Sunday, November 30, 2014

Turkey Season for Women… Still?

Yeah, in Turkey – a NATO member and purportedly a secular nation – sexist President Recep Erdogan recently iterated his rather archaic, fundamentalist Sunni perspective on women in contemporary society, oddly at a women’s conference. “‘You cannot put women and men on an equal footing,’ he told a meeting in Istanbul. ‘It is against nature.’ He also said feminists did not grasp the importance of motherhood in Islam… ‘In the workplace, you cannot treat a man and a pregnant woman in the same way,’ Mr Erdogan said, according to the Anadolu news agency.
“Women cannot do all the work done by men, he added, because it was against their ‘delicate nature’… ‘Our religion regards motherhood very highly,’ he said. ‘Feminists don't understand that, they reject motherhood.’… He said women needed equal respect rather than equality.”, November 24th. Sound right or like the rantings of leader of an out-of-touch primitive belief system, one that is shared not just by fundamentalist Muslims but religions and cultures the world over? Er… perhaps even here in the good old USA.
In the Western world, you’d think that between Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and Germany’s Angela Merkel, perhaps adding the general notion that former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is acknowledged as one of the frontrunners expected in the 2016 presidential, we have made a pretty clear statement about our values. But while John McCain’s age was fairly downplayed in his presidential run, the comments from the GOP right – the same folks who supported McCain – believe that Ms. Clinton’s age (younger than McCain when he ran) is too important to ignore. After all, they must believe, women wear age less gracefully than men? Getting steamed yet or comfortable with these notions?
Yet as the GOP sees former female corporate CEO’s vying for major office – Meg Whitman (eBay and HP) in her failed attempt to win the California governorship and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina’s announced “exploration” of a bid for the GOP presidential nod in 2016 – there still seems to be a hesitancy to accept leadership at the top from our conservative constituency. “American women hold 12 percent of governor’s seats and make up 17 percent of Congress. If these numbers sound low, that’s because they are: The United States ranks a stunning 85th in the world in women’s parliamentary representation.” Center for Women. OK, the recent elections have added a few more women to the mix, but the skew is still seriously out-of-whack. 
The issue of equal pay for equal pay still makes the business headlines, and despite all the rhetoric, the matter is anything but resolved. Male executives argue that pregnancy leave and family priorities encumber women by choice, and that the skew of pay advantage comes from these social realities. Woman cry “BS!” and note that the glass ceiling and pay discrepancies apply regardless of marital status, having children or any other social “explanation” other than simple discrimination.
So let’s look at the top of the food chain… at over-educated women from the best schools or who have elected to compete with more-than-comparable resumes in male-dominated bastions. Where brain-power is the value proposition, not brawn.
Another day, it seems, another study about the gender gap in careers. [In mid-November], Gallup told us women are more pessimistic about the job market. New Bloomberg Businessweek data showed us that female MBAs reported an average of nearly $15,000 less in expected annual pay than men did. And research by a Canadian duo tells us the pay gap might have something to do with women working disproportionately for older men.
“Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely, Hunter College professor Pamela Stone and Colleen Ammerman, assistant director of the Gender Initiative at HBS, set out to examine what more than 25,000 male and female HBS graduates had to say about work, careers and family. In doing so, they found sharply different levels of career satisfaction for men and women, they found professional and familial expectations that were at odds with each other, and they found data that could help debunk some conventional myths about why the gender gap persists.
“To start, the study unearthed a statistically significant difference in how many men versus women were happy in their careers. For instance, 59 percent of the men said they found their work meaningful, compared with just 49 percent of women. Exactly half of the men in the study said they were in jobs with opportunities for career advancement, compared with just 41 percent of women…
“Sixty-one percent of the men, for example, said that when they graduated from HBS, they expected their careers to take precedence over their partner's — yet that turned out to be true for 70 percent of them instead. Meanwhile, just 25 percent of women said they expected to be in a traditional arrangement where their spouse's career came first. Thirty-nine percent, however, found that to be the reality… 78 percent of the men believed their spouse would be the primary caregiver in their marriage, and that actually turned out to be the case for 86 percent. For women, visions of equal parenting responsibilities quickly vanished, and even more women than expected became the one shouldering child care responsibilities.
“The study also was able to poke holes in some of the common theories about why the gender gap persists — such as the ideas that too many women "opt out" of the workforce after having families, or take breaks in their careers that cause them to fall behind. Neither issue turned out to be much of a factor for these ambitious, well-positioned women. Only 11 percent of the HBS alumnae surveyed were out of the workforce and caring for children full-time. (For women of color, the figure was even lower, at just 7 percent.)” Washington Post, November 19th.
