on Israel but referred only to ‘the bloodshed of innocent civilians who are paying the price for a military confrontation for which they are not responsible.’” NY Times. Nevertheless, under mounting global pressure on both sides to the conflict, a 72-hour “humanitarian” cease fire started on August 1st.
From the time that Palestinians fled the land that would become Israel in 1948, flooding into neighboring nations as homeless, angry and needy refugees, until the present day, they have generally been unwelcome “guests” in any Arab nation where they fled. Second class citizens even among Arabs, they were also kept from assimilating into their new host nations simply to keep the focus on Israel and away from the disastrous economic policies and massive corruption of local leaders. Nobody wants them. Few Arab states like them. They stir up trouble, vent their anger everywhere and further destabilize a region where stability is more precious than oil.
And so the complexities of the Middle East lumber on, and generic American anger at Muslims hardly seems the best path to solve this mess. Islam is not the villain… most Muslims just want to be left alone to live. Extremists of all shapes and sizes have brought us to this horrible state.
I’m Peter Dekom, and while there are no short-term simple solutions to this debacle, there are new seeds being planted that may bear the fruit of longer-term hope for a more peaceful world.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

American Math: What Happened?

American primary and secondary students are among the worst performers in mathematics in the developed and rapidly developing world. “Roughly half a million students in 65 nations and educational systems representing 80 percent of the global economy took part in the 2012 edition of PISA, which is coordinated by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. The numbers are even more sobering when compared among only the 34 OECD countries. The United States ranked 26th in math — trailing nations such as the Slovakia, Portugal and Russia.” NBC News, December 3, 2013. 26th out of 34? It gets much worse when the rest of the world is added in.
This has happened in a universe where American companies cannot find sufficient engineers, mathematicians, scientists and financial specialist to fill these high profile jobs? How do we expect the United States to grow its economy and provide high-paying jobs in a global marketplace where our workers are becoming less competitive every day?! We used to be first in this category, but this seems to have been an accident of having very little damage from WWI and WWII, simply by having modern schools with sufficient money to teach reasonably. When the rest of the world built new classrooms, Europe and vast parts of Asia prioritized math and science… and zoomed past us in quality and numbers.
Here’s the irony. American universities and educational experts absolutely created the best math-teaching methodologies in the world. The problem is that the rest of the world copied and implemented these structures, while the American educational system simply ignored these techniques and conducted business as usual. We were particularly prolific in creating new math teaching systems in the 1980s.
These math excellence programs, invented by U.S. scholars, encouraged “passionate discussions among children so they would come to uncover math’s procedures, properties and proofs for themselves. One day, for example, the young students would derive the formula for finding the area of a rectangle; the next, they would use what they learned to do the same for parallelograms. Taught this new way, math itself seemed transformed. It was not dull misery but challenging, stimulating and even fun.” New York Times Magazine, July 23rd. The Japanese, among many, embraced the system entirely and rocketed up their math proficiency scores, leaving American kids in the dust.
It wasn’t the first time that Americans had dreamed up a better way to teach math and then failed to implement it. The same pattern played out in the 1960s, when schools gripped by a post-Sputnik inferiority complex unveiled an ambitious ‘new math,’ only to find, a few years later, that nothing actually changed. In fact, efforts to introduce a better way of teaching math stretch back to the 1800s. The story is the same every time: a big, excited push, followed by mass confusion and then a return to conventional practices.” NY Times Magazine.
Not only are the international standards – many created in the U.S. but not implemented here – more rigorous than our own, not only are students prioritized in these essential skills, but teachers are revered, held in high esteem and paid well. There is no “if you can’t do, then teach” mantra in these successful overseas programs.
With powerful teachers unions sheltering mediocre or even down and dirty terrible teachers, these labor organizations are helping denigrate the image of American teachers, insuring a flow of subpar professionals charged with guaranteeing our future. They are aided by even lower-par elected representatives, undoubtedly themselves products of these inferior American schools, whose commitment is to blind budget-cutting in the name of “get me elected and damned the future of my country” deficit “responsibility.” Yes the same crusaders who fight for military money and more American might to be deployed in losing battles where Americans are simply not wanted… don’t care about our children or our future.
Further, American teaching degrees are often awarded by the lowest-performing colleges in our nation. To make matters much worse, experts in various fields are often excluded from teaching their valuable skillsets because they lack the formulaic “teaching credentials” required by virtually all public school districts, even though they might be qualified to teach at a college level.
“Today the frustrating descent from good intentions to tears is playing out once again, as states across the country carry out the latest wave of math reforms: the Common Core. A new set of academic standards developed to replace states’ individually designed learning goals, the Common Core math standards are like earlier math reforms, only further refined and more ambitious. Whereas previous movements found teachers haphazardly, through organizations like [the 1980s-prolific National Council of Teachers of Mathematics - N.C.T.M.] math-teacher group, the Common Core has a broader reach. A group of governors and education chiefs from 48 states initiated the writing of the standards, for both math and language arts, in 2009. The same year, the Obama administration encouraged the idea, making the adoption of rigorous ‘common standards’ a criterion for receiving a portion of the more than $4 billion in Race to the Top grants. Forty-three states have adopted the standards.
