Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Justice vs Practicality - The Bush Years

There is much talk lately about what should be done about all the illegal acts committed during the Bush administration. The Democrats are already talking about "moving forward" and not focusing on the past. This is a claim to practicality, but is just an excuse.

There have been clear indications for much of the past 50 years that GOP administrations are more willing to violate the laws. These fall into two broad categories. The easier one to deal with has to do with standard corruption. Selling government influence, taking bribes in the form of campaign contributions or promises of future employment, or favors while in office.

This has become especially outrageous during the Bush years as a total lack of desire to prosecute, or even investigate such misdeeds, rose to an unprecedented state. Even private firms have become generally immune to punishment for violating the law.

The second violation of the law has to do with government actions meant to further legitimate aims, but which themselves break the laws to achieve their aims. Right now those in the forefront have to do with sanctioning torture, violating the privacy provisions of the Fourth Amendment and obstructing investigations by the legislative branch.

As the Clinton years showed the GOP is willing to use legal mechanisms for political aims. The impeachment of Clinton being the pinnacle of their efforts. There were many others, including the refusal to allow federal judges to be seated and misuse of the filibuster.

Now if the Dems turn around and start to prosecute the violations of government policy the they will run the risk that the next time the GOP is in power they will even engage in more politically motivated persecutions. This is what happens in third world countries which only pretend to be democracies. At each change of government all the prior leaders are at risk of prosecution. Such a course of action leads to the complete destruction of any adherence to the rule of law. Since the GOP has already shown that they are willing to play this game, timidity by the Dems is unwise. You don't defeat a bully by giving in to him.

So what should be done?

I suggest two courses of action. The activities which are based upon traditional monetary corruption should be left to the appropriate judicial departments to investigate. This, of course, means that the hacks and cronies have to be removed from the departments. Obama seems to be making some moves in this direction, but a lot depends upon appointments of US Attorneys and the willingness of local jurisdictions to investigate regional crimes. The regulatory agencies have to be restored as well.

As for policy-based misdeeds. There needs to be away to counter the already-forming critique that any investigations are just "partisan politics". Existing law protects most government officers even if they do the most stupid or ill-conceived things as long as they do them in good faith and as part of their official duties. So "heckuva job" Brownie never gets charged for being incompetent.

There is nothing to stop congress, however, from holding hearings on what went wrong and who was responsible. This is similar to the truth and reconciliation commissions that have arisen elsewhere. I'm not sure about the forgiveness part of the process, people in the US don't seem very willing to ever admit to a mistake or apologize.

In addition to hearings, the Obama administration should sign the treaty which established the International Criminal Court. If there are injured parties, say Guantanamo detainees, who want to bring charges at the ICC then this would allow them to do so. International law allows countries to arrest people accused of being war criminals as the UK did with Pinochet. If the ICC decides to issue a warrant for Gonzales or Cheney or Rumsfeld then this is not a political act by the Obama administration.

If the US is not willing to adhere to international law, including taking responsibility when it breaks it, then why do they expect others to do so. We are quick to condemn Al Qaeda or Hamas for their actions, but don't want to be judged for ours. This is not the rule of law, it is the law of the jungle - might makes right.

How about, Mr. Constitutional Lawyer president? Join the ICC.


Philosopher Harry Frankfurt had a minor best seller a couple of years ago with his book "On Bullshit".

Here's a bit from the publisher's blurb:

Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner's capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Now Frankfurt is a philosopher, not a psychologist, so he approaches this subject from an ethical or moral point of view. This is fine for those wanting to express moral outrage, but does nothing useful for those who want to see lies stamped out.

He seems to imply that liars have a concern for the truth, in that they know what it is, but ignore it while BS-ers are indifferent to it. I think that this still implies that the BS-ers know what the truth is. We condemn them when the continue to repeat things which have been shown to be false. We can't believe that someone could continue to maintain a falsehood in the face of evidence unless they were being deceitful.

I think there is something else at work here, a need for self justification for ones actions and beliefs. Notice that when a person of the cloth loses his faith it is a major psychological trauma as had been related many times in works of autobiography. When one has based their entire worldview on a certain set of assumptions then one is left adrift when these foundations are removed.

