Wednesday, June 29, 2011

No profits from wars and weapons!

Should universities invest their endowments in corporations manufacturing weapons? There is an uproar in England about universities investing in defense industries. It began with someone uncovering the fact that Oxford University made money from the stocks of defense contractors. But then it turned out that Cambridge and many other British universities are doing the same. There is considerable sentiment in England that universities, whose missions of research and education only flourish in peace time, should stay away from investment in war and destruction.

Interestingly enough no information is available about investments of US universities in defense. Extensive googling yielded only the information that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as their Episcopal counterparts decided that they should not invest in corporations producing weapons.

The bishops are well aware of the objection that countries have a right to defend themselves and need weapons to do that. They respond by pointing out that we spend $700 billion or more annually for the military. If we count in all the money we give to other countries for their military, who buy weapons from US companies, the figure exceeds $1 trillion. We do not need to spend so much for defending ourselves, say the bishops.

Institutions dedicated to peace, such as universities and churches, have no business profiting form the business of making war. The country as a whole would be better off if we spent less money on what our governments choose to call “national defense.” 

Serendipitously, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the leaking of the Pentagon papers by Daniel Ellsberg. Those papers contained a secret assessment of the Vietnam war, its costs and failures, commissioned by then Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. The Pentagon committee's assessment was very gloomy. History proved them right. We lost that war.

The Pentagon study pointed out that we had spent large sums of money training a South Vietnamese army. But that money was wasted; the army we helped train was ineffective. 

We can substitute “Afghanistan” for “South Vietnam” and get the same assessment of our current wars. The Afghan army we are training is a fitting successor to the army we trained in South Vietnam: expensive but ineffective.

But our government and military leaders are prepared to make the same mistakes. They have not learned the lesson of Vietnam: stay out of distant civil wars.

Our entire country would be much better off were we less eager to send our troops to far away places to get involved in fights among people we do not know, whose languages we do not speak, and whose conflicts are pretty opaque to us. Our entire country would be better off if we did not spend $1 trillion a year on weapons and the deployment of troops.

Another story in the news drives that point home. The story is about Rita Moore, 65, who was operated for cancer of the kidney. Her kidney specialist prescribed a drug called “Sutent” for her as follow up to the operation. But when Rita went to the drug store she discovered that Medicare does not pay for this drug. Her month's supply of pills would cost her more than she makes, $2400.00.

Our government is to poor to pay for Rita Moore's pills. She is paying the price of “national defense.”

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Fire Congress!

This morning's newspaper reports that in the U.S. Senate refused to repeal a $5 billion subsidy for ethanol production from corn. This project, instituted under the previous president, has created a shortage of corn and raised food prices around the world. Producing gasoline from corn is not an energy efficient process. The whole thing was a bad idea from the beginning. But the Senate does not want to let it go even in the midst of a major effort to cut the budget.

One part of this situation has to do with many Republicans not believing global warming exists. They think that the current, unusually violent weather patterns are part of a natural cyclical process that will stop after a while.

This is a free country. People can believe whatever they choose. But when they act on their beliefs – especially really goofy ones – and that action affects the whole country, the matter becomes really serious.

What we have today is total lack of accountability. If Congress refuses to encourage alternate sources of energy besides gas from corn, and that turns out, in ten or twenty years to have been a really disastrous choice, what happens to the benighted elected representatives who went by their own beliefs, such as “there is no such thing as global warming”? Well nothing. What people in Congress do may have consequences for them as individuals. They may not get reelected. But they bear no responsibility for the damage they do while in office. Congress men and women are not held responsible for the deaths of soldiers in bizarre expeditions like the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. They are not held accountable for the damage to the environment that they are directly responsible for.

It is clear that we need a constitutional change. People elected as our representatives to make policy on our behalf, should have to be responsible for the results of their legislation. Votes need to be carefully recorded and all those people in Congress who voted against measures to protect the environment, should be held personally responsible twenty of years from now when the results of those choices become incontrovertibly obvious.

Twenty years from now Boston and New York and other coastal cities may be partially under water because the ocean level rises with the melting north and south poles. Many cities may be regularly devastated by tornadoes and hurricanes because of more frequent and violent storms. The congresspeople who today do not support legislation to protect the environment, to encourage alternative energy sources, would then be called into court in order to be adjudicated responsible. Sending them to prison is a waste of energy. But they may have to go and fill sandbags, build shelters for people displaced by storms and rising sea levels, or in other ways make restitution for their present actions and the consequences of those actions.

