Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Reality and Consequences of Asymmetric Warfare

Much has been written about the metaphor and the reality of “The War on Terror”. Unfortunately, not many lessons have been learned.

The usual short definition of terror is the intentional killing of innocents. It is quite clear that when someone blows themselves up in a disco and takes innocents with them, an act of terror has be committed. It is less clear when innocents are killed in what is usually called an act of war. The occupation of a country usually results in some form of insurgency if the citizens of that country think an injustice has been done. The acts of the insurgents usually take the form of clandestine attacks from cover or suicide bombings of various forms. Such acts of insurgency are usually countered by a violent response from the occupying force, which almost always has modern weapons at its disposal. Since it is difficult to find insurgents because they attack and then hide, usually among the civilian population, the counterattack usually involves the bombing or destruction of a suspected hideout or other location where the suspects are thought to be. This minimizes the exposure of the occupying force to counterattack. In the process, innocents can and usually are killed or injured. This form of attack by the occupying force is usually justified on the basis of combating the initial attack by the insurgents and the innocent life lost is called “collateral damage”.

The consequences of such actions and reactions are not often perceived in their totality. The occupying force considers justice to be done, in an eye for an eye form of revenge. But, the insurgents view it as a further injustice, in the cause they are fighting in the first instance, the occupation. And the innocent victims view it as a fresh injustice, since they had harmed no one up to that point, and it is usually not their decision where insurgents decide to hide. Such a reaction often moves the innocents and their sympathizers into the camp of the insurgents. In this sense, the effects of the attack and counterattack are counter productive to both parties. The occupying force clamps down harden on the insurgents and the insurgents are motivated to strike out once again. The result is an escalation of violence.

One aspect of such encounters that is not often perceived is that to the insurgents the counterattack is just as much an act of terror and the original incident. It kills innocents when it could have been avoided, except for the revenge sought by the occupying force. So the metaphor, “war on terror” becomes the mantra of both parties, solving nothing. Nothing has been done to examine the grievances of the two parties and seek a solution to the injustices. It becomes simple a matter of who can persist the longest, and in some cases it has been decades.

This is not war in the conventional sense where well equipped enemies battle for territory. It is more akin to crime, like the clan battles of the Hatfields and McCoys, with the exception that one side holds most of the cards, so the other side has to move to less and less conventional methods, which usually results in an escalation of brutality. Add to this, religion or ethnic differences and you have what usually amounts to an insoluble problem.

The effects of such conflicts are different for the occupying, well equipped force and the inadequately equipped insurgency. Simple means of war such as rifles, grenade launchers, and explosives are relatively cheap and available. Modern means such as helicopters, cruise missiles, drones, and the electronics to operate them is very expensive. Add to this the difference in the value placed on individual lives by the warring parties and there is no obvious winner. The modern force spends itself into bankruptcy or destroys the will of the affluent society backing them up while the insurgency, having little to live for anyway (occupation saps the will to succeed) and a nearly endless supply of expendable lives can fight on for decades.

At some point, someone should begin to realize that there are better things to do in life and decide that talking, trading, and backing off is a better alternative. What stands in the way is usually religious zeal to prove that your way is the right way and the other guy is either evil or deranged.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


There is much confusion these days about democracy, theocracy, philosophy, ideology, politics, and basic human rights. Our current administration has the noble goal of spreading democracy around the world, but considering the state of the world today, what could result is just as likely to be an authoritarian theocracy as a liberal pluralistic democracy like ours, that respects human rights. Given a choice, a deeply religious majority is more likely to vote for a government based on the tenets of their religion than one where interest groups vie for control and share power in a questionably stable way.

Our country was settled by people fleeing countries with a state religion, and persecuting those of other religions. At the time, almost all people were religious, having no scientific basis for explaining naturally occurring phenomena other than religion. Hence, it’s no surprise that this country was founded by people who had at least a rudimentary belief in a higher power that might be controlling things. But, it wasn’t long before people of the same religion were in control of the town meeting hall in Salem and burning witches, illustrating that once a single religion predominates over others, and controls the government, irrational behavior is likely to follow. If that example isn’t convincing enough, we only have to look to the Taliban in Afghanistan and the threat we are facing from extremists of the Islamic faith around the world.

Fortunately, when our country was founded, there were a few cooler heads that prevailed in spite of their religious inclinations. In secret, they came up with a constitution that called for freedom of religion, but restricted government interference in religion, a pretty wise decision by a bunch of not so old aristocratic, land owning white men. They enshrined these famous words in a declaration of independence, “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that among these are Life Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It makes no difference who the Creator was, most of us would all agree that, as individuals, we are entitled to certain inalienable rights which should not be infringed by government or any other voice of the majority. Today we call these human rights, and have enshrined them in our bill of rights and enumerated them in documents agreed to by almost all members of the United Nations.

