Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Oily Alternatives

The lower price at the pump has created grins in oh-so-many quarters. Transportation companies – shipping companies, truck drivers and airlines – are watching their bottom lines flying higher. Consumers are finding their incomes stretching a bit more after decades of real discretionary income contraction. Politicians in the West are ginning as Russian power has been eroded with a massive currency plunge and an overall reduction in their economy. Saudi and other oil-powers are shuddering as American oil independence minimizes the clout of their most obvious natural resource, but battles over oil revenues still define so much of the explosive animosity that encompasses so much of the Middle East.
Then there is the displacement in the petroleum sector in the United States itself, a fall that some believe has created a loss of over 100,000 jobs, tanking regions in the country that are substantially dependent on oil. But as oil companies withdraw from their exploration efforts in the Arctic because of costs, as expensive oil extraction efforts from oil shale are shut down until the economics make sense, the once fertile new initiatives to build and sustain alternative energy systems – from geothermal, solar, wind, etc. – have become “too expensive” to justify in the face of vastly cheaper oil. The big victim: the environment.
Funding for alternative energy has hit a big snag. “Although energy and financial experts say that the basics of the [alternative energy] business remain sound, the lofty stock prices have tumbled, leading renewable energy companies to scramble for new approaches to their businesses.
“Nowhere has the retrenchment been more acute than in a newfangled financing mechanism called a yieldco. Yieldcos, public companies conceived by renewable energy companies as a way to raise cheaper capital for project development, have attracted billions in new investments.
“The yieldcos buy and operate power plants, mainly those that their parent companies develop. The yieldcos then collect the contracted electricity fees and pay the bulk of them out as dividends. With investors hungry for stable returns, energy yieldcos were greeted with enthusiasm through initial public offerings of their stocks over the last year and a half. [In early October], though, one of the most aggressive companies in the sector called a timeout.
SunEdison, which has bought several companies in recent months in a bid to become the world’s largest renewable energy developer, told investors it would not sell any more projects to its yieldcos, TerraForm Power and TerraForm Global, until conditions change. The company said it would trim expenses and streamline operations, including reducing project development by 20 percent, withdrawing from Britain and cutting roughly 15 percent of its work force…
“That adjustment is hardly unique to SunEdison, or even to yieldcos. Last month, NRG Energy announced that it would separate its once-heralded green enterprises — which include a home solar division and an electric vehicle charging network — into a separate company with a tight budget. It also said it would pursue a more limited strategy with its yieldco. On [October 6th], Moody’s Investors Service downgraded that company, NRG Yield, saying the 30 percent decline in its share price in recent months would inhibit its ability to raise money for new projects.” New York Times, October 11th.
Sure the alternative energy business will return at least to normal, perhaps with a vengeance, but the delay in implementing alternatives is pushing global change well beyond the breaking point. Many believe we have already crossed an irreversible tipping point in warming trends, but even those experts believe failure to take drastic and immediate action will make the problems so much worse. Worse droughts. Worse fires. Worse flooding. More storm surges and eroding coastlines.
The worst single contributor to greenhouse gasses, coal, is an industry that does not seem to have “tanked” as significantly as the oil and gas industry. Given our dependence of coal, a relatively inexpensive resource, 45% of U.S. electrical power is coal-fire generated, a number that raises to almost 80% in China. While coal plants are getting increasingly efficient, there remains no real commercially viable process that creates “clean coal,” with most “clean coal” operations doing little more than shoving the effluents into underground storage for later generations to deal with. Coal has been and needs to be on the decline to the consternation of too many conservative politicians seeking to erode the Democratic Party’s traditional hold on unionized labor, particularly in the mining industry.
Indeed, the plight of coal workers has been getting worse for almost 100 years, a great political talking point, but no one really seems to care. Unless we really do get a commercially viable clean coal process, that black “gold” needs to be relegated to simply being a resource for plastics and other comparable materials. In an October speech to coal-country (West Virginia) Democrats, former President Bill Clinton noted: “I can’t resolve all the coal issues, but I’ll tell you something else that should be done… Whatever happens, we know coal employment in America peaked in 1920. Production peaked in 1950. We know that at some pace or another, there is a trend underway that cannot be reversed. Nobody has a right to claim anybody’s life over it.” Coal miners are nothing but convenient pawns in the struggle between environmentalists and pure growth “no matter what” conservatives who want to disband the EPA and kill environmental regulations.
Even from a growth/job-creation perspective, President Clinton has long stated the protecting coal-based jobs is a wrong-headed approach. He’s believes that for every billion dollars invested in a new coal-fired plant yields 870 jobs. The same amount invested in solar creates 1,900; in wind, 3,300, if the turbines and blades are made in the country where they're put up; in big building retrofits, 7,000 in home retrofits, up to 8,000 jobs, according to the former president.
We talk a good game, but right now energy politics appears to be one giant cog in a political wheel that rolls but goes nowhere. It’s time to deal with pragmatics, accept scientific reality and, most of all, responsibility for stemming the massive damages we are doing to ourselves.
