Saturday, July 26, 2008

Why "Warriors?"

When the Washington Post exposed the dreadful conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the military response was to create something called "warrior transition units," intended to quickly and efficiently deliver excellent care to the wounded. The program, understaffed and underfunded, turns out to be yet another example of what veterans of World War II call a "snafu."

The name of the program got me to thinking -- when did soldiers and marines become "warriors?" I'm pretty sure it was a branding decision designed by some advertising firm to bolster enlistments in the all-volunteer army, and I believe use of the term really took off after the invasion of Iraq, when recruiting became more and more difficult.

It makes perfect (advertising) sense, of course. The term "soldier" might lead one to think of Beetle Bailey, Gomer Pyle, or Forest Gump. Soldiers march on parade fields, obey orders, and pull KP duty. It's not an especially romantic image. A "warrior," on the other hand, is more like Conan the Barbarian, or the Mel Gibson character in Braveheart. He's big and bad and scary. No eighteen-year-old boy, raised on movie violence and video games, wants to be Gomer when he can be Conan.

The big problem I see with the "warrior" branding decision, though, is that the military seems to have bought into its own ad campaign. "Warriors" don't get PTSD. When Schwarzenegger is wounded, he cauterizes his own wound with a knife heated in his campfire and fights on until, ten minutes later on, his injury miraculously disappears. Warriors don't suffer permanent disabilities. They may sport a sexy scar or an eye patch, but they always fight to the death. Disabilities, physical or psychological, don't figure into the equation.

The "image" doesn't match the facts, of course. Thanks to better body armor and battlefield medical care, nearly eight American fighters are wounded for every one killed -- as compared to four to one in Vietnam and less than two to one in World War II. Military leaders have these statistics, of course, but still continue to greatly underestimate the numbers who will need treatment -- often protracted treatment -- when they return from overseas.

Will a change in nomenclature make any real difference in the way the military and the VA treat wounded veterans? Probably not -- but I still believe the "warrior" designation should be dropped. Back in 1947, the United States changed the name of the Department of War to the Department of Defense -- a change many considered Orwellian, but which also reflected a real change in public wants and needs following the vicissitudes of World War II. Defense was necessary, but war was something to be avoided.

The role of a "warrior" is to fight wars -- offensive as well as defensive. "Warriors" were necessary to fight Bush's war of choice in Iraq, and the military filled the need with an appeal to the aggressive, anarchic components of the young male psyche. Now that a substantial majority of Americans realize they were conned into fighting a useless, wasteful, self-destructive war of choice by a cabal of greedy, self serving liars, the need for "warriors" is over -- not only in the ranks, but also among the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

If we're going to have an all-volunteer, professional military, the most important criterion for service should be professionalism. No broadsword waving, blood lusting, face painted, testosterone driven refugees from M-rated video games need apply.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The next economic stimulus package

As I predicted way back on Groundhog Day, that stimulus package that was supposed to rescue us from economic stagnation turned out to have been a bust. The reason, clearly, is that it was more a product of political considerations than economic considerations. Giving away "free" money always is popular with the public, but it wasn't especially helpful.

To the extent that the cash was used to pay down consumer debt, it may have delayed some write-downs by the banks -- but given the state of American indebtedness, most of those who used their "Bush Bucks"* to pay credit card bills probably were in just as much trouble when the next month's batch of statements arrived.

It seems likely that most of the remaining rebate money was spent on gasoline. The part of the oil company profits that didn't go overseas went to the usual fat cats, and wasn't spread through the economy to any significant extent. The multiplier effect of the rebates, it follows, was insignificant.

Now Democrats are talking about another stimulus package. Mind you, just before a national election is really a very bad time to discuss an economic stimulus because there's no possibility that politics won't play a big role in what takes shape -- but there are a few level heads in the relevant Congressional Committees, so perhaps there are a few rays of hope for a genuinely helpful package this time.

The hardest part will be enacting a package without rebates. A new round of rebate checks will be no more helpful than the last round -- but the temptation to woo voters with dollars may be too strong to resist. If the presidential candidates get on the rebate bus, there's absolutely no hope of putting the money to better use.

