Saturday, February 27, 2010

Inequality and Poverty: Haiti and the US.

Inequality and Poverty: Haiti and US.

As Haiti approaches the rainy season with its daily downpours, concern grows because the makeshift shelters in which many people are living today, will not withstand the rain. The government is planning to erect more solid tent cities but lacks sufficient open land on which to build them. Most of the real estate in the capital, Port-au-Prince, is owned by a small number of very rich people in Haiti. They are resisting having their property used to shelter the poor and the government is unlikely to prevail against them. Their wealth makes them politically very powerful; they can topple the government if they so choose. The government cannot force them to do anything, let alone to allow their land to be used for shelters for the poor.

It is a commonplace that poverty in Haiti, and elsewhere, is connected to inequality. In Haiti, there exists a very small group—perhaps 1% of the population—that is immensely rich. Everyone else is in pretty desperate straits. (Some people do a bit better: soldiers, police, and bureaucrats who supplement their meager income by taking bribes).

The misery of the masses of Haitians is directly connected with the prevailing differences in standard of living and wealth.The wide gap between the rich and the poor has direct economic effects. In countries where there is a middle class—people who do not consume whatever little income they have—they can save a little bit of money to send children to school, to lend out to a relative who wants to start a little business, to purchase a small piece of land for growing vegetables. Here some people have opportunities for improving their condition. Where the gap between rich and poor is as stark as in Haiti, practically all productive resources are in the hands of the very rich. The poor have no chance for raising their incomes and, with it, reducing poverty.

In Haiti the gap between rich and poor is extreme. But the distance between the wealthy and the rest of us is growing steadily in the US and the fate of Haiti holds some important lessons for us.

Unequal distribution of resources and wealth affects poverty in other ways. In Haiti many people are malnourished and/or ill. Not only do they lack land and tools in order to create a decent living for their families but their physical energy is sapped by hunger and disease. Their intelligence and inventiveness cannot be put to use because people are debilitated by hunger.

But the main problem of large differences in economic condition is demonstrated by the Haitian government's problem in building weather proof shelters for the earthquake victims. The government cannot move without the approval of the very rich because, through their wealth, they control the political system. If the government depends for its existence on the very rich, it will serve them and not the majority of the population. The incredible maldistribution of wealth in Haiti is reflected in comparable political inequality. The government does not attend to the people without political power and that is clearly one of the causes of the misery of most of the people.

If the wealth of a nation is in the hands of a small minority, the rest of the population is not well cared for. There are no schools for many Haitian children. Large numbers of adults have no education, and thus have very limited possibilities for making a living, let alone improve the condition of their families or their village.

That neglect of the masses of Haitians, of course, produces constant political unrest. The rich and powerful elite could deal with that by improving the lot of the poor, that is by redistributing wealth. But it is cheaper to do so by harsh political repression. The Haitian elite has chosen that route. The result is constant turmoil barely controlled, much of the time, by a repressive and brutal government.

When political power is in the hands of a small group of super rich families, political decisions favor them at the expense of people who are not rich. In the 1950s an international development project, financed and built by the US, dammed up a major river to create a lake for electricity generation and irrigation. The electricity went to light up the houses of the rich; the irrigation benefits large farms downstream from the dam that are owned by multinational agribusiness. The profit from the agribusinesses move abroad to the foreign owners of the agribusinesses; much of it ends up in the US. (Some Americans live a little bit better at the expense of the Haitian poor.) Only the pittance earned by farm workers remains in Haiti. The lake itself drove many Haitian farmers off their fertile farmland. Their children were forced to move into the city to stitch soccer balls and catchers' mitts for American firms for a few pennies an hour. The rich got richer, and the poor did what they always do. The project to “help Haiti” only helped to further impoverish its population. By building that dam, the US supported the rich elite. This is only one instance of the bankers, agribusinesses and the government of the US making common cause with the rich and the powerful in Haiti.

