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Archive for November, 2012

The Fiscal Cliff is in our Rearview Mirror

Washington is full of drama.  Americans are constantly being treated to high political suspense.  Whether it’s the scandal ridden death of an ambassador, an outrageous gun dealing policy gone wrong on our southern border, or the spectacle of politicians scurrying frantically at the eleventh hour to raise the federal debt ceiling to keep Uncle Sam running, there is usually no shortage of political theater emanating from the nation’s capital.

At present, the drama centers around the so-called “fiscal cliff” negotiations taking place between the President and congressional leaders.  According to the main stream media, the big question is, can Congress and the President thwart economic catastrophe by agreeing on tax increases on the rich and some spending cuts before a January deadline would automatically terminate Bush era tax cuts and cut military spending deeply thereby causing an economic crisis.

It’s no secret that the fiscal condition of the United States is apocalyptic.  With $16 trillion of current debt and 10s of trillions of dollars more in future unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare, there is no possible way for the United States to ever meet these obligations short of its current strategy of printing money out of thin air.  And, of course, that is a financially suicidal option.

The big problem is that the federal budget is inflexible.  In Fiscal Year 2011, $2.303 trillion in tax revenue was collected by the federal government.  In that same year, the government spent $454.4 billion on interest payments and $2.025 trillion on mandatory spending like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  Thus, money that Uncle Sam was forced to pay out exceeded all revenue collected by $176.4 billion.  This doesn’t include discretionary spending like defense appropriations.  Mandatory spending and interest payments will only grow as more baby boomers retire and the Treasury goes deeper into debt.

Of course, many progressives believe that all we have to do is raise taxes on the rich to fix our fiscal mess.  They argue that tax cuts since the 1980s which lowered marginal tax rates on the rich from 91 percent to the current 35 percent are responsible for the national debt.  But this is simply not true.  A Congressional Research Study  found that the 91% marginal tax rate on high earners in the 1950s and 1960s produced an effective income tax rate on the top 0.01 percent of only about 45%.  Consequently, high rates on the rich did not produce the windfall for the U.S. Treasury that progressives claim.  In fact, whether the top rate was 91 percent or 35 percent, federal tax receipts for the last 67 years have changed little, averaging about 17 percent of GDP for the time period.

What proponents of soaking the rich like to ignore about the 1950s and 1960s is the real check on government spending which was the gold exchange standard. They ignore it because they know that if a gold standard were reinstituted in the U.S. it would put a real crimp in their plans to maintain the welfare/warfare state they have built since LBJ.

At the end of the day, the current drama over the approaching fiscal cliff in January is utter nonsense.  The fact is we have already gone over the fiscal cliff.  Washington is either in denial, won’t admit it, or doesn’t realize it because we haven’t had the hard landing at the bottom of the canyon yet.  That will come when interest rates begin to rise and the Fed prints even more money to meet obligations.  Then the real drama will begin.

Article first published as The Fiscal Cliff is in Our Rearview Mirror on Blogcritics.

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

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Seth Lipsky wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago titled John Kerry, Secretary of What? It argues that John Kerry is unqualified to be Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense because he testified to atrocities and war crimes committed by soldiers in Vietnam. Lipsky suggests that someone who vilifies veterans, or causes others to vilify them, is himself worthy of vilification. He speaks approvingly of John O’Neill, who led the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth in the 2004 presidential campaign:

Mr. O’Neill and fellow officers who served on Swift Boats in the war in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta torpedoed Mr. Kerry’s campaign for president in 2004. The Swift Vets exposed his libels against American GIs and debunked his claims to heroism in the Mekong Delta.

Then Lipsky quotes from Kerry’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. Kerry reported what veterans confessed about their actions in Vietnam, where they

had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.

Lipsky then suggests that because no one prosecuted the veterans for these crimes, they did not happen. That is, the veterans had confessed to crimes they had not committed. Ask yourself how likely that is: your country drafts you to fight a nasty land war in the villages, rice paddies, and jungles of Vietnam. You witness what we know happens during a war. When you return home, you testify to atrocious acts you committed while you were overseas, and you lie about it! These soldiers were not bragging. Like John Kerry, they were angry their country had put them in a hellish place where atrocious activity had become commonplace, with little to distinguish among normal ravages of war, war crimes, and memories of things they had done.

