26 May 2023   3 comments

The current brouhaha over the deficit ceiling has a markedly surreal context which highlights the absurdity which qualifies as a debate in national discourse: Apparently both the Republicans and the Democrats has decided that there is no need to question the budget for what they regard as national security matters. The actual debate in Washington is focused on what is called the “discretionary” budget. That part of the budget includes the Pentagon budget as well as nuclear weapons, federal immigration enforcement, law enforcement, and prisons. Those items constitute $1.1 trillion out of a total of $1.8 trillion which includes social spending such as “primary and secondary public education, housing programs, childcare programs, federal disaster relief, environmental programs, and scientific research.” In other words, 62% of the discretionary budget is off limits. Indeed, the Republicans are lobbying for an increase in defense spending even as the social programs are being eviscerated.

The Institute for Policy Studies and the National Priorities Project, both highly regarded but definitely lefty think tanks, have just released an important Study entitled “The Warfare State: How Funding for Militarism Compromises our Welfare“. According to the report: “The U.S. military budget is currently $920 billion, the highest level on record during peacetime, and higher than the next 10 countries’ military spending combined.”

There is a lot in the defense budget that could be cut. For example, the costs associated with the Pentagon’s newest fighter plane, the F-35, are astronomical. According to NBC News:

“With an estimated lifetime cost of $1.6 trillion, the F-35 Lightning II, conceived as a versatile, super stealthy next-generation fighter plane, is the most expensive weapon system ever built. When the program began way back in 1992, the F-35 was supposed to be an affordable one-size-fits-all solution for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. It took until this February for the Air Force to publicly admit that the F-16 replacement failed the affordability test.

Another expenditure within the Pentagon is the costs associated with private contractors doing the work that used to be done by soldiers within the ranks:

“Reduce reliance on contractors, who account for half of the Pentagon budget each year. Over the ten-year period from
2011-2020, Pentagon contractors took in $3.4 trillion in public funds. Studies have shown that Pentagon contractors
provide the same services at a higher cost than government workers.”

There is no reason for the defense budget to be sacrosanct. If cuts need to be made (and I am not sure why that is true–the Democrats have plans to increase revenues by increasing tax rates on the very wealthy and that is a better solution than to cut social service spending), then the military should take cuts instead of poor Americans.

Posted May 26, 2023 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

24 May 2023   Leave a comment

Today I mourn the loss of Tina Turner, one of Rock and Roll’s greatest performers. She had a tough life but never lost her passion for music. Her performance with Mick Jagger for the Live Aid Concert in 1985 was truly extraordinary–it displayed all the raunchiness of Rock and Roll that my parents abhorred. But the total immersion of both Turner and Jagger in the music was, for me, breathtaking. Since it was a benefit concert, the two singers did not have much time to rehearse. But it seems clear that there was no need–they both became the song.

Freddie Mercury and Queen also performed at the concert. Mercury was quite gifted and he died at a young age in 1991. He also gave himself completely to the music.

The concert raised a lot of money to alleviate the horrible famine in Ethiopia. Some 40% of the global population watched parts of the concert which was streamed via satellite connections (quite a feat in a world without the internet). The finale was deeply moving when all the performers came together to sing “We Are the World”. It’s sad to know that many of these performers have since died.

Ultimately, a studio version of “We Are the World” was produced. It, too, is deeply moving, but in a very different way from the concert performance. Rock and Roll does, at times, attempt to save the world. When it does, it is a powerful genre.

Posted May 24, 2023 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

15 May 2023   Leave a comment

Posted May 15, 2023 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

7 May 2023   5 comments

One of the responses to the recent mass killing in Texas reveals how deeply moronic the whole gun debate has become.

This situation is far removed from anything one might describe as a healthy society. It is time for those who support this unconstrained interpretation of the 2nd Amendment to provide a solution to these mass killings. To those of us who support gun control, we have a partial solution. The supporters of the 2nd Amendment apparently believe that mass killings ought to be accepted as a “normal” part of life. The burden of a solution ought to be on them if they think that mass killings are bad.

