Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflections on Two Thousand and Eleven

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.” 
Albert Einstein

Two thousand and eleven feels like it will be remembered largely as the year in which humanity’s integrity and honour fell by the wayside and everything in the world seemed to be off kilter as a result of the great precipice created in our world. It was a year filled with company destroying financial revelations, country-crumbling debt crises, leadership failures and big economic disappointments. It was a year when honesty and transparency seemed in short supply, everywhere. Many of the revelations were sadly, not so much shocking as simply removing the thin veil that barely hid what we already knew to be true for some years now.

It was also the year when some of the most oppressed people in the world stopped fearing their governments and started to rectify this equation to finally make government fear the people. The Arab street locked arms, raised voices, gave lives, but in the end succeeded in striking down the tyrants that used fear, torture and censorship to shackle them for decades. It was the year of the Arab Spring or Awakening, as the longstanding and brutal dictatorships of Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Tunisia all fell and the ones still left standing are on the brink of revolution. All this ignited by a single act of frustrated defiance by Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit seller, on the streets of Tunisia. He set himself on fire to protest police corruption and continuous harassment by government employees, and his martyrdom set in motion a chain of events that the most brilliant analytical minds at the CIA, Mossad and Pentagon had not foreseen in any of the scenarios they have spent their lives exploring and building. There were even simmers of discontent in China with the short-lived Jasmine protest and now we are seeing it engulf mother Russia. Last weekend saw the largest demonstrations held in the streets of Moscow and other cities since the fall of the old Soviet Union. People came out in the hundreds of thousands to protest voter fraud and demand the resignation of Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, the great democracies of India and the US also saw their share of people power, albeit without much turmoil or disruption so far. In India, Anna Hazare’s movement to create Lokpal or citizen ombudsman bill to fight corruption was passed by the Lower House this week and is currently being debated in the Upper House. The bill was first introduced in 1968 but never managed to see light of day. In the United States we saw the beginnings of a something that had all the power and popular support to grow into a force with clout and sway. But sadly, Occupy deteriorated into a homeless-filled, feckless orgy of sex, drugs and alcohol. The day Occupy announced that it would be a leaderless movement is that day I believe America stopped caring about them and went back to burying their frustration in their office cubicles. However, the discontent with Capitol Hill and Wall Street is not going away anytime soon. It will continue to fester across the nation until some real and meaningful change takes place, and some real prison sentences handed down for the fraud perpetrated by many executives.

Even as the world seemed starved and desperate for leadership nobody was able to step up to the plate and deliver. Instead it seemed the opposite was true with the Former Israeli President, Moshe Katsav, being sentenced to seven years in prison for raping a former employee while he was president. The former French President, Chirac, was found guilty of corruption and given to a two-year suspended prison sentence for diverting public funds and abusing public trust. The head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had to resign after he had sex with a New York hotel maid. His wife stoically stood by him even as he admitted to having had consensual sex with the maid. Meanwhile Europe was in turmoil with the constant fear of the impending disintegration of the European Union and Euro zone hanging over the markets like a dark cloud for the better part of the year. Every day we heard about another country on the brink of default on their loans, from having lived beyond their means for more than a decade. It was not just the smaller and developing economies of Iceland, Ireland or Greece that faltered, but also the fully developed and large ones of Italy and Spain that are teetering on the edge of that debt cliff. Had one of these big countries gone it would have taken the whole Euro zone down with it. They say that in the times of great crisis, great leaders emerge; I guess they got it wrong. Instead of leadership and fortitude, we had Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy pussyfooting around the problems, relying on German coffers to shoulder Europe’s’ self-created woes, and finally asking private banks to write-off loans and thus share the public burden. The one good thing that did come out of this was that Silvio Berlusconi had to finally resign, giving the Italians a fighting chance to keep their country alive with the “developed world” label still intact. It is also true that while the US’s troubles are much deeper and more worrying, the dollar was saved not by anything the US Federal Reserve or the government did to shore up investor confidence, but by the fact that the only other option – the Euro did a phenomenal job of making itself look worse and even less secure than the weak dollar.

Back on the sub-continent, Indians witnessed the uncovering of one scam after another. Dirty politicians, unscrupulous businessmen, even corrupt officials in The Indian Space Research Organization. Sadly even the once revered Indian army was not left unsullied. Each new scam unearthed was bigger, more daring and conducted with greater fearlessness and abandon than the last one; in the end leaving no Indian institution unscathed. It seems that the ruling Congress Party had made a decision to make hay while their electoral sun shone, and pretty much everyone from Sonia Gandhi to the bottom layers of the party had their hand in the taxpayer’s cookie jar. It was only after a prolonged public outcry, major media coverage and really bad International press that a single arrest was made. One has to wait and see how many years these cases drag on and if there will ever be a single politician prosecuted for any wrongdoing. I still see all the disgraced politicians smiling and looking shameless and plucky, as if they know of enough skeletons in other closets to ever be prosecuted by their peers. We shall see.

