Thursday, December 16, 2010
Social Security is sound financially: True or false?Go To Original
Since 1983, Social Security has taken in more revenue than it has needed to pay out in benefits.
That surplus revenue was borrowed by Uncle Sam and spent on other areas of the federal budget. In exchange, Uncle Sam promised to pay the program back with interest.
To date the federal government's tab to the program's trust fund has grown to roughly $2.5 trillion.
Starting in 2015, Social Security is projected to permanently take in less revenue than it has to pay out annually.
Those who say the program is nevertheless in good shape for years to come and shouldn't be a central part of any debt-reduction plan offer three main reasons:
Trust fund: The $2.5 trillion trust fund can ensure that the program continues to pay out 100% of promised benefits over the next quarter century.
U.S. backing: The promise to pay back the $2.5 trillion is backed by the full faith and credit of the United States, just like any bond sold to China or other investors.
Money maker: Far from contributing to the country's debt problems, Social Security through its surplus revenue actually made the federal deficits smaller than they otherwise would have been since 1983.
Those who say Social Security is in trouble financially offer two key reasons:
Empty coffers: To pay back that $2.5 trillion, the federal government will have to either borrow more, tax more or spend less. And that will put even more strain on taxpayers and the federal budget during a time of record debt.
Long-term shortfall: By 2037, the $2.5 trillion trust fund is projected to be tapped out anyway, at which point Social Security will only be able to pay out roughly 75% of promised benefits.
And here are some general points about the program that people on both sides of the debate seem to agree on, at least on days when they're listening to their better angels:
Gradual reform: Changes to close the program's long-term shortfall will be less painful and abrupt if they are implemented gradually.Protect the vulnerable: Any changes agreed to should not affect current or soon-to-be retirees and should protect future retirees who are most vulnerable.
Tax Deal Undermines Social Security, Makes it a "Trading Chip"
One of the concerns raised regarding the tax deal President Obama negotiated with Congressional Republicans is that it will undermine Social Security, as it includes a one-year cut in the payroll tax (the revenue from which goes to pay for Social Security). The administration has offered assurances that the lost revenue will be replaced with money from the general fund, but Republicans are already hinting that they will fearmonger about a tax increase when the cut expires, and if they are successful in blocking that expiration, Social Security’s long-term finances immediately get much worse.
But Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) is worried about something else too. During an interview yesterday with The Wonk Room, Holt explained that he doesn’t like the precedent of placing Social Security’s finances into a broader tax deal, saying that such a move will be “devastating” for the program’s future:
With this deal, Social Security is put into a package with the Bush tax cuts, with the AMT, with business accelerated expensing, and so forth. And as a result, Social Security, in a sense, becomes just another government program. And if Social Security is a program where one year you borrow from it to stimulate the economy, and another year you use it to balance the budget, you replace it from the general fund — or maybe you don’t — the political support for this will evaporate quickly…That’s the real problem here. It changes the very nature of Social Security. [...]
What is worse [than changes to the program's short-term funding] is if people begin to believe that Social Security is just another trading chip. You can use it this year for this purpose and that year for another purpose. Whether to use Social Security to accomplish other government aims, and put it in the debate just like whether the income cut-off should be $250,000 or $1 million, means that Social Security is just like those other things.
Holt said, “I think we’ve got to fix the deal, if we possibly can.” Instead of shifting money over to Social Security from the general fund, he advocated raising the cap on the payroll tax, to capture more income.
Holt is not alone with his concern. Eileen Applebaum at the Center for Economic and Policy Research wrote that “the most insidious aspect” of the payroll tax cut “is that itthreatens the idea that Social Security is sacrosanct, a reality so important to the economic security of the nation that the taxes that support it should never be tampered with.” To address this problem, the House is reportedly considering changing the payroll tax holiday into a one-time refund check, based off a proposal by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA).
Terrorist by Association
The Justice Department targets nonviolent solidarity activists.Go To Original
September 24 began like any other Friday for Joe Iosbaker and Stephanie Weiner. Then, at 7 a.m., FBI agents knocked on the door of the Chicago couple's house in the city's North Side.
Armed with a search warrant, more than 20 agents examined the couple's home, photographing every room and combing through notebooks, family videos and books, even their children's drawings. Some items were connected to their decades of anti-war and international solidarity activism, but others were not. "Folders were opened, letters were pulled out of envelopes," says Weiner, an adult education professor at Wilbur Wright College. "They had rubber gloves and they went through every aspect of our home." (See video interview with Weiner and Iosbaker below.)
Ten hours after their arrival, as television news crews filmed and activist supporters stood on the sidewalk, the agents drove away with nearly 30 boxes of material, including t-shirts and a photograph of Malcolm X. By that time, Iosbaker and Weiner had been served subpoenas to appear before a grand jury investigating "material support" for "foreign terrorist organizations." And they knew theirs wasn't the only home invaded that day. More than 70 FBI agents had raided seven residences in Chicago and Minneapolis and questioned activists in Michigan, California and North Carolina, serving subpoenas to 11 people. A few days later, the Justice Department subpoenaed members of the Minnesota Anti-War Committee (AWC), whose office was also raided on September 24, raising the number to 14. (Editor's note: five additional Chicago-area activists were subpoenaed in early December; see update below.)
The grand jury and FBI are looking for evidence that connects the 14 activists and their "potential co-conspirators" to two organizations: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which are both on the State Department's "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" list. None of the 14 has been charged with a crime, and all deny providing "material support," including money, to any foreign organization.
Citing the Fifth Amendment, all 14 are refusing to testify before the grand jury, which they say is a secretive arm of a government intent on silencing critics. (The U.S. Attorney's office conducting the investigation declined to comment. The search warrant affidavits justifying the FBI raids remain under seal.)
Most of those subpoenaed, including Weiner and Iosbaker, have been active in the labor movement and/or are members of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), a self-described "socialist and Marxist-Leninist organization" with about 100 members. But affiliations vary: 71-year-old great-grandmother Sarah Martin belongs to the Minneapolis-based group Women Against Military Madness; Hatem Abudayyeh is executive director of the Arab American Action Network, a Chicago social services agency; others are connected to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Palestine Solidarity Group-Chicago and the Colombia Action Network, which has protested U.S. military aid to Colombia and the assassinations of unionists there. The only connection they all have in common is that they all participated in an AWC-organized rally outside the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
Except for Mick Kelly and Tom Burke, FRSO members who have interviewed PFLP leaders, and Jess Sundin, who met with FARC members 10 years ago during a visit to Colombia, none of those subpoenaed say they have communicated directly with members of FARC or PFLP. But many of the activists are sympathetic to those organizations' goals and some have traveled to Colombia and Palestine as part of solidarity delegations.
"Anyone who does international solidarity or anti-war work, anyone who goes against the grain of American politics, is affected by this," says Kelly, a University of Minnesota cook and Teamster. "It's extremely important to push back against this repression. It affects the movement as a whole."
The Supreme Court's 'deeply chilling effect'
The phrase "material support for terrorism" brings to mind money and weapons, or other goods and services that directly support a terrorist organization's violent objectives or actions. But in June, the Supreme Court in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project upheld a much broader definition of material support--one that criminalizes speech advocating peace and human rights if it is "coordinated" with an official terrorist organization. It is this ruling that sets the stage for September's raids.