Posted May 7, 2023 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

17 April 2023   Leave a comment

US Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy gave a speech today to the New York Stock Exchange outlining his ideas for raising the debt ceiling limit on Federal Spending. Ed Kilgore, writing for New York Magazine, summarizes the gist of McCarthy’s proposal: “At the New York Stock Exchange on Monday, McCarthy said Republicans ‘want Congress to place limits on federal spending, claw back COVID-19 aid, and require Americans to work to receive federal benefits,’ as The Wall Street Journal put it.” This annual exercise is ridiculous since the money has already been spent–the idea that the Congress would refuse to honor those obligations is nonsensical. As well as catastrophic.

The problem is that the Republican Party is more than willing to cut taxes but not at all willing to raise taxes. The Republicans have successfully promulgated the idea that US citizens are overtaxed. Nothing could be further from the truth:

Moreover, there is about $4 trillion that the rich have been able to hide from the Internal Revenue Serice, primarily using offshore bank accounts. The National Bureau of Economic Research has just published a research paper which outlines the scope of the problem. The researchers found that:

“According to our estimates, around 1.5 million U.S. taxpayers held foreign financial accounts with aggregate assets of around $4 trillion in tax year 2018. By comparison, the total financial assets of U.S. households totaled roughly $80 trillion according to official financial accounts (Federal Reserve, 2022). Around half of the assets in foreign accounts, just below $2 trillion, were held in jurisdictions usually considered tax havens, such as Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands. Just 14% of accounts are located in tax havens compared to nearly half the total wealth, which reflects that accounts in havens were on average larger.”

Importantly, those who hold these funds offshore are overwhelmingly those with the highest incomes in the US:

“More than 60% of the individuals in the top 0.01% of the income distribution own foreign accounts, either directly or indirectly through a pass-through entity. By comparison, this fraction is less than 40% for the bottom half of the top 0.1%; less than 20% for the bottom half of the top 1%; and less than 5% for the bottom half of the top 10%.”

In other words, the bottom 95% do not enjoy this extraordinary tax benefit. But the IRS has apparently made little progress in assuring that those who enjoy the benefits of offshore banking comply with the purposes of the legislation designed to force compliance. The US Treasury Inspector General has issued several reports detailing the IRS failure, once in 2018 and again in 2022.

There is plenty of money to finance the US national debt. What is required is that the Congress simply require a very small number of US citizens to pay their fair share and to give the IRS the funds to more accurately assess the tax base. No new taxes are necessary. But the very, very rich will have to accept that their free ride is over.

Posted April 17, 2023 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

14 April 2023   1 comment

Posted April 14, 2023 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

27 March 2023   3 comments

Repeal the 2nd Amendment

The United States has experienced yet another mass shooting, this time in Nashville, Tennessee at a religious school. Six people died and the killer carried two assault-style weapons and a handgun. As always, the nation will go through another period of impotent “thoughts and prayers” as its citizens will debate the meaning of the 2nd Amendment.

The 2nd Amendment reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It is a poorly written amendment, subject to all sorts of weird interpretations. When it was being debated in 1789, its intent was clear. The citizens at the time were tremendously suspicious of a standing army since their experience as colonial subjects proved to them that standing armies, maintained by a powerful state, represented a threat to liberty. The writers of the constitution therefore wanted the common defense to be maintained by state militias in order to fragment centralized military control and assumed that militias would only be called upon when there was a specific threat to be addressed. The Massachusetts Declaration of Rights adopted in 1780 gives a rough idea of what the concerns were: “The people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defence. And as, in time of peace, armies are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be maintained without the consent of the legislature; and the military power shall always be held in an exact subordination to the civil authority, and be governed by it.”

The most important dimension of this concern was the fear of a powerful state. To that end, the states were not expected to arm the militias. Instead, every citizen was expected to bring their own weapons when the militia was called upon. The “original intent” of the 2nd Amendment was to assure that states never developed their own weapons-producing capabilities.

