Month: September 2014

Wut

So in my last post, I began with an extended quotation from Osama Bin Laden, and then neglected to point out why I had chosen to do so, on the 13th anniversary of 9/11. I’m going to address that, first.

That quote was taken from a transcript of a speech given to Al Jazeera in 2004. I would hazard to guess that many have already forgotten this, but there was a time when Osama Bin Laden was considered Pure Evil. Pure Evil to the extent where unironically fantasizing about his death on the presumption of inherent justice was pretty much a means of acceptable, national, self-gratification.

The man Bin Laden reveales himself to be in the statement was far more complex than a Saturday morning cartoon villain. He is cunning, even prescient, and though the strategy of his statement was certainly self-serving, there were also hard, essential truths to be found in his words. But America was not shown that man. We were not encouraged to understand who he was, or how he was made, or why he fought. We were simply told that Osama Bin Laden is evil, so he must be killed.

Aspersion of that caliber ideally necessitates a presentation of compelling proof. The 9/11 attacks were horrific, but even Bin Laden admits that they were. However, Bin Laden portrays the attacks as retaliatory for oppression perpetrated by the United States in the Middle East. Specifically, he accuses the United States of aiding Israel in the 1982 Lebanon war, in which 5,000-8,000 civilian non-Jews were killed both by Israeli forces, and the ensuing unrest unleashed by Israeli intervention.

This of course is at best a misunderstanding of the situation, and at worst a deliberate lie, as the U.S.’s role in the Lebanese war was relatively minor. However, its financial and military assistance to Israel is, of course, well-known. If the implication is that US support for Israel engenders the latter’s bold and reckless behavior in the Middle East, which has unarguably caused the death and displacement of many non-Israeli civilians, that implication is more or less correct.

In other words, Bin Laden’s argument is essentially this: Allied lives are threatened by a foreign power, and in retaliation, we will attack at the source of the nation that threatens us. There will be unavoidable civilian deaths and that is regrettable, but necessary, in order to hasten the results we desire, and when the adversary refuses to commit to any sort of military integrity.

I find that argument abhorrent, and most probably would, knowing its source in this particular instance. However, it is a similar argument echoed by US presidents and Israel itself.

It is also the same argument that underpins the bombings of Germany (300,000-600,000 civilians killed) and Japan (330,000-500,000 civilians killed), as well as much of Vietnam (50,000-180,000 civilians killed), Cambodia, and Laos, not to mention Iraq (100,000 plus civilian deaths, though not all from bombing). There is a fundamental hypocrisy at play here, where provoking attrition warfare against the United States is “evil,” but engaging in a war of attrition in the Middle East and elsewhere can be “noble” and “necessary.”

Of course, Bin Laden himself benefited from the sort of US military aid that Israel has enjoyed for decades, so he is, himself, also a hypocrite. Yet even the narrative of Bin Laden alongside the Mujahideen fighting Soviets in Afghanistan, supported enthusiastically by the Carter and Reagan administrations, is absent from the national narrative on the factors leading to 9/11.

To many now, that lazy explanation of the 9/11 attacks as a mere “act of evil” is as good as historical accuracy. Thirteen years after 9/11, America does not understand who the enemy behind 9/11 was.

Between the government and most media outlets, there has been little to no effort to faithfully characterize and analyze America’s enemies and why they fight. Undoubtedly there is more to their motivations than “being evil,” and to reduce any organization to those two words is a disservice not only to the people being mobilized to fight, but to the victims created by the engines of war once they are running at full steam. “Fundamentalist” and “extremist” are not sober rallying cries for war. Sure, extremism embodies zealousness to the point of what most would call “evil,” yet zealousness itself is not an engine upon which any serious threat can move when modern militaries scour space with satellites while straddling the globe… right?

Looking upon the build up (again) to what increasingly looks like Desert Storm III, I have a hard time dredging up the energy to feel as incensed and angry as seems appropriate. The painful lesson of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” is still stained into the national fabric of America, and the degree to which the road to war against ISIS parallels that of previous historical blunders is positively stupefying. How can the entire country not recoil from this immediately? Haven’t we been through this before? Doesn’t anyone remember how we got here? How can so many people accept such insanity with straight faces?

