Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Your tax dollars at work

The current budget of the United States is $2,397,308,000,000 (in words, two point four trillion dollars). Every person who pays taxes into the coffers of the United States contributes something toward that budget, and taxpayers in future generations will pay for what today's taxpayers do not cover. According to the national debt clock the  debt is now over $9.3 trillion, or nearly $30,620 for every living human being in the country (bearing in mind that about 23% of the debt is owned by foreign agencies).

So how are US tax dollars spent? According to the Friends Committee on National Legislation web site, the current national budget is apportioned as follows: 44% of every tax dollar goes to the military (a figure that includes 13.5% that is paying costs associated with previous wars); 19.7% goes to various aspects of health care; 11.8% goes to dealing with poverty; 10.9% goes to paying interest on the national debt; 7.0% is used to maintain non-military government programs; 2.5% is allocated to scientific research (including NASA) and environmental issues; 2.2% is dedicated to various social programs; and 1.5% goes to all non-military interactions with other nations, such as foreign aid and humanitarian work.

Let's state a hypothetical case. Suppose you paid $5000 in taxes this year to the IRS. This means you are paying somewhere around $2,220 to help pay for everything the military does and has done through the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, Homeland Security, and aid to foreign militaries. Compare that to the $125 you are contributing toward scientific research through the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Forest Service, the National Park system and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The chances are good that you have helped finance more killing, detaining, torturing, wiretapping and other forms of spying than you have helped finance finding solutions to global warming.

It has been estimated that even if American troops are withdrawn from Iraq fairly soon, the total cost of the Iraq war could surpass $1 trillion, or about $3300 for every man woman and child in the USA. (If the average family has 4 people, then the average family's share of that war would be $13,200.)

If the choice had been yours to make, would you have spent money in the ways just outlined? If not, there are things you can do. First, you can write to your various representatives and urge them to spend money in ways you find more appetizing. (I personally would favor reducing military spending to around 3% of the national budget and putting the a much larger share into a national health care system, scholarships for students at all levels, and scientific research. I would also favor balancing the budget by dramatically reducing military spending.)

A second thing you can do is to take more control over how your money is spent by giving substantial amounts to charities and causes that dramatically reduce your taxable income so that little or none of your money falls into the hands of a government that apparently cares much more about killing than in healing, educating and aiding.

Think very carefully about how you vote in this year's elections. None of the leading candidates at this point have shown signs of being willing to make major cuts in defense spending. (Democracy Now! reports that Obama actually supports increasing military spending. That is not the sort of change I can believe in; none of the other leading candidates offer anything much better.) At the very least, if you have grown weary of the American Empire, make the American budget an issue. Ask tough questions. And don't feel there is any wisdom in settling for a candidate whose priorities do not reflect those of you and your family.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Time for a non-military America

Despite the fact that the United States is one of the 189 nations that signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which was opened for signature in 1968, the Bush administration has relentlessly pursued the building of new nuclear warheads. The current aim is to replace all existing nuclear warheads by “improved” versions by the year 2030. There are several reasons why this program, often called the 2030 Bombplex, should be discarded.

  • The principal rationale for having nuclear weapons in the first place was to provide a disincentive to other nation states and empires who also had nuclear weapons from using them. If this strategy ever had validity and effectiveness, it was during the Cold War era. That era has now long since passed. All the countries that currently have nuclear weapons are considered allies and friendly trading partners of the United States. The United States no longer has national enemies that have shown any intent of harming it. The time for having a nuclear arsenal has past.
  • The only entities that have shown an intent of harming the United States in any way are not nations but essentially guerrilla organizations against whom nuclear weaponry is utterly useless. The most effective way to make peace with these organizations is to stop interferring in their territories. The United States could achieve peace instantly by closing all military bases on foreign soil and by abandoning all policies that consist in meddling in the affairs of other sovereign nations and sub-national tribal groups. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by military means in the world as it now exists, let alone by nuclear weapons.
  • Building and stockpiling nuclear weapons by the United States completely undermines the credibility of appeals to other nations to abandon their programs of developing nuclear weapons. It will always be seen as hypocritical for the United States to demand that Iran and North Korea desist from testing nuclear capabilities as long as the United States has an arsenal capable of destroying the entire earth several times over. (People who have not yet seen it should treat themselves to Ben Cohen's Nuclear BB demo.)
  • The United States spends a staggering amount of money to maintain its nuclear arsenal and to pay legal settlements to workers whose health has been compromised by working with nuclear materials. It was estimated that in 1998 the United States spent $35,100,000,000 on nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs. (See the fact sheet put out by the Brookings Institution.) This figure has increased during the years of the Bush administration along with the base military budget, which has increased by 70% during the Bush years, and this figure does not include special funds set aside for the illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The current military budget is more than $1,000,000,000,000 (one million million) per annum.
  • Much of the cost of maintaining a nuclear arsenal is keeping it from falling into “the wrong hands.” (It could be argued that it is already in the wrong hands by being in the hands of the United States military, but let us leave that aside for the moment.) If any of the materials that are or have been part of the US nuclear arsenal were to be commandeered by guerrilla organizations, the results could be disastrous. This may have happened already; the Brookings Institution reports that eleven warheads have been lost in accidents and never recovered. In other words, they are known to be missing, but it is unknown into whose hands they have fallen.

Interestingly enough, none of the leading candidates in the current presidential campaign have made their positions on the future of nuclear weaponry known. Journalists have shown no apparent interest in asking candidates about this issue.

