“Nothing Would Fundamentally Change”

W.J. Astore

“Nothing would fundamentally change” when he’s elected. Promise kept.

Joe Biden is keeping one campaign promise: that nothing would fundamentally change in his administration. So, for example, Americans are not getting single-payer (and much more affordable) health care for all. (Biden, one must admit, promised nothing more than Obamacare with perhaps more funding for those struggling to afford it.) American workers are not getting a $15 minimum wage, despite Biden’s (broken) promise of supporting the same. And Biden is not cutting defense spending — at all. Instead, the Pentagon budget is to be “flatlined” at the near-record high levels reached under the Trump administration. So much for forcing the military to cut wonky wasteful weapons. It’s business as usual at the Pentagon, with an emphasis on business and profit at the expense of the American taxpayer.

What is to be done? Many Democrats argue that Joe Biden has to be the sensible centrist, constrained as he allegedly is by conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin. But of course Joe Biden himself is a conservative pro-business president who sees Manchin as a sympathetic senator and supporter. Meanwhile, Republicans, still in thrall to Trump, refuse to play along with bipartisan malarkey, except when it comes to maintaining massive military budgets. Again, under these conditions, nothing will fundamentally change.

The American people want affordable health care and support a single-payer system run by the federal government. They also support a $15 minimum wage for full-time workers. They’re getting neither. And this is by design. Not to rehash the 2020 Democratic primaries, but Joe Biden didn’t win by appealing to voters; he won because party heavyweights like Obama threw their support to him. Biden didn’t win the nomination; it was handed to him. Because the owners and donors know Joe, and they know Joe hasn’t a liberal bone in his body, let alone a progressive one. The same is true of Kamala Harris, his vice president, a thoroughly conventional and predictable conservative.

As my Uncle Gino would have said, Biden and Harris are spineless jellyfish. (No offense to jellyfish.) They float around in the swamp of DC assuming any shape and form they need to take to conform to the pressures and interests around them. And their lack of spine leaves open the possibility of Trump or some other wannabe demagogue emerging in 2024. Because more than a few people prefer an incompetent ass like Trump to insincere hacks like Biden and Harris, if only because Trump shows some spine, even if his policies are often even worse for America than those of the spineless Democrats.

Democracy, real democracy, isn’t about a “choice” between two parties, each of which refuses to listen to workers or to serve the interests of sanity and peace. Americans need real choice, including a party that would truly fight for health care for all, truly fight for a $15 minimum wage, and truly fight for peace and against colossal military spending. Only then will America have a semblance of real democracy. Right now, we have a sham democracy, a sham that is well on its way to leaving most of America in shambles.

The Pentagon’s Wasteful Weapons

Now the “lemon” is up to $1.7 trillion. Even more lemonade?

W.J. Astore

Imagine you’re a soldier in combat. What’s the most important feature of any weapon system? That it works. That it’s reliable. Nobody wants a weapon that jams in a firefight. Reliability, simplicity, ruggedness are key features of weaponry.  Yet the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex seem to specialize in unreliable, complex, fragile ones. Ones that don’t work, or that don’t work very well, and at inflated prices as well. This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch, and here’s an excerpt from it:

Cancel culture is a common, almost viral, term in political and social discourse these days. Basically, somebody expresses views considered to be outrageous or vile or racist or otherwise insensitive and inappropriate. In response, that person is “canceled,” perhaps losing a job or otherwise sidelined and silenced. In being deplatformed by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, for instance, this country’s previous president has, it could be argued, been canceled — at least by polite society. More than a few might add, good riddance.

Cancel culture is all around us, with a single glaring exception: the U.S. military. No matter how poorly a major weapons system performs, no matter how much it goes over budget, no matter how long it takes to field, it almost never gets canceled. As a corollary to this, no matter how poorly a general performs in one of our twenty-first-century wars, no matter his lack of victories or failure to achieve mission objectives, he almost never gets cashiered, demoted, or even criticized. A similar thing could be said of America’s twenty-first-century wars themselves. They are disasters that simply never get canceled. They just go on and on and on.

Is it any surprise, then, that a system which seems to eternally reward failure consistently produces it as well? After all, if cancel culture should apply anywhere, it would be to faulty multibillion-dollar weapons systems and more than a few generals, who instead either get booted upstairs to staff positions or retire comfortably onto the boards of directors of major weapons companies.

Let’s take a closer look at several major weapons systems that are begging to be canceled — and a rare case of one that finally was.

