Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Common Defense

When I was coming of age, it was often said that Social Security was "the third rail" of American politics: touch it and die.  More recently, I have heard Medicare referred to the same way.  Personally, I believe that's crap.  For decades the real third rail of American politics, at least when it comes to money, is the Department of Defense.  Whether knee-deep in the Cold War, a couple small hot wars, restructuring our defense posture vis-a-vis current and potential threats, or even attempts to address our domestic balance of payments, the Pentagon is a holy, untouchable site.

Or, so it seems to many of critics of the budget for the Department of Defense (DoD).  Usually separated from the rest of federal outlays in any discussion - there's DoD, then everything else including non-budgetary entitlements (Social Security and Medicare) and discretionary spending - it seems a thing apart.  Since we live in a country that allows ordinary folks the opportunity to peruse the ways our government spends our money, we have the opportunity to check these things out for ourselves, and looking over recent budget requests as well as appropriations - two very different things, separated by administrative requests in the former case and political realities on the other - we see that we spend way more than we need on all sorts of things, whether the F-22 Raptor, a plane that barely made it to service before pilots demanded it be replaced because it performs so poorly or thinly armored troop carriers such as those used at the beginning of the Iraq invasion, that it would be better not to.  At the same time, it is within the past decade that a serious effort had to be mounted in Congress to raise the pay of military enlisted personnel after it was revealed that many families qualified for federal Food Stamp assistance because the pay was so low.  Indeed, that such a bit of legislation actually became a "fight" shows how odd our approach to spending money for Defense really is.

While it is true our spending on things that go boom and blam is greater than several different combinations of our rivals and allies (it always depends on the year, and the fact that some of these figures are guesses; anything from the next six to the next ten, sometimes as high as fifteen).  These figures are distorted, however, because the United States has a tech-heavy military posture.  We spend money on the most advanced weapons platforms, or retrofit old ones like destroyers and attack submarines and tanks, with all sorts of expensive stuff.  Combined with personnel who receive some of the best training and have been battle-tested over the past decade, we have fewer troops with more sophisticated weapons able to do far more efficiently and deadly.

Budgets aren't just lists of numbers.  Anyone involved in business or public affairs understands they are statements both of principles and priorities.  They also reveal, should one study not just the overall budgetary strategy, but take careful looks at specific outlays (and, in the case of DoD, appropriations), the basic framework within which decisions concerning spending money are made.  In the case of the our defense budget, it should be clear enough that policy makers agree that the United States should remain unchallenged and unrivaled as a world power, from a military point of view.  To that end, spending half a trillion dollars a year just on normal military matters - everything from new ships and planes to food for troops to military housing to the millions of bullets the troops need - but with supplemental requests for troops in the field (since 9/11, our many and varied forward military actions have been "off-book", not handled in the usual budget requests and appropriations, but through supplemental requests) seems not just sensible but necessary.

Is this, however, the military posture the United States needs?  With the Presidential election coalescing around matters of the budget and federal spending, I don't think it inappropriate to ask if this is the military posture the United States can afford?

Complicating these matters - and it is complicated enough with numbers like this; one of the biggest employers of accountants is the Pentagon, because it is increasingly difficult to track this much money - are the politics of appropriation.  Even though we toss vast sums of money each year at the Pentagon, since the end of the Cold War, policy-makers have deliberately sought to pare down the numbers of actual personnel.  Even as the need for more troops and airmen and sailors and Marines increased early in the last decade, there was no movement afoot to increase the actual overall numbers of uniformed personnel.  At the same time needs increased without resources to fill all those needs, our technology didn't stand still, missions expanded, and, of course, occasional oddities of the appropriations process create more problems than their worth.  Wars on two fronts without the needed increase in troop strength and support stretched those troops in uniform to the limit; the weapons of war became overused, wearing out and breaking down even as replacements continue to get pushed back because powerful interests force retention of outdated, outmoded, and sometimes even dangerous weapons platforms (think the Osprey, a plane so dangerous Marines don't like to use it, the Corps and OMB removed it from items requested, yet put back because continuing to build and operate it creates jobs in various Congressional districts).  This parenthetical makes my central point: as much as critics of Pentagon overspending may howl, the fact is various departments, even whole branches, find themselves forced to do twice or three times the work even as money disappears; all the while, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on things the Pentagon neither wants nor needs.  The money spent keeping the Osprey "flying" (I put that in scare quotes because it doesn't fly very well, and when it stops flying, whoever is aboard is in serious trouble) is removed from other areas of the budget.  It's not even a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul; it's robbing the garbage collectors to build statues of gold, which leaves bigger messes that other people than those who get the gold statues are forced to clean up, except now they don't have the resources with which to do it.