This meaning of the 2nd Amendment has been lost and its tortured language is currently interpreted by the US Supreme Court as a right of individuals to possess weapons even though the states now buy weapons for their militias (in the US, the National Guard) and the Federal Government regularly purchases weapons to arm the various branches of the US military. Indeed, soldiers in the US military are not allowed to use personal weapons when they are officially deployed in combat. The reasoning behind this prohibition is obvious: massed armies require standardized equipment so that it is easier to provide the necessary training, ammunition, and maintenance of weaponry. And very few citizens could afford to buy their own modern weapons.

The Militia Act of 1792 makes it clear that citizens were expected to provide their own weapons:

“That every citizen so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good How to be musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a armed and ac- knapsack, a pouch with a box therein to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball: or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder”

This interpretation of the 2nd Amendment was washed away in the Supreme Court’s decision, District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008. The decision was 5-4 and the Majority Opinion was written by Justice Antonin Scalia. That Opinion was summarized as follows:

“To read the Amendment as limiting the right to bear arms only to those in a governed military force would be to create exactly the type of state-sponsored force against which the Amendment was meant to protect people. Because the text of the Amendment should be read in the manner that gives greatest effect to the plain meaning it would have had at the time it was written, the operative clause should be read to ‘guarantee an individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation.’ This reading is also in line with legal writing of the time and subsequent scholarship. Therefore, banning handguns, an entire class of arms that is commonly used for protection purposes, and prohibiting firearms from being kept functional in the home, the area traditionally in need of protection, violates the Second Amendment.”

The Supreme Court went even further in its decision New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen in 2022 and the Majority Opinion was written by Justice Clarence Thomas. In that opinion , Justice Thomas argued that all gun control legislation needed to be assessed in a manner “consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.” I personally have no idea what that phrase means. What is the “historical tradition” relevant to an AR-15? It only became widely available in 1963 when the Colt Manufacturing Company sold it to civilians.

The interpretations of Heller and Bruen are hypertrophic and have no logical connection whatsoever with the original intent of the 2nd Amendment. To equate the right to carry an automatic or semi-automatic weapon in a public place to the right to speak freely or to assemble peaceably is dishonest nonsense. Indeed, the right to speak freely is itself limited to speech that does not incite violence. And the invocation of “original” intent is itself nonsense. The “original intent” of the Constitution was to codify and normalize the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of people. The “original intent” of the Constitution was to deny women the right to vote. Fortunately, the people of the United States decided that slavery was completely inconsistent with the true aspirations of the Constitution and that the voices of women in governance was essential to a well-functioning democracy. One would be hard-pressed to argue that the slaughter of innocents was consistent with the ideals of “domestic tranquility“.

We should repeal the 2nd Amendment since its current interpretation apparently only allows “thoughts and prayers” for those who are mindlessly killed and for those who have lost loved ones. And we should examine seriously the health of a society which holds that children should be protected only by participating in “active shooting drills”. That advice resonates strongly with me as I remember huddling under my wooden desk in 3rd grade as adults tried to persuade me that it was an effective defense against a nuclear blast.

The repeal of the 2nd Amendment would leave a vacuum with respect to gun policy. Much would have to be done to fill that vacuum, but I only offer one suggestion on the issue of automatic and semi-automatic weapons. I want to avoid the inevitable controversy over the possible “confiscation” of guns. That policy would never work and would simply aggravate the untenable situation in which we find ourselves. Instead, I suggest a Federal law along the following lines;

  1. The sale of any weapon with an automatic or semi-automatic firing mechanism will be prohibited.
  2. Citizens can possess such weapons but they can only be held on the property of the primary residence of a citizen.
  3. The carrying of an automatic or semi-automatic weapon in a public space will be prohibited and any such weapons found in a public space shall be confiscated and destroyed.

We can debate background checks or the mental health requirements on all other weapons at a future point. But there is no reason why the burden of proving an acceptable solution to gun violence should be borne exclusively by those who want the weapons to be controlled. The burden should more appropriately be borne by those who insist that they have a “right” to possess military-grade weapons. They should be forced to defend that right in the face of all the horror and instability that society faces every day and with stunning regularity.