Lipsky concedes that a few bad apples, as we call them now, may have committed war crimes. In fact, he generously places Kerry in that group, citing Kerry’s own testimony:

There are all kinds of atrocities, and I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free-fire zones. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used 50-caliber machine guns, which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. I took part in search and destroy missions, in the burning of villages.”

“All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare, all of this is contrary to the Geneva Conventions and all of this is ordered as a matter of written established policy by the government of the United States from the top down. And I believe that the men who designed these, the men who designed the free fire zone, the men who ordered us, the men who signed off the air raid strike areas, I think these men, by the letter of the law, the same letter of the law that tried Lieutenant Calley, are war criminals.”

When Kerry refers to a free fire zone, he means the rules of engagement permit you to shoot anything that moves, including women and children. A military court prosecuted Lt. Calley for the massacre at My Lai not because his actions there had a different result from military actions in innumerable other villages. It prosecuted him because his company was more deliberate than most, and because he and his men murdered so many people. After Seymour Hersh reported the massacre in the States, the military had to prosecute him.

Imagine what Vietnam veterans encountered when they returned home. On one side were anti-war protesters who actually did vilify returning vets as war criminals – behavior that disgraced the peace movement, not the returning soldiers. On the other side, returning vets encountered so many people who did not even want do know what happened in Vietnam. They couldn’t comprehend it. Along comes John Kerry, a decorated officer, angry that his government, in a paroxysm of brutality and stupidity, sends thousands of his generation to die in a place they don’t care about. He tries to tell people, in government and out, what is happening over there. He vilifies the war, not the people forced to fight in it. He honestly confesses that he participated in the same hell as everyone else.

When John Kerry reports in 1971 that destroying villages and their civilian inhabitants was U. S. policy, he tells the truth. These ravages of war were not the result of a few bad apples. Lipsky neither acknowledges nor cares that history supports John Kerry. The evidence did not support John O’Neill when he campaigned to discredit Kerry in 1971; the evidence had not changed when O’Neill mounted the same campaign in 2004. The Swift Boat Veterans demonstrated their hatred for Kerry when they launched a twisted campaign of falsehood against him. The Republicans would have disavowed the campaign in a second if they had an ounce of honor. They did not – George W. Bush and his corrupt propagandists stood by silently. At least John McCain, a fellow veteran, disavowed the swift boat veterans.

The swift boat veterans hated Kerry for his testimony, all the more because it was true. They hated him because they felt he made them look bad. Kerry’s goal was not to level accusations at his fellow soldiers. His goal when he returned from Vietnam was to end the war by telling people what was actually happening over there. The swift boat veterans never accused Kerry of lying in his testimony during the anti-war movement. They know he told the truth. Instead they denigrated his heroism, saying he did not deserve his medals. Somehow that stuck. I don’t know why, but it did.

The Vietnam war was born in lies, it matured in lies, and it ended in lies. We have still not acknowledged what we did there. When he returned from the war, Kerry told the truth about U. S. activities in Vietnam. We saw what happened to him in 2004 as a result. Eight years ago, too many people listened to John O’Neill and his dirty organization before they listened to John Kerry. This week, we still see Seth Lipsky use space in the Wall Street Journal to dishonor John Kerry for his testimony, more than forty years after Kerry’s honorable and heroic service to his country.

We’ve all heard someone say at one time or another, “We have to put the Vietnam war and its divisions behind us. Otherwise its wounds will never heal.” It’s a platitude. First acknowledge the truth. Reconciliation follows.

