Monday, October 24, 2011

United States Should Take the Lead on Reforming the United Nations

Happy United Nations Day! It is October 24, the anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Charter. Since 1947, with varying levels of observance, this day has been officially recognized as a day on which we should celebrate the creation of the United Nations and the fact that we are citizens of the world as well as Americans. Although it will be completely ignored by the American media and probably merit nothing beyond a short written statement by President Obama, today is as good a day as any for us to reflect on the importance of the UN. More importantly, we should take this opportunity to consider how the United States might take the lead in reforming the UN and turning into a force that can reach its full potential to do good in the world.

The United Nations rose out of the ashes of the Second World War, which had killed tens of millions of people and left much of the planet in ruins. The vision that sparked the organization was a world in which war was relegated to the history books, as the various nations would resolve their disputes peacefully and work together on matters of common interest. When one reads the letters and diaries of the diplomats who labored together to create the UN in 1945, it is easy to feel the excitement and idealism that inspired them in their work.

Unfortunately, it didn't take many years before the beautiful vision of the UN ran into ugly reality. The ideological rivalry between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union during the Cold War largely paralyzed the organization for many decades. As happens in any large organization, incompetence and corruption were exposed at many levels within the UN. Action on serious issues became rare, and the General Assembly seemed to spend most of its time on purely symbolic votes, often over issues that seem petty and ridiculous to most people (such as whether or not "Zionism" constituted racism). UN operations in Somalia turned into a bloody fiasco, and disgraceful lack of action in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur made a mockery of the organization.

Those are the lights in which the American media likes to portray the UN. Yet, at times, the UN has been an astonishingly successful organization. Agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and others have saved countless lives over the past several decades and raised the quality of life for millions more. Despite many well-publicized failures when it comes to peacekeeping, the UN has helped end or contain conflicts in the Middle East, Cyprus, the Indian Subcontinent, Central America, and Sub-Saharan Africa. During the 1990-91 crisis that led to the First Gulf War, the UN Security Council worked exactly as it was supposed to, resulting in the defeat of Iraqi aggression and the liberation of Kuwait.

Americans have had an odd relationship with the UN over the years. It should never be forgotten, of course, that the UN was the brainchild of President Franklin Roosevelt and was essentially an American invention. Despite this, the United States seemed to sour on the UN as the decades passed. In the 1980s, it became common for Republicans in Congress to block appropriations for UN funding, and some influential groups began calling for the United States to withdraw from the UN altogether.

Calls for our country to withdraw from the UN are simply ridiculous, but only a fool would deny that the UN is in desperate need of reform. Rather than continue complaining, the United States should instead take the lead in in pushing for comprehensive and fundamental reform at the UN. Because it remains the single biggest source of UN funding, and because of its position on the Security Council, our country is uniquely well suited to take on this task.

In doing this, the United States would not only be doing the world a favor, but serving its own interests. After all, a stronger and more capable UN means a more stable world, and a more a stable world is obviously in the best interests of the United States. Global stability facilitates foreign trade and thus benefits the United States economically, and global stability also minimizes the possibilities of military conflicts into which the United States might otherwise be dragged. Even if we didn't have a moral bone in our body and were governed entirely by selfishness, working for a stronger and more capable UN would make perfect sense.

There are several areas in which UN reform is badly needed, chief among them being the revitalization of the Security Council, which is tasked under international law with the maintenance of peace and security. The makeup of the Security Council is more reflective of the geopolitical situation as it was in 1945 than it is in 2011. It is a concession to common sense that major and emerging powers like Japan, India, Brazil, and perhaps others need to be brought into the Security Council in order to give it the credibility and legitimacy it needs to properly fulfill its role as the keeper of the peace in the world.

As a corollary to this, the virtually defunct Military Staff Committee might be ratcheted up once again, to draw up contingency plans for potentially necessary peacekeeping operations and to coordinate actions against pirates such as those which prey on shipping in the Arabian Sea. A permanent United Nations rapid reaction force of light infantry has also been proposed, perhaps recruited in the same manner as the French Foreign Legion, which would eliminate the need for the UN to beg for troops from member nations every time a decision is made to launch a peacekeeping operation of some kind.

The UN also requires "democratization" in a major way. The General Assembly maintains a one-state-one-vote, in which little Tuvalu (population: 10,500) has the same voting power as China (population: 1.3 billion), and in which tyrannical governments has the same voice as democratic ones. The United States should push aggressively for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, in which the representatives are directly elected by the people of the nations they represent, which would have the beneficial side effect of promoting democracy in countries where free and fair elections have been rare or nonexistent.

Until these reforms take place, the UN in general will lack remain a lackluster force in world affairs.

For the last several decades, there has been a widespread belief within the United States that the country should not act as the "world's policeman". This opinion is correct. Even if acting as the world's policeman were morally justifiable, which it is not, it is simply unsustainable from a fiscal point of view. As we have mentioned before in this blog, the United States must begin drawing down its immense military-industrial complex and dismantling the global "empire of bases" it has created since the Second World War. Doing this will be much easier if the UN were empowered sufficiently to do the job its founders envisioned it doing.

Although some administrations have been more supportive of the UN than others, no administration has yet had the gumption to step up to the plate and lead a serious campaign for comprehensive reform at the UN. For both the betterment of the world and to serve American interests, the Obama administration should begin to do so now.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Time for a New Constitutional Convention?

It was today, 224 years ago, that the Constitutional Convention completed its work and set out the glorious document which created our system of government. The fact that 55 flawed men could craft such a brilliant intellectual achievement as the United States Constitution almost defies belief. The further fact that it has continued to function, almost unchanged, for more than two hundred years simply seems miraculous. Certainly it is the most successful written constitution in the history of the world.

But it's not a perfect document, by any means. The Electoral College is archaic and should be thrown away, the term "high crimes and misdemeanors" needs to be clarified, Supreme Court justices shouldn't serve for life, and there are other problems. And while many constitutional problems within our current system, such as the overwhelming superiority of the Executive Branch, are not the fault of the Constitution itself but rather our flawed interpretation of it, they could be solved were the wording of the document somewhat different.

Thomas Jefferson was not involved in the writing of the Constitution, as he was then serving as a diplomat in Europe. But he followed the process closely and, as it turned out, did not entirely approve of the final version of the document. More fundamentally, Jefferson also believed that a new constitutional convention should be held every twenty years, as he felt no generation should have to live under a constitution it had had no role in crafting. Jefferson would be very surprised and disappointed to learn that, over two centuries, the American people would only amend the Constitution twenty-seven times. Were he alive today, he would be calling for an immediate constitutional convention. Perhaps we should follow his lead.

Larry Sabato, one of the most respected political commentators in our time, has authored a wonderful book entitled
A More Perfect Constitution. The book lays out 23 proposed amendments to the Constitution that would essentially update it for the 21st Century. Among the proposals Sabato lays out which are certainly worthy of attention are:

- A Balanced Budget Amendment

- Nonpartisan redistricting of congressional districts

- Term limits for members of Congress

- Giving the President a line-item veto

- Limiting Presidential war powers

- Abolishing life tenure for Supreme Court Justices in favor a single, 15-year terms

There are many other interesting proposals and Sabato's book is highly-recommended for anyone who cares about these issues.

There are many aspects of our modern system of American government that are fundamentally anti-democratic and need to be corrected. Human nature being what it is, we cannot expect the members of Congress to pass the needed amendments, no matter how much political pressure may be brought to bear. It will likely be only slightly easier to make use of the provisions of Article V of the Constitution, which state that a constitutional convention will be assembled if two-thirds of the states (34 states, in other words) call for one. Either would take many long years of intense lobbying and campaigning, involving substantial grassroots organizing on the part of citizens of good will around the country. And there would be no guarantee of a successful outcome.

Still, the fact that it will be difficult is no excuse not to try. At the very least, it will be easier than the task the Founding Fathers faced in 1776.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Let's Create a Transatlantic Free Trade Area

Free trade should be one of the pillars of American economic and foreign policy. Reducing trade barriers between nations ultimately benefits everyone in many different ways. It increases employment, lowers prices, promotes innovation, and fosters friendly international relations. Short-sighted people are often frightened into calling for a return to protectionism in ill-guided attempts to protect favored industries, albeit only briefly and at the cost of hurting everyone else, but these voices must be ignored if we are to continue building a prosperous and dynamic nation.