A question worth asking oneself is whether any man or woman who believes in maintaining the conventional and nuclear military prowess of the United States is sane and competent enough to deserve your vote. It may be time to consider writing in a candidate such as Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul or voting for the Green Party. Only those candidates show any signs of promising a change we can believe in.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Does ignorance matter? Who knows?

Twenty years ago I took a bus from Montreal to Albuquerque. I love bus travel, because it it economical and environmentally responsible, but also because one meets interesting people. On this particular trip I sat for about a thousand miles next to a young woman whose husband was in the army. She herself was going to college. We talked about places we had visited, and she said she had been to Niagara Falls. Somehow in the course of that part of the conversation, she volunteered the information that Niagara Falls is located on the border between California and Canada. I pointed out that there are two states between California and Canada and that Niagara Falls is actually on the border between New York State and Ontario. She seemed fairly confident that I was mistaken about this, so both of us agreed to change the subject rather than argue about the disputed location of a water falling off a cliff.

At the time, I was amazed at that one student's geographical ignorance, and I wondered how she had managed to get into college. Now, twenty years later, I almost take it for granted that when I mention Korea, Japan, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Thailand, Afghanistan, Iraq or Turkey to a college student, he or she will have only a dim idea of where those places on, aside from perhaps knowing that they are on planet earth. I also take it for granted that it is not for an unwillingness to learn geography that students know so little about it; the responsibility for their ignorance, I assume, falls on their teachers and on the news media. (If you live in the United States, think quickly. When's the last time you saw an in-depth news report about any country outside the United States? When's the last time you saw Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Chihuahua or Sonora on a weather map?) According to a CNN storynearly two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 24 still cannot find Iraq on a map.” (Hint: it is nowhere near the California-Canada border.)

n February 15, 2008 Bill Moyers interviewed Susan Jacoby, author of a book entitled Age of American Unreason. In that interview Jacoby says “without a base of knowledge of how things are you can't really have a reasonable talk about how things ought to be.” The United States has become a nation in which even the allegedly educated—even the educators themselves—have a startling lack of knowledge of history, geography, the arts, world literature and the ways of other cultures.

Rudy Giuliani, former presidential candidate, once said in a debate that if the United States had a health care system like Canada's then Canadians would no longer be able to come here for decent health care. He also called America's health care system the best in the world. No one challenged him. No one, either his opponents or the newsman moderating the debate pointed out that Canada does not have a health care system. Health insurance schemes are managed by the provinces, not by the Canadian government, and each province has a different way of offering affordable coverage to everyone. Moreover, medical care in Canada is generally quite good, often better than what is available in the United States, and always far more affordable. So the answer to Giuliani's question is that if the states in the United States had health care systems like those in Canadian provinces, Canadians would continue to stay in Canada to get excellent health care—and Americans would stop trying to buy their pharmaceuticals in Canada, where a reasonable ceiling is placed on the profits that pharmaceutical companies can make. But how many Americans know enough to challenge a political candidate who makes inaccurate and irresponsible claims?

Democracy works only when the electorate is educated enough to make rational decisions based on a knowledge of reality and on an ability to imagine workable alternatives to the status quo. An ignorant electorate has no access to knowledge as a guide and so is prone to being swayed by untutored emotions, by rumors, by charisma, and by well-crafted manipulation.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Trying every solution but the obvious

It feels as though the US presidential primaries have been on forever. All the slogans have been memorized—“Change we can believe in,” “Ready to lead on day one,” “Faith, Family, Freedom”—and positions have been outlined in debate after debate. Candidates have been grilled by news anchors and commentators, and all the pandits have weighed in with their opinion as to who is most likely to win the black vote in general, the affluent black vote, the rural black vote, the dership by doing all those things?)

If one were to say such a thing, the response of much of the American public would likely be very much like that of the a news commentator whom I happened to hear yesterday saying “Some of the politicians would have us sitting in the cold and the dark. Well not me! I don't want to live like a European !” (I wish I knew which politicians were honest enough to say that more of us should be sitting in the cold and the dark. If I knew who was saying that, I might have a better idea whom to vote for.)

When environmental issues were being brought to everyone's attention a couple of decades ago, we all learned about the Three R's: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. The order of those three measures was important; the most effective was named first, the least effective last. And yet recycling is about the only one that has received serious and sustained attention. There is money to be made in recycling. But if people stop buying unnecessary goods, and if they use things until they are no longer needed and then give them to someone else who may have a use for them, then dramatically fewer things will be bought and sold and manufactured. Dramatically fewer things would be thrown into landfill sites or burned or shredded. Reductions in manufacturing, sales and waste management, we are told, would mean fewer jobs and less economic growth. A slower economy is un-American.

So if doing what is right for the environment—living sustainably with the resources that the earth provides and reducing the amount of toxicity poured into the water and air and soil—is bad for the economy as we now know it, then doing what is right for the environment must be un-American. That so many Americans apparently think this way, and feel no shame for their addictions to possessions and comforts and pleasures, is very bad news for the third planet from the sun. And because it is bad news for the earth, it is also very bad news for the very people who are unwilling to change the way they live.

Those political candidates who are calling for change are right. Things must change. But the changes we require are not going to be achieved simply by having news faces in the the White House and the Congress. The changes we require amount to nothing less than a radical change in human behavior, and those changes probably cannot be made without equally radical changes in human nature. Philosophers and religious leaders have been saying as much since writing was first used to record human thoughts. The advice has been given repeatedly and eloquently. It has rarely been heeded. There is not much evidence that the advice will be heeded now.

This year's presidential campaign so far has focused on hope, experience, national security and conservative values. Experience shows there is little hope that the environment will be conserved and that the entire nation is therefore deeply insecure. Which politician has the honesty to try to win the vote of reflective people by saying that?