I’m Peter Dekom, and talk needs to be replaced with monumental efforts to change how we live and how we power those lives.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Legacy of Rewarding the “Job Creators”

As so many conservative legislators, state and federal, have clung to the mantra that trickle-down economics floats all boats. This supply-side economic theory didn’t work when it was proposed during the Reagan era, and it doesn’t work today. We’ve watched as post-recession billionaires increased their incomes and share of our nation’s wealth, as the middle class has contracted and those at the bottom rungs are slammed to the ground.
Aside from token gestures (like phasing in a fifty-cents an hour increase over three years) to raise the minimum wage, and some sleight of hand to change the nature of the tax code in a manner that still favors those at the top of the food chain well over those modest or low earners, little has been suggested from the conservative side to make the world a better place for average workers, and nothing much for those who still cannot figure out how to climb back into the earnings stream. Lots of distractions from this huge income inequality issue: immigration reform, religious rights to oppose gay marriage, etc., etc., but putting more money into the average pocket… nothing meaningfully measurable at all.
Insisting that financial and environmental regulations cost jobs – rather than focusing on the jobs environmental controls would create and the billions if not trillions of dollars financial controls might actually save – those supported by big business seem to choose to ignore the real cost of not reining in climate change damage. At the second GOP debate, sitting in a state with a horrific job-killing drought as land/home destroying fires raged to their immediate north, the uniform response was that there is little that we can do to fix the climate-change problem that matters, so we should basically ignore it. How many trillions of dollars of hard costs, lives impaired and shortened, have to occur before they react? It may be too late, but we can make things worse… much worse.
Remove the Affordable Care Act – not fix its obvious defects – remains high on the list of GOP targets. Nothing proposed to replace it; just kill it and go back to the bigger mess that preceded it. Take the almost nine million folks benefitting from the program and shove them back into the world of no coverage and even higher medical costs. Make life more difficult, particularly in the new “gig” economy where fringe benefits just don’t exist, for the average workers.
Lots of opinions. Now for the hard numbers that support how hard life is for Americans in the middle and below. Oh, from Census statistics from the Department of Labor if you’re worried about my bias. “The typical American family income was $53,657 in 2014, barely changed from $54,462 a year earlier, the U.S. Census Bureau reported [September 16th]… What's worse it's far below the peak set in 1999. That's a major reason why so many Americans are still gloomy about the economy six years into the recovery.
“This was the third year in a row that median household incomes stagnated, following two years of declines. Whites saw their incomes decline 1.7%, while blacks, Hispanics and Asians saw no significant difference…
“Median income remains lower than it was in 2007, Census said… The holding pattern in wages comes despite the fact that millions more Americans are working. Some 1.2 million more men and 1.6 million more women are working full-time, year-round, respectively… The earnings of women who work full time were essentially the same as they were in 2007, while men's earnings were 2.2% lower.
“Wage stagnation is a central focus of the 2016 presidential election. The Democratic candidates want to raise the minimum wage and widen the safety net, while Republicans want to spur job creation by lowering taxes and shedding regulations… Meanwhile, the nation's poverty rate also held steady at 14.8% last year. Some 46.7 million Americans were in poverty, compared to 46.3 million in 2013.”, September 16th. In fact, in terms of discretionary income, given the rising costs of food and housing, Americans have experienced an unending contraction since 2002.
Strangely, the only really bright spot was in healthcare: “The Census Bureau also reported that the uninsured rate fell to 10.4% in 2014, the first year people could sign up for coverage on the Obamacare exchange or through Medicaid expansion in many states. That's down from 13.3% the year before. Nearly 9 million more people had health coverage in 2014 than a year earlier… But more recent government data found that the uninsured rate fell to 9.2% in the first quarter of this year, which marks the first time in decades the uninsured rate has dropped below 10%. Some 29 million people lacked coverage, down 7 million from a year earlier, the report found.”
Why do we even use the word “recovery” in our description of our post-recession economy? Because too many of the economic measurements – from stock prices and real estate values to income averages that include the massive pay increases of those at the top – simply are focused on numbers that do not accurately reflect those in the middle and lower economic brackets. Most of us are still very, very uneasy about the economy.
We just do not believe numbers that suggest the worst is over and we are now living in growing times of prosperity. And the reason we don’t believe those optimistic projections is anchored in the personal earnings numbers set forth above. For most of us, there has been no recovery and without some major changes to redistribute income, things are going to continue in the wrong direction. So you can vote along socially conservative lines, but if you are not at the top of the food chain, you simply are going to have to get used to a continuous and unceasing fall in the quality of your life, with even worse consequences for the next generation. It seems that those at the top of the earnings curve have figured out that too many Americans will vote to reduce their true income (and bolster the money paid to the top) if social conservatism rules otherwise.
