A 2012 Wish List

This Wish List involves changes that might conceivably be made, though I suspect it will be a frosty day in the nether regions, since most of them would have to be implemented by politicians, and they and the interests that own them would face losing the most.  But they nevertheless may be distinguished from the truly impossible, such as altering our political system to break the grip of the Democratic and Republican parties or requiring an intelligence test for holding national political office (good-bye GOP).

 

GET US OUT OF AFGHANISTAN (AND IRAQ) NOW

Why wait another two years?  Iraq is actually a country with an infrastructure, albeit damaged, and a serious potential revenue source in the form of oil, yet it is already collapsing, only weeks after the departure of our military.  Afghanistan is less a country than a space defined by the nations surrounding it, and virtually every one of the four major ethnic groups would like to lord it over the others or create its own country.  The last national election was a farce, corruption is an embedded Afghan tradition and any sort of real loyalty can be found only at the tribal level.  The only time Afghanistan has come even close to a national entity is under autocratic strong men, and while the locals might appreciate the odd school or clinic, they clearly do not like foreign military on their soil, especially when that military tends to be a bit casual about collateral damage.  Yes, we have pulled most of our military out of Iraq, but do we need a “diplomatic” presence of some ten thousand, guarded by five thousand of the mercenaries the locals have come to love?  What will all these people be doing as Iraq slides into civil war and/or Iranian control?  With Kuwait (and to a lesser extent Bahrain) being little more than a giant American military base, why do we need Baghdad?

 

REGULATE THE FINANCIAL INDUSTRY

This should be simple.  A relative handful of people almost brought down the global economy, yet very little has been done to correct this liability.  There remains a dangerous lack of transparency, especially regarding arcane financial instruments, and major banks are still finding ways to dodge what little regulation exists, especially given the increasing globalization of banking.  The EU is considering a tax on financial transactions, which would help against the growing number of parasites whose manipulation of markets produces nothing except wealth for themselves and helps distort the relationship between supply, demand and price.  But unless all the industrialized countries participate, this activity will simply move to New York.  Meanwhile, the income gap in America is reaching unprecedented levels.

 

IMPOSE TERM LIMITS

An incumbent in Congress, unless he is a complete fool, may essentially keep his seat until he dies, which means he can spend his whole life running for reelection.  In the eighties the turnover in the Soviet Politbureau was greater than that of the American Congress, and even in the unhappy year 2010 the Congressional reelection rate was 97%.  Polls indicate that the public feels that all these political lifers should be thrown out, but the feeling apparently rarely extends to their own Senator or Representative.  This reform is actually talked about, but it is hard to imagine someone in Congress voting to limit their own access to the federal gravy train.

 

PUBLISH CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS

It is clearly impossible to limit campaign contributions and thus the power of big money to influence elections: even those laws that do not run afoul of the First Amendment are always easily sidestepped.  Instead, allow anyone or any entity, even foreign governments, to contribute money, but all contributions will be published on a dedicated website, on a periodic nationally broadcast television program and in major newspapers across the country.  Any violation would result in the immediate termination of the individual’s candidacy.  Monies spent by advocacy groups rather than by an individual will be treated similarly, and violations will be rewarded with huge fines.  If Americans cannot be bothered to avail themselves of all this information concerning who is buying whom, which is likely, then we get what we deserve.

 

DETERMINE OUR POLICY IN THE MIDDLE EAST ACCORDING TO AMERICAN INTERESTS

For reasons that have everything to do with domestic politics we have with Israel the sort of “passionate attachment” to a foreign power that George Washington warned against.  The interests of Israel are not always the same as America’s; they are in fact increasingly divergent.  Israel is permitted behavior that would immediately stir official outrage were it any other country, and our unqualified support for a state that routinely violates accepted international law, especially regarding Arab populations, contributes mightily to our reputation as self-serving hypocrites.

 

 

CONFIGURE OUR MILITARY RESOURCES ACCORDING TO REALITY

The size, nature and equipment of our military should be determined by realistic evaluation of the actual threats out there rather than based on outmoded thinking inherited from the twentieth century, the insatiable desires of the Pentagon and the needs of politics and the defense industry.  With economic globalization the chance of a real war with a major industrial and military power like China is becoming vanishingly small and with it the need for $100 million fighter aircraft and more attack submarines.  And any (for the moment inconceivable) war with a power strong enough to require all the systems the Pentagon wants must inevitably go nuclear.