Haitian poverty carries important lessons for the US. Inequality in the US has been increasing steadily since the 1970s at least. Wages and salaries of significant portions of the middle class have stagnated. Many well paying jobs have been exported abroad to be replaced by jobs that pay much less. At the other end, the pay of big executives, stock speculators, top athletes, and others have risen sharply. The results, according a recent study by two British researchers, have been increased drug use, obesity, violence, mental illness, teen age pregnancy and illiteracy. (See The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson).
As enormous wealth has become concentrated in fewer hands, more and more people are feeling desperate about their lives because they have no control over them. The power to ameliorate their situation is in the hand of a power elite who, clearly, do not care about the millions of people who work hard every day just to barely get by. The government bails out the banks so that they can make money again while unemployment is stuck at more than 10% nationwide and is much higher in many places. As the working poor and the middle class see not only that their situation is difficult but that they have no hope of improving it, they lash out in their families, against strangers, or most often against themselves. Stark economic inequality brings with it political inequality, which breeds anger and despair manifest in the daily list of murders and self-destructive behaviors.

The disappointment over the Obama presidency illustrates our impotence. The promise of “hope” and “change” have turned out to be hollow. Any slight attempt to reduce inequality, for instance, by making health care available to more people is stymied by lobbying of the insurance companies, the medical associations, and the drug companies. The outlook for reducing inequality, here as in Haiti is very poor. No wonder there is so much anger out there.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Finding Love or Selling Yourself.

Finding Love or Selling Yourself

I heard an ad on the radio for a personal counselor, who promises to pilot clients through the shoals of the dating scene. She called her website “Are you Market ready?” I was intrigued and puzzled by that and looked up the website. ( I was not looking for a date. Lucy and I got together with the help a personal ad almost thirty years ago.)

Motivated by the owner's belief that “experiencing love and true compatibility is one of the most rewarding aspects of life” the website recommends that people approaching the dating scene consider it like any other market. They need to develop their “brand,” for instance. They should not present themselves as persons who “like candle light dinners and long walks of the beach” because 100,000 others looking for love describe themselves in the same way. The prospective date needs to know who you are from one or two sentences and how you are different from others.

Good advice. But I remain uncomfortable with the analogy between the market place and the effort to find love. In the market we sell commodities, stuff made to be sold and traded. But when one looks for love in the personals columns, or on an Internet dating site, or in a Singles' bar is one looking to sell oneself? Looking for love is different from trying to buy and sell. Finding “love and true compatibility” is different from striking a bargain. When you share your life with someone else and share common projects, a house and garden and, some times, having, and raising, and loving children, you are not engaged in bargaining, your are not looking to buy cheap and sell dear, as you do in a market transaction; you are sharing, working with another in a common project. Your relation to the shoe sales man or the car dealer is not remotely like the relation to your life companion.

Well, so a person who is trying to rustle up business for her personal consulting firm used a bad analogy. Why make a fuss about that?
It would not be worth thinking about any of that, if the confusion between loving and sharing, on one hand, and buying, primarily sexual love, on the other, were not so common. Think of Tiger Woods, Senator Edwards, Eliot Spitzer and the long list of political figures who thought that buying love was the same as loving and being loved. Think of the people who marry for money, who marry because their partner is famous—a big athlete, a movie star. Or think of the people who are willing to have a fling with a famous athlete who is married, who is not even promising love, sharing, or commitment, just to be able to brag to their friends or even to strangers on the Internet about their hot one-night stand with a world famous athlete. (Would any of the women who went public about their sexual encounters with Tiger Woods admit it, if the sex was only so-so?)

The confusion between what you sell and buy—commodities--and what you really value is even more widespread. People spend huge amounts of money on sharp clothes; they go deep into debt to buy a trophy home and to drive cool cars. But you would be a fool to trust the owner of the trophy home, complete with trophy wife just because he owns a house that is bigger than it needs to be. Would you buy a used car from such a man?

In the end what matters is the respect of people you work with, the trust of people with whom you share parts of your life, of the people who know your work. What matters is that they know you to be someone whose judgment deserves being taken seriously. Being known for the decent, generous and thoughtful person you are is, at the end of the day, what is really important. None of those can be bought. You get to be such a person by your own efforts, over a long period of time.

Think of what you want people to talk about at your wake: how you lived in a mansion and drove a Ferrari—and that you were over your ears in debt to maintain that showy life style? Or do you want people to remember many years of friendship, your agreeable nature, how good it was to talk to you, and how trustworthy a friend you were?

Advertisers who tell us daily that the good life can be bought have managed to confuse many of us. [WalMart's website promises “Save Money; Live Better”] They want us to believe that buying stuff will make ours a worthwhile life. They want us to think that if only we drive the right car or wear the right clothes, or use the right toothpaste, love—love over many years, with sharing and commitment-- can be ours. But the test of love comes at two in the morning when the baby wakes you up crying, or when your kid gets sent home from school for acting out, when you or your partner fall seriously ill, when you house burns down. Can you overcome these challenges together, and talk out what needs talking out? If so, that is love, it is sharing, and real connection. It does not matter what you wear while you are doing that. What matters are trust and generosity.

