moldybluecheesecurds 2

Saturday, April 23, 2011

America in the Hands of a Professional Military

Two of a three part series, a fascinating look at the result of professionalizing and then out-sourcing America's military activity to contractors.

Things that really bother me:
  • How a professional military makes it easier to go to war, because the sacrifice isn't shared. Not only do fewer people serve, but fewer people even have relatives in the military.  From the article:
  • "The professional military also makes it possible to sustain wars. Long wars become possible because the boots-on-the-ground can be deployed and redeployed. In the past, to fight wars like the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, “you would have had to institute a draft in order to sustain the action that’s been going on,” Keaney says. “And that would have been a brake on any administration."
  • This next quote drives the point home even more convincingly.  As even fewer members of Congress have had military service, there's less understanding of the impact and more willingness to use the military to solve problems:
  • "When the Gates Commission signed off on its report, the 91st Congress had nearly 400 veterans, from World War II and Korea. The just completed 111th Congress had far fewer, 121. Only seven members of the 110th Congress had family serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.The fear is not that the military would attempt to usurp the government. “The real danger,” Betros says, “is that Americans reflexively move towards a military solution before they will try all the other elements of national power. For now, the country relies very, very heavily on its military, without asking if there is an alternative. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

The second article in the series looks at the privatization of U.S. warfare, with astonishing implications for our ability to control our armed conflicts. For one, the Defense Department offers no-bid contracts to companies stuffed with military veterans, and then fails to fully account for the money spent.  The use of contractors for base support, kitchen duty, etc seems to be a minor one.  But the U.S. is increasingly using contractors in armed combat, with disastrous results.

What most rankles the colonels is that contractors have only one obligation: to fulfill their contract. They answer to no chain of command; they are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice; they are not required to have U.S. military training; and they are not subject to the Law of Land Warfare or the Geneva Conventions. Contractors decide on their own rules of engagement. Those security contractors who work for “U.S. agencies” or the State Department, which will soon be taking over control of security in Iraq, are immunized from Iraqi laws, and potentially U.S. law as well. Put another way, they have license to kill.
Two of the largest battles of the Iraq war, which took place in Fallujah, a city of nearly half a million, occurred in part because four well-armed security contractors — who had been warned not to drive through the heart of the big city — proceeded into a no-go conflict zone and were murdered. They were on their way to deliver catering supplies.

The security contractors who were from the now infamous Blackwater USA (renamed Xe Services LLC), a private military company, were ambushed as they slowed at an intersection. A frenzied crowd then pulled the dead and wounded contractors from their vehicles and tore their bodies apart, set them on fire and hung their remains from a bridge over the Tigris.

The article goes on to talk about how private contracting has become the default option for overseas security, whether for the armed forces or the State department, and how it means ceding more control of those operations to third parties who are less under the control of our civilian-led government.

I worry that we've created a too-professional military, an entire workforce of people who require ongoing military conflict to sustain their careers, at the expense of more productive uses for our collective dollar. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

My number 1 search term

Blogger tells me that the search term that has brought me more traffic than any other (since they started keeping track in May 2010) is "tom emmer is an idiot."

I could do worse.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Why are no bank executives in prison yet?

A voluminous report on the financial crisis by the United States Senate — citing internal documents and private communications of bank executives, regulators, credit ratings agencies and investors — describes business practices that were rife with conflicts during the mortgage mania and reckless activities that were ignored inside the banks and among their federal regulators.

Read more here

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Giving our meat the premium drugs

It's pretty sad when our beef and chicken has been getting more and better antibiotic treatment than we do.  Especially when it means we're more likely to get sick as a result:

A team of researchers from Arizona bought meat and poultry in five cities across the United States, tested them for bacteria, and found this: 47 percent of the samples contained the very common pathogen Staphylococcus aureus, and 96 percent of those isolates were resistant to at least one antibiotic. Of more concern: 52 percent of those staph isolates were resistant to at least three antibiotics that are commonly used in both veterinary and human medicine.

