Beyond the Media Hype: Iran

A 2013 BBC poll found 87% of Americans view Iranian influence negatively, which is odd because few Americans ever met an Iranian.  What caused the negativity?

Our relations with what was Persia used to be positive.  We established diplomatic relations in 1883 when Persia, like many other nations, was threatened by British and Russian colonizing although there was little contact between us until 1906 when Persia established a constitutional monarchy.

The Shah was forced to accept an elected parliament.  The Qatar royal family had borrowed massively from Britain and Russia, ruining the country’s finances, so Persia’s new parliament appointed an American, Shuster, as Treasurer General to set things straight.

But Britain and Russia continued to dominate Persia and its neighbors.  Following their formal agreement about which of them would control which parts of Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet, they pressured Persia in 1911 to expel Shuster.

In 1921 when the treasury was empty again, another American, Millspaugh, was hired to straighten things out.  He freed the country from foreign loans by 1927 and Persians came to see the US as their liberator from Britain and Russia.

In 1925, Reza Shah deposed the last Qajar Shah and founded the secular Pahlavi dynasty.  He introduced reforms that modernized the nation he renamed Iran, but he was a despot.  He was forced to abdicate in 1941 at the time of a WW2 Anglo-Soviet invasion.

In 1942, Millspaugh was invited back by Iran’s parliament but he was forced out in 1945 by Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, because he kept refusing to increase military spending.

In 1953, the government was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by the CIA and the British MI6 after Iran’s elected leader tried to nationalize its oil industry, 80% of the profits of which were going to Britain.  Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was reinstated as a close US ally.

During the Cold War, we supported Iran’s and many other unpopular and repressive regimes as bulwarks against the Soviet Union.

In 1979 when widespread unrest forced the Shah to flee, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and established an anti-American, radical Islamic regime.  Iranian students, angry when the Shah was admitted to the US, stormed our Embassy and held hostages.

That was the end of secular Iran and friendly relations with the US.

We made a failed attempt to rescue the hostages in 1980, they were released immediately Reagan replaced Carter, then things got murky.

Iraq hoped to take advantage of the chaos in Iran and attacked without warning in 1980.  Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, fearing the Iranian revolution could spread, provided support.  Saudi Arabia is thought to have provided $1B/month.   Support also came from France, Germany, the Soviet Union and the US, including intelligence on Iranian deployments from our satellites and radar planes.

President Reagan said we would “do whatever is necessary to prevent Iraq from losing the war with Iran.”  We sold poisons for chemical weapons Iraq used against Iran and its own Kurds.  The war ended in stalemate in 1988 with perhaps half a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers and as many civilians killed.

In 1985 while we overtly supported Iraq, we also secretly sent weapons to Iran in exchange for help freeing US hostages in Lebanon.  We illegally sent the profits to anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua and when that became public in 1986, President Reagan suffered a short-lived political crisis.

In 1988, we shot down an Iranian commercial flight over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 Iranians, most of whom were on their way to Mecca.

When the war ended, Iraq could not repay the $14B it borrowed from Kuwait and asked that the debt be forgiven, saying they had prevented Iran from over-running Kuwait.  Kuwait did not agree.

In 1990 Iraq accused Kuwait of stealing Iraqi oil by slant drilling, then invaded and announced that Kuwait was now part of Iraq.  US-led forces drove Iraq out early in 1991.

That was when Iraq ceased to be our ally.  In 1993 we adopted a new “dual containment” policy that aimed to end the regional ambitions of both Iran and Iraq.

Iran elected a reformist president in 1997 but in his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush named Iran part of an “axis of Evil” and said Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.

Then in 2005, Iran elected a conservative president.  He called for Israel to be wiped off the map, and Iran resumed uranium conversion.  US Secretary of State Rice termed Iran an “Outpost of Tyranny” along with Cuba, Burma, North Korea, Belarus, and Zimbabwe.

But in 2006, Iran’s president wrote to President Bush calling for dialog.  We made no direct response but agreed to join European nations in talks with Iran if Iran suspended uranium enrichment.  In 2007, for the first time in 27 years, officials of Iran and the United States met face-to-face.

In December 2007, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate said Iran had ended its nuclear weapons program in 2003.  But nonetheless, the UN ratified four rounds of sanctions on Iran between 2006 and 2010 and the US and EU also imposed sanctions, including on its financial sector in 2012.  The US Treasury claims Iran’s currency lost two-thirds of its value in the next two years.

In 2013, Iran’s next President, a reformist, called President Obama, the first between US and Iranian heads of state for 30 years.  Diplomatic discussions began but our State Department website says: “The current Iranian government still has not recognized Israel’s right to exist, has hindered the Middle East peace process by arming militants, including Hamas, Hizballah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and continues to play a disruptive role in sustaining violence in the region, particularly Syria.”

Is that what really motivates our government?

No.  In 2001, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said:  “Several of these [small enemy nations] are intensely hostile to the United States and are arming to deter us from bringing our conventional or nuclear power to bear in a regional crisis.”

In 2008, Democratic Senator Robb and GOP Senator Coates wrote:  “Iran with nuclear weapons capability would be strategically untenable. It would threaten U.S. national security … the ability to quickly assemble a nuclear weapon would effectively give Iran a nuclear deterrent.”

What really motivates us, then, is that nuclear weapons would prevent us from attacking Iran.  It’s quite a stretch to claim Iran is an existential threat to us.

Our media portrays Iran’s leader (whoever he may be at the time) as a new Hitler who will stop at nothing to dominate the world.  But that’s nonsense.  Iran will not commit suicide by using a nuclear weapon against us or Israel.  We both have huge nuclear stockpiles.

Positioning Iran in that way tells them they would be fools not to acquire nuclear weapons.  The dictators who gave up that quest, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, provide the lesson.

It is rational for Iran to want nuclear weapons.  We toppled their democratically elected government and installed a despotic ruler in 1953, we backed Iraq’s war against them from 1982-8, President Bush threatened a military strike, Israel often does, we’ve imposed the harshest ever sanctions, and they see what we’ve done to their neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Equally, it is not irrational for Iran to back Hezbollah’s battle against an Israel that keeps threatening military action.  A deal to end that support would be good for us as well as Israel because Hezbollah is a far more capable terrorist group than al Qaeda ever was.

It is true that Iran has a terrible human rights record.  In 2013 it ranked 167 in the world, according to the International Human Rights Indicator.  But we don’t care about our allies’ human rights: think Mubarak, Gaddafi, and for many years, Saddam Hussein.

What we care about is compliance with our foreign policy.  Egyptian dictator Mubarak was OK with Israeli military action in Lebanon and occupied Palestinian territories.  Gaddafi became our friend until he spoke of nationalizing Libya’s oil.

