Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Think Before Taxing Poor Additional 17%

October 8, 2014, 7:00 a.m.

October 9: Added, below, are comments regarding this blog essay/column posted to the Press-Citizen's online version of the column, and Facebook mentions of the column. They conclude with an emailed comment from a reader, and Nick's response to it. Below that are two comments from present and former Johnson County officials: an excerpt from Supervisor Rod Sullivan's Sullivan's Salvos, and a comment posted directly to this blog essay/column from former Auditor Tom Slockett.

On the Local Option Sales Tax, Think Before You Vote

Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
October 8, 2014, p. A11

My response to the dueling sales tax columns on the Oct. 6 opinion page? Think before you vote. That’s all I ask.

Income inequality is as American as apple pie. The wealthy get the largest slices. So it has always been.

The 18th Century sentiment, “Those who own the country ought to govern it,” is attributed to John Jay, our first Supreme Court Chief Justice. It didn’t just burst forth as a talking point from today’s conservative rightwing corporatists or Fox News.

We’re familiar with the results from Washington. One family owns more than do 40 percent of the American people combined. The increased value since the 2008 bank fraud has gone to the upper one percent -– including those very bankers too big to jail.

What we and the media lose with our focus on Washington is that the same forces are playing out in state capitals, county courthouses, and city councils.

It would be hilarious if it was not so inhumane.

Why does the City Council tell us we need this sales tax increase? To make up for lowered property tax receipts, they say. And what are they going to do with the additional sales tax receipts? Why, use at least 40 percent of them to lower property taxes even further.

Read that a second time before you go on. Can you imagine what Jon Stewart would do with that one?

Landlords’ apartments that the occupants don’t own will now be taxed as if they did, with lower taxes for landlords. Guess how those savings will be divided between reductions in rents and increases in landlords’ profits.

The rich become ever-richer because the tax laws are rigged. The wealthy have lower rates on profits from investing money than the working poor have on pay for investing physical effort.

Those who have to spend every dime they earn are the ones hit hardest by the sales tax. (That’s why the quickest way out of the recession in our 70-percent consumer-spending economy would have been to flow money through their hands rather than the wealthy.) [Photo credit: Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed.]

Don’t be fooled by this increase of “a penny,” or “one percent.” For the math-impaired, an increase from six percent to seven percent is closer to a 17 percent increase.

Be aware we are playing Washington’s game right here in Iowa City. The Council is offering you a deliberate scheme to shift even more money from Iowa City’s working poor to its upper middle class and rich. Washington’s conservative corporatists would be proud.

[Illustration credit: Working Poor Families Project.]

You see, this is not just tax breaks for the rich -– which it also is. It’s worse. It’s Robin Hood in reverse: further enriching our local well-off by actually taking money out of the pockets of those most in need.

Before you vote to take 17 percent more from those suffering the most, consult your head, your heart, your conscience, your God. Is that who you are? Is that who you really want to be?
Iowa City resident Nicholas Johnson maintains the website


Comments Regarding this Blog Essay/Column

From comments posted to the the Press-Citizen online version of the column:

Mary Murphy, Iowa City, Iowa

Thanks for writing this. I’d like to have seen everyone think more creatively about how to conserve funds before asking for more. Is every capital project truly necessary? For example, my sense is construction work to raise Dubuque St. (IC’s Gateway project) will be far more disruptive than any flooding of Dubuque and cost the taxpayers an enormous amount—Only $10.5 million of its estimated $51 million plus cost will be covered by grants and the rest will be paid for by local option taxes, general obligation bonds, and wastewater operations revenues. If this project was set aside, other compelling projects like creating a secondary access to the Peninsula and extending Foster Road to Prairie Du Chien could be done at a fraction of the cost. Extending Foster Road would also create an alternative access to the downtown to and from the Dubuque St. I-80 exit in the event of future flooding on Dubuque St. Sure Dubuque St. would need some maintenance dollars spent on it; however, not $51 million plus dollars. As another example, Johnson County could work with Iowa City staff to use more consersation bond money to develop parks and trails within Iowa City (saving Iowa City some money), especially since Iowa City voters helped pass the bond. See for a list of Iowa City’s capital projects.

