Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Missing Ingredient in Government Policy: Common Sense

When senior government officials make it damned clear they will reject any facts that contradict their “I’ve already made up my mind” positions, how do we expect what they want to do to work? We went into that costly Iraq War, which totally failed as the ISIL attacks against a failed Iraqi state evidence, the administration just rejected any facts (supplied by their own government experts!) that told them that they were about to enter into an historical and cultural nightmare that would never resolve in our favor.
When government policies cut student loans (take a look at the recent budget extension bill which already impales meagre Pell financial aid by a further $300 million), allow even state college tuitions to fly above affordability, as bankruptcy laws specifically take away potential relief to students with stupid levels of debt, and cut public primary and secondary school budgets just as statistics show how un-competitive American kids are when compared to their international counterparts… how do our leaders really think we are going to create solid, globally-competitive jobs for generations to come?
Why do we think that crumbling bridges, highways, dams and levees will sustain against increasingly harsh weather patterns? Remember how much damage Hurricane Katrina created, not from the direct impact of the winds and rain, but from the failed levees that resulted in massive flooding. Think of the damage, for example, should earthquakes slam into the earthen levees and crumbling 19th century additions that control the water systems in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, one of the largest sources of water for so many cities and regions around the state. Such a disaster would devastate the regional economy for years if such water supplies were cut. That in turn would tank the national economy shortly thereafter. An ounce of prevention…
That companies that pollute, wreaking havoc with both local communities and the greater climate change issue, but do not have to pay for the true economic cost of their profit-making efforts, that wealth has institutionalized greater power, lower taxes and enhanced exemption from regulation than either average citizens or comparable wealth-holders in other developed nation is stunning. The erosion of our middle class and the continued fall of buying power for average Americans are increasingly blamed on “government intervention” into the private sector, but eliminating those elements of government policy that actually support this inherent unfairness are “off the table” among those in charge.
That the notion of “one person, one vote” has left the building in the cacophony of gerrymandering and voter ID laws, even under the very notion of the Constitution itself (two senators from each state regardless of population), and that our Constitution is hopelessly out of date and virtually impossible to change (the 27th Amendment, the last change dealing with Congressional pay, was proposed in 1789 and became a part of the Constitution in 1992!) only seem to make matters that much worse.
It’s clear that we are living in treacherous times, our economy is not sailing into the “place it’s been before,” Americans (except those at the top of the food chain) are learning to do with less… often much, much less… all has led to a malaise of increasing hopelessness, which has in turn pushed many Americans into a belief system that relies rather significantly on divine intervention to correct. That trend has also taken its toll on common sense, distracted the business of government into wasteful religious debate that seems to fly in the face of our First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Nothing illustrates this divisive issue like the battles within school boards about the necessity of adding “creationism” to local school curricula to counter religiously unpopular evolution theory. In a lightly-publicized debate in early 2014 between an evolutionary scientific educator (Bill Nye) and a well-recognized spokesman for creationism (Ken Ham) at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, the struggle between common sense and fiercely-held but contradictory religiosity raged.
Ken Ham used his interpretation of Genesis to argue against evolution. He claims all animals on Earth descended from around 10,000 distinct, divinely created animal kinds, splitting apart through minor adaptations into the more than 10 million species alive today. He argued that the universe is less than seven thousand years old and that Earth's surface was destroyed four thousand years ago in a cataclysmic global flood.
 “Ken Ham is not alone… [T]here are many people I still know and respect who agree with these beliefs deeply. Young Earth Creationism only emerged to begin disputing mainstream geology, archeology, and astronomy in the early 1960s, but today one-third of Americans believe earth is only thousands of years old, with even more doubting evolutionary common descent. Government-funded schools in 13 different states teach forms of creationism. Ham's views may seem unbelievable to many, but he is the representative of a sincere and passionate movement.
“As the representative of mainstream science, Bill Nye took a shotgun approach to the debate, bringing up multiple lines of evidence demonstrating the ideas creationists most often dispute. He brought a piece of rock from the strata that run directly underneath the Creation Museum, asking how the football-field-deep limestone bed -- filled with alternating layers of microscopic fossil creatures that could have only lived and died in calm, shallow water -- could have formed in a year-long global flood. He showed photos of annually-deposited ice cores 680,000 layers thick. He showed how the worldwide distribution of fossils is consistent with animals evolving in the same regions they inhabit today, rather than migrating out from the Middle East in pairs after a global flood. He pointed out that fossils only exist in the layers evolution predicts, that the stars are too far away for their light to have reached Earth in only 6000 years, and that the atomic clocks of radiometric dating are consistent and reliable.
“But creationism isn't successful because it ignores the evidence. It doesn't. Creationism is successful because it consistently finds ways to reinterpret the evidence to fit its presuppositions. Throughout the debate, Ken Ham insistently repeated that although scientific research in the present is testable and repeatable, scientific inquiry into the past -- what he calls ‘historical science’ -- can never be proven and is always open to interpretation. This belief may seem odd to many, but for people who grew up with creationism, it makes perfect sense.” David MacMillan writing for the Huffington Post, April 14th. Couldn’t God have created evolution?