In America, too, it was the year of uncovering scams pulled off by all the major retail and investment banks, as well as unethical if not illegal business practices by many large and iconic companies. Curiously, though, not a single corporate executive was prosecuted or even indicted for this wrong doing. Instead settlements were made with all the companies, forcing them to pay seemingly large fines but also allowing them to admit “no wrongdoing.” Perhaps I am a little slow but I don’t understand this logic – you commit a crime and instead of prosecution you agree to pay a large sum of money; which happens to be no more than 25% of the total amount you illegally and unethically made, and you get to say you are not guilty of doing anything wrong – how exactly does this serve as punishment and more importantly as a deterrent?

I guess we could look back at two thousand and eleven and conclude that the Mayan prophecy about twenty-first December two thousand and twelve being the end of the world, could quite possibly be true. Talk to anybody and they will tell you they think the world feels like it is going to hell faster than we can say the word. I am sure every generation felt this sense of hopelessness and despair at some point in their journey; what we also know is that each of these generations managed to find a way through the Plague, Hitler, Hiroshima, Jallianwala Bagh and Apartheid. So while our world has for some time now felt tilted towards the majority of people seemingly driven entirely by selfishness, greed and unethical behaviour, I want to offer an alternative point of view on the Mayan prophecy. This prophecy maybe correct about the end, but not in terms of the four horsemen or fire, brimstone and volcanic ash, but as an end to a chapter. Perhaps this year will mark a new beginning, closing this long and dark chapter of unethical behavior, lack of regard for our fellow human beings and the selfish rot that seems to have overtaken the majority of people and begin to shift the balance back. Maybe we have sunk to our depths and it is time to rise once again; finding within us the very same things that have made us more united and more connected than ever before in the history of the world. The same kindness and compassion of neighbours that saw America through the Great Depression, the solidarity and selfless resolve that drove the mighty British out of India and a strength and never say die resolve that ended Apartheid. Perhaps this is what the Mayan Prophecy foretells and for what two thousand and twelve will be remembered.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

There is a pill for that...

"I'm addicted to Altoids. I call them 'acting pills."
Harrison Ford

Got heartburn? There is a purple pill for that. Having intimacy issues? There is a blue pill for that. Feeling a little depressed? There is a yellow pill for that. In fact, no matter what you may feel or not feel there is likely a pill for it. While the US and most global economies are expected to continue either negative or anemic growth over the next few years, the prescription drug market is slated to grow at 4% - 7% each year. It will be a staggering $1 trillion by 2013; globally. Think about the fact that a bottle of pills costs a few dollars and now think about that $1 trillion number again. In China the market is growing at double their GDP rate, more than 20% per year, and will be worth $80 billion in the next couple of years. However, it will take many, many more prescriptions before China comes close to overtaking the number one pill popping nation in the world, the United States of America. The U.S. market will retain its top spot and be worth a frightening $355 billion a year, by 2013 (source: IMS Health). It will remain just over a third of the global total for the foreseeable future and you can bet that the drug companies are working hard to keep you popping those little coloured pills.

When most people talk about the drug problem in the United States they think about Mexican cartels and mules smuggling heroin and cocaine in their body cavities. You might be surprised to learn that it is in fact prescription drug abuse that is the US’s fastest-growing problem. In fact, there have been marked decreases in the use of illegal drugs like cocaine, while over a third of children over twelve years of age who used drugs for the first time began by using a prescription drug, non-medically. Over 70% of people who admit to abusing prescription pain relievers got them not from their neighbourhood drug dealer, but from friends or relatives; only 5% bought them from a dealer (source: National Survey on Drug Use and Health). A separate study, the nation’s largest on drugs, found that “prescription drugs are the second-most abused category of drugs after marijuana.” (source: Monitoring the Future study). Statistics show that the number of people who died in one year from overdoses of prescription drugs alone is more than 6 times the number of people who died from overdoses of all other illegal drugs combined. And the number of emergency room visits attributable to the abuse of prescription drugs increased by 97 percent from 2004 to 2008 (source: US Department of Justice, 2011).