Right now we are seeing a spate of conservative justifications for failed policies - economic, social and international. People are getting increasingly upset the way these defenses continually twist actual historical events. But if your self image depends upon justifying your actions, then remembering history the way you wish it had been becomes a self-defense mechanism.

A good example, from history so we won't have to deal with current personalities, is that of Harry Truman and the A bomb. When he entered office he knew nothing of the advanced military planning that had been going on. Roosevelt thought he was a lightweight and kept him out of the loop. He got all his education from a group of insiders who had a vested interested in seeing the A bomb program completed and used militarily. So they fed him slanted information. The most outrageous was the claim, which he repeated throughout his later life, that Hiroshima was a "military" target. This was untrue and was further confirmed by later inspections once the US had occupied Japan. Truman was given later intelligence data. In fact the data was so damaging to the US story, that it, and the pictures from the scene, are still mostly classified.

What could Truman do with this new knowledge? Admit he had been misled, or misled himself and admit that he had OK'ed the largest war crime in the history of the world? So Nagasaki and Hiroshima remained military targets in his mind until the end.

Now we see the outgoing administration, and their enablers and cronies, lying about the basis for the two wars, the successes of prior social programs (the New Deal and the Great Society), the current state of the economy and public opinion. Lies or defensive mechanisms?

It makes a difference. You cannot debate a BS-er, they operate in a non-rational universe. The ends always justify the means. Whatever is needed to win your point at the moment trumps everything else. This is not to say that one should let them get away with distorting reality. There are always the impressionable listening on the sidelines who need to be reminded of the truth. But it does alter the way such counter efforts should be undertaken. Going onto a talking head show with a BS-er just gives them an opportunity to repeat their story and implicitly validates their position as being plausible. In addition there are no venues where the host will call out the guest for gross misrepresentation. This would be seen as the host being partisan and removing their credibility as a "neutral" observer.

Unfortunately the only ones willing to call BS on such people are on Comedy Central. A poor commentary on the state of our press.

There is a similar dynamic going on over the "debate" about evolution. Serious biologists will no longer debate creationists because just the act of appearing in the same venue enhances the creationists with their followers and the easily swayed bystanders.

I don't think those who relish face time on TV will listen to me and boycott such venues, but they might consider if they are helping or hurting the cause of truth by doing so at least. The business press and the weekly news magazines represent business interests so can never allow challenges to the capitalist, free-market, ideology of those who pay the bills. One would never expect the Marxists "Daily Worker" to support the bosses, so why any surprise over the distortions of the "Financial Times" or the "Economist". If you knew what they were peddling was false would you work there?

Keep up the good fight, but don't ever expect the BS-ers to yield.

The Theory of Everything - Blame Darwin

The human race is afflicted with the desire to make sense out of the world. Since the world is complicated the human mind tries to simplify by finding common features that explain it all.

I'm going to give my theory of "everything" right after I review some of the most popular ones of the past. Now by "everything" I actually mean human behavior. There have really been only two popular theories.

Man springs from evil

This is the source of all guilt-based views of the world. The most explicit expression is to be found in the traditional Judeo-Christian tradition starting with Adam and Eve. Other cultures had variations, such as the Pandora story of the Greeks.

The belief that man is basically evil leads to a variety of social structures which all have several things in common. There is said to be a subset of mankind who is exempt from this innate evil, its usually royal rulers, clergy or others in authority. They are all wise and good and act only on behalf of their followers. Notice that even the terminology reflects this thinking people are part of the "flock" or subjects.

Man is perfectible

This view acknowledges man's inherent weaknesses, but thinks they can be overcome by various means. The theological take the form of performing good works on earth (variously defined) to, at least, achieve perfection in the afterlife. The political takes the form of retraining people so that the new attitudes will be passed on to future generations. Marx's followers were fond of this idea. The "scientific" uses the ideas from plant and animal breeding. The most horrific example being the rise of eugenics as practiced by the Nazis and other groups seeking cultural uniformity.

Once again, since a vast undertaking is required, it is essential that the details be left up to the leaders. History hasn't proved any kinder to these leaders than it has to the other group. The Kings of England and France don't have a better record than Stalin or Hitler when it comes to providing a prosperous and secure environment for their followers.