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The Right to a Job Doesn’t Exist

The idea of the United States of America was born during the Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries).  The great philosophers of that time challenged the divine right of kings by enunciating a new theory for the social order.  Their theory was articulated by the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), who claimed that man originally was born in a state of nature where he had the absolute rights of life, liberty, and property.  Thus, when Thomas Jefferson presented the Continental Congress with the document that would lay the foundation for our government and society, the Declaration of Independence, he included one of the most eloquent and oft quoted statements in the English language:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”

In essence, this one profound statement gives all Americans rights that cannot be taken away by any legal authority.  The greatest of these rights is the right to property, which includes an individual’s body as well as possessions he/she has toiled to produce.

So, where is this treatise headed you might ask?

This Friday is Black Friday in the United States and to protest the labor practices of mega-retailer Wal-Mart, some of its employees are planning nationwide walkouts.  On the busiest shopping day of the year in the U.S. supposedly 1000 picket lines are expected at Wal-Mart stores across the country.  Specifically, the activism is meant to draw attention to what strike organizers call Wal-Mart’s “retaliation against employees who speak out for better pay, fair schedules and affordable health care”.

Now, there is no question that Wal-Mart employees are entitled to freedom of speech, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, just like all other Americans.  And they have enjoyed that right by virtue of the fact that none have been imprisoned or worse for speaking out against their employer.  But, this action by disgruntled Wal-Mart employees has really nothing to do with freedom of speech; it has everything to do with property rights.

In the employer-employee relationship, the employer has property rights to the business which includes, the buildings, inventory, and all other aspects of the enterprise (i.e. good will) not seeded to another entity.  This also includes the paid positions made available to the public by the company.  In this same relationship, the worker has property rights to his/her labor.

This arrangement is consistent with the right to property proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.  A right which includes an individual’s body as well as possessions he has toiled to produce (in this case the business enterprise) and is the reason why the hiring process includes the worker filling out an application, meeting to be interviewed, and negotiating an employment contract.  Consequently, the right to one’s labor is an indispensable property of the individual.  But the job that he sells his labor to perform is the property of the business.  Thus, the right to a job doesn’t exist because that would be a violation of the property rights of business owners.

Now, I realize there are such things as anti-discrimination laws, collective bargaining laws, and other acts of government which grant workers the right to employment and job security.  But, they violate the unalienable right to property guaranteed first in the Declaration of Independence and then in the U.S. Constitution.  They are also egregious representations of how far we have strayed as a nation from our original ideals of liberty.

If Wal-Mart employees are unhappy with their working conditions, they have a right to petition their employer within the confines of their labor contract.  If their grievances are not met, the choice before them is to either continue to honor their labor contract or resign.  The founding principle which gave birth to American liberty requires this.

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John Boyd writes about fingerspitzengefuhl. When you see the term in writing, the author says, “This word is hard to translate.” Then the author says it means “fingertip touch.” That’s not a bad description, since in a sense it refers to interaction between fingers and the brain. It also refers to interaction between any part of the body and brain, and most broadly, interaction between you as a thinking entity and how you act.

Here are some examples of fingerspitzengefuhl that stay pretty close to the literal meaning:

  • Improvisation or performance of a complicated piece on the piano
  • A similar performance on any musical instrument
  • Skiing
  • Soaring
  • Chess
  • Military operations on a battlefield
  • Dogfighting
  • Swordfighting
  • Seduction
  • Handling a complex negotiation

You have the idea now. A general definition that fits all these examples would be fine sensitivity, sure instinct or great situational awareness.

John Boyd tied this idea to the so-called OODA loop. The letters in this acronym stand for:

  • Observe
  • Orient
  • Decide
  • Act

Think of the OODA loop as a process, one that applies especially well to situations of conflict. We can discuss this loop in greater detail later, especially in connection with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings.

I’ve wanted to think about how fingerspitzengefuhl and the OODA loop might apply to civil conflict. You know from past posts that I have advocated planned, non-violent resistance to our government. I believe this resistance must come from the states. They are the political actors best equipped to secure freedom. Citizens acting together within their own states have the best chance of success. We need a handbook to guide state resistance to the federal government.