We are now faced with a resurgence of deeply dedicated religious people. We call them fundamentalists because they believe and adhere to the fundamental teachings of their religion, as given in ancient texts which they consider infallible. These people value their religious beliefs higher than their own lives. When this condition exists, rational behavior based on evidence cannot be expected. There is no a priori respect for inalienable human rights as enshrined in our founding documents.

So we have some decisions to take regarding how we conduct our own affairs, and how we confront others who may threaten our way of life. We cannot confuse religiosity with ideology or political persuasion. We cannot confuse “democracy”, rule by the majority, with a government limited in its powers to curtail human rights. Can we rely on polyarchy, the rule by competing interest groups, to preserve human rights and prevent domination by religious majorities? I’m not very confident we can.

In the end, we may have to accept some measure of authoritarianism to protect human rights from infringement by religious majorities, as is now current policy in Turkey. After centuries of rule by caliphates and sultanates Mustafa Kemal Atatürk enshrined a Security Council of the military to ensure that a secular regime would always be in control, in spite of the fact that Turkey is overwhelming an Islamic country, and once was the seat of power of the Islamic Sultans. This structure is being challenged today by Islamic fundamentalists.

As a goal for our country, aren’t we better off championing human rights and structures to secure them, over democracy. It is impossible to be secure if the ruling authority is guided by irrational precepts of age old dogma, rather than a well founded faith in the goodness of human nature and the inalienable rights of individuals, which has served us well for over 200 years. To this end, we must not only be conscious of how other countries are ruled, but we must take great care to ensure that our own government doesn’t come under similar pressures to what Turkey now faces.

Capitalism vs. Capitalism

We are seeing today a conflict between modern unfettered capitalism and the polite capitalism of the bazaar that developed in the high middle ages and continued into twentieth century America

In ancient times the only real capitalism is what we call here polite capitalism, typified by bazaars and open markets where farmers and craftsmen traded the products of their labor with others who specialized in different activities. Although the bargaining was as hard as any time in history, this form of capitalism was considered a respectable way of increasing the welfare of all, and underhanded dealings, trickery, and speculation were viewed as undermining the process.

Capitalism changed in the last couple centuries when markets expanded from the direct exchange of goods and services in bazaars, to unfettered modern capitalism, with the introduction of central banking, corporations, trusts, holding companies, stock markets, and speculation. The scale of projects during the industrial revolution and subsequent development of assembly line manufacturing and railroads necessitated such changes to a great extent. But, along with such concentrated control of capital came practices which were inconsistent with the polite capitalism conducted by individuals in earlier times. A class of workers devoted to the mechanics of financial transactions, removed from the real reasons for investing developed. They soon learned that more profit was to be made from churning assets, developing sophisticated derivatives to mitigate risk, and increasing the volume of financial exchanges, than could be made from providing investment capital to industrialists and entrepaneurs. In this environment, speculation rose to equal importance to investing, and clever use of deceptive techniques to make money from handling money became respectable.

But, polite capitalism never really disappeared. Even in advanced western countries, polite capitalism still exists, although it is facing a great challenge. Drive through any small town in America and you will notice that the gasoline prices are nearly the same everywhere. You might call it collusion, but it’s really not. It is more a respect for neighbors that know each other well, and all of which must make a living in trying times. They would rather compete on providing the best service, rather than strictly on the price of the commodities they sell.

So along comes Wal-Mart, imported consumer goods, cheap foreign labor, outsourcing, cutthroat competition and all the other products of unfettered capitalism. The prices of goods and services drop, but home grown businesses soon are forced to close and polite capitalism begins to disappear. It’s neighbor against neighbor, chasing the lowest price, since the wages drop even quicker than the price of goods and services and small town America is on hard times.

The result of the transition from polite capitalism to unfettered capitalism is often a loss of ethical business practices and a shift to impersonal economic interactions, along with a transfer of wealth to those most skilled in financial matters rather than in providing exceptional craftsmanship. The mass produced products tend to be more standardized, but variety and quality is more erratic. Handcrafted products become prohibitively expensive for the average consumer.

We may want to consider whether we are losing or winning in transition from polite capitalism to unfettered capitalism.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

National Newspaper Week

Please, members of the press, help us open a discussion of our fragmenting moral framework

This week is National Newspaper Week. The public depends on newspapers and other media to keep informed of events and assess their consequences. This not only requires an accurate record of events but also the background surrounding the events and a moral and ethical framework through which the events are viewed.