Other repercussions

These basic views of human nature became modified with the rise of science and the industrial revolution. If we take Malthus as an arbitrary starting point we see how the ideas of human nature start to leak into the new field of "economics". His theory of supply and demand is framed in terms of the evil model of human nature. People will not be able to control their "base" desires and this will, inevitably, lead to overpopulation and the consequences of this.

Darwin was influenced by this line of thought and adopted it for his theory of evolution, in terms of the competition for resources between individuals and species. There was no direct evidence that it was competition that caused evolution, it can just as easily be as the result of changes in the environment or even random mutations. There are plenty of examples of species co-existing with no change for long periods of time. They are in equilibrium with each other and the environment, there is no "competition". The coelacanth is thought to have existed for millions of years.

From Darwin it was a short hop to Herbert Spencer who misunderstood Darwin's theory which works on a species-wide basis and adapted it to human nature as "survival of the fittest". This, in turn, has led to any number of variations on economic theory. The rise of psychology and allied fields at the beginning of the 20th Century led to theories which pinned the evil inherent in humans to a variety of mental functions, including "unconscious" ones. The latest in this series is the new work trying to discover how "rational" decision-making is. If humans are not rational actors as classical economics assumes then we must revert to mechanisms which lead them in the "right" direction.

Capitalism is an outgrowth of these theories. People are motivated by self interest, only through competition can the best outcomes be obtained, authoritarian leaders (even "benevolent" ones) can only make things worse by getting in the way, etc.

To summarize: Malthus' belief in human moral weakness, led Darwin to hypothesize the same thing for the rest of the natural world, which led Spencer to make an evolutionary theory into one of economic behavior by individuals. This led to other like Marx and Freud to posit ways to overcome these limitations. In the most extreme cases it led to the worst examples of totalitarian regimes the planet has ever seen (Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and it continues to day in Africa and elsewhere). These theories all have one thing in common - they are wrong because they oversimplified too much.

A new theory

What all these have in common, even the ones that claim a "scientific" basis is that they are far from the kinds of theories that one finds in the physical sciences. The rise of Newtonian mechanics and what followed inspired social philosophers into thinking that their theories could be as unambiguous and exact. Analogies to mechanical processes are still commonplace when discussing social structures.

My theory of "everything" is that there is no theory of everything. People are complex and no broad-brush explanation is going to be useful. Most theories are inspired by people who have a particular viewpoint and are looking for justifications for why it is right. There are as many cases where people have been shown to support altruism and community involvement as there are where they appear selfish. That one set of behaviors is ignored while the other is taken as the only motivator of human behavior is just wrong.

Many societies have been based upon cooperative, not competitive, models. This is true of human and animal societies. Social insects are the most extreme case in the animal world, but wolf packs and even groups of whales hunt cooperatively. Societies not based upon industrial production frequently have more of a communal structure. Frequently there is a group of elders or similar which makes decisions rather than the more popular pyramid structure seen in western society.

A functional democracy is also the opposite of the Spencerian dog-eat-dog model. People have to work collectively and select leaders to work on their behalf. Such leaders are not supposed to work for their own benefit, in fact if they do this, it is seen as a breach of trust. They are also supposed to be replaced regularly without any interruption of basic social structures. The losers in an election are expected to yield to the will of the majority when it comes to decisions to be made, but are expected to continue to try to persuade others to change their opinions in the future. This is all self-sacrifice for the general good.

Now, obviously, the democratic model has worked fairly well for several hundred years. In addition the number of countries adopting it has increased steadily throughout the period. These facts stand in stark contrast to the continuing belief in the quasi-Darwinian view of nature. Why these contradictions are not noted more is a puzzle.

The world is approaching a real Malthusian situation, for the first time ever, on a global scale. There are those who feel that the spoils should go to the strong. The US military establishment has created contingency plans on how to deal with the rise of Russia, China and threats to world oil supplies. They have not developed plans on how to get along with other countries. Given that we have lost every "war" since the end of WWII, it seems unlikely that their plans will work in the future either. We haven't even won the metaphorical wars on drugs, poverty, terrorism, crime, etc.

It is time to abandon the Darwinian view of the world and adopt a more comprehensive one. One which appeals to people's better nature, their desire to make something of their lives and to leave the world a better place. Motherly love is the unchangeable part of human nature, not selfishness.

