Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saudi Duty

Saudi Arabia remains the number one supplier of high-grade, easy-to-extract oil and gas on earth, although their supplies are far from inexhaustible. It is large in land mass, but small in population, overwhelmingly reliant on foreign workers – from the lowest laborers (Bedouin pride does not allow Saudis to do many of these functions) to high-level engineering and financial experts – and represents one of the most conservative versions of Islam on earth: Wahhabism, a fundamentalist Sunni interpretation of God and the Quran born of the harsh life of the Bedouin living and surviving in an unforgiving desert. They are the keepers of the Holy Shrines in Mecca, to which every faithful Muslim, Shiite or Sunni, is required to visit at least once in their lifetime (the Haj).
Roles of men and women, carefully defined in centuries of desert living at the edge of survival, seem horribly out-of-step with most of the rest of the world. Women can’t drive, must be appropriately covered in their dress, cannot mix with men not of their family, need to be escorted in the outside movements by male family members, and it takes two women in court to function as a witness where only one man is required. Women are cared for and protected by their families, which are honor-bound to this duty, but their freedoms are otherwise fairly limited. A harsh Sharia law dominates, replete with penalties involving caning and lashing, cutting the hand that stole in public, decapitation for a litany of offenses, stoning for adultery and the acceptance of honor killings that few in the West remotely understand. But it is their way, and surprisingly, the vast majority of Saudis, even women, don’t want it any other way. Not yet anyway.
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, but one that cannot simply rule with impunity, ignoring religious authorities and implementing whatever they will. As a regional power, Saudi Arabia is also short on an ability to defend itself from any major attack from within or from an outside force. Uncomfortable with the American military umbrella – they watched as the U.S. let the Shah of Iran get shoved out of that nation in 1979, ignoring its treaty obligations to defend that royal family – they use their oil money to buy peace from neighboring forces as a substitute for a military they cannot mount, even with modern tanks and jets supplied by the United States. As the United States has resumed its place as a major producer of oil and gas, the Saudis are deeply concerned that protecting Saudi Arabia is now a much lower priority to the United States than ever before.
The Saudi Royal family has also seen regional genocidal extremists identify the Saudi monarchy at targets to be destroyed and replaced. ISIS, al Qaeda (despite much “secret” support from highly-placed Saudis with plenty of guilt money to spend), Boko Haram, etc. have made clear their direct animosity for the high-flying Saudi rulers. Desirous of an elusive regional peace, including a cessation of explosive violence in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, nonetheless the Saudis cannot risk regional Arab antagonism by openly supporting a solution to that Israeli issue. It would seal their fate, they fear.
The Saudi King still functions in the capacity of the nation’s Sheik, a ruler charged with finding justice and resolving dispute among his own people. To this day, the King continues the tradition of the Majlis (literally “a place of sitting”) where his subjects can directly approach the King with their grievances, requests and needs to resolve disputes among and between themselves. The King is the protector of the people, resolver of differences and keeper of the faith. Old tribal ways remain very much a part of contemporary Saudi Arabia.
Even in this period of contracted oil prices, the Saudis have exceptionally deep pockets. As increasing numbers of Saudis get solid educations, often in the West, there is a new middle class with modern values, but with skills that have not been provided by Saudis until very recently. With the massive remaining reliance on foreign workers, Saudis in general, under the watchful eye of the King, try desperately to shelter their culture, values and religion from threats from every direction. The Saudi King who fails to adhere to these conservative values will be removed and replaced, the lot of King Saud who was forced by religious leaders and the royal family to renounce the crown in 1964 for precisely these reasons.
The King is dead, long live the King. With the passing of 90-year-old King Abdullah, there’s a new ruler in Saudi Arabia, as his younger brother (79), Crown Prince Salman (pictured above), takes the throne. We often envision Saudi rulers as callous and imperious, but that is very far from the truth. In fact, Saudi Kings in a threat-filled modern era are master politicians and strategists, balancing life between factions with irreconcilable differences. That the Kingdom is intact – building industries for a distant future where oil is either depleted or no longer rules, low income housing, schools and hospitals, and managing to survive with so many rather direct threats to destroy that monarchy – is a testament to the skills of the Saudi Royal Family to mediate and rule in this environment. The Arab Spring was a severe wake-up call, one that prompted the monarchy to spend even more money elevating the lives of its own people.
