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Weapons of Mass Distraction

Concerned about militarism? Watch the budget, not the parade.

This was published first in the Concord Monitor on February 15, 2018.

President Trump’s proposal for a massive military parade has aroused bountiful criticism, including from 89% of the 55,000 Military Times readers who responded to an online survey. But if we’re concerned about a slide into military rule, I’d suggest looking away from the parade and paying more attention to the budget just approved by Congress.

“There is widespread agreement in both parties that we have cut the military too much,” observed Speaker of the House Paul Ryan just prior to the vote adding some 165 billion dollars to the Pentagon budget over two years. Of the bi-partisan consensus, the Speaker was correct. The Democratic Party’s talking points seemed to be that they, too, wanted a higher military budget although they would insist on a boost to non-military spending, as well. Even the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which to its credit has put forward an annual alternative budget that shifts funds from military programs to domestic priorities, issued a statement about the parade but said nothing about the budget its members had just voted on.

As to cuts in the military budget, Ryan’s analysis needs scrutiny. While the military budget has indeed dropped from its peak at the most intense times of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, inflation-adjusted defense spending levels are now higher than they were during the U.S. war in Vietnam and most of the Cold War. The FY 17 level of spending, $634 billion, takes up more than 50% of the discretionary spending approved by Congress. And that doesn’t even count the money going to veterans’ affairs, homeland security, the secret budgets that fund the CIA and National Security Agency, or the portion of the Energy Department’s budget devoted to nuclear weapons.

The deal raises the level of military spending by $80 billion in 2018 and $85 billion in 2019. As Politico reports, over two years, “the military will receive at least $1.4 trillion in total through September 2019 to help buy more fighter planes, ships and other equipment, boost the size of the ranks, and beef up training — a level of funding that seemed a long shot just months ago.”

The non-military part of the budget gets boosted by a lesser amount: $63 billion the first year and $68 billion the second, bringing its share to $605 billion. If you do the math, that means military programs will continue to capture 54% of the funds in the “discretionary budget,” that is, the budget Congress controls with annual appropriations. It’s that figure, more than the number of generals in the cabinet and the size of Trump’s parade, that I find alarming.

The details of the budget still need to be worked out, but there’s little doubt it will include down payments toward a new generation of nuclear weapons. Not only is the Trump administration continuing the Obama administration’s plan to replace the entire array of nuclear warheads and the planes, missiles, and submarines designed to deliver them, the recently released Nuclear Posture Review calls, as well, for new mini-nukes that could be deployed and presumably used on the battlefield. The official price-tag for the package is now $1.2 trillion, but some analysts, including former Defense Secretary William Perry and General James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, think $1.7 trillion is a more realistic estimate.

Perry and Cartwright believe we’d be safer by spending less. “If we scale back plans to replace the nuclear arsenal, we will actually improve our security,” they wrote recently in the Washington Post. They advocate cancelling plans for new land-based and cruise missiles, for starters.

I’d go further, and suggest the militarized approach to security needs to be re-thought. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way a little over fifty years ago: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Our actual security is better protected by reducing nuclear threats through multi-lateral reductions consistent with the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, global attention to climate change, creation of civilian jobs that pay living wages, ending racist and patriarchal violence, and prioritizing housing and health care. That would be worthy of a parade!

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Remember a few years ago, when those talking about “tax reform” said they wanted to lower corporate tax rates, but would close loopholes to balance the impact? That’s not what’s in our stocking.

NPR says, “Trump might get the gift he’s been wanting for a while right before Christmas.” It’s not just a political gift; it’s a gift to the investor class, of which the president is, of course, a member.

But maybe “gift” is the wrong term. After all, the tax bill Congress will vote on this week is the result of untold hours of work by literally thousands of corporate lobbyists. Think of it more as return on investment, investment in political influence, that is.

According to a recent report from Public Citizen, “a total of 6,243 lobbyists have been listed on lobbying disclosure forms as working on issues involving the word “tax” in 2017. That equals 57 percent of the lobbyists who have reported any lobbying activity in 2017 and is equivalent to more than 11 lobbyists for every member of Congress.”

