Saturday, August 31, 2013

Is The Use of Chemical Weapons Sufficient or Necessary to Justify Force?

President Obama’s plan to use military force against Syria’s government is a flawed policy decision.  The only way in which force is justified now is because chemical weapons have been introduced, which is to say that the use of chemical weapons automatically justifies the use of force.

I disagree.  In this particular instance, the Syrian government has for two years been waging a nasty war against both the rebels and the civilian population of the areas that support the rebels.  According to a UN report noted in the NY Times this past June, 92,901 civilian deaths have been documented, with the actual number likely being considerably higher.  Now about 100 have been killed in a chemical attack (apparently not the first one).  

If the use of military force was not justified before, it is not justified now.  Civil war is a nasty business no matter how you look at it.  Had the Syrian government not committed enough atrocities against civilians prior to the introduction of chemical weapons?  Haven’t countless other governments in civil wars committed atrocities against their people?

The question is where do you draw the line?   How do you make a decision to strike militarily?

We cannot be the world’s policeman.  We cannot strike militarily every time there is a civil war and the government uses brutal force against both the rebels and their civilian supporters.  There is no moral imperative to intervene nor is it in our national interest.

However, we should draw the line where a government is conducting ethnic cleansing or genocide, regardless of the technology used.  That does present a moral imperative.  That was the case in Bosnia, where we intervened.  That was the case in Rwanda, where we didn’t intervene.  That was the case in Dafur, where we also didn’t intervene.  And we should have in each of those cases, with or without the support of the international community or close allies.  That is not the case in Syria.

The White House talks about our credibility being at stake.  Our credibility in the world is certainly a very important commodity.  But if a policy we have is flawed and especially where it is not supported by the international community then to proceed in the face of such opposition is nothing but national ego.  It has nothing to do with credibility.

We should have a clear policy on military intervention in cases of civil strife and stick to it.  To my knowledge, we have no such policy.   

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Income Inequality Per Se Is Not the Problem

In an ideal world, at least in my mind, you would not have the extremes of rich and poor.  But people have different intelligence levels, different talents, and different aptitudes which, even with all other things being equal, would translate themselves in the real world to significant disparities in earning opportunities.  Add to that that all other things have never been equal and we have the situation in which rich and poor have always been a part of human existence and it will likely always remain so.  But that fact in and of itself is not the problem.

The problem is how the rich, or I should say the very rich, the top 1%, got there and are increasing their share of the economic pie at the expense of the rest of us.  It’s a classic case of exploiting those less powerful to make your own fortune.

“Oh come off it,” you  may well say.  “That’s a bit extreme.  A leftist diatribe.”  Alright, it may be, but lets see what the facts show.

The very rich, or those they inherited their money from, get there typically through a combination of two things.   First, they engage in an enterprise which in one of various ways exploits, which is to say unfairly takes advantage of, others for their own personal benefit.  (This does not gainsay the innovative value or quality of the product or the management excellence of the enterprise.)  Second, they influence Congress to slant the tax laws in a way which benefits themselves at the expense of everyone else.  

The first point is understood by anyone with an open mind as examples are everywhere.  Whether one looks at the classic robber barons of the early industrial revolution (and most corporate CEOs today) or the masters of finance who orchestrated the toxic investment instruments that resulted in the 2008 market crash, the very rich have achieved their wealth and power by exploiting others, whether it’s their workers or whether it’s investors (yes, they even prey upon their own clients) or whether it’s gullible people looking to buy a home. 

“How can you say that workers are exploited?” you may ask. “They have their contracts and if there’s a union, collective bargaining.”  Decades ago, when industrial jobs were plentiful and unions were strong, your point would be well-taken.  And in that era, the disparity between CEO compensation and worker compensation, although large, was far narrower than today.  Blue collar workers were solidly middle class, except in the South where there typically were no unions and workers were exploited.  

