Monday, April 26, 2010

School of the Americas Must Be Closed Immediately

What would Thomas Jefferson have thought if he had been told that the United States would eventually establish a military academy to train agents of oppressive foreign governments in the most effective techniques of murder and torture, to be used against politically-active citizens who were only campaigning for their natural rights? The School of the Americas (renamed in 2001 as the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation", but still better known by its original name) is precisely such an institution. Its very existence is a national disgrace, and it should be closed down immediately.

Established in 1946, the School of the Americas has trained an estimated 60,000 members of the military and police forces of Latin American nations. In addition to basic military training, the academy provides instruction in specialized counter-insurgency tactics, interrogation techniques, and other such subjects. Whether intentionally or not, the School of the Americas has equipped the worst villains in Latin America with the knowledge to wage war on their own people, and it continues to do so.

A quick glance at some of the graduates of the School of the Americas should chill the blood of every decent American citizen. There is Efrain Montt, the military dictator who ruled Guatemala with an iron fist and conducted a campaign of genocide against the Mayan population of his country. There is Robert D'Aubuisson, the Salvadoran army officer and politician who tortured and killed thousands of his political opponents during the 1980s. There is Hugo Banzer, who was dictator of Bolivia in the 1970s; during his rule thousands of political enemies were tortured, killed, or simply vanished. Many of the underlings of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet were trained at the School of the Americas.

Perhaps the clearest example of the evil that has come out of the School for the Americas is the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Army, which was organized by men trained at the academy. This unit was primarily responsible for the El Mozete Massacre of 1981, in which nearly a thousand civilians were brutally killed. They also were involved in the infamous murder of six Jesuit priests in 1989, an event which sparked widespread public condemnation of the School of the Americas.

This facility trains brutal agents of undemocratic regimes in the tactics of murder and torture, yet it is run by the American military and is funded by the American taxpayer. Its very existence is an outrage and violates the values on which our nation was founded. The School of the Americas must be eradicated root and branch.

Last May, Representative James McGovern (D-MA) introduced House Resolution 2567, which would abolish the School of the Americas and establish a commission to investigate human rights abuses committed at the institution. So far, 97 other members of the House of Representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation. Check the list of co-sponsors; if your representative in Congress is not among them, please contact them immediately and ask that they sign on as well.

To answer the question asked by the opening paragraph, Jefferson would lament for his country had he seen the School of the Americas. In our time, however, action should take the place of lamentation. 21st Century Jeffersonians should not tolerate the existence of the School of the Americas, and should use every means at their disposal to ensure that this stain on the honor of the American republic is removed forever.

Monday, April 19, 2010

21st Century Jeffersonians Must Fight the Big Box Retailers

One of the clearest battles being waged today between 21st Century Jeffersonianism and the ever-present forces of Hamiltonianism is the constant struggle between local and independently-owned businesses and corporate big box retail establishments. In this struggle, the 21st Century Jeffersonians must be the ally of the former and the fervent enemy of the latter.

Every year, a larger percentage of America's economic activity is controlled by big box general merchandise stores like Walmart and Target, as well as more specialized establishments like Home Depot, Fry's, and Kohl's. Independent, local, and family-owned venues are under siege, their number declining every year. If we don't change our ways, these pillars of local communities will eventually vanish altogether, and every place in America will essentially look like every other place. Community identity, crucial to 21st Century Jeffersonianism, will be dealt a possibly fatal blow.

When the corporations try to muscle their way into local communities, usually against the express will of the citizens living there, they attempt to persuade local leaders that their big box establishments will actually be beneficial to the community. They claim they will create jobs, increase local tax revenue, and increase consumer choice by offering a wider variety of products. All these claims are false, as can be seen from the evidence.

Take the claim of increased numbers of jobs, for instance. A 2005 study conducted by economists from the University of California, Clark University, and Cornell University studied the impact of Walmart stores on more than 3,000 counties across the United States. The study revealed that each new Walmart resulted in the overall loss of 150 jobs in the community, because each new job at the Walmart store resulted in 1.4 jobs being lost at local stores.

And it's not just jobs. A 2004 study of the economic impact of independent and locally-owned stores vis-a-vis corporate chain stores in Chicago revealed some interesting facts. For every $100 spent at a locally-owned store, $68 dollars in additional economic activity was generated. By contrast, for every $100 spent at a corporate chain store, only $43 dollars in additional economic activity was created. Clearly, if a community wants to protect its local economy, it should post giant "Keep Out!" signs whenever Walmart of one of its imitators comes knocking.

Nor does the claim that big box retail boosts local tax revenue hold water. For one thing, big box retail establishments result in significant increases in public works costs, as new roads and water and sewage systems are required to accommodate them. The big box establishments are far less efficient in their use of such public works than traditional, more compact business districts, such as a "Main Street" with independent and family-owned businesses. Furthermore, the construction of big box retail results in a decline in nearby property values, thus reducing local tax revenue from those sources. Overall, the more a local economy is dominated by big box retail, the lower the municipal government's tax revenue is going to be.

