Thursday, April 30, 2015

Not So Silver Linings Playbook

Vladimir Putin has an uncanny ability to paint himself into an untenable corner, and then to do the macho thing against those that have helped get him into that corner. Russia is hopelessly smaller than its Western counterparts when it comes to conventional weapons, but it enjoys testing its opponents’ willingness to respond with force. It is absolutely content flying its planes “too close” to allied targets (RAF jet intercepts Soviet “Bear” bomber flying close to UK airspace above), sending its nuclear submarines to the edge, probing and watching, testing a willingness to respond with force. This constant “testing” is right out of the Soviet-era playbook.
If push comes to shove, if Russia were suddenly confronted with overwhelming force, it seems to be telling the world that it is prepared to deploy tactical nuclear weapons against its intruder. And when it comes to nukes, the playing field is fairly level (Russia has actually modernized its nuclear warheads more rapidly than we have). Putin tells his people that taking back Crimea from Ukraine was nothing more than righting a wrong done a long time ago.
But Putin biggest fear is NATO. He likes to remind the West that having NATO at his doorstep, growing constantly by adding new member nations, is like having dozens of Cuban missile crises – a reference to the 1962 confrontation between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and US President John Kennedy over Soviet missiles unloaded in Cuba, which after many threats, the Russians finally removed – at Moscow’s door. Just about every move from Putin in the Ukraine is a slap against the encroachment of NATO into former Soviet bloc East European and Baltic nations. It’s right out of the Cold War standard expected Soviet response pattern. Predictable if not mandatory from a Russian perspective.
With pressure from American hawks to “do something” against Russian incursions against Ukrainian territory, now focused on the pro-Russian “rebels” in the east, US President Barack Obama has taken what many in this country believe is “military lite” by stationing 590 US soldiers “there” to “train” Ukrainian troops. But to Russia and Mr. Macho-Putin, this “little thing” is a reminder of the slow encroachment of NATO in what was once the strongest sphere of Soviet influence. Indeed Putin is convinced that the overthrow of formerly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who had close ties to Russia, was a precursor to bringing Ukraine into NATO. While Ukraine hasn’t joined yet, that concept is anything but dead.
Reuters journalist, Josh Cohen, thinks that Putin will feel forced to escalate his efforts in Ukraine as a result of the stationing of US troops in that country. What does Cohen believe Putin considers to be viable options? “Due to its weakness vis-à-vis the United States in conventional weaponry, Russia’s nuclear doctrine has recently changed to consider the use of nuclear weapons as a way to ‘de-escalate’ a conflict. As if to emphasize its status as a nuclear power, in a March documentary that aired on Russian state-owned television, timed for the one-year anniversary of its annexation of Crimea, Putin startled viewers by stating that he had been prepared to put Russia’s nuclear forces on full alert at the beginning of Moscow’s operation in Crimea…
“[Aside from the near-miss military fly-bys, last year] Russian missile testing allegedly violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a 1987 pact that eliminated all of the United States’ and former Soviet Union’s nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Russia recently moved 10 nuclear-capable Iskander missiles with a range of 400 kilometers into Kaliningrad, an exclave that borders Poland and Lithuania. It also terminated an agreement with Lithuania to provide information to Vilnius about Russian weaponry in Kaliningrad. None of this is in America’s interests.
It is also quite possible that Moscow will make additional efforts to undermine America’s NATO allies, particularly the three Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Indeed, Moscow just initiated new criminal charges against an Estonian intelligence officer in Russian captivity. The fact that this was announced on April 20 — the same day that American troops began training exercises with their Ukrainian counterparts — is probably not a coincidence.
“Russia also just took a small, but provocative step against NATO member Norway. Russian Deputy Prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is banned from entering Norway due to international sanctions against him over Ukraine, stopped on the Norwegian island of Svalbard on a trip to the North Pole — an action that infuriated Norway.
“Russia’s actions against both Estonia and Norway are right out of the Kremlin playbook. They are small, seemingly insignificant steps that are over and done before the West even realizes they’re happening — but which nevertheless send a threatening message to American allies.
