Archive for December, 2010

[Originally published in The Herald of Randolph.]

The struggle between the Republicans and Democrats over the Bush-era tax cuts was most interesting in the context of the underlying reasons that the partisans have taken their chosen positions.

Many of the nation’s political observers have said that the primary reason the Republicans have clung to an extension of the entire Bush era tax cuts is that the beneficiaries of the top end of those cuts (over $250,000 a year) are important Republican constituents.

Statistics from 2008 show that there were 1,699,000 households in the United States that had earnings of $250,000 per year and above. That represents 1.5% of the nation’s households. The statistics further say that the mean size for such households is three people over the age of 18. That means that the total number of voters in the nation who live in such households totals just over 5 million of the 207,643,594 eligible voters in the US.

It’s really hard to believe that 1.5 % of the electorate represents anything more than a drop in the bucket in terms of its numerical significance to the Republican Party. After all, out of over 200 million eligible voters, they bring only 2.5% to the table—and some of them probably vote for Democrats, further diminishing their impact.

No, the only truly significant thing about this tiny group of voters is their income and their contribution to the federal coffers through taxation. They pay over 40% of all the income tax paid to the federal government. That puts the Republican Party’s interest in this group in a completely different light.

Since the metamorphosis of the Republican Party really got going during the 1960s, a number of hard and fast rules have inched into the Republican economic platform. The economic policies are most relevant here.

The fiscally conservative Republicans believe in free markets and a laissez faire approach to economic activity. That brings with it minimal regulation of business and financial markets, with an underlying belief that such markets should and can be selfregulating. Further, Republicans favor removing or mitigating impediments like estate, income and capital gains taxes.

The theory of supply-side economics also presupposes that by putting as much money as possible in the hands of corporations and the wealthy, as opposed to the federal government, that money will be spent creating jobs and wealth, and that the wealth will then trickle down to all economic levels in the economy.

Finally, there has long been Republican opposition to Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and any other social program, like Obamacare, that is run by the federal government. It is the Republican conviction that the federal government should not and cannot efficiently run such social programs. If any social programs are to exist at all, and it is not clear exactly how the Republicans feel about that, they should be run by the private sector. That philosophy precipitated the discussion in the Bush II Administration about the privatization of Social Security.

If you put together the two basic Republican convictions: (a) that the federal government is not only incapable of running the social programs it runs now or in the future, and (b) that the only way to run the economy is to keep as many economic programs as possible in the hands of private enterprise, then you begin to see why the Republicans of 2010 are so fixed in their absolutely inflexible approach to tax legislation—tax cuts for all, including the richest, not just for the middle class! Reduce Social Security contributions. Remove the estate tax.

Their convictions absolutely demand that they do everything they possibly can to cut the flow of money to the federal government through as much reduction as possible in taxation. They need to starve the federal beast! The best way to do it is to cut taxes and put the money in private hands.

If you believe that man is perfectible and will act for the greater good, you could be a Republican. If you do not share that belief and contend that without oversight and careful regulations, man is in it solely for himself, then you may be a Democrat.

A close look at what has happened in the last two years in our financial markets might give some clues on what is needed here.

Haviland Smith is a longtime resident of Brookfield who now lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

Over the 40 years of its existence, there has been endless examination of, and commentary on, the efficacy of and prospects for our all-volunteer military force.

At the onset of the discussions in the early 1970s, it was said that the all-volunteer force could not be sufficiently effective and efficient, as it would inevitably draw on the most economically disadvantaged and poorly educated members of our society. There were issues of pay and overall costs, as well as the contention that our fighting capability would suffer.

There is very little on the record today that supports any of the early concerns about the all-volunteer force. Today’s soldiers are equally as trainable as their draft-era predecessors. In addition, they are better disciplined and present far fewer morale problems.

Although the cost of this fighting force has continuously risen, the equipment provided to it has improved at a remarkable rate, and its volunteer soldiers have proven capable of evolving into a highly technical force.

By all counts and analyses, they are a formidable fighting force, allegedly the best this country has ever produced, probably the best in the history of the world.

So, if there is a problem, what exactly is it?

The change to the all-volunteer force has diminished the ability of the American people to have much of any influence on the formation of military policy in this country, particularly in the short run. Some will say that this is a very good thing and that warfare policy should be left to the military, the White House and the Congress.

Others, particularly those who remember the Vietnam War and who are carefully observing our attempts at disengagement in Iraq and Afghanistan will say that the all-volunteer force diminishes the only direct, day-to-day potential for influence that citizens have on our war-fighting policies.

In Vietnam, major input toward ending our involvement came from fact that virtually every American voter had relatives, friends and neighbors in Vietnam. It was personal for all of us and when it looked as if President Johnson was never going to get us out of the endless abyss that was Vietnam, the protests began, the people were heard and we finally departed.