In recent year the national framework of conventional wisdom, assumptions and taboos has deviated considerably from the framework used by the rest of the world. I ask the press to take the opportunity of National Newspaper Week to examine why this has occurred, and open a discussion of why our world view is diverging from the rest of the world, whether we are on the right track or the wrong one, and how the differing views can be reconciled. To illustrate how things are changing I offer a couple examples.

Religious influence on government

USA Today reports that the Congress, at President Bush’s urging, has just passed legislation that would bar detainees from challenging their detention in courts, a change that goes against a couple hundred years of American history. This has been discussed in the press from most angles, legal, ethical and moral. The one angle not discussed has been religious influence on such decisions. Why the change now? Is it related to the ethnic and religious background of the detainees? Have we divided the world into people that are evil and those that are good? If so, is this because of our religious beliefs? This is not a subject that should be taboo and above discussion if it is changing long standing principles that have served us well.

The morality of warfare

There was a time when emperors and kings lead their troops into battle. There was a time when stealth and surprise attacks were dishonorable. Obviously we’ve come a long way from those times. But even recent world wars were fought with a near parity of forces, comparably equipped, at least at the start. There was some honor in such wars, even though circumstances deteriorated and masses of civilians became targets, ostensibly to avoid even larger casualties, or justified on the basis of the support of the general population for the acts of the military.

This is not the situation we face today. We have countries equipped with sophisticated weapons of massive destructive power and extreme accuracy battling resistance movements not tied to any government and without any modern weapons other than rifles and grenade launchers. This is the epitome of asymmetric warfare. When an aggrieved group of people finds they have no means to challenge their occupation or displacement by an enemy with a modern army and the support of superpowers what are they to do but surrender or use unconventional methods like terror to achieve what they view as justice? In our frame of reference, we have defined such terror as despicable and the worst form of brutality, even though those engaging in it may consider it so important that they are willing to give up their life in the cause, and even though respected countries have used it to win independence.

On the other hand, we sanction the use of smart bombs of deadly accuracy and devastating explosive power operated from safe quarters miles away to attack domestic facilities that may contain many civilians, to assassinate a single cruel dictator with which we have a conflict. This is the way we went after Saddam at the start of the Iraq war and killed innocent civilians in a restaurant in Iraq. We don’t call this terror. We call this collateral damage. It cannot be taboo to challenge this form of warfare. Is this form of warfare honorable, or have we completely dismissed the concept of honorable warfare?

The weakening of rules against torture is another way we have voluntary relinquished the high ground in our claim to be honorable and humane people. Why are we doing this? There may be unique circumstances that occur once or twice in a lifetime that require breaking the rules to prevent massive loss of innocent life. But, why is this something that we want to write into law? Is this rational? Or are we driven by emotions or religious zeal to repeat the brutalities of the past that we have tried for centuries to rise above?

Please, members of the press, help us open this discussion

The examples I have given here a just a couple ways we seem to have been regressing as a society into the brutal ways of the past. The rest of the civilized world is not with us on this. They have a different frame of reference. Are we to follow the ways of those we consider evil, or are we to lead by maintaining our honor and humanity. The press can help us here by breaking old taboos against the discussion of religion and in challenging a frame of reference which is no longer in concert with world opinion. We should have learned by now that the enemy that currently threatens us is operating out of deep religious conviction and zeal, and as a result is behaving irrationally. Do we want to join them in their irrational ways or do we want to examine our own premises and challenge our changing worldview of what is honorable and moral?

Friday, August 18, 2006

The American Plutocracy

The United States is now divided roughly at the median income. Those above it consider themselves “winners”. Their income comes from their job(s), their 401k and other investment portfolios, and the increasing value of their home equity. They are from good families that value education and have connections to the best schools and job sources. Most of them don’t give a hoot about the lower half of the income spectrum whom they consider “losers”, a bunch of uneducated ne’r-do-wells who will not succeed under any circumstances, so government welfare for them is a waste of economic resources. They allow the political donor class to call the shots in government and believe that what is good for corporations and the political donor class is good for the country. They hope to become part of that class at some point in the future.

“Free trade” allows corporations to prosper, and as long as the “winners” can hire competent management of their portfolios and keep trading up in their homes their success will follow that of the corporations and the political donor class. Allowing unlimited immigration and unlimited outsourcing will eventually drive the wages of the “losers” to subsistence levels, allowing more of the wealth of the nation to go to the “winners”.

The US is a plutocracy where the corporations run the nation, supported by a slim majority of the population who profit from the status quo, think they do, or aspire to at some point in the future. As long as these “winners” constitute a majority of people who vote, nothing will be done to change the status quo. Only if the “losers” either achieve a majority and start voting, or come close to revolution, will the situation change.