“Finally, Russia can take any number of actions to cause further disruption in the Middle East, especially vis-à-vis Iran. Russia has just announced plans to move forward with the sale of its lethal S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Iran, a step that the Council on Foreign Relations says will ‘shift military balance across the Middle East.’ Not surprisingly, the impending sale is causing concern in Washington as well as among U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration objects to any action by Moscow that could destabilize its P5+1 [nuclear reduction] negotiations with Tehran.” Reuters, April 23rd. In short, we can expect bad to get much, much worse, and Putin to plant provocative poison against US interests wherever he can.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if we think that a nuclear Iran or a devil-without-limits ISIS are our main foreign issues, Russian might well endeavor to change that focus in ways that are terrifying if deployed.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Eye of Newt

There was time when Democrats and Republicans actually talked to each other. There was no Citizens United threat:hey candidates needing money in an era of high-cost campaigns, if you want massive SuperPac support (without which you cannot rise above the clutter), you are constantly going to repeat our contributors’ “essential message,” will not veer from that message when you are elected and will always vote accordingly no matter what. In short, once we buy your vote with campaign money, you will gridlock your way to hold the line accordingly.
There was a time for picking people as the representatives to vote for what was best for America. But that was then. In additional to the SuperPac addicts, today, for those trading their conscience to vote as is best for the country to social conservative groups with massive power among their limited but adamant constituency to vote to revert to the traditional past, they share this one reality with their SuperPac-compromising compatriots: they outsource their votes, immutably, to those campaign-enablers regardless of what they know is best for the country… and actually have to learn to sound as if they mean it.
We used to compromise. In the 1990s, uber-conservative and former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich (pictured above) used to sit down with then-President, Democrat Bill Clinton, and hash out differences, find middle ground and do what they felt was best for the country, and generally not what was terrible for the country but only good for what attributable to a very, very few. It ain’t like that no more!
As the economy polarized, the money at the top controlled more and more – as judicial decisions involving campaign contributions, gerrymandering and voter rights tilted step-by-massive-step towards those at the top of the economic ladder – as the middle class contracted and the bottom rungs of economy swelled, today’s Congress is simply as battle of special interests that simply marginalizes the balance of the country… even though it is the vast “middle” or “centrist” part of America that casts the deciding vote. This centrist middle is often deprived of candidates that reflect that centrism by reason of how folks get through the nomination process.
So I was reading the Editorial pages of the April 22nd New York Times, when I spotted a piece by Mr. Gingrich, an old line conservative who was elected when Congressional candidates campaigned on what was, in their opinion, best for the country. He drilled down on how the last few Congresses have undone some of the most effective bipartisan legislation of that Clinton/Gingrich era. The focus of his editorial was on how the National Institutes of Health have cut down so far on research so as to jeopardize finding solutions to major health issues facing all of us. Short term savings with massive long-term cost implications.
“Amid the policy fights that followed the Republican victories of 1994, President Bill Clinton and the new majorities in Congress reached one particularly good deal: doubling the budget for the National Institutes of Health… The decision was bipartisan, because health is both a moral and financial issue. Government spends more on health care than any other area. Taxpayers spend more than $1 trillion a year for Medicare and Medicaid alone, and even more when you add in programs like Veterans Affairs, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Indian Health Service.
“Unfortunately, since the end of the five-year effort that roughly doubled the N.I.H. budget by 2003, funding for the institutes has been flat. The N.I.H. budget (about $30 billion last year) has effectively been reduced by more than 20 percent since then. As 92 percent of the N.I.H. budget goes directly to research, one result is that the institutes awarded 12.5 percent fewer grants last year than in 2003. Grant applications, over the same period, increased by almost 50 percent.
“Even as we’ve let financing for basic scientific and medical research stagnate, government spending on health care has grown significantly. That should trouble every fiscal conservative. As a conservative myself, I’m often skeptical of government ‘investments.’ But when it comes to breakthroughs that could cure — not just treat — the most expensive diseases, government is unique. It alone can bring the necessary resources to bear. (The federal government funds roughly a third of all medical research in the United States.) And it is ultimately on the hook for the costs of illness. It’s irresponsible and shortsighted, not prudent, to let financing for basic research dwindle.” Gingrich in the NY Times.
But the orders from the outsourced/controlling campaign-directors from most GOP SuperPacs and social conservative groups are to get government out of as much as possible as soon as possible, and if there are issues in the future, who cares? We might not fund those solutions either, since we really do not care about anyone but ourselves, and we have purchased your vote. Low taxes for the rich have to be good; anything else is bad. The sad reality is that so many of those elected to Congress do not remotely represent the best interests of the country, or often even of their constituency. They speak with passion and commitment, but they are merely parroting-like actors.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if you want to take a shortcut to unwinding what was once an effective democracy called the United States of America, take a good careful look at how the Supreme Court and a whole pile of state and federal elected officials have moved us into a completely new form of government: a selfish plutocracy where only the votes (dollars?) of the most powerful minorities matter.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Sexy Education European Style

Some of the highest birth rates, leading to a Malthusian outburst of over-population, are in the developing world, but there is a distinct trend, in some of the most expensive cost-of-living countries in the world of declining, often severely declining, birth rates. Even in the United States, but for immigration, we would have a declining population. And for the developing world, that statistic creates another huge issue: a large number of older, retired workers supported by a shrinking younger work force.
