Most Americans Want 7/8/15

What Do Americans Think About Economic Inequality?

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Are Americans disturbed about growing economic inequality in the United States?

Numerous opinion surveys in recent years indicate that substantial majorities of Americans not only recognize that the gap between the wealthy and everyone else has grown, but favor greater economic equality. A Gallup poll conducted in April 2015 found that 63 percent of respondents believed that wealth in the United States should be distributed more evenly. Similarly, a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in late May 2015 revealed that 66 percent of Americans favored the redistribution of “the money and wealth in this country” along more egalitarian lines.

A key reason for Americans’ desire to share the wealth more equally is that many of them think that riches are amassed unfairly. A Pew Research Center survey in January 2014 found that 60 percent of respondents believed that “the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.” Asked about why someone was wealthy, 51 percent said: “Because he or she had more advantages.” The New York Times/CBS News poll reported that 61 percent of respondents believed that “just a few people at the top have a chance to get ahead.”

Furthermore, despite the many billions of dollars U.S. corporations lavish on advertising and other forms of public relations to give themselves a positive image, Americans are remarkably wary of these giant economic enterprises. According to a Gallup poll of June 2014, only 21 percent of Americans had a great deal of confidence in big business. By contrast, 40 percent of respondents said they had very little or no confidence in it. A year later, another Gallup survey found that Americans’ confidence in big business remained stuck at 21 percent — below historic norms. A survey done by the public relations industry in 2014 reported that, although Americans valued corporate products, 47 percent of the public said that, when it came to ethics, they had little or no trust in major corporations. Health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, banks, and energy companies were viewed as the least trustworthy.

By contrast, Americans have a more sympathetic attitude toward considerably less wealthy groups that challenge corporate dominance. The June 2015 Gallup survey found a higher rate of public confidence in unions and, especially, in small businesses. In August 2014, another Gallup survey found that Americans approved of unions by 53 to 38 percent. That was up from five years before, when 48 percent approved and 45 percent disapproved of them. Questioned in the New York Times/CBS News survey, 74 percent of respondents said that large corporations had “too much influence” in “American life and politics today.” When it came to unions, however, only 37 percent said they had “too much influence,” while 54 percent said they had “too little influence” or “about the right amount of influence.”

In an apparent attempt to downplay these signs of public dismay with the economic playing field, the American Enterprise Institute — a leading champion of the wealthy and corporations — argued recently that “inequality does not appear to be a top-tier concern” for Americans. This big business think tank also trumpeted the claim that 70 percent of Americans “believe that most people are better off in a free market economy even though some people are rich and some are poor.”

Nevertheless, this dismissive appraisal of public concern is called into question by the widespread demand for government action to counter economic inequality. The Pew Research Center’s January 2014 opinion poll found that 82 percent of American respondents favored government action to reduce poverty and 69 percent supported government action “to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.” In May of this year, the New York Times/CBS News survey reported that, by 57 to 39 percent, Americans favored using government to “reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in this country.”

Furthermore, most Americans back specific government programs along these lines. The New York Times/CBS News survey found broad public support for the following programs: raising the minimum wage (71 percent); increasing taxes on the rich (68 percent); and requiring employers to provide paid family leave (80 percent). Even the more unusual approach of limiting the pay of top corporate executives received the backing of 50 percent. Other recent polls reveal similar priorities: between 71 percent (CNN/ORC) and 73 percent (Pew) of Americans favor raising the federal minimum wage; 52 percent favor “heavy taxes on the rich” (Gallup); 54 percent support raising taxes on the wealthy and the corporations (Pew); and 70 percent support federal funding of pre-school education (Gallup).

Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that a relatively unknown figure like U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, long a sharp critic of the economic divide in American life, is surging in the polls and drawing large, enthusiastic crowds in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Nor is it any wonder that Hillary Clinton, in her own campaign for that nomination, has started to emphasize economic unfairness. Indeed, even some Republican aspirants for the presidency have begun to adopt a populist rhetoric — although the specific policies they advocate continue to advance the narrow economic interests of the wealthy and the corporations.

Even so, when the electioneering is over, will the U.S. government really take action to promote greater economic equality? That’s anyone’s guess. But it’s clearly what most Americans want.

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), 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?

A Socialist Current 6/10/15

Will Americans Vote for a Democratic Socialist?

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

The recent announcement by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed “democratic socialist,” that he is running for the Democratic nomination for President raises the question of whether Americans will vote for a candidate with that political orientation.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the idea of democratic socialism — democratic control of the economy — had substantial popularity in the United States. At the time, the Socialist Party of America was a thriving, rapidly-growing political organization, much like its democratic socialist counterparts abroad — the British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party, the German Social Democratic Party, the Australian Labor Party, and numerous other rising, working class-based political entities around the world. In 1912, when the United States had a much smaller population than today, the Socialist Party had 118,000 dues-paying members and drew nearly a million votes for its candidate, Eugene V. Debs, the great labor leader, for President. (The victor that year was the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, who drew six million votes.) Furthermore, the party held 1,200 public offices in 340 cities, including 79 mayors in 24 states. Socialist administrations were elected in: Minneapolis, Minnesota; Butte, Montana; Flint, Michigan; Schenectady, New York, and in 75 other cities across the country. In 1912, the Socialist Party claimed 323 English and foreign language publications with a total circulation in excess of two million.

Of course, this socialist surge didn’t last. The Democratic and the Republican parties, faced with this threat to their political future, turned to supporting progressive agendas — breaking up or regulating giant corporations, curbing corporate abuses, and championing a graduated income tax — that stole the socialists’ thunder. In addition, after U.S. entry into World War I, an action opposed by the socialists, the federal and state governments moved to crush the Socialist Party — arresting and imprisoning its leaders (including Debs), purging its elected officials, and closing down its publications. Moreover, one portion of the party, excited by the success of revolutionaries in overthrowing Russia’s Czar and establishing the Soviet Union, broke with the Socialist Party and established Communist rivals. Co-opted by the mainstream parties, repressed by government, and abandoned by would-be revolutionaries, the Socialist Party never recovered.

Even so, democratic socialism retained a lingering influence in American life. When a new wave of reform occurred during the New Deal of the 1930s, it included numerous measures advocated and popularized by the Socialist Party: Social Security; public jobs programs like the WPA; minimum wage laws; maximum hour laws; and a steep tax on the wealthy. Here and there, although rarely, socialists even secured public office, and Milwaukee voters regularly elected socialist mayors until 1948. Starting in 1928 and running through the early post-World War II era, Norman Thomas became the attractive, articulate leader of the Socialist Party, and was widely respected among many American liberals and union leaders.

What nearly eliminated the Socialist Party was a combination of New Deal measures (which drew labor and other key constituencies into the Democratic Party) and the public’s identification of Socialism with Communism. Although, in fact, the American Socialist and Communist parties were bitter rivals — the former championing democratic socialism on the British model and the latter authoritarian socialism on the Soviet model — many Americans, influenced by dire conservative warnings, confused the two. Particularly during the Cold War, this further undermined the Socialist Party.

In the early 1970s, with the party barely surviving, most democratic socialists decided it was time to reassess their strategy. They asked: Did the collapse of the Socialist Party mean that, in the United States, democratic socialism was unpopular, or did it mean that third party voting was unpopular? After all, large numbers of Americans supported democratic socialist programs, ranging from national healthcare to public education, from public transportation to taxing the rich, from preserving the environment to defending workers’ rights. What would happen if democratic socialists worked for their programs within the Democratic Party, where the typical constituencies of the world’s democratic socialist parties — unions, racial minorities, women’s rights activists, and environmentalists — were already located? Led by the party’s titular leader, Michael Harrington, whose book The Other America sparked the War on Poverty of the 1960s, they organized Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and plunged into major social movements and into the Democratic Party.

Although, in the ensuing decades, DSA made little progress toward rebuilding a mass, high profile democratic socialist organization, it did manage to pull thousands of union, racial justice, women’s rights, and environmental activists into its orbit. DSA also discovered a significant number of leftwing Democratic and, sometimes, independent candidates for office who welcomed its support and occasionally joined it. Bernie Sanders — an independent who was elected as mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s only Congressman, and a U.S. Senator from Vermont — is certainly one of the most successful of these politicians. Indeed, in 2012 he won re-election to the Senate with 71 percent of the vote.