 

HANG PIRATES

For several thousand years the approach to pirates has been summary execution.  Why are these people now being given trials, especially at a time when we are executing from above even American citizens if they are designated terrorists by the government/military?  Any man who attempts to hijack a ship clearly designates himself a pirate and should thus be liable to execution, preferably by the traditional hanging.  Make it clear to the denizens of Somalia and other places that any unidentifiable vessel found in certain delineated international waters will be immediately destroyed.

 

STREAMLINE NUCLEAR POWER

Nuclear fission is a proven non-fossil fuel source of power, requiring nothing more than easily produced fissionable material and water for cooling.  It produces no pollutants, and examined sensibly, the issue of what to do with the radioactive waste disappears.  We already have the technology to bury and secure this stuff for the next several centuries, by which time we will have better technology or more likely, no longer exist.  The imagined need to secure this waste for ten thousand years is simply silly.  Further, the industry must produce standardized designs and streamline the licensing process, as has France, which has for decades successfully generated some 75% of its power through fission.  Other green technologies are not yet developed enough, and nuclear power could easily carry us through until technologies like solar and even fusion are perfected.

 

SERVE THE BEST AND BRIGHTEST

A mature society should indeed look after its disadvantaged, but not at the expense of those who can contribute the most.  A major problem, among others, in our public education system is the waste of resources and time on those who simply will not learn, a waste exacerbated by the tendency of these same people to degrade the education of those who would learn.  There is of course the problem of what to do with the negative element, but keeping them in school is not the answer, inasmuch as they harm the educational environment of others and end up joining the underclass of the uneducated anyway.  And while we should look to the education of those with “special needs,” mainstreaming them clearly comes at the expense of those who have functioning intellects and bodies.  I cannot confirm this, but I have read that for every $1 spent on those who are in some way dysfunctional, about 3¢ is spent on the gifted.  This is no way to secure the future of our country.  Incidentally, it is of course impossible to remove big money sports and its corrupting influence from American higher education, but at the very least the NBA and NFL should be paying for all those athletic scholarships.

TELL THE “GREAT SUCCESSOR” TO PISS OFF

OK, this is emotion-based, but make it clear to the ruthless jerks in Pyongyang that any assault on South Korea or anyone else will result in their capital being turned to glass, China notwithstanding.

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Hegemonic Folly: Defense Spending

With the predictable failure of the of the budget super-committee comes the blunt ax of sequestration, which is likely the only time the military budget will ever be threatened with cuts.  Such will never happen, of course, but the cries of putting our national security at risk are already flying, mostly from Republicans, but also from Democrats, since no politician wants to be accused of being soft on defense.  The military has naturally also chimed in, and who is a more impartial judge of the nation’s security needs?

Some figures on just how big our military is.  In 2010 we spent $687 to $698 billion (an exact total is not available to mere mortals) on the military, which is more than the next 17 nations combined and about 43% of the total world expenditure.  The next largest budget, that of China, is 7.3% of the world total.  Our expenditure was in 2009 4.7% of GNP; only five countries – Saudi Arabia, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Eretria – exceed that and for obvious reasons.  Only the UAE, with a population of only 8 million, exceeds us in per capita spending; in 2009 our military cost every man, woman and child in America $2141.  One specific and particularly relevant example: though our battle fleet has indeed shrunk in the last 20 years, it is still larger than the next 13 navies combined – and 11 of those are our allies.

The stated justification for this mammoth spending on arms are all the threats to our national security, but apart from sundry individuals, who are hardly any threat to the nation (see the article The Terrorist Nuisance), exactly who poses a serious threat to our motherland?  Only an advanced nuclear power could possible threaten our shores, and there are only two who are not our allies, Russia and China, and neither is likely to attack the US in the face of total devastation.  The truly dangerous nuclear states, North Korea, Pakistan, Israel and perhaps Iran, may threaten their neighbors, but for the foreseeable future they simply cannot deliver warheads to North America.