We need to take a good, long look at how military appropriations are done in this country.  We need to take a good long look at what kind of nation do we want to be.  Do we want to be a world power, sending troops hither and yon to fight whatever bad guys we might encounter?  If so, then we need to spend enough, and budget enough, for ALL the resources to do the job.  We can no longer afford to believe it possible to act as a serious military power without giving the services the tools to do the jobs effectively, overtaxing and overstretching in every conceivable fashion.  On the other hand, if we just don't believe we should pay a single red cent in any more taxes, then it is necessary to rethink the various missions we foist upon the military services.  These are choices and discussions and arguments that need to be made.  At the moment, our military is asked to do far too much with (believe it or not) far too little in terms of people, money, physical capital, and very often public and political support (unless it's something flashy like killing bin Laden).  This needs to change.

That would be supporting the troops.  Far better than hanging a flag in your window and a bumper sticker on your car.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


It is a theme of this blog that words mean things.  What we say, how we say it - these aren't just quibbles over syntax and grammar but important, as in life-important, matters.

I have learned that "infectious" means something.  Living with a person who has mononucleosis doesn't necessarily mean everyone in the household is going to catch it, too.  However, if you read even the WebMD articles on mono, you discover it is spread through the exchange of bodily fluids.  That's something that husbands and wives do.

While not an official diagnosis - I haven't been to a doctor, but Lisa went last week after a couple weeks of feeling "off" - I'm experiencing the same things Lisa did.  Interestingly, neither hers nor mine in accompanied by "sore throat"; Lisa's doctor told her she's seen several cases without the "classic symptoms" of mono.  The blood test, however, was positive.

One of the overarching effects of mono is lassitude.  That's a fancy way of saying I have all the energy of a slug on downers.  Not just physical, but mental as well.  My brain feels sludgy right now, to be honest; collecting thoughts and expressing them seem immensely difficult.  Since I have obligations later in the day, I believe "saving energy" is the order of the day.  As much as I'd like to write a blog post about the defense budget and Presidential politics, I can't even summon the energy to care.

Rest, plenty of fluids, occasional ibu for symptoms such as mild fever and body aches.  That's what Lisa was prescribed, and I'm planning on following those orders.  As my cousin says, TTFN!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Go Forth And Shut Up: Thinking About The Mission And Evangelism In An Age Of Religious VIolence

After the most recent incidents of anti-Muslim violence in the Chicago metro area, as well as some interesting claims made by friends of mine on Facebook, I have started to think unsettling thoughts about a central tenet of the Christian tradition.  The call placed in the mouth of Jesus at the end of St. Matthew's Gospel to make disciples, baptizing in the name of the Trinity, is the heart of the evangelical, missional imperative that propelled John Wesley and those who live in his tradition.

To ignore the reality that this call has been answered in ways that are little short of cultural and actual genocide, however, is to ignore reality.

Ours is an age my wife described so well last night as she and I talked about this issue: Our world is becoming smaller, and as we come in to contact with others, we are growing less accepting, less tolerant, more prone to lash out at differences rather than live with them.  We live in a world in which it is easier to set up labels for all sorts of groups and individuals rather than deal with each as they are in all their complexity and reality.  Part of that acceptance includes accepting that other people live marvelous, happy, productive, faith-filled lives without accepting, or perhaps even hearing, the Christian Gospel.

Yet, the Great Commission and the evangelical imperative sits there, as much a question mark as exclamation point on our lives.  How can we not live telling our story to the nations?  How can we remain silent about the gift of salvation and freedom that is ours in Christ through the Spirit?