The promotion of free trade, by creating jobs, also helps us tackle the fiscal crisis. Obviously, employed people pay more taxes than an unemployed person, and the additional economic activity generated by the increase in consumer spending also helps bring in revenue for the government. Even better, employed people do not require government assistance in the same way that unemployed people do.

The United States currently enjoys free trade agreements (FTAs) with more than a dozen countries, ranging from the immense NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico to the comparatively puny bilateral FTA with the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain. Agreements with South Korea, Columbia, and Panama are hopefully going to be ratified soon. These FTAs have already been a boon to the American economy, creating jobs and lowering prices across the board. But we need to be doing more. In particular, the United States should pursue an agreement with the European Union to create a Transatlantic Free Trade Area.

The idea of a Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA) has been floating around since the 1990s. The United States and the European Union are the world's two largest economies; indeed, together they comprise roughly half of global GDP. But their prosperity is currently threatened by the global fiscal crisis and by the economic rise of China and India. The former threatens to eliminate jobs dependent on government spending, while the latter has long been draining manufacturing jobs away from Europe and America to the cheaper labor markets of Asia. Europe and America need to work together to tackle the economic challenges of the 21st Century, and the creation of TAFTA would be the most important step.

The volume of trade already existing between the United States and the European Union is immense, totaling roughly a trillion dollars a year. This could grow even larger if existing trade barriers between the two sides were removed by a free trade agreement. Considering that wages and working conditions are roughly the same for both sides, the TAFTA could avoid disputes on such issues that have bedeviled FTAs in the past. The European Union has tougher environmental standards than does the United States, but hopefully that issue can be avoided in any FTA negotiations.

Right now, the average tariff each side imposes on imports from the other is less than 3%. This is not large by global standards, but it still represents a substantial drag on prosperity, especially considering the immense size of the US-EU trading relationship. The creation of a TAFTA could eliminate these bothersome tariffs, giving a shot in the arm to economic activity and thereby quickly creating jobs and lowering prices for people on both sides of the ocean.

Subsidies to favored industries has been the largest economic bone of contention between the two sides in recent years, especially when it comes to the rival aerospace firms Boeing and Airbus. These subsidies negatively interfere with the free market, make products ranging from agricultural produce to jetliners more expensive, and ultimately cost thousands of people their jobs. Negotiations to create a TAFTA would force the two sides to finally resolve these annoying issues and thereby would bandage up a wound that has been bleeding the economy for far too long.

Creating a TAFTA would eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers, as well as get rid of annoying and job-killing practices such as subsidies to favored industries. It would reduce prices on a wide variety of products for all consumers, which benefits everyone but especially benefits the poor. Already huge transatlantic investment between Europe and America would grow even larger, and the natural political alliance between the two would grow even stronger.

President Obama, pick up the phone and get the process started.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Despite Fiscal Crisis, America Must Invest In ITER

As the fiscal crisis grows ever more serious, policy-makers in Washington are busy talking about what government spending needs to be cut. That list, needless to say, is a long one. Indeed, it will almost certainly turn out to be much longer than the policy-makers would have us believe. To resolve the fiscal crisis, we are not only going to have to raise taxes on certain segments of the population, but slash our military spending in a major way and implement painful cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs. If we are to avoid disaster, we are going to have to change the entire way we run our country.

But even as we talk about what we are going to cut, we must also must identify those areas of government spending which are too important to cut. Obviously, we must preserve our education system, our transportation infrastructure, and other critical functions of government. But we must also continue to fund certain scientific research and development programs, and none of those is more important than the ITER project.

ITER is an immense international scientific collaboration involving not just the United States, but the European Union, Russia, China, India, South Korea, and Japan. Their goal is to build an experimental thermonuclear fusion reactor that can serve as a model for future fusion reactors that will be able to produce energy for the commercial market. ITER, already under construction in the south of France, has the potential to radically alter the energy matrix of the world in a manner that would greatly benefit everyone on the planet.

Nuclear fusion power generates energy by fusing atoms together, which is the same process that powers stars. Its advantages over other forms of power generation are immense. The fuel used in the fusion process is easily obtainable, so the amount of energy generated is effectively inexhaustible. Fusion generates no carbon emissions and so will not contribute to global climate change. Furthermore, unlike nuclear fission reactors, fusion power poses no risk whatsoever of nuclear meltdowns and would produce no long-lasting radioactive waste.

The disadvantage of nuclear fusion is that fusion reactions are currently difficult and expensive to achieve. The technology is still being developed, and experimental fusion reactions which have been created up to this point used up more energy than they would have been able to generate. ITER's mission is to solve those technical problems, leading the creation of a model fusion reactor which will produce more energy than it expended to create the reaction. Along the way, the techniques, technologies, and materials will be created that will eventually be used to create commercial power plants.

If ITER can prove the commercial viability of nuclear fusion power, the results would be earth-shaking. It would certainly be the most revolutionary development in energy since the invention of the steam engine, and might even surpass it in importance. The dream of a reliable source of abundant and pollution-free energy can be realized, if only we have sufficient vision to grasp it.

It is estimated that ITER will cost perhaps $20 billion over the course of the project's lifetime. The European Union is paying nearly half the cost of the ITER project, while Russia, China, India, South Korea and Japan are collectively paying about as much as the European Union. The United States will be paying slightly less than one-tenth of the total cost of the ITER, a sum which will be utterly dwarfed by the amount of money the government is expected to pay in subsidies to oil companies during the same period.

Considering the potential payoff, the comparatively trivial financial costs of American participation in the ITER project are well worth paying. Nevertheless, there has been considerable pressure over the last few years to terminate American involvement in ITER, with the country even temporarily pulling out of the project between 1999 and 2003. ITER funding in the current fiscal year amounts to $80 million,, considerably less than the price of a single F-22 fighter and down from $135 million the previous year. Thom Mason, the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is heading up American participation in ITER, has publicly stated his concern that federal budget woes will continue to hurt the American contribution to the project.

As the policy-makers in Washington struggle to cut spending and bring the budget under control, funding for the American contribution to ITER must be one of the items considered absolutely off limits for cuts. Not only must the United States maintain its position as a world leader in science and technology, but we cannot set aside projects such as ITER that promise such immense benefits to both our country and the world as a whole.

We need to cut government in a major way, but cutting ITER would be a monumental mistake.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Turn Off the Television

Fifty years ago, Newton Minow, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, famously described television as "a vast wasteland". Back then, there were only three networks in the country, and if the quality of the programming was not particularly good, at least there wasn't much of it. Today, by contrast, we have a much vaster wasteland to deal with, literally hundreds of channels peddling more or less the same lowest-common-denominator drivel that is dissolving our national spirit like a steady dripping of acid.

Television could have proven to be the greatest invention since the printing press. Had the powers-that-be in the network world upheld the ideals of genuine civic virtue rather than succumb to the base motives of profit, the programming on television could have been focused on quality drama and comedy, well-made and intellectually challenging documentaries, and news programs that provide comprehensive and unbiased coverage of the events of the day. They could, in short, have made television into a great source of enlightenment, education, and uplifting of the spirit.

What do we see when we look at the vast wasteland today? We see reality shows which follow the moronic antics of immoral people trying to achieve some useless or degraded objective. We see formulaic comedies, the majority of which seem to focus almost exclusively on crude and sexual humor that no decent person would find amusing. We see game shows which seem to peddle the message that Americans should strive to be as stupid as possible. After fifteen minutes of watching standard American television, one feels the strong need to take a shower.

To be fair, there remain a few programs of worthwhile and intelligent content. Public television, which is funded directly by citizens and not dependent on corporate advertising for its revenue, regularly features excellent documentaries and the last remaining news programs of any value in America. A few of the cable networks produce some excellent drama and comedy programs as well. But these diamonds in the dunghill are few and far between, and their numbers seem to dwindle with every passing year.

Depending on which study you read, the average American spends between three and four hours a day watching television. That's more than 1,200 hours a year. Do they really see anything they needed to see, learn anything worth learning, or watch anything remotely meaningful or even relevant to their lives? If they could wave a magic wand and get all those hours back, would it be make sense for them to spend that time in front of the television again?

