Wednesday, April 29. 2015
Some items I pulled out of the Wichita Eagle today -- working off the hard copy, so I'll leave it to you to find online versions at their website. The common theme is corruption and/or stupidity in high places, which in these parts means Republicans. There's always some of this evident, but today's load is particularly pungent:
Seems like there was another story about the county commissioners and a real estate boondoggle -- maybe in the part of the paper we've already recycled.
Tuesday, June 10. 2014
The Wichita Eagle ran my little "Opinion Line" squib yesterday:
Opinion Line is anonymous, limited to 50 words or less (mine was 36, but still half again too long for Twitter), published daily next to the letters on the editorial page. Mine refers back to May 30, when the front page article was "Final Air Force plane leaves Boeing Wichita" while Tiahrt's announcement that the former congressman (1995-2011) would run against incumbent Mike Pompeo (2011-) in the Republican primary was further back.
Some background: Stearman Aircraft was founded in Wichita in 1927, one of several dozen airplane companies back then. Stearman wound up as part of Boeing in the late 1930s, and Boeing's Wichita plant grew enormously during WWII, becoming the main manufacturer of a series of Boeing bombers (B-17, B-29, B-47, B-52). My father worked at Boeing for 38 years, and my brother for 23, but Boeing started breaking down their Wichita operations (for several reasons, one of which was that Wichita was the most heavily unionized plant Boeing had). In 2005, most of the plant was merged into a private equity company called Spirit AeroSystems, set up by Onex. At the time, Boeing kept the small military part of the plant attached to McConnell Air Force Base. A large part of their military business was maintenance of the KC-135 tankers based at McConnell, but Boeing came up with a scam to replace the aging tanker fleet with planes modified from the obsolete 777 commercial airliner. The leading advocate in Congress for those tankers was Todd Tiahrt -- so much so that Bush's nickname for Tiahrt was Tanker Todd. All through the long sales effort Wichita was promised 1,000 jobs if the deal went through, but as soon as it did, Boeing announced they would close their Wichita plant and move the work elsewhere.
Tiahrt was first elected to congress in 1994. He was one of the crop of political activists who developed out of the so-called "Summer of Mercy" when anti-abortion activists targeted Wichita. He was on Boeing's payroll before he was elected, and remained as one of Boeing's most reliable lackies throughout his eight terms. He was a religious fanatic, but he was also very close to Tom DeLay and deeply involved in the culture of corruption around DeLay. (DeLay rewarded Tiahrt with a seat on the House Appropriations Committee.) Tiahrt was an extreme right-winger, but not the sort of principled Tea Partier who would vote against Big Pharma's Medicare drugs scam.
In 2010 Tiahrt ran for an open Senate seat and lost the Republican primary to Jerry Moran, also a Congressman initially elected in 1994, but slightly more libertarian, and much closer to the Kochs. Tiahrt's seat was picked up by Mike Pompeo, a businessman very close to the Kochs. Tiahrt tried his hand as consulting, and seems to have been involved in Boeing's decision to leave Wichita. Pompeo, meanwhile, has been relatively active in Congress. He's worked hard to promote the Kochs' line on ending subsidies for renewable energy (even though wind power is very popular here in Kansas), and he's generally been critical of the sort of "corporate welfare" that Tiahrt specialized in (although I don't think he's questioned the Air Force tanker deal, and he managed to pass a deregulatory bill that's very popular with local general aviation interests). But he's also taken a very hawkish stand in favor of the NSA spying on Americans -- most libertarians are against those things, but the Kochs don't seem to care much as long as it doesn't affect their bottom line. And he's a West Point graduate, so jingoistically pro-military he got appointed to the House's Benghazi! circus committee.
In short, Pompeo is awful, but Tiahrt is evil. It's hard to know where to start. It's not just his perfect sense for the worst possible policies -- his tireless promotion of the Boeing tanker scam, his "Tiahrt amendment" sheltering deals between gun sellers and criminals, his campaign to send US troops into the Philippines in 2001 (resulting in needless deaths), barely start the list -- but also his sanctimonious demeanor and charismatic appeal to the worst instincts of his followers. (And, of course, who know why one of his sons killed himself? What can I say? The guy is downright creepy.)
Pompeo was recently reported as having $2.1 million left in his campaign slush fund. Tiahrt routinely collected more money than that. Good chance the campaign will be nasty and brutish.
Some more Opinion Line today, by others but along similar lines:
I can't forsee much fun in this campaign, but I do hope that both drain their campaign coffers in the primary, and in the process thoroughly expose themselves to be the malignant political forces they both are.
Saturday, April 5. 2014
For a couple decades now, it hasn't been unusual to hear right-wingers gripe about the Endangered Species Act, which gives the federal government some latitude in identifying species that are in danger of extinction and taking measures to prevent that from happening. Still, most complaints have been mere noise: rather than attack the principle of saving endangered species, they look for loopholes -- some way to clearcut a forest, say, without noting that the last remaining spotted owls live there. However, the rhetoric has escalated recently here in Kansas, where Secretary of State Kris Kobach is pushing a bill to expedite the extermination of prairie chickens (see Kobach urges tough Kansas bill on prairie chickens), going so far as to make it felony for the federal government to try to enforce the Endangered Species Act (ESA) anywhere in the state of Kansas. Moreover, other state senators (all Republicans) are trying to expand Kobach's bill to exempt another 70 endangered species, including whooping cranes, from ESA protection (see Wildlife, conservation bills stir strong feelings in Kansas).
The ESA law was laudably idealistic when it was passed in 1973, but it also came too late for many dozens of species that vanished since Europeans first settled in North America -- not to mention the many more species that became extinct after the first people arrived in North America some 10,000 years ago. The initial popularity of the law was probably based on several naive sentiments, like the assumption that its implementation wouldn't be much burden -- and for most people it really hasn't. Its opponents are shortsighted landowners who host or border endangered populations, and have designs to use that land in ways that destroy habitat needed for the survival of those species. Such people (or more often corporations) are few and far between, but they smell money to be made so they make a stink about it, enough noise to capture the allegiance of greedy right-wingers like Kobach. Deep down, they believe that owning a property should give them an unlimited right not just to exploit it for personal profit, but to destroy anything on that land that stands in their way. Moreover, they do not believe that the public has any rights or business limiting what they do with their property. Such ideas would be laughable -- laws have long placed limits on usage (zoning) and enforced liabilities (e.g., on externalities like pollution) -- but the right wing's ideological drive has been toward ever greater business "freedom" (a term which more and more means a lack of restraint and responsibility).
Kobach's statute, like most of what he proposes, is almost certainly unconstitutional in that it seeks to use state law to nullify federal law -- the only reason for waffling at all is that the current US Supreme Court has become so political that a majority recently ruled that the rich have a "free speech" right to bribe politicians. One thing you can be sure of is that Kobach follows no underlying legal or philosophical principle: figuring that the state government of Kansas, with deranged governor Sam Brownback and three-quarter Republican majorities, recently purged of nearly all "moderates," is his ideal power base, Kobach has supported laws both to nullify federal gun controls and to prevent any local Kansas towns or counties from passing their own gun control laws. The working principle for conservatives these days is to use any formula that gets them their desired ends: stacking the courts, rigging elections, flooding elections with special-interest money, or just dispensing with them altogether (e.g., some Republicans recently introduced a bill to make it illegal for certain Kansas counties to vote on allowing casino gambling).