How exactly are students who are taught “have faith without proof” creationism expected to rise into a world of scientific and engineering greatness, testing the boundaries of human knowledge and experience, questioning what is or is not possible, into order to create the new solutions, the new technologies that might lift the United States back into a position of economic growth and greatness that built this great country in the first place?
It is interesting to note that this anti-scientific notion of creationism arose after the United States had achieved its political and economic global greatness, and that there is an almost direct statistical link between the rise of support for creationism and the relative economic and political decline we have experienced in the last two decades. Without that questioning spirit, anchored in common sense and empirical facts, what chance does this country have in remaining a leader in technology and problem-solving?
I’m Peter Dekom, and unless and until we reintroduce common sense into our governance, we can expect the malevolent decline in our position as a world leader, the continuing rise of hopelessness, to define America’s future until out political time on this planet expires into the dust of recorded history.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Reality of Our Recovery

Must be brilliant economic direction as each political party claims why its policies have boosted the American economy to the growth levels we see today. But American workers are working longer hours with less buying power as the mega-rich take advantage of loopholes and out-and-out slants to our legal and tax system that only benefit “them.” Even the surge in the stock market is mostly a gift to those at the top of the economic ladder. But, Peter, we are seeing retail sales flying and people seeming more optimistic even at a grassroots level. Why?
To the biggest consumers of fossil fuels, notably the United States and China, the answer falls into one massive category, one that really cannot be unilaterally be implemented by any one nation or even a confederation of nations, no matter what anyone might say: the plunge in the price of oil. Consumers are walking around with significantly enhanced jingling in their pockets, more to spend, more to stimulate the economy. OK, not everyone is benefiting from this largesse: “The nearly 50 percent decline in oil prices since June has had the most conspicuous impact on the Russian economy and President Vladimir V. Putin. The former finance minister Aleksei L. Kudrin, a longtime friend of Mr. Putin’s, warned this week of a ‘full-blown economic crisis’ and called for better relations with Europe and the United States.
“But the ripple effects are spreading much more broadly than that. The price plunge may also influence Iran’s deliberations over whether to agree to a deal on its nuclear program with the West; force the oil-rich nations of the Middle East to reassess their role in managing global supply; and give a boost to the economies of the biggest oil-consuming nations, notably the United States and China… It might even have been a late factor in Cuba’s decision to seal a rapprochement with Washington.
“After a precipitous drop, to less than $60 a barrel from around $115 a barrel in June, oil prices settled at a low level this week. Their fall, even if partly reversed, was so sharp and so quick as to unsettle plans and assumptions in many governments. That includes Mr. Putin’s apparent hope that Russia could weather Western sanctions over its intervention in Ukraine without serious economic harm, and Venezuela’s aspirations for continuing the free-spending policies of former President Hugo Chávez…
“Hard-hit anti-American oil producers have blamed foreign machinations for their woes, suggesting that Washington, in cahoots with Saudi Arabia, has deliberately driven down prices… This view is particularly strong in Russia, where former K.G.B. agents close to Mr. Putin have long believed that Washington engineered the collapse of the Soviet Union by getting Saudi Arabia to increase oil output, driving down prices and thus starving Moscow of revenue.
“In many ways, the recent price fall really is the United States’ work, flowing to a large extent from a surge in American oil production through the development of alternative sources like shale.” New York Times, December 24th. It’s the economy stupid!
Indeed the rise of religious fundamentalism – particularly those belief-systems that embrace severe austerity that provides a pious explanation for poverty that too many individuals are unable to escape – appears to be directly and mathematically related to the fall of economic opportunity and the collapse in too much of the world of quality of life and hope for a better future. As global climate change accelerates economic deprivation – droughts rendering farmland desiccated and fallow – you can almost use a climate map to pick the places with the angriest and most desperate people, folks likely to adopt militant policies and angry religious leaders.
Are we experiencing a Malthusian destiny, enhanced with that man-made expanding spiral of negative climate consequences? Is our future defined by conflicts over resources – energy sources, food and water – disguised as religious wars and clashes of civilization? Would we be seeing the angry, senseless violence in the name of religious purity if everyone were well-fed with a stable economic future? The direct and immediate impact – politically and economically all over the world – of collapsing oil prices is a very interesting lesson for us all.
Oh, don’t worry, oil prices will rise again, and the politics of oil will resume its nasty course. But for this moment in the time-space continuum, we have a moment to understand exactly how the puzzle works, and how, precisely, humanity reacts to dynamic changes in major economic variables. Look at the winners and losers in the recent drop in oil prices. Look at the consequences, and the political fallout. The leg bone is connected to the hip bone… You get the drill, but perhaps we can figure what to do in our national and international policies a bit better by absorbing exactly what just happened.
I’m Peter Dekom, and oil has an amazing variety of lubricating effects that we really need to take seriously.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Shifty Demographics

Roses are red, violets are actually… er… violet. And so it is with the underlying numbers that define who we, the United States of America, are and, more importantly, who we are becoming. And despite the fact that we have a majority of state houses, governorships and even Congress in the hands of conservative traditionalists, most of the trends show the United States moving away from that constituency. We’re becoming a majority of minorities, with strong political leanings in the opposite direction.
