Friday, December 14, 2007

Energy Policy

Several key facts underline the great importance of our federal government developing a comprehensive strategic national energy plan. It is very unlikely this will get much attention until a new president takes office in January 2009, because our politicians are understandably greatly preoccupied by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as presidential election campaigns.

94% of U. S. energy comes from non-renewable sources, primarily oil, natural gas, and coal. Only 6% comes from renewable sources, mostly hydroelectric, geothermal, and solar. With less than 5% of the population, the U. S. consumes close to 25% of the world's energy. We are by far the world's largest importer of oil with about 10 million barrels per day on average, roughly 50% of our consumption. 15% comes from Saudia Arabia with most of the rest coming from Canada and Mexico, but also, significantly, Venezuela, Nigeria, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.

Obviously, Venezuela and Nigeria are not very politically reliable sources when looking at the future. We should also have concern with Saudi Arabia where there are serious radical Islamic influences and the country is planning huge infrastructure and industrial projects requiring vast quantities of energy, reducing availability for exports. The role of carbon dioxide emissions contributing to global warming is another critical issue that clearly needs to be factored in to a new national energy plan.

The solution is not just government mandated higher fuel efficiency standards for autos and trucks, though that's useful. As almost everyone will agree, we need to move prudently and seriously towards much more energy independence, especially relative independence from Middle East and African sources. The energy plan needs to have major roles for alternative energy source development, especially solar power, much greater nuclear power, new technology based efficiencies for industry, and, yes, meaningful and effective conservation measures.

Individuals, our private sector businesses, and entrepreneurs need to play major roles, but, given the many foreign policy issues and national interests involved, the government, probably through the Department of Energy, must oversee and guide overall development, execution, and monitoring of the plan. This must be a high priority of the next Administration.

Friday, November 23, 2007

K-12 Public Education

We should be proud of the fact that our country's public and private colleges and universities are among the finest in the world and generally provide our high school graduates and thousands of foreign students with outstanding educational opportunities. As almost everyone will agree, that is not the case with our public K-12 system as a whole, especially in our larger urban centers and lower income communities. In fact, many knowledgeable critics are loudly proclaiming that we have an educational crisis in America, and we have to do something about it now! It should be a national priority, they say! Where are these views coming from? What's the evidence? If correct, what should be done?

Two years ago California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed a bipartisan 15 member Committee on Education Excellence to study the issue. According to an article in today's Los Angeles Times, the committee has concluded that our K-12 public schools are "hobbled in red tape, riddled with inefficiencies, and impossible for parents and students to understand." The committee also stated in their 40 page report that "California's K-12 education system is broken. It is not close to helping each student become proficient in mastering the state's clear curricular standards." For the 2003-2004 school year the dropout rate at Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the country's largest, was an incredible 33%! My understanding is that the rate hasn't improved markedly since then. The same L. A. Times article indicated that on a state-wide basis fewer than half of all ninth-graders currently end up with a high school diploma! That's ridiculous and unacceptable.

Another highly troublesome fact is that 75-80% of the 2.2 million people in our federal, state and local prisons and jails nationally are high school dropouts! Further concern is that roughly 600,000 prisoners are released into our communities annually, and 40-50% are reconvicted and back in prison again within three years. The costs involved to capture, prosecute, house , and monitor these prisoners on parole are enormous. They are also one of the several factors that makes it difficult to provide adequate funding for our schools.

This is not just a major issue in California. Similar concerns and challenges are facing mayors and school officials in most of our larger cities and governors and department of education officials in most of our other states. Aside from the excessive and untenable dropout rates and the very poor graduation rates, too many of the graduates just don't have the knowledge, skills and test-taking abilities to get into college or find good jobs. What happens to them? Many of them join gangs, remain unemployed, or, probably the majority, get low-paying entry level jobs with limited employee benefits and only mediocre chances for advancement. A few somehow are probably able to become a member of our military forces. However, for the most part, these people have great difficulty becoming productive members of our communities.