Promoting religion and religious values in politics is a way of keeping some of the “loser” class voting for the values of the “winner” class. If they consider the “winners” better people with “good religious values” and the “losers” people of low values and parasitic qualities they will continue to vote the “winners” interests even though they may constitute part of the “loser” class economically.

Bush’s proposed legislation and campaign tactics demonstrate his dedication to this philosophy. His foreign policy and global trade policy indicate that he would like to see it spread around the world.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Futility of Modern Warfare

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war have raised questions about the efficacy of using conventional methods of warfare to occupy territory and counter insurgencies. Dedicated enemies that are willing to die for a cause apparently don’t fear shock and awe as much as the deliverers envision. And, the cost of conventional wars is becoming astronomical. It seems possible that a dedicated group, using stealth and the cover of local populations can bleed the resources of major powers using conventional forces until they either are seriously impacted by the disparity in economics of the two types of warfare, or their will to continue is defeated.

In Iraq, we have fielded a half million troops over a period of four year to sustain a force of 120,000, spent a half trillion dollars, lost 2,500 lives, 15,000 injured, 8,000 seriously and 20,000 suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. And with the help of over 200,000 Iraq troops we have not been able to achieve a decisive victory over a few thousand insurgents. I think we have demonstrated that force alone will not achieve our ends.

In Israel, a country we have subsidizing to the tune of two to four billion dollars a year for several decades, and which has devoted a large portion of its resources to defense, has not been able to control an insurgency of ill equipped, impoverished Palestinians with no end in sight. If there is a cause which is supported by donors from without, it is quite clear that an insurgency can be sustained perpetually.

Modern western nations have attempted to stigmatize the means used by insurgents to wage insurgencies by giving them the label, terror, because the blood and gore is visibly apparent, and civilians are casualties. Modern warfare has become more like a video arcade game, where missiles are fired from aircraft or bunkers far away to completely destroy targets or people with no evidence of the blood and gore attendant to it, and where the loss of civilian life is sanitized by calling it collateral damage. Such propaganda has been somewhat successful in convincing the populations of modern countries that their actions are just, while those of the insurgents are not. But, it has not been successful in convincing the insurgents and their sympathizers of this. In reality, war is war, the violent and cruel destruction of human and material resources as a substitute for communication and common understanding that should be limited to the defense of homelands from dictators with diabolical intentions and megalomaniac visions. Its use as a tool to spread democracy or to successfully occupy territory over a long period appears to be counterproductive and a net drain on the resources of those who employ it.

The conclusion to be reached is that the tools of war and the reasons to go to war need to be reevaluated to suit our times. Strong countries can be more successful in defending what they have developed by assisting weak countries in their development. Rogue nations are more likely to decay and fail when left alone to fend for themselves, rather than when they are threatened, blockaded or sanctioned. Any external threat tends to bring a nation together to defend its sovereignty. When left alone to decay, an insurrection of a disaffected population is more likely, and as we have illustrated here military might is only a temporary solution to controlling a population that becomes more and more dedicated to a cause it perceives as just.

The Politics of Fear

After decades of ignoring terrorist acts against our foreign installations and ignoring border and internal security we are attacked by Islamists using our own planes. What does this tell us? Does it say we have been caught with our pants down and need to pay attention to our internal and external security, or does it tell us we are faced with a formidable new enemy that is going develop sophisticated weapons, invade our country, and subjugate our people? Do we beef up our intelligence services, improve our cooperation with foreign allies, and rationally consider what caused the act and how to fight this new enemy, or do we embark on a quasi-religious campaign to demonize countries we think irresponsible and mount a conventional war of gigantic proportions to demonstrate our strength and ability to inflict massive damage on our enemies?

Unfortunately, in both cases, we did the latter, defining an axis of evil in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, mounting a shock and awe campaign of standoff warfare and then invading the first country in the axis of evil, Iraq. What signal does this send to the other two countries? Are they more likely to think we are just settling old scores with an old enemy or is this the first in a series of invasions of the three countries in the axis of evil? It would seem a rational response of the other two countries would be to fear an invasion by the world’s greatest superpower, particularly if the superpower continues to avoid direct diplomacy where real attitudes can be discerned, and continues to make threats of dire consequences if their instructions are not followed to the letter.

How can these countries keep from feeling boxed in and threatened if the world’s greatest superpower goes around the world rounding up support for sanctions or other aggressive actions against them? Are they most likely to give up their sovereignty and submit, or are they more likely to want to develop a nuclear retaliatory capacity to defend themselves, when they see that other nuclear armed countries are not as threatened by nuclear armed superpowers?

