Thursday, March 31, 2011

Is the F-22 Raptor a $65 Billion Boondoggle?

The United States continues to play a leading role in the UN-authorized, NATO-enforced no-fly zone designed to protect civilians in Libya. American F-15, F-18, and F-16 warplanes continue to patrol the skies of Libya and launch airstrikes against Gaddafi loyalists who are attacking civilian areas. One prominent aircraft, however, has been conspicuously absent from the American arsenal being deployed against Gaddafi: the much-hyped F-22 Raptor.

As Lockheed Martin, the aerospace corporation which built the aircraft, never tires of telling us, the F-22 Raptor is the best and most advanced air superiority fighter ever built. Its use of the latest stealth technology is supposed to make it invisible to the enemy, while its advanced sensors and avionics gives it a tremendous advantage over any potential opponent. Its combination of maneuverability, speed, and rate of climb are superior to any other aircraft. It is, in short, the perfect aerial killing machine.

That's what we've been told, at any rate. But if the F-22 is so great, why isn’t it patrolling the skies over Libya? After all, once ground attack aircraft have destroyed enemy air defenses, enforcing a no-fly zone is a job for an air superiority fighter like the Raptor. Dispatching a squadron of F-22s to Libya would therefore seem to make perfect sense, and giving them a taste of actual operational service would certainly be good for morale. When the dismemberment of Gaddafi’s air defenses begin, there was much speculation that the F-22 was soon going to see its first operational deployment. So far, however, it has been a no-show.

Unfortunately, the failure of the F-22 Raptor to appear over Libya is the latest sign of something that has become increasingly clear: it is not nearly the plane is has been hyped up to be. In fact, it appears that the federal government spent $65 billion dollars to build less than 200 fighter aircraft which have so many problems that they will, in all likelihood, never see operational service.

According to this article from the Air Force Times, the main reason the F-22 is not being used in the Libyan operation is that it lacks the ability to properly communicate with other aircraft. This simple statement is so shocking as to scarcely be believable, and it could be easily dismissed if it came from a less reliable source. It turns out that the stealth ability of an F-22 Raptor can be maintained only until the aircraft attempts to communicate with another aircraft. Once it does, it can be detected and located by the enemy. This presents an obvious problem, as American military doctrine requires constant intercommunication between aircraft in order to achieve “situational awareness”. If the planes cannot communicate with each other, they cannot fight. The article also says that the Air Force had been working on some sort of solution to this rather stunning problem, but inexplicably ended funding for it last year.

To put it simply, the stealth aspects of the F-22 Raptor cannot be maintained in a combat environment. The main selling point of the corporate promoters of the aircraft, and the one which persuaded Congress to pay out $65 billion of the people’s money, is thus revealed to be overplayed at best and entirely chimerical at worst.

Even without stealth capabilities, though, the F-22 is still arguably the best air superiority fighter in the world, right? Well, it turns out that exaggerations of its stealth are only one of many problems with the F-22. Critically, the unprecedented maintenance requirements make it extremely difficult for the Air Force to keep the aircraft operational at any given time. According to an investigation by the Washington Post, every hour the F-22 spends flying requires a full 30 hours of maintenance word, costing over $40,000. In other words, assuming that an F-22 undertook a single patrol mission requiring three-and-a-half hours of flying, it would then be grounded for half a week in order to undergo maintenance costing $140,000. Indeed, the maintenance costs of the F-22 Raptor are so high that the Air Force has decided to reduce flight training hours by a full one-third in the coming year, because the plane is so expensive to fly.

Even something as simple as water has caused problems for the F-22 Raptor. During a 2009 deployment to Guam, a dozen F-22 Raptors experienced a variety of electrical problems, the cause of which was attributed to rain getting into the cooling systems. Even worse, in early 2010, the entire F-22 Raptor fleet was grounded for a time because water had gotten into their cockpits and rusted the metal on their ejector seats.

The F-22 Raptor is an incredibly expensive warplane. The program has cost $65 billion and is producing 187 aircraft, bringing the cost per aircraft to an astounding $348 million. Considering the poor maintenance record of the Raptor, and the fact that it cannot employ its stealth capabilities without compromising its ability to communicate with other aircraft, it's entirely possible that the Pentagon wants to keep the F-22 Raptor from getting too close to an active combat soon simply because they are far too expensive to risk in battle. Since the F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s of the Air Force and Navy are more than capable of handling the Libyan operation without the help of the F-22, better to keep the Raptors out of harm's way.

Of course, this raises an obvious question: under what circumstances would the F-22 Raptor ever be used? Clearly, even assuming their major flaws were properly addressed and corrected, we would only need F-22 Raptors in the event of a full-scale military conflict with an enemy on technological par with us. Needless to say, the United States and the European Union are not going to war with one another anytime soon. In the nightmarish scenario of a war between the United States and either China or Russia, the F-22 Raptor is unlikely to be of much use in a conflict which would probably last a single day and see most major cities on both sides destroyed by nuclear fire.

In short, the F-22 is too expensive to risk in the type of conflicts in which the United States is likely to be involved in the 21st Century. By contrast, the type of conflict in which the F-22 might come in handy are almost certainly never going to happen. We've spent $65 billion on a plane that is probably never going to be of any use to us.

It's worth pointing out that while Congress was appropriating billions upon billions of dollars for the effectively useless F-22 Raptor, soldiers in Iraq were being blown to pieces on a regular basis because the Army lacked properly-armored vehicles to protect them from improvised explosive devices. The money Congress wasted on the F-22 and other dubious projects should have been diverted to serve the needs of the soldiers on the ground, or simply cut from the budget altogether in order to reduce the deficit.

The strange saga of the F-22 Raptor should be a clarion call for a deep and comprehensive reform of our government's defense procurement policies.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Let's Meet Atom

A week ago I wrote how we need to be clear-headed and shouldn't abandon nuclear energy in the face of the tragedy in Japan. I still hold to this position, but recognize the importance of fully understanding the implications of using nuclear fission energy. We need to have a solid understanding of the burden we’re transferring to future generations by selecting nuclear energy, because with this choice comes enormous responsibility. Nuclear waste from fission energy will, after all, be on our planet for thousands of years. We can't predict the consequences of this and we can't provide solutions to some of the problems our descendants might face as a result. We need to adjust our tendency to be short-sighted in this regard and understand that what we create now is interconnected to the fate of our descendants.