Lisa told me about this guy named Mike Slaughter.  He sponsored some mission work in Sudan.  He isn't doing any proselytizing.  He isn't telling people who are Muslims they worship a demon and are going to hell. He is just helping people, because that is what he feels called to do.  Getting them health care.  Teaching them life skills.  Transforming barren land to fertile land.

Mike Slaughter isn't interested in saving souls, recognizing that the reality of the cross and empty tomb make that God's sole work.  Mike Slaughter isn't interested in telling the world how many converts to Christianity his mission work has produced, because he recognizes that such boasting has nothing to do with God's work.  Mike Slaughter just saw suffering and figured, since no one else was doing something about it, he would get his church involved in doing something about it.

Now, that kind of mission work is something I can support.  That's the kind of evangelization I can praise to the heavens.  Because it is being the Body of the Living, Resurrected Christ in the world, living in and for the suffering of the world without asking any questions, demanding adherence to any dogma or doctrine, not demeaning how others live their lives.  Rooted in the love that is God, this may be the single model for such work I could find myself supporting.

In an age when far too many people rely on their "religion" to demean, dehumanize, and kill, I'm not sure there is another model that is as incarnational and faithful to the Great Commission as this.

You Want A Debate About The Budget And Deficit?

With the Republican ticket complete and Romney and Ryan out on the State Fair circuit, there is a growing narrative that, of all the things we could talk about, this election may well end up being a referendum on the spending priorities we reflect in our budgets.  There are many people who think this is a bad idea, and I would agree with them if not for the fact that such a discussion might well be the beginning of a different discussion on national priorities.  Unless we get bogged down in Beltway-speak about the horrors of river of red ink in which we are drowning, talking about spending can be a way to talk about what kind of nation we want to be.  The trick, of course, is maneuvering around the Ryan Legend, that he is an intellectual, that he has some kind of economics mojo that blinds the opposition, that any discussion that includes Paul Ryan will actually be a meta-discourse, a talk about talk, rather than a talk about the nuts and bolts of governing and policy.  That the many economists who have taken a look at Ryan's "plan" and cried foul have disappeared from too much of our talk will be part of the problem; the reality that his numbers do not and cannot add up needs to be introduced early, repeated often, and hung around his neck like an albatross.

The line from the Republicans seems to be that Ryan's "budget" reflects a fundamental philosophical choice and distinction from the priorities of the Democrats; thus, we are told, we need to consider these meta-points rather than such silly things as whether or not Ryan's numbers add up.  My preference for dealing with this position is simply to acknowledge it, and move on.  After all, the airy precincts of political philosophy may make David Brooks' heart flutter, but most folks - myself included - are far more concerned with that most American of philosophical questions: What does this mean for me/us?

At the heart of Ryan's budget - the link to his "Roadmap to Prosperity" is a couple posts below, if you're interested in checking it out for yourself - is the firm belief that "entitlement reform" is the philosopher's stone of fiscal probity.  Well, that and reducing federal spending on everything from national parks and recreation through education to health and science research.  Because Ryan just doesn't believe the federal government should be in the business of spending money on things like this - for reasons that boil down, in the end, to "just because!" - he would drastically reduce such outlays with the goal or complete elimination at some point in the mid-term.

Ryan's original plan from two years ago took aim at Medicare.  During the Bush years, Ryan was the architect of a plan to partially privatize Social Security, a plan the died in no small part to the tireless and courageous defense by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.  Discovering that it was Medicare that represented explosive future growth, Ryan proposed something similar: turning what had been a  federally-managed health insurance program in to vouchers participants could use to purchase health insurance on the open market.

The problem with Ryan's plan was that the Affordable Care Act, in one of its many virtues as policy, already attacked the potential explosive growth of Medicare head on.  Now, Republicans had a field day claiming Pres. Obama was "gutting" Medicare.  Romney and Ryan have been out and about in recent days claiming that Obama has "raided" Medicare to "pay for" other policies.  Technically, this is true.  Provisions in the Affordable Care Act use Medicare funds to reduce health care costs over all, in particular for participants in Medicare's prescription drug program, an unfunded mandate passed during the Bush years.  In other words, by tossing more money and participants in the pool, ACA reduces not just the growth of the expense of Medicare, but in so doing reduces health care costs, which will further slow the growth of Medicare spending.

