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The Conversation Continues …   Leave a comment

Christian AnarchyThom Stark and I continue discussing the world as we see it from our individual perspectives.

Lela on Nonintervention   Leave a comment

Last week, Thom suggested I had an “unusual” view of history. This is my response.

That “unusual” view of history could be viewed as the side not written by the winners, Thom. I’ve read Rise and Fall, but I’ve also read ChristopLela Markham Davidson Ditch Correcteder Hitchen’s Blood, Class and Empire and Blood, Class and Nostalia. The two books combined are an excellent treatice on the entanglement of the United States with England and deals with how England and our leaders manipulated us into both World Wars by turning the default non-intervention stance of the American people into a pro-war stance through the use of propaganda to play on our fears and engender anger toward Germany. We all want to believe that our side is the “good” side and it is sometimes illustrative to look at an event from the other side … especially if the other side is deemed the enemy by our government. That different perspective may help us see truths we’ve been ignoring for far too long.

Let’s set one thing straight. I never said Hitler was a 10 year old boy during World War I. I said many of the Germans who supported him in World War 2 were young children during World War 1 and what they went through in that earlier war set them up for World War 2. Hitler was a madman. If I could go back in history to execute him before he became Fuhrer, I would gladly do so. My sympathy is for the German people who were as much manipulated by him as the American people were by Wilson and later Roosevelt, Johnson, both Bushes and the current occupant of the White House.

No leader can prosecute war without at least some tacit backing from the citizenry. Hitler needed the Germany people to populate his army, maintain the economy and guard the concentration camps. But would they have been willing to do so if there’d been a negotiated peace with the Allies in 1917 rather than a unilateral surrender in 1919? The only reason why the latter is actual history and the former didn’t happen is that the United States entered World War 1 just as Britain was running out of resources and would have needed to negotiate. This is what made World War 1 different from previous European wars. Britain could demand a unilateral surrender and crush Germany because the United States had resources Germany couldn’t touch or blockade.

If there’d been a negotiated peace, Germany would have been just another country in Europe, enjoying the fruits of economic well-being during the 1920s, instead of paying crushing reparation payments to England. It wouldn’t have needed the loans the United States provided to prop it up, so its economy would not have crashed when our collapse required ending those loans. Like England, France and Canada, who suffered through brief depressions after our stock market crash, Germany would have recovered in months rather than years and Hitler might not have seemed so attractive. I’ve read Mein Kampf too and only people who feel absolutely trapped in a struggle not of their own making could ever embrace its crazy-town concepts.

There’s no strong historical evidence that Germany had planned for war when Archduke Ferdinand was killed. They were sucked into the war by their treaty obligations with Austria (which ought to be a cautionary tale for us). And, by the way, had Austria not annexed Bosnia, the Serbians wouldn’t have wanted to kill the archduke, This was a tale of interventionism gone wild. Had the United States stayed out of World War I, we might not have developed and then introduced the world to a particularly destructive form of propaganda.  President Wilson campaigned on a platform of American non-intervention. He probably would not have been re-elected if not for the theme “he kept us out of war.” Yet, right after his second inauguration, he hired New York Times journalist Walter Lippman and psychologist Edward Bernays (nephew of Sigmund Freud) to develop a propaganda campaign designed to brainwash the American public into entering the war on the side of Britain. This was necessary because of the large percentage of the US population who were either of German or Slavic descent (thus sympathetic to the Germans) or Irish (thus opposed to almost anything England did).

WWI propaganda posterWilson saw opportunity in the European war. Using the fear of war in his 1st term, he’d already rammed through the Federal Reserve, income tax, and re-segregation of the armed forces. One of his early second-term accomplishments was issuing Executive Order 2594 which set up the Committee on Public Information (CPI), whose sole purpose was to generate propaganda to create public support for US entry into the war. The CPI used censorship, coercion and even mass arrests to silence opposition groups. It circulated posters showing German soldiers bayoneting Belgian babies (Belgium was neutral). All this was designed to make Americans afraid that “the Hun” was about to devour American women and children like some raging beast. The laudable and long-standing American concept of non-interventionism was recast as irresponsible isolationism.

Not too surprisingly, by 1917, the public who had abhorred the European war was now clamoring for our entry. Thus softened up, all that was required was a galvanizing event. Wilson issued a line-in-the-sand statement that Germany had better not attack any US ships. The Lusitania was a British ship laden with a 173 tons of munitions provided by JP Morgan. The German high command placed ads in the New York Times warning that the Lusitania was carrying arms and that they intended to sink the armament-laden Lusitania to protect its national interest. The British admiralty had also warned that the Lusitania ought to stay out of the area. The Wilson administration should have known it was going to be hit, but they never issued a warning, so the American public thought it was safe. Viewed with a skeptical mind, it sure seems like Wilson knew what he was doing, that his administration manipulated the American people into willingly going into a war that a year before they wanted nothing to do with. It’s important to state once again, international law did not allow combatant nations to blockade ports to prevent food stuffs from entering. They could stop armament shipments only, but England had maintained a blockade of all goods for nearly two years. With their people starving the Germans were desperate.

It should also be noted that the Lusitania and the 173 tones of British war munitions she was carrying went to the bottom of the ocean in May 1915. The US Congress did not declare war until April 1917 … after Wilson had won the 1916 presidential election. That hardly seems as if they “had no choice.” More like it made a convenient propaganda tool to push us toward a war the people of the United States didn’t want. The public outrage you speak of had died down by the election, Wilson’s keeping us out of war was a primary campaign point and then … suddenly, we had to go to war. I don’t buy it.

So, let’s talk about American post-World War II interventionism.

The CIA involvement in the Ukranian Orange Revolution is well-known, by the way. Considering what we did in 2004, it seems reasonable to suspect us of doing it again. But let’s be honest here. The US doesn’t just destablize leftist regimes. It has been instrumental in the destruction of many democratically-elected regimes that were deemed not pro-American enough. The US propaganda machine convinces us that these regimes are evil, but the fact is that many were elected in free elections by the citizenry of the country who wanted to control their own resources rather than be dictated to by American corporations or the American military. These people did not elect the United States to interfere in their country’s internal affairs, but we have done it time and time again.

