Chicken Nukes 8/16/17

Playing Nuclear “Chicken” With Our Lives  – by Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

What kind of civilization have we developed when two mentally unstable national leaders, in an escalating confrontation with each other, threaten one another―and the world―with nuclear war?

That question arises as a potentially violent showdown emerges between Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Donald Trump of the United States. In recent years, the North Korean government has produced about 10 nuclear weapons and has been making them increasingly operational through improvements in its missile technology. The U.S. government first developed nuclear weapons in 1945, when it employed them to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and currently possesses 6,800 of them, mostly deployed on missiles, submarines, and bombers.

According to the North Korean government, its nuclear weapons are necessary to defend itself against the United States. Similarity, the U.S. government argues that its nuclear weapons are necessary to defend itself against countries like North Korea.

Although, in recent decades, we have grown accustomed to this government rhetoric about the necessity to possess nuclear weapons as a deterrent, what is particularly chilling about the current confrontation is that Kim and Trump do not appear deterred at all. Quite the contrary, they brazenly threaten nuclear war in an extremely provocative fashion. Responding on August 8 to North Korean threats, Trump publicly warned that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Later that day, North Korea’s state media announced that its government was considering a strategy of striking the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with mid- to long-range nuclear missiles―a strategy that a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army said would be “put into practice” once Kim authorized it.

This kind of reckless and potentially suicidal behavior is reminiscent of the game of “Chicken,” which achieved notoriety in the 1950s. In the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), two rebellious, antisocial male teenagers (or juvenile delinquents, as they were known at the time) played the game before a crowd of onlookers by driving jalopies at top speed toward a cliff. Whoever jumped out of the cars first was revealed as “chicken” (a coward). A more popular variant of the game involved two teenagers driving their cars at high speed toward one another, with the first to swerve out of the way drawing the derisive label. According to some accounts, young James Dean, a star of Rebel Without a Cause, actually died much this way.

With news of the game spreading, Bertrand Russell, the great mathematician and philosopher, suggested in 1959 that the two sides in the Cold War were engaged in an even crazier version: nuclear “Chicken.” He wrote: “As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked.” But the game became “incredibly dangerous” and “absurd” when it was played by government officials “who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings.” Russell warned that “the moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of `Chicken!’ from the other side.” When that moment arrived, “the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.”

It was a fair enough warning, and only several years later, during the Cuban missile crisis, the game of nuclear “Chicken” played by Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy could have resulted in a disastrous nuclear war. However, at the last minute, both men backed off―or, perhaps we should say, swerved to avoid a head-on collision―and the crisis was resolved peacefully through a secret compromise agreement.

In the current situation, there’s plenty of room for compromise between the U.S. and North Korean governments. The Pyongyang regime has offered to negotiate and has shown particular interest in a peace treaty ending the Korean War of the 1950s and U.S. military exercises near its borders. Above all, it seems anxious to avoid regime change by the United States. The U.S. government, in turn, has long been anxious to halt the North Korean nuclear program and to defend South Korea against attack from the north. Reasonable governments should be able to settle this dispute short of nuclear war.

But are the two governments headed by reasonable men? Both Kim and Trump appear psychologically disturbed, erratic, and startlingly immature―much like the juvenile delinquents once associated with the game of “Chicken.” Let us hope, though, that with enough public resistance and some residual sanity, they will back away from the brink and begin to resolve their differences peacefully. That’s certainly possible.

Even if the current confrontation eases, though, we are left with a world in which some 15,000 nuclear weapons exist and with numerous people who, in the future, might not scruple about using them. And so the fundamental problem continues: As long as nuclear weapons exist, we teeter on the edge of catastrophe

Fortunately, this past July, in an historic development, the vast majority of the world’s nations voted at a UN conference to approve a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Nations will begin the process of signing onto the treaty this September. Although, sadly, all of the nuclear powers (including the United States and North Korea) oppose the treaty, it’s long past time for nuclear weapons to be prohibited and eliminated. Until they are, government officials will remain free to play nuclear “Chicken” with their lives . . . and with ours.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. He is the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

 

kings & princes 7/19/12

How Much is a Boss Worth? – by Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

An awful lot of Americans are skeptical about the value of their nation’s corporate executives.

As a 2016 nationwide survey reveals, 74 percent of Americans believe that top corporate executives are overpaid. This public dismay with CEO compensation exists despite the fact that Americans drastically underestimate what top corporate executives are paid every year. In fact, the survey found that CEO compensation at Fortune 500 companies was approximately 10 times what the typical American thought it was.

What are these CEOs actually paid? According to a study for the Associated Press by the executive data firm Equilar, in 2016 the typical CEO at the S&P 500 companies received $11.5 million in salary, stock, and other compensation.

Of course, this was the median CEO income. Some were paid a great deal more. Thomas Rutledge (Charter Communications Inc.) received $98 million during 2016; Leslie Moonves (CBS Corp.) $68.6 million; Robert Iger (Walt Disney Co.) $41 million; and David Zaslav (Discovery Communications Inc.) $37.2 million. A few CEOs didn’t make the list because, as fantastically wealthy business owners (like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, collectively worth $146 billion), they didn’t bother taking a salary from their companies.

CEO income during 2016 reflected substantial increases over the preceding year, with the typical CEO getting an 8.5 percent raise. Some, especially the best-paid, received far more. Rutledge received a raise of 499 percent, while Moonves’s pay rose by 22 percent.

American workers haven’t been doing nearly as well. According to the AFL-CIO (which estimated average corporate CEO pay in 2016 at $13.1 million), the average production or other nonsupervisory worker earned only $37,632 that year. Thus, in 2016, there was a CEO-to-worker pay ratio of 347-to-1.

This gap between CEO and worker pay has been widening substantially over the years. In the 1950s, the S&P 500 CEO-to-worker pay ratio was 20-to-1. Even as late as 1980, it was 42-to-1. But the rise of the political Right, the adoption of pro-corporate public policies, and the decline of union strength have led to a situation in which the average CEO of America’s largest corporations has an annual income 347 times that of the average worker. In the last five years alone, corporate CEOs received percentage pay increases nearly double that of the U.S. workforce.

This enormous and rapidly growing economic inequality between bosses and workers can certainly be challenged on the basis of social justice. Why, after all, should roughly 20 million Americans, working at full-time jobs (and, sometimes, two or three jobs), receive such pitiful incomes that they are forced to rely on food stamps and other forms of public assistance while their CEOs grow ever wealthier and enjoy an opulent lifestyle once limited to kings and princes?

In addition, are these extravagantly-paid corporate CEOs producing commensurate value for their companies? According to a detailed 2016 study by MSCI, an investment and corporate research firm, businesses that provided their CEOs with higher incomes delivered smaller financial returns to investors than did companies with lower compensation for their top executives. Favorably impressed by the study, a Forbes columnist concluded that “maybe it is time to rethink and restructure CEO compensation.” Indeed, some corporate boards have begun doing just that.

Although most Americans do not serve on the boards of major corporations, they do support sharp reductions in CEO compensation and other means of fostering greater economic equality. Indeed, a recent survey has found that a typical American favors limiting CEO pay to no more than six times the pay of the average worker. Furthermore, polls have found that most Americans support increasing taxes on the rich and substantially raising the pathetic federal minimum wage, long stuck at $7.25 per hour.

Against this backdrop, it’s striking that the Republicans controlling Congress and the White House champion huge tax cuts for the wealthy and oppose any increase in the minimum wage. But, in this case, as in so much of American politics, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

 

Clung To Illusion 6/14/17

National Illusions and Global Realities – by Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

For as long as they have existed, nations have clung to the illusion that their military strength guarantees their security.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that the military power that one nation considers vital to its security fosters other nations’ sense of insecurity. In this climate of suspicion, an arms race ensues, often culminating in military conflict. Also, sometimes the very military strength that a nation intended for protection ends up emboldening it to engage in reckless, aggressive behavior, leading to war.