* The F-35 stealth fighter: I’ve written extensively on the F-35 over the years. Produced by Lockheed Martin, the plane was at one point seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Nonetheless, the U.S. military persisted and it is now nearing full production at a projected total cost of $1.7 trillion by the year 2070. Even so, nagging problems persist, including engine difficulties and serious maintenance deficiencies. Even more troubling: the plane often can’t be cleared for flying if lightning is anywhere in the area, which is deeply ironic, given that it’s called the Lightning II. Let’s hope that there are no thunderstorms in the next war.

* The Boeing KC-46 tanker: A tanker is basically a flying gas station, air-to-air refueling being something the Air Force mastered half a century ago. Never underestimate the military’s ability to produce new problems while pursuing more advanced technology, however. Doing away with old-fashioned windows and an actual airman as a “boom operator” in the refueling loop (as in a legacy tanker like the KC-135), the KC-46 uses a largely automated refueling system via video. Attractive in theory, that system has yet to work reliably in practice. (Maybe, it will, however, by the year 2024, the Air Force now says.) And what good is a tanker that isn’t assured of actually transferring fuel in mid-air and turns out to be compromised as well by its own fuel leaks? The Air Force is now speaking of “repurposing” its new generation of tankers for missions other than refueling. That’s like me saying that I’m repurposing my boat as an anchor since it happened to spring a leak and sink to the bottom of the lake.

* And speaking of boats, perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the Navy has had serious problems of its own with its most recent Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers. That service started building carriers in the 1920s, so one might imagine that, by now, the brass had gained some mastery of the process of updating them and building new ones. But never underestimate the allure of cramming unproven and expensive technologies for “next generation” success on board such vessels. Include among them, when it comes to the Ford-class carriers, elevators for raising munitions that notoriously don’t operate well and a catapult system for launching planes from the deck (known as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System or EMALS) that’s constantly breaking down. As you might imagine, not much can happen on an aircraft carrier when you can’t load munitions or launch planes effectively. Each new Ford-class carrier costs in the neighborhood of $14 billion, yet despite all that money, it simply “isn’t very good at actually being a carrier,” as an article in Popular Mechanics magazine bluntly put it recently. Think of it as the KC-46 of the seas.

* And speaking of failing ships, let’s not forget the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), which have earned the nickname “little crappy ships.” A serious propulsion design flaw may end up turning them into “floating garbage piles,” defense journalist Jared Keller recently concluded. The Navy bought 10 of them for roughly half a billion dollars each, with future orders currently on hold. Lockheed Martin is the lead contractor, the same one responsible for the wildly profligate (and profitable) F-35.

* Grimly for the Navy, problems were so severe with its Zumwalt-class of stealth destroyers that the program was actually canceled after only three ships had been built. (The Navy initially planned to build 32 of them.) Critiqued as a vessel in search of a mission, the Zumwalt-class was also bedeviled by problems with its radar and main armament. In total, the Navy spent $22 billion on a failed “next generation” concept whose cancelation offers us that utter rarity of our moment: a weapon so visibly terrible that even the military-industrial complex couldn’t continue to justify it.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday has gone on record as rejecting the idea of integrating exotic, largely untried and untested technologies into new ship designs (known in the biz as “concurrent development”). Godspeed, admiral!

Much like the troubled F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship, the Zumwalt’s spiraling costs were due in part to the Pentagon’s fixation on integrating just such “leading-edge” technologies into designs that themselves were in flux. (Not for nothing do military wags refer to them as bleeding edge technologies.) Such wildly ambitious concurrent development, rather than saving time and money, tends to waste plenty of both, leading to ultra-expensive less-than-fully effective weapons like the Zumwalt, the original version of which had a particularly inglorious breakdown while passing through (or rather not passing through) the Panama Canal in November 2016.

Given such expensive failures, you might be forgiven for wondering whether, in the twenty-first century, while fighting never-ending disastrous wars across significant parts of the planet, America’s military isn’t also actively working to disarm itself. Seriously, if we’re truly talking about weapons that are vital to national defense, failure shouldn’t be an option, but far too often it is.

With this dubious record, one might imagine the next class of Navy vessel could very well be named for Philip Francis Queeg, the disturbed and incompetent ship captain of novelist Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. It’s also quite possible that the Pentagon’s next advanced fighter jet will fulfill former Martin Marietta CEO Norman Augustine’s estimate from the 1980s that, by the year 2054, the entire Pentagon budget would be needed to buy one — and only one – combat aircraft. Perhaps a Death Star for America’s new Space Force?

Be sure to read the rest of the article here at TomDispatch.com.

Make-Believe America

A flight of fancy

W.J. Astore

We lose a lot of imagination as we become adults. We become limited. I remember playing make-believe as a kid, when the only limits were those of my imagination. As adults, we’re supposed to be hardheaded and realistic, perhaps even cold-hearted. The world’s tough; don’t be a dreamy fool. But what if we used a bit more imagination in America? What if we returned to the days of make-believe?

