Afghanistan: Oh, When Will We Ever Learn?

“U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign,” the Washington Post‘s Craig Whitlock reports, “making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”

Whitlock bases that claim on a collection of candid, confidential interviews with more than 400 military and political “insiders” conducted by Congress’s Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

Not that we really needed “The Afghanistan Papers” to tell us the war was unwinnable.  That was clear from the beginning.  Any mission beyond quick strikes on al Qaeda’s facilities and operators in Afghanistan was doomed to failure.

The idea of taking over the country and making it into a “western democracy” was transparent foolishness. More than one empire has foundered on the rock that is Afghanistan, and the American military adventure there was never going to be the exception.

Nor do “The Afghanistan Papers” tell us anything else we shouldn’t have already known. They merely confirm a lesson we should have learned nearly 50 ago.

In 1971, the New York Times published  the Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, better known as “The Pentagon Papers.”

That report, leaked to the press by American hero Daniel Ellsberg, revealed (in the words of the Times‘s R.W. Apple) “that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress,” about the progress and prospects of the US war in Vietnam.

Sound familiar?

War is always ugly. Optional and prolonged wars with nebulous objectives are always built on lies — lies stacked sky-high atop one another for no other purpose than to keep the ugliness going for as long as possible.

Why?

The prettiest answer, and it’s not pretty, is that generals and politicians hate to admit defeat. They can always be relied upon to convince themselves — and try to convince us — that “a corner has been turned” and that “there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” at least until they’ve managed to bequeath the losses to, and blame the losses on, their successors.

The uglier answer is that war is profitable all around for politicians who want to be re-elected, officers who want to be promoted, and “defense” contractors who want to sell more guns, more bombs, more planes, more everything.

It’s not so good for the rest of us, though.

At a conservative estimate, the US government has burned through more than a trillion dollars dragging out the fiasco in Afghanistan. You’re on the hook for that bar tab.

And you’re getting off easy. More than 3,500 “coalition” troops, most of them Americans, and somewhere between 100,000 and half a million Afghans (depending on whose figures you believe) have paid with their lives.

Next time the politicians want to drum up or continue an optional war, they’ll tell us the same lies they told us this time, and last time, and the time before that.

We’ve got to stop believing those lies.

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JEDI Mind Tricks: Amazon versus the Pentagon and Trump

Amazon is one of the largest companies in the world, boasting revenues of more than $230 billion last year. But last month the company sued the US Department of Defense over a paltry potential $10 billion spread over ten years.

Amazon lost out to Microsoft in bidding for the Pentagon’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (yes,  JEDI, because the most important part of a government program is coming up with a cool acronym) cloud computing program.

Amazon claims it lost the contract due to, well, JEDI mind tricks — “improper pressure” and “repeated and behind-the-scenes attacks” —  played by US president Donald Trump on the Pentagon to set its collective mind against his perceived political opponent, Amazon president (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos.

If so, Trump’s mind tricks pale next to the mind tricks used to justify the notion that the Pentagon needs a billion dollars a year to buy its own specialized, proprietary cloud computing system — one that the DoD’s own fact sheet boasts is  merely ” one component of the larger ecosystem that consists of different cloud models based on purpose” — from Microsoft, from Amazon, or from anyone else.

The great thing about cloud computing is that it’s a 50-year-old concept, generally available for years now in numerous off-the-shelf versions. The Pentagon doesn’t need its own cloud computing system any more than it needs its own brand of staplers.

Some JEDI knights might protest that the US armed forces need sturdier security than the everyday user, justifying a proprietary system. Per the fact sheet, “NSA, CYBERCOM, and the intelligence community provided input into JEDI’s security requirements.”

I suspect we’re talking about the same NSA, CYBERCOM and intelligence community we’ve listened to whine for the last 30 years about how civilian encryption technologies and other privacy protections are just too darn good and should be artificially hobbled to make them easier to crack.

Global Firepower lists 2019 defense budgets for 137 of the world’s countries. Of those countries, 61 — nearly half — spend less than $1 billion per year on their entire armed forces. That is, less than the Pentagon wants to spend per year on a single computing system.

It’s not Amazon who’s getting screwed here, it’s the American taxpayer. JEDI is Pentagon budget padding at one end and corporate welfare at the other, not an essential element of a robust national defense.