The situation in the tech world, particularly the Silly-Con Valley, is notably worse: “Many tech companies readily admit that their workforces aren't as diverse as they could be — and that they're trying hard to fix the imbalance. To date, company demographics that skew heavily toward whites and men have received most of the attention. But as I've written before, there also exists a substantial gap in gender pay in Silicon Valley.
“The wage gap largely mirrors the national average; according to the American Association of University Women, female workers in the computer science field make 77 percent what their male peers do one year out of college. By comparison, Census data suggest that women make 78 percent of what men do, generally.
“But we're starting to get a better idea of specific differences between men and women's salaries at different tech companies. A recent survey of median salaries by Glassdoor suggests that at many Silicon Valley firms, men make thousands of dollars more than women every year. At Google, for instance, a male senior software engineer makes 19 percent more than his female counterpart.” Washington Post, November 26th.
There are variable that justify some but hardly all of the discrepancies: “The numbers are heavily conditional on experience and the number of reports from either sex. There are big discrepancies between men and women in terms of years worked, even within the same job. The male senior software engineer at Google has, on average, nearly a decade of experience compared to just 7.6 years for women with the same title. Experience is likely one factor that helps drive up male wages relative to women.
“At the same time, however, where women demonstrate more experience than men, the wage gap doesn't substantially shift in favor of women like you might expect. For instance, female software engineers at Cisco largely have more work experience than their male counterparts — yet that isn't reflected in their salaries. A mid-level female engineer at the company with nearly a year and a half more experience makes just $162 more per year, according to Glassdoor's data.” The Post.
We see that statistics all the time. But since we’re not going to cut pay for male counterparts, and massive pay increases for women across the board probably isn’t economically viable, what is the solution? First, there really does need to be an immediate adjustment where women workers are either equally or better qualified, and if the dollars aren’t there, how about balancing the inequality with a few more stock options. Further, over time, as pay increases are implemented in future years, adding an equalizing bump until parity is achieved would seem to be a necessary evil. If the EEOC and other relevant governmental agencies can create statistical profiles on our biggest employers, failures to pursue equalizing compensation policies should become actionable without forcing women to alienate their bosses by filing actions. It just time to end this ancient anomaly and recognize brain and work power for what it really is.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it’s time to look at people… as, well, people without gender biases.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Hatred in the Heartland

It’s really a black and white matter… er… maybe brown too. And it’s part of the big unresolved issue left over from our Civil War in the middle of the 19th century. White traditionalists with strong rural values – heavily laced with the religiosity of farmers dependent on the Lord’s largesse in weather and pest-avoidance – against regions with ethnically diverse and strong trading/manufacturing urban values. With open sores rubbed with alcohol and salt from the recent executive action on immigration reform, the rural heartland, powered by a lethargic urban turnout and a GOP triumph in the mid-term election, is furious and bent on crushing that surge of urban values. And despite the fact that we are a nation of immigrants, the modern line of acceptability to many is defined by a single word: white.
The conservative right is suing the president, threatening impeachment again, vowing to curtail not just his open challenge to the Republican House (and soon-to-be Congress) on immigration but the reaches of the GOP-despised Affordable Care Act as well. Tea Party stalwarts are mustering support to shut down the government in a blaze of resistance as the new Congress takes over. Time to reverse it all and get our way, sounds the chorus, and if we have to stop government in its tracks, default on national debt payments to do it, so what?!
White traditional power, based on unwavering fundamentalist Christian values, defines what it means to be an American, they cry, and we’ve got Congress and the vast majority of state legislatures and governors on our side. Gerrymandered districts in much of the South and Southwest, not even remotely subject to challenge until – perhaps and a big maybe since state legislatures still drawn the lines – well after the 2020 census results, have insured that urbanites and ethnic minorities (together the vast majority of voters) will remain marginalized and subjugated to that rural minority of traditionalists.
To these traditionalists, it is a matter of their very survival. Many incorrectly believe that the Second Amendment even gives them the right to bear arms against any threats to this assumption. Ugliness is compounding, anger is growing and democracy is dying in this explosive mix. And thus it is interesting to look at one of those extremely “white, rural, traditional” states, Alabama, to understand the depth of the hatred and fear.
Let’s start with a statute that was passed three years ago. “When it was signed in 2011, Alabama's immigration law was considered the toughest in the country. It made it a crime for businesses to hire undocumented immigrants, required legal immigrants to carry documentation with them at all times and even had a ‘show me your papers’ provision, which allowed police to detain people during traffic stops for the purpose of checking their citizenship status.
“Not surprisingly, those measures, along with several others in the law, were met with anger by people not only in Alabama, but throughout the country. Legal challenges immediately followed, with the most powerful one coming from the Justice Department [arguing violations of the U.S. Constitution, including that such matters were relegated to the federal government and not states]. Now, after two years of negotiations, a federal district judge has upheld a settlement that was reached by federal authorities and the state that strikes down most of the law.” Latinos have been a part of small town life all over the Deep South for quite a while now, but resentment at their presence continually boils over.
