Why is the Trouble in Ukraine Newsworthy here?

Location of  Ukraine  (green)in Europe  (dark grey)  –  [Legend]

(image from Wikipedia)

By Mike Cronin

During the days of the USSR, Ukraine was one of the many Soviet Socialists Republics.  Ukraine is an energy producer, breadbasket (third largest food exporter in the world), and industrial power, similar to the US Midwest. Ukraine has Europe’s 2nd largest military (and for a little over five years, it was a significant nuclear power: Ukraine inherited nearly 2000 nuclear weapons during the dissolution of the USSR; it returned all of them to Russia for dismantling by 1996), and it hosts the Russian Navy’s Black Sea/Mediterranean fleet at Sevastopol.

Russian rulers have always felt the need for buffers between Russia and its potential adversaries. During the Soviet days, that buffer was made up of the various Soviet “republics,” such as Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine. When the Soviet Union fell, such republics became independent countries. Since Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia has been steadily trying to reassert itself in those countries that were once part of the USSR – including Ukraine.

Current events in Kiev matter because Ukraine is the northern edge (Turkey is the southern edge) of the intersection between the Russian, European and, to some extent, Muslim spheres of influence. In fact, the name Ukraine literally translates to “on the edge.” None of these factions wants to see a prize like the Ukraine fall into another’s orbit. Ukrainians themselves understand this, and want to be independent while playing all sides off each other – a risky, but profitable, strategy.  This is not new. Ukraine has been invaded many times over the course of Eurasian history; and it sits at the historical intersection of the Christian, Islamic and Eastern Orthodox spheres of influence. In the early 20th Century, World War I ended the Ottoman Empire, to which the southern portions of Ukraine belonged. Soon after, the Soviet Union was formed – with Ukraine as a founding member.

Expect periodic drama and conflict regarding Ukraine to continue for decades, if not centuries – it’s the normal pattern of life for valuable territory on the geopolitical fault lines between civilizations.

Is Feeling Better Bad Medicine?

 

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By Mike Cronin

I am of mixed opinion about alternative/eastern medicine. On the one hand, there is an endless parade of charlatans who can weave a compelling web to ensnare the credulous and separate them from their money.  On the other, just because a field like reflexology, herbal remedies, or acupuncture developed outside the realm of western scientific rigor does not mean that everything within those practices is fraudulent.

One source of the conflict between eastern healing and western medical premises may be that (I am given to understand) Chinese languages are more metaphorical than English. Thus, when a reflexology practitioner massages a client’s foot in a certain way, or an acupuncturist inserts needles in certain locations, we are right to be skeptical that a particular internal organ is being affected, but we can still allow that the client may feel some real relief or other wellness benefit.  We might see this as an example of the “placebo effect.”

As long as a practitioner makes no claims that such treatment can cure a disease or reverse a congenital defect or heal an injury, or offers factual, documented, vetted proof that it can, then there is no real harm being done – but it is up to both groups (practitioners and clients) to be wary. Practitioners ought to never offer misleading claims that their treatment can do more than help you feel better, while potential clients ought to be skeptical of any claims more specific than that.

It would be interesting to see luminaries in the eastern and western schools get together and “cross pollinate.”  The western practitioners could subject eastern methods and claims to rigorous “myth busting,” while the eastern gurus could show the westerners some techniques for improving their  “care” quotient.

Hazing vs. Hell

By Mike Cronin

Most of my posts to date have been pretty heavy on how our bloated government is dragging us away from the ideal of liberty our founders envisioned.  Despite these criticisms and misgivings, I continue to work as a civil servant, because I think the USA is still the best place on the planet for individuals to aspire and achieve their dreams. We have a long way to fall before we reach bottom, and we can stop the slide.

By way of contrast, consider the latest reports of the inhumanity routinely visited upon the poor souls in North Korea.

“A North Korean prison camp survivor told of a pregnant woman in a condition of near-starvation who gave birth to a baby — a new life born against all odds in a grim camp. A security agent heard the baby’s cries and beat the mother as a punishment.