“Many of the discrete tax issues that these lobbyists and organizations have sought to influence are at the heart of the debate over the current legislation,” the group founded by Ralph Nader said in its report, “Swamped.” Corporate tax rates, repatriation of corporate profits, intra-organizational transfers of assets, depreciation rules and deductibility of interest were among frequently listed topics by the organizations that have hired the most tax lobbyists.”

The NY Times reported that the Business Roundtable, “desperate to remove the corporate alternative minimum tax, worked behind the scenes, calling lawmakers and raising concerns about how it would effectively kill the ability of companies to utilize the prized research and development tax credit.” They succeeded.

Remember Donald Trump saying on the campaign trail that “hedge fund guys are getting away with murder,” by using a tax break commonly known as the “carried interest loophole?” The loophole survived the “reform.”

The GOP bill ends taxation on most of the foreign-profits gained by so-called “American” firms, a measure that has long been on the agenda of the multi-national corporate lobby. Take a look at this 2013 report from the Heritage Foundation, which says a “territorial tax system would create jobs and raise wages.” The argument goes something like this: if multi-national corporations are taxed less on their foreign operations, they will have more incentive to invest in job-creating enterprises in the USA, and that will create jobs. In other words, take a walk on the supply side.

Not only could this have been predicted, it was. I’m currently reading People Get Ready: the Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy,” by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, who single out the tax system as an example of the rigged system. “Americans are told that tax cuts for the wealthy and for multi-national corporations must simply be accepted on faith as the necessary cost of doing business in modern times,” they write.

“Speaker of the House Paul Ryan” they write, “has long been a supporter of the ‘territorial tax’ scheme, which would let US-based multi-national corporations avoid paying taxes on dividends they receive from foreign affiliates… Ryan is always pitching proposals to balance budgets on the backs of working people while opposing tax hikes for wealthy campaign donors and corporations.”

If you didn’t look at the title page, which says the book was published in 2016, you might think you were reading the morning news.

It’s not all over; there’s still a chance that two or more GOP Senators could rebel. If you live in Maine or Arizona, pick up the phone and call your Senators.

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“I’ve learned that words really do have power,” writes Shane Claiborne in  Executing Grace, subtitled, How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us. “So do stories. And so does the Bible,” he writes, adding, “And so do facts.”

Claiborne, a prominent speaker, activist, and best-selling author, heads up Red Letter Christians, a group that aims “to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.” He was in New Hampshire for talks in Manchester and Durham on November 11, both organized by the NH Council of Churches.

Before both audiences, Claiborne showed his ease sliding back and forth from theology to history to journalism, blending stories of murder victim family members, death row prisoners and exonerees, biblical characters, and the occasional public official.

“It’s hard to talk about the death penalty divorced from race,” he began, noting that in the USA, the death penalty belt overlaps the areas where states hung onto to slavery the longest, where lynching was commonly practiced, and where racial segregation was the law of the land. It’s also the “Bible Belt,” the region with the highest percentages of practicing Christians, and where what passes for “religious conservatism” has the most political influence.

“Why do we still have the death penalty?” Claiborne asks. “It’s because of Christians.”

But what if Christians – and others – took seriously the idea that “there’s a way to transcend evil without mirroring it?” And what if we adopted an approach to justice rooted in righteousness and healing the wounds of the world rather than vengeance? OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It wouldn’t be just the death penalty that would left behind, it would be the whole punishment-based approach to criminal offenses. It’s a big reach for many, but Shane Claiborne can make as compelling a case for it as I’ve heard.

But what about New Hampshire, which is far in miles and politics from the Bible Belt, and is thought to be one of the least churched states in the country? Here we are, still hanging onto the death penalty nearly 80 years after the most recent execution. We might start by making the case that even here in the “deep north,” racism has a disturbingly persistent impact on attitudes and public policy. Can it be just a coincidence that the one person sentenced to be executed in New Hampshire in recent decades is a black man who killed a white man, while a rich white man on trial at the same time for hiring people to kill someone against whom he held a grudge escaped a death sentence?

