Monday, May 28, 2007

On Memorial Day: Why we don't fight

May 28, 2007 and the list of those we're called to honor and remember continues to grow. Like many people, I needn't search for soldiers to honor. Both of my grandfathers (US Army, US Navy), my uncle (USN) and my father (US Army and Army Reserve) have worn the uniform of my country.

I have deep admiration for my father's service. But in the example he offered to me was a lesson of ambivalence and caution and, ultimately, the reason I've never signed on the line: you cannot trust this government to use honorable men honorably. There is always the chance that you will be sent to kill for a mistake, or a lie.

I've been tempted more than once. Often, in fact. I regret not serving as often as I know it was the right choice for me. My father also taught me by his example that there are many ways to serve your country. Perhaps the best way is by being an active citizen. Take an interest in your community, your city, your state and your nation. His father lived that way, and he does as well. And I'm trying.

My Dad's legacy to me, on this day that is reserved for memory of service in war, is this: let us never spend the blood of our fellow citizens for any but the most righteous and unavoidable reasons. Let us value the blood of the stranger as highly, and let violence be our last, regrettable option.

This is my Memorial Day post, dedicated to my Dad and to everyone who has served our Nation. It is a long post, but incomplete. I will return to its themes again, particularly those I raise at the end of this entry. For the moment, this is a small expression of one of my obligations as a citizen: to see that our men and women are never wrongly or vainly used. To ask, "Have we set ourselves to violence and war in service of our Nation, or only of the government?"

A while ago, I stuck up a post titled, Remind Me: This was necessary why?. Well, I got an answer. It's free of snark, sarcasm or superiority. Here it is in full:
Because all men and woman deserve a right to be free of tyranny. To have the right to speak, protest live and die of their own accord. It is too easy to forget the evil that existed before free men did something to act. It is easy to take for granted that freedom isn't free. That Iraqis will one day have a choice to post a blog on the internet without fear of torture. If I had died in that country or go back and die there it will have been my honor. If the commander in chief be he or she black or white republican whig or democrat want to bring freedom and democracy to those who need, then I say suit up, it's time to go. To defend an idea or make a statement of our own convictions, sometimes we need action. Is it hard? Your goddammn right it's hard. Is it often unfair, will the ends justify the means? Time will tell but in the meantime because of these actions throughout history we have the right to debate it. What you don't see on the news are the millions of pictures depicting minor victories. You want to see some ask any soldier.
A man who had gone and returned -- and may yet have to do so again -- deserves a thorough airing of my position. Progressives and liberals who spend a lot of time talking and thinking about the war in Iraq work under a series of conclusions that aren't always represented in the commentary we write. Using this comment as a jumping-off point, I want to walk through many of the arguments that underlie how I feel and think about Iraq.

I couldn't agree more strongly with the basic philosophy of my commenter. You do have to fight for freedom, sometimes with bullets and always with vigilance. And sometimes it is morally necessary to take up your gun and fight for someone else's freedom -- even if they haven't asked for your help. British soldiers in Sierra Leone, for example. Of course, the Kurds begged for our help after the first Gulf War. Instead, we let Saddam gas them (with gas we had sold to him in the 80's). But when we invaded Iraq this time, it wasn't to liberate the Iraqis or to bring democracy. That reason got tacked on after the fact. Long after the fact.

When I asked the question, "why was this necessary," it was posted above a photo of an anguished man who had been searching the morgue for his brother, and above a story about a man whose children are slowly dying from starvation and dehydration. The question has two levels: why was this (the Iraq war) necessary, and why was this (murder and anarchy on an unprecedented scale; starvation and the creation of refugees) necessary?

The first thing I have in mind when I think about the war in Iraq is this: we chose it. Iraq and Saddam Hussein had no hand in planning or supporting the attacks of September 11. This is so well recognized that Dick Cheney and George Bush are both on record to that effect. In fact, they were more interested in making a case for invasion than actually targeting known terrorists. We were told by the President and the Vice President and the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and that Iraq constituted an imminent threat to the safety of the United States. We were told that if we waited for evidence of that fact, "the smoking gun would come in the shape of a mushroom cloud."

At the time, UN weapons inspector Hans Blix (whose name has become a punch-line) was saying a) that there was no evidence that this was so, and b) that it would take a couple of months to prove it: "It will take not years, nor weeks, but months." In spite of Blix's excellent reputation, we, with the support of Great Britain, declined to give him the time he needed. We created an arbitrary deadline for a process that was ongoing, and then we went to war. As we know, Blix has been proven right. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and there was no ongoing weapons program. (Although that did not stop the President from making a big joke about it -- right about the time, I think, that my commenter had his boots in the sand.)

So those were the two big themes: Iraq poses a threat to the US, and Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. This wasn't a war for freedom, in the beginning. It was a war of self-defense. That's how it was sold to us. This is the beginning of my anger: If the administration had come to the American people and said, "Saddam Hussein is a terrible tyrant. He is oppressing his people, jailing and torturing them on the basis of their religion (Shiites) and their ethnicity (Kurds). The Iraqi people are so beaten down that they need a hand up, and we're the ones to give it to them," I think that would have worked. Not only that, but working through the United Nations and other diplomatic channels, I think the administration could have marshaled the significant coalition that would be necessary to topple a dictator and occupy a country -- a much larger force than we have ever committed to Iraq.