Of course a regional power could threaten to disrupt our supply of resources, but there is really only one that is absolutely vital to our welfare, oil, and it is hard to image that even Iran, unless pushed to the brink, could possibly be stupid enough to launch a war in the Gulf.  Rolling in money, the Gulf   states are already armed to the teeth with modern weaponry, and given the rapidly declining need of large ground forces to repel an invasion, how many carrier groups would it take to smash Iran?  A nuclear equipped Iran is a different story, but the real powers in that country, the Supreme Council and the Revolutionary Guard, have, unlike Ahmadinejad, not demonstrated the complete irrationality necessary to contemplate an action that would bring absolutely no benefit to Iran and lead to massive retaliation from virtually all the developed nations dependent on Gulf oil.

We want to protect our friends, but how many of them need protecting?
Europe? Japan? Canada? Australia? Mexico?  The Philippines do not want us there any more and are making their own arrangements with the other offshore Asian powers. Taiwan and China are forging more and more economic ties, and China’s economic relationship with the US makes it increasingly unlikely she will do anything that would seriously offend her most important market. China is seeking to increase her influence in Southeast Asia, but the only thing that threatens is American influence in the area.  Possessing nuclear weapons and the most powerful military (after Turkey?) in the region, Israel hardly needs American help, and given her behavior, one wonders how much of a friend she would be were it not for her seeming stranglehold on American politicians.  The one serious friend who is actually threatened is South Korea, and while an invasion from the north would result in immediate and extensive casualties, North Korea could be rapidly and utterly defeated by the South Koreans and minimal US forces.  And if the military is the real power in Pyongyang, would they sacrifice themselves for nothing?  Further, China, which ultimately controls the food and energy supply of her socialist ally, has absolutely no desire to see even temporary chaos in the Korean peninsula. They also can hardly be enthusiastic about the emergence of a seriously nuclear North Korea, since that could bring on the nightmare of a nuclear South Korea and Japan.

Not many military leaders, especially those who are quasi-political, have ever supported cutting their budget and reducing their forces, the major reason why threat assessments emanating from the Pentagon must be consumed with a boulder of salt.  For American politicians, who are achieving unheard of levels of self-serving behavior, reducing the military is virtually unthinkable, since they would suffer the wrath of sundry powerful lobbies and blocs of ignorant voters whipped up by their opponents.  After 60 years of having the most powerful military in the world and 20 years of virtual hegemony around the planet many Americans see any cut back in “defense” as a sign of surrender and decline.

We are no longer in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, and not only territorial but also military-based hegemonic empires are obsolete.  Gunboat diplomacy only works when the threat of military intervention is real, and although world opinion and international law did not stop the US in places like Grenada, Panama and Iraq, it is clear that military operations of any scale are incredibly expensive and self-defeating in the long run.  And against the backdrop of American arrogance, disregard for international law, increasing violation of other nations’ sovereignty and traditional inclination towards violence rather than diplomacy, our 13 carrier groups certainly appear to be the twenty-first century equivalent of gunboats.

Finally, not only is large-scale warfare rapidly becoming prohibitively expensive but with the emergence of a globalized economy it has also become counterproductive for the developed nations. Whatever their rhetoric or ideologies, they are all now inextricably bound together in a world capitalist web in which the economic misfortunes of one will inevitably affect the others.  At least in the industrialized world less and less does national security depend on huge military establishments and more and more on sound economies, which are ill-served by wasting treasure on weapons systems with no opponents and wars resulting in nothing but dead human beings.  Large scale violence must only be contemplated when there truly is no alternative, and given the increasing interconnectedness of the planet, there will almost always be an better alternative.

Then again, it is cool to be the baddest dude on the earth,  even though that might be at the expense of everything else.  Ask the Spartans how that worked out.

Were the Leftists Right? The Crisis of Capitalism

Presidential candidate Ron Paul recently stated that we
should eliminate, as a costly waste, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a
completely inane pronouncement that underscores the extremes to which the
libertarian and small government types are willing to go.  Libertarian ideas certainly resonate with
those of us who oppose the nanny state and government attempts to determine
citizen behavior, but there is a limit, especially regarding the economy.  Back in the eighties I met the Libertarian
presidential  candidate and suggested
that without government regulation the Seven Sisters (big oil) would control
the country within 48 hours.  His reply
was that the consumers would refuse to buy their product until they acted
reasonably, which struck me as naive to point of stupidity.  How do consumers go without oil or power or
food?