You'd think such unscrupulous contempt for democracy would be met with a hysterical reaction, but thus far no affront has done the trick. If people really understood the consequences of giving Republicans the sort of unlimited power they enjoy in Kansas, the results would be catastrophic even way beyond the precedent set by G.W. Bush. But one might still cling to the hope that bad policies are still reversible: things may get awful for a while, but eventually the pendulum swings back. Extinction, on the other hand, is irreversible, which is one reason this attack on the Endangered Species Act seems so brazen, so terrifying, and so thoughtless.
By the way, on biodiversity, see E.O. Wilson: The Diversity of Life (1992, Harvard University Press). Wilson goes to great lengths to stress the economic value of biodiversity -- more so than I think is necessary (or even desirable), as I've found that I value the existence of most life forms even if I never interact with them: at the very least they enrich my understanding of the world, and that's one of the things I treasure in life.
To put the Endangered Species Act into a broader context, see David Quammen: The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction (paperback, 1997, Scribner). The new book by Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014, Henry Holt) is probably also worthwhile.
Friday, October 18. 2013
I don't have time to write at any length on this, but I thought it was worth noting that the two front page articles in the Wichita Eagle this morning -- well, aside from two other articles about shootings, past and present -- were titled "Obama calls for end to partisan fake crises" and "Despite failed efforts, tea party hangs on." The former included a picture of the president next to a quote from him: "You don't like a particular policy or a particular president, then argue for your position. Go out there and win an election." Above that is the tag line, "Political climate must change."
The Eagle is a fairly moderate newspaper that tends to blow with the wind. Each year, for instance, they endorse more Republicans than Democrats, but that's partly because they overwhelmingly go with the incumbents: they like the establishment in large part because they are the establishment. So a big part of the takeaway here is that for now at least the Republican (or as they would put it the "Tea Party") efforts to shut down the federal government and to force a default on the federal debt were not only not appreciated but were regarded as downright dangerous. This makes sense, of course: there is nothing the establishment hates more than anything that disrupts business as normal. But they rarely come out and say that because they like to pretend that both parties are legitimate and sane, even though these days the Republicans show little evidence of it -- and in fact have used the respect accorded them by self-conscious moderates to move political language far to the right. At least today they're reminding us that the "Tea Party" has gone beyond the bounds of respectability.
One more thing I want to note on the "bipartisan" deal that solved the immediate crisis. Sen. Pat Roberts, who is up for reelection next year and is being challenged in the Republican primary from the right voted against the deal. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, whose primary opponent next year is critical of how hard she's turned to the right since winning in 2012, voted for the deal. Neither may think they have anything to worry about from the Democrats in 2012, but both are aware that the split within the Republican party could swallow them up.
Saturday, July 13. 2013
Big article in the Wichita Eagle earlier this week: Charles Koch launching Wichita campaign about economic freedom, government overreach. Koch is the billionaire who along with his brother David Koch inherited Koch Industries, the largest privately held company in America. While David Koch is cultivating his links with the power elite in New York City, Charles Koch lives in humble Wichita and runs the family company. Both Kochs are concerned citizens. They do a lot of philanthropy, but in Wichita that mostly means we have a lot of buildings reminding us who the richest guy in town is. And they spend a lot of money on politics, not just to promote their own narrow interests -- they have lawyers and lobbyists for that, not to mention Rep. Michael Pompeo and Sen. Jerry Moran -- but to share and spread their unique insights into what makes a nation rich. After all, it worked for them, so why shouldn't it work for everyone else?
OK, you may think that just because they inherited an oil company and you didn't, they had some sort of unfair advantage over you, but their real secret is that they grew up believing in the gospel of "economic freedom." (Their father, after all, was Fred Koch, who not only built their oil company but set a model for them as a big backer of the John Birch Society.) The Kochs have been pushing this line for a long time now. Their most prominent front group is called Americans for Prosperity. Given their success, and the uncontroversial cloaking they use for their message -- I mean, who in American isn't for prosperity? or economic freedom? -- you have to wonder what they're really up to. The article explains:
As near as I can tell (and I'll note that Koch wrote more about it here), Koch's notion of "economic freedom" is pretty much limited to the freedom of business owners (like himself) to run roughshod over everyone else. Nothing aggravates a boss more than the possibility that someone else can tell him "no" -- least of all the government he thinks his taxes supports. Maybe he accepts the limits of the market -- that a customer may choose not to buy, or a worker may choose not to work for him -- but if the market will bear it, he's saying government has no business butting in, and that when it does it's trampling on his economic freedom, undermining his prosperity. That much may be even be true, but then he makes an intellectual leap that is invalid: he assumes that when government limits his prosperity, it is limiting the overall prosperity of the whole nation. In other words, he is assuming that the gain that government denied him -- the gain that he should have been free to realize -- would not have come at anyone else's expense. That may indeed be the case, but much more likely isn't: with few exceptions, government regulations exist to protect someone against some possible abuse of power -- laws against fraud, for instance, or regulations against pollution (the victims of which are potentially all of us).
There is some reason to think that even Koch recognizes that some of his fellow entrepreneurs are up to no good. From the same piece:
But if he was sincere about opposing "cronyism" in Washington -- and Topeka and Wichita, where his voice is even louder -- you'd think he'd start a campaign to get the corrupting influence of money out of politics. But he's not articulating anything like that: the only time he actually knuckles down and works against "cronyism" is when it's seen as an alternative to the oil business: when it comes to stopping ethanol subsidies and wind power, he'll stand on the highest principle available. But mention a carbon tax, which is a relatively benign way of assigning an externalities cost to the conversion of fossil fuels into a gas that turns the entire planet into a greenhouse, he goes ballistic. (As Jane Mayer recently documented, Koch is the guy pushing an "anti-carbon tax pledge" among Republicans.)
Aside from his hypocrisy about cronyism, is it really true that no other company is advancing Koch's agenda? When you get down to the actual candidates that Koch puts money behind -- Pompeo and Moran are prime examples because they invested so heavily in both -- what you get is your basic "tea party" Republican, the same sort getting backing from corporate cranks all over the country. Nor for all his ideological pretensions is Koch all that much of a purist: he's happy enough with Republicans like Sam Brownback, who's squishy on wind power and absolutely nuts on abortion, and Tim Huelskamp, who's squishy on nothing and so anti-government he feels threatened by the PATRIOT ACT. He was even on board with Mitt Romney -- he sent out memos to all his employees directing them to vote Republican.
Of course, "economic freedom" is a fine slogan. I'm for it, too, but you have to put these things into a viable context. Freedom is a wonderful state, but not at someone else's expense. You can't have a viable society if everyone is allowed to do anything they think might be in their interest. Such a society would be rife with crime, fraud, deception, and chaos: conditions under which prosperity would collapse. One might assume that even Koch wouldn't go that far, but I can't assure you. (Back in the 1970s one of my jobs was to typeset reprints of Murray Rothbard books for Koch. Rothbard was so opposed to government he proposed that justice be privatized, so each and every business would have to contract with its own police, courts, etc. How this differs from mafia cartels was never clear to me. Of course, Koch's thinking may have evolved since then, but he hasn't strayed much.)