But beyond the need of small towns and neighborhoods to protect their local economies, there are deeper issues involved in the fight against corporate big box retail. One need only wander through innumerable towns across America and see abandoned Main Streets, the windows of once-thriving family-owned businesses permanently shuttered, to see the massive social cost America pays for the alleged "convenience" of big box retail.

The story is the same in all of them: a Walmart or Target came to town, often after overcoming the organized opposition of the people by effectively bribing local town councils. They quickly reduced prices to such an extent that local and family-owned establishments were driven out of business, then raised prices back to where they were before. Some time later, the local economy effectively dead and sales therefore dropping, the big box corporation cut its losses and closed the shop. Having sucked away the wealth of the area like a giant vacuum cleaner, the big box corporations left a once prosperous community effectively destroyed. The barbarians who looted and destroyed the Roman Empire could scarcely have done a more effective job.

It is the small town and the neighborhood, with a strong sense of identity and a feeling of local pride, where the greatest strength of 21st Century Jeffersonianism is to be found. They must be defended, and nothing poses a greater danger to them than corporate big box retail. We must spend our money at the cherished independent and family-owned businesses, completely boycott chain big box retail establishments, and organize ourselves in order to prevent them from opening new big boxes. Unless we do, all our local communities across the country, the source for what makes our country unique, will eventually fade away into a postmodern morass of Walmarts, worse than the nightmares of the most fanciful dystopian science fiction writer.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Electoral College Must Be Abolished

Every four years, Americans go to the polls to decide who shall be the President of the United States, which is clearly the most important office in the land. But because we continue to rely on the 18th Century administrative machinery of the Electoral College, our presidential elections are beset with two fundamental problems. First, the candidate who receives the most votes does not necessarily win. Second, the votes of certain citizens are worth more than those of other citizens. For these reasons, and many others, the Electoral College needs to be scrapped.

In the Electoral College, each state receives a number of votes equal to the number of representatives they have in both houses of Congress. However, because all but two states cast their votes on a winner-take-all basis, the candidate who actually gets the most votes does not necessarily win the election, for he or she might win several states by large margins and narrowly lose certain critical states, all of whose electoral votes will go to the other candidate.

We saw this clearly in the 2000 election. Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote handily, getting half a million more votes than Republican George W. Bush. But because of an infinitesimal Bush victory in the state of Florida (itself only the result of a flawed intervention by the Supreme Court), Bush received that state's electoral votes, which was just enough to allow him to win the Electoral College and thus to become the President. The candidate who was the clear choice of the American people was not the one who actually ascended to the office.

On four occasions in American history (1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000), the candidate who received the largest number of popular votes lost the Electoral College. In other words, in 1 out of 13.5 elections, the candidate who receives fewer votes actually wins. On five other occasions (1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, and 2004) a shift of a relatively tiny number of voters would have handed the victory to the candidate who lost the popular vote. Those who say that the Electoral College is not a problem because it usually reflects the popular will have not read their history books.

Beyond the fact that the Electoral College often allows candidates who lose the popular vote to still ascend to the Presidency, another major problem is that it gives an individual voter in a smaller state to have a disproportionately large influence on the outcome of the election than an individual voter in a large state. This violates the fundamental one-person-one-vote principle that should be at the heart of any representative republic.

For example, Wyoming has 544,270 and three electoral votes, or one electoral vote per 181,423 people. California, by contrast, has 36,961,644 people and 55 electoral votes, or one electoral vote per 672,030 people. Doing the basic math, we can see that a voter in Wyoming has 3.7 times the influence on the outcome of the presidential election as does a voter in California. It's not fair, it's not democratic, and it shouldn't be tolerated in a Jeffersonian republic.

These two problems would be sufficient by themselves to justify eliminating the Electoral College. But there are many other problems with it as well. One is that it causes presidential candidates to focus all their attention on a small number of "swing states", which are go conceivably go either way in the election, at the expense of those states which are considered reliably Republican or Democratic. As a result, the powers-that-be pay attention to the things that matter to voters in states like Ohio or Florida, while voters in Texas and New York are out of luck.

Consider this. There are roughly the same number of Cuban-Americans in the United States as Vietnamese-Americans. However, the issues important to the Cuban-American community get huge amounts of political attention, while the issues important to Vietnamese-Americans are largely ignored. Why is this? Well, Cuban-Americans tend to live in Florida, a key swing state, whereas Vietnamese-Americans tend to live in California and Texas, which are not swing states. Neither community is inherently more important than the other, but the Electoral College creates an artificial importance for one over the other.

The Electoral College also effectively disenfranchises millions of voters in every presidential election. Because nearly all the states use a winner-take-all system to allocate their electoral votes, it means the losing side in any given state may as well have not cast a ballot for president. A Republican in New York or a Democrat in Texas effectively has no say in who is elected President, and this goes against the ideals of a representative republic.

