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U.S. Defense: Spending a lot, buying very little.
By Mark Lennon 09.18.12
Editor’s Note: Mark Lennon, a principle of IRN-The Recycling Network, is our guest again this week. NBN would like to say how nice he is for sending this article over, but upon reading it, he sounds pretty angry over something pretty upsetting: military spending. In NBN’s view, Lennon has earned a right to vent because, unlike the people he’s angry with, Lennon makes the world a better place. His company takes huge piles of what would otherwise be thrown away and finds a use for it. This is the single most important work a person can do these days, as much for the message it sends as for the resources it protects. Recycling not only reduces trash pollution, but it also reduces industrial pollution created through mining new raw materials to manufacture into those items being discarded. NBN doesn’t need the facts at Lennon’s command to say with confidence that waste is what we must eliminate if this economy, and planet, are ever to recover from 300 years of plundering our natural resources. And as Lennon so eloquently, if a little sarcastically, documents below, no industry is as wasteful as defense. So, have at it Mark, you’ve earned it.
Defense spending by nation.
Here’s a fact about America. We have five percent of the world’s population, and we spend forty‐one percent of the world’s defense budget. We spend seven times as much on defense as China, and more than ten times as much as Russia – four times as much as China and Russia put together. We spend more on defense than the next fifteen countries in the world combined. So, who is it we are defending ourselves from? It must be the other people who spend a lot on armies and weapons, right? And who are they and why are we afraid of them? Well, there’s China at No. 2. Those are the same folks who keep loaning us money. Then there’s France, which hasn’t threatened anyone since Napoleon. Then there’s England: Do they want their colonies back? Russia: didn’t they join our team about 20 years ago. Then there’s Germany, Japan, Italy, Saudi Arabia, India, South Korea, Brazil, Canada, Spain, Australia. Do they really pose a threat to Uncle Sam?
Meet the new enemy: apparel terrorists.
So, who is it we’re defending ourselves against? The only attacks on the U.S. since World War II have been 20 guys with box cutters, one guy with a shoe bomb, and a dufus who set his shorts on fire. All of those guys were on airplanes and we now have the TSA to deal with them. The TSA is not in the defense budget.
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Speaking of which, where was our defense budget on 9/11? Our Defense Department has hundreds of small, fast airplanes that have all sorts of radars and missiles and guns. These multi-million dollar flying wonders can count the flowers in your back yard, but on 9/11 they couldn’t find four big slow airplanes heading for NYC, the White House, and the Pentagon? The Pentagon! For $700 billion a year, they couldn’t defend their own headquarters?
By some measures this country will have spent trillions before we eventually exit Iraq. This after our all-too easily swayed president at the time told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which he didn’t. He was told Hussein was poised to use them in cahoots with Al Qaida, which he wasn’t. Where did all this suspect intelligence come from? The good folks drawing their paychecks from the Defense Budget. Either our President was making things up—coincidentally in time for an election—or our defense budget wasn’t buying us much in the way of intelligence. I don’t know which I want less to believe.
We’ve spent another half trillion or so in Afghanistan, where the biggest threat to the U.S. was some camps in the desert where they taught people to make shoe‐ and underwear-bombs. Now, I think they run those camps on the internet. And if we wanted to get rid of camps in the desert, don’t we have those satellites to find them and drones to take them out? So what is it, again, that we’re defending ourselves against?
A better investment than national defense?
Well, there are many real threats to the security of the United States. There’s poverty. But the U.S. spends proportionally less on peaceful foreign assistance than any other developed country on earth. There’s overpopulation. The biggest threat to humankind is too many humans competing for limited resources. But our government spends virtually nothing on population programs. (The best population control, by the way, is poverty relief.) There’s our own spending and debt. The biggest direct threat to U.S. security is the fact that we owe so much money to so many countries, particularly that one called China. Defense is the biggest item in the U.S. budget, and by far, the big item over which we have the most control. But it’s a sacred cow.
How much did these guys get paid?