On the other hand, it certainly is the case that some government acts -- laws, regulations, discretionary enforcement -- do inhibit economic freedom for no good reason, and I would be happy to join Koch in opposing them. The main things I can think of are patents, which create artificial monopolies and encourage trolls and other parasites (including one's own lawyers). I also worry about excess concentration of corporate power, which can distort free markets even if it is well short of monopoly, and can also leads to unfair relations with employees. Interestingly, Koch himself expressed concern about "anything that reduces the mobility of labor."
Of course, given that his statement immediately followed his complaint about the minimum wage, he may only be concerned with the downward mobility of labor. Otherwise, were we to take his statement at face value, we might decide that there was a need for more government intervention. For instance, one thing that would make labor more mobile would be to make education freely available (and not just the cost of education but a stipend to live on). That way, when new job opportunities open up, people can (relatively painlessly) flock to them. Another would be to make it easy to move from one place to another with more job opportunities. Nor should be labor mobility be limited to changing jobs. We should also encourage workers to go into business: by reducing the entry cost, by making it easier for new businesses to raise capital, by reducing and/or buffering the risks of failure. These are all examples where greater "labor mobility" would result in workers finding more productive jobs, and that in turn would directly add to the prosperity of the nation -- as well as the more equitable distribution of the nation's wealth.
But that sort of "labor mobility" isn't something the private sector can ever be expected to do on its own. Businesses see labor as an expense: something to be squeezed, automated, or outsourced. Only some benign charitable organization could deliberately decide to systematically improve the upward mobility of labor, and for all practical purposes that means government. Of course, a given government may be unwilling to help workers -- indeed, ours has largely been captured by corporate interests that differ little in this regard from the Koch brothers. But if you posited a real democracy, where every voter is free and able to understand and advance his or her self-interest, the government they would elect would work toward greater and more widespread prosperity, and it would do something much like what I just described.
The biggest intellectual con job of the last few decades is the notion that business owners are "job creators" and we should cater to their every whim else they withdraw even the paltry jobs they currently offer. There is much more to this than taxes, but tax policy offers a clear example of what happens when we follow their prescriptions. Government, at least in theory, belongs to all of the people, and serves all of the people, whereas companies belong to the tiny (and mostly rich) fraction that owns them. When we cut taxes on the rich, as we've done repeatedly since 1999 -- Clinton's big tax cut on capital gains, followed by all the Bush cuts, then the Obama cuts -- the rich keep (and accumulate) more and we (via the government) get less. And when government revenues decline, so do services -- starting with those that serve the poorest, least powerful people among us.
In Koch's Kansas this same dynamic has been carried out to even greater extremes: Brownback has cut the income tax and carved out a complete exemption for "small business" income (Koch's $40 billion empire is privately held, so it qualifies, as does the real estate and gambling fiefdom of Wichita's other billionaire); meanwhile sales taxes, which are paid by the "takers" Romney complained so about, the 47% of Americans who don't make enough money to owe income taxes on, have increased. This is supposed to make Kansas friendlier to business -- to increase our "economic freedom," to use the Koch parlance. The net result so far is that education is becoming more expensive and other services scarcer. Meanwhile, any business that will consider moving to Kansas will insist on kickbacks from a shrinking pie, and nearly every business in the country is enjoying that race to the bottom.
Boeing, for instance, left Wichita because they were getting sweeter deals in Texas and South Carolina. Pizza Hut moved to Colorado to take advantage of another sweetheart deal. Even Koch has played that game, threatening to move their headquarters to Houston unless the public provide direct air connections. But at least they're still here: nearly every other important company that was built here has either moved out or sold out -- Beech, Cessna, Lear Jet, and others have just become profit centers for global capital, which has no community interest in Wichita.
The thing I find most striking about the Kochs isn't how narrow-minded and ultimately destructive their ideology is, but how naturally they come by it. They were born rich and sheltered, moving straight into the company throne, and yet they think they earned every cent of it, going so far as to complain about "the culture of dependency" that those who weren't born rich like them are mired in. It's part of human nature to assume that other folks are pretty much like yourself. Still, it's remarkable that anyone so unique would be unaware that they're not the ideal template for the rest of the world.
"Economic freedom" works great for the Kochs. But it's not the be-all, end-all answer for everything. It's a part, possibly just a small one, but only if you get past the rest of the claptrap they spout. And all the money they put behind it just gives the lie away. They have to propagandize their ideology because you won't believe it otherwise. And they think they can because they have all that money, plus utter contempt for democracy and nearly all of the people it represents.
Here's a shorter version that approaches what I wanted to say in a slightly different way: a "letter to the editor" by Jack E. Niblack, published in the Wichita Eagle today:
I can certainly understand Charles Koch's frustration with and disdain for an economic and political system that has only allowed him to become a multibillionaire ("Charles Koch to launch Wichita ad campaign," July 10 Eagle). I've no doubt that were it not for ill-conceived, shortsighted, and unnecessary rules and regulations that make it more difficult for Koch's companies to pollute our air and water, demand that meters used to determine how much oil his companies are extracting from Native American lands be calibrated, and require him to pay workers, at a minimum, the lavish sum of $7.25 per hour, he would have attained the status of multitrillionaire. Perhaps he would then be more successful at buying national elections. He's already been quite successful at the state level.
Wednesday, June 5. 2013
A piece in the Wichita Eagle today -- Dan Voorhis: Businesses will benefit from several recent laws enacted in Kansas -- points out that the Kansas state legislature hasn't only been up to complete lunacy this session. Sure, they've passed new anti-abortion and pro-gun laws that are blatantly unconstitutional, and they've cut income taxes -- exempting "small businessmen" like the Koch brothers altogether -- while raising sales taxes. But they've also been minding business:
Voorhis didn't mention the biggest giveaway, which was a bill that ended regulation of the phone monopoly, AT&T, but then he wasn't really reporting -- he was just echoing what the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce lobbyist was bragging about.
Reminds me why I left Kansas in the first place. It was 1974 and I was working in a type shop downtown. I had gotten a series of small raises early on as the owner noticed how much work I was producing, but he developed eye problems, leaving his idiot son in charge of the company, who did nothing. After a long stretch, I went to him and asked for a raise. He told me that my salary was already the maximum the market could bear in Wichita. He did feign sympathy, however, suggesting that if I really did need to make more money, I should move to a higher wage market, like . . . Tulsa, Oklahoma! I quit shortly after that -- at which point they did offer me a much more substantial raise than I had asked for -- and moved to New York City.
Twenty-five years later I moved back to Wichita, bringing a telecommuting job with me. When that ran out, I looked around a bit, encountering the same lame-brained mentality from business owners I had originally fled. One job prospect offered $12/hour to design and build database-driven websites for a client based in China -- yes, outsourcing their IT work to Kansas.
The one thing that Kansas doesn't need is more leverage for business owners to drive wages down. It depresses the economy, and is depressing for everyone involved, leaving everyone in a state of mental disability.
