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?

The Peace Candidate 2/17/16

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Bernie Sanders: The 2016 Peace Candidate

By Lawrence S. Wittner

On February 10, 2016, Peace Action—the largest peace organization in the United States—announced its endorsement of Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination for President.

Peace Action is the descendant of two other mass U.S. peace organizations: the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign (the Freeze). SANE was founded in 1957 with the goal of ending nuclear weapons testing. Soon, though, it broadened its agenda to include opposing the Vietnam War and other overseas military intervention, reducing military spending, and backing nuclear disarmament treaties, as well as supporting economic conversion from military to civilian production. Among SANE’s early supporters were Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Walter Reuther, and Dr. Benjamin Spock. The Freeze, initiated by Randy Forsberg, appeared in the late 1970s and reached a peak in the first half of the 1980s, when it led a widespread campaign to halt the Reagan administration’s dramatic nuclear weapons buildup and the dangerous slide toward nuclear war. With much in common, SANE and the Freeze merged in 1987 to form Peace Action. Like its predecessors, Peace Action devoted its efforts to building a more peaceful world.

Although the three peace organizations rarely endorsed Presidential candidates, they did so on occasion. Appalled by the Vietnam War, SANE backed the peace campaigns of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. In 1984, challenging the Reagan administration’s bellicose approach to international affairs, SANE and the Freeze endorsed Walter Mondale. Then, in 1992, fed up with twelve years of Republican hawkishness, the newly combined organization threw its support behind Bill Clinton.

In its statement endorsing Bernie Sanders, Peace Action praised his opposition to both Iraq wars, support of legislation to reduce spending on nuclear weapons, strong backing of the Iran agreement, votes to curb military spending, and championing of diplomacy over war. According to Kevin Martin, the executive director of the peace organization, Sanders “best represents the values that Peace Action and its 200,000 supporters have espoused.” And, in fact, before Peace Action’s board of directors voted overwhelmingly to have the organization’s Peace PAC back the Sanders campaign, an online poll of Peace Action’s members revealed support for endorsement by 85 percent of the respondents.

This enthusiasm for Sanders among peace activists reflects other aspects of his record, as well. The U.S. Senator from Vermont has opposed NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, favored normalization of relations with Iran, and decried the Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2014 as “disproportionate” and “completely unacceptable.” When it comes to the war in Syria, he has opposed the establishment of a “no-fly zone” and the use of American ground troops. In a July 2015 interview, Sanders explained that, although he is not a pacifist, he believes that “war is the very, very, very last option.”

Sanders’ depiction as a peace candidate has inspired some grumbling. During the Presidential race, he has shied away from foreign and military policy issues, and this has disappointed some peace activists. Hard-line leftists, already irked by his benign brand of socialism, have been particularly critical. A writer in the Socialist Worker denounced Sanders’ “backing of U.S. imperialism,” while another, in Jacobin, charged that he was “willfully blind to the hand-in-glove relationship between capitalism and militarism.”

Even so, when it comes to mainstream electoral politics, Sanders is a logical choice for peace activists. Although it’s true that he has focused his campaign on economic inequality within the United States, he has not hesitated to assail the “military-industrial complex,” as well as the “regime change” policies of past U.S. administrations. Also, the attacks upon him by leftwing purists are often divorced from reality. Driven by a sectarian mindset and a fierce hatred of the Democratic Party, these firebrands distort or ignore much of his peace-oriented record. Furthermore, they overlook the unpleasant alternatives to a Sanders presidency: a hawkish Hillary Clinton or a rabidly militaristic Republican in the White House.

A more serious question is whether American voters, in 2016, will respond positively to a peace candidate. Although the answer remains unclear, there are some indications that they will. Opinion polls reveal that most Americans do not support increasing the U.S. military budget, are wary of sending U.S. ground troops into another Mideast war, and back recent agreements that ease tensions with “enemy” nations like Iran and Cuba. Therefore, campaigning as a peace candidate might end up producing benefits for Bernie Sanders at the ballot box.

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?

