A Preference for Peace: Not the Same Thing as Support for the Bogeyman of the Week

I’m not ashamed to admit it: I’m a peacenik. I think war is a bad thing. I’ve seen it up close and personal as an infantryman, and I’d like to see less of it, preferably none at all, either up close or from a distance.

In part, this desire also makes me a “non-interventionist.” That is, in a world with 195 “sovereign nations,” it makes sense that the political officials in each one should mind his or her own state’s business and not try to decide who gets to run the other 194, or how they should do so.

And this, in turn, leads to scolding claims that I am “soft on”  politicians from states who happen to be at odds with the politicians from “my” country, the USA.

If I don’t want a return to Cold War with what’s left of the former Soviet Union, I’m Vladimir Putin’s puppet.

If I don’t support US sanctions on Iran, it must mean that I support whatever agenda my critic imputes to “Supreme Leader” Ali Khameni.

If I don’t support the US invasion/occupation of Syria, I’m clearly a fan of president Bashar al-Assad.

If I don’t think the US government should waste American treasure (and conceivably even American blood) trying to get Venezuelans to rally behind Juan Guiado’s “interim president” claim, it’s obvious that I want Nicolas Maduro and the Chavistas left in charge.

Well, no, not at all. Not in any of those cases, nor in any of the other places around the world where American presidents, American Congresses, and American bureaucrats continuously try to seize control of the wheel from the people who, you know, live there.

Do I have opinions about politics in Russia, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Libya  … or, heck, Germany, Greece, Israel, Japan, North and South Korea, and so on?

Yes, I do.

Do I think that it’s the job of American taxpayers to finance, and if necessary American soldiers to compel, those foreign politicians to do the will of American politicians on pain of being replaced by new politicians who will?

No, I don’t.

Not any more than I want Xi Jinping, Emmanuel Macron, or Justin Trudeau imposing their political will on my neighbors in my country.

Nor any more than I want my next-door neighbor barging into my house and ordering me to move the furniture around and serve spaghetti for dinner.

Yes, it can be made a lot more complicated than that, and some people insist on doing so.

But yes, it’s really that simple.

I’m not a fan of the state as we know it, which has been defined since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia in terms of mutually recognized “borders” and “national sovereignty.” That model is disintegrating, and I’m hopeful that it will give way to something better.

Until it does, there are far worse ideas than the notion that politicians should limit their claims of “sovereignty” to the spaces within their own “borders,” leaving other people and other politicians to work out their own destinies.

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Poverty and Success

Perhaps the most unpopular opinion I hold is that—in spite of the myriad obstacles to success instigated by the state—success is still achievable by a significant percentage of the population (>95%) and poverty is a result of one’s own choices in a similar percentage of cases.

I am not suggesting that everyone’s idea of success necessarily requires financial wealth or that poverty (a lack of financial wealth) is always an undesirable state of existence. Some people do indeed choose to prioritize other goals above wealth, and that is certainly their right. I also acknowledge that there are some people (<5%) in any population who, due to severe disability or state maleficence (typically through the so-called “criminal justice system“), have limited or no ability to achieve financial success.

Caveats aside, my basic thesis is that greater than 95 percent of people are capable of and have the opportunity to achieve financial success, but that many (and even a majority) do not take advantage of their opportunities. There are numerous decisions, reasons, and alternative priorities that explain this phenomenon and the following are far from an exhaustive list.

  1. Not taking advantage of educational opportunities. In the U.S. and most developed countries, basic education is available to all at no charge and higher education is available inexpensively or even at no charge to those who can demonstrate financial hardship. In addition, the information age has led to an unprecedented increase in the quantity and quality of educational materials available at little or even no charge. Nearly anyone can learn to do anything if they are willing to put in the effort. Those who choose to live their lives in ignorance have almost always chosen that path.
  2. Having children (they cannot afford) too young. This is another huge predictor of one’s likelihood of achieving financial success. Having children represents nearly a quarter-million dollars’ worth of expenses taken on which will have to be paid in a span of fewer than two decades. Why do people make this foolish choice? If your finances would not support the purchase of a Lamborghini Huracán, they also don’t support you having a child. Wait or abstain!
  3. An unwillingness to relocate. Here we see another significant problem that plagues the perpetually poor. Sometimes opportunity doesn’t knock on your door. Sometimes you have to go hunt for it. Cost of living is also a major factor here. The Apartment List National Rent Report found that the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New York City was $2,523. It was even higher at $2,621 in San Jose, CA. Compare that to Phoenix, AZ or Houston, TX where the averages were $1,061 and $1,024 respectively.