Why can’t this country rely more on international relations than defense for its defense? Friends don’t attack you, they don’t support terrorists, and they back you up if you need help. But our foreign policy in the past decade‐plus has made outright enemies of much of the Middle East, that part of the world best positioned to help in the so-called “War on Terror.” Then there’s the matter of dependency. As long as we depend on other countries for the things we need most—like oil—we’re at their mercy; we either have to appease them or bully them, further alienating us from those who could be our allies. In 40 years since the first oil crisis, we have done practically nothing to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and even less to befriend the peoples of the Middle East. In the name of “defense” we have made enemies of much of the Middle East, where most of that oil comes from. And yet we cringe at the idea of spending less on defense. We spend a lot on defense, but we buy very little. Why? Editor’s note: We might want to look at campaign finance records for that answer, Mark.
Learning’s Role in Evolution
Or Vice-Versa? 05.01.12
While traveling in Europe after college, I came across a postcard of the once famous Mona Gorilla which I mailed to Emil Menzel, a primatologist at SUNY Stony Brook and my favorite teacher. SUNY’s psychology department ranked 19th in the world back then and Menzel was one of many heavy hitters there teaching sociobiology, ethology, and evolution courses which I devoured, oblivious to their revenue generating prospects. It was an exciting time because animal behavior studies were emerging from the cold shadows of the Skinnerian/Pavlovian ideas of behaviorism into a more cognitive approach sparked in part by work Menzel was involved in. In the postcard I sent to Menzel I penned what was possibly the culmination of my three years pursuing these sciences. In part, the postcard said something like: “learning> perception> adaptation>evolution.”
Admittedly it’s an odd sort of fellow, at least, that proposes new theories of evolution in cryptic prose on postcards to past professors while bumming around Europe drinking an incomprehensible amount of great beer and looking for girls in the world’s coolest bars with his younger brother. But I could never abandon the idea gleaned from Menzel’s courses, among others, that learning and perception directly caused some level of the genetic change that drives physiological adaptation and evolution. In other words, an animal can see what it needs to become to better survive and then that perception can result directly in changes to the DNA. It may sound bizarre, but after three years studying the genetics of behavior and things like imprinting and critical periods, you start to realize your eyes and chromosome are more tightly wired than seems logical. And lately, as global warming appears more and more likely to test the speed at which animals and plants must evolve, the increased interest in such science may breathe new life into my perceptual theory of evolution. Or so I proposed in a post a while back in Weird Science News.
Well, thanks to the internet I was able to learn that modern day thinkers on animal behavior are as dismissive of this notion as Menzel was of my postcard. But the online instruction provided came with fresh insights into evolution that seem worth sharing now. First, there was Iggy Pop look-alike Matt Clough whose tweet on my Weird Science post said simply that my “article misrepresents what and how evolution works, sadly.” Not much insight there, but search for same led me to Matt’s wonderful blog which says nothing about evolution but suggests his work with two very perceptive creatures, dolphins and whales, means his opinion on the subject is not to be taken lightly.
In an iceless world, are polar bears screwed?
What Clough may have been driving at, and what became increasingly clear as I thought more on the subject, is that my interest in perception’s role in evolution was a side show to the main event: in a world of rapidly changing ecosystems, survival of the fittest has an opportunity to drive evolution dramatically faster than anything Darwin, and a lot of those folks at Stony Brook, talked about. All at a time when the science has never been better positioned to study the phenomenon. This was hinted at in a terrific on-line chat led by David Inouye at the University of Maryland and Jake Weltzin an ecologist with the USA National Phenology Network. The talk focused on global warming’s impact on the seasons vis-à-vis the science of phenology: the study of the timing of the life cycle events of plants and animals. Eventually, the online chat turned to the evolutionary ability of species dependent on seasonal cycles—such as birds, bugs and bears—to adapt to the rapid climactic changes being seen throughout the world. Because so much of such animals’ life cycles is dictated by seasonal changes, their adaptability to climate change is of keen interest right now. But all that surfaced in the chat were observations that it’s difficult to measure, so early on, evolution’s role against the role of learning in the animal adaptations to global warming already being seen.