King Abdullah walked the line exceptionally well, keeping his people happy with their economic lot in life, moving the country into increasing modernity while appeasing the religious elite, respecting Bedouin traditions while providing new educational opportunities and medical facilities for all his citizens, and avoiding myriad direct threats to the monarchy itself. He presided of the greatest period of change in Saudi history, making Saudi investments one of the world’s most powerful sources of capitalism.
The new King, Salman, appears to be cut from the same cloth as his older brother. As Abdullah’s failing health limited that monarch’s ability to govern fully, Salman was already assuming some of the basic functions of leadership. “The new king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, has spent more than a half-century among the top echelons of one of the world’s most powerful families and is known to serve as mediator and peacekeeper between its often competing factions.
“Best known for overseeing the development of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, during his nearly 50 years as its governor, he became the country’s defense minister in 2011 as a series of uprisings were shaking Arab leaders who had long been Saudi allies…. While Salman is popular inside the kingdom and in the ruling family, he ascended the throne after the death of his brother Abdullah on [January 23rd] amid increasing strains on the kingdom.
“The drop of world oil prices has hurt the country’s economic base; the jihadists of the Islamic State have questioned its status as the global lodestar of Islam; and new civil strife is shredding Yemen, its southern neighbor.
“Analysts said that those challenges would most likely keep the new monarch from making any sudden changes to policy… ‘There will be a strong emphasis on continuity,’ said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. ‘Especially at a time when the price of oil is low and there is lots of turmoil in the region, the last thing they need is to get their people riled up.’” New York Times, January 22nd.
Few Americans will ever understand or condone the Saudi culture and the treatment of women; it is deeply alien to our view of the earth. Critics of American policy frequently point to our support of this severely conservative Muslim fundamentalist government as a continuation of the American hypocrisy of convenience, giving comfort to a culture known for repressing both women and political dissent. But women have slowly fared better under King Abdullah, a monarch who did as much as he could under the judgmental eyes of the religious leaders he was forced to respect.
Remember, every power that threatens to overthrow this monarchy will be even harsher, more repressive and will not open the world to more freedom for women. King Salman is probably Saudi Arabia’s best bet for a locally acceptable progressive movement, albeit far slower than Western values would demand. But Saudi Arabia is facing new threats to its very survival, and it may not be able to thread that needle in a very hostile region. Time will tell, but they are indeed a lynchpin to regional stability.
I’m Peter Dekom, and taking a moment to try and understand this complex and confusing nation is probably in the interest of every voting American.

Friday, January 30, 2015

People, Pain and PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is as old as trauma itself. While not all human beings (animals too?) react with measurable symptoms as a result of a traumatic event, the severe and sustained levels of life-threatening violence and risk inherent in combat creates an atmosphere of sustained and/or extreme trauma which have impaired soldiers and those in combat zones since the beginning of history. PSTD is hardly a creature of the 21st century; we just evolved our medical skills to understand that ailment better… although we have a long way to go.
“Evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder can be traced back to 1300BC - much earlier than previously thought - say researchers… The team at [U.K.’s] Anglia Ruskin University analysed translations from ancient Iraq or Mesopotamia… Accounts of soldiers being visited by ‘ghosts they faced in battle’ fitted with a modern diagnosis of PTSD… The condition was likely to be as old as human civilisation, the researchers concluded.
“[Prof Jamie Hacker Hughes, a former consultant clinical psychologist for the Ministry of Defence, notes:] ‘The sorts of symptoms after battle were very clearly what we would call now post-traumatic stress symptoms… They described hearing and seeing ghosts talking to them, who would be the ghosts of people they'd killed in battle - and that's exactly the experience of modern-day soldiers who've been involved in close hand-to-hand combat.’.. A diagnosis and understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder emerged after the Vietnam War. It was dismissed as shell shock in World War One.”, January 24, 2015.
The above scene from the film Patton, depicts the General slapping a hospitalized cowering WWII soldier because of PTSD (a malady that had not yet been fully diagnosed; then it was simply labeled “battle fatigue”), taking up a bed that the General felt was occupied by a mere malingerer.  PTSD has been viewed that way by too many people across history.
But PTSD is hardly limited to soldiers. According to the Website of The National Center for PTSD of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (PTSD VA):
Here are some facts (based on the U.S. population):
·         About 7 or 8 out of every 100 people (or 7-8% of the population) will have PTSD at some point in their lives.
·         About 5.2 million adults have PTSD during a given year. This is only a small portion of those who have gone through a trauma.
·         About 10 of every 100 (or 10%) of women develop PTSD sometime in their lives compared with about 4 of every 100 (or 4%) of men.