We supported Iraq’s war on Iran then made war on Iraq, threatened Syria, are making drone attacks in other Middle East nations, and now we say the “Islamic State” is the enemy.    But if we really do want to destroy the Islamic State, we need Iran as a partner because air strikes won’t be enough.

And more importantly, the power vacuum that allowed the Islamic State to flourish must be resolved unless we want perpetual instability in the Middle East.  There must be a political solution, which means we must talk with Iran not just because of their concerns but because they influence Shia leaders in Syria and Iraq.

Our leaders fear an Iran with nuclear weapons that would neuter their freedom to attack.  But what makes we the people fear Iran?  What is our underlying fear?

This poster from a Facebook friend, many of whose beliefs distress me, offers a clue:

Pastor Saeed Poster

Iran jailed Pastor Saeed for “undermining national security.”  His Christian missionary work did not threaten territorial security.  He was working against the religion on which Iran’s laws are based.

We, just as the colonial powers did, send missionaries to “foreign lands” to replace their beliefs with our own.  The poster’s publisher, ACLJ.org, is an arm of Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, Inc.  Christian evangelism tends to suggests we aim to make the whole world American.

Iran’s leaders may also wonder if temporal victory really is our aim.  President Reagan believed in the Rapture, when all true believers will be taken into heaven and all others will face tribulation.  On at least eleven occasions he said the end of the world is coming, maybe soon.  President Bush had similar beliefs but, since the Cold War was over, he saw the Antichrist not in Russia but the Middle East.

Still though, why would so many Americans want no deal to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons?  How could the pastor’s release from jail be more important than nuclear proliferation in the Middle East?

Because humans are programmed to fear “the other.”  Some small group becomes noticeable, we don’t know any of them personally, we don’t know much about them, they seem different from us, we imagine they are all the same and rapidly growing in number, then we feel threatened.

Jews have been “the other” in many societies throughout history.  Roman Catholics were “the other” here when Kennedy was running for President.  More recently Muslims have become “the other” here and in Europe.

Now we imagine all Muslims are the same, and because the ones we’re shown by the media are terrorists, we imagine all Muslims to be potential if not yet actual terrorists.

Nothing I or anyone else can say will eradicate that fear.  It will only evaporate as more of us get to meet more Muslims, or if our media first positions some new small group as “the other.”

Beyond Media Hype: Why Write about it?

Fear whipped up by the media stimulates our emotions, shuts down our reason, and excites “fight or flight.”   That makes us selfish and violent.

We must understand what is being done to us.  Selfishness and violence are not intrinsic to our nature.   My original inflammatory “Fear and Loathing” title for these posts is because we’re on fire!

I didn’t share Hunter S. Thompson’s hatred of Nixon, who he said represented “that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character” and I don’t hate Obama or others now.  But Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” is a great title.

We are being brainwashed to feel fear and loathing.  It’s time to be alarmed about that.

What fears?  Immigrants stealing into our “homeland” taking our jobs and living on “welfare,”  a disease from Africa sweeping through our land, Islamic terrorists slipping in from Mexico to do terrible things, fundamentalist Muslims overwhelming our Christian values, Iran nuking us, and on and on…

I began to explore these fears in Ebola and Homo Politicus.  I showed how our expectation about the performance of government agencies is based not on facts but political bias.  Now I’m exploring the implications.

In Fear and Loathing of Immigrants I surveyed history.  Immigrants are often blamed for society’s troubles, but illegal immigration only became a big issue in the 1990s.  Then, after 9/11 , we expanded our border forces enormously.  That was when fear and loathing were very deliberately cranked up.

I followed the logic of militarizing our border to its conclusion, that we should also deport every “alien” already here, and, observing that Christian Church leaders condemned the 2012 GPO budget for failing to help our “poor, hungry, homeless, jobless,” I pointed out it’s not just that we no longer want other nations’ “tired, poor, huddled masses.

We are also being brainwashed to reject all those like them, even our fellow citizens.  We’ve been told the poor are bleeding us dry ever since Reagan’s 1976 campaign anecdotes about a “welfare queen” who defrauded the government of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The woman Reagan spoke of appears to have been a murderer and kidnapper as well as a thief, but the stereotype of the “welfare queen” is an idle black woman.  The label plays on racial fear.

Racial fear?  Imagine how the media would have responded if Ebola appeared not in black Africa but Israel.  Where would we have been told Ebola came from and how to respond?  From Palestinian terrorists so it’s time to support an Israeli final solution?  From Iran so it’s time for our nukes to finish what we helped Saddam Hussein attempt?

In Defying Hitler about the German equivalent of 9/11, the burning of the Reichstag, Sebastian Haffner writes:  “I do not see that one can blame the majority of Germans who, in 1933, believed that the Reichstag fire was the work of the Communists.  What one can blame them for, and what shows their terrible collective weakness of character … is that this settled the matter.  With sheepish submissiveness, the German people accepted that, as a result of the fire, each one of them lost what little personal freedom and dignity was guaranteed by the constitution, as though it followed as a necessary consequence.  If the Communists had burned down the Reichstag, it was perfectly in order that the government took ‘decisive measures.’ … from now on, one’s telephone would be tapped, one’s letters opened, and one’s desk might be broken into.”

We are living through, as Yogi Berra said: “Déjà vu all over again.”  Substitute Americans for Germans, terrorists for Communists, September 11, 2001, for 1933.

We must learn from history.  We must do better.

Beyond the Media Hype: Immigrants

I wrote in Ignorance, Fear and Imaginary Facts that we imagine facts to support what we fear, and that one of the things we greatly exaggerate is the number of immigrants.  I said that’s a problem because politicians tend to focus on what we believe, not the actual data.

So, what have they done based on our fear of immigrants?  First, a reminder.  We imagine that 32% of our population are immigrants while the actual number is 13%.  This means we have 60 million imaginary immigrants in addition to the real 41 million.

Sixty million is a lot of imaginary people!  It’s enough that we’d expect some big actions.  And even though 60 million people are imaginary, we caught 1.6 million entering illegally in 2000 and we do not know how many are already here.  There really is cause for concern.

Immigrants

But what do we mean by “immigrant”?  Everyone was an immigrant when the Constitution was established in 1787.

Our first citizenship law was established in 1790.  Any “free white person of good moral character” who lived here two years and in the same place for one could apply.  The requirement was increased to five years in 1795 with a three year wait, and in 1798 to 14 years with five years notice of intent to apply.

All children born here have been considered citizens since 1868 and African Americans could become citizens since 1870.  Asians could live here then, but not become citizens.

The first law restricting immigration was passed in 1875.  It prohibited any Asian coming to be a forced laborer, any Asian woman who would be a prostitute, and anyone who was a convict.  The labor provision was largely ignored but the ban on female Asians, especially Chinese, was heavily enforced.

Then the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers (it was only repealed at the end of 1943).  Chinese immigration that started in the 1848-1855 California Gold Rush had continued for huge labor projects like the Transcontinental Railroad, but then came the 1870s post-Civil War economic slump.  Chinese workers were blamed for depressed wage levels.