Since I started with a reference to John Boyd’s work, we’ll end this post the same way. Ten years ago, I bought Robert Coram’s biography of John Boyd for my dad, who like Boyd was a fighter pilot. My dad fought in World War II; Boyd fought in the Korean War. If you like to read biographies of leaders, pick up Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. If you hear an echo of Sun Tzu in that title, that’s not an accident.

Boyd developed a theory of warfare – and of conflict more generally – that emphasizes psychological elements of conflict. We can’t briefly summarize his fairly complex theories here. Instead, download this well edited version of his comprehensive slide deck, Patterns of Conflict. It is worth your time.

In connection with a handbook for civil resistance, useful for states as they interact with the federal government, we should keep some big questions in mind. How do republics fail or fall? Why does the government that husbands the republic lose its authority and effectiveness? Lastly, why do leaders fail so spectacularly, and others succeed? We want to keep these questions in the background as we consider effective means to save ourselves.

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Tax Revolt

The fastest, most effective way to deprive government of power is to deprive it of money. Legitimacy requires moral authority. Power just requires cash. Money is not just the mother’s milk of politics: it is the blood and oxygen as well. Because governments do not act to lessen their own power, they never act voluntarily to lessen their access to money. A tax revolt can force or induce government to shut off the tap for a time, but just how a tax revolt works is an uncertain thing.

We do not have much experience with tax revolts in our country. California’s Proposition 2.5 to limit property tax increases had success, and the movement spread to other states. We have a number of organizations that lobby for tax reform in Washington, but by and large Americans have paid a great deal in taxes without much public protest either about high rates or about how it is spent.

Not until the Tea Party, that is. This spontaneous movement, named Taxed Enough Already, came out to catch people’s attention on April 15, 2009. No amount of ridicule, skepticism, mockery and deceit could tamp down its central aim. We have to lower taxes. To do that, we have to lower spending. To to that, we have to reduce government’s reach. Smaller government means less spending means lower taxes. Why this message was met with such mockery is something of a mystery.

Whether the movement achieves success, or whether we can call the movement a revolt, we can’t know yet. We can say the movement has been somewhat inchoate so far, rising as it has from frustrations that have developed in so many places, over such a long time.

To organize a tax revolt across so vast a land, when the institutions of tax collection are so well established, is a hard task. Would a tax revolt require that everyone quit heir W-2 jobs and go to work off the books, as so many people do already because they have no choice about the matter? Would it require that people stop filing tax returns? Who would be the first person willing to go to jail for tax avoidance?

During revolutionary periods in Europe, workers’ movements have called for a general strike. A strike counts as a temporary albeit radical pressure tactic, but no general strike has ever reestablished liberty, reduced the size of government, or lowered taxes. Besides, the purpose of a revolt in the American case is not to bring down our government, but to replace it with new institutions located elsewhere. If that distinction isn’t clear, think of the difference between the Russian revolution in 1917, and the division of Czechoslovakia into two states after the Cold War. Recall the breakup of the Soviet Union itself. In both the Czechoslovakian and the Soviet cases, locally based governmental institutions replaced much larger, more distant power centers.

How would you organize a broad-based, radical tax revolt in the United States? It could come from citizens groups like the Tea party, but it would probably require leadership from the states’ governors, and from other leaders within each state. Meantime, the states have other, less fraught ways to make themselves more independent of the national government. In a tax revolt, citizens need support from their state governments. For alternate methods of resistance, state governments need their citizens’ support. Either way, citizens and state governments must be united to make resistance work. The national government can readily interfere with piecemeal, unorganized resistance. Therefore we want measures that bring citizens and state governments together in a common cause to dismantle federal authority over individuals and states.

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Originally published in Revolution on the Ground. For an interesting article on state resistance to federal policy, see Why ObamaCare Is Still No Sure Thing.