She begged him to let her keep the baby, but he kept beating her.

With shaking hands, the mother was forced to pick up her newborn and put the baby face down in water until the cries stopped and a water bubble formed from the newborn’s mouth.” (from http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/16/world/asia/north-korea-un-report/ )

Compared to the catalog of misery in that hell-hole, what happened at Abu Ghraib in the early days of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM was mere hazing, and water boarding terrorists isn’t much more than a mean prank.

As long as we have the freedom of speech, we can argue and protest all of the slips, missteps, debacles, and scandals that erode our freedom and are driving us towards the execrable brutality of living in a North Korean-style atrocity machine.

Weasel Words: Poor and Poverty

By Mike Cronin

When you are told that you need to help the poor in this country, what image comes to mind?  Are you thinking about the homeless lady pushing around a shopping cart full of her meager possessions? Do you envision whole communities in America that live in shanty towns and dig through landfills to scrounge for their daily sustenance?  Well, that kind of abject, absolute poverty may exist somewhere in America, but it’s exceedingly rare. When politicians, clerics, and pundits demand your sacrifices so they can help the poor, they are speaking “Weaselese.”

Most of the poor in this country may suffer from relative poverty, but not absolute poverty. According to 2010 Census Bureau and other government statistics cited in a Heritage Foundation backgrounder:

  • 80 percent of poor households have air conditioning. In 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
  • 92 percent of poor households have a microwave.
  • Nearly three-fourths have a car or truck, and 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks.
  • Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite TV.
  • Two-thirds have at least one DVD player, and 70 percent have a VCR.
  • Half have a personal computer, and one in seven have two or more computers.
  • More than half of poor families with children have a video game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation.
  • 43 percent have Internet access.
  • One-third have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV.
  • One-fourth have a digital video recorder system, such as a TiVo.
  • 96 percent of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food.
  • 83 percent of poor families reported having enough food to eat.
  • 82 percent of poor adults reported never being hungry at any time in the prior year due to lack of money for food.
  • Over the course of a year, 4 percent of poor persons become temporarily homeless.
  • Only 9.5 percent of the poor live in mobile homes or trailers, 49.5 percent live in separate single-family houses or townhouses, and 40 percent live in apartments.
  • 42 percent of poor households actually own their own homes.
  • Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.
  • The average poor American has more living space than the typical non-poor person in Sweden, France, or the United Kingdom. In fact, at 1,400 square feet, the dwelling of the average poor American is still substantially larger than the average dwelling in every European nation except Luxembourg.
  • The vast majority of the homes or apartments of the poor are in good repair.

The next time you feel shamed into to voting for a politician that demands a sacrifice from you in order to help “the poor” through his government programs, understand that your hard-earned money, and your neighbors’, isn’t helping “the poor” stave off starvation, it’s enabling them to buy cars, air conditioning, flat screen TVs, TiVos, and Xbox-es.

Weasel Words: Crony Capitalism

weasel

By Mike Cronin

No doubt you’ve heard the term “crony capitalism.” It’s a “weasel word.” Weasel words are terms or phrases that are used to steer your thoughts or beliefs away from the hard truth.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, both of the dominant political philosophies in American discourse today, liberalism and conservatism (each weasel words in their own right, to discuss in separate posts!) tend towards the collectivist end of the political spectrum vice the individualist side. Neither school wants fully unchecked free market capitalism. The liberal school believes capitalism is exploitative, but it knows that without a productive economy that is at least semi-free, there will be no wealth to “redistribute.” The “establishment” branch of the conservative school professes to hold capitalism in high regard, but has never given up political power by totally de-regulating our economy and giving us a truly free market, despite having had occasional chances to do so. (The “Tea Party” branch of conservatism espouses capitalism and free market economics, but it has yet to achieve enough power in Washington to affect any changes to our mixed-economy system.)