But even here, there’s an anti-death penalty argument for just about anyone, and that’s where the facts bolster the theological approach, or vice versa. For example, anyone suspicious of a too-powerful state ought to be more than skeptical about a politically driven system for determining who should live and who should die. The jury in a capital case is the real “death panel.” Anyone who wants our tax dollars to be used carefully should scorn a system that bogs down the courts and ultimately costs more than lengthy imprisonment. Anyone who wants to deter crime should look at the studies which show the death penalty has little impact on promoting public safety or protecting the lives of law enforcement officers.

And anyone who wants to show compassion for people who have lost loved ones to homicide should, like Shane Claiborne, spend some time listening to them. “The more victims I have gotten to know and love, the more I have realized that there is not just one way to heal from trauma,” Claiborne writes.

“When it comes to the family members of the murdered, some of the most amazing stories of healing and closure I have heard or read are from families who found alternatives to execution for the offender. In contrast, some of the folks who still seem overcome with pain and anger and resentment were able to witness the execution of the offender. In other words,” Claiborne concludes, “the idea that an execution will bring closure or final justice is a mirage.”

“The death penalty extends trauma, exacerbates wounds,” he told the four-dozen people clustered in the parish hall at Brookside Congregational Church. “And any time we call for death, we undermine the possibility of redemption.”

Campeones de Champiñones

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We are the Champions!  (of mushrooms)

Cuajimoloyas is a small village nestled in the mountains 3200 meters (10,500 feet)  above sea level, and 1645 meters (5400 feet) above the city of Oaxaca  P7140782 and the valley that surrounds it.  As a member of the Pueblos Mancomunados, the people of Cuajimoloyas are part of a project that combines sustainable farming and forestry, community-based enterprises, and ecological tourism to promote regional autonomy, cultural survival, and decent livelihoods for their citizens.

It is also an area of rich bio-diversity, including wild mushrooms.

Every July for the past 17 years, Cuajimoloyas has hosted a mushroom festival, the

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Feria de Hongos which includes lectures, workshops, great food, and a mushroom hunt.  Judy and I were participants in this year’s mushroom hunt, along with some students and faculty from the University of Washington studying food sovereignty, friends from Oaxaca, and a couple of other gringos we met along the way. 

Along with several other teams we set off mid-morning from the town center and headed uphill to the forest.

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Our team leader was Eustorgio, a community leader whom we had met on a visit to Cuajimoloyas 7 years ago.  Equipped with a basket and a Swiss Army knife, our team entered the forest and began our hunt.

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Each time we spotted a mushroom, Eustorgio would examine it to see if it was one we had already collected.  If not, he’d tap it on its head to release theP7150821 spores, slice it off with the knife, and drop it in the basket.  Along the way we joked about winning the contest by bringing back the collection with the largest number of distinct mushroom species.  

We found big mushrooms, tiny mushrooms, clusters of mushrooms, red mushrooms, gelatinous mushrooms, and translucent mushrooms.  Eustorgio would tell us if each one was edible or toxic.

As our basket filled, his ability to remember whether we already had a sample of each one we found amazed me.

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Here are some of my favorites.

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The forest was beautiful, with lots to appreciate in addition to the mushrooms and the members of our team.  But by around 1:30 PM, we started to worry about getting back in time for the judging deadline.

It being the rainy season, it was no surprise that a drizzle started as we hustled on a muddy trail to the final meeting place at the Comedor de Truchas.  There, we laid out our mushrooms on a blanket20170715_144732

and went off to stand in line in the rain to join a feast of tlayudas and mushroom tamales.

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We were all surprised, or at least I was, when Eustorgio told us our team had won, at least unofficially, with 137 distinct mushrooms.  But sure enough, the next day, we were the big winners!

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The competition was fun, the walk was great, but we were also reminded by speakers at the festival that mushrooms have great significance from cultural, dietary, economic, ecological, and health perspectives.  The annual Cuajimoloyas Mushroom Festival is a great way to celebrate and highlight their importance. 

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Oaxaca Pride March Aims to Link Struggles

Oaxaca’ ninth annual Pride Parade set off from the Fountain of the Eight Regions at  about 5:30 PM yesterday, w
P7080733ith perhaps 100 people marching behind a rainbow banner and a marching band. Prior to the march, Jesús Yoshio Morales Ramírez read a statement explaining that two additional colors had been added to the flag.

