Friday, June 06, 2014

The GOP and Bowe Bergdahl

It’s shameful when a political party uses war to make its own motives seem nobler. And to disparage and question the loyalty and rubbish the reputations of others who disagree with them. There is something cowardly and genuinely evil in this. In recent years we’ve seen one political party that engages in this kind of underhanded behavior and another that doesn’t. One party that accuses others of cutting and running when they themselves cut and ran. And in doing so created all the negative consequences that came after. (Article about Reagan's Cut and Run in Foreign Policy Magazine)

We have one party that condemns the president for “negotiating with terrorists” when the great hero of their party did the same thing. Worse, in fact: he traded missiles to those terrorists to obtain the release of hostages, and funneled the money left over to extremist gangs of his own in Central America. It was all against the law and contrary to his own policy. (How Reagan traded arms to Iranian terrorists in exchange for hostages)

(When questioned about it Saint Ronald said he didn’t remember what he’d authorized. But, heck, just about every president has negotiated with shadowy and downright evil enemy groups. Our own Minute Men were called terrorists during the American Revolution. Labels get us nowhere. Negotiation sometimes works where war does not.)

Republicans accuse others of cynical trickery when they own the patent on it, delaying the release of American prisoners in order to win an election, not once but twice. Nixon won a close election by scuttling peace talks in Vietnam. Reagan won in 1980 by making sure Americans remained in captivity for several months till he was safely elected and sworn in.

(The New York Times article about how the Reagan Campaign kept Americans in captivity in Iran so he could win the election.)

(The Smithsonian Magazine article about how Nixon derailed peace in Vietnam so he could win election in 1968, and keep the war going for another six years.)

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised how low Republicans have gone to turn the traditional exchange of POWs at the end of a war into a shameful, even an impeachable, act. They were all in favor of it till President Obama got it done.

(SLATE article about how Republicans supported Bergdahl's release until the president got it done.)

They were demanding it until it happened. Then it became an impeachable offense. Did the GOP delete its thoughts and prayers for Bergdahl and his family? How's that done exactly?

(USAToday article detailing how GOP politicians deleted the Tweets they'd posted demanding the White House get Bergdahl released.)

Think you know all about Sgt. Bowie Bergdahl? You should read the Rolling Stone article about him, published in 2012. He was a serious, idealistic, brave, confused soldier who grew disillusioned with the mission and felt dishonored by the shabby disrespectful way his platoon mates treated the Afghan civilian population. In other words, he was a lot like a lot of other GIs in previous wars. Maybe after reading this you ought to pick up Joseph Heller’s WW2 novel Catch22 or Tim OBrien’s Going After Cacciato or The Things They Carried. War is hell. Or read The Red Badge of Courage. Those who haven’t been in war have little idea of it.

(Rolling Stone's excellent and thorough article about Bowe Bergdahl's military career.)

Oliver North, the pardoned felon who violated the law to trade arms to terrorists for hostages and used the extra cash to fund death squads in Central America, should know as much about ransoming hostages as anyone, but he’s been a political hit man a lot longer than he was a soldier.

(Salon article about Ollie North's slippery changeable position on dealing with terrorists.)

He’s saying the crime in the Bergdahl case was in NOT covering it up. I guess Nixon made an impression on someone.

The Cheney/Rove/Cruz/Palin/Limbaugh/Hannity anger machine would rather you not read the Bush White House memos that gave legal cover for this kind of transaction.

(Ironically, the jurist who wrote the Bush memo justifying torture also laid the legal ground for getting Bowe Bergdahl back.)

As if the exchange of prisoners at the end of hostilities ever needed legal justification. It’s simply always been done. Not doing it would put you in the same club with North Korea and whoever it was that imprisoned the Count of Monte Cristo.

John McCain demanded the White House do all it could to obtain Bowe Bergdahl’s release…. until the White House obtained his release. Then McCain condemned it as a shameful, treasonous and foolish act.

But wars always end in controversy and disagreement. John Kerry was crucified by other vets, envious of his heroism and resentful that he later opposed the war in Vietnam. They were fortunate to have wealthy Republicans bankrolling them.

McCain has been accused by less well-funded veterans’ and MIA groups for his scornful treatment of their concerns.

(Some of McCain's fellow Vietnam vets find his record in that war to be despicable and treasonous. But they weren't funded by wealthy backers of his political opponents so they haven't been on the nightly network newscasts.)

