June 30, 2012

Stolen Valor

Amid all the hubbub over the Supreme Court's decision to uphold Obama's health care plan, a second of three decisions (the third involving a suit against the mortgage banking industry) was almost lost in the shuffle. This was the overturning of the Stolen Valor Act,  which made it a misdemeanor to lie about military honors.

My initial reaction to this was one of semi-disbelief. The Supreme Court was saying it is okay to lie about one's military service? The case in point--a politician claiming to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor--made the decision even more baffling. A public official lying about the nation's highest military honor ... you're telling me that isn't a crime? Dude! My moral compass may be a bit skewed on some points, but that line of thinking seemed to me to be just plain wrong-headed.

The majority opinion basically said that the law can't solve every problem, especially one where no fraud or demonstrable harm has come about from the act. Some things are best left to the court of public opinion, as it were. And in truth, public shunning of those public figures who use a fictitious military resume to further their careers is quite appropriate. Some years back, I wrote a post about Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian who fabricated stories about service in Vietnam. He rightly faced severe public embarrassment once his falsehoods were exposed.

The Supreme Court seems to be saying that in the case of lies about military honors, public outing is the best and most effective remedy. I think it is saying something else as well. In an era when distrust of government runs wide and deep, the Court was reluctant to let the government decide what lies are allowable and which ones are punishable. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:
"Here the lie was made in a public meeting, but the statute would apply with equal force to personal, whispered conversations within a home. Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable."
 So in the end, this case was as much, if not more, about distrust of government as it was about telling lies. Was this the correct balancing of competing interests that the Supreme Court is often asked to weigh? Maybe ... maybe not, but the decision sticks in my craw nonetheless. Somehow I think the basic issue--the debasement of medals earned through blood and death--got lost in the shuffle. The Court worried about George Orwell when perhaps it should have been thinking about George Washington, who established our first military medal, the Badge of Merit, to be awarded for unusual gallantry or extraordinary service.

These things do matter, and they matter a great deal. One of the things everyone knew in Vietnam was that some medals are awarded by rank. The other thing everyone knew was that the Combat Infantryman's Badge (CIB) was worn only by those who had actually served in ground combat. A rough justice was readily dispensed for anyone foolhardy enough to wear an unearned CIB. We can't do that in civilian life, but we can speak to this though our laws, which are the embodiment of what we think of as right and wrong.

Maybe you can't trust the government, but you ought to be able to trust the opinions of those who earned their medals and who are deeply offended by the actions of those who diminish the value of those medals for their own selfish ends. The Supreme Court's decision was worse than a crime; it was a mistake.

June 28, 2012

Printing Body Parts

The other night my grandson and I were watching a movie called Darkman.  The central character of the movie is a scientist who is trying to create artificial skin to treat burn victims. Horribly disfigured by a set of gangsters who set fire to his lab, the good doctor turns a bit mad and uses his skills to make himself look like his enemies, thereby enabling him to wreak his revenge upon them.

Watching this, I thought this was pretty far-fetched stuff. Creating human skin in 3-D form that could be used to replace body parts? Come on, who do they think they are kidding? That stuff is decades off. Then I came across this video about printing body parts. An earlier post on programmable matter touched on the idea of 3-D printers making coffee cups. Here we have a printer that uses human cells as its ink to fashion ears and other useful spare parts.

Like it or not, the future is coming at us fast. A world we can hardly imagine is taking shape right before our eyes. We push up against the barrier that separates us from the gods, a barrier that is far more permeable than we might ever have imagined. Are we ready for this? God only knows.

June 25, 2012

War Wounds

After slowing down the last couple of years, military suicides have again risen sharply. In the first 155 days of 2012, 154 U.S. military members took their own lives. Some 2.3 million men and women have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of those, 800,000 have been deployed multiple times. That's a lot of soldiers with potentially a lot of problems. Suicide is the extreme end of response to the pressures of war. Far more common are the reactions described by Anthony Swofford in a very well-written essay that originally appeared in Newsweek: "If a veteran is drinking excessively or using drugs, not sleeping, out of a job, and isolating himself, those are pretty good indicators that he’s in trouble."