In today’s global economy, workers have no power, even if there is a union, because the job market is so bad and the owners have the practical opportunity in many cases to close and open up business in a lower-cost foreign country.  And so workers are taken advantage of because management and stockholders have only one concern ... improving the bottom line.  If the choice is between maximizing profits and giving the workers a higher wage, the choice will always be to maximize profits.  

As a result, workers’ wages have stagnated over the past few decades and if their jobs have gone and they’ve found other employment their wages have typically fallen.  In both cases, the working class has been left ever poorer, just treading water above poverty, as costs continue to rise.   While the CEOs and management keep getting richer.

But it is in the impact of the tax laws which have been passed to enable the rich to become richer (supposedly to grow the economy through increased investment and the “trickle down” effect, although that’s been shown to be nonexistent; the economy has not exploded in growth as we were promised) that the hidden and less known harm of income inequality has been felt.  The reason is quite straight-forward.  Lower taxes = less revenue for the government.

Because the tax breaks that the very rich and their corporations receive have greatly reduced tax revenues (15.8% of GDP in 2012, the lowest since 1950, compared with the high of 20.6% in 2000), there is less money available for government, whether federal, state or local, to accomplish their responsibility.  That responsibility as stated in the Declaration of Independence is to “secure the rights” of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.   

Government has for much of the 20th century tried to meet that responsibility and ensure the general welfare through programs that provide quality education for all, support for the poor, a sound infrastructure, and all the basic services that government needs to provide and pay for in order for the country and individual communities to functions effectively and efficiently and thrive.  

But with significantly reduced tax revenues, all levels of government are finding it necessary to reduce services and quality in almost every area of government activity (and no, the problem is not principally the recession but tax cuts for the rich and corporations as well as the holy cow of military spending).  This has not only resulted in exacerbating the impact of the recession, increasing the abjectness of those already living in poverty and throwing more people and families into poverty.  Through cuts in services, it is making the already disappointing experience of many of our citizens in the areas of education, health, income inequality, social mobility, and equal opportunity (see my post, “American Exceptionalism - A Myth Exploded”) even more dismal.

It is no crime to be rich and successful.  But to be rich and successful at the expense of others, especially those with less power, is a social crime.  And it is a violation of the American social contract under which we all as citizens share responsibility for government’s efforts to promote the general welfare, each contributing according to his means, which unfortunately is more violated today than honored.  

America has enough wealth to ensure that those who are poor, and everyone else for that matter, have access to good health, education, and housing and do not go hungry.  America has enough wealth to insure that the infrastructure on which our viability depends remains strong and world-class.  And still allow people to be quite rich.

If America continues on this path where the rich feel entitled to more and more and where they have no concern and feel no responsibility towards their fellow citizens, let alone employees, then America’s greatness will become a thing of the past.  Not because China or some other country vaults into first place as the largest economy in the world.  But because America will have failed its own people, its own heritage, its own promise.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

American Exceptionalism - The Myth Exploded, Part II

In a previous post, I discussed why American exceptionalism is a myth ... that the data show clearly that Americans are not better off than those of other developed countries in the areas of health, education, income equality, social mobility, and equal opportunity.  The promise of the Declaration of Independence has not been realized by large segments of America’s citizenry.

Another way in which American exceptionalism presents itself is in our undying belief that our system of government, democracy, is the best system of governance in the world and that all people should live in a democracy and experience its benefits.  Connected to this is our belief that from a geopolitical perspective, a government will more likely be our ally if it is a democracy than if it is not.

In the cases of Russia and Iraq we see the absolute fallacy of this reasoning.  Russia was a Communist dictatorship.  It was the evil empire, our blood enemy for half a decade.  But for all the failures of the Soviet Union’s Communist system regarding the lack of freedom of its citizens and the weakness of its economy, as well as of course the horrors of Stalinism, it provided important benefits to its citizens ... order, security, jobs, normalcy, a sense of place.  