I’m Peter Dekom, and rich folks – who can themselves side-step the constraints imposed by social conservatism by flying somewhere where those rules don’t apply – do not hesitate to agree to such policies as long as they can make more money.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Testy Test-Takers T’ain’t Takin’ Tests

What a mess! On the one hand, there have been massive complaints that where test scores from standardized tests are used for just about any ostensibly legitimate purpose – evaluating a student’s qualifications to move on to the next grade or graduate, measuring the quality of a particular teacher, school or school district, assessing the effectiveness of new tools and techniques, determining where change or additional focus is needed, etc., etc. – teachers are just “teaching to the test.” The arguments persist that individual needs and the required flexibility that different environments and communities require are simply ignored. Even commitments to the Common Core curriculum, where basic standard courses (from math and science to English) need to be taught simply as the most basic skills to function in a modern world, are increasingly challenged. Too many tests on too many subjects, we hear.
There has been a rebellion all over the United States in standardized testing with a parallel decrease in the comparable levels of achievement of average American students compared against so many other countries in the world. Our math and reading/comprehension abilities seem to have plummeted amidst the mire of testing controversy. As state legislatures slashed and burned educational budgets, from public primary to the highest level of public graduate schools, the rebellion against standardized testing lets those political miscreants hide from the long-term damage they have heaped on the students that they have subjected to decreased levels of quality and increased levels of crowding. And too many students aren’t even getting exposure even to that reduced level of education; public high school dropout rates in large inner city communities still hover above 50%.
Further, qualifying for federal educational support requires testing: “Federal law requires that at least 95 percent of eligible students take the annual tests, and districts that fall short may face penalties, including a loss of federal aid. But imposing penalties would further damage poor districts that already lack sufficient money to improve their academic performance or help subpar students with remedial tutoring. At the same time, financial penalties might not persuade districts with the highest opt-out rates — often the wealthier ones — to participate, since they are apt to receive little federal funding… Although the state can also withhold funds, officials seem reluctant to stoke further parental anger.” Editorial Op-Ed, New York Times, August 14th.
But while testing seems necessary, there is justification for most of the criticism. Where students can opt out of these standardized tests, they do… in droves. Take New York State, for example, a state with some of the toughest standards in the nation. “An alarming 200,000, or 20 percent, of the students in grades three through eight in New York State public schools this year refused to take the state’s standardized tests in reading and math that are supposed to measure progress in meeting national academic standards.
“This ill-conceived boycott could damage educational reform — desperately needed in poor and rural communities — and undermine the Common Core standards adopted by New York and many other states. The standards offer the best hope for holding school districts accountable for educating all students, regardless of race or income.
“The 200,000 students, out of 1.1 million, who skipped the tests did not have a known valid reason, like illness. That was quadruple the number from the year before and by far the highest opt-out rate for any state. In some school districts the opt-out rate was above 80 percent. For the most part, those opting out were white and in wealthy or middle-class communities. In New York City, less than 2 percent opted out.
“Many parents who oppose the tests say the tests are too difficult or do not track with classroom instruction. Of the students who took the tests statewide, only 31 percent had a proficient score on reading while 38 percent were proficient in math.
“And teachers have complained that they will be judged unfairly based on how well students perform on tests that they consider faulty; at least one of their union leaders urged parents to boycott the tests.” NY Times. Legislatures in many states, usually in the red zone, have also begun to reject such standardized testing. Even some major universities, public and private, are reconsidering the value of SAT requirements.
But when it comes to making sure our children can manage the basics, math and reading/comprehension, I agree with the NY Times Editorial Board that those two arenas, where bias and flexibility are least likely to impact results, should never be the sacrificial lambs to angry parents who can’t believe that their Johnny and Susie cannot read or calculate at their grade level and allow legislators to obfuscate the damage their policies have inflicted on the young… and ultimately American competitiveness in a harsh and competitive global marketplace. Let that anger vent against the schools that failed the kids, legislators who determine school budgets and perhaps at the parents themselves for not caring enough to support their own children.
I’m Peter Dekom, and not investing in and evaluating education now creates an accelerating level of income inequality and falling competitive skills for our future.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Dispiriting Entrepreneurialism

One of the hallmarks of countries that say they are in pursuit of pure socialism or communism is how horrible their economies are for the vast majority of their citizens. Having visited the Soviet Union before its fall, China before capitalism (with “Chinese characteristics”) took hold, and even Cuba, my memory is always of meager lives for most, buildings worn or in need of repair and lots of gray (brown for Cuba). A stultifying drab sameness. Although Cuba had more of a cultural spark, music and smiling citizens, the quality of daily life was pretty much on the bottom or below the standards we are used to in the developed world.
Russia has shaken communism, China has adopted a mix of capitalism and communism that has to be unique in the world (an amazing, centrally-directed economic explosion), and Cubans are chomping at the bit to watch their communist values give way to modern entrepreneurial growth. North Korea, which protects only elites and seems adequately to feed only those in the military or the police, offers nothing but bleak and disheartening repression for everyone else. We lost the war against communist North Vietnam, but Chinese-style capitalism is growing there by the minute, and our relations with that nation – now just Vietnam – are excellent.
We watch as socialist parties win elections in European nations, but somehow private businesses big and small weather the change, sometimes even growing significantly in that populist soil. Latin American populism is legendary, from the radicals of the 1970s, like Argentina’s Juan Domingo Perón (he died in 1974) or Chile’s Salvador Allende (deposed in 1973) to more contemporary rulers like Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Venzuela’s Hugo Chávez (died in 2013 and was replaced by similarly directed Nicolás Maduro Moros).