"For the first time, [the court] actually says it's criminal to speak out, to associate," says Michael Deutsch, an attorney with the Chicago-based People's Law Office and one of the National Lawyers Guild members working with the activists. "The ruling criminalizes First Amendment activity. It's quite ominous."
Material support for terrorism was first criminalized by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The 2001 PATRIOT Act broadened the definition of "material support" to include "expert advice or assistance" and provided a maximum sentence of 15 years. (The American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh was charged with, but not convicted of, providing material support to al Qaeda.) In 1998 the Humanitarian Law Project went to federal court to challenge the material support statute. The nonprofit group wanted to assist the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) with conflict resolution and human rights monitoring. It was later joined in the lawsuit by Tamil-American organizations wishing to provide medical assistance to victims of the 2004 South Asian tsunami, which would have required working with the now-defeated Tamil Tigers, which, like the PKK, is a State Department-listed terrorist group.
The Humanitarian Law Project argued that the material support law violated the First Amendment's right to free speech. But a majority of the Supreme Court accepted the government's argument--made by then-Solicitor General and current Justice Elena Kagan--that all nonviolent aid is properly illegal because it "frees up other resources within the organization that may be put to violent ends" and "legitimates" foreign terrorist groups. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts clarified that the law only criminalizes speech "under the direction of, or in coordination with foreign groups," leaving "independent advocacy" on the right side of the law.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor strongly disagreed, writing: "Not even the 'serious and deadly problem' of international terrorism can require automatic forfeiture of First Amendment rights."
University of Chicago law professor Aziz Huq takes issue with the court's distinction between "independent" and "coordinated" speech--a critical distinction if any of the 14 activists are charged with "material support" of FARC and PFLP. "There is some kind of speech that is not possible to do independently," Huq says. "There are speech interests that are squelched here."
Deutsch agrees: "It creates a chilling effect on people who are challenging U.S. foreign policy. If you speak out for the rights of Palestinians or question the government of Colombia, or are supportive of the Kurds' right to their homeland, you've invariably going to come into contact with these groups. You're going to be advocating some of the things that they're promoting."
That's a point familiar to former anti-apartheid activists, who organized to end white supremacy in South Africa. The anti-apartheid movement took direction from the African National Congress (ANC), which was called a terrorist organization by President Reagan in 1986. If the material support statute had been in place in the 1970s, the thousands of people who led anti-apartheid protests across the United States could have been considered criminals. (The ANC and its leader, Nelson Mandela, were not removed from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations until 2008, 15 years after Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize.)
"This is almost the 1950s coming back. It's overreaching," says Jim Fennerty, another attorney assisting the subpoenaed activists. Similarly, he adds, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter could be charged with "material support" for monitoring Lebanon's 2009 elections, which involved coordinated activity with Hezbollah, an official terrorist organization that was on the ballot.
In February, when the Supreme Court heard Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, David Cole, the Center for Constitutional Rights attorney sparred with Justice Antonin Scalia:
Cole: The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the L.A.Times...published op-eds by Hamas spokespersons...thereby providing a benefit to Hamas. [Under this statute,] they're all criminals...President Carter--
Scalia: [Interrupting]: Well, we--we can cross that bridge when we come to it.
While many in the legal world condemn the material support law, the subpoenaed activists are focusing their anger on those responsible for the grand jury and the home raids--the Justice Department and the FBI. The activists say the fervor of the current harassment is reminiscent of the agency's COINTELPRO program of the 1950s and 1960s that targeted Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Black Panther leaders, among many others. (The long-running operation, which officially ended in 1971, also targeted the entire "New Left" movement, including Students for a Democratic Society, a chapter of which Weiner advises at her college.)
"This is just another in a long line of cases of FBI and government oppression against people who think like we do and try to do social justice work to make changes in this country and other places," says Palestinian solidarity activist Hatem Abudayyeh, whose five-year-old daughter was home when the FBI raided his Chicago house. (Many of the subpoenas demanded activists produce any records of money given to Abudayyeh, as well as PFLP and FARC.)
Two trends over the past few years are particularly disturbing, according to Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, which advocates local legislation protecting civil liberties. First, the government is criminalizing speech that was formerly constitutionally protected, and second, the FBI is regaining access to intrusive investigative tactics. Buttar co-wrote a November 19 letter to the Obama administration and Congress signed by 45 advocacy organizations, that noted "an ongoing trend of intrusive government surveillance of progressive activists in the United States."
The same week the FBI raided activists' homes, the Justice Department's Inspector General released a report saying the agency had improperly spied on American activists involved in First Amendment-protected activities in the years following 9/11. The report, which reviewed FBI investigations between 2002 and 2006 of advocacy groups including Greenpeace and the Religious Society of Friends (i.e. the Quakers), said the FBI had inappropriately labeled nonviolent civil disobedience as terrorism, thereby improperly placing activists on federal terrorist watch lists.
Weiner says what angers her most about the FBI raid on her home is that the agents' motivations were cloaked in secrecy; they didn't have to provide any evidence of criminal activity. "The trauma is due to the [FBI's] audacity--they took the broadest approach--they didn't know what they were looking for."
Buttar says that FBI surveillance of activists without any implicating evidence has "accelerated" under the Obama administration. In December 2008, former Attorney General Michael Mucasey issued more permissive guidelines governing FBI investigations. Current Attorney General Eric Holder could amend those guidelines but has not. "We had thought that these abuses had ended after the [post-Watergate] Church Committee," Buttar says. "But the FBI's abuses of the constitutional rights of activists have only expanded under Obama."
Barbara Ransby, who along with Barack Obama was an anti-apartheid activist while a student at Columbia University in the early 1980s, says that given the long history of abusive FBI surveillance of political activists, the recent raids aren't surprising. But the fact that it happened under the first black U.S. president matters. "In some ways that gives it more cover," says Ransby, now a historian at the University of Illinois-Chicago, who spoke at a recent meeting of the Chicago chapter of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. "It makes people hesitant to see it as an attack. As a community of progressives, at moments like this, we really have to step up and embrace people who are under attack and defend them without question."
'Undemocratic and biased' grand jury system
The activists directly affected have not hesitated to see the raids and subpoenas as attacks. Just weeks after the raids, those subpoenaed and their allies formed the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, which is demanding an end to "the repression of anti-war and international solidarity activists," the return of all materials confiscated by the FBI (some have already been returned) and an end to the grand jury proceeding, which began in August 2009.
"I don't think there's anything fair about a grand jury," says Tom Burke, a central organizer of the committee who was subpoenaed in Grand Rapids, Mich., after the FBI followed him to a coffee shop. "There's no judge, you aren't allowed to have your lawyer with you. ... It's a totally undemocratic and biased system, and it would be foolish to cooperate."
The grand jury system was imported from England by American colonists, who often used it to defend their rights and express grievances against the king's policies. But the unique subpoena power of the modern grand jury system, in use virtually nowhere else, has long since morphed into something different, according to attorney Deutsch. Since the Nixon era, he says, the Justice Department has used grand juries against political activists, "forcing them to testify [through compulsory immunity], even what I call 'interning' them without charges."