By the twentieth century, the devastation caused by wars among nations had grown so great that the general public and even many government officials began to recognize that a world left to the mercies of national military power was a dangerous world, indeed. As a result, after the mass slaughter of World War I, they organized the League of Nations to foster international security. When this proved insufficient to stop the march of nations toward World War II and its even greater devastation, they organized a new and stronger global entity: the United Nations.

Unfortunately, however, bad habits die hard, and relying on military force to solve problems is one of the oldest and most destructive habits in human history. Therefore, even as they paid lip service to the United Nations and its attempts to create international security, many nations slipped back into the familiar pattern of building up their armed forces and weaponry. This included nuclear weapons, the most effective instruments of mass slaughter yet devised.

Not surprisingly, then, although the leaders of highly militarized nations talked about building “peace through strength,” their countries often underwent many years of war. Indeed, the United States, the most heavily-armed nation since 1945, has been at war with other countries most of that time. Other nations whose post-World War II military might has helped embroil them in wars include Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran.

Given this sorry record, it is alarming to find that the nine nuclear-armed nations (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea) have ignored the obligation under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to divest themselves of nuclear weapons and, instead, recently embarked on a new round in the nuclear arms race. The U.S. government, for example, has begun a massive, 30-year program to build a new generation of U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear production facilities to last the United States well into the second half of the twenty-first century. This program, slated to cost $1 trillion, includes redesigned nuclear warheads, as well as new nuclear bombers, submarines, land-based missiles, weapons labs, and production plants.

However, as the nuclear powers renew their race to catastrophe, the non-nuclear powers are beginning to revolt. Constituting most nations of the world, they have considerable clout in the UN General Assembly. In late 2016, they brought to this body a resolution to launch negotiations on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. Critics of the resolution maintained that such a treaty was ridiculous, for, ultimately, only the nine nuclear powers could negotiate their disarmament―not an assembly of other nations. But supporters of the resolution argued that, if the overwhelming majority of nations voted to ban nuclear weapons―that is, make them illegal under international law―this would put substantial pressure on the nuclear powers to comply with the world community by acting to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

To avoid this embarrassment, the nuclear powers and their allies fought back vigorously against passage of this UN resolution. But, on December 23, 2016, the resolution sailed through the UN General Assembly by an overwhelming vote: 113 nations in favor and 35 opposed, with 13 abstentions.

And so, on March 27, 2017, a diplomatic conference convened, at the UN headquarters in New York City, with the goal of crafting what the UN called a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” Some 130 countries participated in the first round of these negotiations that included discussions with leaders of peace and disarmament groups and a range of experts on nuclear weapons. But the nuclear powers and most of their allies boycotted the gathering. In fact, at a press conference conducted as the conclave began, Nikki Haley, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, and representatives of other nuclear powers denounced the proceedings.

Perhaps because of the boycott by the nuclear powers, the UN negotiations went forward smoothly. On May 22, Ambassador Elayne Whyte of Costa Rica, president of the conference, released a first draft of the UN treaty, which would prohibit nations from developing, producing, manufacturing, possessing, or stockpiling nuclear weapons. The UN conferees plan to adopt necessary revisions and, then, produce a final treaty for a vote in early July.

To publicize and support the treaty, peace and disarmament groups have organized a June 17 march in New York City. Although dubbed a Women’s Ban the Bomb March, it is open to people of different genders, ages, races, nationalities, and faiths. It will assemble in midtown Manhattan, at Bryant Park, at noon, after which the marchers will head for Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, near the UN headquarters, for a rally.

As this treaty directly challenges the long-time faith in the value of national military power, typified by the scramble for nuclear weapons, it might not get very far. But who really knows? Facing the unprecedented danger of nuclear war, the world community might finally be ready to dispense with this national illusion.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. He is the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

Diffusion of Knowledge 5/31/17

How Business “Partnerships” Flopped at America’s Largest University

by Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

The State University of New York (SUNY)―the largest university in the United States, with nearly 600,000 students located in 64 publicly-funded higher education institutions―has served an important educational function for the people of New York and of the United States. But its recent “partnerships” with private businesses have been far less productive.

In the spring of 2013, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, joined by businessmen, politicians, and top SUNY administrators, embarked upon a widely-publicized barnstorming campaign to get the state legislature to adopt a plan he called Tax-Free NY. Under its provisions, most of the SUNY campuses, portions of the City University of New York, and zones adjacent to SUNY campuses would be thrown open to private, profit-making companies that would be exempt from state and local taxes on sales, property, the income of their owners, and the income of their employees for a period of 10 years.

Tax-Free NY, Cuomo announced, was “a game-changing initiative” that would “transform SUNY campuses and university communities across the state.” According to the governor, this program would “supercharge” the state’s economy and bring job creation to an unprecedented level. Conceding that these tax-free zones wouldn’t work without a dramatic “culture shift” in the SUNY system, Cuomo argued that the faculty should “get interested and participate in entrepreneurial activities.”

Despite criticism of the program by educators, unions, and even some conservatives, SUNY administrators and local officials fell into line. Reluctant to challenge the governor and oppose this widely-touted jobs creation measure, the state legislature established the program, renamed Start-Up NY and including some private colleges, in June 2013.

Start-Up NY quickly acquired considerable momentum. Hundreds of tax-free zones were established at New York colleges and universities, most of them on SUNY campuses, with numerous administrators hired to oversee the development of the new commercial programs. New York State launched a very expensive Start-Up NY television advertising campaign around the nation, with ads focused on the theme: “New York: Open for Business.” SUNY’s chancellor, Nancy Zimpher, proclaimed: “Nowhere in the country do new businesses . . . stand to benefit more by partnering with higher education than in New York State, thanks to the widespread success of Governor Cuomo’s Start-Up NY program. With interest and investment coming in from around the globe and new jobs being created in every region, Start-Up NY has provided a spark for our economy and for SUNY.” This was, she declared, a “transformative initiative.”

Although no one seems to know―or at least has revealed―just how much Start-Up NY has actually cost New York State, it has certainly been quite expensive. Back in 2013, the governor’s budget office estimated that it would cost $323 million over the next three years. That figure did not include the lost tax revenue to localities.

And what has it produced for the state? After three years of operation―2014, 2015, and 2016―that question is answered by the official reports of Empire State Development (New York’s official economic development agency). In 2014, Start-Up NY produced 76 jobs. In 2015, it produced 332 jobs. And, in 2016, it produced 757 jobs. Deducting 30 jobs apparently lost somewhere along the way, Empire State Development claimed a grand total of 1,135 jobs were developed by Start-Up NY.

Although 1,135 jobs might strike the observer as a remarkably small increase in the state’s total workforce of over 9 million people, it’s actually an inflated figure. According to Empire State Development, only 722 of these jobs could be considered “net new jobs.” Many of the participating companies did not really create new jobs at all, but simply moved their operations to another region of the state to avail themselves of Start-Up NY’s tax breaks.

Moreover, it’s far from clear that Start-Up NY’s tax breaks were necessary for businesses to hire these 722 workers. After all, 2014, 2015, and 2016 were years of recovery from the Great Recession, during which employment in New York State grew by 168,401 jobs.

What about the benefit of the program to SUNY? According to the SUNY administration, at the beginning of 2017, half of all SUNY schools had become sponsors of Start-Up NY businesses, with 201 campus “partnerships.” Although Chancellor Zimpher has spoken enthusiastically about the program’s “academic benefits for our faculty and students,” her examples are less than convincing. Yes, the participating companies paid SUNY a modest rental for their use of campus facilities. But this business use deprived SUNY faculty and students of their ability to avail themselves of these same facilities―including buildings, classroom space, labs, and advanced machinery and equipment. The chancellor also pointed to 134 students who had interned at Start-Up businesses and 121 who had gone to work for Start-Up firms. But these figures are not impressive when set against SUNY’s student enrollment of nearly 600,000.