ISIS, like Bin Laden and Al Queda, is not well understood, and certainly no effort has been made to comprehensively explain the group, its roots, or its motivations to the American people.

Let’s take a look at ISIS, again. The strategy of letting ISIS burn itself out and bolstering Iran in order to combat it have been echoed by others since my first post on the matter, but it’s clear the Obama administration has other, more traditional designs. The sorts of designs that have been tried before, with no evidence of success.

I originally intended to describe ISIS’s origins as a rebellion against the oppressive regime in Syria, grown out of Al Queda in Syria like an unwanted, mutant limb and armed by the United States against what was perceived as a common enemy in Bashar al-Assad. Oh yeah, remember Assad? The evil dictator alleged to use chemical weapons on his own people, the one Obama (surprisingly) asked permission from congress to attack last year?

Oh, how the tables have turned.

I don’t know what the point is in even bothering to wrap my head around this anymore. It’s so ridiculous I almost don’t want to make sense of it all, at the risk of becoming crazy through the attempt alone.

Yet, I must. I’m going to try to get this straight.

The United States intervenes in the Middle East, arming militants against a rival regime in Afghanistan. Those militants go on to radicalize as they fragment into an extremist group that would later be known as Al Queda. Al Queda begins trying to attack the US and its allies in retaliation for US intervention in the Middle East. The US eventually responds by intervening in the Middle East, while it simultaneously arms militants fighting a rival regime who would later exploit the conditions of US intervention whilst radicalizing into an extremist group that would later be known as ISIS. ISIS begins trying to attack the US and its allies. And now, the president of the United States is proposing to re-intervene while arming more “friendly” militants in the hopes that this will be the act of intervention that somehow reverses everything that came before it.

Nope. Still seems as insane as before. The only appropriate question that remains in light of the inanity on display is, “Wut?”

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In the Throes of Defeat

…it’s no secret to you that the thinkers and perceptive ones from among the Americans warned Bush before the war and told him: ‘All that you want for securing America and removing the weapons of mass destruction – assuming they exist – is available to you, and the nations of the world are with you in the inspections, and it is in the interest of America that it not be thrust into an unjustified war with an unknown outcome.’
But the darkness of the black gold blurred his vision and insight, and he gave priority to private interests over the public interests of America.
So the war went ahead, the death toll rose, the American economy bled, and Bush became embroiled in the swamps of Iraq that threaten his future. He fits the saying “like the naughty she-goat who used her hoof to dig up a knife from under the earth”.
So I say to you, over 15,000 of our people have been killed and tens of thousands injured, while more than a thousand of you have been killed and more than 10,000 injured. And Bush’s hands are stained with the blood of all those killed from both sides, all for the sake of oil and keeping their private companies in business.
Be aware that it is the nation who punishes the weak man when he causes the killing of one of its citizens for money, while letting the powerful one get off, when he causes the killing of more than 1000 of its sons, also for money.
And the same goes for your allies in Palestine. They terrorise[sic] the women and children, and kill and capture the men as they lie sleeping with their families on the mattresses, that you may recall that for every action, there is a reaction.
Finally, it behoves[sic] you to reflect on the last wills and testaments of the thousands who left you on [9/11] as they gestured in despair. They are important testaments, which should be studied and researched.
Among the most important of what I read in them was some prose in their gestures before the collapse, where they say: ‘How mistaken we were to have allowed the White House to implement its aggressive foreign policies against the weak without supervision.’
It is as if they were telling you, the people of America: ‘Hold to account those who have caused us to be killed, and happy is he who learns from others’ mistakes.’
And among that which I read in their gestures is a verse of poetry. ‘Injustice chases its people, and how unhealthy the bed of tyranny.’
As has been said: ‘An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.’
And know that: ‘It is better to return to the truth than persist in error.’ And that the wise man doesn’t squander his security, wealth and children for the sake of the liar in the White House.
In conclusion, I tell you in truth, that your security is not in the hands of Kerry, nor Bush, nor al-Qaida. No.
Your security is in your own hands. And every state that doesn’t play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security.
Osama bin Laden, in a message directed to the American people (2004)

9/11 was an act of terrorism, and it was a tragedy. It was a tragedy because three thousand innocent people lost their lives in an event that was not only horrific, but preventable. As an act of terror, this devastating event was caused by a desperate group of people in typical guerrilla fashion for political reasons.