I want to state that I no longer think that fossil fuels are a viable option for our energy requirements. I understand that our measures to eliminate them must proceed slowly, but their impact on our planet in the form of climate change isn't acceptable.

Let’s meet Atom. I am not a nuclear physicist, so I will explain this in the very rudimentary way that I understand it.

In order to create nuclear fission energy, the nucleus of an atom is split, resulting in gamma rays from the free photons and neutrons. These free neutrons then continue the reaction by striking other atoms, causing them to split and thereby resulting in yet more free neutrons, which further continues this chain reaction. This is the controlled reaction that takes place inside a nuclear reactor. Heat is then produced from two types of energy released: electromagnetic in the form of gamma rays and kinetic energy in the form of the actual fragments of the subatomic particles splitting. The heat is used to generate steam and thus electricity.

In understanding the chain reaction aspect of nuclear fission, we can appreciate that this is an enormous cause of concern regarding the management of it. Although it’s controlled, as in the Daiichi Plant in Japan, we can clearly see the consequences when this controlled environment is compromised and we are rendered ineffective to handle this chain reaction.

Uranium is one of the nuclear fuels which can sustain fission and is used in a nuclear reactor, allowing for significantly greater amounts of energy per unit mass than fossil fuels are able to provide. The amount of energy from nuclear is abundant and this should serve as a reminder of our great responsibility in how we control it but also as a warning of how we’re unable to control it.

Some major concerns surrounding nuclear energy and uranium in general are the dangers inherent in mining it, the possible use of enriched unranium for nuclear weapons, and the fears of disasters like Chernobyl and in Japan . Even so, the data clearly shows that overall, there are fewer deaths associated with nuclear energy than with any other form of energy currently being used.

One of the greatest pitfalls of nuclear fission energy is nuclear waste that remains radioactive for thousands of years. When looking at this, we must look at our responsibility to future generations as we don’t have long-term solutions for this. Spent fuel rods have enormous amounts of radiation and we have to find a way to properly store them. Currently, we store the spent fuel rods in storage pools to cool them down for a few months, but this often becomes storage for several years. After this, some are placed in dry cask storage for additional temporary storage until a solution is agreed upon. Overall, we’re uncertain where to store these highly radioactive spent fuel rods for thousands of years. Some proposals are: burying it under the ocean floor, storing it underground or shooting it into space. These options don’t come without pitfalls.

Furthermore, it’s impossible to predict some of the consequences our descendants might face as a result of the storage we choose. After all, the harnessing of nuclear energy for power has only been available to humans for 66 years. Yet we’re taking this relatively new form of human-harnessed energy and are deciding what the fate of its waste will be for thousands of years to come. Our descendants might not think fondly of our choices and we must consider what their wishes might be. They are a part of this equation whether we like it or not.

On a hopeful note, New Scientist had a relevant op=ed piece discussing some problems and potential solutions of possible alternatives. It said:

Because most nuclear power plants have been adapted from reactors developed for military applications, they are not necessarily the best designs. Of those, a handful of plants are notorious: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima.

This raises a question: what if nuclear reactors were designed from first principles, simply as a means to produce power with as little risk as possible? Such thought experiments can be useful.

In the case of nuclear power, this approach could bring great benefits. One good example is the liquid fluoride thorium reactor, which as the name suggests, relies on the element thorium as a less risky alternative to uranium. Though the technology is as yet unproven, these reactors promise tantalising safety advantages. These include cooling systems that sidestep the risk of hydrogen explosions of the kind that shattered Fukushima.

Overall, scientists are diligently working to find other forms of energy to move away from fossil fuels and better forms of nuclear energy. For now, these are hopeful forms that someday will come to fruition in the form of clean and sustainable energies. Until then, we should look to nuclear fission with a solid awareness of all of its consequences and especially our responsibility to our descendants.

Presidential War Powers Must Be Clarified

President Obama’s decision to militarily intervene in Libya has caused a backlash among both the left and right in America. Many in Congress are furious that the President acted without congressional authorization and have said that merely consulting congressional leaders and keeping them informed of developments is woefully insufficient. A debate about presidential war powers, which should have happened in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, seems about to begin.

This is not to say that Obama’s decision to use force in Libya was necessarily wrong. The United States is acting under the authority of a resolution from the United Nations Security Council, which is more than President Bush could say when he unilaterally invaded Iraq in 2003. More to the point, it appears that the allied air strikes and implementation of a no-fly zone prevented a wholesale massacre of innocent civilians in Benghazi. Still, the congressional critics of the action are making an excellent point, and a national debate on presidential war powers would do the country a great deal of good.

The Constitution is crystal clear that only Congress has the power to declare war. Not the President, not the courts, not the states. Congress, and Congress alone. The 55 men who created the United States Constitution invested the power to declare war with Congress rather than with the President because they did not want the President to have so much power that he would become a de facto monarch. But the Constitution also says that the President is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and does not provide an exact definition of the word “war”.

Technically-speaking, the United States has declared war only five times in its history: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the First World War, and the Second World War. Since 1945, however, conflicts such as the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the two wars against Iraq and the campaign in Afghanistan have not been fought without a congressional declaration of war, but with congressional resolutions approving the action obtained at some point. On two other occasions, in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, the President ordered the military to occupy small but independent nations. In 1999, a limited war was fought against Serbia. Each of these post-1945 conflicts were initiated not by Congress, but by the President, with congressional approval only coming later and often only after a deceptive propaganda effort by the executive branch.

Of course, over the course of its history the country has undertaken literally hundreds of small-scale military operations for limited objectives. Examples include the naval campaign launched by Thomas Jefferson against the Barbary Pirates of North Africa in order to protect American ships, innumerable interventions in Latin American countries to protect American economic interests, and such operations as the American participation in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 or the failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran in 1980. It would make no sense to classify these limited operations as full-scale wars.