The biggest political difference between the New Deal and now is the amount of effort Roosevelt put into fighting deflation: both in keeping prices from collapsing and in increasing wages, even going so far as to promote unions. Obama has done none of that, letting wages sink while monopoly rents skyrocket. And if Obama and the Democrats won't fight for you, numbskulls like the Chamber of Commerce get a free ride.
Saturday, April 27. 2013
One thing about the gun debate is the lack of specific case examples, especially for arguments that putting more guns into the hands of "good" people will limit the amount of gun violence perpetrated by "bad" people. The contrary argument, that reducing the number of legal guns -- which, by the way, simplifies the task of enforcing prohibitions against illegal guns -- reduces the overall amount of gun violence, can be argued with gross statistics. That argument, by the way, seems convincing, but we aren't just statistical aggregates. We're individuals, and even if more guns in general endanger us, it seems at least possible that there are some cases where a gun could save one's life or thwart a crime. So why don't "second amendment rights" advocates give us more concrete examples? (Aside, of course, from the fact that it's a lot easier to spout pieties, a form of laziness and sloppiness you hear on all sides of virtually every issue.)
Someone could (and should) do some actual research on shootings: map out what kinds of confrontations happen -- e.g., home invasion where perpetrator is shot by home resident (or vice versa, in which case was resident armed or not?) -- and count them all up. (As I understand it, the government is prohibited from undewriting any such study, thanks to the NRA, which seems to fear any actual research into gun use or abuse.) But not every confrontation has an obvious right and wrong side. For example, consider the case of Dustin Cheever, here in Wichita.
What happened was: Cheever suspected that the son of a neighbor, Robert Gammon, had stolen a motorcycle. Cheever didn't take his suspicions to the police. Instead, he and a friend (Steve Grose) searched for the motorcycle in Gammons' backyard -- they entered Gammons' property without his permission or knowledge. Gammons confronted them, pointing a BB pistol (which plausibly appeared to be a real gun) at them, and threatening them. Cheever, however, was carrying a real gun. Rather than backing away, he decided that he needed to defend himself and/or his friend, so he pulled his gun, shot, and killed Gammons. Cheever is currently being tried for second degree murder, which seems about right.
Had Cheever pulled his gun and Gammons killed him, Gammons would have been in a stronger legal position. He was, after all, at home, whereas Cheever and Grose were trespassing. Gammons misjudged twice that his gun would protect him: first, as is so often the case, the gunfight was determined not by right or wrong, good guy or bad guy, but by who was quicker with more deadly aim (a fact which, by the way, tends to favor the more experienced bad guys); but second, had he not brandished the gun, had he instead just threatened to call the police, Cheever would have had no excuse to defend himself with his gun, and most likely the pair would have just left.
That Gammons' gun was actually a non-lethal BB pistol is pretty much irrelevant here: it looked like a real gun and was given extra credibility by Gammons' threats to kill with it, plus Cheever had no reason to doubt that Gammons could have owned a real gun, since guns are pretty much the norm here in Wichita. Also, Cheever may well have belatedly understood that Kansas's Stand Your Ground law gave Gammons a legal excuse to shoot first -- had Gammons realized that Cheever was in fact armed (something he might reasonably have suspected). It is often argued that the expectation that the other person is armed leads to more moderate behavior -- that seems to be a big part of the argument that all "good guys" should carry guns -- in this case such expectations pretty clearly escalated the conflict.
So this case, at least, doesn't provide much support for the notion that we are better off with more guns: one gun owner, attempting to defend his property from trespass, is dead; another, intent on taking the law into his own hand in searching for his stolen property, faces second degree murder charges. Neither of those outcomes would have happened had either (much less both) parties been unarmed, nor would they have happened had either (again much less both) turned to the police to settle their dispute.
There may be other gun confrontations where it's easier to tell who is "good" or "bad," where it's clearer who's right and wrong, but I suspect this sort of mess is more common. Moreover, it's more reflective of the mentality of people who think guns are an answer for their problems dealing with other people: they overestimate the value and grossly underestimate the risks; and they almost never have the skills and judgment they'd need to make the gun work for them, and often lack the self-awareness to realize when they're getting into trouble. Indeed, the police, who are trained both in the law and the proper use of guns, often screw it up. Why would a random individual expect to do better?
There are simple solutions here, but not practicable ones. The statistics are clear, but no one wants to be a statistic. As long as people think they need guns for self-protection, it's awfully hard to take them away. Moreover, it's hard to say "trust in the police" when the police aren't all that trustworthy, nor can one say "have faith in our system of justice" when that system is far from just. Those are, I'm tempted to argue, bigger and more urgent problems than guns. On the other hand, so many of the reasons that people give for insisting on arming themselves are so patently false you have to argue with them just to attempt to open up a space for public sanity.
No such argument is more ridiculous than the one that you need guns to protect yourself from the government -- although the one that the government needs guns to protect itself from you is every bit as specious, not to mention the one -- which costs us about a trillion dollars a year -- that the government needs armies and navies and air forces to protect us from foreigners. War doesn't protect us from war: war is war. Guns don't protect us from gun violence: aside from a few museum pieces, they create gun violence.
Sunday, March 3. 2013
In case you're wondering what it's like to live in a Republican Paradise, look to Kansas where Republicans -- and none of those wussy RINOs anymore; we're talking the real thing here -- control every facet of government. The Wichita Eagle chose to dedicate its lead article today to celebrate "Kansas legislators' decisions so far in the session." So for all you blue-staters out there, see what you're missing, read and weep:
The article notes that more bills are pending: on further tax cuts (or increases, if you're poor enough); abortion (banning if done to select the sex of the child -- either will do); alcohol (allow more stores to sell); judicial appointments (let Brownback pick 'em); labor (no payroll deductions for unions); immigration (they probably mean Kris Kobach's nonsense, but the Chamber of Commerce is all for undocumented workers); and "more" (under the circumstances, the most ominous word in the English language -- the west Kansas feedlot and packing industries depend on them).
Only good news coming out of Topeka these days is that they make Richard Crowson's life easier. Here's his cartoon today (the subject is evidently part of that "more"):
The big item above is the education amendment, as this generation of Kansas Republicans renege on the commitment of a previous generation to provide all Kansans with a quality education. I suspect this has much less to do with education per sé than with the prerogatives of power. The courts have repeatedly ruled against the legislature's failure to appropriate adequate funds, and the lege can't stand the notion that they have to operate within a framework of law -- they were, after all, elected to make law, and they'll damn well make any kind of law they like, even if (as is increasingly often the case) what they want to do is contrary to the US constitution.
It's not hard to see where they got this attitude: from owning and running businesses, where they feel entitled to dictate every moment, and throw a fit at the slightest inconvenience -- laws, workers, even customers (although they still try to put on a better face there). Michael Kinsley has a critique of American politics as a collection of "big babies," but the biggest babies of all are those who feel entitled to make (and break) the rules. The Republicans are still inconvenienced by shreds of democracy in the political sphere, but in their businesses they've made major steps toward dictatorship. If they can force drug tests on their workers, why not require the same of the wards of the state? The object, after all, isn't drug control but humiliation. The old saw about "absolute power corrupting absolutely" is evident once again.
