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Archive for April, 2012

It’s Time to Cut Our Losses in Afghanistan

Last Sunday the Obama Administration and the Afghanistan government finalized an “agreement” that commits the U.S. taxpayer to financially support the Afghan people for 10 years after the withdraw of American troops from Afghan soil at the end of 2014.  According to U.S. and Afghan officials the pledge of U.S. support will be finalized when both Afghan president Karzai and President Obama sign the document.

Naturally both sides claim the agreement is in the best interests of the U.S. and Afghanistan.  The Afghani’s will get about $2.7 billion a year to build infrastructure, train their security forces, and maintain democratic institutions.  The U.S. will get a stable nation in an unstable neighborhood and a reliable friend in the fight against international terrorism.  At least that is what the party line is from both sides.  Of course one doesn’t have to look to hard at historical examples where our foreign aid actually had the opposite effect on a situation.

Now, in the first place this “agreement” is indicative of how far we have moved away from being a constitutional republic.  In essence, the Obama Administration has negotiated a treaty with Afghanistan.  Dictionary.com defines a treaty as “a formal agreement between two or more states in reference to peace, alliance, commerce, or other international relations.  Granted this is an open-ended definition, but I would lump what this agreement does with Afghanistan into the alliance category (against terrorists) and into other international relations (foreign aid).  Thus, why is the Senate not required to ratify this treaty as specified by Article 2 Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution?

Beyond the illegality of the agreement, it also just doesn’t make sense for our president to commit us financially or otherwise to Afghanistan.  On Sunday, U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker told Afghanistan’s national security council that the United States was pledged to helping Afghanistan as “a unified, democratic, stable and secure state”.  The question is when has Afghanistan ever been “a unified, democratic, stable and secure state”? After over a decade of American occupation She is still crippled by sectarianism, nepotism, instability, and corruption.  The agreement looks more like a scheme to prop up the Karzai government as the only long term option American policymakers have for Afghanistan.  This tactic has been repeated over and over again with American foreign aid all over the world.  It’s never worked effectively.   Why do we think it will be different this time?  Why do we think that our money won’t end up in the Swiss bank accounts of Afghani officials or even Karzai himself?

Entering into a long-term agreement with Afghanistan will simply bog us down in another no-win situation in that country.  It will no doubt contribute to more hostilities toward America and inflame the resolve of our current enemies.  Americans will be called upon to pay even more to prop up the frail Karzai regime or worse yet sacrifice their lives for this unworthy cause.

It is past the time for the United States to cut its losses in Afghanistan.  Financially, physically, and mentally we can no longer continue to support this historical lost cause.  What we couldn’t accomplish in the last decade with boots on the ground we will not be able to achieve with money after the boots have gone home.  That is a historical fact.  It’s time to turn off the lights and close the door on this part of our nation’s history.

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The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

In what must be the epitome of the pot calling the kettle black, last week the U.S. government announced that it and 15 states are suing Apple and other major book publishers for price fixing electronic books. The Justice Department is alleging that the price fixing publishers have agreed to convert the retailers who sell their e-books into agents who continue to sell their e-books but no longer have the ability to decide what retail price to charge for them.  Thus, all prices are determined at the publisher level allowing the executives in those companies to collude to ensure higher profits for all to enjoy.  The DOJ estimates that by adding $2, $3 or as much as $5 to the price of many New York Times bestsellers and mass market paperback titles over the last two years consumers have been ripped-off by over $100 million.

Now, on the surface this may sound shocking.  You are probably thinking here is yet another example of corporate big-wigs gouging the little guy.  And that is what Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama want you to think.  See, then they can ride in on white horses, file a lawsuit that will cost the defendants so much money that they settle out of court and therefore look guilty of actually doing something wrong , and save the day for average e-book buying Americans.  It fits into that government as the great protector of the masses mentality.

But, the real truth is that even without knowing that publishers may have conspired to increase book prices no one was forced into buying them in the first place.  Consumers make choices about what to buy every day and many if not most of the time those decisions are based on cost.  If they felt the jacked-up prices of the e-books were too expensive they could have chosen not to buy them.  Enough consumers making this choice would have broken the back of the conspirators and forced them either collaboratively or individually to lower prices down toward the market level (equilibrium point).  Consequently, the collusion would have been destroyed through natural means and consumers would have reasserted their position of dominance in the market economy.

Additionally, it is America and consumers have other options.  Instead of buying the overpriced e-books, consumers could have purchased any of the potentially millions of used books offered on Amazon for literally pennies on the dollar.  To say nothing of used book stores and thrift shops which usually stock an ample selection of good reads.