The average American sees something like 30,000 commercials every year. Television is by far the most important medium for corporate propaganda to weasel its way into the minds of American citizens and American children. The latest psychological research is employed to persuade Americans to buy what they do not need using money they do not have. It spreads the insidious message that consumerism is the end-all-be-all of life, and that virtue and decency are quaint relics of a bygone age.

The time we spend watching television breaks down the civilized pillars of our society. Every hour spent in front of the "idiot box" is one less hour for reading a book or newspaper, for gardening, for enjoying dinner parties with friends, for attending school board meetings, or for volunteering with local community groups. In effect, television simply plugs itself into our souls and gradually sucks out our civic energies.

Our country is faced with difficult problems and dangerous challenges. To meet them, we need an active, intelligent and well-informed citizenry that is infused with a patriotic spirit and a desire to work for the common good. We don't currently have that, and our continued self-imposed slavery to television is one of the main reasons why.

Wandering through a vast wasteland is never a desirable activity. In that spirit, turn off the television and pick up a book. Not only will you be better off for it, but so will the rest of the country.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ten Steps On the Road to a Balanced Budget

Since the 2010 election placed the fiscal crisis on the table as the great issue of the day, the debates raging in Washington have been bitter, rancorous, and highly misleading. Both sides acknowledge the need to reduce government spending, though they differ widely on how best to achieve this objective. But in all their pronouncements, both Republicans and Democrats speak only of the need to "reduce the deficit", as if the problem is that the deficit is too big and simply needs to be made smaller. This is a dangerous delusion.

The fact of the matter is that the deficit needs to be done away with entirely. Simply reducing the deficit only lessens the problem; it does not solve it. Our fiscal crisis will not be ended unless and until we fully balance the budget and begin to pay off our national debt. The powers-that-be in Washington are trying to persuade the American people that we can solve all our problems if we simply borrow less money, but the truth is that we have to stop borrowing altogether and find a way to live completely within our means.

Considering the vast expanse of federal spending and the comparatively low levels of taxes paid by Americans, balancing the federal budget seems like an impossible task unless we want to reduce spending so much that the national infrastructure collapsed or raise taxes so much that the economy completely tanks. But in truth, like any problem, balancing the federal budget can be achieved if only we approach the issue rationally and unclouded by old dogmatism.

But just as the Allies didn't capture Berlin on D-Day, we cannot simply balance the budget with the stroke of a single pen, no matter how much we might want to do so. It is going to be a painful process and will take a long time. With the threat of a default temporarily lifted thanks to the debt ceiling deal, we can only hope that our elected leaders in Washington now get to work on balancing the budget within the next decade, with a steady paying down of the debt to commence immediately thereafter.

To get us to the ultimate goal of a balanced budget, I have a few modest suggestions:

1. Let the Bush tax cuts on those making $250,000 more a year expire. The enactment of these tax cuts back in 2001 and 2003 were a major factor in bringing on the fiscal crisis to begin with, and they were intended to eventually expire anyway.

2. Eliminate earmarks. Truth be told, eliminating earmarks will not make much of a dent in the federal budget deficit, since their total cost amounts to only a small percentage of annual federal spending. But every little bit helps, and every dollar not spent on earmarks is another dollar closer towards balancing the budget. Besides, earmarking is an insidious practice that ought to be done away with even if it has no effect on the deficit.

3. End our permanent military deployments in Western Europe and East Asia. There is no need for us to maintain 80,000 men in Europe, 28,000 men in South Korea, and 30,000 in Japan. Our allies are perfectly capable of defending themselves without our help, and it makes no sense for American soldiers and American taxpayers to bear the burden of protecting countries other than the United States itself.

4. Reduce our nuclear weapons arsenal. We should eliminate our land-based nuclear missiles and our nuclear bomber fleet and rely instead exclusively on submarines, while reducing our nuclear arsenal to 500 weapons. This would in no way endanger national security, since our arsenal would still be more than sufficient to completely destroy any conceivable enemy, and would save us an enormous amount of money every year. As a bonus, it's the moral thing to do, too.

5. Push free trade. Since growing the economy is the best way to help balance the budget, the government should quickly ratify the pending free trade agreements with South Korea, Columbia, and Panama. Once we've finished that, we should immediately resume talks with the European Union on the establishment of a Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Area, while starting negotiations on free trade agreements with India, Brazil, and perhaps other countries.

6. Get realistic about Social Security. We need to remember that Social Security was originally intended as a means to assist extremely elderly people, not provide full incomes for newly-retired people. The age at which its benefits started should have been adjusted as life expectancy increased in the decades since the programs enactment. Clearly, the eligibility age must increase in gradual stages to 70. Of course, in the long run we might consider abolishing Social Security altogether and replacing it with a negative flat income tax, but that's a whole other battle.

7. Enact comprehensive medical malpractice reform. Physicians regularly order unnecessary tests and procedures in order to avoid potential lawsuits, the cost of which is ultimately passed onto the American taxpayer. While serious negligence and criminal incompetence obviously need to be subject to proper litigation, it's clear that we must come down hard on frivolous lawsuits that not only unfairly punish doctors but also cost the federal government billions of dollars every year.

8. Get Medicare under control. This could be done in the same way as with Social Security, by raising the eligibility age to 70. Alternatively, we could simply adopt a Republican proposal to cap Medicare spending at a certain portion of GDP, thus keeping costs down at the price of passing more of the cost onto citizens. Most importantly, we need to use Medicare to keep overall healthcare costs down by using its immense bargaining power to lower the costs of drugs and other medical products. We also need to end the legal immunity that health insurance companies enjoy against antitrust laws.

9. Legalize marijuana. As I discussed in a previous blog post, the simple act of legalizing marijuana would allow the government to raise money by hitting marijuana with a hefty excise tax, similar to the excise taxes already imposed on tobacco and alcohol products, and to save money by massively reducing the cost to law enforcements, the justice system, and the prison system. It's such an obvious move that it seems bizarre that the logic of it is not immediately clear to everybody.

10. Eliminate agricultural subsidies. Whether we're talking about subsidies for ethanol in Iowa or subsidies for sugar producers in South Carolina, these unnecessary government interventions in the economy cost the federal government billions of dollars every year. Even worse, they often artifically raise prices on many products for American consumers by undercutting competition.

These ten steps would by themselves put uon the road towards a balanced budget. But political realities dictate that achieving any of them, to say nothing of all of them, will be very difficult. Still, there is no other way; the budget simply must be balanced. America has triumphed over adversity in the past, and we shall do so again. But it is going to require a great deal of effort and sacrifice on the part of American citizens. One thing is clear: the age of ease is over.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The United States Should Ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

On the 66th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, we should take a few moments and reflect on the fact that the continued existence of nuclear weapons on Earth is a grievous sin and an affront to human nature. A few days after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the philosopher Albert Camus said:

Mechanized civilization has just reached the ultimate state of barbarism. In a
near future, we will have to choose between mass suicide and intelligent use of
scientific conquest. This can no longer be simply a prayer; it must become an
order which goes upward from the peoples to the governments, an order to make a definitive choice between hell and reason

Camus was correct, and we must heed his insight. The fact that the United States continues to maintain a nuclear arsenal of more than 5,000 nuclear weapons is ridiculous and obscene, especially when less than one-tenth of that would be more than sufficient to deter any enemy. Russia has as many, and many other nations have nuclear arsenals of hundreds of weapons. To avoid an absolute disaster that is otherwise inevitable, the world has no choice but to create strong nuclear controls, the long-term objective being the abolition of nuclear weapons altogether.

An important step in the cause of establishing proper nuclear controls would be for the United States to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was adopted by the United Nations back in 1996. The United States signed the treaty, but has never ratified it. As a result, it still lacks the force of international law.

The CTBT is very simple: all those nations who are party to the treaty are forbidden to carry out any tests involving nuclear explosions of any kind at any time. Needless to say, the entry of this treaty into force would greatly simplify efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to new states. It would also be a powerful symbolic statement by the nations of the world that humanity might one day achieve the dream of abolishing nuclear weapons altogether.

Advances in computer modeling mean that the United States does not require physical nuclear detonations to ensure the continued viability of its existing nuclear arsenal. The fact that our country has yet to ratify the treaty has been used by other non-ratifying states, including India, as a justification for their continued rejection of the treaty. The United States has not tested a nuclear weapon for nearly two decades, which makes our continued refusal to ratify the treaty all the more inexplicable.