On the Eagle's editorial page, consider this Opinion Line item:
Beechcraft's failed bid was for small prop planes for the Afghan Air Force, a pretty large contract ($450 million, if memory serves). They lost the bid more than a year ago, pulled some strings to get it rebid, and lost it again. The tankers are an old subject in these pages. Boeing eventually prevailed in convincing the Air Force to waste $35 billion for a fleet of obsolete airliners -- at least, unlike the state-of-the-art 787, they're likely to fly -- dressed up as portable filling stations. Then, having won the bid, they shut down their Wichita plant, which had been promised the work -- a "no brainer" considering that Wichita had done the work on the "obsolete" tanker fleet, primarily based at McConnell AFB, also here in Wichita. Having used all their political assets in Kansas (which unlike the workers are still on the payroll), Boeing then decided to move the work elsewhere -- to whichever state will pay them the most (preferably one with fewer or no union workers).
This whole scam has been unfolding for more than a decade, and one thing you could count on is an editorial (and often a guest column) in the Eagle every month or so extolling the virtues of Boeing as the best company to build those desperately needed tankers. Back in January, I wrote two letters to the Eagle -- a longer "rough draft" and a proper letter paired down to their size requirements. They ran neither, nor anything remotely like it. The occasion was a series of articles on the Air Force's process for deciding where to base the new tankers. The longer letter follows:
McConnell AFB, which is to say the dreaded federal government, which is to say "your tax dollars," injects about $500 million into the Wichita economy each year. It was built not because the Air Force had an urgent need to station its aircraft as far as possible away from the nation's borders, but because it was just across the street from a very large Boeing plant -- one, by the way, built by the US government during WWII and used to build the majority of B-17 and B-29 bombers used during the war, and B-47 and B-52 bombers built during the heyday of the Strategic Air Command. It was also where Boeing turned its 707 airlines into KC-135 tankers. Those new planes stopped production around 1960, but Boeing continued to provide mods to update the B-52s and KC-135s still used by the Air Force. Again, without Boeing it's hard to see any reason for McConnell. The AFB's survival will depend on nothing more than political favor and inertia, neither of which are likely to save it from future rounds of defense spending cuts.
Personally, it wouldn't bother me if McConnell closed. No doubt it would hurt the local economy, but the facilities would be recycled and new business would emerge. Plus you'd get rid of those dreadful planes flying over east Wichita every few minutes. (I didn't even consider buying a house in the area because of the noise factor, not to mention memory of what happens when one of those loaded tankers drops from the sky and razes a neighborhood.) But we need the new tankers even less than the AFB, and the cost there is pure waste and corruption. Their role is to help move and project massive US firepower anywhere in the world, and the more difficult that task becomes, the better for the world (and for that matter for us).
This is a good time to talk about cutting back from the insane defense spending levels of recent years. Sequestration is probably the dumbest way to implement cuts, except to a military budget which produces much harm and virtually no tangible good. The only way you would ever notice even far greater cuts than the ones in effect would be if you yourself were on the dole. And while the loss of spending destimulates the economy, the multipliers for military expense are exceptionally low -- especially where spent abroad, or simply blown up.
On the other hand, if/when the tanker is cut from the defense budget, it will probably be in recognition of its obsolescence. The military is moving more and more to drones, which are vastly more fuel-efficient than fighters or bombers. So like everything with the military, there's not much point because what passes for thought in those circles is so far removed from real life -- except, of course, when it kills.
Sunday, October 28. 2012
The good news in this election is that loathsome Democrat Vern Miller isn't running for sheriff or anything else this time. I voted against him in my first election (1972), and voted against him four years ago. In fact, I've never found him running against a Republican so vile as to drive me into his column. On the other hand, the Republicans running for my state senate and representative seats have taken a drastic turn for the worse this year. They have a lot of money and they are serious threats to win, although at least they will have to overcome estimable Democratic candidates. Other than that, and a ballot question about fluoridating the city's water supply (something I'm ambivalent about), Kansas is a political wasteland this year. The statewide offices have been reserved for the off-years when turnout is down (and more to the Republicans' taste). The Senate cycle is fallow this year. And our Koch-owned congressman appears to be a lock -- at least I haven't seen any evidence of the Democrat allegedly running against him. And, oh, the state's presidential electors have already been conceded: I haven't even seen any statewide polls on Romney vs. Obama -- just some speculation that the margin will rival Reagan's 1980 trouncing of Carter. I expect it will be much closer, but I'm basing that on nothing whatsoever -- other than that Gore surprised me in 2000 by getting 37% of the vote (to 58% for Bush) on so little campaigning that I entertained the fantasy of Nader (3.4%) outpolling him. Turns out that even though Kansas Democrats are remarkably quiet they do exist -- and thanks to the right-wing Republican purge are likely to increase in number, if not in spirit.
In 2004 I wrote a relatively impassioned editorials for Kerry (or more pointedly against Bush) and in 2008 I must have done the same for Obama (certainly against the warmonger McCain). Against Romney, Obama is as clear a choice, even though there isn't much reason to cheerful or enthusiastic about the prospect. Obama has proven himself to be a cautious conservative with only the barest commitment to the general welfare of the majority of the people who voted for him in 2008. He is unimaginative and unresourceful, unwilling to put forth progressive proposals, uneager to stand up to the increasingly destructive program of the far right, or even to point out how much damage thirty years of conservative ascent has already done. And even within his own limited confines, more often than not he has proved inept: obvious examples include the 2010 electoral debacle, and the fact that his own reëlection is in peril despite running against running against a candidate as clueless as Romney and a party as malevolent as the Republicans, despite his evident tactic of sacrificing his party for his own personal gain -- one of many traits he's adopted from Clinton, who proved every bit as ineffective (or uninterested) at halting the nation's unpopular drift to the right.
I say "unpopular" because there's no reason to think that the vast majority of the American people actually approve of what the right has done, let alone intends to do. You can check this many ways, starting with the polling, although that's often muddied by the right's ubiquitous propaganda machine (often helped out by the mainstream media). Or you can look at the ways the right tries to obscure and confuse issues, by their savvy catch phrases, their constant repetition, etc. Or you can look at the right's more and more blatant efforts at disenfranchising and intimidating voters. Or you can take notice of such recent gaffes as Lindsey Graham's concession that the Republicans are losing "the demographic race" or Romney's blatant dismissal of the "47%" of the public who pay no income taxes, people he wrote off as "takers," people "unwilling to take responsibility for their lives": given all the other people Romney is writing off, it should be clear that the only way he can win an election is to keep most of that 47% from voting.
So that's one thing this election is about: whether this nation will remain a democracy. And oddly enough, because the Republican Party has operated in lock step over the last four years in its single-minded agenda to annul the 2008 election, to prevent the sort of change that that election mandated, to sabotage government and prevent it from being used to ameliorate the suffering and to improve the welfare of the vast majority of the people, and above all to make Obama look weak and ineffective, the only way to save democracy is to purge Congress of virtually all Republicans. (A simple thought experiment: how many views would an all-Democratic Congress have on most issues? All of them. All-Republican? One, maybe plus Ron Paul.)