Which was surprising since McCain was a POW himself… Some who were in captivity with him have accused him of treason. Perhaps the charges are flimsy, perhaps not. The passage of time has forgiven a lot of former warriors for what they did, and sometimes what they did was done because of what was done to them.

(An alternative weekly in Arizona published this article about McCain's checkered military career. The man lives in a glass house.)

The point is… it’s objectionable to question other soldiers’ loyalty when your own loyalty and behavior under fire has been questioned.

It’s worse when politicians who have never put themselves in harm’s way in the service of their country are seating themselves in judgment of the motives or actions of actual soldiers and captives and their families. It’s shameful.

War makes even the bravest men and women disillusioned.

(The Guardian's article about the GOP's favorite Iraq War hero, Pat Tillman.)

(NPR's story about Tillman, when the Tillman biography came out.)

None of this is new, so why are we outraged? Because of the FoxNews outrage machine. But that machine is aimed at the wrong outrage. War is an outrage in itself. There are certainly good wars undertaken for noble reasons, but war is Hell, as General Sherman said. And there are a lot of shabby motives for it. As General Smedley Butler, America's most decorated veteran, once said.

(General Smedley Butler's famous "War is a Racket" speech.)

You may remember Smedley Butler's name. He was the war hero who certain Wall Street executives tried to hire to overthrow Franklin Roosevelt. He wanted nothing to do with it and told reporters and Congress all about the plot.

(The BBC did a documentary about the Wall Street Coup. For some reason the story got little play in this country. Perhaps because President Bush's grandfather was one of the plotters.)

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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Hanging Private Ryan

A bit of dialogue from Saving Private Ryan that seemed topical today...

"Private Jackson: Sir... I have an opinion on this matter.

Captain Miller: Well, by all means, share it with the squad.

Private Jackson: Well, from my way of thinking, sir, this entire mission is a serious misallocation of valuable military resources.

Captain Miller: Yeah. Go on.

Private Jackson: Well, it seems to me, sir, that God gave me a special gift, made me a fine instrument of warfare.

Captain Miller: Reiben, pay attention. Now, this is the way to gripe. Continue, Jackson.

Private Jackson: Well, what I mean by that, sir, is... if you was to put me and this here sniper rifle anywhere up to and including one mile of Adolf Hitler with a clear line of sight, sir... pack your bags, fellas, war's over. Amen.

Private Reiben: Oh, that's brilliant, bumpkin. Hey, so, Captain, what about you? I mean, you don't gripe at all?

Captain Miller: I don't gripe to *you*, Reiben. I'm a captain. There's a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don't gripe to you. I don't gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger.

Private Reiben: I'm sorry, sir, but uh... let's say you weren't a captain, or maybe I was a major. What would you say then?

Captain Miller: Well, in that case... I'd say, "This is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover... I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men - especially you, Reiben - to ease her suffering.”


A lot of bickering goes on in war. Soldiers grumble about the mission. Some of them have reason to. Some lose hope. Some die for no clear reason. Some are horribly wounded in mind or body. Some go missing. Some are taken prisoner by the enemy. When the war is declared over those prisoners are brought home and those taken by our side are returned according to international law. Making a political game out of it is not uncommon, but it is in bad taste.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Real VA Scandal

The Republican half of Congress wants government to fail.

So they do everything they can to make it fail. To make the systems break down, to make Americans angry at their government, the government Republicans hate, the government Republicans now control through filibuster and obstruction.

In February Republicans did everything they could to block a major funding bill to help the VA deal with the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghan wars. And block it they did.

Call it a hostage situation. Republicans want to remove democratic government and replace it with a corporate structure run by their clients for making money.

Republicans are delighted with the VA scandal, because they set it in motion.

They started a war eleven years ago. Wars create veterans. Wars cause many thousands of amputations and other traumatic injuries which need to be treated. But Republicans in Congress didn’t want to pay for that part of the war, the aftermath.

They like veterans for parades but don’t like to pay for their healthcare.

When you defund veterans programs just when they’re needed most you are either cynical, unpatriotic or stupid. Take your pick.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Why Have Insurers Been Silent on Climate Change?

I began asking this question among economists, opinion shapers and policy people. Then I read the article in the Guardian, about how Lloyds is finally beginning to charge for climate change risk. Then, just this week, Farmers Insurance began filing lawsuits, not against the fossil fuel companies triggering climate change, but against the communities who failed to plan for the harm climate change will wreak on properties insured by Farmers. Why did it take so long for the insurance industry to wake up?

