Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Mercenaries - A Big Mistake

I'm saddened by America's use of mercenaries in Iraq. These people act as guards, truck drivers, cooks, and a host of other occupations in jobs that support our military and diplomatic presence there. There may be as many as 100,000 of them getting paychecks indirectly from Uncle Sam, supporting 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. In previous wars, soldiers did these jobs. What has changed? Is this a risky business?

One major change is the volunteer army. How many people volunteer to be cooks or truck drivers or supply clerks or ammunition carriers? Not many. Once upon a time these jobs were done by draftees who learned their jobs in 16 weeks, did these jobs for 1.6 years, and were then replaced by more draftees. They didn't earn much. Now, highly paid "mercenaries" do these jobs, and some of them, like the truck drivers, carry weapons for defense. Others, often retired Special Forces or other crack troops, guard diplomats and carry out other high profile assignments. It's strange that these people typically make a lot more money, sometimes a whole lot more money, than the "troops" the Presnit is always talking about.

Another change is the lack of regular soldiers to fill the ranks in time of "war". Even with maximum use of the reserves and National Guard, the Preznit can't keep the surge going. Fortunately for him, these mercenaries don't have hitches that expire or families who are pissed off at tour after tour of combat duty. If GBW makes the price right, new mercenaries will always be ready to go - and if one of them gets killed, it's not one of the "troops" GBW"s always talking about. Unfortunately, the mercenary is just as dead.

I'm saddened because mercenaries constitute a "shadow army", an army motivated more by money than by love of country and the country's values. Mercenaries, therefore, are likely to follow orders that regular soldier's won't follow. This, coupled with the fact that a mercenary's legal status is unclear (are they covered by the Geneva Convention?), leaves the American people at risk for atrocities done both by them and to them. Bush has opened Pandora's Box with his heavy reliance on mercenaries in Iraq. It's a bad mistake. It's war by proxy, only the proxy army is mostly American.

The next administration should close down mercenary training camps in the United States. It may also be a good idea to revoke the citizenship of any American who fights as a mercenary in a foreign country, or, at a minimum, disallow embassy or councillar support for such persons if they get into trouble. I just don't want Americans going around the world shooting people for money, regardless of the "cause". It's time we got serious about accountability for all those who do our military dirty work. They've got to be actually in our military, or they don't belong in a combat zone fighting for us.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Science and God

I'm betting on God. I have a bumper sticker that says "Darwin", then a "plus" sign, then a Christian symbol, an "equals" sign, and lastly, a stick figure of a person. The wife of a friend had these done after her minister husband told her of a discussion that he and I had one day. My theology admits both God as the "designer" of the universe and "evolution" as the process by which I ended up writing this blog.

I'm not alone. In the past day I've had a conversation with a very bright science teacher who said "the more I know about creation, the more I believe that God made it possible", and with a very bright clergyman who felt the same way. Two other scientist friends, one an expert in microwaves and another an eminent chemist, are also convinced about God largely because of their scientific knowledge.

The Good Witch and I are currently watching the DVD series "Sensation, Perception, and the Aging Process" from The Teaching Company. I've been brought up to date on the latest research about how the sensory systems work and how they deteriorate as people get to be my age - 63. The combination of physical structures and brain function that enables our sensory perceptions is awesome, but I can accept that a billion years of evolution could account for who we are today.

I recently mentioned that I had read Carl Sagan's "Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God". Sagan, a brilliant man, was an atheist who demanded testable proof of God's existence. But I think God has left plenty of clues, and proof would spoil His party.

But simply admitting God is a rather dry admission. What's it all about? One could have a negative point of view after pondering how much of the created universe has already been destroyed in giant cataclysms, and understanding that our sun will someday vaporize the earth - fortunatly, in a few billion years.