After the fall of Communism and the overnight transformation of Russia into a democracy, everything fell apart.  There was no more authority and Russia became a gangster state, overrun by criminals, thieving oligarchs, and politicians whose only concept of governance was personal enrichment and absolute control.  Far from becoming an ally of ours, Russia has remained a thorn in our side, although a less powerful one.

Iraq was without question under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein a terrible place ... at least if you happened to be viewed as an enemy of his.  But even more so than in Russia, Iraqis benefitted from order, security, jobs, and a sense of place.  There was no freedom, but people were able to live their lives for the most part in an atmosphere of normalcy.  

After the American invasion and the introduction of democracy, Iraq fell apart as a country.  It became instead a place of warring factions, continual violent conflict, with no security, no order, no normalcy, and not many jobs.  America’s experiment in exporting democracy to Iraq has been a dismal failure.

Freedom is a wonderful thing, and every person on earth should be able to live in an atmosphere of free speech, religion, politics, etc.  But if you talk to people on the street, what is more important than freedom is order, security, normalcy, jobs, and a sense of place.   In some cases, notably in most of the former Eastern bloc Communist countries, the introduction of democracy has been beneficial to its citizens.  But in many others, we have seen the introduction of democracy in a country fail miserably to benefit the people.

The United States government must learn, as it apparently hasn’t, that for a democracy to function as intended and deliver its promised benefits requires a combination of societal background elements.  For example, if, as in Iraq and many other countries, you have a population divided by religion, ethnicity, or tribe with a history of violence in dealing with conflict, the implementation of democracy will be almost impossible.  If you have a country, such as Russia, in which the populace has gotten used to and wants a strong authoritarian government, democracy will produce the same.  If you have a country, such as the Gaza Strip and Egypt, in which Islamic fundamentalist forces have a strong presence, democracy will produce a government of that nature.  Note:  Recently Secretary of State John Kerry said that the military coup in Egypt deposing the lawfully elected president was restoring democracy; is there something I’m missing here?

In many cases, democracy is not the form of government which will best meet the needs of the people for order, security, jobs, normalcy, and a sense of place.  I remember the point made in a Political Science class in college that often countries need a transition government, such as a benevolent authoritarian government, to allow the necessary elements for a functioning democracy to develop.  In other cases, the democracy it championed may turn out to bite the U.S., but that makes it no less legitimate.

So both from a humanitarian standpoint and a geopolitical perspective, the exporting of democracy is of questionable value except in carefully considered circumstances.  The United States should both have other options that it is open to and when democracy produces an undesirable result from a geopolitical perspective, as in Egypt and as in Chile in the 1970s, it needs to respect the legitimate expression of the wishes of the citizens of that country.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Fallacy of the War on Drugs - Getting to the Root of the Problem

There is no question but that the drug abuse epidemic that has swept across our nation is a catastrophe.  It is a catastrophe for those who are addicted and are subject to its cravings.  It is a catastrophe for their loved ones, who suffer in innumerable ways.  It is a catastrophe for our economy because of the lost productive value of those who are addicted and the cost of dealing with the drug problem.  Estimates of the total overall costs of substance abuse in the United States, including productivity and health- and crime-related costs, exceed $600 billion annually.  

Recognizing the importance of getting people off drugs, the government has engaged in a policy aptly named, “The War on Drugs.”  Its concept is one of prohibition ... whether by criminalizing the use and sale of drugs and thus deterring such activity, or Nancy Reagan’s campaign of, “Just say no.”  

What simple-minded approaches to a deep-seated problem!  First of all, we know from our experience with alcohol prohibition that it not only doesn’t achieve the goal of reducing consumption, it has an actual negative impact by creating a whole illegal subculture around the manufacture and distribution of the substance.  And that has been our experience with the war on drugs as well.

Then they decided that the deterrent aspect needed to be strengthened by making prison sentences mandatory, even for relatively minor possession charges.  Well, our prisons have filled to overflowing, and yet it has made absolutely no impact on the demand for drugs.  