The problem with treaty obligations is that we run the risk of being Germany circa 1914. One of our allies does something stupid — invades Russia in a territorial tug-of-war over Ukraine, for example — and now we’re obligated to enter World War 3. When I was taking foreign policy seminars in college, one of the scenarios we discussed was a Middle East color revolution whereby the United States and the USSR ended up facing one another over a country like Syria. The world would take sides and threats would be hurled. Then some minor actor on one side of the other would do something idiotic — kill someone’s prime minister, perhaps. Because of treaty obligations, we’d have to issue sanctions or invade that country. OPEC would embargo American oil shipments and now we would have no choice but to attack or energy starve. The USSR would come in on the side of OPEC and there would be World War 3.

Of course, the USSR collapsed and fracking was developed so that when the color revolution happened in the Middle East, it wasn’t (or isn’t yet) that precipitating event, but it still has that potential. It would seem that our CIA fomenting a revolution might easily lead to a multi-national war, which means treaty obligations that can come back to bite us quickly enough. When our CIA works to destablize a country like Ukraine, what is it up to? When our president draws a verbal line in the sand with Syria, it sure sounds like he’s trying to get us into a war.

We were fortunate with Syria that the US Congress was less than energetic about starting that war, but western society has been here before — circa 1914. If North Korea pisses off South Korea or Japan irritates China or Putin’s planes fly too deep into Alaska air space … and once that big war has started, the nuclear war you keep saying we need to avoid through US intervention around the world becomes a great deal more likely.

What would be so wrong with neutrality? It has worked for Switzerland for almost 200 years. Switzerland is an international porcupine — heavily armed for its own protection, but not messing with other nations. It has been instrumental in the peace process of several international hostilities while not actually suffering any wars itself.

You haven’t convinced me that our aggressive attitude toward other nations really provides stabilization or if it actually risks destabilizing the world. Especially as we are now facing economic implosion due to mounting debt, at some point someone has to ask — when we no longer have the capacity to act as the world dictator, what then happens to the world? Might it not be better to ease off our role as international meddler par excellence now, while we still have the capacity to bow out gracefully?

Thom StarkAlways being on a war footing invites war. In fact, it encourages our leaders to find wars to involve ourselves in or to create conflicts by destablizing regimes so we can have an excuse to use our muscle.  While I see the logic behind maintaining our web of bases just in case something happened, I can’t help but wonder if those web of bases are not viewed as occupying forces that will one day become a focal point for rebellion.

No one likes a tyrant and we sure do act like one.

Thom Stark is the author American Sulla, an apocalyptic thriller series. Lela Markham is the author ofTransformation Project, an apocalyptic dystopian series. Both these series look at America following nuclear terrorism.

The Conversation Continues   Leave a comment

Christian AnarchyLast week, Thom responded to my double-post and this week we continue the conversation on interventionism.

 

Thom Stark is the author American Sulla, an apocalyptic thriller series. Lela Markham is the author of Transformation Project, an apocalyptic dystopian series. Both these series look at America following nuclear terrorism.

Lela Answers on Interventionism and World Wars   3 comments

Lela Markham Davidson Ditch CorrectedThom Stark and I are continuing our conversation. Last week he upheld the progressive position on interventionism. This week, I’m examining some history on that and then probably coming back for a double dip tomorrow because HUGE subject. Lela

We are in total agreement that the country is in serious trouble, Thom. We experiencing the consequences of a national addiction to spending, but this addiction has been going on so long that it’s hard to remember where it started. We don’t even remember that spending is actually the symptom of a larger issue, not the real issue at all. Maybe some self-awareness and historical perspective would help.

We don’t remember that there was a time when Americans, individually and collectively, minded their own business. It’s been more than a 100 years since we’ve done that. You and I belabored the War for Southern Independence to death, so we shouldn’t return to it except to say that it was a watershed event in our national history that still negatively affects us today. We learned to interfere and to reap the benefits of our interference.

At the turn of the 20th century, there was a movement afoot in the elite classes of the United States. Rich men and well-to-do intellectuals like Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and John Dewey were meeting casually in Catskills and Smoky Mountain resorts and discussing what they thought was wrong with society. It’s a big topic, but you can boil it down to “the elites aren’t in control, the unwashed rabble don’t know their place and they are leading us over a cliff.” You can’t completely hang it on Woodrow Wilson, but he’s the face of the Progressive movement, which started with elitists who used propaganda techniques to convince populists to get on board with programs we never would have agreed to if we hadn’t been manipulated into it.

Before becoming President, Woodrow Wilson was a political scientist who wrote in praise of the administrative state operating in Europe at the time. Over the years, he was greatly admired for his “clear view” of what the United States needed to bring her into the “modern” era. In 1887, he didn’t have the power to institute what he suggested and the people of the United States would have rejected it soundly. As a country, we were individualists who preferred to make our own decisions. We could starve or become wealthy; what mattered was that our life circumstances were within our power. We were also inveterate “neutralists.” The US did not involve itself in the wars of other nations, which was largely the normal state of affairs in the world in general. International law favored neutrality and expected warring countries not to involve neutral nations in their conflicts.

By the early-1910s, there was a growing movement of progressives including intellectuals, big business interests, mainstream Protestants and government cronies. Wilson was both an intellectual and a Protestant pietist, but he certainly had friends in business and government and they helped him get elected. The idea was that Big Government and big business would form a coalition with technocrats and intellectuals to create a “progressive” state government. Big business would use the government to cartelize the economy, restrict competition, regulate production and prices and wield a militaristic and imperialistic foreign policy to force open markets abroad while protecting foreign investments. Intellectuals would be able to use the government to restrict entry into their professions and to assume jobs in Big Government to help plan and staff government operations. These groups believed that this fusion would create a Big State that could harmonize and interpret the “national interest” and provide a “middle way between the extremes of laissez faire and the bitter conflicts of Marxism. The Puritan pietists would also be able to use government to coerce those around them into being “good”. It’s all in the history books, but is not a popular view today that Wilson and his friends staged a coup.

Never let a serious crisis go to waste, a famous politician of our own time said. Well, if there isn’t a crisis … create one or get yourself involved in one. The people of the United States liked the system they had. Maybe it didn’t have all the soft feather beds of the European system, but you were largely free to make your way in the world. Starve or become insanely rich … it was all up to your individual effort. Results would indeed vary, but hard work and out of the box thinking would often lead to a vast improvement in your standard of living.