We continue on the path of force and fear, squeezing and squeezing the cornered rats, because we can, because we want to show them who is boss, and more realistically because of our own paranoid fear that they are a dire threat to us. Isn’t this a time to step back and ask ourselves what the real threats are? Certainly they have more to fear from us than we have to fear from them. Wouldn’t some serious diplomacy, one on one, go a long way toward diffusing the situation? Are we so prideful that we can’t explain to them the axis of evil thing was a mistake and that we are really not interested in invading them? Or is this just the politics of fear used by this administration to rally the Rambos to the polls in the next election?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Phony War

The so-called War on Terror is a phony war. Are we to believe that we are threatened by a disorganized band of disaffected radicals led by an exiled Arab hiding out in the hinterlands of Afghanistan or Pakistan?

After decades of ignoring border security and the status of foreigners entering the country legally but overstaying their visas, and meddling in the affairs of Islamic countries around the world, we are surprised that we are attacked using our own aircraft as weapons? Correcting this lapse of security is obviously is not a job for highly trained pilots, cruise missiles, tanks and a marine landing. It’s a job for the intelligence services, law enforcement, and maybe a few Special Forces, along with cooperation with other nations in confronting the threat. It’s also a signal to get off our duff and do something about border and internal security. We have our own domestic wackos, what’s a few more? We live in a dangerous world and we need to be vigilant.

But, the administration needed a war to accomplish its real goals, the plans for which were already on the drawing board. Old scores with Saddam Hussein must be settled, a beachhead in the Middle East must be established, and the waning powers of the executive branch must be shored up. There is nothing like a war to put the fear of God into the populace, legitimize the expansion of executive powers, and expose the weakness and sheep-like tendencies of Congress, who worry more about the next election than the welfare of the country.

We need look no further than Washington DC to find the axis of evil. The combo of chicken hawk neocons and frustrated cold warriors eager to kick ass and take names to control the world is all that is needed. These plotters claimed for themselves the sole authority to define what is good and what is evil, what tools of war are legitimate, what aggressive actions need to be taken preemptively, without threat to the country, and the means to carry them out. They abandoned the principles of humanity the country has held for generations by eschewing limitations on torture, using renditions and secret hideouts for interrogation, and sidestepping international conventions and cautions to accomplish their goals.

What do weak countries and their people do when confronted with the threats and actions of a superpower that controls a major portion of the worlds economic infrastructure and has the military might to crush any confrontation on the field of battle? How do people without sophisticated weapons confront a superpower or a country like Israel that is backed up by a superpower? Do they meet them on the field of battle with their rocks and rifles to be crushed by exploding missiles fired from planes or bunkers miles away? What recourse do they have besides secret forms of insurgency like sniping, exploding devices, or kidnapping? When these are the only weapons available and are effective why are they considered illegitimate?

In such conflicts between the weak and the strong, the strong not only exercise military superiority. They demand to right to define the terms and language of engagement. The tactics used by the opposition are stigmatized as terror, while the destruction of civilians along with military targets by antiseptic standoff warfare is deemed collateral damage. The use of disproportionate force is justified as the right of self defense.

History has shown that the only defense against incursions into weak countries by strong military powers is insurgency. Just as the colonialists were denounced by the British for using guerilla tactics instead of meeting in ranks on the field of battle in the Revolutionary War the insurgents of today are condemned for using guerilla tactics to defend their territory. If weak powers are to preserve their way of life against the demands and incursions of strong military powers they must use all effective means at their disposal to defend themselves. Striking at the homeland of strong military powers is a legitimate means of defense. Particularly, in the case of democratic countries, where the civilian population must sanction the actions of their government, attacks against the civilian population have a measure of legitimacy.

We must come to realize that most of our problems with Islamic groups stem from two sources: the dangers of religion in creating extremist tendencies in downtrodden people who see no hope in the future, and our meddling in their affairs and supporting other countries that do. They have a right to decide how they want to be governed. And they must have the courage to overthrow dictators in the same way they are willing to repel an occupying power. We must restrict our actions to defense of our own country from external and internal threats, and diplomatic initiatives to influence the affairs of other countries, unless more drastic action is sanctioned by a legitimate majority of the world’s nations. We must uphold the values that made our country great and that are embodied in the declaration of independence and the constitution. We must maintain our system of checks and balances. We must keep our press free of governmental pressure. We must provide for the least among us who can’t provide for themselves. We must sustain a strong and vibrant middle class. We must treat people humanely and compassionately. We must lead be example, not by force. If we do otherwise we are on the road to the trash heap of history.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


The theory behind Globalism is that more goods and services can be produced if their production occurs where there is a competitive advantage, resulting in greater wealth than would otherwise occur without it. This conclusion involves two fallacies. One is that greater wealth may not be the best yardstick of success. The other is that there is no global government to regulate Globalism. The latter makes it more of a contest of survival of the fittest, than a road to prosperity for all.