That is, roughly one in four packages of meat and poultry from across the United States contained multidrug resistant staph.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

On the public teat, with no accountability

A restaurant will get a $2 million city subsidy AND a waiver from the city's living wage requirement. Unconscionable.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why we run federal deficits

An acute observation of our current political culture, also described aptly as "our cowardly Congress" by Nicholas Kristof.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Washington antagonists executed a series of deals that included tax increases and spending reductions. But these days, due to a combination of utter Republican intransigence and Democratic wishy-washiness, no such deals are possible. The legislative and executive branches have no problem working together to massively increase deficits — think about 2009's uni-partisan stimulus package or the more recent bipartisan lame-duck to extend Bush tax cuts and enact a new payroll tax cut. But our government has an extremely difficult time making even symbolic spending cuts. Slashing about $40 billion in spending, an amount equal to 2.5 percent of this year's projected budget deficit, spurred the news networks to create shut-down clocks. And revenue enhancements? The phrase doesn't seem to be in official Washington's vocabulary. President Obama campaigned on letting the tax cuts for high earners expire at the end of 2010, swore up and down that he wanted them to expire throughout 2009 and 2010, and then meekly surrendered.

Second, even if Washington were somehow to get serious, I don't think the public is anywhere near prepared for the truth about our fiscal affairs. That's largely because nobody has bothered to tell the Americans that, as much as they feel overtaxed, the federal government, largely by design, has done an extremely poor job of collecting revenues in the past few years. That failure, as much as spending, lies at the heart of our massive structural deficits. Don't take it from me. Go to the OMB's website and check out Table 1.2, [see chart below]

Yes, the U.S. has a spending problem. But the federal government also has a serious taxing problem. As currently designed, the system does a poor job of collecting revenues. Receipts are unacceptably volatile. And all the political momentum is in the direction of reducing taxes. Now the size of the U.S. economy in 2010 was $14.66 trillion, which means one percent of GDP is equal to $146 billion. And so if federal taxes were anywhere near the normal rate of recent history — say at the 18.2 percent of GDP as they were as recently as 2006 — the deficit would be about $482 billion smaller than it is today.

Note how revenues and spending started to sharply diverge in 2000, around the time the Republican "no new taxes" mantra and Bush's massive tax cuts started punching a huge hole in the federal budget.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Public radio goes totally hypocritical

A California public radio station decides to suspend sponsorship spots by Planned Parenthood during the federal budget debate.  I can't count how many times I heard ads for Koch Refineries or for "increasingly clean" coal during environmental reporting on public radio.

This isn't about objectivity, but rather about trying to dodge the "liberal" label by unfairly cutting off a nonprofit family-planning organization's sponsorship rather than standing up for the truth.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Economy and Budgets

A few good articles:

First, word the much-maligned financial bailout will actually end up making taxpayers some money.  I was one of those folks who reluctantly supported the idea, but it's nice to know that is also ended up doing no harm to the taxpayers. 

Of course, it's sad to realize that the bailout has helped return a lot of corporate America to profitability, but still leaves millions of Americans unemployed.  The linked article is one of the few with a progressive view on the economy (read: is more about how the average American is doing rather than the average stockholder).  And naturally, since business profits have recovered, a lot of states are already thinking about ending unemployment benefits, even though unemployment rate is still 3 percentage points higher than it was at the start of the recession.

Finally, the federal budget.  A shutdown - that would have hurt the economy and the federal budget - was narrowly averted, as were a lot of ridiculous Republican demands such as cutting off money to Planned Parenthood (whose family planning services help reduce abortions).  Furthermore, the "budget" (for those who have budgeted, you understand we use the term loosely) proposed by Rep. Ryan actually increases the federal deficit while at the same time severely slashing health care programs (Medicare and Medicaid) that help provide critical medical assistance to the elderly and poor.  And Paul Krugman, nobel economist, points out the numerous "unicorns" in Ryan's budget, such as assumptions of incredibly low unemployment and a massive housing boom.