But out-and-out combat is a huge cause of PTSD according to the Website:
When you are in the military, you may see combat. You may have been on missions that exposed you to horrible and life-threatening experiences. You may have been shot at, seen a buddy get shot, or seen death. These types of events can lead to PTSD.
The number of Veterans with PTSD varies by service era:
·         Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF): About 11-20 out of every 100 Veterans (or between 11-20%) who served in OIF or OEF have PTSD in a given year.
·         Gulf War (Desert Storm): About 12 out of every 100 Gulf War Veterans (or 12%) have PTSD in a given year.
·         Vietnam War: About 15 out of every 100 Vietnam Veterans (or 15%) were currently diagnosed with PTSD at the time of the most recent study in the late 1980s, the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS). It is estimated that about 30 out of every 100 (or 30%) of Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.

Other factors in a combat situation can add more stress to an already stressful situation. This may contribute to PTSD and other mental health problems. These factors include what you do in the war, the politics around the war, where the war is fought, and the type of enemy you face.
Another cause of PTSD in the military can be military sexual trauma (MST). This is any sexual harassment or sexual assault that occurs while you are in the military. MST can happen to both men and women and can occur during peacetime, training, or war.

But what staggers the mind is how PTSD manifests itself in those who have been slammed by its impact:
·         50% of those with PTSD do not seek treatment
·         out of the half that seek treatment, only half of them get "minimally adequate" treatment (RAND study)
·         19% of veterans may have traumatic brain injury (TBI)
·         Over 260,000 veterans from OIF and OEF so far have been diagnosed with TBI. Traumatic brain injury is much more common in the general population than  previously thought: according to the CDC, over 1,700,000 Americans have a traumatic brain injury each year; in Canada 20% of teens had TBI resulting in hospital admission or that involved over 5 minutes of unconsciousness (VA surgeon reporting in BBC News)
·         7% of veterans have both post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury
·         rates of post-traumatic stress are greater for these wars than prior conflicts
·         in times of peace, in any given year, about 4% (actually 3.6%) of the general population have PTSD (caused by natural disasters, car accidents, abuse, etc.)
·         recent statistical studies show that rates of veteran suicide are much higher than previously thought (see suicide prevention page).
·         PTSD distribution between services for OND [the Iraqi Operation New Dawn], OIF, and OEF: Army 67% of cases, Air Force 9%, Navy 11%, and Marines 13%. (Congressional Research Service, Sept. 2010)
·         recent sample of 600 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan found: 14% post-traumatic stress disorder; 39% alcohol abuse; 3% drug abuse. Major depression also a problem. "Mental and Physical Health Status and Alcohol and Drug Use Following Return From Deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan." Susan V. Eisen, PhD
·         Oddly, statistics for veteran tobacco use are never reported alongside PTSD statistics, even though increases in rates of smoking are strongly correlated with the stress of deployment and combat, and smoking statistics show that tobacco use is tremendously damaging and costly for soldiers.
·         More active duty personnel die by own hand than combat in 2012 (New York Times)  VA PTSD
PTSD kills, destroys lives and families and varies in intensity depending on the person and the circumstances. The machismo of combat veterans obviously prevents many from seeking treatment, and the old WWI notion of “shell shock” has led to many callous individuals to cry, “Just get over it”… when they cannot. But the damage to the soldiers, to those in society around them, requires that we deal with these issues, front and center.
I’m Peter Dekom, and caring about our country definitely requires caring about our veterans.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Believe in the Super Bowl

I blogged recently (Indoctrinate, Don’t Educate) on the steady growth of a very significant segment of the U.S. population choosing an “education” that eschews scientific theory in favor of rather literal interpretations of the Biblical stories. Choosing Evangelical home schooling or fundamentalist Christian education over secular alternatives, public or private, this phenomenon explains the explosive growth of the Tea Party, founded on such extreme social conservatism. It also explains why so many Americans believe that the world was created whole cloth within the last 10,000 years, despite an overwhelming mass of scientific evidence that the earth is billions of years old and zero scientific evidence in support of that 10,000 year theory (or anything close to it).
In June of last year, Gallup conducted a poll that asked which of three statements most closely reflected the subject’s actual belief. One indicated that man evolved over millions of years from other species without divine intervention. A second presented the first statement but indicated that this was a God-guided process. The third category stated that God created the world pretty much as we know it 10,000 years ago. 42% of those polled selected the third, creationist theory, a number that has not fluctuated much since 1982, which is when this poll first began (long after the home/Evangelical schooling trend accelerated in the 1960s/70s).