Japan has one of the more severe population shrinkage problems on earth. “Based on the latest data from the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Japan's population will keep declining by about one million people every year in the coming decades, which will leave Japan with a population of 86 million in 2060.   By that time, more than 40% of the population is expected to be over age 65. In 2012, the population had for six consecutive years declined by 212,000, the largest drop on record since 1947 and also a record low of 1.03 million births. In 2014, a new record of population drop happened with 268,000 people. In 2013, more than 20 percent of the population are age 65 and over” Wikipedia. But there are other developed nations facing their own brand of population shrinkage.
“This is creating big changes throughout the developed world. The replacement rate—the reproduction rate that keeps a population stable—for developed countries is 2.1, yet nearly half the world’s population has birth rates lower than that. The U.S. has a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.0—nearly the replacement rate—with Hispanic immigrants leading in birth rates. The U.S. is aging but not as fast as many other countries. A 2010 census showed that 31.4 million Americans live alone—27% of all households (equal to the percentage of childless couples). Living alone allows people to pursue individual freedom, exert personal control and go through self-realization, but these people have fewer children.
“Western European countries have low fertility rates, below the replacement rate of 2.1. Germany: 1.4 (its total population is 81.9 million, of which 8.2% are foreigners). Holland: 1.8
(16.5 million, of which 4.4% are foreigners). Belgium: 1.8 (10.8 million, of which 9.8% are foreigners). Spain: 1.4 (46.1 million, of which 12.4% are foreigners). Italy: 1.4 (60.2 million, of which 7.1% are foreigners), the Pope’s views notwithstanding. Sweden, which provides deep support for parents, has a high TFR of 1.9 (9.4 million, of which 6.4% are foreigners), but that’s still below the replacement rate. Ireland and the U.K. also have high TFRs, at 2.1 and 1.9, respectively, but these rates are derived from non-European immigrant parents.
“During the 21st century the U.S. could become the slowly aging leader of a rapidly aging world… Singapore’s experience is no different from that of these countries. Our birth rates have been steadily declining. The fertility rate of the Chinese segment of our population is the lowest, 1.08 (2011), with the rate for Indians 1.09 and for Malays 1.64. In other words, the size of each successive generation of Chinese Singaporeans will halve in the next 18 to 20 years.” The late Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore’s Prime/Senior Minister) writing for, October 16, 2012.
So contrary to the admonitions to the poorer, developing world to reduce birth rates, many of these nations are seeking new policies to increase their birth rates before they face really severe internal economic problems, including being overwhelmed by massive, starving populations in developing countries with little to lose. Which brings me to a rather strange reversal in some countries about the morality of birth control and the joys of pregnancy.
“Recently, Sex and Society, a nonprofit group that provides much of Denmark’s sex education, adjusted its curriculum. The group no longer has a sole emphasis on how to prevent getting pregnant but now also talks about pregnancy in a more positive light.
“It is all part of a not-so-subtle push in Europe to encourage people to have more babies. Denmark, like a number of European countries, is growing increasingly anxious about low birthrates. Those concerns have only been intensified by the region’s financial and economic crisis, with high unemployment rates among the young viewed as discouraging potential parents.
“The Italian health minister described Italy as a ‘dying country’ in February. Germany has spent heavily on family subsidies but has little to show for it. Greece’s depression has further stalled its birthrate. And in Denmark, the birthrate has been below the so-called replacement rate needed to keep a population from declining — just over two children per woman — since the early 1970s.
“‘For many, many years, we only talked about safe sex, how to prevent getting pregnant,’ said Marianne Lomholt, the national director of Sex and Society. ‘Suddenly we just thought, maybe we should actually also tell them about how to get pregnant.’” New York Times, April 8th. Wow, and some of these are devout Roman Catholic nations…
Recent efforts to increase birthrates around the world have been creative, if not necessarily effective. President Vladimir V. Putin declared 2008 the Year of the Family in Russia, and his political party employed touches like a curving park bench designed to get couples to slide closer together. There was a double-entendre-laden Mentos commercial in Singapore featuring a rapper urging residents to do their civic duty with lines like, ‘I’m a patriotic husband, you my patriotic wife. Lemme book into ya camp and manufacture a life.’
“In some countries, the issue can have a broad effect on policy debates… Zsolt Darvas, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a research organization based in Brussels, said the shrinking population issue had contributed to an aversion in Germany to public spending, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty. The link between the two topics has been made more than once by Jens Weidmann, president of Germany’s Bundesbank.
