Income Equality

Recently, a lot has been written about income equality, or the lack of it, in the United States and around the world.  Although a topic of discussion for sometime, the debate was renewed in late January with the release of a report by the charitable organization Oxfam.  The report  states that the 85 richest people in the world own the same amount of wealth as the 3.5 billion (with a “B”) poorest people in the world.  It got a lot of people’s attention.

There was also a lot of push back from those that argue that one cannot help the poor by making the rich poorer.  True enough.  Despite the political rhetoric in this country that government, in particular Democrats and President Obama, are trying to take away from the rich and give to the poor (or in some circles, to give to the lazy bums that don’t want to work for their own benefit), I do not see it that way.  To me, to use the over-used cliché, they are really looking at ways to level the playing field, or more accurately, to provide the opportunity for people to provide for themselves and for their families.

I recognize that although we are all equal in the eyes of the Creator, we are not all equal in our abilities and talents.  The market place, like it or not, is going to favor some individuals and occupations more than others.  Intelligence, athletic ability, entrepreneurial spirit, willingness to take risks, and on and on are rewarded when success occurs.  As it should be.  There is a possible moral argument that a football player making millions for playing a game should not be rewarded more generously than a brilliant teacher that impacts the lives of countless children, but that ignores the marketplace and the fact that the business of football is worth billions of dollars and the “workers” (players) should get a big payday for providing the product.  This is a totally different discussion — whether football should be  such a lucrative undertaking — and that is not why I am writing today.  It merely shows that effort or impact are not the only quantifiers for compensation.

What caught my eye in the report, and has been widely reported in other forums and in other contexts, is that the income gap is growing at a rapid rate.  The super rich are getting richer at a rate not seen since before World War I (think “Downton Abbey”) and the gap continues to grow.  One can argue that certain risk takers and specialists deserve to have much higher incomes due to their rare talents, but to me, that does not explain why those individuals are increasing their wealth at a rate well above anything that would explain why it is so.  The difference in disparity grew by nearly 100 billion dollars from 2012 to 2013.  Doing a rough back of the envelope math, I cannot be convinced that those 85 people were so much better in 2013 that they earned over a billion dollars more per person because of their talent.

The percentage of income held by the richest 1% in the U.S. has grown nearly 150% from 1980 through 2012. That small elite has received 95% of wealth created since 2009, after the financial crisis, while the bottom 90% of Americans have become poorer, according to the Oxfam report.  The report covers the world, not just the United States, but once again the US is “number one.”   In other words, as the report explains, following the Great Recession, the top 1% regained 95% of the post-crisis growth in the United States.

There are groups that dispute the Oxfam report, such as the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.  They argue that the Oxfam report is focused on the wrong issues and that in fact, a case can be made that poverty has decreased over time.  To me that misses the real point of the Oxfam report and of those in other sources and in political discussions.

The real point, with political ramifications, is that there are a large number of people in the United States (and around the world) that believe that the deck is stacked against them — they feel they just can’t “catch a break”.   I have posted pieces before that convey my belief that there is some portion of our society, of every society, that no matter what you do for them, they just are not going to be productive members of that society.  They just are not.  In my view those are the people that much of the conservative political rhetoric is aimed at, but I believe that they are a small percentage of those that find themselves suffering hard times.  The rest just need to “catch a break” and they willingly and proudly get themselves up and going.  I am not arguing that we leave the non-productive members of society to fend for themselves, we need to try to help them, I’m just saying that if they never get the big picture, taking care of them is just the cost of doing business in order to get the large majority of people moving again.

So nobody, at least nobody that I take credibly, is arguing that there should be no rich, that in this country we should take from the rich and give to the poor “just because”.  What I am asking is why is the disparity covered in the report growing?  I am asking that if American productivity is at an all time high why is the working wage stagnant, or by some accounts falling relative to the historical norm, while the compensation for the CEOs of those companies is growing at an accelerated rate?  I am asking that if these trends continue, what does it mean for the future of our country?  What does it mean in terms of political influence, education, quality of life and the things that we hold dear in our country?  Ask yourself this question as debate over whether to raise the minimum wage continues (the current minimum wage already lost value since it was last raised as it is not pegged to inflation), why has the average CEO compensation versus average worker compensation gone from 20-1 in 1965 to 273-1 in 2013?