“The opportunity to change the way math is taught, as N.C.T.M. declared in its endorsement of the Common Core standards, is ‘unprecedented.’ And yet, once again, the reforms have arrived without any good system for helping teachers learn to teach them. Responding to a recent survey by Education Week, teachers said they had typically spent fewer than four days in Common Core training, and that included training for the language-arts standards as well as the math.” NY Times Magazine. It isn’t enough to talk about making a better America; we actually have to plan, work hard, and implement a systematic approach to reach our stated vital priorities.
I’m Peter Dekom, and no amount of sloganeering, myth-creation, or SuperPac messaging is going to make this a better country to live in without hard dollar investments and a restructuring of priorities and implementation efforts.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fewer Rules than the Rest of Us

Interest rates are still low, and as the economy continues to teeter – the “growth” mostly producing lower-paying or contract or even part-time jobs that truly do not augur well for long-term economic health – the Fed is holding steady with cheap money. Stocks have soared, primarily because there are few places to invest, there is growing fear in the real estate market of another bubble (they ability of average Americans to buy homes has begun to fall), and because of a sheep-like mentality that infects Wall Street from time to time (remember the subprime mortgage crisis, when they knew what they were trading was crap?).
But income inequality grows, small business continues to be denied loans (and when they are obtained, the rates are pretty high), and access to just about everything juicy is increasingly being relegated to those at the very top of the food chain. You’ve seen the horrific income polarization numbers, the contraction of the middle class and the growth of the bottom of the ladder while the top continues to Bogart an increasing share of American wealth. But how aware are you of how incredibly the rules and tax laws are slanted against average Americans and how much they favor the well-heeled, a fact that has no real chance of being changed given a House of Representatives that is solidly committed to support a less-regulated wealthy class enhanced with a litany of tax breaks your or I will never see.
Aside from a capital gains tax rates on investments held over a year – noting it is the richest in the lot who make most of their money buying and trading financial assets – loopholes on oil depreciation, the ability to shelter income overseas sidestepping U.S. taxes, interesting ways to use charitable donations to retain large estates (even as estate taxes have dropped), etc., etc. We know that fund managers can drop the taxes on their management upside fees (those based on pure services and not their actual cash investments) to exceptionally favorable capital gains rates (a fraction of the taxes they would have paid had their fees been labeled as service income) under the “carried interest” rule. Abysmally unfair!
And the corporate trends towards “moving overseas” to avoid taxes – or planting valuable underlying rights (patents and copyrights) in an overseas entity to turn income from those rights into a deduction to the U.S. entity – are now standard operating procedures. We may have among the highest corporate rates in the world, but given the loopholes, the biggest baddest boyz seldom pay most (if any) of what you’d expect. Moving U.S. operation overseas and away from the IRS is now big business. “[G]uess who’s behind the recent spate of merger deals in which major United States corporations have renounced their citizenship in search of a lower tax bill? Wall Street banks, led by JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.
“Investment banks are estimated to have collected, or will soon collect, nearly $1 billion in fees over the last three years advising and persuading American companies to move the address of their headquarters abroad (without actually moving). With seven- and eight-figure fees up for grabs, Wall Street bankers — and lawyers, consultants and accountants — have been promoting such deals, known as inversions, to some of the biggest companies in the country, including the American drug giant Pfizer.” New York Times, July 28th. As horrible as these “legitimate” tax avoidance schemes seem to be, it is equally bad in the world of financial regulation.
When the commercial banks and the traders lost their Glass Steagall Banking Act proscription against being in the same company in 1999, the seeds of the Great Recession were planted and the future of income inequality was richly fertilized. As Canada has escaped major financial collapses throughout its entire existence, the United States has lived in boom-or-bust cycles of calamity for well over a century and a half. The difference between the two economies is simply a question of financial regulation. Canada has it, and the United States still believes in the minimalist approach with reliance on a “free market” (which, given all the loopholes and tax breaks, the ability to deploy flash trading technology, etc., it most certainly is not) capitalism. The best we could produce after the Great Recession is the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, a watered down statute that has found funding opposition in our House of Representatives.
Mega-rich individuals and companies, unrestrained anymore by campaign finance restrictions on the big marketing campaigns, have lobbied Congress, funded their message and their candidates without shame or meaningful restriction (thank you, Supreme Court) and spread a false notion of rich as job creators, a version of that that completely discredited “trickle-down economics” theory of the 1980s. But even within the financial community, the playing field is tilted, favor some big boyz over others.
But where does all that cheap Fed money actually go? Try this major category of “cheap debt users.” Private equity is a generic term that refers mostly to firms that specialize in using heavily leveraged debt (i.e., using as much borrowing as the structure can support with the least amount of their own “at risk” equity) to buy assets – usually functioning companies – streamlining their acquisitions (usually involving massive layoffs and other cost-cutting strategies) and then flipping the rejiggered acquired company bank into the public (or high-end private) marketplace. Yummy profits abound most of the time. Generally, PE (as they are called) firms are pretty much the old “leveraged buyout” firms of a few decades ago, managing their investors stakes and taking handling fees and percentage of the upside (generally 20%), with that lovely carried interest tax rule noted above.