Not surprisingly, “Religiousness relates most strongly to these views, which is not surprising, given that this question deals directly with God's role in human origins. The percentage of Americans who accept the creationist viewpoint ranges from 69% among those who attend religious services weekly to 23% among those who seldom or never attend.” These fairly powerful numbers are significantly different from most of the rest of the world.
A [university] comparison of peoples' views in 34 countries finds that the United States ranks near the bottom when it comes to public acceptance of evolution. Only Turkey ranked lower… Among the factors contributing to America's low score are poor understanding of biology, especially genetics, the politicization of science and the literal interpretation of the Bible by a small but vocal group of American Christians, the researchers say.
“American Protestantism is more fundamentalist than anybody except perhaps the Islamic fundamentalist, which is why Turkey and we are so close,” said study co-author Jon Miller of Michigan State University.”, August 10, 2006. Scientists have overwhelmingly taken an rather firm stand to the contrary, however.
“[T]he scientific community considers intelligent design, a neo-creationist offshoot, to be unscientific, pseudoscience, or junk science. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has stated that intelligent design ‘and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life’ are not science because they cannot be tested by experiment, do not generate any predictions, and propose no new hypotheses of their own. In September 2005, 38 Nobel laureates issued a statement saying ‘Intelligent design is fundamentally unscientific; it cannot be tested as scientific theory because its central conclusion is based on belief in the intervention of a supernatural agent.’ In October 2005, a coalition representing more than 70,000 Australian scientists and science teachers issued a statement saying ‘intelligent design is not science’ and calling on ‘all schools not to teach Intelligent Design (ID) as science, because it fails to qualify on every count as a scientific theory’.” Wikipedia
But if you are a religious person with a betting interest in the Super Bowl, do you have an advantage? Does deflategate suggest that the Patriots are less God-fearing than the Seahawks? Should you bet accordingly? Do God-fearing athletes get extra blessings? “One in four Americans say yes, according to a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Religion News Service.
“Twenty-six percent of Americans and 27 percent of self-described sports fans believe God plays a role in determining which team will win a sporting event. Even more -- 53 percent of Americans and 56 percent of sports fans -- say God rewards faithful athletes with good health and success… Sixty-five percent of Catholics and 68 percent of Protestants believe God rewards faithful athletes, while just 27 percent of the religiously unaffiliated say the same.
“Protestants, at 45 percent, are more likely than other religious groups to believe God plays a role in determining the winner of a sporting event. Thirty-one percent of Catholics and nine percent of the religiously unaffiliated agree.
“Two weeks before the 2014 Super Bowl, half of American sports fans said they believed God or a supernatural force had a hand in the games they watched, according to a PRRI study at the time. Included in that percentage were the 26 percent of Americans who pray for God to help their team, 25 percent who think their team has been cursed and 19 percent who believe more generally that God is involved in determining who wins on the court or in the field.” Huffington Post, January 22nd. Too bad there isn’t a religious poll that accompanies sports betting. And perhaps that’s why so many church-goers prefer their worship service over watching their favorite teams in person or on television. They already know who’s going to win anyway.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I wonder how scientifically competitive a future America will be when there is such a huge segment of the population raised not to question facts when there is conflicting religious doctrine.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Income Inequality, American Style

As 1,700 private jets descended on the recent elite summit in Davos, Switzerland, income inequality was a hot topic on the agenda of these movers and shakers. As the Oxfam report states (and was a focus at Davos), summarized in my January 19th blog (Cause or Effect?), trend lines suggest that 1% of the entire planet will soon control 50% of global wealth – already the truth in the United States. Too many politicians have told us the hard truth: whatever limited “recovery” might exist in the global economy has overwhelmingly benefited the upper income brackets.
As real estate and stock prices soared and as money generated from long term capital gains (taxed as the lowest rate) parallels rewarded those at the top, the middle and lower classes instead saw contraction in earning power. The U.S. jobless rate fell mostly because too many people have given up looking for work or accepted temporary or low-paying jobs. Davos participants addressed the issue in deeply selfish terms. Some high-flyers simply stated that with a growing global population, average and lower class citizens are simply facing a permanent global economic reset; most folks will live with less, expect less and better learn to be happy with it. It’s the 21st century equivalent of the infamous “Let them eat cake” speech.