One of the greatest crimes US presidents have overseen in the wake of 9/11, aside from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the dismantling of Iraqi infrastructure and security, the use of torture, NSA surveillance, and extrajudicial executions of Americans and non-Americans alike, and the thousands of allied soldiers and innocent civilians killed in the pursuit of “freedom” and “democracy,” is the perpetuation of ignorance.

9/11 was a tragedy, but it was also an opportunity to reflect. It raised serious questions, like, “What would so violently motivate a handful of people from halfway across the world to blow themselves up in order to take 3,000 American lives?” “What have we been doing in the Middle East?” “Why have we been doing it?” “Have our actions been justified?” “Are the consequences worth the ire of a whole region of people whose daily lives are already fraught with uncertainty and violence?”

9/11 was the keystone for a transformation of America from a large, blundering young animal of a superpower into a wizened and self-aware global democracy. In seeking out the roots of 9/11, America would find a mirror and see its true face, and confronted with that, might seek to change, to become the force for good that it has for so long purported to be.

On 9/11 America was truly a great nation. It had promise and potential. It established national unity and a sense of moral vigor overnight, of a kind that dwarfs that of any other time in its entire history. America was set ablaze in a sort of heroic beacon of willpower and benevolence characterized by the monumental lamp beside its golden door. America could do anything. It had the motivation to excise its cancerous growths, purge itself of the parasites clinging to the back of democracy, and move forward into the 21st century a truly enlightened nation.

But on yet another anniversary of 9/11, that has not come to pass. America has hastened its own decline by ignoring the implications of its own history and clinging to the same reductionist and reactionary view towards the rest of the world that it held through most of the last century. This is a tragedy of another kind, for it is not an act of terror that has caused the death of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan, American and Arab alike, but America’s own hubris.

9/11 was a booby trap; it was a cunning trap, and a murderous one, but it was only that. The enemy that administrations have characterized as bloodthirsty and savage, monstrous villains who “hate democracy” and “hate freedom,” were not stupid. 9/11 was not intended to be a crippling blow, but a trip line, a loop of thread upon which an unwise and unaware nation might stumble. And stumble we did.

From the same transcript of Bin Laden’s speech:

All that we have mentioned has made it easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.
This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.
All Praise is due to Allah.

And so, thirteen years since 9/11, three years since Osama Bin Laden’s assassination, what do we have to show for ourselves?

Is America more prosperous? Is it safer? Have we defeated Al Queda? Have we brought peace to the Middle East?

Is America more democratic, more tolerant, more free?

I believe the answer to each of these questions is “no.”

The inevitable question, then, is, “So who has won the War on Terror?”

Al Queda may be diminished, but it has already spawned a new, worse threat, one that is even more violent, more extreme. The Middle East is as unstable as ever, as is the American economy, and the certainty of our national future.

For all the money spent, the freedoms revoked, the suffering engendered, the lives lost, has it been worth it?

“The reward of suffering is experience.”

Yet, experience means nothing if it is not remembered.

To Raise the Minimum Wage, or to Not Raise the Minimum Wage: A False Choice

Fast food workers around the country went on strike thursday, protesting less-than-living salaries and employment conditions while demanding a $15 minimum wage as the national dialogue shifts once again to the prospect of what to do about the topic. It is hard to argue that current minimum wage laws serve the purpose of guaranteeing employees a first-world standard of living while working basic hours, as many today scrounge for the funds to feed themselves and their families while holding down multiple jobs, sometimes between two parents. As the insular monied elite continue to condense in proportion while the middle class stagnates and the poverty line rises, it’s clear that out of all persistent efforts to keep the country’s citizens prosperous, the minimum wage is, at the very least, severely failing in its job.