At some point, I found my own way to think about the troubles faced by returning veterans, myself included. Put simply, the war never stops trying to kill you. Maybe that sounds crazy to you, but it makes perfect sense to me. Sometimes it represents a literal truth. The VA hospitals see patients every day who are slowly dying from a disease or injury they received in a war. Mostly, it reflects the war that continues inside your head long after the return home, the struggle to accept that coming home meant becoming a stranger in a strange land. All those habits that helped you survive in the war, they work against you in the world. All those memories that followed you home from the war, they never let you sleep. All those feelings you buried deep, they begin to work their way to the surface. The war never stops trying to kill you.

In his article, Swofford says of his own struggle to readjust, "It took nearly two decades to find my way free of the morass." In SitRep Negative, I described my own experience those first few months back: 
"Release from active duty began a decade or two or three of readjustment to life after the war. The first year or so after I got out, the war sizzled inside my head 24/7. There was not a waking moment when I wasn’t thinking about it in some way or another. You had this sense of apartness from regular people and regular life, like you were here but your thoughts and feelings were coming from somewhere else, somewhere normal people could never know or understand."
We all suffer some form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Another bitter truth I have come to accept.  Few of us, though, go through the pressure-cooker of war, a hyper-intense experience that profoundly rewires the soul in ways we still don't fully understand. We all want our soldiers to be heroes. The idea that our decision to send them off to war made them something less and more than heroes is too unsettling to deal with for most people. We say, "Thank you for your service" and hope that somehow makes us even.

You want to do something really useful? The next time someone puts their finger on a spot on the map and says, "Here is where we must send our young men and women to fight and die," say "Hell no, they won't go."

June 24, 2012

Squeezed At Both Ends

If you are looking for a little light at the end of the tunnel ... well, keep looking. Today we have a tale of two generations who did the right thing and got screwed over for their trouble. For baby boomers and echo boomers alike, what was supposed to be the best of times has become the worst of times.

We hear a lot about reducing debt, but the truth is that any economic recovery stems from more spending, not less. A growing economy is an economy where people are buying things. That stimulates new investment, which in turn stimulates job growth, which in turn leads to more people buying more things. But what if  people can't buy more? How do we grow our way out of our problems then?

Baby boomers are just beginning to cash in on those pensions they have invested in all those years of working. But thanks to policies designed to lower interest rates on government bonds as part of an overall scheme to stimulate the economy--not to mention the occasional stock market meltdown--people who depend on savings and pension funds are earning dramatically less money. Add to that the fact that many state and local pension funds are underfunded because money that was supposed to go towards pensions was used for other things--the assumption being that yields from the stock market and bonds would make up the difference ... oops!--and you have an even bigger problem. This means scaled-back pension benefits for retirees, which in turn means scaled-back consumption from one of our largest population groups.

At the other end of the generation gap, students coming out of college are burdened by tens of thousands of dollars of college loans that have to be paid back. Growing up, these kids had it pounded into their heads that you had to have a college education to get ahead. But the costs of getting that education grew faster than anyone could have imagined twenty or thirty years ago. The upshot is that many young people graduating from college today are not going to be looking for that first home to buy for a long, long time. In fact, they will not be making any large purchases of anything. They don't have the disposable income to do it. Not when a quarter or more of your paycheck--assuming you have a job--goes to pay off student loans.

So you have seniors facing reduced pension benefits and their grandchildren stuck with enormous student loans to pay back. Hard to see how an economy is going to expand dramatically when two significant groups of consumers can't ... well, consume. As someone once said, "That light at the end of the tunnel may be another train coming at you."

June 22, 2012

Climate Change: Why Aren't We Mad As Hell?

Since I began looking into climate change a few years back, all I have seen is a serious problem getting worse through inaction and obfuscation, deliberate or otherwise. (I guess that puts me squarely in the gloom-and-doomer camp.) And yet, public opinion remains by and large indifferent. True, we have had a lot on our plates, what with the collapse of the global economy, but you would think the collapse of the globe itself would arouse some concern.