Nuclear American Casualties 1/13/16

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

American Casualties of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Program

by Lawrence S. Wittner

When Americans think about nuclear weapons, they comfort themselves with the thought that these weapons’ vast destruction of human life has not taken place since 1945—at least not yet. But, in reality, it has taken place, with shocking levels of U.S. casualties.

This point is borne out by a recently-published study by a team of investigative journalists at McClatchy News. Drawing upon millions of government records and large numbers of interviews, they concluded that employment in the nation’s nuclear weapons plants since 1945 led to 107,394 American workers contracting cancer and other serious diseases. Of these people, some 53,000 judged by government officials to have experienced excessive radiation on the job received $12 billion in compensation under the federal government’s Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. And 33,480 of these workers have died.

How could this happen? Let’s examine the case of Byron Vaigneur. In October 1975, he saw a brownish sludge containing plutonium break through the wall of his office and start pooling near his desk at the Savannah River, South Carolina nuclear weapons plant. Subsequently, he contracted breast cancer, as well as chronic beryllium disease, a debilitating respiratory condition. Vaigneur, who had a mastectomy to cut out the cancer, is today on oxygen, often unable to walk more than a hundred feet. Declaring he’s ready to die, he has promised to donate his body to science in the hope that it will help save the lives of other people exposed to deadly radiation.

Actually, workers in nuclear weapons plants constitute only a fraction of Americans whose lives have been ravaged by preparations for nuclear war. A 2002 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintained that, between 1951 and 1963 alone, the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons—more than half of it done by the United States—killed 11,000 Americans through cancer. As this estimate does not include internal radiation exposure caused by inhaling or swallowing radioactive particles, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research has maintained that the actual number of fatal cancers caused by nuclear testing could be 17,000. Of course, a larger number of people contracted cancer from nuclear testing than actually died of it. The government study estimated that those who contracted cancer numbered at least 80,000 Americans.

Who were these Americans? Many of them were “downwinders”—people whose towns and cities were located near U.S. nuclear testing sites and, thus, were contaminated by deadly clouds of nuclear fallout carried along by the wind. During the 1950s, the U.S. government conducted close to a hundred atmospheric nuclear explosions at its Nevada test site. Nearly 30 percent of the radioactive debris drifted over the towns to the east, which housed a population of roughly 100,000 people. The residents of St. George, Utah recalled that a “pink cloud” would hang over them while they worked amid the fallout, walked in it, breathed it, washed their clothes in it, and ate it. “Even the little children ate the snow,” recalled one resident. “They didn’t know it was going to kill them later on.”

During subsequent decades, leukemia and other cancer rates soared in the counties adjoining the Nevada test site, as they did among the 250,000 U.S. soldiers exposed to U.S. nuclear weapons tests. From the standpoint of U.S. military commanders, it was vital to place American soldiers close to U.S. nuclear explosions to get them ready to fight in a nuclear war. Subsequently, as many of these soldiers developed cancer, had children with birth defects, or died, they and their family members organized atomic veterans’ groups to demand that the federal government provide medical care and financial compensation for their suffering. Today, atomic veterans receive both from the federal government.

Uranium miners comprise yet another group of Americans who have suffered and died from the U.S. nuclear weapons program. To obtain the uranium ore necessary to build nuclear weapons, the U.S. government operated thousands of uranium mines, often on the lands of Native Americans, many of whom worked as miners and died premature deaths. The U.S. Public Health Service and the National Institute for Public Safety and Health conducted studies of uranium miners that discovered alarmingly high rates of deaths from lung cancer, other lung diseases, tuberculosis, emphysema, blood disease, and injuries. In addition, when the uranium mines were played out or abandoned for other reasons, they were often left as open pits, thereby polluting the air, land, and water of the surrounding communities with radiation and heavy metals.

This American nuclear catastrophe is not only a matter of the past, but seems likely to continue well into the future. The U.S. government is now beginning a $1 trillion program to “modernize” its nuclear weapons complex. This involves building new nuclear weapons factories and labs, as well as churning out new nuclear weapons and warheads for firing from the air, land, and sea. Of course, if these weapons and their overseas counterparts are used, they will destroy the world. But, as we have seen, even when they are not used in war, they exact a dreadful toll—in the United States and, it should be noted, in other nations around the world.