But will Americans actually support a democratic socialist in the Democratic Presidential primaries? Sanders himself has conceded that the odds are heavily against him. Even so, although a Quinnipiac poll of American voters in late May of this year found him far behind the much better known and better funded Hillary Clinton, his 15 percent of the vote placed him well ahead of all other potential Democratic candidates. Also, there’s great potential for broadening his support. The latest poll on Americans’ attitudes toward “socialism,” taken in December 2011, found that 31 percent of respondents had a positive reaction to it. And what if Americans had been asked about their attitude toward “democratic socialism”?

Consequently, even if Hillary Clinton emerges as the Democratic nominee, as seems likely, a good showing by Sanders could strengthen the democratic socialist current in American life.

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?

Corporate Welfare Fail 5/27/15

Corporate Welfare Fails to Deliver the Jobs: The Sad Case of Start-Up NY

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

For several decades, state and local governments have been showering private businesses with tax breaks and direct subsidies based on the theory that this practice fosters economic development and, therefore, job growth. But does it? New York State’s experience indicates that, when it comes to producing jobs, corporate welfare programs are a bad investment. This should be instructive to state and local officials across the US.

In May 2013, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, with enormous fanfare, launched a campaign to establish Tax-Free NY — a scheme providing tax-free status for ten years to companies that moved onto or near the state’s public college and university campuses. According to Cuomo, this would “supercharge” the state’s economy and bring job creation efforts to an unprecedented level. It was “a game-changing initiative,” the governor insisted, and — despite criticism from educators, unions, and some conservatives — local officials fell into line. Reluctant to oppose this widely-touted jobs creation measure, the state legislature established the program — renamed Start-Up NY and including some private college campuses — that June.

After that, Start-Up NY moved into high gear. A total of 356 tax-free zones were established at 62 New York colleges and universities, with numerous administrators hired to oversee the development of the new commercial programs on their campuses. New York State spent $47 million in 2014 — and might have spent as much as $150 million over the years — advertising Start-Up NY in all 50 states of the nation, with ads focused on the theme: “New York Open for Business.” Nancy Zimpher, the chancellor of the State University of New York, crowed: “Nowhere in the country do new businesses and entrepreneurs stand to benefit more by partnering with higher education than in New York State, thanks to the widespread success of Governor Cuomo’s Start-Up NY program. With interest and investment coming in from around the globe and new jobs being created in every region, Start-Up NY has provided a spark for our economy and for SUNY.” This was, she declared, a “transformative initiative.”

But how “transformative” has Start-Up NY been? According to the Empire State Development Corporation, the government entity that oversees more than 50 of the state’s economic development programs, during all of 2014 Start-Up NY generated a grand total of 76 jobs. Moreover, the vast majority of the 30 companies operating under the program had simply shifted their operations from one region of the state to another. The New York Times reported that, of the businesses up and running under Start-Up NY, just four came from out of state. Indeed, in some cases, the “new” businesses had not even crossed county lines. One company moved one mile to qualify for the tax-free program. Furthermore, when it came to business investment, there was a substantial gap between promises and implementation. As the Empire State Development Corporation noted, companies promised $91 million in investments over a five year period, but only invested $1.7 million of that in 2014. Thus, not surprisingly, during 2014 the companies operating under Start-Up NY created only 4 percent of the new jobs they had promised.

Actually, Start-Up NY’s dismal record is not much worse than that of New York’s other economic development programs. According to a December 2013 study by the Alliance for a Greater New York, the state spends approximately $7 billion every year on subsidies to businesses, including “tax exemptions, tax credits, grants, tax-exempt bonds, and discounted land to corporations, ostensibly in the name of job creation, economic growth, and improved quality of life for all New Yorkers.” But 33 percent of spending by the state’s Industrial Development Agencies resulted in no job promises, no job creation, or a loss of jobs. In fact, “with little accountability, businesses often take the money and run.”

A recent report by state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli reached similar conclusions. According to DiNapoli, in 2014 the programs overseen by the Empire State Development Corporation cost the state $1.3 billion (not including the voluminous tax breaks granted to companies) and helped create or retain only 14,779 jobs — at a cost to taxpayers of $87,962 per job. The comptroller’s scathing report concluded that there was no attempt by the state agency to ascertain whether its programs “have succeeded or failed at creating good jobs for New Yorkers or whether its investments are reasonable.”

Of course, instead of shoveling billions of dollars into the coffers of private, profit-making companies, New York could invest its public resources in worthwhile ventures that generate large numbers of jobs — for example, in public education. In 2011, as a consequence of severe cutbacks in state funding of New York’s public schools and a new state law that capped local property tax growth — two measures demanded by Governor Cuomo — 7,000 teachers were laid off and another 4,000 teacher positions went unfilled. Overall, 80 percent of school districts reported cutting teaching positions. Today, with New York’s schools severely underfunded — more than half of them receiving less state aid now than they did in 2008-2009 — this pattern of eliminating teachers and closing down educational opportunities for children has continued. But what if the billions of dollars squandered on subsidizing private businesses in the forlorn hope that they will hire workers were spent, instead, on putting thousands of teachers back to work? Wouldn’t this policy also create a better educated workforce that would be more likely to secure employment? And wouldn’t this shift in investment have the added advantage of creating a more knowledgeable public, better able to understand the world and partake in the full richness of civilization?

It’s a shame that many state and local government officials have such a limited, business-oriented mentality that they cannot imagine an alternative to corporate welfare.

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?

Misery & Starvation 5/20/15

The Vietnam War: After 40 Years

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Today, 40 years after the American war in Vietnam ended in ignominious defeat, the traces of that terrible conflict are disappearing.

Traveling through Vietnam during the latter half of April 2015 with a group of erstwhile antiwar activists, I was struck by the transformation of what was once an impoverished, war-devastated peasant society into a modern nation. Its cities and towns are bustling with life and energy. Vast numbers of motorbikes surge through their streets, including 4.2 million in Hanoi and 7 million in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). A thriving commercial culture has emerged, based not only on many small shops, but on an influx of giant Western, Japanese, and other corporations. Although Vietnam is officially a Communist nation, about 40 percent of the economy is capitalist, and the government is making great efforts to encourage private foreign investment. Indeed, over the past decade, Vietnam has enjoyed one of the highest economic growth rates in the world. Not only have manufacturing and tourism expanded dramatically, but Vietnam has become an agricultural powerhouse. Today it is the world’s second largest exporter of rice, and one of the world’s leading exporters of coffee, pepper, rubber, and other agricultural commodities. Another factor distancing the country from what the Vietnamese call “the American War” is the rapid increase in Vietnam’s population. Only 41 million in 1975, it now tops 90 million, with most of it under the age of 30 — too young to have any direct experience with the conflict.

Vietnam has also made a remarkable recovery in world affairs. It now has diplomatic relations with 189 countries, and enjoys good relations with all the major nations.

Nevertheless, the people of Vietnam paid a very heavy price for their independence from foreign domination. Some three million of them died in the American War, and another 300,000 are still classified as MIAs. In addition, many, many Vietnamese were wounded or crippled in the conflict. Perhaps the most striking long-term damage resulted from the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange (dioxin) as a defoliant. Vietnamese officials estimate that, today, some four million of their people suffer the terrible effects of this chemical, which not only destroys the bodies of those exposed to it, but has led to horrible birth defects and developmental disabilities into the second and third generations. Much of Vietnam’s land remains contaminated by Agent Orange, as well as by unexploded ordnance (UXO). Indeed, since the end of the American war in 1975, the landmines, shells, and bombs that continue to litter the nation’s soil have wounded or killed over 105,000 Vietnamese — many of them children.

During the immediate postwar years, Vietnam’s ruin was exacerbated by additional factors. These included a U.S. government embargo on trade with Vietnam, U.S. government efforts to isolate Vietnam diplomatically, and a 1979 Chinese military invasion of Vietnam employing 600,000 troops. Although the Vietnamese managed to expel the Chinese — just as they had previously routed the French and the Americans — China continued border skirmishes with Vietnam until 1988. In addition, during the first postwar decade, the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party pursued a hardline, repressive policy that undermined what was left of the economy and alienated much of the population. Misery and starvation were widespread.