A group called Media Lens predictably enough blames the public's lack of interest in climate change on ... well, the media, or more precisely, the media's too-cozy relationships with corporate capitalism. Big business is not interested in hearing about climate change, and that attitude affects the passion with which mainstream media organizations approach the issue.

Well, it's a theory. I have my own ideas on the topic. What caught my eye was a quote from an interview of  noted biologist E. O. Wilson in Grist.org, posted April 30, 2012. Instead of answering a question, Dr. Wilson posed his own: "Why aren’t you young people out protesting the mess that’s being made of the planet? Why are you not repeating what was done in the ‘60s? Why aren’t you in the streets? And what in the world has happened to the green movement that used to be on our minds and accompanied by outrage and high hopes? What went wrong?”

Good question, one for which I certainly have no answer. I can't pretend to claim any insight into the thinking of young people--loosely identified as Generation Y, born between 1975 and 2000--but I can say that most of the young people I have worked with have no doubt that climate change driven by human activity is quite real. More than that, they are passionate about the topic. What they aren't big into is 60s-style street demonstrations, the various Occupy-whatever movements not withstanding, those perhaps being the exception that proves the rule. Their style is different. They choose to live their beliefs through lifestyle choices and volunteer efforts. Trying to influence the political process ... not so much.

Dr, Wilson ends his interview on a somewhat upbeat note. In answer to the question, "Are we doomed?" he says, "I’d like to say no. I’m surely not going to be stupid enough to say yes. What I will say is: no, I hope. Here’s my favorite little maxim. It’s from Abba Eban, foreign minister of Israel during the 1967 war, one more dumb, senseless war in the Middle East: 'When all else fails, men turn to reason.' I think maybe we are really and truly ready to start trying to solve problems for once in human history by using our forebrain."

Again, it's a theory. I do believe that, in terms of public opinion, time is on the side of those of us who believe that climate change warrants urgent attention. Unfortunately, time is not on our side when it comes to forestalling the worsening impacts of climate change: steadily rising average global temperatures, extreme weather, sea level rise, acidification of the oceans, population displacements. On that score, we have already ceded the ground on avoidance and have yet to seriously tackle adaptation to the new reality. But, hey, that's just the gloom-and-doomer in me talking.

June 17, 2012

Father's and Sons

 My father died 37 years ago, a week before his 61st birthday. He was playing golf when he dropped dead of a heart attack while waiting to tee off. Not a bad way to go, really, especially if you are an avid golfer.
For the first two decades or so of my life, our relationship was ... okay. We were two very different people. He was good with his hands. I was not. Other than the newspaper, he was not much of a reader. I was a bookworm. He loved tools and fixing things. I never met a machine I could understand.
Things shifted between us after I went to Vietnam. He never got to serve in the Army due to an already bad heart. Like other men of his generation, that failure to serve in uniform gnawed at him. I think maybe he got a vicarious sense of vindication from my service. Certainly, I think he felt duty-bound to treat me as a man in full, especially after I came home on leave in my uniform.
What really sealed the deal between us was when I got married. I’m sure he and my mother were both despairing of that ever happening. The fact that not only did I get engaged but also she was beautiful and smart and got along well with them was … well, just about as good as it gets.
My father was a very talented man. He was a professional cabinet-maker and built custom homes in the days when homes were still stick-built. He could fix just about anything with moving parts. He was a scratch golfer who won the member-guest championship (First Flight) at just about every club in the area. He loved to play guitar and looked forward to his jam sessions with a few of the other local musicians.
The thing I remember most about him was his inflexible sense of honesty. He was the kind of guy who was honest when nobody was looking, if you know what I mean. I guess it rubbed off on me, or at least I hope it did.
The other thing we shared is a basic gregariousness. (My kids are rolling their eyes along about now.) He taught me that most folks are pretty friendly if you just treat them that way. It sprang from a fierce sense of small-town egalitarianism. Wherever he was, there was nobody any better than he was. After all, this was a guy who used to play with JFK and who knew secrets about Humphrey Bogart.
The one way that I am different from him as a father is in telling my kids that I love them. My father's generation didn’t do that. I know he loved me, but hearing the words would have been nice. I don’t hold it against him, though. That’s just how things were in those days.
So maybe on Father's Day it is fitting that I stop for a minute and tell my father that I love him, because come to think of it I don’t know if I ever said that to him when he was alive. Dad, if you are up there listening: "Happy Father's Day. You did all right in my book. I love you."
Reprinted with minor revisions from A Misunderstood God.