Hence, members of both camps use the term crony capitalism in place of the term “corporatism” as a way to attach a negative connotation to pure capitalism. Corporatism is the result of industries, large corporations, unions, and other pressure groups essentially “buying” the laws and taxes and tariffs they want in order to change the game against their competitors. The competitive principles of bringing the best product to the buyer at the best price are replaced by using the coercive power of government to penalize or prevent the activities of newer, smaller or foreign businesses, or to rake in subsidy and bailout money.

Capitalism, and the free market, is the politico-economic system that develops as a natural result of government that recognizes and protects individual rights and liberty. It rewards achievement and is free from governmental coercion. We have never had a fully free and unfettered market in the US, yet our greatest periods of economic growth and prosperity have occurred during the times when our market was freest and our government was most constrained. China has risen to become the world’s second largest economy over the last 30 years because it shed many aspects of communist central economic planning and adopted some free market reforms. If China ever allowed its 1.4 billion people the same amount of political and economic freedom as we have enjoyed from time-to-time in this country, it would easily eclipse the US as an economic power. In essence, China’s rise is commensurate with the degree it has adopted free-market economic principles, and the decline of the US is commensurate with the degree corporate and other pressure groups, via government coercion, have shackled our economy.

Four Branches of Dysfunction in US Government, Part V

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By Mike Cronin

To recap the first three major strains of dysfunction in our government: Keeping the institution of slavery while proclaiming all men are created equal introduced the strain of accommodating hypocrisy in our national psyche right from the birth of the nation. Trying to maintain that contradiction led to the Civil War, which ended the chattel slavery of blacks…but the income tax, given its first trial run during the Civil War and made permanent in 1913, made all of us tax slaves to the government and thieves to our fellows.

The fourth major branch of dysfunction is currency debasement. Currency debasement is the act of reducing the value of money by increasing its supply. This can only be done with fiat currency, and usually by central, or national, banks, such as the US Federal Reserve.

So what is fiat currency, and why is currency debasement a dysfunction?

Fiat currency is money that has nothing backing it. US dollars used to be backed by gold. For a long time in this country, you could exchange a given amount of dollars for a given amount of gold, and the prices of goods and service remained relatively the same. A man from 1800 would not have been shocked by the prices in 1900. This is what the original meaning of the term “gold standard.” Our money was as good as gold.  Then, in 1913, the Federal Reserve was established, and it began manipulating the economy. In 1973, President Nixon dissolved the gold standard altogether, our money became mere paper, and the only thing backing it became faith.

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Once a currency becomes fiat, it is relatively easy for the central bank to manipulate the value of the money. Central banks ostensibly manipulate the currency to control inflation by “stimulating” the economy or changing interest rates, but the reality is that injecting additional money into the economy is the source of inflation. There are two aspects to inflation. When the newsies report inflation, they are usually talking about price inflation. When the Fed injects money into the economy (i.e. by stimulus, AKA quantitative easing), it is inflating the money supply. That is monetary inflation. Monetary inflation dilutes the value of the money already in existence, so merchants have to raise prices in order to receive the same value for their products. Monetary inflation is meant to control price inflation by “stimulating” consumption, but it actually causes price inflation because it makes our money worth less than it was before!

This leads to all kinds of trouble. First, just like income taxation, it concentrates power that should belong to the people into a few select hands, namely the operators of the central bank. (In the case of the US, it’s the board of the Federal Reserve). Second, when a powerful group like the Fed lowers the value of your money, it is, just like income taxation, using the force of government to take value from you. Third, if the central bank goes too far with its machinations, it will create hyperinflation. This is when the money loses value so fast that prices may rise weekly, daily, or even hourly.  The money literally becomes more valuable as fuel for the fireplace or as wallpaper than as currency. If it is still accepted, it will take a literal wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a loaf of bread.  Can this happen in the US? Consider:

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Four Branches of Dysfunction in US Government, Part IV

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By Mike Cronin

In Part III, I argued that income taxation is theft, and that it turns the rest of us into thieves and slaves. I also argued for a national sales tax, such as the Fair Tax. Why would I make such an argument? Isn’t one form of taxation just like another?  Nope.