What is Money?

With investments falling in price recently people have been looking at the whole concept of money and value more closely again. Money is a topic which has confounded thinkers for several thousand years, so I don't think I'll be able to explain it either. Instead I'll just ask some questions.

Until the invention of paper money, money was based upon some relatively rare tangible object. Silver and gold have been popular choices for a long time. Their virtue was that one can't counterfeit them, although there have been cases of adulteration and "clipping".

Having a governing body issue coinage was a way of simplifying trade since the provenance eliminated the need to verify each coin every time a trade was done. The problem with gold and silver is that the "wealth" of a society was based upon an arbitrary commodity which had insignificant purpose aside from as a medium of exchange. Jewelry is just another way to hold on to this commodity.

It was only in the past 100 years or so that gold and silver have been needed for actual industrial production. Silver in photography and some electronics and gold in electronics. Even today industrial use of gold is only about 20% of the amount mined.

With the rise of mercantilism and industrialization the limits on the actual amount of gold and silver acted as a barrier to trade. One might have a large amount of grain to sell, but if the buyer didn't have the gold to pay for it there was no deal. This led to the creation of credit. So "money" was now created without any connection to scarce commodities, but only based upon a promise. From letters of credit to central banks and the issuance of paper money has been a long path in time, but a short leap conceptually.

Once we permit trade to take place based upon credit then we have allowed money to be created outside the direct control of national mints. Credit is a promise and the "value" of the promise is based upon expectations that the loan will be paid in a timely fashion.

Those who see the evil in "fractional banking" and "fiat money" have confused a specific mechanism for the creation of credit with the idea that money is based upon trust, regardless of how this is defined. So proposals to limit banks to lending only what they have in reserve, for example, just put the entire creation of the money supply in the hands of the government. If they fail to put enough money into circulation (either in the form of paper or bonds) then trade becomes constrained just as it was with a limited amount of coinage in circulation.

Proposals to substitute something for credit all are variations on going back to the old system. Should we base wealth on land or a basket of commodities? If so then how do you determine the "value" of these things. We have seen recently that land and oil can change value just as rapidly as anything else. There are no physical commodities which have a value independent of what people assign to them.

One could argue that the use of credit has worked well since it became the norm in the 20th Century, but this isn't true. There have been dozens of revaluations of money and a successions of international mechanisms set up to deal with problems. Going off the gold stand, Bretton Woods, the creation of the IMF and World Bank have all been attempts to systematize a process which is fundamentally based only on trust. We are now going through the latest international convulsion over money and will probably see some new ad hoc mechanisms put in place to restore confidence.

As I said, I don't have any ideas, but it seems to me that we will be stuck with trust-based credit for the foreseeable future.

Why the Middle East Conflict Never Ends

The strife in the middle east has been going on, in its latest phase, for 60 years. Now when something goes on this long without being resolved there has to be a reason. The reason can usually be found by examining who stands to gain from the status quo.

I'll offer three hypothesis as to who these might be.

First there are what I call the "magic sand" people. These belong to all three of the monotheistic religions of the region: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All claim that certain spots in the desert have special properties to them and their group is thus entitled to control over these regions. In some cases they all lay claim to exactly the same spots. They use historical evidence as justification for their positions, even though these claims are based upon conditions which existed over a 1000 or even 2000 years ago. Historical clams can't be allowed to trump everything that has happened since.

This group is very vocal and can be counted on to create civil unrest and perform acts of violence in pursuit of their cause, but they are tools of the other groups.

Second are the oligarchs who run all of the countries in the region. There are no functioning democracies in the region, although a few have elections and other democratic trappings. In addition, they all suffer from gross disparities of wealth. Not only within a state, but between them. Egypt has no oil and is poor, Kuwait has too much oil and is obscenely rich.

I have some statistics on this which can be seen in the table at this link. Look at the column which list oil reserves per person to see the imbalance.

Another measure is the "Gini" Index which ranges from 0 for a perfectly equal society to 100. For comparison, Norway has the lowest at 25.8, the US at 40.8. There are only statistics for a few middle eastern states: Egypt 34.4, Yemen 33.4. The lack of data for the most unequal like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates is telling. The states where everyone is poor release statistics, those with the most extremes in wealth suppress them. International agencies, which could estimate this, seem reluctant to do so, since they don't want to offend our friends with the oil.