How long are people going to tolerate this nuclear tragedy?

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?

Economy Democratization 12/30/15

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Has the Time Come for Democratization of the Economy? – By Lawrence S. Wittner

A study released at the beginning of December by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) reported that America’s 20 wealthiest individuals own more wealth than roughly half the American population combined—152 million people. The startling level of economic inequality in the United States is also highlighted by Forbes, which recently observed that the richest 400 Americans possess more wealth than 62 percent of the American public—192 million people. Furthermore, these studies apparently underestimate the concentration of wealth in the United States, for the use of offshore tax havens and legal trusts conceals trillions of dollars that the richest Americans have amassed for themselves and their families.

Ironically, the United States has long been depicted as a land of economic equality, with widespread prosperity. Writing from Monticello in 1814, Thomas Jefferson emphasized America’s difference from class-divided Europe. “The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich . . . being few, and of moderate wealth,” he declared. “Most of the laboring classes possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich . . . such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families.” In the early twentieth century, Werner Sombart, a German economist and sociologist, argued that, in the United States, “socialistic Utopias . . . are sent to their doom” on “the reefs of roast beef and apple pie.” The “American Dream” of economic opportunity for all has constantly been invoked, sometimes to avoid a more equitable sharing of the wealth and, at other times, to advance it.

Nevertheless, the reality of life in the United States has often fallen short of the American Dream. Certainly, American slaves and their descendants didn’t consume much of the roast beef. And there was also substantial economic misery and class strife among other portions of the American population, who labored long hours in factories and mines, experienced high levels of industrial accidents, endured frequent layoffs and unemployment, and lived in squalid slums. What led, at times, to some degree of economic leveling was not a voluntary sharing of the wealth by the richest Americans but, rather, economic struggles by unions and public policy breakthroughs secured by progressive politicians.

But, with union strength declining and progressive politics in retreat since the 1980s, economic inequality in the United States has grown by leaps and bounds. In the 1970s, America’s wealthiest 0.1 percent—the richest one-thousandth of the population—owned 7 percent of U.S. household wealth. Today, that figure has risen to 20 percent—about as much wealth as is possessed, in total, by the bottom 90 percent of Americans.

Although the 20 richest Americans, who possess more wealth than about half the American population combined, include some founders of corporations, they are outnumbered by the heirs of families with vast fortunes. The latter individuals include Charles and David Koch (the scions of a wealthy founder of the John Birch Society, with $82 billion between them) and four members of Wal-Mart’s Walton clan (with $127.6 billion among them).

All right, you might say; but does this economic inequality really matter? Well, it certainly matters to those Americans whose economic opportunities have been stunted to facilitate this accumulation and hoarding of vast wealth. Furthermore, as the authors of the IPS study note: “Extreme inequalities of income, wealth and opportunity undermine democracy, social cohesion, economic stability, social mobility, and many other important aspects of our personal and public lives.” In addition, “extreme inequality corrodes our democratic system and public trust. It leads to a breakdown in civic cohesion and social solidarity, which in turn leads to worsened health outcomes. Inequality undercuts social mobility—and has disastrous effects on the economy.”

Economic inequality is certainly warping American politics and public policy. In recent years, the wealthy and their corporations have poured enormous financial resources into political campaigns, dwarfing all other sources of campaign funding. In the first phase of the 2016 Presidential election cycle alone, half of total campaign contributions have come from 158 wealthy donors. Not surprisingly, relatively few politicians dare to offend rich donors and their interests. Thus, wealthy rightwingers like the Koch brothers (who have promised to put nearly a billion dollars into the 2016 elections) and Sheldon Adelson (possessing wealth of $26 billion) have far greater influence over public policy than do average Americans. As numerous pollsters have observed, most Americans favor progressive public policies, including raising the minimum wage, taxing the rich, providing free college education, and establishing a single-payer healthcare system. But, when it comes to federal action, these programs remain dead in the water.