Communism and socialism are often fundamental platforms for so many of these populist presidential candidates, frequently with a proclivity to nationalize big business and place them directly under government control. Over the ages, these far left governments have faced overt but mostly covert American efforts to overthrow leaders who have veered so far into socialism and communism. We’re were ostensibly preventing the much-feared-domino effect of possible rampant communism and the hit to American corporations divested of their holdings.
Relations between Venezuela and the United States have been particularly strained over recent years, first from the deeply anti-American polices of Hugo Chávez, and then only amplified by his successor, Nicolás Maduro, a bumbling self-designated Chávez-clone. U.S. policies are heavily against the Maduro regime. The countries exchange vituperatives in international forums, but no one can launch into a hot tirade like a Latin American populist on a political podium.
I’ve already blogged about extremes in economic beliefs – socialism vs raw capitalism – and the best mix always seems to be a prudent and adaptive version with a bit of both. But if Americans fear creeping socialism, perhaps the lesson of economies that just do not work “for the people” should be enough of a palliative to let us relax. The more socialist the economies, the lower the quality of life – sooner or later. It seems to take a few entrepreneurial boosts to enrich the overall society. And if the most recent Latin American experiment with populist socialism is any example of the blessings of socialism – Venezuela – the best argument for why this path is a non-starter is a simple examination of the spoils of that country’s economy. Stores with empty shelves. Salaries eroded into nothing by staggering levels of inflation. Commerce at a virtual standstill. With oil prices at a deep discount, nothing seems to be going well for Mr. Maduro’s failing experiment.
The October 18th New York Times fills in the color: “When robbers carjacked Pedro Venero, an engineer, earlier this year, he expected they would drive him to his bank to cash his check for a hefty sum in bolívars — the sort of thing that crime-weary Venezuelans have long since gotten used to. But the robbers, armed with rifles and a grenade, and sure that he would have a stash of dollars at home, wanted nothing to do with the bolívars in his bank account… ‘They told me straight up, ‘Don’t worry about that,’ ’ Mr. Venero said. ‘Forget about it.’…
“A year ago, $1 bought about 100 bolívars on the black market. These days, it often fetches more than 700 bolívars, a sign of how thoroughly domestic confidence in the economy has crashed.
“The International Monetary Fund has predicted that inflation in Venezuela will hit 159 percent this year (though President Nicolás Maduro has said it will be half that), and that the economy will shrink 10 percent, the worst projected performance in the world (though there was no estimate for war-torn Syria).
“That would be a disastrous drive off the cliff for a country that sits on the world’s largest estimated oil reserves and has long considered itself rich in contrast to many of its neighbors… Yet the real story goes beyond numbers, revealed in the absurdities of life in a country where the government has refused for months to release basic economic data like the inflation rate or the gross domestic product.
“Even as the country’s income has shrunk with the collapsing price of oil — Venezuela’s only significant export — and the black market for dollars has soared, the government has insisted on keeping the country’s principal exchange rate frozen at 6.3 bolívars to the dollar.
“That astonishing disparity makes for a sticker-shock economy in which it can be hard to be sure what anything is really worth, and in which the black-market dollar increasingly dictates prices… A movie ticket costs about 380 bolívars. Calculated at the government rate, that is $60. At the black-market rate, it is just 54 cents. Want a large popcorn and soda with that? Depending on how you calculate it, that is either $1.15 or $128… The minimum wage is 7,421 bolívars a month. That is either a decent $1,178 a month or a miserable $10.60…
“Dinner for two at one of this city’s better restaurants can cost 30,000 bolívars. That is $42.85 at the black-market rate or $4,762 at the official exchange rate… With crucial legislative elections scheduled in December, the government has begun to make refrigerators, air-conditioners and household appliances available to government workers and the party faithful at rock-bottom prices. One government worker said he had bought a Chinese-made 48-inch plasma television for 11,000 bolívars, or just $15.71 at the black-market exchange rate.
“Mr. Maduro blames an ‘economic war’ waged by his enemies, foreign and domestic, for the problems. But most economists say the problems are caused by the fall in oil prices and the government’s policies, including strict controls on prices and foreign exchange for imports.
“As the crisis has unfolded, Mr. Maduro has hesitated to make changes even top officials say are needed, like raising the price of gasoline, which is so heavily subsidized that it is virtually free — perhaps because he is fearful of a backlash before the elections.
“Things get stranger by the day… Need a new car battery? Bring a pillow, because you will have to sleep overnight in your car outside the shop. On a recent night, more than 80 cars were lined up… Want a new career? Plenty of Venezuelans have quit their jobs to sell basic goods like disposable diapers or corn flour on the black market, tripling or quadrupling their salary in the process.”
Not likely that nations around the world are jealous of Maduro’s Venezuela. Pretty sure he hasn’t made the notion of socialism any more attractive to… well… anyone anywhere. So when folks extoll the virtues of a free market economy – if only the United States actually had one (distortions from tax loopholes and regulatory exemptions suggest otherwise) – they can always cite Venezuela as the bad example they need. On the other hand, we still have an income inequality issue that is going to rock our next presidential election as THE ISSUE, so standby!