Since Democrats are all over the map, voting a straight ticket might not seem like much of a solution, but Republican groupthink and discipline have created a unique problem: one that is severe enough it should be massively rejected. Otherwise, their obsession with seizing and holding power at all costs will prove ever more corrupting. We saw much of this during the Bush-Cheney years, when the anti-deficit arguments used to hem in Clinton and Obama were suspended, when government oversight was parceled out to lobbyists, when functions were privatized to create patronage. More recently, no matter how much the Republicans decried bank bailouts, they flocked to fight regulation needed to keep future disasters from happening, in a blatant attempt to coddle the big bankers. But more disturbing than hypocrisy and opportunism is how they've converted their power base into a form of extortion: give them the presidency and they'll mismanage government, plunge the nation into endless wars, wreck the economy, but deny them and they'll shut down the government, hold up your social security checks, and drag their feet on everything from unemployment comp to food stamps. They've even argued that the current slow recovery is Obama's fault for "creating uncertainty," causing "job creators" to hold back their magic and let the economy flounder -- when in fact Republican-demanded austerity measures have destroyed public sector jobs as fast as the private sector can generate them.
Moreover, the Republican mindset has turned even more greedy and nasty in the years since Obama was elected. The key abortion issue now seems to be the rights of rapists to force their victims to bear their children. Public education is being gutted, torn between textbook idiocies and prohibitive costs, and likely to suffer worse now that pious Republicans like Rick Santorum have decided that learning inclines students toward liberalism. Such notions, and the Republicans are full of them, are more extreme than we've ever witnessed in major party politics, and they're backed with more money and more pervasive media than ever. From the beginning, Americans have adopted the notion of countervailing powers as a means of checking tyranny: first in the government's separation of powers, and later in the development of a universal democracy that has repeatedly shifted, and moderated, between progressive and conservative tides. Arguably, the Reagan ascent in 1980 was a reasonable reaction to the successes of progressive movements in the 1960s and 1970s. (I wouldn't argue that, but I can see how corporate interests may have gotten spooked.) Early on, conservative measures seemed to do little damage, but over time they have accumulated into serious problems; meanwhile, the right has no sense of enough: they keep insisting on more, to the point of complete domination. (For example, in Kansas now, business owners are exempt from paying state income tax, joining Romney's freeloading 47%.)
The Republican juggernaut stalled in 2008 when it became obvious to nearly everyone that the Bush bubble had burst and took much of the world's economy with it. Then a remarkable thing happened: a handful of talk radio blowhards and behind-the-scenes schemers like Grover Norquist took over the GOP and gave it a fresh life in its own fantasy world. Much of what followed was stark raving nuts, and even now all Romney and Ryan represent are the sanest faces their sponsoring billionaires can put on such an unhinged movement. Even so, Romney's background is from the most predatory and destructive form of finance capitalism, and Ryan's solo claim to fame is his ability to fake a budget that promises to turn the nation into a third world oligarchy. And behind the front men, the advisers -- the people who would make up and run their administration -- are the same con men Bush used (Glenn Hubbard is the most obvious tip of the iceberg here).
These are people, a whole party of them, that must be stopped. For better or worse, all we have to stop them with are Democrats, so that's how I intend to vote, and so should you. Woe to us if we fail, but even if we succeed we'll still have much work to do. We can, at least, take solace in seeing the last four years of propaganda and obstruction fail to defeat Obama. And we can look forward to having somewhat more reasonable people to talk to, to argue with, and possibly on occasion to convince.
By the way, I see now that the Democratic candidate for sheriff, while not Vern Miller, is a guy whose sole comment on why he ran for office is that God told him to. Doesn't sound like much of a candidate to me, and I don't have anything in particular against the Republican, but I'll vote for him anyway. This is a year when anyone should be embarrassed to run as a Republican -- especially in Kansas.
Moreover, I recall how back in the early days of the conservative counterrevolution Reagan used to talk about the "11th Commandment": never speak ill of a fellow Republican. That allowed the Republicans to make gains in unlikely places, including electing mayors of New York and Los Angeles, as well as senators like the recently purged Richard Lugar. Of course, I won't stop speaking out when Democrats like Obama do bad things, but I may hold off until the season's over (now that it practically is).
Wednesday, May 30. 2012
An excerpt from the Wichita Eagle blogs, published in today's paper:
Even before Rupert Murdoch bought up the Wall Street Journal, the editorial page there could be depended on to relish any policy that might help make the rich richer, regardless of its impact on everyone else. In the 1980s they championed Arthur Laffer's supply side doodles. In a pointed reminder of how reigning public thought has refused to learn anything from the repeated economic debacles of conservative rule, Brownback used state funds to hire Laffer to propagandize his tax cut scheme.
The tax cut is projected to almost immediately throw the state into deficit, which the "starve the beast" devotees will insist on meeting with spending cuts. Given how severely education and public works have already been cut, it's not clear where more cuts are going to come from. (Jails? Police? Only real way to cut that would be to legalize marijuana, which doesn't seem to be on the agenda although it's not totally off the radar.) But one thing that should be obvious is that growth isn't in the cards. One good thing about state spending is the money gets spent (and multiplied) in-state. But tax cuts for the rich don't result in more local spending. The main beneficiaries are guys like Phil Ruffin, who puts most of his money into Las Vegas.
Of course, that's a level of detail that the Wall Street Journal could care less about. They're happy as long as the rich get richer, and if in the process government in Kansas becomes dysfunctional, no skin off their teeth.
Sunday, April 15. 2012
I spent most of Saturday, April 14, watching television. The only shows on was the weather, which I could supplement with the radar feed from Weather Underground. The Storm Prediction Center had forecast "a high risk of severe weather" -- the last time that was forecast was April 7, 2006, in advance of an outbreak of over 100 tornadoes -- and the dead center of the risk area was very close to (maybe a bit south of) Wichita, KS. The day's weather map showed a cold front straight north-south along the Colorado-Kansas and New Mexico-Texas borders, and a stationary front hanging from the north end of the cold front northeast across Nebraska toward Chicago. As the cold front swept across Kansas southerly winds swept moisture up from the Gulf of Mexico, collecting into storm cells tracking from 30-70 mph north-northeast, turning more east as they crossed I-70 in north Kansas. These cells generally started across the border in Oklahoma, or possibly in Texas, and they started in the west.
Weather is serious business here in Kansas, with the television station competing fiercely for viewership with the latest, fanciest radar system feeds, live storm tracker reports, viewer-supplied photos, etc. (It's a big farm state, and not unusual for city people to have come off farms -- both of my parents did.) So it was possible to watch nothing but weather from noon, when the first tornado touched down in Hodgeman county (southwest KS, north of Dodge City) until well after midnight. At a typical moment late-afternoon, there were four widely separated storm cells, each moving northeast, each with a well-defined hook on the south edge near the rear of the storm indicating a large tornado. The new radars can measure wind shear, and they can distinguish hail from rain and debris sucked up by a tornado from hail -- remarkable images, I can say, as someone who's watched tornados come and go ever since the one that obliterated Udall, KS back in 1955.