Many will argue that the minimum wage needs to be renewed and updated responsibly in order for it to have a positive effect. The problem is, even when that is the case, raising the minimum wage can have a negative impact on overall employment. Specifically, it results in a net loss of jobs. How many jobs? No one knows for sure how much a $15 minimum wage would affect employment, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates about 500,000 (at most 1 million) jobs lost. That may not seem like very many when wage increases affect millions of workers, but I’ll get back to that in a moment.

In addition to slightly lowering employment, a higher minimum wage results in altered employer behavior, especially in smaller businesses. Intent on maintaining profit levels, companies respond to higher employee overhead by cutting costs and raising prices elsewhere. Employees are made to work harder while their hours are cut. The price of food goes up; the price of shipping goes up, increasing the price of goods. All of this translates to… a higher cost of living.

The degree of increase in cost of living is hard to determine, but it’s certainly a reality. What is produced as a result of a minimum wage raise is this self-defeating loop: wages increase, cost of living increases as inflation increases, the higher wages buy less, soon they can no longer afford the cost of living, which raises when and if wages are raised again. Keep in mind that minimum wage is hardly enough to really meet the standard of living, so the system results in a constant game of catch-up, where millions of people will barely be making ends meet until the day they die: it’s not hyperbole to use the term “wage slavery.” The act of increasing the minimum wage cannot be enacted in isolation, and affects the entire structure of every business which complies. It’s naive to assume that giving a blanket raise to 20-30% of the country (including not only minimum-wage earners, but those within range of minimum wage also likely subject to wage increases) will not cause an economic reaction.

Now, let’s get back to those jobs. 500,000, even a million, may seem miniscule. Let’s spread a million lost jobs out over the course of a year, so just over 80,000 a month. At its best, the country has managed to create just under 500,000 jobs a month, and at its worst just over 200,000. Accounting for that loss, the average range decreases from 120,000 to 390,000. That might not seem significant, but consider that since the financial crisis, the country lost around 11 million jobs, and is still struggling to recover from that loss. The country’s ability to return to pre-2008 levels of job creation depends upon keeping the creation rate high. With a high rate, we could return to those levels as soon as next year. With a low rate, we may not until nearly 2020.

Think now of the millions of people who have lost their jobs, are struggling to find work, and depend upon that job creation rate in order to attain a civil standard of living; it’s the same struggle made by those working at minimum wage today.

A democracy should not sacrifice the few for the sake of the many, let alone the some for the sake of the others. Hopefully I don’t need to expand on my last article to explain why slavery is bad for exploiting minorities (and incidentally, guess which ethnic groups are most likely to get the proportionally shortest end of the stick in all of this).

And yet, you know what? Barring any other solutions, we need a higher minimum wage immediately. Even $10 an hour is not a proper living wage, and the fact that America calls itself a first world country by forcing so many people to make do on so little while working so hard is nauseating.

The minimum wage is a band-aid measure, at best first-aid, but even if it is meager and inadequate, that doesn’t mean you should simply let an open wound fester. The less financial security more people have, the more that risk falling into poverty, a rut that is very hard to get out of, and one which benefits very few people indeed.

So once minimum wage is given first-aid, then what? I and others would suggest something radical: abolish it.

I’m talking about basic income.

While only small case studies have been done, BI has incredible potential. If everyone who would otherwise be subjected to poverty is given a stipend which annually adjusts to the cost of living, poverty might just disappear overnight. Remember how higher wages result in a higher cost of living? If companies set their own wages (although competitively, in a market where work must truly be incentivized) they would cut their overhead enormously, generating much higher profits while permitting lower prices on their goods.

Because employers benefit so much from what is essentially a government subsidy to offset their overhead, it’s only fair that they pay progressive taxes towards what is essentially a security fund for workers who, without that stipend, would otherwise amount to serfs. They would also benefit indirectly from the annual net increase of American GDP due to the reduction or elimination of poverty to the tune of as much as $500 billion a year.

I’m not the first one to come up with, let alone argue for, this idea. In limited practice, the cons have proven to be few and the pros to be many. Instead of using the opportunity of a national dialogue to regurgitate a tired and painfully incompetent means of ensuring prosperity for all Americans, perhaps we should try shifting it to something else.

Something that might, just possibly… not suck.