What Ryan proposed, and continues to claim, does nothing to address our overpriced health care system.  He has yet to utter a word about how to reduce health care costs over all, let alone how reducing such costs would reduce the growth in Medicare outlays in the long run.  What ACA does, surely imperfectly and not without limitations, is cut spending by the clever use of federal health care policy while working toward the goal of better, more comprehensive care for all Americans.

Rather than airy realms of philosophy, we see what's in it for us - for all of us - because, unlike Ryan's "plan", Congress passed a law that has been given the President's name that is actually doing something about the deficit, about the growth in federal spending, and addressing the nearly criminal lack of health insurance.  All in one fell swoop.  When Americans are asked their opinion of the various parts of the Affordable Care Act, there is overwhelming support for them; when Americans are asked their opinion of "Obamacare", they are overwhelmingly negative.  When Americans are told the stuff they like is Obamacare . . . they say, "Really?  Wow!"  Because reality trumps political theory every single day.

So, I say, let Ryan talk about the budget and deficits and all sorts of things he thinks are his strengths.

Tomorrow, the real third rail of American politics: The Budget for the Department of Defense.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Anger Management

On Sunday, 51-year-old David Conrad opened fire on a mosque in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove.  True, it was an air rifle, not a semi-automatic or automatic rifle.  True, he only damaged the building.  According to the Chicago Tribune, Conrad's bail was set at $45,000 and he was ordered to take anger management classes.

Anger management.

One week after a Sikh Temple in nearby Oak Creek, WI; after a Memphis mosque was torched a second time, having almost finished a rebuild after a first arson attack; there was a bottle thrown at a Muslim school in another Chicago suburb, Lombard.

Anger management.

Mr. Conrad doesn't need anger management.  The people responsible for a second arson attack on a Muslim place of worship don't need anger management.  Wade Michael Page didn't need anger management.

The victims need anger management.  Those who look on in disgust and sorrow at how some of us treat our fellow Americans for the crime of being different need anger management.  Those who are tired of the excuses and the defense of the indefensible need anger management.  At what point do the accumulating incidents, the dead bodies sometimes in ones and twos, but like last Sunday in one huge outburst, bring about that "Aha!" moment that maybe, just maybe, we need to do something more than provide anger management classes to the people who commit these hate crimes.

Anger management.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Someone's Always Watching, Mr. Mulder

The above quote, from a first-season of the X-Files, should be the unofficial motto of the Internet age.  The recent, somewhat lamented end of the punditry career of Fareed Zakaria because he considered photocopying an art form, is a dull reminder that we no longer need to spend hours in the dim darkness of some library's periodical stacks to discover the many ways some writer thought it possible to pass something previously written by someone no doubt smarter and harder working as something original.

As with plagiarism, so, too, with the words and deeds of politicians.  Despite the attempt by so many to pretend that each day is new and fresh, the fact remains that it takes no effort at all to discover the many ways people seeking our votes are doing so by pretending they have sprouted from the head of Zeus, untouched by time or care.  Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate seems to be one of the few things Romney could have done as Republican candidate that would make Democrats happy.  Despite the accolades heaped upon Ryan by Republicans and conservatives, there was joy in Mudville's rival town because Mitty Casey had struck out with his VP pick.

I think there is nothing at all wrong with the fact that the majority of Americans have no idea who Ryan is.  Despite this blog's obsessions, I would not wish most Americans to have the kind of time or inclination to know the name and policy proposals of a seven-term back-bench Republican House member from southern Wisconsin (Janesville is not at all far from our former and current home; I first ate at a Noodles & Co. there on a trip to Madison).  All the same, it is easy as pie (a phrase much loved by my wife, who's pie-baking skills are legendary, yet thinks there is nothing special about them) to discover pretty much everything relevant about the young, handsome Randian disciple who has spent the vast bulk of his life sucking at the public teat for education and employment (yes, I'm going to point out this rather glaring bit of hypocrisy; like so many on the right, his life is an object lesson in not practicing all the things he demands others do to lead an exemplary life).