Income taxation is rotten for at least two reasons: 1. It is taken from you, before you ever see it, through the coercive power of government. That is theft, plain and simple.  2. Then, as if that’s not bad enough, income taxation penalizes productivity – the more you make, the more you pay; and it’s not even a simple percentage; it’s “progressive.” That means that not only do have to pay more because you made more, you have to pay a progressively larger percentage of your income as your income increases.  It is insane to want and need people to be productive on the one hand, while progressively penalizing them for that very productivity on the other.

To make a simple analogy: if you try to teach and encourage a puppy to go outside to do his business, then smack him every time he does, and smack him harder and more often as he gets more insistent to go out, how long do you think it will be before he quits trying and just goes on the floor? Especially if you then give him a treat when he does?  Everyone may pretend to be happy in such a house, but the price of that feigned happiness is to either have to continuously clean up dog waste, or to live in a progressively more filthy and stinking residence.

A national sales tax, like the Fair Tax, is based on consumption, not income. That means you pay in based only what you buy and use. If you consume more goods and services and government, you pay more; if you consume less goods and services and government, you pay less. You are in control of how much you pay, not the government. There is no force, no penalty for productivity, no byzantine regulations, no loopholes, no escape for illicit profits, and no more IRS.

Four Branches of Dysfunction in US Government, Part III

Taxation-791x1024

By Mike Cronin

Another dysfunction that has corrupted the fabric of our freedom in countless ways is the confiscatory (i.e. to take) income tax system.  It is a dysfunction because it corrupts all of us.

Income taxation allows lawmakers and appointed bureaucrats to use the coercive power of government to take our property (i.e. the fruits of our labor) from us without our consent. That power then further corrupts our elected leaders by enabling them to “re-distribute” the collected revenue by spending it on government programs that favor their own constituencies. It has corrupted the citizenry by enabling us to obtain “benefits” that exceed the limits imposed on our government by its founding charter. Such “benefits” ultimately come to us from our neighbors’ pockets, which is property we had no right to. Our taxation system has essentially made Americans simultaneously into thieves and slaves.

Prior to the Civil War, there was no income tax. During that war, there was small tax of 3% on high incomes ($600-10,000 per year – a lot of money then!). It was abolished after the war. Congress flirted with income taxes a few more times between the Civil War and the turn of the century. In 1913, the government started taxing our income again, and it hasn’t stopped since.

Our founders went to war with Britain over far fewer provocations, including unfair taxation, than our own government imposes on us today. In fact, their grievances were listed on a single sheet of paper – the Declaration of Independence.  Could we catalog all of the grievances our tax laws generate today on even just one ream of paper? Our taxation bondage may not seem brutal to you, especially compared to what people living under fully tyrannical governments have to endure, but the proper comparison of our burden is not to what others have to endure elsewhere, it is to what it means to be “the land of the free.” If your government takes half of everything you earn, or more, either directly or indirectly, are you free?

Perhaps it sounds to you like I am advocating violent revolution, or that you break the law and dodge your tax obligations.  I am not.  As long we have the freedom of speech, we have the means to peaceably restore a bit of sanity to our system. One possible way is by switching from a confiscatory income tax to a national sales tax, such as that espoused by The Fair Tax proposal.

When it comes to income taxation, you may be happy to “pay your fair share,” or you might deny that withholding income taxes is any kind of slavery, but consider: If your property is taken from you by threat of force by  another, we call it robbery. When people are treated as property and forced to work for others, with no right to keep the fruit of their labor, that is slavery. Our taxation system is a whole lot of both .