In the end, my bottom line continues to be why is it, given the amount of wealth in this country, that citizens of the greatest country in the world have children that go to bed hungry?  Why is it that in the country with the greatest medical capabilities in the world, in the greatest country in the world, that access to health care and its affordability remain an issue?  Whatever one’s political persuasion it seems to me that we should be able to agree that no one in this great nation should go to bed hungry or die of a curable disease just because they can’t afford it.

Checking In On Syria

When I was working in the Pentagon as the Chief of Staff to a high-ranking political appointee in the Clinton Administration, I was exposed to a lot of decisions that had a lasting impact on real people’s lives.  I came to understand that despite what some may opine, those officials do understand the importance of their decisions and do not take them lightly.  As the change-over from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration occurred, I asked my boss what his biggest regret might be.  Without hesitation, he said “Rwanda.”  I have heard similar regrets expressed about Rwanda privately and in public interviews from other Clinton era officials and from the president.

As you may remember, in the spring and early summer of 1994 an estimated 700,000 Rwandans were murdered (some estimates place the number of Rwandans killed as over a million).  In simple terms it was a genocidal slaughter of members of the Tutsi tribe (the minority tribe in Rwanda) by the majority Hutu tribe which also controlled the government and the majority of military and police forces.  Ordinary Hutu civilians were recruited to help with the slaughter and often neighbors turned on neighbors.  It was horrific.  Unfortunately, this is not so uncommon in the history of mankind around the world.  What made this the one international incident that the officials involved wish they could do over again was the fact that the international community did nothing to stop the killing.  After all, it was an unimportant African nation that had no impact on US national interests and it was “a local conflict.”

In my view our current administration will look back on Syria and have the same regrets that those in our government in 1994 have about Rwanda.  By most credible reports, over 100,000 Syrian civilians have been systematically killed and an estimated 2 million more have fled their country as refugees to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.  Those countries are struggling with the economic and security implications of such a massive influx of people.  This is a major crisis after nearly three years of civil war.  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is systematically killing off those civilians still in contested cities and areas of the country through starvation and the calculated use of indiscriminate “barrel bombs” (essentially 55 gallon drums filled with explosives, gasoline and shrapnel pushed out the back of helicopters and that can level homes and make buildings uninhabitable — a very inexpensive but very efficient way of instilling fear and killing people.)

Bashar is supported by the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah and there is very little will in the rest of the world to put an end to the civil war.  Meanwhile the killing continues unabated.

After two ground wars in the Muslim world, there is very little to no interest for the United States to get involved militarily.  We proved our disinterest last fall when Bashar used chemical weapons against his own citizens.  If the United States is not interested, then much of the rest of the world is also going to stand-off rather than get involved.  There have been some efforts, funneled primarily through Saudi and Qatari sources, to get small arms and some humanitarian relief to the forces opposing Bashar and the trapped civilians, respectively.

Oh, and let’s not forget last September’s negotiated settlement to remove chemical weapons from Syria in lieu of bombing that country.  After a surprisingly effective start, very little of the chemical stockpile has been removed or destroyed and the disarmament is well behind schedule.  At the same time, Bashar has discovered that he does not need chemical weapons to kill thousands of his countrymen — starvation and barrel bombs work just fine without incurring the wrath (in the form of military strikes) of the rest of the world.