I probably won’t live to find out, but it will be interesting to see if it results in a reasonable standard of living for all people, or an opportunity for a smaller and smaller number of people to corner the market on more and more of the worlds resources while more and more people work for survival wages. It is not in the interest of whoever controls the dice to let people starve because they are not productive in that state, so it is likely that most of the world’s population will at least have a subsistence living and some measure of security. That’s not too bad considering how most of the world lives right now. And it may be all that’s needed to be happy.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

What’s Happening to Our Democracy?

Our two party system seems now to be wholly owned by the corporations and the political donor class. Unfortunately, the movers and shakers in the media are also members of this upper crust, and seem to be taking their cues more from the politicians than from the people. It’s amazing to see legislation that gets passed in direct opposition to the will of the majority of the people, as indicated by the polls.

We have lost the integrity of our own borders, not due to bad laws, but due to lack of enforcement of the laws, since both parties seem to favor flooding the country with immigrants. And we seem to be more concerned about what is happening in other countries than what is happening in our own. If we don’t like what’s happening, we just roll out our military might and throw our weight around a little to get them to come around.

The Republicans have always been largely a party of business and the wealthy, allowing a little trickle down to pacify the peons. Their ideal seems to outsourcing labor, and importing cheap goods. For those jobs that can’t be outsourced, they rely on immigrant labor to drive down wages. They’ve now added the religious to their fold by electing born again Christians to solidify their hold on political power, although they, themselves, seem to worship at the church of GDP and totally free markets. They seem to have never met a victim of circumstances, or at least acknowledged them.

The Democrats, on the other hand, never met a victim they didn’t love. They used to be the party of American middle and lower classes. Unions also used to represent these people. But, now the Democrats and the Unions seem to have turned their attention to international victims, almost exclusively, leaving the American middle and lower classes to fend for themselves without a party to call their own. After all, with no border control and both parties ignoring immigration law, the demographics are rapidly shifting to unskilled, uneducated foreign immigrants, the better to inflate their voter rolls and union coffers.

The ruling class seems more interested in making money by churning money in the financial markets than actually making things and getting them to consumers. Why make things when you can get them cheaper from sweat shops in foreign countries? As long as the stock market is booming all is well for this group. Why should they be concerned when it’s not their jobs that are disappearing? If you control the boardrooms of corporate America you can always see to it that the profits go for big executive salaries and bonuses. With the principal stockholders being pension and insurance fund managers you don’t have to be worried about anyone raising a stink when you hire each others executives to sit on your corporate board. All the ruling class has to do is insure that it, and its cadre of hangers on and wannabees, is at least fifty percent of the electorate. Then it will be possible to drive down the wages of the lower half to subsistence levels, and feather their own nest. By using social issues like religion, human rights, and environmentalism and perceived foreign threats, it’s pretty easy to hoodwink the electorate for an extended period of time, particularly if they’re dominated by uneducated foreign immigrants.

Let’s face it, the system is broken and not about to change anytime soon. The ruling class has it figured out to their benefit, so why make waves. The same thing has been going on in Latin America for decades. In some countries there it’s become so bad that populist socialists have become all the rage once again. Is that what it will take to wake up America? Are we a country of all the people, or not?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Nuclear Waste Disposal

Billions of dollars have been spent on preparing Yucca Mountain in Nevada for disposal of nuclear waste. Billions more will be spent on making it safe for storage because it’s a mountain and it’s above the water table. Mountains are formed by seismic upheavals and future seismic activity could cause degradation which could imperil the underlying water table over the thousands of years required for the radioactive material to decay.

It seems rather obvious that that there could be safer solutions to this problem. We currently pump billions of barrels of oil out of the ground to supply our energy needs. Nuclear power will be needed in ever greater quantities as the supply of oil is reduced. What replaces the oil that we pump from thousands of feet below the earth’s surface; usually water, or as is being researched now in North Dakota and Canada, carbon dioxide. These are pumped into the oil fields at their edges to displace the oil, increasing the field’s total yield. Once the field is pumped out these filler materials remain forever, thousands of feet below ground, never to bother anyone or anything again.

This raises the question of whether or not it would be feasible to use evacuated oil reservoirs to safely store nuclear wastes. There oil fields a couple miles underground in seismically inactivate areas of the Great Plains in western North Dakota and eastern Montana and Wyoming in a region called the Williston Basin. This also happens to be an area which is losing population as farms become larger, and which, because of its remoteness and inclement weather, is not very suitable for the development of other industries. Once these fields become depleted, economic conditions is this area will become even more dire.

