Thursday, May 26, 2005

Terror Dollars

Is the terrorist war on the West being run by MBAs?

Looking at terror in terms of business models and dollars - even if by reasonable estimates and guesswork - discloses that there are some pretty savvy bad boys out there. It's not just the people who finance terror, it's the folks who handle corporate strategy and day-to-day operations.

Neutralize the rhetoric and ideology, go up to 10,000 feet, and look at terror as an enterprise. What emerges from the smoke of the car bombs is a low-overhead, high return-on-investment operation that, by its very existence, forces competitors to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to stave off entry into their markets.

Talk about a New Economy.

Take the 2004 al-Qaida train bombing in Madrid. A few hundred thousand bucks to put the team in place, some stolen explosives, and all of a sudden there's a new government that quickly pulls its troops out of Iraq. Add to that the intangibles of global PR for the cause. The anti-war but studious New Priorities Project estimates the U.S. regime change action in Iraq will have cost taxpayers about $208 billion by the end of the year (

Any business will tell you that it's expensive to find new employees. The Department of Defense spends more than $ 4 billion a year keeping its uniformed ranks filled. The Army, though, fell 42 percent short of its recruiting goals in April, even with the offer of $20,000 signing bonuses. Given that the majority of the current crop of terrorists come from the ranks of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, and that the majority of them live in poverty, and that half of them are under age 25, al-Qaida and other groups need to offer little if anything to keep their units fully staffed.

Then there's customer service. The proposed budget for the Department of Homeland Security is $47.4 billion. That doesn't include all the other money spent on anti-terror stuff by the military, the CIA, the FBI, and virtually every other federal government department, all of which have security components in their spending plans. Be conservative, double the Homeland Security budget and total spending pushes $100 billion.

Do federal authorities stop potential attacks in the homeland all the time? Yes, they do. But, we're at 10,000 feet and looking at return on investment. At the cost of one car bomb and one dispensible fanatic, the U.S. government would spend tens of millions of dollars. on the investigation, congressional hearings, and new budgets to make sure "this won't happen again." Add in lost productivity as people turn their focus to the tragedy and figure who's making a profit.

If this war was played out in the world of high tech, Microsoft (the government) would find a way to purchase its small but innovative competitor (organized terror) and take it out of the marketplace. But in the world of global politics, terrorists don't want to sell - they want to become Microsoft.

Friday, May 13, 2005


There's been a lot of unwarranted self-righteousness among newspaper editors around the country in the wake of a Spokane Spokesman-Review investigation into allegations the mayor traded public benefits for sex with young men.

As part of its news gathering, the newspaper hired a private eye to dip into a gay online chatroom and seek confirmation of the mayor's screen name. To do this, the investigator posed as an 18-year-old and, well, chatted the mayor up.

Far too many editors around the country clucked at this technique, saying the Spokesman-Review was wrong to use subtrefuge to confirm information it already had. They claim strict adherence to the rule that reporters must always identify themselves.

Apparently these editors rose through the ranks without ever telling a lie or misleading someone to get a story. If they did, they undoubtedly gained all their experience writing for the Religion & Ethics pages.

"Hi chief, this is Bob Jones at the Times. I was just talking to the mayor about possible cutbacks in the police department. Can you confirm that at least 20 officers will be laid off?" Bob did talk to the mayor about possible cutbacks. But they mayor told Bob to buzz off.

Tom is at the bar of a restaurant popular with legislators. The senate majority leader - tanked - is standing next to him running his mouth to a lobbyist about his plan to kill the governor's tax reform plan. The next day Tom calls the senator, who denies any such plan exists. "But isn't that the information you gave (lobbyist's name here) last night?"

Reporter Ann never dates the powerful committee chairman but, then, she never really tells him she won't. Her pal Susan knows more about the Department of Water and Power than most of the people working there. But when she calls the supervising engineer seeking details on a controversial project, she acts like an airhead to wheedle the information out of him.

All of those reporters identified themselves, but all of them lied to the people they were talking to in one way or another. Such techniques are used every day by journalists - even at the papers run by people who talk a far better ethics game than they can play.

The Spokesman-Review didn't set out to probe the mayor's personal life. It wanted to test the credibility of sources who said the mayor misused his office in exchange for sex. By hiring someone more experienced in online investigations than its own reporters the newspaper demonstrated its commitment to fairness and accuracy. That's what really counts.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Parties Are Over

About three million Californians have rejected all political parties, registered as independent voters, and, in the arcane jargon of the government, morphed into “decline to states.”

They are the fastest-growing segment of voters and, because they can vote in primary elections, Democrats and Republicans chase them like a frat boy looking for Saturday night action. But when election time is over and the pols are sworn in, they are treated exactly the way said frat boy treats his date the next morning.

There is a way to fix that, though: make everyone an independent. Amend the state Constitution to declare that all elected offices are non-partisan. Erase the Ds and Rs and Gs from ballots. Individuals could still belong to political parties, they just couldn’t run as a representative of the party.

Think lots of positive results and much entertainment.

If every candidate is independent, more could run. The traditional parties could still put up their anointed and give them the money the need to breathe in and out. But, so could other organized groups or parties– big business, enviros, gun nuts and even (dare we speak the word?) moderates. Over time, people would dole out campaign contributions to people who represent their interests rather than holding heir noses and writing a check to the lesser of two evils.

This system would also change how government is run Instead of a single party deciding who gets which parking space, coalitions would rule. Fiscal conservatives would band together during budget deliberations, but the same individuals would join a different club on gun control issues. There might be party positions on issues, but when there’s a dozen or more of them roaming the halls, compromise would rule.

Does this smell like a parliamentary system? Not to fine-tuned noses. The U.S. Constitution bars apportioned representation based on such factors as party identity, ethnicity, religion or birthright (ref: the House of Lords in the U.K.) Individuals, not party leaders, would assume office. One-person-one vote and winner-take-all would finally mean something.

(Note to cynics: Yes, the two main parties would continue to rule for awhile. But if just a few real Decline to States get elected all hell would break loose. That’s when the entertainment would start.)

The biggest challenge is to get the right words on a statewide ballot. Maybe Arnold “Let the People Decide” Schwarzenegger could pull it off as a lovely parting gift in 2010.