If a subpoenaed person refuses to testify before the grand jury after being offered immunity by the government, she can be jailed for contempt--without ever having been convicted of a crime. The government considers this "coercion" a means of compelling testimony rather than punishment; famous victims include former Weather Underground member Bernadine Dohrn and former New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Jail is an immediate possibility for some of the 14 activists, three of whom were re-subpoenaed in November. (The Justice Department let all of their initial appearance dates pass after they refused to testify.)
But while Dohrn and Miller were released after less than 12 months, the uncooperative activists could face much more time because the current grand jury is investigating support for terrorism. ("Terrorism enhancement" sentencing guidelines, passed after the Oklahoma City bombing, allow judges to dramatically increase sentences if an offense "involved, or was intended to promote, a federal crime of terrorism.")
"They're not just looking at a few months in jail if they don't testify, they're looking at years," says Deutsch, pointing to the case of Abdelhaleem Ashqar as the most egregious recent example of grand jury abuse. In 2007, a federal judge sentenced Ashqar, a Palestinian and former professor of business administration at Howard University, to more than 11 years in prison for refusing to testify before a grand jury--after he was acquitted of all terrorism-related charges.
He remains imprisoned.
Solidarity drives pushback
While they'd rather go to jail than be part of what they call a "government witch hunt," the 14 subpoenaed activists are trying to avoid both outcomes by pressuring members of Congress and encouraging street protests around the country. In October, the Committee to Stop FBI Repression organized protests outside of the FBI's Chicago and Minneapolis offices, and during the week of November 29, it spearheaded a series of protests in cities across the country.
The committee also sent a delegation to Washington D.C. in November that met four members of Congress, including Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), and Andrea Martin, the executive director of the Progressive Caucus. No politician had committed to sending a "Dear Colleague" letter to fellow representatives, but committee members are hoping that protests outside home district offices, a national petition letter to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, and additional visits to the Capitol will cause influential people to condemn the grand jury investigation.
While the Justice Department's next step is unclear--it could offer immunity to those subpoenaed, push for indictments or impanel a new grand jury after the current one expires in February--the reaction to its investigation is not. More than 140 organizations from around the country, including the Green Party, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and dozens of labor unions and councils, have condemned the government's actions.
Jess Sundin, the antiwar activist who traveled to Colombia 10 years ago, sees those actions as an affront to her freedoms--and conscience. "The idea that it could be against the law for Americans to meet with people who our government doesn't support--I never imagined that that was illegal," Sundin said at a November 13 meeting of Seattle United Against FBI Repression. "I always believed that we had a right and responsibility to speak our opinions and to dissent when our government is making mistakes."
Return of the Great Triangulator
The sight of Bill Clinton back on the White House podium defending tax cuts for the super-rich was more a sick joke than a serious amplification of economic policy. How desperate is the current president that he would turn to the great triangulator, who opened the floodgates to banking greed, for validation of the sorry opportunistic hodgepodge that passes for this administration’s economic policy? A policy designed and implemented by the same Clinton-era holdovers whose radical deregulation of the financial industry created this mess in the first place.
As a candidate running against Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama quite accurately excoriated the economic policies of the Clinton years when the Democratic president united with congressional Republicans, led by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm, to obliterate sensible regulations of the New Deal. The result, as candidate Obama noted in March 2008, has been chaos:
“Unfortunately, instead of establishing a 21st century regulatory framework, we simply dismantled the old one—aided by a legal but corrupt bargain in which campaign money all too often shaped policy and watered down oversight. In doing so, we encouraged a winner-take-all, anything-goes environment that helped foster devastating dislocations in our economy.”
These dislocations were authorized when Clinton signed off on the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which reversed the Glass-Steagall Act’s separation between the high rollers of investment banking and the properly conservative, insured and regulated activities of commercial banks entrusted with the life savings of ordinary folks. With a stroke of a pen that he then presented as a gift to Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill, Clinton opened the door to the too-big-to-fail monstrosities that have caused so much misery.
Back in 1999, even though he had been warned of the coming financial instability, foreshadowed by the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management, Clinton was giddy in signing the bill: “Over the past seven years we have tried to modernize the economy,” he enthused. “And today what we are doing is modernizing the financial services industry, tearing down those antiquated laws and granting banks significant new authority.”
A year later Clinton signed off on the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, advanced most fiercely by his treasury secretary, Lawrence Summers, who has been the dominant personality setting economic policy for Obama. Titles 3 and 4 of that act summarily exempted from the surveillance of any existing regulatory agency or laws all of the newfangled financial gimmicks—the collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps—that have proved so toxic to the jobs and homes of tens of millions of Americans.
In his rambling and somewhat incoherent comments on the economy at the White House last week, Clinton attempted to explain away the failure of the banks to use the money that the government has made available to them to shore up housing and create jobs. As an aside, in commenting on community banks, Clinton touched on the mortgage security mess that his law enabled, but he still doesn’t seem to get his connection with the problem: “ … some of them may have a few mortgage issues unresolved, most of that mortgage debt has been offloaded to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or has vanished into cyber-sphere with those securitized subprime mortgages. I don’t like the securities, but they happened.”
What gibberish. The mortgage-backed securities didn’t just happen. Clinton signed legislation freeing those securities from any effective government regulation. Most Americans’ homes, which represented their dreams and savings, were turned into gambling chips in the Wall Street casino on a scale unknown and indeed unthinkable before the Clinton presidency. What has vanished is the equity of homeowners. As for the offloading to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that represents at least a $700 billion burden on taxpayers who have had to bail out those government-sponsored agencies that became totally corrupt on Clinton’s watch.
The bottom line on the Clinton legacy is that the census now finds an all-time high of 44 million Americans living under the poverty line, bringing us back, as a percentage of the population, to Bill Clinton’s first two years in office. One big difference is that thanks to Clinton’s so-called welfare reform program, there is no longer a significant federal anti-poverty program, and the plight of the poor is now a problem for the state governments, which also have been impoverished thanks to the bursting of the Clinton bubble.
As a candidate, Obama laid responsibility for the meltdown on the bipartisan deregulation of the Clinton years: “This loss has not happened by accident. It’s because of decisions made in boardrooms, on trading floors, and in Washington. Under Republican and Democratic administrations, we failed to guard against practices that all too often rewarded financial manipulation instead of productivity and sound business practices. We let the special interest put their thumbs on the economic scales.”
That’s the path Clinton followed after his party’s electoral reversal after he had been in office two years, a fact that made it all that more ominous to witness the great triangulator back on a White House podium.
Western Civilization and Classical Economics: The Immorality of Austerity
When a civilization abandons its morality, no rationalization can be devised to justify its continued existence. It is likely that many reasons can be given for this abandonment in the Western world, although I am convinced that one predominates—the expansion of law. Law once governed various kinds of behavior. It has now encroached upon various kinds of speech and is even being applied to the realm of belief. When someone is accused of having done something wrong, the reply offered usually is something like, "What was done complied with all legal requirements." But "right" has never been defined as "conforms to law," because thoughtful people have long noticed that the law itself can be a great crime, and the worst criminals in a culture can be its lawgivers, as the people of Ireland, Portugal, France, Spain, Greece, and Great Britain are now finding out. Americans will soon find it out too.