We have had enough impunity on the part of the elected representatives. If they are willing to hold on to really crazy beliefs, that is their own business. If they damage our lives and cities as a consequence of those beliefs, they should be held responsible and be made to offer restitution.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Greening America

I am happy to quote a few paragraphs from Robert F. Kennedy's Foreword to Van Jones' The Green Collar Economy: How one Solution can Fix our Two Biggest Problems (New York: Harper Collins ebooks: 2008). :

“LAST NOVEMBER, LORD (David) Puttnam debated before Parliament an important bill to tackle global warming. Addressing industry and government warnings that we must proceed slowly to avoid economic ruin, Lord Puttnam recalled that precisely two hundred years ago Parliament heard identical caveats during the debate over abolition of the slave trade. 

At that time slave commerce represented one-fourth of Britain’s gross domestic product (GDP) and provided its primary source of cheap, abundant energy. Vested interests warned that financial apocalypse would succeed its prohibition. That debate lasted roughly a year, and Parliament, in the end, made the moral choice, abolishing the trade outright. 

Instead of collapsing, as slavery’s proponents had predicted, Britain’s economy accelerated. Slavery’s abolition exposed the debilitating inefficiencies associated with zero-cost labor; slavery had been a ball and chain not only for the slaves, but also for the British economy, hobbling productivity and stifling growth. Creativity and productivity surged. Entrepreneurs seeking new sources of energy launched the industrial revolution and inaugurated an era of the greatest wealth production in human history. 

Today, we don’t need to abolish carbon as an energy source in order to see its inefficiencies starkly or understand that the addiction to it is the principal drag on American capitalism. The evidence is before our eyes. The practice of borrowing a billion dollars each day to buy foreign oil has caused the American dollar to implode. More than a trillion dollars in annual subsidies to coal and oil producers has beggared a nation that four decades ago owned half the globe’s wealth. Carbon dependence has eroded our economic power, destroyed our moral authority, diminished our international influence and prestige, endangered our national security, and damaged our health and landscapes. It is subverting everything we value. 

We know that nations that “decarbon” their economies reap immediate rewards. Sweden announced in 2006 the phaseout of all fossil fuels, closed two nuclear reactors, and still dropped greenhouse-gas emissions to five tons per person, compared to the U.S. rate of twenty tons. Thousands of entrepreneurs rushed to develop new ways of generating energy from sun, wind, and tides and from wood chips, agricultural waste, and garbage. Growth rates climbed to upwards of three times those of the United States. The heavily taxed Swedish economy is now the world’s eighth richest by GDP. 

Iceland was 80 percent dependent on imported coal and oil in the 1970s, its economy among the poorest in Europe. Today, Iceland is 100 percent energy-independent, with 90 percent of the nation’s homes heated by geothermal and its remaining electrical needs met by hydro. The International Monetary Fund now ranks Iceland the fourth most affluent nation on Earth. Geothermal and hydro produce so much cheap power that Iceland has become one of the world’s top energy exporters. (Iceland exports its surplus energy in the form of smelted aluminum.) The country, which previously had to beg for corporate investment, now has companies lined up to relocate there to take advantage of its low-cost clean energy. 

Brazil, which decarboned its energy over the past decade, is now experiencing the most sustained economic boom in its history. Costa Rica, which is phasing out carbon, is Central America’s wealthiest economy. 

The United States has far greater domestic energy resources than Iceland or Sweden. We sit atop the second-largest fund of geothermal resources in the world. The American Midwest is the Saudi Arabia of wind; indeed, North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas alone produce enough harnessable wind to meet all of the nation’s electricity demand. As for solar, according to a study in Scientific American, photovoltaic and solar-thermal installations across just 19 percent of the most barren desert land in the Southwest could supply nearly all of our nation’s electricity needs without any rooftop installation, even assuming every American owned a plug-in hybrid car. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Just do it!

The slightly bizarre and tawdry Anthony Weiner affair tells us a number of important truths about the world in which we live.

The eminently successful congressman, for reasons known only to himself – and now his psychological counselors – found it arousing to send unwanted sexual email messages to women he did not know personally. Doing so was obviously a bad idea but he could not resist. He did not have the required self-control.

But where do we learn self-control? It seems today that much of our culture is dedicated to teaching all of us, children and adults, to indulge ourselves, to "just do it," to satisfy our every whim. That, after all, is the message of the millions of advertisements that crowd in upon us on radio, television, the internet, the news programs beamed into school rooms, the advertisements that come in the mail unbidden, or crowd out the news in newspapers and magazines. Youth sports are financed by advertisements and all of them tell us to satisfy every desire as soon as we have it. All of them tell us not to scrimp and save but to spend money to meet our every desire, to get the things we “must have.”

Congressman Weiner did that, and so do we. We are content to live in a world that encourages us to be self-indulgent at every moment. Buying stuff is a prominent form of self-indulgence but by no means the only one. Getting what you want, when you want it, is the universal remedy for all problems. That is how we solve all problems, Congressman Weiner no more or less than anybody else.