Third are the oil consuming states, principally the US and Europe. They have long pursued a policy of keeping the oil states economically, socially and politically underdeveloped. This is a variation of the banana republic strategy that was the norm for South America for much of the 19th Century. We support oligarchs because it is easier to do business with a small group of powerful individuals than to have to deal with messy democracies and the will of the people.

The oligarchs don't want the population noticing this and rising up to remedy the situation, so they create distractions. These distractions are the issue with Israel and the ethnic rivalries that never get resolved. This is where the magic sand people come in. By blaming everything that is wrong with the region on Israel it is not necessary to deal with the local injustices.

The US also has its proxy in Israel. It supplies it with arms and other materiel so that it can perform the type of destabilizing tactics that the US wants without the US having to get its hands dirty. Notice that all the fighting in the regions that has involved Israel has never been directed at toppling a major Arab political hierarchy and replacing it with democratic institutions.

In addition the Arab states have refused to allow the displaced Palestinians to resettle elsewhere in the region. They want to keep this group bottled up and angry generation after generation so that there is a steady supply of foot soldiers.

There are no players with clean hands in this conflict.

The Jews in 1948 did some sort of land grab, whether this was done under a "mandate", whether it was fair, whether Arabs were forced out, fled from fear, or were duped into leaving by their leaders, is a historical question which seems impossible to answer fully. Whatever the circumstances, it happened. It was an injustice, but it wasn't the only injustice in history.

The Arabs who fled have been mistreated by fellow Arabs ever since. This is also an injustice, but it is a continuing one.

The Arabs who stayed in the region have also been mistreated. The ones in Israel proper somewhat less than those in the areas claimed by the Palestinians. These are currently being mistreated by both the Israelis and the radicals in their midst.

Speculative Solutions

Are any of the proposed "solutions" viable? It would seem not or they would have been implemented already. These ideas are not to be taken as firm policy suggestions, rather they are just my attempt to get people thinking along new paths.

To my mind the "two state" solution is the least viable option. The territories that the Palestinians would end up with are not big enough and don't have enough resources to provide for a decent standard of living. A divided state is also unworkable. Even if the free movement between Gaza and the West Bank became the norm this would still add gross inefficiencies to any economic development.

The desire of the magic sand people to have those in the opposing groups vanish from the region is, of course, also impossible. That some keep wishing for this just means that they have been programmed to avoid thinking about realistic solutions.

Stamping out opposition by military means has also proven a failure. This has been a failure not only between states, but within states as the recurring battles in Lebanon illustrate. One cannot solve problems of civic injustice by military means. One can cower a population as totalitarian states have done in many cases in the 20th Century, but the cost is high in terms of low economic development and blighted lives.

I suggest a new approach. Redressing the history of injustice by means of money.

All those who have suffered by being displaced, or being put into situations of economic constraint, should be compensated financially. This means, at a minimum, "Palestinians" living in camps throughout the region as well as those currently living in the disputed regions. The compensation should extend to the third generation of those affected. That is those who still under 20 years old as well as those who experienced displacement and hardship directly.

The compensation should be large enough that these families can establish themselves economically. I don't have an exact figure, but let's say somewhere in the neighborhood of $50-100 thousand per adult. This money would be paid out over a period of a few years via an international agency which would hold the funds in a special banking system set up for this purpose.

Those countries which are now keeping refugees bottled up or refusing to allow them to become full citizens would need to allow them to integrate into the general society, or move to countries in the region which would be willing to do so. For each case that was thus resolved the host country would also get some direct aid to assist in resettlement and integration.

The Palestinian areas would enter a new status. Gaza would become a "special administrative unit" of Egypt and the west bank of Jordan. This requires a bit of explanation.

The idea of sovereign states based upon cultural homogeneity has been a dominant trend over the past several hundred years. Regional difference in Europe were generally minimized to promote the idea of a nation. This can be seen in the consolidation in France, Italy, Germany and the UK. Cultural and language differences have been minimized and a national identity created in its place. The results have been fairly successful. Using this model has worked less well in other areas of the world, especially in Africa and the middle east. Arbitrary sovereign state borders were created by colonial powers with little regard to the ethnic groups within the regions. The results have not been good. There have been continual flareups of ethnic violence ever since.