And now Republicans and Tea
Party types are adopting these extremist views, suggesting, it seems, that the
only legitimate functions of the federal government are fighting wars, keeping
close watch on the citizenry and prohibiting recreational drugs.  These people appear to inhabit a world where
poverty is always the result of personal failure and the market forces really
do work to solve all problems, where only good Christians are truly virtuous
and science is always suspect.  This is a
dream America,
one that has never existed, even in those halcyon days of the nineteenth
century when a (white Christian) man was a man and businessmen were free to
build America
unencumbered by silly government regulations.

With 312
million people and the largest economy on an increasingly interconnected planet
the United States
is a very complicated place, a social and economic structure of a complexity
that is seemingly beyond the intellectual capabilities of many on the
right.  This is no longer a nation of
small farmers and a predominantly white Protestant citizenry, and we have long
since moved beyond the village economy where the forces of supply and demand
operated more or less freely.  Yes, the
free marketplace has traditionally regulated itself, but in the long run
and with complete disregard for the welfare of the humans involved.  American growth in the nineteenth century was
spectacular, but it was paid for with the emergence of an economically
marginalized class of industrial workers and an endless cycle of boom and
bust.  And now the evolution of the
financial markets in the twenty-first century is threatening capitalism’s
ability to right itself even in the long run.

Unregulated
capitalism, whatever its touted dynamism, has historically produced a number of
effects deleterious to society as a whole.
First, and most obvious from American history since the Industrial
Revolution, there is the inevitable emergence of monopolistic practices, which
skew the marketplace and deprive the consumers of the basic benefits of
competition: lower prices and innovation.
This development is most dramatically displayed by the Robber Barons of
the nineteenth century, but despite more than a century of anti-trust
legislation the problem remains, particularly in the energy, banking and
information industries.

Second, and
plain to see around the planet, untrammeled capitalism has no regard for the
environment, no matter what industry public relations say.  There are of course those who feel that
economic growth justifies a little smog and the odd patch of scarred terrain,
but now in the twenty-first century the potential magnitude of such pollution
undercuts the growth excuse.  It is no
longer just a question of unsightly landscapes or a few people poisoned by
toxins in the earth or water; rather it is oil spills that injure the lives of
millions and destroy huge habitats and air pollution so serious that we are
actually affecting the climate and threatening a global catastrophe.

Finally, the
market place is dumb.  Even if supply
actually freely followed demand, which is unlikely on the large scale, the
market would be responding to the short-term desires of the consumer and the
typically short-term profit motives of the producer.  Such is generally conducive to neither the
most efficient use of resources nor the best long-term interests of the society.  An auto company would, for example, have
absolutely no reason to market a more efficient engine if consumers were
content with the current price of fuel, even if it was perfectly clear that
fuel was disappearing.  The market spurs
innovation for immediate profit not to solve future problems or for the
betterment of society.  It can in fact
injure the interests of society: if more money can be made by growing sugar
cane for ethanol instead of grain for food, concerns about hunger are not
likely to prevent the switch.  To put it
another way: the proper purpose of business is to make money, not to
demonstrate any regard for humanity.

The history
of deregulation in America
during the last 30 years would appear to underscore these concerns.  Deregulating the airlines has in fact
generated some lower prices, but has also sent the industry into such chaos
that airline companies come and go with depressing regularity and it is
increasingly unclear who actually owns the plane you are flying on.  Deregulating the savings and loan industry of
course led to a spectacular collapse and cost the taxpayers almost $90 billion.  When allowed to, states that chose to opt out
of regulating their power companies have seen the price of electricity rise and
service and reliability drop.  Check your
cable bill for the impact of “free competition” in that market.  The free market and human greed are a toxic
mix, less likely to create jobs, as the free marketeers  claim, and more likely to create misery.

All this,
however, pales before the threat of a non-regulated financial sector in the
twenty-first century, as the recent economic collapse makes very clear.  A relative handful of greedy men brought the
global economy to the brink and thereby threatened the lives of virtually
everyone on the planet.  Hedge funds and
private equity firms did not even exist when the banking industry was brought
under control in the 1930s, and their arcane workings have helped shield them
from government attention.  As late as
1985, when serious deregulation began, profits made by socially useless
financial institutions were at most 16% of the profits of all American
companies; they now constitute more than 40%.
These are not “job-creators,” to use the new Republican term
for the wealthy; they create absolutely nothing, essentially using the economy
as a giant casino.  For all that they
treated their workers like chattel, the Robber Barons actually produced goods
and services and helped build the country and economy.  The new lords of Wall Street do nothing but
injure the economy, all the while enriching themselves to a degree that would
impress even the Morgans and Rockefellers.