Wikipedia lists 122 reported tornadoes during this outbreak, but currently only lists 13 as confirmed. Some of the reports are redundant, referring to the same tornado as it progressed -- presumably, as they evaluate the damage and sort out the paths the spottings will be sorted out. Some of the early tornados passed through territory I knew well. The Hodgeman county tornado was very close to the farm where my great-great-grandfather homesteaded c. 1870, and moved north of Spearville, where my father was born, and Kinsley, where an aunt lived for many years -- I must have visited that are a hundred times. Later a tornado kicked up between Geneseo and Little River, in Rice county, which is where my grandfather had a farm in the 1950s. That tornado then moved northwest toward Marquette, where he had moved in 1960, and where an aunt lived, then skittered northeast toward Salina.
Another tornado formed between Mullinville and Greensburg, south of Kinsley, then moved very fast northeast, crossing US-50 near St. John, and turning east to take another pass at Marquette. A later tornado took a similar path, slightly to the north, near Kanapolis and Brookville, then just missed Salina to the north. I later looked at a map of accumulated precipitation that consisted of four or five long streaks following these storm paths, separated by troughs that got virtually no rain.
Later storms moved a bit closer, into McPherson county, but all of those storms were well clear of Wichita, which was overcast all day and intermittently windy. First storm that worried me popped up north of Enid, OK, and crossed into Kansas near Bluff City -- reported as a "half-mile wide wedge tornado." This same cell cut across Harper and northwest Sumner counties into Sedgwick, aiming toward Haysville in Wichita's south suburbs. I haven't heard of any damage in Haysville, but a couple miles east an EF-3 tornado did massive destruction in Oaklawn, then hit the massive Spirit (formerly Boeing) plant, crossed McConnell AFB, did some damage at US-54 and Greenwich, and proceeded northeast past Andover and El Dorado for another 80 miles or so before eventually blowing out over the Flint Hills east of Cassoday.
We live just northwest of downtown Wichita, about six miles from the storm path. We spent about an hour in the basement, with only the radio on, so we were a bit sensory-deprived. We got some very heavy rain, possibly a bit of hail and wind, but mostly rain -- much more than the new drain I dug in the backyard could handle. Elsewhere there was quite a bit of local flooding. Electric power was a bit iffy here, but held up. Doesn't seem to have been much damage outside of the tornado path, but there over 100 poles were knocked down, blacking out 20,000 people and closing roads.
After that cleared, another line of storms developed to the west and started moving east: I suspect this was finally the cold front moving through. Around 2am the Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Sedgwick county, but the storm weakened and passed through Wichita by 3am with some lightning and more rain. That would seem to have been enough drama for one day and night, but the worst for us happened about 3:30am when I heard a loud hissing sound, and went into the bathroom to find the supply hose broken loose from the toilet and spraying water all over the place. I turned the valve shut and mopped up the water, including big drops collecting on the ceiling.
Got up around noon to a bright and sunny day where everything seemed normal again. Drove to the hardware store to get the part to fix the toilet, and saw no damage in the area -- river was a bit up, and saw some baby ducks on it. I haven't tried to drive anywhere near the damage, but looked through the slide shows at Kansas.com. I've also seen photos of isolated damage out west and north, but most of the territory those storms crossed is empty -- farms and ranchland -- so there isn't much to hit. (The population of Hodgeman county is 1,916; one of the lowest in Kansas.) What differentiated the Wichita tornado was that it had something to hit, but even so it was only a glancing blow.
According to the TV news tonight, there were 93 tornados in this bout. The TV people were all very happy that no one had been killed in Kansas last night, but when I woke up this morning 5 people had been killed in Woodward, OK. After the storm cleared Wichita I had figured that the later storms would be weaker, so I was distressed to see that there were still new tornado warnings in Oklahoma. The Woodward one (in northwest Oklahoma, just east of the panhandle) hit around midnight, so that would have been one of the ones I saw.
The Wichita tornado was last spotted near Cassoday shortly before midnight -- since that cell had developed in Oklahoma it had covered over 200 miles in about six hours, nearly all the time with a large tornado on the ground. That was the last Kansas tornado, although today there was one more in Oklahoma, several in Nebraska, one in South Dakota, another in Minnesota.
Gov. Brownback was quick to declare Sedgwick County a disaster area, and to come to Wichita to survey the damage at Spirit, and promise state aid to get the factory back into working order. I don't know whether he spent much time in Oaklawn, which before it was hit was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the metro area. Ironic, you might think, for a guy who spends so much of his time trying to undermine and dismantle government, but there's really no one else to turn to when disaster strikes. I've been saying all along that disaster response is the fundamental test of how well government serves -- something Clinton proved when he promoted FEMA to cabinet level, and something Bush found out when he tried to gut the department.
But also important is the Weather Service. Without them we would have been in Udall yesterday. (Or Mississippi, which invariably leads the nation in the most people killed per tornado.)
 The Udall tornado in 1955 was the deadliest ever to hit Kansas, killing 77, more than 10% of Udall's population, injuring another 270 (close to 50%), damaging every building within city limits, destroying most. Udall is 24 miles southeast of Wichita, just off a road we used to take to go visit relatives in Oklahoma. The Weather Bureau failed to forecast the storm, and there were no warnings. Afterwards, there was a major push to create a storm warning system.
Thursday, April 5. 2012
From the lead article in the Wichita Eagle today, titled "Five Days with No Courts":
It's impossible to overstate what an embarrassment the Kansas state legislature has been since the 2010 elections. While neglecting to keep the state government in decent running order, they've passed laws to restrict voting rights and to make abortions even more costly and more inaccessible. They've killed off state funding for the arts, thereby sacrificing federal funding, but the state has wound up spending close to $500,000 in court trying to defend the constitutionality of their new anti-abortion laws. They still haven't managed to pass a law with new congressional districts: one idiot plan that some keep pushing is to attach heavily-Democrat Wyandotte county (Kansas City, KS) to the sparsely populated far West district that gave a rookie Republican extremist a 72% vote in 2010.
The post-2010 legislature isn't much different than the ones that preceded it -- both were overwhelmingly Republican. The difference is that after 16 years of moderate Republican and/or Democratic governors (Graves, Sibelius, Parkinson), which limited the damage the increasingly right-wing legislators could do, the new guy in the mansion is Sam Brownback. You may recall that Brownback ran for president in 2008 -- miserably, I might add. Now, his ambitions are undiminished, and he's trying to rack up a record as a man of action with his social engineering programs.
But the legislature hasn't bowed down to Brownback. They've actively connived to make his proposals even worse then he intended. For example, Brownback's income tax plan proposed to exempt the Kochs and Ruffins from paying state income taxes, while ending the Earned Income Credit for the poor and gutting deductions for the middle class. The lege -- I might as well start using Molly Ivins's Texas nomenclature since it's equally applicable here -- kept the worst ideas but turned it into a budget-busting monstrosity. It's still up in the air, but the relatively small matter of shutting down the court system is but a taste of what the lege is promising.
It's hard not to think that the end if the Republicans go unchecked in Kansas is a wasteland. Sometimes they do it on purpose. Sometimes they just screw up.