June 15, 2012

The Hunter-Killers Inside Us

T cells are a form of white blood cells that track down and destroy foreign parasites inside our body. Turns out they are very efficient predators, using stalking techniques similar to those used by sharks, both those that swim in the sea and those that inhabit Wall Street. It seems to me we are just beginning to understand the depth to which the natural world is vertically and horizontally integrated. William Blake said it eloquently in his poem, Auguries of  Innocence:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

June 13, 2012

Flame Out

In the Terminator series of movies, the Pentagon creates a supercomputer named SkyNet to control its nuclear weapons. Instead, Skynet decides to take matters into its own hands and initiates a series of nuclear strikes designed to wipe out mankind. You think, well, that was pretty dumb, turning over control of our nuclear weapons to a computer. We'd never do anything that stupid in real life. Really?

We are seeing a similar scenario unfold today. Once again, the Pentagon is at the center of the plot, aided and abetted by the Israelis, or at least that is what appears to be the case. The instruments of our destruction are two pieces of malware called Stuxnet and Flame, Internet viruses created to disrupt Iranian efforts to build a nuclear weapon. Researchers claim to have found stretches of identical code in both pieces of malware, linking the two conclusively together. Since the United States has all but claimed responsibility for Stuxnet, it follows that Flame is also their progeny.

The problem with waging cyberwar is obvious. Once these viruses are discovered, people who know a hell of a lot more about these things than you and I do immediately begin picking the code apart. The hard part is creating it. The easier part is replicating it in any number of variations on the theme. How soon before this code appears in the wild, attacking our own infrastructure? Didn't anyone think about this before they pulled the trigger on this project?

An interesting sidebar to this story is apparent unfolding efforts by the Russians and Chinese to use this incident to switch control of the internet from the American-friendly International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to a UN body known as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Russia and China both have an interest in quelling freedom of speech via the Internet, so anything that gains them more access to the private corridors of decision-making on Internet policies is good news for them. It may be worth noting that the lab most responsible for uncovering the link between Stuxnet and Flame is Russian.

The first use of cyberwar weapons by the U.S. may be the ultimate in Pyrrhic victories. We not only forfeit the moral high ground in yet another area, but we give our enemies an ideal weapon to attack our own industrial and commercial infrastructure. A dumber idea is hard to imagine. Gold, guns, and 100 acres on Montana is starting to look real good.

June 12, 2012

Sovereign Debt

We hear more and more about Europe's sovereign debt crisis. Spain seems to be the next domino getting ready to fall. And we are beginning to see that if you follow the dominoes to the end, there is no last country standing. We all take the fall, in some measure, large or small.

The sovereign debt crisis in Europe stems from the inability of several countries—often referred to as the PIGS: Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Greece—to continue to borrow money to pay their bills. I submit this results from a larger issue of sovereign debt owed to we the people, the inability of our leaders—our sovereigns, if you will—to do their jobs. The continuing failure of legislators and presidents and prime ministers to even agree on a common definition of the problems, much less find an agreed-upon course of action to address those problems, constitutes the true sovereign debt crisis that threatens to overwhelm us all.

Part of the problem in Europe is that the European Zone was created with the idea that politics would follow the money into a true union of countries. That has not happened, leaving a system ill-suited to tackling a problem like the current sovereign debt crisis. The political processes needed to forge a common consensus among the European nation-states simply do not exist.

