Wednesday, January 9, 2013

My Latest Letter to the Editor

I understand that Jonah Goldberg wants a president that governs from the pretty far right.  What I don't understand is where he got the idea that the current president maybe would.  In Wednesday's column he concludes that President Obama's nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to head the Defense Department is "out of spite."  Apparently the idea that Sen. Hagel was selected because he shares the president's views on foreign policy and military matters hasn't occurred to him?

Goldberg criticizes the nomination because, he says, "Hagel is loathed, with ample justification, by many foreign policy hawks, Israel supporters and neocons."  Well maybe those are the right people to be 'loathed' by.  After all, it was 'foreign policy hawks and neocons' that got us into our current messes, including fiscal, and there are many 'supporters of Israel' who favor the approach championed by the current administration.  We the People elected Barack Obama for a number of reasons, and his more reasoned approach to foreign relations is a large one of them.  Sorry Jonah.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Why Should the 'Rich' Pay Higher Taxes?

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  Familiar, right?  Do we all accept this?  Can we use this as a starting point?  OK, good.

What does it mean?  Well, at the time that it appeared it didn't mean ALL men, certainly not all HUMANS; it, too, was only a starting point.  But it was progress.  It was written as counterpoint to the 'old world,' Europe, with its ruling dynasties and ubiquitous Church.  No men are born as superiors, no men are born as inferiors, is what they were getting at.  Each of us has a right to personal sovereignty, to go about our lives as we see fit, without having to please a lord or a Lord.  Unless it pleases us to.

At the end of the 18th Century America was largely an agrarian society, beginning to industrialize.  Any free man (we're going to ignore slavery in this piece) could work the land, raise a crop, feed himself and his family.  He didn't need much else.  The work was hard but it was sustaining.  Taxes were very low.  The population flourished, due both to natural increase and to immigration.  There was a continent to be tamed, roads to be built, manifest destiny!  Great stuff.  Which would require cooperation.  A government.  Taxes.  Also, with all those people, the chance for every man to have his own piece of land was gone.  But no matter!  We'll have something even better!  An industrial economy!  It was win/win.  A great country was built, people thrived, fortunes were made.  People didn't grow their own food anymore (mostly), they worked for wages and bought food from the ever more productive agricultural sector. 

America did this with, by and large, a free market economy.  Not truly 'free,' of course.  There were rules and conditions.  Even Mitt Romney recognizes the need for rules and conditions.  But for the most part the market spoke and the people heeded.  Prices rose and fell according to market conditions.  Old businesses died away, new businesses started up, everybody was happy.  Right?  Well, not perfectly.  It became evident, as time went by, that a market economy, while very useful, created some problems too.  Landless people could work for wages and feed themselves and their families, but what if someone got hurt and couldn't work?  What happens when they get old and can't do so much anymore?  Families took care of their own, as they could, and churches and neighbors provided some charity, but sometimes people were just out of luck.  Oh well.

Then came the Great Depression, and even young, able-bodied men were thrown out of work in extreme numbers.  Now what?  Not many families could absorb long-term unemployment, nor could neighborhood/church charities.  Capitalism didn't have an answer for this one.  "Wait it out," some people said.  "We've had downturns before.  It's never permanent."  Which was true.  Capitalism works cyclically.  But some of those earlier 'downturns' had been devastating to individual people and families.  And this time it was bigger than ever before.  World-wide too.  So a new President came in and declared a New Deal.  Some people, especially the ones with lots of money, screamed 'socialist!' but historians credit FDR with saving American Capitalism by seeing that it worked for all of the people, and not just some. 

Should the American people have given up on capitalism at that point?  Go back to every man a citizen farmer, responsible for his own small section of the earth, his own family and his own personal well-being?  Wasn't any real chance of that, right?  Too many people by then.  Plus, they had seen that an industrialized nation, a market economy, worked.  Just not perfectly.  It needed some safeguards built into it.  So the social safety net was born.  This of course meant new taxes.  Sucks, right?  But think of the alternatives.  Pull the plug on the whole thing.  Or let people get chewed up by the vagaries of the market.  Unacceptable, to most of the people, though certainly not all, true enough.  Remember 'Old Man Potter' in It's A Wonderful Life?