We began deporting those who entered the country illegally in 1891, a year after the Wounded Knee Massacre near the end of when our ancestor immigrants finished dispossessing the Native Americans.

Small-scale deportations began five years before we dedicated the Statue of Liberty with its poem, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”  We did little to stop illegal immigration, however, until Congress established the Border Patrol in 1924.

Our main focus until the 1950s was Canada.  The first large-scale deportation of illegal Mexican immigrants was Operation Wetback in 1954.  It was not until the 1990s that illegal immigration became a big issue.

At the start of the Clinton administration, Border Patrol had 4,000 agents.  That more than doubled to 9,000 by the end of his administration.  Border Patrol’s enormous growth followed 9/11.  It doubled again to 18,000 agents by the end of the Bush administration and to 21,000 in Obama’s first term.

When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was set up following 9/11, Border Patrol was reestablished as part of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with a $12.4 billion annual budget and a staff of 60,000 that includes 46,000 gun-carrying Customs officers and Border Patrol agents.

We have spent over $100B on border and immigration enforcement since 9/11.

CBP is by far our largest federal law enforcement agency.  Its 250 planes, helicopters and drones make it the largest law enforcement air force in the world, as big as Brazil’s entire combat air force.

US Border Patrol

Border Patrol’s growth was far too rapid for quality hiring, and it has not been well led.  Until March of this year, it went five years without a Senate-confirmed leader.  An average of almost one CBP officer per day was arrested for misconduct between 2005 and 2012, and Border Patrol agents have shot and killed almost 50 people since 2004.

Not well led?  In Obama’s first year, Border Patrol was ordered to change its definition of “corruption.”  There would be “mission-compromising corruption,” e.g., bribery, narcotics- or human-smuggling, etc. and “non-mission-compromising corruption,” e.g., sexual or other assault of detainees or theft.  Only “mission-compromising” incidents were to be reported to Congress.  That did not cut corruption but it did cut the statistics by almost a third.

Border Patrol’s leader since March has his work cut out, and the October federal budget funds 2,000 more CBP officers, the largest single increase Congress has ever passed.

But no matter how successful BP’s new leader is, stopping people from entering illegally is only half the battle.  We should also make it easy to identify illegal immigrants and promptly deport them.

The high likelihood of being promptly deported would be the greatest deterrent against attempting to enter illegally.

That would require some form of national ID, which advocates of civil liberties oppose.  Because the Constitution grants all rights to the States that are not specifically granted to the Federal government, driver licenses and other identification cards are issued by each State separately.

The REAL ID Act of 2005 established standards for state-issued identification documents to make them acceptable for restricting entry to DHS headquarters, nuclear power plants, and other restricted federal facilities, and eventually to restrict boarding of federally regulated commercial aircraft.  Only 21 States were compliant at the beginning of 2014.

The REAL ID Act is not aimed at identifying who is and is not eligible to live and work here.  The State driver license and other such databases are neither uniform nor interoperable, and that is how State government officials and civil rights advocates want it to stay.  The States want to retain their prerogatives.  Civil rights advocates fear government abuse if we are all recorded in one big database.

There certainly is potential for abuse.  Hoover’s FBI kept files on enormous numbers of people he considered suspect and all of us are now in the NSA’s database.  Our emails, texts and phone calls are searched and stored.  Our travels probably are, too, if we carry a smartphone.  Our activities are captured by surveillance cameras and presumably searched with facial recognition software.

But civil rights advocates are misguided.  We already have far less privacy than we imagine, and we are rapidly losing more.  The protection we need is around the use of data.  We need to protect ourselves directly against government abuse and corruption, not hobble its ability to protect us.

What we need is a dependable way for everyone who has the legal right to live and work here to prove that, and for the form of proof to be very hard to forge.

Our passport system may be a good starting point for the identification documents all legal residents should have.   More than a third of Americans (35%) now have a passport.  That is up from 6% twenty years ago and passports issued since 2007 contain chips that enable facial recognition.

We could establish a system for checking who has the document and deporting those who do not.  We don’t consider it abusive that we must carry a driver license whenever we drive a car.  It would be little more burdensome to carry an identification document at all times.

What have I left out?  Stopping illegal immigration is not enough, we must also establish a just and effective way of deporting those who are here illegally…  Oh, yes, we must also decide who we want to have immigrate and make it easier for them to do so.

We no longer want other nations’  “tired, poor,  huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Actually, as well as not wanting them, we also want to get rid of those like them who are here legally.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced Ryan’s proposed 2012 budget, which the GOP House passed, because it “fails to meet the moral criteria” of the Church, failing to help “the least of these as the Christian Bible requires: the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the jobless.”

Ryan is still chairman of the GOP’s House Budget Committee with more power now the GOP controls the Senate.  We are not likely to get a more Christian budget or immigration policy any time soon.

Our fears will be used to legitimize more violence.

What to Do about Ebola

“Are you not in favor of quarantine?” I was asked in response to: http://martinsidwell.com/ebola-and-homo-politicus/ about how the media promotes fear.

I am in favor of helping us know when to quarantine ourselves and making it less difficult to do.  I am against handing over more of our rights and responsibilities to our government.

What we have done so far to avert the risk of an Ebola epidemic is misguided.  A few States have established mandatory quarantine of travelers from countries affected by Ebola in West Africa.  Travelers from West Africa arriving at five US airports have their temperatures taken and are questioned about their possible exposure to Ebola.  A 21-day quarantine was initially imposed on all travelers returning from West Africa whether or not they showed symptoms of the disease.

If the best approach were to quarantine all travelers from West Africa, it should be done at every international airport throughout the US.

But why only travelers from West Africa, and why not for other deadly diseases, too?  If Ebola warrants such measures, shouldn’t we also close our borders to more deadly diseases?  Those diseases are everywhere, so presumably we should quarantine all travelers from everywhere.

If we are willing to abandon more individual rights and responsibilities, we should temperature test all travelers, quarantine everyone returning from anywhere whose temperature is elevated and refuse entry to all non-natives with high temperatures.

Every passenger had their temperature taken and anyone with an elevated temperature was denied entry the last time I flew into China’s Tibet.  We could do the same.

But Ebola is not in fact such a great risk for us in the USA.  It has been contracted in this outbreak so far by around 10,000 people in West Africa since March and by around 400 health care workers from overseas, about 20 of whom have been treated in Europe and the US.  That’s not many compared to other deadly diseases, but how contagious is Ebola?

Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids of someone who has symptoms of the disease. It can survive for a few hours on dry surfaces like doorknobs and counter-tops and several days in puddles of body fluid. Bleach solutions can kill it.

“Direct contact with bodily fluids of someone with symptoms of Ebola” means there is no risk of transmission from people who have been exposed to Ebola if they are not showing symptoms.  No risk.