International support would have fallen away quickly, of course, once other nations started researching Iraq and its history of internal violence and strife. We would have quickly been forced to see that this would be a much more complicated task than we thought. But when yours is the only voice that matters, you believe your own propaganda.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq was never about freedom for Iraqis -- at least not for their sake. If the Iraqi people obtain freedom, we'll be very happy about that, but we didn't go there to deliver them from tyranny. It is important to distinguish between why we said we went and the real reasons for going. If it is your belief that the President always tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the following argument will not have much weight for you. But since I don't think you honestly believe that, here it is. He didn't go with "freedom for Iraqis." He went with "our freedom is threatened by Iraq." It was only much later, when the weapons and weapons programs hadn't been found, that he fell back on the 'liberators' theme.

Had those arguments been true, or even supportable, perhaps I could understand the decision. But for some reason, the rest of the world wasn't buying it. Not even after Colin Powell did his thing at the UN. Sure, Britain signed up. At the time, their interests seemed indistinguishable from ours (at least to Jack Straw and Tony Blair). And there were a few countries that offered aid in transport and rear-echelon support (and billed for it). But where was the coalition, really? If Saddam was such a threat, regionally and globally, why weren't the Arab nations lining up behind us as they had done in the first Gulf War? And why were the chief military powers of Europe and the Soviet Union so against this?

Obviously, one answer is oil. I'll discuss that in a bit. But the other answer is that there was no real evidence of the things Bush claimed. There was no evidence of a nuclear program. There was no evidence of a chemical weapons program. There was no indication that Saddam was a threat outside his own borders. Why then did the US seem to have this great case? If the evidence was there and we failed to act (as happened on 9/11), then that would be a crime. But how is it that we had this evidence that no one else had? And were our intelligence agencies really that bad? How could they have gotten this wrong?

Well, the truth is that they didn't. As George Tenet has finally seen fit to reveal in a book basically designed to redeem himself from the firey pit, good intelligence was ignored, censored and thrown in the trash in order to make the case for war. As the Baltimore Sun has explained in a scathing editorial [ed. note: original link, now dead, replaced w/copy of editorial cached at Common Dreams]:
Because Mr. Tenet lacked a background in intelligence analysis, he relied heavily on a deputy, John McLaughlin, who was a career intelligence analyst. But instead of giving Mr. Tenet proper guidance, Mr. McLaughlin relied on single-source and poorly sourced intelligence to make the case for war, and he ignored credible intelligence that pointed to an absence of WMD in Iraq.

The claim that Saddam Hussein was reconstituting his nuclear capability was based upon a single source - an intelligence fabrication. Similarly, the sole source for claims about mobile biological laboratories was unstable and untrustworthy. And the sole source for links between Iraq and al-Qaida had been tortured and abused in his interrogations and eventually recanted.

How is it that the chief deputy of the director of the CIA came to rely on only one source? Bad information, fed directly to the administration without any vetting by the people who had the most to gain by a US invasion, people like Ahmed Chalabi. Our 1997 intelligence budget is larger than the 2006 GDP of Qatar (106 world wide). More money than 123 countries and only one source on Iraqi nuclear capacity?

The point is not that the President and his senior aides were consciously lying. What was taking place was much more systematic—and potentially just as troublesome. Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council expert on Iraq, whose book “The Threatening Storm” generally supported the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein, told me that what the Bush people did was “dismantle the existing filtering process that for fifty years had been preventing the policymakers from getting bad information. They created stovepipes to get the information they wanted directly to the top leadership. Their position is that the professional bureaucracy is deliberately and maliciously keeping information from them.

“They always had information to back up their public claims, but it was often very bad information,” Pollack continued. “They were forcing the intelligence community to defend its good information and good analysis so aggressively that the intelligence analysts didn’t have the time or the energy to go after the bad information.”

The Administration eventually got its way, a former C.I.A. official said. “The analysts at the C.I.A. were beaten down defending their assessments. And they blame George Tenet”—the C.I.A. director—“for not protecting them. I’ve never seen a government like this.”
If you read nothing else on this blog, ever, please read that article.

The military strategist von Clauswitz famously described war as "the continuation of policy by other means." (A phrase fraught with substantial ambiguity. See here.) As an observation, perhaps this is true. But there is a piece missing: why must policy that leads to war be continued at all? The answer is supplied by Tony Benn who, on the last day of the Gulf War said to the House of Commons, "All war represents a failure of diplomacy."

Ten years later, as Bush mounted the war horse, Benn didn't get a chance to be right. Diplomacy didn't fail -- it ceased. Hussein was contained. We didn't even get to manufacture our own "Gulf of Tonkin incident." The Iraqis couldn't -- or didn't -- even shoot down one of our planes. Instead, we simply called off the weapons inspections and invaded.