The Electoral College is an outmoded and obsolete piece of constitutional machinery, and it must be done away with. This could be achieved by a constitutional amendment, which would be very difficult. But because the Constitution allows the individual states to decide for themselves how to allocate Electoral votes, it can also be achieved more quickly and with greater ease by individual action by the various state legislatures.

The National Popular Vote movement provides a surprisingly easy way out of this morass. Legislation is being enacted by individual states, whereby their electoral votes shall go to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of the outcome in the individual state, with the legislation taking effect as soon as the number of states equivalent to the winning number of electoral votes have enacted identical legislation. Thus far, five states have passed the legislation, representing 50 electoral votes (19% of the total necessary), and steady progress is being made in other states.

To be a truly Jeffersonian republic, the Electoral College must be cast into the ashheap of history. Let us hope that the success reformers have achieved in recent years continues to build until final success is achieved. When it is, it will be a great victory for 21st Century Jeffersonianism.

Monday, April 5, 2010

It's Time to Abolish the American Empire

The Founding Fathers rarely agreed on much of anything, but aside from Alexander Hamilton they generally supported the idea that the United States should stay out of the affairs of other countries. Trade and exchanges of a cultural and scientific kind were to be encouraged, of course, but political or military involvement in other parts of the world was to be strictly avoided. They also believed (Hamilton again exempted) in a small or nonexistent military establishment except in time of war.

Keeping this in mind, imagine how disappointed the Founders would be if they could see the vast network of American military bases which today encircles the globe, and which might rightfully be termed the American Empire.

We have an army of 56,000 men permanently deployed in Germany. We also maintain nearly 10,000 men each in Italy and the United Kingdom, and another 10,000 scattered about the rest of Europe. We have 33,000 men in Japan and 28,000 men in South Korea. These are just the biggest deployments; thousands of other service personnel are based in scores of other countries. All told, America has nearly a thousand American military bases around the world.

The expense of maintaining this "empire of bases" is truly astounding. A vast fleet of enormous transport aircraft provides the logistical blood of these bases. The cost of construction and maintaining these bases is huge, and all the more upsetting because the construction contracts usually go to politically well-connected corporations. The upkeep of these bases by itself costs American taxpayers roughly $100 billion a year, about one-eighth of the entire military budget.

Many of these overseas bases are small American worlds unto themselves, with multiple bus lines for transportation and the whole array of American fast food restaurants. Recreational facilities, including everything from movie theaters to golf courses to health spas, are part of many of these establishments. A huge American school system exists within these overseas bases to provide education for the children of servicemen. If we do send our sons and daughters to serve overseas, we have a moral duty to provide for their needs. But it's far from free, and one can ask whether the golf courses are really necessary.

The very existence of these bases contributes to the rise of anti-Americanism around the world. With so many servicemen deployed overseas, it's inevitable that some will committ crimes, which discredit the entire American military in the eyes of the locals. In the last fifteen years, for example, assaults and rapes by Americans stationed on Okinawa has generated enormous anger towards America on the part of the Japanese people. The fact that the Americans involved in such incidents are often not tried by the justice system of the host country, but by the system of American military justice, only fuels the controversies.

Why, exactly, does the United States maintain more than 80,000 troops in Europe? There has been no conventional military threat to Europe since the end of the Cold War more than twenty years ago. And even if there was such a threat, isn't the defense of Europe the responsibility of the Europeans?

One can just as easily question the permanent deployments of American armies in Japan and South Korea. Those two countries have powerful militaries of their own, and their populations and economies are strong enough that they could easily increase their military power even more if they so chose. While they face the clear threat of North Korea and the potential threat of China, it seems obvious that these are matters for the nations of East Asia to resolve by themselves. There is no reason for America to be involved, and certainly not to spend untold billions of dollars on unecessary military bases in those countries.

And Although President Obama has declared his intention of withdrawing all American troops from Iraq, construction continues on several mammoth American bases in the country, revealing a desire to maintain a permanent military presence in that country. This would enable the American military to carry out military operations throughout the Middile East and Caspian Sea regions, which are still the world's most important sources of oil.

The overseas American military presence also contributes to unnecessary tensions between our country and others. The present Chinese military buildup is spreading alarm among many armchair strategists in America, but few point out the obvious fact that it is only taking place because of the powerful American military presence throughout East Asia. Russia is attempting to rebuild its former military power, but one wonders if it would be so determined to do so if the American military presence in Europe vanished. And so long as we continue to maintain a military presence in the Middle East, the struggle between the United States and radical Islam will continue to fester.

The powers-that-be would like us to believe that the "empire of bases" is necessary to maintain American security. In truth, by stoking tensions with other nations and contributing to anti-Americanism among foreign peoples, our overseas bases almost certainly put us at greater risk. And it must be remembered that these bases signficantly contribute the the country's national debt, which is a far greater threat to America than any possible foreign enemy.

America is supposed to be a republic, not an empire. Our "empire of bases" not only degrades our security and contributes to our debt, but they represent a disgraceful betrayal to our Jeffersonian ideals. We should begin an immediate reduction of our overseas military presence, with a view of its eventual elimination.