To me, this is not merely a civil war (“a local conflict”) that has no impact on US national interests.  In addition to the humanitarian aspects of the crisis — which is an important principle of American international relations — there are important economic and security issues at stake.  The major influx of refugees is having a destabilizing impact on the adjacent nations, especially Lebanon (already in a very precarious state) and Jordan (a long time source of stability in the area and a friend of the United States).  As in Iraq and Afghanistan, future terrorists are getting on-the-job-training in the heat of combat.  Areas of several nations are not under government control and as we found in Afghanistan, this leads to what amounts to safe havens for ne’er-do-well types that have very bad intentions towards the United States.  Additionally, it leaves Israel in a precarious position as other bad actors have a base to threaten their security.  The list goes on, but the point is that the fallout from Syria’s civil war could have a profound long-term impact on important American national security interests.  Yet, we are doing very little to end it.  Recent talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition leaders sponsored by the United States and other western nations went nowhere.  Worse than nowhere because now the participants see no reason to negotiate — if ever negotiations were actually possible.

So the question is what should the United States do about this situation?  To use a long-standing diplomatic phrase, “I don’t know.”  The majority of Americans and the Congress clearly demonstrated last fall that they have no desire to get involved militarily.  At.  All.  (There may be some point in the future where we may find that we have no choice but to get involved due to the course of events.)  For now, no way, no how, is there the will to get the United States military involved — even to stop the helicopters from dropping the barrel bombs through a no-fly zone, as was used successfully in other conflicts such as Bosnia, Iraq, and Libya.

I have no magic wand to get our government or the international community involved to stop the systematic elimination of thousands of lives.  Ideas that have been put forward include giving the opposition forces more money, food and much better and more powerful weapons than they’ve been supplied thus far.  Although used in fits and starts, this course of action has been slow and sporadic because not all of the groups opposing Bashar are friendly to the United States and several of those groups are openly hostile to the west.  Some are militant fundamentalist Islamist groups.  Since we are concerned about where the money and weapons may end up, too little is flowing from the west to the resistance .  However, many reports indicate that the best equipped and most wealthy (relatively speaking) fighters are the Islamist groups.  They are getting what they need and as a result, fighters not normally inclined to join those groups do so in order to be more effective.  The US and Europe identified opposition leaders and groups that are at least friendly towards the United States.  We should do all that we can to supply them with the equipment and money required to exceed that of the Islamist forces and thereby give them the most effective fighters and the most influential political leadership.  We need to take the chance that 100% of it will not stay out of the hands of those we do not want to get it.

To understand why I think we should take that chance it is important to remember that Syria — with a population that practices Islam — is not an Islamist state.  Before the civil war it was a modern secular nation with knowledgeable technocrats able to keep a modern society going.  Most Syrians, while practicing Muslims, do not want a fundamentalist Islamic state.  While opposing Bashar, alliances will form that may be uncomfortable for us.  In the end, it is possible, even probable, that the majority of the properly equipped and funded new leadership and their followers will continue to want Syria to be the secular state it has been since independence from France following World War II.

They may never be our “friend,” but now is the chance to influence future leaders and future events.  With no participation we have no chance of influencing anything.

Efforts to aid civilians trapped in cities and areas of conflict are more difficult.  A strong United Nations effort could break this log jam, especially if the United States and the European Union put a full effort into creating the means to do so.  Some small progress was made earlier this year when the UN did get into a few areas to evacuate civilians.  During the evacuation several of the groups came under hostile fire and the effort was suspended indefinitely.  The dilemma is to find a way to provide for the security of UN missions to aid the civilian population without creating the need for a large military force to protect them.  Of course, most UN efforts to get involved in Syria have been thwarted by Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power over any resolution that they deem to be a threat to their interests in the area and specifically anything that limits Bashar’s regime in Syria.

There are a lot of smart people in this country and in this world — a lot smarter than me.  Many of them also have an impact on government decisions and are privy to intelligence and covert efforts that may be ongoing that I do not know anything about.  I hope so, and I hope that the efforts are effective, but I see no evidence of it to date.

I do know this.  Syria was not a backward country with a bunch of nomads living in tents in the desert.  It was a modern nation with modern citizens most of whom were educated and aware.  It is now a killing field.  Without effective action, Syria will be this decade’s Rwandan humanitarian disaster and it will be a continuing threat to our long-term national security interests.