Going out to buy stuff we neither need nor will enjoy after a day or two, or to indulge our whims in other ways—such as mailing pictures of you in your underwear, however common a practice it has become, is foolish.

But Congressman Weiner's particular self-indulgence is more serious because it involves denigrating other persons. Sexualizing an e-mail relationship without any indication that the other party in the relationship wanted that, Weiner acted from very traditional male, sexist assumptions. Many men still regard women primarily as sexual objects, of value only because they arouse male desire and can be seduced (or forced) into satisfying it. From the male point of view, women are not properly speaking full persons. Their value lies only in their sexual functioning in relation to men and perhaps as caretakers of men.

The Weiner affair would not be terribly interesting if this attitude were not so common; it is replicated in faintly pornographic movies and television shows, advertisements and entertainments. Congressman Anthony Weiner, more aggressive and self involved than many men, exhibits only more clearly the widespread primitive male attitudes towards sexuality and women. The best many men can say for themselves is that they are more careful than the Congressman not to act on their caveman impulses.

These attitudes damage more than the personal relations between men and women. When the Congressman describes his eminently capable and successful wife, he observes, in the first place, how pretty she is. Her sexual attractiveness is her most important quality deserving to be mentioned before all others. We do not do that to men. When we praise them, our first comments are not about their looks. We talk instead about their accomplishments.

Women are thus devalued. And so is the work that many of them have traditionally done. While we manage at times to become very sentimental about mothers and motherhood, we do not value bringing up children well to the same extent as we value making piles of money. Bill Gates or Steve Jobs are famous. What do we know about their mothers?

This devaluing of women, of course, comes to haunt Weiner and men like him. If intimacy means no more to them than sexual passion, they miss out on the deepest gifts that intimacy can bestow on us: a place of peace, where we are acknowledged to be good persons, where we are valued and valuing, where we give and receive some of the profoundest gifts human beings can give each other. Without that human relations soon become stale; sexual passion cools—and there is not much else. So men, like Anthony Weiner, look for new excitements, other women who are pretty and arouse their sexual desire. No wonder he must continuously be on the look out for someone new, for a different excitement because, in the end, his life is unsatisfied. He is unable to find what he needs.

This weird Congressman, Anthony Weiner, is just one of innumerable politicians, educators, business leaders who are unable to resist their own desires. There is hardly a day when one of them does not make the news for some sexual transgression. Their desires remain forever frustrated because they are incapable of genuine intimacy. Instead they must continue to chase after sexual thrills. 

But we should not focus attention exclusively on the failings of the Congressman. We need to see in him a mirror of ourselves and the society we maintain. Thank you Congressman for reminding us of who we are and how we live.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

“What are we fighting for...?”

In an earlier blog, I expressed my distress at the Memorial day cliché that our war dead died for freedom.

Wars are a terrible scourge. There is no prospect of reducing the number and the destructiveness of wars as long as we refuse to admit to ourselves why they happen.

The large series of Indian wars we've fought all during the 19th century were over control of territory.

The Spanish-American war added a great deal of territory to our country and made us masters of the Philippines for many years. 

If you travel all up and down the Eastern seaboard of the United States, every town, large or small, has its civil war monument. More likely than not it bears as an inscription a line from the Roman poet Horace “It is sweet and honorable to die for one's fatherland.” What fatherland did all of the Confederate soldiers die for? Is it sweet and honorable to die in defense of slavery?

World War I began when Germany built a large navy to threaten the British Empire. We had shared power with the British in the world and therefore entered on that side. World War II began when Japan in the East and Germany in the West threatened our power and the freedom of American corporations to invest and make profits all over the world. The wars in Korea and Vietnam were power struggles with the Soviet Union, our World War II ally, once more a struggle over American access to raw materials and investment opportunities.

Wars are fought over power, and wealth. We should not pretend that freedom is the issue.

We take pride in our democracy. But we do not always understand that in a democratic country the decision to go to war is, supposedly, a decision of the entire people. In a democracy, every citizen bears responsibility for war. In a democracy every citizen bears responsibility for every soldier or civilian killed or maimed.

On Memorial Day in a democracy citizens should not just honor the dead, but ask their forgiveness for having caused them to die.

Instead, it is easier and more comfortable to pretend that these deaths have been “sweet and honorable” or to have been “in defense of freedom.”

Often, of course, nations are manipulated into going to war. During World War I Pres. Woodrow Wilson was elected on the promise to keep America out of the war. In 1917 a large contingent of American soldiers entered that war in France. Before World War II Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected on the promise that no American soldier would fight in the Second World War. The reality turned out quite different. Governments are not above manufacturing “incidents” in order to whip up enthusiasm for a war. Pres. Lyndon Johnson faked the “Gulf of Tonkin incident” in order to get support in Congress for the continuation of the Vietnam War.

