Monday, August 30, 2010

Metallak Island

Just got back from Metallak Island, Maine.

It was great to get away from screens and news and all the noise we are bombarded with constantly.

Further, it was a revolutionary week in that we were all so connected to the material. While there was a cabin on the island, it was free of electricity and the only water came from a hand-pump. Obviously camping is a pretty standard way of getting in touch with nature, but the Metallak experience went beyond the typical sitting around the fire and listening to birds.

Alban invited me to Metallak. The trip is a yearly tradition of his immediate and extended family as well as other close families. The people who participate in the Metallak tradition are the most innovative people I have encountered.

One evening, we needed a cheese grater (I should note here that when it comes to food, Metallak is not roughing it. Though the cooking methods are primitive, the food is unrivaled.) So, Cousin John took a tin can... and made a cheese grater.

That sort of attitude is pretty contagious. For instance, there were numerous woodworking projects during the week (that I will not reveal now for reasons that will become apparent around Christmas) that took hours of our time, but rewarded us with visceral connection to the things we made.

In fact, if Metallak didn't show me anything else (and it did), it showed me that we are fully capable of making common consumer goods that are just as good or better than the mass produced stuff. I'm not saying we should all make the switch to tin-can cheese graters, but we ought to consider connecting to the things we use by making them ourselves. I'm talking about making our own furniture, sewing our own throw pillows or clothes, building our own houses, whatever.

The master woodworker on the island, "Uncle Tim," told me about the canoe paddles he had made and noted that he would be more ahead financially if he had paid someone else to build them and had spent the time at the office instead (he's a physician). "But," he said, "I enjoy working with my hands in the workshop. I get enough headwork at the office and it's good to balance those out."

I might have trouble making complex electronic goods like the MacBook Pro I'm typing on right now (all the more reason to distance ourselves from them), but I'd like to point out that this is not an "all or nothing" proposition. I choose to stare at this glowing rectangle and write this blog for a variety of reasons even though I'd rather live a life completely free of electronics, the internet, and all the things that go along with them.

However, I also recognize that this is the "digital age" and if I want to be a part of the conversation about how this world is going to progress, I have to go where the conversation is taking place (though John the Baptist might disagree).

Plus, another challenge is that most people don't have the time to chop a tree into a dining-room table. If you're working 80 hours a week you probably aren't in the mood for rushing home to the workshop (at least I wouldn't be). Downshifting is an appropriate thing to mention at this juncture (let's please re-evaluate our priorities), but the point I want to make is that any little bit helps. Building a home might be beyond the capabilities of most, but is making a rag-rug, or a quilt, or a bookcase, or a bird-house? Once someone experiences making things with their own two hands instead of using those hands to push a shopping cart through Walmart, they'll be hooked--I know I am.

I think two mantras would go well here:

First, every little bit helps.

And second,
You must be the change you want to see in the world. --Mahatma Gandhi  

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why the Department of Defense spends money like a sieve

It turns out that, until very recently, we weren't insulating any of our buildings in Iraq or Afganistan (but were still air-conditioning them). Uh, it doesn't take an HVAC specialist to realize that's going to waste a lot of money. There's got to be other ways to save money that are no-brainers.

Here's Robin Young's Here and Now on WBUR with an interview of a soldier who did something about it and is now saving us billions (literally).

Sunday, August 22, 2010

When political points become cheap

Deplorable behavior in Washington (D.C.) is not something that raises our eyebrows. But there comes a point when the incoherence of our politicians is stunning and it makes me want to sit down on the couch and ponder how we got to this point.

This conversation between CNN's Anderson Cooper and Louis Gohmert (R-TX) demonstrates what happens when a politician tries to scare the American people, but forgets to have reality on his side.

Stuff like this interview happens all the time of course, but we have an issue boiling right now that goes beyond what I would consider Washington's typical pettiness.

Constructing an Islamic community center (much like a YMCA, but including a Mosque also) in the place of a former Burlington Coat Factory several blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan is not an affront to our national identity. Anyone who questions whether this group of Muslims has the right to build this center need only encounter our Constitution. But many people who believe this group has the right to build, don't think the group actually should. In fact, the statistics are astounding.