What's to be done? There is, of course, no simple, single solution that will adequately solve the problem. There is no quick fix. Even education experts disagree on proposed corrective measures. I've thought a lot about this and have many specific recommendations, based on a fair amount of research, my graduate school education, and conversations with a number of teachers in our family and circle of friends. Here is a partial list, some of which no doubt are controversial:

1. School principals and other school leaders need to meet with parents before the school term begins and make them clearly understand that they must be accountable for preparing their children for school, following for homework completion, and meeting with teachers to discuss the children's progress. Schools cannot educate children without reasonable parent support.
2. We need to streamline the current education bureaucracy (saving significant education budget dollars that can be better spent on teacher salaries and school supplies) and give principals much more authority to manage their schools, similar to a corporate CEO, and hold them accountable for results.
3. We need to make sure that each school has an appropriate code of conduct for students, shared with parents, to minimize unacceptable student behavior disrupting classrooms, restoring a good learning environment, enforce the code, and also end social promotions of unworthy students with prior notification to parents.
4. Establish an effective county-wide or state-wide system of sharing "best practices" employed by successful principals and teachers with other schools and school districts.
5. Seriously consider stricter credentialing of new teachers and stronger efforts to retain the best younger teachers, many of whom apparently leave their schools within two years of being hired to find better paying jobs in other schools and the private sector in more attractive working environments. The objective of these two initiatives is to improve the quality of the teachers on staff in each school, which, in turn, with the other recommendations, should lead to better education of the students.
6. 15-20% increase in starting teacher salaries over a one or two year period are warranted with appropriate adjustments in the salaries of the majority of other good-performing teachers. I also favor merit pay for outstanding teacher performance as judged by the school principal or a panel of local principals, even though I know the teachers unions are strongly opposed to that .
7. We need to finally deal more effectively with our huge illegal immigration problem, to greatly limit the inflow of this source of new children coming into our public schools speaking virtually no English. We should also seriously consider eliminating bilingual education to induce immigrant students to learn English more quickly, thereby making them better prepared for college and more attractive job markets. (I came to this country in the third grade speaking virtually no English. There was no bilingual education. I had to learn fast and did, even though we primarily spoke our native language at home the first several years.)

As I said earlier, this is only a partial list. There are many more I could add. Perhaps I should pass these on to the Governor's committee, though I suspect they have already received more input from the public than they can handle.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Supporting the Troops

It really bothers me when people who want us to move towards stopping our military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, or who disagree with the Administration's current deployment strategies, are automatically charged with not "supporting our troops." It also bothers me when legislators, whether Democrat, Republican, or Independent, or any other citizens are charged with not supporting our troops, if they dare to question or disagree with a huge war or military appropriations bill for tens or hundreds of billions of dollars. Similarly, it also bothers me a great deal when I hear Americans called unpatriotic, just because they question or disagree with any of these issues.

That said, having proudly served in the military, though not in combat, I think I understand the deep emotions involved by those making the charges, especially those who have been career military people or who have sons or daughters, husbands or wives deployed in these two countries. It concerns me much more when those making the charges are clearly doing so purely for partisan political purposes, and likely don't really mean in most cases that the people they criticize our intentionally unsupportive of the troops or unpatriotic.

I'm confident that, with the possibility of some very limited exceptions, these are largely bogus and unfair charges. Virtually everyone supports our troops, whether they are in combat or not! Those making these kind of charges perhaps need to be reminded that the U. S. is a democracy where, fortunately, we have certain important civic rights, including freedom of speech, even at a time of war.