The law’s intention was crudely obvious: “The goal, a sponsor said at the time, was to ‘make their lives difficult and they will deport themselves.’ In Albertville, [Alabama, for example,] many Latino families vanished… But the federal courts eventually rolled back many aspects of the law, and soon the immigrants were back, it seemed, in full force…” New York Times, November 21st.
And equally not surprisingly, small town Alabama reacted strongly negatively at President Obama’s recent executive action: “[M]any whites said they felt stung by what they see as an audacious and unconstitutional move by a president that they never much cared for in the first place. Some worried that the action would trigger a new wave of illegal immigrants…  Joey Hartline, a local [Albertville] contractor, called Mr. Obama’s action an act of ‘domestic terrorism.’… ‘He needs to be arrested and tried for treason,’ he said.” NY Times. While Mr. Hartline’s extreme statement doesn’t represent all of Alabama, his sentiments seem to reflect an overwhelming consensus of that state’s majority of conservative voters.
Indeed, if this fundamental schism that has not been resolved in the roughly 150 years since our Civil War ended is as great an emotional a divide as it as it has ever been, what chance does the United States have of holding together in the longer term? Whether it is the next Census or the one beyond that, sooner or later the gerrymandering that holds that white traditional values in power will erode and vaporize. Urban values and non-White “minorities” will inevitably control most state houses as well as Congress.
Given the seething emotion in rural communities – even cities in the South and Southwest that live by rural values – is there any way such traditionalists would remotely tolerate being relegated to out-voted conservative minority status? And as we look to severe challenges out in the international community – from the Islamic State to a malevolent and expansionist Russia – are they more serious threats to our national security than the big threat that looms within our own internal clash of values?
I’m Peter Dekom, and if we do not soon rally together and redefine what it means to be an American, that beautiful nation we cherish will perish into the lost memories of history.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Fighting the Islamic State

Back in the 1960s, Republic Senator Everett Dirksen, when looking at the federal budget back then, once quipped: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon, you’re talking about real money.” In a war-torn era, there are monetary costs, political risks, health challenges and of course the numbers of human beings simply referred to as “casualties” – some are our own, some are not. And whenever despicable actions arise, from Hitler’s genocide against Jews and gypsies to Turkish atrocities against Armenians or Stalin’s pogroms, humanity has to decide whether or not to intervene. Increasingly, in the modern era, the United States has become embroiled in most, but hardly all (think: Rwanda’s tribal struggles), of such larger-scale genocidal explosions.
The moral outrage, the beheading of innocent American journalists and humanitarians, and the instability acceleration in an area already challenged with conflicts that threaten to push the entire world into another massive war… al Baghdadi has declared the intention to expand his global Sunni “caliphate” across the Middle East and beyond, declaring Shiites, Jews, Christians and all Western “non-believers” unworthy of life itself. Less than human. Vermin to be eliminated. ISIS, ISIL, IS, the Islamic State – whatever you want to call it – also threatens each and every oil-producing nation in the region. Oil? Oh… again! By any measure, the Islamic State has got to go.
But having failed to establish a viable nation-state in Iraq and clearly failing to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan as we exit, the U.S. track record in the region is abysmal. Corrupt and relentlessly ungrateful regimes with zero loyalty to American interests cling to the tiny vestiges of control that remain to them in their beleaguered capitals. We put them there, established their form of government and sent our military and their bevy of well-armed contractors to fight on their behalf, losing thousands of American lives and spending trillions of dollars simply to fail, having destabilized the region like no other.
So now, pretty much every American’s definition of extreme evil has reared its profoundly ugly head in Iraq and Syria, thriving in the rich terrorist soil that American efforts fertilized with their destabilizing regional military directives. We hate them. They hate us and have sworn to kill us wherever they can. They crave a direct regional conflict with “the Great Satan” (the U.S.), and if they don’t get that wish, they are plotting and scheming on how to bring massive 9/11-like attacks to our shores.
So we have danced around “on-the-ground” involvement by adding “advisors” to one of the most corrupt, ineffective and ill-led armies on earth – the Iraqi military. As the few good Iraqi units around join forces with effective Kurdish fighters, signs of “a little progress” against IS is evident. U.S. air strikes – death angels relatively safely above the fray – support the assault on the Islamic State. NATO ally Turkey stands idly by, their President making inane speeches at feminist gatherings about the innate inequality of women in society, seemingly embracing that same Sunni extremism that defines IS.