President Obama has been outspoken in his calls for greater nuclear controls and the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. But he has yet to make a serious push in the Senate for the ratification of the treaty. This should be done without delay. What is President Obama waiting for?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Debt Ceiling Debate Was "Firebell In the Night"

In his retirement at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson referred to the bitter debate over the Missouri Compromise as "a firebell in the night". The escalating conflict over slavery in America, Jefferson feared, might eventually bring the republic down in the fires of civil war. As it turned out, he was quite right.

The bitterly partisan debate we have seen over the past few weeks in Washington over the debt ceiling has been our firebell in the night. Just as the slavery question was the greatest challenge facing the American republic in the early 19th Century, so the national fiscal crisis is the greatest challenge facing it in the early 21st Century. If we do not rise to the challenge, the consequences could be so disastrous as to defy any attempt at description.

The deal hammered out between President Obama and congressional leaders is nothing more than a short-term measure. The fiscal collapse that might have happened had the nation been allowed to default on its debt has only been postponed. What needs to happen now is for both parties to find a way to compromise in order to achieve long-term financial stability. Fundamentally, this means that our government must begin to pay for what the people expect it to do, and if it cannot, then the people need to readjust what they believe the government should do.

In the long run, we cannot continue to have a big government financed by low taxes and borrowed money. We have to downshift into a smaller, more efficient government, secured by a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Taxes on some people will obviously have to go up. We will undoubtedly have to scale back our massive entitlement programs, not to mention our massive military presence around the world. Vast numbers of government programs dear to special interests, such as agricultural subsidies, will have to be dismantled.

The devil will be in the details, of course. Every special interest will fight tooth and nail to protect their own interests. But the need to balance the budget and put our fiscal house in order is so obvious as to be a basic concession to common sense. There is simply no other way.

Fasten your seat belts. The rancor we have seen in Washington over the past few weeks during the debt ceiling debate has been merely a preview of coming attractions. The real debate is still to come. But the lights in the theater are dimming, and the show is about to start.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Negative Flat Income Tax Concept Deserves To Be Reconsidered

As a society, America upholds both the ideal of maximizing individual liberty and the ideal of protecting our most vulnerable citizens. We believe that every citizen should have the right to do whatever he or she wants, provided that he or she does not infringe on the rights of others. We also believe that no citizen should be abandoned to the squalor of abject poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

Unfortunately, these two ideals do not always coexist peacefully, especially when it comes to taxation policy and social welfare programs. Higher income earners in the United States, quite understandably, do not like having to pay higher taxes than lower income earners, especially as the large chunk of their tax dollars go to social welfare programs that benefit only the lower income earners. Lower income earners, by contrast, object to clear benefits the higher income earners receive when it comes to taxes, including having capital gains taxed at a lower rate than regular income and easier access to the multitude of loopholes within the Swiss cheese that is our tax code.

Over the past century, the federal government has created a multitude of programs to help the economically disadvantaged in America. Social Security came during Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Medicare, Medicaid, and the Food Stamp program emerged from Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. The Children's Health Insurance Program was created during the Clinton administration. Taken all together, few can deny that these and other such programs have benefited low income Americans tremendously by keeping the specter of abject poverty at bay.

But the price paid has been high. Most obvious is the fact that these programs are horribly expensive. Indeed, paying for them now accounts for more than half of the annual federal budget, and the expected growth of the programs is the most disturbing facet of the fiscal crisis now facing our nation. The blunt truth is that unless we begin reducing the cost of these programs, or adopt an entirely new model of social welfare altogether, the fiscal structure of the United States is doomed to collapse.

Beyond the basic cost, there is another, more disquieting objection raised by innumerable conservatives and libertarians over the years: that massive federal social welfare programs create a culture of dependence among lower income Americans which makes it difficult or impossible for them to break out of the "welfare trap". Perversely, it may be that those very social welfare programs which were created in a well-meaning effort to improve the lives of low income Americans have instead enmeshed them in a cycle of dependence on the federal government by robbing them of any incentive towards material self-improvement. After all, if getting a job with a higher salary, or getting a job at all if one is unemployed, results in losing government benefits of a greater value than the salary increase, what rational person would choose the higher salary or new job? In terms of self-interest and cost-benefit analysis, it would simply make no sense.

Is there a way to create a fair system of taxation and social welfare that ensures a sufficient level of funding for the government and avoids pushing lower income citizens into the welfare trap? One intriguing possibility is usually called the negative flat income tax. In the form suggested by the late Milton Friedman, one of the most influential economists of the 20th Century, the negative income tax would take the form of a completely flat income tax combined with a basic cash subsidy distributed equally to every citizen. In other words, every single citizen would pay the same percentage of his income in taxes, while receiving a subsidy of an equal dollar amount as everyone else, whether he were a wealthy corporate CEO or a guy on the street with a cardboard sign.

As an example, consider a negative income tax with a tax rate of 20% on all income and a subsidy of $6,000. A citizen with absolutely no income would obviously pay no taxes and would receive the $6,000 subsidy. A citizen making a mere $10,000 would end up taking in $14,000 annually ($10,000 minus $2,000 in taxes plus the $6,000 subsidy). A citizen making $100,000 would end up taking in $86,000 annually ($100,000 minus $20,000 in taxes plus the $6,000 subsidy). A citizen making $1,000,000 would end up bringing in $806,000 ($1,000,000 minus $200,000 in taxes plus the $6,000 subsidy). And so on.

Friedman only thought that his plan would work only if it were combined with an even more radical proposal: the cash subsidy received by each citizen should completely replace every other form of social welfare for the economically disadvantaged. If the negative income tax were adopted, Social Security would have to be abolished, as would Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and all other programs of social welfare. Minimum wage laws would also have to be repealed.

Under this proposal , the government would essentially wash its hands of taking care of economically disadvantaged citizens, who would then have to provide for themselves using their basic subsidy and whatever their own labor could earn. If a low income person chooses to spend his $6,000 on basic household necessities while working to improve his own economic situation, all well and good. But if they wanted to spend their $6,000 subsidy on alcohol, they'd better hope that their families, churches, and charitable organizations will step in to help them, because the government will not.

It should be pointed out that government assistance to such people as wounded veterans, physically and mentally handicapped people, and people in certain other categories would not need to be affected by the proposal. The social welfare programs which would be replaced by the basic subsidy would only be those directly involved in assisting the economically disadvantaged. It also would not affect such governmental actions as environmental regulation, workplace safety standards, and other such matters.

To Friedman's desire that the negative income tax replace all other forms of government social welfare, I would add a stipulation that the flat nature of the income tax be absolutely binding. The proposal would only work if there were no longer any write-offs, loopholes, or deductions of any kind. Every citizen would have to pay the agreed upon percentage of their total income. One's tax form would be a single page, on which one reported how much money they made over the course of the year, how much money they consequently owe the government (which could be calculated with a few pencil scratches on the back of an envelope), and their check.

Adopting a negative income tax would allow for a massive reduction in the administrative overhead of the federal government. The bloated bureaucracies within the Internal Revenue Service and the vast social welfare agencies would either be massively downsized or abolished altogether. Needless to say, this tremendous reduction in the size of the federal government would greatly ease the budget pressures our country is currently enduring, and remove the burden of an unnecessarily big government from the backs of the American people.

Although the negative flat income tax has been widely discussed since the 1960s, its implementation has always proven politically impossible. Conservatives dislike the notion of giving a cash subsidy to all citizens, while liberals believe that individual citizens cannot be trusted to provide for themselves with the subsidy alone. Politicians of all stripes recoil from the radical nature of the proposal, being instinctively fearful of change and recognizing that the resultant massive downsizing of the government would greatly weaken their own power and influence.

But radical though it might be, the negative flat income tax proposal is no more radical than many of the proposals of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society were in their days. It is an idea on which rational and pragmatic conservatives and liberals can agree. It has the potential to completely revolutionize the relationship between the federal government and the American people, remaking it into a much healthier and more beneficial relationship that is has been over the course of the past century.

It's high time that the negative flat income tax be dusted off and placed before the American people as a serious alternative to the current system of taxation and social welfare.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Wither The American Space Program?