And that is not for sale.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fear of Terrorism

Fear of Terrorism

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press recently released an interesting report which highlights the changing priorities of the American public. Addressing the budget deficit, defending against terrorism, and strengthening the military are all areas that have become higher priorities for Americans in the last year. (

At the same time, it turns out that of all the threats to our lives, terrorism is very low on the lists of threats. As a blogger put it: the threat to human lives of terrorism is just a bit greater than the threat from death by shark-bite. Here are some of the relevant numbers:

“In 2008, 14,180 Americans were murdered, according to the FBI. In that year, there were 34,017 fatal vehicle crashes in the U.S. and, so the U.S. Fire Administration tells us, 3,320 deaths by fire. More than 11,000Americans died of the swine flu between April and mid-December 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; on average, a staggering 443,600 Americans die yearly of illnesses related to tobacco use, reports the American Cancer Society; 5,000 Americans die annually from food-borne diseases; an estimated 1,760 children died from abuse or neglect in 2007; and the next year, 560 Americans died of weather-related conditions, according to the National Weather Service, including 126 from tornadoes, 67 from rip tides, 58 from flash floods, 27 from lightning, 27 from avalanches, and 1 from a dust devil.
Americans living in the United States are in vanishingly little danger from terrorism, but in significant danger driving to the mall; or that alcohol, tobacco, E. coli bacteria, fire, domestic abuse, murder, and the weather present the sort of potentially fatal problems that might be worth worrying about, or even changing your behavior over, or perhaps investing some money in. Terrorism, not so much.” (

A few days earlier a report in the Boston Globe asserted that “In 2009, crime went down. In fact it's been going down for a decade. But more and more Americans believe it's getting worse. The vast majority of Americans - nearly three-quarters of the population - thought crime got worse in the United States in 2009, according to Gallup’s annual crime attitudes poll. That, too, is part of a running trend. As crime rates have dropped for the past decade, the public belief in worsening crime has steadily grown. The more lawful the country gets, the more lawless we imagine it to be.” ( 2010/02/14/ imaginary_fiends/)

The exaggerated fear of terrorists and criminals. in general. suggests different trains of thought. We might want to ask ourselves why, in a world beset by so many threats to our life and well-being, we should ignore a real threats and be panicked over imagined ones. What is going on here?

But a different train of thought suggests that the terrorists, especially those of 9/11 have been successful. The goal of terrorism – as the name suggests – is to instill fear. 9/11 has made us much more fearful of terrorist threats than the facts allow. We are left frightened and our fears get in the way of thinking straight; they lead us into betraying our traditions and institutions.

Consider the current debate over trying persons accused of terrorist acts in civilian courts or before military commissions. The debate is conducted in terms of numbers of people convicted in civilian court or in military trials. Every commentator that I have heard, whether “progressive” or not, assesses the quality of courts by how many people they convict.

In an earlier, less terrified age we valued our courts by whether they dispensed justice, whether the accuser and accused were dealt with impartially, and evidence was weighed carefully. But now all we care about is that our courts convict. We are looking for “hanging judges,” not for fair ones. The fear instilled in us by terrorism has made us less interested in justice and that is a terrible loss.

The role of a just court system is to find those who are guilty and exonerate those who are innocent. But in the pressure to get as many convictions as possible of the Guantanamo inmates and others accused of terrorism, their guilt is already assumed. We already know that they are “terrorists” or “enemy combatants” and we want them punished. In our eagerness to lock up the people we fear, we pervert the functions of the courts. Their role is to find the guilty and to protect the innocent, not to inflict punishment on people whom many Americans have already judged and found guilty.

Another aspect of this debate is also worrisome. Conservatives tend to argue for trying accused terrorists in military tribunals. That goes with a long-standing tradition among conservatives of being distrustful of our court system. They accuse our courts of “coddling criminals” and releasing dangerous persons back into the community. Here again, our court system has been criticized for not protecting us. There is no interest in justice or judicial fairness, or in the protection of the individual rights of all.

This denigration of our court system – one of the most spectacular accomplishments of our political tradition – in favor of military courts constitute an ominous inclination to prefer authoritarian establishments to those of a free society.