Here’s a few aspects of my make-believe America:

* All workers make a living wage with raises pegged to the rate of inflation and cost of living.

* Everyone has “free” health care as a human right.

* Everyone has a home of some sort, i.e. there are no homeless or “unhoused” people living in the streets.

* Prison populations are small, with only the most violent offenders locked away for long terms.

* Climate change, recognized as a problem in the 1980s, is being controlled with massive investments in renewable energy sources.

* Nuclear disarmament, begun with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, will be complete in 2021 after thirty years of dedicated effort.

* No one leaves school with massive amounts of student debt.

* Corporations are not citizens, money is not speech, and all political campaigns are publicly funded.

* Wars are universally reviled and are only fought for defensive purposes via a Congressional declaration. Thus America hasn’t fought a shooting war since 1945.

* The U.S. political scene has a range of “major” parties and a wealth of choices, including a socialist or people’s party and a Green party, along with Libertarians and Populists and Progressives.

* The top priority for most Americans is sustainability and the environment: preserving the planet for future generations.

* There is no such thing as a billionaire, since a progressive tax code ensures an equitable distribution of resources.

* People are respected for who they are and what they do, meaning that racism, sexism, ageism, and other forms of discrimination are largely unknown.

* “Hero” is a term used to describe peacemakers and helpers, the most compassionate and giving among us, the ones fighting hardest for equal rights, fairness, and justice.

* Government is completely transparent to the people. Meanwhile, people have privacy and autonomy.

* Most drugs are legal, and essential medicines like insulin are affordable for all.

Well, I did say this was the land of make-believe. What do you say, readers? What’s in your land of make-believe?

Yet Another Wartime President

Enjoy America’s De-escalatory Bombs!

W.J. Astore

Who was the last U.S. president with a reputation for peace?

By bombing Syria this week, Joe Biden has become yet another “wartime” president. Apparently Iranian-backed militias from Iraq operating inside Syria were the intended target of the bombs. Perhaps as many as 22 “militants” were killed in these attacks. Using language that would make Big Brother blush, the Biden administration claimed the attacks aimed “to de-escalate the overall situation in both Eastern Syria and Iraq.”

I’ve heard of precision bombing, but this is the first time I’ve heard of de-escalatory bombing. Naturally, Congress wasn’t consulted.

Along with this provocative and needless act of aggression, the Biden administration is currently weighing its options in Afghanistan. Three options seem to be on the table: withdrawing all U.S. troops and ending the war; prolonging the war indefinitely; and continued “negotiations” with modest increases of those troops. The last option is considered the sober sensible one by Beltway sages. Complete withdrawal after twenty years of turmoil and death is predictably seen as too risky, whereas a wholehearted commitment to generational war in Afghanistan, a la General Petraeus, is seen as politically unpopular, even if the end result of the sober sensible option is exactly that: more war fought in the (false) name of (eventual) peace.

So, under Joe Biden, we have bombing for de-escalation and more war for peace. Again, Biden deserves praise when he promised that nothing would fundamentally change under his administration.

Raise the Minimum Wage!

Amen, brother! (Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

Remarkably, the federal minimum wage still sits at $7.25 an hour and hasn’t been raised since 2009. As a reminder, Barack Obama and Joe Biden were riding high from 2009 to 2016 and they never saw fit to fight hard enough to raise that paltry sum. That’s why Bernie Sanders was so appealing in 2015 when he challenged Hillary Clinton and advocated for a $15.00 minimum wage. People may forget that Hillary initially equivocated, proposing only a $12.00 minimum wage. Ah, the generosity and compassion of Hillary. No boundaries except for $12.00 an hour.

Allegedly, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi are now for the $15.00 sum, but of course it would be phased in over several years since the peasants must be reminded of their place. It’s possible that the Covid relief plan currently in the works will finally set the country on a firm if slow path to $15.00. Even so, consider a full-time employee working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year. If she makes $15.00 an hour, her pay before taxes would max out at $30,000.00 a year, hardly a munificent sum. Consider that she’d have to work full-time for 22 years to make as much money as Hillary Clinton made in three short speeches to the financial and banking sectors. I’m with her (for the money)!