Nevertheless, starting in the mid-1980s, the country made a remarkable comeback. This recovery was facilitated by Communist Party reformers who loosened the reins of power, encouraged foreign investment, and worked at developing a friendlier relationship with other nations, especially the United States. In 1995, the U.S. and Vietnamese governments resumed diplomatic relations. Although these changes did not provide a panacea for the nation’s ills — for example, the U.S. State Department informed the new U.S. ambassador that he must never mention Agent Orange — Vietnam’s circumstances, and particularly its relationship with the United States, gradually improved. U.S.-Vietnamese trade expanded substantially, reaching $35 billion in 2014. Thousands of Vietnamese students participated in educational exchanges. In recent years, the U.S. government even began funding programs to help clean up Agent Orange contamination and UXO.

Although, in part, this U.S.-Vietnamese détente resulted from the growing flexibility of officials in both nations, recently it has also reflected the apprehension of both governments about the increasingly assertive posture of China in Asian affairs. Worried about China’s unilateral occupation of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea during 2014, both governments began to resist it — the United States through its “Pacific pivot” and Vietnam through an ever closer relationship with the United States to “balance” China. Although both nations officially support the settlement of the conflict over the disputed islands through diplomacy centered on the 10 countries that comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), officials in Vietnam, increasingly nervous about China’s ambitions, appear to welcome the growth of a more powerful U.S. military presence in the region. In the context of this emerging agreement on regional security, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, and U.S. President Barack Obama will be visiting Vietnam later this year.

This shift from warring enemies to cooperative partners over the past 40 years should lead to solemn reflection. In the Vietnam War, the U.S. government laid waste to a poor peasant nation in an effort to prevent the triumph of a Communist revolution that U.S. policymakers insisted would result in the conquest of the United States. And yet, when this counter-revolutionary effort collapsed, the predicted Red tide did not sweep over the shores of California. Instead, an independent nation emerged that could — and did — work amicably with the U.S. government. This development highlights the unnecessary nature — indeed, the tragedy — of America’s vastly destructive war in Vietnam. It also underscores the deeper folly of relying on war to cope with international issues.

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” (Solidarity Press), a satirical novel about campus life.

Lives of Movie Stars 4/1/15

Who Are the Nuclear Scofflaws?

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Given all the frothing by hawkish U.S. Senators about Iran’s possible development of nuclear weapons, one might think that Iran was violating the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

But it’s not. The NPT, signed by 190 nations and in effect since 1970, is a treaty in which the non-nuclear nations agreed to forgo developing nuclear weapons and the nuclear nations agreed to divest themselves of their nuclear weapons. It also granted nations the right to develop peaceful nuclear power. The current negotiations in which Iran is engaged with other nations are merely designed to guarantee that Iran, which signed the NPT, does not cross the line from developing nuclear power to developing nuclear weapons.

Nine nations, however, have flouted the NPT by either developing nuclear weapons since the treaty went into effect or failing to honor the commitment to disarm. These nine scofflaws and their nuclear arsenals are Russia (7,500 nuclear warheads), the United States (7,100 nuclear warheads), France (300 nuclear warheads), China (250 nuclear warheads), Britain (215 nuclear warheads), Pakistan (100-120 nuclear warheads), India (90-110 nuclear warheads), Israel (80 nuclear warheads), and North Korea (<10 nuclear warheads).

Nor are the nuclear powers likely to be in compliance with the NPT any time soon. The Indian and Pakistani governments are engaged in a rapid nuclear weapons buildup, while the British government is contemplating the development of a new, more advanced nuclear weapons system. Although, in recent decades, the U.S. and Russian governments did reduce their nuclear arsenals substantially, that process has come to a halt in recent years, as relations have soured between the two nations. Indeed, both countries are currently engaged in a new, extremely dangerous nuclear arms race. The U.S. government has committed itself to spending $1 trillion to “modernize” its nuclear facilities and build new nuclear weapons. For its part, the Russian government is investing heavily in the upgrading of its nuclear warheads and the development of new delivery systems, such as nuclear missiles and nuclear submarines.

What can be done about this flouting of the NPT, some 45 years after it went into operation?

That will almost certainly be a major issue at an NPT Review Conference that will convene at the UN headquarters, in New York City, from April 27 to May 22. These review conferences, held every five years, attract high-level national officials from around the world to discuss the treaty’s implementation. For a very brief time, the review conferences even draw the attention of television and other news commentators before the mass communications media return to their preoccupation with scandals, arrests, and the lives of movie stars.

This spring’s NPT review conference might be particularly lively, given the heightening frustration of the non-nuclear powers at the failure of the nuclear powers to fulfill their NPT commitments. At recent disarmament conferences in Norway, Mexico and Austria, the representatives of a large number of non-nuclear nations, ignoring the opposition of the nuclear powers, focused on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. One rising demand among restless non-nuclear nations and among nuclear disarmament groups is to develop a nuclear weapons ban treaty, whether or not the nuclear powers are willing to participate in negotiations.

To heighten the pressure for the abolition of nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament groups are staging a Peace and Planet mobilization, in Manhattan, on the eve of the NPT review conference. Calling for a “Nuclear-Free, Peaceful, Just, and Sustainable World,” the mobilization involves an international conference (comprised of plenaries and workshops) on April 24 and 25, plus a culminating interfaith convocation, rally, march, and festival on April 26. Among the hundreds of endorsing organizations are many devoted to peace (Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi, Peace Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Veterans for Peace, and Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom), environmentalism (Earth Action, Friends of the Earth, and 350NYC), religion (Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Unitarian Universalist UN Office, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist General Board of Church & Society), workers’ rights (New Jersey Industrial Union Council, United Electrical Workers, and Working Families Party), and human welfare (American Friends Service Committee and National Association of Social Workers).

Of course, how much effect the proponents of a nuclear weapons-free world will have on the cynical officials of the nuclear powers remains to be seen. After as many as 45 years of stalling on their own nuclear disarmament, it is hard to imagine that they are finally ready to begin negotiating a treaty effectively banning nuclear weapons―or at least their nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, let us encourage Iran not to follow the bad example set by the nuclear powers. And let us ask the nuclear-armed nations, now telling Iran that it should forgo the possession of nuclear weapons, when they are going to start practicing what they preach.

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. He is the author of Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).

Sour Relations 1/28/15

Are the U.S. and Russian Governments Once Again on the Nuclear Warpath?

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

A quarter century after the end of the Cold War and decades after the signing of landmark nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements, are the U.S. and Russian governments once more engaged in a potentially disastrous nuclear arms race with one another? It certainly looks like it.

With approximately 15,000 nuclear weapons between them, the United States and Russia already possess about 93 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal, making them the world’s nuclear hegemons. But, apparently, like great powers throughout history, they do not consider their vast military might sufficient, especially in the context of their growing international rivalry.

Although, in early 2009, President Barack Obama announced his “commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” the U.S. government today has moved well along toward implementing an administration plan for U.S. nuclear “modernization.” This entails spending $355 billion over a 10-year period for a massive renovation of U.S. nuclear weapons plants and laboratories. Moreover, the cost is scheduled to soar after this renovation, when an array of new nuclear weapons will be produced. “That’s where all the big money is,” noted Ashton Carter, recently nominated as U.S. Secretary of Defense. “By comparison, everything that we’re doing now is cheap.” The Obama administration has asked the Pentagon to plan for 12 new nuclear missile-firing submarines, up to 100 new nuclear bombers, and 400 land-based nuclear missiles. According to outside experts and a bipartisan, independent panel commissioned by Congress and the Defense Department, that will bring the total price tag for the U.S. nuclear weapons buildup to approximately $1 trillion.

For its part, the Russian government seems determined to match―or surpass―that record. With President Vladimir Putin eager to use nuclear weapons as a symbol of Russian influence, Moscow is building, at great expense, new generations of giant ballistic missile submarines, as well as nuclear attack submarines that are reportedly equal or superior to their U.S. counterparts in performance and stealth. Armed with nuclear-capable cruise missiles, they periodically make forays across the Atlantic, heading for the U.S. coast. Deeply concerned about the potential of these missiles to level a surprise attack, the U.S. military has already launched the first of two experimental “blimps” over Washington, DC, designed to help detect them. The Obama administration also charges that Russian testing of a new medium-range cruise missile is a violation of the 1987 INF treaty. Although the Russian government denies the existence of the offending missile, its rhetoric has been less than diplomatic. As the Ukraine crisis developed, Putin told a public audience that “Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers,” and foreign nations “should understand it’s best not to mess with us.” Pravda was even more inflammatory. In an article published in November titled “Russia prepares a nuclear surprise for NATO,” it bragged about Russia’s alleged superiority over the United States in nuclear weaponry.