In other news, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper still hasn’t found the droids he’s looking for.

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State Gun Control in America: A Historic Guide to Major State Gun Control Laws and Acts

The Second Amendment guarantees American citizens the right to bear arms, but both federal and state governments determine how citizens may legally exercise that right. And while both federal and state gun control laws regularly change, laws at the state level change more frequently and often without the media coverage that surrounds changes at the federal level.

This results in a constant challenge for gun owners to keep up with the latest state laws, especially for those who carry their weapons across state lines. Because while some states have more restrictions than others, state gun control policies across the country are diverse and can change quickly – too easily putting responsible gun owners on the wrong side of the law.

This guide is a timeline of major state gun control acts throughout the history of the United States – not only to help gun owners understand the state laws that have influenced our nation, but also to showcase how one state’s gun laws can set an example for others, creating a domino effect of gun control policy for the entire country.

Colonial America: Slavery Versus The Second Amendment

Pre-Constitution, the original Articles of Confederation established that “every State shall always keep up a well-regulated and disciplined militia.” The Bill of Rights’ Second Amendment holds that “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.” However, those rights were at that time granted specifically to white males.

Fear of slave and Native American uprisings prompted many colonial states to establish laws banning “free Mulattos, Negroes and Indians” from having firearms. By the antebellum period, southern states like South CarolinaLouisianaFloridaMarylandGeorgiaNorth CarolinaMississippi and even Delaware all had various laws denying guns to people of color and allowing search and seizure of weapons as well as punishment without trial. Crucial to all of this was the Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sanford.

Previously a slave, Dred Scott sued for freedom based on the fact that he’d lived in the free state of Illinois and a free area within the Louisiana Territory for a decade. When his suit was unsuccessful in Missouri, he appealed to the federal courts. The contention was whether “a free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves,” was a citizen with protections under the Constitution. The Supreme Court decision on Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857 denied “a free negro of the African race” citizenship – a milestone its issuer cited as “the most momentous event that has ever occurred on this continent,” excluding the Declaration of Independence. In that moment, those denied citizenship were also excluded from any of the rights associated with it.

After The Civil War: The Postbellum Era, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the Black Codes

While President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves, President Andrew Johnson’s failing leadership brought with it all the struggles of the Reconstruction Era. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court Dred Scott decision still denied people of African descent citizenship.

Former Confederate states enacted Black Codes to define and restrict freedmen’s positions within society. Along with mandating legal responsibilities, land ownership rights, contract labor wages and harsh criminal laws, nearly all the Black Codes effectively and pointedly banned “persons of color” – anyone “with more than one-eighth Negro blood” – from possessing firearms. MississippiSouth CarolinaLouisianaFloridaMarylandAlabamaNorth CarolinaTexas and Tennessee all enacted Black Codes, attempting to maintain the status quo and deny weapons to people of color.

The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments banned slavery, provided all citizens equal protection under the law and ensured voting rights for all citizens. The 14th Amendment was particularly important, as it defined citizenship as “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” overturning the Dred Scott decision, establishing people of color as citizens and overriding state statutes denying them the right to possess firearms based on their heritage.

Continue reading State Gun Control in America: A Historic Guide to Major State Gun Control Laws and Acts at Ammo.com

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Impeachment: Trump Has Already Confessed to “High Crimes”

Every time a witness testifies behind closed doors in the US House of Representatives’ methodical march toward the impeachment of President Donald Trump, Trump supporters scream “no quid pro quo” while Trump opponents breathlessly inform us that the “smoking gun” has turned up and that impeachment is now “inevitable.”

What’s with all this “smoking gun” stuff? The decision to impeach is political, but in terms of evidence, it’s already a lock. President Trump publicly confessed to multiple “high crimes” before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) even announced the impeachment inquiry, then threw in a corroborating White House document.

Readers, meet Article VI of the US Constitution:

“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land …”

And now let us consult a lesser-known document, the US government’s  Treaty With Ukraine on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters:

“Each Contracting State shall have a Central Authority to make and receive requests pursuant to this treaty. For the United States of America, the Central Authority shall be the  Attorney General or a person designated by the Attorney General. For Ukraine, the Central Authority shall be the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Prosecutor General. … A request for assistance shall be in writing except that the Central Authority of the Requested State may accept a request in another form in urgent situations.”