In my opinion, not only does the group have the right, but also this "Mosque" would be a boon to Muslim-U.S. relations. I propose that we ought to be encouraging this particular construction project. As Fareed Zakaria has argued, this Islamic center is something that is meant to build ties between America and moderate portions of Islam. Which, in case it's not obvious, is something we very much need.

The attempts of some Christian extremists (or political conservatives--call them what you will) to undermine the building of this Islamic center is election-year politics at it's worst. Salon has outlined a timeline demonstrating how members of the opposition have gone from tacitly supporting the project to viciously opposing it (with Nazi references included). It's all about making this an emotional wedge issue to pick up votes.

Don't mind the shouting.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Salesmen at dinner

I was emptying the dishwasher when it occurred to me that the congestion in the cupboards is worse than the traffic in Moscow.  "A Disney princess plate on top of the bowls!?!?" I pulled out a few of the culprits and took pictures of them (this is a symptom of continually thinking of things to blog about--I estimate 3% of my ideas actually make it into the electronic universe--60% of the time my statistics are correct).

This got me thinking (hence the pictures). Why do we buy our children these things? Do we want them to resonate with Bambi and Buzz Lightyear? Do we really think their meal experience will be better with Luke Skywalker staring at them through their macaroni and cheese?

I think it's safe to say the average American doesn't have a healthy relationship to food. Check out our obesity rates, or our rates of eating disorders. I'm not going to suggest that the artificially thin cartoon characters watching over our children while they eat contribute to self-image problems, but it wouldn't surprise me if it didn't help the situation.

Are we supposed to believe that children who eat off of a Disney plate are more likely to eat healthier? Or that mealtimes will go more smoothly? Or that kids with themed dishes are more loved? Maybe, but what I do believe is that they will be more likely to recognize the Disney princesses in a store and want to buy those products.

It's no secret that companies like to establish their brands early in a customer's lifecycle. Get 'em hooked early and you've got a steady stream of cash for the rest of their lives. I've outgrown all my specialty Disney items (gave them up last year or so...), but that doesn't mean they didn't hook me into buying the same sort of nonsense for my kids or adult versions for myself.

I'd like to suggest that kids are capable of eating off of normal plates with normal forks just like all the billions of other children who have done it throughout history or do it now because they can't afford the plastic luxuries.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not for taking all the fun out of life for my kids (I'm an Atticus Finch fan actually). I'd simply rather they engage in the materialism of nature instead of the materialism of cheap, plastic consumer goods.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In honor of Steve Irwin

I'm seriously not making fun of the late Steve Irwin. Actually, I'm best friends with the biggest Steve Irwin fan ever. Tommy once told me, "Cody, I've figured out the best people of the 20th Century: Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Steve Irwin." He wasn't joking. And I don't necessarily disagree with him. We needed (and need) a champion for the environment and Steve Irwin was a great one.

This film made me think of Tommy and the way he's always using that National Geographic announcer's voice, which made me think of Steve Irwin. So here's a little something in the spirit of all of those.

This is the 21st Century. I feel certain we can find a way to conduct life that doesn't involve a swirling vortex of plastic items in one of our oceans.

Also, this movie is in support of a bill that would ban single-use plastic bags. Seems like a sensible thing to me. We don't need to be fouling our planet with plastic bags when, with a little bit of foresight, we can use cloth bags from home (and further I don't buy the whole "those cloth bags are so germy!" That's just a symptom of our bacillophobic society).

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Robert Gates (and Ted Koppel) to the rescue

For those of you who aren't swamped by the media's constant shouting, Robert Gates (Secretary of Defense) announced on Monday that the Department of Defense is going to rein in some of its fiscal irresponsibility (see more commentary here, here, here, and here).

This is great news. Gates wants to reduce the prevalence of contractors and cut a command (the U.S. Joint Forces Command) over half of which is made up of contractors. Now, the usual suspects are whining that this will cut jobs (duh, as will most cost-cutting measures), but I think we've got coherent public policy on our side here.