Mona SpeaksforthePoor Shaw

Nick, you nailed this to the wall. Thank you.

Thomas J. Gill, Coralville, Iowa

But it's only a Penny!, Great editorial, Thank-You

From comments posted to a Facebook notification of the column:

Phil Specht

On the other hand reducing the sales tax and replacing it with a transaction tax covering all movement of money would save the poor and tax where the "willie sutton" wealth is made.

Steve Hanken

Damned straight it would, Phil.

From Mona Shaw's Facebook share of the Facebook post:

Nicholas Johnson nailed this one to the wall. Johnson County, just don't vote for this. It's wrong. It's flat out wrong.

Lynda Waddington

What's the alternative? (Have not yet read Nic's piece.)

Tim Weitzel

The alternative is to not tacitly approve of tax cuts to the wealthy by approving additional regressive taxes that will most affect the poor. There are alternatives to the issue of affordable housing and budgeting for roads is a choice made between staff and city council.

Lynda Waddington

Due to state property tax reform, which included moving multi-family dwellings off commercial roles and to residential roles (bet no one has seen a reduction in rent), Iowa City is facing between $37 & $50 million revenue shortfall. Not saying LOST [Local Option Sales Tax] is answer, just that options for city government are limited.

Tim Weitzel

I'm aware of the limitations on revenue for local government. However, taxing the poor disproportionately greater to make up the shortfall seems highly counter intuitive. The argument has been made that most people won't even notice the difference in an extra 1% but those who are low income will notice. I guarantee it. Tough budget choices are part and parcel of running local government.

And, as a reader's email:

Just finished reading your guest opinion in today's Press-Citizen, and I both agree and disagree with what you wrote.

I agree with your description of our governmental landscape as unfair. Sometimes grossly unfair. Just off the top of my head is the reality that sales tax and Social Security tax both require significantly greater percentages from poor than from the rich. In the meantime, in between time, ain't we got fun.

I agree we have a flawed government, because it was designed and is now operated by flawed people. Someone once said we have the worst possible form of government.....except for all the others.

For instance, it wasn't infinate wisdom that our governor-for-life and tag-along legislature used to determine that buildings filled with rental apartments aren't actually commercial properties.

Where I disagree is your contention that we shouldn't use flawed governing tools, even though they're the only funding tools available. When cities -- especially those such as Iowa City and Ames with tons of apartment buildings -- are stripped of tax funding by the millions, they're forced to use the only alternative sources of funding realistically available at the present time.

Thus, my head and my heart and my conscience will vote in favor of the local option tax. About God, I believe he must have a sense of human, so he's out there somewhere laughing himself silly at what fools these mortals be.

And by the way, percentages and statictis do sometimes fall into the category of damn lies. It's correct that one penny is just one percent of a dollar. But it's also correct that one penny can represent a nearly 17 percent increase.

The whole situation is somewhat modified by the fact that all of us flawed people have at least modest control over what retail itejms we purchase, and important items such as groceries and medicdal items aren't included in the local option taxes.

As usual, I find your writing enjoyable and provocative. And what an uninteresting world this would be if we all agreed on everything."

And Nick's Reply to the reader's emailed Analysis:

You've indicated where you disagree with my contentions. Where I disagree with yours is the assertion that a 17% hike in taxes paid by the poor is "the only alternative source of funding realistically available at the present time." It's a sentiment also expressed in a letter on the Press-Citizen's opinion page this morning [October 9], James Conger's "Hold Your Nose and Vote 'Yes' on Sales Tax", p. A9. He writes, "The local option sales tax . . . is one of the only options available to . . . say[ing] goodbye to services that now serve the poor and the elderly."

