Conquering the earth, one drone at a time

ginandtacos is nothing about gin and tacos. What it is about is trenchant writing, often mordant. Today’s post is no exception. He tells us about the U.S. decision to assist the French with drones and that Niger is to France’s nuke plants as Saudi Arabia is to U.S. cars.

Is the strategy to cover the entire planet with these things incrementally until…everyone on Earth realizes how wonderful America is, or something? However real the need for intelligence might be, the idea of attempting to cover the globe with the robotic, all-seeing eye of the Department of Defense seems like folly, a post-Cold War version of the idea that we could build enough bomb shelters to make nuclear war a mild inconvenience at worst.

NRA: a front group for gun makers

I just finished reading this article by Tim Dickinson in Rolling Stone (I subscribe to the print edition, though I don’t particularly care for the music they review; I prefer classical). It’s about the National Rifle Association, which used to advocate on behalf of hunters, mostly. Today it appears to be a wholly owned subsidiary of gun manufacturers, many of whose CEOs sit on the NRA governing board. Dickinson:

The NRA insists in its publications that it is “not a trade organization” and that it is “not affiliated with any firearm or ammunition manufacturers or with any businesses that deal in guns and ammunition.” That is a lie. NRA’s corporate patrons include 22 firearms manufacturers, 12 of which are makers of assault weapons with household names like Beretta and Ruger, according to a 2011 analysis by the Violence Policy Center. The report, drawn from the NRA’s own disclosures, also identified gifts from dozens of firms that profit from high-capacity magazines, including Browning and Remington. Donors from the industry and other dark reaches of the corporate world – including Xe, the new name of the mercenary group Blackwater – had funneled up to $52 million to the NRA in recent years.

More disturbing, the NRA receives funds directly from the sales of arms and ammunition. The “Round-Up” program, launched by arms retailer Midway USA, encourages customers to increase their purchases to the nearest dollar and sends the extra coin to the association. Midway customers alone have contributed nearly $8 million in this way to support NRA’s lobbying division, the Institute for Legislative Action.

In America tragedy begets profits of the most lethal kind. Gun sales spike right after the latest slaughter. The NRA couldn’t be happier.

Growing old

Last year I joined the ranks of “the elderly,” which entitled me to receive Medicare. Later this year I’ll begin collecting Social Security. We old people, as you might surmise from watching Fox News or listening to Mitt Romney, are “moochers.” Most of us cannot afford to be self-reliant; we will depend on the federal government to supplement our meagerly pensions and pay for our rising health care costs. Hey. When you get old you get sicker, as much as I’d like to avoid both.

The U.S. Census Bureau keeps track of demographics, which include age along with sex, race, and bunch of other metrics. We are growing older.

aging populationMatthew Yglesias suggests that “we” will have a problem, and it’s all about us old farts. He writes:

So what are the real problems? Simple. One thing the government does is tax the labor and investment activities of non-seniors to cut checks to elderly people (Social Security). Another thing it does is tax the labor and investment activities of non-seniors to cut checks to elderly people’s doctors (Medicare). And a third thing it does is tax the labor and investment activities of non-seniors to cut checks to elderly people’s long-term care providers (one of Medicaid’s functions). In the future, the ratio of elderly people to non-elderly people is supposed to rise, and the ratio of doctors’ fees to average incomes is also supposed to rise. Which is to say that [even while] holding program functions constant the burden of placed on the non-elderly is expected to rise. But this increased burden exists whether the payment comes in the form of taxes (people don’t like paying taxes!) or in the form of borrowing (which will eventually lead to taxes people don’t like to pay!) so the issue is all about spending money on old people and not about debt or deficits.

Yep, we’re an expensive lot, we elderly, and expected to become even more so. One response to our changing demographics is to cut benefits or decrease the life-time payouts by raising the eligibility age. That may sound like music to your ears if you’re decades away from joining us. You don’t want to pay more taxes. I get that. Who does? But would you dig a little deeper to help out your aging parents, or would you just let them rot in their bedrooms? I’m guessing that you’d feel compelled to do something, however minimal.

I, for one, was grateful that my parents had pensions, Medicare, and Social Security to ease their financial burdens–and mine—as they grew sick and eventually died. That happens, you know. We all die sometime. I’m hoping that I won’t have to depend on my children for assistance, and that I can rely on what my wife and I have set aside and, yes, federal programs.

A more civil and humane culture would want to care for the elderly through insurance at levels far grander than America’s public programs. But paying for a more European system would cost us more in higher taxes.

However, they wouldn’t have to be so high were we to get serious about reining in the private health care sector, including Big Pharma. In effect, we Americans have allowed the Rest of Us to transfer our wealth to insurance companies and the makers of drugs, the latter insisting that we be denied much cheaper generic versions. (The New York Times writes about the latter here.) Yglesias talks about the artificial supply constraints on doctors and mentions the Canadians:

We either need more doctors or more adequate substitutes for doctors. We need more long-term care providers. Taxpayers don’t need to foot the bill for the whole thing, but the whole medical infrastructure is very bound up with public policy and something has to be done. Canada reduces the burden that health care places on the taxpayer by paying providers less for the services they render, which could be a promising start.