People who want to argue this point often point to the failure of the UN "Oil for food" program as evidence that diplomatic means would never work. But why did Oil-for-food fail? It failed because it enriched Saddam Hussein, rather than starving him. How? Because American oil companies paid he and his government substantial kick-backs on the oil he sold them. As Condoleeza Rice has said:
Now, we understood when we came to power here in Washington several months ago that we had a problem, for instance, on Iraqi sanctions; that people believed, or that Saddam Hussein was claiming that the sanctions that were in place were somehow harming the Iraqi people. We do not believe that they were harming the Iraqi people because in the north, where the U.N. administers the oil-for-food program, Iraqi people are doing well. It's only where Saddam Hussein administers oil-for-food that there is a problem with the Iraqi people.
Of course, she probably knew about the kickbacks for some time. Iraq started asking for the grease back in 2000. Rice was a member of the Chevron Board of Directors for 10 years -- until she resigned to join the Bush administration in 2001. I think it's at least even money that the Board was aware of the cash flow, because it wasn't small change: Former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, has determined that Chevron paid Saddam Hussein a tip of $20 million from 2000-2002. But they weren't alone: the Coastal Corporation, a subsidiary of El Paso; Texaco; BayOil, and Mobil. All American companies, all on the hook for big bucks.

So how did oil-for-food fail? Oil companies subverted it. Did we go to war to free Iraqis? Or did we go to war to free their oil? Or do we just not give a shit? After all, these are the very same companies who wrote our energy policy.

Last year, a man named Kevin Phillips wrote a book called American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. I confess that I haven't finished it yet. It's hard to take 400 pages of relentlessly rational and documented bad news. Phillips is an interesting cat: He was a young hot-shot political strategist who helped elect Nixon. He penned "The Emerging Republican Majority" in 1969. He also authored one of the more cynical political tactics ever: the Republic party's "southern strategy." Just a refresher on that:

The "southern strategy" was to exploit racial hatred to raise Republicans. Phillips, in 1970:
From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.
Phillips has changed a little since then, but not too much. Instead what has happened is that the GoP has moved steadily to the right on social issues, while becoming more and more "big government" in support of business -- particularly the military support business. His account of neo-conservatism as practiced by Bush and Cheney is an education, as follows:
The Bush-Cheney administration, on taking office, embraced and oil "forward strategy" with instant intensity: Plans were discussed in the spring and summer of 2001 -- well before the events of September -- for hamstringing Iraq and convincing the Taliban in Afghanistan to accept construction of an American (Unocal) pipeline from Turkmenistan through Kabul to Karachi, Pakistan. Talks with the Taliban continued in the summer of 2001 but apparently soon collapsed. (p. 83)
Until the towers came down, the US was negotiating with the Taliban for oil rights in Afghanistan. What more evidence do you need to believe that ideology, that human rights, that democracy are simply not that important? We weren't looking to leverage them out, we were looking to work with them.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, in the words of oil historian Anthony Sampson, the reorganized Middle East had "two kinds of maps: some showing the names and outlines of nations, most of them comparatively new; and others showing the region cut up into squares along the coast, marked with the initials -- IPC, KOC, ARAMCO, AOC -- representing the consortia of oil companies, nearly always including some of the Seven Sisters. To the companies, it was these squares which were the real geography: Saudi Arabia was Aramco-land; Iran meant all seven; Kuwait was Gulf and BP.

The oil maps, in short, had long been the ones that mattered. For the US and British oil companies, losing these concessions to the nationalizations of the 1970s was infuriating. The irony with respect to Iraq was that for one reason or another, the 1970s were the only decade of heavy pumping and large oil revenues. Production had been kept low during the glutted thirties, and it then stagnated during WWII. ...Over the last decade or so this chronology of Iraq's surprisingly limited oil production had become relevant again for a simple reason: given that relatively little of Iraq's oil has been pumped, most of it is still in the ground." p. 75-76
"As the dust of the first Gulf War settled ... if Saddam Hussein could escape UN sanctions and give Iraq's lush concessions to non-Anglo-American companies, he could realign the global oil business.

In the meantime, UN sanctions were essential in preventing Iraq from exporting oil beyond the middling amount allowed and also in preventing competitive foreign investments. So long as the United States and Britain could keep these sanctions in place, using allegations concerning weapons of mass destruction, Saddam could not implement his own plan to extend large-scale oil concessions (estimated to be worth $1.1 trillion) to the French, Russian, Chinese, and other oil companies. ...

...This brings us to the next critical set of maps, the ones used in 2001 by Vice President Dick Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Group [the one visited so frequently by oil company exec's] to mesh America's energy needs with a twenty-first century national-security blueprint. ...

Never intended for public scrutiny, the three Middle East maps and their supporting documents came to light in the summer of 2003 under a federal court order. The most pertinent displayed Iraq's oil fields, pipelines, and refineries, with a supporting list of 'Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts.' As of 2001, more than sixty firms from thirty countries -- most prominently France, Russia, and China, but also India, Japan, Indonesia, Canada and Germany -- had projects either agreed upon or under discussion with Baghdad. Nothing could have been less popular in Washington or London" pp.76-7
But as we have already seen, the oil companies weren't just relying on the good graces and efforts of the government: they were supplying Saddam with serious cash in the form of kick-backs. This cash was clearly meant to woo the dictator to their side in this desperate race to secure Iraqi oil-field contracts. But they were losing. As Phillips details, the Russians and the French were in the lead.