There’d been some legislative reforms in the early 1900s that had entangled Big Business with government. Trust me, anti-trust legislation worked out well for the big corporations. In Wilson’s first administration he worked on getting an income tax and providing for direct election of Senators. These were keys to the progressive agenda, which needed more money than excise taxes could raise and a Congress not beholden to the state legislatures when asked to declare war. The elite knew that war offered a unique opportunity to move the country in the direction they wanted it to go. Most of them had lived through the Civil War and knew that militarism, conscription, massive intervention at home and abroad, a collectivized war economy all became allowable during times of war. What better opportunity to create a mighty cartelized system and to convince people to walk in lockstep against their own interests? Find a threat, create a crisis and make full use of it.

The progressives tried to substitute war with other threats, usually stemming from the risky behaviors made possible by personal liberty. Not just Wilson, but men like Josiah Strong insisted that personal liberty destroyed the social conscience and must be dampened in the interest of protecting society from itself. Of course, government couldn’t leave people to their own devices because only the elite really understood the world and the unwashed masses needed guidance. The problem was that the unwashed didn’t agree and they voted.

World War I started … oddly. Seriously, a guy with no real power gets killed and half the world goes to war? Sounds like a conspiracy theory when you look at it rationally.

Congress adopted a policy of neutrality, which was fully supported by the American people. While Wilson certainly acted like he agreed with this policy, many of his cronies were making bank on selling arms to both sides of the conflict. Under international law, neutral country merchants were allowed unrestricted shipping to all ports of call, except for arms and ammunitions. The United States got away with it because they were selling to both sides, but then a British blockade of Germany meant American vessels couldn’t reach Germany. Was that our fault? No, but under longstanding international law we should have stopped shipping to Britain as well and we didn’t, even though Britain’s blockade was in clear violation of international law.

Wilson, the political scientist, believed that nations (the US) had an obligation to determine “aggressors” and “victims” in a military conflict and “good” nations had a higher moral obligation to come in on the side of the “victim” against the “aggressor”.  This discussion was academic unless he could manuever us into war. Propaganda films and yellow journalism assured that Americans would see that Germany was the “aggressor” and Britain and France were the “victims” despite the actual reality. As soon as Wilson won reelection (ironically on the slogan “he kept us out of war”), he began working to involve the US in the war, because war gives government special powers and they needed that unique opportunity to change our political dynamic.

It didn’t completely work … not immediately. People objected to the progressive tax structure that took as much as 68% from high-income earners. It’s really hard to get rich … or even financially comfortable –when a large percentage of your income is taken from you before you even have a chance to use it. Seeing that acted as a disincentive to low-income earners to strive to enter that class. The Depression of 1920 gave a clear warning sign that taxation was harming the economy, so taxes and government spending were rolled back by more conservative presidents and advisors. However, the experiement was largely a success for those patient enough to wait for their next turn. War allows government to get away with all sorts of nasty behavior – shutting down dissidents, conscripting people into military slavery (uh, service), controlling the economy, even stepping into people’s daily lives to dictate what they eat and drink.

When we turn to World War 2, however …

Can war ever be just, Thom? Like that California death penalty you mentioned, there’s more than a single side to murder and war and it’s hard for mere observers or even participants to parse the fact from the fiction. Heck, we’re 70 years removed from the events. Are you sure your high school history teacher knew what the heck he/she was talking about?

One of my history professors was from England and he had a different view of the American Revolution. I’m not saying he was right. I’m simply saying that we aren’t always told the full story.

Let’s get this straight. I am not a pacifist. If someone attacks me I will fight back, including using deadly force. Until Alaska secedes from the union, I value living in the United States and if the United States is attacked, I think we should fight back. But … when is the United States being attacked and when are countries simply defending themselves from our aggressions?

What Hitler did and the people of Germany let him do was horrible, but we need to recognize our own culpibility in that series of events. A 10-year-old boy starving in Munich in 1918 was a 22-year-old man in 1930. He watched siblings and friends die as hunger gnawed at his belly because of the British blockade of Germany which lasted years, not months. All the propaganda in the world wasn’t going to wipe away that memory. England (and by extention, her ally the United States) starved him!

England then further ruined his young life by imposing crushing economic sanctions after the war. The country never really recovered – industrial production in 1923 was only 54% compared to industrial production in 1914. The loss of land under the Treaty of Versailles saw 10% of Germans living outside of the borders of Germany. The Weimar Republic, new and fragile, overspent and caused a hyperinflation crisis in 1923. Unemployment was almost 30%.

The US did somewhat make up for our part in the mess by propping up the Weimar Republic with loans throughout the 1920s, but when the Great Depression started, those loans stopped, sending Germany into a deeper depression that even we were in. Maybe we had no choice, but maybe that’s not how a 20-year-old German felt about it.

And it’s not like we weren’t, once again, providing food and arms to Britain while allowing Germans to go hungry. We supported the English blockade of Germany, once again. We also provided pilots for the RAF. The Rhineland had been German before the Treaty of Vesaille. Germany and Austria shared a language and so many family connections that many Austrians considered themselves to be Germans – including Hitler himself. Part of Germany had been ceded to Poland in 1919 and some ethnic Germans there were persecuted by the Poles. That doesn’t excuse the abuses Hitler committed. I’m just trying to show that there was some legitimacy to the actions of Germans in the early years of the war.

From their perspective, we were aggressing on them. Damned right, they had a right to defend themselves. Maybe if we had stopped that – or acted like an actual neutral party before World War 1 – Germany and England would have worked it out among themselves and we wouldn’t have set up World War 2 to happen.

Of course, we don’t think like that.  Since 1914 it has been standard practice for every fight between countries to be considered the business of all other countries. We insist that it is our moral obligation to get involved, figure out which country is the “bad guy” and then rush in on the side of the “good guy” country and beat the stuffing out of the alleged “aggressor” in defense of the alleged “victim.” It’s led to ridiculous scenarios such as where the US first funds Iraq to fight Iran and then declares Iraq to be an aggressor state, thus giving us an excuse to invade it twice, destabilize its government and then blame it for the ensuing civil war.