They are heavily involved in buying and selling shares of companies – “securities” trading if you will – but they are only lightly regulated as “Investment Advisors” as opposed to the more stringent “broker-dealer” certifications that apply to more traditional trading institutions. “[The S.E.C. has not required it or many other private equity firms to comply with broker-dealer requirements. Nor has the S.E.C. clamped down on buyout firms for marketing private equity funds to endowments, pension funds and wealthy investors. These activities, too, are usually the purview of broker-dealers…
For decades, the private equity industry was almost completely unregulated. Private equity firms use borrowed money to set up partnerships that acquire companies that they hope to resell later at a profit. The firms sell interests in the partnerships to endowments, pension funds and wealthy individual investors. In 2010, Congress stepped in with the Dodd-Frank Act, which required private equity firms with more than $150 million in assets to register in the category of investment advisers. That registration process began in 2012.
“As regulatory regimes go, however, oversight of broker-dealers is much stricter than it is for investment advisers. Brokers receive more frequent audits and examinations — only 9 percent of investment advisers are examined annually, compared with 55 percent of broker-dealers — and face capital requirements and greater legal liabilities.” New York Times, July 26th. Living in a two-tiered (teared?) system, one for the rich and their handlers who get to kept almost all of America’s wealth, giving the rich disproportionate influence over the political system, usually at the expense of the vast majority, is called a plutocracy… sometimes “a banana republic.” Shame on us!
I’m Peter Dekom, and that Biblical “reap what you sow” admonition seems to fall on deaf ears in the United States.

Monday, July 28, 2014

When Technology Makes War Too Easy

As the weapons of war become ubiquitous, as unmanned and automated weapon systems proliferate and as large powers are able to use their rage-filled surrogates to wage their wars with sufficient “deniability,” the notion of an end to human military conflict seems to vaporize. Add sophisticated communication systems – we call them smart phones with the ability to aggregate masses (we call that “social media”) – it doesn’t take much to turn an angry rebel into a well-equipped soldier or to aggregate those angry combatants, often with no hope and nothing left to lose, into a treacherous army.
Look what happens when minimally-trained insurgents with limited access to the kind of intel network they really need to deploy tactical weapons properly, gets handed a truck mounted, radar guided surface-to-air-missile system (the Russian Buk aka the SA-11 missile) that can deploy against targets well over 30,000 feet, the increasingly probable scenario in eastern Ukraine. Boom! Malaysia Air Flight 17 is no more. They saw a fat aircraft but had no way of differentiating whether the plane was civilian or military. So someone pulled the trigger. And with reasonably well-documented reports, Russia is supplying even more Buk missile systems and heavier artillery to the rebels, while denying any direct involvement. Go, surrogates, go!
Russian has its “separatists.” Iran has Hezbollah, and the United States has a pretty horrific track record of supplying covert armies or brutal dictators with sophisticated weapons when they play by our policy directives. That some of the participants (controllers) in the surrogate wars have veto power at the United Nations Security Council often renders a meaningful international response to surrogate brutality practically impossible.
Aside from the ability to launch a region-destroying nuclear missile with lots of warheads or the ability to kill hundreds in one explosion of a chemical weapon, there is the very dehumanizing impact of drone strikes (deployed as if they were video games by distant operatives with no risk to themselves) or smart bombs or even fully automated weapon systems that determine their own targets from an internal imaging reference system that prioritizes various categories (we have cruise missiles with this capability). It’s too easy to kill people without serious risk to the attacking force.
Thus, we can wage war where the only possible casualties from such weapons are “the other guy.” The other guy will almost always get pissed (the ones that survive, that is), and since we are trying to insulate ourselves from nasty bloody consequences to ourselves, the other guy figures out that “all’s fair in love and war.” Antiseptic warfare often justifies a response of “whatever I have to do to kill my enemy” since I can’t afford such weapons (until they can!). Thus, rationale and justifications rise, terrorists feel vindicated, surrogates are satisfied, and the wars to end all wars (WWI and WWII) seem philosophically laughable. And little guys everywhere hunger for better weapons from those ready to supply them.
We seem to be falling into that lowest common denominator – one that makes humans just one more animal – where nature has to control over-population of one species over the others by whatever means she can. And since man has no superior predators… we implement nature’s needs by turning on ourselves. It’s hard to think that way, but perhaps there is no other explanation. Morals, ethics, and religious proscriptions against killing seem to have so many deemed exceptions as to be morally vacuous, almost meaningless. Just look at our own “stand your ground” and “open carry” guns that laws exist in our own nation, most powerful in our Bible belt, making it so much easier to kill people within one of these “exceptions.” Still, we are constantly searching for better ways to kill, particularly when we can insulate ourselves from the pain.