In any society there tend to be tensions between the need for security and the protection of individual rights. Our society has traditionally been careful to protect individual rights, not to be sure all citizens, but of a larger number than are protected in many other societies. We can take some pride in our efforts to respect individual rights.

The serious effect of terrorism is that we are much more frightened and therefore much more willing to sacrifice individual rights and established legal procedures for our security. It is the utmost importance for all of us to recover our equanimity, to recover our confidence in our traditional institutions and to see that, while terrorism is a threat, it is a much smaller threat than most people think. We are pretty secure in the society and do not need to sacrifice our freedoms and rights for the sake of security.

Terrorism wins when we weaken our freedoms and rights.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bullying--Causes and Remedies

Bullying—Causes and remedies

After another young person recently committed suicide in order to escape relentless bullying—in person, over the internet or the cell phone—bullying has received a good deal of public attention.

Experts have insisted that bullies need to be punished, that their punishment must be public so that everybody knows that bullying will not be tolerated by the school authorities. Others have insisted that new laws make bullying punishable by law. Predictably, other experts blame the parents of the bullies for not supervising their children more strictly. But when a 16 or 17 year old sends hateful messages from her cell phone, while at the mall, can the parents be expected to be there to monitor them?

Parents do play a role in this . Children that have been abused are likely to become bullies. Parents who were abused as children are unlikely to deal constructively with their children's aggressions. Bullying among children reflects the violence in their surroundings. Through the parents, the violence in the society attacks children.

The public discussion did not touch the contribution of the larger society to violence and terrible cruelty among children. But do children growing up not reflect to us our own attitudes and actions?

Many adults are, in fact, tolerant of cruelty. “Kids will be kids” they say suggesting that once they grow up, the bullies will become gentle, public spirited citizens. But that is a dream and an evasion of responsibility. Rates of bullying among children are very different in different countries and cultures. The high rate of brutality among our children simply reflects back to us the tolerance adults have for violence in the US.

Think of computer games. Children who spend 5 or more hours a day playing computer games depicting bloody carnage cannot but come away with the message that inflicting pain on others is not only not to be condemned, but it is fun. The same goes for movies.

In kid sports the winners make a big noise and gloat without any sympathy for the losers and their disappointment. No adult insists that the winners respect the disappointment of the losers. Parents get so worked up over kid sports, they get into fights—sometimes with fatal results—over kid sports. Driving down the road is another opportunity for angry outbursts and attempts to hurt other drivers. Rivalry between the fans of sports teams allows one to ostracize the fans of the opposing team. Aggression is an important element in sports fandom. Family violence is at an all time high. Significant numbers of men believe that they are allowed to hit women. Every week a woman is murdered by her husband or boyfriend.

We are spending more than $700 billion a year on the military, that is on means to inflict violence. Our posture in the world is that of the Big Bully. High government officials travel the globe to tell other people what to do—or else.

Some observers speak of a “culture of cruelty” in the US. ( democracy-and-threat-authoritarianism-politics-beyond-barack-obama56890): “We have 13.3 million homeless children; one child in five lives in poverty; 17,000 have died in the last decade because they lacked health insurance; too many are now under the supervision of the criminal justice system, and many more are unemployed and lack any hope for the future.” These numbers are familiar to many but there is no public outcry; we are content to have out children suffer from deprivation. We are equally content to have significant numbers of our children medicated with psychotropic drugs. The country spent almost $ 9billion in 2006 on psych medicines for children, many of the poor, neglected and for those reasons ”difficult.”

We are losing our ability to feel for the suffering of others; we are becoming a nation of cold-hearted, callous people. Toleration of widespread bullying is just one more example of that.

These are just some examples of the pervasive violence in our country. But reflections about the many different forms of violence in our society and our passivity in the face of it are completely absent from the discussion of bullying among kids. We refuse to acknowledge our own responsibility for the pain some kids inflict on others.

Bullying will not diminish until we think about our own violent behaviors, our tolerance for the violence of others, and until we take steps to make ours a more peaceful nation. We need to acknowledge the growing “culture of cruelty” and try to reverse that ominous development.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Big Government

Big Government

Liberal blogs have poked fun at the recent convention of Tea Parties. Not without reason – the keynote address by the Paris Hilton of politics, Sarah Palin, was the usual thin gruel for which Palin is reported to have been paid $10,000. But as thoughtful commentators have pointed out, the basic Tea Party complaint about huge government that is no longer under popular control needs to be taken seriously. In school, American children learn that the government derives its power from the people who control the government's actions. Once these children grow into adults they see that they have no control over the government.
The complaint is justified, but the question is, of course, what makes our government so big and uncontrollable? There are very many different answers to that question. Here are three of them.