In that toxic soup of inventionism, neutrality gets a bad name, but prior to 1914 the charge of “he kept us out of war” was high tribute. Neutral states had “rights” which were mainly upheld since almost every warring country knew that someday it would be neutral once more. Under international law, a warring state could not interfere with neutral shipping to an enemy state, so long as the neutral shipping did not include arms and ammunitions. So countries had an incentive to make peace, but they also had an incentive to not start wars.

Then along came Woodrow Wilson with the the idea of “collective security against aggression.” Every war must have one “aggressor” and one or more “victims”. Nations obligated to “collective security” arrangements (League of Nations, United Nations, NATO) identify the “aggressor” nation and then join together in an “international police action” to stop the aggression.

Of course, in real life, it’s not that easy to identify one warring “aggressor”, which is why Wilson’s second rationale of foreign policy is so dangerous. The idea that the United States and other countries have a moral obligation to impose “democracy” and “human rights” throughout the globe has led to our perpetual wartime footing since World War 2. We must bring Utopia to the world with guns, tanks and bombs. Remember our “humanitarian” intervention in Somalia. The United States hadn’t a scrap of national interest in the “civil war” there. It wasn’t even really a civil war, just a collection of tribal alliances we insisted upon calling a country. But, hey, we had to establish peace there by imposing universal love at the end of a bayonet. We were ging to sort out the situation and bring governmental order back to Somalia … even if the Somalians didn’t want that. My, were we surprised when the “good” guys and the “bad” guys in Somalia joined forces to shoot down our helicopters using American guns and then expelled us from their city so they could go on conducting their tribal interests their own way! The international community has since managed to enforce a federal government that is rumored to be as tyrannical as the Somali Democratic Republic was. But, hey, we can tell the “good” guys from the “bad” guys and we know better than other countries how they should conduct their internal affairs because we’re standing on high moral ground. Our moral clarity justifies mass murder, destruction of institutions and property and general wreaking of havoc.

Thom StarkThe United States was anything but a neutral power prior to World War 2, despite our official stance. I’m not arguing that Hitler wasn’t an insane dictator who needed to be stopped by someone. My uncle was front lines in Europe, including liberating one of the concentration camps. My father was a mercant mariner who worked in the Pacific and got to see Nanking, the brutality of which shocked him, but didn’t change his general view that war is rarely the answer to anything. Like most of his generation, I don’t think he really understood why we got into the war. He felt guilty that we hadn’t entered the war sooner to save the lives of Jews and Chinese. He told me about the German sub war on Eastern Merchant fleet 30 years before any history books were talking abou it.

Thom StarkThe question we should ask ourselves is what was the US doing prior to our entry into the War to piss off Germany and Japan? Like before World War 1, we were providing arms to combatant nations, but this time round we were picking the winners and losers. I don’t think that is the action of a neutral nation and when you’re taking sides, you got to expect the “enemy” to start taking pot shots at you.

I am WAY over the word limit on this, so I will tackle how American interventionism does NOT make the world a safer place in a separate post.

Thom Stark on History, Government Spending and Isolationism   3 comments

Thom StarkThom and I took some time off because I’ve been formatting books. Please find the earlier conversation here and the post he is replying to here.

Let’s start with earmarks.

I don’t consider them a better solution than the present one, because they invite abuse like the Bridge to Nowhere. That said, I’m suspicious of block grants as well, because they merely push the abuse down to the state level, without solving the central problem of wasteful spending.

I’m not at all sure what the solution is, other than to institute Draconian sanctions for corruption on the part of elected officials at all levels: local, state, and federal. I’m not talking about longer terms in “country club” prisons, here. That’s a deterrent that does nothing to deter, much like California’s death penalty. I’m talking hard time, whopping fines, and being barred for life from both elective office and from involvement in government contracts of any kind.

Before I get to the issue of spending reform, however, I can’t help but address your mischaraterization of the USA’s supposed responsibility for WWII. While I’m willing to concede that the Wilson administration felt it was important to involve this country in WWI, and that the logic of that determination was questionable, I categorically reject your portrayal of the Roosevelt administration’s Lend-Lease program as somehow unjustified and manipulative.

Nazi Germany was exclusively responsible for the war in Europe. The Austrian Anschulss, the appropriation of the Sudentenland, and, particularly, the invasion of Poland were all acts of agression by a rogue state whose leader was determined to create a European empire. That last action was purposely provocative – designed to force the Allies into declaring war because of their treaty obligations to Poland, in order to give Germany a causus belli to invade France and the Benelux countries. If the US had not supplied Britain with … well … pretty much everything, including food, fuel, and weapons, Hitler would have succeeded in establishing complete hegemony over Europe, and would then have been free to concentrate on conquering Russia.

We very likely would have been next – except that the Japanese miscalculated our resolve (and were unlucky enough to launch their attack while the Pacific aircraft carrier fleet was out of port on maneuvers), and forced us into declaring war on them after their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Once again, treaty obligations (this time between Japan and Germany) forced Hitler to declare war on the USA … and there went the balloon.

The thing is, both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were ruthless imperialists. Without military opposition on our part, there is every reason to believe they would have targeted the United States in time – first by crippling trade sanctions (recall that Germany was only kept from seizing the Middle East oil fields by our entry into the North African theatre of the war) and, eventually, once we were sufficiently impaired by those sanctions, by military invasion.

And all that leaves aside the issue of the Nazi policy of systematic genocide, and the Japanese butchery of Philippinos at a time when the Philippines was a US possession, both of which constituted a moral imperative for the United States to intervene.

I don’t want to get too far off-topic, but I think it’s important to note that isolationism was a bad idea then – and would be a disastrous one now. Geopolitics, like the atmosphere, abhors a vacuum. Were we to withdraw militarily from Europe and Asia, that action would destabilize those regions sufficiently to practically guarantee a third world war – and this one would be fought by multiple state actors who possess nuclear weapons. Consider Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its ongoing attempt to wrest away control of Western Ukraine. Likewise, think about China’s ongoing confrontation with Japan over control of islands in the South China Sea. It’s pretty easy to see that our withdrawal of forces from Europe would constitute an open invitation to Vladimir Putin to try to grab back the Eastern European states who (like Poland, for instance) historically constituted buffer zones between Europe and Russia. Similarly, China would be encouraged to go on an acquisition spree were we to withdraw our forces from Japan, Thailand, and South Korea.