“If you listen to the German argument — why Germany doesn’t want to have a larger budget deficit now to stimulate the economy — the argument they are always saying is that Germany has a very bad demographic outlook so they don’t want to burden future generations,” Mr. Darvas said.
“Anxiety in Danish society has spawned no shortage of creativity. One priest made headlines for his enthusiastic writings on sex and eroticism. An entrepreneur created a pro-procreation dating site… Spies, a Danish travel company, began a ‘Do It for Denmark!’ promotional campaign last year aimed at increasing getaway bookings to European capitals. A racy commercial featured a young Danish couple going to a hotel in Paris to do their part to lift the nation’s birthrate. ‘Can sex save Denmark’s future?’ the campaign asked, claiming that Danes had 46 percent more sex on holidays.” NY Times.
Talk like that in a nation where 26.8% of the population or 94.38 million people are Evangelicals would be unheard of, so don’t expect any of this to happen any time soon in the United States. But ironically for social conservatives, the growth rates in the United States are not only heavily dependent on immigration, but on a huge number of births that seem to violate their most basic mores: “The number of first-born U.S. babies born into a home with a married mother and father has fallen below 60 percent for the first time, the Census Bureau said [July 8, 2014], while more than one in five first-born children are now born to cohabiting parents…
“The report finds that most American women still are married when they give birth to their first child, but the margins are steadily declining… During the 1990s, around 70 percent of first-time mothers of all ages were married, with about 18 percent single and the rest cohabiting, the report said…By the years 2005-2012, however, data showed that a significantly smaller majority of new mothers — 55 percent — were married, while 25 percent were cohabiting and 20 percent were single and without a steady partner.” July 8, 2014. Hmmm…. All that conservative opposition to any form of public school sex education seems to be having… er… the opposite effect. Even diluting their political power accordingly… slowly over time. Oh well, just goes to show how trying to impose morals by legal fiat just plain doesn’t work! But don’t expect these folks to change anytime soon.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it is amazing how facts so interfere with the way so many of us want things to be.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Unskilled College Grads?

You’ve got to wonder what texting, applying a vocabulary of in-crowd acronyms, dealing with short burst e-communications, surfing and posting in a social-media-driven world, head buried in your smart phone shifting focus, second to second, from topic to picture to short video, multitasking from platform to platform, gaming, sucking down on-demand entertainment… well you get it… actually do for preparing those who actually do get college degrees to get and hold a great job.
In a February 2012 Pew report, 42% of those surveyed agreed with this statement: ““In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are ‘wired’ differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields baleful results. They do not retain information; they spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained, and being distracted away from deep engagement with people and knowledge. They lack deep-thinking capabilities; they lack face-to-face social skills; they depend in unhealthy ways on the Internet and mobile devices to function. In sum, the changes in behavior and cognition among the young are generally negative outcomes.” 
55% went with this analysis: “In 2020 the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are ‘wired’ differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields helpful results. They do not suffer notable cognitive shortcomings as they multitask and cycle quickly through personal- and work-related tasks. Rather, they are learning more and they are adept at finding answers to deep questions, in part because they can search effectively and access collective intelligence via the Internet. In sum, the changes in learning behavior and cognition among the young generally produce positive outcomes.” Which do you buy?
Millennials expect multiple job-jumps over their careers, perhaps because of market instability in corporate sustainability, but their minds are already very different from those of preceding generations. They can grapple with computers and data deluges, buck at over-supervision and rail at micro-management, but where long-term, uninterrupted concentration on a single complex problem is at hand, they often stumble. And with more jobs finally opening up, employers are learning about this new crop of entry-level workers. They are seeing short-comings in both the skillsets as well as the education these younger workers have received.
According to a survey conducted for CareerBuilder's 2015 College Job Forecast, 65 percent of American employers plan to hire recent college graduates this year. That's up from 57 percent last year, and the highest percentage since 2007. Nearly half are recruiting new hires in advance of graduation…
“Despite their willingness to hire new grads, employers admit to a belief that a college education doesn't fully prepare people for some real-world challenges. Asked to name which skills they think recent college graduates lack, employers most often cite interpersonal or problem-solving skills.
In short, today's graduates have an enviable comfort with modern technology, but may lack the attributes known as ‘soft skills.’ Most often mentioned were interpersonal skills, problem-solving skills and oral communications ability.

