Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Events Not So Current or Great

I'm a bit behind in commenting on recent events.  Most of them are both unfortunate and unredeemed.

An Unholy Armageddon
Syria continues to go downhill, and the Western powers edge closer to involvement. Israel strikes in Syria; reports suggest the attack is not taking sides in the civil war, but is apparently to block the transfer of Iranian missiles through to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Hezbollah is closer to direct involvement on behalf of Syria's ruling Shiite minority (Assad's Alawite sect is Shiite).  Next would be the beginning of indications that Iran would not be inclined to stand back and watch the annihilation of Syria's Shiites, probably in the context of the upcoming Iranian Presidential election, which promises to be a wild and woolly affair once again.

My sub-head title suggests one destination where all this could be seen to be heading, as those who are prone to claim The End Is Near have already figured out.  The traditional interpretation of the place referred to as Armageddon in the Bible's Book of Revelations is the plain of Megiddo, where there have been innumerable battles staged since the days of the pharaohs (and beyond, probably); however, there are other interpretations which debunk that as a faulty translation and place the reference in Syria.

I'm looking for a broad agreement that Syria must be left to work out its problems without any direct incursions of foreign forces.  It is far too much to expect that Russia, Iran, and the West (by which I mean the US, Europe, Turkey, and Israel) will forego providing arms to the warring parties--that train was never in the station.  Let's just agree to prevent the gathering of armies described in all those Judeo-Christian-Islamic prophecies; it can happen some other time than this one.

Benghazi:  More Hearing or More Herring?
We have already covered  more than once the events of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi which led to the deaths of four Americans and the issues it raised: four days afterward, it was clear that extremists had seized a gap in our security shield and that the handling of the Arab Spring uprisings was leading to dangerous conditions; later, in covering the debate on foreign policy we brought up one more issue, the inadequate funding for security in America's diplomatic outposts.  By that time, it was already clear that Congress' funding cuts, as much as any State Department negligence, was responsible for the inadequate security--the only real scandal in the affair.  The matter was thoroughly exposed to the American electorate before they voted.

So what is new in the current round of hearings and hand-wringing?  The "shocking" discovery that the talking points Susan Rice took round to the Sunday talk shows had been edited and modified by people's points of view.  Well, I hate to inform those who are new to such processes, but talking points, by their very nature, are an edited version.

Is that it?  No, there are a couple of other new developments:  Rand Paul wants to run for  President, he'd like to prevent Hillary Clinton from running, and the Republicans are losing the public's support in issue after issue.  They want another bite of this apple, but they will find that it tastes like red herring.

IRS' Faulty Targeting
If you're looking for a more authentic scandal, it appears the IRS has caused one by seeking out Tea Party groups for investigation of the use of funds given to the ostensibly charitable organizations which served as funding vehicles for political action groups in 2012.

Investigating these groups was not in itself the problem; in fact, it's something I would loudly praise.  There is supposed to be a requirement that these groups' primary purpose is socially beneficial activities, though they are allowed to use a minority of their funding in political activity.  Finding out whether they followed the rules is entirely within the IRS' permissible range of activity. 

The problem is that evidence exists that the agency specifically targeted certain types of groups--specifically Tea Party-type groups--for investigation, which violates the principle of impartial application of the law to all.  What was lacking, and what would have totally eliminated scandal, would be for the IRS to investigate equally these fundraising groups of all political flavors.  I hope it's not too late; I want them all to be eviscerated and discredited.

President Obama has clearly denounced the unfair treatment, and apparently the head of the IRS has done so, too.  There will be those who will lose their jobs as a result; they will be people who understood poorly how they were supposed to perform their duties.

Bomb, Terror in West, Texas
The explosion of the fertilizer plant that ended up killing fourteen persons, the great majority of them firefighters, points out some of the dangers of poor regulation.  The ammonium nitrate which exploded is the same chemical used by the domestic terrorists in Oklahoma City in 1995; since then, the law has required that quantities greater than 500 pounds of the compound need to be reported.  Over ten times that amount, stored--unreported--inside the warehouse there, caused the gigantic, deadly conflagration.  Photos from the scene show ordinary houses next door, and a school nearby--a good example of zoning, Texas-style.  The broader issue was the failure in the enforcement of regulation of workplace safety revealed by the disaster.   It's simply been starved to the point that the likes of Rick Perry can drown it in the bathtub.  Until it blows up.

The Mother of All Workplace Accidents
The collapse of the garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh provides a crystal-clear example where the logic of neglecting workplace safety ends up.  This was no ordinary workplace accident; the building was constructed poorly (even if it had the trappings of a modern, safe workplace), and at the time the building collapsed the owners were adding to the building--while it was full of workers.  Over 1000 people died in the tragedy, which will no doubt mark a turning point in the devil's bargain the government and the elite in the country have made to attract contract work to produce goods more cheaply than everyone else.   It may also mark a turning point in the willingness of American consumers to buy cheaply made manufactured goods, or more likely of American retailers to allow the cheapest providers to win the bids with insufficient consideration of workplace conditions and of the risk that those conditions may backfire upon them.

Economic theory says such "externalities" need to be factored into the cost calculations.  How much more would we/should we pay so as not to subject hundreds or thousands to untimely death, and millions more to work in substandard conditions?  Can we leave such a decision to the whim of the marketplace and the sensitivity and empathy of the consumer?

A Couple of Nuggets of Good News
We should mention the woman who was rescued alive from the Bangladesh disaster 17 days after it occurred.

Also, I should mention that the recovery no longer is looking so shaky.  We will be hoping that we can avoid falling back into the Crater.  A couple of cautionary notes, regardless:  I don't see the labor glut in the US--for ordinary labor, not the most highly skilled or in-demand jobs--ending anytime soon, or in the next decade or two, for that matter.  We have gone too far in creating that global marketplace for jobs and disadvantaging ourselves in that competition.  Secondly, I see the housing market re-inflating very rapidly.  This will pass, but a return to the expectation of inevitable growth in housing prices could cause some recurrence of the kind of problems which led, when combined with the market collapse caused by speculation on the same housing bubble, to an uncontrolled freefall in housing prices.

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