The first source of a big, powerful government is our standard of living. 100 or 200 years ago, when most of us lived in smallish villages and life was much simpler and a lot less convenient, citizens could do for themselves what today we need the government to do for us. Consider roads and travel. As long as roads were unpaved and people walked, rode on horseback, or in wagons, if a bridge was needed in the village to cross a small river, everyone pitched in to build the bridge. But today we want to drive on six lane interstate highways that cross river small and large on huge concrete bridges. The local community cannot build such a bridge. It does not have the machinery. Besides we owe our high standard of living, in part, to the division of labor. Most of us do one thing and do it really well and really fast. But we don't know how to do many other things, such as building bridges. This is just one example of how our standard of living involves the government. It does many things which in an earlier age, citizens did for themselves. They could therefore have a much smaller government.

A second reason also has to do with our high standard of living. We live in a competitive society and many people believe that this competition between businesses contributes to everyone's welfare. That may be true but it certainly contributes to a serious expansion of government regulation and supervision.

Consider a simple example. In your neighborhood there are two supermarkets and both have meat counters. Both compete with each other for your custom. As a sensible consumer you go where the meat is cheapest. You buy cheaper chicken at one store and when you come home, you discover that you paid for a pound of chicken but brought home only 15 ounces. Returned to the store, the butcher weighs the chicken on his scale: a full pound. What happened? Someone fixed the scale. Because that is always a temptation in the competition between people selling food, the city has to have a bureau of weights and measures and inspectors who come and examine all the scales every so often. Government just got a little bit bigger.

The meat markets compete in other ways. One of them can sell me chicken more cheaply because they don't spend any money cleaning their butcher shop. You may buy cheaper chicken but when you come home it does not smell very good and if you are unlucky, you may get sick when you eat it. To forestall that, the government inspects butcher chops, restaurants, etc. Government acquires a new function and gets a little bit bigger.

No point in making up more examples. In a competitive system the temptation is ever present to save money in ways that would seriously harm consumers. The government protects consumers against those sorts of harms. If the butcher and baker were not tempted by competition to cut corners, the government could be a lot smaller.

A third reason for big government: The competition is part of the capitalist system. We attribute our high standard of living to capitalism. But capitalism has become an immensely complicated system which needs constant government supervision, fine-tuning, and adjustment to keep it from collapsing. Sometimes, even with all the fine-tuning, the system collapses anyway as we can see before our very eyes at the moment. Capitalism works because there are a lot of skilled civil servants who keep it from falling apart. When all those skilled civil servants fail, as they have in the recent past, only a big government can save the day-- a government that can lay its hands on $1 trillion to bail out banks “too big to fail.”

If we had a much smaller government we would have a lot more cheating in our daily consumption, public health would be in much worse shape and the economy would probably be completely bogged down. If you want honest weights and measures, food that does not make you sick, and an economic system that works instead of mass unemployment and poverty, stop complaining about big government for that's the price we pay for our standard of living and the economic system that delivers it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Supreme Court and Corporate Free Speech

The Supreme Court and Corporate Free Speech

I have yet to meet anyone who does not deplore the role money plays in elections. Everyone knows that having more money for advertisements, signs, hiring high-priced consultants and a large staff will provide an edge to a candidate. Most people deplore that and therefore support legislation to curb private contributions to electoral campaigns. Limiting corporate campaign contributions seemed appropriate because corporations have a lot more money than even the richest private individuals. The Supreme Court decision abolishing previous limits on corporate campaign contributions raises the level of money that will be spent in elections. It will further raise the cost of elections and thus make it even more impossible to run for public office unless you are wealthy and/or very well connected to people who are.

In addition, many observers fear that business corporations now can use their large financial resources to affect public policy even more than they have in the past. Pro business policies will dominate even more than they have so far.

But, of course, not all the money in elections comes from business. According to the numbers used by conservatives, labor unions have outspent corporations in some recent elections. The Supreme Court decision does not exclusively empower big business. It also gives some support to Big labor. It gives pretty free rein to any group with lots of money.

