Archive for March, 2011

Notes to a friend on an Open Letter to the Left

By Thomas Wark


A friend who is as passionately anti-war as I am — and has been for the same, long time — has engaged me in a friendly disagreement regarding the war in Libya.

As part of the dialogue he has sent me Juan Cole’s recent internet posting, “An Open Letter to the Left on Libya.”

Most of Cole’s arguments are reasonable, his assessments of the situation sound, his sincerity indisputable. The case he makes is essentially what weighed heavily on my mind as I considered what President Obama and his advisors finally decided to do in Libya.

Cole, however, fractures his own case for a reasoned, dispassionate discussion on the left with this paragraph:

If the Left opposed intervention, it de facto acquiesced in Qaddafi’s destruction of a movement embodying the aspirations of most of Libya’s workers and poor, along with large numbers of white collar middle class people. Qaddafi would have reestablished himself, with the liberation movement squashed like a bug and the country put back under secret police rule. The implications of a resurgent, angry and wounded Mad Dog, his coffers filled with oil billions, for the democracy movements on either side of Libya, in Egypt and Tunisia, could well have been pernicious.

Neither I nor Dennis Kucinich nor many others who share our views “acquiesce in Qaddafi’s destruction of a movement embodying the aspirations of most of Libya’s workers and poor.” Cole’s accusation is baseless and insulting.

As for the rest of the paragraph, I compliment Mr. Cole on his ability to see into the future. Perhaps some day he will help me pick a few stocks to invest in.

My concern about President Obama’s action involves the United States Constitution. It placed the war-making power solely in the hands of Congress. In 1973 the Congress itself muddied the waters with a War Powers Act that presidents have used ever since to make war whenever they damn pleased. Obama has done this in the case of Libya.

The United Nations Security Council cannot repeal the United States Constitution or any part thereof. Even in the muddied water of the 1973 Act, President Obama overstepped his authority on this matter.

The humanitarian objectives of the United Nations resolutions could have been met in time to prevent “destruction of a movement” for democracy in Libya by using the armed forces of those nations that endorsed the resolutions and were able to act immediately under their own laws and constitutions.

President Obama could have joined them in support of the anti-Qaddafi forces after consulting with Congress as required in the 1973 law.

I still have questions in my own mind about the initiative for the Arab League request to the U. N. that resulted in the Libya resolutions by the Security Council. The fact that none of the Arab League members rushed to join the combat caused me to wonder if arms were twisted — perhaps unethically, perhaps even illegally — in the deep diplomatic background before the UN action. My friend points out that Qatar recently joined the affray, which still to me smacks of the quasi-legitimacy of the Bush II “coalition” in the invasion of Iraq.

But the real concern is the addition of yet another precedent to support the notion that Presidents of the United States have war-making powers. The framers clearly did not intend that he or she should have such power. They vested it solely and absolutely in the Congress.

If that Constitutional mandate is outdated in today’s world, there is a process for amending it. The 1973 War Powers nonsense does not fulfill that process. A constitutional amendment, with ratification by two-thirds of the states, is what it takes.

Obviously that hasn’t happened. Instead, the door has been wedged open a bit further for this President and subsequent ones to bomb and otherwise make war upon any head of state who disagrees with U. S. policy. This in turn tends to prolong the endless war policy of the United States corporatocracy that I, Cole and my anti-war friend all oppose with every fiber of our being.


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What will be the lesson of Fukushima?

By Thomas Wark
Posted March 16, 2011


As someone who lived a gentle breeze away from Three Mile Island when its nuclear emergency took place, I have long been concerned about the proliferation of the technology to meet our increasing energy needs.

All of the chemical engineers I have known — particularly my own brother, who was not a nuclear expert, and my favorite hiking companion, who was — tried to persuade me that nuking was safe, clean, efficient and, while not perfect, still the best alternative to fossil fuel energy.  Their arguments — particularly regarding improved safety technology since TMI — were cogent.

Once, atop a mountain in southwest Virginia, my hiking friend and I looked eastward where once treed peaks filled the horizon, and were horrified to see moonscapes of mountaintop removal projects to obtain coal to fuel power plants. At that  moment the arguments for nuclear energy seemed particularly compelling. After all,  Chernobyl could never happen again.  Nor could TMI.

Now, tragically, we know otherwise.  We know that something unspeakably terrible can happen even in a technologically advanced society that has employed the best available science to make its nuclear plants safe.  Surely our hearts bleed for the people of Japan, on whom we inflicted Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as they now suffer the horrors of a powerful earthquake, a tsunami and new nuclear disaster.

Today we know not how all of this will end.  Workers have returned to the Fukushima nuclear plant to attempt to prevent the unspeakable from happening.  None of the world’s nuclear experts who have been commenting on the disaster in Japan knows if this can be done.  Like us, they can only hope.

But this much is clear: Nuclear power is neither safe nor clean.  And, as the slogan elsewhere on this page reminds us, “Nature bats last.”  Our planet has a fiery core; it has fault lines; its thin envelope of compatibility with human life has been tampered with by the very humans it protects.  We will have earthquakes; we will have tsunamis; we will have hurricanes; and we will pay the price of our tampering with Nature.