So the question I have to ask is, why?  Why is America so much more dependent than any other nation on these little coloured pills? Let’s start with the simple fact that I have not seen a single TV advertisement break without a prescription drug advertisement of some kind - on any channel. These are also not regular ads that inform you about a problem or potentially life threatening symptom. In fact, they are actually designed to convince you that no matter what you may or may not feel, you have a problem that requires a pill. Things that the majority of the world considers simple everyday emotions or the normal, natural ups and downs of life are anything but that in America. Put simply, if you get fired from your job, I think it’s quite normal to feel upset and a little depressed about it. However, once you are done feeling sorry for yourself, I would expect that you pick yourself up and go get another job. Seems pretty normal, but not in America. Here people are bombarded day and night with ads that tell them that these seemingly natural, healthy emotional ups and downs of life are actually a medical or chemical imbalance that requires urgent treatment. The pharmaceutical industry spent the GDP of a small country, $4.5 billion, on advertising in 2009 alone, and for their effort Americans rewarded them by spending over $200 billion on prescriptions (source: GOOD and Stanford Kay, Fast Company, 2010). It is the kind of return on ad spends that any client would die for.

Doctors are the other half of this problem. In 2009, if you add up all the prescriptions doctors wrote, it adds up to more than the entire U.S. population (source: GOOD and StanfordKay, Fast Company, 2010). Pharmaceutical companies have long been “plying physicians with the five-star meals, expense-paid trips, and scores of logo-emblazoned freebies that critics have long argued have a subliminal — if not a tit-for-tat — influence on prescribing practices.” (source: Pill Girl Report). Turns out that 20 cents to 30 cents of every dollar spent on our health for scans, operations, treatments, hospitalizations, and surgeries are completely unnecessary or ineffective and do nothing to improve our health (source: “Overtreated” by Shannon Brownlee). That’s not all; recently doctors went as far as creating a new disease called “Fibromyalgia.” The doctor who discovered this disease admitted later that he made it up, but over the years a powerful pharmaceutical lobby with a pill in hand has turned it into an acceptable diagnosis. Today, the Mayo clinic describes Fibromyalgia as “a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues.” I am no doctor but that description pretty much sums up how every person I know feels after thirty. The Mayo clinic also goes on to say that “while there is no cure for fibromyalgia, a variety of medications can help control symptoms. Exercise, relaxation and stress-reduction measures also may help.” The medical fraternity remains deeply divided on this and most doctors do not consider fibromyalgia a medically recognizable illness. In fact, many argue that the diagnosis actually leads to a worsening of the condition because it causes patients to obsess over basic aches and pains (that come with age, arthritis, etc.) that the majority of people simply tolerate. Whether you believe Fibromyalgia is real or not, what nobody can argue about is the fact the prescription pill for it, called Lyrica, has some very serious side effects that include severe weight gain, dizziness and edema.

Consider that 9 of the top 10 drugs prescribed in America, in 2009, were for treating depression and anxiety (source GOOD and StanfordKay, Fast Company, 2010). I guess we can surmise that in the wealthiest nation on earth, one with the highest standard of living and arguably the greatest creature comforts, we have the most anxious and depressed people in the world. If that is true then all I can say is God help the rest of us!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

September 11 - Ten Years Later (Part 2)

Read: September 11 - Ten Years Later (Part 1)

If Oscar Wilde were around he might say “To start one war, Mr. Bush, was a necessity but to start two seems like recklessness”. 

As we continue to examine the impact of the decisions made by our government in the months and years after 9/11, it is important to look back at some of missed warning signs and lost opportunity costs for America that were a result of the course the Bush administration chose to set America on.

On 2nd December 2001 one of the world’s largest energy companies, named “America’s Most Innovative Company” for six consecutive years by Fortune magazine, with 22,000 employees and global revenues over $100 billion, filed for bankruptcy. Enron’s entire financial reporting had been based on institutionalized fraud. Their demise also led to the dissolution of an old and reputable accounting firm, Arthur Anderson, the firm responsible for auditing Enron’s books. Close on the heels of Enron a number of other companies fell to similar accounting scandals. These included ImClone and Global Crossing, followed in the summer of 2002 by WorldCom and Adelphia. This brought into question the accounting practices of virtually every corporation in America. It became clear that there were serious discrepancies between the financial pictures companies were presenting to Wall Street, publicly, and the actual state of their internal balance sheets – the vast majority of Corporations were obfuscating their financials using contemporary accounting rules. All this was unfolding against a backdrop of a darkening economic picture based on the stock market bubble which burst in the first quarter of 2001. The economic excesses that had accompanied the heady growth and profitability of the 1990’s were gone. Too many firms, especially those in the technology and telecommunications, had made poor decisions and investments in in the wrong type of assets. However, even as growth slowed there was one startling difference from all post war recessions. Most recessions have been driven by sharp decreases in consumption spending, particularly related to durables and housing. However, during the early 2000’s consumption spending had actually been increasing year on year. This recession was being driven by plunging business investment (source: Joint Economic Committee Reports 2003). There is no doubt that seeds of this economic slowdown were sowed in the Clinton years, and are not directly related to the Bush administration’s policies but it is abundantly clear is that the signs of America’s impending financial meltdown, including the underlying factors that caused it, had started to become apparent early on during Bush’s first term in office.