For his part, Saddam was playing both ends against the middle: dangling contracts in front of all comers to squeeze cash out of them up front. Concessions that lingered with non-US names on them were insurance against the day when the Chevrons and Exxons of the world tired of paying the vig. A backstop at the end of the streak that would leverage Saddam's position by threatening the complete upheaval of the global oil game. But the US oil companies had something the French and Russians didn't: a government composed of oilmen.

But not just oilmen: oilmen with a new religion.

The church these men worship in is better known as the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). Here is the sum of their statement of Principles:

• we need to increase defense spending significantly if we are to carry out our global
responsibilities today and modernize our armed forces for the future;

• we need to strengthen our ties to democratic allies and to challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values;

• we need to promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad;

• we need to accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles.

If you read the whole thing, on the website linked to above, you may find yourself in agreement with many of the ideas expressed therein. I do. But when we break out some of these things, and lay them next to the policy decisions of the Bush administration, things get spooky:
"challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values"

"promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad"

"accept responsibility for ... preserving and extending an international order to our security, our prosperity, and our principles."
Whose prosperity? Whose principles? What does it mean to "challenge" regimes hostile to our interests and values? The prosperity is the prosperity of the obscenely rich. The principles are those of oilgarchy. It means preemptive war. That is, war without provocation. War of choice:
We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. ...If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long.

...[T]he war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.

2001 is not some new dawn. This isn't the first time we've lived in a world that seeks to harm us. But it is the first time that we've claimed the right to attack not just those that threaten us, but those that might threaten us.

Yet, somehow, we didn't attack Iran, which had a nuclear development program at the time. Nor did we attack North Korea, which had an indisputably advanced nuclear armament program at the time. We attacked the country with the most oil. Even though they had nothing to do with 9/11 and they had no significant regular military and no WMDs or program to develop WMDs. Even though they did not harbor al-Queda, nor al-Zarqawi. What constitutes a threat that justifies invasion and occupation? I promise you, we weren't there to liberate Iraqis.

How do I know that the doctrines outlined by PNAC on their website informed our decision to invade Iraq? On that same page is a list of the signatory members to PNAC's prinicples, including Elliot Abrams, Bill Bennett, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Steve Forbes, Donald Kagan (architect of the "surge"), Scooter Libby (convicted of lying to a grand jury and obstruction of justice), Dan Quayle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney.

I think that answers the first level of the question: why was this necessary. It wasn't. This war wasn't about freeing the Iraqi people. It was about some combination of preserving our perceived right to the oil under the sand and a desire to protect American hegemony by attacking an unstable dictatorship that wouldn't get with the program. We didn't bargain for the hornet's nest.

The second level of the question is "why is the incredible suffering of the Iraqi people necessary?" And if you've come this far, doubtless you know my answer to that question is also "it wasn't."

This isn't just "hard." This is unconscionable:
Every day local police haul bodies from the Tigris bearing signs of torture. Locals who live near the river constantly see floating bodies.

The situation is even worse in Suwayrah, a southern area of the capital, where the government has built barriers with huge iron nets to trap plants and garbage dropped in the river but now this is also a barrier for bodies.

"Since January 2006 at least 800 bodies have been dragged from those iron nets, and this figure does not include those collected from the central section of the river. Most of the bodies are unidentified and buried without family claims," said Col Abdel-Waheed Azzam, a senior officer in the investigation department of the Ministry of Interior.

According to Azzam, 90 percent of the bodies found in the river show signs of serious torture.
But those are the people that stay.

What would it take to make you leave the United States? How bad would things have to get before you would beg to be allowed to leave this land?

The invasion of Iraq has caused a deeper humanitarian crisis than the simple death and torturing of thousands of Iraqi civilians. It has created over two million refugees:
The UN estimates that 2.6 million Iraqis have fled violence in their country since 2003 and at least 40-50,000 more Iraqis are leaving their homes every month. Two million have fled to surrounding countries, while some 1.8 million have vacated their homes for safer areas within Iraq. ...

"Iraqis who are unable to flee the country are now in a queue, waiting their turn to die," is how one Iraqi journalist summarizes conditions in Iraq today. While the U.S. debates whether a civil war is raging in Iraq, thousands of Iraqis face the possibility of death every day all over the country. All Iraqis, whether Sunni, Shi'a, Christian, or other groups such as the Palestinian, are threatened by armed actors.
2 million refugees is not normal. This isn't just par for the course when it comes to nation-building. It bespeaks a dramatic failure to plan, coupled with a depraved unwillingness to acknowledge reality and alter course accordingly. In other words: 1. It didn't have to be this way. 2. It is this way. Failure to address this state of affairs isn't just unbecoming to a nation that claims the values we claim; it is actually depraved. We are the cause of a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions, and we aren't doing anything to fix it.

Let me say this again: Forming a democracy does not require this. It does not require torture. It does not require refugees. It does not require Haditha. It does not require Abu Ghraib.

What ends will ever justify these means?