Here are the skills most often found lacking in new graduates, and the percentage of hiring managers who cited them:

• Interpersonal or people skills, 52 percent
• Problem-solving skills, 46 percent
• Oral communication, 41 percent
• Leadership ability, 40 percent
• Written communication, 38 percent
• Teamwork, 37 percent
• Creative thinking, 36 percent
• Project management, 26 percent
• Research and analysis, 16 percent
• Math, 15 percent
• Computer and Technical, 13 percent
“‘One in five employers feel colleges do not adequately prepare students with crucial workplace competencies, including soft skills and real-world experience that might be gained through things like internships,’ said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer for CareerBuilder. ‘Job seekers with a good mix of both technical and soft skills will have the best prospects right out of college.’

“When asked where academic institutions fall short, employers agreed with the following concerns:

• ‘Too much emphasis on book learning instead of real world learning’: 46 percent
• ‘I need workers with a blend of technical skills and soft skills gained from liberal arts’: 38 percent
• ‘Entry-level roles within my organization are more complex today’: 22 percent
• ‘Not enough focus on internships’: 15 percent
• ‘Technology is changing too quickly for academics to keep up’: 14 percent
• ‘Not enough students are graduating with the degrees my company needs’: 10 percent”, April 23rd.
For both workers and employers, big changes are required to maximize the higher-level job skills of these younger generations. There will be new opportunities and even more challenges, but can we count on these newer workers to bring the kind of innovation the United States need to thrive in an increasingly competitive global market? Time will tell, but they’re all we’ve got!
I’m Peter Dekom, and the one true fact of this latest generation of workers: they are probably more different than any preceding generation of entry-level workers.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Is Iraq Toast?

When the British and the French carved up the post-WWI Ottoman Empire, they were only focused on solidifying their regional colonial holdings. While some of the national boundaries they outlined during in the infamous 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement roughly reflected justifiable groupings, other border designs were just lines on a piece of paper to be dealt with later. That’s where modern-day Iraq was born, with little in the way of addressing putting people in a country where they actually got along and had long-standing cultural ties. Kurds in the north were locked into a nation with Arabs in the south. Even within the Arab delineations, Sunnis in the southwest were blended with their traditional religious enemies, Shiites (the majority), in the rest of the country. Putting it mildly, this design was hardly natural or traditional; it was simply arbitrary for the convenience of the colonizers.
In 1920, the British secured their “mandate” over this newly-defined “Iraq,” and it became an independent “kingdom” in 1932, a rather unstable monarchy.  Britain reoccupied the land during a period of instability less than a decade later, ending that military conquest shortly after WWII. The monarchy was overthrown in 1958 and replaced by a serially unstable set of military coups. A Ba’athist takeover in 1968 eventually resulted in Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, which began in 1979. He was a brutal leader, a member of the 20% minority Sunni sect, and particularly violent and repressive towards Kurds and Shiites. As you can see, the Sykes-Picot Agreement created a perpetual roiling mess, one in which good government and stability were never able to take root.
We had the First Gulf War (reacting the Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait) in 1990, where American-led forces stopped at deposing Hussein, but the 2003 “weapons of mass destruction” incursion (the Second Gulf War) led to a naïve American imposition of a representational “democracy,” one in which the 60% Shiite majority quickly took rather harsh control of the government. They wasted no time inflicting retribution on their former Sunni rulers, which only accelerated when U.S. forces ceased combat operations, making life pretty miserable for these now minority Sunnis, who in turn began bombing Shiite targets, most dramatically in the mixed residential capital of Baghdad. The Kurds in the north quickly circled their wagons and created an effectively autonomous region in the north, letting the Sunnis and Shiites hammer it out between themselves in the south.
Iran was laughing at our stupidity, since this new Shiite-dominated nation (one with which they had fought a war in the 1980s when Iraq was run by the minority-Sunnis) was their most natural ally in the world. Although the Shia faith represents only 15% of all Islam, it accounts for over 90% of Iran’s population. We literally handed Iraq to Iran. With the Shiite-Assad family in Syria effectively running that country (which is 80% Sunni), Shiites had a pretty solid bloc in that region, to the consternation of the surrounding Sunni countries, from Saudi Arabia to Turkey. Assad and Iran moved to take over unstable Lebanese politics, and Israel watched as Iran began to build what they were certain was a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran. The other Sunni powers weren’t/aren’t too happy either.
Meanwhile, some of the harshest impacts of global warming settled on the Sunni region in Iraq and the neighboring area in Syria, a never-ending drought that sent millions of farmers, now without productive farms (and hence their homes), angry and without any assistance from their malevolent Shiite rulers, into open rebellion. Some fought the Assad regime in Damascus, others turned to radical Sunnis who pledged to feed them and to take back their lands from the despised Shiite leaders in Baghdad. Al Qaeda was getting middle-aged or worse; the willingness of new extremists to go to the max to protect Sunnis and kill Shiites or anyone else who didn’t support their view of Sunnism seemed attractive… and so ISIS began to take traction in the area.