If methods can be developed to grind nuclear waste into a fine particulate it could be mixed and heavily diluted with water pumped from the depleted fields and reinserted into them, using the existing water insertion points on the edge of the field and existing wells in the center as the water source. Because of the depth of the storage area and low seismic activity in the region, there should much less concern for safety, compared to the currently proposed Yucca Mountain site. There is a certain irony in using a site that was a previous energy source as a solution to waste problems associated with a new energy source. It’s sort of a two for one benefit that seems like a natural solution.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

American Stasis

We have reached the point in the United States where institutions and government apparatus are frozen from making any major changes which would correct the many problems facing us. The two-party system has put the power in the hands of wealthy benefactors who finance the campaigns of politicians, allowing them to become wealthy in office, and providing them with high paying jobs as lobbyists once they retire from office. Lawmakers seek office not to do the people’s business but to advance their own interests at the expense of the people by gerrymandering districts and writing laws that sustain the current system of patronage.

The result of this stasis is the increasing control of the country by international corporations and an investor class who see the opportunity to solidify their control of the population and world commerce through the financing of government. Borders become less secure, both for investment and the transit of labor and goods across them. The obsession with growth, laissez faire markets and consumption to increase wealth overwhelms the constitutional goals of promoting the general welfare and providing a level playing field for citizens to prosper. The growth, in turn, promotes investment from abroad and borrowing at home which puts the country ever deeper into debt to foreign countries. The urge to consume drives an ever increasing dependence on low cost foreign products and energy sources, financed by loans from the same foreign countries reaping the profits from the sale of their products. As the cycle deepens wealth is concentrated more and more in the hands of a few who have the advantage of being born into wealth or comfortable circumstances that facilitate their prosperity or rise to it.

The stasis arises primarily from the necessity to satisfy existing corporate and group interests at the expense of the general interest. Any proposals for significant change are met with an onslaught of lobbying from all the existing interests that are affected. Whether it is health care reform, pension reform, tax reform, or reform to update the provisions of our two hundred year old constitution that doesn’t address many modern day problems, the result is the same. Only small incremental changes are possible and are usually followed by more small incremental changes in the opposite direction to redress lost advantages of interest groups.

Where will it all lead? Chances are that sooner or later, the chickens will come home to roost. The inability to address problems and the ever increasing debt will inevitably lead to worse conditions for the average American and a loss of their buying power. As American buying power diminishes and foreign buying power increases international corporations will no longer see a need to be headquartered in the United States or produce here. At that point we will become just another previously prosperous country among many.

How can we avoid this fate? The only hope seems to be a change in values from valuing growth and consumption to valuing national unity and a concern for our fellow Americans. This will necessarily mean a lower standard of living for the wealthy, a higher standard of living for the middle and lower classes, and probably a somewhat lower standard of living over all. But, it will make for less anxiety about our future and that of our children and grandchildren and an increase in general satisfaction and happiness at the expense of fewer material goods.

Friday, February 03, 2006

A Kinder, Gentler Nation

Over the past couple hundred years our nation has become a divided, complicated place to live. The hodge-podge of tax laws, government subsidies, citizens jockeying for advantage, lobbyists buying influence, and congress critters feathering their nest and solidifying their power gives one that hopeless feeling that the country is on the decline and we no longer are in charge of our own destiny. It’s time to simplify the mess, at least to some degree. I offer here just a few suggestions that, if adopted together would make our lives a little easier, although they don’t come close to solving all our problems, national and international. They mainly address our economic morass, where we see the middle class disappearing as some us prosper and others sink deeper into despair and consternation over how we’re going to make ends meet and leave our offspring a better world. So I give you a few steps we can take to simplify and reduce the size of government and allow all citizens more participation in our prosperity.

1) Replace the minimum wage with a living wage. (Don’t stop reading now. You’ll see how this works later.)

2) Eliminate all tax deductions, exemptions, and credits and adopt a uniform progressive set of personal income tax rates on all forms of income above the living wage. Combine all current taxes on income (e. g. income, Social Security, Medicare, and disability taxes) into this one single tax. (A one page tax return for only those making more than the living wage.)

3) Eliminate the corporate income tax, corporate sponsored healthcare, and corporate retirement plans. (See my proposal for health care below.) This will make corporations more competitive both at home and abroad. Corporations don’t pay any net taxes. They just pass them on in the cost of their products. Corporate taxation is one of the main reasons corporate lobbying exists, to create a favorable tax and regulatory environment.