A brown stripe represented the struggles of indigenous peoples, whose land and  communities are threatened by mega-projects, the new guise of colonialism and an expression of racism. The flag also bore a black stripe, marking the struggles against racism of peoples of AfricP7080744an descent.

Oppression is “a long chain whose links will never be broken if we continue to look at it in isolation, if we think that machismo, homophobia, transphobia, lesbophobia, and so on are not related to class struggle, misogyny, racism, discrimination against people with physical or mental disabilities,” Morales said “It all forms part of a whole, it is the mortal alliance that puts us under and oppresses us and places us at the disposal of the elites and the dominant powers of the world.”

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The march proceeded down the hill through a major intersection into the city center, eventually reaching the crowded tourist zone, swelled with people typical of a Saturday evening in July. Along the way, the band kept playing at the front of the march while another group at the rear banged on drums and shouted chants. Several P7080853 people passed out condoms and information about HIV prevention along the way. By the end the number of marchers had doubled.

Morales read his statement again at the march’s conclusion, in the always busy plaza near the Santo Domingo church and museum. It’s not enough for Oaxaca to be “gay friendly,” he said, if people’s rights are not actually protected. “All of the rights, all of the people,” everyone chanted.

P7080824 You can find the statement, in Spanish, at http://www.laondaoaxaca.com.mx/2017/07/invitan-a-9a-marcha-calenda-por-el-orgullo-de-la-diversidad-sexual-e-identidad-de-genero/

More photos:

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Workers Memorial Vigil, April 27, 2017, Concord NH

This is what I had to say at the Workers Memorial Day vigil sponsored by the NH Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.

Four years ago, this past Monday a building in Bangladesh called “Rana Plaza” collapsed and came crashing down.

The building housed five garment factories which employed 5000 people.

Brands that were sourcing from the factories in Rana Plaza building include Benetton, Bon Marche, Cato Fashions, The Children’s Place, Walmart, and JC Penney.

The owners ignored warnings about the building’s structural flaws.

The workers did not have a union.

The laws were weak and unenforced.

When the building collapsed, one thousand one hundred and thirty-four workers lost their lives. Thousands more were injured.

The scale of the disaster was so large, and the capacity of NGOs like the International Labor Rights Forum and the Clean Clothes Campaign was strong enough, that even though the workers were unorganized it became possible to pressure the companies and the government to reach agreements for inspections, compensation for affected workers and families, and renovating factories to make them safer.

But workers in Bangladesh still face repression when they try to organize.

That makes reforms hard to defend, especially when workers are inter-changeable pieces in a global supply chain, thousands of miles away from the consumers of the products they make, and several corporate intermediaries away from the firms whose logos they sew onto the apparel they make.

That’s one reason why we need to stand together, as workers, as consumers, as citizens.

One hundred and thirty-one years ago next Monday, hundreds of thousands of American workers went on strike calling for an eight-hour day. (The eight-hour movement followed the earlier ten-hour movement, which was led largely by young women like New Hampshire’s Sara Bagley and conducted in places like Dover, Manchester, Exeter, and Lowell.)

In Chicago, at the same time, a strike was going on at the McCormick Reaper plant, whose owner was trying to replace workers with machines. Several days of protest followed the May Day strike. Police killed 2 strikers on May 3. During a rally the next day protesting killings by police, a bomb went off. No one ever knew who was responsible. Several police officers and strikers lost their lives in the violence.

To be brief, Albert Parsons and August Spies, leaders of the eight-hour movement, were blamed, tried, convicted, and executed, despite the lack of any evidence tying them to the violence. (Hanging, not injection of toxic chemicals, was the method used back then.)

The following year, May Day was observed in their honor throughout the world and became known as International Workers Day.

In this country, over the past decade or so, International Workers Day has become associated with protests, rallies, strikes, and marches led by immigrant workers. That includes this coming Monday in Manchester, 5 to 7 pm, in Veterans Park.

Why does this matter?