Others clung to that disproven theory that they are doing their best as job-creators, because supply-side economics (trickle-down economics that marked the Ronald Reagan presidency but never generated the promised quality jobs) works. It doesn’t, as the above Oxfam-cited report underscores. “WPP (WPPGY) CEO Martin Sorrell said the wealth his company creates eventually trickles down to the poorest through taxation… ‘Billions of people in emerging markets are lifted to the middle class,’ he said. ‘I am not going to apologize for creating a company that employs 179,000 employees.’”, January 23rd. Easter Bunny, anyone? A few developing nations, like China, indeed are growing, but hardly because big corporations are the driving force. Government policies are the source, not companies where CEOs make hundreds of times the earnings of their average employees.
In the American body politic, there is a clear schism between the new GOP-controlled Congress, on the one hand, and the Democrats on the other. Democrats: Tax the one percenters – the biggest contributors to and supporters of GOP candidates – to pay for a community-college upgrade in our employment skills to earn more? “Class warfare” and using a new phrase – “job creation” – to replace the discredited trickle-down economic theory, respond the Republicans who remain fiercely loyal to their funding partners. The trickle down mantra will create jobs and eliminate income inequality, GOP leaders say, and there are enough fools out there who are willing to ignore the historically-proven fact that this theory is just plain wrong… so…
No new taxes, even as the mega-wealthy use off-shore tax planning to avoid most of their income tax obligations anyway. Kill health care for the masses because the rich “job creators” can’t afford it. Cut regulations –environmental and financial – despite the billions and billions of dollars spent on cleaning up natural disasters traced to severe weather patterns generated by global warming, and the trillions and trillions of dollars of damages fomented by an under-regulated financial sector. “Regulation is killing job creation” remains the Republican cries, who are still officially denying that global warming is man-induced. They don’t seem to care about the impact of these environmental and financial costs that continue to decimate our deficit.
Where is the GOP of yesteryear, conservatives “conserving” our natural resources (Republican President Teddy Roosevelt’s commitment to conserving the environment), fiscal conservatives who understand the difference between investing in our economy (education, infrastructure and research) and mere spending? Why did we ignore Republican President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, as he warned the nation against giving in to the spending-mongers of the “military-industrial complex,” a phrase he coined? I’ve explained the “smart trend” among GOP regulars to dupe social conservatives – the Tea Party Evangelical movement – into supporting their “moral imperatives” in exchange for letting the rich get richer than they have ever been in the entire history of the United States by cutting needed regulations and keeping their taxes unsustainably low at the expense of everybody else (particularly those modest earning Tea Party constituents).
Does the fact that our educational standards are falling like a stone dropped from the Empire State Building help sustain political directives with lower political credibility than Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham? How long before we reach the point of no return?
I’m Peter Dekom, and if so many people are so easily duped, exacerbated by voter ID laws and gerrymandering, is there really any hope to return to a reality-based program that benefits most Americans?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Fractious Facts

As the President and the new Congress prepared to do battle, it seems that each side is simply digging in their/his heels, pretty much leading to nothing more than political showmanship, primarily between extreme edges of both parties. Stroke and counterstroke. Passing legislation and veto. The Democratic cry of “income inequality” with an under-regulated, under-taxed mega-wealthy class at the top… is now also the new GOP platform with a solution of reducing taxes and regulations as the solution. Huh? Spend money on healthcare and education vs. don’t spend money on healthcare and education. Trickle down/ supply-side economics, which has not worked since it was put forth in the Reagan era vs. an untested direct financial intervention in healthcare and education. Can two profoundly opposite philosophies remotely result in helping depolarize our economic future? Pretty obviously not.
So Congress and the President are picking their positions, not out of sense of what can be done realistically, but simply in staking positions and in making the other side look bad in anticipation of the 2016 elections. Hell of a way to run a country! Let’s look at some of the fun facts that are generating along the way.
Last November, “The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released its report on the Benghazi attacks and concluded there were issues with Obama administration talking points on the attacks, but overall ‘no evidence of an intelligence failure’ and no one in the CIA was ordered to stand down… The report concludes a two-year investigation from the committee, and says the CIA did not turn down any requests for increased security and they ‘received all military support that was available.’”, November 21st.
Not good enough for the diehard Tea Party faction; they needed a clear finding of fault against then-Secretary of State and probable future Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. Solution? Beat a dead horse, mount a new Congressional investigation in which Democrats will be marginalized and start over again. The House Select Committee on Benghazi held its first hearing on January 27th. It seems that they will push until they can “clearly” lay blame on Hillary Clinton.