A great deal has been written about the way we prepared for an executed our post-invasion behavior. Perhaps one of the more readable accounts is Rajiv CHandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City. I'm not going to delve too deeply into it here. Suffice it to say that you wouldn't want these guys planning a tea-party, much less the occupation and rehabilitation of an entire country. But there was more to it than that: The inherited factionalism of Iraq went completely unplanned-for. The fact that we expected Iraq to transition instantly from a soviet-style command economy into a full-blown free-market capitalistic society (such that doesn't even exist in America) was taken for granted. No preparations were made for employment, few for healthcare, none for provisioning. No one seems to have entertained the idea that the power vacuum we created would invite exploitation by any number of warlords and ex-pat terrorists.

I've summed his book before, saying:
The scope of ignorance is so broad one can only assume incompetence or criminal intent. Based on a few tidbits I'm leaning toward the latter: 1. the few competent people who found their way to Iraq were overborne by the weight and volume of useless information and people they were forced to accomodate, and 2. the vast (and by vast I mean 99%) majority of contracts and appointments were handed out not based on competence or suitability, but on connections and a neoconservative litmus test.

What's sad is that the remaining 1% appear to have been genuinely talented and dedicated individuals. What's tragic is the cost of this cock-up. What's criminal is that it appears to have been intentional.

We pay for the results every day. But out casualties have only barely outstripped all the dead from 9/11 (though there are more every day and over 100 this May). The Iraqis have died by the tens of thousands.

Now we come to the hard part, as a nation, the deeply personal part.

You are a soldier. Your duty is to go when ordered and to "stay in your lane." To back up the man to your right and your left and fulfill the mission. How can I ask you to risk your life and the lives of your squad by allowing even a sliver of doubt?

And what right do I have to risk your honor by questioning the use to which it has been put?

And here we find the difference between the civilian and the soldier.

My father served in Vietnam. My grandfather served in World War II. I used to dress up in dad's old fatigues and run through the woods. I wore out my school's supply of books on WWII and WWI and all the "Colby's" catalogs of armaments. Jane's on planes and ships and helicopters. I practiced my salute in the mirror and crept up to his office on rainy Saturday afternoons to scrabble in the deep back of the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet to find the boxes of his medals and his service ribbons. Later I read Clauswitz "On War" and Keegan on the "Face of Command." And on and on.

In spite of that, I never enlisted in the armed forces, although there have been times when the temptation has been very strong. Even lately. And the reason was (and is) this: I knew, from Vietnam, that if I did, there was a chance I would be sent where I didn't belong and asked to kill a man that shouldn't be killed and for all the wrong reasons. It wouldn't be up to me. And I wouldn't have a say in it. And I don't trust my government enough to believe they wouldn't do that to me.

They would. In a heartbeat.

It is my deepest obligation as a citizen of the United States of America to do everything in my power to ensure that my government never asks my fellow citizens in uniform to die or to kill for anything other than the highest moral aim in just and righteous combat. Anything less erodes the glory of my nation.

My nation's glory has taken a savage beating over the last four years. There's not much left.

Senator Webb made the point bluntly in his State of the Union response: “We owed [our leaders] our loyalty, as Americans, and we gave it. But they owed us…sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it. The president took us into this war recklessly.”

What we haven't spent in foreign fields we have, incomprehensibly, corroded and attacked from within: law-breaking surveillance of our own citizens, the evisceration of the Writ of Habeas Corpus -- the Great Writ -- being only two examples. I have, and will, go on at length about these things elsewhere. And this post is far too long already. But for today, Memorial Day, I ask for more than memory of our servicemen and women. I ask for help remembering who We are: I can scarcely recognize us now.

Columbia, so disfigured! Only fear, hate and deceit can yield such a face.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Soak the Poor! Down with the People!

Social Security is a compact between generations. For more than 70 years, America has kept the promise of security for its workers and their families. But now, the Social Security system is facing serious future financial problems, and action is needed soon to make sure that the system is sound when today's younger workers are ready for retirement.

...Without changes, by 2040 the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted. By then, the number of Americans 65 or older is expected to have doubled. There won't be enough younger people working to pay all of the benefits owed to those who are retiring. At that point, there will be enough money to pay only about 74 cents for each dollar of scheduled benefits. We will need to resolve these issues soon to make sure Social Security continues to provide a foundation of protection for future generations as it has done in the past.
That's off the front page of my "Your Social Security Statement," which I got in the mail just last week. Chances are you've gotten one too, or soon will. "OH MY HEAVENS, WHATEVER SHALL WE DO?" is sort of what I said. Sort of.

On the inside of this nice letter, after first informing me that there'll be about 25% less for me than they're about to tell me I'll have, and after telling me that if that wasn't true, I'd get the equivalent of one week's 2007 pay per month (if it was going to be possible, which it isn't), I read the following:
You currently pay 6.2 percent of your salary, up to $97,500, in Social Security taxes and 1.45 percent in Medicare taxes on your entire salary. Your employer also pays 6.2 percent in Social Security taxes and 1.45 percent in Medicare taxes for you.
Here's a concept I wish that congress could embrace: the marginal value of money. Everybody understands this concept completely, most of us without realizing it. To quickly demonstrate:

Johnny and Tommy are 10 years old. Johnny's Dad is an attorney. He went to work for Big Law in 2002, where they offered him 140,000 dollars a year starting salary not including benefits and bonuses. Five years later, he's making 210,000 per year, and gets a Christmastime bonus of about 10,000 if he meets his billable hours requirements. He's a tough but fair father, and every week, if Johnny does his chores and cleans his room and doesn't smart off to his mom (Dad is rarely home), Johnny's dad gives his son an allowance of $10. Pretty good, for a 10-year-old!