Not surprisingly, the one nuclear disarmament agreement signed between the U.S. and Russian governments since 2003―the New START treaty of 2011―is being implemented remarkably slowly. New START, designed to reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons (the most powerful ones) in each country by 30 percent by 2018, has not led to substantial reductions in either nation’s deployed nuclear arsenal. Indeed, between March and October 2014, the two nations each increased their deployed nuclear forces. Also, they maintain large arsenals of nuclear weapons targeting one another, with about 1,800 of them on high alert―ready to be launched within minutes against the populations of both nations.

The souring of relations between the U.S. and Russian governments has been going on for years, but it has reached a very dangerous level during the current confrontation over Ukraine. In their dealings with this conflict-torn nation, there’s plenty of fault on both sides. U.S. officials should have recognized that any Russian government would have been angered by NATO’s steady recruitment of East European countries―especially Ukraine, which had been united with Russia in the same nation until recently, was sharing a common border with Russia, and was housing one of Russia’s most important naval bases (in Crimea). For their part, Russian officials had no legal basis for seizing and annexing Crimea or aiding heavily-armed separatists in the eastern portion of Ukraine.

But however reckless the two nuclear behemoths have been, this does not mean that they have to continue this behavior. Plenty of compromise formulas exist―for example, leaving Ukraine out of NATO, altering that country’s structure to allow for a high degree of self-government in the war-torn east, and organizing a UN-sponsored referendum in Crimea. And possibilities for compromise also exist in other areas of U.S.-Russian relations.

Failing to agree to a diplomatic settlement of these and other issues will do more than continue violent turmoil in Ukraine. Indeed, the disastrous, downhill slide of both the United States and Russia into a vastly expensive nuclear arms race will bankrupt them and, also, by providing an example of dependence on nuclear might, encourage the proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional nations. After all, how can they succeed in getting other countries to forswear developing nuclear weapons when―47 years after the U.S. and Soviet governments signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in which they pledged their own nuclear disarmament―their successors are engaged in yet another nuclear arms race? Finally, of course, this new arms race, unless checked, seems likely to lead, sooner or later, to a nuclear catastrophe of immense proportions.

Can the U.S. and Russian governments calm down, settle their quarrels peacefully, and return to a policy of nuclear disarmament? Let’s hope so.

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” (Solidarity Press), a satirical novel about campus life.

Actions Are Louder 1/7/14

Ten Questions for Conservatives

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Now that the Republican Party―the conservative voice in mainstream U.S. electoral politics―has attained the most thoroughgoing control of Congress that it has enjoyed since 1928, it’s an appropriate time to take a good look at modern conservatism.

Conservatives have performed some useful services for Americans over the course of U.S. history. Alexander Hamilton placed the nation’s financial credit on a much firmer basis during the late eighteenth century. Determined to make knowledge available to all Americans, Andrew Carnegie funded the development of the free U.S. public library system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the early twentieth century, Elihu Root and other conservatives played key roles in the establishment of international law. Also, in the mid-twentieth century, Robert Taft staunchly denounced the peacetime military draft, arguing that it smacked of a totalitarian state.

But, increasingly, modern American conservatism resembles a giant wrecking ball, powered by hate-spewing demagogues to undermine or destroy long-cherished institutions, from the U.S. Post Office (established by Benjamin Franklin in 1775 and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution) to minimum wage laws (which began to appear on the state level in the early twentieth century). Sadly, the rhetoric of modern conservatism―focused on small government, free enterprise, and individual liberty―seems ever more divorced from its behavior. Indeed, conservatism’s rhetoric and its behavior are often quite contradictory.

Is this allegation fair? There certainly seem to be plenty of discrepancies between words and deeds, and conservatives should be asked to explain them. For example:

As opponents of “big government,” why do you fervently support an unending stream of government-sponsored wars, vast government military spending, the power of local police to shoot and kill unarmed citizens, government interference with abortion rights and family planning, government restrictions on marriage, and the linkage of church and state?

As advocates of “consumer sovereignty,” why do you oppose requiring corporations to label their products with information (for example, “contains GMOs”) that would enable consumers to make an intelligent choice of products?

As advocates of personal advancement through individual effort, why do you oppose inheritance taxes that would place the children of rich and poor on a more equal footing in their struggle for personal success?

As advocates of capitalist competition in the marketplace, why do you so consistently support the interests of giant corporations over those of small businesses?

As advocates of the “private enterprise system,” why do you so often favor government subsidies to failing big businesses and tax breaks to thriving big businesses that you desire to lure into your state or region?

As advocates of freedom to choose to work for an employer (“freedom of contract”), why do you oppose employees’ right to stop working for that employer―that is, to strike―and particularly to strike against the government?

As advocates of voluntary (rather than government) action to redress grievances, why do you so fervently oppose labor unions?

As advocates of the free movement of labor and capital, why do you support government immigration restrictions, including the construction of enormous walls, the massive policing of borders, and the building of mass incarceration centers?

As critics of statism, why don’t you oppose government loyalty oaths, flag drills, and pledges of allegiance?

As advocates of “freedom,” why are you not at the forefront of the fight against government torture, political surveillance, and censorship?

If these contradictions can’t be explained satisfactorily, then we have good reason to conclude that the professed principles of conservatives are no more than a respectable mask behind which lurk less admirable motives―for example, that support for wars and military spending reflects a desire to dominate the world and its resources, that support for police shoot-to-kill policies and crackdowns on immigrants reflects hostility toward racial minorities, that opposition to abortion rights and family planning reflects hostility toward women, that support for government meddling in religious matters reflects hostility toward religious minorities and nonbelievers, that opposition to product labeling, indifference to small businesses, subsidies to big businesses, and opposition to strikes and unions reflect a loyalty to corporations, that opposition to inheritance taxes reflects an alliance with the wealthy, and that support for nationalist hoopla, torture, surveillance, and censorship reflects a repressive, authoritarian mentality. In short, that the real goal of conservatives is the maintenance of economic, gender, racial, and religious privilege, with no scruples about the means of maintaining it.

Actions, of course, speak louder than words, and we will undoubtedly get a good idea of where conservatives stand from the legislation passed by the incoming Republican-dominated Congress. Meanwhile, however, it would be interesting to have conservatives explain these ten contradictions between their professed principles and their behavior.

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” (Solidarity Press), a satirical novel about campus life.

Powerless and Demoralized 12/17/14

The $7 Million University President

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

In a recent article about Shirley Jackson, the president since 1999 of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)–a private university located in Troy, New York–the Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that, in 2012 (the latest year for which statistics are available), she received over $7 million from that institution. Like many modern campus administrators, President Jackson was also given a large mansion, first class air travel, and a chauffeured luxury car to transport her around the campus.

Thanks to the fact that Jackson also serves on at least five corporate boards, including those of IBM and Marathon Oil, she supplements this income with more than a million dollars a year from these sources.

Despite repeated complaints about Jackson from faculty and students, RPI’s board of trustees has invariably expressed its total confidence in her. Indeed, the board chair recently declared that she is worth every penny of her substantial income. This unwavering support appears to be based not only upon Jackson’s fundraising prowess, but upon the corporate approach that she and the board share.

A key component of this corporate approach is embodied in Jackson’s development and implementation of the Rensselaer Plan, a venture that includes an enormous construction program at a staggering cost. Worried about their institution falling behind rivals in the race to build a high-powered, modern campus, trustees found this university expansion deeply satisfying. But it also meant that RPI ran up its debt to $828 million–over six times its level when Jackson took office. As a result, Moody’s downgraded RPI’s credit rating twice, and describes the financial outlook for RPI as “negative.”

Of course, when operating as a business, there are many ways to pay a top executive’s hefty salary and recoup huge financial losses. As is the practice on other campuses, RPI employs a considerable number of adjunct faculty members–part-timers paid by the course, with pitiful salaries, no benefits, and no guarantee of employment beyond the semester in which they are teaching. One of these adjuncts, Elizabeth Gordon, was paid $4,000 a course–about $10 an hour by her estimates. “Because the pay was so low,” she recalled, “it was like being a volunteer serving the community.” But, as the size of her RPI writing classes grew, she became concerned that the pace of grading, student meetings, and course preparation was undermining her health, which she lacked the insurance to cover. So she quit. Many other adjuncts, however, are still at RPI, scraping by on poverty-level wages and enriching President Jackson.