When immigrants are afraid to complain about the toxic chemicals they use to clean our schools or the excessive heat in bakeries, factories, and laundries, the rights of all workers to a safe workplace is threatened.

When immigrants can be scapegoated and threatened with loss of jobs, the rights of all workers are weakened.

When capital can cross borders with barely any restriction, but workers face walls and troops, we have to stand together.

When workers are so desperately poor that they will take jobs that put their lives at risk, we have to stand together.

When the number of people forced to flee their homes dues to violence, climate disruption, and economic desperation is at an all-time high, we have to stand together.

When xenophobic and nativist movements are on the rise the world over, we have to stand together.

When workers anywhere are afraid to organize, we have to stand together.

And when workers do organize, despite the fear, despite the risks, despite the threats, despite the scapegoating, we have to stand with them.

During Workers Memorial Week, we say, injustice anywhere is still a threat to justice everywhere.

We still say, an injury to one is an injury to all.

We still say, Solidarity forever.

– Arnie Alpert

This ran as an opinion article in the Concord Monitor on March 30, 2017.

When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said “all options are on the table” with regard to North Korea, he was indicating that the United States is considering attacking the country with nuclear weapons.  That’s the real “nuclear option.”

The United States maintains an arsenal of some 6800 nuclear warheads, one-fourth of them deployed on land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles, or long-range bombers.  Most of them carry many times the explosive force of the first generation nuclear bombs that killed more than 200,000 people in Japan in 1945.  The warheads on land-based missiles are kept in high alert status, meaning they can be launched within minutes of a suspected attack, perhaps before that attack is even verified. 

And while official policy still speaks of “deterrence,” it is now and long has been US military doctrine to consider using nuclear weapons in pre-emptive attacks, including against North Korea.  As Donald Trump asked, if we’re not going to use them, “why are we making them?”

The Trump administration is pushing ahead with a plan hatched during Barack Obama’s term to do a complete replacement of the U.S. nuclear arsenal at a cost of one trillion dollars.  That’s a new generation of land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles, and land-based missiles, plus a new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile.  Then, there’s a new generation of warheads, designed to be more “usable.”  

The authority to use U.S. nuclear weapons – which could set off massive famine on top of direct casualties – rests with Donald Trump, the commander-in-chief.

Eight other countries also have the capacity to launch nuclear weapons:  Russia, France, Britain, Israel, India, Pakistan, China, and yes, North Korea, which is believed to have about a dozen warheads on what by U.S. standards are primitive missiles.   

The danger that any of these countries might detonate their terrible weapons of mass destruction, and that conflicts between them could lead to nuclear exchanges that would literally threaten the future of life on the planet, is the “nuclear option” that ought to be keeping us awake at night, not the prospect of a change in the Senate’s rules for approving judicial appointments.

The good news is that talks started March 27 at the United Nations on a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons.   Although the USA and other nuclear powers are boycotting the event, more than one hundred nations are behind the new push.  “We need to find a new way to inspire and motivate the public in support of disarmament, in the same way that they have been energized to respond to the challenge of climate change, an existential threat facing humanity,” commented Kim Won-soo, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.

Congress is also taking notice.  Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) has introduced legislation, S.200, “to prohibit the conduct of a first-use nuclear strike absent a declaration of war by Congress.”  As the bill states, “the framers of the Constitution understood that the monumental decision to go to war, which can result in massive death and the destruction of civilized society, must be made by the representatives of the people and not by a single person.“  The bill has a parallel version in the House, H.R. 669, sponsored by Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA).  (No members of New Hampshire’s Congressional delegation have yet signed on as co-sponsors.) 

Another piece of good news:  two weeks ago voters in the little town of New London, New Hampshire, voted 73 to 45 in support of a resolution calling for an end to the trillion dollar nuclear build-up, the de-alerting of land-based missiles, and talks leading to global nuclear abolition consistent with U.S. obligations under the 1965 Non-Proliferation Treaty.  At other times in our history, it was grassroots action like New London’s that grew strong enough to get world leaders stepping back from the nuclear brink.  It’s time once again to exercise our anti-nuclear option.