Posted March 27, 2023 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

17 March 2023   Leave a comment

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. They stand accused of Crimes Against humanity, specifically for the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. The International Criminal Court in The Hague was created in 2002 and has the authority to prosecute war criminals only for “crimes committed on the territory of a state which has ratified the treaty; or by a citizen of such a state; or when the United Nations Security Council refers a case to it.” According to the New York Times:

“Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February, Russian authorities have announced with patriotic fanfare the transfer of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia to be adopted and become citizens. On state-run television, officials offer teddy bears to new arrivals, who are portrayed as abandoned children being rescued from war.

“In fact, this mass transfer of children is a potential war crime, regardless of whether they were orphans. And while many of the children did come from orphanages and group homes, the authorities also took children whose relatives or guardians want them back, according to interviews with children and families on both sides of the border.”

Last February the Yale School of Public Health released a report that estimated that about 6,000 children had been abducted and brought into Russia where some of them have been adopted by Russian citizens. That report pointed out:

“The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed UNSC Resolution 1261 in 1999, which details six grave violations against children during armed conflict. These six grave violations are derived from accepted instruments and bedrock principles of international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and international juris prudence, including the Four Geneva
Conventions and their additional protocols, the Rome Statute, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Grave violation 5 is the abduction of children by either state or non-state actors during both interstate and intrastate warfare. The United Nations’ 2013 edition of its working paper on the legal foundation of the six grave violations explains why child abduction during armed conflict constitutes a grave violation:

“Abducting or seizing children against their will or the will of their adult guardians either temporarily or permanently and without due cause, is illegal under international law. It may constitute a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and in some circumstances amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The immediate effect of the arrest warrants is negligible. Russia signed the Rome Treaty establishing the ICC in 2002, but never ratified the treaty and withdrew its signature in 2016 after criticisms over its takeover of Crimea in 2014 and for its actions in the Syrian civil war. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued a Twitter statement likening the arrest warrant to toilet paper. But the Court has tried two former leaders of states–Muammar Gaddaffi of Libya and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. It is unlikely that anyone will arrest Putin anytime soon. But Putin is now constrained from traveling to any state which might have an interest in arresting him which may limit his standing in the international arena. Moreover, Russian allies may find it harder to embrace Russian policies in Ukraine as along as the warrant is outstanding.

Posted March 17, 2023 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

16 March 2023   Leave a comment


A Tragedy In Five Acts

By Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Translated by Anna Swanwick

Posted March 16, 2023 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

5 March 2023   Leave a comment

I am becoming increasingly concerned that Israel is thinking more seriously about attacking the nuclear facilities in Iran in order to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. In late February, Iran acknowledged that a report from international inspectors that Iran had purified Uranium to 84% purity, very close to the threshold level for weapons-grade Uranium. Since that time, there have been many high-level meetings among Israeli defense officials. According to Al-Monitor:

“Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant agreed on Wednesday night on a multiyear defense budget, a large portion of which will be dedicated to preparations for a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

“Indeed, reports confirm that Israel is stepping up its preparations to attack Iran’s military nuclear infrastructure. Since Netanyahu returned to power in late December, this possibility is being discussed on a practical level, reflecting the coveted goal of his career. As things look now, the question is not really whether Israel will attack Iran, but when it will do so and whether it will go it alone or with US logistical, political and perhaps even ‘kinetic’ backing.

“Israel’s top security brass took part this week in the Defense Ministry’s 2023 annual work plan conference, among them Gallant, Ministry Director General Maj. Gen. (Res.) Eyal Zamir and the head of the Ministry’s Political-Security Division, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Dror Shalom. Addressing the participants, all three agreed that a real war was being waged between Israel and Iran. Shalom, the most outspoken of the three, said Israel must shift gears and realize that it is already engaged in a war of varying intensity with Iran.”