Meanwhile, while listening to NPR last week, I heard the best discussion on the military and war that has ever taken place. It's a 16 and a half minute long conversation and I was going to edit it down to it's most important parts, but in re-listening to it, I realized I couldn't do that. The entire thing is worth every second, so I'm going to post the whole interview. It's not long and you won't regret taking the time to listen. However, for those of you who are busy saving the world or something equally as important so that you're exempt from doing your civic duty, I'll provide some quotes at the bottom.

This is Ted Koppel speaking (he has a tendency to not finish sentences, but these halves of sentences are fantastic):
This is the first time in the history of the United States that neither war, neither the Iraq war nor the Afghanistan war, has been underwritten by a special tax for the war. All wars previously have had special taxes.[...]
I do not think that any nation should go to war simply on the backs of a few hundred thousand men and women and their families. When a nation goes to war, it needs to be as an entity. And by and large, 90 to 95 percent of the American public, probably more than that if you look at the real numbers, are paying absolutely nothing for this war. We are not paying anything additionally in money. We are not paying anything in terms of personal sacrifice. The young men and women who are over there fighting the war, they are. They're paying. Their families are paying. Their loved ones are paying. They are paying in terms of having to fight a war over and over and over again. They thought when they volunteered - many of them - that they might have to go under a war zone once or twice. So many of these young men and women have had to go back three times, four times, five times.
And, you know, frankly, we're not paying for the war financially. We're not paying for the war in terms of a draft so that there is an equitable number of young men and women who are going over from all branches of society. We're not paying for it in terms of personal sacrifice. We're not paying for it in terms of rationing. We are giving up essentially nothing to fight the war.[...]
My point here is not to get into a debate with anyone as to whether we should be in these wars in the first place. I am simply saying that if and when the United States goes to war, it has to do so with the backing of and the support of - and support is not just a verbal thing. It's not a rhetorical device. Support means giving something up, giving, you know, getting a little skin on the game.[...] 
...with response to the Blackwater types, what the [caller] refers to as the mercenaries, he's absolutely right. It is another way that our politicians have found of pretending that there is no pain involved in fighting a war. One of the great difficulties that we confront today is that we have a military that is really too small and inadequate to do all the tasks that we require of them. And so we are hiring I don't know what the precise number is.
I know about a year ago that when you looked at all the civilians who were being hired to fulfill tasks that ranged from the protection of the ambassador and senior embassy officials, to doing laundry and driving trucks, you had more of those people who were hired in Iraq than you actually had troops over there. At a time when we still had 100,000 troops over there, we had about [120,000] to 150,000 civilian contractors who were working at prices far higher than would have been paid, let's say, to the military doing the same jobs.[...] 
What is unacceptable is a nation that goes to war without the engagement of its population, either the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan, are in the U.S. national interest, in which case, A, we have to fight those wars, and, B, we, the population of the United States - the voters, the citizens - have to support that, not just support it with our votes, but support it with our monies, support it with sacrifice that we are prepared to make.
That's maybe the best of the best, but it's pretty hard to trim down. I'd like to end on one of Koppel's lines (that I just quoted):
What is unacceptable is a nation that goes to war without the engagement of its population...

Friday, August 13, 2010

We are all related

This scene from The Fantastic Mr. Fox is my favorite movie scene of all time.

Throughout the movie, the main characters point out that they are "wild animals." And further, that Mr. Fox has a phobia of wolves.

The claim they are "wild animals" is rather absurd. The only times they even remotely resemble wild animals is when they eat or when Mr. Fox and Mr. Badger fight. The rest of the time they are completely humanized down to the last detail (they wear clothes, walk upright, and play complicated sports).

In fact, the only animal in the entire movie that is not humanized is the wolf in this scene. The wolf does not respond to the refined attempts Mr. Fox makes to communicate with him (speaking in English, Latin, and French). There seems to be a disconnect between the wild animal and the fox wearing a corduroy suit and bandit mask and riding a motorbike with side car. This makes sense to us. But when Mr. Fox raises his fist, the disconnection is broken and we witness profound connection between two very related animals (as Mr. Fox says: "Canis Lupus, Vulpes Vulpes").