Nuclear plants  leak radioactive waste from underground pipes and radioactive waste pools into the ground water at sites all over the world. Science has yet to devise a method for adequately and safely handling long lived radioactive wastes.  Nuclear waste disposal was my hiking companion’s  particular sub-specialty.  He spent the twilight of his working career trying to deal with the waste problem at the Hanford site where the first atomic bombs were created.

Despite his faith in technology and his fellow scientists, there is still no safe, satisfactory way to deal with nuclear waste.

Several nuclear plants in this country are sited on, or perilously close to, fault lines. Perhaps that fact alone will prod us away from further nuclear dependency, away from filthy fossil fuels, and toward safe, renewable energy sources. Technically feasible renewable energy sources in the world are capable of producing up to six times more energy than current global demand.  Even now, nuclear plants around the globe deliver less energy than renewable sources of power.

Consider the recent coal mining disasters.  Consider the cost in money and wars of sucking a finite supply of petroleum out of the earth.  Consider the environmental consequences of gas and oil drilling.  Consider TMI, Chernobyl, Fukushima.

Wind farms and solar panels do not kill.


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How Blatant Lies Become “Fact” in These United States

By Thomas Wark


A cartoon in today’s local newspaper (March  8) represents the outright lies a gullible electorate believes, partly because the mainstream media repeat them as fact without bothering to do basic journalism checking them out.

It depicts a thuggish, bloated figure labeled “unions” riding the back of a small, overburdened figure labeled “taxpayers.”

Its creator accepted as fact the blatant lies that have been repeated countless times in print, on the radio and on television, especially since the Wisconsin public employee protests began.

The media have parroted without challenge Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s wildly untrue statements in support of his so-called “budget repair bill,” a thinly-disguised attempt to destroy unionism in one of the states where it began.

Here is David Cay Johnson, multiple Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, best-selling author, distinguished university lecturer (and registered Republican) :

“(Walker) says he wants state workers covered by collective bargaining agreements to “contribute more” to their pension and health insurance plans.

Accepting Gov. Walker’ s assertions as fact, and failing to check, created the impression that somehow the workers are getting something extra, a gift from taxpayers. They are not.

Out of every dollar that funds Wisconsin’ s pension and health insurance plans for state workers, 100 cents comes from the state workers.

How can that be? Because the “contributions” consist of money that employees chose to take as deferred wages – as pensions when they retire – rather than take immediately in cash. The same is true with the health care plan. If this were not so, a serious crime would be taking place, the gift of public funds rather than payment for services.

Thus, state workers are not being asked to simply “contribute more” to Wisconsin’ s retirement system (or as the argument goes, “pay their fair share” of retirement costs as do employees in Wisconsin’ s private sector who still have pensions and health insurance). They are being asked to accept a cut in their salaries so that the state of Wisconsin can use the money to fill the hole left by tax cuts and reduced audits of corporations in Wisconsin.”

There are foolproof and longstanding laws of economic cause and effect that make this arrangement beneficial to both sides.

Understanding them requires a bit more time, study and effort than simply repeating what politicians like Walker say, as too many journalists today are wont to do. But here, from the economist Dean Baker, is an easy-to-grasp explanation:

“At the center of the right’s story is the view that governments are somehow being reckless or irresponsible when they provide guaranteed pensions for their workers. They tell us that these guaranteed benefits will bankrupt state and local governments, imposing impossible burdens on future taxpayers.

This story can be easily shown to be untrue. While the right has been scaring the public with talk of a trillion dollars in unfunded liability in state pensions, this sum can also be expressed as about 0.2 percent of state income over the time-frame in which the liabilities will have to be paid.

In other words, if states raise 20 cents in taxes or cut 20 cents in other spending for every hundred dollars of future income, they will be able to meet their current pension obligations. This is not a trivial sum, but it doesn’t seem likely to bankrupt our youth either.

Furthermore, the vast majority of this shortfall was due to the plunge in the stock market that followed the collapse of the housing bubble. Overly generous pensions were not the problem. The problem here were the greedy Wall Street types who profited from the housing bubble and the incompetent economists who did not see it. Of course the market has recovered much of its losses, so future years’ pension reports are likely to show that most of the shortfall has already been eliminated.

But it is important to understand the basic logic of defined benefit pensions, since many are trying to eliminate them altogether. Defined benefit pensions are in effect a form of insurance. They guarantee workers a level of retirement income based on the years that they work.

This guarantee of future income is more valuable to workers than getting the same amount of money in salary since it would be very expensive for workers to buy the same insurance from the financial industry. From the standpoint of the government, the insurance is virtually costless.

State and local governments will survive into the indefinite future. If the stock market is down any given year or set of years there is little consequence for a government offering a pension fund. Of course, a down market would be devastating for an individual worker if it happens at the point where he/she retires.

This simple logic means that governments can give workers something that is of great value – a guaranteed retirement income — at very little cost. (Research shows that even after adding in pensions, health care and other benefits, public sector workers are paid slightly less than their private-sector counterparts. This means that because governments offer defined benefit pensions they can either attract better workers at the same pay, or the same quality workers at lower pay, than if they did not offer pensions. This is as basic as economics gets.”

Facts, basic economics, logic, legal precedent, even the Constitution — — none of these seem to modify in anyway the bullying anti-intellectual nonsense of the prevailing Tea Pot element of the Republican party. And far too many members of the voting public believe their lies.

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