Tommy's Dad is also a lawyer, in fact he was a classmate of Johnny's Dad and they're still good friends (though they don't see each other as much as they wish they could). They would study together and made a great team--top of the class. Tommy's Dad went to work for Dogooders NGO in 2002 at a starting salary of 30,000 dollars a year, less benefits. Five years later, he's making $45,000 per year (more than a teacher but less than a plumber). He gets home at 6p, most nights, but there's no bonus in it for him other than the time he gets to spend with Tommy. Tommy's Dad is also tough but fair. If Tommy holds up his end of the deal, he gets $5 in allowance.

Tommy and Johnny are good friends, too. (Being a socially conscious, civic-minded guy, Johnny's Dad sends him to public school.) One Saturday, they go to Megalo Books to pick up remaindered copies of Das Kapital Horatio Alger's "Collected Tales of Plucky Young Bootstrappers." A complete collection is $4 (a ripoff at $.03 a book); there are two editions left. With Maine sales tax, $4.20.

Here is what the marginal value of money is: Tommy's dollar number 5 is his last dollar. If you take $.20 from his last dollar, you've put him eighty cents away from complete bankruptcy. If you take 20 cents from Johnny's dollar number five, he still has dollars 6,7,8,9 and 10 in his pocket. You'd have to take five more dollars from Johnny to put him in the same position.

And on the other hand, if Tommy got just one more dollar in allowance, that would mean a huge raise: a 20 percent raise! Woo Hoo! If you gave Johnny just one more dollar, that's just a %10 raise. Still not bad. But not nearly as exciting. Half as exciting, actually.

Under our current Social Security System, Tommy's Dad (TD), who makes less than 1/4 of what Johnny's Dad (JD) makes, pays $2790 in SS taxes per year. But because you stop paying social security taxes above 97,500 (seemingly arbitrary number), JD pays $6,045. More than four-and-a-half times base pay, but only twice as much in SS tax.

But here's the real pinch: That $2790 that TD pays hurts a lot more than JD's $6045. Why? The marginal value of money. $2790 is 6.2% of what TD makes every year. Because he makes so much less money than JD, the marginal value of money makes sure that that hurts him in many other ways: He gets less healthcare. He lives in a more dangerous neighborhood. He can't save as much for retirement. He can barely afford his house; thankfully his wife works. (JD's wife can stay home with J. She's deeply involved in the PTA and a local land trust, too.) When Tommy needs new glasses or shoes or a haircut or $200 for a field trip to the Science Museum in Boston, the vise tightens a little more. That vise is simply the marginal value of money. The closer your checkbook comes to zero, the more the remaining money is worth to you.

In contrast, $6045 is only about 2.9% of JD's base pay. The 97,500 cut-off means that even though his dollar figure is higher, he actually pays half as much in SS taxes as a percentage of his income. And because he has many times as much income, it pinches much, much less. In fact, even if JD paid 6.2% SS tax on all his income, he'd be much further away from feeling the same vise TD does.

That very reason is why we have a graduated income tax.
...for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. Acts 4, 34-35
Social Security was authored as a supplement, not the whole (as "Your Social Security Statement" makes very clear). But for a program designed as a safety net, helping to buoy those among us least able to secure savings for retirement, there isn't a whole lot of equity in evidence. A flat tax is hardest on those on the bottom and easiest for those on top. But we didn't stop there: we actually cut off the top. It naturally gets easier the more you make. But under this regime, if you make a tremendous amount, it gets even easier -- artificially easier, exponentially easier. We take an already advantaged situation and increase its advantage.

And if someone falls through the cracks? We all pay even more in medicare costs, insurance costs, social services, jails, etc. and etc. Except for the very rich: they continue to float along the top, enjoying preferential treatment for the income they get from capital gains -- a blessing those of us with no money to invest will never receive.

So here's a quick fix: make the 6.2% payroll tax applicable to all payroll salary. Here's the real beauty behind that plan: It honors the rich for their success by recognizing and multiplying their worth to society. Here's an example:

Let's say average household income is $46,000 (about what it was in 2006). That's $2852 in Social Security Taxes.

Under that assumption, with taxing for all payroll, JD is worth four and a half average guys! He's 4.5 times the man you are! He gives $13,020 in payroll taxes to Social Security every year. We'd solve the problem quickly just by taking that simple step.

Not only that, but it's more than fair. Life's still a lot easier for JD than the rest of us, the average guys who support his existence and make his job both necessary and profitable. He's still feeling less of a bite than the average working man. Why? Chorus: The Marginal Value of Money.