The Affordable Care Act is still in the Tea Party-driven GOP’s crosshairs, and there are many in Congress who will not rest until every word of that statute is repealed, leaving approximately 9+ million people without healthcare insurance. Claiming that the “job creators” (those at the top of the economic ladder) cannot afford that statute’s mandate to cover employees, and that the government shouldn’t have to pay a dime in the effort (unlike Medicare????), they probably weren’t happy when late this January the Congressional Budget Office revised the expected charge to the federal budget (for the period 2015-2024) downwards by $68 billion from its April 2014 estimates. And, of course, those numbers do not include the costs that the public bears when the uninsured visit emergency rooms for their de facto “free” primary healthcare.
That priorities are very different, seemingly very traditional “white” rural, in Congress these days can be seen in “little things.” Tea Party stalwart, “Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee this month and announced the members of the six subcommittees [in late January]. With Grassley’s announcement, the subcommittee formerly known as the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights suddenly became the Subcommittee on the Constitution…The new chairman of the newly named subcommittee is Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). His office confirmed that it made the switch.” Huffington Post, January 23rd. Little things. Like Civil Rights and Human Rights.
The legislative battles within the GOP itself have forced the overall vectors in favor of the ultra-right wing Evangelical Tea Party faction, but there has been a pushback by moderate Republicans who fear veering so far to the right as to kill any prospects to win the presidency in 2016. So the dysfunctional GOP has taken to blaming the weather for their inaction. “Another week, another piece of legislation that was expected to pass easily is pulled from the House floor schedule by Republican leaders… In this case, it was a new border security bill set for a vote on [January 27th] that the party decided to delay, saying that the snowstorm snarling travel in the Northeast would make it difficult to survey members for their opinions in time.
“The action came after Republicans last week had to abandon an anti-abortion bill because of last-minute objections by some of the party’s women and moderates. The border bill was lower profile, but it had its Republican detractors. They feared the measure would allow Republicans to back down in the immigration fight with President Obama by saying they had taken steps to secure the border.
“‘Advancing any immigration measure, even border security, before reining in this lawless president is putting the cart before the horse,’ said Michael A. Needham, chief executive of the group Heritage Action… The bill’s supporters say the extra time will allow them to sell the measure to skeptical Republicans.” New York Times, January 27th. Global warming and creationism anybody? There’s still time! Keystone! And they’re side-stepping gay marriage now that the Supreme Court has accepted that political football.
Why am I not talking about all those new pieces of legislation proposed by Democrats? Really, and what would those be, and exactly how would the Dems get anything through the GOP-controlled committees, much less through the GOP-controlled House and Senate? I can’t talk about what doesn’t exist.
Based on all these factious facts, when you think of the expected spending on those 2016 elections, media outlets have to be drooling. Ad sales will skyrocket for everybody, and political ads will make some folks richer. To make that drool wetter and drippingly-longer, there is a third force that expects to spend as much as each of the Republicans and Democrats will probably spend in 2016… if not more. “The political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch plans to spend close to $900 million on the 2016 campaign, an unparalleled effort by coordinated outside groups to shape a presidential election that is already on track to be the most expensive in history.
“The spending goal, revealed [January 26th] at the Kochs’ annual winter donor retreat near Palm Springs, Calif., would allow their political organization to operate at the same financial scale as the Democratic and Republican Parties. It would require a significant financial commitment from the Kochs and roughly 300 other donors they have recruited over the years, and covers both the presidential and congressional races. In the last presidential election, the Republican National Committee and the party’s two congressional campaign committees spent a total of $657 million.” New York Times, January 27th. Good to know that Democracy is alive and well for those who can afford it.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if you ever want clear lessons in how to destroy what was once the greatest democracy on earth, read the news every day!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Judge for Yourself

At both the state and federal level, the structure of our government consists of three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. It’s supposed to create a system of checks and balances to keep any one branch of government from stepping over the line. Fury from any one branch at another has been a regular part of American history. From Congressional overrides of presidential vetoes, presidents’ issuance of executive orders in the absence of empowering legislation to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1937 attempt to “stack” the Supreme Court – by expanding the court to as many as 15 justices (declared unconstitutional) – to dilute their challenges to his legislative goals.