Oh, and North Korea – a rogue state which not only possesses nuclear weapons, but has been actively engaged in exporting nuclear weapons technology to the Islamic world – would undoubtedly launch an attack on South Korea. Again, treaty obligations would force the Chinese to intervene on North Korea’s behalf.

Once again, the result would be world war – only with nukes all around.

That is why we literally have no choice but to maintain our worldwide military empire, despite its enormous expense: because the alternative is a global war into which we could not help but be drawn, even were we to adopt an official policy of non-alignment. (Which we could not do, because of – yes, that again – existing treaty obligations. And a country can’t unilaterally abandon its treaty obligations without ensuring that no nation would ever again be willing to sign a treaty with that nation.)

So let’s talk taxation and spending reform.

First, disbursement of Federal tax receipts disproportionately benefits less-populous and poorer states at the expense of more-heavily-populated and richer states. Alaska, for instance, receives $1.49 in Federal spending for every $1.00 of taxes paid by its residents and corporations. That’s a fact. So, if you want to complain about income redistribution, it’s important to recognize that the very states you have, in previous essays, made a point of claiming are underrepresented in Congress nonetheless benefit substantially from that redistribution. Or, to put it another way, New Yorkers and Californians, who are the top payers in combined local, state, and Federal taxes (and are, not even coincidentally, among the wealthiest Americans) subsidize residents of states like Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska with their Federal tax payments. And, despite your thesis that imposing heavy taxation would cause a general exodus to low-tax foreign shores, that is simply not what happens in actuality. In the real world, businesses flock to those states, because their benefits to employers – large pools of technically-talented labor, attractive amenities, and tax breaks for research and investment in local employment and production – outweigh the incremental cost of additional taxation.

Second, Social Security is not really that far out of balance, financially. It’s future obligations could quite easily be met by simply raising (or, better yet, eliminating) the cap on taxes dedicated to the Social Security trust fund. There are hundreds of millions of American taxpayers who depend now, or who will depend in the future, on Social Security payments to enable them to retire without having to change to Fancy Feast-based diets. And “privatizing” Social Security is not the answer, for a number of reasons: because it’s unrealistic to require working people to become investment experts, because the stock market is currently the only remaining investment area that’s providing meaningful returns (interest rates are nearly down to negative numbers, so bonds aren’t a good investment, and the real estate market is still largely a disaster area – and would be a good deal worse, if the banks that hold the vast oversupply were not keeping their repossessed properties off the market), and because stock brokers and financial advisors conclusively proved in 2008 that they’re a pack of lying, swindling, conscienseless bastards.

The real problem is Medicare. That problem is, again, a product of a mismatch between the program’s obligations and its income – and that, in turn, is pretty much entirely the fault of the Bush administration’s drug benefit giveaway. There are two contributing factors to that debacle. The first is that the drug benefit was itself completely unfunded. Congress simply punted on paying for it. Worse still, that same Congress included a provision that forbids the Social Security Administration from negotiating with pharmaceutical companies over pricing of the covered medications.

Imagine that. The single largest buyer of drugs in the entire domestic medical economy is forbidden by law from using its purchasing power to negotiate discounts on those purchases – something every medical insurance company, PPO, and HMO in the country does routinely.

The fix for Medicare is, once again, dead simple: raise the Medicare premium to cover the actual costs of the program, and replace the ukase against the SSA bargaining for lower drug prices with a requirement that it do so.

Which takes us to the towering Federal deficit.

If you subtract Social Security and Medicare, the two largest sources of imbalance, from the equation – and the above solutions would do exactly that – the major remaining problem is military spending. Now, to my mind, the size of the military, and expenditures on its personnel aren’t the big issue. As we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, our military is plenty big enough to fight two wars simultaneously. It’s simply nowhere near big enough to successfully occupy any even moderately-sized conquered territory. So we need to stop invading places we can’t hold afterward, especially for idiotic goals like “regime change” that replaces a distasteful dictator (who nonetheless provides a needed bulwark against the expansion of an active enemy state) with an unstable, corrupt government that’s a virtual captive of an enemy state.

Just as importantly, the military procurement system desperately needs a drastic overhaul. Currently, for instance, Congress has appropriated $181 million for upgrades to the Abrams M1A1 V2 tank force in 2015 alone. General Dynamics persuaded 150 Congressmen to co-sign a letter claiming that the Ohio plant where the tank is manufactured needs to remain open to ensure that the design and manufacturing expertise of its employees continues to be available in the future. GD also claims that closing the plant for a year would incur $1.6 billion in costs to reopen it.

Why did 150 Congressmen co-sign that letter? Because General Dynamics makes it a point to spread the manufacture of the Abrams’s components over as many Congressional districts as possible. Essentially, those Congresscritters’ argument boils down to “it’s a jobs program for my district.” The problem with that contention only begins with the fact that it’s an incredibly expensive jobs program. In fact, we spend about a half-million bucks for each job it provides. More crucially, the Abrams tank – and tanks in general – are pretty much entirely outmoded by the kinds of wars in which we are currently engaged, as well as the ones we’re likely to fight in the near future. (Sure, with the current situation vis-à-vis Russia, we might wind up in a shooting war in Eastern Europe, but the chances that war would last long enough for us to move additional tanks to the European theatre are pretty slim, given that both sides have lots of tactical nukes.)

That doesn’t even begin to address boondoggles like the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, or the Air Force’s upcoming next-generation stealth fighter.

We need to institute a policy of requiring weapons manufacturers to consolidate, rather than widely disperse component manufacture, just to start with. We also need to absolutely forbid military officers above the rank of Lieutenant Commander or Lieutenant Colonel to accept employment with military contractors of any kind for a minimum of 5 years after they leave their service. And we need a law that bars Congress from increasing any weapons acquisition budget above the figure the service that asked for it requested.

Good luck to us with that, of course.

DSC01494As for the national debt, I could not agree more that something needs to be done about it forthwith, because the problem is MUCH worse than you have indicated. Consider that we currently spend about a trillion dollars a year paying the interest on that debt. Just the interest, mind you. We’re not paying down the principle at all, because we can’t afford to do so, given our current level of Federal tax income. However, what nobody wants to talk about is that, once interest rates rise even slightly, we won’t be able to afford to pay the whole annual interest amount – which means we’ll shortly be paying interest on the interest.