Shortly after the details of the 2010 Census became available, the famous Brookings Institution began its analysis of the trends. “New 2010 Census analysis shows an unprecedented shift in the nation’s racial makeup in 14 states, one that is reshaping U.S. schools, work places and the electorate. Due to immigration, a combination of more deaths and fewer births among whites and an explosion of minority births, the U.S. is poised to be a majority-minority country sooner than predicted. Senior [Brookings] Fellow William Frey says we’re at the beginning of an inevitable transition that affords us new opportunities. Texas, New Mexico and California are already majority-minority states reflecting a racial shift related to more deaths among whites than births. This natural decrease is happening earlier than expected.”, June 19, 2013.
The country appears to have hit that tipping point – where the majority of new births fall outside of the traditional white majority – in 2014, but the official measurements, the ones that define political election districts, won’t be determined until we have had time to digest the results of the 2020 Census. We can expect incumbent legislatures, dominated by conservatives clinging to their waning years of control, to continue their efforts to minimize “minority” votes (generally reflecting urban values and not sympathetic to traditional white conservative notions) through voter ID laws and gerrymandering as is currently the practice in Texas, the second most populous state in the Union. We can expect lots of judicial action as the power struggle resumes.
Not only is the composition of the majority of voting Americans rapidly changing, but we are even seeing changes in migration and birth patterns that are realigning the states with the largest populations, and hence the greatest number of Congressional districts (which are based on population). New York was once the most populated state until post-WWII migration patterns slowly pushed California to the top spot by the 1970 Census (Texas was only fourth, behind California, New York and Pennsylvania, becoming third only after the 1980 Census).
But as the cost of living combines with worsening weather patterns and spiraling housing and living costs, New York is losing its position as the third most populous state (behind California and Texas). The new number three? Florida! “The numbers, which reflect population estimates for July 2014, show that Florida now has about 19.9 million residents, overtaking New York and its 19.7 million. (California and Texas remain in first and second place, respectively.)
“Demographers say that the new estimates reflect decades-old migration trends. According to the 2014 figures, Florida gained nearly 300,000 residents in the 12 months before July, while New York gained just over 50,000…. ‘It was a long time coming,’ said Jan K. Vink, a specialist with the Program on Applied Demographics at Cornell University, which studies and supplies data to the Census Bureau. ‘Florida has been growing much faster than New York.’
“And occasionally gloating about it. When Gov. Rick Scott determined last December that his state — with all the oranges, warm breezes and, yes, retirees from New York — would soon surge into the top 3, he said confidently that ‘Florida’s on a roll,’ and taunted northerners with talk of air-conditioners running during the Christmas season. (And sure enough, the midafternoon temperature in Miami on [December 23rd], 80 degrees, was more than twice as high as that in Albany.)” New York Times, December 23rd. There is, however, a rather direct connection between our political direction and the make-up of our changing population.
I’m Peter Dekom, and no, contrary to the rumors floating around California these days, the Florida State bird is not the sweating mosquito (it’s actually the mockingbird that eats mosquitos)!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Skipping Down a Tightrope

Russians admire their President for his “bold steps” in annexing Crimea and lending covert (a bit more like overt) aid to ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. Russians have weathered the collapse of their currency, from the double pounding of falling oil and gas prices to sanctions that make everything more expensive. Mr. Putin has put his currency reserves to work to stem the tide of financial collapse, but there are heavy betters on both sides of the line as to whether he can pull the Russian economy out of its nose dive.
While Russia is hardly the Soviet monolith of old, it has plenty of bark and bite with its stunning arsenal and its cunning ability to deploy cyber-attacks at will. The Ukraine military is no match against a full-on Russian military assault. But as talks between Russia and Ukraine ebb and flow, even as Russia has agreed to provide natural gas to heat Ukrainian homes over this brutal winter, tensions are hardly deescalating.
Under Russian pressure in 2010 to make sure Ukraine did not fall into some military-treaty relationships at the expense of Russia, Ukraine agreed formally to become a non-aligned state, pledging neutrality between east and west. But as Russia abrogated treaties and plunged into Ukrainian territory with little concern for international borders, Ukraine shuddered under that neutrality promise.
Perhaps sensing that Russia’s economic crisis has narrowed Putin’s tactical and strategic choices vis-à-vis the Ukraine, that latter country is embracing a few bold (stupid to some) steps of its own. “Ukraine's parliament has voted to drop the country's non-aligned status and work towards NATO membership… In a vote in Ukraine's parliament on [December 23rd], MPs overwhelmingly backed the move by 303 to eight… Speaking before the vote, Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said Ukraine was determined to pivot towards Europe and the West… ‘This will lead to integration in the European and the Euro-Atlantic space,’ he said…
“Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the move ‘counterproductive’ and said it would boost tensions...The BBC's David Stern in Kiev says it is not clear when Ukraine will apply for NATO membership and many officials see it as a distant prospect… Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko pledged to seek NATO membership over Russian support for rebels in the east.”, December 23rd. Indeed, one can think of almost nothing that Ukraine could do to anger Russia than in its joining a military organization with mutual pledges of armed support in the event of an attack. Would NATO in fact make such an alliance that could, theoretically, pit Western nations in a real shooting war (or more?!) against Russia?