In a contentious situation, like this one, opposing sides have different facts and it is difficult to know which are most reliable. But the fact that pro-business conservatives are jubilant about this decision, while liberals uniformly execrate it, suggests that most people agree that this decision will enhance the political influence of pro-business groups more than that of any other organization.
This Supreme Court ruling is not about whether corporations are human beings--everyone knows that they are not--or about the free speech rights of corporations. It is not even about the relative power of Democrats or Republicans--both parties are over their ears in private interest money. It is about whether groups that have more money, will, for any political issue, be able impose their perspective to the full extent of their bulging moneybags.

The ultimate victim of the Supreme Court ruling is the traditional conception of democracy. There are different forms of democracy: there is democracy that is a struggle between interest groups. Everyone is out for him or herself; the political process is a struggle for private advantage. The goal is to get your hands into the government piggy bank. Those citizens who do not have the money to be significant players in the political process will remain unrepresented. Their share of government support and resources remains small. To that large class belong children, the working poor, small farmers, small business people, the vast majority of American workers who are not members of any labor union. The spoils go to the moneyed interests and, prominently among them, to global businesses. The banks “too large to fail” receive billions of dollars in bailout money. Homeowners unable to pay their mortgages are still waiting for help from Washington.

But interest group democracy was not what the Founders had in mind. I mentioned in a earlier blog James Madison's chapter in The Federalist where he condemns “factions”--his name for interest group politics. Legislators should try as far as they could make laws to benefit all, not just themselves and people like themselves.

We abandoned this public interest democracy, that is supposed to serve all citizens, a long time ago. The Supreme Court decision will serve to entrench interest group democracy more deeply in our political life. The motto of the people who support the action of the Supreme Court is “more for us.” From now on we will have government by moneyed interests, of moneyed interests, and for moneyed interests.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Terrorism and Reducing the Deficit

Terrorism and reducing the deficit

The war on terrorism is very different from what wars used to be. In past wars you could follow the two sides on a map. The side that took away territory from the other side was the winner. But the Irish Republican Army was not out to take away territory from England or from the Protestants in Ulster; in Palestine before 1948, the Irgun did not try to acquire territory. It wanted to establish a Jewish state. Similarly, Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden are not interested in occupying US territory. Terrorism does not aim at conquering territory.

Instead, terrorism is a form of psychological warfare. It aims at affecting the enemy's state of mind by instilling terror. An enemy afraid is thought to be less likely to resist. Psychological warfare has often been employed in conventional warfare. Examples are the German bombings of London in 1940, and the methodical destruction of German cities by allied airplanes during World War II. The goal of these attacks was to frighten and demoralize the population of England and Germany. There is more than one scholar these days who believes that these tactics had the opposite effect. Both the British and the Germans rallied around their government and their armies when their homes and workplaces were destroyed by bombs and many friends and family members killed.

But terrorism, psychological warfare has other, more roundabout and much more damaging effects. The attacks of 9/11 have sucked us into two wars with unclear results which have been very long and terribly expensive. The cost of the wars has left us unable to take care of ourselves at home, to finance schools for the next generation, to provide food and shelter for the unemployed. It has left more than 40 million people without health insurance and it has not left us with any money to fight global warming.

Even worse, terrorism has made it impossible for us to think rationally about government policy and how to spend our resources. President Obama is making noises about reining in government spending but defense spending will not be restricted; it is sacrosanct. As long as we are at war in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the military will get more than $ 600 million a year for any project they or Congress want. While ordinary soldiers and their families live under straightened conditions, the Pentagon spends billions and billions and nobody is even prepared to ask whether some of those millions might be wasted. There are repeated news reports of millions of dollars going missing in the Defense Department without anybody knowing what happened to them, but no one pays any attention to those stories.

Chalk up a victory for Osama bin Laden. He has us so scared, we can't think straight. We waste money on defense and then are unable to help our citizens in an economic crisis or their children whom we cannot educate properly.

The president is promising to make us safer and that's great. But unless we manage to reconsider how we spend our money and don't have our expenditures dictated by Al Qaeda, they win. The Christmas bombing of a Northwest airliner failed to come off and that was excellent for the people on that airplane and their families. But from the point of view of the terrorists that attempted bombing was as effective as one that succeeded. Even a failed bombing scares everybody so much they stop thinking and give all their money to the military while Americans go hungry, or sleep in in cars, or can't afford to see a doctor.

The unwillingness to even look at defense expenditures shows how rattled we are. So far the terrorists are winning.