We don't have that excuse here in America, home of the free, land of the dysfunctional government. As the longest-running democracy on the planet, we have plenty of history to fall back on to show us the virtues of compromise. Instead, we look more like a convention of Marxist socialists trying to out-vie each other in their ideological purity, prompting Jeb Bush to remind his fellow Republicans that Ronald Reagan built his legacy by finding common ground with Democrats.

The sense of approaching doom is palpable. Nobody I know thinks the future looks anything other than immensely foreboding. We have a debt to be paid. A debt to our planet. A debt to our children and grandchildren. It is time for our politicians to quit bickering and get down to the serious business of reducing our other sovereign debt by doing what we all know needs to be done: make hard choices that demand sacrifices from all of us and then stick to them. There is no other road forward.

June 8, 2012

Why Climate Change Is A Tough Sell

The link between human activities and a changing climate remains one of the most controversial topics on the American political scene. The rest of the world pretty much accepts the idea that burning fossil fuels has increased the levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, which in turn has increased average global temperatures. Here in the good old U.S. of A, not so much. Business as usual is ... well, business as usual.

In an attempt to understand why this is so, I came up with a list of reasons, a la David Letterman. I wrote this is 2009, but little has changed. In fact, the political process has grown even less able to deal with a problem like climate change, a problem that calls for spending large amounts of money now to avert a potential crisis 30 years from now. Well, one thing has changed. The science points to a more serious problem coming at us faster than we supposed even a few years ago. With that in mind, I give you my top ten reasons why climate change is a tough sell in America.
Climate change is not breaking news. We Americans have grown addicted to stories that sweep over us like a giant wave. Climate change creeps in with the tide.
Climate change is not easy to understand. Weather is what you see out the window today. Climate change is computer models trying to guess what you will see out the window 30 years from now.
Climate change is not easy to explain. Weather is Al Roker. Climate change is Al Gore.
There is no single plan to rally supporters around. Pretty much everyone agrees that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced. But which ones, by how much and how soon, through what methods … these are all topics of intense debate.
The pain is here and now; the gain is off in the distant future. Doing something about climate change will cost billions of dollars right now. The ultimate benefit will be a more livable planet 30, 50, 100 years from now. That’s asking for a lot to be taken on faith.
The human brain is not wired to think in terms of centuries. We pretty much live in the moment. Somewhere between the here-and-now and 100 years from now, we just stop listening.
Future shock rocks. We are being bounced from one crisis to the next like a ping-pong ball in a room full of mouse-traps. Sooner or later, we just reach the point where we just want to pull back into our shells and stop listening.
Resistance is not always futile. Controlling greenhouse gas emissions will cost big business some big bucks. If they can avoid or mitigate that future expense by financing extensive (dis)information campaigns, why not do it? Spending millions today beats spending billions tomorrow. It’s not like the average politician is looking for a reason to believe.
The political process is exhausted. The battle over health care reform has given the political process a severe case of battle fatigue. It remains to be seen how much fight is left in both parties as they try to confront an issue as complicated and contentious as energy reform.
Nation-states suck at solving global problems. The world is a bunch of teenagers who have been sent to their rooms. Each room is a nation-state with a big sign on the door that says, "You are not the boss of me." Collective action does not come naturally or easily at this stage in our geopolitical development.
Note: This list originally appeared in Fifty Years of Global Warming.

June 7, 2012

Dysfunction Junction

Picture in your mind two trains approaching each other at a high rate of speed. One train is the Bush tax cuts, set to expire at the end of the year. The other is a requirement to implement budget cuts to the tune of $1.2 trillion over 10 years, half to domestic spending and half to defense/security spending--also set to go into effect at the end of the year. We often think of government these days as a train wreck. Well, a train wreck of historic proportions is about to happen, and there seems to be no way of avoiding it. Welcome to Dysfunction Junction.