Nicholas Kristof sums up our Congress pretty well:
What does all this mean? That we’re governed by self-absorbed, reckless children.

Friday, April 08, 2011

A few reasons our public education system needs help

Three interesting articles on education in the past month:

From Nicholas Kristof, an impassioned argument for paying teachers more, based on their disproportionate impact on the rest of our society. We used to value them more:
Changes in relative pay have reinforced the problem. In 1970, in New York City, a newly minted teacher at a public school earned about $2,000 less in salary than a starting lawyer at a prominent law firm. These days the lawyer takes home, including bonus, $115,000 more than the teacher, the McKinsey study found.

From Minnpost, a discussion of how little education policy and practice applies the lessons from research about what works.

Also in the news, highlights a new report that finds that merit pay – a favorite among education reformers, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan – didn’t work to improve test scores in a New York City experiment, and was actually connected with dropping test scores among middle school students. A Vanderbilt University study in September found largely the same thing, that offering middle-school math teachers bonuses up to $15,000 did not produce gains in student test scores.

Finally, a story from Miller McCune, showing that collective bargaining for teachers helps increase average student test scores, and especially helps those students at the top, but it increases the achievement gap between whites and non-white students. A teacher union law lapsed in 1999, and the real-life experiment provided this lesson:

In many districts, pre-1999 collective bargaining agreements allowed “senior teachers — those with the most experience, who are often higher-performing teachers — to concentrate themselves in a district’s higher-income, higher-performing schools...High-poverty schools with lower-performing students, by contrast, wind up with the least-experienced (and least successful) teachers."
It's a good illustration of how teacher collective bargaining isn't always aligned with students' best interest. However, I'd argue that's reason to amend union contracts, rather than throw out teacher unions (since, as the first article points out, teachers are unfortunately low paid relative to their societal value).

Overall, these articles leave me with the feeling that our education policy is badly failing. We pay teachers too little to attract and retain the best talent, we fail to use best practices in the schools, and we have mindless attacks on unions that fail to address the major issues (student performance) and instead are more about political retribution.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Spring Cleaning: climate denialism, American exceptionalism, and Congress punts on the middle class

Oops!  Hoping to find scientific backing for their climate denialism, House Republicans got a rude surprise when a Koch Industries funded physicist reported that their research actually syncs up with existing climate change science.

Prof. Richard Muller of Berkeley, a physicist who has gotten into the climate skeptic game, has been leading the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, an effort partially financed by none other than the Koch foundation. And climate deniers — who claim that researchers at NASA and other groups analyzing climate trends have massaged and distorted the data — had been hoping that the Berkeley project would conclude that global warming is a myth. 

Instead, however, Professor Muller reported that his group’s preliminary results find a global warming trend “very similar to that reported by the prior groups.” 

A nice article on the American (conservative) superiority complex, with a fascinating map of passport ownership by state.  Seems folks are less egotistical about their own country when they've seen others.

In other words, it’s part of the superiority complex you often encounter in U.S. politics; people just know that we’re the best, and won’t believe you when you tell them that actually they have the Internet, cell phones, and antibiotics in Europe too.

The economy hasn't really recovered (e.g. unemployment is still far above pre-recession levels), but Washington has given up on the millions of Americans still out of work.

More than three years after we entered the worst economic slump since the 1930s, a strange and disturbing thing has happened to our political discourse: Washington has lost interest in the unemployed

...polls indicate that voters still care much more about jobs than they do about the budget deficit. So it’s quite remarkable that inside the Beltway, it’s just the opposite. 

...I still don’t know why the Obama administration was so quick to accept defeat in the war of ideas, but the fact is that it surrendered very early in the game. In early 2009, John Boehner, now the speaker of the House, was widely and rightly mocked for declaring that since families were suffering, the government should tighten its own belt. That’s Herbert Hoover economics, and it’s as wrong now as it was in the 1930s. But, in the 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama adopted exactly the same metaphor and began using it incessantly. 

He hasn't been replaced

Early morning, April 4
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

See the original news broadcasts of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, 53 years ago today.