Will Americans stand up and insist upon sharing their nation’s wealth more equitably? There are signs, such as the popularity of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, that many of them are becoming fed up with economic inequality. Of course, they might be distracted by xenophobia and fear-mongering, which have been promoted assiduously in recent months by pro-corporate politicians. Even so, there are growing indications that Americans favor democracy not only in their politics, but in their economy.

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?

Everybody Splits Even 11/25/15

Almost a Century Ago, another Democratic Socialist Ran for President of the United States—from His Prison Cell

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

By Lawrence S. Wittner

In the early twentieth century, roughly a century before Bernie Sanders’s long-shot run for the White House, another prominent democratic socialist, Eugene V. Debs, waged his own campaigns for the presidency.

Debs began his political career as a labor leader. Growing up in Terre Haute, Indiana, he dropped out of school at the age of 14 to work on the railroads, scraping the grease from the trucks of freight engines. In later years, convinced that the division of workers into small craft unions made them easy pickings for the giant railroad corporations, Debs founded the American Railway Union, leading it in the dramatic Pullman Strike of 1894. Taking the side of the railroad corporations, the federal government acted to crush the strike, send Debs and other union leaders to jail, and destroy the American Railway Union.

As Debs brooded on these events, he concluded that, although industry-wide unions were vital, they could not win their battles for economic and social justice while giant corporations dominated the government. In Europe, workers were forming labor and socialist parties. Why not in America? At the beginning of 1897, in an open letter to the remnants of the American Railway Union, he wrote: “I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough.”

In 1901, together with small groups of union activists, former Populists, socialists, and a sprinkling of intellectuals and reformers, Debs established the Socialist Party of America. Socialist Party campaigns were a mixture of “immediate demands”—minimum wages, maximum hours, abolition of child labor, and women’s suffrage—and utopian visions. On the municipal level, the party challenged local corruption and championed improved public services. Each reform, the party stressed, extended democracy from politics to the economy, leading to the ultimate goal of “the cooperative commonwealth.”

In response, the party’s strength grew rapidly and, by 1912, the Socialist Party, with Debs as its presidential candidate, was a force to be reckoned with. In speech after speech, Debs set crowds ablaze. Eighteen thousand people crowded into Philadelphia’s Convention Hall to hear him. Another 22,000 packed New York City’s Madison Square Garden. In the Southwest, his revivalistic zeal appealed deeply to tenant farmers and miners. In the Middle West, he captured the hearts of Polish- and German-Americans. In the East, Jewish garment workers plastered their walls with his picture. As the novelist John Dos Passos noted, Debs encouraged workers to “want the world he wanted, a world . . . where everybody would split even.”

The 1912 election results confirmed the party’s progress. That year, Debs drew 901,000 votes. Socialist Party membership also reached a peak: 118,000 Americans. Like its counterparts abroad (for example, the British Labour Party), the Socialist Party seemed to be rising to power. Socialists held 1,200 public offices in 340 American cities, including 79 mayors in 24 states.

However, by 1920, Debs faced a very different situation. His beloved Socialist Party lay in ruins, while he was locked up again in prison.

Behind the crisis of American socialism lay World War I and its accompanying atmosphere of fear and intolerance. In response to the Congressional declaration of war in April 1917, delegates at an emergency party convention declared their “unalterable opposition” to it. Fierce government repression and vigilante action followed, destroying the party organization. Drawing upon the Espionage Act—a loosely-written law prohibiting any obstruction of the war effort—the federal government began prosecuting Socialist Party leaders. Many were convicted, usually for speeches or writings critical of the war, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Meanwhile, the postmaster general banned virtually every Socialist newspaper, magazine, or other publication from the mails. Socialist Congressman Victor Berger, convicted under the Espionage Act, was expelled from the House of Representatives, re-elected by the voters, and then expelled again.

Outraged by this assault upon civil liberties, Debs delivered a blistering speech that June at a party rally in Canton, Ohio, not far from the jail where two Socialist Party leaders had recently been hung by their wrists from a prison rafter. As federal agents circulated conspicuously through the crowd, he declared boldly: “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose.” Thirteen days later, a federal grand jury indicted Debs for violating the Espionage Act.