The criminalization approach to drug control and Nancy Reagan’s appeal to people to just say no have failed for the same reason.  As Time said in a report, “Americans tend to think of drug addiction as a failure of character.”  Such approaches assume that one has the ability to make a rational choice whether to do something or not.  Yet that is clearly not the case when it comes to drug abuse.

Others who recognize that it is not a failure of character, view drug addiction as primarily a biological problem relating to the chemical process of addiction.  But that is also looking at the wrong place.  That certainly describes why addiction is so hard to break out of, and why treatment rather than incarceration is often more appropriate, but it does not begin to help understand why people choose drugs to alter their mental state, which is where addiction and abuse begins.

Drug abuse is at root a societal problem.  People want to alter their mental state because they feel painfully insecure and thus unhappy.  It is an indictment of the failure of our society to raise children who feel secure, psychologically, and grow up be secure adults.  There is an abundance of academic research stretching back decades that finds that, to quote from an NIH report, “factors such as peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, stress, and quality of parenting can greatly influence the occurrence of drug abuse and the escalation to addiction in a person’s life.”  These are all factors that induce feelings of insecurity in children.  The same can be said for almost every type of addictive behavior.

No one chooses to become a drug addict, or an alcoholic for that matter.  The problem is not that addicts have less moral fiber or character flaws.  The problem is that people who choose drugs or alcohol to alter/escape their mental state are typically people who are in agony.  They are suffering from feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem that are so intense, even if they are outwardly successful, that they feel that their only escape is through drugs or alcohol.  Yes, there are those who fall into drug addiction accidentally because of peer pressure, but the vast majority are trying to escape a world in which they can find no peace and security.

Indeed, one can argue that almost all of our social problems flow from a failure to raise secure children who go on to become secure adults.  Assuming that our government or a local community understood this and wanted to address the root cause, how would it go about it?  How could it change the pattern of insecure parents raising insecure children, with the situation repeating itself without end?

In my book, Raising a Happy Child, I note that it is a myth that childhood is a happy, carefree time. Typically it is neither carefree nor happy; it is instead fraught with insecurity. Raising a Happy Child seeks to change this fact of human development.

Why do children suffer this fate? What becomes of our lives is overwhelmingly a function of learned experience ... from our family, our peers, and the larger culture ... but first and foremost from our parents. The vast majority of parents are good people and would not do anything intentionally to harm their child.  But parents are people who are a function of their own upbringing and learned experience. They have their own fears, frustrations, angers, and desires.  And they see things through the lens of that experience and those emotions, which in turn impacts how they interact with their children. 

The result is children who do not feel loved unconditionally, are as a consequence insecure, and grow up to become insecure adults who do not love themselves unconditionally.  This is the primal basis of our fears and neuroses.

But this does not mean that parents should simply lavish praise on their children, give them what they want, or be uncritical of their children.  Direction and criticism are important parental functions; the question is how they are given, in what context. Raising a Happy Child seeks to provide parents with the means to step outside themselves, to be able to experience their child, themselves, and the world around them mostly free of their learned experience and emotions, thus enabling them to provide their children at all times with the nurturing and unconditional love they need to be happy and secure. 

The book then guides parents through the critical development stages of a child's life, providing advice on how to address the significant issues that arise at each stage within the context of unconditional love.  Raising a Happy Child  seeks nothing less than to fundamentally alter the quality of the relationship between parents and children, and thus change the way children relate to themselves and the world around them.  For more on the book and sample text, click the book's cover in the sidebar.  

What government, civic leaders, religious leaders ... anyone who is in a position of influence should do is read this book and encourage all parents to read the book and follow its advice.  Beyond that, government must take action to reduce social problems that exacerbate these issues, especially the failure of our schools.

Raising a Happy Child assumes that there is nothing fundamental that we can change about the competitive, consumption-driven society we live in.  I think that is beyond hope.  But governments and parents can take steps to improve the quality of life (and I don’t mean the number of possessions one has) that the average person experiences, insuring that everyone feels part of the larger community, equal in opportunity, and that everyone is nourished by their immediate family.