Naturally, whenever the feds bring lawsuits against sellers for any kind of anti-trust or price fixing scheme, they always neglect to take into account property rights.  After all, who owns the product to be sold and why is the consumer entitled to it?  In the case of the most recent assault on property rights by the DOJ, the publishers own the rights to the e-books and can choose to sell them to consumers or not.  If they choose to sell them they have the right to charge whatever price they wish even if they limit selection or competition through collusion.  The e-books are the property of the publishers like a person’s home is their property.  When selling, do homeowners not retain the right to set their own price?

In a market economy, prices are determined through interactions between buyers and sellers.  If sellers venture outside of this process they run the risk of lost revenue, or mal-investment.  If they arbitrarily set a price for a product that is below market expectations, that is to say the equilibrium price where the amount supplied equals the amount demanded at a given price then a shortage will result and the seller will lose revenue – the difference between the artificially low set price and the equilibrium price for each book.  If the seller arbitrarily sets the price for a product above market expectations, once again the equilibrium price, a surplus will result and the seller will experience mal-investment – using capital to produce a quantity that wasn’t completely sold.  Of course the seller can always lower prices toward the equilibrium price and thereby clear his inventory and this is what would ultimately happen.  The fact that this did not happen in the case of Apple and its co-conspirators is proof the price fixing was not egregious enough to deter consumers from buying the e-books at the alleged inflated price.  So where is the harm anyway?

At the end of the day no one is entitled to another’s property through the coercive power of government.  Instead of meddling in affairs that are better handled by the free market, Uncle Sam should worry about the truly monopolistic price fixing scheme that he has been complicit in since 1913.  And this is where this whole ordeal reeks of the pot calling the kettle black.  Unlike the market where consumers have choices and options, through legal tender laws Americans do not have any choices or options with regards to the money they use.  Since 1913, the Federal Reserve Bank with Congress’ blessing has arbitrarily fixed the price of the dollar through interest rate setting and monetary manipulations.  This price fixing scheme is responsible for the dollar losing 95 percent of its value over the last 99 years.  It is the price fixing scheme that affects real people’s lives through erosion of savings and higher living costs.  It is the one responsible for forcing both spouses to work to make ends meet and the destruction of the middle class.  So while Attorney General Eric Holder is concerned about $100 million that he alleges e-book purchasers have been ripped-off for in the last two years he really should be concerned about the trillions of dollars Americans have been ripped-off by the Federal Reserve since 1913. In other words Mr. Attorney General, “Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?”

Article first published as The Pot Calls the Kettle Black on Blogcritics.

Kenn Jacobine teaches internationally and maintains a summer residence in North Carolina

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We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same. ~ Carlos Castaneda

The entertainment headlines tell us that Hunger Games surpassed $300 million at the box office this weekend. At ten dollars per ticket, that is 30 million tickets. Subtract a couple million for people who have gone twice, and you have about 28 million people who have seen it. That is not nearly enough. All good men and women who want to come to the aid of their country should see this film.

Why would I say that? It’s just entertainment, right? So are books. I had a teacher in graduate school, John Nelson, who thought about politics in science fiction. Science fiction authors can write about political dystopias more readily than authors who write non-fiction. We are living in a dystopia now, but we don’t recognize it yet. Hunger Games is about a dystopia. If you want to see a general view of where we might be headed, see this film.

Plenty of people have warned us about what will happen if we don’t arrest our current political trajectory. Mid-twentieth century, Friederich Hayek started the discussion in The Road to Serfdom. Ron Paul has sounded the same warnings more recently. If we don’t listen to these warnings, we will see our current situation become worse. Hunger Games illustrates how much worse it can get.

Many people have read all three of Suzanne Collins’ books, and have seen the recently released film. Our family has discussed the books a great deal. The author’s vision of a Reaping, where outlying districts send tributes to the Capitol to be killed in gladiatorial games used as entertainment, shows how utterly subject the districts are to their masters. Images from the film show the heroine so hungry that she welcomes a rain soaked loaf of bread meant for pigs. Images from the districts and images from the Capitol could not be more different. No one suffers in the Capitol. Everyone suffers in the districts.

Hunger Games, then, makes you think about the general theme of equality, the hallmark of our democracy from the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address. The Occupy Movement highlights this theme in its rhetoric. Our sense of who we are as Americans turns on this idea.

If you want to see a dystopia where the one percent have nearly complete control of the other ninety-nine percent, consider the Capitol and the districts in Hunger Games. President Snow, along with the rest of the Capitol, likes to say, “May the odds be ever with you.” It’s an ironic falsehood, for sure. The odds are never with the districts, or with the tributes who come from the districts to fight to the death in the games. The odds only favor those who already have power.

Now I’m going to depart rather drastically from most of the Occupy Wall Street people. The standard remedy for inequality in our public policy has been to tax the wealthy in order to redistribute the money to the poor. We have seen the results of that policy over four score years now. The wealthy stay wealthy, the powerful stay powerful, and the poor stay poor. You cannot hand resources of that magnitude to government and hope that by some magic transformation we will have a greater degree of equality. The not so magic, predictable transformation at work is to make the government more powerful. That includes the power to keep the poor dependent, and to help the well connected stay privileged.