It was in 2001 that Bush administration became aware of the problems in the overheating US housing market. At the center of the problem were two Government sponsored enterprises (GSE) called Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose government mandated mission was to keep mortgage interest rates low, so more Americans could afford to buy homes. By now it was well-known in Washington political circles that both institutions were so highly leveraged that a minor decline in housing values, as little as 1.3% to 2%, could wipe out both companies. And that their failure would have major repercussions on financial markets and US economic activity across the board. Bush was shot down by Democrats in Congress when he tried to bring additional oversight over these GSE’s in 2002. By early 2003 the signs had grown alarming; by this time these two mortgage lenders had more than $1.5 trillion in outstanding debt issued on their balance sheets.  In July, of the same year, a report by independent investigators concluded that “Freddie Mac manipulated its accounting to mislead investors, and critics said Fannie Mae does not adequately hedge against rising interest rates” (source: New York Times). However, with stiff resistance from Democrats, and the administration distracted by two wars, Bush chose to relinquish this battle and focus on what he clearly believed was far more important for securing America’s future: getting rid of Saddam Hussein. By the time Freddie and Fannie finally collapsed at the end of 2008, housing values had dropped 12.8%, since 2006. By now things were pretty dire and it became necessary for government to intervene in every part of the economy as Bush put it, “to prevent the crisis on Wall Street from becoming a crisis in communities across our country." Finding themselves in the midst of yet another crisis this administration decided once more to use fear to push through a $700 billion bailout plan for banks. Giving sweeping powers to the government to dispense gigantic sums of taxpayer dollars in a program that was sheltered from court review. TARP was a three page bill that did not specify which institutions would qualify or what criteria would be used, if any, or what taxpayers would get in return for the unprecedented infusion. It was designed to save companies that had brought this Armageddon upon themselves, and by an administration that had neglected to pay attention to many years of warnings. By all accounts, what would likely have been a minor economic downturn had it been handled when the warning signs first emerged resulted instead in a US and global financial catastrophe.

Another aspect of economic growth is immigration, which early on Bush showed he realized the importance and benefits to the US economy. He saw a need to reform the stagnant US immigration policy. He called for a new and large-scale guest worker program, paths to legalization for existing illegals, and had five meetings with Vincente Fox, the Mexican President, all in his first nine months in office. However, when it became known that all of the 9/11 hijackers had entered the US with legal visas, and that some has stayed after expiration, it changed the complexion of the debate on immigration along with his administration’s healthy stance on it. The administration decided to view the issue of immigration through the lens of ‘homeland security’. One accompanied with rhetoric that heightened fear and focused on detection of terrorists along with greater powers for law enforcement. America went from taking pride in being a nation of immigrants to being afraid of them. In the two years after 9/11 legal immigration fell by 34%, naturalization decreased 19% and employment based immigration also declined, as percentage of overall legal immigration, while absolute numbers dropped by 53% (source: Migration Policy Institute, 2004). To give you one example of the effect of the Bush policies on immigration, pre-9/11 it would have taken an Indian student who came to attend college in America about 18 months to become a permanent resident, and five years to become eligible for citizenship. Today, the same Indian student would have to wait 70 years for a permanent resident visa (source: National Foundation for American Policy). There is no dispute among economists about the importance of immigration, and that it is fundamental to the success of the American economy. Immigrants have founded 52% of Silicon Valley’s companies, creating millions of American jobs (source: Foreign Born Entrepreneurs: An Underestimated American Resource). This is not just true of higher income, better educated immigrants but also uneducated, low skilled workers. Without immigrants “the pace of recent U.S. economic growth would have been impossible. Since 1990, immigrants have contributed to job growth in three main ways: they fill an increasing share of jobs overall, they take jobs in labor-scarce regions, and they fill the types of jobs native workers often shun.” (source: Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas). Instead of using the opportunity to rally Congress to fix loopholes, and sensibly and securely reform what was without a doubt an antiquated and outdated visa system, the Bush administration followed through on a knee-jerk path, deciding to clamp down with archaic rules that made it much more difficult to get any type of US visa and effectively encouraged, if not forced, the smartest minds from around the world to return home after receiving an American college degree.