It should
now be perfectly clear to all but the densest conservatives that these masters
of financial manipulation and legerdemain with their arcane and opaque
instruments are far more serious a threat to our country than any group of
traditional terrorists.  Anybody can blow
up a building; blowing up a national economy, now that’s something.  Yet even in the wake of the collapse of 2008 nothing
effective has been done to bring these clever greedy people under control, and America’s
new flirtation with the extreme right and our fervent embrace of stupidity
fairly guarantees that nothing will be done.

The
realization that serious money can be made from economic downturns leads
inevitably – as it has – to the emergence of a coterie of
“businessmen” who have zero interest in the state of the economy,
because money can be made regardless of that state.  This is incredibly novel since traditional
industrialists and businessmen always preferred a prospering economy; you made
more money by selling more stuff and expanding your business.  If, on the other hand, you will make huge
profits through bond manipulation if the Greek economy completely tanks, you
will obviously hope for such an Hellenic bankruptcy, regardless of the economic
devastation that could result.  You in
fact will help bring it about: as the markets learn serious investors are
betting on Greek insolvency, Greek credit ratings will suffer further and
reluctance to extend more bailout money will grow.

But why stop
at hurting single countries when it is actually possible to hurt everyone on
earth?  The hedgers have discovered there
are huge profits to be made in playing with commodities on a global scale, and
one of those commodities is food.  This
is unbelievably pernicious.  A recent UN
study reveals that while speculation in food stocks has nothing to do with
actually producing and delivering goods, it does indeed impact the real world
by creating prices that have nothing at all to do with supply and demand.  And those artificial prices are inevitably
higher than real market forces would determine.
In a one year period running from 2010 to 2011 world food costs rose
39%, two critical commodities, grain and cooking oil/fats, rising by some 70%,
and virtually all this increase was due to trading in agricultural securities
rather than shortages.  There is plenty
of food in the world, yet millions are starving.  Some miniscule part of the problem is due to
inefficient distribution, but for the most part it is because prices are too
high, all because people who have nothing whatsoever to do with the food
industry are making billions manipulating it.

Confronted
with this global outrage, Alan Knuckman, one of the new stars of commodity
investment, replied: “The age of cheap food is over,” seemingly
oblivious to what that bald statement means to most of the people around the
globe.  Or perhaps he does: he added
“Most Americans eat too much, anyway.”  Well, there are in fact some Americans who do
not get enough to eat, but more important, there are several billion poor souls
around the world who must spend an average of three quarters of their income on
food.  For them the higher prices generated
by Knuckman and friends are not an inconvenience but a matter of life and
death.  And meanwhile this loathsome
creature is making millions, essentially by making life more miserable for
humanity.

These people
are hurting humanity in a way that sundry terrorists can only dream of, and
they have it in their power to bring the global economy to collapse.  Yet little is being done to protect us from
these predators, who make BP and Exxon Mobil look like socially responsible
companies.  The European Union and United
States are aware of the threat but finding
it difficult to produce regulations that are effective, especially since the
financial industry is globally interconnected and to a degree can dodge the
restrictions of any single country.  The US
has prohibited banks from engaging in dangerous speculation, but the
speculators simply left the banks for other venues.  A measure of the lack of progress: in the US
the “shadow banks,” as the hedge funds and private equity
institutions are known, hold $16 trillion in debt, while traditional commercial
banks hold only $13 trillion.  This is a
financial weapon of mass destruction just waiting to go off.

And while we
all wait helplessly for the next crisis, a novel question is now being debated,
at least in Europe:
Were the leftists right about capitalism after all?  With the economic failure of the Soviet
Union and the emergence of capitalist enterprise in China
collectivism as an economic system seemed to be finally and utterly discredited
and the free market economy triumphant, but now it seems that some of the
traditional cracks in the capitalist edifice are becoming fissures that could
bring the whole structure down.
Ironically, however, collapse of the system will not arise from oppression
of the working class by industrial magnates, as predicted, but from something
that Marx and Lenin could hardly have foreseen.
It will not be brigades of angry workers in the streets but clever young
men surrounded by computer screens in dark rooms.