Maybe they were distracted. Maybe they had (in Dick Cheney's famous phrase) "other priorities." Are insurers still in the business of protecting against risks? Is that just a sideline, a way of raising investment capital?

I would suggest that insurance companies stopped being insurance companies at least a decade ago. They evolved into financial companies whose main duty is getting maximum returns on Wall Street…and these days that means sizable investments in the very profitable peak-oil fossil fuels business. Damn the risks. Profits tend to speak louder than risks at shareholder meetings.

Last month* I put these questions to a small group of people whose job it is to think forwardly. One reply from (a national columnist’s intern) suggested I need to learn more about how business works. The rest was silence. It is important to consider which division of massive financial companies dominates the thinking.

There was another time, in 2006 and 2007, when huge profits dulled the financial sector’s awareness of significant dangers. We ended up paying for their stupidity. Which means they are probably still stupid.

* "When you think of the vast liabilities of violent weather and rising ocean levels, insurers should be mounting a narrative to overturn the fossil fuel industry's campaign.

One reason occurs to me why they’re not. Perhaps insurance companies are overinvested in fossil fuel stocks. The returns on these stocks are huge because of the subsidies and because of peak oil, but they cannot possibly outweigh the potential for disaster.

Can the issue be raised that insurers are investing in industries that are causing these disasters? The causal link would be difficult legally, but less so as a narrative, letting the public change its mind.

Maybe it’s time for people to start writing to insurance companies. Ask an actuary if climate change will pose risks to their insured and to their companies. These issues have enormous economic consequences. The losses may be even larger than profits can cover."

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Outrage Over the VA

Reading about the spreading outrage over the VA systems failures and the coverup of said failures ought to make us think.

It sounds a lot like the school systems where test cheating was going on. Wrong, yes. But might it also be a logical response to impossible standards, huge demands and reduced budgets? The VA and our vets have both been victimized by the budget cutting mania. So have all parts of the public sphere, schools, roads, regulatory bodies like the IRS and FDA and SEC and EPA, all have been put on a crash diet. But their jobs have gotten bigger.

It's illogical to raise standards and reduce budgets at the same time, but this kind of magical thinking is far too common these days. It's part of our national love affair with businessthink. It's always about getting more for less, an impractical idea to begin with. Running engines without oil isn’t good for those engines, but it saves money in the short run. There are consequences. We shouldn’t be surprised when it ends in catastrophe..

We had an unfunded, off-budget, poorly audited, unnecessary war, waged with insufficient manpower and poor planning. It sent men and women with insufficient body armor and inadequate equipment into a catastrophe that should have been foreseen and might have been avoided. (The pre-planning was more about the oil than about the people.) The whole disaster was then covered up, the consequences ignored and denied, the human damage hidden and the liabilities passed on to the taxpayer or onto the veterans who were permanently harmed, and onto the next president. The costs were not fully disclosed until Bush had left office, and then the payment of those costs was blocked by the Republican side of Congress who had helped him launch the war.

This is a fiasco but we shouldn’t be surprised by it any more than we ought to be surprised by an unrepaired bridge falling down or an unprepared student failing an unreasonably rigorous examination.

The VA is as full of flaws and insufficiencies as our infrastructure. Of course we blame the infrastructure. We should blame the jerks who shifted the necessary dollars into tax cuts to billionaires for the past fifteen years.

It is a religious dogma among Republicans that no problem exists unless it costs money. So if you ignore a problem it doesn’t exist. Ignore the VA’s need for funding and there’s no problem. Road repair spending is the problem, not the holes in the roads or the fallen bridges. Healthcare spending is the problem, not the poor health of Americans. Poverty programs are the problem, not poverty. Paying people a living wage is a problem, so cut their pay and there’s no problem. If poor people could just hide themselves we would have no poverty at all. If maimed veterans could suffer quietly in a dark room the consequences of this stupid war would stop embarrassing all of us, but more importantly it would stop costing taxpayers money, especially the wealthy taxpayers who complain to their Republican proxies. They are the ones we most need to take care of, aren't they?