The last time we had a serious debate on presidential war powers was in the wake of the American defeat in the Vietnam War, when Congress passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973. This requires the President to notify Congress within two days of the beginning of any military action that such an action is taking place, and gives a 60 day window (with an additional 30 days for a withdrawal) for combat operations to last, after which Congress must approve of any further continuation o the operation.

But because the War Powers Resolution has never been tested in the courts, its constitutionality is open to question. Most administrations have been of the opinion that it is, in fact, an unconstitutional infringmenet on the President's powers as commander-in-chief. Besides which, even if it is constitutional, it still gives the President a blank check to launch military operations that last less than two months. Does the President have the constitutional right to bomb Canada if the mood so strikes him?

Our country is in desperate need of a comprehensive clarification of presidential war powers. If the congressional power to declare war is reduced to a mere legalistic footnote, then any President will have the ability to initiate major military action on a whim. This not only increases the likelihood of our troops being put in harm’s way for dubious reasons, but threatens to further drain our financial resources just at the very moment when the national fiscal crisis is coming to a head.

A clear distinction must be drawn between a full-scale war, in which the United States seeks the complete defeat of another nation, and more limited military operations. A limited military operation might be against a non-state entity such as Al Qaeda or a brief operation against a state to achieve limited objectives, such as the current campaign against Libya. No one doubts that only Congress can initiate a full-scale war, but what role should Congress play in initiating limited military operations? Surely the need to preserve the separation of powers and ensure proper checks and balances requires that Congress possess some sort of veto on such operations.

In some cases, the President clearly needs the ability to respond with military force quickly, such as in the event of a surprise attack or the need to launch a mission to rescue American hostages whose lives are in danger. No one disputes this, but the protocols should be clarified by appropriate legislation to prevent presidential abuse.

Likely to be more controversial are those limited operations that are planned ahead of time and which may involve action against another sovereign nation. In this category would fall the cruise missile attacks launch by President Clinton against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998, and the hypothetical strike against Iran or North Korea in order to neutralize their nuclear weapons programs. From a practical point of view, it would be impossible to have a long, drawn-out public debate in Congress before launching such operations, the success of which depends on the element of surprise, but neither can the country simply delegate the power to do so to the President.

Perhaps legislation could be crafted requiring the President to obtain the approval the recognized leaders of Congress (the Speaker of the House, the President pro tem of the Senate, and the majority and minority leaders of both chambers) before launching a limited military operation, with exceptions obviously being made for responding to surprise attacks or rescuing endangered American citizens. In this way, Congress can regain some of its constitutional war-making authority, while not interfering with the practical aspects of military operations.

A central plank of any rational foreign policy must be the need to avoid war unless it is absolutely necessary. Wars endanger the lives of our men and women in uniform, are ruinously expensive, and have a tendency to run out of control. Therefore, a national debate about the extent of presidential war making powers should be placed near the front of our national discourse.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Former Heads of the President's Council of Economic Advisors Sound Alarm on Long-Term Deficit

In an op-ed piece that ran in Politco yesterday, ten former heads of the President's Council of Economic Advisors attempted to sound the alarm on the American fiscal crisis, which they suggest is being ignored by both the President and Congress. The ten former advisors served in both Republican and Democratic administrators from Carter to Obama, and their warnings carry weight.

These men and women do not recommend a particular approach to tackling the fiscal crisis, and acknowledge that they would probably disagree with one another on the specifics of any plan. Rather, their joint op-ed piece was simply a call for a proper debate on the problem to begin. They suggest the recommendations put forward in December by National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility as a good starting point for future discussions.

Read the op-ed piece, and read the report of the NCFR. These former presidential advisors are quite correct when they lament the fact that neither Republicans nor Democrats, neither the President nor Congress, is paying nearly enough attention to the fiscal crisis. Sticking our heads in the sand is not going to make this problem go away. The sooner we wake up to reality and begin to deal with it, the better.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Financial Cost of Libyan Operation Should Raise Eyebrows

As the country asks whether or not American participation in the intervention in Libya was the right thing to do and whether or not it was constitutional to launch such an extensive military operation without congressional approval, one issue that has not been discussed nearly as much as it should be is how much the Libyan operation is going to cost the American taxpayer.

According to this report from the Associated Press, American involvement in the Libyan operation is costing the country hundreds of millions of dollars per day. Every single one of the Tomahawk missiles were fire (and we have already launched something like 150 in this operation) costs over a million dollars. We are deploying an aerial armada of fighter and bomber aircraft, not to mention the immense aerial refueling tankers that must loiter in the air across the entire Mediterranean to make the whole thing work. The money for all this is being paid by the taxes of hardworking Americans or is being borrowed from future generations.

The deficit is already increasing at a rate of about $4 billion per day; taking on an additional half billion dollars of deficit spending per day is going to make our fiscal situation even worse. It cannot bear being repeated enough: the fiscal crisis is the greatest threat to the safety and prosperity of the American republic. An argument can be made that the need to protect civilians from mass killings requires American intervention, but the financial cost of the operation should not be ignored. President Obama and the Pentagon should be up front with us about how much this intervention is going to cost.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Increasing American Exports a Win-Win Policy

President Obama is currently in the midst of a five-day trip to Latin America, during which he will be visiting Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador. While any such trip has multiple purposes, the main objective of Obama’s visit is to promote American exports to the increasingly lucrative Latin American market. This is part of Obama’s stated goal, announced last year, to double American exports by 2014. It is an ambitious goal, but certainly one worth pursuing.

As Obama himself pointed out in a recent editorial in USA Today, every $1 billion worth of American exports supports roughly 5,000 American jobs. Increasing employment should obviously be one of the primary goals for any society, and anything which can help fight the stubbornly high unemployment rate in America should be welcomed. The more American goods that are purchased in foreign markets, the higher American employment goes up, and the better off American society will be.

This is obviously good in and of itself, but it is also good for America’s fiscal situation. A higher employment rates means that there are more people paying taxes and fewer people depending on government assistance. Consequently, government revenues go up and government expenditures go down, a classic win-win scenario. When it comes to addressing the fiscal crisis in the United States, anything that increases American exports to overseas markets is a good thing.