Numerous critics of classical economists over the past two centuries have argued that it is immoral when judged by any of the recognized moral codes. Major aspects of it clearly violate the Golden Rule. It violates many, perhaps all, of the Ten Commandments. It conflicts with various teachings of Jesus. Aristotle's Ethics can be used to demonstrate its viciousness. It violates Kant's Categorical Imperative and Mill's Utilitarianism. Yet some of its proponents continue to argue that The Wealth of Nations is not inconsistent with moral principles. Clive Cook and Gavin Kennedy recently made such a claim, but what they cite as evidence doesn't withstand scrutiny.
First of all, they base the claim on Smith's earlier book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he argues that conscience results from observing the condition of others, generating sympathy, which then serves as the basis of moral judgments.
Although I have no doubt that different communities view this book differently, the philosophical community has generally considered it sophomoric. In my decades as a professor of philosophy, not once did I see the book included in the standard philosophical curriculum. Most philosophy professors I knew had little knowledge of the book's existence. So even if someone could cogently argue that The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations are philosophically consistent, that argument would have little bearing on whether classical economics is moral.
Smith has never been recognized in philosophical circles as a major thinker. As a matter of fact, he's hardly recognized at all. And even some economists have noticed the sophomoric nature of his thinking. One highly respected, renowned economist, whose name I shall let the reader guess at, said this: "His very limitation made for success. Had he been more brilliant, he would not have been taken so seriously. Had he dug more deeply, had he unearthed more recondite truth, had he used more difficult and ingenious methods, he would not have been understood. But he had no such ambitions; in fact he disliked whatever went beyond plain common sense. He never moved above the heads of even the dullest readers. He led them on gently, encouraging them by trivialities and homely observations, making them feel comfortable all along."
Yet Kennedy lists the elements of morality that Smith included in The Wealth of Nations. "[Smith] was no libertarian. . . . His idea of 'natural liberty' was almost the opposite of what it is usually taken to mean (namely, 'do as you wish'). He was at pains in both books to emphasize the importance of self-control, of regard for the opinions of others, and of an expansive role of government in providing security, rule of law, and economic infrastructure. Way ahead of his time, he was even in favor of compulsory schooling." An interesting list, but not one that justifies the view that Smith's view of the economy is moral. A moralist would have expected to see something about poverty, hunger, and suffering, all of which are absent.
A serious, irrefutable proof of the immorality embodied in The Wealth of Nations and classical economics in general is easily devised.
Classical theorists like Smith aver that products derive their value from the labor that goes into producing them, and that labor, itself, is bought and sold. Wages, which are the price of labor, have a natural price which is the price needed to enable labor to subsist and to perpetuate itself without either increase or decrease. These dogmas are known as the labor theory of value and the subsistence theory of wages respectively. Some revealing implications can be derived from them.
First notice this oddity: labor produces products and the amount of labor expended determines their value. But labor is paid not the value of the products it produces but merely a subsistence wage. I defy anyone, economist or not, to justify that principle on moral grounds. Can Cook or Kennedy find an application of sympathy in this principle?
Second, the subsistence theory of wages describes a condition similar to that used by animal husbands in dealing with livestock. Classical economics treats labor as animal husbandry treats cows. Can treating a fellow human being as a farm animal ever be morally justified? Where is sympathy found in this? Working people, labor, those who create all the culture's wealth, are nothing but farm, factory, and when necessary, cannon fodder.
But economists will say that these aspects of classical economics are not paid much attention any more. Perhaps, but what economists pay attention to and what goes on in the economy are different things. The Wall Street Journal's report that 70 percent of people in North America live paycheck to paycheck demonstrates conclusively that the subsistence theory of wages is still being applied; our economists are just not honest enough to tell us about it.
If a subsistence wage is all that this economy pays working people, how would the culture determine how to treat those people not in the workforce—the aged, the infirm, and the handicapped, even the unemployed? Classical economics has no answer to this question because classical economics does not exist to provide for people generally. Classical economics divides the populace into two groups—capital and labor. Anyone not in one of these groups is somehow irrelevant, which explains why the President and other governmental officials always speak of the upper class and the middle class but never mention the lower class. Yet no one seems to notice that speaking of an upper and middle class without speaking of a lower class is meaningless.
The upshot is that if the dogmas of classical economics are applied consistently, there is no need for any people not capable of functioning in the workforce. So, in keeping with this implication, Andrew Mellon, President Herbert Hoover's treasury secretary recommended that Hoover fight the depression by ”liquidating the farmers, liquidating the workers, and driving down wages."
Of course, if this were openly advocated, the outrage would be uncontrollable and the system would be torn asunder. So this fact is obscured by the provision of "safety nets" that provide little safety, since what they are comprised of cannot exceed or even equal the subsistence wage. So Americans have social security which provides no security, unemployment compensation which is too meager to subsist on, welfare which is really illfare, and chancy access to healthcare at best. Yet those who promote this economy can, it seems, always find money to buttress business, create killing machines, and fight continual wars. What few seem to realize is that these consequences are logical implications of the dogmas of classical economics and come straight out of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Livestock, when unneeded, are routinely shipped to slaughter.
The United States and much of the so-called Western World are wallowing in widespread budgetary and sovereign debt crises, and the world's financial elite are forcing many European nations into severe austerity programs much to the chagrin of European peoples. Some of these nations have been referred to by the acronym PIGS, which is apt since pigs are a species of livestock. So what we have, of course, is swineherds sacrificing their livestock for the benefit of the international financial community which cares nothing for people or even the nations they reside in. These financiers validate Jefferson's view that merchants have no country. They also have no morality, not even a smidgen. Neither do the economists who promote this economy.
Signs that the American swineherds are preparing to abandon their own herd by imposing an austerity program on it are displayed in the report of Obama's Deficit Reduction Commission and the insistence of our Republican Congressmen that spending on "entitlements" either be reduced or paid for while spending on wars, foreign aid, and the military be allowed to continue and even increase without any provisions whatsoever for paying for them. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that warfare and foreign aid are necessary economic principals while the American people have fallen into that group of economically irrelevant people that those like Andrew Mellon would have the government liquidate. So the unemployed should be allowed to starve, and the ill should be allowed to perish—both of which principles are perfectly consistent with the "morality" of classical economics.
Yet the most difficult thing to understand is what the proponents of this economy believe the purpose of it all is. What is the goal of all of this destruction, suffering, and killing? Does it give them some kind of deranged pride? Does a banker really feel good when he is told his bank evicted hundreds of families in the past week? Does a general rejoice when he is told that dozens of the enemy and scores of his own troops have been killed in the battle just fought? Does a legislator drink a toast to progress when it is learned that hundreds of children in her/his district go to bead hungry each night? If so, what kind of human beings are they? If not, just what can they possibly be thinking?