To express the feeling of connection to that which is wild is difficult (though Ralph Waldo Emerson has tried). When I was young(er), I was hunting in the Palouse. The sun was setting and I was walking back to our rally point. As I neared the top of a ridge, I turned around and looked out over the valley. I'm not sure how to describe the feeling that came over me except to say that I wanted to commune with what lived there. So, I howled. And coyotes from miles around answered me. For at least twenty minutes we went back and forth. I would howl and then pause to listen to them. And they would howl and then pause to listen to me. I'll never forget it (and I've always been bothered by coyote hunting since then).

This scene in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, attempts to express that feeling. It does it well.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Visual Representation

I know I've been writing too much about politics recently (hitting a new low when I ridiculed a senile gentleman's struggle for political relevance), but that's what happens when I listen to NPR (or watch Fox News). I'm doing some landscaping at my dad's house in Massachusetts and he has an outdoor stereo system. So, I listen to WBUR while I work... all day. Most of the time, I prefer to stay away from the mainstream media (yes I'm talking about NPR and Fox News... but especially CNN) because I think the incessant chanting of political themes isn't really helpful to thoughtful evaluation of our reality. I find that too much information can actually obscure truth.

The Atlantic Monthly had an interesting article about information overload. Entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," the article speculates about the effect of having instant (and almost infinite) information available to us with the simple touch of a button (or several if your searches are more than one character long as mine usually are). The conclusions are actually kind of scary. But I'm not going to spoon feed you on this one. Read the article and you'll understand why.

I've become convinced we must find a way to unplug from our diet of technology (again, I'd call your attention to this report from The Onion--it might be humor, but it's pretty close to reality). I've decided to take a technological holiday every week during the Sabbath hours (sundown Friday until sundown Saturday) during which I won't be interacting with any "glowing rectangles."

In response to the noise we are bombarded by on a daily basis, I'd like to offer up the picture that inspired the name of this blog. I recently got permission from Nikki McClure to use this image of one of her works (you can see her work here) and I'm really excited to share it with you.

This picture pretty much sums up what I think this blog is ultimately about: the importance of being materially connected to the wholesome parts of our physical reality. To touch a tree in bloom. To pick a ripe tomato and eat it while sitting in the freshly weeded dirt of your garden. To simply stand in the forest and breathe the air you are sharing with every tree and animal around you.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Someone still hasn't gotten over the 2008 Presidential Race

The first clip is from the highly publicized "health care summit," where John McCain seemed rueful about having lost the campaign.

The second two clips are commercials that McCain is currently running in Arizona. They portray him as the intrepid maverick he never was. Salon writer Steve Kornacki wrote a great article in April detailing exactly why McCain departed from the mainstream of the GOP in the early 2000s and why he's right back in the middle of the base's ideology now. I want to highlight just three paragraphs:
Was McCain's defiance of his party's leader part of some long-standing ideological rift? Hardly. McCain's congressional voting record had always been reliably conservative -- until Bush had the audacity to beat him in an election. So McCain used ideological dissent to pursue a personal grudge -- and to position himself for 2004.[...]
In the last 17 months, we've seen a similar story play out. When he lost to Barack Obama in November '08, McCain delivered a notably humble concession speech. But the same resentment, bitterness and defiance that was so evident in the early days of the Bush presidency is just as obvious now. With Obama as president, McCain has emphatically reclaimed the hard-right turf that he abandoned when Bush took office, angrily fighting Obama on healthcare, foreign policy, even cap-and-trade (once a McCain pet issue). 
The constant in all of this is hardly ideology. When he lost to Bush, McCain veered to the left. When he lost to Obama, he went far to the right. In both cases, though, he made the most of an opportunity to torment the guy who beat him. And that's a trait we usually associate with sore losers.
Despite all this serious talk, these commercials provide comedic value if nothing else. I really do laugh every time I see them. I know politicians are supposed to "sell themselves," but if these aren't the most hilarious examples of self-worship I've ever seen in politics, I don't know what is. The second one is particularly funny because it assumes that because McCain wants 3000 additional troops, then that's the number we ought to send.