In the sense that “free trade” is defined as an elimination of trade barriers like tariffs and quotas, free trade is a good thing. Congress routinely comes under enormous pressures from geographic special interests (a district including a car factory, for instance) to enact protectionist trade policies, especially in times of economic stress. But protectionism is always damaging to the overall economy in the long-term. Congress would do well to maintain the long American commitment to free trade.

In the past few years, the government has negotiated bilateral free trade agreements with Columbia, Panama, and South Korea, which will eliminate the vast majority of tariffs between these nations and the United States. These trade agreements currently await ratification by Congress, but are being held up by rather petty partisan bickering. Approval of these trade deals would be a step forward in the campaign to get the economy rolling again, increase American employment and get the deficit under control, so Congress needs to get its act together and approve them as soon as possible.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

On the Eighth Anniversary of the Iraq War, Eight Reasons the Iraq War was Wrong

Today marks the eighth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, one of the biggest blunders in the history of American foreign policy. It takes place in the shadow of the current crisis in Libya, and perhaps provides useful lessons we should consider in tackling that present emergency.

From the standpoints of both basic morality and protecting the national interest, a keystone of any rational foreign policy must be the need to avoid war unless there is no other choice. Not only are wars notoriously subject to careening completely out of control, but the lives of our men and women in uniform should not be put at risk unless absolutely necessary. By launching his war against Iraq, President Bush embroiled the United States in an unnecessary war of choice. Our country is still suffering the consequences.

Here are eight reasons that the Iraq War was an unmitigated disaster which never should have happened, and why we should strive to make sure that nothing like it ever happens again.

1. More than 4,400 Americans have been killed in the Iraq War. While some may point out that these losses are small in comparison to previous American wars (nearly 7,000 Americans died in the Battle of Iwo Jima alone, for instance), this doesn't change the fact that each one of these 4,400 lives was the totality of existence for the person in question, and that their loss will be a source of infinite sorrow for their loved ones for the rest of their lives. The loss of each one of these 4,400 American lives robbed the country of a person with as limitless a potential as any other citizen. What might they have done with their lives, and how much might our country have gained, had they not been sacrificed?

Of course, we would be remiss if we forgot the hundreds of British, Italian, Australian, and other troops who have died in Iraq since the commencement of the war.

2. At least 100,000 Iraqis, and possibly many more, have been killed as a direct result of the American invasion. Reread the above statement, and multiply it many times over.

3. The Iraq War has cost American taxpayers over $900 billion. While the financial cost of the war cannot be compared to the human cost, neither can it be ignored. Every single dollar poured into the conflict was taken from the pocket of a hard-working American, either alive today or yet to be born. And the figure of $900 billion is merely the direct cost; when we factor in the price America will continue paying for many decades in order to properly care for the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers and the interest we shall have to pay on the money we borrowed to finance the war, the price tag of the Iraq War will increase enormously. Indeed, the former chief economist at the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, has estimated that the final total cost of the Iraq War could be as high as $3 trillion. Considering our country’s disastrous fiscal situation, these are expenditures that we simply cannot afford.

4. The war was illegal under both American and international law. In 1945, the United States signed and ratified the Charter of the United Nations, the most important treaty in the history of international relations. Article 2 of the treaty clearly states that signatories are forbidden from taking military action against other nations except in self-defense or if the United Nations Security Council has passed an authorizing resolution. Article 6 of the United States Constitution declares international treaties which the United States has signed and ratified to be part of the supreme law of the land. By invading Iraq, which had not attacked the United States and had no intention or ability to do so, our country was betraying the rule of law on which it was founded, undermining both the Constitution and international law.

5. The war badly damaged the international standing of the United States. It may not matter much if the "usual suspects" in the Arab world or China are angry at the United States, but when we lose the respect of the people in countries like France, Germany, Japan, and Canada, we obviously have a very big problem. While President Obama is to be commended for his work at rebuilding America's international standing, it is clear that the international standing of our nation is still much worse today than it was in the aftermath of 9/11. Unilaterally invading other countries is not the behavior of civilized nations.

6. The Iraq War distracted from the campaign in Afghanistan. The campaign in Afghanistan was undertaken in self-defense in response to a direct attack on the United States, and the need to eliminate the Taliban and Al-Qaeda was clear. But the invasion of Iraq robbed the campaign in Afghanistan of the necessary troops and resources required the finish the job there. As a result, American soldiers are still dying in the mountains of Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden remains at large, no doubt continuing to plot against America. Had we not invaded Iraq, it is quite likely that the campaign in Afghanistan could have been brought to a successful conclusion long ago, and it's entirely plausible that Osama bin Laden might have been caught or killed by now.

7. The Iraq War inflamed Muslim public opinion against the United States. Undertaken ostensibly to help rid the world of terrorism, the Iraq War probably made the forces of terrorism even stronger. Episodes like the prisoner torture in Abu Ghraib and the occasional killings of civilians by American servicemen certainly don't reflect the U.S. military as a whole, but that does not matter to the Iraqis and the rest of the Muslim world. Besides, even under the best of circumstances, a foreign occupation of one's country is a humiliating and angering trauma. Every eight-year-old boy who was awoken in the middle of the night by American soldiers breaking down his door and dragging off his father or older brother is a potential suicide bomber in the coming years.

8. The invasion of Iraq ultimately lacked any legitimate purpose. The claims of weapons of mass destruction, which the Bush administration trotted out using words like "proof" and "certainty", was revealed to be absolutely false, showing the decision-makers of the Bush administration to be either incompetent fools or deliberate liars. After all, lest we forget, Iraq had let the U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country months before the invasion, and they were hard at work until forced to leave when it became clear that the United States was going to attack anyway.

Assertions that Saddam Hussein was simply a brutal dictator who needed to be removed from power raise eyebrows in view of the fact that the world is filled with such people: Saudi Arabia, China, Belarus, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba, and others (many of them, we must shamefully admit, our allies). Shall we cover the world in blood and complete the bankruptcy of our nation by trying to invade and overthrow them all? Besides which, the kelptocratic gang that currently runs Iraq does not seem to be doing a particularly good job at improving the quality of life for the Iraqi people; we seem to have overthrown a dictator only to see him replaced by an Arab version of the Mafia.