Cleaning Things Up

I do not often give a “well done” to Speaker John A. Boehner (R–Ohio) for his leadership in the House, but today I’ll give him a nod and a smattering of applause for getting fed up with his own party and getting something done.  Yesterday the House approved a “clean” extension of the government’s borrowing authority, or in common terms, they passed a bill allowing for an increase in the debt ceiling.   It was accomplished without amending any other elements to it and without creating another crisis such as the country went through last fall.  Unfortunately, it still had its share of drama, at least in the Republican Party.

The bill passed by a vote of 221 to 201 with only 28 Republicans voting for it.  Speaker Boehner made it clear that there would be no shutting down the government again this time and that the bill needed to pass sufficiently ahead of the government hitting the debt ceiling so as to remove the uncertainty and drama of the past several years.  I hope that he determined this was necessary in order to insure the full faith in the word of the United States government, and not because we are approaching mid-term elections and most of the American voting public is fed-up with the shenanigans from last fall and he did not want to risk losing control of the majority in the House.

The Speaker worked hard since the start of the new year to find a suitable compromise that would bring in both Republican and Democrat House members to vote for the bill.  He tried several different amendments to bring Republicans on board such as lifting the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) cut to military veterans benefits (see my post from 7 January 2014) without losing Democrats’ votes.  It also had to be realistic enough that there would be a chance of getting the bill through the Senate and signed into law.  He was unable to come up with any compromise positions on the bill because the extremely conservative elements in his party opposed any effort to raise the debt ceiling — even though that ceiling is necessary to pay the bills already authorized by the Congress.

In a surprise move on Tuesday morning, he told the Republican caucus that he was moving ahead with the clean bill and, essentially, letting the Democrats move ahead with actually governing the country.

What rankled me a bit, although I was happy they finally did what they should have done long ago, is  that many Republican Congressmen wanted the debt ceiling raised knowing what the consequences of not doing so would be, but refused to vote for it because of fears that they would be challenged in this year’s primaries.  As Representative Devin Nunes (R-California) put it (he was one of the 28 Republicans that voted for the bill); “It wasn’t exactly a profile in courage.  You had members saying that they hoped it would pass but unwilling to vote for it.”

The Senate is expected to pass the same legislation (although just one hour ago a filibuster by some conservative Republican Senators was narrowly averted) and the President has declared that he will sign it.  Now we can get on with the business of governing.

Nuclear Weapons Are Serious Business

You may be aware that the United States Air Force is investigating cheating by as many as 92 officers on proficiency exams given to Air Force missileers responsible for our nation’s Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force.  That is 92 out of approximately 500 in the force, or nearly twenty percent.  This is serious business on many levels.

In the way of a little background let me say that I have never been in the United States Air Force.  I was a Navy officer.  I also will point out that it has been too many years since I was in the service so I can no longer speak authoritatively on current practices.  I did however, along with my shipmates throughout the crew on several of the warships I served on, have to go through proficiency tests to certify our ability to carry, and if necessary, use nuclear weapons.  (I can neither confirm nor deny that any of those ships actually carried such weapons.  Whether or not we actually carried them, the certification process was the same.)

Thus it was surprising, if not shocking, to read a quote from Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James stating that the cheating scandal appears to have its root cause in the nature of the work which creates “undo stress and fear.”   Really? Doesn’t that come with the territory?   (The entire transcript of her remarks may be found here.)

To be fair, there are a couple of points to be made.  Secretary James was only confirmed as Secretary a little over two weeks ago.  She is likely still learning the job.  Additionally, as I understand it her remarks about stress and fear were directed not at the job itself (the destruction of the world can be stressful after all) but at the command atmosphere surrounding the units that they are in.  In other words, the importance of the test was so high that if they did not get a perfect score — not merely passing, but a perfect score — then they feared they could be fired from the job or not recommended for promotion.   Well, yeah.  That’s how it’s always been, at least in my experience with the Navy.  The deal with nuclear weapons is that nothing short of perfection will do.  That is the basis of the “trust but verify” motto (which comes out of the Navy’s nuclear power program and not from Ronald Reagan who borrowed it).