All the moral codes mentioned in this piece are Western in origin; yet none now plays a role in how the people of this civilization behave. When a civilization abandons its morality, no rationalization can be devised to justify its continued existence. It is likely that many reasons can be given for this abandonment, although I am convinced that one predominates—the expansion of law. Law once governed various kinds of behavior. It has now encroached upon various kinds of speech and is even being applied to the realm of belief. If there is a single aspect of human life that is not now circumscribed by law, I do not know of it. So when someone is accused of having done something wrong, the reply offered usually is something like, "What was done complied with all legal requirements." But "right" has never been defined as "conforms to law," because thoughtful people have long noticed that the law itself can be a great crime, and that the worst criminals in a culture can be its lawgivers, as the people of Ireland, Portugal, France, Spain, Greece, and Great Britain are now finding out. Americans will soon find it out too.
Politics in America: Only the rich need apply
Though John Adams railed against it more than two centuries ago, we now find ourselves in a new age of aristocratic despotism.Go To Original
I was reminded of this phrase when a recent Center for Responsive Politics study of 2009 data found that 261 of the 535 members of Congress were millionaires (this probably understates the actual number because members of Congress aren't required to report their homes as assets). When looking at both houses together, the legislators weighed in with a hefty median income of $911,000. For the Senate alone, median income was an astounding $2.38 million. This is not too shabby when the median household income in America is roughly $50,000.
In other words, politics has increasingly been turned over to the wealthy.
We have even returned to the practice of "swilling the planters with bumbo." Although election laws prevent the crude bribery of Colonial times, Americans appear perfectly comfortable with people spending their personal fortunes to buy — if they can — their way to election. Meg Whitman spent more than $160 million — $140 million-plus of which was her own money — in a failed effort to seize the governorship of California, or roughly $50 per vote. Rick Scott lavished more than $70 million of his and his family's fortune to snare the job as Florida's governor. Both campaigns seem like a relative bargain compared with Michael Bloomberg, who spent $102 million to win a third term as mayor of New York, or roughly $174 per vote.
This is not simply a local or state phenomenon. Mitt Romney spent more than $40 million in his losing bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Even Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had a well-established fundraising machine, lent $13.2 million to her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Although many self-financed candidates end up losing, they scare off competitors of more modest means.
This unfortunate trend of the wealthy monopolizing higher office shows no sign of slowing. Election financing laws continue to erode, and income disparities seem likely to grow for the foreseeable future.
John Adams railed against this development more than two centuries ago. At the time, the prevailing view was that government positions should pay little, if any, salary so that only men with virtuous intentions would fill them. But Adams pointed out that this so-called solution did not ensure the election of virtuous men, only the election of rich men. Simply paying a reasonable salary, he argued, was "one of the best securities of liberty and equality."
Adams' great fear was that we would have what he called "an aristocratic despotism": the possibility of "the rich, the well born and the able acquir[ing] an influence among the people that will soon be too much for simple honesty and plain sense." In typical fashion, his judgment of that aristocracy was unstinting in its harshness. He wrote of "the weakness, the folly, the pride, the vanity, the selfishness, the artifice, the unbounded ambition, the unfeeling cruelty of a majority of those (in all nations) who are allowed an aristocratical influence."
Over time, most Americans came to agree with Adams, and that is why public office now comes with a regular salary, health benefits and all those other attributes we associate with most jobs (ironically, those benefits are becoming increasingly rare for nongovernment employees).
With the modern return of the practice of "swilling the planters with bumbo," though, we now find ourselves in a new age of aristocratic despotism. You need only study income distribution over the last quarter of a century to see that the nation's policies have been slanted overwhelmingly in favor of the rich. Between 1979 and 2004, the after-tax income for the top 1% skyrocketed 176%, according to the Congressional Budget Office. How did the bottom fifth do? They squeezed out a measly 6% gain.
Adams probably never imagined that electioneering would grow into the unwieldy beast that it now is, in which even local and statewide races gobble up tens of millions of dollars. It is no wonder that political offices are sliding ever more firmly into the hands of the wealthy. Adams would undoubtedly survey the scene and find it as full of weakness, folly and selfishness as it was in his own day.
As he warned back then, you get the politics you pay for.
Agreement sought on Afghan-Pakistan gas pipeline
The pipeline, which would terminate in India, would bring huge amounts of gas to underdeveloped regions and could earn impoverished Afghanistan hundreds of millions of dollars in transit fees. But it would cross both Taliban–intensive stretches of Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan's unruly tribal areas.
The leaders, along with Turkmenistan's president and India's oil minister are expected to sign a document expressing support for the project. The next step would likely be to seek proposals and bids from energy companies.
Efforts to get the pipeline — called TAPI after the countries involved — under way have intensified in recent months as Afghanistan seeks ways to kick–start its economy, while Pakistan and India explore how to slake their energy thirst.
The project has also won vocal support from the United States, which is strongly opposed to India and Pakistan drawing supplies from Iran through another proposed gas pipeline.
Turkmenistan, which is believed to hold the world's fourth–largest gas reserves, is eager to find new markets for its potentially gargantuan energy exports amid flagging interest from Russia, its traditional client.
Plans to build a pipeline transporting the former Soviet nation's gas to Western Europe to date remain hazy ambitions.
The visit by Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari comes after months of technical consultations. India is expected be represented at Saturday's signing by petroleum minister Murli Deora.
The TAPI pipeline would stretch some 1,700 kilometers (1,050 miles) from Turkmenistan's Dovletabad field to the Indian township of Fazilka, just over the border with Pakistan. Its cost is estimated at about $8 billion.
Sections of the pipeline's intended path — across deep Taliban country in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province and then into Pakistan's restive tribal areas. That raises concern among experts about its near–term feasibility.
"The issue is not only security in the sense that you can't actually guarantee the safety of the pipeline, but actual construction is going to be difficult as well," said Maria Kuusisto, an Asia analyst at Eurasia Group.
With the capacity to deliver more than 30 billion cubic meters of gas annually, TAPI would come as welcome relief for energy–parched nations along the route.
According to a preliminary breakdown, India and Pakistan would each stand to receive around 38 million cubic meters of gas out of the 90 million cubic meters shipped daily. Afghanistan would get the remainder.
Attempts to build a pipeline through Afghanistan date back to the mid–1990s, when the U.S.–led consortium Unocal was locked in fierce competition with Argentina's Bridas to win a deal to construct and run the route.
But as the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan, those ambitions were shelved and remained so during the next decade's war.
Turkmen President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov has vigorously trumpeted TAPI, which presents an opportunity for to kburnish Turkmenistan's credentials as a bulwark of stability in the region.
Turkmen officials estimate that construction of the pipeline could generate around 12,000 jobs in Afghanistan and earn it several hundred millions dollars annually in transit fees.
Turkmenistan has sought to broaden its client base after Russia sharply cut back its imports from the Central Asian nation.
A 1,800–kilometer (1,080–mile) pipeline to China began pumping natural gas late last year.
Study Confirms That Fox News Makes You Stupid
Yet another study has been released proving that watching Fox News is detrimental to your intelligence. World Public Opinion, a project managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, conducted a survey of American voters that shows that Fox News viewers are significantly more misinformed than consumers of news from other sources. What’s more, the study shows that greater exposure to Fox News increases misinformation.
So the more you watch, the less you know. Or to be precise, the more you think you know that is actually false. This study corroborates a previous PIPA study that focused on the Iraq war with similar results. And there was an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that demonstrated the break with reality on the part of Fox viewers with regard to health care. The body of evidence that Fox News is nothing but a propaganda machine dedicated to lies is growing by the day.