Recent events in the Arab world demonstrate conclusively that the Arab people have an intense desire to free themselves from the rule of dictators and to establish democratic governments. But history also demonstrates that democracy cannot be imposed by foreign force of arms. As John Quincy Adams famously said in 1821, the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Even as I post this article, it appears that the United Kingdom and France, with support from the United States and other nations, are preparing to take military action against the forces of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in order to prevent him from slaughtering his own people. Before doing so, they carefully built up international support and obtained a resolution authorizing the action from the United Nations Security Council. They appear to be focusing their action in such a way as to minimize the loss of life and have declared that they shall not deploy any occupation forces in Libya itself.

Whether the British and the French will succeed in their endeavour remains to be seen, but it is clear that they have been considering the historical lessons of the disastrous American war in Iraq. And that is a cause for hope.

It is far too soon for history to judge President George W. Bush. But it seems clear that the invasion of Iraq was a disastrous and immoral mistake. We must hold our elected leaders accountable and make sure that nothing of this sort ever happens again.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spin Doctors and The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Ninety-seven percent of our world’s scientists assert that climate change is happening. Why are a small fraction of scientists claiming otherwise? I don’t know why they would claim this. However, I do know that some of the same scientists who are claiming climate change is a myth have previously played an integral role in groups that claimed that cigarettes don’t cause cancer. This may seem unreasonable but it is the case. Furthermore, some of these same scientists have never even conducted any actual research on climate change.

So why would these scientists go against 97% of the world’s renowned experts? This is a question that only the individual scientists can answer.

I’m not here to spin a story or claim that I have all of the answers. I just know that these scientists have been hugely successful in their push to get their story of climate change denial to the American public through ad campaigns.

Cigarettes do cause cancer. I’m unable to be unbiased in this idea as both of my parents died from cancer due to cigarette smoking. The thought of a scientist coming out to the public in the late 80s and early 90s and claiming that there isn’t evidence that cigarettes cause cancer makes alarms to go off in my head, as this disease deteriorated what was left of my family. So, when these same scientists also claim that climate change is a myth, I take pause. For me, they already lack credibility. Further, I take pause since they aren’t even in the field doing the actual research on climate change.

I just need to reiterate this: 97% of the world’s expert scientists have seen the evidence and know that climate change is happening. To those that are in the field doing research, it is undeniable. The evidence gathered over the decades is irrefutable. Humans and our activities are mainly causing climate change in irreparable ways.

Let's look at some of the spin doctors. The Advancement of Sound Science Center, born out of industry-funded lobbyists, was created in 1993. Phillip Morris, along with others like ExxonMobil and various other oil companies, funded the TASSC in effort to fight scientific findings that they saw as a threat to their profits. The purpose of this group was to instill public doubt about the results of specific scientific research so that they could continue business as usual.

You might wonder why once respected scientists would join the ranks of this group. According to Naomi Oreskes it’s because of a laissez-faire ideology that calls for less government regulation. She presents compelling evidence for this in her book Merchants of Doubt. She speaks about how in 1984 these rogue scientists founded the George Marshall Institute, which was essentially a propaganda machine disguised as a reputable scientific think tank. Frederick Seitz, former president of the National Academy of Sciences, was one of these scientists that founded the George C. Marshall Institute and was also a board member of TASSC. Fred Singer, a physicist and president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, is also known for his associations with GSI.

The original purpose of this “think tank” was to protect Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Members of the Union of Concerned Scientists included Carl Sagan and other prominent and publicly respected scientists who had concerns about SDI. GSI’s claim was that the Soviet Union was still a dangerous threat to the United States and GSI wielded its power to create public worry about it, in order to push their views on defense policy. In 1991, after the Cold War was over, they shifted their fight to creating doubt surrounding global warming.

Why did once ethical scientists do this? However compelling the evidence of their corruption may be, I imagine that only these scientists can answer the question of “why”. Another question is how were they so successful in accomplishing this? These scientists as well as public relations specialists knew their best defense was to instill public doubt.


It seems simple enough and yet has been an insidious and powerful weapon. The numbers speak for themselves. Now my question is: why does the public buy into their campaign?

The stories we tell ourselves are powerful. No matter how profound and deeply-thinking individuals we may be, we have stories we tell ourselves. These stories not only help us determine daily who we are as individuals, but also assist us in determining how we look at the future, to the invisible and unpredictable threats. This is powerful because we determine our future decisions with the stories we tell ourselves today.

It’s important to take pause when presented with attempted denial of evidence that’s accepted by 97% of scientific experts. The consequences of climate change will be dire and story-telling will determine what we choose to believe and how we choose to act. I choose to follow the irrefutable evidence of the climatologists doing research in the field, as opposed to the spin and ad campaigns of a small group of former scientists with deep political agendas.

Which story will you choose?

Nuclear Power Crisis in Japan Should Not Be an Excuse to Derail Nuclear Energy

The catastrophic earthquake and resultant tsunami that wrecked havoc on Japan killed thousands of people, injured thousands more, and inflicted terrible damage on the country's transportation and energy infrastructure. It also critically damaged Japanese nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, causing a series of explosions and bringing the reactor core perilously close to a complete nuclear meltdown.

While this incident is not as serious as the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl-style, it has quickly and unsurprisingly reignited the debate about nuclear power safety in the United States. Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CN) has responded to the Japanese crisis by calling for a moratorium on nuclear power plant construction in the United States. Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), the Ranking Member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has called for congressional hearings on nuclear power safety in light of the unfolding disaster in Japan.

President Obama, to his credit, has refused to engage in any knee-jerk reaction to the Japanese nuclear crisis. Indeed, the Obama administration has declared that the accident in Japan will not deter the United States from moving forward with an expansion of nuclear power. Republican members of Congress has also released a number of statements reaffirming their commitment to nuclear energy. As my colleague Jodi Ismert mentioned a few days ago, it would be a mistake to let this accident derail our own critically-needed nuclear energy project.