When the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop on the runway at Kennedy Space Center early this morning, a disappointing and disturbing reality came to pass: as of that moment, for the first time in decades, the United States no longer had a manned spaceflight program. With the end of the Space Shuttle program, we have become dependent upon Russia to ferry our people to and from the International Space Station. This is not the result of any technical problem. Our great republic, which was the first nation to land human beings on another world, has made a deliberate decision to step away from the exploration of space.

This is not to say that the Space Shuttle program itself should have been continued. The Space Shuttle achieved a great deal in its three decades of operation, including the deployment and maintenance of the magnificent Hubble Space Telescope and the launching of several successful interplanetary robotic probes. But it was a flawed machine whose cost was enormous and whose unsafe design cost the lives of fourteen brave explorers. It is right and proper that the Space Shuttles be sent into honorable retirement.

The mistake we have made is that we have not properly planned for the future of the American space program. For manned spaceflight, there does not seem to be any clear or specific post-Shuttle plans on drawing board. True, the Obama administration has expressed a welcome desire to shift routine launches into orbit to private companies and has described its desire for NASA to invest in new technologies that will make manned spaceflight easier in the future, while Congress has been prodding NASA to develop a new heavy lift vehicle at some point in the future. But in the absence of any clearly-defined plan, all this is nothing but talk.

The only silver lining to all this is that the final end of the Space Shuttle program provides us a unique opportunity to reflect upon the dismal state of the American space program. It is past time that we cut through the ambiguity and indecision that has plagued American space policy in recent years and come to a consensus on a solid, sustainable, and worthwhile plan of space exploration that can be embraced by Americans of all political affiliations.

Any worthwhile American space policy must include a continued investment in our spectacularly successful exploration of the Solar System using unmanned spacecraft. NASA, to its credit, has big plans in this field for the coming years. Juno, a probe which will explore the Jupiter system, is scheduled to be launched this summer. The rover Curiosity, far larger and more advanced than earlier rovers, will be launched to Mars sometime in the fall. New Horizons, launched several years ago, will become the first spacecraft to fly by Pluto in a few years. Ambitious plans for a joint American-European set of unmanned spacecraft to Jupiter, possibly including participation by Russia and Japan, are now on the drawing board.

These missions will build on ongoing efforts that have already helped revolutionize our scientic understanding of the Solar System. Already, there is a veritable armada of robots orbiting or roving on the surface of Mars. The Cassini continues its remarkable exploration of Saturn and its moons, the Messenger probe has recently arrived in orbit around Mercury, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter continues its intense study of the Moon, and the Dawn spacecraft has just gone into orbit around its first exploratory target in the heart of the Asteroid Belt. The unmanned robotic exploration of the Solar System has been an amazingly successfully undertaking and is something in which every American should take great pride.

But what of the future of American manned spaceflight?

In 2004, President George W. Bush proposed creating a replacement launch system comprising the Orion spacecraft and the Ares rockets, which would first set up an outpost on the Moon and eventually dispatch a human expedition to Mars. It was a sound plan which, had it succeeded, could have completely reshaped human space exploration. But it fell victim to administrative mismanagement and inevitable cost overruns and was essentially cancelled by President Obama in 2010.

In retrospect, Obama's decision to simply cancel the project rather than revitalize and renew it may turn out to be one of the great mistakes of his administration. Former astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to step foot on the Moon, has called Obama's manned spaceflight policy a "mission to nowhere."

Some advocates of space exploration believe that the President should issue a dramatic statement that gives a specific goal and deadline for the American space program. This is exactly what President Kennedy did in 1961, which he challenged America to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth before the decade was out. But we don't live in 1961. The challenge met by the Apollo Program was made against the political backdrop of the Cold War, when the American people considered it critical that we "beat" the Russians to the Moon. If President Obama were to go on TV today and challenge America to land men on Mars by 2030, most Americans would simply yawn and change the channel.

So how can we inject our faltering space program with the necessary energy and excitement to give it a chance of success? Simple: tell the truth. Rather than portraying the space program as nothing but a big science project or, at best, a patriotic operation whose only goal is to plant a flag where it has never been planted before, the advocates of space exploration should be emphasizing the potential benefits that a successful space program could bring to the American people and, indeed, to the world as a whole.

I'm not talking about the much ballyhooed "spin-offs" from the space program, which entirely miss the point of the space program. I'm talking about real direct benefits: space-based solar power, obtaining helium-3 from the Moon to power fusion reactors, mining asteroids for their effectively infinite sources of minerals and metals. In other words, I'm talking about bringing the resources of the Solar System into the economic sphere of the human race. In the long run, decades or perhaps a century from now, the fruits of a vigorous and effective space program could be so immense as to fundamentally transform the lives of every human being on the planet for the better.

Advocates of a strong space program may think of these things often, but they are reluctant to talk about it in the public sphere. To most citizens, these ideas sound more like science-fiction than proper public policy. But history is full of ideas which once sounded crazy and are now established fact: cutting a canal through the Isthmus of Panama, creating energy by splitting the nuclei of atoms, building a railway tunnel under the English Channel, or, for that matter, landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

We need a space program worthy of our great republic. We should be developing a replacement for the Space Shuttle that will allow us to send astronauts into space in a safe and affordable manner. We should be laying plans for returning to the Moon and landing on Mars. We need to reclaim the limitless ambition and energy which has made our country great in the past, and which could make it great once again.

It is often argued that a drawback to representative democracy and free market capitalism is their inability to foster long-term planning, as they obviously focus on short-term objectives. When it comes to the future of the American space program, we have to begin thinking of bigger things than simply creating jobs in eastern Florida, northern Alabama or southeastern Texas. A great nation like the United States needs to have a great space program that will eventually bring forth unheard of progress and prosperity. That is a goal worthy of a grand alliance between Republicans and Democrats. And despite all the problems our country is currently facing, the time to start is now.

Monday, July 18, 2011

We Need an Army More Suited to Our Nation

The Founding Fathers were men of the Enlightenment, which meant that most of them had an engrained suspicion of large standing armies. Not only did a large standing army create a massive burden on the national budget, but it could potentially entice the national leadership to military adventurism of the kind undertaken by the Bush administration in Iraq. Even worse, a large standing army could potentially be used by the political faction in power to suppress the opposition by force, as Alexander Hamilton threatened to do to the political followers of Thomas Jefferson. Being well-versed in classical history, many of the Founding Fathers worried that a large standing army which was more loyal to its commander than it was to the state could bring down the legitimate government, as the armies of Marius, Sulla, and eventually Julius Caesar had done to the Roman Republic.

Alexander Hamilton aside, if the Founding Fathers could see the American military of the modern age, they would be very confused and not a little frightened. In 2011, the United States is by far the world's dominant military power. Indeed, the military budget of the United States is roughly as large as the rest of the world put together. While it is basic common sense for the nation to take adequate measures to guarantee its security, the massive American military expenditures every year are simply absurd, especially in an age of severe budget pressures and a rapidly increasing national debt.

While the Republicans and Democrats in Washington wrangle over the proper mix of tax inceases and spending cuts necessary to put our fiscal house in order, it is imperative that we put big reductions in military spending on the table, and the best way to achieve this is through a complete restructuring of the United States Army.

The current regular United States Army is made up of ten divisions, a number of independent brigades or regiments, and many independent smaller units. The personnel for these units are full-time regular soldiers, a substantial portion of whom intend the Army to be their lifetime career. Regular full-time strength of the Army is around 550,000 men. The Army Reserve, which is under federal control, contributes another 200,000 men.

Previously, this blog has raised the obvious question of why we have such an extensive network of permanent American military deployments overseas, including tens of thousands of soldiers in places like Germany, South Korea, and Japan. But why do we have such a large army in the first place? After all, there is no conventional military threat to the United States. Our borders are protected by two enormous oceans and two friendly and militarily weak neighbors. Even if our army was no bigger than Belgium’s, a successful foreign military invasion of the United States is about as likely as Bolivia invading Turkmenistan.

For a sound military policy, the United States would do well to go back to the ideal of a small army backed by a large militia system, which is precisely what existed in the early days of the Republic. The concept was quite simple: militias organized by the individual states would be used by the state governors to deal with immediate emergencies, such as Indian attacks or domestic disturbances, while only a small federal army would exist. In the unfortunate event of a major war with a foreign power, the militia units would be brought into federal service, with the regular army serving as the core of the wartime force large enough to win the war. When the war was over, the militia units would leave federal service and return to the states.

