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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sticker Shock: Bailout + Defense Budget

We taxpayers are reeling from the shock of a $755 billion dollar bailout for banks that made bad mortgage loans that appears to be a done deal this weekend. But the government budgeted nearly the same amount for military expenditures in 2009 last week, and that somehow slips under our radar.

The 2009 Defense Authorization Bill was passed last Wednesday to the tune of $612 billion. This does not include nuclear weapons research, maintenance and production (~$9.3 billion, which is in the Department of Energy budget), or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which are largely funded through extra-budgetary supplements, ~$170 billion in 2007). So the total annual investment in our "defense" is more like $790 billion dollars.

Ten years ago, the Defense Authorization Bill was $270.4 billion dollars.

It was eerie not hearing Obama talk about reducing the defense budget in the first debate, and instead watching McCain position himself as a defense budget cutter with the expertise to do so. Ouch!

How do we feel about building a war machine with our earnings that accounts for almost 50% of all the military expenditures worldwide? No other country spends more than 4.5% of the world's military expenditures. Are we safer for all this killing power?

How do we feel about this amount when we look at these alternative ways to spend it?
• $19 billion is the annual shortfall to eliminate starvation and malnutrition globally.
• $12 billion is the annual shortfall to provide education for every kid on earth.
• $15 billion is the annual shortfall to provide access to water and sanitation.
• $23 billion is the annual shortfall to reverse the spread of AIDS and Malaria.
(source is The World Bank)

Resouces for this blog:
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
Borgen Project

Friday, September 26, 2008

Bailout Schmailout

I spoke to a friend of mine who is an economics professor at Stanford. He said that he crunched some numbers and that the $700 billion dollar bailout would come to a $9,000 bill to every household in the US. He said that the Savings and Loan "bailout" was structured as a loan to the banks and that the loans got repaid eventually with interest so we taxpayers did not end up losing money. He said his expertise is in employer/labor economics but in talking with his colleagues at Stanford, there was consensus that the "bailout" currently on the table was the wrong approach. He said that we have a good system for bankruptcy and we ought to let the banks declare bankruptcy and then work their way through the process. If that doesn't work, then there's time down the line for some kind of bailout.

Can't say I understand it very well. But I was very happy to sign a petition put out by Credo, my phone service, and write emails to Congress with their points - more a reflection of my outrage at the high-rollers than my knowledge of how to orchestrate the financial steps.

"1. If the taxpayers are shouldering the risk, the taxpayers should reap any eventual benefits. We accomplish this by giving the government an equity stake in every company we bail out proportionate to the amount we give them.
2. If we're paying (more than) our fair share, the CEOs and executives should have to, too. All of the fat cats who got us into this mess should relinquish their stock options and salaries until they start showing us, their investors, that they can once again be profitable. Future salaries should be linked to profitability.
3. No more campaign contributions from Wall Street executives and PACs. Taxpayer dollars should be used to get our nation out of a crisis. They cannot be used to fund giant, powerful lobby operations that will be used to strong arm Congress into making bad policy.
4. Better regulations start right now. Wall Street can't expect to take thousands of dollars out of your paycheck without agreeing to increased transparency and more stringent oversight - the kind that might have helped avoid this mess to begin with.
5. Bankruptcy judges get broader leeway to help homeowners. Why should we lose our homes so the CEOs can keep theirs?"

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Presidential Decisions

In June of 1965, President Johnson had a phone conversation with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stating that he saw "no way that there could be a US victory in Viet Nam either militarily or diplomatically." Speaking of the North Vietnamese, he said, "I don't believe they ever goin' to quit."

At that point, fewer than 2,000 US soldiers had been killed in action. The following 3.5 years of Johnson's presidency saw a steady escalation of troops and bombing, continued by Nixon who pledged "peace with honor" in his winning 1968 campaign. Nearly 50,000 US soldiers and 3,000,000 Southeast Asians were killed by the end of the war, ten years later.

How often do presidents lead us down a disastrous path because they do not have the imagination, courage, or advice to do something radically better?

(You can listen to the LBJ phone call at the 25:16 mark in an 8/19 edition of "Fresh Air" when Terry Gross replays an interview with historian Michael Beschloss.

(casualty statistics are at:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

"The Wars of John McCain"

Jeffrey Goldberg's article in the October, Atlantic Magazine - "The Wars of John McCain" – illuminates John McCain as a military hero first and last. Forget the economy, forget education and health care. When it comes to McCain's passion and deep rooted political will, it's all about war strategy and preserving the country's honor and that of its soldiers. Both McCain's father and grandfather were US Navy Admirals. Candidate McCain wrote a book on the two of them and noted that Kissinger would bring his father to see Nixon periodically because his father was consistently certain that our troops were close to victory. Candidate John McCain III was critical early on of the Bush administration and Rumsfeld in particular for not deploying more troops to Iraq when the occupation became so strained and deadly. The "surge" has been McCain's redemption and his constant refrain - even though there are those who argue that the surge is a small part of the decrease in killings.