It is not just rent either; today, the average cost for a gallon of gas in San Jose, CA, is $3.27 while in Houston, TX, it’s $1.93. Play with a Cost Of Living Calculator and observe the difference. Right now, the cost of living is 44.33% lower in Houston than in the San Francisco area and 56.82% lower than in the Manhattan area. Why do poor people stay in expensive cities?

What about finding a job? The lowest unemployment in the country right now is in the Ames, IA Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) at just 1.4 percent. That’s less than half the 3.6 percent unemployment rate in the New York MSA, and yet the cost of living in Ames, IA, is 59.19% lower than in Manhattan. If you are working full time earning $20 an hour (well above the minimum wage) in New York, you could move to Ames, IA, and take a job making $8.50 an hour and you would be better off ($8.17/hr. is the breakeven point.) Oh, and gas at Sam’s Club in Ames is going for $1.86 a gallon today.

So what is my point with all this information? My point is that if people would make smarter decisions—particularly about their education, when they have children, and where they live—they would have a far greater chance of achieving financial success. I’m not suggesting that it is always easy or that there are not obstacles to overcome, but I am suggesting that it is not nearly as difficult as some people claim. Poverty is not the fault of billionaires or of “greedy capitalists” or of some systemic injustice that keeps “po’ folks” down. Poverty is the natural and predictable result of ongoing poor choices, and until people realize this and start taking responsibility for their own culpability in their financial situations, we will continue to hear the growing chorus of complainers demanding political intervention to redistribute money from those who earned it to those who did not.

With few exceptions, it is fair to say that poor people make poor choices.

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America’s War Culture

For most of the opinion-making class in America today, war is the default position. Representatives of establishment newspapers and TV news operations are not likely to grill someone who favors U.S. military intervention somewhere — anywhere. He or she will have no burden of proof to sustain. But those who oppose a new war or call for an end to an existing one are sure to be treated like oddballs if not traitors. They’d better have an extraordinarily strong defense of their position because the burden of proof will be squarely on them; even a strong defense, however, won’t get the heat turned down.

Need I point out that a presumption in favor of war is toxic to a society that fancies itself free and humane? Continuing wars and readiness to intervene anywhere in the world costs money and, worse, lives. A war state cannot long coexist with strict limitations on government power and spending. Moreover, it impedes people without influence from prospering because military spending diverts resources from consumer investment and production to weapons and other things irrelevant to consumer welfare.

Let’s face it, empire is bloody expensive.

So why the presumption in favor of war? (The general population is split, but opinion seems driven by partisanship and therefore is subject to opportunistic shifts, Glenn Greenwald writes.) Part of the answer simply is Trump Derangement Syndrome. Trump has occasionally talked peace since his presidential campaign began, and therefore his opponents apparently feel they have to favor war. Whatever Trump wants, they want the opposite, even if it is something they once may have favored.

While he has pushed obscenely large increases in Pentagon spending — increases that dwarf Russia’s entire military budget — rattled his saber at Iran, and made aggressive moves in Russia’s direction (arms for Ukraine’s government, withdrawal from the INF treaty, sanctions, etc.), he has also made some welcome overtures toward retrenchment, most notably with North Korea, now Syria, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan. (What’s the point of cutting the U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan merely in half?)

Alas, any overture toward peace has prompted most of the pundit class and most politicians to unload on Trump. He has been accused of being a traitor or Russian agent just for talking about exiting a senseless war. His decision to get out of Syria — although many times he said would get out — was described as sudden and erratic, not to mention as a payoff to Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen says Putin wants the small and uninvited U.S. force to stay in Syria as a partner in the battle against terrorism.)