I’m Peter Dekom, and I have a suspicion that the kind of “Democratic Socialism” touted by presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, isn’t predicated on the Venezuelan model!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Parole Evidence – Can People Change?

There’s no question that our criminal justice system is a complete failure. We have too many inmates serving time for too many crimes under some of the longest sentences in the world. Whether you call prisons “anger factories,” “crime schools” or failures unable to deal effectively with mental illness or rehabilitate drug and alcohol addicts, the system no longer serves our general society. Drug and alcohol addicts need rehab, not prison. The 30% of inmates with serious mental illness need serious professional treatment, not incarceration with pills. We also scar convicts with criminal records that materially impair their ability to find meaningful, post-incarceration employment. Recidivism rates are high, and the cost of maintaining prisons and inmates long gone way above absurdly unaffordable.
Getting inmates out of prison has become a national priority, among conservatives tired of shelling out billions for failed systems to liberals who find the entire criminal justice system a massive failure of human rights values, rising for many to constitutionally proscribed “cruel and unusual punishment.”
So today, I want to talk about our notion of “parole,” a system that looks at inmates before their sentences run their course to decide which prisoners should be considered for an earlier supervised released. The federal government and more than a few “tough on crime” states don’t even have a parole system. Sentence reduction in these venues is only a factor of a change in the judgment (rare) or reductions in time based on good behavior formulae.
More parole boards are political appointees, few with any specialized training. It is almost uniformly the practice of these administrative bodies, whose decisions are generally not subject to review or appeal, to focus primarily on the severity of the crime far more than any notion of personal change in the inmate. Their fear: releasing an inmate before their sentence is complete only to read the headlines of a serious crime committed by the released individual. This notion holds a whole lot of prisoners in stir long after they have ceased to be a material threat to society. Expensive. Wasteful. Cruel.
New York State passed law in 2011 that mandated that parole boards focus on “risk to society” above all else. The law changed nothing, and the basic psychology of parole decisions remained unchanged. But New York has been testing and using a computer-generated modeling system – COMPAS – in its probation determinations (which are part of original sentencing parameters vs. parole, which is an after-the-fact release system) that inputs “19 base risk/need scales were generally highest for high-risk/need individuals. The five scales most strongly correlated with the likelihood of ANY rearrest included (beginning with the most strongly correlated scale): History of Non-Compliance (with conditions of pretrial release or sentence), Educational/Vocational Problems, Criminal Associates/Peers, Anger and Impulsivity.” COMPAS-Probation Risk and Needs Assessment Study, Sharon Lansing, PhD (“COMPAS Study).
Simple factors like age, for example, have a significant impact on success after release. Probability for rearrest results for those in the lower years, 16 through 18 in particular, are nasty, but as inmates hit their 40s, the rearrest rates fall significantly.
As the COMPAS study spits out the more objective criteria focused on societal risk, its accuracy rates rise. The system divides inmates as to level of security risk, and the associated recidivism numbers sustain the accuracy of the system. For example, according to the COMPAS Study, recommended minimum supervision cases generate a fairly low 17.5% rearrest rate, scaling upwards as supervision-level recommendations rise, to 57.3% for high supervision-recommendations.
It would seem that the gross unfairness, the unprofessionalism of most parole boards and the fear-of-releasing-a-dangerous-inmate factor could easily be mitigated and efficiently replaced with a comparable COMPAS system applied not just to probation, but to parole.
Unfortunately, New York’s parole board clings stubbornly to the past, routinely denying parole to long-serving inmates based on subjective, often unreviewable judgments. If they explain their reasoning, board members almost always point to the seriousness of the crime, regardless of how much progress an inmate may have made…
“But the board resists [COMPAS] use… That’s no surprise, since parole board members are often political appointees, not psychologists. Their time with a candidate generally consists of a short interview with boilerplate questions… The New York board’s intransigence is all the more exasperating because inmates who are paroled — and thus get supervision outside — may have a lower risk of reoffending than those who serve their full terms.” New York Times Editorial Board, September 4th.
Nevertheless, there are stirrings in the courts. A very rare judicial review of a New York parole board decision was heard In The Matter of Linares vs. Evans, and the case has pushed its way up to the New York Court of Appeals (their highest court), which is taking a good hard look at the way New York parole boards operate. Perhaps our judicial system will do what our legislatures are either loathe or slow to implement: create a fair system to move inmates out of prison when their threat to society falls sufficiently. We just can no longer afford to keep writing big check for failed values.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it’s time to shred expensive and ineffective slogan-driven governmental operations into the effective tools they need to be.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The New Nile-ists

The Arab Spring took down many governments, Egypt included. For the first time since the old monarchy, an elected president without a blessing from the military took power in that land of the pyramids. But President Mohammad’s Morsi’s Islamist roots incented the military to take him down, charge him with numerous crimes and impose the all-too-familiar military dictatorship at Egypt’s helm. A crackdown on all forms of Islamist extremism followed, with a fairly cavalier “shoot first and ask questions later” attitude across the land.