The war against Iraq was never declared by Congress. Our elected representatives passed a resolution asserting that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and and was involved in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center – both falsehoods – and authorized the president to do whatever he saw fit. They clearly abdicated their constitutional responsibility to declare war.

But if democracy means anything, it surely means that ordinary citizens have a responsibility for the major decisions of the government and going to war is always a major decision. As American citizens we bear responsibility for the death and destruction we have brought to Iraq and Afghanistan and we bear responsibility for the Americans who died or were injured in those wars.

We bear that responsibility whether we were asked to participate in this decision or not. We bear that responsibility whether the government lied to us about the prospects and causes of war. If they tell us that our soldiers are defending our freedoms, while the planners of war are actually thinking about global control of natural resources, it is our duty as citizens to look for the truth.

If we are talking about war as a defense of freedom, when wars are fought over global resource conflicts, or over the power of American corporations to make money wherever they please, we conspire in our own deception, we conspire in the degradation of our democracy. 

We are acting against the cause of freedom.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Memorial Day

It is fitting for us to remember all the soldiers who died in foreign wars, as well as the parents who survived their children, the spouses left behind, and the children who grow up orphaned.

But let us, for heavens sake, stop saying that they died for our freedom. For that is a big untruth designed to deceive ourselves about the causes of our wars.

The reasons for going to war in Iraq have always been unclear. First it was the weapons of mass destruction, then, for a while, the government claimed that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attack on the World Trade Center. Finally they settled on saying that we were fighting for democracy in Iraq. A lot of people think it was all about oil and the global control of natural resources. No one has ever believed that the regime of Saddam Hussein, however murderous in Iraq, was a threat to American liberties. 

The Taliban we are fighting in Afghanistan may burn down schools for girls. But in the US more women graduate from high school and college than men. The Taliban are no threat to our freedoms.

The war in Vietnam, obviously, was not about American liberties. We lost that war but that did not change or restrict our liberties. It is unclear that the war in Korea enhanced traditional American freedoms. If anything, we lost them for a while to the home grown authoritarianism of the McCarthy period when freedom of speech and opinion was under serious threat.

But, you say, surely World War II was a fight against authoritarianism! Well, it was a fight with an authoritarian country—the Soviet Union-- as our ally against another country that was also authoritarian.

The roots of World War II lay in the settlement of World War I. Germany was forced to pay large reparations to the allies after World War I. Savings by German citizens and profits of their industries were not available for investment because they had to be paid to the Allies as reparations. German capitalists were short of investment capital. American industries rushed in because there was a lot of money to be made. Major US industries invested heavily in Germany's rearmament. Standard Oil of New Jersey built factories in Germany to produce synthetic gasoline – an essential requirement for a modern army. IBM let the Germans use ther punch card technology to, among other things, produce lists of all the Jewish citizens in Germany. General Motors and Ford built cars, trucks and later tanks for the German army.

The 1918 Treaty of Versailles forbade the Germans to have an army. But when Hitler came to power in 1933, he openly rejected that prohibition and began to build a new army. France, Britain and the United States, the victors in the First World War, did nothing. The reason? The Nazi movement was from the very beginning ardently anti-Communist. And Americans in the 1930s followed the same principle that our foreign policy still follows slavishly: the enemy of our enemy is our friend. The new National-Socialist government in Germany may have been repressive and fanatically anti-Semitic but if they were against the Soviets and Soviet communism we didn't care what else they were doing.

That was just like supporting Osama bin Laden when he was fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan or supporting Saddam Hussein when he was fighting Iran.

When Adolf Hitler came to power, we not only overlooked the requirements of the Versailles treaty, major American corporations could not wait to support the new regime and to help them build what was in fact an illegal military force. We were not concerned that German fascism was a threat to the liberties of other European countries. We were certainly not concerned about our own liberties. We were making plenty of money and developing a force against the communism we were so afraid of.

But then in 1940, Germany conquered most of Europe with lightning speed. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Germany supported them by declaring war on the US. All of a sudden American power, American ability to invest all over the globe were under threat from all sides. Our preeminent position in the world of diplomacy, in the world of global business and our wealth were under attack.

We bolstered German militarization because there was money to be made. We joined the war against Germany when that ability came under threat. If World War II was fought for freedom, it was primarily the freedom of the largest American corporations to make money wherever it felt like.

This is a harsh thing to say. The loss of young men and women is always sad. It is comforting to think that they died for a good cause. But think of all the other people who died in World War II: millions of Russians, millions of German civilians who died in the carpet bombing of German cities, large numbers of Britons fallen victims to German bombing. Think of the millions of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals who died in German concentration camps. They did not die for freedom. They fell victim to senseless violence supported by frantic greed.

The terrible truth is that the destruction of war does not serve noble purposes.