So even at this nascent stage of our involvement in the war against the Islamic State (Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul wants a formal declaration of war), what is it costing and likely to cost in the immediate future… in hard dollars? There isn’t a single line item in the request budget for this military response, but the November 25th Washington Post took a crack at aggregating the budgetary allocation requests:
“The Obama administration’s request to Congress for an additional $5.6 billion is needed to begin paying for operations against the Islamic State for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1… The estimated cost to the Pentagon of fighting the Islamic State — put at about $8 million a day and rising — hardly gives the full picture… The Air Force, for example, is seeking an additional $1 billion in fiscal 2015 to meet operations, maintenance and personnel costs, according to a 34-page Nov. 10 letter from Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). The guided attack missiles and other bombs being used as air support for ground-based Iraqi forces will cost $70 million.
“The Army is also seeking another $1 billion to pay for its added operations, maintenance and personnel costs in the fight. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said Wednesday that the decision to reduce the Army’s end strength from 490,000 to 450,000 by 2019 needs a second look. ‘We made assumptions that we wouldn’t go back into Iraq — and here we are back in Iraq,’ he said at the Defense One Summit…
“The Islamic State package also includes $464 million for added intelligence capabilities, including data from satellites and other collection activities, plus $39 million in equipment for the Special Operations Command, including intelligence programs… The sum of $544 million in added Air Force procurement is listed for ‘classified purposes.’ Whether that is pass-through money for CIA or National Security Agency intercept operations is not indicated. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. disclosed Friday that another $1 billion was being added to his overseas contingency request for the current fiscal year, an indication that it, too, was to meet spending in the fight against the Islamic State.
“Then there’s the $1.6 billion for the Iraq train-and-equip fund, to pay for tens of thousands of rifles, machine guns, mortars, rocket launchers, body armor and other equipment… About $1.2 billion will go to the Iraqi army to help train and equip nine brigades, according to a Defense Comptroller paper sent to Congress this month… Some $353,871,161 is destined to equip three Kurdish peshmerga brigades, while a separate $24 million is to support Sunni tribal fighters in Anbar province battling the Islamic State.” And so it begins. How do you spell “tip of the iceberg”? Really?
This is going to be a long rough ride caused by our stupid pursuit of wars over a decade ago we did not properly evaluate, in lands we did not understand, with schisms we did not appreciate. And by dribbling in the financing, we just might be prolonging this battle for a vastly longer period.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the United States has become the post-child for blowback and unintended consequences.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Suffering Comes Naturally

You only have to read about the Eastern Front during World War II, where 70% of that conflict’s casualties occurred or picture the austere life during the modern Soviet era to understand Russian tolerance levels for pain. Euphoria still resonates among the Russian people as President Vladimir Putin retook Crimea and challenges Ukraine on the control of the latter’s eastern province. The notion of reuniting the once-great Soviet empire still sends wondrous chills down the backs of so many Russian “patriots.” But life in Russia is getting downright miserable for the vast masses of Russian citizens.
It’s been a double-whammy – plunging prices for fossil fuels coupled with the back-and-forth economic impacts of sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions based on near-universal condemnation of Russian aggression in Ukraine. The combined impact has been the crash of the rouble, a precipitous fall of 25-30% over the past few months. For ordinary Russians, the cost of common commodities, from fabrics to foodstuffs, has crushed their standard of living like no other.
Even as Russia has banned luxury (and other) imports from the EU nations imposing sanctions, Russian replacement goods are not as high in quality (but suppliers are taking advantage of the ability to charge higher prices), and many of the European standards have simply been transshipped to neighboring countries where they are “repackaged” as coming from acceptable exporters and then resold at even higher prices to Russian consumers. Prices at the grocery store have simply soared.
Further, Russian companies that have borrowed vast corporate sums in the international marketplace are forced to repay foreign-currency debt with vastly under-valued Russian roubles, a huge hit to the bottom line. Russian central bankers may offer some financial relief to these borrowers in the short term, but as time passes, even central bank reserves will be severely taxed.
Yet Russia is a nation rich in oil and gas resources, so doesn’t that offset the pain? Nope! When you couple the rise in consumer prices for goods in general with a concomitant 30% fall in the price of a barrel of oil, the impact on the average Russian is devastating.
Why has the price of oil dropped?  Consumers in a struggling European economy have cut back on their consumption of gas and gasoline, traveling less and holding home temperatures to slightly more uncomfortable levels. Add the economic slowdown in China, which has created a parallel reduction in the demand for oil and gas imports, and you’ve got a huge slack in demand. And remember when the United States was a huge net oil importer? Well, blend in U.S. development of new oil and gas resources, primarily due to the application of new fracking technologies, and the global markets for oil have dropped the price of a barrel of quality crude to well under $80/barrel.
Russians are used to hiding their expressions of anger against the government. For centuries, talking too loud about your masters has resulted in banishment, death, torture and/or prison. So while there is national pride at Putin’s willingness to take on the rest of the world, sometimes it is hard to measure civilian sentiments on deprivation generated by government policies.