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A Libertarian’s Hopes for Obama’s Second Term

Let’s face it, the Obama Administration has pretty much been a continuation of the Bush years.  In Obama’s first four years in office, Americans continued to give up constitutional rights with renewal of the Patriot Act, enactment of the National Defense Authorization Act, and the institution of a presidential “kill” list.  Our foreign policy was just as interventionist if not more under Obama as he increased troop levels (the “surge”) in Afghanistan, increased drone bombings in Pakistan and Yemen, and invaded Libya under the pretext of imposing a “no-fly zone” to protect Libyan civilians from Qaddafi’s air force.  Lastly, the corporate bailouts, economic stimulus boondoggles, and the Ben Bernanke regime at the Federal Reserve all continued under Obama.  And to think in 2008 that candidate Obama promised Americans “Hope and Change”.

With the recent “referendum” on Obama’s performance, also known as the 2012 Presidential Election, now behind us, the American people have spoken, well sort of, and have granted Barack Obama four more years as president.  Of course, in that election, like all presidential elections since at least 1960, the two publicized choices for the American people were Establishment Frontman A versus Establishment Frontman B.

The point is that Romney would be no better than Obama at being president.  Neither man respects constitutional rights, has a foreign policy that puts Americans first, or has any clue about economics.  Both became the nominees of their respective parties because they represent the status quo – a status quo which has made several influential players and industries a lot of money over the years.

But, I am trying to look on the bright side of things.  Granted that “side” is a sliver and any brightness in it is shadowed by a federal government that under Obama has gotten huge to the point of absurdity

So here goes – three hopes that I have for Obama’s second term that I think have a reasonable chance of happening because he doesn’t have to run for reelection and as president he can do them without congressional support:

Direct the Justice Department to Nullify Federal Marijuana Laws

In a memo sent out in 2009 from the Obama Justice Department to federal prosecutors, the Administration was giving prosecutors wide discretion in determining which medical marijuana cases to pursue and which to ignore based on their interpretation of state not federal laws.  This gave many hope as it appeared that violators of federal drug laws would not be prosecuted as long as they stayed within the bounds of their own state’s law.  As reelection time rolled around, the Administration tightened its stance against pot distributors.

Given Obama’s initial leniency on pot, the fact that he will never run in another election again, and with Colorado and Washington legalizing recreational marijuana, could the time be ripe for the Administration to direct federal prosecutors to ignore federal marijuana laws and not prosecute violators? 

Close the Guantanamo Bay Prisoner of War Camp

Indefinite detention is not only illegal in our system of justice, it causes more harm than good.  As Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh has indicated, if prisoners at Gitmo weren’t terrorists when they entered, they are now.

By closing Gitmo, Obama could save lots of money and improve America’s image in the world.  This was an unfulfilled promise of his first term.  Now, with no possibility that neo-conservatives will use the issue to scare Americans into preventing his re-election, there is no reason this can’t become a reality.

Meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

In Obama’s second term, he should fulfill his offer made in 2007 to meet with Ahmadinejad.  He should meet with him to chart a way forward away from what would be a destructive war for both sides.  Concessions would have to be made on both sides.  It’s hard to say what Iran would ask for in exchange for discontinuing its nuclear program, but Obama does have more than 40 U.S. military bases surrounding Iran to negotiate with.

So there you have it.  Three hopes for a second Obama term for a libertarian.  It’s not much, but just these three things would protect rights, go a long ways toward the promise of America, and make us safer.  Given that, I probably just put the kiss of death on any possibility of these things happening.

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Are you a kook? Wear the title with honor. Have you ever heard of a truth teller not regarded as odd, or a threat, or someone – as we say more politely – a bit out of the mainstream?

I wanted to write today about something I thought as I was half asleep one morning. Don’t you often have your best thoughts when you are dreaming, or half awake? Then you try to formulate them in the full light of day, and it doesn’t come out right. It’s the same when you have beautiful music in your head, but you can’t sing it. My daughter’s eighth-grade English teacher compared written language to music. I thought, that’s right. We want to make our words beautiful, profound, light, sober, as moving as we can. Or, we can make music just for the joy of it.

Rumi said, “Start a huge, foolish project, like Noah. It makes absolutely no difference what people think of you.”