My father knew the score. As a factory worker, he had to fight for a dime pay raise, a story he recounted in his journal. Here’s an excerpt:

It seems that Mike Calabrese on his own asked Harry Gilson for a pay raise [at the factory] and he was refused.  Mike decided to organize the men members and go down in a group.  In our group he got ten men to approach Harry G. for a raise.  But when it was time to “bell the cat” only three fellows went to see Harry.  Well Mike said he couldn’t join the group because he had already tried to get a raise.  I knew I was being used but I was entitled to a raise.  Well Harry said to me, “What can I do for you men?”  So I said to Harry: 1) Living costs were going up; 2) We deserved a raise.  So Harry said, “How much?”  and I said ten cents an hour would be a fair raise.  So he said I’ll give you a nickel an hour raise and later you’ll get the other nickel.  We agreed.  So, I asked Harry will everyone get a raise and he replied, “Only the ones that I think deserve it.”

Well a month later I was drinking water at the bubbler [water fountain] and Harry saw me and said what a hard job they had to get the money to pay our raises.  Well, Willie, Harry Gilson and his brother Sam and their two other Italian brother partners all died millionaires.  No other truer saying than, “That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.”

And then my father added this pearl of wisdom: From my life’s experience I’ve found that the harder I worked physically the less money I made.

Lee Camp knows the score as well as he calls for real redistribution of wealth in this humorous article. My dad would like this guy.

I know, we can’t say “class warfare” in America, comrade. But maybe that’s because, as the billionaire Warren Buffett put it, the richest among us are so clearly winning.

Corporate Democrats and Limousine Liberals

W.J. Astore

A friend sent along a story from The Intercept about a spoiled corporate Democrat running for the Senate in Wisconsin. The article’s title reads like satire but it’s all-too-telling of our American moment: Son of Wall Street Mogul Running for Wisconsin Senate Seat Was Pleasantly Surprised Milwaukee Is a Normal City: “What most surprised me,” said Alex Lasry, “is the fact that Milwaukee has all the same things as any city,” citing bars, restaurants, and an art scene.

Who knew Milwaukee was so sophisticated. Even an “art scene”! Alex Lasry sure has his finger on the pulse of the people. We need more Senators like him, moneyed and smug and elitist — and ignorant too. He’s perfect.

Some more details about the career arc of Alex Lasry, which is short and not bending toward justice:

Though he doesn’t note it in his bio, Lasry began as an intern at Goldman Sachs during college, while Lasry’s father was a major Goldman Sachs client. Marc Lasry was a bundler for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, gathering $500,000 for his reelection, and he led a Wall Street effort to restore relations with the White House after the president mildly criticized the financial sector. His son then scored an internship in the White House in the Office of Public Engagement, run by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who was one of the White House’s key links to the CEO class. The White House gig was his first job out of college, and he rose through the ranks of the office. From there, he returned to Goldman Sachs as an analyst in their government affairs department.

More recently, Alex Lasry helped lead the effort to bring the Democratic National Convention to Milwaukee in 2020 as finance chair of the city’s host committee. Lasry was also in the news this month for getting his Covid-19 vaccine, though the state’s 69-year-old governor had yet to get his.

Vitally important people like Lasry, who’s 33 years old, obviously need the Covid vaccine and pronto. I’m 57 and my wife and I joke that our scheduled date for the Covid vaccine is the 12th of never. But, heck, who are we?

It’s sure nice to see the Democratic Party so focused on “everyday” people, as Hillary Clinton called them. There are few people more down to earth, more relatable, than Goldman Sachs royalty or those like Hillary who take their money.

And the Democrats wonder why so many Americans saw and continue to see a clown like Trump as a viable alternative. One thing you can say for Trump: as much as he lies, there is an honesty to him. He’s a rich blowhard who’s out for himself and he doesn’t care who knows it. Limousine liberals are more circumspect, or more hypocritical if we’re being blunt, which makes Trump’s naked greed seem strangely refreshing.

Finally, maybe America should be more honest with itself and just elect Senator Goldman Sachs, Senator Raytheon, Senator Walmart, Senator Lockheed Martin, Senator Monsanto, and so on. Then again, why should the puppeteers come out from behind the curtain when the senatorial puppets they control are dancing so prettily and obediently?

Addendum: Of course, examples of GOP senatorial hypocrisy are legion; consider this article by David Sirota. Ready for a third party, anyone?

The Marsh in Snow

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I got out on the marsh during the snow. The landscape was much changed from the previous photos!

New snow planet
This part of the marsh made me think of a nasty trench in the lowlands during World War I
There’s an austerity or bleakness to this photo
At home, a coating of white makes everything look fresh and new
Another month until spring!

Ending America’s Wars

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I went on Keeping Democracy Alive with Burt Cohen to discuss ways of ending America’s wars. Click on the link below for the podcast.

Can it Happen Now: Real National Security, an End to Endless Wars?