Perhaps most significant, what is the academic merit of devoting university teaching or education to producing or marketing corporate projects? Shouldn’t the role of higher education be the advancement and diffusion of knowledge?

Of course, creating jobs is a laudable goal. But using public funds and facilities to subsidize private, profit-making businesses is not the only way to do it. For example, state governments could simply hire teachers, firefighters, construction workers, home health aides, social workers, health and safety inspectors, and thousands of other workers to do work that need to be done.

Overall, several questions arise from this history of SUNY-corporate collaboration. Does this “partnership” produce enough economic benefit to be worth the cost? Is assisting private business research, development, and sales an appropriate role for higher education? Finally, is using public funds to subsidize profit-making corporations an appropriate role for government? They questions are certainly worth considering before states rush into promoting further ill-fated university-corporate “partnerships.”

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

Do Not Disappear 4/26/17

Why Is There So Little Popular Protest Against Today’s Threats of Nuclear War?

Lawrence Wittner

by Lawrence Wittner

In recent weeks, the people of the world have been treated to yet another display of the kind of nuclear insanity that has broken out periodically ever since 1945 and the dawn of the nuclear era.

On April 11, Donald Trump, irked by North Korea’s continued tests of nuclear weapons and missiles, tweeted that “North Korea is looking for trouble.” If China does not “help,” then “we will solve the problem without them.” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un responded by announcing that, in the event of a U.S. military attack, his country would not scruple at launching a nuclear strike at U.S. forces. In turn, Trump declared: “We are sending an armada, very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. We have the best military people on earth.”

During the following days, the governments of both nuclear-armed nations escalated their threats. Dispatched to South Korea, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence declared that “the era of strategic patience is over,” and warned: “All options are on the table.” Not to be outdone, North Korea’s deputy representative to the United Nations told a press conference that “thermonuclear war may break out at any moment.” Any missile or nuclear strike by the United States would be responded to “in kind.” Several days later, the North Korean government warned of a “super-mighty preemptive strike” that would reduce U.S. military forces in South Korea and on the U.S. mainland “to ashes.” The United States and its allies, said the official statement, “should not mess with us.”

Curiously, this North Korean statement echoed the Trump promise during his presidential campaign that he would build a U.S. military machine “so big, powerful, and strong that no one will mess with us.” The fact that both Trump and Kim are being “messed with” despite their possession of very powerful armed forces, including nuclear weapons, seems to have eluded both men, who continue their deadly game of nuclear threat and bluster.

And what is the response of the public to these two erratic government leaders behaving in this reckless fashion and threatening war, including nuclear war? It is remarkably subdued. People read about the situation in newspapers or watch it on the television news, while comedians joke about the madness of it all. Oh, yes, peace and disarmament organizations condemn the escalating military confrontation and outline reasonable diplomatic alternatives. But such organizations are unable to mobilize the vast numbers of people around the world necessary to shake some sense into these overwrought government officials.

The situation was very different in the 1980s, when organizations like the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign (in the United States), the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (in Britain), and similar groups around the world were able to engage millions of people in protest against the nuclear recklessness of the U.S. and Soviet governments―protest that played a key role in curbing the nuclear arms race and preventing nuclear war.

So why is there so little public protest today?

One factor is certainly the public’s preoccupation with other important issues, among them climate change, immigration, terrorism, criminal justice, civil liberties, and economic inequality.

Another appears to be a sense of fatalism. Many people believe that Kim and Trump are too irrational to respond to reason and too autocratic to give way to public pressure.

Yet another factor is the belief of Americans and Europeans that their countries are safe from a North Korean attack. Yes, many people will die in a new Korean War, especially one fought with nuclear weapons, but they will be “only” Koreans.

In addition, many people credit the absence of nuclear war since 1945 to nuclear deterrence. Thus, they assume that nuclear-armed nations will not fight a nuclear war among themselves.

Finally–and perhaps most significantly–people are reluctant to think about nuclear war. After all, it means death and destruction at an unbearable level of horror. Therefore, it’s much easier to simply forget about it.

Of course, even if these factors explain the public’s passivity in the face of a looming nuclear catastrophe, they do not justify it. After all, people can concern themselves with more than one issue at a time, public officials are often more malleable than assumed, accepting the mass slaughter of Koreans is unconscionable, and if nuclear deterrence really worked, the U.S. government would be far less worried about other nations (including North Korea) developing nuclear weapons. Also, problems–including the problem posed by nuclear weapons–do not simply disappear when people ignore them.

It would be a terrible thing if it takes a disastrous nuclear war between the United States and North Korea to convince people that nuclear war is simply unacceptable. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should already have convinced us of that.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. He is the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

Changes in Technology 4/12/17

Can Our Social Institutions Catch Up with Advances in Science and Technology?

by Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

H.G. Wells, one of the most prolific and prominent novelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, consistently warned his contemporaries that social institutions were not evolving fast enough to cope with rapid changes in science and technology.

Since Wells’s death in 1946, the scientific and technological advances have certainly been enormous. Thanks to breakthroughs in international communications, millions of people around the world routinely conduct live, visual conversations with one another. In medicine, replacing damaged hips, knees, and other parts of the human body has become commonplace. In biology, scientists have mapped the human genome and are well on their way to understanding the structure of the brain. When it comes to transportation, it is relatively easy to jet around the globe, while spacecraft are now able to blast off to distant planets. Computers have become omnipresent, and have dramatically improved the acquisition of knowledge, the storage of information, and the speed of communication.

And yet there is a glaring discrepancy between these kinds of advances and the social institutions that can ensure that they are used for the benefit of humanity. Despite very substantial progress in modern medicine, vast numbers of people receive no medical treatment or, at best, inferior medical care. Television’s marvelous ability to transmit knowledge, culture, and understanding around the world is employed primarily to distribute mindless, coarse entertainment and peddle commercial products. The ravages of climate change are ignored by many governments; instead, corporate plans roll forward to further destroy the environment through additional extraction and use of fossil fuel. Stimulating consumer demand through the latest advertising techniques, corporations also churn out a vast number of quickly-discarded gadgets whose manufacture fills the air, the water, and the soil with dangerous contaminants. Meanwhile, drawing upon the science of robotics, business enterprises are beginning the displacement of millions of workers, condemning them to unemployment. For their part, governments press into service the latest scientific and technological knowledge to spy on the general public, as well as to produce new nuclear weapons, drones, and other high tech means of destroying millions of lives in war.

“Modern man,” mused Martin Luther King, Jr., “suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance.” People have “learned to fly in the air like birds,” but “we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.”

Although King attributed this social backwardness to spiritual failure, alternative explanations for it have been advanced. Leftists and other social critics have blamed greed, especially capitalist greed, for the stunting of social impulses and institutions. Educators have emphasized the problems of ignorance and superstition. Still other observers have pointed to varieties of tribalism (based on religion, race, region, or nation) and to the persistence of stone-age brains. All of these factors have probably contributed to undermining the development of social institutions that might see to it that scientific and technological advances promote the general welfare.

Of course, this is not the whole story. There have been significant efforts to foster more rapid social progress, as illustrated by social movements working for greater social and economic equality, civil liberties, environmental sustainability, and world peace. Also, on occasion, some governments have followed their lead. In numerous countries, governments have acted to strengthen women’s rights, labor rights, and civil liberties, provide healthcare for all, pass anti-discrimination laws, establish environmental regulations, and restrain militarism. On the international level, too, more advanced social institutions have arisen, including the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the UN Refugee Agency. Most nations of the world community have also signed treaties upholding human rights, limiting environmental degradation, and outlawing particularly destructive weapons.