One has to believe that the euphoria is still real, but as more than one Russian and European economist has noted, the rise in prices and the decline of the Russian standard of living have just begun. The full impact of banking, insurance and other sanctions have yet to take hold, and these are simply expected to make the international import-export business that much more difficult.
With declining values to the rouble, the ability of Russians to invest overseas has declined proportionately. Worse, perhaps, is the fact that no sane Westerner is about to invest in new industries in Russia at this time, despite the currency exchange advantage. Putting assets in a country angry at your country of residence, looking at ways to create reverse sanctions, is not a smart play.
In the end, the Cold War appears to be back. Putin has announced that he expects to remain at the helm until 2024, and if this hubristic projection holds true, we are going to be dealing with this aggressive leader for the foreseeable future. Tensions between East and West are likely to remain bad and perhaps get worse. As Ukraine places the issue of joining NATO to their voters, Russia has declared that this is a red line that they would never accept. Russia is laying claim to much of the Arctic passage, challenging not only the United States, but Canada and Scandinavia as well (including Danish Greenland).
Will Putin be able to continue to blame the West for Russian misery? Will the Russian people buy into that blame game? And what exactly are the risks of escalating a miserable situation into much, much worse? How solid is Mr. Putin’s hold on his people?
I’m Peter Dekom, asking nasty questions but hoping for a positive resolution in world with more than enough horrific distractions and challenges.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Finding Fault

Think about it. What happened when the traditional local/network nightly news block spawned 24/7 news channels and parallel Websites for just about everybody who read the news on any form of television? There wasn’t more news to report, only more time to fill. So what happens when the hour or two expands to well… all the time? Add blogging… like this one? Better reportage? Sometimes for some stories. But most of the time, filler began to dominate these mega-news-franchises. Opinions replaced coverage (they were great time fillers), often dominating the air time. Ratings began to be the driver, and words, stories and slant targeted generating eyeballs to enhance subscription and advertising revenues above all else. Whatever it takes.
And while a feel good story may be added now and then to fill the programming time or end “on a happy note,” the hard fact remained: no one generated ratings by reporting nice stuff, but what really hit the gut was the evolution of the nasty. From Nancy “I’m wrong too often” Grace on CNN to virtually the entirety of Fox News to the loud-mouthed liberal screamers on MSNBC. Nasty was selling ads. Critics of every decision, every political statement, every rash and violent act now generated opinions and news staffs expanded the fodder that their endless programming demanded. I recall CNN running out of fodder and turning to reporting on the reporters covering the story.
Add to these “nattering nabobs of negativism” (okay, who remembers who said that?) a political system – once abused by Democrats when they held the catbird seat in politics, but now a GOP signature process – that thrives on decimating your opponent: gerrymandering.  Republicans discovered the efficiency of redistricting to exclude opponents from the remotest shot of carry a legislative or congressional seat. Republicans found that they no longer needed to fear Democrats in so many elective offices. But politics is nasty and competitive, and GOP stalwarts now faced a surge of new candidates from their own party… and the battle to see how far right, how fiscally and socially conservative you can be, became the hallmark of elections in gerrymandered districts. Extremism was in. Compromise was toast.
With financing wide open from ultra-rich, ultra conservative billionaires thanks to “you may buy election issues” Citizens United, a new uncompromising force began to rise in elective offices across the land. Shut the government down! Impeach the president! Sue the president! Take no prisoners! Campaigns were now built on how strongly a politician could mount a nasty criticism of his or her opponent. Fox News was laughing all the way to the bank.
But a new trend arose. Generate an extreme opinion, call for Congressional investigations and special prosecutors, all at the very beginning of a breaking story. Enrage without the facts! Turn news into political criticisms to damage opponents as quickly as possible. Make up facts if necessary, since by the time the truth finally arises – if it ever does – the damage will already have been inflicted.
Remember in 2012 when a U.S. Ambassador and three of his fellow Foreign Service Officers were killed by terrorists in an attack in an obscure and exotic city in Libya: Benghazi. Then U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, speaking to the press on behalf of the Obama administration after some preliminary assessments by the CIA and others on the scene, suggested that a protest over a controversial American video (promoting an anti-Islam film) sparked the attacks. It turned out that she was wrong, dead wrong.
The GOP war machine flipped the full-on-attack switch, ripping Rice, the Obama administration and, most of all, potential future presidential candidate and then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Conspiracy, they cried. Intentionally deceiving the American people and covering up the truth, they asserted. Security was purposely held back, stated the neo-critics. Demands for immediate responsive testimony before GOP-led subcommittees were made. The Obama administration refused. Fox News was raking in ad dollars fanning the flames of “cover-up and deception.” The GOP made the Benghazi incident a rallying cry for well over a year, even into the recent mid-term elections, although the story appeared to take on a “beating a dead horse” moniker.