More recently, in Iraq and in our second invasion of Afghanistan, we have seen two different administrations do pretty much what they wanted to do with the all-volunteer force because most Americans didn’t have a dog in the fight. Unlike Vietnam, too many of us don’t know anyone who is there, so there is no cohesive opposition to the endless prolongation of those wars.

In addition and despite the fact that there was a great deal of well-founded skepticism about those invasions here at the time, the administrations in power were able to steamroller the Congress because, among other things, there was no counterpressure from the voters.

We now have a highly proficient and successful all-volunteer force with educated, intelligent military leadership. The attitude of those leaders is, as it should be, “we can do the job if you give us the time and resources to succeed.” The only problem with that is that those leaders are loathe to take into consideration the historical realities that exist in the countries where they seek to do battle.

With the exception of Gen. Shinseki, who warned against the Iraq invasion plan and lost his job as a result, our military leadership has not acknowledged either historical Iraq realities or the realities of internal U.S. politics and economics. In Afghanistan, Gen. Petraeus, in the face of harsh economic realities and a growing antiwar sentiment at home, has insisted that with time and resources, he can win. “Only” a decade or so more! And we have never been told what “win” really means.

In short, in the face of difficult realities, the military seems programmed to insist that they can win, whether that claim is feasible or not. And that’s what we pay them to do. However, given that fact, it is really important that the military run only our military operations, not our policies. Policy must be in the hands of our civilian leadership and for that to work properly, we must keep our electorate involved, aware and empowered. The all-volunteer force does not facilitate that process, but rather shortcuts it by not providing enough engaged constituents in the general civilian population to sufficiently effect policy. As politically difficult as it might seem to do, we need to discuss a return to some form of universal service.

If, because of our exclusive reliance on our all-volunteer force, there is only military-based input on policy, without balance from our American civilian population, we could be mired in wars forever.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in eastern and Western Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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Not as special as that

[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

There have long been theories that there is a predetermined sweep to history that is not subject to human input. History develops according to objective laws over which we have no control. In other words, history will happen irrespective of what we poor humans would like to engineer.

If you then consider the Marxist dialectical concept of “historical materialism,” you will learn that Marx believed that man can make history only within the limits set by the existing conditions of the society in which he lives.

This is clearly a philosophical argument. It has existed in various forms for centuries and will continue as long as we inhabit the earth. It is not the purpose here to enter substantially into that philosophical fray.

On the other hand, things happen in the world, particularly in our American world, that make one wonder precisely why we Americans continue to repeat the same things over and over when each action has successively and observably failed.

Why, since World War II, has America gotten itself into Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan when in each case there have been powerful contemporary arguments that doing so was not going to end in anything we could possibly call success? What is there about us as a nation that seems to predispose us to this sort of activity?

Some of the answer to this question lies in the world’s view of us. Since World War II, we have been viewed with increasing suspicion around the world. Our Cold War enemies were in the struggle with us for economic, geopolitical and philosophical reasons. They had their friends and allies, and we had ours. At least in the case of the United States and our allies, we were pretty well united in our belief that we were facing a truly evil power. That community of belief brought us together with our allies in ways that managed to overcome or set aside the inherent differences that existed between us.

Our friends followed us into Korea and tolerated us in Vietnam, both part of the Cold War. What has changed in Iraq and Afghanistan and for the foreseeable future is that this is no longer a bipolar world, which forces countries to take sides. In this new multipolar world, it’s every man for himself, and that makes it increasingly difficult for us to get others onto our side.

Look at our attempts to get China to support our policies and goals today in Iran. Or consider Pakistan’s ambivalence toward the Taliban. It simply isn’t in their national interest to buy into our goals.

To foreigners, America is increasingly looking like a willfully ignorant, insensitive, self-centered bully whose interests do not coincide well with those of the rest of the world.

On the other hand, some of the answer lies in our view of the rest of the world. As a nation, we are blissfully unaware of how the world sees us. We are mired in our notions of our own exceptionalism, which tells us that everything about us is better than anywhere or anything else: Our Constitution and way of life are the best; our social, political, military and economic structures and systems are superior. For most Americans, it is perfectly fine, even imperative for us to want to bring the wonders of our systems to everyone in the world, whether they seek it or not.

Although many Americans really do understand these new realities, it is unfortunate that for reasons probably rooted in our geography and past history, many if not most of us are blissfully unaware that the rest of the world may not love us or wish to emulate us or is even tolerant of what is really our benevolent desire to share with them the bounties of our system. We just don’t get it.

Maybe the determinists have put their finger on the pulse in the wrong way. Perhaps the only force that predetermines what is to happen historically and over which we have no control amounts only to ignorance on the part of ill-informed leadership around the world.

Certainly we could have avoided the downside of all of our recent invasions if we had listened to the better-informed experts in this country — those who told us unequivocally that, based on reality and history, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan would provide far less than successful results for America.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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