Donald Trump is not the Attorney General of the United States, nor has the Attorney General publicly produced a document designating him the US government’s requesting authority under the treaty. Volodymyr Zelensky is the president of Ukraine, not a principal of its Ministry of Justice or Office of the Prosecutor General. A request by phone is not in writing, nor are matters years in the past and already subject to substantial investigation “urgent.”

Donald Trump made a request he had no authority to make, to a person he had no authority to make it of, in a form he had no authority to make it in. That’s at least three violations of the “Supreme Law of the Land.”

So, what’s a “high crime?” It may sound like a synonym for “serious crime” — espionage, treason, assassination, that kind of thing — but it’s actually a “term of art”  more concerned with the person committing the act than the act itself.

As Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist #65, “high crimes”  for purposes of impeachment are “offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”

Donald Trump’s public trust, per the Constitution, includes “tak[ing] care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Instead, he violated “the supreme Law of the Land,” then publicly confessed to doing so, then corroborated his confession with evidence.

The “smoking gun” has been there the whole time. The rest is just details and politics.

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How Children Learn the Humanity of Trade

My older children attend a self-directed learning center for unschoolers a couple of days a week. I love to hear the stories they share about what they do during the day. Classes are offered and are generated based on the young people’s interests, but they are entirely voluntary. Kids can attend classes or do their own projects, either independently or collaboratively, during what is known as “open hangout.” No one directs the hangout. Adults are present to facilitate and help if needed, but they don’t orchestrate the children’s work and play. The kids are free to create at will.

One creation that has been ongoing for months during open hangout is the development of a marketplace and its associated currency, known as myafo. It turns out, some of the kids want to tax the businesses in the marketplace “because that is how it is.”The kids create myafo using crayons and hot glue to make colorful, round gems and then use this currency to “buy” items that are produced for sale in the myafo marketplace. It’s been interesting to hear about the evolution of this economy and its unit of exchange, including the successes and setbacks.

Lately, as the marketplace gains popularity among the young people at the learning center, there have been discussions about creating a central bank and the potential issues related to that. There have also been conversations about power and control. Not surprisingly, one discussion that piqued my interest related to taxes. It turns out, some of the kids want to tax the businesses in the marketplace “because that is how it is.”

Forced Generosity

Others have more magnanimous reasons for taxation, such as using the taxes as a method of charity to allow kids who are new to the center, or who attend irregularly, to fully participate in the marketplace by receiving an allotment of myafo out of the collected taxes. It was called a charity tax. Some children disagreed with the tax idea and suggested that everyone be encouraged to voluntarily donate some of their myafo to help the newcomers. After all, forced generosity isn’t charity; it’s coercion.

It will be interesting to see how the myafo marketplace matures and how the kids address conflicts related to their growing economy. The issues they grapple with are big, and even we adults haven’t figured them out in real life. I am glad to see that dialogue and debate are central to the young people’s decision-making and that it is all completely child-driven. Trade is a fundamental process of human betterment.The kids, who range in age from about six to 14, created this project all on their own, with no adult prompting and no adult interference. It reveals how the idea of peaceful, voluntary cooperation through trade is something humans gravitate toward. Indeed, they have for millennia.

The history of trade dates to prehistoric times, as individuals sought to improve their well-being through trade. Someone has something to barter or sell that someone else wants to barter or buy, and both parties are better off as a result of the exchange. Trade is a fundamental process of human betterment. As it has spread during modern times, particularly when unencumbered by kings, dictators, and other central powers, free trade has led to growing global prosperity and astonishing reductions in poverty.

Trade

FEE’s Dan Sanchez goes so far as to say trade is what makes us human and quotes Adam Smith, who wrote in The Wealth of Nations of humans’ “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” Smith continues:

It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any other species of contracts. (…) Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that.

If you or your children are curious about the history of money and exchange, I highly recommend this Outschool.com class taught by Tom Bogle, as well as the Netflix original series Origins and its episode on “Money, Banks, and The Stock Market.” And definitely check out FEE’s fantastic Common Sense Soapbox episode “Voluntary Trade is Win-Win!