At his trial, Debs freely conceded his guilt. “I have been accused of having obstructed the war,” he stated. “I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war.” Facing a possible 60-year prison sentence, the aging Socialist leader refused to flinch. “Your Honor,” he said, “years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better. . . . While there is a lower class, I am in it; . . . while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Sentenced to 10 years in prison, Debs spent a substantial portion of it in the maximum security penitentiary in Atlanta. Here he labored in the prison workhouse and, for 15 hours a day, was confined with five other men to a small, stiflingly hot Southern jail cell. Reports began to filter out that the 63-year old Socialist leader was near death. Moreover, the prison’s security restrictions weighed heavily upon him. Visiting privileges were limited, while Debs’s letters—restricted to a single sheet of paper per week—could be written only to an authorized group of family members. In a particularly vindictive act, the Wilson administration cut off Debs’s mail and visiting privileges. Nevertheless, Debs remained a charismatic figure, beloved by his fellow prisoners.

Meanwhile, the Socialist Party continued to disintegrate. A portion of the party, inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and convinced by government repression that American democracy was a sham, demanded a “revolutionary” strategy. When they failed to capture control of the Socialist Party from more moderate forces, they split off and formed two competing Communist organizations whose leaders raced off to Moscow to secure recognition from the new Communist International. Debs spoke out strongly against them. “The Moscow program,” he said, “is outrageous, autocratic, ridiculous.” Thereafter, Socialists and Communists were rivals—and sometimes enemies—in the United States and around the world.

Meanwhile, in 1920, the battered Socialist Party leadership convinced Debs to make yet another run for the presidency. Confined to his prison cell and with his party in shambles, Debs could not wage an effective campaign. Indeed, he was allowed no more than a weekly press release by prison authorities. Nevertheless, he provided a potent symbol of democratic socialist ideals and government repression. In the election, he garnered 923,000 votes—a smaller percentage of the overall total (enhanced by women’s suffrage) than he had drawn in the past, but the largest vote ever drawn by a democratic socialist candidate for the presidency.

In late 1921, the new Republican administration of Warren G. Harding, barraged by petitions calling for Debs’s freedom, commuted his sentence and released him from captivity. After an emotional farewell from his fellow prisoners, Debs traveled to the White House for a remarkably friendly meeting with the President. Then Debs caught a train to Terre Haute, where he was greeted by a wild, cheering crowd of 25,000 that lifted him off his feet and carried him to the front steps of his home.

Although Debs died some four years later, many of the democratic socialist ideas he championed—minimum wages, maximum hours, unemployment insurance, the abolition of child labor, collective bargaining rights, health and safety regulations, worker’s compensation, social security, and a variety of publicly funded services—having attained some popularity, became incorporated into the program of the Democratic Party and, later, enacted into law.

Will the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, a political activist who has long revered Debs, be able to extend Debs’s legacy by securing national healthcare, free college education, a $15 minimum wage, a break-up of the giant banks, a more peaceful foreign policy, and other reforms? Debs’s political career illustrates both the difficulties and the possibilities.

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?

Tuition-Free College Makes Sense

by Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

The issue of making college tuition-free has recently come to the fore in American politics, largely because the two leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, have each championed it. Sanders has called for free undergraduate tuition at public colleges and universities, to be financed by a tax on Wall Street speculation, while Clinton has done the same, although with some qualifications and a different funding mechanism.

The major argument for free public college and university education is the same as for free public education in general: like the free public elementary and high schools already existing in the United States, free public higher education provides educational opportunity for all and strengthens the American workforce.

Actually, until fairly recently, the United States had a free or virtually free system of public higher education. In 1862, to provide educational opportunity for the “sons of toil,” the U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Act, establishing land-grant public colleges and universities on a tuition-free basis. For roughly a century thereafter, many American public colleges and universities either charged no tuition or a nominal fee for attendance. The State University of New York (SUNY) system—the largest in the nation—remained tuition-free until 1963. The University of California system, established in 1868, had free tuition until the 1980s.