Even so, there is little doubt that scientific and technological change has been outstripping the ability of social institutions to cope with it, often―as in the cases of climate change and the nuclear arms race―resulting in extremely perilous situations. The real question is whether people and nations can muster the political will to reshape their behavior and social institutions to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

Catch Up Fast 3/29/17

Can Our Social Institutions Catch Up with Advances in Science and Technology?

by Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

H.G. Wells, one of the most prolific and prominent novelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, consistently warned his contemporaries that social institutions were not evolving fast enough to cope with rapid changes in science and technology.

Since Wells’s death in 1946, the scientific and technological advances have certainly been enormous. Thanks to breakthroughs in international communications, millions of people around the world routinely conduct live, visual conversations with one another. In medicine, replacing damaged hips, knees, and other parts of the human body has become commonplace. In biology, scientists have mapped the human genome and are well on their way to understanding the structure of the brain. When it comes to transportation, it is relatively easy to jet around the globe, while spacecraft are now able to blast off to distant planets. Computers have become omnipresent, and have dramatically improved the acquisition of knowledge, the storage of information, and the speed of communication.

And yet there is a glaring discrepancy between these kinds of advances and the social institutions that can ensure that they are used for the benefit of humanity. Despite very substantial progress in modern medicine, vast numbers of people receive no medical treatment or, at best, inferior medical care. Television’s marvelous ability to transmit knowledge, culture, and understanding around the world is employed primarily to distribute mindless, coarse entertainment and peddle commercial products. The ravages of climate change are ignored by many governments; instead, corporate plans roll forward to further destroy the environment through additional extraction and use of fossil fuel. Stimulating consumer demand through the latest advertising techniques, corporations also churn out a vast number of quickly-discarded gadgets whose manufacture fills the air, the water, and the soil with dangerous contaminants. Meanwhile, drawing upon the science of robotics, business enterprises are beginning the displacement of millions of workers, condemning them to unemployment. For their part, governments press into service the latest scientific and technological knowledge to spy on the general public, as well as to produce new nuclear weapons, drones, and other high tech means of destroying millions of lives in war.

“Modern man,” mused Martin Luther King, Jr., “suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance.” People have “learned to fly in the air like birds,” but “we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.”

Although King attributed this social backwardness to spiritual failure, alternative explanations for it have been advanced. Leftists and other social critics have blamed greed, especially capitalist greed, for the stunting of social impulses and institutions. Educators have emphasized the problems of ignorance and superstition. Still other observers have pointed to varieties of tribalism (based on religion, race, region, or nation) and to the persistence of stone-age brains. All of these factors have probably contributed to undermining the development of social institutions that might see to it that scientific and technological advances promote the general welfare.

Of course, this is not the whole story. There have been significant efforts to foster more rapid social progress, as illustrated by social movements working for greater social and economic equality, civil liberties, environmental sustainability, and world peace. Also, on occasion, some governments have followed their lead. In numerous countries, governments have acted to strengthen women’s rights, labor rights, and civil liberties, provide healthcare for all, pass anti-discrimination laws, establish environmental regulations, and restrain militarism. On the international level, too, more advanced social institutions have arisen, including the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the UN Refugee Agency. Most nations of the world community have also signed treaties upholding human rights, limiting environmental degradation, and outlawing particularly destructive weapons.

Even so, there is little doubt that scientific and technological change has been outstripping the ability of social institutions to cope with it, often―as in the cases of climate change and the nuclear arms race―resulting in extremely perilous situations. The real question is whether people and nations can muster the political will to reshape their behavior and social institutions to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

Not Hard to Imagine 1/18/17

Lawrence Wittner

A Peace Agenda for the New Administration – by Lawrence Wittner

The looming advent of the Trump administration in Washington threatens to worsen an already deeply troubling international situation. Bitter wars are raging, tens of millions of refugees have taken flight, relations among the great powers are deteriorating, and a new nuclear arms race is underway. Resources that could be used to fight unemployment, poverty, and climate change are being lavished on the military might of nations around the world―$1.7 trillion in 2015 alone. The United States accounts for 36 percent of that global total.

Given this grim reality, let us consider an alternative agenda for the new administration―an agenda for peace.

One key ingredient is improving U.S. relations with Russia and China. This is not an easy task, for these countries are governed by brutal regimes that seem to believe (much like many politicians in the United States) that a display of military force remains a useful way to deal with other nations. Even so, the U.S. government has managed to work out live-and-let-live relationships with their Soviet and Chinese predecessors―some of which were considerably more bellicose―and should be able to do so again. After all, the three countries have a good deal to gain by improving their relations. This includes not only avoiding a catastrophic nuclear war, but reducing their spending on useless, vastly expensive weapons systems and cooperating on issues in which they have a common interest: countering terrorism; halting the international drug trade; and battling climate change.

It is not hard to imagine compromise settlements of their recent conflicts. Behind the hard line Russia has taken in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea and military meddling in what’s left of that country, lies NATO’s expansion eastward to Russia’s borders. Why not show a willingness to halt that expansion in exchange for a Russian agreement to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine and other nations in Russia’s vicinity? Similarly, when dealing with the issue of war-torn Syria, why not abandon the U.S. government’s demand for the ouster of Assad and back a UN-negotiated peace settlement for that country? The U.S. government’s growing dispute with China over the future of islands in the South China Sea also seems soluble, perhaps within a regional security framework.

The three nations could avoid a very dangerous arms race and, at the same time, cut their military costs substantially by agreeing to reduce their military expenditures by a fixed percentage (for example, 10 percent) per year for a fixed period. This “peace race” would allow them to retain their current military balance and devote the savings to more useful items in their budgets.

A second key ingredient in a peace agenda is moving forward with nuclear arms control and disarmament. With over 15,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nine nations, including 7,300 held by Russia and 7,100 by the United States, the world is living on the edge of nuclear annihilation.

Although the Kremlin does not seem interested right now in signing further nuclear disarmament agreements, progress could be made in other ways. The President could use his executive authority to halt the current $1 trillion nuclear “modernization” program, take U.S. nuclear weapons off alert, declare a “no first use” policy for U.S. nuclear weapons, and make significant reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. An estimated 2,000 U.S. nuclear warheads are currently deployed and ready for action around the world, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff have concluded that only 1,000 are necessary. Why not cut back to that level?

The new administration could even engage in international negotiations for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Peace and disarmament organizations have pushed for the opening of such treaty negotiations for years and, this October, the UN General Assembly rewarded their efforts by passing a resolution to begin negotiations in 2017. Why not participate in them?

A third key ingredient in a peace agenda is drawing upon the United Nations to handle international conflicts. The United Nations was founded in 1945 in the hope of ending the practice of powerful countries using their military might to bludgeon other countries into accepting what the powerful regarded as their national interests. National security was to be replaced by international security, thereby reducing aggression and military intervention by individual nations. Critics of the United Nations have argued that it is weak and ineffectual along these lines and, therefore, should be abandoned―except, perhaps, for its humanitarian programs. But, instead of abandoning the United Nations, how about strengthening it?

There are numerous ways to accomplish this. These include eliminating the veto in the Security Council, establishing a weighted voting system in the General Assembly, and giving General Assembly decisions the force of international law. Two other mechanisms, often discussed but not yet implemented, are creating an independent funding mechanism (such as an international financial transactions tax) for UN operations and establishing a permanent, all-volunteer UN rapid deployment force under UN jurisdiction that could act to prevent crimes against humanity.

