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.