In recent decades, however, the situation has changed dramatically, with tuition costs soaring to dizzying heights at both public and private colleges. Between 1978 and 2013, American college tuition reportedly rose by 1,120 percent. Last year, the average annual cost for undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities was $9,139 for state residents and $22,958 for out of state residents. At the University of California, yearly undergraduate tuition and fees now stand at $13,251 for state residents and $37,959 for out of state residents. The cost is considerably higher at private colleges and universities, which average $32,599 yearly for tuition and fees. The ten most expensive average $50,632 a year. These figures, of course, do not include additional thousands of dollars for room, board, books, and other living costs.

This enormous hike in tuition has had a devastating impact upon educational opportunity. Unable to afford college, many young people never attend it or drop out along the way. Studies have found that the primary reason young people cite for not attending college is its enormous cost. Many other young people can afford to attend college only by working simultaneously at paying jobs (which takes time away from their studies) and/or by running up enormous debt. As recently as the early 1990s, most college students did not take out loans to finance their education. Now, however, nearly three out of four college graduates have borrowed to cover their college costs, running up a debt averaging $30,000 each. As a result, American student loan debt now totals $1.3 trillion. Paying off this debt at high interest rates constitutes a heavy burden for young Americans, and all too many of them either default on it or, to repay it, give up on their dreams and settle for working at jobs they dislike.

The tuition squeeze on young Americans results largely from severe reductions in state and local funding for public colleges and universities, usually initiated by conservative, budget-cutting governments (even as they vote bigger Pentagon budgets). Since 2008 alone, state funding for public universities has dropped 16 percent. During that same period, state funding for SUNY’s 64 campuses dropped by 28 percent. Indeed, there is considerable question as to whether public colleges and universities are still public institutions, for most of their costs—once covered by government funding—are now met by student tuition. Today, state funding covers only about 30 percent of SUNY’s costs; students pick up the remaining 70 percent.

This campus austerity program hurts not only students, but the entire educational process. Anxious to maintain or expand operations despite declining levels of government funding, college and university administrators cut campus costs by replacing tenured and tenure-line faculty with rootless, powerless, low-paid part-timers (adjuncts) and underpaid full-timers in temporary positions (contingents or fixed-term). In 1969, tenured and tenure-track faculty held three out of four teaching positions. By 2013, this “regular” faculty held one out of five. Faculty morale and the quality of education have plummeted.

In addition, campus administrators, faced with declining income, are increasingly inclined to accept funding from wealthy individuals and corporations that are reshaping higher education to serve their interests. From 2005 to 2013, two rightwing billionaires, Charles and David Koch, spent $68 million funding the kinds of programs they wanted on 308 U.S. college and university campuses. In New York State, when Governor Andrew Cuomo initiated Start-Up NY, a scheme to provide a tax-free haven to businesses that moved onto or near public (and some private) college campuses, there was never any question about how SUNY’s chancellor and other administrators would respond. Instead of resisting this business takeover of university facilities and mission, they became leading cheerleaders for it.

In these circumstances, free tuition would, at the least, restore educational opportunity to millions of Americans and lift the terrible burden of debt from the shoulders of young people. In addition, by bringing large numbers of new students and their funding to public colleges and universities, it would reduce the incentive for administrators to turn the faculty into weak, impoverished migrant laborers. Indeed, a surge of fully funded students might even provide administrators with the backbone to resist the growing corporate takeover of higher education. Furthermore, although private colleges might resent this enhanced funding of their public competitors, the resulting competition for students might encourage them to decrease their astronomical tuition, thus providing them with a more economically diverse student body.

Overall, then, tuition-free college makes a lot of sense, which explains why Americans established it in the first place.

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

Champion Programs 11/4/15

Democratic Socialism Has Deep Roots in American Life

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

The shock and disbelief with which many political pundits have responded to Bernie Sanders’ description of himself as a “democratic socialist”—a supporter of democratic control of the economy—provide a clear indication of how little they know about the popularity and influence of democratic socialism over the course of American history.

