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.

Getting It Wrong 5/11/16

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Getting the Story Wrong: The Distortion of American Politics by the Press

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Ever since the foundation of the American Republic, there has been both praise for and suspicion of the role the press plays in U.S. political life. Thomas Jefferson famously remarked that, if it were left to him “to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” And yet, Jefferson was also profoundly disturbed by the politically biased and inaccurate articles that he saw published in the press. As he told James Monroe: “My skepticism as to everything I see in a newspaper makes me indifferent whether I ever see one.”

Jefferson’s ambivalence about the press becomes understandable when one considers the distorted reporting that has characterized the current campaign for the U.S. Presidency.

Take the case of the Times Union, the largest newspaper in New York State’s heavily populated capital region. With a circulation of 66,835 on weekdays and 128,565 on Sundays, the Times Union focuses on the city of Albany and its suburbs, but also covers the rest of the capital region, including the cities of Schenectady, Troy, and Saratoga Springs. Although owned by the Hearst Corporation, the paper has a somewhat more centrist tone. With the New York Presidential primaries looming, it endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and John Kasich for the Republican. This “moderate” stance meshes well with the politics of Albany, a city that, though overwhelmingly Democratic, has long been controlled by a rather conservative Democratic political “machine.”

Consequently, it must have come as an unpleasant shock to the Times Union’s editors when, in the April 19 New York State Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders emerged victorious not only in the city of Albany, but in the entire capital region. Indeed, Sanders garnered 53.3 percent of the Democratic vote in New York’s 20th Congressional district (an area comprising all of Albany and Schenectady Counties, as well as portions of Rensselaer, Saratoga, and Montgomery Counties). Having defeated Hillary Clinton by a healthy margin of almost seven percent, Sanders won four out of the seven delegates allocated to the district by the New York State Democratic Party. The outcome of the race was a reversal of the results in the 2008 Democratic primary, when Clinton handily defeated Barack Obama in the capital region.

This could have provided quite a dramatic feature item for a local newspaper, especially given the fact that a ragtag, volunteer campaign had defeated the Clinton juggernaut–a juggernaut reinforced by Clinton’s eight years of representing New York State in the U.S. Senate, the backing of Clinton by every major Democratic politician in the state, and the loyal campaigning for Clinton by the Albany Democratic “machine.” The David versus Goliath aspects of this story were also strengthened by the contrasting delegate slates for the two rival candidates that appeared on the 20th Congressional district election ballot: the top local elected public officials and Democratic Party leaders for Clinton and a group of obscure community members for Sanders. Here, it seemed, was a newspaper’s dream story.

But it wasn’t printed. In fact, the Times Union even failed to report that Sanders had won the race in the capital district.

The Times Union article posted on the night of the primary didn’t mention Sanders’s victory at all. Instead, the article, headlined “Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton win in New York,” gave the impression of a Clinton and Trump sweep. “New York,” it proclaimed, “turned out to be the state where the presidential front-runners regained their mojo.” Although the article devoted a good deal of attention to the activities of primary voters in the capital district, it somehow omitted reporting on whom they had voted for.

An updated version of the article appeared the following day in the Times Union, after the five counties’ boards of election had posted the election results online. By this time it was clear that Sanders, though losing heavily to Clinton in the New York City metropolitan region, had defeated Clinton in most other areas of the state. This included not only the 20th Congressional district, but the neighboring 19th and 21st which, all together, provided Sanders with 11 delegates to Clinton’s seven. Even then, however, the writers of the article could not quite bring themselves to say that, in the capital region, where almost all the Times Union’s readers lived and voted, Sanders had won. Instead, they confined themselves to declaring that “Sanders performed well in the more rural regions of upstate–and in the Capital Region.” With a headline this time proclaiming “Big home-state wins boost front-runners,” the article once again left readers with the impression that Clinton had been victorious in the newspaper’s locale while, in reality, the clear victor was Sanders.

On the night of April 22, three days after the presidential primary, seven words buried at the very end of a Times Union blog finally let slip the fact that Sanders had won in the 20th Congressional district.

The reluctance of the Times Union to report on how residents in its own region had voted, like the negligible coverage the newspaper gave to the vibrant local Sanders campaign in the months leading up to the Presidential primary, is really quite remarkable.

But should it surprise us? Probably not. One wonders to what degree this treatment of Sanders’s campaign is a national phenomenon.