I was prompted to write this posting by a compelling article I read in the Los Angeles Times this morning in its California section about Sergeant Major Jesse Acosta. As a member of the Army Reserve, Acosta was deployed to Iraq to a supposedly relatively safe logistics and supply assignment at Camp Anaconda in October 2005. In January 2006 he was hit by mortar fire and got badly wounded by a shard of shrapnel that ripped through his left eye. He lost sight in both his eyes and will apparently never see again. He also lost a nerve in his brain that controls taste and smell. Several surgeries to his head followed and reportedly more are to come. Acosta, 50, without a trace of self-pity, doesn't question his military service and is making slow progress in his reorientation to civilian life with the help of his family and a guide dog.

However, talking about supporting our troops, he is strongly criticizing the support he got from the military and our government after returning to the U. S. from surgeries at our military hospital in Germany. He said he was released from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center much too soon, stating, probably with a little exaggeration, "I received no care whatsoever coming back to the U. S." It isn't the first time, of course, that we have heard from our troops or the media from serious deficiencies at Walter Reed. This story also reminds me of what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsveld said at a press conference a few years ago. "As you know, you go to war with the Army that you have, not that you want to have or wish to have at a later time." This was, as many will remember, in response to a media question about reports by soldiers of shortages in armored plating for the humvees they were driving in Iraq, leading to a great many serious injuries from roadside bombs.

Given many of these reports, it would seem reasonable that many of those making charges to legislators and other American citizens about not supporting our troops should rethink their rhetoric altogether or redirect them instead to our own government and our military leaders in the Pentagon. Equally important, we should stop the blatant and petty partisanship in Washington and elsewhere in the country and encourage our leaders to work together to deal with our important issues in a manner that serves the best interests of the country (and our troops), rather than narrow special interests or any single political party. However, I'm not holding my breath that this will happen any time soon.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Driver's Licenses for Illegals

Democratic governor in New York, Eliot Spitzer, has recently been promoting a controversial plan to provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants in his state that would be identical to licenses issued to legal residents. His justification was reportedly to bring illegals "out of the shadows" and to make New York streets safer for other drivers and pedestrians. Other supporters have claimed that his plan will enable illegals to lead more normal lives like the rest of us. High profile political commentator and CNN anchor, Lou Dobbs, has been highly critical of Spitzer, recently calling him an idiot for promoting his plan, later apologizing, saying he doesn't really consider Spitzer an idiot, but stating vociferously that his policies are idiotic.

In Sunday's Los Angeles Times it was reported that, to appease some of the critics, Spitzer had made some compromises to his plan. He reluctantly agreed that the licenses would not be identical. They will not be usable for boarding a plane or as federal identification, and, importantly, all applicants will need to provide passports and proof of state residency. These changes were apparently sufficient to get to get an OK from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, though Chertoff made it clear he still didn't think the plan was a good idea.

In my blog on Illegal Immigration, posted on 9/22/07, I noted many of my views on the subject, though I didn't specifically cover driver's licenses. There may be some benefits to the public from issuing licenses to illegals, such as the state's Department of Motor Vehicles verifying through their testing that those receiving licenses can drive competently and safely. However, I'm still not in favor of the plan, primarily on the grounds that it is yet another form of amnesty and a significant incentive for additional illegals to try to enter the country. If we want to control the inflow of more illegals, which most Americans seem to agree with, we need to make it less attractive for illegals, not more.

I still believe that a great many of the 12-15 million illegals already here will voluntarily return to Mexico and other homelands over the next 3-4 years if it's more difficult to lead a normal life here. If, on the other hand, we implement driver's license issuing and other amnesty programs, even with stronger and highly expensive border control programs, we seriously risk the number of illegals here doubling within the next 10-15 years. There's no doubt that for many fairly obvious reasons this would not be good for America.