RPI’s adjuncts once had a voice on campus, as some of them served on RPI’s Faculty Senate. But that came to an end in 2007, when Jackson abolished that entity. From the administration’s standpoint, the abolition of the Senate had the welcome effect of not only depriving adjuncts of their minimal influence, but of crippling the power of regular faculty, as well. The previous year, a faculty vote of no confidence in Jackson’s leadership had been only narrowly defeated. Thus, the administration’s abolition of the Faculty Senate served as a pre-emptive strike. Asked by irate faculty to investigate the situation, the American Association of University Professors condemned the administration’s action as violating the basic principles of shared governance. The administration responded that RPI “has never recognized the role of the AAUP in what we regard as an internal issue.” Ultimately, faculty resistance collapsed, leaving faculty powerlessness and demoralization in its wake.

The Jackson administration, using what union organizers charged were tactics of intimidation, also succeeded in defeating efforts to unionize RPI’s downtrodden campus janitors and cafeteria workers. During one union campaign among janitors, the lead organizer recalled, security guards threw him off campus and the administration fired a janitor on the organizing committee.

In a further effort to cover the administration’s costly priorities, student tuition was raised substantially during the Jackson years. In 2013-14, it reached $45,100–$25,608 above the average tuition at New York’s four-year colleges. Of course, beyond tuition, there are expenses for college fees, room, board, and books, placing RPI’s own estimate of student costs for attendance in 2014-2015 at $64,194. Perhaps to soften the blow to students of this enormous price tag or to signal them about what type of school this is, the RPI web page remarks helpfully that “many of our professors have close ties with top global corporations.”

Having created the very model of an undemocratic, corporate university, President Jackson is appropriately imperious. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, she has a series of rules that are clear to everyone. These include: 1) Only she is authorized to set the temperature in conference rooms; 2) Cabinet members all rise when she enters the room; 3) If food is served at a meeting, vice presidents clear her plate; and 4) She is always to be publicly introduced as “The Honorable Shirley Ann Jackson.” Falling into rages on occasion, she publicly abuses her staff and frequently remarks: “You know, I could fire you all.” In 2011, RPI’s Student Senate passed a resolution criticizing her “abrasive style,” “top-down leadership,” and the climate of “fear” she had instilled among administrators and staff. It even called upon RPI’s board of trustees to consider Jackson’s removal from office. But, once again, the board merely rallied in her defense.

Perhaps, though, the response of the board of trustees is not surprising. After all, developments at RPI are very much in line with trends at institutions of higher education: inflating administration salaries; exploiting adjunct faculty, regular faculty, and other workers; strengthening administration power; raising tuition to astronomical heights; and, above all, running colleges and universities like modern business enterprises. RPI actually presents us with a glimpse of the future of higher education―a future that we might not like very much.

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” (Solidarity Press), a satirical novel about campus life.

Pall of Fear 11/19/14

Do Wars Really Defend America’s Freedom?

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

U.S. politicians and pundits are fond of saying that America’s wars have defended America’s freedom. But the historical record doesn’t bear out this contention. In fact, over the past century, U.S. wars have triggered major encroachments upon civil liberties.

Shortly after the United States entered World War I, seven states passed laws abridging freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In June 1917, they were joined by Congress, which passed the Espionage Act. This law granted the federal government the power to censor publications and ban them from the mail, and made the obstruction of the draft or of enlistment in the armed forces punishable by a hefty fine and up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Thereafter, the U.S. government censored newspapers and magazines while conducting prosecutions of the war’s critics, sending over 1,500 to prison with lengthy sentences. This included the prominent labor leader and Socialist Party presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs. Meanwhile, teachers were fired from the public schools and universities, elected state and federal legislators critical of the war were prevented from taking office, and religious pacifists who refused to carry weapons after they were drafted into the armed forces were forcibly clad in uniform, beaten, stabbed with bayonets, dragged by ropes around their necks, tortured, and killed. It was the worst outbreak of government repression in U.S. history, and sparked the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Although America’s civil liberties record was much better during World War II, the nation’s participation in that conflict did lead to serious infringements upon American freedoms. Probably the best-known was the federal government’s incarceration of 110,000 people of Japanese heritage in internment camps. Two-thirds of them were U.S. citizens, most of whom had been born (and many of whose parents had been born) in the United States. In 1988, recognizing the blatant unconstitutionality of the wartime internment, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, which apologized for the action and paid reparations to the survivors and their families. But the war led to other violations of rights, as well, including the imprisonment of roughly 6,000 conscientious objectors and the confinement of some 12,000 others in Civilian Public Service camps. Congress also passed the Smith Act, which made the advocacy of the overthrow of the government a crime punishable by 20 years’ imprisonment. As this legislation was used to prosecute and imprison members of groups that merely talked abstractly of revolution, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately narrowed its scope considerably.

The civil liberties situation worsened considerably with the advent of the Cold War. In Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee gathered files on over a million Americans whose loyalty it questioned and held contentious hearings designed to expose alleged subversives. Jumping into the act, Senator Joseph McCarthy began reckless, demagogic accusations of Communism and treason, using his political power and, later, a Senate investigations subcommittee, to defame and intimidate. The president, for his part, established the Attorney General’s List of “subversive” organizations, as well as a federal Loyalty Program, which dismissed thousands of U.S. public servants from their jobs. The compulsory signing of loyalty oaths became standard practice on the federal, state, and local level. By 1952, 30 states required some sort of loyalty oath for teachers. Although this effort to root out “un-Americans” never resulted in the discovery of a single spy or saboteur, it did play havoc with people’s lives and cast a pall of fear over the nation.

When citizen activism bubbled up in the form of protest against the Vietnam War, the federal government responded with a stepped-up program of repression. J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, had been expanding his agency’s power ever since World War I, and swung into action with his COINTELPRO program. Designed to expose, disrupt, and neutralize the new wave of activism by any means necessary, COINTELPRO spread false, derogatory information about dissident leaders and organizations, created conflicts among their leaders and members, and resorted to burglary and violence. It targeted nearly all social change movements, including the peace movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the environmental movement. The FBI’s files bulged with information on millions of Americans it viewed as national enemies or potential enemies, and it placed many of them under surveillance, including writers, teachers, activists, and U.S. senators Convinced that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a dangerous subversive, Hoover made numerous efforts to destroy him, including encouraging him to commit suicide.

Although revelations about the unsavory activities of U.S. intelligence agencies led to curbs on them in the 1970s, subsequent wars encouraged a new surge of police state measures. In 1981, the FBI opened an investigation of individuals and groups opposing President Reagan’s military intervention in Central America. It utilized informers at political meetings, break-ins at churches, members’ homes, and organizational offices, and surveillance of hundreds of peace demonstrations. Among the targeted groups were the National Council of Churches, the United Auto Workers, and the Maryknoll Sisters of the Roman Catholic Church. After the beginning of the Global War on Terror, the remaining checks on U.S. intelligence agencies were swept aside. The Patriot Act provided the government with sweeping power to spy on individuals, in some cases without any suspicion of wrongdoing, while the National Security Agency collected all Americans’ phone and internet communications.

The problem here lies not in some unique flaw of the United States but, rather, in the fact that warfare is not conducive to freedom. Amid the heightened fear and inflamed nationalism that accompany war, governments and many of their citizens regard dissent as akin to treason. In these circumstances, “national security” usually trumps liberty. As the journalist Randolph Bourne remarked during World War I: “War is the health of the state.” Americans who cherish freedom should keep this in mind.

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” (Solidarity Press), a satirical novel about campus life.

Fondness for Equality 10/29/14

How Rich Are the 400 Richest Americans –

and What Do They Do with Their Money?

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

In the supposedly classless society of the United States, the wealthiest Americans are doing remarkably well.

According to Forbes, a leading business magazine, the combined wealth of the 400 richest Americans has now reached the staggering total of $2.3 trillion. This gives them an average net worth of $5.7 billion–an increase of 14 percent over the previous year.

With fortunes far beyond the dreams of past kings and potentates, these super-wealthy individuals enjoy extraordinary lifestyles. Larry Ellison, the third wealthiest man in the United States (with $50 billion, an increase of 22 percent) reportedly has “15 or so homes scattered all around the world.” Among his yachts are two exceptionally big ones, each over half as long as a football field. In fact, they’re large enough for him to play basketball while on board. If a ball bounces over the rail, Ellison has a powerboat following along to retrieve it.