Why is it that you, he, and undoubtedly many other local residents, immediately leap from "we need other sources of revenue" to "let's either raise taxes on the poor or cut their services"?

Not only do I believe there are many alternative ways to fund a City's legitimate governmental functions that I'll briefly discuss in a moment -- including expenses that can be cut as well as alternative sources of revenue -- I also believe that some of those alternatives are so unambiguously morally reprehensible (a category that, for me, includes taxes on the poor) that they should be off the table from the beginning of any discussion.

As now-Vice President Joe Biden once told me, "There are some things worth losing an election for."

Similarly, when it comes to budgets, revenue decreases, and cost cutting, whether for government, for-profit or non-profit corporations, I believe we retain moral as well as fiscal obligations to address the human consequences.

"Revenue is needed" was the justification offered by UI's athletic department for entering into contracts with the gambling and alcohol industries. As I said at the time, "Once 'revenue is needed' becomes your polestar, your moral compass begins to spin as if on the North Pole."

"Revenue is needed" was the reason a high school principal once gave me -- and a gathering of dentists concerned about what they called "Mountain Dew mouth" -- for keeping sugar-drink-dispensing vending machines in his high school. He had to do it, he said, in order to pay for the scoreboard for the football field. I said to him, "We've now established that you are willing to assign a higher priority to revenue for a football scoreboard than the health and welfare of your students. Apparently you do not feel constrained to avoid ways of raising money that will be harmful to them, including in this instance ways that are known to increase their rates of obesity, diabetes, and tooth and gum disease, among other medical conditions. That being the case, freed of such constraints, have you given thought to other even more lucrative, though harmful, revenue possibilities -- such as, say, a teenage prostitution ring?" Of course, it wasn't a serious proposal, but it made the point. Half the crowd applauded and laughed, the other half booed.

I'm really troubled by the knee-jerk, first reaction, when government expenses loom, or revenues decline (often, as in this instance, to cover tax cuts for the wealthy), "Well, I guess we'll just have to impose tax increases on the poor, or cut their programs."

That's really the beginning and end of the point I'm trying to make.

Given the sales-tax-increase advocates' conviction that there really are no other alternatives, however, let me list a few. Others might be even more undesirable, even bordering on the illegal. But we are not looking for a "good" alternative solution; we're looking for the "least worst" solution. And from my vantage point anything would be "least worst" than increasing taxes on the poor.

The first place I'd start would be for the City to limit the expenditure of the property tax revenue it does have to historically traditional, public, governmental services and functions. If it would stop providing gifts of substantial amounts of cash, "forgivable loans," tax deferrals, and redirecting dedication of tax revenues to specific for-profit developers and other private businesses, a significant portion of the problem would disappear. See, "TIFs: Links to Blog Essays" and this morning's column by Peter Fisher, "If Lucky's Getting Lucky, What About the Taxpayers?, Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 9, 2014, p. A9.

Sources tell me there are inefficiencies, and cuts in staff, programs and projects, within the City's budget that could also help cover some of the revenue decline.

Corporations and governments confronting budget cuts sometimes simply postpone previously budgeted maintenance, repair, renovation and construction projects -- if they are not essential to prevent death, disease, or injury. For example, the University's College of Pharmacy wanted to begin construction on a new building this year; the project has been postponed. Raising Dubuque Street might be an example of a project that could be postponed by the City.

Increases in fees could be focused on the upper middle class rather than the poor -- fees for building permits, trash taken to the City's dump, water and sewer, weekly trash pickup, and whatever else the City now charges for. It might even charge downtown bar owners for the cost of City employees' Sunday morning clean up of the vomit outside their businesses, and other goods and services provided downtown merchants. It might even cancel the program that enables downtown businesses to spruce up their storefronts at taxpayer expense.

Bear in mind, I'm not advocating any of these alternatives. I don't have to. I'm just making a point about the role of the ethical, moral, philosophical -- and for some, religious -- values that ought to be in play when a government decides that increasing taxes on the poor is its only alternative. This brief list of untested alternative possibilities is only provided for those who insist there are none.