The idea of a national defense secured by a small regular army supplemented by militia units, which can be quickly expanded if necessary, has achieved great success in many countries. Indeed, it is the concept behind the structure of the Israeli Defense Forces, which has proven to be an astoundingly successful military force over the last six decades. And the United States has a ready-made organization to transform our current, bloated military into a much more suitable and affordable fighting force: the National Guard.

The Army National Guard has eight divisions and a large number of independent service brigades, with a total strength of about 450,000. Unlike the personnel of the regular Army, the men and women of the National Guard are not full-time professionals, but reservists. They serve, as their motto states, "one weekend a month and two weeks a year." When not training or on actual duty, the men and women of the National Guard are ordinary citizens, working ordinary jobs and living ordinary lives. During peacetime, they may be called into service by their state's governor in the event of an emergency, such as civil unrest or a natural disaster, but they can also be called into federal service in the event of war.

Recently, National Guard units have served with a high degree of effectiveness in both Afghanistan and Iraq. At any given time, between a quarter and a half of all American personnel in the conflict zones have been members of the National Guard, and by all accounts the performance of the National Guardsmen has been outstanding. The successful and effective service rendered to the country by the National Guardsmen in these conflicts should forever put to rest the assertions by some that volunteer reservists cannot make effective soldiers.

The age in which we live calls for a complete revamping of America's military policy, and the National Guard should play a major role in this. An ideal policy would include a substantial reduction of the active-duty military by converting perhaps half of the regular divisions and brigades of the United States Army into National Guard formations. Our grand strategy should thereafter rely less on the regular standing army and more on the National Guard. As part of this shift, we should obviously terminate most, if not all, of our overseas military deployments. In the unlikely event of a war with a major foreign power, the National Guard could serve as the core of a great national army, and would be returned to its ordinary state once the war was concluded.

Such a policy would allow the United States to maintain a more-than-sufficient ability to defend itself, especially as our security is mostly dependent upon strong naval power in any event. It would also allow us to significantly reduce military expenditures, vastly relieving pressure on the federal budget, which is a much greater threat to the American republic than any foreign enemy. It would remove the temptation for military adventurism that brought such disastrous results to the country during the Bush administration. Finally, American society would also be enriched by the contributions of hundreds of thousands of citizens whose energies would otherwise be sadly devoted to destructive ends.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Republicans Need To Compromise In Debt Ceiling Showdown

Take a look at today's weekly address by President Obama:

The President is quite correct when he says that solving the budget crisis will require both spending cuts and tax increases. He is also quite correct when he points out the necessity of Republicans and Democrats to compromise with one another in order to put our nation's fiscal house in order and that neither side is going to get everything they want. That's how public policy is supposed to get done in a country like ours.

In the negotiations that have been undertaken between the two sides, President Obama has been willing to put a lot on the table, including big reductions in Medicare and Social Security that have some members of his own party screaming for his head. In exchange, he has asked for the Republicans to agree to closing certain tax loopholes that benefit wealthy Americans. Rather than agree to what any rational and logical person would quickly recognize as a great deal, the Republican leadership has remain fixated on their ideological obsessions and refused the President's offer.

Because of this Republican obstinacy, the specter of a default by the federal government is hanging over our heads. Such an event could very well plunge the global economy into a more severe credit crisis than the one we experienced in 2007-09. If the Republicans insist upon remaining on their current path, they could well be responsible for a complete economic catastrophe not only for America, but for the entire world. The American voter will certainly remember that when November of 2012 rolls around.

In the long run, the Republicans are correct in wishing for a smaller government and lower taxes, secured by a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. But to meet the immediate crisis, a deal must be hammered out between the two sides. President Obama is offering the Republicans a good deal; their failure to accept it remains not only utterly inexplicable, but frightening in the extreme.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Market Access Program Should Be Defunded

As both Republicans and Democrats ineffectually squabble in Washington over where and how to cut the federal budget, innumerable programs that should logically be on the chopping block are being completely overlooked. One of these is the Market Access Program (MAP), which is run by the Department of Agriculture. Since it's creation in 1978, MAP has cost the American taxpayer about $3.4 billion, and currently expends about $200 million every year.

According to the Department of Agriculture, MAP "encourages the development, maintenance, and expansion of of commercial export markets for agricultural commodities" through the use of "promotional activities for U.S. agricultural products." The Department goes on to say that the activities financed by MAP subsidies "include consumer promotions, market research, technical assistance, and trade servicing."

To put it in simple terms, the federal government is subsidizing corporate advertising campaigns in foreign countries. It amounts to a financial giveaway by the government to wealthy corporate interests to the tune of $200 million a year. Though they may publicly claim to adhere to capitalism in the tradition of Adam Smith and decry any governmental interference in the economy, the big corporations are always more than happy to fill their coffers at the taxpayer's expense whenever they get the chance.

It is certainly not as though the corporations receiving these subsidies need the money. According to the group Taxpayers for Common Sense, the companies which receive these subsidies include McDonald's, Nabisco, Fruit of the Loom, and Mars. These companies generally have more money than they know what to do with, and they certainly do not need the help of the federal government in marketing their products to overseas markets. If they want to advertise overseas, more power to them. Let them pay for it themselves.

MAP should be immediately defunded. Not only is the program a classic example of the corporate welfare we need to eradicate from government, but it will save taxpayers $200 million every year. This may not sound like much when we have a national debt of $14.2 trillion, but every little bit helps. As the old Chinese proverb goes, the man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Electoral College Must Be Abolished

Every four years, Americans go to the polls to decide who shall be the President of the United States, clearly the most important office in the land. But because we continue to rely on the 18th Century administrative machinery of the Electoral College, our presidential elections are beset with two fundamental problems. First, the candidate who receives the most votes does not necessarily win. Second, the votes of certain citizens are worth more than those of other citizens. For these reasons, and many others, the Electoral College needs to be scrapped.

In the Electoral College, each state receives a number of votes equal to the number of representatives they have in both houses of Congress. However, because all but two states cast their votes on a winner-take-all basis, the candidate who actually gets the most votes does not necessarily win the election, for he or she might win several states by large margins and narrowly lose certain critical states, all of whose electoral votes will go to the other candidate.

We saw this clearly in the 2000 election. Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote handily, getting half a million more votes than Republican George W. Bush. But because of an infinitesimal Bush victory in the state of Florida (itself only the result of a flawed intervention by the Supreme Court), Bush received that state's electoral votes, which was just enough to allow him to win the Electoral College and thus to become the President. The candidate who was the clear choice of the American people was not the one who actually ascended to the office.

On four occasions in American history (1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000), the candidate who received the largest number of popular votes lost the Electoral College. In other words, in 1 out of 13.5 elections, the candidate who receives fewer votes actually wins. On five other occasions (1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, and 2004) a shift of a relatively tiny number of voters would have handed the victory to the candidate who lost the popular vote. Those who say that the Electoral College is not a problem because it usually reflects the popular will have not read their history books.

Beyond the fact that the Electoral College often allows candidates who lose the popular vote to still ascend to the Presidency, another major problem is that it gives an individual voter in a smaller state to have a disproportionately large influence on the outcome of the election than an individual voter in a large state. This violates the fundamental one-person-one-vote principle that should be at the heart of any representative republic.

For example, Wyoming has 563,626 and three electoral votes, or one electoral vote per 187,875 people. California, by contrast, has 37,253,956 people and 55 electoral votes, or one electoral vote per 677,344 people. Doing the basic math, we can see that a voter in Wyoming has nearly four times the influence on the outcome of the presidential election as does a voter in California. It's not fair, it's not democratic, and it shouldn't be tolerated.

These two problems would be sufficient by themselves to justify eliminating the Electoral College. But there are many other problems with it as well. One is that it causes presidential candidates to focus all their attention on a small number of "swing states", which are go conceivably go either way in the election, at the expense of those states which are considered reliably Republican or Democratic. As a result, the powers-that-be pay attention to the things that matter to voters in states like Ohio or Florida, while voters in Texas and New York are out of luck.

Consider this. There are roughly the same number of Cuban-Americans in the United States as Vietnamese-Americans. However, the issues important to the Cuban-American community get huge amounts of political attention, while the issues important to Vietnamese-Americans are largely ignored. Why is this? Well, Cuban-Americans tend to live in Florida, a key swing state, whereas Vietnamese-Americans tend to live in California and Texas, which are not swing states. Neither community is inherently more important than the other, but the Electoral College creates an artificial importance for one over the other.