Meanwhile, a bi-partisan, GOP-led congressional panel, 12 Republicans and 9 Democrats from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, slowly investigated what really happened. Shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday but well after the elections, they released their findings a little more than two years after the event. Aside from a criticism that the Consulate facilities were not well-secured, their release pretty much found no one really did anything wrong.
Here’s how one of those traditional networks, NBC, reported the results (November 21st): “The Republican-led House Select Committee on Intelligence on [November 21st] released its report on the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and it found that the military and the Central Intelligence Agency responded appropriately during the attacks.
“The investigation, which took nearly two years and thousands of hours of work, found the CIA had ‘ensured sufficient security’ and ‘bravely assisted’ the night of attacks that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The panel also found no intelligence failure prior to the attacks.
“The committee said bit found no evidence that the military was ordered to ‘stand down’ during the attacks in Benghazi, as some had claimed, and that ‘appropriate U.S. personnel made reasonable tactical decisions that night.’ It also found no evidence of similar claims that the CIA was involved in arms shipments or other unauthorized activities.
“The report did say that the initial narrative by the White House that the attack stemmed from a protest was not accurate, but it blamed that on contradictory intelligence assessments in the attack’s aftermath rather than an effort to obscure the truth. The committee said it found ‘no evidence that any officer present during the attacks was intimidated’ to prevent them from addressing Congress or revealing what they witnessed.”
Gee, I guess that means the Benghazi controversy – clearly targeting Hillary Clinton – has finally been settled. Not exactly. The dead horse seems to be quivering as the facts didn’t turn out as planned. The inconvenient truth, even created under supervision of their own party, was not what they wanted to hear: “On [November 23rd], Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told CNN that the report – issued late [November 21st] by the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee – was ‘a bunch of garbage.’ Herenewed his call for a special joint House-Senate committee on BenghaziRepresentative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who will be chairman of the oversight committee next year, has also suggested that he wants a hearing on embassy security in early 2015.” New York Times, November 23rd.
So America is governed by people on both sides of aisle who love to seize on any events to blame their opponents with or without the facts. They are aided and abetted by 24/7 news outlets who need filler, controversy and anything to drive anger, which in turn generates ratings. The scene is exacerbated by Citizens United and gerrymandering. The sacrificial lambs are truth and quality governance. Instead, skewering, lying, false sloganeering and polarization are the deciders. What’s wrong with this picture? Everything! It’s a lesson in how to destroy a democracy.
I’m Peter Dekom, and unless we care enough to bring America back together, we are planting the seeds of our own destruction.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Made in the USA

You’ve heard the rhetoric. “Manufacturing jobs” are returning to America. Between robotics and global competition, what exactly is the reality of manufacturing in the United States? Sure, you can have greater control over quality. Absolutely, those long-distance shipping costs can be reduced. Yes, subtle cultural differences can be corrected. So are Americans regaining their past earning power? Quite the opposite.
If global wage rates for ordinary assembly and manufacturing are still significantly low, how do you take advantage of the above savings and still pay workers within the American wage-rate paradigm? When the automotive industry collapsed with two major bankruptcies – Chrysler and General Motors – union fringes and pay rates across the entire sector plunged as collective bargaining agreements were vitiated. That collapse of prevailing manufacturing pay has continued well into the present day. Simple fact, on any measurement whatsoever: folks who make stuff for the most part make a whole lot less than they have in recent years.
“Even as the White House and leaders on Capitol Hill and in Fortune 500 boardrooms all agree that expanding the country’s manufacturing base is a key to prosperity, evidence is growing that the pay of many blue-collar jobs is shrinking to the point where they can no longer support a middle-class life.
“A new study by the National Employment Law Project [released on November 21st] reveals that many factory jobs nowadays pay far less than what workers in almost identical positions earned in the past.
“Perhaps even more significant, while the typical production job in the manufacturing sector paid more than the private sector average in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, that relationship flipped in 2007, and line work in factories now pays less than the typical private sector job. That gap has been widening — in 2013, production jobs paid an average of $19.29 an hour, compared with $20.13 for all private sector positions.
“Pressured by temporary hiring practices and a sharp decrease in salaries in the auto parts sector, real wages for manufacturing workers fell by 4.4 percent from 2003 to 2013, NELP researchers found, nearly three times the decline for workers as a whole.” New York Times, November 21st.
But wait, there’s more. Part of the job creation mythology is that American workers will be the primary beneficiaries of bringing manufacturing back to the United States. Unfortunately, sophisticated automated equipment and robotics have changed the landscape and actually contributed to the heavily skewed wealth polarization we face today. Capital equipment has replaced labor in a vast array of manufacturing, even stepping into arenas where robotics might not be anticipated.