How else could they miss the existence of a thriving Socialist Party, led by Eugene Debs (one of the nation’s most famous union leaders) and Norman Thomas (a distinguished Presbyterian minister), during the early decades of the twentieth century? Or the democratic socialist administrations elected to govern Milwaukee, Bridgeport, Flint, Minneapolis, Schenectady, Racine, Davenport, Butte, Pasadena, and numerous other U.S. cities? Or the democratic socialists, such as Victor Berger, Meyer London, and Ron Dellums, elected to Congress? Or the programs long championed by democratic socialists that, eventually, were put into place by Republican and Democratic administrations—from the Pure Food and Drug Act to the income tax, from minimum wage laws to maximum hour laws, from unemployment insurance to public power, from Social Security to Medicare?

Most startling of all, they have missed the many prominent Americans who, though now deceased, were democratic socialists during substantial portions of their lives. These include labor leaders like Walter Reuther (president, United Auto Workers and vice-president, AFL-CIO), David Dubinsky (president, International Ladies Garment Workers Union), Sidney Hillman (president, Amalgamated Clothing Workers), Jerry Wurf (president, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), and William Winpisinger (president, International Association of Machinists). Even Samuel Gompers—the founder and long-time president of the American Federation of Labor who, in the latter part of his life, clashed with Debs and other socialist union leaders—was initially a socialist.

Numerous popular novelists and other writers also embraced democratic socialism, including Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, Thorstein Veblen, C. Wright Mills, Erich Fromm, Michael Harrington, Irving Howe, and Howard Zinn. Eminent scientists, too, became democratic socialists, including Charles Steinmetz and Albert Einstein.

Many well-known social reformers also joined the ranks of America’s democratic socialists, among them Elizabeth Cady Stanton (women’s rights crusader), John Dewey (educator), Helen Keller (author and lecturer), and Margaret Sanger (birth control pioneer). Within the civil rights movement, particularly, a very important role was played by democratic socialists, among them W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and James Farmer.

In fact, although very few people know it, even Martin Luther King, Jr. was a democratic socialist. “I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic,” he wrote to Coretta Scott (soon to become his wife) on July 18, 1952. This belief system continued throughout his life, and, in the late 1960s, contributed to his shift from championing racial equality to championing economic equality. In a 1966 speech to his staff, King declared: “Something is wrong . . . with capitalism.” He added: “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.” Plans for the Poor People’s Campaign followed, as did his death while promoting the unionization of Memphis’s exploited sanitation workers.

Some might argue that democratic socialism, like these individuals, is dead and gone, replaced by its hierarchical enemies, corporate capitalism on the Right and Communism on the Left. But that contention is belied by the continued existence of large, democratic socialist parties that either govern other democratic nations or provide the major opposition to the conservative governments of those nations: the British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party, the Swedish Social Democratic Party, the Australian Labor Party, the Brazilian Democratic Workers Party, the German Social Democratic Party, the Irish Labour Party, Mexico’s Party of the Democratic Revolution, South Africa’s African National Congress, the Israeli Labor Party, the New Zealand Labour Party, Chile’s Socialist Party, and many, many more around the world.

Nor is democratic socialism dead in the United States. In response to rising economic inequality and, particularly, the blatant greed and power of the wealthy and their corporations, Democratic Socialists of America—a descendant of the old Socialist Party of America, though an organization rather than a third party—is growing rapidly. Not surprisingly, it is fervently backing Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the presidency. Meanwhile, Democratic Party leaders are suddenly shying away from their corporate dalliances and picking up a few programmatic ideas from Sanders, democratic socialists, and their allies. These include a $15 per hour minimum wage, expansion of Social Security, free college tuition, and opposition to two pro-corporate ventures: the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

If the political pundits would look around, they would even discover a significant number of prominent U.S. democratic socialists at work in a variety of fields. They include muckraking authors like Barbara Ehrenreich, journalists like Harold Meyerson, actors like Ed Asner and Wallace Shawn, intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Cornel West, documentary film-makers like Michael Moore, TV commentators like Lawrence O’Donnell, science fiction writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem, peace movement veterans like David McReynolds, and academics like Frances Fox Piven.

These and many other democratic socialists, among them Bernie Sanders, have played an important role in American life. It’s a shame that so many political “experts” haven’t noticed it.

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

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