The really big deal, of course, is the so-called "Ryan Budget", which isn't an actual budget but rather a vague mix of ideological talking points, stump-speech pabulum about taxes and government spending, and empty promises called A Roadmap For America's Future (.pdf; the link is to the latest incarnation; I read the original, 2010 document last night, but a skimming read convinced me there really isn't much difference between them).  The first time Ryan sent this pile of words on paper to the House, there was much rejoicing because, as we heard far too often, his plan was bold, his plan was big, his plan was rooted in Big Ideas, his plan demanded Tough Choices.  Ryan quickly gained a reputation as "the intellectual leader" of the House Republicans, the Tea Party (who love Ryan with the kind of hot, sweaty love they seem to reserve for those who are only slightly less crazy than Steve King of Iowa).

Now, Ryan has a degree in Economics, that dismal science.  A Bachelor's degree, in fact, that he soon parlayed in to staff work for various conservative Congress-folk and right-wing "think tanks".  That he has that degree, for some reason, intimidated many from actually looking at his proposals (he did have the Congressional Budget Office score his original plan, but only for the proposed, general, cuts in spending, and they came out and said he would halve the budget deficit by 2020, and there was much rejoicing;  that he was disingenuous enough not to include the massive restructuring of our federal income tax structure into a redistributive windfall for the wealthy was little noted by all those who insisted he was a deficit hawk).  Yet, as Paul Krugman said of Newt Gingrich, that he was a stupid person's idea of a smart person, Paul Ryan is a stupid non-economically literate person's idea of an economist.  Krugman famously did something real economists do, and did some math using Ryan's proposals and announced that a plan called "audacious" by its supporters was, in fact, in Krugman's marvelous phrase, "the audacity of dopes."

When The Washington Post gave Rep. Ryan some space to answer Krugman's column, another real economist, Dean Baker, who writes at the website for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, went through Ryan's op-ed line by line.  While Baker insists that he is "having fun" with Ryan, he ends his own take-down with a line that should be seared in the foreheads of every single political reporter: "[T]o the seniors who would be unable to afford decent health care if Mr. Ryan's plan became law, his sincerity won't make any difference."

Ryan may be a man of ideas.  He may be a real intellectual.  He may sincerely and earnestly believe what he is doing is what's best for the country.  Those who cover him and his work may sincerely and earnestly believe he believes that.  None of them, however, seem to notice that public policy decisions have real world consequences; many of the policy proposals and actions the Republicans in office have made over the past few decades have had horrible consequences for millions of people.

Before I close, I think it worth noting that the above-linked second edition of "the Ryan Budget" was not greeted with enthusiasm by the Republican Party.  They knew it was dead in the water.  They knew it didn't even have the virtues of blue smoke and mirrors needed to cloud the minds of political reporters.  While touted by many who should know better and quite a few who didn't take the few minutes necessary to discover the truth as someone willing to make "tough choices", in fact, other than destroying Medicare and making sure the middle class support the rich through the tax code, Ryan has yet to specify a single program anywhere in the budget that he would actually cut.  He insisted his would not be across the board sequestration.  Yet he has not said, "Well, I'll get rid of Pell Grants and the F-35 Fighter and the National Park Service."  Because Ryan is many things, but he is neither an economist nor a particularly brave or daring soul.  In fact, he's a bit gutless, whining about how mean Pres. Obama was when the President pointed out that Ryan's proposed wardrobe for the Republican Emperor was empty.

I know there are many on the right who swoon at his smile, those big, deep-set steely blues capturing their hearts.  That's fine; he wouldn't be on the ticket if this weren't true.  All the same, many if not most Democrats are celebrating Mitt's pick.   Despite, and because, Ryan is an unknown quantity for most voters, he has a vast record available to mine for all sorts of nuggets.  This same information, lucky for us, is now available for all to see.  Ezra Klein managed to create a one-stop-shopping spot for all things Paul Ryan.