None of this is to say nuclear power is not without its problems. The unfolding disaster in Japan makes this starkly clear, as do memories of the catastrophe of Chernobyl in 1986 and the near-disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979. In addition to the risk of accidents, we have the thus far unresolved problem of how to deal with the radioactive waste produced by nuclear fission power, and the possibility that the reactors could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons. The last point, needless to say, resonates among the Japanese more strongly than it does any other nation.

But when viewed rationally, the negatives of nuclear fission power are outweighed by one overwhelming positive: nuclear power does not release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. With the threat of global climate change growing ever more serious, we are going to need large amounts of power produced by methods that do not release greenhouse gases. While we should obviously be investing heavily in wind, solar, tidal, and other forms of renewable energy, renewables by themselves cannot provide sufficient energy for our needs under even the most optimistic scenarios. Like it or not, a large chunk of our energy for the next several decades is going to have to come from nuclear fission reactors.

Anti-nuclear activists can do all the rhetorical contortions they can think up, but they cannot avoid the fact that, for the next few decades at least, our energy policy will essentially come down to choosing between an expansion of nuclear power or an expansion of fossil fuel power (mostly coal-fired power plants). Every kilowatt of power produced by nuclear energy is one less kilowatt that will have to be produced by coal or natural gas, and hence one step forward to solving the problem of climate change.

We can hope that, by the middle of the century, the arrival of commercial nuclear fusion power will have changed the entire nature of the world energy matrix, providing safe, effectively inexhaustible and carbon-free energy for the entire planet. Until that day comes, we should pursue a steady draw down in fossil power power plants, ramping up nuclear fission power and renewable energy to take up the slack and produce additional energy.

Above all, we must resist the temptation to indulge in emotional, knee-jerk reactions, and we cannot allow events like those unfolding in Japan to distract us from a sensible and sustainable energy policy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thoughts on Japan and Our Small Planet

In the wake of the tragedy in Japan, we must first think of the lives lost. Thousands of individuals have died who are survived by loved ones and friends. Their absence is felt deeply by those who loved them. Many more people have been left homeless and the survivors now have the concern of further harm from radiation exposure. The exponential magnitude of these losses should be understood and we must understand that this will be felt for some time to come even after the rebuilding.

The propagation of waves from the quake and tsunami that devastated Japan is felt and will be felt worldwide. Our planet is small. It’s important to understand that what happens in one location happens to us all.

In the face of this tragedy, the living must still push forward. We must persist onward. We should do this with considerations anew. This is a new era. We feel it. We must look at how we use energy and its impacts on our planet. More importantly, we need to look at how we, as individuals, impact our planet. Our choices affect all that is around us, as we aren’t isolated, but interconnected to each other and every aspect of life on our planet. Every choice we make affects our local ecosystems and can have great consequences on our overall environment. Without this understanding, we cannot fully understand our impacts. This is a powerful concept, as it puts the power and control in the hands of every individual. We choose how to respond to the earth that pushes back on our every maneuver.

Although this tragedy wasn’t the result of climate change, I’m reminded of the potential for future devastation caused by climate change. There are many people who would like for you to believe that climate change is a myth. This simply isn’t the case. It’s important for us to understand this in order to make better decisions in the future regarding energy choices.

We have clean forms of energy such as wind and solar but they are merely supplemental forms of energy. We require fossil fuels and nuclear energy because we don’t currently have a form of clean energy that can meet current demand. By-products from burning fossil fuels such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, sulfur and mercury not only have powerful impacts on our environment, but have a harmful impact on humans and other forms of life. However, the most concerning aspect of continued burning of fossil fuels is the continued damage to our already fragile climate situation.

The recent tragedy has brought out old and new fears regarding nuclear energy. However, nuclear energy provides the cleanest form energy while still meeting the current energy demands. It has its drawbacks in the form of nuclear waste and storage. This is an unfortunate consequence but is currently less substantial than the consequences brought on by climate change.

The tragedy in Japan has brought to fruition the fears of many. In the wake of this, we need to be clear-headed, push forth and see it as a call of duty to react with dignity and responsibility as the profound and thinking individuals that we are. The loss of human life on such a large scale should be a stark reminder for us to start being more responsible citizens of our planet. Our planet demands this of us and we should demand this of ourselves.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Political Battle in Wisconsin Just a Preview of What Is to Come

Even in the midst of the turmoil in the Middle East and the horrific scenes of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the ferocious political battle raging in Wisconsin between Governor Scott Walker and the public sector unions has riveted the attention of America over the past several weeks. Stemming as it does from a conflict between the virtues of fiscal responsibility and keeping promises to citizens, what is happening is Wisconsin can be seen as a preview of what is going to be happening all over the country in the coming years.

When it comes to state pension funds, misguided leaders and a distracted electorate have created an unholy mess. For decades, individual state governments have been maintaining large pension funds for teachers, police officers, state agency employees, and other groups, financed by contributions from the employee themselves and from the state governments, and also earning revenue from supposedly conservative and reliable investments. Unfortunately, the planners seemed to have made best-case-scenario assumptions regarding the return on these investments, and hence failed to put enough enough state money or require sufficient employee contributions to keep these fund solvent.

Because of this, a large number of these state pension funds will be running out of money in the coming years and afterwards be unable to pay the recipients the benefits they have been promised. The pension funds of Oklahoma, Louisiana, Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut, Arkansas, and West Virginia are scheduled to run out of money before the decade is over. Thirty other states will have exhausted their pension funds before 2030, just nineteen years from now. We are careening towards a catastrophe.

To give a single example of the crisis, take a look at Ohio. According to Dr. Joshua Rauh, Professor of Finance at Northwestern University, "Ohio collected $26.4 billion in tax revenues in 2008. If their pension funds run dry in 2023, they will face $19.1 billion of benefit payments owed in 2024 out of the general revenues. That's over 72% of 2008 tax revenue." Crunch the numbers as you like, there is clearly no way that this can work.