In the latest litany of making war easy comes the latest technology (relatively inexpensive). As Google explores driverless cars to ease domestic traffic congestion, DARPA is funding Oshkosh Defense, a company that turns military trucks into driverless vehicles. It’s a retrofit that does not require a new generation of trucks to be built. “The company has introduced the TerraMax conversion kit, which turns ordinary trucks and minesweepers into what the company calls unmanned ground vehicles. Marketed as the thing to buy ‘when you’d never send anyone,’ the retrofitting systems are designed to have unmanned vehicles travel in tandem convoys with troops in IED-filled territory. In essence, the unmanned vehicles are designed to either detect bombs or take the brunt of an explosion…
“‘It's not a box that you plug in 15 minutes,’ says John Beck, Oshkosh’s chief unmanned systems engineer, ‘but an architecture that uses communication to get precise control over steering and braking.’ The system also ensures a steady stream of diagnostic data, the ability to black out ‘no-go’ zones using GPS, and a combination of radar and lidar [laser-assisted]. ‘So vehicles can understand environments. If there’s a hole, ditch, or a cliff, it can understands trees, and big rocks, and things they shouldn’t be flying over.’”, July 25th. It’s not this particular technology that is disturbing; it is this desire to be able to kill easily with little or no risk to your own military personnel. Wouldn’t it just be easier to let the underlying “command and control” computers battle it out in cyberspace and just tell us who won?
I’m Peter Dekom, and in a world of escalating “defense” technologies, it’s just getting too easy to kill.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Pole Position

With the litany of crashing airliners, the Israeli-Hamas explosion, the continued Russian military “gifts” to the pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists, the ISIS purge of Christians in Mosul and our own border crisis from kids fleeing cartel wars in their Central American homelands, it’s easy to miss one of the biggest and most interesting “little developments” in Europe. It happened at an official European legal tribunal where an entire country was on trial. Poland.
The court? “The European Court of Human Rights … is a supra-national or international court [that] hears applications alleging that a contracting state has breached one or more of the human rights provisions concerning civil and political rights set out in the [European] Convention [on Human Rights] and its protocols. An application can be lodged by an individual, a group of individuals or one or more of the other contracting states, and, besides judgments, the Court can also issue advisory opinions. The Convention was adopted within the context of the Council of Europe, and all of its 47 member states are contracting parties to the Convention.” Wikipedia. In Europe, this court is ultimate arbiter of human rights issues.
The defendant was Poland. It seems that prisoners in a facility in Poland were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including having a power drill and/or a gun placed against their heads in an effort to extract a confession or information, the gun occasionally being discharged by their heads (so-called “mock executions”). Here are the facts found by the Court in addition to the above observations: Prisoners were hanged by their shoulders for prolonged periods (almost dislocating their sockets), subjected to waterboarding, subjected to extreme noise and sleep deprivation and told that their loved ones would be sexually assaulted if they did not cooperate.
The Court called these techniques “extraordinary rendition” and violative of Article Three of the above Convention (the part that bans torture, etc.). After a lengthy hearing, Poland was found to be culpable for these horrific incidents, fined and severely censured. The Court ruled that "the treatment to which the applicants had been subjected … during their detention in Poland had amounted to torture." Poland was also ordered to pay these prisoners damages and costs as well. Bad Poland, bad!!! Shame on Poland!!!
Unfortunately, the money awards aren’t going to do these prisoners much good. They’ve been shipped off to do indeterminate time elsewhere… far, far away from Poland. Oh, did I forget to mention that Poland actually wasn’t the country responsible for the torture or the incarceration of these prisoners? It happened on Polish soil with Polish blessings, but it was the United States of America that maintained and operated this secret CIA prison in Poland (one of several in Eastern Europe). Poland was held responsible because they allowed the CIA to operate within their borders.
It’s not as if these prisoners were sweet little innocents. Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian, purportedly a mid-level al Qaeda operative, was arrested in Pakistan. Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi, was arrested in in Dubai as the mastermind behind the 2000 attack on the US warship USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, which killed 17 US sailors. They were “detained” and interrogated in Poland in 2002/3 for many months, before being transferred to the U.S. prison complex in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they have remained ever since. They are awaiting a “trial” – eventually – by a U.S. military commission.
But they haven’t been tried yet, and the Court noted that the mere transfer of these individuals to Guantanamo as well as the very nature of these military commissions were in and of themselves “suspect.” The Court stated: “Consequently, by enabling the CIA to transfer the applicants [detainees] to its other secret detention facilities, the Polish authorities exposed them to a foreseeable serious risk of further ill-treatment and conditions of detention in breach of Article Three [prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment]." “A spokeswoman for Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski called the ruling "embarrassing for Poland" and "a burden both in terms of our country's finances and its image.’”, July 24th.
This was the first ruling by a duly-authorized body against these CIA “black site” prisons using these techniques. It is also the first ruling that suggests that military confinement in Guantanamo as well as our military tribunals charged with trying these individuals for criminal acts against the United States may well be illegal under law. And while President Obama has banned most of these enhanced interrogation techniques, the fact remains that a U.S. president, with lots of popular support, had no problem authorizing the forms of torture for which the United States actually executed Japanese officers using the same methods on American soldiers in WWII.