The standards are very high — just as they should be.  She is quoted as saying; “I heard repeatedly that the system can be very punitive, come down very hard in the case of even small, minor issues that crop up.”  She goes on to say; “I believe that a very terrible irony in this whole situation is that these missileers didn’t cheat to pass, they cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent.  Getting 90 percent or 95 percent was considered a failure in their eyes.”  I am not sure if she is saying that “good enough” is okay with nuclear weapons or not.  It seems that if there is one area that everything needs to be perfect, it is with nuclear weapons.  I should point out that I am not talking about mistakes during training.  Training is undertaken under very controlled circumstances and never with actual weapons.  I am talking about proficiency testing — the stressful but necessary certification process to make sure there are no mistakes.

Over the course of my career I saw some good officers fail for promotion because of minor mistakes in their certification process.  Indeed, it sometimes seemed that the performance evaluations of the inspectors themselves depended upon how many ships they could fail in an inspection and they went at it with a vengeance.  This could rightly be an area of discussion — what should the standards be or what do they need to be in order to protect the arsenal?  That is a reasonable area to debate.  However, once those standards are established, they must be met if we are serious about continuing a very impressive safety record in this area.

To help put it into perspective, recall that then Secretary of Defense Gates fired the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force in 2007 when an Air Force B-52 flew cross-country with nuclear weapons onboard that the crew did not know were real.  He obviously thought that it was a serious business and I would have thought that the rest of the force would get the picture following that incident.

I do not want to jump too quickly to any conclusions.  The inquiry into the incident is just getting underway and I have no first hand knowledge of how serious the situation may have been or exactly what part of the proficiency tests were compromised.   None-the-less, I keep coming back to this thought:  What part of maintaining and employing our land based nuclear deterrent is not serious business?

I suppose that Secretary James was trying to make the rest of us feel better when she said;  “I want to reassure everybody again that this is the failure of integrity on the part of certain airmen.  It was not a failure of the mission.”  Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel better.  The success of the mission starts with the integrity of those carrying it out.

A Disappointing State of Affairs

While watching the news reports building up to the Super Bowl and the Olympics in Sochi Russia, I was struck by the fact that if one accounts for the difference in language, I was looking at the same picture.

That picture was one of police, soldiers, and others in flak jackets, carrying automatic weapons, with over head air support, on the water boat support, canine units, fences, high-resolution cameras and monitors, heat sensing devices, hazardous material detectors and on and on.  Russia and the United States were the same — a difficult pill to swallow for this former cold warrior.  It made me more than a little disappointed that the visuals were indistinguishable.  Turn off the sound to the television and I would be hard pressed to know which one was which.

Don’t misunderstand me and think that I am saying that our countries are the same.  Likewise it is obvious that events over the last fifteen to twenty years have caused many nations to institute a nearly universal effort to defend their citizens with an abundance of concern about security.  In this day and age, no one can be “against” security.  The common knowledge is that “soft” targets are more likely to be hit than “hard” targets and if nothing else, the appearance of strength may deter a terrorist (or criminal) act.  I suppose it is necessary and I understand it.

It still makes me a little sad.  In the halcyon days of the mid-1980s I taught a college course that included an examination of the roots and elements of terrorism.  One of the maxims is that terrorists are working to change society and that the use of terror as a weapon is the tool to do so.  In so many respects, our society has changed as a result of the threat of terrorism.  Compare our large public events from twenty or thirty years ago with those of today.  For that matter, compare almost any public gathering today compared with twenty years ago.  No longer do we go care-free to a large sporting event such as the Super Bowl.  Instead we undergo the kind of scrutiny once reserved for getting into the most secure of secret installations.  I am not entirely convinced that everything we do these days in the name of “security” is necessary or even effective.  In some respects certain measures are  more for the psychological impact they create in order to make people “feel” safer.  If I was a little more cynical I would suggest that some of the measures are only instituted to cover the authorities should something happen — they can then argue that they did everything possible — whether or not it actually makes any real difference to our degree of safety.

I know there is no turning back.  I still don’t have to like it.