“Addressing foreign ambassadors on [December 22nd] night, President Poroshenko said Ukraine's ‘fight for its independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty has turned into a decisive factor in our relations with the world.’…Russia has made clear that it opposes Ukraine's move towards NATO.
“Andrei Kelin, Russia's envoy to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), said on [December 23rd]: ‘It's an unfriendly step towards us. This political vector will only add to nuisances and acuteness in ties.’… In a Facebook post on [December 23rd], Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that Ukraine's rejection of neutrality would have ‘negative consequences.’” “Negative consequences”? Where have we heard that in the news of late?
You’d think with all the years of historical lessons, the world would simply learn how to get along better, but tensions everywhere are increasing, with violence the seeming first choice solution. But between the impact of global climate change on access and development of natural resources, from fuel to food, the underlying religious differences that pit people with extreme views against each other in well-armed conflicts, the world threatens to get a whole lot worse in the years to come… even as global interdependence deepens.
I’m Peter Dekom, and my quest for common sense is now humbly joined in a quest for sanity where that no longer appears to be a relevant quality in national leadership anymore.

Vive La Resistance (Not)

When the press of humanity hits Malthusian threat levels, nature has a litany of fine tools beyond the biblical Four Horsemen (war, conquest, famine, and death) to reduce our numbers. Add our proclivity to kill each other without even needing the excuse of war, variations on a theme like genocide, or perhaps it is that lovely and seductive notion of plague, and solutions abound. Maybe the animals gone extinct are cheering from somewhere, but we are under some very severe threats. Global warming is fueling all sorts of nasties, but evolution is also culling the human herd in other massively sinister terms. The Ebola virus was a recent violation that just keeps on taking.
We see outbreaks of SARS, Ebola, HIV as cyclical realities that have followed humankind since rats generously spread the bubonic plague centuries ago. But there is an underlying trend that sophisticated researchers and healthcare professionals are witnessing with startling and terrifying consistency. What, for example, do Klebsiella pneumonia, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria have in common? They fall into a growing category of “antimicrobial resistant” “bugs” of one sort or another.
The growth and mutation of so-called “super-bugs” – a growing body of germs that have evaded or are beginning to evade available treatments – is accelerating. While such resistant bugs currently kill about 700,000 people a year today, their accelerating growth threatens to escalate to grow to an annual 10 million, greater still than the number of people who die from cancer every year.
The above numbers come from a UK governmental study, headed by Jim O'Neill, a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, who was appointed to that post by Prime Minister David Cameron. And of course, an economist ran the numbers and projected that by 2050, the total cost of such antimicrobial resistant infections could hit $100 trillion. Death, disruption and misery… and we live in budget-cutting times…
We’ve overprescribed antibiotics with such volume that the bacteria they are intended to kill have mutated and developed an increasing resistance to any such drug. Further, too many of us have stopped taking a prescribed antibiotic before taking the full prescribed course of treatment. Effectively, this exposes the target bacteria to a weakened trace of antibiotics, allowing them to survive… and then, having survived, they now have an effective resistance to that prescription.
For those with compromised immune systems, particularly the elderly, there is even a greater susceptibility to infection. And with the possibility of antimicrobial resistant bugs lurking – particularly in hospitals where the sick congregate – many folks are postponing surgery or even learning to live without. "People who are waiting for joint replacement, transplant surgery, cesarean section, those are high risk operations for infection afterwards. If we don't have antibiotics that work anymore, that's serious stuff. It means we can't do those operations," Dr Hilary Jones told interviewers on the Good Morning Britain television show. Oh…

So as our government defunds medical research as evidence of their “intelligent fiscal responsibility,” the solutions to control these diabolical super-bugs are fading into the ether. As I pointed out in my October 14th It Ain’t Swine Flu blog, Ebola would probably have not killed remotely the number of people it has if the government had just continued doing what it had been doing for decades until “austerity” took root. Fund research. With poor countries unlikely to generate a solid economic justification for Ebola research, the private pharma world had little or no motivation to pick up the research slack.

If those little bugs had mouths and vocal cords, they’d be cheering. Cuts to environmental enforcement and medical research have only gotten bigger under the new $1.1 billion budget bill that has just passed Congress to keep the federal government going for a few more months. So years from now, with epidemics and pandemics of antimicrobial resistant bugs, how will our future generations look back at what we have done to them… not to mention the short-term suffering we are creating… right now.