This makes too much sense, though. We'll have to keep shouting about this for a while--just like lobbying and campaign finance reform. They're so much more useful to the GoP and the DLC as problems that remain unsolved.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Stand to the Left

I really can't figure out Edgar Allen Beem. (And if you don't know who that is or you're not from the Portland area, I'm sorry. This post is barely going to have entertainment value for you.)

The guy is clearly a liberal (though perhaps not a progressive). Yet he persists in knocking down the Maine Greens every chance he gets. And while I agree that they've certainly had their share of characters and missteps (and characters who make missteps), he's doing it to take cuts at a couple of guys who don't fit the mold.

David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue got themselves elected to the Portland City Council by busting tail, connecting with voters, and promising movement on a whole slate of issues. And they've done a damn good job of delivering. It can't be easy. The city council has nine (9) seats, and they're just a couple of guys who are barely 30 years old, and have about $5 between them.

Yet for some reason, they seem to be about the only Councillors with any interest in preserving public process or with helping the city get the best deal out of its own resources. Take, for example, the Portland State Pier development deal. This excellent interview with John Anton (local workforce housing financier) lays out a lot of the problems with the process.

The big problem is that the Pre-DavidandKevin City Council sent out a Request for Proposals (RFP) after basically being goaded into the idea by Ocean Properities (one of the two companies in the running). OP's access to the council comes via tight Democratic connections to Governor Baldacci (through his brother, an OP bigshot) and through the Democratic party to the office of Councillor Cloutier.

After the proposals were submitted, OP realized that its competitor had done a better job conceptually (even though OP had known about the project for a longer time). In response, OP has submitted two further revisions. Now the council is debating the merits of a shifting bid. Unsurprisingly, Kevin Donoghue wants to put on the brakes and establish a legitimate process for soliciting and then judging the bids.

Watch this video (link on the right). Kevin's words here really sum up his position and his and David's basic approach to city government:
I am worried about the direction of this...We have a responsibility to the public and the public has no idea what's going on. ...a rudiment of that public process should be that we should stick to the rules that a deadline was set...
Cloutier clearly took offense to Donoghue and Marshall's insistence on a process that would muck up the sweetheart deal he's set up for Ocean Properties. I can transcribe his words, but I can't do justice to his temper when he said
You don't have the right to say to anyone...this is how you're going to evaluate this to come to a decision.
Or his smiling condescension when he said
...some of our new members weren't even on the council when we actually issued it, so they don't have the benefit of that background, and it is kind of confusing and hard to follow...
You really need to watch it for yourself. If you're really interested in the background of the process, also check out the Bollard's archives.

So, citizens of Portland can be thankful that they have at least two vigilant and independent voices looking out for them. Unfortunately and for some reason, they've come into columnist Beem's sights. I took him to task once already, in a column that got picked up by Beem's publication, the Portland Forecaster. But he's at it again, and again, I can't really figure it out.

This week, he made it his business to dredge up all the crap the Green Independent Party has laid down in order to lay it at Kevin Donoghue's feet with a warning: "Better keep your nose clean."

Now don't get me wrong. There's been some absolutely absurdist behavior by a couple of Greens on the school committee lately.
The arrest last month of Green Party and Portland School Committee member Benjamin Meiklejohn for driving after suspension is just the latest in long run of bad publicity for the Maine Greens. Meiklejohn was apparently being a Good Samaritan by driving a drunken friend home when he got pulled over for having a taillight out. Kudos for that.

Turns out, however, that unknown to him, Meiklejohn’s license had been suspended for failure to pay a speeding ticket. Plausible and understandable. Could happen to anyone. But then Meiklejohn started making wild accusations about a politically motivated bail commissioner making him stay in jail an hour or two too long. Then, when the arrest of an elected official naturally brought some scrutiny of his character and it was reported that Meiklejohn’s Web site featured a link to the alt-porn site, he charged that writers and editors at The Forecaster were “media prudes.”
Meiklejohn’s arrest, of course, followed the December arrest of his fellow Green Party and Portland School Committee member Jason Toothaker for skipping out on a taxi fare after a night of drinking. Toothaker, who was found hiding under the deck of a home, sobered up and had the good sense to resign from the School Committee in January, having embarrassed himself, the committee and the Green Party.

True and true. And ol' Zen Ben doesn't strike me as a particularly realistic evangelist for alternative living. But Beem just can't resist piling it on. He picks up the fact that local whack-job Dorothy Lafortune hijacked the Green Party nomination in Biddeford, and he digs back to a 1999 DUI conviction for Pat LaMarche, and an acquittal (that is to say, not a conviction) to raise the smell of rot.

The trouble with that kind of approach is that it cuts both ways. Observe:

Just last fall, Democrat Ellen Alcorn, was ticketed for speeding in a school zone – an admission that was laughed off as a harmless mistake. Except that she was the Chair of the School Committee at the time. Still looking out for kids, Ellen? Speaking of driving, Mayor Mavodones recently admitted to a conviction for driving after suspension. Luckily, he doesn't have a MySpace page. Finally, Democratic State Senator Bruce Bryant was recently convicted of OUI after getting drunk on a break in the middle of the legislative session.