Across the board this administration seemed to believe it could have its cake and eat it. In late 2002, Cheney summoned Bush’s economic team to his office to push for another round of tax cuts to stimulate the slowing economy. Paul O’Neill, then the Treasury Secretary, and the entire White House economic team had become convinced that the country was careening toward a fiscal crisis, and they pleaded with Cheney to start reining in government spending. Instead, Cheney used Reagan’s words that “deficits don’t matter,” to completely shut down Paul H. O’Neill and the economic team. This was just a few months before the Iraq invasion began. Apart from the two rounds of tax cuts, which added roughly $1 trillion to the deficit over ten years, Bush also created a Medicare drug entitle­ment that will cost an estimated $800 billion in its first decade, he increased federal education spending 58 percent faster than inflation. He became the first President in US history to spend 3 percent of GDP on federal antipoverty programs. He also spent billions bailing out the Detroit auto industry and ended his final term with the $700 billion toxic asset recovery program. It is worth noting that during his two terms the income disparity grew, the poverty rate increased, unemployment rose to reach 7.8% in January, 2009 (the highest level in more than 15 years). When President Bush took office, the national debt stood at $5.727 trillion and when he left office it was more than $9.849 trillion (source: CBS News). That is an increase of a staggering 71.9 percent on Bush's watch. There were a total of seven debt ceiling increases, almost one for every year Bush spent in office. Interestingly, most of Bush’s spending was financed by issuing US treasury bonds (about 40 – 45 percent bought by foreign powers). When Bush took office in February 2001, the mainland Chinese owned a paltry $63.7 billion in U.S. debt. When Bush left office at the end of January 2009 the mainland Chinese owned $739.6 billion in US debt (source: Treasury.gov).

There is no doubt that these were extenuating circumstances, and 9/11 changed America forever; no argument there. The issue has more to do with the priorities and focus of this administration for the many years after 9/11, and their fixation with a hurriedly planned and poorly executed War on Terror. As a result the vast majority of domestic and foreign policy decisions seem to be devoid of short-term priorities and long-term thinking. It was as if this administration decided that the 9/11 attacks gave them cart blanche and zero accountability for all their actions. That it also did not matter how America would pay for its out-of-control spending, as long as it was done in the name of ‘national security’. It seems this administration was perfectly content kicking the can down the road. This at a time when America was clearly in alarming decline with corporate innovation dying, the education system in shambles, entitlement programs going bust and the country heading towards insurmountable debt. Without the distractions of a spiraling situation in Iraq, a war that deeply divided the country and created an acrimonious stalemate in Washington, Congress would also have been much more focused domestically and compelled to act. And had Bush not been completely consumed by his war on terror it is certain he would have also paid greater attention to the many warning signs of US economic decline. All this coupled with a complete lack of diplomacy in his first-term resulted in alienating long-term US allies, weakening its moral authority and having the mighty US military power humbled by a bunch of rag-tag rebels, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider that Bush’s global war on terror will continue to cost US taxpayers for at least another generation, and has almost single-handedly been responsible for tilting the balance of global economic power squarely into the hands of China. In the end, we must ourselves this one question - was all this worth it just to get rid of Saddam Hussein?

Friday, September 30, 2011

September 11 - Ten Years Later (Part 1)

“If we were about to be attacked or had been attacked or something happened that threatened a vital U.S. national interest, I would be the first in line to say, ‘Let’s go,’ I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice.”
Robert Gates

This is what George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense said on being asked if he had any words of wisdom during his final interview before retirement. This lifelong Republican said that the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he has witnessed first-hand are far too great to start wars that were not necessary. He said he had learned clearly over the past four and a half years that wars “have taken longer and been more costly in lives and treasure” than anticipated.” The man George Bush handpicked to fix the mess his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld made in Iraq, effectively told America that the Iraq war was not something he would have embarked on; a war that was clearly one of America’s choosing. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/19/us/politics/19gates.html

Ten years after the September 11th attacks, Americans are still avoiding having an open, honest and meaningful discussion about the far reaching implications and long-term costs of the decisions their government made in the name of national security. I truly believe that until America has this conversation and in doing so faces the real ghosts of 9/11, they will struggle to move forward as a unified nation again. Instead, the country will continue down the post 9/11 path of a nation deeply divided and one that has never stopped living in and reacting out of fear. Nobody denies the fact that the country’s security should be a major concern when attacked in this way. Nor would anyone have a problem with the United States going after those responsible with any and all means possible; we can also expect and discount a certain amount of knee-jerk reactionism in the short-term. However, after a short period of time the elected leaders should have been the first people to step up and ensure that cooler heads prevailed. They should have been the ones to ensure that both the short-term costs and the long-term implications of every major decision was weighed and counter-weighed; that every plan was carefully examined before there was a rush to judgement. Now, ten years later, the best way to have this important conversation is to do it by looking at the facts and figures, and by studying the realities and outcomes that resulted from those decisions made by the Bush government in those fear filled months and fear-mongering years after 9/11. 