After a war we should expect a rising cost in veterans’ care, but damned if Republicans will agree to pay for that care. Costs are the problem, not the lack of a leg or the serious unending repercussions of brain injuries caused when a soldier was blown up in an insufficiently armored vehicle. So they cut the costs; problem solved. That is the contradiction faced by many government departments. It’s not wasteful to give enormous tax cuts to billionaires so they can own a dozen luxury homes, but it is apparently wasteful to fund the VA sufficiently.

It’s false economy to calculate efficiencies with a bias against the people who do the work, but that is the new religion in this country. Whatever saves billionaires a dime is efficient. Whatever supplies necessary care or service or pay to someone at the other end of the income scale is automatically inefficient because it subtracts from the billionaire’s tax savings. Hell, most of those billionaires evade taxes already. We pay for them.

Americans are angry at the wrong people. It isn’t the first time.

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Monday, May 05, 2014

The Self-Reinforcing Conspiracy Theory

'No, no!' said the Queen. 'Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’

This excellent piece from Ezra Klein's VOX got me thinking. What is it about Benghazi that has Republicans so obsessed? Does the time they've spent digging make them more certain there is something there? Did they begin digging with a certainty in their heads?

Fitting our conclusions to our preconceptions is bad philosophy. It’s illogical. It’s what made Galileo recant his discovery about the solar system. It’s stupid. But that is the guiding principle of modern Republican thought. Eisenhower, TR, Lincoln, every admired Republican in the party’s long history would be embarrassed. The leaders of the party should be ashamed of where it’s got to.

There seems to be a greater habit among Republicans to fit conclusions to preconceived ideas, to shape policy around an unproven belief system. To take one example, denying science while at the same time criticizing the public education system for the way our students are failing at science. (Bill Moyers takes a look at this tendency towards stupidity.)

Republicans seek government office, run for it, or buy it, and then they use it to make government stop working. Why? Is it because they believe government is automatically and a priori bad? Do they believe this so much they have to make it true? What does it mean when they spend their lives in government trying to make it fail? (New Yorker piece: the Republican War on Competence.)

Why do Republicans oppose everything Obama does, even when he proposes a health care reform their own Heritage Foundation devised? You reach the unavoidable conclusion that it’s because Obama is black. They cannot bear it that a black Democrat is so much more intelligent and capable than their hapless George W. Bush was. White superiority has become an unspoken but deep principle among Republicans. It’s their secret handshake. It too is a preconceived notion that doesn’t fit with reality.

Or is this a preconceived notion? Here are some statistics about it from Nate Silver's 538 blog. Unsurprisingly the racial bias is higher among white Republicans than white Dems, but not that much more. How much information is suppressed in these answers? Which group is more likely to hide its “inappropriate opinions” in a public forum? Which party is likelier to act on inappropriate opinions in concert with their like-minded friends?

Or is that just a conspiracy theory of mine?

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Property Rights Have An Ugly Past

If you ever thought slavery was un-American you probably should read this. Slavery is one of the foundation stones of the American mindset, particularly the modern mindset.

In the present capitalist mindset there's a growing entitlement that includes imagined or projected profit, and when such profit is challenged today's capitalists look on it as theft of property, even though the property or profit hadn't been possessed yet. What this does is pit workers' expectations against the expectations of people who own for a living, and we know which side has the litigious power and flexibility to shape the law. Working people are entering a hostile future that's likely to turn their jobs into an obligation and render their rights negligible.

In a justice system that prefers property rights above human rights, and owners' rights above workers’ rights, we are seeing the establishment of law that will be hard to overturn, not only precedent preferring the owning side of any argument, but the overturning of precedent that upholds the worker’s side. Law is never more conservative than when it is radical. Even during the broad prosperity following the progressive era and the New Deal, property was sacred, which meant that property “earned” previously under suspicious conditions, through slavery or theft of land from native Americans or railroad fraud or the underpaid employment of masses of immigrants, was protected by the law. If you were to look at the histories of many of the great fortunes in this country you’d probably agree that inheritance is a very efficient form of money laundering. Inheritance is the preferred means of gaining wealth in this country, preferred by the Republicans certainly, who think getting millions from daddy is holier than working for it, more deserving of tax protection anyway.

This weirdly un-American mindset that feels contempt for working people and worships the ownership class is actually very American. It comes down to us from the age of slavery, when great fortunes were made both North and South because working didn’t entitle you to anything. This is how the Republicans have had such an easy time turning the word “entitlement" into a slur. If you are entitled to anything you already own it; that’s what they say. Having to work for it negates the right you are claiming.

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