Other Americans aren’t doing nearly as well. According to the Census Bureau, more than 45 million Americans are living in poverty, which it defines as under $11,490 a year for an individual and under $23,550 for a family of four. Many of them endure lives of hunger, misery, and despair, helped along by a Congress that has slashed billions from government food stamp programs, ended extended unemployment benefits, and refused to raise the minimum wage.

America’s middle class, plagued by stagnant income and declining wealth, has also suffered. According to the Federal Reserve, between 2010 and 2013 median income in the United States fell by five percent. Indeed, since 1989, the median net worth of the statistical middle class–the middle 20 percent of Americans–has dropped by nearly 18 percent.

Not surprisingly, economic inequality is growing in the United States. From 1978 to 2013, CEO compensation, inflation-adjusted, grew by 937 percent, while the typical worker’s compensation over that same period grew by only 10 percent. Thus, although the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio was 20-to-1 in 1965, it stood at 296-to-1 in 2013. The same pattern prevails when it comes to wealth. From 1989 to 2013, the wealthiest three percent of Americans increased their share of the wealth from 44.8 percent to 54.4 percent, while the bottom 90 percent found their share of the wealth dropping from 33.2 percent to 24.7 percent. Today, the United States has the fourth most uneven income distribution among economically developed nations.

Against this backdrop, Americans might consider whether the richest among them really deserve their privileged status. After all, many of them have simply inherited great wealth and sat back as it grew still greater. Others, such as owners of multinational corporations, have acquired vast wealth through government favors, including financial subsidies, tax breaks, and expensive weapons procurement programs. Still others have “earned” their wealth through employment of dubious value. According to Forbes, the top “industry” among the 400 richest Americans is “Investments.” Are these stock market and hedge fund speculators really the most valuable members of American society?

Also, many of the wealthiest Americans have grown richer at the expense of others. In 2005, Larry Ellison (#three, of the giant yachts) bought out PeopleSoft, an 11,000-employee competitor, and then eliminated the jobs of 5,000 of them. Or consider the four members of the Walton family–owners of Wal-Mart, the country’s biggest private employer–who rank among the top 10 richest Americans, with a combined net worth of $143.7 billion. Most of their full-time workers are paid less than $25,000 a year. Wal-Mart’s cashiers, for example, average $8.48 an hour, and thousands of Wal-Mart workers receive no more than the minimum wage ($7.25 an hour). These low wages keep many of the company’s workers mired in poverty and dependent upon government assistance. Indeed, it is estimated that Wal-Mart’s low-wage workers cost American taxpayers $6.2 billion a year in public assistance, including food stamps, Medicaid, and subsidized housing.

Furthermore, the richest Americans often use their wealth to campaign against the public good. Pre-eminent among them are Charles and David Koch, the sons of a wealthy founder of the John Birch Society, as well as the fourth and fifth richest Americans (with $84 billion). Over the years, the Koch brothers have used their vast wealth to champion the abolition of public schools, the postal system, minimum wage laws, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Bankrolling a broad variety of rightwing groups and foundations, they have zealously opposed legislation providing for environmental protection, health care reform, and limits on campaign contributions. As massive financers of rightwing election campaigns–including more than $400 million to candidates in 2011-2012 alone–they have been very effective in pulling the Republican Party and American politics rightward.

Even Americans who place some of their enormous wealth in tax exempt foundations often use them for questionable purposes. Since 2008, the Gates Foundation–funded by Bill Gates (the nation’s wealthiest individual, with $81 billion)–has spent at least $2 billion to undermine public schools by promoting charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing, and other corporate educational initiatives. The Gates Foundation has also played a key role in creating organizations opposing teacher unions and teacher tenure. Meanwhile, the Walton Foundation contributed more than $750 million to these efforts. In Milwaukee, the Walton Foundation funded the organizations that developed and pushed through that city’s school voucher program. In addition, both the Gates and Walton Foundations have funded the work of ALEC, the rightwing operation that has successfully promoted the passage of state laws that restrict voting rights, weaken unions, privatize education, harass immigrants, encourage “Stand Your Ground” behavior, and, of course, provide big tax cuts for the rich.

Americans talk fondly of equality, but, to paraphrase a statement in George Orwell’s satire about another allegedly classless society, in this country some people are more equal than others.

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” (Solidarity Press), a satirical novel about campus life.

The Greatest Country 10/15/14

The United States is No. 1 – But in What?

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

American politicians are fond of telling their audiences that the United States is the greatest country in the world. Is there any evidence for this claim?

Well, yes. When it comes to violence and preparations for violence, the United States is, indeed, No. 1. In 2013, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. government accounted for 37 percent of world military expenditures, putting it far ahead of all other nations. (The two closest competitors, China and Russia, accounted for 11 percent and 5 percent respectively.) From 2004 to 2013, the United States was also the No. 1 weapons exporter in the world. Moreover, given the U.S. government’s almost continuous series of wars and acts of military intervention since 1941, it seems likely that it surpasses all rivals when it comes to international violence.

This record is paralleled on the domestic front, where the United States has more guns and gun-related deaths than any other country. A study released in late 2013 reported that the United States had 88 guns for every 100 people, and 40 gun-related deaths for every 400,000 people―the most of any of the 27 economically developed countries surveyed. By contrast, in Britain there were 6 guns per 100 people and 1 gun-related death per 400,000 people.

Yet, in a great many other areas, the United States is not No. 1 at all.

Take education. In late 2013, the Program for International Student Assessment released a report on how 15-year old students from 65 nations performed on its tests. The report showed that U.S. students ranked 17th in reading and 21st in math. An international survey a bit earlier that year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the ranking was slightly worse for American adults. In 2014, Pearson, a multinational educational services company, placed the United States 20th in the world in “educational attainment”―well behind Poland and the Slovak Republic.

American healthcare and health fare even worse. In a 2014 study of healthcare (including infant mortality, healthy life expectancy, and mortality from preventable conditions) in 11 advanced industrial countries, the Commonwealth Fund concluded that the United States ranked last among them. According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. healthcare system ranks 30th in the world. Other studies reach somewhat different conclusions, but all are very unflattering to the United States, as are studies of American health. The United States, for example, has one of the world’s worst cancer rates (the seventh highest), and life expectancy is declining compared to other nations. An article in the Washington Post in late 2013 reported that the United States ranked 26th among nations in life expectancy, and that the average American lifespan had fallen a year behind the international average.

What about the environment? Specialists at Yale University have developed a highly sophisticated Environmental Performance Index to examine the behavior of nations. In the area of protection of human health from environmental harm, their 2014 index placed the United States 35th in health impacts, 36th in water and sanitation, and 38th in air quality. In the other area studied―protection of ecosystems―the United States ranked 32nd in water resources, 49th in climate and energy, 86th in biodiversity and habitat, 96th in fisheries, 107th in forests, and 109th in agriculture.

These and other areas of interest are dealt with by the Social Progress Index, which was developed by Michael Porter, an eminent professor of business (and a Republican) at Harvard. According to Porter and his team, in 2014 the United States ranked 23rd in access to information and communications, 24th in nutrition and basic medical care, 31st in personal safety, 34th in water and sanitation, 39th in access to basic knowledge, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, and 70th in health and wellness.

The widespread extent of poverty, especially among children, remains a disgrace in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. A 2013 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund noted that, of the 35 economically advanced countries that had been studied, only Romania had a higher percentage of children living in poverty than did the United States.

Of course, the United States is not locked into these dismal rankings and the sad situation they reveal about the health, education, and welfare of its citizens. It could do much better if its vast wealth, resources, and technology were employed differently than they are at present.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of priorities. When most U.S. government discretionary spending goes for war and preparations for war, it should come as no surprise that the United States emerges No. 1 among nations in its capacity for violence and falls far behind other nations in providing for the well-being of its people.

Americans might want to keep this in mind as their nation embarks upon yet another costly military crusade.

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” (Solidarity Press), a satirical novel about campus life.

Nationalist Rhetoric 9/17/14

Nationalist Illusions

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

After thousands of years of bloody wars among contending tribes, regions, and nations, is it finally possible to dispense with the chauvinist ideas of the past?

To judge by President Barack Obama’s televised address on the evening of September 10, it is not. Discussing his plan to “take out” ISIS, the extremist group that has seized control of portions of Syria and Iraq, the president slathered on the high-flying, nationalist rhetoric. “America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth,” he proclaimed. “Our technology companies and universities are unmatched; our manufacturing and auto industries are thriving. Energy independence is closer than it’s been in decades. . . . Our businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history. . . . I see the grit and determination and common goodness of the American people every single day — and that makes me more confident than ever about our country’s future.”