And the Ebola death rate is tiny so far compared to other contagious fatal diseases: fewer than 5,000 thousand Ebola deaths this year, hundreds of times more for other diseases.  1.6 million died from HIV/AIDS in 2012, 1.3 million from tuberculosis, 1.1 million from pneumonia, 760,000 from infectious diarrhea, and more than 600,000 from malaria.

The death rate from Ebola could greatly increase, but if closing our borders to it is wise, it is even more urgent to close them to HIV/AIDS and other diseases whose death rate is astronomically higher.

How much liberty and privacy are we willing to sacrifice, though?

Sacrificing our individual rights to our government is a slippery slope.  Our fear of terrorists after 9/11 enabled passage of the Patriot Act, which severely restricted our traditional rights and made possible massive expansion of the NSA’s data gathering.  Our fear after Pearl Harbor led us to incarcerate innocent people of Japanese heritage, which we eventually admitted was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Will we eventually reverse the excesses of the Patriot Act?  Or will we abandon more of our liberty?  Will we authorize the NSA to record everywhere we go using GPS data from our cellphones?  They could then know who is at risk from contact with people who develop deadly diseases.

How much of our liberty and privacy are we willing to abandon in order to feel safer?

What have our politicians done so far?  What they are always tempted to do, take more power.  Is there a more effective possibility?

Yes.  The risk of catching infectious diseases and their death rate is far greater in low- and middle-income countries where limited if any medical care is available.  People travel, so disease travels with them.  This means that by far the most effective way to cut our risk of contracting and dying from Ebola or other deadly diseases would be a universal health care system.

Everyone in the USA who contracts a contagious disease could then receive medical treatment and not infect others.

That is the best approach for our people, but what about those in West Africa?  Should we do anything for them?

That’s a moral question.  Facts and analysis cannot provide the answer, although there are practical aspects we can consider.

We currently feel obligated to act as the world’s policemen.  We give our government several trillion dollars each year to destabilize cruel regimes.  But those who survive the bombing fail to establish better government.  That results in us being hated, despised and/or laughed at for our foolishness.

Killling and destruction do not make life in this world better.  We could, however, build a happier world by instead acting as its humanitarian leader.  We could, for example, do more than send 3,000 troops to Liberia to build 17 Ebola treatment facilities.

But we seem to have no compelling self-interest in West Africa as we do in the Middle East without whose oil our economy would collapse.  If Ebola arrives in India’s slums, however, and sparks a widespread epidemic, our cancer, HIV-infected and other patients will not get their medicines because 40% of generic drugs in the US come from India.

We do have interests throughout the world, and our behavior is noticed.  If we stop killing people to make their lives better and instead help them heal themselves, we will be more loved, less hated and therefore much safer.

It is hard to imagine us overcoming out feeling that we must rule the world, however, and almost impossible even to imagine our government building a better situation for our own people in our current political climate.

What does seem somewhat realistic is to avoid Ebola hysteria.  Let’s instead of foolishly sacrificing more of our rights, require our government to educate us about Ebola and make it less difficult for anyone with symptoms to quarantine themselves and get treatment.

Capitalism, the General Welfare and Education

I’m blessed to have friends whose beliefs I do not share.  They make it so much easier to see that if I believe this, I cannot also believe that.

My ideas were well tested in a discussion of this New York Times article about income inequality analyzed in the context of US economic expansions by Ms. Tcherneva, an economist at Bard College.

In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, most income gains from the bottom of one recession to the start of the next went to most people, i.e., the bottom 90% got a majority of the increase.  But in each expansion they got a smaller share while the top 10% got increasingly more.

From 2001 to 2007, an extraordinary 98% of income gains went to the top 10% of earners.

In the first three years of the current expansion, the incomes of the bottom 90% actually fell, which meant the top 10% got a seemingly impossible 116% of all income gains.

Inequality Increased with Expansions

The top 10% now gets almost half of all income.  Just the top 3% got almost a third (31%) in 2013 and the next 7% got 17%.  The remaining half (52%) is shared by the bottom 90%.

Making life harder for the bottom 20%, they got only 36% of federal transfer payments in 2010, down from 54% in 1979.

The short term result of rising inequality is weak economic demand.  The longer term impact is lack of progress in education.

The USA is the only high-income country whose 25-34 year olds are no better educated than its 55-64 year olds.  College graduation rates for the poorest increased only 4% from those born in the early 1960s to the early 1980s while the rate for the wealthiest increased by almost 20%.

Upward mobility is very limited without a college degree so high inequality in education results in children of prosperous families tending to stay well-off while children of poor families remain poor.

Ms. Tcherneva focuses on the short term issue, weak demand, and observes that our fiscal policy – lower interest rates to increase demand to create jobs – is not working.  She suggests the Federal government focus directly on employment:  “The manpower of the poor and the unemployed can be mobilized for the public purpose irrespective of their skill level, which in turn will be upgraded by the very work experience and educational programs that the program would offer.”

When the discussion began, a different version of the income distribution chart by Robert Reich was dismissed as “bull crap.”  By the end, we agreed that income distribution really is highly unequal in the US and is growing more so.  We further agreed that the trend is unsustainable.  We came close to a consensus that if it continues too long, there will be civil strife. 

And we ended up agreeing that our economy is undergoing structural change.  Off-shoring and automation are eliminating many lower paid jobs.  AI software is also replacing many higher paid jobs.  Perhaps there simply will not be enough jobs humans can do better/cheaper than intelligent machines and we will in the longer term need a new economic paradigm.

When we discussed solutions for today, we disagreed about whether government should try to alter income distribution, directly create jobs, or do more to govern behavior in markets e.g., with stricter bank regulations.  We disagreed about whether government should ever try to influence society in any way e.g., by tax incentives. 

And we disagreed if education should be primarily private or public. 

Seeking a philosophical basis for our beliefs, we discussed the Constitution’s: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, … promote the general Welfare …”, and its section 8, which gives the legislative branch the power “… To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” 

What, we debated, is the Federal government’s responsibility for “the general welfare” in a capitalist society?

Characteristics of all forms of capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets and wage labor.  Piketty’s research suggests the rate of return on capital is inevitably higher than the rate of growth of wages.  What government action does that suggest?  To what extent should government constrain behavior in competitive markets?  And is the freedom that comes with wage labor sufficient?

What preceded capitalism was slavery where slaves could not seek a better owner, and feudalism which also kept those at the bottom in place.  Capitalism has no such iron-clad constraints.  In pursuit of higher wages, a better boss, more interesting or safer work, we can try to get any job at all, anywhere. 

Furthermore, capitalism requires property rights and other laws while in slave-owning and feudal societies, laws are the whim of the slave-owner or land-holder. 