Of course, we can’t be confident that Trump will follow through on Syria or other pro-peace initiatives — he can’t help equivocating — but we surely ought to be encouraging him to do so. The pundits and politicians, in contrast, apparently see their role in discouraging him by portraying him as disloyal, loopy, or both whenever he talks peace. The lethal attack on Americans in Syria the other day was immediately used to pressure Trump into changing his mind about withdrawing. It hasn’t occurred to the war class that the troops would not have been killed had they been removed.

When a news interviewer gets push-back from a guest who supports a Trump peace move, the interviewer typically switches gears: “But do you approve of how Trump is going about it?” No word on behalf of scaling back the war state is allowed go unchallenged. If a mainstream media representative can’t score a point against a proposal to get out of a war, he’ll go after the “process.” Overlooked is the fact that Barack Obama intervened in Syria in defiance of both Congress and the American public. When has that process been challenged by the intelligentsia?

Speaking of process, the media delight in going after Trump for not meekly deferring to allies and generals, apparently forgetting that the U.S. government is supposed to be run by elected civilians, with the military strictly subordinate. The pundits cheer whenever a war-mongering military officer or national security appointee publicly undercuts Trump’s declared intention to withdraw from or avoid a war.

The media also delight in impugning the sanity, character, or “loyalty” of the rare public figure who favors a Trump peace overture. Opponents of intervention are routinely smeared as sympathizers of whoever rules the country in question, as though it followed that if you don’t like a country’s ruler, you logically ought to favor obliterating his country. In this video, Glenn Greenwald reminds us that those who objected to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Libya were accused of being soft on Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

To see the presumption of war in action, watch this recent exchange (beginning at 1:12) between CNN’s Jake Tapper and Sen. Rand Paul, who has applauded Trump’s announcement about Syria.

Tapper says: “I do want to ask you one philosophical point and I don’t want you to think I’m being rude here, but I’m just wondering, in the last 20 years is there any act of U.S. intervention with military force abroad that you support?” The implication here is that unless Paul has supported at least one war, his support for an end to U.S. intervention in Syria is suspect.

I wish Paul had turned the question around and said, “Jake, let me ask you this: is there any U.S. war in the last 20 years that you opposed?”

Instead, Paul told Tapper he supported the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, though he was not in Congress at the time. That’s too bad of course, but to his credit, Paul reminded Tapper that subsequent interventions have no authority under the resolution passed by Congress with respect to Afghanistan. He also added that he opposed nation-building in Afghanistan: “I would have declared victory and come home long ago.” He also schooled Tapper on the fact that as long as the U.S. military is present in Muslim hands, terrorism will be a risk.

Finally, Paul pointed out that withdrawal from Syria would not reduce the U.S. government’s ability to intervene one iota because it has military forces ready to pounce everywhere.

True, but that’s part of the problem.

Advocates of peace and liberty have no nobler mission than to overturn the presumption in favor of war.

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On Economics

Learning economics had the effect on me of shifting my moral outrage from capitalists and entrepreneurs to politicians and bureaucrats. For example, you might think a policy like rent control keeps greedy landlords from exploiting poor tenants. What rent control actually does, if we look at its economic effects in theory and in practice, is reduce the incentives for maintenance and upkeep and for new construction. What results is a housing shortage as current stock falls into disrepair, pushing tenants further and further away from city centers where they work, increasing commute times and congestion, and more. What is touted as a benefit for poor tenants becomes a major burden on both poor tenants and others. These effects are only reversed when rent control is repealed or significantly altered to be more in line with what market forces would generate. Like rent control, government interventions in markets produce unintended consequences that can seemingly only be solved through more government intervention in markets which produces unintended consequences that… ad infinitum. Or, cease the intervention and find non-governmental solutions to whatever it is you perceive as a problem. Learn economics and shift your moral outrage toward the people who deserve it. And that’s today’s two cents.