So we've had this new deal ever since.  Still, there are more Mr. Potters out there than there were in that movie.  Quietly some people simmered.  WWII united the country in a way that it never had been before or has been since.  And not only led America out of economic depression but into the greatest economic boom in its history.  For a while the economic pie was so large that everyone's piece was satisfactory, or better.  But as the other countries rebuilt and began to compete for market share again, corporate profits began to lag, a bit.  And old resentments began to resurface.  A new conservative movement began to coalesce toward the end of the 1950s.  Organized labor (Unions) had stood down during the war but came roaring back after it to win 'rights' for workers that built a large and strong middle class.  So the new conservatives had two targets: the social safety net and organized labor.  Initially they lost elections and were viewed as 'right-wing crackpots.'  But after the turbulent 1960s some of conservatism's more attractive candidates started winning national elections, and the 'conservative agenda' began to be enacted. 

First we started to see corporations relocating manufacturing operations outside the U.S., where labor costs were much lower.  Then we got the 'Reagan Revolution' and tax rates, especially on higher incomes, double especially if the income came from 'investments' instead of as wages, came way down.  At the same time, domestic spending was cut, slightly, in an attempt at balance, mostly on what would come under the heading of 'welfare,' but 'defense' spending soared.  Consequently we saw peace-time budget deficits at unprecedented levels.  (This from a man who campaigned on the importance of balanced budgets.) 

Still, for a while the economy improved, hummed even.  So people mostly kept quiet.  Until there was a Democrat in the White House.  Then, suddenly, the HUGE national debt was an issue.  A new, Republican Congress rode into Washington and went so far as to 'shut down the government' for about a day.  No more money going out, anyway.  Nothing.  We're broke, sorry, can't do it.  Of course the American people blamed the new Congress for this and not the President, so they relented.  Then an interesting thing happened.  The Democratic President decided to co-opt the Republican agenda, as a means of having a 'successful' presidency, and together they balanced the damn budget.  Even created a bit of a surplus, due to a booming economy, and were nicely positioned to start paying down the debt, which, the theory went. would lead to even more economic good news. 

So what happened?  Well, you all know.  A Republican got into the White House (I won't say that he stole it but he sure didn't 'win' it) and he decided that it was time for a big new round of tax cuts, especially on the upper income earners, again, double especially if the income was from 'capital gains' instead of wages.  And increased 'defense' spending.  And then had some bad shit happen but stubbornly stuck to his guns with the tax cuts, even calling for a second round, just after opening a new front in his 'Global War On Terror.'  And of course the deficit sky-rocketed.  But no matter.  To quote the new vice president, "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter."  (Reagan was that first tax-cutter, in case you're new here.)  Well.  OK then.  Deficits don't matter.  How about that?  Until (wait for it) ... there's a Democrat in the White House.  And then, guess what?  It's a crisis!  Oh my God!  They're spending like drunken sailors!  They're mortgaging our kids' futures!  They're mortgaging our grandkids' futures!  We have to stop them! 

OK.  So let's undo the mistakes of the previous administration then.  I never believed that 'deficits don't matter' bullshit and neither did you.  Right?  Let's put taxes back where they were, end those ridiculous wars, scale back on 'defense' spending to something at least approaching sane levels and see what we've got, right?  Oh hell no!  We have to shred the social safety net, remember?  There are two targets for the new conservatives, right?  Organized labor, mostly out of the way.   And the New Deal.  Time to get rid of that. 

So here's where I answer the question.  Why should the 'rich' pay more taxes?  Because they have all the damn money!  Hello!  Did I forget to mention that their crazy deregulating sorta kinda crashed the economy, about five years back?   Pretty much completing the transfer of wealth from the middle class (what they had of it, anyway) to the top.  So the wealthy became the uber-wealthy.  And a very large percentage of the people are now just getting by. 

So, higher taxes.  But targeted higher taxes.  There can still be tax incentives, for things like employing American workers and paying them good wages.  Or for innovating and, for one example, pulling us into the 21st century regarding energy resources.  The higher taxes that do come in (say goodbye to offshore tax havens, by the way) will go to strengthening Social Security and Medicare (which will get some reforming of their own, while we're at it).  And to getting the budget back into balance. 

Remember, if people get paid well enough they can pay for stuff.  If not, they're going to be candidates for 'government programs.'  Which way do we want to go?

More to come ...

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Trial of Generals

A Trial of Generals is the title of a book I just finished.  Written by Lawrence Taylor and published in 1981,  it tells the story of two Japanese generals who were tried for war crimes due to their alleged conduct in the Philippine Islands, one in 1942, as the Japanese took control of Luzon, the main island, and one in 1944, as American forces retook it.  