This rhetoric, of course, is the lead-in to yet another American-led war in the Middle East. “American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world,” he stated. “It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists. It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression. . . . It is America that helped remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons so they cannot pose a threat to the Syrian people — or the world — again. And it is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, tolerance, and a more hopeful future.”

America’s greatness, he added, carries “an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead. From Europe to Asia — from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn capitals of the Middle East — we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity. These are values that have guided our nation since its founding. Tonight, I ask for your support in carrying that leadership forward. I do so as a Commander-in-Chief who could not be prouder of our men and women in uniform.”

Can anyone acquainted with American history really take this nationalist drivel seriously? When contemplating the “freedom,” “justice,” and “dignity” that “have guided our nation since its founding,” is there no recollection of slavery, the seizure of a continent from its native people, lynching, child labor, the flouting of civil liberties, the exploitation of workers, legalized racial discrimination, and the war crimes committed by U.S. troops, most recently in Iraq?

Furthermore, all of this forgotten history is topped off with the ritualized “May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.” God, apparently, is supposed to ride shotgun for the U.S. military. Or is it really that the U.S. military and the nation are the emissaries of God?

In fairness to the president, it could be argued that he doesn’t actually believe this claptrap, but — like so many of his predecessors — simply dons a star-spangled uniform to sell his foreign policy to the American public.

But, in fact, the policy outlined in Obama’s speech is almost as nationalist as the rhetoric. Although the president promised that the United States would participate in a “broad coalition to roll back” ISIS, this would be a coalition that “America will lead.” Yes, there would be “partners” in American efforts “to address broader challenges to international order,” but not all the time — only “wherever possible.” In short, Americans should get ready for another Coalition of the Willing, led by the United States and, sometimes, limited to it alone.

Ironically, American “leadership” of military operations in the Islamic world has not only done much to spark the creation of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other extremist groups, but has destabilized and inflamed the entire region. American-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya — coupled with U.S. military meddling in Syria, confrontations with Iran, arming of Israel, and drone strikes in many nations — have left the region awash with anti-Americanism, religious strife, and weapons (many now directed against the United States).

Against this backdrop, the U.S. government would be well-advised to adopt a very low profile in the Middle East — and certainly not “lead” yet another war, particularly one against Muslims. This restraint would mesh nicely with the U.S. government’s signature on the UN charter, which prohibits the use of force by any nation except in self-defense.

The current situation provides a particularly appropriate time for the U.S. government to back off from yet another military crusade in the region. After all, ISIS is heartily disliked by a large number of nations. At the moment, it seems likely that the governments of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Russia, and other lands would welcome the demise of ISIS and support UN action against it. Furthermore, this action need not be military. The United Nations could play an important role in halting the flow of financing and weapons to this terrorist group. The United Nations could restrict the movement of militias and foreign fighters across borders. The United Nations could resume negotiations to end the civil war in Syria. And, particularly in light of the hostility toward the United States that has developed in recent years among many Muslims, the United Nations could demand the disarmament and dismantling of ISIS with far greater effect than would similar action by the U.S. government.

But can a nation shed its belief that it is uniquely qualified to “lead” the world? It can, if its citizens are ready to cast aside their nationalist illusions and recognize their interdependence with the people of other nations.

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” (Solidarity Press), a satirical novel about campus life.

Babble of Experts 8/27/14

Global Problems Call for Global Solution

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Sometimes, amid the heated political debate about what should done by the U.S. government in world affairs, a proposal cuts through the TV babble of the supposed experts with a clear, useful suggestion.

That proposal came on August 17, when Pope Francis told journalists how he thought the world should cope with the challenge posed by ISIS, the Islamic militant group engaged in murderous behavior in Syria and Iraq. “One nation alone cannot judge how you stop this,” he said, in an apparent reference to U.S. action against ISIS crimes. Instead, the United Nations is the proper forum to “discuss `Is there an unjust aggression’” and “`How should we stop it?’ Just this. Nothing more.”

The idea that the responsibility for dealing with global problems lies with the world community rather than with individual nations is not a popular one among the governments of the major military powers. Indeed, they seem to believe that they are justified in doing whatever they want in the world if it serves what they consider their “national interest.” The Russian government, angered at NATO’s eastward expansion and at political developments in Ukraine, annexed Crimea and armed pro-Russian separatists. The Israeli government, attempting to incorporate Palestinian territory it conquered 47 years ago into greater Israel, has moved 500,000 settlers onto the land and staged bloody military invasions of Gaza to crush resistance. Anxious to control the oil-rich Middle East, the U.S. government launched a military invasion and occupation of Iraq that led to enormous bloodshed in that country and the destabilization of the entire region. And numerous other governments with powerful military forces have behaved in much the same manner, thereby helping to foster a chaotic and violent world.

This aggressive use of military force is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, it’s been par for the course throughout the history of nations and, before that, the history of competing territories. It’s what brought the world to the brink of total disaster during World Wars I and II.

What is new is the dawning recognition that the world can no longer continue down this destructive path―that the competition among nations must be handled within the framework of an international security system. After all, there is no reason to assume that any individual nation can divorce itself from its own special “interests” and adopt an impartial stance when it comes to world affairs. Despite the claims of rabid nationalists and theocrats, God has not decreed that their nation should rule the world. Instead, an institution representing all nations should speak for the international community.

Based on this recognition―one helped along by two world wars―numerous governments reluctantly agreed in the twentieth century to develop the League of Nations and, when this new institution proved too weak to be effective, the United Nations. In the words of the UN charter, the United Nations was founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” as well as to “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights,” “to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained,” and “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”

In the immediate aftermath of World War II―which left 60 million dead and a world in ruins―the governments of powerful nations paid lip service to the United Nations and to the international security system it represented. Sometimes, they even fell into line with its decisions.

But, unfortunately, they were soon back at their old game. The United States and the Soviet Union occupied other nations, launched military invasions, and staged covert operations around the world in their bitter Cold War conflict with one another. France fought vicious colonial wars to subdue independence struggles in Indochina and Algeria. Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt. China annexed Tibet and invaded India and Vietnam. India and Pakistan squared off to fight numerous border wars. In the context of this persistent flouting of international law by the great powers and some others, the United Nations managed to remain the conscience of the world and to engage in humanitarian projects, but was gradually drained of its power to enforce world security.

Clearly, this is a profoundly dangerous situation, especially when the nations of the world spend $1.75 trillion a year on war and preparations for war. An array of global problems―including not only national insecurity, but climate change, disease, and poverty―cry out for global solutions. But we are not likely to see these solutions in a world of international anarchy, one in which the “national interest” continues to trump the human interest.

It’s time―indeed, long past time―for governments to strengthen the United Nations and, as Pope Francis has reminded us, to respect its authority as the voice of the world community.

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” (Solidarity Press), a satirical novel about campus life.

Boom Times for Administrators 7/23/14

Why Are Campus Administrators Making So Much Money?

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Americans committed to better living for bosses can take heart at the fact that college and university administrators—unlike their faculty (increasingly reduced to rootless and benefitless adjuncts) and students (saddled with ever more debt)―are thriving.

In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, 42 private college and university presidents received more than a million dollars each for their work. Robert Zimmer (University of Chicago) was the best-paid, at $3,358,723. At public colleges and universities, nine top administrators garnered more than $1 million each in 2012-2013, with the best-paid, E. Gordon Gee (Ohio State University), receiving $6,057,615.

Since then, it’s likely that the number of millionaire campus presidents has increased, for their numbers have been growing rapidly. Indeed, in 2012-13, the number of public university presidents receiving at least $1 million for their services more than doubled over the previous year.

In addition to their formal compensation, college and university presidents receive some very lavish perks. These include not only free luxury cars and country club memberships, but free elite university housing. James Milliken, the chancellor of the City University of New York, attended by some of the nation’s most impoverished students, lives rent-free in an $18,000 a month luxury apartment on Manhattan’s posh Upper East Side. From 2000 to 2007, when Gordon Gee was chancellor at Vanderbilt University, he benefited from a $6 million renovation of the university mansion in which he and his wife resided. According to a New York Times article, after Gee moved on to his multi-million dollar job at Ohio State, he was known for “the lavish lifestyle his job supports, including a rent-free mansion with an elevator, a pool and a tennis court and flights on private jets.”