            I’m Peter Dekom, and exactly how self-destructively stupid does a candidate have to be today to get elected?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Hope, the Final Frontier

In the spring of 2014, an 89-page study released by Britain-based advertising giant WPP found that two-thirds of that nation’s population believes that China is becoming an incredibly powerful global economic and political power. Almost half the population of the People’s Republic also believes that, within the next ten years, Chinese will catch up to the per capita economic quality of life of average Americans. Chinese see their nation’s overall power and their individual well-being as “interdependent.” The trend lines show a constant and growing sense of optimism towards a better life in China… a stark contrast to Western feelings about life and hope… particularly here in the United States.
As recently as 2009, a New York Times poll showed that 72 percent of Americans believed in the American dream: hard work generates wealth. The recession, the failed steps in the Middle East and Afghanistan, a rather obvious trend that money buys political power directly these days, the shrinking middle class, the reduction in the earning power of the new jobs being created and the rather extreme change in the degree of economic polarization (tilting the playing field totally in favor of those who already have the wealth) have changed these “statistics of hope” rather dramatically.
“Despite an improving economy and jobs picture, the public is more pessimistic than it was after the 2008 financial crisis that it is possible to work hard and become rich, according to a New York Times poll… The poll, which explored Americans’ opinions on a wide range of economic and financial issues, found that only 64 percent of respondents said they still believed in the American dream, the lowest result in roughly two decades.” New York Times, December 10th. 
64% would seem to be a pretty good number, but it isn’t that number that is troubling. It’s the direction of the trend line. Down. As Americans slowly let go of their hopes and dreams, when higher education becomes unaffordable and jobs provide lower satisfaction, pay and stability, it’s time for politicians on both sides of the aisle to sit up and take notice. The majority of Americans are willing to experiment with less governmental regulation as an economic panacea, but looming over everybody is this huge cloud of growing privileged inequality that seems to be accelerating. Indeed, with the top 400 American families controlling half of this nation’s wealth, a very recent change in our economic balance, something is very wrong.
For one thing, Americans do not trust our financial institutions according to the NY Times poll: “Still, almost six years after the height of the financial crisis, Americans’ wariness about the banking industry that was at its center remains. Only 4 percent of respondents said they had ‘a lot’ of confidence ‘in Wall Street bankers and brokers,’ though 31 percent said they had ‘some’ confidence in Wall Street. Nonetheless, 44 percent said they trusted their own bank ‘a lot,’ and 37 percent said they trusted their banks ‘some.’” NY Times.
Another huge unfairness is a tax code that clearly favors those who make money through owning assets and investing over those who get paid for their labor. Perhaps the most interesting commentary on this subject comes from an unlikely source, Dr. Tom Coburn, U.S. Senator (Republican representing Oklahoma, pictured above) who is retiring at the end of the year for medical reasons. He splits with the majority of Republicans in Congress who have championed loopholes for the rich and big business.
To Coburn, who has prepared a 320 page report on tax reform, these tax breaks are simply outrageous “giveaways” that need to be terminated. Rejecting simplistic tax zealots like Grover Norquist and his “no new taxes pledge,” Coburn sees necessary and obvious changes that need to be made to our tax code. Closing loopholes makes common sense and should not be viewed as raising taxes, he believes.
As noted in the December 9th “Among companies, tax breaks don't provide a level playing field. ‘[F]or every tax break claimed by one company or industry other businesses across the country must pay more,’ according to Coburn's [report]. ‘They ... bear a disproportionately high effective tax rate, because Washington politicians have handed out targeted tax breaks to the well-connected.’…
“Another sports tax break on Coburn's must-go list: Nonprofit status should not be given to professional sports leagues, which take in billions… ‘Taxpayers should not be asked to subsidize sports organizations that are already benefiting widely from willing fans,’ the report said…
“Coburn, who is leaving office after 10 years in the Senate, does not spare the rich either. The tax code, he argues, should not spend billions of dollars ‘subsidizing the upscale lifestyles of the well-off’ -- including mortgage interest deductions for vacation homes and yachts.
“The Oklahoma senator also takes aim at Wall Street, saying he favors taxing what's called ‘carried interest’ as ordinary income… Carried interest is a portion of compensation earned by managers of private equity and venture capital funds when those funds turn a profit. It is treated as a capital gain and therefore taxed at a much lower rate, even if the manager has not invested his own money in the fund. The rationale: The manager invests his time, effort and reputation choosing and managing others' investments that may not turn a profit or at least not do so for a long time.
“‘If time, effort and risk are capital investments, then all income should be taxed as capital gains,’ the report argues.” Ritualized and immutable unfairness, a violent tilt in the playing field, is a brutal killer of hopes and dreams. We seem to have institutionalized that unfairness in our tax and regulatory schema and declared that all who challenge those shibboleths as un-American. If we want to keep this country, we need to revitalize hope and reverse our depressing trend lines. Fairness needs to be a primary focus for each and every elected official.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I still wonder why those at the top prefer to ignore what history has done to those at the top of seriously unfair systems of government.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Inspector Clousseau Joins Anti-Terrorism Unit

There is an inherent danger in too many spy/national security agencies from too many countries (sometimes even within the same country!), not completely trusting each other, tripping over one another in an ocean of vastly too much data. Pieces fall between the cracks… information from one country’s agency if added to data from another might easily foil terrorists with specific plans to hurt, maim and destroy. Sure we trip up lots of efforts, stuff we are never told about. Occasionally, a lone terrorist, acting on his own, has surprised the surveillance community – such as the recent attack in Sydney, Australia – but we just don’t get to see the vulnerable underbelly of failed intelligence efforts… until the passage of time allows the veil of secrecy to lift as news becomes “history…” or inadvertent history as much of this information comes from the analysis of Edward Snowden’s “big leak.”