In eight of the nine questions below, Fox News placed first in the percentage of those who were misinformed (they placed second in the question on TARP). That’s a pretty high batting average for journalistic fraud. Here is a list of what Fox News viewers believe that just aint so:
- 91 percent believe the stimulus legislation lost jobs
- 72 percent believe the health reform law will increase the deficit
- 72 percent believe the economy is getting worse
- 60 percent believe climate change is not occurring
- 49 percent believe income taxes have gone up
- 63 percent believe the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts
- 56 percent believe Obama initiated the GM/Chrysler bailout
- 38 percent believe that most Republicans opposed TARP
- 63 percent believe Obama was not born in the U.S. (or that it is unclear)
The conclusion is inescapable. Fox News is deliberately misinforming its viewers and it is doing so for a reason. Every issue above is one in which the Republican Party had a vested interest. The GOP benefited from the ignorance that Fox News helped to proliferate. The results were apparent in the election last month as voters based their decisions on demonstrably false information fed to them by Fox News.
By the way, the rest of the media was not blameless. CNN and the broadcast network news operations fared only slightly better in many cases. Even MSNBC, which had the best record of accurately informing viewers, has a ways to go before it can brag about it.
The conclusions in this study need to be disseminated as broadly as possible. Fox’s competitors need to report these results and produce ad campaigns featuring them. Newspapers and magazines need to publish the study across the country. This is big news and it is critical that the nation be advised that a major news enterprise is poisoning their minds.
This is not an isolated review of Fox’s performance. It has been corroborated time and time again. The fact that Fox News is so blatantly dishonest, and the effects of that dishonesty have become ingrained in an electorate that has been been purposefully deceived, needs to be made known to every American. Our democracy cannot function if voters are making choices based on lies. We have the evidence that Fox is tilting the scales and we must now make certain its corporate owners do not get away with it.
The American Empire Is Collapsing, And Americans Will Be The Last to Know
50 years from now historians will probably be writing about the fall of the American empire. But history is writing itself furiously in the present, accelerated by the revolution of global freedom of information. What would have taken years to gather is accessible to anyone with a few strokes on a computer keyboard. So never mind the historians of the future, and lets see how reality is shaping up today.
The crumbling period of the United States empire started on September 11th. Since then, a chain of events so dire occurred that it would seem the empire defeated itself by a series of catastrophic mistakes. After 9/11, Americans wanted revenge, and the war in Afghanistan became a very easy sale for the Bush administration. But then the neo-cons seized the opportunity to push their agenda of the New American Century project, and it was precisely the Achille’s heel of the empire.
Attacking Iraq: The Biggest Geopolitical Blunder In History
When the Bush administration attacked Iraq in 2003, a critical element escaped their understanding of the regional and demographic parameters: By toppling the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein, they would give the upper hand to the oppressed Shia Iraqi majority allied with Iran.
In a word, the US troops who fought and died in the conflict did it ultimately for the regional benefit of the Iranian Islamic Republic. The blunders did not stop with geopolitics, but were compounded by a catastrophic financial burden.
The Cost Of Wars in Iraq And Afghanistan Is Bankrupting The US Economy
If the Pentagon was a corporation, it would be the largest in the world. The curiously called Department Of Defense has cost the American taxpayers, since the ill advised attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, around $700 billion a year. Of course, if you add up health care for wounded veterans, and layers of new “security” administration such as the Department of Homeland Security, the numbers keep adding up to top $1 trillion a year. Overall more than 25 percent of the federal budget gets swallowed in the financial black hole that is the Pentagon.
If Americans could do the math, they would quickly understand that the bill for the two wars is now creeping up to $10 trillion. In order to achieve the chimeric goals of the neocons of an ever lasting global American empire money had to be borrowed. Currently, for every dollar spent by the federal government 40 cents is borrowed. America used to borrow mainly from Japan and Europe, but now does its main borrowing from China. In a striking reversal of fortune, the “poor man of Asia” has now become the country in the world with the most liquid assets.
Empires Always Have An Expiration Date
Americans have a delusional sense of historic exceptionalism which they share with most previous empires. After all America’s ascension to a leading role on the world scene is very recent. The deal was sealed in Yalta in 1945 between Stalin and Roosevelt, with Churchill present but already taking the back seat. In a matter of 5 years, and about 60 million deaths, two new empires had emerged from the ruin of three: the United States and the Soviet Union. On the losing side of history was, of course, Japan, the empire of the sun, but also Britain and France.
The old imperial powers of Britain and France were slow to fully understand the nature of the new game. It took the loss of India for the United Kingdom, in 1948, and the one of Indochina for France in 1951 to make them understand that they would have from now on an ever shrinking role on the world stage. However, it took 9 years for Britain and France to fully digest the consequences of Yalta. In 1956, France and Britain took their very last joint imperialist venture by attacking Egypt over the ownership of the Suez Canal. The decaying empires were told to back off by the United States and the USSR.
A Repressive Capitalist Globalization Or The Revolution Of Global Freedom Of Information ?
The Cold War was a fairly predictable era. Beside a few crisis such as the flash point of the Cuba missile crisis, the two super-powers fought to augment their respective turfs thought proxy wars. But Afghanistan came along for the Soviets, and the long war made the USSR collapsed. Naturally the United States started acting as the only super-power left, and for this reason as the master of the universe.
The narrative of Ronald Reagan is peppered by such elements, and so is the one of all of his successors including Barack Obama. But all empires had the same distorted visions of themselves, the Romans imposed the Pax Romana on their vassals for a long time , so did Charlemagne, and Napoleon for a much shorter time. In any sense, power is cyclical and never lasts.
Thanks to WikiLeaks and the courage of his founder Julian Assange and the one of Pentagon’s whistleblower Bradley Manning, it has become rather obvious that while President Obama has changed the official tone of Washington from the Bush administration, the overall goals of US foreign policies have remained the same: Ensure and expend US power and authority on vassal states. This push to establish a new world order under exclusive US authority has been prevalent in all of the US administrations since Ronald Reagan and the end of the cold war.
President Obama, despite what could be his personal convictions is a prisoner of this imperial system. Obama is trapped by a complex nexus of inter-locking institutions such as the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department etc, and by powerful interest groups profiting from endless wars. The very same institutions and interest groups have been at the core of every post-1945 imperial presidency. As early as 1946, president Harry Truman said: “From Darius’ Persia, Alexander’s Greece, Hadrian’s Rome, Victoria’s Britain; no nation or group of nations has had our responsibilities.”
However, most analysts and foreign policy experts currently assume that the present century will not be American. In this tectonic power shift, under the push of China and India, the emerging new world order will be plural and decentralized. But the main question is: How Americans will adapt to this new paradigm where the United States loses its status of uncontested leadership?
Truth is the Greatest Enemy of the State.
By Paul Craig Roberts
Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, former assistant Secretary to the US Treasury, is Max's guest for today's show to talk about the WikiLeaks. Max asks Dr. Roberts about what he thinks of what is happening to WikiLeaks story, in particular the US, led by Joe Lieberman, which has been forcing WikkiLeaks offline.