As I said in my earlier blog, a rarely talked about key needed action step to this issue is having a candid high-level negotiation between the Administration and the Mexican government about what we expect their government to do to finally help us deal with the problem. This can be a win/win situation for both countries. It was refreshing and gratifying to read in a recent newspaper article what a Mexican firefighter said about the subject. He had commendably come across the border to help out fight the Harris fire in southern San Diego County. When asked about illegal immigration he reportedly said that Mexico should be able to solve the problem millions of poor Mexican workers have, implying that it should not primarily be up to the U. S. government. I agree with him, though it is obvious to me that the results can be much more positive for everyone involved if there is strong and effective collaboration and cooperation by the two governments. Why can't politicians in both countries figure this out? Isn't this pretty close to a no brainer?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

North Korea Nuclear Pact

In February 2007 the U. S. joined five other major nations in announcing an important diplomatic achievement under which North Korea pledged to dismantle key components of its widely feared and condemned nuclear weapons system in return for certain significant benefits. The respected Wall Street Journal cautiously labeled it at the time as "faith-based nonproliferation." There are some very positive aspects to this agreement, but there are certainly many grounds for Americans also to have significant concerns.

There were some obvious similarities between North Korea and Iraq before our invasion. Both were brutal military dictatorships ruled by despots with big egos who enjoyed spending tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars on themselves and their families when the majority of their large civilian populations were struggling to feed themselves and stay alive. Both were considered by President Bush to be part of his so-called "Axis of Evil" together with Iran. Both were alleged to be sponsoring terrorism and both were believed to be developing weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein is dead, and Iraq is in an uncertain transformation, but Kim Jong Il is very much still around continuing his brutality and mischief, whenever he can get away with it.

The Bush Administration could therefore have also chosen to bomb or invade North Korea to eliminate the nuclear threat, and force regime change while they were at it, and this would have probably pleased Vice President Cheney and many supporters on the right. However, fortunately, having learned some lessons from the Iraqi experience and public opinion polls, the Administration wisely decided that regionally supported diplomacy was the much more prudent course, with participation by Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea. China's inclusion was the key, given their proximity, great power, and substantial influence over North Korea. This was definitely one of the most positive aspects of the agreement, with several favorable dimensions.

Why are there many grounds for concerns from our perspective? Some are fairly obvious and others may not be. One obvious, much talked about ground is that it's not at all clear that Kim Jong Il can be trusted to live up to any material agreement. Another related ground is that verification of effective and sustained dismantling of their nuclear weapons system can be very difficult in a country like North Korea. This includes what's going to happen with their stockpile of plutonium, their clandestine uranium program, and continuing sharing of nuclear technology and related equipment with unfriendly countries like Syria and Iran.

There are several stages to this agreement and additional negotiations to come. One less obvious concern is that it will be difficult to get adequate agreement among the U. S.' partners in this pact, especially China and Russia, when it comes down to the more sensitive points on verification steps. It also concerns me that the Administration, no doubt very eager to achieve a successful final diplomatic result to support President Bush's presidential legacy, will compromise more than it should in upcoming negotiations. For a similar reason I'm concerned that the U. S. will end up providing much more than its fair share of the agreed benefits to North Korea in terms of aid in building needed infrastructure facilities, such as power plants to generate electricity, and delivery of fuel oil supplies. I'm particularly thinking of China, Japan and South Korea contributing fair shares. China, after all, has ample liquidity resources from huge trade surpluses and stands to benefit from a stable and better developed neighbor, given all the refugees who have fled across the border to China in recent decades. Japan and South Korea have more to fear from North Korea's weapons systems than the U. S., given their much closer locations.

Finally, we should all be concerned about the important precedent that this pact sets, something we can be certain that Iran and Syria, in addition to Kim Jong Il, are paying close attention to. Those concerns noted, I very much hope the upcoming negotiations and the critical follow-up and monitoring actions work out to the complete satisfaction of U. S. interests and those of our partners in the region. We'll have to be patient, since the final grade on this pact won't be determinable for many years.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Iraq War Costs - supplement

In my 9/12/07 posting titled "Iraq War Costs" I stated my view that our government needs to negotiate a much fairer sharing of the costs among the other nations that have a similar strategic interest with us in achieving a stable, peaceful, relatively prosperous, and hopefully also democratic Iraq. The other nations include other countries in the Middle East, the European Union, Japan, Russia, China, and India. As I indicated before, it's late in the game, but not too late, especially if we end up having 60,000 or more troops there for several more years and costly infrastructure rebuilding programs are needed for a longer period.