McCain's main objective here is to portray himself as a strong conservative. He's being challenged from the far right by a Tea Party backed candidate (J.D. Hayworth), but it seems McCain is now comfortably ahead in the polls. Who knows, maybe these commercials worked in Arizona.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Stephen Hawking sounds the alarm

I wanted to share something I discovered last night. It appears that Dr. Hawking is a little pessimistic about our ability to exist on this planet.

For those who don't know, Stephen Hawking is pretty smart. However, he seems to be preoccupied with space, and I'm not as down on our chances as he is.

Though I agree with him that we have "aggressive and selfish instincts" that don't help our chances of survival at this point in the race's history, I think the human race has the ability to overcome our "aggressive and selfish instincts" with more farsighted ideas. Further, I think that nature has the ability to regenerate from the damage we have done to it.

Ultimately, it is up to us whether we will continue down the road of excessive consumption, or whether we  will find a way to exist as part of our natural ecosystem.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why Congress really really sucks

Jon Stewart is a comedian. And he's often funny. And this video is funny, and sad. But we have a fundamental problem in Congress. The folks who are there, are more concerned with scoring political points than actually getting anything done.

I'm not sure of all the circumstances surrounding this bill, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Democrats are specifically bringing this bill to the floor to help them politically during the long summer of an election year.

Regardless, it's a pretty good bill. If my understanding is correct, it would give lifetime health care coverage to the folks who helped out at ground-zero immediately following 9/11. Sounds great, and it is.

One crux of the problem was that in order to pay for the measure (a good idea), Democrats proposed a "new tax" that would prevent foreign-registered companies from avoiding taxes on income earned in the U.S. This, also, seems fine to me. It's essentially closing a tax loophole.

However, Republicans took issue with the tax. It was rumored that they were going to motion to recommit which would have sent the bill back to committee and would have asked that the bill be paid for by other means (e.g. from the health care legislation that was passed early this year). Further, the Republicans introduced an amendment that would prevent any of this money from going to illegal immigrants.

In order to prevent ANY Republican amendments, Democrats used a procedure that requires a 2/3 vote rather than a majority vote and the measure failed. 

So that's the set-up. Let me be clear that Democrats are playing politics here. This is a great bill to bring to the floor during an election year. Further, they were probably not too upset about Republicans making a stink over it and voting it down because it looks really bad for the GOP (I could be wrong, but that's my hunch). So, what the Democrats did here really bothers me.

What bothers me more is what the Republicans did. They took a good bill that was paid for and injected the immigration issue into it. You know what, I doubt illegals were at ground-zero helping out, but if they were, I wouldn't mind them getting health care for the health problems they contracted while helping us out in our time of need.

That's bad enough, but Republicans took this further. The real sin here was their opposition to closing the tax loophole. Some segments of our political establishment act like tax evasion is something to be smiled upon and encouraged. My perspective is that corporations that earn money here should have to pay U.S. taxes.

Finally, it seems disingenuous to me to threaten to overload a bill with amendments and then cry foul when the opposition out-maneuvers those attempts and forces you to vote "no."

While I don't agree with everything Jon Stewart said in his segment, the final portion of the sketch does resonate with me. Republicans need to come out and state unequivocally that they are more concerned about the welfare of corporations than average folks like you and me, or quit stonewalling measures that rein in corporate greed. On the other hand, Democrats need to stand up for what they believe in and not hide behind procedural trickery, or accept that they'll never get anything done and will continue to be bullied by their opponents.

Calling out incompetence

Disclaimer: I am no expert on health care. While I've studied data on health care systems in the more global sense (to keep up with last summer's health care debate), I know next to nothing about day-to-day care. This post is entirely from personal experience and a few data searches.

Today I came to the conclusion that hospitals deliberately screw old people in order to make them more enthusiastic about dying.

My grandfather fell and broke his hip two weeks ago. After contracting pneumonia in the hospital (this is so typical we even have jokes about it), the hospital staff finally figured out they weren't giving him the correct antibiotics. Then they decided that since he needed his daily medication (that he took prior to being admitted to the hospital), but couldn't swallow the pills, they would shove a tube down his throat so they could administer the pills that way. That was a perfectly fine idea, except that they decided they couldn't give him ANY sedation because of his condition (later we found out this was not true, but that's the conclusion they came to at the time). So, for an extended period of time, they attempted to ram this tube down his throat while he choked and struggled. After some time, they gave up. This experience proved so traumatic for my grandfather, that he wouldn't allow hospital staff near him for the rest of the day.