We’ve been afforded a glimpse into one such colossal failure – the November 2008 merciless attack by Pakistani-sympathetic terrorists (the Lashkar-e-Taiba group) who rained violence across Mumbai, India, focusing on luxury hotels and a Jewish hostel, killing 166 people (including 6 Americans) – as documents are finally being made public (one way or the other). It’s a story, covered by the December 21stNew York Times, that merits review by us all. The mastermind of the attack, gleaning information at to attack routes via Google Earth, figuring out how to create false-sourcing (New Jersey was the false site) on the terrorists’ Web-linked telecommunications traffic, was Pakistani technologist, Zarrar Shah.
Shah roamed fairly freely through Pakistan’s Western Tribal Districts and into lands bordering the Arabian Sea. British intelligence was already tracking his efforts months before the attack. Separately, according to information leaked by Mr. Snowden, American generated their information both from electronic eavesdropping and their own “humans” sources. Indian intelligence had glimmers of the plot but insubstantial specific information to thwart the attack. The problem was, these agencies weren’t sharing their information, which, if pieced together, would have presented a sufficiently clear picture of the planned event to allow official agencies to arrest the perpetrators before the mayhem ensued. It was only in the post-mortem that the agencies aggregated and shared their intelligence, a gesture that had to frustrate everyone.
“The British had access to a trove of data from Mr. Shah’s communications, but contend that the information was not specific enough to detect the threat. The Indians did not home in on the plot even with the alerts from the United States.
“Clues slipped by the Americans as well. David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American who scouted targets in Mumbai, exchanged incriminating emails with plotters that went unnoticed until shortly before his arrest in Chicago in late 2009. United States counterterrorism agencies did not pursue reports from his unhappy wife, who told American officials long before the killings began that he was a Pakistani terrorist conducting mysterious missions in Mumbai…
“[The NY Times] account has been pieced together from classified documents, court files and dozens of interviews with current and former Indian, British and American officials. While telephone intercepts of the assault team’s phone calls and other intelligence work during the three-day siege have been reported, the extensive espionage that took place before the attacks has not previously been disclosed. Some details of the operations were withheld at the request of the intelligence agencies, citing national security concerns. ‘We didn’t see it coming,’ a former senior United States intelligence official said. ‘We were focused on many other things — Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, the Iranians. It’s not that things were missed — they were never put together.’
“After the assault began, the countries quickly disclosed their intelligence to one another. They monitored a Lashkar control room in Pakistan where the terror chiefs directed their men, hunkered down in the Taj and Oberoi hotels and the Jewish hostel, according to current and former American, British and Indian officials… That cooperation among the spy agencies helped analysts retrospectively piece together ‘a complete operations plan for the attacks,’ a top-secret N.S.A. document said.” New York Times, December 21st.
Intelligence operatives will tell you that they simply cannot follow-up on every lead, every hint or accusation of possible terrorist activities… there’s just too much information. Hard to tell that to the families of the 166 assassinated folks in Mumbai. But that trust is still lacking, and even when information can be passed on to the country where an attack is likely, filters on “who, what, when and where” that might divulge confidential sources prevent the necessary full disclosure. Sorry, we need a better explanation and better policy to deal with all of this cross-border intelligence.
“The attacks still resonate in India, and are a continuing source of tension with Pakistan. [In mid-December], a Pakistani court granted bail to a militant commander, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, accused of being an orchestrator of the attacks. He has not been freed, pending an appeal. India protested his release, arguing it was part of a Pakistani effort to avoid prosecution of terror suspects.
“The story of the Mumbai killings has urgent implications for the West’s duel with the Islamic State and other groups. Like Lashkar, the Islamic State’s stealthy communications and slick propaganda make it one of the world’s most technologically sophisticated terror organizations. Al Qaeda, which recently announced the creation of an affiliate in India, uses similar tools.” NY Times. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… but if it is very broke, get to work!
I’m Peter Dekom, and in a hostile world with too many moving parts, global cooperation is no longer a luxury but a vital necessity.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Little Retro Battles

Peace settles into Washington. Congress is in recess, the President is taking a Christmas break, and so the partisan bickering has taken a big break. But that’s in Washington. The mini-battles, often fought in local communities and in the courts, address limitations on clinics that offer abortion, school books that don’t feature creationism, and even feature a law suit from two ultra-conservative states (Nebraska and Oklahoma) against Colorado for selling demon weed that winds up in these two rather old-line traditional states – maybe your residents need the MJ to tolerate life in Oklahoma and Nebraska!