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?

Added With a Chuckle 3/16/16

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

The Trillion Dollar Question  – by Lawrence S. Wittner

Isn’t it rather odd that America’s largest single public expenditure scheduled for the coming decades has received no attention in the 2015-2016 presidential debates?

The expenditure is for a 30-year program to “modernize” the U.S. nuclear arsenal and production facilities. Although President Obama began his administration with a dramatic public commitment to build a nuclear weapons-free world, that commitment has long ago dwindled and died. It has been replaced by an administration plan to build a new generation of U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear production facilities to last the nation well into the second half of the twenty-first century. This plan, which has received almost no attention by the mass media, includes redesigned nuclear warheads, as well as new nuclear bombers, submarines, land-based missiles, weapons labs, and production plants. The estimated cost? $1,000,000,000,000.00—or, for those readers unfamiliar with such lofty figures, $1 trillion.

Critics charge that the expenditure of this staggering sum will either bankrupt the country or, at the least, require massive cutbacks in funding for other federal government programs. “We’re . . . wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it,” admitted Brian McKeon, an undersecretary of defense. And we’re “probably thanking our stars we won’t be here to have to have to answer the question,” he added with a chuckle.

Of course, this nuclear “modernization” plan violates the terms of the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires the nuclear powers to engage in nuclear disarmament. The plan is also moving forward despite the fact that the U.S. government already possesses roughly 7,000 nuclear weapons that can easily destroy the world. Although climate change might end up accomplishing much the same thing, a nuclear war does have the advantage of terminating life on earth more rapidly.

This trillion dollar nuclear weapons buildup has yet to inspire any questions about it by the moderators during the numerous presidential debates. Even so, in the course of the campaign, the presidential candidates have begun to reveal their attitudes toward it.

On the Republican side, the candidates—despite their professed distaste for federal expenditures and “big government”—have been enthusiastic supporters of this great leap forward in the nuclear arms race. Donald Trump, the frontrunner, contended in his presidential announcement speech that “our nuclear arsenal doesn’t work,” insisting that it is out of date. Although he didn’t mention the $1 trillion price tag for “modernization,” the program is clearly something he favors, especially given his campaign’s focus on building a U.S. military machine “so big, powerful, and strong that no one will mess with us.”

His Republican rivals have adopted a similar approach. Marco Rubio, asked while campaigning in Iowa about whether he supported the trillion dollar investment in new nuclear weapons, replied that “we have to have them. No country in the world faces the threats America faces.” When a peace activist questioned Ted Cruz on the campaign trail about whether he agreed with Ronald Reagan on the need to eliminate nuclear weapons, the Texas senator replied: “I think we’re a long way from that and, in the meantime, we need to be prepared to defend ourselves. The best way to avoid war is to be strong enough that no one wants to mess with the United States.” Apparently, Republican candidates are particularly worried about being “messed with.”

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has been more ambiguous about her stance toward a dramatic expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Asked by a peace activist about the trillion dollar nuclear plan, she replied that she would “look into that,” adding: “It doesn’t make sense to me.” Even so, like other issues that the former secretary of defense has promised to “look into,” this one remains unresolved. Moreover, the “National Security” section of her campaign website promises that she will maintain the “strongest military the world has ever known”—not a propitious sign for critics of nuclear weapons.

Only Bernie Sanders has adopted a position of outright rejection. In May 2015, shortly after declaring his candidacy, Sanders was asked at a public meeting about the trillion dollar nuclear weapons program. He replied: “What all of this is about is our national priorities. Who are we as a people? Does Congress listen to the military-industrial complex” that “has never seen a war that they didn’t like? Or do we listen to the people of this country who are hurting?” In fact, Sanders is one of only three U.S. Senators who support the SANE Act, legislation that would significantly reduce U.S. government spending on nuclear weapons. In addition, on the campaign trail, Sanders has not only called for cuts in spending on nuclear weapons, but has affirmed his support for their total abolition.

Nevertheless, given the failure of the presidential debate moderators to raise the issue of nuclear weapons “modernization,” the American people have been left largely uninformed about the candidates’ opinions on this subject. So, if Americans would like more light shed on their future president’s response to this enormously expensive surge in the nuclear arms race, it looks like they are the ones who are going to have to ask the candidates the trillion dollar question.

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?

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