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Muscle-bound America

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Message Douglas C. Smyth
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Finally, a Secretary of Defense proposes to wind down or remove multi-billion dollar programs that we haven't needed for two decades--since the unraveling of the Soviet Union! This is a rational proposal from our holdover, Secretary of Defense, a Republican, but what is the response?

"The defense industry is gearing up," deploying hundreds, maybe thousands, of lobbyists to Capitol Hill to fight these cuts--that should have been made ten or fifteen years ago; workers at affected plants are organizing delegations, or demonstrations--in front of Congressional offices, and the Congress. This demonstrates the utter absurdity of so much of the so-called Department of Defense.

A weapons "system" like the F22 fighter hasn't been needed since the USSR self-destructed, but the industries that make it have been politically savvy enough to produce different parts of it in 44 states (what happened to the other 6?), and in hundreds of Congressional Districts. So, every Congressman impacted and almost every Senator is going to scream bloody murder, because the Defense Department is actually cutting un-needed programs! And the F22 is only one of many; we'll hear about a lot of others, probably, like the missile defense "systems" that don't work, but employ X thousands of people, and so on. How many sacred cows will have to be gored in order to make just the minimal cuts to bring the Defense budget back to its central function: defense?

Defense should not be a government jobs program: economic studies have shown that significantly more jobs can be produced per $100 million invested in almost any other industry: none are so skill-intensive, or so capital-intensive and most produce some value to the economy: weaponry and foreign bases don't make the US more productive; economists consider them consumption. Also, few other industries depend so heavily on government expenditures. Talk about gold-plated "government make-work programs!"

Obama used the analogy of turning around an aircraft carrier to describe how difficult it will be to turn the US to a different course. He should have added that there would be lots of people onboard, who will try to wrestle the controls away and keep the carrier going full-speed ahead; there will be small boats trying to block it, too. Both together will probably prevent the full "course correction" needed, but will be forced to compromise--think of it as wrestling the wheel back and forth--lengthening the phase-downs, continuing some production, etc., or, to continue the analogy: steering the ship perilously close to the iceberg we've been trying to miss.

Politicians often say that compromises are built on giving a little bit here, to get a little bit there, which is why an issue like abortion is so intractable: it's either for or against. But a little bit here for a little bit there is the essence of a Defense budget.

That's why, as much as I applaud Secretary Gates' proposal, I wish he had made much more radical cuts--so there would be much more wiggle room for compromise. Actually, a rational Defense budget would be significantly smaller than the one Gates proposes, because we have stationed so many American forces where we have no business being--empire is not rational, only ego-driven, especially as we phase out oil as our primary fuel. Plus, there are so many weapons "systems" that are redundant, unusable, or un-needed, not just the headliners in his announcement.

Political Scientists have written about the stalemate of modern democratic societies for decades. Organized interests benefit from the status quo; they do not represent change, and money and people to promote change are never as easily marshaled as money and organizations mobilizing to keep things the same: to protect established interests.

The same is true of the changes needed to reduce climate change. It may no longer be so for health care reform, however.

To have a meaningful effect on slowing the acceleration of climate change--a huge ice shelf is collapsing far ahead of schedule in the Antarctic as I write this--a lot of very powerful and wealthy oxen will have to be gored: companies like Exxon and Walmart will put up real money to stop policies that would put them at a disadvantage. Exxon's reason is obvious, but Walmart is totally dependent on heavily energy-intensive trade; the contribution of maritime shipping to global warming is considerable, as are those ubiquitous trucks, with their pledge of lower prices slashed down the sides. And of course, both corporations represent many more, whose interests will be disadvantaged by policies responding to climate change, like mandatory cap and trade carbon credits. So, they organize against them. Where are the interests organizing for them?

Maybe the currency of global warming is strong enough that there won't be many public outpourings in favor of retaining oil subsidies, but the energy industry still has lobbyists. Besides, the biggest polluters in the energy industry are coal users, but our President signed on to "clean coal" from the earliest primaries. If coal use is to be slowed or stopped, it won't be because of Obama, but in spite of him. His friendliness to "clean coal" has not been entirely consistent, but it has been politically opportune: the coal states were important primary states, and his home state has a large coal industry. Yet, people who have been working on clean coal technologies say, that so far, "clean coal" is an oxymoron; the best pollution reduction achieved so far is a measly 8%, and it wasn't cheap. They doubt coal can be cleaned up for a long time to come. In the meantime, the coal industry argues that we should continue using coal, while perfecting "clean coal" technology; after all, the US is the Saudi Arabia of coal. Are there interests, money and people behind slowing down coal? There has been at the local level: a lot of coal-fueled power plants have been prevented by local agitation. Those interests need to go national.

So, will we lurch towards solutions to our manifold problems: the economy; the various wars that I've not even mentioned; the defense economy; global warming--

Oh, there's health care. This is one issue where there may be the kind of confluence of interests where we'll finally see some real change for the better. While health insurance companies will try to protect their interests, perhaps a majority of large corporations are ready for any meaningful change that will lower their health care costs, or take health care completely off their hands.

The point is: not only is there popular support for health care reform, for universal health care, maybe even for government provided health insurance--Medicare-for-all is quite popular--but powerful corporations also want major change--they compete against the rest of the developed world in which health care is a government not a corporate cost. So, even if insurers resist, or attempt to hold onto some portion of their "market," the balance of forces will likely result in major changes.

Until we can persuade a good proportion of large corporations that their industries would be better served by reducing global warming, and cutting defense expenditures, reforms in those fields will face uphill battles--the US, like virtually all highly developed democratic countries--will continue to be muscle-bound.

Unless popular outrage can be turned against the polluters and the defense fat cats, and the… You get the picture.
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I am a writer and retired college teacher. I taught college courses in Economics and Political Science (I've a Ph.D) and I've written as a free-lancer for various publications.

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