Now that we’re warmed up, let’s consider thoughts that seemed clear as I reached consciousness a few mornings ago. The night before, right around election day, I read some comments on the software we use to record and count votes. A couple of analysts said the software they assessed is terrible. It is poorly constructed and easy to tamper with. Therefore you can’t have confidence in the results it gives you. One analyst said that the only way to make the software trustworthy is to make it open source. So long as it is proprietary, current problems will persist.

At first that doesn’t seem exactly right. Why would making software open source make it more secure? After all, open source is accessible to everyone. Then you realize that security and transparency are not the same thing. No one has said Linux is insecure because it is open source. No one has ever praised Microsoft’s browser or operating system as especially secure because they are proprietary. Security and transparency are not contradictory attributes.

The developers who created Linux had good reasons to build security into their product from the start. Otherwise people simply would not use it. Microsoft’s developers, given the company’s position in the market, did not have much reason to improve their product’s security until customers began to complain about it. Even then, it took years to see improvements. Even after all that, which software do you trust more: Microsoft or Linux?

Now for the interesting thought: why can’t we apply this insight to national security? Why do we think that transparency compromises security in this field? Can’t we conduct foreign policy as an open source affair, and have better security as a result, not worse?

At the highest level of policy and interaction, transparency creates trust, and opacity creates distrust. People who distrust you become your enemies, whereas people who trust you become your friends. The more enemies you have, the more insecure you become. The more friends you have, the more you can rest secure. A reasonable foreign policy will cultivate friends and minimize enemies. Friendly relations with other countries enhances confidence, security, and safety.

No, no, no you say, if you’re an old foreign policy hand. We don’t have friends, we have only interests. Everyone is a potential adversary: rivalry and enmity come with competition, and the wide world is nothing if not an arena for competitive activity. Let’s be realistic about the use of our power, and about the reasons for our success. Success comes with secrecy, because knowledge is power. When we hold key knowledge close, we will always have an advantage.

That’s the thinking that gives you browsers that infect your systems with malware, or vote-counting software susceptible to fraud. That kind of thinking gives you assassinations, false flag attacks, coups, and propaganda. If people can’t see inside, all manner of corruption ensues. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if actual corruption exists. If people can’t see inside, they can’t tell whether corruption exists or not. Given past behavior of power holders, people can assume safely that it does exist. Power holders do not receive benefit of the doubt here.

So now we come to the matter of intelligence sources and methods. The Central Intelligence Agency says it cannot disclose any information that would reveal intelligence sources and methods. That covers just about everything. With this argument, it keeps its budget secret, as well as everything else it does. Interestingly, similar arguments now apply to everything the government does, not only its intelligence agencies. If you ask government for information about its activities, it has multiple reasons not to reveal the truth about what it does. It adapts arguments about the need for secrecy to any situation.

Now ask yourself why government would do that. A nut job conspiracy theorist would say that it keeps information secret because it has something to hide. Lots of reasons exist for hiding information. Having something to hide is one of them. No matter what the reason, the consequence of keeping secrets is always the same: loss of trust. You can count on it, whether the secrets hide actual corruption or not.

Ask yourself as well whether keeping secrets makes us more or less secure. This question has two forms. One is whether government’s opacity in foreign and domestic affairs makes us feel more or less safe. Perhaps we can only try for perceptions of security, where actual safety ebbs and flows depending on current circumstances, fortune, and plans we make for ourselves and each other. Second is whether government secrecy actually results in more safety for the people it claims to protect. Here history’s judgment unequivocally comes down for transparency. Secrecy hides corruption, folly and incompetence, both ordinary and extraordinary, with nothing from outside to correct these human shortcomings. Secrecy is the hidden worm that brings down the edifice.

So if you distrust the claims of government when it keeps secrets, and people call you a kook or a nut job as a result, wear the title with pride. You have several millennia of human history on your side. The name caller, who likes to imply that you are delusional, weakly appeals to conformity, normalcy, and your desire not to be ostracized. At bottom is a desire we often have to overlook the unpleasant. I tell you, the prophet would say: truth is not normal, it is pleasant only occasionally, and it almost never conforms to what you expect.

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