Even setting aside the reprehensible and immoral nature of the torture itself, there are even bigger issues. There would seem no justification for “crying foul” by the United States if another country were to use these techniques on Americans captured in battle. Further, it is difficult to see how the United States can stake a moral high ground – whether it is on Mr. Putin’s mendacious and covert support of the separatists who probably shot down Malaysia Air Flight 17 or Bashar al-Assad as he blows up his people’s own neighborhoods and employs torture against his rebel captives or so many other aspect of global dysfunction where the United States is attempting to impose a semblance of humanity – when America has sunk to such depths of misconduct without punishing the guilty or atoning for the harm. We need to make up for this wrong, figure out how never to repeat these rather obvious violations of human rights and understand exactly who we want the world to see when they think of the United States of America.
I’m Peter Dekom, and expediency often is a very bad partner to humanity and democracy.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

There’s Weed in Them Thar Hills

There are the old timers, the growers and dealers who have been there when cannabis was pretty much illegal everywhere. They understand the growing techniques, the illegal trails into the market and what their customers really want. They were the ultimate risk-takers, and many are still reluctant to give up their “illicit” ways in states where legality is still a dirty word (even some where it is legal!). Reflections of dry communities in wet states, “revenuers” hot on the trail of backwoods moonshiners and the utter hypocrisy of felony convictions for marijuana usage across the border from states where now even recreational usage of cannabis products is now legal seem to glare in the headlights of public scrutiny. Is it time for “Just say yes”?
Who exactly are the cannabis customers? And how does this user base compare with alcohol consumption? According to a 2012 survey (before recreational use of marijuana had been implemented in Colorado and Washington) by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
  • Slightly more than half (52.1 percent) of Americans aged 12 or older reported being current drinkers of alcohol in the 2012 survey, which was similar to the rate in 2011 (51.8 percent). This translates to an estimated 135.5 million current drinkers in 2012.
  • Nearly one quarter (23.0 percent) of persons aged 12 or older in 2012 were binge alcohol users in the 30 days prior to the survey. This translates to about 59.7 million people. The rate in 2012 was similar to the rate in 2011 (22.6 percent).
Among 12 or 13 year olds… 1.2 percent used marijuana… Among 14 or 15 year olds, 6.1 percent used marijuana… Among 16 or 17 year olds, 14.0 percent used marijuana…Among young adults aged 18 to 25, the 2012 rate of current marijuana use (18.7 percent) was similar to rates in 2009 to 2011 (ranging from 18.2 to 19.0 percent), but it was higher than the rates in 2002 to 2008 (ranging from 16.1 to 17.3 percent)… In 2012, the rate of current illicit drug use among adults aged 26 or older was 7.0 percent, including rates of 5.3 percent for current use of marijuana... 
Marijuana usage is the second most pervasive drug of choice, behind alcohol, for Americans everywhere. And while its usage is heavier among young demographics, as doctors are increasingly getting comfortable with prescribing MMJ (medical marijuana) where it is legal, one of the largest growth segments includes Boomers and older.
But with this accelerating usage of marijuana, as states decriminalize various levels of possession or consumption, or legalize MMJ or recreational use of cannabis, we have been fighting this losing battle against a popular substance for so long, we are struggling – knowing that marijuana is rapidly moving towards universal legalization in the United States – with how to do it right. Potency and purity standards are anything but clear. Folks who are in state-sanctioned marijuana businesses (medical or recreational) are discovering that the IRS taxes the gross revenues from the trade, disallowing the associated business expenses. Hot-under-the-collar federal prosecutors, even with nudging and memoranda from on high to hold back, are still filing criminal cases against purveyors acting legitimately under state law.
And then there are the get-rich-quick amateurs, with no training and little knowledge, who are flooding into field that needs experts not dilatants, even as statistics tell you how significantly important this nascent (??) industry is to an otherwise sagging American economy. Marijuana may well be California’s number one cash crop. Both Colorado and Washington are exploding with opportunities and revenues, beyond even their expectations.
“With marijuana now legal for medical use in 23 states and Washington, D.C., and full legalization heading to the ballot in Alaska and Oregon, the size of the noncriminal marijuana industry is expected to grow to about $2.6 billion this year from about $1.5 billion last year, according to estimates by the ArcView Group, a marijuana research and investment firm in San Francisco.
“Investors in marijuana say there have been as many as 80 marijuana-related companies trading publicly, though federal securities regulators have suspended trading in five of them over the last few months and have warned that some of these new firms might be fraudulent efforts to dupe investors hunting for the next big thing….
“Marijuana is beckoning thousands of entrepreneurs and workers, investors and hucksters from across the country, each looking to cash in on a rapidly changing industry that offers hefty portions of both promise and peril… At convention centers and in hotel meeting rooms, start-up companies are floating sales pitches for marijuana delivery services or apps to name-tagged investors who sip red wine and munch on hempseed snacks. This year, hundreds of people seeking jobs lined up for blocks in downtown Denver, résumés in hand, for an industry-sponsored marijuana job fair. Some have traveled far, leaving security jobs in Ohio or software jobs in Indiana to move for marijuana, hoping the industry has room for them.” New York Times, July 18th.