Remember, someone is, indeed, always watching.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Mark Of Cain

While considered suburban, with my mailing address Elgin, the western half of Kane County is decidedly rural.  Our house is surrounded by horse farms and corn fields that stretch to the west and south through much the rest of Illinois to Iowa, Nebraska, and beyond.  Our quiet countryside looks much as it has, by and large, for much of the 20th century.  The parsonage is about four miles south and west of the church on a pleasant drive past acres of corn, the tiny town of Plato Center just down the road.

If we decide to head to the slightly larger yet still tiny town of Burlington, we head in the other direction.  Driving up Burlington Road, we drive past a Buddhist Temple/Monastery.  In the winter, it's quite a sight, the monks in their orange robes out shoveling the long, sloped driveway.

If we want to make our way to Hampshire or Huntley or even Woodstock, we head up IL Rte 47, one of those razor-straight Illinois roads that still amaze at just how straight they are.  About three miles north and west at the intersection of Plank Road and 47, sits the Temple Shirdi Sai of Chicago and the Suburbs.  Each week, the parking lot and surrounding roads are jammed with cars as believers from around the Metro area make their way to what looks like an old country church to worship their God, remember their prophet, and to celebrate their community and its devotion to service for God with one another.

Now, Oak Creek, Wisconsin isn't very far from where we live, either.  It would probably take about an hour and a half to get to this Milwaukee suburb, maybe more if the interchanges are jammed up.  I have to wonder what these rural enclaves of very different faiths are thinking today, one week after Wade Michael Page shot six people before turning the gun on himself.  It hasn't been enough for domestic terrorists that Christian churches provide opportunities for them to act out their violent fantasies.  Now a small group of peace-loving, God-fearing non-Christians  have found themselves quite literally in the crosshairs of white supremacists.

I have been thinking about our local outposts from world religious expression quite a bit over the past week. I've been thinking about the many ways our country still cradles the wounds inflicted upon us by terror in the name of the God called All-Merciful.  I've been angry that small-minded ideologues have been screeching at any attempt to label an act of racist terror, well, an act of racist terrorism.  Before the bodies had even cooled last week, as it became clear the killer wasn't just some depressed nutjob but a racist reveling in armchair Armageddon who, reaching a point in his life where he had nothing left to lose, got out of his chair with his gun in his hand, we heard not from average Americans or thoughtful commentators but from the right.  Their refrain, yet again, is the same as it has always been: Do not place responsibility for yet more right-wing violence on the rhetoric of the right.  Do not mention the DoJ report that cited right-wing domestic terrorism as the greatest terror threat facing the United States.  And please don't, whatever you do, bring up the matter of guns.

We also saw and read many news organizations struggle to state the obvious as headline after headline seemed to purse its lips in confusion as journalists sought a motive for the killing.  That Page was a racist; with ties to groups linked to other acts of violence; that Page had recently been through a series of personal shocks that left what few ties to others he might have had lying in tatters; none of these things seemed to matter for some, at least, of those whose job is to tell us what was abundantly clear from the evidence.

That ours is a violent, hate-filled land is clear from the abundant evidence.  That hatred is aimed at any difference, real or perceived.  The violence can be as simple as the sneered epithet, the casual threat, or the on-going dehumanization of any persons whose lives don't fit in with an ideology.  It might express itself in a beating, the trashing of a place of worship, or intimidation.  Bodies pile up, one or two at a time, whether they're young gay men and women whose lives are destroyed by others or even themselves; people of color who find themselves committing the national crime of living while black; Muslims who wish only to build houses of worship to Allah that continue to be burned down.

Our failure to look at the mass grave, into which we continue to toss bodies on an almost daily basis, is mute testimony to our refusal to deal with this sickness that pervades our land.  It is also evidence of our refusal to hear the blood of our brothers and sisters as it cries out to us from the ground.  Until we are willing to name this murderous impulse as part of our collective heritage; until we are willing to do actual work to prevent our fellow Americans from adding to the pile of corpses; until we can look in the face of Wade Michael Page and see our reflection staring back at us; until these things happen, we shall continue to read and hear of more mass killings.  Until then, we should note the mark of all our foreheads, denoting our failure as siblings to our fellow Americans, a failure that, yet again, has ended in death.

Virtual Tin Cup

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