We did not dispute the ideas in the preamble to the Constitution; that central government must enable us to live in peace under the protection of the law.  Hamilton in the Federalist Papers was emphatic about “a more perfect union” and “common defense”.  States must not have armies, he wrote, because they would go to war with each other if they did.  The nation as a whole must defend itself. 

Where we disagreed was on Section 8, about the meaning of “the general welfare” and the Federal government responsibilities it implies. 

My thoughts were clarified by the discussion.  I believe the central government of any nation is responsible for establishing the infrastructure, broadly defined, that is necessary for the general welfare.

Infrastructure means basic facilities, services, and installations necessary for a society to function, e.g., transportation and communications systems, water and power lines.  Infrastructure also includes public institutions such as schools, post offices, and prisons. And it includes protection of “the commons”, things we all need that nobody owns such as the air.

Different combinations of public and private involvement can create and maintain infrastructure, but the central government is always responsible for ensuring that current and future generations will have an infrastructure that enables the nation to remain competitive and viable.

I have long thought, for example, that our central government should lead us from dependency on Middle East (or other) oil by establishing a suitable electricity grid.  What struck me in this discussion is that I think a well educated and healthy work force is also part of our infrastructure. 

And I want nobody to be prevented from fulfilling their potential by the circumstances into which they are born.

That led me to two conclusions about education.  First, it must be funded from the center because if it is not, welfare cannot be general.  Some will be privileged by accident of birth while others who may have high intellect and/or other gifts will not get an education that enables them to fulfill their potential.  Second, the curriculum must be set at the center because if it is not, our workforce will not have a dependable base of skills.

I do not mean specific work-related skills, almost all of which now have a short shelf-life because technology is advancing so fast.  I mean the ability to seek out and recognize facts, to reason from facts to conclusions, and to communicate effectively with people whose ideas are different. 

We are not born knowing how to do any of those things or how to act as members of society, just as we are not born knowing how to read or do arithmetic, and that’s important because we can’t have an effective democracy if voters can’t recognize facts or reason from them. 

In fact, we do not have an effective democracy, and I want that to change!

My views, taken as a whole, seem to fit no label.   I believe, among other things, that:

  • Markets should operate as the engine of creative destruction (i.e., I’m a capitalist)
  • Which means, for example, that too-big-to-fail financial institutions must be broken into smaller entities that can go bankrupt
  • And (almost?) all tax incentives should be eliminated
  • Individuals should be held accountable for their actions
  • Which means we must strengthen regulation and enforcement of individuals’ behavior in markets (i.e. prosecute criminal behavior)
  • Everyone should have a reasonably good opportunity to fulfill their potential (i.e., I’m a progressive)
  • Which means we need a progressive income tax code and high inheritance taxes
  • And Federally funded education with a uniform national curriculum
  • A reasonable amount of health care and etc should be available to all (i.e., I’m a socialist)
  • Which means we need a universal single-payer health system
  • Infrastructure investment by the central government is necessary and can be funded by borrowing (i.e., I’m not a fiscal hawk)
  • But spending programs should be funded with current revenue, i.e., taxes (so maybe I am a fiscal hawk)
  • Our misguided spending on wars should be invested productively, e.g., on an electricity grid that helps us overcome our dependency on oil and coal (i.e., I’m a peacenik) 

My education left me unable to accept an entire package of ideas from anyone else, but it’s hard to avoid cognitive dissonance when you assemble your own set.  It’s almost impossible to spot every inconsistency.  This is why I’m so grateful to my diverse friends for helping me see more clearly.

Misunderstanding Ukraine, What To Do

Reading “got some insight into my own psychology and how it colors things,” by a friend who confronted a business challenge, I recognized that what Buddhists call karma is what in the West we call psychology, our emotional and conceptual biases that lead us to misunderstand.

My focus right now is on the Nepali young woman whose education I support but I do still notice other things.

Ukraine, for example.  Psychology, which is individual karma, and culture, the karma we share, shape our ideas about current affairs by connecting them with past events that we also misunderstood.  Psychology, culture, karma, whatever we call it, is always distorting what we see and in ways that keep changing.  What is shaping our ideas now about events in Ukraine?

Having suffered 20 million or more deaths in WW2, the Soviet Union established deep buffers against another invasion — the Baltics, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, all the way to the center of Germany.  It lost those buffers when the Soviet Union collapsed and would face an overwhelming threat if the Baltics, Belarus or Ukraine in particular were to become hostile.

When the Baltics were admitted to NATO, the alliance advanced to less than 100 miles from St. Petersburg.  If Ukraine and Belarus follow, NATO will be only 250 miles from Moscow.

NATO is weak now but Germany transformed from much greater weakness in 1932 to massive power by 1938.  Russia must stop NATO from absorbing Ukraine.

Why would the US government encourage enticement of Russia’s borderland nations into NATO?  Who could that benefit?  Only our weapons manufacturers and military contractors.

Do they control the US government?  No.  But they do have influence just like other wealthy lobbyists and they have at times had insiders like former-VP Cheney whose roots are in for-profit military business.  But even then military contractors do not control foreign policy.  There’s more going on.

We, by which I mean we the American people, have come to believe it is our job to punish other nations.  And because we did not lose our Cold War fears even though the Soviet Union collapsed, we are especially ready to believe we should punish Russia’s leader.

We do not consider President Putin’s reasons for concern about Ukraine.  We simply accept the lies by our politicians and media.

Why do they lie?  Some have financial incentives but most are like us, deluded.

John McCain, for example, is always eager for military action.  Remember President Bush’s axis of evil — here’s McCain in that context wanting to “bomb, bomb, bomb — bomb, bomb Iran.”   He later believed, as did President Obama, that we should bomb Syria.  We’re fortunate he was not elected President because unlike Obama, he would not have been automatically blocked by Congress — and McCain now wants to take military action in Ukraine.

The majority of Americans oppose our military involvement in Ukraine and perhaps recognize that Russia had to maintain control over its Crimean naval base, but few see the great risk in Ukraine is civil war and it was our own and European Union governments who triggered that potential disaster.

I realize that even if he heard them, my words would not outweigh President Obama’s long-formed biases or the nonsense he’s now being told.  There’s little I can do on that front.

What we all can do, however, is work every day to eliminate our own emotional habits and misconceptions.  That really does make a difference.

Our Sacrosanct Jobs Program

A news article this week brought to mind something British politician Tony Benn said, “I remember setting sail to South Africa for training [as a WW2 RAF pilot] and being part of a war aims meeting.  It was the most brilliant political meeting I ever attended.  One man spoke of the mass unemployment of the 1930s and said that if we could attain full employment by killing Germans, we could have full employment by building houses, schools and hospitals.”

The article is about a $643M contract with Bath Iron Works (BIW) for which Maine Senators Collins, a Republican, and King, an independent, got funding.  They say it will “allow the Navy to send another DDG-51 to sea when the Navy’s fleet needs to preserve important combat capabilities in support of our national defense.”  Democratic Representative Pingree said, “this is excellent news for the families who earn their living at BIW.”  A shop steward who represents BIW workers said, “the contract brings more stability to the company, which employs about 5,400 people.”