Some are predicting that as marijuana moves from the dark and murderous allies of gangs and cartels, those massive revenues will filter into the mainstream American economy, enhancing state and federal coffers, creating jobs, and alleviating pain, seizures, side effects and anxiety in the MMJ field. Noting that beer sales in the United States alone account for over $100 billion per annum, optimists project that the cannabis trade could easily reach half that market amount by the next decade. So obviously, in a job-impaired marketplace, there are lots of takers for this brave new world.
There are employment agencies springing up to filter applicants, consulting firms offering start-up and operational advise, security experts (it’s almost all an all-cash trade), lawyers and accountants (who may still face ethical challenges) specializing in the field, agronomists with planting and growing recommendations, laboratories to test quality, potency and purity springing up everywhere, and the “old hands” ready to step in (or expand) to show everyone how it’s done. Tourism and college applications to Washington and Colorado are soaring. Real estate prices are rising.
Regulatory compliance has created work as well: “Washington has a rule requiring bar-code tracking of every marijuana plant to ensure that only licensed, Washington-grown marijuana is sold in its stores. It has also created a niche for tech start-ups like Viridian Sciences, a software company aiming to help retailers prove the provenance of their product should a state inspector or customer ask…” NY Times.
But likewise, government rules and general fears over possible federal prosecution even when state laws are fully followed have place a layer of ugly complexity that seems to favor rich investors and savvy business experts who can spend their money without fear of losing federal licenses. In a virtually all-cash system, where banks fear to tread, you can only imagine how money is handled, where it is stored, and how entrepreneurs can access needed capital. Income inequality seems to be seeping into this sector as well.
“[Many] have also discovered that selling marijuana, even without the specter of being arrested, carries high costs and no guarantee of success… A heavily regulated recreational marijuana program in Washington drew more than 7,000 applications, but many of those would-be growers, processors and retailers have struggled from the start. They had to find financial capital that state inspectors would approve and lock in a legal business location. Then, they had to endure months of delays as overwhelmed state workers processed and analyzed an oversubscribed applicant list.
“‘I’m about fed up,’ said Michael McDonald, a 57-year-old home-repair contractor, who has applied for two licenses to grow and process marijuana in Bellingham, in northwestern Washington… Mr. McDonald said the deck was stacked in favor of richer corporate players. With banks still so leery of lending in the industry, he said, financing choices for smaller entrepreneurs like him are few.” New York Times.
As the California Supreme Court has allowed local communities to control where and how many MMJ dispensaries (aka “collectives”) can locate, there is mass confusion at the retail level even in fairly tolerant cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. We don’t get what we seem to want when we over-regulated or criminalize cannabis use. My July 10th blog (“Just Say No!”) illustrates how cigarette usage has plunged as a non-criminal “vice” while illicit drug use has stagnated or increased under the repressive heel of criminal prosecution. My April 29th blog (“How We Do Love Spending Money for Incarceration”) speaks about the unconscionable sums of money we have spent on drug-related crime (half of our prison population, the largest on earth, are in there for drug-related crimes, and half of those for possessing or selling), and the trillion or so dollars we have spent in the last few years on a failed “war on drugs.” Even our current border incidents, with children fleeing drug-cartel-related violence from Central America, are a product of that failed policy.
Cartels want cannabis to remain illegal. Legality hurts their business. Prohibition didn’t work, and neither does this inane vestige of opposing what too many people believe is just plain normal. It’s time we take the obsessive focus of too many in government on prosecution or repression and transfer those energies into supporting proper training, developing appropriate enforceable standards and regulation that reflect reality and contemporary social values. It just time!
I’m Peter Dekom, and we have an opportunity to do it right if we just say “yes.”

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Legacy of Lying Leaders

We’ve all heard the joke: how can you tell if a politician is lying? His/her lips are moving. From negative campaigning falsehoods (the anti-John Kerry swift boat fabrication), to personal Presidential denials (Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations…”) all the way up to spinning obvious contradicting facts (Vladimir Putin’s denial of military support for the pro-Russian separatists), it does seem that running a country engenders an ever-increasing level of mendacity. It’s bad enough in totalitarian regimes where truth is almost never a priority, but retaining incumbent power at all costs trumps everything else. There are extreme examples of delusional lying leadership; take for example North Korea’s Kim Jong-un where virtually nothing he says to his people and the world is remotely true.
How does lying shore up our democratic principles? Or does it tear them down? How do voters make reasonable (I skipped the word “intelligent”) choices if what they are being told about their world is simply untrue? Repeatedly. We’ve evolved (devolved?) into a society where you can completely generate a consistent “truth” (a fabrication or distortion of cold, hard and very inconvenient facts) through selective filtration of media and contacts. Leaning left, MSNBC. Leaning right, Fox News. Following spinning pundits? Rachel Madow vs. Rush Limbaugh. Don’t like where the facts are aligning? Left: it’s a conspiracy. Right: God said that isn’t happening. You definitely do not have to consume real news and real facts, since there are so many alternatives. “News” that fits. So you can develop and hold a view of the world that is not anchored in anything real. Everything can be “explained” your way.