Unfortunately, once the reality of ISIS settled in, it was pretty clear that, except for a very small element that is innately attracted to such extremism, this new leadership was not a solution most regional Sunnis wanted to live with for very long. Kurds in the north fought back ISIS as it moved against nearby-villages, but in other areas, it was a very different story.
As Iraqi troops, bolstered by fighters and commanders from Iran, moved against ISIS, local Sunnis saw a different set of their enemies – Shiite-dominated military forces – moving in to “rescue” them. Many, who truly despise ISIS, feared Shiite conquerors even more. They no longer trusted Baghdad and its Shiite-dominated government, remembered the atrocities inflicted upon them by their Shiite “brothers,” and winced. Many believed that the coalition of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis called “Iraq” could never work for them. They watched as the obvious Shiite Iraqi/Iranian cabal began operating openly as a cohesive unit.
Complexity compounded as Iran-supported Shiite Houthis in Yemen rebelled against their Sunni leaders, and Saudi Arabia (with a few fellow Sunni allies) threw its military assets against these rebels. So American-supported Baghdad – Shiites allied with Shiite Iran – was attacking to “rescue” Sunnis in ISIS-held lands, effectively putting Iran and the U.S. on the same side, just as American-supported Saudi Arabia was attacking Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen.
“A remarkable clash between two key American allies in the Middle East burst into the open here on Wednesday as the Iraqi prime minister publicly criticized the Saudi air campaign in Yemen and a top Saudi official retorted that there was ‘no logic to those remarks.’… The exchange, driven by sharply opposing views of Iran in the region, reflected the challenges facing the Obama administration as it tries to hold together a diverse coalition, including Sunni Arab states and Shiite-dominated Iraq, in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Iran is a sometimes patron to Iraq but an ideological archrival to Saudi Arabia.
“The United States remains caught in a difficult balancing act as it tries to keep the Saudi air campaign in Yemen on track against Iranian-backed Houthis. But in its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, the Obama administration finds itself supporting an Iraqi military offensive that is also backed by Iran.” New York Times, April 15th.
In a few short years, the new government in Iraq has become wildly corrupt and has violently fractured along those Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite lines that were never really compatible when Iraq was first formed. It’s a whole lot worse today. Even Sunnis that would like to see Iraq hold together are extremely skeptical that the current government structure, one that places almost unbridled control in the Shiite faction, could ever work. Shiite leaders in Iraq had issued arrest warrants for most senior Sunni leaders, arrested and tortured “Sunni dissidents,” refused to aid disenfranchised Sunni farmers and legitimized Shiite militias (some of which have been absorbed into the Iraqi military). Marginalized Sunnis have responded with violence, exacerbating the situation and “justifying” Shiite repression.  ISIS has pressed well into Iraq, almost to Baghdad itself. The lumbering and corrupt Iraqi army, particularly on its own, is no match for ISIS soldiers.
Meanwhile, Syria has also lost vast stretches of its own Sunni lands to ISIS militants. You only have to look at the above map – which is in a constant state of flux – to see what’s happening. The region seems to be creating a new Sunni state out of combination of lands from both Syria and Iraq. And Sunnis in this nether region may hate being under ISIS’ thumb, but they’ll be damned if they will resubmit to their former Shiite leadership in either Syria or Iraq. The incumbent governments, to effect any form of reconciliation among the factions, have to go a very long way to reverse the perception that these Shiite forces are anything but malevolent conquerors. Unlikely.
So if you had to read the tea leaves, the answer to the title question seems to be veering sharply to “yes.” It seem unlikely that the existing government in Baghdad can offer anything attractive to the Sunnis currently in ISIS-controlled lands to justify reunification. The same can be said of Assad’s Syria. We are probably going to see lands from both Iraq and Syria consolidating into a new Sunni country, perhaps even two separate Sunni countries (representing ISIS and non-ISIS factions, like to be at each other’s throats), and watch as Iraqi Kurds (who have eyes on fellow Kurds in Syria and Turkey as well) declare their independence as well. This will leave a Shiite supermajority government in the remaining Iraqi lands. Three or four countries, with hostility towards neighboring nations, where one once ruled. This really could happen, no matter what American regional wishes might be. Kind of leaves you wondering what those trillions of dollars, tens of thousands of American and local casualties and our incurring of a massive budget deficit were all about.