Stabilizing Social Security and Medicare would go a long way toward freeing up money to pay down the debt. We still will need more tax income to get the debt under control, but that would at least be a start.

Of course, given the Congress will be Congress, regardless of how irresponsible “being Congress” is, they’ll likely choose to spend the surplus on something other than debt reduction.

Like more Abrams tanks.

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Thom Stark and I continue the conversation.More conversation

Lela Asks: Why Stay Like This?   2 comments

Lela Markham Davidson Ditch Corrected

Last week, Thom Stark responded to a reader who objects to his tax money being used to provide grants for infrastructure or services that, he felt, government shouldn’t even be involved in. Today, I’m going to touch on that topic, but then turn to the larger topic of whether what we’re doing currently is even sustainable.

Thom, I’m going to surprise you and agree that earmarks are a better system than what has replaced them since the big “bridges to nowhere” scandal. This is my nod to our modern-day reality of the federal government stealing from individuals in the form of taxes, thus impoverishing the states and forcing them to rely on federal revenue sharing which looks a great deal like welfare payments. If this is the way things must be (and they are at the moment), then earmarks make sense. Congress gets to direct the moneys to specific projects in specific states for specific purposes. Senators and representatives are elected from their states for the purposes of “bringing home the pork”. In theory, Senators are all equal and get a chance to lobby for their own earmarks. Of course Ted Stevens was, by virtue of his longevity in the Senate, more equal than others in committee assignments and that made Gravina Island bridge (which the Gravina Island residents did NOT want) possible. When Mark Begich replaced Uncle Ted, that longevity and the federally-funded projects that came with it went away. And, I say, good riddance. Alaska needs to disentangle from federal revenue sharing and plan for our future.

But the subject is earmarks and Congress bringing home the pork to their home districts.

These days, of course, they can’t really do that. The flap over earmarks was a long time coming and needed to occur, but Congress got the wrong impression from the criticism. It’s not “earmarked” funding most people hate; it’s the out-of-control spending. States must balance their budget by law. The federal government has no such requirement. In 2006, the country was only $8 trillion in debt and people were fed up. At 62% of GDP, anyone who has ever balanced a home budget knew we were in trouble. Earmarks took the limelight, but war spending and entitlements are what were and are driving the debt. Because earmarks became a dirty word, Congress now directs the funds as block grants for specific types of funding and leaves it to the Executive branch to determine the allocation of those funds. In other words, they gave more power to the Executive branch and furthered the imbalance of federal power while ceding their own tradition authority. And look what the Obama administration did with that new system? We are now $18 trillion in debt, which is 103% of GDP. To “solve” this problem, Congress is now considering a competitive funding system, at least for transportation infrastructure. I can see it now. The states that hire the best PR firms to write their grant applications will get more federal dollars. Poor states will become poorer and rich states will become richer — at least until the wheels come off the federal spending bus.

Earmarks were not the problem. Spending was and is the problem. And that is the larger conversation.

Yes, it is the way that it is now, but should it be that way? Why couldn’t it be some other way? It was once.

Before there was a federal income tax, the federal government was small and pretty efficient. We weren’t at war all the time because the federal government couldn’t afford to start wars. States raised their own revenues and used them on things of local and state interest. Roads got built, there were hospitals and museums, and churches took care of the poor. It was only with the 1914 passage of the Income Tax Amendment that the federal government could afford to start a war and it celebrated by starting World War 1. Yes, I know the war started in Europe, but the US prior to its official entry in 1917, spent three years egging the Europeans on, supplying the British and basically waving a red flag in the face of Germany, asking them to attack our bomb-carrying merchant ships. Our government did the same thing prior to World War 2. There’s nothing like being on a near-permanent wartime footing to make people think they should pay their taxes and bargain away liberty for security. Never let a crisis go to waste, after all.

The downside to federal income taxes is that states cannot derive sufficient revenue from state taxes. There is a limit to how much people can pay in taxes and still support their own lives. Because state legislators must face the public on the streets of their home towns, they are loath to raise taxes too much. So states require revenue sharing from the federal government, which makes no sense to me because the money is coming from their residents, bypassing them and then returning from the federal government. It provides a disconnect in people’s minds. Everybody wants cool federally-funded projects in their district and they applaud their states for lobbying to get them, while at the same time struggling to pay their bills because the federal government and then the state takes so much of their income in taxes. It’s a vicious cycle of taxation and spending.

Well, all that spending is catching up to us. There’s all that debt, which will take decades to pay down, IF we stop deficit spending soon, but worse, our entitlement system is on the verge of collapse. We’re approaching $90 trillion in unfunded entitlement liability, which is more than 200% of GDP. Sooner or later, this house of cards is going to come crashing down unless we seriously change the way we do things on the federal level.

So, you say “this is the way things are; live with it.” I look at the looming fiscal disaster coming our way and say “we can’t live with it because it’s unsustainable. Something must change.”

But what?

Everything these days is a 3rd rail. The politicians insist we can’t reduce Social Security, even though it is the single greatest revenue suck in the domestic budget (Medicare is almost equal to it). The politicians say we can’t reduce military spending because ISIS is going to sail up Chesapeake Bay with a squad of suicide bombers. Sequestration means we have to close the Washington Monument and that makes tourists grumpy. So we play around, reduce deficit spending from $1.1 trillion to $980 billion (otherwise denoted as a reduction of $3 billion) and pretend a drop in an ocean is a fix. The half of the country that wants to believe that the gravy train can keep going forward accepts the propaganda and says “we’re reducing the deficit. Isn’t it wonderful?” and make those of us who passed basic math in high school wonder if societal IQs dropped suddenly while we were reading Bastiat.

Yes, technically we are reducing the deficit, but the debt continues to grow and it is the debt that will eat our liver some time in the near-future. The solution will not be found in raising tax rates on the “rich”. You could tax everyone making a million dollars or more a year at 100% of their income and come within a couple hundred billion of closing that budget gap, but the next year, the “rich” will all have renounced their citizenships and moved to Malaysia or gone bankrupt.  You could tax corporations more, but they would do the same thing, taking more American jobs with them to Malaysia.