A recent example: a group of picnicking tourists were machine-gunned in mid-September by an Egyptian military Apache helicopter, mistaking the innocents for a gathering of rebel Islamists: “Then the helicopter opened fire, killing at least a dozen people — including at least two Mexicans — while wounding a tourist police officer and at least nine others.
“Some were gunned down as they tried to flee toward the top of a nearby sand dune, said Essam Monem, a resident of the area who arrived that night and saw the bodies sprawled in the sand… The helicopter crew had mistaken the lunching tourists for a camp of Islamist militants operating in the area, the Interior Ministry said in a statement Monday. The error killed more tourists than any terrorist attack in recent years, raising questions about both the competence of Egypt’s security forces and the prevalence of the militants they hunting.” New York Times, September 14th.
With ISIS and its ilk operating east and west of Egypt, military “President” Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is pretty much on red alert from all the regional enemies with Egypt as one of the many territories on their near-term conquest list. The secular military dictatorship in Egypt is a rather clear target on the ISIS hit list. El-Sisi is clearly at war with ISIS and all the Islamists in his country. His trigger happy soldiers, fully familiar with the fate that awaits conquered fighters, are ready to defend the homeland, sort of. But Egypt is not an oil-rich nation, waddling in cash. Mostly, it’s empty desert with a thin strip of productive land on the banks of the Nile. Egypt’s habitable land is over-crowded and poor, dirt poor.
“According to the World Bank, Upper Egypt - that green band of territory from a point to the south of Cairo down to the Sudanese border - is home to 40% of the country's population, but accounts for 60% of those living in poverty and 80% of those living in severe poverty. A third of the population is under 30, and about half of these young people are unemployed.”, September 16th. Neighboring Libya is a land of petroleum wealth and extreme conflict. ISIS and other extremists battle moderates and secularists as refugees-turned-migrants-to-Europe flee for their lives.
But for some of those without incomes, mired in Egypt’s hopeless poverty, the risk of crossing into Libya for those oil jobs is worth facing almost certain death if captured by ISIS operatives. “Libya has been a destination for Egypt's migrant workers since the oil boom of the 1970s, and is likely to remain so until living standards improve - despite the increasing dangers of the journey. And much of that smuggling of oil workers occurs through the western Egyptian oasis of Siwa en route to the Libyan oil town of Jaghbub.
Used by trading caravans for centuries, Siwa is accustomed to people passing through. Merchants, pilgrims and armies have all taken advantage of its fresh water supply, exquisite fruits and the shade of thick palm groves as they traverse one of Africa's harshest environments. The most famous visitor was Alexander the Great who came to the oasis in the 4th Century BC to consult the Oracle of Amun.
“But a new type of visitor began to be seen more frequently after the political upheavals in Libya in 2011. The turmoil made it harder to cross the border at Sallum, on the Mediterranean coast, so Siwa - just 60km (40 miles) from the frontier - became the last stop for Egyptians leaving their homes in search of better-paid work, in Libya's oil industry for example.
“Despite government warnings about instability in Libya, and a rising death toll of Egyptian nationals there, many are still keen to make the journey - which is a damning indictment of living conditions in many parts of rural Egypt. At the end of 2013, two years after Muammar Gaddafi's death, it was estimated that there were still between 700,000 and 1.5 million Egyptian workers in Libya.” And these Egyptians going into harm’s way are a continuing stream, despite the growing risks.
Saudis fear the Sunni extremist ISIS from the North and Shiite Yemeni Houthis from the south. Assad’s Syria is under assault from ISIS and Syrian rebels. Israel and Palestine are far, far from any two-state solution. Russian soldiers and munitions are making their way to the Damascus regime. Lebanon watches warily as Iran’s local surrogate Hezbollah prepares a defense from what seems to be an inevitable attack by ISIS. Iran is bolstering its ally Iraq, which has lost major territory to a seemingly unstoppable ISIS juggernaut. Jordan is mired in the middle as the other regional monarchs also quiver in fear. Erdogan’s Turkey is using the ISIS turmoil to decimate its dissident Kurds… and U.S./NATO polices have not recaptured major ISIS holdings or stemmed its rolling malevolence.
This complexity is not susceptible to simplistic analysis or to the slogan-driven/jingoistic “solutions” that drip from the mouths of under-informed, under-prepared American presidential candidates. They are precisely the kinds of fools who led us into two crushing military defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. While there is a clear rejection of “Washington politicians” roiling across the land, the last thing we need is dilettantes swatting the wasps’ nests in this Middle Eastern quagmire, making the world infinitely more dangerous for Americans everywhere. What we need are experts, unfiltered intelligence and raw pragmatism to work solutions.
I’m Peter Dekom, and stupid, ill-formed words leading to danger-creating policies are the last things this country needs to make us safer.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Bomb Go Boom!