Our highest priorities in the region should still be achieving a stable and peaceful Iraq which can operate independently and defend itself, bringing our troops home as soon and as safely as possible, moving forward in the global war on terror, dealing effectively with Iran in coordination with our allies, and securing a satisfactory and lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palistinians that is preferably also endorsed by Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, the Gulf states, and Turkey. Of course, another priority is making more progress in Afghanistan, so we can safely reduce our military and political commitments there.

However, we should also put a strong effort into the cost sharing objective. It's not a minor matter, considering the tens of billions of dollars involved, our sizable federal budget deficit, our critical funding needs to shore up Medicare and Social Security, and the need to find a satisfactory solution to the growing number of Americans, currently closing in on 50 million, who do not have health insurance coverage. Additionally, we must also seriously consider the need to fund our own growing infrastructure upgrading requirements, which include those for our water supplies, water treatment, sewage collection and treatment, highways, bridges, airports, and schools. Many of these were built decades ago to meet the needs of a much smaller population. To underline this point, in 1960 we had 189 million, in 1970 213 million, in 2000 291 million, and now we're up to about 302 million! That's nearly a 60% increase since 1960! And I bet quite a significant share of our important infrastructure was built well before 1960.

The U. S. is no doubt the most prosperous country in the world. However, we obviously do not have unlimited resources, far from it. Our politicians need to do a better job of balancing funding between international and domestic needs. And we voters need to do our part to get their attention and to improve our monitoring of their performance. Agree?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Illegal Immigration

Illegal immigration continues to be a major problem and controversial public policy issue for the U. S. which, together with the Iraq war, global terrorism and health care, will likely dominate topics of debate as the presidential election campaigns go forward in their excessively long journey.

As has been widely publicized in recent months, there are currently estimated to be close to 15 million undocumented (illegal) immigrants in this country with an additional 400,000 to 500,000 coming here annually. Approximately 60% come from Mexico and most of the rest come from other Latin American countries or from southeast Asia. 25% of these people came here legally, but overstated or violated terms of their visas and are now considered illegal. Many of them not only entered the country illegally, but are using fake Social Security numbers and other identifying documentation, are driving without valid licenses and without required auto insurance. An estimated 50% have no health insurance. Based on factual figures from Arizona and partial data from California, the estimated costs of providing health, education, social, police, and judicial services for the illegal population are $37 billion annually nation-wide. Despite activist claims to the contrary, only a small fraction file tax returns and pay income taxes.

That said, there is no question that the great majority of illegals work extremely hard, often with several jobs, and provide valuable employment services, especially in the agricultural, construction, and hospitality industries. There are widespread opinions about what should be done, but several needed actions to me are "no brainers". We must adequately secure our borders, especially in the south, to greatly limit illegals from entering; we must enforce existing laws against employing illegals, increasing fines for violations; we must develop a better tamper proof ID card with photo and coded Social Security number which employers can use electronically to check status with U. S. Immigration; and we must eliminate the present restrictions on contacts between U. S. Immigration and the IRS to check the status of suspected or known illegals.

There is at least one other "no brainer" action no one seems to be talking about, and this includes both leading politicians and the media. It is arranging as soon as possible a very high level and candid negotiation with the Mexican government as to what we expect (not would like)them to do to assist us in limiting illegals from Mexico entering our country. Right now the Mexican government has a win-win situation. They are essentially exporting much of their poverty to the U. S., considering a) that almost all the illegals from Mexico come from the rural areas of the country, are quite poor, and have limited prospects to find any kind of decent job in their own country; and b) the government is doing very little, as far as I can tell, to stop or discourage illegals from leaving. The other win the Mexican government has is the fact that the illegal Mexican workers send an estimated $20 billion in remittances annually back to their families to help them with living expenses and other needs. As individuals they should be commended for this dedication. This large amount of money provides valuable foreign exchange to the government, a sizable boost to the country's economy as these funds are spent, and lessens the need for the government to provide social and economic support to these hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of poor families.