When we say we want equality, we make a big mistake if we focus on equality of economic outcomes. We say we want equal opportunity. Translate that into government policy and you find attention to equal outcomes again. How public policy promotes equal opportunity, no one really knows. We place our hopes in education, but honestly, how many people believe now that equal opportunity follows from more spending on public education? The record does not offer much hope there.

The path to equal opportunity lies through plain freedom. The immigrants who populated America took this lesson from their lives across the ocean: remove social distinctions, and let us do the rest. These social distinctions evolved so slowly, they amounted to a caste system. Here, you could be anyone you wanted to be. The only equality that mattered was equality of freedom, plain freedom to make something of yourself.

So what kind of equality do we need to prevent Collins’ demoralizing dystopia? Can we prevent the United States from devolving into numerous impoverished districts, subordinate to a decadent, obscenely powerful Capitol? If the answer is yes, who can accomplish such a thing? If we cannot prevent it, how long will it be before we recognize what has happened?

The key to the struggle here is not economic equality, but political equality. Far too much attention is paid to economic outcomes, and far too little to political outcomes. If we cared about political outcomes, we would lay plans to starve our Capitol of material resources. We would resist its efforts to regulate tiny details of our activities, right down to the structure of the passwords we use to log into our computer networks. We would recognize how it erodes and undercuts our liberties. We would look for ways to counteract its intrusive, nagging, freedom destroying behavior.

The effectiveness of these counteractions depends on three qualities. First, they must be non-violent. Second, they must be part of a plan, not a series of ad hoc and uncoordinated actions. Third, they must actually disrupt government’s ability to assert its authority. Governmental authorities are bound to regard actions of this type as illegal, and in fact actions of this type count as civil disobedience. Therefore resisters cannot become distracted by arguments about what is legal and what is not. The Occupy Movement, for instance, let local authorities set a course for their removal when they decided to argue the legality of their encampments before the authorities who wanted to remove them.

The point of the encampments to begin with was that they were not legal. That’s why protesters called it Occupy Wall Street rather than Set Up a Temporary Encampment on Wall Street. They meant to be provocative, and they were. They meant to be peaceful, and to the end they did not initiate the use of force. Only political sympathy and moral force would keep them in the park, however, not legal justification. Legal justification is what police would use to throw them out.

Now the encampments are gone. You don’t hear about the Tea Party or the Occupy Movement now we’re gripped by another meaningless election campaign. The Capitol has its rituals, policies, and procedures. We learned in the transition from Bush to Obama that the routines don’t change. We learned that great power begets power even greater.

Torture continues. Solitary confinement continues. Prison camps continue. Secrecy and corruption continue. Obscenely wasteful training conferences in Las Vegas continue, as do strip searches, cover-ups, ubiquitous surveillance, and fear of the next knock on the door. Propaganda, unsuccessful wars, gun running, handouts and bailouts, astonishing assertions of authority where no authority exists, all continue. No policy or practice is too dirty or unjustified, no effort to increase government’s power is too underhanded. No lie or other kind of dishonesty is too destructive, criminal, or blatant.

To prevent the coming dystopia, we have to recognize and accept the need for political action to prevent it. This action must reestablish political equality, essential for democracy. As Gene Sharp argues in his writing, establishment of political equality in these circumstances requires development of extra-legal political methods to counteract and resist government’s illegal assertion of authority. It requires a strategy to reestablish democratic institutions.

That brings us to Castaneda’s piece of wisdom: as citizens we will be miserable, or we will be strong. We are in for hard work either way. Oppression from the Capitol means hard, miserable work in the mines and in the mud, with no escape. Political freedom means accumulation of moral strength, which requires self-discipline, perseverance, courage, cooperation, and spiritual confidence. Moral strength to recover freedom and political equality requires hard work. Let’s begin.

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Today’s post is based on a message I wrote to Gary Stein, after a Marine Corps administrative board recommended yesterday that Gary be forced out of the Corps with an other than honorable discharge. Here is the message:

Hi Gary,

Good work getting through the hearing yesterday. I just read the Christian Science Monitor article on the proceedings. It seems the Marine Corps made a pretty strong case that you violated the Corps’ policy about political statements – if not the written policy, then the unwritten one that has developed over the years. Your case raises this question: is the policy against political statements by members of the military Constitutional especially if the military enforces it with a heavy rather than a light hand? Is the policy at all consistent with the First Amendment?

As you and your attorneys recognize, your case takes on much more significance if it focuses on the latter question. If it focuses on whether your posts violated the no politics policy in the first place, you can’t go very far with your argument. Given the nature of the policy, if the Corps says the posts were in violation, they were in violation.