Unfortunately this is not the end of the story. After almost a week, they decided to try again. This time they gave him sedation (thank goodness) and were able to get the tube to his stomach. A subsequent x-ray showed that they had put too much down his throat and that it was coiled up in his stomach. So they pulled about 10 inches out. Another x-ray showed the problem remained, so they pulled another 12 inches out.

Now, I'm fairly good at math, especially arithmetic. My special math powers tell me that these trained professionals shoved almost two feet of excess tubing down my grandfather's throat. How complicated can this be? Look at the distance between your mouth and your stomach. I just measured mine and it's less than two feet. So, what happened here is these people put twice the necessary amount of tubing down into my grandfather's stomach. Wow.

Again, I'd like to stress that I really don't know much about this procedure, but is it really that complicated?

Medical error is frighteningly common. According to an Institute for Medicine report published in 2000, medical errors account for anywhere from 44,000 to 98,000 deaths in the United States every year. That makes medical errors either the 9th or 5th leading cause of death among Americans.

This article from ABC News reported in 2007 that doctors at Rhode Island Hospital performed brain surgery on the wrong side of a patient's head on three separate occasions in the space of a single year. Consequently, the Department of Health finally had to fine the hospital $50,000.

This report from the Commonwealth Fund reports that in July of 2005 improvements to the medical system have taken place since the original report. These improvements included, "the development of performance standards, an increase in error reporting, integration of information technology, and improved safety systems." Personally, while these "improvements" sound overdue, I'm not too optimistic about the effects of these measures in hospitals.

An even more underlying problem is the attitude of some doctors and nurses. Often, health care professionals are trained to be aloof. I understand the need to be emotionally separated from patients, but this attitude can't be helpful in treating a patient's needs especially when most patients need more than just physical care (see post on palliative care and my extension of it below). Nor is being aloof helpful when medical errors are so widespread. Complacency is the last thing we need in a system that needs such fundamental change. 

Proposed solutions vary, but it seems that we ought to be looking at what other countries are doing in order to address such a systemic problems. Subsequent posts on health care will focus on some of the debate that took place last summer over the health care bill as well as more personal information from my friends who are currently being trained to be health care professionals. 

Friday, August 6, 2010

Expansion on "The beauty of death panels"

There is a great article on end-of-life care written by Atul Gawande in the August 2 New Yorker. To supplement my explanation of hospice and palliative care, I'd like to quote from the article.
Outside, I confessed that I was confused by what Creed was doing. A lot of it seemed to be about extending Cox's life. Wasn't the goal of hospice to let nature take its course?
"That's not the goal," Creed said. The difference between standard medical care and hospice is not the difference between treating and doing nothing, she explained. The difference was in your priorities. In ordinary medicine, the goal is to extend life. We'll sacrifice the quality of your existence now--by performing surgery, providing chemotherapy, putting you in intensive care--for the chance of gaining time later. Hospice deploys nurses, doctors, and social workers to help people with a fatal illness have the fullest possible lives right now. That means focussing on objectives like freedom from pain and discomfort, or maintaining metal awareness for as long as possible, or getting out with family once in a while. Hospice and palliative-care specialists aren't much concerned about whether that makes people's lives longer or shorter.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Part 3 of 3: What to do with the Department of Defense

So, here are my two solutions:

Solution 1. Cut the Defense Department budget. This might make them more cognizant of where their billions go.

We're in a period where people on both sides of the aisle are calling for a reduction to the deficit. I've got some ideas for how to more effectively allocate social spending, but the military budget is an easy target for budget cuts. A spending freeze on the defense budget might be the least painful, but with the draw-down in Iraq proceeding on schedule, we should be able to directly cut portions of the budget.

Solution 2. Join the rest of the civilized world and ban the use of Mercenaries (military contractors hired to kill) and go one step further; ban all military contractors.