Of course, at the moment, little, if any, of this peace agenda seems likely to become U.S. government policy. Donald Trump has promised a substantial increase in U.S. military spending, and his new administration will be heavily stocked with officials who take a hardline approach to world affairs.

Even so, when it comes to peace, the American public has sometimes been remarkably active―and effective. In January 1981, when the Reagan administration arrived in Washington, it championed an ultra-hawkish agenda, highlighted by a major nuclear weapons buildup and loose talk of waging and winning a nuclear war. Ultimately, though, an upsurge of popular opposition forced a complete turnabout in administration policy, with Reagan joining the march toward a nuclear-free world and an end to the Cold War. Change is always possible―if enough people demand it.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

CEO Retirement Inequities 12/28/16

Lawrence Wittner

The Scandal of Vast Inequality in Retirement Pay – by Lawrence Wittner

Cato the Elder, a Roman senator and historian, once remarked: “Cessation of work is not accompanied by cessation of expenses.” For centuries, retirees have been aware of this unfortunate fact, which led them to demand and, in many cases, secure old age pensions to help provide financial security during their “golden years.” But as indicated in a recently-released report by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), the financial security of retiring corporate CEOs is far, far greater than the financial security of average Americans.

According to the extensively researched IPS report, A Tale of Two Retirements, 100 corporate CEOs possess company retirement funds totaling $4.7 billion―an amount equivalent to the entire retirement savings of 41 percent of U.S. families (50 million families, including 116 million Americans). The retirement funds of these 100 CEOs are also equivalent to those of 75 percent of Latino families, of 59 percent of African-American families, of 55 percent of female-headed households, and of 44 percent of white working class households.

Indeed, the top 100 CEO nest eggs, if averaged, would generate a $253,088 monthly retirement check to these 100 individuals for the rest of their lives. By contrast, workers who had 401(k) pension plans at the end of 2013 had only enough in these plans to pay them an average monthly benefit of $101. Of course, these were the lucky ones. Among workers 56 to 61 years old, 39 percent had no employer-sponsored retirement plan at all, and would likely depend on Social Security, which pays an average of $1,239 per month, for retirement security.

Of course, these are only averages. When one looks at individuals, the contrasts are even starker. Glenn Renwick, the Progressive Insurance Company’s CEO who retired in 2016, receives a monthly retirement check from his company for $1,035,733. Among Walmart’s 1.5 million employees, fewer than two-thirds have a company-sponsored retirement plan and, if they do, it will pay them, on average, only $131 per month. But Walmart’s CEO, Doug McMillon can expect to receive at least $360,000 per month―more than 2,700 times the amount a typical Walmart worker with a 401(k) account can expect. And there’s also CEO David Cote of Honeywell―a company that has locked out its workers from its factories in Green Island, NY and South Bend, IN for seven months for rejecting a contract that eliminated workers’ pensions―who receives a monthly retirement check from the company for $908,712.

Or take the case of John Hammergreen, CEO of the McKesson corporation, a drug wholesaling giant. A few months after Hammergreen arrived at McKesson in 1996, the company froze its employee pension fund, closing it to workers who came there in 1997. Even so, the company launched a lavish Executive Benefit Retirement Account that enriched Hammergreen’s pension with an average of $22,000 a day for the next 20 years. Thus, today he receives a monthly retirement check from the company for $782,339.

Things were not always like this. From 1946 to 1980, a combination of union action and government policy led to the expansion of pension benefits for American workers. By 1980, 46 percent of private sector workers were covered by defined benefit pensions. But, in the following decades, declining union strength, corporate attacks on pension funds, and government action resulted in a severe erosion of worker retirement security. By 2011, only 18 percent of private sector workers were covered by defined benefit plans.

As demonstrated by the authors of the IPS report, the growth of economic inequality in retirement provisions resulted from rigging things in favor of CEOS through new rules for pensions, taxes, and executive compensation. “Since more than half of compensation is now tied to the company’s stock price,” the authors note, “CEOs have a powerful personal incentive for slashing worker retirement benefits in order to boost the short-term bottom line. Every dollar not spent on employee retiree security is money in the CEO’s pocket.”

Although changes in public policy could close the widening pension gap, such changes do not seem likely to occur while a zealously pro-corporate party controls the White House, Congress, and the courts. Indeed, as the authors point out, thanks to the shielding of enormous CEO income in tax-deferred accounts, Fortune 500 CEOs will see very substantial gains in their retirement checks if President Trump succeeds in implementing his plan to slash the top marginal income tax rate.

It’s possible that, in the long run, the rising tide of retirement insecurity will spark a revolt challenging the severe economic inequality between corporate CEOs and their American workers. Until then, however, it’s tempting to propose updating Jonathan Swift’s eighteenth century satirical suggestion, made in A Modest Proposal, that poverty among the poor might be alleviated by selling their babies as food for the rich. Perhaps, in twenty-first century America, retirement insecurity might be alleviated by selling elderly workers to the corporate rich, who could use them for the burgers sold by their fast food companies.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

Romance of Hate 12/14/16

Lawrence Wittner

Scapegoating by the Political Right: A Mask for Privilege – by Lawrence S. Wittner

Recently, many commentators have expressed surprise at the romance between the incoming Trump administration and the hate-filled ranks of racial, religious, and nativist bigots.

But, in fact, the phenomenon of scapegoating―blaming a hapless and helpless minority for problems caused by others―has been fundamental to advancing the fortunes of the political Right throughout modern history. In Europe, political reactionaries traditionally found the Jews a useful target, for Jews not only practiced a much-reviled religion, but were considered an inferior race and disloyal to the nations in which they lived. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Czarist Russia’s rulers launched bloody, devastating pogroms by Christians against the Jewish minority, plus anti-Semitic decrees and legislation that made life for Jews such a nightmare that large numbers fled the country. In subsequent decades, rightwing parties in Eastern and Western Europe also employed anti-Semitism as a staple of their campaigns, ultimately joining in Nazi Germany’s “final solution” to “the Jewish problem.”

In the wake of the disaster of World War II, Europe’s rightwing parties gradually changed their focus. Downplaying their traditional anti-Semitism, they began to whip up hatred against “guest workers” from southern Europe and Turkey and, more recently, Gypsies, North Africans, Muslims, and assorted refugees from the Middle East. Prating of their alleged national, racial, and religious purity, supposedly threatened by these “outsiders,” parties of the Right have attained popularity and won major election victories. They include the National Front (France), the Alternative for Germany, Progress Party (Norway), Law and Justice (Poland), the Freedom Party of Austria, the Swiss People’s Party, the Danish People’s Party, the Sweden Democrats, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Golden Dawn (Greece), Lega Nord (Italy), and dozens of others.

Nor is this rightwing penchant for scapegoating minorities limited to Europe. In India, the ruling party is the BJP, a rightwing, Hindu nationalist political party that has arisen in recent decades with the avowed goal of saving the country from the danger of Muslims, at home and abroad.

How should this marriage of rightwing politics with racial, religious, and nativist passions be explained? Psychologists and other social theorists have argued that human beings have an unfortunate tendency to blame others for problems that these others did not cause, especially if they constitute a small minority and, therefore, are unable to defend themselves.

But this phenomenon also acquired a political dimension. With the gradual democratization of politics in the nineteenth century, the wealthy grew increasingly fearful that the lower classes would use their right to vote–and thus to govern–to take away their wealth and power. And, in fact, the masses often did have that in mind as they promoted political parties and government policies to foster economic and social equality. Simply championing a program of maintaining upper class privilege or of funneling even greater riches to the wealthy wasn’t going to win elections for the outnumbered upper classes and their parties on the Right. But, if the masses could be persuaded that their real problems didn’t lie with the privileges of the wealthy but, rather, with dangerous religious, racial, or foreign-born minorities, these parties’ election chances would be vastly improved. Not surprisingly, then, rightwing parties resorted to a bigoted appeal again and again. As Carey McWilliams, the long-time editor of The Nation, wrote of anti-Semitism, scapegoating served as “a mask for privilege.”