“Home health care workers, food service workers, retail salespeople and custodians will account for nearly 1 million of the 2.4 million new, low-skill jobs expected to be added in the U.S. by 2017, according to a USA TODAY analysis of jobs data from Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. and CareerBuilder.
“But advances in technology mean such workers may be replaced by robots like HERB, the ‘Home-Exploring Robot Butler’ under development at Carnegie-Mellon [University]. HERB is learning to retrieve and deliver objects, prepare simple meals and empty a grocery bag.”, October 24th.
We’ve seen the massive robotic assembly lines (pictured above) in Detroit, and we know all about 3D printing and nanotechnology. But as automation replaces workers engaged in hand assembly and servicing, the money that used to be paid to labor now is transferred to those who own the capital equipment. And the productivity gains do not go into wage gains; instead they increase the values paid to the owners of the new equipment.
As our access to reasonably-price education dwindles, as our public primary and secondary schools continue to fall in quality teaching, those who are forced back into the manufacturing sector may have jobs, but they are back to living from paycheck to paycheck with little or no hope of living the American middle class dream. Add contract employment and part time jobs to the mix, and the numbers only look good as raw unemployment data. We are witnessing a steep contraction of the middle class and middle class earning power. It’s time to invest in the education, infrastructure and research that can once again accelerate American labor to the top of the food chain they once dominated.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I am amazed how we seem to be willing to cut tax rates for the tiny slice of wealthy at the top at the complete and total sacrifice of everyone else.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Out of Control

 noun \plü-ˈtä-krə-sē\
: government by the richest people
: a country that is ruled by the richest people
: a group of very rich people who have a lot of power

As Citizens United seems to have confirmed, we have shifted from even the hypocritical (read: gerrymandered and voter ID’d) “one person, one vote” to a more fundamental “one or more dollars, who cares about the vote” system of governance. As members of the House of Representatives face re-election every two years, to stay in office requires a massive commitment to fund-raising, some spending 90% of more of their working time seeking and (what’s much, much worse) and pleasing campaign and SuperPac contributors. With Congress in session less than one third of the year, you can guess what is going on, not only when they are in session, but when they are back home shaking trees, bushes and lobbyists for money.
Votes for sale! Votes for sale! Special interests and well-funded donors-with-an-agenda, this is your time to buy the tax and regulatory structure of your dreams, to create a parallel legal system that exempts those at the very top of the economic food chain from those nasty, humdrum laws and taxes that plague the rest of us!! Votes for sale! Votes for sale! Oh, you cannot legally accept a campaign contribution with an expressed pledge to vote on a particular piece of legislation, but everyone knows the rules. If you don’t vote in that obvious direction, you won’t be getting funding… when you run again in two years.
How can we remotely claim to be a democracy when the way this country actually operates is as a classic plutocracy (the definition above is from Merriam Webster). I used the House of Representatives because this bi-annual election format invited this “legalized” form of corruption. But buying votes, decisions, official discretion, etc. are just normal at every nook and cranny of the political spectrum, from federal, state and local representatives. It happens every time there is an appointment to a regulatory body of a person who comes from the industry to be regulated.
That our laws permit this form of special-treatment-for-campaign-contributors/lobbyists does not make the results any less corrupting of our values or our system of governance. It may exempt us from the international opprobrium that attaches to countries where out-and-out bribes are simply “business as usual,” but the corrupting results are precisely the same.
This rather disturbing application of untoward influence, which permeates both sides of the aisle, is absolutely everywhere. Take this little analysis from a recent NY Times piece (October 28th): “Attorneys general are now the object of aggressive pursuit by lobbyists and lawyers who use campaign contributions, personal appeals at lavish corporate-sponsored conferences and other means to push them to drop investigations, change policies, negotiate favorable settlements or pressure federal regulators, an investigation by The New York Times has found…
“When the executives who distribute 5-Hour Energy, the popular caffeinated drinks, learned that attorneys general in more than 30 states were investigating allegations of deceptive advertising — a serious financial threat to the company — they moved quickly to shut the investigations down, one state at a time… But success did not come in court or at a negotiating table.
“Instead, it came at the opulent Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel in California, with its panoramic ocean views, where more than a dozen state attorneys general had gathered last year for cocktails, dinners and fund-raisers organized by the Democratic Attorneys General Association. A lawyer for 5-Hour Energy roamed the event, setting her sights on Attorney General Chris Koster of Missouri, whose office was one of those investigating the company… ‘My client just received notification that Missouri is on this,’ the lawyer, Lori Kalani, told him.