The U. S. has significant economic and political leverage that can be used to achieve a satisfactory and fair agreement with the Mexican government. We can, if necessary, affect the volume of remittances through taxes and fees, as well as restrictions on remitting banks and other institutions. We can impact the volume of direct investments by U. S. companies in Mexico. We can impact loans and foreign aid to both the government and Mexican companies and agencies.

My sense is that our current U. S. administration and leading politicians in both parties would be reluctant to initiate this needed action, due to a concern that it might offend the important, large and increasing number of Hispanic voters in this country as we are fast approaching primaries, nominating conventions and the presidential election next year. However, if this action is carried out properly, I don't see why it would offend the great majority of these voters. After all, a major part of a prospective agreement should be that the Mexican government should promptly move to initiate economic and political reforms that would stimulate their economy and provide millions of more attractive investment and employment opportunities for their people, making it much less necessary or desirable to take the risks and bear the costs of entering this countrey illegally. Why should our Hispanics here object or be offended at that?? Those that do object should be reminded of how the Mexican government treats illegal immigrants coming from other Latin American countries. As I understand it, they are either deported or jailed without much recourse for the guilty party! Another part of the agreement I have in mind should be a serious participation on their part, in coordination with our forces, to better secure our mutual border. Isn't this virtually a no brainer?

Other actions I would like to see, which probably don't qualify as no brainers, include: no ridiculously expensive and ineffective border fence; establishment of a well-designed temporary worker program, though I'm very concerned about workers disappearing in the underground economy after their term is up and they are supposed to return to their homeland; and no actions that smell strongly of another amnesty, including automatic legalization and a clear path to citizenship for nearly everyone as most recently promoted by the last failed legislation. Finally, we should amend the 14th Amendment and/or its judicial interpretation that provides automatic citizenship to children of illegals born in this country. I wouldn't insist that it applies retroactively, but it should apply to future births as one of the logical deterrents to illegal immigration. This is close to a no brainer.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Iraq War Costs

My understanding is that the Iraq war over the past 4 1/2 years has cost the U. S. upwards of $500 billion and currently the ongoing cost is running at roughly $10 billion monthly. That's clearly a huge amount of money and it looks like we will be spending close to this for at least one more year, and very possibly for several more years to come. (I'm also extremely concerned about our 25,000 military casualties, including fatalities approaching 3,800, but this posting is primarily about financial costs.)

It's my strong impression that, while many other countries both in the region and elsewhere also have similar strong strategic interests in Iraq becoming a stable, peaceful and prosperous country, the U. S. is bearing the bulk of the financial burden in working towards this common goal, including paying for the training of their troops and police as well as the reconstruction of their infrastructure. Is my impression correct? If so, why is this? How much is being financed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the Emirates, Syria, Egypt, Turkey and Iran? What about Russia, China, Japan, and the European Union? With the extensive media coverage of the war, the presidential election campaigns, and the Congressional hearings on the reports by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker earlier this week, it is amazing that this subject has rarely if ever come up as an issue of concern. I also want to note that Iraq itself, while they currently are in a chaotic state with a disfunctional government, could, and should, be contributing to its own reconstruction. While it might prove difficult to arrange at present, they have the ability to raise sizable project finance loans, supported by their very vast oil and gas reserves, among the largest in the world.

The fair sharing of war costs should have come up and been agreed upon well prior to the invasion, but it's not too late to bring it up even at this late point, especially if there is a consensus among many of these countries that our troops need to remain in the country for several more years. Of course, those countries that were not part of the original coalition, and those that do not support our continued presence at this time are unlikely to be opening their wallets any time soon.

posted by Knut Dale 9/12/07