National birds and bees expert and overall nice guy, David Inouye
That answer wasn’t good enough, so I took Inouye up on his invitation to follow up by email with any extra questions. About my theory that learning drives evolution he said it’s more the opposite. “The ability to learn, and to perceive, are both traits subject to natural selection and evolution. Behavior could be an important aspect of physiological adaption by an individual; e.g., learning to bask in the sun or to hide in shade, as relevant.” As for how quickly we might then expect plants and animals to evolve in response to climate change Inouye said this: “No, I don't think it is wrong to expect extinctions from global warming, as species may be unable to adapt quickly enough to survive. For example, they may not have the option of moving their range quickly or far enough to remain within environments for which they are adapted. We're seeing bumble bee species 200 or more meters higher in the Rocky Mountains than they were 30 years ago, and what will happen when they get to the tops of the mountains? Probably some extinctions.” Or, they might learn to how to adapt.
When Having it All Means Having too Much 03.20.12
If astonishment can share a psyche with rage than that’s what gripped me on recycle day last week. Taking up the lion’s share of the co-mingle can put out each week was the packaging for a Barbie Doll accessory kit purchased to grease a visit by the grandchildren recently. Amid the thicket of thermoformed plastic sheeting, spent scotch tape and glossy cardboard was a description of the package’s contents along with the reassurance for its owner: “Who says you can't have it all.” “All”, in this instance, was a miniature plastic handbag, plastic-bead bracelet, plastic earrings and plastic pumps. By the time the visit ended all the above ended up in the co-mingle can underneath this unruly amalgam of hydrocarbons and high-clay content cardboard.
The emotional toll this trash was taking on recycle day went beyond the mere existence of products with such an insidious message for our youth. What really my goat was the work involved in segregating the packaging into component parts I can only hope will get reused somehow. That box was so well assembled you could have used it to do a brake job on a Buick. Way more work went into the package than the toys it contained. As I pulled the wire twister-seals from cardboard from plastic sheeting, I wondered why retailers and manufacturers can’t just agree to throw such toys into a burlap sack and stack them under the same garish photos and slogans now emblazoned on hundreds of thousands of immutable containers it takes an engineer to dismantle. It would be so much more efficient.
Because it’s the first impression that sells the product. That’s why the bulk of the contents went into the trash. Toys these days aren’t kept and cherished. From toy store shelf to trash can they engage the kid for about as long as your average cartoon. That’s why they need all the fancy packaging. Toys these days are presented like a cartoon. Once removed from the story told in all the surrounding packaging they lose their allure. You can't expect kids to think this stuff up. Then you'd only need to buy one. Meanwhile underpaid Chinese workers are busy assembling millions more incompressible packages depicting new story lines while American tax payers cover the cost of disposing of the old. Is it wrong to think there’s a deliberate campaign by these toy companies to use ever more sophisticated packaging and marketing to get parents to buy essentially the same toy over and over again?
Lately I fear this website is sounding like a broken record: harping relentlessly on how wasteful and easily manipulated we are as a country. But it’s hard not to feel that this time in American history, like no other, is a chance to get this country going in a new direction. At the same time there’s an enormous effort in this election cycle to prevent precisely that. Is it fair to hold up the Barbie box and its message that you can have it all as what’s long been wrong with this country? Is it really the “American Way” to allow businesses the freedom to pursue the sort of predatory marketing that exploits foreign labor to produce mountains of boxes Americans must then pay to throw out? Many people today describe as “job killing” the sort of government regulations that might hold Mattel and so many others more accountable for the mess they are making of American landfills and children. I say anything that prevents these miserable boxes from coming into this country is worth voting for.
Of Jobs, Ingenuity and the Lack Thereof 02.07.12
At 5 pm Friday I found myself in a hotel room watching the latest he-man program to be offered up by The Discovery Channel, something called Gold Rush. The urge to reach through the flatscreen TV and strangle the grizzled mountains of human flesh neutering vast pristine Alaskan landscapes with flat-track backhoes was overwhelming. Instead, I started typing furiously 650 words that I’m now rewriting in case a serial killer targeting land-raping Alaska gold miners emerges and I become a prime suspect. That’s about how upsetting this profoundly stupid series is. Even more upsetting is knowing this program is enjoyed by enough folks to turn a profit for the criminally negligent clowns producing it, no doubt under the firm conviction their audience, and the cast, have the collective IQ of an algae bloom.