When India mounted an underground nuclear weapons test back in 1974, three years after a disastrous war between India and Pakistan – one that resulted in Pakistan’s loss of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) – its President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto accelerated his nation’s nuclear weapons development program. Pakistan, under PhD metallurgist, Dr. A.Q. Khan and other top scientists, began a long and intensive program to manufacture sufficiently enriched uranium, relying on technology that they were able to secure from China, a country with its own set of wars and tensions with India. By the mid-1980s, there was enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb. In 1987, Pakistan stunned the world and mounted its own underground nuclear weapons test.
More tests followed. Plutonium made its way on to the Pakistan stage by 1998, and the warheads and their delivery systems became sequentially more sophisticated. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Khan was instrumental in passing “how to” nuclear weapons information to both North Korea (which clearly has nuclear weapons) and Iran. Convicted of espionage and dismissed from Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, his punishment, a relative short stint of house-arrest, suggest governmental complicity in Khan’s purported betrayal of his country. It was a meaningless slap on the wrist.
Today, estimates place Pakistan’s nuclear warheads at between 45 and 100 individual devices. Pakistan has well-developed land-based missiles to launch its weapons and is also on its way to creating sea-based launch capacity. Given that Pakistan is almost exclusively Muslim (north of 95%, mostly Sunni with 15-20% Shiite), its nuclear weapons are not infrequently called the “Muslim Bomb.” And Pakistan is anything but stable.
The rage of Muslim extremist regional anger was fueled heavily by the policies of General Zia Ul Haq (above), who deposed Ali Bhutto in a military coup and was President of Pakistan from 1978-88. The good general installed militant Muslim representatives on virtually all Pakistani college campuses (with real power), encouraged fundamentalist schools, the madrasa, to teach militant values at primary and secondary levels and was seen as a friend to the Islamist cause. His movement of radical Islamists into positions of influence and power linger into the present.
Pakistan has vacillated between civilian rule and military coups throughout its almost 70-year history. With serious income inequality, Pakistan has always had a few mega-rich, powerful families pitted against a military, where impoverished youth have been promoted up the ranks, a rare parallel path to power for ordinary citizens. Corruption in Pakistan is legendary.
Radical populist Islam generated sympathies in the military and its parallel Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). After all, this is where impoverished youth can wreak revenge on the privileged classes. Zia died in a mysterious plane crash in the summer of 1998, but his legacy of interweaving radical Islam into major institutions across his country, government and private, has complicated regional risks to unparalleled levels.
Despite Taliban (Sunni extremists) incursions and violent actions in Pakistan, a growing presence particularly in northern and western reaches of the country, Pakistani grassroots are more comfortable with nasty Sunnis than they are with what most Pakistanis see as even nastier Americans. Bin Laden’s killing may have brought cheer to Americans, but the hatred of the US grew even more vitriolic in Pakistan. With a virtually autonomous Western Tribal District, where even the Pakistani military has limited power, bordering Afghanistan, Taliban and other extremist operatives have a safe haven from both American and Pakistani forces.
Pakistan is a purported ally of the United States in its war on terrorism, and as long as we have fears in Afghanistan, that paper alliance is likely to continue. But it is widely believed that the military and ISI support Islamic radicals, throwing only a few under the bus now and again to keep the American military aid flowing in.
If Israel has fears over Iran – whose nuclear program was born in Pakistan as noted above – if Americans who oppose Iran’s purported nuclear path fear an out-of-control Iran, then then they should be terrified of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Bombs and warheads in an unstable nation with a history of sharing its nuclear secrets with extremists. Add a military sympathetic to radical Islam and increases attacks within Pakistan by Taliban and other Muslim extremists! Iran is at least relatively stable; the government is very much in control.
Pakistan is a simmering mess, ripe for all kinds of violent destabilizing acts… and the horrific potential for one or more fully-operational warheads or bombs being supplied to radicals with a proclivity to use them against…. Yeah… Scary, huh? But do you see Congress up in arms over this much-more-likely risk? Silence. Think about it. Pakistan is right now. Iran is a maybe for the distant future.
I’m Peter Dekom, and while everyone is looking at Iran’s nuclear program….

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Russia vs the West – A Real Shooting War Advances

Russia always supports incumbent powers claim its leaders. It refuses to challenge leadership even in countries where such leaders are brutal repressors with extermination of their domestic “enemies” as a priority. They are all about supporting incumbent dictator Bashir Assad in Syria as complete proof of their philosophy. Just ask them. Oh, did I mention the exceptions when Russia just wants a different result? Like taking the Crimea despite a treaty they signed to the contrary? Or the rather blatant support (including high-end munitions and actual Russian troops) for Ukrainian rebels against the incumbent regime?
“The missile that downed Malaysia Airlines flight 17 exploded less than a meter from the cockpit, killing the crew inside instantly and breaking off the front of the plane, the Dutch Safety Board said [October 13th] as it presented the results of an official probe into the crash in eastern Ukraine… Safety Board chairman Tjibbe Joustra said the 15-month investigation found the warhead was that used on a Buk surface-to-air missile system… Missile fragments found in the cockpit crew's bodies, as well as paint traces, enabled investigators to identify the Buk, Joustra said.”, October 13th.