Patrick Colwell, while head of the Maine Democratic Party, laundered campaign contributions for Rhode Islander Matt Brown's campaign. He was cleared, not because what he did was right, but because there wasn't enough evidence to convict him. If the appearance of impropriety is enough for Beem to indict Ben Chipman, certainly there's room in the Beem jailhouse for Colwell.

And let's not forget Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Tom Connolly, in whose judgment it was a smart idea to dress up like Osama Bin Laden and wave a toy gun at people. That added up to an arrest for criminal threatening.

By Beem's logic, the Maine Democratic Party is probably one arrest away from folding the tent.

Ridiculous, of course. The Dems, and these Dems, are alive and well and doing good work.

But why even bother? If the Greens are so ridiculous, why sling the mud? They're clearly ready to self-destruct as a party, right?

Well, no. In fact, the Maine Green Independent Party is getting stronger. Thanks, in large part, to the efforts of Portland's two youngest city Councillors. And Beem tips his hand at the very end, when we finally see what all his muck-raking is coming to: Kevin Donoghue better keep his nose clean.

Beem dug up every piece of garbage he could find about the Maine Greens only to hold it over the head of one of our most effective City Councillors. I find that very interesting.

The Maine Green Independent Party has nearly 30,000 registered members, and it's growing. It is the most vital Green Party of any state in the country and there's a reason for that: If you want to be a progressive in Maine, you've got to go Green. This is especially true in Portland, where the Democratic Party has locked up the city for so long that they're suffering the malaise to which all single-party systems eventually succumb: With no motive to remain sharp, they've inevitably become dull.

But Beem is right in pegging Kevin Donoghue as a harbinger of things to come. He and his council-mate David Marshall have proven to be serious, process-oriented administrator's of the people's business. Do not be deceived by Marshall's and Donoghue's youth. There is a right way and a wrong way to run a government and those guys do it the right way. Their work on the City Council has displayed a level of maturity and a deep respect for the public interest – and the public's intelligence – that should be a wake-up call to some of their longer-serving co-Councilors.

With 25% more Green voters this year than last and a full slate of candidates due for this November, the Green Party in Maine is vital and getting stronger. If Beem is truly looking for a Party in Danger, well, nobody's talking about the real Elephant in the room. Yet.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

His lips were moving, so...

Yesterday, Congress passed an emergency supplemental spending bill to continue funding the occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. The billion-dollar appropriation to continue the war included a hard date in October to begin pulling out troops from Iraq. The rest of the withdrawal was to be phased, with those phases keyed to benchmarks for the Iraqi government (such as it is).

Exactly four years after declaring "mission accomplished" in full flightsuit/codpiece regalia, Bush refused to offer a horizon for this never-ending journey. For just the second time in his two-term Presidency, Bush pulled out the veto pen. (The only other veto was to block American science and medicine from exploring, with the rest of the civilized world, stem-cell research.) In doing so, he uttered two of the more blatant hypocrisies in a career rife with them. (There were more, of course, but these two stuck out.)
First, "It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing. All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength and begin plotting how to overthrow the government and take control of the country of Iraq."
Factually untrue, of course, since the pullout proceeds only as the Iraqi government meets various goals. Only once a given goal is met would we know when a certain draw-down would occur. But that's not hypocrisy in itself -- just misleading. What makes it hypocritical is this:

On April 20 of this year, W defended the surge in a speech before a group of high school kids and an international affairs civic group.
Like a general outlining his battle plan, the president delivered a step-by-step analysis of the conflict in Baghdad, Anbar Province and the outskirts of Baghdad. He began with a map that used red triangles to pinpoint the location of joint security stations, posts in Baghdad where American and Iraqi forces are supposed to work to root out terrorists.
What's the difference between saying "we might leave, eventually, sometime in the future but not before next year," and saying, "see these little triangles? Well, that's exactly where our troops are." Here's a hint: one gets troops killed. Rightnow.

Here's the other biggie: Bush said, "members of the House and the Senate passed a bill that substitutes the opinions of politicians for the judgment of our military commanders." The phrase "cognitive dissonance" has lost its meaning. (Hey, first they killed satire. It was only a matter of time.)

Substituting the requirements of politics for the judgement of the military is Bush's stock-in-trade. From the moment Powell took his cooked intelligence before the UN, through the forced resignations of tens of his leading generals and the merry-go-round that is the seat on which Petraeus now sits, forcing the military (and every branch of the civil service as well) to ignore reality and toe his line is W's only legacy. But don't take my word for it.
Dear Mr. President,

Today, in your veto message regarding the bipartisan legislation just passed on Operation Iraqi Freedom, you asserted that you so decided because you listen to your commanders on the ground.

Respectfully, as your former commander on the ground, your administration did not listen to our best advice. In fact, a number of my fellow Generals were forced out of their jobs, because they did not tell you what you wanted to hear -- most notably General Eric Shinseki, whose foresight regarding troop levels was advice you rejected, at our troops' peril.

Those are the opening lines of an open letter from Major General Paul D. Eaton, USA, Retired. Click, read, and be edified. You've got to hand it to Bush, though. He's getting a lot better at letting this bullshit trip lightly from his tongue. His conscience hasn't improved, but I'd say his diction is getting a little better.

It'd be enough to boggle the mind, but after six years of this crap, my boggle is broken.