I was in the Navy a long time ago, as a junior officer. Back in those days, during the Iranian hostage crisis in the early 1980s, I accepted the no politics policy as one of the military’s many requirements. Our democracy had done well when the military stayed out of political discussions. Then the Iraq war came, and some members of the armed services began to object. I opposed that war so passionately, and the Bush administration did so much with its propaganda to quiet voices that opposed that invasion. In that environment, I began to believe that service members should be permitted to voice objections to policies like that. The war was clearly illegal. That made all the orders issued to fight the war illegal as well.

So thanks for standing up. You already know that people who take unpopular stands often find themselves alone. You should remember that a lot of people back you up.

One last point: the day will come again when a military unit is asked to use lethal force against United States citizens. We have already seen it with the unlawful execution of Awlaki. We saw it years ago, in the 1970s, at Kent State. If service members refuse to obey unlawful orders, and the military court martials them for their refusal, your stand will matter all the more.

Regards,

/Steven Greffenius

Here’s the Armed Forces Tea Party Facebook page that caused this dispute over First Amendment rights for members of the armed services. Also visit the Armed Forces Tea Party website. Lastly, you can write to Gary at ArmedForcesTP@gmail.com.

Last weekend, I visited my son in Washington, DC. On Sunday we visited the Arlington National Cemetery, a place we have buried heroes who sacrificed their lives for us. The cemetery contains a large amphitheater used for ceremonial occasions. The inscription in the portico, above the speaker’s platform, reads:

When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.

The quotation is from George Washington, our nation’s first citizen soldier. The Armed Forces Tea Party has taken George Washington’s patriotic sentiment as its motto. We must never forget that our armed forces fight for our country, not for its government. When the government orders our armed forces to act illegally, our armed forces must protect the Constitution, not the government. Bradley Manning and Gary Stein both stand for this foundational principle: the armed forces serve the Constitution. When government betrays the Constitution, members of the armed forces ought to speak up.

Members of our armed forces need our support. When we start to fight illegal wars, we have to hear objections from all quarters. We cannot order our service men and women into conflicts like that, and order them to keep silent as well. We cannot order them to kill civilians, and ask them to shut up. That policy did not serve our country well during the Vietnam war, and it won’t serve our country well now. Gary Stein has taken the right stand here.

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Obamacare Must Go!

Let’s get right to the point:  the Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare needs to go away.  Far away.  It doesn’t matter if the Supreme Court rules it unconstitutional or if Congress can come to its senses and repeal the legislation.  One way or another, it must go.

The record of our federal government providing services outside of its constitutional jurisdiction is atrocious to say the least.  It includes big wasteful bureaucracy, questionable accounting practices, and massive cost overruns.  Speaking of cost overruns, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare alone face 10s of trillions of dollars in unfunded future liabilities.  So it was no surprise this past week when Republican Senator Jeff Sessions’ office reported that it discovered the long-term funding gap of Obamacare to not be $1 trillion as the President has claimed all along, but a whopping $17 trillion.  Nancy Pelosi was right all along – they had to pass the bill to see what was in it.  And boy we are now beginning to see what a rook job has been pulled over on the American people.

Now, I suppose that costs don’t matter if you think government debt is irrelevant.  After all America could never end up like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, or Hungary.  And the Japanese, Chinese, and Arab nations will continue to buy up our debt allowing us to borrow cheaply for everything we no longer make but still need.

Unfortunately government debt is not irrelevant and the day of reckoning is coming.  All Federal Reserve induced financial bubbles (dot.com, housing, etc…) burst eventually.  The Fed’s U.S. debt bubble is no exception.  It is likely that at some point our lenders stop buying our debt.  Interest rates will have to rise dramatically to entice foreign investors to service our debt again.  The Fed will print even more money to cover the shortfall increasing our debt further and devaluing the dollar to the point where exponential price inflation of goods and services will result.  Life savings will be wiped out and Americans’ standard of living destroyed.

I’m not minimizing the problem of 40 million Americans without health insurance, but the consequences of the federal government being all things to all people will eventually destroy the economy for everyone.  In fact, the reason health care costs are so high is precisely because of government involvement in the industry.  In the first place, government limits competition through licensing laws and the drug approval process thereby eliminating an important mechanism in controlling costs.  Secondly, increased government spending on health care bids up the price of care.  If Obamacare is allowed to exist it will quicken our economic downfall.  Insuring 40 million more Americans for a short period of time is little consolation for destroying our way of life.

At the end of the day, it is more likely the Supreme Court will void the law rather than Congress repealing it.  Even if the Republicans were capable of intestinal fortitude, when January 2013 rolls around at the very least the Democrats will be able to prevent a cloture vote in the Senate and at the most a veto wielding Barak Obama will still be occupying the White House.

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