The case of Ohio, needless to say, is hardly unique. Short-sighted leaders have been making promises to state employees that simply cannot be kept. They did this either out of ignorance or because they did not care about what would happen, knowing that they would long since have left office by the time the day of reckoning arrived. The people believed the promises, making the usually fatal mistake of trusting their elected leaders without bothering to do the math for themselves.

The scenes in Wisconsin have been quite dramatic and surprising. We have seen protesters literally take over the Wisconsin State Capitol building, and both the Democratic and Republican parties use obscure parliamentary tricks in efforts to outwit one another. We even saw a deputy attorney general of Illinois publicly call for the use of "live ammunition" and "deadly force" against the Wisconsin protesters. There was no actual violence, but it would not have been particularly surprising if there had been. Next time, things may take a turn for the worse.

Because there will certainly be a next time. The protests and political turmoil we have seen in Wisconsin are going to be repeated all over the country as citizens realize that the state pension funds are insolvent and that the promises which have been made to them by elected officials are castles built on sand. Solving these difficult problems will require a good blend of courage, compromise, and common sense, exactly those virtues which seem to be utterly lacking in both our elected officials and the population at large these days.

It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Congressional Hearings on "Radical Islam" Misguided, Dangerous

Today, Representative Peter King (R-NY), Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, will be holding much-publicized and much-criticized hearings on "radicalization of American Muslims." Representative King claims that these hearings will help shed light on the extent to which the American Muslim community has become indoctrinated by extremist ideologies such as that of Al Qaeda.

This act reeks of McCarthyism and represents a truly regrettable moment in the history of the American republic. While individuals within the American Muslim community may indeed subscribe to extremist ideologies such as that which motivates Al Qaeda, such as the shootings at Fort Hood demonstrated, there is absolutely no evidence of any significant radicalization within the overall American community. Representative King's hearings are clearly not intended to achieve any worthwhile object, but merely to appeal to xenophobic and paranoid elements within the Republican Party. To make an already bad story even worse, polling data seems to indicate that most Americans see nothing wrong with Representative King's hearings.

Nonsense like this serves only to divide Americans and distract the nation from more important matters. If ever there was a time to throw stop indulging in such divisive political stunts and get down to the nitty-gritty of putting our national house in order, that time is now. Representative King should be ashamed of himself for attempting to stir up racial and religious bigotry merely to further his own political ends. He is doing the entire nation a great disservice.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bipartisan Group of Senators Rallies Against the Deficit

This New York Times story is welcome news. Led by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) and Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), a small group of Senators from both parties is working together on a push for serious solutions to the fiscal crisis. An NPR story on the same subject has labeled this group of Senators the "Gang of Six." The other members of this "Gang" are Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID).

To quote Senator Warner: "I think everybody recognizes that we've got to get our deficit under control, and that means you've got to broaden the debate to where the money's at."

These senators should be commended for what they are doing, especially for the fact that they are publicly saying that the fiscal crisis can only be solved if we restructure Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as cut defense spending. Too many political leaders in this country simply ignore the fiscal crisis altogether, or claim that it can be solved by rather small cuts to discretionary spending programs. Simply by telling the truth, the Gang of Six is doing a great public service.

Monday, March 7, 2011

National Fiscal Crisis is the Greatest Threat to the United States

As I type this, the national debt is $14.2 trillion dollars. It's difficult to wrap one's mind around such a larger number. To put it in some sort of perspective, remember that a trillion dollars is to a million dollars what a million dollars is to one dollar. Simply to count to 14.2 trillion would take about 450,000 years. If we taped 14.2 trillion $1 bills together, they would wrap around the Earth more than 53,000 times. And because the federal government continues to run massive annual deficits, the national debt is increasing by billions of dollars every day.

The numbers seem so abstract that it is easy to dismiss the national debt as something that is not really real and therefore not threatening. But this is a dangerous delusion. Of all the problems facing America, the national fiscal crisis is certainly the most serious. The national debt poses a far greater threat to the United States than militant Islamic terrorists, the rise of China, or any other possible foreign adversary. We are in a fiscal crisis, and if we do not find a way to get ourselves out of it, the American republic could be brought to its knees.

The United States accumulates debt by issuing U.S. Treasury bonds, allowing people to loan the federal government money. The government promises to pay the money back, plus interest, at a later date. The $14.2 billion worth of these bonds sit quietly in the bank accounts of massive pension funds, mutual funds, investors big and small, and the cash reserves of foreign governments. Right now, a U.S. Treasury bond is considered by global financial markets to be one of the most secure investments a person can make, and the federal government has never once defaulted on its debt. That could soon change, however, and the consequences could be disastrous for the country.

The first and most obvious problem the national debt presents to the United States is its impact on the annual federal budget. Currently, we have to devote roughly $200 billion a year simply to pay interest on the debt we already owe. This is not much different than the interest you pay on your credit card every month; you have to pay it but you don't get anything for it. But every year the government runs a deficit, the amount needed to pay the interest on the debt grows ever larger, and every dollar we spend paying the interest on the debt means one less dollar to spend on anything else.

Paying interest on the debt currently consumed about 6% of the federal budget every year, but this proportion is rapidly increasing. It is projected that the amount of money required for debt interests payments will overtake Medicare as a spending item as soon as 2018. By 2020, paying interest on the debt will require 15% of the entire budget, and it will simply skyrocket after that. Unless we achieve a balanced budget and begin paying down the debt, we will continue to have to allocate an ever-increasing portion of the annual budget to debt interest payments. It we took this scenario to its logical conclusion, we would eventually have to devote 100% of the budget to debt interest payment, but the country would actually have fallen apart long before we ever reached that point.

No matter what we do, the government it going to have a far smaller amount of money to pay for its programs in the future. If you think the current battles in Congress over taxes and government spending are bitter, just wait a few years. What we're seeing right now is not even a preview of what's to come; it's more like those ads you see projected onto the movie screen before the previews even start.

But the budgetary pressures caused by the deficit/debt problem are only the beginning of our problems. As it becomes increasingly apparent to investors and foreign governments that the United States will have trouble paying off its massive debt, they will make the common sense decision to back away from investing in U.S. Treasury bonds. This, in turn, will force the federal government to offer higher interest rates on its bonds in ordering to persuade them to keep lending the government money.

