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Jack is a graduate of Rutgers University where he majored in history. His career in the life and health insurance industry involved medical risk selection and brokerage management. Retired in Florida for over two decades after many years in NJ and NY, he occasionally writes, paints, plays poker, participates in play readings and is catching up on Shakespeare, Melville and Joyce, etc.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

North Korea, Syria, United Airlines, Education Cuts and Mnuchin Strikes Again

The Real Crisis
While the headlines are dominated by the perpetual crisis in Syria, the infighting in the White House and the continuing investigation into Russian interference with our 2016 election, less attention is being paid to the problem of North Korea, which can be far more serious than any of the aforementioned items.

We have a nuclear-armed battle fleet steaming toward North Korean waters.  That country, headed by an unpredictable leader, Kim Jong Un, who didn’t hesitate to murder his half-brother last month, possesses basic nuclear weapons and is attempting to develop sophisticated delivery systems for them.  He makes no bones about his intention to be able to drop nuclear bombs on the United States.  Right now, the only leverage we have is China’s proximity to and relationship with North Korea, which exports coal to China and imports almost everything else.

If we lob a few Tomahawks at them to get them to stop their aggressive posturing, they very well might attack neighboring South Korea, conceivably with nuclear weapons, which in effect makes South Korea their hostage, not to speak of the almost 30,000 American troops we maintain there.  They are crazy enough to do that! 

Logic and reason are both in short supply in North Korea, making negotiations with them difficult at best.  That’s why they are so dangerous, and why we must maintain good relations with China, which is in a far better position than we are to exert pressure on Kim Jong Un.
Jack Lippman

Syrian Solution

Okay, so we shot 59 missiles into Syria, just to show President Assad that he cannot get away with brutally murdering his people, most of whom just want the slaughter to end in their country.  He has been murdering them for some time now, but using poison gas crosses a line and it is good that we have shown him that line. Barack Obama had showed him that line verbally but Donald tRump did in much more dramatically with missiles.  Whether or not the two approaches differ depends on what happens next; whether tRump's approach is more productive than Obama's. This is yet to be seen.  The damage inflicted to the Syrian airbase is far less of an issue than the message it brought and the response, or change in Syria, if any, resulting from it. A sidebar to it is the effect it might have had on the North Koreans and the Chinese.

Syrian Airbase Attacked

The Syrian tragedy is based on the ancient Sunni-Shia division in Islam.  Assad is an Alawite Muslim, which is a variety of Shia.  Hence, he has the political and military support of Shia Iran which would love to dominate the Fertile Crescent stretching westward from it across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.  There are two obstacles to this.  The Sunni Muslims in these countries don’t want that to happen because of their almost twelve century-old feud with the Shia.  In fact, they are so against it that some of them support the Sunni Islamic State (ISIS) which is the other obstacle to Iranian ambitions, and which has parallel ambitions of its own involving the same territory which it calls its Caliphate. 

Opposition to Assad in Syria, beside coming from ISIS, also comes from rebels, mostly Sunni, who oppose him.  His murderous attacks have been primarily directed at them.  His destruction of Aleppo, which was basically a rebel city, well illustrates this.   And of course, Russia, playing this geopolitical game, has taken the side of Assad and the Iranians, ostensibly in battling ISIS, but never ignoring its own interests, which include a Mediterranean port in Syria at which its naval vessels can refuel. 

Our role in this quagmire has been to support the Sunni nations, like Jordan, the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, and the Iraqi army which is primarily Shia, in their struggle against ISIS.  Unfortunately, the Saudis and some of the Gulf States also are cozy with ISIS at the same time as they are our allies.  We also have supported the Kurds who have fought with some success against ISIS and who want to be free from control by Iraq, Iran and of course, ISIS.  We support the Kurds, but in doing so, alienate our ally, Sunni Turkey, who fear an independent Kurdistan would spread into Kurdish-populated areas of Turkey.

It’s no easy task to figure out what we should do next, now that we’ve suggested to Assad that he cannot get away with murdering his own people with impunity.  Remember, a single attack is not in itself a strategy.  But here is my advice to our decision-makers in Washington.  Listen carefully.

(    1. We must first work together with the Russians and the Iranians to defeat ISIS.  They are better partners than the Saudis and other Sunnis in combatting Sunni ISIS. 

(    2. Once that is done, or they are at least reduced to a minimal threat to the region, we must convince the Iranians and the Russians to send Assad packing to a lovely retirement somewhere on the French Riviera. 

(   3. Naming a Shia-friendly government to succeed him will satisfy the Iranians and cater to their geopolitical ambitions, and the Russians as well just so long as they have a place to dock in the Mediterranean.  We just must make sure that the new Syrian government is not as bloodthirsty as was Assad’s and recognizes the rights of Sunni Muslims in Syria.  With diplomatic pressure from us, in terms of economic sanctions, the Iranians could help make that happen.   The Shia government in Iraq, a country which contains both Shia and Sunni, is an example of how this might work.