Moreover, “Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has held a meeting with Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley in Tel Aviv to discuss the regional security and the importance of international cooperation aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons”. The US has had a contingency plan, code-named “Support Sentry”, for a military operation against Iran since 2018 under the Trump Administration (such plans are not alarming in and of themselves–the US likely has many contingency plans to invade Canada). But the plans have increased urgency given recent events: “Support Sentry is one example of the U.S. military’s growing comfort with — and support for — Israel’s aggressive stance toward Iran. As U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides’ bluntly put it last week, ‘Israel can and should do whatever they need to deal with [Iran] and we’ve got their back.'”

The new Israeli military budget has allocated additional funds for capabilities specifically targeted toward Iranian nuclear facilities. Specifically Israel has requested enough money to purchase the GBU-72 bomb from the US which is designed to destroy underground facilities such as those being used by the Iranian nuclear program. The Middle East Monitor notes:

“Israel’s cabinet has approved a multi-year draft general budget which, amongst other things, grants an increase by approximately $2.8 billion for a potential strike on Iran and its nuclear program.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant agreed on Wednesday night on a multi-year defence budget which will reportedly largely be used to prepare for a potential strike on Iran’s underground nuclear facilities.

“According to media reports, Israel is planning to request the United States to sell to it its new GBU-72 bomb, which weighs 5,000 pounds (2,267.9 kilograms) and has the capability to strike underground sites or bunkers.

“The planned purchase had initially been considered in 2021 when that year’s budget allocated $1.5 billion to the Israeli military for the purpose of attaining arms for a potential conflict with Iran. The military continued that aim this year, but requested an additional $3 billion, of which $2.8 was granted….

“The resumption of the plan to purchase the GBU-72 bomb comes particularly at a time when Israel has been openly considering taking preventative military action against Iran’s nuclear program, with Netanyahu seeking to bomb sites and underground facilities in a repeat of Israel’s striking of Iraq’s and Syria’s nuclear facilities in 1981 and 2007.”

Attitudes toward Iran have become sharply more negative since the death of Mahsa Amini on 16 September 2022. Amini died in the custody of the Iranian morality police for not wearing an appropriate head covering and the country was rocked by serious protests for several months. According to Ellen Ioanes writing for Vox:

“Amini’s death became the catalyzing event to unleash pent-up fury at the government; political opposition is basically nonexistent, with Iran’s Reform Party suggesting gradual fixes in the face of protesters’ demands for radical change. Ordinary Iranians have little political representation, particularly after the election of the hard-line current President Ebrahim Raisi, Khamenei’s preferred candidate in the 2021 elections who has a record of grievous human rights abuses. Many Iranians refused to vote in those most recent elections, both as the only feasible way to show disgust with the system, and because many understood the vote to be rigged in Raisi’s favor.….

“To date, at least 517 people have been killed during the protests, though the actual number is unknown since the regime does not release data on those killed, arrested, or executed for participating in the uprising. That number includes roughly 50 children under 18, the New York Times’ Farnaz Fassihi previously reported. But casualties and arrests — the latter of which the HRANA activist news agency puts at around 19,200 — are difficult to track; social media and internet access are severely curtailed, and foreign reporters can’t access the country.”

Those attitudes have only hardened with the reports of the poisoning of Iranian schoolgirls, ostensibly to send messages to Iranian women to end the protests. But little is known at this time about those poisonings, other than many of the girls have been sent to the hospital.

My heightened concerns about an Israeli attack on Iran arises because of the domestic turmoil within Israel as the Netanyahu government seeks to change the authority of the Israeli Supreme Court so that its decisions can be overridden by the Knesset. The change would also likely undermine the ability of the Israeli justice system to prosecute him for alleged crimes of bribery and corruption. Additionally, the settler movement is feeling empowered by the Netanyahu government to take stronger steps to annex the entire West Bank at the expense of all the Palestinians who live there. An attack on Iran would probably stimulate stronger nationalist feelings within Israel and put the concerns of many Israelis about the future of Israeli democracy on the back burner. It seems to be a ripe time for Netanyahu to change the political climate within Israel in his favor.

Posted March 5, 2023 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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