Certainly that’s how scapegoating worked in the United States. Although racial, religious, and foreign minorities served as targets for political abuse throughout American history, African Americans were particularly useful along these lines. The Southern planter class drew on racism to maintain its political power during the slavery era. And, even in the aftermath of the Civil War, the planters and the new industrial magnates defeated interracial working class alliances in the South by appealing to racism among poor whites. By fanning the flames of racism and using the Democratic Party to cement their rule in Southern states, wealthy Southerners succeeded in turning back Reconstruction, Populism, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, and union organizing drives.

Outside the South, America’s economic elite operated for a time within a Protestant-dominated Republican Party, where it drew upon prejudice against Catholics and Jews (which often overlapped with prejudice against immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe) that helped provide the GOP with a mass political base. Then, after the national Democratic Party passed civil rights legislation in the 1960s, Republicans saw an excellent opportunity to widen their support. Barry Goldwater, nominated as the Republican Presidential candidate in 1964, combined a vigorous defense of wealth with an assault on racial equality legislation. Subsequently, the GOP employed Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” Ronald Reagan’s dog-whistle appeals to prejudice, and George H.W. Bush’s racist Willie Horton campaign ads to appeal to racists in both South and North. From the standpoint of rallying a white majority, racist politics worked very well. Donald Trump’s combination of giveaways to America’s millionaires and billionaires with demagogic attacks on blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, and immigrants constituted only an extension of the GOP strategy.

By contrast, parties of the Center-Left and the Left usually supported the rights of racial, religious, and foreign-born minorities. In the United States, this opposition to discrimination–plus the long-term scapegoating of minorities by the political Right–has resulted in the fact that the Democratic Party now attracts the votes of the overwhelming majority of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Jews, Muslims, and recent immigrants.

Even so, thanks to the efficacy of racial, religious, and nativist prejudice in election campaigns, we can probably expect that unscrupulous rightwing politicians will continue to draw upon bigoted political appeals. Given the power of scapegoating, there is no single way to resist this onslaught. But one way might be to expose the program of class privilege hidden behind the mask.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

Almost Incomprehensible 9/28/16

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending? – by Lawrence S. Wittner

In early September 2016, Donald Trump announced his plan for a vast expansion of the U.S. military, including 90,000 new soldiers for the Army, nearly 75 new ships for the Navy, and dozens of new fighter aircraft for the Air Force. Although the cost of this increase would be substantial–about $90 billion per year–it would be covered, the GOP presidential candidate said, by cutting wasteful government spending.

But where, exactly, is the waste? In fiscal 2015, the federal government engaged in $1.1 trillion of discretionary spending, but relatively small amounts went for things like education (6 percent), veterans’ benefits (6 percent), energy and the environment (4 percent), and transportation (2 percent). The biggest item, by far, in the U.S. budget was military spending: roughly $600 billion (54 percent). If military spending were increased to $690 billion and other areas were cut to fund this increase, the military would receive roughly 63 percent of the U.S. government’s discretionary spending.

Well, you might say, maybe it’s worth it. After all, the armed forces defend the United States from enemy attack. But, in fact, the U.S. government already has far more powerful military forces than any other country. China, the world’s #2 military power, spends only about a third of what the United States does on the military. Russia spends about a ninth. There are, of course, occasional terrorist attacks within American borders. But the vast and expensive U.S. military machine–in the form of missiles, fighter planes, battleships, and bombers–is simply not effective against this kind of danger.

Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Defense certainly leads the way in wasteful behavior. As William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project of the Center for International Policy, points out, “the military waste machine is running full speed ahead.” There are the helicopter gears worth $500 each purchased by the Army at $8,000 each, the $2.7 billion spent “on an air surveillance balloon that doesn’t work,” and “the accumulation of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons components that will never be used.” Private companies like Halliburton profited handsomely from Pentagon contracts for their projects in Afghanistan, such as “a multimillion-dollar `highway to nowhere,’” a $43 million gas station in nowhere, a $25 million `state of the art’ headquarters for the U.S. military in Helmand Province . . . that no one ever used, and the payment of actual salaries to countless thousands of no ones aptly labeled `ghost soldiers.’” Last year, Pro Publica created an interactive graphic revealing $17 billion in wasteful U.S. spending uncovered by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.

Not surprisingly, as Hartung reports, the Pentagon functions without an auditing system. Although, a quarter century ago, Congress mandated that the Pentagon audit itself, it has never managed to do so. Thus, the Defense Department doesn’t know how much equipment it has purchased, how much it has been overcharged, or how many contractors it employs. The Project on Government Oversight maintains that the Pentagon has spent about $6 billion thus far on “fixing” its audit problem. But it has done so, Hartung notes, “with no solution in sight.”

The story of the F-35 jet fighter shows how easily U.S. military spending gets out of hand. Back in 2001, when the cost of this aircraft-building program was considered astronomical, the initial estimate was $233 billion. Today, the price tag has more than quadrupled, with estimates ranging from $1.1 trillion to $1.4 trillion, making it the most expensive weapon in human history. The planes reportedly cost $135 million each, and even the pilots’ helmets run $400,000 apiece. Moreover, the planes remain unusable. Although the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Air Force recently declared their versions of the F-35 combat ready, the Pentagon’s top testing official blasted that assertion in a 16-page memo, deriding them as thoroughly unsuitable for combat. The planes, he reported, had “outstanding performance deficiencies.” His assessment was reinforced in mid-September 2016, when the Air Force grounded 10 of its first F-35 fighters due to problems with their cooling lines.

U.S. wars, of course, are particularly expensive, as they require the deployment of large military forces and hardware to far-flung places, chew up very costly military equipment, and necessitate veterans’ benefits for the survivors. Taking these and other factors into account, a recent study at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs put the cost to U.S. taxpayers of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at nearly $5 trillion thus far. According to the report’s author, Neta Crawford, this figure is “so large as to be almost incomprehensible.”

Even without war, another military expense is likely to create a U.S. budgetary crisis over the course of the next 30 years: $1 trillion for the rebuilding of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, plus the construction of new nuclear missiles, nuclear submarines, and nuclear-armed aircraft. Aside from the vast cost, an obvious problem with this expenditure is that these weapons will either never be used or, if they are used, will destroy the world.

Wasted money, wasted lives, or maybe both. That’s the promise of increased military spending.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

Time to Ban the Bomb? 9/14/16

Isn’t It Time to Ban the Bomb? – by Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Although the mass media failed to report it, a landmark event occurred recently in connection with resolving the long-discussed problem of what to do about nuclear weapons. On August 19, 2016, a UN committee, the innocuously-named Open-Ended Working Group, voted to recommend to the UN General Assembly that it mandate the opening of negotiations in 2017 on a treaty to ban them.

For most people, this recommendation makes a lot of sense. Nuclear weapons are the most destructive devices ever created. If they are used―as two of them were used in 1945 to annihilate the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki―the more than 15,000 nuclear weapons currently in existence would destroy the world. Given their enormous blast, fire, and radioactivity, their explosion would bring an end to virtually all life on earth. The few human survivors would be left to wander, slowly and painfully, in a charred, radioactive wasteland. Even the explosion of a small number of nuclear weapons through war, terrorism, or accident would constitute a catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude.

Every President of the United States since 1945, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, has warned the world of the horrors of nuclear war. Even Ronald Reagan―perhaps the most military-minded among them―declared again and again: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Fortunately, there is no technical problem in disposing of nuclear weapons. Through negotiated treaties and unilateral action, nuclear disarmament, with verification, has already taken place quite successfully, eliminating roughly 55,000 nuclear weapons of the 70,000 in existence at the height of the Cold War.