“Ms. Kalani’s firm, Dickstein Shapiro, had courted the attorney general at dinners and conferences and with thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Mr. Koster told Ms. Kalani that he was unaware of the investigation, and he reached for his phone and called his office. By the end of the weekend, he had ordered his staff to pull out of the inquiry, a clear victory for 5-Hour Energy.” We seem to have become a deeply corrupted nation, pretending legitimacy because our legal system has tons of winks and nods for the well-connected with dollar bills emanating from their every pore.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if the vast pool of lethargic Americans don’t stand up and scream for a restoration of representative democracy in this once-great nation, we might as well put every public office up for bids… and at least use that money to pay off our deficit!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Teutonic Values and European Lives

Markets crashed all around the globe. Some argued that six years of an ascending global stock market is about as much as a system can take without a normal cyclical adjustment. Others suggested that the years of adherence to programs of severe austerity – the German prescription for what ails Europe – have ground growth and hope into the ground, downgraded average European standards of living and contracted Europe as a marketplace for goods and services produced by the United States, China and other exporting nations. In part the percipient drop in the American markets were linked to instability in Ukraine and the Middle East, China’s slight downward growth numbers but most significantly to Europe’s apparent inching ever-so-close to another big recession.
Reputable economists are beginning to write off Europe as an economic survivor in the big reset. And while some believe that the worst is over for bailout-driven southern European players like Greece, others are suggesting that these “bottom of the ladder” economies are a very, very long way from anything that represents meaningful recovery. Absent additional bailout funds, the cost of borrowing for these lower-echelon countries is rising fast.
While tax collectors have clamped down in traditional southern European scofflaws, some of the wealthiest citizens are so well sheltered that they still laugh at efforts to tax their income or wealth. But tax avoidance is becoming an international pastime, with big companies playing that field with unbelievable success. Ireland has incurred global wrath as negotiating absurdly low corporate tax rates with mega-conglomerates and cooperated in creating a legal system that allows these big companies to repatriate earnings from their high-tax-rate home countries to inexpensive Ireland.
So much of American corporate profitability, for example, is locked into Ireland, avoiding almost all of the tax liability that should be imposed based on American operations. Corporations have become mobile and nimble in avoiding taxes and letting the workers in their home countries carry the tax burden.
In Europe, it has been the slashing of government budgets, laying off of massive numbers of government employees, hiking tax rates, pulling back on services to their people and halting infrastructure building/repair as well as any form of growth investment simply to adhere to austerity/ government debt limitations set by the European Union under German leadership. Since recession seems to be back on Europe’s doorstep, there is rebellion in the ranks against this seemingly-failed Teutonic austerity program.
Financial leaders from Asia and Europe gathered for a conference in Milan on October 16th to drill down on these harsh realities that have shaken global markets to their core. With all of the factors discussed above pressing seem into the heart and soul of global stability, “The divisions between Europe’s leaders, at a moment when unity would seem critical, is one reason the markets are rattled — as well as the fact that policy makers still have not found a tool to revive growth in the face of staggering public debt… The prospect of another European financial crisis can only bring an unwanted sense of discomfort for Washington and the rest of the world…” New York Times, October 16th.
That accumulation of debt still terrifies inflation-fearing Germans. Historically-driven, these fears have also led most German investors to favor savings accounts and annuities over investing in stocks, so they can tolerate recession but cannot accept any risk of hyper-inflation which they believe is a probable result of too much national debt. A stable and predictable currency is their holy grail. But so much of the rest of Europe simply rails at the lifestyle and growth restraints that follow from such programs of austerity.
“In past years, however, the eurozone nations buckled under to German demands to slash budget deficits and roll back public services, and then watched in dismay as unemployment rates shot into the double digits and growth collapsed. Now, France, Italy and the European Central Bank have coalesced into a bloc against Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and they are insisting that Berlin change course.
“‘We need to show that Europe is capable of investing in growth, and not only in rigor and austerity,’ said the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, speaking to reporters outside the conference center after presiding over the opening of the meeting. He described the international financial situation as ‘very delicate’ and said Europe had still not earned the confidence of international markets… ‘As the I.M.F. has said, we need to focus on growth,’ he said, referring to the International Monetary Fund.” NY Times.
While we are partially insulated from this spreading European malaise, the combination of other major issues, from ISIL to Ebola, from Ukraine to bubble fears in China, suggest that we are going to be impacted by Europe’s inability to solve its own economic crisis. And for Americans, we are also going to have to address the eroding quality of new jobs (and pay), our plummeting educational performance ratings (which impacts our value-creating future jobs), the extreme cutbacks in government-funded research (Ebola, anyone?), student debt, unfunded state and local pensions and our inadequate and crumbling infrastructure.
If our government were to commit to addressing these inadequacies and making the necessary (job-creating)investments in our own future, we could smile with a bit more confidence, but we too may be done in by the under-analyzed long-term impacts of our own proclivity to cut budgets without looking at the consequences.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I find it puzzling why we cannot learn from the mistakes of others and have to learn everything the hard way.