So, my representatives in Washington, the BIW workers and their families, local business owners, everyone around here is happy we’re going to build more of these ships that were “originally designed to defend against Soviet aircraft, cruise missiles and nuclear attack submarines.”

What struck me is, although we don’t think of Defense that way, it has grown into an enormous jobs program.  What’s more it’s a program whose rationale and scope we do not question.

President Reagan’s budget director David Stockman has points to make, however.  In The Ukraine, The War Party and the Pentagon’s Swamp of Waste he writes, “the $625 billion allocated to DOD this year amounts to a colossal destruction of economic resources for no benefit whatsoever to the safety and security of the American people.”

Stockman is angry, perhaps because “About three decades ago I called the Pentagon a “swamp of waste” during an off-the-record interview that ended-up on the evening news. Presently I ended-up in President Reagan’s woodshed–explaining that, well, yes, I did say that because it was in fact true.”   His article is excellent background reading.

I don’t feel emotional about this but I am equally determined to do what I can so we do question how we want to spend that $625B of tax revenue.  The current program does have some benefit — it provides a lot of jobs — but as Tony Benn realized, some of them could be different jobs.  Some could be jobs without the risk of being killed or maimed.

Defense spending has huge support.  There was a bi-partisan agreement to cut (sequester) federal spending this year.  Stockman notes that “Had every dime of the $55 billion sequester been implemented, this year’s DOD budget would have been roughly $600 billion … in 1989, the DOD budget was about $475 billion in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars.”   Even though DOD spending would have been up 25% from 25 years earlier, when the time came to make the cuts, Congressman Paul Ryan and others said making them would be tantamount to surrender.  So the cuts were not made.

What provoked Stockman’s article is, “Contrary to the bombast, jingoism, and shrill moralizing flowing from Washington and the mainstream media, America has no interest in the current spat between Putin and the mobs of Kiev.”

Echoing President Eisenhower’s famous warning when he left office sixty years ago, he says,  “The source of the current calamity-howling about Russia is the Warfare State–that is, the existence of vast machinery of military, diplomatic and economic maneuver that is ever on the prowl for missions and mandates and that can mobilize a massive propaganda campaign on the slightest excitement.”

Stockman is outraged that we believe the propaganda and by our hypocrisy: “We have invaded every country to our South–from the Dominican Republic to Guatemala and Panama and assassinated or overthrown dozens of  their leaders–all within the 60 year span since Nikita Khrushchev gifted Crimea to his minions in Kiev. So precisely which nearby borders are so sacrosanct and exactly who has done the more egregious violating?”

I’ve written before about our defense spending and military strategy over which “we the people” have no control.  President Reagan greatly accelerated spending on what was in fact a spurious rationale, it dropped and stabilized in the next decade, then it was driven to extraordinary new heights by President Bush based on a new spurious rationale.  The numbers below show our total defense spending, not just what is presented in the US budget defense line item but also the spending on “overseas contingency operations” i.e., the wars President Bush started in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Trends in US Military Spending

We might be encouraged by Congress’ refusal to approve President Obama’s recent desire to take military action in Syria except that (A) Congress is currently of a mind to refuse everything he proposes and (B) everyone in Congress always wants more military spending in their district.

Important as it is to make rational changes to our defense spending and decide what kind and size jobs program we want to fund, however, we first need a government that functions, one that could debate such questions, arrive at decisions and take action.

I’m still absorbing research about how we could get such a government and, following a break where I’m hoping for sun and heat, I will report back next month.

The 2nd Amendment, Revolution and Self-Defense

DaveR sent me a Facebook message:  “Thought you might be interested in the article at this link:  One of our traditions — throwing off the shackles of a government that has overstepped its bounds — is at odds with another, the one that accepts the results of elections.”   We agreed to copy our long and lively discussion here.  It raises important points that I hope will provoke more discussion.

I responded: “I hadn’t thought about this idea in the article: “In a democracy the majority determines what the law is and could, at least theoretically, take away the rights of individuals for the sake of the ‘public good.’  In a republic, majority will is held in check by constitutional guarantees that forbid legislation encroaching on individual rights even if 51 percent or 95 percent of the population favors it.”  It seems more complicated in real life.   The right guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment is “encroached upon” by subsequent legislation that defines what “arms” we the people may and may not “bear” and the circumstances in which we may bear them.  In the same way, the definition of “we the people” has been the opposite of encroached upon, i.e., expanded by civil rights legislation.”

Then I got off track with an ignorant assertion:  “I always come back to the same state of bafflement about the 2nd amendment.  Do the folks who believe they need guns to overthrow the government really believe their weapons would make that possible?  Or are they like those in the South who knew in their hearts they would fail but went ahead with the War of Northern Aggression, anyway?”

Correcting my mistake led to the important topic of revolution.  Dave responded:  “Well, the South most certainly did not think it was going to lose the Civil War.  In fact, it very nearly won in the first few years.  Many also truly believed that they would receive political, if not military support from Britain (whose textile industry was utterly dependent on southern cotton in 1860).  Interestingly, part of the reason why they did as well as they did despite the North’s superiority in industry, manpower and infrastructure, was precisely because of their cultural military tradition.  Many in the Southern Armies used their own weapons, horses, and the like for the entire war, which is interesting considering this 2nd amendment debate.  I think the 2nd amendment is actually pretty important, but I am for regulation, background checks, etc.  I most certainly do not support repeal. And as I’ve said before, I choose not to avail myself of this right at the moment, but that doesn’t mean I want to get rid of it.  As for your last question – it’s a good one.  In the event of a true, justified revolution in this country, would gun ownership make the difference?  I think, yes, it absolutely would.  Partly, because I think a plausible revolution (not just a bunch of 2nd amendment nuts) would engage a broad enough selection of the populace that we’d see a split in the military.  Think about well-documented revolutions and civil wars – the American or the Spanish Civil Wars, for instance, and you see that the arms used were piecemeal at first, but became more professional as time went on.  Do you think the Syrian rebels wouldn’t love to have some AR-15’s?  Have you seen the improvised weapons they’ve been using?  Some are literally held together with duct tape.  And yet, despite air superiority, tanks and chemical weapons, they seem to be slowly gaining ground.  Civil war these days is an urban war, and small-arms make plenty of difference in city streets.  It scares the hell out of me, but I really do sometimes think I’m going to see a 2nd Civil War of some kind in my lifetime.”

I replied:  “The only thing I’m certain about is, I should actually study US history.  My small patchwork of knowledge means I’ll be mistaken if I believe any theories that occur to me.  I try to discard them and usually don’t believe I understand anything about the Civil War.  Thanks for the correction!  I’ll think more about “true, justified revolution” and respond later.  Thanks for making me think, Dave!”