To be worthwhile, stimulus spending must be targeted. A good start would be direct financial assistance to state and local governments. State and local governments are major employers, and many state constitutions mandate balanced budgets. When sales tax revenues fall -- and they have fallen fast because of the current recession -- government employees are laid off.

Not all aid to the states should wind up in their general funds, though. Some should be specifically targeted towards infrastructure improvements. Workers in the construction trades were particularly hard hit by the collapse of the housing market, and infrastructure projects could put many of them back to work.

Yes, politically connected contractors, as always, would get the lion's share of the contracts -- but I don't care if certain brothers-in-law profit so long as they are paying worker salaries. In my ideal world, contractors being paid with federal funds would be required to hire union workers, but that's probably way too much to hope for, even if the Democrats win big in November. There still are entirely too many "New Democrats" out there.

If there was anything good about the 2008 Farm Bill, it was the improvement in the Food Stamps program (now to be known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for the sake of a snappy acronym), but rising food prices make even more improvement necessary. I also was pleased by the expansion of unemployment insurance benefits. Both programs pump money into the economy at the bottom, where it is certain to be spent, and have the greatest multiplier effect.

In the long run, though, no economic stimulus will be especially effective if it drives the federal government deeper into debt, further depressing the value of the dollar. To the greatest extent possible, federal stimulus spending should be paid for with cuts in other areas. I can think of two places to cut, right off the bat: oil subsidies, and agricultural subsidies. Big oil and big agribusiness have been making out like bandits (an apt comparison) while the rest of America has been suffering.

I'd also suggest changes in the Alternative Minimum Tax: index it for inflation, so that Congress need not go through it's annual ritual of raising the floor amount; and make what essentially is a flat tax progressive, so that the super- and super-duper-rich pay more than the current 28%. Of course, the AMT could be eliminated entirely if Congress had the guts to undo some Reaganomics and create a couple of higher tax brackets for both individual and corporate income taxes.

In brief, I think the people who got us into our current mess should pay to get us out of it.

*(Note: I heard the expression "Bush Bucks" from my daughter. I don't know how widespread its use might be.)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Fannie & Freddie: to bail or not to bail

Wall Street apparently didn't think much of the government's plan to prop up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. As for me, I'm not too pleased with it either -- needless to say, for completely different reasons.

Investors in the two companies raked in enormous profits all through the housing bubble, and the companies' executives did even better. Thanks to the pervasive anti-regulatory ideology of the past few decades and the powerful influence of Fannie and Freddie's lobbyists, those profiteering executives were able to indulge in all the greed-driven maneuvers that created the current economic crisis.

What portions of the mortgages Fannie and Freddie either hold or insure are less than secure? Given the lack of oversight, nobody knows, of course. Oversight, after all, is an insult to the miracle of the free market. Yes, Bernanke and the Fed drew up some new rules today -- truly onerous regulations like "before it lends a guy half a million dollars, a bank really ought to check whether or not he has a job paying more than minimum wage." So as not to upset the mortgage industry too much, though, that regulation won't take effect until October of next year.

In the meanwhile, the Treasury will be expanding Fannie and Freddie's lines of credit, and the Fed will open the discount window to the two privately held companies. To wit: in keeping with the rules of modern capitalism, the risks are socialized while the profits remain private. The profiteers get to keep everything they raked in while the housing bubble was still inflating -- but now that the bubble has burst, taxpayers get to absorb the losses.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, if they can't make it on their own, don't deserve government bailouts beyond the relatively small two-and-a-half billion already written into law. It's true, though, that the housing market depends on the two huge companies, so they can't be allowed to die -- but government and the taxpayers it represents should not be taking on more risk and more debt without getting something in return.

Government should not "bail out" Sallie and Freddie. If share prices continue to drop, it would make more sense to use the bailout funds to buy one or both companies outright. Yes, that's right -- a total government takeover. Nationalization. With proper regulation and oversight, both companies will be profitable again someday, and the government of the United States can apply those profits to affordable housing for the poor, or universal health care, or maybe just balancing the budget. Why send the country deeper into debt just so the private sector eventually can reap the rewards?