The appointment of judges is also fraught with risk and bias. When it is the executive branch that has an appointment right, but the legislature has a confirmation right, the process can get downright messy when the votes needed to get approval rest with the party opposite from the relevant governor or the president. Dozens of Obama’s appointments either remain unconfirmed by the Senate, as the backlog of presidential appointments in general remain sizeable, or have been exposed to heavy questioning to insure that the opposing party secures a biased appointment reflecting their views. To delay until elections, in case the new president shares the right party affiliation with the majority in Congress, is a typical strategy. After all, if courts provide a check against the legislature, what better way to insure that does not happen by making sure the new judges share that legislature’s biases.
In many states, including my California, judges are up for election. Even if they have received interim appointments to fill vacancies, judges have to run for office, and running for office costs money. It would seem pretty obvious, as with most elections, the biggest donors aren’t making contributions for the joy of sustaining democracy. They are trying to buy favoritism and bias. And in a nation that seems to keep marketing how corruption-free our American system of government is, this little fact has to be not only hypocritical but more than a little uncomfortable.
Also, the practice of allowing judges to ask for money is so disturbing that of the 39 states that have a judicial election process, 30 actually forbid judges from soliciting individuals or organizations for campaign money, even though in most such elections, money does flow in, one way or the other, from frequent litigants and attorneys practicing before that court. In light of the recent Citizens UnitedSupreme Court decision, one that used First Amendment reasoning to take the cap off of campaign and issue contributions from institutions, the issue of enforcing that ban on judicial solicitation is itself facing a constitutional challenge under basically the same reasoning and has made its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Florida’s ban on solicitation extends beyond one-on-one solicitation to any “ask” for money by a judicial candidate. The case, Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, has been argued before the Supreme Court after four federal appellate courts have negated such restrictions, so we will be getting a decision soon. And there are nine states that have never had such a solicitation ban: “Personal solicitations are allowed in the judicial ethics rules of nine states, including Texas and Alabama. Four former chief justices from those states filed a brief describing their own use of a practice they said was ‘ingrained in our political and legal cultures.’… ‘Our experience confirms,’ they wrote, that ‘there is a real risk that solicitation can morph into a demand.’
“In an interview, one of the former chief justices, Thomas R. Phillips, who served on the Texas Supreme Court, added that ‘dialing for dollars sometimes results in untoward things slipping out during those conversations.’… Mr. Phillips said that allowing personal solicitations may be appropriate in some states. But he added that other states should be free to make the opposite choice, notwithstanding the First Amendment.” New York Times, January 18th. With state supreme court justices and the American Bar Association in support of such restrictions, the pressure is on, but some argue that where bans do exist, they tend disproportionately to favor incumbents; outsiders remain outside with little hope of getting elected.
Margaret H. Marshall, a former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, responded: ‘Of course it’s effective. That’s the problem. The level of coercion is that much higher.’… Randolph Wolfson, who has lost two judicial elections in Arizona, said solicitation bans protect incumbent judges and disfavor outsiders. ‘The inability to raise funds directly for a minor-party candidate is just devastating,’ he said… Mr. Wolfson’s challenge to Arizona’s ban is pending before the full United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in California.
Judge David Certo, who serves on a state trial court in Indianapolis, said that his state’s solicitation ban went too far… ‘I’m not allowed to solicit anybody for a contribution — not my mom, not my wife, not my brother, who lives in Arizona,’ he said.
“He admitted to a little uneasiness about some sorts of requests… ‘Getting money from people appearing before me is probably not the best idea,’ said Judge Certo, who lost a First Amendment challenge to the Indiana law. ‘But lawyers appearing before me are eager to help me.’” NY Times. Are general solicitations not directed at specific individuals or organizations acceptable? Can you differentiate against individual asks? Is there any real way to eliminate this buying of favoritism that can actually be formulated by the Supreme Court? What’s your opinion?
I’m Peter Dekom, and however you look at how judges find their way into office… it’s never perfect!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Cry Me a River

To most of us, a river is a body of water that runs across the land and usually emanates from another waterway or from melting snow (or other consistent levels of precipitation).  Rivers have names, and while they may shift course every now and again or react to being dammed, we pretty much know where to find them on a map. But as we face strange alterations in precipitation patterns, droughts and floods in new places, it’s time to look at, literally, rivers in the sky, steady tracks of moisture that determine so much of the rain and snow around the globe.