Four Branches of Dysfunction in US Government, Part II

War

By Mike Cronin

“What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright in 1993, to then Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell, in reference to Bosnia

In Part I, I opined that slavery was the first of four major branches of dysfunction that plague our government, and that slavery led us to the worst instance of the second: the Civil War. George Washington once compared government to fire: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Government attracts the power hungry, and war is the most attractive method for the power hungry to exercise their power. War negates reason, and provides a fertile field for yet more power to accrue to the government.  It changes the balance of power in the relationship between people and government – war gives unjust power to the government, powers NOT derived from the consent of the governed.

It is to America’s credit, and to the genius of the founders, that for the most part our government’s powers have retracted somewhat after our wars, but it is to our detriment that that power has never ebbed to the level it was at before each war.  In other words, our government assumes new and greater powers with each war, and then sheds some measure of the accrued power after the war, but never all of it. Hence, with each succeeding war, our government grows and become more intrusive.

Certainly, some wars are more just than others, and our nation must be prepared to them. I felt strongly enough about that to serve in the military, but not blindly. Which wars are just?  Smashing Al-Qaeda was (and remains) a national defense imperative. Going after Saddam Hussein was just, but appears to have also been unwise. Was the Spanish-American war just and wise? It put America on map as a great power, but was it necessary to the defense of the nation?  We weren’t attacked or threatened by Spain.  Historians have alleged that President Roosevelt pressured and goaded the Japanese in to attacking us in order to get us into WW II. We probably would have been drug into the war at some point, regardless, but, if true, was it just and wise to encourage and hasten it? If the Spanish-American War put us on the map as a great power, WW II left us (briefly) as the only superpower, and the Cold War left us alone on the superpower stage. It may be good to be the king, but is it wise to be the largest target in a hostile world?

Slavery and war have exposed us to several virulent strains of hypocrisy: Our founders held that all men were created equal…unless one didn’t count as a man. We abolished the chattel slavery of Africans and their descendants in the south, but periodically enslaved men of all colors and creeds through conscription until the 1970s.  We want to bring peace and freedom and prosperity to the world, but we have allowed (or engineered) ourselves to engage in the biggest wars in history, and suffered internal paroxysms as a result.  If there can be such a thing as a national psyche, these dichotomies are not conducive to its health.

Four Branches of Dysfunction in US Government, Part I

civilwar

By Mike Cronin

Ronald Reagan once said that government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem. What did he mean by that? After all, he was president at the time; surely he must have felt that at least some government is good and necessary. As I have expressed in previous posts, our government has become dysfunctional. Just as cancers are flawed cells that grow uncontrollably, consume resources, and displace healthy tissue, dysfunctional government supplants healthy government.  This is what Reagan was referring to.  How is our government dysfunctional? In my opinion, there are four major, interlocking branches of dysfunction: Slavery, war, confiscatory taxes, and currency debasement. In turn, these branches of dysfunction are fueled by ignorance and ambition to power.

Our government was established to protect our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but dysfunction was present right from the start. The founders articulated the notion that all men are created equal – but they didn’t recognize slaves as wholly men. Slaves counted only as 3/5ths of a person. Our nation began its life trying to cope with a terrible cognitive dissonance and human injustice – one that would cause arguably the greatest existential crisis it has yet faced: the Civil War.

You might argue that the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery. Well, there was one “state right” in particular that the South’s economy relied on: slavery. The Southern States seceded in order to hang on to the institution of slavery, but President Lincoln would not tolerate the dissolution of the union, so the first dysfunction led to the second: war. While Lincoln is widely hailed as the Great Emancipator and one of our best presidents, he assumed virtually dictatorial powers during the war, and expressly violated the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, thus setting precedent to his successors that might wish to do the same. One example: Lincoln ordered two newspapers critical of him to be shut down and had their owners and editors arrested for disloyalty.

While the aftermath of the Civil War may have seen the restoration of the country and the abolition of one form of slavery, it did not absolve us of the original dissonance slavery caused. It took another hundred years before the law and most of the nation accepted the full humanity of blacks, but vestiges of racism still haunt us, and our presidents still exercise more power than the Constitution allots them.