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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Nuclear savings

As the August 2 debt ceiling deadline approaches, members of Congress have floated all sorts of ideas to cut future spending because (tea party-backed) House Republicans say they won't vote for an increase without the cuts. Thanks to Grover Norquist, new tax revenues are deemed unacceptable because nearly every Republican in Congress has pledged not to increase taxes. They even oppose ending the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy even though Norquist himself apparently said that expiration of the Bush tax cuts (responsible for a significant share of the recent deficit growth) would not amount to a tax increase.

Republicans demand "entitlement reform," which is often their code phrase for long-sought policy changes they favor for ideological reasons -- including privatization and thus a huge reduction in guaranteed benefits paid by government. Democrats do not want that sort of "reform" and are not eager to slash the social safety net any further.

In the past few days, Democrats in the Senate have been working on a package of spending cuts that is actually larger than the $900 Billion in discretionary spending cuts offered in the latest plan pushed by the Speaker of the House, John Boehner. This is because Senator Harry Reid's plan pockets $1.3 Trillion in anticipated security-sector savings from the troop reductions in Afghanistan and Iraq. That is over a decade and includes future debt service related to the spending.

Earlier this week, I read a book review by Joseph Cirincione that outlined a potential additional source of $300 billion in savings. A nuclear freeze, which would only be a baby step toward President Obama's call for "global zero," would create these big savings:
Pentagon programs...will spend $300 billion over the next decade on the very [nuclear] weapons Obama says he wants to make less relevant.
I've often blogged about the need to include defense cuts in any deficit-reduction package. In addition to the concrete savings from de-escalation in Iraq and Afghanistan, why not pocket some money by stopping the development of new nuclear weapons?

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Summer Read: Rabbit is Rich

Rabbit is Rich is the third book in John Updike's series about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. There's plenty of angst to go around in this Pulitzer-prize winning novel set in 1979.

Rabbit, now in his mid-40s, oversees the car dealership formerly owned by his now-deceased father-in-law, Fred Springer. Gas prices are soaring in the wake of the Iranian revolution, the embassy hostage crisis, and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. His son Nelson has dropped out of college (Kent State!) and impregnated a secretary at the university. Both are now living with Rabbit, his wife Janice, and her mother. To top it off, Harry is convinced that his dalliance with Ruth Leonard 20 years ago produced a daughter, who visits the car lot early in the book. At the country club, Rabbit develops a strong lust for Cindy Murkett, the young trophy wife of his golfing buddy Webb.

This a terrific novel, though I recommend reading the prior two books first.

I suppose this work was particularly compelling for me because of the temporal setting and Rabbit's age. Updike includes lots of references to real events from 1979, which included the end of my senior year in high school and the start of my freshman year in college. I remember most of the events quite well and like Rabbit often thought of the implications. We both spent a lot of time thinking about energy policy, for example, though Rabbit does not dwell much on Three Mile Island. He is much more concerned about gasoline prices. Rabbit knows he is incredibly fortunate to be peddling Toyota products -- and not, say, Chrysler autos.

I'm a few years older now than Rabbit is in this novel, but I too will have a child in college in Ohio this fall. Rabbit has been married 22 years; my spouse and I just celebrated our 20th anniversary. He's in a management position at the car lot -- he's rich enough to speculate in gold and silver -- and I'll be Department chair beginning in January, after my fall sabbatical. The other important elements in Rabbit's life are not especially well paralleled in my own, but many people in their late 40s begin to think about some of the big issues Harry ponders in this novel. He thinks periodically about how his past has shaped his present world, worries somewhat about his future, and considers the meaning of various relationships in his life. Are he and the people around him stuck in a rut? Can they change? Does he want anything to change?

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Thursday night, I'm attending the Louisville premier of "YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip." Here's a short description from the webpage:
YERT (Your Environmental Road Trip): 50 States. 1 Year. Zero Garbage? Called to action by a planet in peril, three friends hit the road - traveling with hope, humor, and all of their garbage - to explore every state in America (the good, the bad...and the weird) in search of the extraordinary innovators and citizens who are tackling humanity's greatest environmental crises. As the YERT team layers outlandish eco-challenges onto their year-long quest, an unexpected turn of events pushes them to the brink in this award-winning docu-comedy. Featuring Bill McKibben, Wes Jackson, Will Allen, Janine Benyus, Joel Salatin, David Orr, and others.
IMDB information here.

Here's the trailer:

Some tickets remain for the 9:15 showtime. It's free, but they are asking for donations to support the project. The film is showing at the Louisville Science Center,
727 West Main Street.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Finding truth in the debt ceiling debate

Sorry for the recent silence. I went to a wedding in Boston and then spent a little more than a week at Fenwick Island, Deleware. I attended a minor league baseball game (Delmarva Shorebirds vs. Asheville Tourists), consumed a great deal of seafood and my fair share of Dogfish 60 IPA, and swam virtually every day. It was fun and relaxing.

Today, I spent some time at the Duck of Minerva blog catching up on national politics. Josh Busby, who is very interested in climate change (and thus mentioned it in passing), wrote a very good post on the debt ceiling debate.

One commenter (Ht) reacted in a highly partisan way -- dismissing climate change science as fraudulent, calling Democrats Marxists, labeling the Obama administration as socialist, etc.