The author argues, persuasively, that these two trials, both of which ended with guilty verdicts and death sentences, were travesties of justice, for several reasons.  At the root of it all is General Douglas MacArthur, Military Advisor to the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines.  MacArthur was viewed both in Manila and in Washington as nearly a demigod; policy for the Islands was left largely up to him.  For nearly forty years the Philippines served as a (very) forward base for the United States, establishing a military presence in the Asian Pacific and facilitating commerce between the U.S. and (mostly) China. 

As the global economic depression of the 1930s persisted, several countries sought to solve their national problems by raiding resource-rich areas nearby.  Japan was one of these countries.  They invaded Manchuria in 1937 and by 1939 they were looking hungrily at Southeast Asia and Indonesia.  Two countries stood in their way: England, which had colonies in Burma, India, Hong Kong and the Malay Peninsula (Singapore), and the U.S., which controlled the Philippines. 

MacArthur was charged with the defense of the islands.  Against the advice of many he scrapped long-standing plans and insisted that he had the islands ready to repel any Japanese invasion.  He badly overestimated his army's readiness and he was too slow to move once Japan launched its initial attack, costing him virtually his whole Air Force and Navy, which he had most likely overrated anyway.

Consequently he abandoned the Islands and withdrew to Australia.  During the successful assault the Japanese General in charge, Masaharu Homma, underestimated the size of the combined American/Filipino forces, preparing for up to 35,000 prisoners which he planned to transport by truck and train north to internment camps.  There were actually 100,000 men, nearly all of whom were already half-starved to death, poorly clothed and suffering from a variety of tropical diseases.  Complicating matters further was the Japanese high command's unrealistic expectations for the conquest (they allowed fifty days in their planning, for Homma to dislodge and conquer a numerically superior force) and Tojo's personal dislike for Homma.  Homma was twice given new orders which required him to develop a new strategy on the fly and was unable to do anything regarding the prisoners other than delegate the task of moving three times as many as expected to the internment camps.  His subordinates engaged in (or failed to prevent their subordinates from engaging in) some isolated atrocities, beatings and the like, as well as some outright murders, often by bayonet.  Most of the attrition was due to starvation and topical diseases, beri beri and the like.

Homma was recalled to Japan shortly after accepting the surrender of the U.S./Filipino forces, unaware of the Bataan Death March, as it would come to be known, and most certainly not the perpetrator of it.

Two and a half years later the U.S. had turned things around almost completely and was about to retake the islands, when General Tomoyuki Yamashita, another general who was in disfavor with the Tojo faction because of his pro-western views and non-aggressive attitude, was sent to Manila to defend it.  Yamashita had won acclaim by forcing the British surrender of Malaya.  He also had defeated a numerically superior force with a combination of cunning and audacity.  He was brought home to a hero's welcome but Tojo banished him to a remote outpost in China, 'training' the dregs of the Japanese army.  By 1944 Tojo was running out of options and he sent Yamashita in to defend Manila against the inevitable.  Yamashita was hamstrung by impossible orders and was eventually told to go ahead and withdraw to the mountains, barely ahead of the advancing Americans.  A naval force assigned to temporary land duty and ostensibly under Yamashita's command ignored orders to return to their ships and instead, under the actual command of one of Tojo's spies, spent four days drinking, raping and committing various atrocities, including slaughtering women and children as if they were vermin.  When Yamashita finally surrendered his mountain force, a month later, he was told he was being arrested and charged with war crimes he not only had not ordered or participated in but was not even aware of.

The author points out that there was no good reason to charge these two generals with those horrible crimes other than that they had won victories over MacArthur and one of his buddies in the early days of the war.  The 'trials,' then, were to be by tribunal, five American generals selected by MacArthur, a prosecution team selected by MacArthur, and poorly prepared defense attorneys (selected by MacArthur) who were given their charge just thirty days before the trial was to commence.  MacArthur created the rules for entering evidence, which would include hearsay and innuendo, and the standard for determining guilt, which would revolve not around whether or not the generals ordered or even knew about the crimes, but only if they 'should have known.'   In short order they were found guilty, condemned to death, and had those sentences executed upon them.

Throughout the book Taylor presents the two generals as models of military comportment, honorable men who would have been assets to any army in the world, as well as both being brilliant strategists and natural leaders.  (Homma was a bit aloof, at times.)  MacArthur we see as the vain bastard that he apparently was.  I'm glad I read it.  ;  )