Monday, April 27, 2009

United States Should Reduce Nuclear Arsenal, Switch Entirely to Submarine-Based Weapons

Thomas Jefferson was a statesman who believed that rationality should be the ultimate test of whether or not a government policy should be adopted. If it makes sense from a rational point of view, if it is necessary, and if it is fair, then it should be implemented. If not, then it should not.

One region of American policy in the last several decades that would have shocked and saddened Jefferson would be the disgusting accumulation of vast numbers of nuclear weapons by the United States. The very existence of nuclear weapons would likely have shaken his Enlightenment view of the goodness of humanity, but he would have still insisted on using the power of human reason to craft a rational policy on how to deal with them.

At the height of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union possessed tens of thousands of nuclear warheads. It was a disgusting absurdity that the two superpowers spent literally trillions of dollars to build vastly more firepower than would have been necessary to obliterate the world many times over.

Since the end of the Cold War, both Russia and America have substantially reduced their nuclear arsenals, but both retain several thousand warheads. Britain, France, China, and Israel all likely have a few hundred each, and India and Pakistan each have built scores of weapons. Carl Sagan referred to nuclear weapons as "genies of death, patiently awaiting the rubbing of the lamps."

Today, the United States possesses roughly 5,400 nuclear weapons, divided between land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles and warheads delivered directly by bombers. This is obscene; there is no rational reason why the country requires such a vast nuclear arsenal. And in an age of severe budget pressures and massive spending deficits, it is absurd to spend tens of billions of dollar a year to maintain such a bloated arsenal.

Ostensibly, the purpose of a nuclear arsenal is to deter an enemy from launching a nuclear attack upon America. But if America were to unilaterally reduce its nuclear arsenal to a few hundred warheads (the size of the nuclear arsenals of the United Kingdom and France), it would still possess as an obvious deterrent against a nuclear attack, because a few hundred warheads is still more than enough to utterly destroy any conceivable combination of enemies. After all, you only need to destroy your enemy once.

President Obama has proven to be a man willing to consider radical shifts away from the policies of the past. He has the option now of initiating a bold and far-sighted policy: unilaterally reduce the American nuclear arsenal to 300 weapons. Furthermore, he could eliminate all land-based based missiles and bomber-delivered weapons, relying only on submarine-based missiles from now on. Sub-based weapons are the safest and most secure in any event, and their continued existence would serve as an effective deterrent against any power foolish enough to launch a nuclear attack on the United States.

Such a unilateral action of the part of the United States would do much to restoring the international reputation of the country, which has suffered so much during the presidency of George W. Bush. It might prompt other nations to consider reducing their stockpiles, or even persuade non-nuclear countries from initiating programs to obtain nuclear weapons that they might otherwise embark upon. It would also save the American taxpayer vast amounts of money, which would do much to reduce the ridiculous budget deficit. Finally, it would simply be in accordance with human nature.

If Jefferson were alive today, he would be among those working towards the ultimate abolition of nuclear weapons throughout the world. Unilaterally reducing our own nuclear arsenal and switching entirely to submarine-based weapons would be a good first step.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Massive Personal Debt Poses Grave Threat to America's Well-Being

Thomas Jefferson is a man to be emulated in many ways, but certainly not in the realm of personal financial management. He died deeply in debt, to the tune of $100,000 in his time (the equivalent of several million dollars today). While his retirement years were generally happy and productive, the knowledge of the disastrous state of his personal finances preyed on his mind.

Today, Americans have fallen into the same trap of personal debt. Nearly half of all American families spend more than they earn in any given year, and the average household now owes $8,000 in credit card debt alone. Mortgages have been refinanced again and again as if they were ATM machines, contributing greatly to the current global economic crisis.

If Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson's archenemy, were to magically materialize in 2009, I think the first thing he would do would be to start up a credit card company and start bilking people out of their hard-won cash. The manipulations of powerful financial interests are largely to blame for the present disastrous state of American personal finance.

But that leaves out much of the story. Americans as individuals have been living beyond their means for many years. Self-reliance and self-restraint has given way to consumerism of the grossest kind. If the long-term economic prospects of our country, and indeed the world, are to be protected, we not only need to implement rational reforms to our national financial systems, but we need to recover the spirit of self-reliance and self-restraint that prevailed in the country during Jefferson's day.

Watch this movie, Maxed Out, which describes in blunt detail how the greed of credit card companies, when combined with the naivete of the American people, has lead to the present crisis of personal debt in America.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Richard Dawkins and the Enemies of Reason

Richard Dawkins is one of the foremost intellectuals living and working in the world today. An extremely gifted and influential biologist, he is perhaps best known as the world's most outspoken opponent of the creationism movement. He remains one of the world's foremost champions of the Enlightenment values of rationality and human reason, values that are the very foundation of a progressive human civilization. I think Jefferson would have liked Dawkins very much.