Of course, better relations between the United States and Iran will not make Russia happy.  Once ISIS and Assad have been taken care of, they will become concerned with a more powerful Iran on their southern flank, an Iran that might be willing to work with the United States in preserving Middle Eastern peace, on its own terms.  This would not be an ideal solution for the United States, and the remaining Sunni nations, but nevertheless it could be a peaceful one.  Achieving it is an ambitious, demanding long-term assignment for the diplomats of the nations involved, particularly those of the United States, Russia and Iran.

Now that you have my take on a solution for Syria, let’s see what a real expert says about it.  Courtesy of BloombergView (online), read the words of Professor Hal Brands. a Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.  He knows more than I do.   Just click here to read what he has to say!

Git Outta Dat Seat!

What businesses in this country sell customers non-existent products?  Airlines!  Every day they might sell 104 tickets on a plane that seats only 100, assuming four customers won’t show.  Unless it were due to late connecting flights, these “no-show” customers usually don’t get refunds, or pay a hefty penalty if they reschedule, but assuredly, the airlines don’t lose money on them.

The recent United Airlines incident is illustrative, although overbooked seats were not the issue.  United needed to immediately move four employees from Chicago to Louisville.  This problem was the airline’s, not its customers’.   They asked for four volunteers to change flights (and be rewarded for doing so).  Three did and one didn’t and had to be violently removed from the aircraft.

I believe that if there were no seats on the plane, United should have found another way of getting the employees to Louisville.  It was their problem.  Taking back something you already sold to a customer, under the license provided in the very small print on the ticket, should be out of the question. 
The solution is to sell only the number of tickets as there are seats on the plane.  If an airline wants to reserve three or four for eventualities such as this one, let them do it, like those excellent “house seats” at Broadway shows, held back for some bigwig who decides at the last minute to see a “Hamilton,” for example.  (We once got last minute seats for a sold-out show in London  which probably had been held in reserve for a member of the Royal Family, if they had decided to come:  fifth row center on the aisle.)  If there are no need for them, they could be put on sale at the gate, along with the tickets for the “no-show’s” seats.  With most airline flights flying at capacity these days, they will not go unoccupied.  And if this solution has to result in a small increase in ticket prices, so be it.

But throwing a person who paid for a ticket off of a flight to accommodate the movement of the airline’s employees?  No way, Jose (Ho-say).


Skool Daze

The Republican administration’s proposed budget slashes funds for the Department of Education by 13.5 percent, or $9.2 billion.  While merely a blueprint for Congress to act on, it shows the direction in which the government is going.

tRump’s budget plan would remove $2.4 billion in grants for teacher training and $1.2 billion in funding for summer and after-school programs. It also curtails or eliminates funding for around 20 departmental programs “that are not effective, that duplicate other efforts, or that do not serve national needs.”  Although decreased funding for the Education Department will have repercussions for students and educators across the country, low-income students are particularly vulnerable.

In addition to eliminating Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG), which offer need-based aid to around 1.6 million low-income undergraduates each year, the tRump administration wants to “significantly” reduce Federal Work-Study. Although work-study programs have been criticized for disproportionately aiding private institutions, they are have been successful helping students graduate and find employment post-college.

The budget proposal also calls for around $200 million in cuts to federal TRIO programs, which benefit low-income, first-generation, and disabled students, and GEAR UP, a program that helps prepare low-income middle and high-school students for college.

Overall, this decreased funding will make resources available for one of tRump’s top education priorities, school choice. Under the new budget, the Republican administration wants to spend $1.4 billion to expand vouchers in public and private schools, leading up to an eventual $20 billion a year in funding.  Education Secretary DeVos, a leading advocate of charter schools, certainly is smiling.  Thomas Jefferson, a strong advocate of public education, wherever he is, is not.

I suspect that such an attack on public education, particularly in the area of teacher training, will have the long-term effect of dumbing down the American population.  Republicans are obviously enthusiastic about this since a gullible electorate, not properly educated to think for themselves and voting against what is in their own interest, is key to their party’s survival.  It worked in 2016 and they do not intend to abandon this tactic.

Meaningful Movie Review

Saw an amusing movie last weekend, “Going In Style,” about three elderly gentlemen (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin) in need of cash who decide to become bank robbers.  It’s a remake of a similar film done 38 years ago.  This time, Michael Caine is in dire financial straits because of a “teaser rate” balloon mortgage refinancing he secured from an unscrupulous bank and is about to lose his home to foreclosure, as many like him did when the real estate market collapsed in 2007.  That was the engine that moved the plot of the movie.

Caine holding Forclosure Notice in Mnunchin Movie

Now get this!  The Executive Producer (that means he put up a lot of the money for it) of “Going In Style” was none other than Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, whose banking activities over the years earned him the nickname of “the Foreclosure King.”  So just as this tRump appointee made a lot of money from real foreclosures like the one which threatened Caine in the movie, he will also profit from that film’s criticism of exactly those activities.  How do you beat these guys?  But see the movie!  Lot of laughs for everyone … and an occasional tear for those of Medicare age.

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Jack Lippman 

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