That Buk was a sophisticated Russian-supplied missile. Russia says it was an older version of the weapon that probably was in the Ukrainian arsenal. Experts say otherwise. The missile was clearly launched from rebel territory (Russian claims to the contrary), and except for Russia, virtually every nation on earth believes the Russian-backed rebels were the perps. While the above investigation was focused solely on what caused the demise of that civilian airliner, an on-going additional inquiry will address the “who” exactly and assign criminal liability. The result will probably not please Russia.
And as the United States has finally admitted failure in their misguided attempt to find (yeah, a problem) and train “moderate” anti-Assad rebels to fight both against the murderous Assad regime and the even-more-dangerous ISIS monster, they have joined other Western nations in air-dropping munitions into rebel-held territory. Since Russians lump anti-Assad forces into an overall epithet of “terrorist” (a habit they may have learned from the label-happy West), they have managed to turn their “offensive against ISIS” into a powerful military thrust against Assad’s rebels. Russia is even more committed to supplying weapons to Assad, with a Russian base in Syria now serving as a launching platform for Russian-piloted jets now pounding Syrian rebels with a greater ferocity than its attacks on ISIS targets. But the U.S. is now committed to escalating its supply of weapons to anti-Assad, anti-ISIS rebel ground forces. 
On [October 12th], the YPG [Kurdish militia] announced a new alliance with small groups of Arab fighters, which could help deflect criticism that it fights only on behalf of Kurds. Washington has indicated it could direct funding and weapons to Arab commanders on the ground who cooperate with the YPG.
“Syrian Arab rebels said they had been told by Washington that new weapons were on their way to help them launch a joint offensive with their Kurdish allies on the city of Raqqa, the de facto Islamic State capital… The U.S. military confirmed dropping supplies to opposition fighters vetted by the United States but would say no more about the groups that received the supplies or the type of equipment in the airdrop.”, October 13th.
American weapons have been flowing to rebels for some time. “Insurgent commanders say that since Russia began air attacks in support of the Syrian government, they are receiving for the first time bountiful supplies of powerful American-made antitank missiles.
“With the enhanced insurgent firepower and with Russia steadily raising the number of airstrikes against the government’s opponents, the Syrian conflict is edging closer to an all-out proxy war between the United States and Russia… The increased levels of support have raised morale on both sides of the conflict, broadening war aims and hardening political positions, making a diplomatic settlement all the more unlikely.
“The American-made TOW antitank missiles began arriving in the region in 2013, through a covert program run by the United States, Saudi Arabia and other allies to help certain C.I.A.-vetted insurgent groups battle the Syrian government… The weapons are delivered to the field by American allies, but the United States approves their destination. That suggests that the newly steady battlefield supply has at least tacit American approval, now that Russian air power is backing President Bashar al-Assad.” New York Times, October 12th.
But is this a surrogate war between Russia and the West or something more? After all, Russian pilots are purportedly flying some of the missions themselves, from jets to attack helicopters (unclear how involved the Russians are in piloting helicopters): “Russian attack helicopters swoop low over fields, seemingly close enough to touch, then veer upward to unleash barrages of rockets, flares and heavy machine-gun fire. Explosions pepper distant villages, with smoke rising over clusters of houses as narrators declare progress against ‘terrorists.’
“They appear to be using techniques honed in Afghanistan, where the occupying Soviet Army fought insurgents who were eventually supplied with antiaircraft missiles by the United States. Some of those insurgents later began Al Qaeda.” NY Times. The United States is wary. The notion of blowback, where after the earlier Afghan War anti-Soviet Mujahedeen used CIA-supplied arms against U.S. (and their allies) targets, still haunts American policy-makers. But while ISIS does not field an air force (yet), Syrian military planes have been pounding civilian and rebel targets indiscriminately for years. Now Russian jets have joined that fight.
With anti-Assad Syrian forces including the al-Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front, in the mix, there is justifiable fear that our supplying anti-aircraft missiles to the Free Syrian Army somehow will wind up in the hands of those most likely to confront us later under that “blowback” theory. But without anti-aircraft support, the rebels have little chance against the airpower of the newly combined Russian and Syrian military air forces. We can expect a shift in U.S. policy to address the need to supply new anti-air weapons, making the Russian presence in what should be a no-fly zone that much more difficult.
Russia points to American failures in unseating unpopular dictators in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya – generating even more destructive killing-chaos to fill the void – as a far worse alternative than accepting Assad (perhaps with a negotiated departure in the near term) and using his military in a coordinated attack against ISIS. But the Obama administration, backed by its European and regional allies, stands fast in its opposition to a regime that has used chemical gas and barrel bombs against its own people.
Whatever else is said or done, we are most certainly going to see American (and allied) weapons increasingly used against Russian military targets in Syria. We’ve been here before, but that country was called the Soviet Union. ISIS is watching Russians bomb local Syrian rebel enemies, making their ability to move in and take over more territory that much easier. Whatever the short term discomfort, the world is simply going to have to grapple with a malevolent force, hell-bent on global conquest, that is religiously incapable of compromise and is growing every day… sooner or later. And it going to take a whole lot more than airpower to dislodge them from their holdings.
  ’m Peter Dekom, and as global forces battle each other, ISIS is slowly moving its demonic plans slowly forward.