The Electoral College also effectively disenfranchises millions of voters in every presidential election. Because nearly all the states use a winner-take-all system to allocate their electoral votes, it means the losing side in any given state may as well have not cast a ballot for president. A Republican in New York or a Democrat in Texas effectively has no say in who is elected President, and this goes against the ideals of a representative republic.

The Electoral College is an outmoded and obsolete piece of constitutional machinery, and it must be done away with. This could be achieved by a constitutional amendment, which would be very difficult. But because the Constitution allows the individual states to decide for themselves how to allocate electoral votes, it can also be achieved more quickly and with greater ease by individual action by the various state legislatures.

The National Popular Vote movement provides a surprisingly easy way out of this morass. Legislation is being enacted by individual states, whereby their electoral votes shall go to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of the outcome in the individual state, with the legislation taking effect as soon as the number of states equivalent to the winning number of electoral votes have enacted identical legislation. A few states have already passed the necessary legislation, and bills are advancing through the legislative process in most of the other states.

The Electoral College should be cast into the dustbin of history. Let us hope that the success reformers have achieved in recent years continues to build until final success is achieved.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Decriminalizing Marijuana is Basic Common Sense

Sometimes, a public policy issue has an answer that is so ridiculously obvious that it astonishes a rational person that the question is even being debated. One of these issues is whether or not marijuana should be decriminalized. The arguments in favor of legalization are so overwhelming, and the arguments against legalization so weak, that soundness of the decriminalization is crystal clear. Policy-makers in Washington and the various states could immediately do the entire country a big favor by decriminalizing marijuana. This does not imply any particular endorsement of people using marijuana (for the record, I myself do not use marijuana), but is merely a concession to reality and common sense.

The growth, possession, and use of marijuana was gradually made illegal in the United States via several pieces of legislation over the course of the 20th Century, culminating in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Since then, innumerable political battles have been waged over the issue of making it legal once again, often focusing on its potential medical uses. All these disputes could be easily resolved if we took the simple step of legalizing marijuana altogether and just being done with the issue.

From a rational point of view, using marijuana is not much different than using alcohol. Although the potential for serious misuse obviously exists, most people who use marijuana or drink alcohol do so in a responsible manner that presents no threat to other citizens. Thomas Jefferson once memorably said that the powers of the government "extend only to such acts only as are injurious to others." If a person wants to drink himself to death, that's very unfortunate but is no business of the state; if a person drinks heavily and then get behind the wheel of a car, the act presents a threat to other citizens and the power of the state must then intervene. The use of marijuana should only be illegal when it presents a threat or causes damage to another citizen, and there are few cases where this is genuinely the case.

That's the constitutional and philosophical argument, and for many it is sufficient justification on its own for marijuana legalization. But even without it, we can clearly see that keeping marijuana illegal has so many negative consequences for our society that it's decriminalization should be made an urgent priority.

The so-called "War on Drugs" was declared by President Nixon in 1971. Forty years later, anyone can see that it has been a dismal and utter failure, for drug use in America has barely changed. Instead, we annually waste something like fifty billion dollars of both federal and state money and have effectively militarized many segments of our law enforcement. If these financial and manpower resources were devoted to other tasks, which the decriminalization of marijuana would go far in doing, society would be much better off.

Even worse, roughly three-quarters of a million people are arrested every year for the nonviolent crime of merely possessing marijuana, significantly more than the number of people arrested for violent crimes. Of those arrested, tens of thousands are thrown in jail. Think of it. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens, who have done nothing that actually harms anyone, are languishing behind bars because they committed an act that is essentially no more serious than drinking a beer. It's something you might expect from Stalin's Russia, but not the United States of America. The moral conscience of every citizen should be outraged by this, and we must demand that the laws be overturned.

Beyond the moral argument is the fiscal one. It costs something like $60,000 annually to keep a single inmate in jail. We can easily do the math and discover that keeping incarcerated the nonviolent marijuana users that have already been arrested costs taxpayers something like $2.4 billion a year. Add onto that the savings marijuana decriminalization would generate from freeing up resources within our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, and we are looking at tens of billions of dollars a year.

For that matter, if marijuana were decriminalized, it could be subject to an excise tax, just like those we already place on alcohol and tobacco products, and sellers of marijuana would have to pay income taxes on their earnings once the industry emerged from the black market. Billions of dollars in revenue could be raised every year through these means. All told, the revenue generated by a marijuana excise tax combined with easing the prison, law enforcement and criminal justice budgets would greatly ease the fiscal strain being placed on the federal government and all of the fifty state governments. The Cato Institute has recently published a study indicating that legalizing marijuana would result in savings totalling about $9 billion to both state and federal governments, and result in excise tax revenues of $9 billion more.

It's worth pointing out that, so long as marijuana remains illegal, the profits from its sale largely flow into the pockets of drug dealers and organized crime. Decriminalizing marijuana would not only be of great fiscal benefit to the public, but would strike a severe financial blow at such criminal elements.

To summarize, decriminalizing the use of marijuana would right the great moral wrong of having so many of our fellow citizens in prison from nonviolent, victimless crimes, as well as saving taxpayers massive amounts of money and generating additional revenue to ease the national fiscal crisis, while cutting off a vital source of revenue for organized crime. As far as public policy is concerned, decriminalizing marijuana is a slam dunk.

Congress should immediately pass legislation reclassifying marijuana as a non-scheduled controlled substance, putting it in the same category at alcohol and tobacco, while the various state governments pass companion legislation making it legal. The federal government and the state governments should then slap a hefty excise tax on it. At the same time, the President should pass a blanket pardon to all prison inmates who had been incarcerated for marijuana possession. All this could be done within a matter of months, and it would make our society a much better place.

Monday, June 13, 2011

American "Empire of Bases" Must Go

During World War II, the struggle against fascism forced us to create an immense American military capability and to establish an American military presence throughout the world. During the Cold War, our long ideological conflict with communism required that a system of alliances and military bases around the world be maintained in the event that our ideological arguments with the Soviet Union exploded into full-blown war. Both of these events were regrettable but necessary.

Fascism and communism have both been cast into the garbage bin of history, yet the United States continues to maintain a vast network of military bases throughout the world. We have an army of more than 50,000 men permanently deployed in Germany. We maintain nearly 10,000 men in Italy, another 10,000 in the United Kingdom, and yet another 10,000 scattered about the rest of Europe. We have 33,000 men in Japan and 28,000 men in South Korea. Thousands of other service personnel are based in scores of other countries, including many bases in Africa and Latin America. The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. Many lawmakers are calling for permanent American military bases to be constructed in Iraq and Afghanistan, too. According to the Pentagon, there are over seven hundred American military bases around the world.

What for?

To borrow a term from the late Dr. Chalmers Johnson, who wrote an outstanding series of books on the subject, we can quite properly call this military network the American "empires of bases". Dr. Johnson compared America's foreign policy with the 19th century imperialism of the British and the French, calling the military base "America's version of the colony". While we might not officially annex the territory in question, we certainly use our massive network of military bases to ensure American military dominance of it.

Maintaining the empire of bases requires a truly immense amount of money. A vast fleet of enormous transport aircraft provides the logistical blood of these bases. The cost of construction and maintaining these bases is immense, and all the more upsetting because the construction contracts usually go to politically well-connected corporations (such as the notoriously corrupt KBR). All told, the basic upkeep of these bases costs American taxpayers roughly $100 billion a year, about one-eighth of the entire military budget, and a significant chunk of the budget deficit the federal government runs every year.

Many of these overseas bases are small American worlds unto themselves, with multiple bus lines for transportation and the whole array of American fast food restaurants. Recreational facilities, including everything from movie theaters to golf courses to health spas, are part of many of these establishments. An argument can naturally be made that if we do send our sons and daughters to serve overseas, we have a moral duty to provide for their needs. But we also have a moral duty to spend the people’s money wisely and not to burden future generations with our debts. Besides, are the golf courses really necessary?