Press TV's On the Edge
Posted December 13, 2010
How the Pentagon Turns Working-Class Men into the Deadliest Killers on the Planet
The following is an excerpt from David Swanson’s self-published new book War is a Lie (David Swanson, 2010).
Since the Vietnam War, the United States has dropped all pretense of a military draft equally applied to all. Instead we spend billions of dollars on recruitment, increase military pay, and offer signing bonuses until enough people "voluntarily" join by signing contracts that allow the military to change the terms at will. If more troops are needed, just extend the contracts of the ones you've got. Need more still? Federalize the National Guard and send kids off to war who signed up thinking they'd be helping hurricane victims. Still not enough? Hire contractors for transportation, cooking, cleaning, and construction. Let the soldiers be pure soldiers whose only job is to kill, just like the knights of old. Boom, you've instantly doubled the size of your force, and nobody's noticed except the profiteers.
Still need more killers? Hire mercenaries. Hire foreign mercenaries. Not enough? Spend trillions of dollars on technology to maximize the power of each person. Use unmanned aircraft so nobody gets hurt. Promise immigrants they'll be citizens if they join. Change the standards for enlistment: take 'em older, fatter, in worse health, with less education, with criminal records. Make high schools give recruiters aptitude test results and students' contact information, and promise students they can pursue their chosen field within the wonderful world of death, and that you'll send them to college if they live ? hey, just promising it costs you nothing. If they're resistant, you started too late. Put military video games in shopping malls. Send uniformed generals into kindergartens to warm the children up to the idea of truly and properly swearing allegiance to that flag. Spend 10 times the money on recruiting each new soldier as we spend educating each child. Do anything, anything, anything other than starting a draft.
But there's a name for this practice of avoiding a traditional draft. It's called a poverty draft. Because people tend not to want to participate in wars, those who have other career options tend to choose those other options. Those who see the military as one of their only choices, their only shot at a college education, or their only way to escape their troubled lives are more likely to enlist. According to the Not Your Soldier Project:
"The majority of military recruits come from below-median income neighborhoods.
"In 2004, 71 percent of black recruits, 65 percent of Latino recruits, and 58 percent of white recruits came from below-median income neighborhoods. "The percentage of recruits who were regular high school graduates dropped from 86 percent in 2004 to 73 percent in 2006. "[The recruiters] never mention that the college money is difficult to come by - only 16 percent of enlisted personnel who completed four years of military duty ever received money for schooling. They don't say that the job skills they promise won't transfer into the real world. Only 12 percent of male veterans and 6 percent of female veterans use skills learned in the military in their current jobs. And of course, they downplay the risk of being killed while on duty."
In a 2007 article Jorge Mariscal cited analysis by the Associated Press that found that "nearly three-fourths of [U.S. troops] killed in Iraq came from towns where the per capita income was below the national average. More than half came from towns where the percentage of people living in poverty topped the national average."
"It perhaps should come as no surprise," wrote Mariscal,"that the Army GED Plus Enlistment Program, in which applicants without high school diplomas are allowed to enlist while they complete a high school equivalency certificate, is focused on inner-city areas.
"When working-class youth make it to their local community college, they often encounter military recruiters working hard to discourage them. 'You're not going anywhere here,' recruiters say. 'This place is a dead end. I can offer you more.' Pentagon-sponsored studies ? such as the RAND Corporation's 'Recruiting Youth in the College Market: Current Practices and Future Policy Options' ? speak openly about college as the recruiter's number one competitor for the youth market….
"Not all recruits, of course, are driven by financial need. In working-class communities of every color, there are often long- standing traditions of military service and links between service and privileged forms of masculinity. For communities oft en marked as 'foreign,' such as Latinos and Asians, there is pressure to serve in order to prove that one is 'American.' For recent immigrants, there is the lure of gaining legal resident status or citizenship. Economic pressure, however, is an undeniable motivation. . . ."
Mariscal understands that there are many other motivations as well, including the desire to do something useful and important for others. But he believes those generous impulses are being misdirected:
"In this scenario, the desire to 'make a difference,' once inserted into the military apparatus, means young Americans may have to kill innocent people or become brutalized by the realities of combat. Take the tragic example of Sgt. Paul Cortez, who graduated in 2000 from Central High School in the working-class town of Barstow, Calif., joined the Army, and was sent to Iraq. On March 12, 2006, he participated in the gang rape of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her and her entire family.
"When asked about Cortez, a classmate said: 'He would never do something like that. He would never hurt a female. He would never hit one or even raise his hand to one. Fighting for his country is one thing, but not when it comes to raping and murdering. That's not him.' Let us accept the claim that 'that's not him.' Nevertheless, because of a series of unspeakable and unpardonable events within the context of an illegal and immoral war, 'that' is what he became. On February 21, 2007, Cortez pled guilty to the rape and four counts of felony murder. He was convicted a few days later, sentenced to life in prison and a lifetime in his own personal hell."
In a 2010 book called The Casualty Gap, Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen look at the data from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. They found that only in World War II was a fair draft employed, while the other three wars drew disproportionately from poorer and less educated Americans, opening a "casualty gap" that grew dramatically larger in Korea, again in Vietnam, and yet again in the War on Iraq as the military shifted from conscription to "volunteer." The authors also cite a survey showing that as Americans become aware of this casualty gap, they become less supportive of wars.
The transition from war primarily by the rich to war primarily by the poor has been a very gradual one and is far from complete. For one thing, those in the highest positions of power in the military are more likely to have come from privileged backgrounds. And regardless of their background, top officers are the least likely to see dangerous combat. Leading the troops into battle is not how it works anymore, except in our imaginations. Both presidents Bush saw their approval ratings soar in public opinion polls when they fought wars ? at least at first when the wars were still new and magnificent. Never mind that these presidents fought their wars from the air-conditioned Oval Office. One result of this is that those making the decisions upon which the most lives hang are the least likely to see war death up close, or to have ever seen it.
The Air-Conditioned Nightmare
The first President Bush had seen World War II from an airplane, already a distance away from the dying, although not as far away as Reagan who had avoided going to war. Just as thinking of enemies as subhuman makes it easier to kill them, bombing them from high in the sky is much easier psychologically than participating in a knife fight or shooting a traitor standing blindfolded beside a wall. Presidents Clinton and Bush Jr. avoided the Vietnam War, Clinton through educational privilege, Bush through being the son of his father. President Obama never went to war. Vice Presidents Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden, like Clinton and Bush Jr., dodged the draft. Vice President Al Gore went to the Vietnam War briefly, but as an army journalist, not a soldier who saw combat.
Rarely does someone deciding that thousands must die have the experience of having seen it happen. On August 15, 1941, the Nazis had already killed a lot of people. But Heinrich Himmler, one of the top military bigwigs in the country who would oversee the murder of six million Jews, had never seen anyone die. He asked to watch a shooting in Minsk. Jews were told to jump into a ditch where they were shot and covered with dirt. Then more were told to jump in. They were shot and covered. Himmler stood right at the edge watching, until something from someone's head splashed onto his coat. He turned pale and turned away. The local commander said to him:
"Look at the eyes of the men in this Kommando. What kind of followers are we training here? Either neurotics or savages!"