I propose a new type of citizenship for groups in these regions. They maintain their sovereign-based citizenship, but also have a clan or ethnic group formal identity. This second identity permits them to participate in the administration of local affairs using traditional cultural mechanisms. We have a model of this in the US with American Indians. They are US citizens and, if they wish, they can participate in tribal affairs. The rules for such participation are up to the tribe and may involve living on the reservation or other criteria.

Many countries with large numbers of people living elsewhere also accommodate this by allowing them to continue to vote in local elections. In some cases they don't lose this right even if they obtain citizenship in their new place of residence. An example where such a dual identity could work to reduce friction is with the Kurds who are spread over three sovereign countries, but consider themselves as one people.

Ethnic groups with a strong cultural tradition want to preserve this and the primary focus for them has to do with education and local land disputes. There is no reason why these administrative tasks can't be handled locally.

So the "special administrative districts" I'm proposing for the Palestinians would be like this. If they chose to remain in their enclaves they can run their own local affairs. If they chose to minimize their cultural heritage and move into the larger society then they give up some of these special privileges.

Fears, such as those expressed by the King of Jordan, about his country's national character being overwhelmed by the increase of new citizens are a type of cultural racism. History has shown that immigrants integrate into the general society, almost completely by the third generation, if they are allowed to. If the US can accommodate people of widely differing backgrounds, Jordan can accept some who differ only slightly from the native population.

People who are granted full rights become just as patriotic as those who have lived their before. It is only when the governments continue to emphasize the differences that problems arise. So the Palestinians become dual citizens or not as they wish.

Chances for Success

Is any of this possible? As I said out the outset, the reason there has been no resolution to the issues is because there are strong forces who favor the status quo. Are they about to give up their privilege voluntarily? Will the west push for democratization of the region and take on the associated risks of having to deal with populations that want to trade their resources on their own terms, not ours? Will the military establishment be willing to stop selling unneeded, expensive and provocative armaments to the region and lose the revenue?

Will the local oligarchs be willing to cede control to the people? Will the hyper-wealthy oil states be willing to share their revenue more equally with their own population, and more importantly, with their impoverished neighbors?

Obviously the vested interests have the upper hand. Change has to happen from the bottom up. The people of the region have to demand a better deal. The first step in this is education. They have to learn that their interests are being ill served and who it is that is working against them. Focusing on the Israel/Palestinian conflict is a deliberate distraction and only education can explain this.

The west cannot force a solution on the region, even if it wanted to, but those interested in social equity and economic advancement can promote a better understanding of the issues and not fall into the trap of debating which side's moral failings are more egregious.

First comes education and the fostering of good will, then comes cooperation, then come the calls for social justice within the population. Then, and only then, can real solutions emerge.

My stimulation idea - paid volunteerism.

The never-ending debates over how to best get the economy going again swing between tax policies, interest rate adjustments and public spending. All of these require a huge bureaucratic system to be put into motion. My plan is much simpler and can be put in effect immediately.

Here's how it works, those who are unemployed or underemployed get income support through existing insurance programs. Then instead of sitting around or pretending to look for work they use their time to volunteer. They are not paid to volunteer or required to volunteer, but they can afford to do so since their income is assured.

There are many areas where extra hands could help. For example, teaching reading or helping kids with their homework in public libraries in the afternoons and weekends.

Or monitoring after school activities that give kids a place to go while their parents are working. The gym, library and auditorium are there, it just needs some adults to supervise or create activities.

How about driving people to doctors appointments or job interviews or the like? Even visiting the home-bound just for companionship is a good idea.

If you want to get more ambitious, those with the appropriate skills could volunteer to help people fix up their homes with improved insulation and the like. The issue of who pays for the building supplies would need to be worked out, but many localities already offer grants for this type of thing.

I'm sure there are dozens of other areas which could benefit from some volunteer labor. Since these volunteers are being paid they are not sacrificing financially by being good Samaritans.

Unlike the job corps or the peace corps or the WPA these efforts would be from the bottom up and responsive to local needs. One could use a mechanism like Craig's List to coordinate things. All of these projects are "shovel ready" right now.