Dave responded:  “The US Civil War was something of an obsession for me growing up.  I’m probably a bit TOO certain about my “facts” about it, though.  Ken Burns’ documentary is always a good place to start, if you’re really interested (and if you have like 12 hours to kill). And thank YOU.”

After giving more thought to the 2nd Amendment and the Constitution in general, I wrote:  “I want legislation and enforcement to reflect our evolving democratically made decisions about what firearm technologies folks in our society can have.  That requires definition of the purpose.  For example, although I do not hunt I do not want to prevent it, so I’d favor legislation that explicitly approved hunting along with what kinds of hunting firearms are authorized.  I would not expect automatic rifles to be authorized for that purpose, for example, or any kind of handguns.  I would favor background checks for all purchasers of such firearms in every market.   I’m not trying to define the legislation here, just the guiding principal.  Starting from that viewpoint, I’d prefer the existing 2nd amendment to be replaced with one corresponding to today’s society and its needs, not the situation almost two and a half centuries ago.  The amendment now reads:  “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  We no longer expect to defend our nation by raising an army of civilians supplying their own firearms.  We still have uses for firearms that we want to authorize, but not that one.  You make an excellent point about guerilla warfare. Having thought about it more, I agree that an armed uprising might possibly succeed. That makes me think replacing the 2nd amendment is more important, not just something that would theoretically be good.  I want our society to be made better by the working of democracy.  I don’t want there to be a Plan B where we don’t engage in the democratic process but start a Civil War if things don’t turn out the way we want.  If we were writing our Constitution now, and not even thinking about the one we already have, we probably would not include bearing arms as a fundamental human right.   We would probably also draft the 4th amendment in a different way to make explicit some right to privacy.  Search and seizure was the only relevant technology a couple of centuries ago. No phone, internet, satellite or security cameras, etc.  Or maybe we’d decide that in the interest of public safety, we would forgo any and all privacy.  In the real world, I think we should just keep doing what we’ve been doing about the 2nd amendment all along, ignoring the “shall not be infringed”.  We already don’t allow “the people” to have most weapons used by our military forces.”

Dave responded:  “Again, I largely agree with you.  But I have to ask a question you haven’t addressed yet: When is revolution justified? Is it ever?”

It had been taking me quite a while to figure out what I think about that.  I replied:  “Revolution can become inevitable.  Oppression can become too extreme and too prolonged.  It could happen here.  Our tax and spending policies are making hardship from technology-enabled structural change in the economy a lot more painful.  Wealth is being transferred to the already uber-rich from all others.  I expect we will change direction but there’s no guarantee.  It’s not impossible, for example, that unrest could grow severe enough that some “strong man” could use the moment to seize dictatorial control.  “President Cheney declares martial law in response to ongoing riots in cities throughout the land”.  It seems unreasonable to say revolution in such a case would be unjustified.  But if I interpret “justifiable” to mean I would be willing to kill, I can’t use the word.  In a democracy we get what we deserve.  We could have seen that our government’s actions would, if not altered, lead to revolution and we did not make the necessary effort so, shame on us.  It’s not an exact parallel but my grandfather and his five brothers all refused to fight in WW1.  My grandfather’s objection was philosophical.  I’m more moved by what one of his younger brothers said: “I thought, what would I say to his mother if I killed a German boy, or what would he say to mine if he killed me? Nothing could make it right.”  That doesn’t mean I’m absolutely a pacifist.  Maybe there could be a war or revolution where I’d feel I had to participate.  But what I believe I’d do if I saw revolution coming is try to leave and join some other society, one I could feel better about being part of.”

Dave replied:  “Thank you.  I sometimes wonder what I’d do as well.  I suppose it would really depend on what was happening at the time.  But I do think that the idea that our government is getting away from us is part of what drives the 2nd amendment types, and it makes me less supportive of any effort to repeal the amendment.  You say “If we were writing our Constitution now, and not even thinking about the one we already have, we probably would not include bearing arms as a fundamental human right.”  I wonder: isn’t the right to defend one’s self a fundamental human right?  I feel like I have the inalienable right to defend myself from anyone who tries to interfere with my free will.  I’m not interested in fighting, weapons, or anything like that.  I don’t think I’m particularly paranoid, and I don’t see any immediate threats to my freedom (to my health is another story), but I do see my right to privacy and to not be wrongfully seized being whittled away.  Anyway, if it came down to it, I’d probably choose exile as well. Maybe we’re more cosmopolitans than patriots, Martin?”

I responded:  “Yeah, we must work to stop our government from getting away from us.  I’ve started emailing my Representatives about issues I see as especially important and I intend to pester them increasingly more actively.  It’s a cop-out to tell myself one voice won’t make any difference.  I started my original blog because I felt I didn’t understand enough to give them good feedback.  I feel quite a bit closer now to understanding at least which are the most important issues.  Self-defense is confusing.  The way one expects to go about it may be the key factor.  We’re less likely to be attacked if we project confidence, more likely if we project fearfulness.  We need to learn how to project confidence in a way that is non-threatening.  The confusing part is I really do believe non-violence is the right aspiration.  Ahimsa.  I hope I never find myself in a situation where it would be rational, for example, to wear a handgun in order to deter violence.  I’m really not sure what I would do if my everyday life put me in that kind of situation.  I try never to get into such a place.  It was not my intent but it should have been, for example, to avoid a cool project management gig in Mexico City.  The guy I’d have worked most closely with was shot coming out of his office soon after.  But what if I couldn’t avoid it?  I can say, well, if we hadn’t allowed all those guns to be purchased there wouldn’t be nearly so many in the hands of bad folks and our world would be less dangerous, but it’s too late now. The guns are already out there.”

Topics worthy of more discussion include:

  • When is revolution justified? Is it ever?
  • What are the limits on our right to self-defense?  Are there any?

Why I Feel Like an Extraterrestrial

Maybe it’s because I don’t watch TV.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m lying in the dentist chair.  The TV on the ceiling is tuned to CNBC.  The technician asks, “Would you like me to turn the TV off or shall I leave it on?”  I tell her it’s OK either way.  I think I don’t care and most of the time I am indifferent but every so often the moving images and voices attract my attention.  “Look,” says an intelligent looking young man, “if we eliminated the entire defense budget it still wouldn’t fix the deficit.”

The voices were being processed by my brain all the time.  Recognizing “defense budget”, something said, “heh, pay attention” and presented the entire sentence the man had spoken.  The interviewer thanked the young Congressman.  Nobody broke out howling with laughter.

We can’t know everything so maybe the Congressman didn’t know how much we spend on defense.  Maybe he didn’t know what he said was factually incorrect.  Perhaps he’s too busy to investigate what took me only a short time to learn (see this ) but can he really be a stranger to logic?