Once again, I ask my eternal economic question: why is it that no government enterprise ever is allowed to turn a profit? Why is it that everything that earns money is privatized, and everything that loses money is socialized? If people really want more government services and lower taxes, the only way to do it is to give government a chance to turn a profit once in a while. A buyout of Sallie and Freddie at bargain basement prices presents an excellent opportunity to do just that.

Yes, I know that not every investor in Sallie and Freddie is a fat cat -- I'm pretty sure that both my pension fund and my mutual fund hold shares of one or both companies, but I'm also pretty sure that both funds are selling out as fast as they can. Just like most other Fannie/Freddie stockholders, I presume they recognize that companies which buy, insure, and repackage mortgage debt can't possibly be doing too well right now -- and that the finance sector as a whole is in a downward spiral worse than any it's encountered since the Great Depression.

Along with crisis, though, comes opportunity. The opportunity I see is for a basic reorganization of American government and economics. Mind you, I don't expect any of our short-sighted, ideologically blinded leaders to take advantage of that opportunity -- at least not in the short term -- but if things get bad enough, who knows? Maybe if the tunnel gets really dark, there could be some really bright light at its end.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Maliki to Bush: "Scram!"

How embarrassing! Our President, seeking to establish a puppet regime in Iraq, seem to have backed the wrong horse. Somebody should have told him it's not the 1950s anymore.

Twice in two days, top-level Iraqi officials have indicated that any pact with the U.S. must include a (gasp) "timetable" for withdrawal. A timetable? Withdrawal?!! Heaven forfend! Why, just a few days ago, John McCain was suggesting that Iraq might turn out something like South Korea, with a permanent U.S. troop presence -- just looming around, you know -- with nobody actually shooting at them.

"Not good enough," say our Iraqi allies in the Persian Gulf region. "Look, if you keep troops in Iraq, how in hell are we supposed to establish a workable relationship with our Shi'ite brothers in Iran? And it's embarrassing [yes, everybody's embarrassed] that we needed you to help us dump Saddam but, shit, we have to live here! So goodbye, and we'll handle it now. You're doing us more harm than good."

Meanwhile, at the G8 summit, leaders of some countries that used to be the world's leading industrial nations are busily recording sound bites. Goodbye, global warming! Don't despair, developing world, the lunch bucket will be arriving any day now!

Uh huh. But meanwhile:

"Overall, the summit's main goal will be demonstrating confidence that they can 'work through the oil crisis without causing the global economy to melt down,' said Tom Cooley, dean of New York University's Stern School of Business."* That's a mighty important goal, but we're unlikely to accomplish it without involving China, India, Brazil, and, perhaps, Indonesia. Eight is Enough works as a late-night nostalgia sitcom, but it doesn't make much sense in contemporary real life.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Totally irate, again

If I seem to spend a lot of time attacking the presidential candidate I intend to vote for in November, it's because he keeps pissing me off. The latest, of course, is his support for the alleged "compromise" (read capitulation) on FISA.

Last Monday, Paul Krugman was wondering whether Obama was really a liberal or just another poll-driven, Clintonesque asshole. Okay, Krugman didn't say asshole -- that was me. (As Krugman noted, there are fates worse than Bill Clinton -- but that's not much to celebrate.)

The alternative, of course, is McCain -- and more supply side economics. If the media were a bit less corporate and if liberals invested anywhere near as much in think tanks as conservatives do, supply side would have been the victim of mercy killing years ago. America being Amerika, however, supply side economics marches on like a zombie in a B movie.

What would make any rational person think, at this particular historical moment, that tax cuts for the rich or the corporations lead to economic expansion? Give the rich more money and all they do is bid up the prices of the investments they and their friends already own. Give the corporations more money and all they do is distribute it, in the form of dividends, to the rich. Nothing new gets started that wouldn't have been started regardless. Entrepreneurs start new businesses because they think those businesses can turn a profit -- with or without tax cuts.

Granted, tax advantages always can make a business more profitable, but how often are those additional profits translated into jobs and benefits for workers in the affected industries? The answer: rarely, if ever.

So, yes, I'll vote for Obama -- how could I do otherwise? I just wish I had a better choice.