The rationale behind the existence of the empire of bases is that it somehow furthers American interests or protects American national security, but this contention is highly dubious. The very existence of these bases, in fact, contributes to the rise of anti-Americanism around the world. With so many servicemen deployed overseas, it's inevitable that some will commit crimes, which discredit the entire American military in the eyes of the locals. In the last fifteen years, for example, assaults and rapes by Americans stationed on Okinawa has generated enormous anger towards America on the part of the Japanese people. The fact that the Americans involved in such incidents are often not tried by the justice system of the host country, but by the system of American military justice, only fuels the controversies. The more America is disliked abroad, the less secure our country ultimately is.

Beyond the damage done to the good name of America by disreputable servicemen, however, is the larger question of how these bases contribute to American national security? Why, exactly, does the United States maintain more than 80,000 troops in Europe? There has been no conventional military threat to Europe since the end of the Cold War more than twenty years ago. The continued presence of an American army in Europe does little other than drain the pockets of American taxpayers. And even if there was a conventional military threat to Europe, should not the defense of Europe be the responsibility of the Europeans? Should it not be European men who defend the continent, and European taxpayers who pay for its defense?

One can just as easily question the permanent deployments of American armies in Japan and South Korea. Those two countries have powerful military forces of their own, and their populations and economies are strong enough that they could easily increase their military power even more if they so chose. While they face the clear threat of North Korea and the potential threat of China, they have sufficient resources to defend themselves without American assistance. The same question that is asked of Europe can be asked of Japan and South Korea: should not the defense of Japan and South Korea be the responsibility of the Japanese and South Koreans? Should not be Japanese and South Korean men who defend their nations, and Japanese and South Korean taxpayers who pay for their defense? Certainly, there is no reason for America to spend untold billions of dollars on unnecessary military bases in those countries.

The overseas American military presence also contributes to unnecessary tensions between our country and others. The present Chinese military buildup is spreading alarm among many armchair strategists in America, but few point out the obvious fact that it is taking place largely because of the powerful American military presence in East Asia. Russia is attempting to rebuild its former military power, but one wonders if it would be so determined to do so if the American military presence in Europe vanished.

The powers-that-be would like us to believe that the empire of bases is necessary to maintain American security, or that perhaps we are fulfilling an altruistic mission to promote global stability. In truth, by stoking tensions with other nations and contributing to anti-Americanism among foreign peoples, our overseas bases almost certainly put us at greater risk and generating instability rather than stability. Furthermore, by significantly contributing to the country's national debt, which is a far greater threat to America than any conceivable foreign enemy, this wide array of bases actually diminishes our country’s security rather than increasing it.

America is supposed to be a republic, not an empire. Our "empire of bases" not only degrades our security and contributes to our debt, but it represents a disgraceful betrayal to our ideals. We should begin an immediate reduction of our overseas military presence, with the long-term goal being its entire elimination.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Pending Free Trade Agreements Should Be Approved Immediately

Politicians in Washington love to talk about creating jobs, especially in economically uncertain times such as these. Unfortunately the record shows that they are not particularly good at creating jobs and that, in fact, their efforts to do so can cause more harm than good. It is perhaps ironic, therefore, that there is currently a great deal of hesitation in Washington when it comes approving free trade agreements (FTAs) with other countries, which is quite possibly the most effective action a government can take to create jobs.

Currently, there are three FTAs sitting on the tables of the decision-makers in Washington: agreements with South Korea, Columbia, and Panama, which wait only a few words and signatures from the President and Congress for approval. The moment that these FTAs are approved, trade barriers between America and the other respective nations will begin to be dismantled, opening up those foreign markets for American exports, giving American consumers better and cheaper access to foreign goods, helping keep interest rates low, and generally improving the economic situation for all concerned. If Congress and the President were really serious about creating American jobs and improving the American economy, they would stop playing politics and approve these three agreements without delay.

The idea behind free trade is very simple: legal and regulatory barriers on international trade, such as tariffs, quotas, import and export duties, and all other such things should be reduced to their lowest possible level, and ideally abolished altogether. This seems like such an obviously desirable state of affairs that it's a wonder why it is so controversial. But despite its simplicity, free trade has been an enormously controversial subject since the early days of the republic, when Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson argued over its imagined benefits and drawbacks. The debate has pretty much been ongoing since then and there is no reason to believe it will end anytime soon.

Supporters of free trade declare that removing trade barriers between the United States and other countries expands economic activity, opens new markets to American products, creates jobs, lowers prices, and (as a bonus) improves the prospects for peace in the world. Opponents of free trade say that it costs America jobs by increasing America's trade deficit and allowing foreign competitors to undercut American manufacturers by dumping cheap foreign goods in the American market. While both sides selectively quote data and statistics to support their argument, an objective view of the question shows that the supporters of free trade decisively win the argument. When considered by the unbiased mind, there can be no doubt that free trade is both good for the United States and good for the world as a whole.

Last year, the United States Chamber of Commerce released a detailed study of the impact FTAs have had on the American economy in general and the American jobs picture in particular. Although there are currently seventeen FTAs in operation, the study focused only on fourteen, as it was decided that the three newest agreements had been enacted too recently for their full impact to be appreciated. The report found that the fourteen FTAs generated just over $300 billion in American economic activity and supported more than five million American jobs. Far from costing American jobs, free trade clearly results in a net gain of American jobs. According to Daniel Griswold, trade expert at the Cato Institute, the loss of low-paying blue collar jobs from FTAs are more than compensated for by the simultaneous creation of higher-paying white collar jobs.

Another claim that detractors of free trade like to make is that free trade increases America's trade deficit with the rest of the world. The facts state otherwise. Indeed, if we view the 17 nations with which America currently enjoys free trade status as a single bloc, we would have a significant trade surplus with them. By just about any measure, we gain much more than we lose by free trade.

Of the three FTAs on the table in Washington at the moment, the agreement with South Korea is clearly the most important. South Korea already has the 15th largest GDP in the world and, as one of the so-called "Asian Tigers", has emerged as one of the most important industrialized economies on the planet. Even without free trade status, South Korea is the 7th largest trading partner of the United States and exports to South Korea already support more than 200,000 American jobs. However, up to this point they have enjoyed far greater access to our market than we have enjoyed to theirs. The proposed FTA between South Korea and the United States would eliminate 95% of trade barriers within five years, vastly increasing access to the South Korea market for American exporters.

The United States currently has a trade deficit with South Korea to the tune of about $11 billion a year; approval of the FTA would cut this trade deficit by between $3 billion and $4 billion a year. More to the point, South Korea currently levies a tariff on American agricultural products that is greater than 50%; approval of the FTA would reduce this to nearly nothing over the course of a few years. South Korea will gain easier access to American products, and American businesses will increase their profits.

The FTA would also allow greater access for South Korean investment in the United States, which would lead to an expansion of South Korean-owned production facilities in our country that would create many thousands of well-paying American jobs. Consider the South Korea technology giant Samsung, the second largest chipmaker in the world. In my own town of Austin, Texas, a major chip manufacturing facility built by Samsung employs around two thousand highly-skilled and well-paid American workers and is currently in the process of a major expansion. If the FTA between South Korea and the United States is approved, how many other such facilities will be created across the United States?

The FTA between South Korea and the United States would be the biggest free trade agreement for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force in 1993. Already, South Korea has signed a free trade agreement with the European Union, and its trade ties with its Japanese and Chinese neighbors are also increasing. If we don't act quickly, the United States risks being cut out of the valuable South Korean market altogether.

Although the South Korean agreement is clearly the most important of the three FTAs currently being debated, the proposed FTAs with Columbia and Panama are nothing to sneeze at, either. Columbia is already the third biggest market for American exports in Latin America, with American exports to Columbia totaling $12 billion in 2010. Approval of the FTA with Columbia would increase this by more than a billion dollars, adding large numbers of jobs in both the agricultural and manufacturing sectors of the American economy, with the export of chemical products and construction equipment deriving particular benefit.

While Panama may be a small economy compared with the other two countries, it is a country whose economy is growing rapidly and which represents an expanding market for American products, particularly in the service sector. Currently, American industrial goods face a tariff of 7% and agricultural products face a tariff of 15%. The FTA with Panama would abolish those tariffs, greatly increasing the profitability of American exports and thereby helping to create and protect American jobs.

The expansion of free trade needs to be one of the central planks of the foreign and economic policies of the United States. It generates economic activity, creates jobs, eases the fiscal crisis, and promotes good relations with other countries. For all these reasons, Congress and the President should quickly approve all three of the free trade agreements that are currently on the table.