Since the interest rate on U.S. Treasury bonds has decisive influence on other interest rates within the American financial system, this increase will be like a poison administered to the American economy and to the prosperity of ordinary Americans. Interest rates on everything - mortgage loans, car loans, student loans, credit cards - will spike. As the recent economic trouble has revealed, we already have trouble with interest rates as they are. How much worse will it be for the American people if interest rates go through the roof?

Even if we could find a way to maintain our deficit spending habits that did not lead us down the road to inevitable disaster, from a purely moral standpoint it would still be unacceptable for us to continue relying on massive amounts of borrowed money. Every dollar we spend without a balanced budget is a dollar that we steal from future generations, who obviously have no say in whether or not we should spend it. Thomas Jefferson, for one, believed that every generation that incurred a debt had an ethical obligation to pay it off in its entirety within twenty years. Even if we could get away with it in the short term, are we really willing to shackle our children and grandchildren with our debts?

There are three possible ending scenarios for this fiscal crisis. One is that the United States simply defaults on its debt, like a person declaring bankruptcy when he can no longer pay his credit card balance or his mortgage. The government could simply announce that it cannot, and therefore will not, pay back its debt or the interest it owes on it. It this happens, the result would be a worldwide economic collapse the likes of which no one has ever seen. The U.S. dollar would become essentially worthless overnight. Every retirement and pension fund, every savings account, and the deposits in every bank in the country, would completely lose their value in the blink of an eye. The Second Great Depression, perhaps far worse than the first one, would begin.

The second possible outcome is that the government attempts to pay its debts simply by asking the Federal Reserve to print more money and loan it to the federal government. The Fed has already printed an immense amount of money (creating it out of thin air, in essence) in order to combat the financial collapse and recession of 2007-2009, and somehow managed to get away with it. But we would not be so lucky a second time.

If the debt levels become so unsustainable as to require the Fed to create the trillions of dollars necessary to pay off the debt, the obvious consequence would be mass inflation. A gallon of milk that cost you $3.50 one week might cost you $4.50 a few weeks later, and this increase would be mirrored by rises in the price of just about everything else, too. Americans have enough trouble making ends meet as things are; if runaway inflation takes hold in this country, our economy would be shattered, quite possibly reducing us to the level of a Third World country. This outcome would have essentially the same results as the first possibility of simply defaulting on the debt.

The third outcome is not particularly pleasant, either, but it is the only one which avoids absolutely disastrous consequences and preserves the integrity of the republic: the federal government must immediately take steps to secure the country's fiscal future by cutting spending and implementing targeted tax increases. Rather than attempting to run a big government on low taxes, we need to begin running a medium government on medium taxes. Above all, the federal government needs to balance its budget, stop borrowing money, and begin the long and arduous task of paying down the massive national debt.

Needless to say, this will not be easy. Both political parties will have to abandon their sacred cows and begin to work together. Republicans will have to abandon their obsession with tax cuts and supply-side economics. Democrats will have to abandon their obsession with spending increases and stop treating even the most minor cut to their favored programs as if they represented the end of the world. Changes in attitude which were unimaginable even a few years ago will have to be embraced. The partisan venom will have to end, and the power of special interest lobbyists will have to be broken. Everyone will have to accept the fact that they will not be able to depend upon government services to nearly the same extent as they have in the past, and we shall all have to look more to ourselves and our communities for our needs.

This will require what amounts to a Second American Revolution, in which the people demand the necessary fiscal and political reforms and refuse to take no for an answer. It will be the greatest challenge our nation has faced since the Second World War, but it must happen, not only because we have a moral obligation not to pass our debts onto our children and grandchildren, but also because the consequences of failure are too terrible to contemplate.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Themistocles Letters

Themistocles was one of the greatest statesmen in the history of Ancient Greece. Living from 524 BC to 459 BC, he guided Athens through some of the darkest days in his history. In the years leading up to the great Persian invasion of Greece, Themistocles constantly warned his fellow citizens of the coming danger and advocated the necessary steps to prepare for the storm. When the danger finally came in 480 BC, he called for the necessary sacrifices and common sense strategies necessary to bring Athens safely through the storm. In the end, Themistocles won the Battle of Salamis, destroying the Persian fleet and thereby saving his city, setting the stage for the Golden Age of Athens.

The example of Themistocles is the guiding light of the Themistocles Letters.

We believe that the United States of America is entering a time of great difficulty and danger. The federal budget deficit and the resulting national debt pose a serious threat to the future of the American republic. Global climate changes remains entirely unaddressed, and our dependence on foreign sources of energy continues to bedevil us. The gap between the rich and the poor is wider than it has ever been and shows no signs of diminishing. Our education system is not succeeding in producing the kind of informed and well-rounded citizens that we need. Our problems seem to be piling upon us like rocks from a landslide.

Among our elected leaders, bitter political gridlock has paralyzed our government at all levels, greatly hindering efforts to solve our problems. The Democratic Party seems to offer no solution to the nation's problems aside from increasing the size of an already bloated and inefficient government, thus making the nation's fiscal crisis even worse. The Republican Party seems to pursue policies which favor only wealthy corporations, apparently unconcerned with the harm they cause to ordinary Americans. Political discourse is virtually dead, having been replaced by vicious partisanship, endless name-calling, and the peddling of conspiracy theories. Any semblance of common sense and compromise has long since vanished. The existing political structure of the United States is clearly not up to the challenge of successfully bringing the nation through the troubling times it is now in the process of entering.

In the mist of all our problems, far too many Americans seem happily lost in a fog of celebrity gossip magazines, reality television, and frivolous materialism. If our nation is to ride through the storm, its people must wake up from the sleep into which they have lulled themselves.

That is what the Themistocles Letters will be about. We will examine the serious problems facing America and explore possible solutions to them. We have no liberal or conservative axe to grind, for both sides of America's political matrix are at fault in creating the mess in which we now find ourselves. Instead of repeating tiresome talking points, we will focus on finding real solutions to real problems. We want the American people, and American's elected leaders, to recover their senses and regain a spirit of common sense and compromise.

Because, believe me, we are going to need it.