Which also leads to an even bigger set of questions: If a new nation forms in these new ISIS-controlled Sunni territories, will ISIS solidify their holdings and install a functional government? Will this become another pariah country, attempting to deploy their global Sunni caliphate concept, to which radicals in Libya and Nigeria have already pledged allegiance, around the world? Will the inherent instability of decapitating, genocidal militants evoke a different form of international military response? Will the people within such a new nation rebel against these inherently cruel masters? Will civil war erupt quickly, perhaps serving as a surrogate battleground for regional powers? What new border conflicts are likely to erupt? Simply put, if you think what exists currently in the region is a nasty mess, perhaps you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
I’m Peter Dekom, trying to make sense of regional Middle Eastern factions and explaining exactly what thoughtless U.S. intervention in the area has wrought.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Shaker Heights, Oklahoma

Red dots show earthquakes between 1973 and 2008.
 Blue dots mark earthquakes from 2008 to 2011.
Courtesy of Oklahoma Geological Survey 
If you’re into violent shaking, house, body and soul, you no longer have to move to California or any of those other “ring of fire” Pacific coastal states sitting at or near the junction of massive, ever-shifting tectonic plates. That joy and pleasure can be had for real estate prices that are vastly more affordable. And don’t forget, even if you have earthquake insurance, the deductibles are rather significant, and the exclusions can break you.
Nope, come to Oklahoma where the birds and people want to play… and where earthquakes that seldom blessed this flat land were as rare as hen’s teeth… until the last few years. Oh, and remember that Oklahoma politics is determined – bought and paid for if you will – by an industry that dominates the local scene: oil and gas.
As hydraulic fracking (great use of water in a drought, by the way), replete with chemical additives, generates pressurized petro-chemical extraction and acre-feet of waste water is shoved deep underground (into so-called “disposal wells”), there been a whole lot o’ shakin’ goin’ on. And the magnitudes of the quakes are getting bigger. A Richter Scale 5 – which you would never forget if you experienced one – is no longer uncommon. It’s a pretty strong quake, and the resulting property damage reflects that reality.
But like climate change deniers, Oklahoma is making damned sure that they are not generating any facts to link fracking with quakes and that local communities cannot get in the way of the state policy that favors oil and gas over just about anything else. It’s no one’s “fault,” if you’ll pardon the pun, according to state officials… a natural phenomenon. “[In]a state where oil and gas are economic pillars, elected leaders have been slow to address the problem. And while regulators have taken some protective measures, they lack the money, work force and legal authority to fully address the threats.
“More than five years after the quakes began a sharp and steady increase, the strongest action by the Republican governor, Mary Fallin, has been to name a council to exchange information about the tremors. The group meets in secret, and has no mandate to issue recommendations… The State Legislature is not considering any earthquake legislation. But both houses passed bills this year barring local officials from regulating oil and gas wells in their jurisdictions.
“The state seismologist’s office, short-staffed, has stopped analyzing data on tremors smaller than magnitude 2.5 — even though a recent study says those quakes flag hidden seismic hazards ‘that might prove invaluable for avoiding a damaging earthquake.’ … The governor referred an interview [by the NY Times] request to Michael Teague, her energy and environment secretary. Mr. Teague said the governor’s earthquake council was helping coordinate the response to the shocks and that underfunded regulators and scientists had benefited from efforts to find new state and federal assistance for their work.” New York Times, April 3rd.
The feds… well… they see the trend a bit differently. “‘As long as you keep injecting wastewater along that fault zone, according to my calculations, you’re going to continue to have earthquakes,’ said Arthur F. McGarr, the chief of the induced seismicity project at the federal Earthquake Science Center in Menlo Park, Calif., who has researched the Prague quakes. ‘I’d be a little worried if I lived there. In fact, I’d be very worried.’…
“But others say the political will is missing to confront an earthquake threat tied to Oklahoma’s dominant industry… It is ‘a dangerous game of Russian roulette,’ said Jason Murphey, the Republican state representative from earthquake-ridden Guthrie, in central Oklahoma. ‘If a dangerous earthquake happens and causes lots of damage and injuries,’ he said, ‘a cloud will hang over the energy sector for a long time to come.’… If scientists see dangers, many Oklahomans are wary of disrupting an industry so woven into everyday life.” NY Times.
Meanwhile, local property-owners have to foot the repair bills for broken bricks, crashed glass, cracked foundations, peeling facades, groundwater pollution and the like. But, since we live in a political system where big business and billionaires call the shots, where taxpayers and local average citizens have to pick up the bill for all those side effects of making money for the rich so the moneyed class can keep more wealth, I guess that’s just the way the United States is these days, so we better get used to it.