Watch this amazing two-part video: The Enemies of Reason. In it, Dawkins examines the sometimes silly, sometimes disturbing world of "New Age" pseudoscience and quackery, including everything from tarot card reading to astrology and psychics to such nonsensical things as "water dowsing." His scientific and skeptical approach is something sadly lacking in the modern world.

As Dawkins puts it, "There are two ways of looking at the world. Through faith and superstitution, or through the rigors of logic, observation and evidence- through reason." These are sentiments that those of us who believe the the New Enlightenment must always remember.

Part One:

Part Two:

Monday, April 6, 2009

America Should Not Sell Weapons to Undemocratic States

Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers believed that America would stand throughout history as a shining example of what a free, self-governing people could do if liberated from the shackles of despotism. He would be very pleased to see that, nearly a century-and-a-half after he wrote the Declaration of Independence, representative democracies are now the norm rather than the exception throughout the world.

But, sadly, there remain many parts of the world untouched by the democratic revolution, where monarchies and dictatorships continue to oppress their people. This would have no doubt disappointed Jefferson, but what would have shocked him even more would be the fact that many of these undemocratic regimes are being armed to the teeth with American military equipment.

The United States is the world's largest arms exporter. Every year, it sells billions of dollars worth of military equipment to nations all over the world. This is perhaps justified in some cases; it sells weapons to countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and Israel, which are democracies seeking to defend themselves against countries with decidedly undemocratic regimes. But in many cases, we sell weapons to countries which are ruled by tyrannies far more severe than that which the American Founders rebelled against.

Saudi Arabia is still a medieval-style monarchy, with all the power concentrated in the hands of the sickeningly corrupt Al-Saud family. Freedom of religion is completely absent, women have no rights at all, and the ordinary people of the country have no way whatsoever in how the country is run. People who peacefully call for political reforms are arrested and imprisoned. In terms of human rights, the country is still in the Dark Ages. But the Saudi Air Force is equipped with American-made F-15 fighters, the Saudi Army fields hundreds of American-made M1A2 and M60 tanks, as well as hundred of M-109 self-propelled artillery pieces. Annual sales of American arms to Saudi Arabia add up to billions of dollars.

Egypt is effectively a military dictatorship, ruled by President Hosni Mubarak. His last "election" was characterized by harassment and arrest of opposition political figures, vote-rigging, and other methods designed to ensure his reelection. He is also grooming his son Gamal to take over the presidency upon his death. Reporters Without Borders ranks Egyptian press freedom as 146th out of 169 nations, a dismal record, indeed. If this isn't a dictatorship, I don't know what is. But according to the 2008 budget for international aid, the United States is providing $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt "to foster a modern, well-trained Egyptian military." American tanks form the backbone of the Egyptian Army, and American aircraft form the backbone of the Egyptian Air Force.

The country of Azerbaijan is run virtually as a medieval fiefdom by the Aliyev family. Heydar Aliyev seized power in a military coup in 1993. Ten years later, his son Ilham took power after an election denounced by international observers for innumerable irregularities. Azerbaijan has been routinely criticized by the State Department for human rights abuses and lack of democratic reforms. Despite this, Azerbaijan is the recipient of millions of dollars worth of American military aid.

Uzbekistan is ruled by a ruthless dictator named Islom Karimov. According to the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, the Karimov government routinely subjects political dissidents to torture, there even being credible reports of some dissidents being boiled alive. The media is strictly under the control of the Karimov government and the people possess no right to engage in political activity. According to eye witness accounts, hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed in 2005 in the town of Andijan. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan has received military equipment and training worth hundreds of millions of dollars since 2001.

The fact that the United States provides military assistance to these undemocratic and even tyrannical regimes is a stain upon American honor. Thomas Jefferson probably would not have approved the selling of weapons to anyone, but he certainly would be appalled at the sight of America selling arms to despotic regimes such as these. At the very least, rules should be put into place ensuring that any nation that receives American military equipment or military assistance meets certain standards of democracy, freedom of the press, religious freedom, gender equality, and so forth.

People calling themselves pragmatists will say that the proposal that we stop supplying these undemocratic regimes with military equipment is dangerously naive and that it will threaten the American strategic position in the Middle East and elsewhere. America needs these alliances, it is maintained, to ensure its access to oil supplies. But America should be reducing its dependence on oil in any case. Rationally speaking, the less America has to do with these countries, the better. And from a purely moral perspective, America should not assist tyrants in holding down their own people.