But as little local wars are being fought with the flood of Citizens United funding pouring into conservative coffers, there is a movement afoot to create national policy through a litany of state laws and local ordinances meant to undermine federal law. And if enough of these little laws find traction, they could easily pull the rug out of some major long-standing liberal traditions. One of the biggest fights is taking place on the labor front, and the thought of killing what little private sector unionism remains (under 7% of our workforce) is drawing conservative SuperPac money by the railroad-car-load.
But before we delve into this chipping away effort, it is useful to understand how, under the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution, the federal government has preemptive power in this labor arena, thus trumping local law. One of the hallmarks of federal legislation (the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which was passed by Congress over President Harry Truman’s veto) deals with the right of unions to force non-members – who benefit from the results of collective bargaining – to join and/or pay the union dues (or comparable fees) needed to fund the union activities. The feds give unions that right unless “prohibited by state or territorial law.” Roughly half of the states have passed such a prohibition (see above map) and are generally referred to as “right to work” states, and with increasing GOP control of state legislatures, we can expect more states to follow this trend.
While it would seem that the federal law only allows states to pass such prohibitions, a number of local communities, arguing that the federal doesn’t specifically prevent municipalities from passing similar ordinances, have sucked up that SuperPac money to battle unions on their local turf. Imagine the hodge-podge of diverse municipal positions unions would face within a single state should this practice spread unchecked by a contrary ruling from a very conservative U.S. Supreme Court. Still, SuperPac money is finding its mark. But this process is happening, now a trickle, threatening to become a downpour.
“Conservative groups are opening a new front in their effort to reshape American law, arguing that local governments have the power to write their own rules on a key labor issue that has, up to now, been the prerogative of states.
“Beginning here in the hometown of Senator Rand Paul and the Chevy Corvette, groups including the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Heritage Foundation and a newly formed nonprofit called Protect My Check are working together to influence local governments the same way they have influenced state legislatures, and anti-union ordinances are just the first step in the coordinated effort they envision.
“A carefully devised plan began to unfold last week, when the Warren County Fiscal Court met here and preliminarily approved, in a 6 to 1 vote, a ‘right to work’ ordinance that would allow employees represented by a union to opt out of paying union fees. This week two more Kentucky counties, Fulton and Simpson, followed suit, and a dozen more are expected to do the same in the next six weeks.
“Supporters of the effort say that if they are successful in Kentucky, they will try to pass similar local laws in Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and other places that do not have a statewide right-to-work law. Protect My Check is promising to pay for the legal battles of any local government that tries it.
“‘There are literally thousands of targets for the initiative,’ said Brent Yessin, an anti-union consultant and lawyer who is on the board of advisers for Protect My Check, said at a recent meeting in Washington. ‘Doing this county by county, city by city is more time consuming, but it’s also more time consuming and draining for the unions to fight.’” New York Times, December 18th.
There seems little doubt that fearing the next census (in 2020) that should establish white rural traditionalist as a distinct minority in this country, they are doing everything possible at every level – often with the help of voter ID laws and gerrymandering – to lay the groundwork for traditionalist preemption of any countervailing future effort by the inevitable “majority of minorities” to instill more open and worker-centric laws. This battle – devoid of the spirit of government-by-compromise – is rapidly eroding the underpinnings of the democratic form of government that once-upon-a-time was how America was run.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we are dealing with the notion of terrified and overfunded traditionalists paying and fighting with all their sizeable might to turn the clock backwards and crush the notion of the one thing that they cannot change: change itself.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

God, I Look Great

With his nation’s population of about 24 million people and a military and paramilitary force of 9 million – the largest in the world – that can be mobilized very quickly under a nuclear umbrella with missile-delivery capacity, I wonder what North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un sees when he looks into the mirror. He has executed members of his own family who seemed unwilling to do his bidding as he envisioned it. His prison camps – where dissenters and their families are condemned for life (and often into future generations), brutal torture centers where rape, killing-for-fun and starvation are the rule – have been in existence longer than those created by Hitler or Stalin.
He is a deity to his people who deeply love and admire him, although extreme food shortages, dietary deprivation if you will, and an incredibly low standard of living define their lives. They have no other vision of their country or their leader beyond the glorification of what they see on state-controlled media. Look at the satellite photo of the Korean Peninsula above. Cities without light, no real Internet, nothing to connect that barren North with the rest of the world.
Their one ally, China, is the major crossing point for trade and commerce that the North has with anyone else. A small South Korean-controlled manufacturing center, just above the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South, opens and closes with the political winds. It is generally accepted that North Korea exists at China’s whim, the reality of China’s intense desire to avoid having a border with an American ally (e.g., an expanded South Korea, should the North fall). But the North has gone and continues to be rogue. There are serious questions being asked in Beijing about Kim’s mental stability and the litany of embarrassments that his missteps have wrought, often landing on the PRC doorstep for China to clean up.
It is within this context that an American motion picture studio owned by a Japanese conglomerate faces what I call simply, The Big Hack: exposing intensely personal information, embarrassing private communications releasing valuable intellectual property to be shared in the world of content piracy, and literally posing such clear threats of violence that no theaters in the United States would play a farce-comedy (The Interview) in which the CIA foments the assassination of Kim Jong-Un through two bumbling journalists. The FBI has told the world that this electronic asymmetrical assault on Sony Pictures was implemented at the direction of the North Korean government.