Let’s say it was true we would still have a deficit if we entirely eliminated defense spending.  Does that mean we have no choice but to continue defense spending at the same rate?  If those we elect can say such things and be treated as wise and suitable leaders, I must be an extraterrestrial.  Why isn’t anyone laughing?

The technician continues to chip away.  I try to relax, telling myself, “you’re over-reacting.  He probably knows what he said is nonsense and that many people like to hear such things.”  It doesn’t make me feel better but you can’t expect to feel all that great in a dentist chair, anyway.

The pattern recognizer alerts me again: “If we make enough laws, we can all be criminals”.  It remembers I was interested when I heard that before.  The speaker is another thoughtful looking man who also seems to be an elected representative.  He’s being asked about the President’s push for stronger gun control legislation.  He says new legislation will only make things worse.  Again, my hopes for a raucous laugh track are disappointed.

In the decade since 9/11 when 3,000 were killed, there were no additional terrorist killings on the USA mainland.  In that same ten years, 340,000 of us killed ourselves and others with firearms (40% homicides, 60% suicides).

We took action to avert more terrorist attacks.  We took too much of the wrong kind but we also took some that was both appropriate and effective.  Pretty much all of us are pleased by the results of the effective action.  Why, then, would it be impossible to take effective action to avert more firearm deaths?  Isn’t that why we elect representatives – so they will establish effective legislation?

Maybe I’ve forgotten my extraterrestrial childhood but I remember and never regretted choosing to become an American.  So what if I feel like an extraterrestrial when I watch TV or read things like this ?.  I’m committed to this society and I will keep doing everything I can to help it grow ever better.

Evaluation of War on Terror Strategy

Our War on Terror strategy (see this) implies readiness for large and small scale action in multiple theaters throughout Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Northern and Western South America.  How likely is its success, how long will it take, can we afford the cost, and is there a better approach?

The goal of the strategy is to eliminate Islamic “holy war” terrorists who might attack us from anywhere in the world.  It is unachievable.  That kind of threat can not be ended, only mitigated and endured.  Military action is in fact counter-productive because the collateral destruction creates more terrorists and strengthens their support.  Even if we could utterly destroy al Qaeda, we could not declare victory because we declared war on all Muslim terrorists.  Since there are over a billion Muslims, there will always be a few Muslim extremists just as there will always be some who are Christian.

Response to aggression should always be proportional to the threat, and it must be able to succeed.  Our response is massively disproportional and it can never succeed.

A strategy of unending military engagement everywhere would exhaust any nation.  That strategy for the USA predates the War on Terror.  We spend more on military activities than the next 20 nations combined, which is half our total expected Federal tax revenue.  The cost of our already high Federal debt must become unaffordable when our spending is persistently so much higher than revenue.  No nation can afford war that is permanent.  We cannot afford this strategy’s cost.

And the strategy will make us permanently less free.  When we go to war to preserve our liberty, we willingly forgo some of the freedoms we enjoy in everyday life, expecting them to be restored when victory is achieved.  If victory never can be won, those freedoms never will be regained.

Finally, the strategy creates unwarranted suffering for our own people.  Enormously more of our troops are killed than the number of US citizens threatened by terrorists and enormously more of them suffer physical and/or psychological damage from which they will never recover.  Caring for them has a high dollar cost.  Far more important, we are wrong to demand their sacrifice.

So, we are forcing future generations to pay for a war that cannot succeed and which limits the very freedoms we claim it will preserve.  How did this happen?

For the first half century after we emerged as a great power early in the 20th century, we acted overseas only after deliberation and then with decisive power.  The great good fortune of our geography gave us time to prepare and sufficient resources to do so.  We entered WW1 and WW2 when we were ready and we brought about rapid victory.

We radically changed strategy following WW2.  We began managing the world whether or not our immediate interests were threatened in any particular situation.  We took the lead in Korea, which the Allies had split into two nations at the end of WW2.  Then we initiated a long, bloody and fruitless war in Vietnam that spilled over into Laos and Cambodia.  And we established a nuclear strategy of “mutually assured destruction” which we did not change after Soviet Russia, our only military rival, collapsed and we no longer faced any existential threat.

In response to the 9/11 attack on two mainland USA targets by al Queda terrorists, we initiated not just detective work but war, as if we had been attacked by a nation.  We invaded Iraq even though we knew there was no Iraqi involvement in the attacks.  We heavily bombed Afghanistan where al Queda’s leaders were based and inserted ground forces there.  After Al Queda’s command cell relocated to Pakistan, we greatly increased our activities in Afghanistan.  By about 2004 we had lost focus on what our War on Terror was intended to achieve.

No satisfactory reason for our invasion of Iraq emerged, civil war broke out, and opposition to us was so strong by 2004 that we could only maintain our presence by allying with our enemies.  Furthermore, by destroying Iraq’s power we had eliminated the only regional balance against Iran, which we now view as our enemy.  After entering Afghanistan to disrupt al Qaeda’s leadership, we drifted into fighting the Taliban, a different and far more costly objective that required massive force.  We then, as in Iraq, set a far longer term objective, building a democratic society.  When we installed the Karzai government, the Taliban retreated to the mountains to wait us out.  We are now downsizing our presence but the end of our war in Afghanistan is indefinitely far distant.

Meanwhile, we began to capture and monitor all electronic communications to identify terrorists.   Believing we were threatened by potentially massive new attacks, we could only hope to avert them by monitoring all communications between everyone, and storing everything so we could monitor earlier communications of new suspects.  We partially suspended habeas corpus so suspects could be jailed indefinitely without trial.  We began torturing them, illegal in the USA even in wartime, in camps overseas.  We began killing suspects without due process.  The President can now direct even US citizens to be killed.

In the past 10 years we have killed around 3,000 terrorists and civilians with drones in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere, i.e., inside nations on which we have not declared war, and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which killed bin Laden, has established commando teams in Africa for operations throughout NE Africa and the Middle East.  Attorney General Holder asserts: “Our legal authority is not limited to the battlefield in Afghanistan… We are at war with a stateless enemy, prone to shifting operations from country to country.”  That authority extends, he says, to killing US citizens without regard to geography or due process.

War changes society by limiting citizens’ rights.  Inspecting the private communications of citizens is routine during war, habeas corpus and due process are routinely suspended, and what would be assassination in time of peace becomes legal.  But if our war on terror never ends, our civil liberties and peacetime rules of law will never be restored.  They will be further eroded.

We are now, 12 years into this war, committing massive resources to missions that are not even clearly connected with preventing Islamist terrorism and we are making permanent what were introduced as emergency overrides on the Bill of Rights, e.g., the need to obtain a warrant for certain actions.

No nation can afford the dollar cost of permanent war or the spiritual cost of war that can never be won.  When we do take military action it should be with clear goals and sufficient force applied in a way that will achieve the goals.  Our present strategy has none of these attributes.