Grampa gets the bad news.
The episode I watched opened with some 17-year-old kid named Parker— yes, 17—disemboweling a lush Alaska mountainside in search of an extra 50-ounces of gold that will put “Grampa’s mine” on a paying basis. Some federal agent, belly engulfing his belt buckle, shows up and finds more safety violations than an OSHA inspector training school instructor on exam day. The inspector is almost apologetic when Grampa complains that he’s run the same mine without incident for 23 years. Nowhere in any of this nonsense emerges any talk about the environmental havoc being wreaked for a business that needs to extract another $30,000 to meet payroll. Can anyone doubt how Sarah Palin became governor of this place? The program jumps from Parker’s troubles to another barely break-even miner shut down by the same instructor cursing the job-killing regulations in this country with an American flag super-imposed in the background. I swear I am not making any of this up.
The pursuit of happiness, 40 hrs/ wk.
What I hope makes this story worth your time is the irony that found me in that hotel room watching Gold Rush. I had spent the past three days discussing marketing opportunities for a software program that allows one office manager do the work of three. While the software is putting tens of thousands of people to work designing, selling and installing this product, the end game in this industry is to dramatically reduce the ranks of office workers in this country. So I find myself in the unique position of cheering on an overweight government regulator putting miners out of work after three days cheering on software vendors putting office managers out of work, all in the middle of a crushing recession. How in the heck do I reconcile such sentiments and efforts with a general desire to wish the whole of humanity, profoundly destructive gold miners included, life liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
The modern day gold mine?
Use of the constitutional clause here is no coincidence. It cuts right to the vision that NBN and a few other brave souls are starting to see for this country. How do we eliminate the tens of millions of jobs that exist solely through destruction of natural resource and/or operational inefficiency—think highway tollbooth collectors—while still guaranteeing U.S. citizens life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? We change the jobs and the hours spent working them, that’s how. Why not ask those gold miners to turn their attentions to mining the resources found in our landfills. How do we make it worth their while? By dramatically hiking the cost of making new plastic cups, glass bottles, metal containers and paper—think cap and trade and instituting an obscene federal gas tax. As far as the work-saving software is concerned, how about sharing the reduced work load among the staff that might otherwise be let go, with all working fewer hours?
Hand polishing tank shells. Now that's productivity!
Both provisions no-doubt mean that by some measures our standard of living will go down dramatically. But, more often than not those standards will be the sorts measured in miles-per-gallon, cubic feet, and calories. At the same time one standard of living will vastly improve: the amount of free time we have to pursue happiness. I’m not talking happiness al-la Engels, Marx and Mao. If happiness is spending your life working in order that you can sleep in a waterfront McMansion with jetskies and a swimming pool, our Constitution guarantees you that right and it’s a good thing. What the constitution should not guarantee is the pursuit of such luxuries to the exclusion of others, and as natural resources become increasingly scarce that’s inevitable.
Acres of Alaskan woods were leveled for this much gold.
Whether it’s through destroying mountainsides of lush Alaskan Wilderness for gold that’s measured in Dixie cups or subsidizing managerial jobs through the use of inefficient operational methods, both result in inflated living standards the planet can no longer sustain. That doesn’t mean you should be denied the right to work 60 hours a week, 50 weeks a year in order to be spend the other two weeks in Disney World or Aspen. But with the population of the world growing rampantly is the idea of working 30 weeks a year and spending the remaining 20 weeks, hiking, playing with your children or random internet research in the name of science—think NBN—such a bad alternative? On the other hand, if we still want to waste our diminishing natural resources, NBN kind of likes the idea of being allowed to. However, the cost of doing so must go way up, in order to compensate those willing to not be so wasteful.