President Obama has promised an appropriate retaliation – but what you do that is comparable when the North has no comparable infrastructure – and contacted the People’s Republic of China to contain their puppet in North Korea. But this puppet is increasingly cutting those strings and moving as he sees fit. Also, it is a very strange thing to expect China – which itself crushes dissent that is even mildly critical of top Communist officials – to provide sympathetic support over an American notion of free speech that is completely alien to most of that part of the world.
China’s public face reflects this reality: “‘Any civilized world will oppose hacker attacks or terror threats. But a movie like The Interview, which makes fun of the leader of an enemy of the U.S., is nothing to be proud of for Hollywood and U.S. society,’ said an editorial in The Global Times, a tabloid sister paper to China’s official The People’s Daily… ‘No matter how the U.S. society looks at North Korea and Kim Jong Un, Kim is still the leader of the country. The vicious mocking of Kim is only a result of senseless cultural arrogance,’ it said.”, December 21st.
But in the same periodical comes the “other story” of China’s growing dissatisfaction with Kim and his tactics: “‘China has cleaned up the D.P.R.K.’s [North Korea’s] mess too many times. ‘But it doesn’t have to do that in the future,’ [PRC] General Wang Hongguang wrote in the same Global Times. ‘If an administration isn’t supported by the people, collapse is just a matter of time.’” Does that mean that China will help the United States contain Mr. Kim? Time will tell, but North Korea is only accelerating its own disconnect from the PRC.
Still, China knows how to play the “seemingly neutral card”: “China said on [December 22nd] it opposed all forms of cyberattacks but there was no proof that North Korea was responsible for the hacking of Sony Pictures, as the United States has said.” Washington Post, December 22nd. And in a 1700 word press release, the North is demanding an apology from the United States for the “false” accusations that they fomented the attack… and for fostering such an insulting and dangerous motion picture. By God, someone has finally taken Seth Rogan seriously!
One gets the sense that Kim, perhaps striking macho poses as he checks himself in that mirror, is having a great time at this seemingly successful attack on the United States. His Guardians of Peace subcontractor-hackers are gloating over their bringing down both the hated film and the studio that made it. The fact that a major multinational corporation was so easily decimated has to be troubling for every man, woman and child in the United States, a nation with many layers of exceptional vulnerability of its over-connected (and easily hacked) infrastructure.
To add salt in the fresh wound, Kim has denied the North’s participation in this assault and “offered” to cooperate with a joint US-North Korean investigation to find the “truth” of The Big Hack… by alluding to America’s sullied reputation as a torturing global bully. “‘The U.S. should bear in mind that it will face serious consequences in case it rejects our proposal for joint investigation and presses for what it called countermeasures while finding fault with’ North Korea, the spokesman said in a statement carried by the Korean-language version of the Korean Central News Agency… ‘We have a way to prove that we have nothing to do with the case without resorting to torture, as the CIA does,’ he said.” Cultural imperialism, some even free societies have said of the United States.
But sensing perhaps that the best defense is a good offensive, North Korea is now charging the US itself with pushing Sony to make the offensive film, making the entire US a justifiable target, and indicated that any counter-action taken by the United States would be brutally responded to. [North Korea] “‘has clear evidence that the U.S. administration was deeply involved in the making of such dishonest reactionary movie,’ reads the statement, according to the Voice of America ‘[North Korean  has already launched the toughest counteraction,’ it continues. ‘Our target is all the citadels of the U.S. imperialists who earned the bitterest grudge of all Koreans.’
 “It further claims that ‘Whoever challenges justice by toeing the line of the biggest criminal U.S. will never be able to escape merciless punishment.’” December 21st. Could a minor film produced though a Japanese conglomerate actually foment a nuclear war? Ugh! But, really, what is next? Oh, it seems that whatever “Internet” North Korea does have is going a bit haywire, cutting in and out… hmmm… I wonder… But in North Korea, that doesn’t remotely do very much!
“The country has only 1,024 official Internet protocol addresses, though the actual number may be a little higher. That is fewer than many city blocks in New York have. The United States, by comparison, has billions of addresses… But when the sun rose in North Korea on [December 23rd] morning, the few connections to the outside world — available only to the elite, the military, and North Korea’s prodigious propaganda machine — were still out.” New York Times, December 23rd. U.S. government sources were expectedly mum about their possible involvement, as the North’s Internet trickled back sporadically. There were even whispers that it was really China that temporarily unplugged its neighbor! Hmmmm. But where really is the humor?
In the end, these events force the United States to confront two harsh realities: (i) our most critical financial/commercial system linked by the Web and our electrical power grid are likely potential hacking victims of our lax cyber-security measures and (ii) our capacity to respond in-kind to nations with primitive electronic infrastructure is severely limited. If there is a place for a military budget, it has to be far more in protecting what we have than in building weapons that are impractical to deploy.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I wonder how many in both the private and public sector will learning anything from this egregious assault?