Thom StarkEngland’s history is indicative of what happens when you try to tax your way out of a spending problem. The British Empire used to be a great deal bigger than it is today and much more powerful, until they taxed their prosperous citizens into bankruptcy and emigration to support perpetual wars and welfare programs. Now the taxes rest on the soldiers of the middle class who cannot afford to leave  and their children are starting to espouse libertarian philosophy. This isn’t just happening in England, but there are political trends suggesting Europeans generally are beginning to rethink the socialist nanny state. They’re much further down the road than we are, so it is harder for them to define let alone find the exit, but they have many of the same issues that we do and some of them are thinking the solution won’t be found in government growth, but in a return to classical liberalism.

Yes, this is the way things are, but that way is not sustainable. It isn’t the fault of one political party or the other, or one president or the other … it is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed before the federal fiscal bus goes over a real fiscal cliff and takes the economy with it. My income and retirement are tied up in the economy, so — yeah, I care what happens to it. I would think you would too.

 

Lela Markham is the author of the epic fantasy The Willow Branch and the soon-to-be-released apocalyptic dystopian Life As We Knew It, which will explore many of the issues Thom and I touch on in this conversation.

Stay Tuned for More Conversation   Leave a comment

More conversationThom Stark and I will continue our conversation.

 

Thom Stark is the author of May Day, Book 1 of the American Sulla trilogy.

Lela Markham is the author of The Willow Branch, Book 1 of the Daermad Cycle.

Thom Stark Responds to a Reader   1 comment

LELA: Thom and I have been going back and forth about private enterprise and the role of government in utilities like broadband. Nicholas asked Thom this question:

Nicholas:  How about the general welfare? I don’t see how my tax money is properly used with grants for Chattanooga for something the government should not even be involved in.

Thom StarkTHOM:  Nicolas, that Chattanooga’s MAN was partially funded by Federal tax money is really beside the point. Congress set aside money for stimulus grants. Because of the way government fund-based accounting works, that money could ONLY be used for stimulus grants. Alaska (which is to say Sarah Palin) chose not to apply for such grants. Chattannooga, however, did so, so they got that money.t

It’s clear that we disagree on whether it’s proper and appropriate for “the government” (in this case, Chattanooga’s government) to provide Internet service. That’s been the central point at issue in the last couple of these exchanges. Lela agrees with you. I do not.

Let’s be clear here. It’s just as valid to ask why Tennessee taxpayers should be asked to pay $320 million for the Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska (yes, the 2008 earmark was deleted from the highway bill – but only because conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation called it “a national disgrace). The short answer is Congress appropriated money to pay for maintenance and construction of highways. That money was parceled out to each state according to an arcane formula that Congress uses for that purpose. Don Young and Ted Stevens “earmarked” a portion of Alaska’s share for the bridge – and then the screaming started.

That’s the way the system works. You can complain that it shouldn’t be that way, but IT IS. There’s a pot of Federal money set aside for a particular set of purposes. A state can decline to accept its share of that pot – as Palin did with the stimulus funds – but the money in the post still HAS to be spent for those purposes, because THAT’S WHAT THE LAW REQUIRES.

I’m not about to explain the logic behind fund-based accounting here, but it has to do with (believe it or not) accountability.

 

Thom Stark is the author of the American Sulla trilogy and blogs at starkrealities.com.

Thom and I come from different political philsophies, but we both agree that listening to other perspectives is an important and currently neglected American tradition.

Broadband & States Rights with Thom Stark   1 comment

Thom Stark and I are continuing our conversation. One of the goals of this dialogue, similar to what I am doing with Becky Akers (Conversation with an Anarchist) is to show that reasonable people can disagree in a sincere and robust manner without acting like Neanderthals. Thom is what I would term a progressive and I am a conservative-libertarian-edging-toward-voluntaryist. We aren’t going to agree on many issues, although we have found areas where we agree more than we disagree. And that, my readers, is what American liberalism is all about. Lela

Thom StarkLet’s start with your assertions regarding Chattanooga’s fiber optic MAN, shall we?

First off, the PPIC study you cite speaks in only very general terms about the economic benefits of very-high-speed Internet access. Widely-available advances in technology create social change (automobiles, anyone?), but that change does not usually happen overnight. Sure, broadband availability does not seem to have resulted in a significant increase in work-from-home employment. However, that is most likely because management practices are inherently conservative – and managers insist on being able to physically keep an eye on their employees. (Heck, I was working from home one day a week back in the very early 1990’s, when I was employed by Wells Fargo Bank, back when dialup via 56K modems was pretty much the standard Internet access paradigm – but that was because my supervisor realized early on that no one has to crack a whip over me.) The so-called “virtual corporation” is still mostly a theoretical construct. Give it time.

The fact that the main uses private citizens have for the Internet are entertainment-oriented is not a valid reason to scorn gigabit access. Entertainment is a gigantic part of the American economy. Consumers throw billions and billions of dollars at it every year – and, the music business aside, the entertainment slice of our economic pie gets bigger in both absolute and relative terms every year. We are now at the front end of a general revolution in the way that audio-visual entertainment is delivered. That is a Good Thing. People are sick of cable companies’ anti-consumer “tiers” of service that require them to subsidize programming in which they have no interest in order to receive two or three channels they actually want to watch – and that business paradigm is on its last legs now. In ten years, that will have withered away – and it’s actual broadband access that will enable it.

Which takes us to the definition of broadband.

You cited an FCC study that determined that 85% of the American public already has access to broadband Internet connectivity. The thing is, that was under the old definition of broadband – a definition that the rest of the developed world quite rightly considered ridiculously inadequate – which was the one the cable companies and telcos the Bush administration’s version of the FCC to write into law. In the telcos’ world, 4 megabits down and 1 up equals “broadband”. Meanwhile, in Finland, where Internet access is legally considered a human right, the standard requires 100 megabit connections to qualify as broadband (and that level of service is available for the equivalent of $40/month). On January 29, the FCC raised the minimum service standard to qualify as broadband access to 25 megabits down, a move that was long, LONG overdue, and that reduces the number of Americans who have broadband connections to 72%. I would argue that even that definition remains wholly inadequate – but at least it’s less of a sad joke than the old one.