With the demise of journalistic pride, newspapers failing in a landslide of “free” news online – bloggers with varying degrees of knowledge and expertise replacing hard journalists with years of training and experience – truth has taken a nose dive. When news on “television” went from an hour in the evening to 24/7 “reporting,” something had to fill the extra hours when there just aren’t enough hard news stories to fill the airways. Most of it was/is either over-coverage – repetitive and sometimes even interviewing reporters about their interviews and opinions as if they mattered – or naked editorializing with no real resemblance to the facts but rather clear adherence to the relevant network’s clearly understood political filtration requirements (advertisers catering to a defined constituency).
Let’s muck it up a bit more. Let’s add the “national security” excuse, creating a legal basis to cover up or completely distort the truth (lie through your teeth). Sure in military matters, you cannot advertise your next move to the enemy or you may want to cause a false move, but when stuff leaks out – like the NSA’s massive electronic intrusion into its own citizens’ most private matters, the personal communications tools of our allies’ leaders – why are we so shocked? We’ve cut out the checks and balances to keep this from happening. Too many parts of government have gone rogue, and when whistleblowers reveal the truth, well, let’s just say that their lives become vastly more unpleasant than what they had before they made an effort to fight for truth and transparency. We have other government excuses for covering up what voters need to know, but you get the point.
Not enough screwing up facts? When the United States Supreme Court decided the Citizen United and McCutcheoncases, they effectively handed the mega-well-heeled the power to place massive amounts of media-influencing cash behind truth-distortions that favor their interests, a path not remotely available to most Americans. We have a name for a political candidate without a parallel SuperPac behind him or her: the loser. Yes, there can be no direct linkage or control SuperPac. Wink wink! But sometimes the candidate has to embrace the hidden agenda in the SuperPac’s underlying message or risk losing that extravagant and perhaps financially necessary campaign support.
When we try and teach our children virtues of honesty and responsibility, their world is filled with really powerful and successful figures who are experts at spinning (lying) and not remotely where they are because of their pursuit of facts… we fail. And we have failed on such a massive basis that the powers on top are only encouraged to continue to follow their lying ways. Simply put, that mendacious strategy works. Truth, well, not so much. The result: a highly polarized society, a completely dysfunctional government and a nation in rather steep decline. If we want a functioning democracy, we need a truth and transparency makeover. If only enough people would care.
I’m Peter Dekom, and keeping democracy alive requires work, honesty and sacrifice… but where are those committed to this honorable path today?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

On American Heartlessness

We start or suborn false wars. We seldom anticipate the near-term consequences and seem incapable of comprehending the long-term consequences with which we and the rest of the world may be dealing for decades to come. The goodness of our global salvation in World War II is now relegated to the history books in a distant past increasingly absent from any emotional understanding for over two generations.
A world filled with a younger population has no connectivity to that seemingly-irrelevant past. Instead they carry visions of Abu Ghraib humiliations, of failed military expeditions into Iraq and Afghanistan, with even our loss in Vietnam sliding past the range of recent memories. They see toppled dictators, surviving interminably on U.S. “aid.” They read headlines of U.S. serial killings while “crazies” scream that the right to own guns trumps the lives of their own children, blathering meaningless mantras that “people kill people.” And mostly they see an unrepentant bully whose financial institutions managed to send the world into a desperate financial tumble. We shrug it off, but travel almost anywhere, ask the right questions, and the responses are almost uniformly the same.
Politicians in foreign lands can now build political careers raging against American arrogance. Oppose American policies and surge ahead in the polls. The promise of a modern upscale life, the once-perceived reward for following the American way, has given way to economic contraction, climate change that in no small way was heavily supplemented by American industrial growth and the tatters of lives without hope, from a powerhouse that can no longer afford its own future generations with the education and lifestyle of their parents. Instead the U.S. offers a rising income inequality from which the impoverished world seeks to escape. Western-hating extremists, with bullets and bombs flying, are offering “hope” against the failed pledges of American policy-makers… Though we know that such efforts are doomed to failure, at this moment, there is little we can offer to counter the perception of the failed “American” path.
The horrors of Putin’s folly in supporting pro-Russian separatists with arms and “volunteers” have distracted the world in the morbid cacophony of the search for bodies and wreckage from Malaysia Air flight 17, downed in the civil war zone we call Ukraine. Putin’s Russia seems to offer less even than America’s now empty pledges have provided. It isn’t about America vs. Russian anymore… or even America faces the economic powerhouse and central planning of the new invigorated China, equally responsible for climate change nasties. The bigger conflict is the macro clash of cultures.
But to many, America still represents a level of freedom lacking in so much of the world. Despite the fact that we are a violent gun culture, our gangs have not managed to challenge the political system itself, our streets are not flowing with the blood of cartels asserting their turf even though there are “dangerous neighborhoods.” In most of America, children can walk to school in relative safety. Though truncated, we still do offer universal primary and secondary education and the prospect of rising through education. There still is hope. We still can offer a lot to people willing to learn, work and strive.