All of this stems from Congress's habit of pushing off difficult decisions. The original deal to implement tax cuts put a time limit on it, setting up an inevitable confrontation, but one safely distant ... until now. The other has its origins in the clusterf*k over the debt ceiling. The end result was a deal to make deep cuts to the budget. Of course, they couldn't exactly come up with what should be cut, so they appointed a committee to look into it, with the proviso that if the committee couldn't come up with a plan, then automatic cuts would be triggered through a process known as sequestration.

Well, the committee couldn't get it done, so the automatic cuts are being triggered at exactly the same time that Congress will have to vote on whether to extend the Bush tax cuts. Some analysts view this as the ultimate "damned if you do, damned if you don't" moment. If we don't cut the budget and increase revenues, than the debt will sky-rocket. If we do implement the budget cuts and let the Bush tax cuts expire, and throw in the payroll tax cut to boot, then the impact would amount to 4 percent of the national income, a crippling blow to any economy.

As of the moment, the Republicans are desperately looking for a way out of the budget deal they themselves foisted on the rest of us. The first signal was a proposed budget plan by Sen. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., recently endorsed by Mitt Romney, that would sharply cut domestic spending and leave defense spending alone. It may or may not be a great plan, but it not what the Republicans agreed to do, which is spread the cuts evenly between domestic and defense spending. Instead, it eliminates health care reform, revamps the Medicare program, and makes deep cuts in domestic programs that have already endured several rounds of cuts.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-So. Car., has been running around claiming that the mandatory defense cuts are too deep and must be somehow undone. He is even willing to consider revenue increases, if it comes to that, a position echoed by Jeb Bush. If the Bush tax cuts are not extended, they will get their wish in spades.

Is their a compromise in sight? Given recent history, it is hard to see what deal might emerge from the great minds currently in the House and Senate, but a deal there will be. The worry is that by the time the politicians reach agreement, the markets will already have been forced to make their own choice. And don't forget, all of this is occurring just as Europe is approaching its own Disfunction Junction.

Win or lose, President Obama will be the president who cuts the deal, since all of this has to be done before the next president is sworn in. The prospect of a lame-duck Congress being tasked with coming up with one of the grandest compromises in our nation's history is enough to make anyone nervous. Fasten your seat belts, folks. This could get ugly.

June 3, 2012

Seeing Green

My wife and I just got back from visiting her relations in Florida. Once again, I was struck by the lush, green forests and tree-covered mountains that paralled the road for the entire length of the trip. The band of deciduous trees that runs from Maine to Florida is a unique global resource, a vast factory without smokestacks, a point I made in this earlier essay, which appears in Fifty Years of Global Warming.

September 2009 – I’ve just finished touring a part of the world’s oldest and largest factory. It is an immense structure that runs 24/7, and yet, there is not a smokestack in sight. This factory uses no electricity, runs completely on solar power, and requires no workforce. This factory invented the idea of recycling. You could say it is the ultimate green operation.
It is not in America’s Rust Belt or in one of China’s burgeoning industrial zones. This factory stretches for over 2,000 miles, beginning in the great northern pine forests of Maine and ending in the scrub pines of northern Florida. It is the great  woodlands of America’s East Coast.
The analogy of woodlands to industry is important, I think, because it reminds us that trees are more than just scenery. A tree is a working factory that processes water and minerals and releases oxygen and takes up carbon dioxide, a process that helps to maintain the only known atmosphere in the galaxy capable of sustaining life. As such, trees are worthy of as much protection as any other vital industry would receive.
We have this, thanks to the foresight of such great conservationists as Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt. They understood the importance of the natural world and worked hard to pass laws protecting our great natural treasures and resources, in effect saving us from ourselves.
We Americans haven’t been perfect in this regard, but we did get the message on the environment pretty early on and have worked as hard as any other nation to promote clean air and water and to preserve what we could of our woodlands. This remains an important example we can provide to the developing world, as an example of where our deeds have for once matched our words.
Could we have done more? Sure. Will we need to do more? Absolutely, but at least we have a solid foundation on which to base even greater efforts at saving and expanding our woodlands. We just need to think of it as expanding our industrial base.