I hang my hat on the positive idea that God wants to be known, and I believe that I will someday be allowed to know God in some way. I also believe that God is interested in seeing how we can "perfect" the creation by making the most of what we've been given by God and the evolutionary process. If we wreck our world with a nuclear war or indiscriminate carbon emissions, we will have failed to make good on the potential we've been given. We need to expect much from each other.

Do I have any proof for what I believe - absolutely not! But I find comfort in the fact that so many smart people over the millenia have also believed that "in the beginning God". And if God was there at the beginning, there's no reason to assume God has been on vacation since then. In fact, as I look past the Good Witch and out the window to the trees and sky, I think I see God's signature all over my view. The science of the person, trees, and sky is God's design.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

My Guess on the Economy

It's a dismal science, but that's what my MBA at the University of Rochester was all about - economics.

I retired before age 54 and I've toiled at a lot of volunteer jobs since then. I'm pretty secure, barring a catastrophic long term illness or a serious meltdown of our economy. Neither are likely, but nothing is impossible.

My prognosis for the American economy is far less rosy. Although the stock market is flying high due to the good profits being made by American corporations, the financial lot of main street Americans is on a downward trend and will likely continue on that trajectory for a long time. Why?

Two major hammers are poised to fall on the average American citizen - the impact of the cheap dollar, and the impact of tax increases to pay for entitlements.

The first hammer is falling as I write, and that is oil prices over $80/barrel and rising. If oil is valued in dollars, and the dollar falls in value, it takes more of them relative to other currencies to buy a barrel of oil. In other words, part of the gasoline price rise at the pump has nothing to do with supply, demand, or insecurity - it is simply that a dollar is not worth as much to those who sell oil. Soon we will be feeling the impact of dollar depreciation in the prices we pay for imported items from many countries, or in the prices we pay in dollars if we travel overseas to a country with a strong currency. Canada is no longer the land of a bargain vacation!

This week the first of the "baby boomers" retired, and 80 million more will follow her in the next 12 years. Unfortunately, there is no chance that Social Security and Medicare will be able to fund the benefits that these people feel they have earned. Either taxes will go up, or benefits will be cut. In either case, these funds will come out of the economy as reduced purchasing power - which means a lower standard of living for both working people and retirees.

Where did these hammers come from? Did they suddenly appear and catch us unawares? No. The first hammer, the depreciating dollar, reflects our government's lack of budget discipline especially during the Bush administration which has lived on a credit card. The lower dollar also reflects creditor nations' awareness that because the U.S. has not funded its entitlements, the U.S. economy will pay a significant future price to catch up.

The second hammer, the unfunded entitlements themselves, also became much more serious during the Bush administration. The president made a halfhearted effort to "fix" Social Security with a privatization scheme, but he retreated from the issue when this plan was not supported. We have now lost almost seven years of "catch up" time because the current administration has not settled the entitlements problems.

Lynn Cheney, speaking on NPR today, said that history would judge the current administration's economic record to be very good, especially considering 9/11. My view is that the administration will be viewed as having spent and dawdled away our economic future. How far can the dollar fall before Bush leaves Washington?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Great Hypocracy of the Christian Right

I just finished reading the late Carl Sagan's "Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God". His wife, Ann Druyan, edited this compilation of his lectures at a well-known conference on "Natural Theology". It was an excellent book.

It seemed odd that Sagan, an athiest, would be invited to give these lectures. I suppose it shows the open-mindedness of the inviting organization. Sagan's premise was simply that he couldn't believe in something that there's no evidence of. He dismissed the "First Cause" argument because he knew nothing about what really caused the big bang, and he believed that religions exist primarily as hierarchical structures that produce the kind of order that humans seem to need. Even though I profess my own version of Christianity, much of what Sagan said resonates with me.

The book's punch line has to do with nuclear war, which Sagan feared could annihilate humanity. At the time he gave the lectures there were more than 50,000 nuclear weapons in the world and the saber-rattling was ominous. Although the chance of large-scale nuclear war is much less now than then, his description of its likely impact on the earth is chilling and sobering. How could we ever have gone so far down this road?