Let’s start by examining the financial burden of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. This figure now stands at a staggering $1.7 trillion and counting; and that is just for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans’ health care. It is worth mentioning that 1% - 2% of this total amount has been misplaced. The government now acknowledges that they have no accounting for this loss of taxpayer money. The Iraq war accounts for $872 billion (or 63%) of the total. Of that amount, $803 billion has been spent on military operations, $28 billion on local security and $41 billion that includes funds for reconstruction and foreign aid (source: “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11” prepared by the Congressional Research Service). Keep in mind this does not include the future cost of both these wars; which along with the estimated veteran care are projected to cost US taxpayers another $867 billion. Of course critics say these projections are too high but think back to when Cheney was lobbying for the Iraq war, he also repeatedly re-assured us that the price tag for this war - to oust Saddam, restore order and install a new government would not exceed $50-$60 billion. As we compile the total costs of post 9/11 government actions we are still not accounting for the increased expenditure from huge new additions to the government bureaucracy with the inception of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Department of Homeland Security and increased domestic intelligence budgets that were all non-war related expenses. In fact, if you tally all of this government expenditure, then George W. Bush has the distinction of “presiding over the largest increase in the size of government since the Great Society,” and those are John McCain’s words.

Next, we need to examine the current state of the regions within which these conflicts reside to fully understand the very real outcomes from both a regional stability and geopolitical stand-point. In the Middle East, the US’s closest ally Israel finds itself increasingly isolated and alone in the region. Meanwhile, Iran’s influence and power has grown substantially, directly as a result of America removing enemies on her borders, Iraq and Afghanistan.  What’s more, today Iraq is one of Iran’s largest trading partners, and Iran is rapidly strengthening trade ties with Afghanistan, giving it unparalleled clout and influence in both countries.  Ironically, Bush’s War on Terror has resulted in unimaginable gains and geopolitical power for this “axis of evil” country. The US has inadvertently helped change Iran’s status from an isolated pariah state, in 2003, to a major regional power broker by 2009. One wonders if America had not taken its eye off the ball when it had the Taliban and Al’ Qaeda on the run, and finished the job, if the situation would be different today with Iran. By taking the entire focus away from the Afghan conflict and relying instead on writing blank cheques to Pakistan and a corrupt Afghan government, it seems America was hoping they could have their cake and eat it. The US expected to wrap up a quick and cheap Iraq war – we all know how that turned out. This decision is even more amazing given that the US was fully aware of the murky history between the ISI and Taliban and acutely aware of Pakistan’s paranoia about India’s growing influence in a new Afghanistan. By 2008 the Taliban had the opportunity to fully re-group, and had turned Pakistan’s tribal regions into a new safe harbor for themselves and a host of other affiliated terrorist networks, including Al Qaeda. Pakistan is still the launching point for all attacks on US troops in Afghanistan, and arguably closer to being a failed state, with nuclear weapons, than ever before in its history. I believe there is a strong argument that things would be very different in this region, today, had the US not diverted all its military resources, assets, support and political focus and diverted it to a war of choice in Iraq. 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, between warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation, water boarding, the patriot act and illegal domestic surveillance programs, we are only now starting to scratch the surface of secret government decisions made in the name of our security. It is also apparent that many of these decisions did not uphold America’s high ideals, beliefs and strong democratic values. Rather than get into a discussion about civil rights violations, let us examine the net result of the actions of creating a huge new domestic security apparatus with the TSA, Homeland Security and a mega-billion dollar domestic intelligence gathering network. One that starts with a SAR (Suspicious Activity Report) that local police officers are encouraged to fill out on their beats, which gets stored in a massive database without any further scrutiny or investigation of the person named in the report. All this information is then analysed using sophisticated software that is meant to stitch disparate pieces of information together, distributing it to federal “authorities” in real-time. In the context of this enhanced security apparatus, let’s review the last three major terrorist plots against the US, starting with the Christmas Day bomber.  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab managed to board a flight to Detroit with an explosive device hidden in his underwear. Luckily this device failed to detonate, after which he was wrestled to the ground by a fellow passenger. What boggles the mind is the fact that this new and improved multi-billion dollar security apparatus completely missed him - this after his father, a respected Nigerian banker, called US authorities and warned them that his son was becoming radicalized. Despite being on a no fly list Abdulmutallab was not stopped at two different airports, and even though he bought a one-way ticket (like all the 9/11 hijackers) it was not picked up as a red flag by all our new and highly sophisticated security algorithms and apparatus. We are told that his name was misspelled on the no-fly list; clearly our government’s multi-billion dollar taxpayer funded state-of-the-art software does not contain a basic spell check or even the level of sophistication that Google’s search box provides with its query suggestions. Next we had the Times Square bomber who was caught, not by our enhanced security, but only because some alert citizens noticed a man acting strangely after parking his SUV near Times Square. A couple of street vendors called police after seeing what looked like smoke and some strange apparatus inside the abandoned vehicle, Finally, we had another close call with two packages located on separate cargo planes bound for the US from Yemen. Both had home printers with plastique explosives and a sophisticated detonating mechanism timed to blow up in mid-air over US cities. The only reason we discovered and disarmed them was thanks to a call from a reformed Al Qaeda terrorist to the head of Saudi intelligence. It begs the question of what all this increased prying, searching, and snooping has resulted in. Clearly it has not served as a deterrent, because the number of terrorist attacks has actually increased dramatically worldwide* (see footnote for sources), and in the US, in the past decade and at a much greater rate than before the Iraq war. The point is that securing the country is important but finding the right balance between technology, paranoia and human intelligence is equally important. Think about the fact that every new action by terrorists has led to a knee-jerk and piece-meal reaction to our growing security paranoia. First, we were asked to remove our shoes, then our belts, then gels were prohibited, next liquids had to be less than 3.4 ounces, and put in clear plastic baggies. Now since they cannot ask us to take off our undergarments we are instead virtually strip searched. Arguably, all this money is not being well spent because it is being done in a completely reactionary fashion rather than as part of a well thought out plan. We know that the terrorists will stop at nothing to kill us, so the only question is where will we draw the line?