So let’s get started.

Looks like more of the same

Obama’s latest nominee for secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, promises to continue America’s hegemony, should he be confirmed by the Senate. He told his former colleagues yesterday:

“I believe, and always have, that America must engage — not retreat — in the world,” Mr. Hagel told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The New York Times paraphrased further remarks:

In an opening statement at his Senate confirmation hearing, Mr. Hagel presented a broad, forceful endorsement of American military power aimed at answering critics who say he would weaken the United States. He offered strong support for Israel, said he was fully committed to the president’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and said he would keep up pressure — through Special Operations forces and drones — on terrorist groups in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.

In watching Oliver Stone’s last few episodes of “Untold History of the United States” I was struck by the ease with which the country’s political and military leaders shifted rationales for boosting the Pentagon’s budget and operations. At each critical juncture, when it seemed that America had “won,” a new enemy or threat quickly emerged to justify expanding U.S. armed forces and giving them more deadly toys.*


*  We witnessed the convenient shift here in Everett, Wash. Determined to place a homeport on Port Gardner Bay, the Navy spoke of engaging the Soviet Union “in harm’s way.” When the “evil empire” collapsed the rationale changed abruptly to “protecting commercial shipping lanes.” Yep. That’s the ticket.

The poor are, well, poor

Thomas Edsall, writing for the New York Times, takes on claims by the Right that America’s poor aren’t all that poor. Poverty in the U.S. isn’t what it used to be, or so we are to believe. Why? Because the poor can buy “necessities” at much lower inflation-adjusted prices than their counterparts from previous decades. For example, as quoted by Edsall:

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, spending by households on many of modern life’s “basics” — food at home, automobiles, clothing and footwear, household furnishings and equipment, and housing and utilities — fell from 53% of disposable income in 1950 to 44% in 1970 to 32% today.

Edsall then proceeds to dismantle the assertions, using data and analysis from several economists. He includes this chart:


But I think the most important takeaway from this discussion is not poverty relative to time—that today’s poor may be able to acquire housing, food, etc. at a lower cost than yesterday’s poor—but that present inequality, which is not dismissed by the Right, is both bad in itself and more pronounced than at any time since just before the Great Depression. That’s a recurring theme on this blog, as you can see here, here, and here. In particular, and as Edsall points out, American society has become more stratified, and rigidly so. Born into poverty, one has little hope and opportunity for becoming less so. Meanwhile, the rich have nearly guaranteed that both they and their progeny will stay that way.

Edsall concludes his post with a warning:

The September 2012 report on income and poverty released by the United States Census provides the left with additional ammunition. It found that household income in 2011 fell 1.5 percent, to its lowest level in 16 years, $50,054. Most arresting, the gap between the incomes of rich and poor expanded further than it had at any time in the past 40 years.

Redistributive conflict is the essence of politics, and ultimately the data debate – in effect, the debate over who should get what — will be resolved politically. All signals point to a fierce running battle over the coming years as the shape and direction of government tax and spending policies are decided. This is a fight that only shared economic growth can defuse. President Obama was wary of engaging this debate directly during his first term. Now, decisively re-elected, he appears to be girding for action. Republicans are defensive and ill-prepared. But as the abrupt emergence of anti-Obama, anti-Democratic sentiment in 2009 and 2010 demonstrated, the balance of partisan power remains highly volatile.

Meanwhile, beneath the political battleground, the presence in the United States of 42.6 million people officially living in poverty — no matter that they have access to a trickle of consumer goods — must be recognized as a powder keg.

Economy still sputtering

The Bureau of Economic Analysis released the latest data on the state of the economy. It actually contracted last quarter, a first since the recession ended; the first quarter of 2011 saw a scant rise of 0.1 percent. Let’s look at some charts, first GDP.

change in GDP 2009 to last quater 2012That’s not a good sign. Also, both exports and imports have declined.

trading down

But our average disposable incomes are up and we’re still spending, though modestly.

disposable incomeSpending:

personal spending to 4th quarter 2012There’s good news on the housing front.

housing since recessionMeanwhile, many in Washington continue to advocate for austerity, worried sick about the debt. Ironically, under current weak conditions, cutting back on spending to achieve fiscal balance would only add to the deficits, since tax revenues would decline. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what’s happened.

federal spending down

So, what to do?

For those who suggest that the economy, no matter how bad it may be, will spontaneously recover, how long do we have to wait? Does it matter that nearly eight percent are officially unemployed and perhaps twice that number are either underemployed or have stopped looking for work? At what point do we develop a collective sense of urgency?






The cello

This article in today’s New York Times quotes the cellist Zoe Keating:

“In certain types of music, like classical or jazz, we are condemning them to poverty if this is going to be the only way people consume music,” Ms. Keating said.

She is talking about music-streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. She’s evidently calculated how much money she’s received from her songs being consumed via the services, and it ain’t all that much. I own two of her albums, having just bought the second upon reading the article.

And if you also like the cello, you might want to check out the group Apocalyptica. All cellos, all the time.