Sagan savages right-wing Christianity in his discussion of nuclear weapons. He points out that primary Christian theology includes the "Golden Rule" as well as Christ's commandment to "love your enemy", yet many Christian countries have nuclear weapons and threaten to use them. How hypocritical!

All this brings me to the world of today and the Christian right wing's rabid aggressiveness, warmongering, and unwavering support of the military-industrial complex. Our media allows these self-described Christians to blatently support the U.S.'s "war of choice" in Iraq and its torture of prisoners without pointing out the total inconsistency between their religion's core beliefs and their own behavior. If Jesus was here today I doubt he would have anything to do with these faux Christians - except perhaps to take a whip to the book-selling tables of their leaders. Since he's not here, we are the ones who should be outraged about our own government's two-faced behavior.

Sagan pointed out that at the time he gave those lectures the world's countries were spending a million million dollars each year on armaments, and he claimed this was prima facie evidence that "religion" had failed us. Nothing has changed.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Socially Responsible Investing - It's Hard to Do

Some people think that socially responsible investing means that they should divest themselves of stock in companies whose business activities they disagree with. Don't like smoking? Sell Philip Morris. Wrong. If Philip Morris is making money, somebody else will buy it, happily. You have accomplished nothing.

I'm involved with a small group of very experienced people who are looking to spearhead true "socially responsible investment". Just to clarify things, "investment" means getting a return on your money. "Investment" is not charity, is not a contribution. Our idea is to identify people or organizations that need money to accomplish socially useful goals, and then loan them the money at below-market rate, say 5-6% for an investment that normal banking channels would not touch.

For example, we'd like to find someone who knows how to rehab inner city housing but does not have the capital to buy the home or purchase the materials needed for the rehab. We could provide the capital and assist the person in learning and performing the skills needed to administer the project. When the home is completed and sold, we get our money back and do a loan to cover his/her next project. The hope is that at some point the person has enough personal capital or credit to do the work independent of us. The benefit is that homes get fixed up, someone builds the skills needed to support a family, and some workers in low income areas get jobs. This would be a good "social investment".

The most interesting outcome of our work to date is that it's hard to find people who fit our criteria. The entrepreneurial spirit is a rare commodity, it appears. But we are continuing the search, and perhaps we'll find an immigrant with spunk who will take our money and do something good with it. I'll keep you posted if something good happens.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


You've heard the saying, "Everything is relative". Well, I think some things are not relative. Especially the basic things like a roof over your head, clean water to drink, something nourishing to eat, primary medical care, and the opportunity for education to the high school level. Either you have them or you don't.

If you have this basic stuff, the quantity and quality of it really doesn't matter too much. You can have a life without excessive worry and you can enjoy the pleasures of family and friends. Being warm and dry, safe, well-fed, and aware of the world is all most people need in order to wake up without crying every day. And if you have all these things, the first item on your bonus list is having something useful to do.

If you don't have this basic stuff, life is a bitch. It is generally really uncomfortable, really painful, really difficult, and really unfulfilling. Life without the basics is often a competition to obtain them by whatever means, even if that means taking them from others who also have substandard lives, or taking great risks to get to places where those basics might be obtained. This kind of life is precarious at best.

We like to forget that billions of people live (to stretch the meaning of the word) without these basics, and that a few of them even live in the United States. Talk about "human rights" is empty unless these billions are front and center in our conversation and concern. Their problem, generally speaking, is that they were unfortunate enough to be born in the wrong place. They are not just screwed relative to us, they are just plain screwed. (And if the effects of global warming are anything like what is predicted, before long we will have many fewer of these unfortunates to worry about.)

I must admit that I've not done much, personally, to address this problem of humans having to live in sub-human conditions. That's changing - I'm adding my drop to the bucket of compassion. I have begun to understand the concept of things not being relative.