            I’m Peter Dekom, and our founding fathers have to be rolling in their graves at the distortion of the political system so many Revolutionary heroes spilled their blood to create.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Smart (Desperate?) Cities

When the last British governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten sat down with then Chinese Chairman Jiang Zemin a few years before the 1997 handover, he stressed the uniqueness of the British Crown Colony and the complexity of governing such a free-wheeling center of commerce. Rumor has it that the Chairman laughed at that statement, saying something like, “You think governing Hong Kong, with just under 5.7 million people, is complicated, you ought to try running a country with over a billion one hundred and fifty million people!” That was then. Today, Hong Kong has 7.3 million, and China, well, try 1.361 billion. Even as Singapore, Japan, most of Western Europe and even the United States face birthrates below replacement value, nations in Africa, Latin America and many other parts of Asia have Malthusian-explosive populations.
So you are running one of these population behemoths, running out of space, energy and natural resources, and you know for an absolute fact that there is no real prospect of ending such horrifically high birth rates, what do you do? Just looking at the urban population, forgetting about all those farm folks and other rural times, India is projecting that her cities alone will grow by 400 million by 2050… to a staggering 814 million by 2050. The total population, currently 1.28 billion people, is about to pass China as the most populated country on earth.
If you’ve ever been to any Indian city, especially places like Mumbai squeezed onto seven islands (no outside spread available), you will have experienced crowding, traffic, pollution, and few cows and carts along the way, like nothing you have ever seen anywhere else. Human beings are pressed into the smallest nooks of space, ramshackle urban lean-tos/corrugated metal roofs or just sleeping on the street where they can find space, next to some of the most expensive homes in the world. You stare, look around, and wonder where those 400 million future city slickers are going to fit. So, by the way, is the Indian government.
Enter the concept of ground-up, newly designed “smart cities.” “Ahead of his election last May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised 100 so-called smart cities by 2022 to help meet the rush… At a cost of about $1 trillion, according to estimates from consultants KPMG, the plan is also crucial to Modi's ambition of attracting investment while providing jobs for the million or more Indians who join the workforce every month.
“His grand scheme, still a nebulous concept involving quality communications and infrastructure, is beginning to take shape outside Gandhinagar, capital of the state of Gujarat, with the first ‘smart’ city the government hopes will provide a model for India's urban future.
“‘Most (Indian) cities have not been planned in an integrated way,’ said Jagan Shah, director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs which is helping the government set guidelines for the new developments… Among the challenges to getting new cities built or existing cities transformed is the lack of experts who can make such huge projects work and attracting private finance.” Reuters, April 14th. What an understatement!
I remember being invited to one of the most expensive homes in the Malibu of Mumbai, Juhu (pronounced joo-hoo). Hours later, having been driven the 9 miles to this marble palace from the center of the city, we drove past the adjacent open sewers and flimsy squatters’ huts, we approached a massive gate with a rifle-bearing armed guard who stood to salute us and signaled the gate to open. Yards from the open sewer flowing with human feces was this extraordinarily opulent castle that at the time must have been worth tens of millions of dollars.
So exactly, what is a “smart city”? “India's push to accommodate a booming urban population and attract investment rests in large part with dozens of ‘smart’ cities like the one being built on the dusty banks of the Sabarmati river in western India…So far, it boasts modern underground infrastructure, two office blocks and not much else… The plan, however, is for a meticulously planned metropolis complete with gleaming towers, drinking water on tap, automated waste collection and a dedicated power supply - luxuries to many Indians.” Reuters. 100 of these suckers? Really? Why exactly are people going to move there? Jobs? Huh? Housing? Jobs? Cool infrastructure? Jobs?
I am instantly reminded of those ultra-modern cities all over China, built on new land (taken from former “little residents” in favor of big municipal governments with urban growth on their minds). I am picturing modern building after building, street after street, empty… void of people or businesses, a wasteland of excess capacity that no one is willing to fill. See the picture above? “In 2003, Ordos [Inner Mongolia in Northern China] officials started the planning a new 1 million person city district. Thanks to a $161 billion investment in 2010, the ‘Dubai of Northern China’ has the capacity for 300,000 people — but only 20,000-30,000 residents. It isn't a ghost town due to economic issues — the government simply can't convince people to move there.”, September 2, 2013. And there are dozens and dozens of such developments all over China.
You can get to thinking, well, that’s a tough problem, but it ain’t our business! But the strain on global resources, the inability to contain pollution (which doesn’t understand international boundaries), the rising anger of impoverished citizens living in their own vision of hell and the competition from even cheaper labor are all factors that will have a bad habit of migrating across seas and oceans and impacting those craving isolationism right here in the good old USA. So we better be part of the solutions or we will definitely be a part of the consequences.

I’m Peter Dekom, and it’s becoming very strange how interrelated we have all become… and believe somehow that we are not.