I felt compelled to reply:
This comment illustrates a frequent problem with public debate in the US. People throw around terms like "socialism," "Marxist," and "crony capitalism" (disclosure: I've used that one) without always grounding them in facts.

Dan pointed out that even the DoD accepts climate science. Almost every "real" scientist does -- certainly major national science organizations, atmospheric scientists, other specialists, etc. Still, there's some room for doubt about specifics given modeling, projections, assumptions, etc.

There's very little doubt, however, about other factual inaccuracies in this comment. Obama most certainly did not triple spending.

Tax rates are much, much lower than they have been, historically. Indeed, the Obama era not only saw the extension of the Bush tax cuts, additional tax cuts targeted at lower and middle income people were passed (payroll taxes, for instance). Tax rates were higher under almost any "ideal" past (at least since FDR). They were higher under Ike, JFK, Nixon, Reagan, etc.

Likewise, as a portion of GDP, federal spending is *not* at historic highs. There was a blip peak for TARP (passed under Bush), but the overwhelming majority of that was repaid. Also, federal spending was still relatively low compared to Depression-era initiatives. Indeed, the stimulus only temporarily increased spending and it was pretty tame for the remarkable economic crisis of 2008. Also, it included one-third tax cuts. The spending surge was temporary and mostly ended by now.

The "Marxist" regimes the US opposed during the cold war had economic and political systems not at all like the US systems. The somewhat more socialist *western* European states have historically taxed and spent at much higher levels than the US has done. And I would note that they have superior social welfare systems -- without really posing any threat to political liberty.

Now crony capitalism, particularly in the defense sector, there's a problem...
I added some relevant links, obviously, and fixed a minor error.

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Saturday, July 02, 2011

On Wikileaks and Lies

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, at New Media Days 09

Over the past six or eight months, I've put aside a number of interesting newspaper and magazine articles about WikiLeaks and I'm writing this post in order to pull together a number of quotes and examples from those pieces just in case I need them for teaching or research purposes.

Let's begin with some analysis from former British diplomat Carne Ross in The New Statesman, December 6, 2010. He claims that WikiLeaks has changed world politics forever:
what we have witnessed is something very dramatic in the world of diplomacy - and thus in the way that the world runs its business. We may now date the history of world politics as pre- or post-WikiLeaks....The presumption that governments can conduct their business with one another in secret, away from the prying eyes of the public, died when the leaks started to emerge on 28 November. Diplomats and officials around the world are now realising that anything they say may hit the public sphere - ie, the internet....From now on, it will be ever more difficult for governments to claim one thing and do ­another.
Indeed, as readers of John Mearsheimer's book Why Leaders Lie found out, governments have historically been far more likely to lie to their own people than to other states. It was easier to get away with it.

Micah Sifry asserted in The Nation, March 21, 2011, that domestic lies about foreign policy are pervasive:
Unfortunately there is a large gap between what American officials have told the public about their actions and what they have actually done.
Some of my old blogging about the Iraq war certainly suggested a fair measure of lying.

For a more recent example of an important lie told by the US, in December 2010 journalist Jeremy Scahill found one in WikiLeaks:
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke lied to the world when he said bluntly in July 2010: "People think that the US has troops in Pakistan, well, we don't."

A US special operations veteran who worked on Pakistan issues in 2009 reviewed the Wikileaks cables for The Nation. He said he was taken aback that the cable was not classified higher than "SECRET" given that it confirms the active involvement of US soldiers from the highly-secretive, elite Joint Special Operations Command engaging in combat—not just training—in Pakistan. And offensive combat at that. JSOC operations are compartmentalized and highly classified.
Former Marine company commander Matthew Hoh told an interviewer in October 2010 that US personnel on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq have almost pathologically misled American visitors:
For the bigger picture, reporters are briefed at headquarters by people like me, civilian or military, who do dog and pony shows...PowerPoint presentations and windshield tours to areas of progress. We also show them to Congressional delegations, administration or military staff, academics, development firms and think tanks. There are multiple varieties of briefings and tours, which are updated and tailored depending on the visitor. But the briefings are almost always rosy: acknowledging some difficulties, but predicting success....If you [visitors] do speak with Afghans, they’re on our side or payroll, and tell stories we want to hear. It is extremely rare for a visitor to ever speak to Afghans with a different point of view.

If delegations go out, we take them to what you can call Potemkin villages. These are the places we want people to see, like a school or road we built. Meanwhile, what’s happening a kilometer away is totally different. The Soviets did this. We did this in Iraq and probably in Vietnam.

...The presentations are really for Washington consumption...Congress. You’re not going to tell the ones who fund the war that things aren’t going well.
The US, of course, isn't the only country that lies to its own people. This particular lie, also reported by Scahill last December, may have helped spark internal revolt in Yemen:
"We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," President Saleh told Petraeus during a meeting in early January 2010, according to one cable. Yemen's Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi then boasted that he had just "lied" by telling Parliament "that the bombs...were American-made but deployed by" Yemen. According to US Special Operations sources, US teams also conduct targeted killing operations and raids inside Yemen.
Yemeni officials likely regret that decision

However, as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted in October 2010, WikeLeaks apparently hasn't hurt US security very much:
"...the review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by the disclosure."
Obviously, this story is to be continued.

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