Nuclear Swords into Plowshares

As has become abundantly clear over the past few years there are no "good" solutions to the energy crisis. Clean coal has been revealed to be anything but. Tar sands rip up the landscape, create huge pools of contaminated water and tailings and have a low net energy yield. Corn and other plant-derived ethanol consumes resources needed for crops and doesn't yield much net energy. Oil and gas remain the most economic choices, but suffer from variable availability, price uncertainty and declining reserves.

In addition, all of these fossil fuels contribute to the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Efforts to sequester the waste gases are not available and many proposals lack scientific rigor.

Wind, wave and solar will become increasingly important, but it is unlikely that they will provide enough of a solution to meet demand. At this point I usually argue for cutting down on demand by re-framing the consuming societies so that they are not so wasteful.

I think that there is another alternative that we should consider - nuclear power. The world has enormous stocks of highly refined Uranium and Plutonium which could be reprocessed and used as fuel for nuclear power stations. In addition existing spent fuel can be reprocessed and provide fresh fuel. In addition there is the possibility of building more breeder reactors to provide further supplies.

There are several objections to nuclear power. The ones about control of nuclear material are based upon unfounded fears. The risk of "proliferation" because there is fuel in a reactor is irrational. The world handles huge amounts of radioactive material every day for use in medical and industrial applications. Radiation from Cobalt is more deadly that that from Uranium fuel rods, yet adequate controls keep the number of incidents to a handful each year.

There are new generations of nuclear power plant designs which avoid the problems of the past. Several of these are currently in use and several others being considered for new plants. Part of the problem with nuclear plants has been poor citing decisions, poor planning for storage of spent fuel, and a lack of community involvement. If a plan to build huge solar arrays, far from population centers in the US desert, can be considered then so can citing nuclear plants in similar locations.

One of the big issues has to do with funding new nuclear plants. Some studies claim that if total costs are included they are not economical. The latest number being bandied around is in the range of $0.20 per kilowatt hour, about ten times what the industry claims. For the sake of argument, let's assume that this true.

This cost is only excessive when compared against flawed analysis of alternatives. The two biggest costs that are ignored when calculating the cost of fossil fuel plants are the value of the non-replaceable fuel and the cost of the emissions on the health of the planet. At some point such costs become unacceptable and only those processes which avoid them are a viable choice. We don't put a price on depletion and pollution because we can't, not because they don't have a cost.

I propose we decommission all nuclear weapons over time and use the nuclear material for power generation - the swords into plowshares of the title. In addition I propose that all aspects of nuclear power generation be run by government agencies set up specifically for this purpose. In the US the TVA has provided power to an under-served region for many decades. The government undertook this because a private solution was unworkable.

As the recent disaster with a TVA coal-fired plant shows, even government agencies can become complacent and sloppy. The solution to weak supervision is better monitoring, not condemning government administration. The number of disasters associated with private power generation shows that who owns the plant is no indication of safety or good management.

I don't like nuclear power, I think the risks are minimized, but I think this is because private firms need to make a profit from something which cannot compete economically with fossil fuel. Eliminating the profit motive and the need to cut corners can help ensure that plants are built and run safely. If it costs more, it costs more. It's better than seeing our coastlines underwater in a few decades.

Nuclear power won't be a permanent solution, that's where my usual push for reforming our social systems so they aren't based upon excessive consumption and consumerism. However, if done wisely, it can provide a bridge to a new system and allow time for alternative technologies to be developed. I'm still hopeful that some sort of controlled fusion can be made to work, but we need to get there from here and burning more oil is not the way to do it.

When faced with only unpleasant choices one still has to chose. Even doing nothing is a choice, a fact that those who want to minimize the climate threat seem not to realize. I'm not trying to rehash all the debates on nuclear power from technological or economic views, these seem never to end and how you feel about the issues seems more to be based upon personal prejudices than on the available information.

I'm arguing for nuclear power as a moral issue. We need to get rid of nuclear weapons, a moral choice. We need to reduce greenhouse gasses, a moral choice. We need to leave a habitable planet for future generations, a moral choice. For too long decisions have been based upon economic arguments. Since when did money become the measure rather than morality?

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