In December of 2013, the American Meteorological Society published Atmospheric Rivers as Drought Busters on the U.S. West Coast byMichael D. Dettinger of the U.S. Geological Survey, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California. Their abstract explains: “Atmospheric rivers (ARs) have, in recent years, been recognized as the cause of the large majority of major floods in rivers all along the U.S. West Coast and as the source of 30%–50% of all precipitation in the same region. The present study surveys the frequency with which ARs have played a critical role as a common cause of the end of droughts on the West Coast. This question was based on the observation that, in most cases, droughts end abruptly as a result of the arrival of an especially wet month or, more exactly, a few very large storms. This observation is documented using both Palmer Drought Severity Index and 6-month Standardized Precipitation Index measures of drought occurrence for climate divisions across the conterminous United States from 1895 to 2010. When the individual storm sequences that contributed most to the wet months that broke historical West Coast droughts from 1950 to 2010 were evaluated, 33%–74% of droughts were broken by the arrival of landfalling AR storms. In the Pacific Northwest, 60%–74% of all persistent drought endings have been brought about by the arrival of AR storms. In California, about 33%–40% of all persistent drought endings have been brought about by landfalling AR storms, with more localized low pressure systems responsible for many of the remaining drought breaks.
Heating and warming trends in the Pacific Ocean have also impacted precipitation patterns: “El Niño is the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (commonly called ENSO) and is associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific (between approximately the International Date Line and 120°W), including off the Pacific coast of South America. El Niño Southern Oscillation refers to the cycle of warm and cold temperatures, as measured by sea surface temperature, SST, of the tropical central and eastern Pacific Ocean. El Niño is accompanied by high air pressure in the western Pacific and low air pressure in the eastern Pacific. The cool phase of ENSO is called ‘La Niña’ with SST in the eastern Pacific below average and air pressures high in the eastern and low in western Pacific. The ENSO cycle, both El Niño and La Niña, causes global changes of both temperatures and rainfall.Mechanisms that cause the oscillation remain under study.” Wikipedia. Low pressure brings rain, high pressure pushed it away.
And unless you have been living in a cave with no media access, you know that the Western United States, particularly California, have been living in a crop-destroying, record-breaking sustained drought, pretty much attribute to global climate change, operating within the cyclical patterns noted above. If only we could prod those rivers or predict their movement, perhaps even direct them where we need water… If… So lots of really smart scientists are beginning to explore that alternative, trying to understand how such rivers in the air grow and move.
“‘These atmospheric rivers — their absence or their presence — really determine whether California is in drought or not and whether floods are going to occur,’ said F. Martin Ralph, a research meteorologist who directs the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
“The storms, which flow like massive rivers in the sky, can carry 15 times as much water as the Mississippi and deliver up to half of the state's annual precipitation between December and February, scientists say. Though atmospheric rivers are unlikely to end California's drought this year, if they bring enough rain to erase the state's huge precipitation deficit, they could wreak havoc by unleashing floods and landslides.
“Scientists using a new type of satellite data discovered atmospheric rivers in the 1990s, and studies since then have revealed the phenomenon's strong influence on California's water supply and extreme weather.
“[In January], a group of government and university scientists, including Ralph, … launch[ed] a major field experiment to better understand atmospheric rivers as they develop over the Pacific. Through the end of February, some researchers will fly airplanes above storms as they pass through, while others will monitor them from ships hundreds of miles off California. As the storms make landfall, the scientists will collect data with ground-based instruments… ‘We're going to measure the heck out of them,’ Ralph said.” Los Angeles Times, January 18th.
They key is to have a series of aerial rivers, no one too intense, deliver the needed water supply over a reasonable period of time. When too much of a good thing hits, when one of those rivers – our aerial water supply – comes in too suddenly and too fiercely, not only is the water mostly run-off, but the resultant flooding can wreak havoc below. “Ten years ago, an atmospheric river brought record-setting rain to Southern California, causing a mudslide that killed 10 people in the Ventura County beach town of La Conchita.
“Atmospheric rivers are expected to grow stronger over the century as global warming increases the amount of water vapor that can be lifted out of tropical oceans and pushed to higher latitudes… A 2011 simulation by the U.S. Geological Survey found that a hypothetical megastorm — an atmospheric river event so strong it happens only once every 100 to 200 years — could be more catastrophic than a major earthquake, over several weeks bringing 10 feet of rain and hurricane-force winds, widespread flooding, landslides and $300 billion in property damage.” LA Times.
Predicting these events, preparing for them and perhaps learning how to influence their path might go a long way to avoid devastation and enhance a solution for once-productive farmland parched by drought. It is strange that we haven’t paid as much attention to such phenomena as we should have, but this is increasingly an arena to watch develop.
I’m Peter Dekom, and research has never been more needed than it is today… across the board.