The thing that made Steve Jobs the visionary that he was is that he understood that people often don’t have any idea they need something until someone shows them what they’ve been missing. Digital music players were around before the iPod, but it took Jobs’s marketing campaign to make them ubiquitous. Virtually nobody cared about smart phones until the iPhone was released. Now everyone has one. Ditto tablet computers and the iPad. The same thing is true of broadband. Until you personally experience what it’s like to have websites load as if they’re on your own hard drive, until you experience high-definition streaming video, while downloading a DVD’s worth of patches and enhanced content for your kid’s favorite videogame – and you do both things while he’s logged into the Xbox network – you have no idea what you’re missing. Once you do experience it, you wonder how you ever got along without it. Experiencing is believing. So the argument that broadband access hasn’t created any major, direct economic benefit to consumers fails on two fronts: first, that the definition of broadband the PPIC study employed really wasn’t broadband at all, but rather the fiction of broadband foisted on the public by the telcos and cable operators, and second, that enough time has not elapsed since even most Americans had even that laughable definition of broadband access to see direct economic benefits accrue from it. Meanwhile, the indirect economic benefits are non-trivial. The rise of original programming for streaming video services has created quite a few jobs, for instance, and there are many more on the way, as the cable MSOs discover that the whole basis of their industry is eroding away, as more consumers realize that they really don’t have to simply accept the tiered-access paradigm any more.

So, now, to Chattanooga.

Back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, and the Apple II was the be-all and end-all of microcomputing, I labored in the vineyards of cable TV programming. I’ve seen the industry from the inside. It stinks. The business model is based on franchise agreements with municipalities that give MSOs exclusivity within the franchise service area. That means no other entity is ALLOWED to provide cable service within the franchise area. Thus, once the agreement is signed, the cable company is handed a monopoly, typically one that runs 20 years, with an automatic renewal provision that prevents the city from inviting competitors into the franchise area unless the franchisee can be proven to have broken the terms of the franchise. Effectively, that means a perpetual monopoly – and cable operators don’t hesitate to sue to enforce those monopolies. (Incidentally, that’s because, back in the late 1960’s, rural and mountain communities had to get down on their knees and beg MSOs to build CATV systems for their TV-deprived citizenry. This was decades before the cable companies discovered that they could also deliver Internet service via the same cabling system that served their customers TV shows – nearly a decade and a half before DARPAnet became the Internet, in fact.)

Comcast and its ilk are, in fact, parasites, not Atlas Shrugged-style “makers”. They fight tooth and nail to avoid investing in system upgrades that would enable their customers to enjoy higher bandwidth, because “what have you done for me this quarter?” is the Gospel of the MBAs that run them. They don’t give a damn about their customers, other than as sources of essentially free money. (Once the system is in place, there’s no real expense – other than billing – to the MSO to continue to provide Internet access for its subscribers. The only reason they raise the monthly Internet subscriber fee every year is to funnel more money into the pockets of shareholders, so the CEO can brag to his board of directors. Programming costs for TV content continue to rise – but the cost of providing Internet access do not.)

Again, Comcast was asked to build a fiber-to-premises system for Chattanooga. It declined, citing the tired old arguments of lack of demand and the cost of upgrading the system. Tom Wheeler, the Chair of the FCC has rightly (and publicly) laughed at those arguments, because they are 100% the south-end product of a north-facing bull.

As for your contention that the surrounding municipalities’ electric ratepayers will be required to provide $2 million “support” for the system’s expansion into suburban Chatanooga, that’s more cable company propaganda. The expansion requires cabling. That cabling has to go somewhere. The two choices are underground – which is VERY expensive – or on poletops. Comcast is claiming that using the electric utility’s power poles will cost the ratepayers $2 million a year in additional costs, while, in fact, the cost to maintain the fiber plant will NOT be borne by electric ratepayers. Broadband subscribers will pay that cost. (The service life of a power pole is not significantly affected by adding a fiber optic line to the burden it carries, btw. Again, as Disreali probably did not say, there are three types of lie: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Comcast LOVES to use statistical arguments.)

There are, in fact, multiple private companies that are rolling out fiber access to municipalities around the country these days. Google is in the lead in this respect, and its ISP business is designed to break even, not turn a profit.

Heresy, right?

Not really. Google realizes that the key to every profit-making venture in which it engages is Internet use. Enabling gigabit access at reasonable prices is, for Google, essentially cultivating the field in which its profits will grow.

That’s because, unlike Comcast and its shabby sisters, Google’s executives understand the concept of enlightened self interest. They know that it’s in their best interest to give the razors away, because their customers will be buying razor blades from them for the rest of their lives.

BTW – Outside of Silicon Valley and the SOMA district of San Francisco, Seattle is probably the biggest tech hub in the country. OF COURSE it has lots of competition in its ISPs. Chillicothe, Ohio, by contrast, has effectively none. There’s the incumbent telco and its DSL offerings, and Time Warner. That’s basically it, unless you count the outrageously expensive, data-limited LTE connectivity offered by wireless service providers. I don’t.

Lela Markham Davidson Ditch CorrectedAs for Alaska’s Congressional delegation, I don’t think you really have much room to complain about unequal representation. Yes, Don Young is your only Representative, in a House of 435 such reps. The thing is though, you have two senators, just like every other state in the Union. The fact that they’re both sock puppets for the oil industry (and thus unresponsive to the needs of their constituents) is the fault of your electorate, not the bicameral national legislature. All U.S. legislation (other than treaty adoption) requires the votes of both Houses, so, in reality, Alaskans have just as much power in this respect as other states do. And, as frustrating as the Senate’s use of cloture to derail lawmaking that would otherwise pass by majority vote can be, I think the founding fathers were wise to divide our lege into upper and lower houses. The current edition of the House is full of yahoos, few of whom seem to have any faint idea of the notions of compromise and negotiation, but instead devote themselves to flinging verbal feces and pounding their chests. Nowadays, that chamber is so dysfunctional it can’t get out of its own way. So, one representative, a dozen, 23? Who cares? The current House of Representatives is pretty much entirely irrelevant, politically speaking. The action that matters is all in the Senate – and there, Alaskans stand equal with every other state.

 

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