*NOTE: Sources: The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from September, 2006.  The NIE is issued by the President’s Director of National Intelligence and their conclusions are based on analysis of raw intelligence collected by all the US spy agencies.  It is an assessment on national security.  The 2006 NIE said that the number of terrorist attacks (defined as “as an act of violence or the threat of violence, calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm”) had risen dramatically worldwide since the Invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The same NIE also cited the Iraq war as a major factor in this startling rise in global jihadist terrorist attacks.   We also have the US State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism, 2006 which stated that there had been a 29% increase in terrorism worldwide in 2006, over the previous year; terrorist attacks on non-military targets rose to 14,338 with an increase of deaths to 20,498.  If you need any more data then I can point to another independent global study on terrorism conducted by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, research fellows at the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law.  They found that there was a 607 percent rise in the average yearly incidence of attacks since the Iraq invasion. It is true that Iraq and Afghanistan do cause a huge blip and together account of 80 percent of attacks and 67 percent of fatalities; however, if you exclude these two countries you still see a solid 35 percent per year increase in the number of terrorist attacks in the rest of the world.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

There is Something Rotten in the State of our Democracy…

"What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?"
Mahatma Gandhi

The people’s version of the Lokpal bill was finally debated and accepted by our parliament today. The Lokpal bill has been brought forward and quashed eight times before over the years; and the recent version that this Congress government tried to hurriedly pass had about as much teeth as a newborn baby. While many consider this a great victory for the people, India stands deeply divided on the bill.

Those who argue against Anna Hazare and his movement say that he has used Mahatma Gandhi’s fasting as a tool for blackmail, by effectively holding a gun to our heads and that of our democratically elected government. That his motives are right but his method is wrong; and this is not the way we should tackle this very grave and serious issue. There are others who question Anna’s motives, and say he has a dubious background. They say he has ties to the RSS (the fundamental Hindu wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party). They also say that Anna himself is a corrupt megalomaniac, who believes in his way or the highway. They have posted videos on YouTube showing people talking about Anna’s lies and his shady past. Others argue that the Lokpal bill is worthless because it does nothing to tackle private sector corruption, which has become an even bigger issue in this past decade of liberalisation. Many say that the creation of an extra-parliamentary body, like the Lokpal, is not the answer because it will simply add another layer to the already untenable bureaucracy, and feed the very monster it is trying to kill - by becoming more powerful, further above the law and more corrupt than the establishments that exist today. Perhaps all these people are correct in their accusations, fears and in every argument they make. Maybe there is a better way to do this within the confines of a democratic process. Maybe.