The soaring incomes of campus administrators are paralleled by their soaring numbers. Between 1993 and 2009, their numbers reportedly increased by 60 percent, to 230,000―ten times the rate of growth of the faculty. According to a February 2014 report by the American Institutes for Research, between 1987 and 2012 the number of administrators at private universities doubled, while their numbers in central university system offices rose by a factor of 34.

A look at one university system is instructive. Between 1975 and 2008, the total number of administrators at California State University rose 221 percent (from 3,800 to 12,183), compared to an increase in full-time faculty of less than four percent (from 11,614 to 12,019). CSU thereby achieved the distinction (since then, rapidly fading) of having more administrators than full-time faculty members.

In Canada, where the situation is much the same, faculty members recently teamed up in groups of four to apply for an advertised position as president of the University of Alberta. They explained that, “by job-sharing this position, we would be able to do a better job than any one person could do―and the salary is certainly ample enough to meet the needs of all four of us.” A leader of their collective action told a reporter that it was designed to highlight “the disparity between the recent growth of university administration―both in terms of numbers of administrators and in terms of their salaries―and their rhetoric of austerity, which has resulted in program cuts, loss of tenure-track jobs, increasing numbers of poorly-paid, insecure sessionals [adjuncts], and skyrocketing tuition.”

Not surprisingly, the soaring income and numbers of administrators have led to their consuming an increasing share of the campus budget, thereby reducing the percentage spent on teaching and research.

Their rapidly-rising income reflects, in part, the fact that the boards of trustees of most higher educational institutions are dominated by businessmen, who, naturally, are accustomed to the outlandish incomes and perks of the corporate world. Thus, for example, the board of trustees of New York University had no hesitation in giving university president John Sexton a $1 million loan to help build his lavish vacation home on Fire Island, despite the fact that he was already receiving $1.5 million per year from that university. When the loan became a source of public controversy, the board chair responded indignantly: “This is a guy who could readily make $25 million a year” in the private sector!

In addition, as boards of trustees are often less concerned about education than about money, they are dazzled by administrators who rake in large financial contributions. Against the backdrop of drastically-reduced public funding for universities, attracting donations from the wealthy and their corporations―plus, of course, raising tuition and reducing faculty salaries―is considered particularly desirable behavior in a modern university administrator. Thus, as a Wall Street Journal article noted, the nation’s top-paid administrator in 2013, Gordon Gee, was “a prolific fundraiser,” who oversaw an Ohio State fundraising campaign that, by the middle of that year, had “raised more than $1.5 billion.” The priorities were also clear when it came to NYU’s John Sexton. Although the faculty voted no confidence in him for his autocratic actions, the chair of the board of trustees retorted: “Since he became president we’ve raised, I think, $4.7 billion in contributions.” He added: “We’re convinced there is no one who could be more effective than John, and I speak on behalf of a totally unanimous board.”

The extraordinary growth in the number of administrators can be explained partially by the fact that bureaucrats tend to multiply. Thus, a top administrator, such as the campus president, likes to have subordinate administrators doing his or her work. In turn, the subordinates like to have additional administrators working for them.

Another reason for administrative bloat is that, although the number of faculty is strictly regulated by the administration, there is no one regulating the number of administrators except the college or university president. And the president is unlikely to get rid of administrators―except when he or she wants to appoint new ones.

Thus, whatever the plight of faculty and students, these are boom times for campus administrators.

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” (Solidarity Press), a satirical novel about campus life.

Doom From The Depths 7/9/14

Doom from the Depths: Coming Your Way

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Ever since the horrors of submarine warfare became a key issue during World War I, submarines have had a sinister reputation. And the building of new, immensely costly, nuclear-armed submarines by the U.S. government and others may soon raise the level of earlier anxiety to a nuclear nightmare.

This spring, the U.S. government continued its steady escalation of research and development funding for the replacement of its current nuclear submarine fleet through one of the most expensive shipbuilding undertakings in American history — the phasing-in, starting in 2031, of 12 new SSBN(X) submarines. Each of these nuclear-powered vessels, the largest submarines the Navy has ever built, will carry up to 16 Trident ballistic missiles fitted with multiple nuclear warheads. All in all, this new submarine fleet is expected to deploy about 1,000 nuclear warheads — 70 percent of U.S. government’s strategic nuclear weapons.

From the standpoint of the U.S. military, nuclear-armed submarines are very attractive. Capable of being placed in hidden locations around the world and remaining submerged for months at a time, they are less vulnerable to attack than are ground-launched or air-launched nuclear weapons, the other two legs of the “nuclear triad.” Moreover, they can wreak massive death and destruction upon “enemy” nations quite rapidly. The Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review of 2014 explained that the U.S. Navy’s future fleet would “deliver the required presence and capabilities and address the most important war-fighting scenarios.”

From the standpoint of civilians, the new Trident submarine fleet is somewhat less appealing. Strategic nuclear weapons are the most destructive weapons in world history, and the use of only one of them over a large city could annihilate millions of people instantly. If the thousands of such weapons available to the U.S. government and other governments were employed in war, they would incinerate most of the planet, reducing it to charred rubble. Thereafter, radioactivity, disease, nuclear winter, and starvation would end most remaining life on earth.

Of course, even in an accident, such weapons could do incredible damage. And, over the years, nuclear-armed submarines have been in numerous accidents. In February 2009, a British and a French submarine, both nuclear-powered and armed with nuclear missiles, collided underwater in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Although the two vessels were fitted with state-of-the-art detection equipment, neither spotted the other until it was too late to avert their collision. Fortunately, they were moving very slowly at the time, and the damage was limited (though enormously expensive to repair). But a sharper collision could have released vast quantities of radioactive fuel and flung their deadly nuclear warheads across the ocean floor.

In addition, when the dangers are so immense, it is worth keeping in mind that people, like the high-tech nuclear submarines, are not always infallible or reliable. Submarine crews — living in cramped quarters, bored, and isolated for months at a time — could well be as plagued by the poor morale, dishonesty, drug use, and incompetence found among their counterparts at land-based nuclear missile facilities.

Taxpayers, particularly, might be concerned about the unprecedented expense of this new submarine fleet. According to most estimates, building the 12 SSBN(X) submarines will cost about $100 billion. And there will be additional expenditures for the missiles, nuclear warheads, and yearly maintenance, bringing the total tab to what the Pentagon estimated, three years ago, at $347 billion. The expected cost is so astronomical, in fact, that the Navy, frightened that this expenditure will prevent it from paying for other portions of its shipbuilding program, has insisted that the money come from a special fund outside of its budget. This spring, Congress took preliminary steps along these lines.

People might be forgiven for feeling some bewilderment at this immense U.S. government investment in a new nuclear weapons system — one slated to last well into the 2070s. After all, back in April 2009, amid much fanfare, President Barack Obama proclaimed “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” This was followed by a similar commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world made by the members of the UN Security Council, including five nuclear-armed nations, among them the United States. But, as this nuclear weapons buildup indicates, such commitments seem to have been tossed down the memory hole.

In arguing for the new Trident submarine fleet, U.S. military leaders have pointed to the fact that other nations are maintaining or building nuclear-armed submarines. And they are correct about that. France and Britain are maintaining their current fleets, although Britain is on the verge of beginning the construction of a new one with U.S. assistance; Israel reportedly possesses one; China is apparently ready to launch one in 2014; India is set to launch its own in 2015; and Pakistan might be working to develop one. Meanwhile, Russia is modernizing its own submarine ballistic missile fleet.

Even so, the current U.S. nuclear-armed submarine fleet is considerably larger than any developed or being developed by other nations. Also, the U.S. government’s new Trident fleet, now on the drawing boards, is slated to be 50 percent larger than the new, modernized Russian fleet and, in addition, far superior technologically. Indeed, other nations currently turning out nuclear-armed submarines – like China and Russia — are reportedly launching clunkers.

In this context, there is an obvious alternative to the current race to deploy the world’s deadliest weapons in the ocean depths. The nuclear powers could halt their building of nuclear-armed submarines and eliminate their present nuclear-armed submarine fleets. This action would not only honor their professed commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world, but would save their nations from making enormous expenditures and from the possibility of experiencing a catastrophe of unparalleled magnitude.

Why not act now, before this arms race to disaster goes any further?

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” (Solidarity Press), a satirical novel about campus life.

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