Himmler told them to do their duty even if it was hard. He returned to doing his from the comfort of a desk.
Shalt Thou Kill or Not?
Killing sounds a lot easier than it is. Throughout history, men have risked their own lives to avoid having to take part in wars:
"Men have fled their homelands, served lengthy prison terms, hacked off limbs, shot off feet or index fingers, feigned illness or insanity, or, if they could afford to, paid surrogates to fight in their stead. 'Some draw their teeth, some blind themselves, and others maim themselves, on their way to us,' the governor of Egypt complained of his peasant recruits in the early nineteenth century. So unreliable was the rank and file of the eighteenth-century Prussian army that military manuals forbade camping near a woods or forest. The troops would simply melt away into the trees."
Although killing non-human animals comes easily to most people, killing one's fellow human beings is so radically outside the normal focus of one's life which involves co-existing with people that many cultures have developed rituals to transform a normal person into a warrior, and sometimes back again following a war. The ancient Greeks, Aztecs, Chinese, Yanomamo Indians, and Scythians also used alcohol or other drugs to facilitate killing.
Very few people kill outside of the military, and most of them are extremely disturbed individuals. James Gilligan, in his book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, diagnosed the root cause of murderous or suicidal violence as deep shame and humiliation, a desperate need for respect and status (and, fundamentally love and care) so intense that only killing (oneself and/or others) could ease the pain -- or, rather, the lack of feeling.
When a person becomes so ashamed of his needs (and of being ashamed), Gilligan writes, and when he sees no nonviolent solutions, and when he lacks the ability to feel love or guilt or fear, the result can be violence. But what if violence is the start? What if you condition healthy people to kill without thought? Can the result be a mental state resembling that of the person who's internally driven to kill?
The choice to engage in violence outside of war is not a rational one, and oft en involves magical thinking, as Gilligan explains by analyzing the meaning of crimes in which murderers have mutilated their victims' bodies or their own. "I am convinced," he writes,"that violent behavior, even at its most apparently senseless, incomprehensible, and psychotic, is an understandable response to an identifiable, specifiable set of conditions; and that even when it seems motivated by 'rational' self-interest, it is the end product of a series of irrational, self-destructive, and unconscious motives that can be studied, identified, and understood."
The mutilation of bodies, whatever drives it in each case, is a fairly common practice in war, although engaged in mostly by people who were not inclined to murderous violence prior to joining the military. Numerous war trophy photos from the War on Iraq show corpses and body parts mutilated and displayed in close-up, laid out on a platter as if for cannibals. Many of these images were sent by American soldiers to a website that marketed pornography. Presumably, these images were viewed as war pornography. Presumably, they were created by people who had come to love war ? not by the Himmlers or the Dick Cheneys who enjoy sending others, but by people who actually enjoyed being there, people who signed up for college money or adventure and were trained as sociopathic killers.
On June 9, 2006, the U.S. military killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, took a photo of his dead head, blew it up to enormous proportions, and displayed it in a frame at a press conference. From the way it was framed, the head could have been connected to a body or not. Presumably this was meant to be not only proof of his death, but a kind of revenge for al-Zarqawi's beheading of Americans.
Gilligan's understanding of what motivates violence comes from working in prisons and mental health institutions, not from participating in war, and not from watching the news. He suggests that the obvious explanation for violence is usually wrong:
"Some people think that armed robbers commit their crimes in order to get money. And of course, sometimes, that is how they rationalize their behavior. But when you sit down and talk with people who repeatedly commit such crimes, what you hear is, 'I never got so much respect before in my life as I did when I first pointed a gun at somebody,' or, 'You wouldn't believe how much respect you get when you have a gun pointed at some dude's face.' For men who have lived for a lifetime on a diet of contempt and disdain, the temptation to gain instant respect in this way can be worth far more than the cost of going to prison, or even of dying."
While violence, at least in the civilian world, may be irrational, Gilligan suggests clear ways in which it can be prevented or encouraged. If you wanted to increase violence, he writes, you would take the following steps that the United States has taken: Punish more and more people more and more harshly; ban drugs that inhibit violence and legalize and advertise those that stimulate it; use taxes and economic policies to widen disparities in wealth and income; deny the poor education; perpetuate racism; produce entertainment that glorifies violence; make lethal weapons readily available; maximize the polarization of social roles of men and women; encourage prejudice against homosexuality; use violence to punish children in school and at home; and keep unemployment sufficiently high. And why would you do that or tolerate it? Possibly because most victims of violence are poor, and the poor tend to organize and demand their rights better when they aren't terrorized by crime.
Gilligan looks at violent crimes, especially murder, and then turns his attention to our system of violent punishment, including the death penalty, prison rape, and solitary confinement. He views retributive punishment as the same sort of irrational violence as the crimes it is punishing. He sees structural violence and poverty as doing the most damage, but he does not address the subject of war. In scattered references Gilligan makes clear that he lumps war into his theory of violence, and yet in one place he opposes ending wars, and nowhere does he explain how his theory can be coherently applied.
Wars are created by governments, just like our criminal justice system. Do they have similar roots? Do soldiers and mercenaries and contractors and bureaucrats feel shame and humiliation? Do war propaganda and military training produce the idea that the enemy has disrespected the warrior who must now kill to recover his honor? Or is the humiliation of the drill sergeant intended to produce a reaction redirected against the enemy? What about the congress members and presidents, the generals and weapons corporation CEOs, and the corporate media ? those who actually decide to have a war and make it happen? Don't they have a high degree of status and respect already, even if they may have gone into politics because of their exceptional desire for such attention? Aren't there more mundane motivations, like financial profit, campaign financing, and vote winning at work here, even if the writings of the Project for the New American Century have a lot to say about boldness and dominance and control?
And what about the public at large, including all those nonviolent war supporters? Common slogans and bumper stickers include: "These colors don't run," "Proud to be an American," "Never back down," "Don't cut and run." Nothing could be more irrational or symbolic than a war on a tactic or an emotion, as in the "Global War on Terror," which was launched as revenge, even though the primary people against whom the revenge was desired were already dead. Do people think their pride and self-worth depend on the vengeance to be found in bombing Afghanistan until there's nobody left resisting U.S. dominance? If so, it will do not a bit of good to explain to them that such actions actually make us less safe. But what if people who crave respect find out that such behavior makes our country despised or a laughingstock, or that the government is playing them for fools, that Europeans have a higher standard of living as a result of not putting all their money into wars, or that a puppet president like Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai has been making off with suitcases of American money?
Regardless, other research finds that only about two percent of people actually enjoy killing, and they are extremely mentally disturbed. The purpose of military training is to make normal people, including normal war supporters, into sociopaths, at least in the context of war, to get them to do in war what would be viewed as the single worst thing they could do at any other time or place. The way people can be predictably trained to kill in war is to simulate killing in training. Recruits who stab dummies to death, chant "Blood makes the grass grow!", and shoot target practice with human-looking targets, will kill in battle when they're scared out of their minds. They won't need their minds. Their reflexes will take over. "The only thing that has any hope of influencing the midbrain," writes Dave Grossman, "is also the only thing that influences a dog: classical and operant conditioning."