Then there is the other half that supports Anna, his fast and the Lokpal bill. These people feel that they have been shouting and screaming for sixty-four years. They have bribed every official, at every step of the process, and still not gotten their work done. They have voted election after election only to see the number of politicians with criminal records rise each time. One hundred fifty-three of the 543 politicians elected in 2009 had criminal cases pending, including 9 ministers. (source: Telegraph) They see the same old faces and empty promises of fighting corruption no matter which party is in power. On the one hand they feel a great sense of hope when Rahul Gandhi takes the podium and urges more youth to join politics, as a way to rid us of corruption. While on the other hand Sonia Gandhi stands silent even as scam after scam, carried out by her most trusted and senior party members, is uncovered right under her nose. We are told the CBI will investigate; some Ministers are removed from their posts (not one of them has stopped smiling, yet). We all know that the Congress believes this will placate the masses and soon, once the current anger dissipates, it will be back to corruption as usual. It is now an open secret that Praful Patel sold Air-India, our national carrier, to the highest bidder so the Congress and their cronies could fill their coffers with a little more of India’s money that they continue to loot and pillage. We all know this but nobody really cares enough to do anything more than talk about it over dinner, shrug and nod our heads. This is exactly what the Congress was counting on us billion plus Indians to do, yet again.

We are told the Judiciary and Prime Minister should not fall under the ambit of the Lokpal bill because this will make it overreaching and start to erode the fundamentals of our democracy. I was a firm believer in the Indian Justice System until I experienced every corner of our court system, first hand. From the criminal to the civil, all the way up to the high court and I can tell you that not ONE thing happens without paying someone a bribe. You can stand on principle and refuse, in which case you will not even be able to file your paperwork. I realized that the justice system that I was so proud of simply boils down to a race to see who has the deepest pockets and can go the greatest distance in sustaining the bribery to bring their case to conclusion. The courts have a tremendous incentive and the means to drag cases on for years. Of course if you have really deep pockets then you can save everyone the time and trouble by buying the outcome you desire before you ever file a single piece of paper. I have never felt more helpless or powerless in my life.

The Lokpal also wants to merge all the current corruption investigating agencies and bring them under the purview of the Lokpal. This includes the CBI’s anti-corruption wing (Central Bureau of Investigation), which is considered India’s Interpol and premier investigative agency. The CBI is a government agency, its head is appointed by the government and it is controlled by and reports directly to the Department of Personnel and Training in the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pension, usually headed by a Union Minister who reports directly to the Prime Minister (source: Wikipedia). The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) would also be brought under the purview of the Lokpal. The CVC is an autonomous body that does not report to any executive authority. However, it is not an investigating agency and can only present reports and recommendations to the government; unless approved by the government no further action or investigation can be pursued by anybody. In the event an investigation is sanctioned by the government, then only the CBI is authorised to pursue it. The CVC has been publishing a list of corrupt government officials since its inception in 1964; do you recall how many have been convicted? Over the last decade the CBI has come to be known as the Congress Bureau of Investigation.

Today, as Indian citizens we cannot even renew our passports without bribing someone or having a connection in the bureaucracy, really high up. We can pass our driving tests but will not be issued a license unless we are willing to grease a palm. In fact, we have to bribe someone for virtually every basic right we have as citizens of the world’s largest democracy; for our water, electricity, to pass through toll booths on highways, to get a telephone line and even to park our car in a free public parking lot. How many times have we been assaulted or wronged by someone and told that it is better to let it go because the police are only going to create more problems than it is worth? Or that we will end up spending more money than we were swindled out of if we are to involve the local police…the police! A leading, well-respected surgeon in Bombay stopped the father of a friend of mine from being wheeled into the operating room until he was satisfied with the amount he would be paid in “cash” (or black money) for the life-saving operation he was about to perform.

Is this what we cherish, want to protect, and fear that Anna’s version of Lokpal will start to erode?

A democracy is only as strong as the credibility of the institutions that govern it. This credibility comes from the transparency and legitimacy of the public servants elected to administer and deliver it. And it is only as valuable as the basic rights and freedoms we enjoy, the sense of patriotism we feel and the sacrifices we are all willing to make to protect these freedoms. The word democracy comes from the Greek work dēmokratía or "rule of the people". Today, in India, the people no longer rule. Anna Hazare’s cry brought us together and united people from all walks of life behind a common cause and a shared goal for the first time since Independence. Perhaps the Lokpal is the jolt we needed, that first little step in the long and tenuous process of creating a democracy we can all be proud of. It is now up to each one of us to ensure that the Lokpal does not become our worst fear, but forms the fundamental pillar of the democracy that I know we all believe in but some of us gave up on ever achieving.