Saturday, March 17. 2012
The Wichita Eagle front-page headline is "Soldier suspected in killings gets to Kansas," the piece attributed to Kansas City Star staff and wire reports. (I can't find the piece online, but it is apparently based on this piece.) It doesn't acclaim Staff Sgt. Robert Bales as a hero, but isn't everyone who signed up for the post-9/11 Global War on Terror a hero? They're automatically acclaimed when they die, as at least 6,398 have done, or when they're wounded (as Bales was, losing part of his foot), or when they receive medals (Bales is oft described as "much decorated"). So why not when they go berserk? The Army may prefer precise and unemotional control over its violence against Afghan villagers, but Bales' methodical killing of sixteen (mostly) children wasn't far out of the long line of atrocities other US "heroes" have committed. It just underscores how unfit the US military is for the difficult task of nation building, and therefore how hopeless what Obama can only describe as "the Mission" -- an abstract noun that has thus far proven impossible to define -- really is.
Some background on Bales is available here and here, and here. He is 38, was born in the Midwest, is married, has two children (3 and 4). He served three tours in Iraq, and was recently deployed to Afghanistan. He was trained as a sniper, which is to say someone who calmly and methodically picks out targets at distance, and kills them. The Pentagon describes his career as "unremarkable." A neighbor is quoted: "A good guy go tput in the wrong place at the wrong time." Happens all the time.
Problem is, if you're Afghan, this looks like stone cold murder. And if you're Afghan, you probably have a clear idea of what justice should look like -- and it's probably not that it would only be fair to ship the killer half-way around the world to a cozy cell in Kansas to let his shrinks and lawyers come up with arguments and excuses to try show that Bales is the victim here.
There is a case to be made that Bales was indeed a victim: of a president who decided to double down on the same military that had turned eight years of arrogance into abject failure, but Obama was stuck, like Rumsfeld complained earlier, with the army he inherited, and with a political culture that insists that America's heroes will prevail eventually (unless sabotaged by cowardly politicians). No one thought of the welfare of the troops before launching this war, but ever since politicians have been hiding behind their confused feelings, ignoring the fact that they were never fit for the purpose, that their deeply trained lethality ensures a string of atrocities. Anyone who seriously believes the popular counterinsurgency theories should start by building a new army; the real one doesn't work, even if some officers have learned to talk the talk.
Talking the talk, after all, has always been the easy part. What's hard is understanding you can't occupy a country you have no business in, no understanding of, and no awareness of your own alien nature. The US entered Afghanistan seeking revenge for 9/11, and never quite satisfied that itch. Overstaying its welcome, the US set up a puppet regime, then proceeded to delegitimize it by continued dominance -- Bush was too busy starting new wars to bother cleaning up after this one. Then came Obama, proving that America's best efforts were just as futile as America's worst efforts. Now he thinks he can tiptoe away without admitting fault or error, when the entire campaign has been nothing but wrong.
Bales' massacre is deeply embarrassing for Obama because there's no way to scrub away the stain. Either it was policy or not, the latter proof that we cannot manage our policy: we can't control our own troops, nor the Afghans we've trained, even less the Taliban. Even the right is abandoning this war: the carnage doesn't bother them, but they'd rather hate Muslims from a distance than try to divide and conquer them far away. And I suspect more and more we'll see the military itself turn on the mission: as good as it's been for budgets and careers, incidents like this show that the troops are wearing out, that the strain is cracking them up. Maybe they even like the idea of leaving Obama holding the bag. His statements this past week have been the most tone-deaf of his tenure.
Some more relevant links:
Tuesday, February 28. 2012
I voted today. The forecasted thunderstorms were late arriving, and I figured I could use a short walk. I strolled over to the local polling place, successfully navigated Kurt Kobach's photo ID gauntlet, and apparently cast a vote on the single question on the ballot. The question was whether to rebate 75% of the local hotel taxes over the next fifteen years to a new downtown "boutique" hotel. Publicists claim this helps develop downtown, adding 124 service jobs ongoing plus close to a thousand construction jobs short-term. The primary opposition force was the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity -- they saw it as a corporate giveaway, which of course it was. The more ideologically thoughtful saw it as unbalancing the free market: as an exclusive break for one business, it gives that business an unfair advantage against every other hotel in town. That, too, is true, as will become apparent when all those other hotels petition the city council for the same break.
I voted no, against the rebate. I'm sick and tired of all such special tax deals. They've become so common -- especially in Red State America, where Republicans see business favors as essential patronage, and Democrats are equally unscrupulous in their efforts to paint themselves as pro-business -- that nobody makes a business investment these days without auctioning it off to state and local governments. The best way to stop this would be strong national laws to put a stop to the practice -- minimally by taxing local tax preferences, possibly by prohibiting them outright (at the very least they go against the notion of equal treatment under the law). But short of that, the least we can do is to vote them down when we get the chance (or shout them down when we don't).
Update: The rain showed up a bit after 8PM, pretty heavy in fact, with a couple tornado warnings north of Wichita, in McPherson and Marion counties. The hotel tax rebate was voted down, with 61% (16,198) no, 38% (10,107) yes. The group that backed the yes vote spent $300,000; the no group spent $30,000. (Report here.)
Second Update: Kris Kobach announced he was pleased with Wichita test of voter ID law. Turnout was about 13.5% of registered voters, a level that Republicans can win with. By the way, that line of thunderstorms dropped a tornado on Harveyville, KS last night. Gov. Brownback declared Harveyville a disaster area, but since Brownback's been governor you could say that about the whole state.
Thursday, February 9. 2012
Another excerpt from the Wichita Eagle Blog today, titled Pompeo takes on Kochs' critics:
There's been a groundswell of "pity the billionaire" articles about the Kochs recently, which like all of their groundswells suggests central planning. And who better than Pompeo to praise them, especially since he was their guy in the 2008 Republican primary. Coincidentally, I have another quote from Thomas Frank's book, Pity the Billionaire (pp. 76-77):
I actually have a lot of respect for entrepeneurs who founded companies that build things, although I can also think of plenty of examples of such who went on to use their wealth and power for ill purposes -- Henry Ford's notorious antisemitism is a classic example -- and they tend to be the rule rather than the exception, probably because there's something fundamentally rotten about living off a profit margin. But whereas Ford built his company from scratch, the Kochs inherited theirs, and while I do have respect for Charles Koch as a smart and principled businessman -- David is another story altogether -- he grew his company mostly through shrewd acquisitions and stern management, not to mention tax breaks and political payola. (The Bush Administration, for instance, settled hundreds of EPA charges against Koch for pennies on the dollar, with no concession of wrongdoing. In some ways, a "get out of jail card" is even better than a bailout.) To say that Koch created 50,000 jobs is nonsense.
Still, the Kochs aren't being attacked for their business work -- although they are in a notoriously dirty business, and they have an utterly scandalous environmental track record, and the oil industry has long been the poster boy for government corruption (although finance and pharmaceuticals have more than caught up). The problem with the Kochs is that they pump so much money into subverting our democracy. The more we have become aware of their activities, the more conscious we become of where that money comes from and what kind of world they want to create.