This will take a transition period, but I'm confident that our military can handle the duties of these contractors. Further, this will help with Solution 1 because we pay contractors far more than we do our own soldiers to do the same job. So, we'll save money and reduce fraud while improving quality and morale. This is what's called a "win-win situation."

Note: This is part 3 of 3. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Part 2 of 3: What to do with the Department of Defense

If you read the Guardian article from yesterday's post, you'll notice that most of the problem seems to be military contractors. Certain types of military contractors (those that can accurately be called mercenaries--like Blackwater and similar companies) have been declared illegal and banned by international law. Unfortunately, the United States did not sign that particular treaty, so we continue to use mercenaries.

Consequently, we have problems like Blackwater employees shooting civilians at a random intersection in Iraq (more on that story here and here and here), or cases like David H. Brooks, a military contractor who was reimbursed $6 million for personal expenses, including a $100,000 belt buckle. I want to highlight just one paragraph from the article:
A lawyer for Mr. Brooks, Kenneth Ravenell, told the jury on Monday afternoon that his client represented the realization of the American dream, someone who made money while helping his country “when the military called.”
From what I've read, this sort of attitude pervades military contractors and the supporters of their behavior. This short clip from the movie Iraq for Sale details some of the worst problems with companies like Blackwater. This video may be a bit of an overreach, it uses the tone of conspiracy, but I think it also provides an interesting perspective.  

Though it seems clear that there are significant problems with combat military contractors, I think other types of military contractors are also problematic. Actually, anyone who has eaten in the Walla Walla University cafeteria can understand the problems and limitations of profiteering contractors. We have contractors doing everything from washing our clothes and serving our food to guarding our generals and training local law enforcement. These four articles outline the problem even more explicitly (here and here and here and here). And this blogger talks candidly about his own experience as a military contractor and the problems with the system. In short: contractors care less about quality service than they do about making money and this translates into a lot of problems--bad service, fraud, etc.

Instead of hiring contractors, why can't the military perform more of these duties in-house? Why do we have to pay a corporation to do our laundry? Why can't our own soldiers guard high-ranking officials instead of private security that get paid far more, but don't do a better job? I think they can and they should. Not only would we save money, but we'd also increase morale because our soldiers wouldn't have to fight alongside private contractors who are making several times more than they do.

I think we're giving money to the wrong people. We ought to be paying the members of our armed services who signed up to defend the tenants of our democracy, rather than military contractors who signed up to make a buck.

Note: This is part 2 of 3. 

Monday, August 2, 2010

Part 1 of 3: What to do with the Department of Defense

The Defense Department just misplaced $8.7 billion. This story is similar to when we misplaced $12 billion back in 2007. And these two mishaps taken together are like the time Alban (one of my housemates) didn't deposit his rent payment on time and caused us to get an overdraft fee... except a billion times worse.

When something is so large and complicated that either we can't keep track of $20 billion going through the system, or we don't care, it's about time to cut it down to a more manageable size.

Note: The following figures are from this page that details the issue much better than I can.

When compared to the rest of the world, our military budget is out of control. We spend more on our military than the next 14 largest spending countries combined (data here). For a rundown of what this looks like in list form, go here.

So, we spend a lot compared to the rest of the world. In fact, these figures make us look a little silly, kinda like the New York Yankees of defense spending. No wonder everyone hates us. Here's what this looks like for our budget:

The reason for the discrepancy between the two graphs is that the first is only taking into account "traditional" sources of tax revenue. The second graph looks at federal spending as a whole, which includs Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid that are funded a little differently.

Note: A lot of folks who don't think we spend too much on the military like to use a graph that can be found here. However, after a little checking, this other graph has a few accuracy problems and dubious sources (plus they separate defense spending from Iraq War spending to make them look smaller). For those reasons I've decided to stick with my OMB numbers.

What I'd like to stress is that we are spending too much on the military. These sorts of spending levels aren't about safety anymore. These sorts of spending levels are about our politicians funneling money to whomever they want and being able to point to national security as the reason. This is unacceptable.

Note: This is part 1 of 3.