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The Roots of Inertia

Why don’t low-skilled workers try harder to better their condition?  While this might seem a neoliberal question, it weighs on Barbara Ehrenreich’s mind:

I was baffled, initially, by what seemed like a certain lack of get-up-and-go on the part of my fellow workers. Why didn’t they just leave for a better-paying job, as I did when I moved from the Hearthside to Jerry’s?

She starts with some textbook economic answers.  There’s transaction costs:

Part of the answer is that actual humans experience a little more “friction” than marbles do, and the poorer they are, the more constrained their mobility usually is. Low-wage people who don’t have cars are often dependent on a relative who is willing to drop them off and pick them up again each day, sometimes on a route that includes the babysitter’s house or the child care center… I have mentioned, too, the general reluctance to exchange the devil you know for one that you don’t know, even when the latter is tempting you with a better wage-benefit package. At each new job, you have to start all over, clueless and friendless.

And information costs:

There is another way that low-income workers differ from “economic man.” For the laws of economics to work, the “players” need to be well informed about their options…

But there are no Palm Pilots, cable channels, or Web sites to advise the low-wage job seeker. She has only the help-wanted signs and the want ads to go on, and most of these coyly refrain from mentioning numbers. So information about who earns what and where has to travel by word of mouth, and for inexplicable cultural reasons, this is a very slow and unreliable route…

Soon, however, she appeals to industrial psychology.  Employers win workers hearts and minds – what Ehrenreich calls, “the co-optative power of management, illustrated by such euphemisms as associate and team member.”  And don’t forget learned helplessness:

Drug testing is another routine indignity. Civil libertarians see it as a violation of our Fourth Amendment freedom from “unreasonable search”; most jobholders and applicants find it simply embarrassing…

There are other, more direct ways of keeping low-wage employees in their place. Rules against “gossip,” or even “talking,” make it hard to air your grievances to peers or-should you be so daring-to enlist other workers in a group effort to bring about change, through a union organizing drive, for example. Those who do step out of line often face little unexplained punishments, such as having their schedules or their work assignments unilaterally changed. Or you may be fired…

The big picture, though, is that the capitalist system breaks workers’ spirits:

So if low-wage workers do not always behave in an economically rational way, that is, as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a place that is neither free nor in any way democratic. When you enter the low-wage workplace-and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well- you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift. The consequences of this routine surrender go beyond the issues of wages and poverty. We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world’s preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship.

The obvious response to all of these stories, however, is: “Why don’t the same factors prevent high-skill workers from trying to better their condition?”  Let’s consider each in turn.

Transaction costs.  While high-skilled workers have fewer problems with transportation and child-care, they also have much more specific skills.  This seriously impedes job search.  To find a new job, most nuclear engineers – and many professors – would have to not just sell their homes, but move to a new city.  The high-skilled are also more likely to be in two-earner families, which makes relocation doubly disruptive.

Information costs.  Firms often publicly advertise low-skilled wages.  This is much less true for high-skilled jobs.

Hearts and minds.  High-skilled workers seem much more likely to identify with their employer – and to define themselves in terms of their work.

Learned helplessness.  Again, the indignities required for starting a high-skilled job probably exceed those for low-skilled employment, especially if you’re a government contractor.  Once hired, however, the petty indignities high-skill workers endure are admittedly lower.  (Here’s why).

The capitalist system. Almost no employer cares for kvetching, but high-skill workers probably feel freer to speak up on the job.  Off the job, however, they are probably more worried about offending bosses, co-workers, or clients.  Who cares what a waiter posts on Facebook?  In any case, why should lack of voice reduce enthusiasm for exit?

So why then don’t low-skill workers try harder to better their condition?  All of Ehrenreich’s answers prove too much.  The better story is simply that there is a distribution of desire to better your condition.  In short, human beings have heterogeneous ambition. Some burn to rise; others take life as it comes; most lie somewhere in the middle.  And though mere desire hardly ensures success, ambition usually works in the long-run.  The more you want to better your condition, the better your condition eventually tends to become.

Like Ehrenreich’s story, my story explains why low-skill workers seem “stuck.”  Unlike her, however, I can also explains why high-skill workers seem mobile.  In short, what my “heterogeneous ambition” story lacks in Social Desirability Bias, it makes up for by explaining mobility and inertia, rather than inertia alone.

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