Wouldn’t be nice if we could show the rest of the world the gentle and caring largesse that once defined our values? If we could embrace terrified children, separated from parents willing to let go of the loves of their lives in order for their little ones to escape ultra-violence of cartel wars, dangers and societal dysfunction that threaten to suck up their kids into drug wars and potential exploitation without end?
Would it support their cause if their violent experiences actually were caused by American policies? A war on drugs that enlisted governments in Latin America with U.S. military and DEA advisors, ample military supplies to counter cartels who have used America’s virtually non-existent gun-sales restrictions to make sure they have sufficient weapons to challenge any local police action. A war generated by America’s failed internal efforts to stem its own illegal drug sales and usage.
So ask yourself a question. If you were a child raised in brutal streets, intimidated by corrupt local officials and steely-eyed cartel operatives looking for the next generation of recruits, how would you react, shortly after your arrival, to a “suit” or a uniformed officer asking you rather intense personal questions after your harrowing journey, most probably from somewhere in Central America? How about if you are held in a cage before the questioning begins? Would you be open and confident in your interrogation… or still reeling and untrusting from your experiences?
The compromises on Capitol Hill are focused on expediting a process to get rid of these children as quickly as possible. Gone are the sympathies from the Reagan administration’s amnesty program that cleared a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented aliens. Irrelevant are the policies of both the Clinton and Bush administrations to stay deportation pending a deeper inquiry as to amnesty requests. Get ‘em out say angry picketers to the kids! No room at the inn for those facing rape, sexual trafficking and massive drug wars in their homelands.
“Lawmakers are deadlocked on a plan to deal with the surge in migrant children who are filling detention centers along the Mexican border, with both Democrats and Republicans saying [July 22nd] that it was increasingly unlikely they could reach an accord before Congress leaves town for a five-week recess at the end of the month.
“Senate Democrats’ plan, which they [formally introduced on July 23rd], call[ed] for roughly $2.7 billion to stem the crisis — nearly $1 billion less than President Obama requested but enough, they said, to get through the end of the year. Republicans in the House and Senate rejected it out of hand, saying that it amounted to giving the president a blank check because it did not include any changes to immigration law to address the overall problem.” New York Times, July 23rd. Social conservatives cannot seem to get their heads around the notion of humanity and Christian kindness.
Who cares about facts? “A 2014 study by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) found that 58 percent of these children are likely eligible for international protection. The study involved 400 in-depth interviews by teams of experienced researchers…” San Diego Union-Tribune, June 28th. Question them quickly and ship ‘em, out!
“Minors questioned shortly after being caught in locations, like Border Patrol stations, where they may feel unsafe often do not disclose dangers at home or abuses suffered during their journey, lawyers who are counseling them say. They are disoriented, wary of strangers and sometimes traumatized, and they have little understanding of the legal process.
“‘Many children would be sent back to harm,’ said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of Raices, a legal-services organization in San Antonio that has conducted in-depth screenings of more than 1,000 unaccompanied minors in an emergency shelter at Lackland Air Force Base. ‘We would have their names here, and the morgue in Tegucigalpa will have the bodies down there,’ he said, referring to the capital of Honduras… Mr. Ryan and other advocates who have conducted deeper screenings of more than 3,000 Central American minors this year in shelters in Texas found that at least half could present viable claims for visas.” New York Times, July 19th.
Conservative Texas has a different welcoming mat planned for the kids: “Gov. Rick Perry said on [July 21st] he is deploying up to 1,000 National Guard troops over the next month to the Texas-Mexico border to combat criminals that Republican state leaders say are exploiting a surge of children and families entering the U.S. illegally… The deployment will cost Texas an estimated $12 million a month. Texas Adjutant General John Nichols said his troops would simply be ‘referring and deterring’ immigrants and not detaining people -- though Nichols said the National Guard could if asked… ‘We think they'll come to us and say, `Please take us to a Border Patrol station,’ ‘ Nichols said.”, July 21st.
That so much opposition comes from Bible Belt social conservatives makes we wonder whether they (a) have read the New Testament and understood its messages of tolerance, charity, forgiveness and brotherly love, or (b) went to church this past Sunday with Christianity in their hearts. Hey, tough on immigration folks, what would Jesus do? Fortunately, there actually are deeply religious folks who oppose this heartless GOP compromise: “[On July 22nd], a coalition of evangelical organizations sent a letter to members of Congress, opposing proposals for expedited deportation of the migrants. A similar letter is being prepared by a wide range of mainline denominations, including the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Earlier this month, 20 national Jewish groups issued their own statement.
“The Catholic Church also opposes any effort to make it easier to deport children; last week, the archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis E. George, said he had offered facilities in his diocese to house some of the children, and on [July 21st], bishops in Dallas and Fort Worth called for lawyers to volunteer to represent the children at immigration proceedings.” New York Times, July 24th. We have a chance to take responsibility for the consequences of our own drug wars and make life better for the majority of these innocents who deserve what they came here for.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it’s time that Americans step up to the values they say they hold dear.