4) Pay retirees and the disabled a living wage consistent with their circumstances. Since many retirees own their own homes and have reduced transportation, education, and childcare needs their living wage will be lower than for working people.

5) Handle unemployment by making the able-bodied unemployed available to work on existing time-insensitive infrastructure and research projects at the living wage. As unemployment waxes and wanes, adjust completion dates of these projects to accommodate the available unemployed workforce. Since these jobs will always be limited to the living wage, they will represent a ready supply of labor available for private enterprise as long as they can pay them the living wage or more.

These proposals, if implemented together, will essentially eliminate all current forms of government welfare and reduce the size of the tax collection bureaucracy dramatically. Government activities will be limited to administering the program, regulatory functions, national defense, and financing major infrastructure and research projects. The increased cost of labor to corporations will be offset by the elimination of corporate taxes, pensions, and healthcare.

We are paying for all these things now in a way that encourages lobbying, cheating, favoritism, and political infighting. Our corporations are saddled with social responsibilities that increase the price of their products and keep them from making decisions on the basis of good business practice. Why not have a system that encourages work, makes workers feel secure that their basic needs are met, and which frees business to increase output and productivity?

A reasonable way to handle healthcare.

Implement at national health insurance system that is basically Medicare with health savings accounts. Health savings accounts are a good idea because they put the buying power for primary care in the hands of health care users, encouraging them to make wise medical decisions, and they make insurance affordable because it is used only to cover catastrophic care. The only problem with the existing proposals is funding the HSAs for lower income people.

There would be no increase in federal bureaucracy for such a program because the Medicare system is already in place. With everyone having the same coverage it would be easier to structure the program to live within available revenue and eliminate waste for heroic care, without political infighting from competing interests. Special risks could be put out to bid with private insurance companies.

Purchasing power is thus divided between a single payer for the catastrophic insurance portion, and users, for the primary care portion. This gives real leverage in reducing health care costs. If people are allowed to keep the unused portion of their HSAs for their retirement, they will be induced to keep their primary care costs down by not running to the doctor every time they get a runny nose.

Such a program necessarily involves redistribution of costs to higher income and healthier people. The nature of all insurance programs is the redistribution of costs from those who suffer losses to those who don’t.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Greed is a Horse Waiting to be Harnessed

Gordon Gekko in Wall Street was right. Greed is good, but only if put to work for the benefit of all. Being one of the deadly sins, we all are infected with it so some degree. It’s that desire to acquire more and more, even after we have enough. It’s what drives the free market, the desire to get an edge and beat the competition. It is what generates wealth and improves our standard of living, or at least that of some of us. But, should the goal of a strong society be just to produce more and more?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” So says the declaration of independence.

“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” So says the preamble to the constitution.

I don’t find any instructions to maximize the GDP or promote the welfare of the most well endowed. Insuring the domestic tranquility seems to imply making everyone satisfied with their situation relative to others. Since we all aspire to better our lot, it is natural that we will admire those who have achieved more over those who haven’t. Hence we look approvingly at those above us on the economic ladder while looking down on those below us, or not noticing them.

I would argue that we will all be better off if we recognize the compromise between the greed in our nature which spurs our productivity and the better angels of our nature which want our fellow man, particularly the less well endowed to share in the prosperity of our country. To this end, the least we can do is remove the burdens placed on those who find it hard to sustain a life in which they can be most productive. Instead of setting our safety net at the level of poverty, where people are disillusioned and using all their faculties just to survive, why not demand that our government remove the burden of taxation on those with no net income after insuring their health, providing food and shelter and the other requirements to hold a job. In other words, a living wage instead of a poverty wage, before the tax burden bites them.

It is patently obvious to any objective observer that our government is financed and driven by money. Those with money acquire power and those with power enrich themselves. It’s a phenomena that feeds on itself. People holding the levers of government power set themselves up with pensions and opportunities for when the leave government. Those with money hire lobbyists to gain direct access to decision makers while those without money write letters which are answered by auto responders or aides with no authority. Two major political parties control the financial resources and pre-select candidates, usually on the basis of loyalty to the party and prior political experience. This is hardly the democracy we were promised in the founding documents.

It’s time to recognize that the primary purpose of government is to serve all the people and that only government can do this. It is time to harness the horse of greed instead of letting the horse of greed harness us and keep us in subservient obedience for the benefit of a few. It is time to throw out of power those who think government is the problem and those who think government should control our every action, and put the harness on the horse of greed by progressively taxing only those with a net income over a living wage, and recognize that only a government responsive to all the people can lift the burden from the less well endowed, insure the domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our prosperity.