Also, the world’s other agents of mass destruction, biological and chemical weapons, have already been banned by international agreements.

Naturally, then, most people think that creating a nuclear weapons-free world is a good idea. A 2008 poll in 21 nations around the globe found that 76 percent of respondents favored an international agreement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons and only 16 percent opposed it. This included 77 percent of the respondents in the United States.

But government officials from the nine nuclear-armed nations are inclined to view nuclear weapons―or at least their nuclear weapons―quite differently. For centuries, competing nations have leaned heavily upon military might to secure what they consider their “national interests.” Not surprisingly, then, national leaders have gravitated toward developing powerful military forces, armed with the most powerful weaponry. The fact that, with the advent of nuclear weapons, this traditional behavior has become counter-productive has only begun to penetrate their consciousness, usually helped along on such occasions by massive public pressure.

Consequently, officials of the superpowers and assorted wannabes, while paying lip service to nuclear disarmament, continue to regard it as a risky project. They are much more comfortable with maintaining nuclear arsenals and preparing for nuclear war. Thus, by signing the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty of 1968, officials from the nuclear powers pledged to “pursue negotiations in good faith on . . . a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” And today, nearly a half-century later, they have yet to begin negotiations on such a treaty. Instead, they are currently launching yet another round in the nuclear arms race. The U.S. government alone is planning to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to refurbish its entire nuclear weapons production complex, as well as to build new air-, sea-, and ground-launched nuclear weapons.

Of course, this enormous expenditure―plus the ongoing danger of nuclear disaster―could provide statesmen with a powerful incentive to end 71 years of playing with their doomsday weapons and, instead, get down to the business of finally ending the grim prospect of nuclear annihilation. In short, they could follow the lead of the UN committee and actually negotiate a ban on nuclear weapons as the first step toward abolishing them.

But, to judge from what happened in the UN Open-Ended Working Group, a negotiated nuclear weapons ban is not likely to occur. Uneasy about what might emerge from the committee’s deliberations, the nuclear powers pointedly boycotted them. Moreover, the final vote in that committee on pursuing negotiations for a ban was 68 in favor and 22 opposed, with 13 abstentions. The strong majority in favor of negotiations was comprised of African, Latin American, Caribbean, Southeast Asian, and Pacific nations, with several European nations joining them. The minority came primarily from nations under the nuclear umbrellas of the superpowers. Consequently, the same split seems likely to occur in the UN General Assembly, where the nuclear powers will do everything possible to head off UN action.

Overall, then, there is a growing division between the nuclear powers and their dependent allies, on the one hand, and a larger group of nations, fed up with the repeated evasions of the nuclear powers in dealing with the nuclear disaster that threatens to engulf the world. In this contest, the nuclear powers have the advantage, for, when all is said and done, they have the option of clinging to their nuclear weapons, even if that means ignoring a treaty adopted by a clear majority of nations around the world. Only an unusually firm stand by the non-nuclear nations, coupled with an uprising by an aroused public, seems likely to awaken the officials of the nuclear powers from their long sleepwalk toward catastrophe.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

Glaring Contrast 8/31/16

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Does the Democratic Party Have a Progressive Platform–and Does It Matter?

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Shortly after the Democratic Party’s platform committee concluded its deliberations this July, Bernie Sanders announced: “Thanks to the millions of people across the country who got involved in the political process . . . we now have the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party.”

Although the Sanders forces didn’t obtain all they wanted in their negotiations with the Clinton campaign, they did secure an avant garde platform. It calls for: a $15 per hour federal minimum wage; debt-free college education (including free tuition at public colleges for families with incomes under $125,000 per year); paid family leave; major financial reforms (including a financial transactions tax and revival of the Glass-Steagall Act); opposition to the TPP in all but name; a pathway toward marijuana legalization; defense of women’s and LGBTQ rights; expansion of Social Security; and the reversal of the Citizens United decision. In the area of criminal justice, it backs abolition of the death penalty, a shutdown of private prisons, and an end to racial profiling. The platform also supports important measures to fight climate change, including placing a price on carbon and empowering state and local governments to ban fracking–provisions strongly backed by leading environmentalists such as Bill McKibben. Furthermore, the platform calls for significant measures to improve public access to healthcare, such as the development of a public option for health insurance, increased funding for community health centers, and the ability to buy into Medicare after age 55.

When compared to the New Deal platforms of the Democratic Party in 1932 and 1936 or to the party’s later reformist platforms, such as that of 1964, the 2016 platform does, indeed, champion a more progressive domestic policy. When its provisions are set alongside the reactionary Republican Party platform of 2016, there could hardly be a more glaring contrast.

But what about foreign and military policy? Despite the fact that the rival Green Party has denounced the Democratic Party as a “party of war” and Hillary Clinton as a “warmonger,” the platform actually promises to “promote peace.” Although far from pacifist, it nevertheless states that “diplomacy and development” will be “especially” drawn upon “to confront global threats and ensure war is the last resort.” Along these lines, the platform supports continuing the Iran nuclear agreement, strengthening the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Discussing the struggle against ISIS, it opposes “large-scale combat deployment of American troops.” Even though the platform does not explicitly call for cuts in U.S. military spending, there are numerous statements suggesting action along those lines, such as promises to “end the waste in the defense budget,” “rid the military of outdated Cold War [weapons] systems,” “audit the Pentagon,” and “launch a high-level commission to review the role of defense contractors.” In addition, the platform calls for “further arms control measures” and, perhaps most tellingly (in light of the Obama administration’s vast nuclear weapons “modernization” plan), opposes “expansion of existing nuclear weapons programs,” adding: “To this end, we will work to reduce excessive spending on nuclear weapons-related programs that are projected to cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years.”

In short, although the Democratic Party platform is not noticeably more daring than past Democratic platforms on foreign and military policy issues, it is not particularly warlike, either. And when compared to the hawkish platform of the Republican Party and its candidate, Donald Trump―who has blithely proclaimed “I love war” and promised the substantial military buildup and action to facilitate it―the Democrats’ supposedly “warmongering” platform seems downright dovish.

A variety of leftists have either ignored the Democratic platform or disparaged it as of no consequence, arguing the Democrats will simply abandon their promises after the presidential election. But, even if this turns out to be true, which is far from certain, a political platform, like a union-negotiated contract or an international treaty, provides a written agreement―a set of standards with which progressive forces can demand compliance. As such, it can serve as an important basis for future political mobilization, in the streets and in electoral politics.

Bernie Sanders, who, for a politician, ran an unusually policy-oriented presidential campaign, was determined to make the Democratic Party’s platform reflect the progressive issues he raised. And, when the platform was finally drafted, he was remarkably successful, particularly within the realm of domestic policy but also, to some degree, in the realm of foreign and military policy. Progressives shouldn’t throw away the opportunity to publicize it and to demand its implementation.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

Enormous Violent Capacity 7/20/16

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

The Superpowers Are Violent Powers by Lawrence S. Wittner

If asked to identify the world’s superpowers today, most people would name the United States, Russia, and China. Although many citizens of these countries maintain that this status is based on the superiority of their national way of life, the reality is that it rests upon their nations’ enormous capacity for violence.

Certainly none has a peaceful past. The United States, Russia, and China have a long history of expansion at the expense of neighboring countries and territories, often through military conquest. Those nations on their borders today, including some that have wrenched themselves free from their imperial control, continue to fear and distrust them. Just ask Latin Americans, East Europeans, or Asians what they think of their powerful neighbors.