Years ago, the psychologist, Erik Erikson wrote psycho-biographies of Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi, describing each one's dynamics with his father and how those dynamics revealed themselves in their history-shaping lives. Would it be so much of a stretch to see both the military decisions of George Bush and John McCain III to be colored by their respective father-son "schtuff?" George Bush I was roundly criticized in conservative circles for not finishing off Hussein in Gulf War I, and Admiral McCain II was the loser in a war
he had every confidence of winning with his troops. George II and John III may well be engaged in battles that their fathers left for them to finish.

Add to that, the general sentiment of McCain and his fellow, courageous POW's that US soldiers do not cut and run. It's understandable that they would have a much larger investment in that perspective - as opposed to many soldiers in the field who bore witness - or more - to the horrors wreaked on Vietnamese villages.

Once a military campaign is underway, you don't imagine a McCain indulging in thoughts about whether the war is justified or moral. They are military leaders bound to honor, duty, and victory as that culture demands of its chiefs.

Speaking of McCain's flip flops on a variety of domestic issues, Goldberg writes " policy, or health care, or even off-shore oil drilling are for him all matters of mere politics, and politics calls for ideological plasticity. It is only in the realm of national defense, and of American honor – two notions that for McCain are throroughly entwined – that he becomes truly unbending."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Soldiers of Conscience

Last night we went to a screening of the documentary "Soldiers of Conscience" that will air on PBS channels on October 16th. It crosscuts interviews with four U.S. soldiers who became conscientious objectors after some time in Iraq along with some soldiers who do not question their military role. The C.O.'s are very eloquent in recounting their change of heart and the consequences of their respective decisions to stop fighting.

Following the film, there was a discussion led by Producer/Director, Catherine Ryan. One of my favorite authors, Tobias Wolff, was on hand to interview Ryan. He himself is a Viet Nam veteran and wrote "In Pharoah's Army" about his experience. Wolff and one other in the audience raised variations of the same difficult question. Are all wars wrong? One of the C.O.'s says that when people challenge him asking what would have happened had the world not fought to stop Hitler, he responds with his own hypothetical. What would have happened if most German men had declared themselves "conscientious objectors?" Another C.O. in the film says he could no longer fight this particular war of occupation. Wolf and the audience member both cited tyrannies or genocides that seem to call out for armed interventions.

Nobody criticized anyone else for the views or questions they raised, but it seemed that most of the audience felt there was no situation in which war was a good answer. One man, himself a "Viet Nam Vet," said that most of the world calls that war, the American War in Southeast Asia, and considers the three million people we killed to be an atrocity. He decried the fact that our government has never entertained that perspective.

Is there such a thing as a "nation of conscience" that decides to intervene militarily to stop a genocide? Can war and killing qualify as a national act of conscience in the same vein as Denmark's decision to wear yellow stars and protect its Jewish citizens during World War II? How many would condone a person who did not kill an intruder who was about to kill their child, if they had an opportunity to save their child? Where does the slaughter occurring in Darfur fit into this "conceptual dilemma?" In this benighted world, I think there are times when a multilateral force ought to use its violent power for a greater good. Then get off the slippery slope as quickly as possible.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Suicides of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan Keep Rising

According to a "Voice of America" report, an army spokesman recently said that the number of Army suicides in 2008 could reach 130, eclipsing the record number in 2007 of 115. An army report that was published a year ago noted the following numbers of Army suicides in recent years.

2003 - 79 suicides
2004 - 67 suicides
2005 - 88 suicides
2006 - 102 suicides
2007 - 115 suicides

They started keeping records in 1980. Of the record number in 2007, 31% were fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan while another 8% killed themselves within four months of their return home. The army report said there was "limited evidence" that repeated deployments were putting more of its soldiers at risk from suicide. My guess is that if they looked at it harder, they'd find a strong correlation.

Last year, CBS News did its own investigation of suicides by veterans when it couldn't get much pertinent information from the government. CBS found that recent U.S. war vets were 2 - 4 times more likely to kill themselves than other people their age.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Parenting at Baja Fresh

I was waiting in line to order my burrito when I overheard a mother talking to her young daughter at a little table just behind me. I'd passed the bright-eyed, long haired, 8-ish year old and her mother as I walked in.

Mother: "So I don't think Melissa invited Jessica to her party. Why do you think that is? Are they not friends with each other anymore?"

(short silence)

Mother:"When I ask you a question, I expect you to answer me."

(another silence)

Mother: "You are eating like a pig. That is an embarrassment to me. We're leaving right now. You embarrass me. There's nothing you can say to make me change my mind. Get going."

I turned and saw them walking out.

If only a giant hand on an infinite arm could have pushed through the door and grabbed that mother by the ear and proclaimed in a sonorous blast, "Your parenting embarrasses me. Get your butt in the car and wait for your daughter to finish her buritto. Also I'm getting her a sweet churro for dessert."

On second thought, that's mean spirited and I've had enough of that watching the Republican convention.

Better scenario: the giant hand pins the mother on the floor and tickles her mercilessly while she laughs and squeals uproariously, the tears streaming from her eyes, caring nothing about her bunched up dress, or the fact that her daughter - looking on with eyes as big as full moons - eats her burrito wholeheartedly.