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To Operate Fairly Successfully

When socialists or their sympathizers in the USA are told that socialism doesn’t work, they often respond, “Yeah, just look at how terribly countries like Sweden, France, and Germany are working.”

But these fairly successful countries do not have socialist systems: they do not have government ownership and operation of the major means of production; they do not have central planning of resource allocation and central determination of wages and salaries; they have not outlawed capital markets or private banks and other private financial institutions.

And a damned good thing, too, because the residual market-oriented aspects of these countries, which are extensive in spite of various regulations and other interventions, are precisely what permits them to operate fairly successfully.

If they were socialist in the definitional sense I have just sketched, they would have gone down the same road as the USSR, Communist China, Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela long ago.

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How School Districts Weaponize Child Protection Services Against Uncooperative Parents

Schooling is adept at rooting out individuality and enforcing compliance. In his book, Understanding Power, Noam Chomsky writes: “In fact, the whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on—because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.”

This filtering process begins very early in a child’s schooling as conformity is rewarded and divergence is punished.

Public Schooling Breeds Obedience

Most of us played this game as schoolchildren. We know the rules. The kids who raise their hands, color in the lines, and obey succeed; the kids who challenge the rules struggle. The problem now is that the rules are extending beyond the classroom. Parents are increasingly required to obey, to conform to a school’s demands even if they believe such orders may not be appropriate for their child.

In my advocacy work with homeschooling families across the country, I frequently hear stories from parents who decided to homeschool their kids because schools were pressuring them to comply with various special education plans, push medications onto their children, or submit to other restrictive procedures they felt were not in their child’s best interest. Even more heartbreaking is the growing trend of school officials to unleash child protective services (CPS) on parents, homeschooling or not, who refuse to give in to a district’s demands.

Weaponizing Child Protective Services

An investigative report by The Hechinger Report and HuffPost released last month revealed that schools are increasingly using child protective services as a “weapon” against parents. It said:

Fed up with what they see as obstinate parents who don’t agree to special education services for their child, or disruptive kids who make learning difficult, schools sometimes use the threat of a child-protection investigation to strong-arm parents into complying with the school’s wishes or transferring their children to a new school. That approach is not only improper, but it can be devastating for families, even if the allegations are ultimately determined to be unfounded.

More troubling, these threats disproportionately target low-income and minority parents. According to the report:

Such families also have fewer resources to fight back. When a family in a wealthy Brooklyn neighborhood learned roughly two years ago that their child’s school had initiated an ACS [New York’s Administration for Children’s Services] investigation against them, they sued the city education department. Parents from lower-income, majority-black and Latino neighborhoods, few of whom can afford that option, say such investigations can be a regular, even expected, part of parenting.

Bullying Proactive Parents

For parents who are unhappy with their child’s school and decide to withdraw their child for homeschooling, threats of child welfare investigations can sometimes turn to actions. In Massachusetts, a mother is reportedly suing the Worcester Public Schools after school officials called the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) on her for alleged “educational neglect,” even though the mother contends that she dutifully filed her homeschooling paperwork for her eight-year-old son mid-year.

Brian Huskie, a public high school teacher and homeschooling father in New York, noted a similar case last year with one of his students. Dissatisfied with the school, the parents decided to remove their daughter from the district, filed the necessary homeschooling paperwork, and were soon visited by child protective services investigating “educational neglect.” Huskie detailed the incident on his blog, writing that the school made a “decision to weaponize CPS against a district family.”

Parents who push back against a district’s recommendations or withdraw their child from school for homeschooling are often trying to ensure their child’s well-being. Questioning various educational interventions and examining alternatives is part of a parent’s job. They should be praised for looking out for their child’s best interest, while schools should be sure that they use social services agencies to investigate serious claims of abuse and neglect—not just district snubs or paperwork quarrels.

If, as Chomsky suggests, many of us have grown acquiescent to power due to our successful schooling, it can be hard to challenge authority. It can be even harder when that authority is strengthened by government force and when we may not have the resources to fight it.

Supporting parents, broadening their education choices, and respecting their decisions are crucial steps in liberating families and curbing government coercion.

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