Nor has there been any significant reduction of their military might in recent years. Despite their professions of peaceful intentions, all three nations maintain vast armed forces and a clear willingness to use them when it suits their rulers. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, in 2014 the United States had 2.3 million active duty military, reserve military, and paramilitary personnel, Russia had 3.4 million, and China 3.5 million. These figures do not include many other people they kept fully armed, such as China’s 3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army militia. In 2015, the combined military expenditures of the three superpowers constituted more than half the world total, with 36 percent ($596 billion) spent by the United States, 13 percent ($215 billion) by China, and 4 percent ($64 billion) by Russia.

Lest anyone think that Russia’s low military expenditures―at least compared to those of the United States and China―indicate a collapse of its capacity for mass violence, it should be kept in mind that Russia continues to possess more nuclear weapons than any other nation. With an estimated 7,290 nuclear weapons in its arsenals, Russia is a formidable military power, indeed. The United States, a close runner-up, has some 7,000, giving these two superpowers possession of roughly 93 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons―more than enough to annihilate life on earth. China, by contrast, lags far behind as a nuclear power, with a mere 260. Even so, these Chinese weapons, if carefully directed, could kill about 52 million people and cause nuclear winter climate catastrophe, killing millions more.

As might be expected of countries that view themselves as the light of the world, each is dissatisfied with the nuclear status quo and is busy ramping up its nuclear arsenal at enormous cost. In the United States, a program is underway to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to build new nuclear weapons factories, new nuclear warheads, and upgraded delivery systems for the warheads via land-based missiles, submarines, and planes. Meanwhile, both Russia and China are building their own new generations of nuclear weapons. According to a recent New York Times report, Russia is developing “big missiles topped by miniaturized warheads,” while “the Russian Navy is developing an undersea drone meant to loft a cloud of radioactive contamination from an underwater explosion that would make target cities uninhabitable.” For its part, the Chinese military is flight testing a “hypersonic glide vehicle” that is fired into space “on a traditional long-range missile but then maneuvers through the atmosphere, twisting and careening at more than a mile a second,” thus rendering missile defenses “all but useless.” Americans can take heart, though, for the Obama administration “is flight-testing its own hypersonic weapon.”

Nuclear weapons, of course, have not been used except as threat since 1945. But there is nothing to prevent their employment in the future, particularly as the superpowers continue to use their military power recklessly. China, though not currently at war, is alarming its neighbors by building islands in disputed offshore waters and establishing military facilities on them. Russia is absorbing the Ukrainian territory it recently seized by military force and heavily bombing portions of Syria. And the United States is continuing its lengthy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while launching covert military operations in numerous other countries from its 662 military bases around the globe.

Not surprisingly, these are also violent societies at home. Although most nations of the world have abolished capital punishment, both the United States and China still put large numbers of people to death. Indeed, China is the world’s most active executioner.

This state-organized violence is often accompanied by citizen violence. In 2015, the use of firearms in the United States resulted in the deaths of 13,286 people and the wounding of another 26,819. These figures include 372 mass shootings, but not the many suicides (21,175 in 2011, says CDC data). In 2012―the latest year with comparative statistics―the number of gun murders per capita in the United States was nearly 30 times that in Britain.

Murder rates are also high in the three superpowers―though considerably lower in China than in the United States and Russia. When ranked by the lowest murder rates among the nations of the world, China was #28, the United States #96, and Russia #128.

Overall, then, the three superpowers are unusually violent powers. An extensive study by the Institute for Economics & Peace, released recently, ranked 163 independent nations and territories according to their level of peacefulness. Examining 23 qualitative and quantitative indicators linked to domestic or international conflict, the degree of militarization, and the level of safety and security in society, the study concluded that, when it came to peacefulness, the United States ranked #103, China #120, and Russia #151.

Is this really the best that these large, economically productive, educationally advanced, and technologically sophisticated nations can do? If so, the world is in big trouble.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

Increase Military Spending? 7/13/16

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Are We in for Another Increase in Military Spending? by Lawrence S. Wittner

At the present time, an increase in U.S. military spending seems as superfluous as a third leg. The United States, armed with the latest in advanced weaponry, has more military might than any other nation in world history. Moreover, it has begun a $1 trillion program to refurbish its entire nuclear weapons complex. America’s major military rivals, China and Russia, spend only a small fraction of what the United States does on its armed forces―in China’s case about a third and in Russia’s case about a ninth. Furthermore, the economic outlay necessary to maintain this vast U.S. military force constitutes a very significant burden. In fiscal 2015, U.S. military spending ($598.5 billion) accounted for 54 percent of the U.S. government’s discretionary spending.

Certainly, a majority of Americans are not clamoring for heightened investments in war and war preparations. According to a Gallup poll conducted in February 2016, only 37 percent of respondents said the U.S. government spent too little “for national defense and military purposes,” compared to 59 percent who said the U.S. spends either about right or too much (32 percent who said it spends too much and 27 percent who said America spends about the right amount).

These findings were corroborated by a Pew Research Center survey in April 2016, which reported that 35 percent of American respondents favored increasing U.S. military spending, 24 percent favored decreasing it, and 40 percent favored keeping it the same. Although these latest figures show a rise in support for increasing military spending since 2013, this occurred mostly among Republicans. Indeed, the gap in support for higher military spending between Republicans and Democrats, which stood at 25 percentage points in 2013, rose to 41 points by 2016.

Actually, it appears when Americans are given the facts about U.S. military spending, a substantial majority of them favor reducing it. Between December 2015 and February 2016, the nonpartisan Voice of the People, affiliated with the University of Maryland, provided a sample of 7,126 registered voters with information on the current U.S. military budget, as well as leading arguments for and against it. The arguments were vetted for accuracy by staff members of the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees on defense. Then, when respondents were asked their opinion about what should be done, 61 percent said they thought U.S. military spending should be reduced. The biggest cuts they championed were in spending for nuclear weapons and missile defense systems.

When it comes to this year’s presumptive Presidential candidates, however, quite a different picture emerges. The Republican nominee, Donald Trump, though bragging about building “a military that’s gonna be much stronger than it is right now,” has on occasion called for reducing military expenditures. On the other hand, his extraordinarily aggressive foreign policy positions have led defense contractors to conclude that, with Trump in the White House, they can look forward to sharp increases in U.S. military spending. Indeed, insisting that U.S. military power has shrunk to a pitiful level under President Obama, he has promised that, under his presidency, it would be “funded beautifully.” In March 2016, when Trump appeared on Fox News, he made that commitment more explicit by promising to increase military spending.

Given the considerably more dovish orientation of the Democratic electorate, one would expect Hillary Clinton to stake out a position more opposed to a military buildup. But, thus far, she has been remarkably cagey about this issue. In September 2015, addressing a campaign meeting in New Hampshire, Clinton called for the creation of a high-level commission to examine U.S. military spending, but whether the appointment of such a commission augurs increases or decreases remains unclear. Meanwhile, her rather hawkish foreign policy record has convinced observers that she will support a military weapons buildup. The same conclusion can be drawn from the “National Security” section of her campaign website, which declares: “As president, she’ll ensure the United States maintains the best-trained, best equipped, and strongest military the world has ever known.”

Although the big defense contractors generally regard Clinton, like Trump, as a safe bet, they exercise even greater influence in Congress, where they pour substantially larger amounts of money into the campaign coffers of friendly U.S. Senators and Representatives. Thus, even when a President or yhe DoD doesn’t back a particular weapons system, they can usually count on Congress to fund it. As a Wall Street publication recently crowed: “No matter who wins the White House this fall, one thing is clear: Defense spending will climb.”

Will it? Yes, probably so, unless public pressure can convince a new administration in Washington to adopt a less militarized approach to national and international security.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.

Page 1 of 3
1 2 3