We discussed the Biden administration and its approach to foreign policy, the Afghan War, the legacy of the Vietnam War, the military-industrial-congressional complex, and similar subjects. That rare word, “peace,” and that rare politician, George McGovern, truly a man of vision and guts, also get a mention.

Ending war is all about getting the profit out of war. General Smedley Butler knew this — yet America’s generals today love their massive “defense” budgets, this year soaring to $740.5 billion.

Another point: Look at the ongoing crisis in Texas with its frozen and failing power grid, lack of potable water, and so on. Why is America building more nuclear weapons when it needs to be upgrading its power grids and related infrastructure?

I know: stop making sense!

Nothing will fundamentally change?

The Marsh in Winter

W.J. Astore

I live near a salt marsh, and yesterday saw sunny skies and relatively dry air for these parts. Thus it was high time for a walk and a few photos:

Out on the marsh during low tide. I love a place where I can see the horizon

People hunt out on the marsh. In this case, these Canadian geese had only to worry about a bad profile in my photo:

Soon after taking this, they took to the air

Even in February, there are hints of greener days ahead:

There’s something magical about a spot like this, especially in the dead of winter

Some trees are portals to new places, if you dare:

Speak friend and enter

Open wild spaces: we need them now more than ever

Breathe deep!

Hope you enjoyed these “bracing views”!

If Only Americans Followed Wars Like Sports

Score! Bobby Orr! One of my bedroom wall posters

W.J. Astore

I’m a big sports fan. I grew up in the Boston area and loved my local teams. When I was a kid, I had two big posters of Bobby Orr, the famed defenseman of the Boston Bruins, on my wall. I had a Boston Red Sox uniform. When I threw a baseball around, I imagined I was Luis Tiant, the mercurial and entertaining pitcher for the Red Sox, or Dwight Evans, the team’s rocket-armed right fielder. I collected baseball cards and studied the stats on the back for hours on end.

But I was also a kid who kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War of 1973. I was ten years old yet I was attracted to war and its nitty-gritty details as much as I was to the sporting world. Who knows why. Temperament, I suppose. As I grew older, I built lots of military models and read more and more books about the military even as I kept an interest in sports (more as a fan than a participant, since my talent level was modest at best).

This was on my mind this AM as I read a detailed article on Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, whose stellar career was cut short by injuries. The article focused on whether Pedroia deserved election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.* Highly detailed, well written, and showing an estimable command of statistics, the article impressed me even as it got me to thinking. What if Americans examined wars like they studied sports? What if Afghanistan was covered with the same detail as the forthcoming NFL draft? What if there was a channel like ESPN devoted to wars 24/7 rather than to sports? And what if the reporting was objective and honest?

You can’t fool a sophisticated sports fan with a bunch of home-team boosterism that’s disconnected from the facts on the ground (or on the baseball diamond, the football field, the ice hockey rink, etc.). Why are so many people so easily fooled about the need to continue the Afghan War, which is now in its 20th year and where the U.S.-led coalition is losing more than ever?

If the Afghan War were a U.S. sports team, it would be a team that spent more money than any other team even as it lost more games, cycling through a new losing coach every year and an unmemorable cast of players that changed each season. Despite the hiring of much-hyped “coaches” like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, despite promises of pennant-winning “surges” by team presidents like Barack Obama, our imaginary Afghan War sports team was and remains a cellar dweller, forever mired in last place.

What red-blooded American sports fan would tolerate more of the same from such a loser team? What fan would keep cheering for such a team? What fan would say, “let’s stay the course,” even as more and more losses piled up?

Consider this article from yesterday’s New York Times:

*****

The Taliban Close In on Afghan Cities, Pushing the Country to the Brink

The Taliban have positioned themselves around several major population centers, including the capital of Kandahar Province, as the Biden administration weighs whether to withdraw or to stay.

*****

What should Team Biden do? “To stay” is to stay on the same losing course we’ve been on for 20 years. “To withdraw” is a new course that has the virtue of ending the bleeding (at least for the U.S.). Which action would you choose?

Any sports fan worth his or her salt would know the answer here. Call withdrawal a “rebuilding” year and most sports fans would accept it. It’s a far better choice than staying and losing with the same old tactics and cast of characters.

Just about every American sports fan has heard the saying: Winning isn’t everything–it’s the only thing. Well, we’re not winning in Afghanistan and we never will. So the only smart thing left to do is to leave.

*Pedroia gets my vote for the Hall of Fame. It’s not simply about stats. Pedey was a winner, a leader, a gutsy overachiever who played the game the right way. Rookie of the year, MVP, World Series winner, he gave it his all on every play. Sometimes, the so-called intangibles matter.