Rod Sullivan, Sullivan's Salvos
"More Sales Tax"
July 1, 2014, issue; emailed June 26, 2014

[Supervisor Rod Sullivan, a member of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, publishes a newsletter he calls Sullivan's Salvos. You may request a (free) subscription by emailing him at His views on sales tax are especially relevant both because of his official position and the experience and knowledge that position provides. This excerpt from Sullivan's Salvos is republished here with his permission. -- N.J.]

As many of you know, I am a bit of a wonk when it comes to taxes. My interest in this area has led to some strongly held opinions against sales taxes. Here are a few reminders as to why increasing our reliance on the sales tax is NOT a good idea.

Regressivity This means that the poor pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than do the wealthy. Sales taxes are the most regressive taxes. Income taxes are the most progressive taxes.

In 2003, a person with an income of $90,000 paid 3.2% of her income in taxes. A person earning $19,500 paid 11.1% of her income in taxes.

Relative to income, the poor pay twice what the middle class pay, and nearly 5 times the amount the wealthy pay. Even with exemptions, sales taxes hit the poor hardest.

Who are the poor? 31% (215,855) of the children in Iowa live in low-income families. 10%(70,857) of the children in Iowa live in poor families. Most of the people living in poverty in Iowa and elsewhere are children. There are more poor women than poor men. Plus we are talking poverty here, which is a much higher threshold than free and reduced price lunch.

Children are the poorest segment of our society. I will quote one of my favorite authors, Jonathon Kozol: “Charity is no substitute for economic justice.”

You cannot raise money for human services and believe they will make up for the damage done by a local option sales tax. Governmental agencies cannot improve their budget situations on the backs of the poorest of the poor. The needs of the poor will outpace any and all services that they have helped to fund.

In the Iowa City Community School District, parents and kids at Twain, Wood, and Hills pay a higher percentage of their income in sales taxes than parents and kids at Wickham, Lincoln, and Shimek. Does this make sense?

Wealthy services not taxed The services of accountants, attorneys, and stockbrokers are not subject to sales taxes. These and many other services (advertising, consulting, etc.) used primarily by the wealthy and by large corporations go untaxed. In addition, property taxes are deductible, while sales taxes are not.

Sales Taxes versus Property Taxes “Sales tax proponents frequently use the argument, “Sales taxes are better than property taxes.” First off, this is untrue. This argument is akin to saying, “Drinking is better than smoking, so we need more smoking.” Neither tax option is good for the poor.”

Sales taxes versus property taxes is a red herring The point is not which is worse, sales taxes or property taxes. The point is that BOTH hurt the poor unfairly. We need to create a more fair system of taxation, and we need to do so creatively. Sales & property taxes are not the only two options available. People who claim these are the only options are being shortsighted. We need to challenge our legislators to allow for greater local use of income taxes. This is the fairest way to finance local governments, and should be part of the mix.

What about renters? Rent includes the landlord¹s expenses plus profit. But there is no profit if there is no renter. So depending upon the market, the landlord can adjust her rent as much as she wishes, so long as the unit remains leased. Most landlords raise rents when they can, regardless of taxes. Most try to squeeze out maximum profit. This is supply and demand and will happen REGARDLESS of taxes. Supply and demand drives the rental market-nothing else. This is a fact, and economists of all stripes have backed this up. So before you E-mail me disagreeing with this fact, talk to a damned economist!

Another flaw in this argument is assuming that landlords are somehow entitled to no less profit than they are currently receiving. Owning property is an investment. People are not forced to own ¬ they can invest in CDs, gold, or the stock market. If your investments are not profitable, sell.

Programs that use relative wealth as a measure of eligibility (such as Medicaid) always include resources (property). It is not enough to have low income; you must also lack other resources, such as property. This is because the net worth of a property owner far exceeds that of a renter. Renters have less real assets. Under a sales tax, renters pay the same as their counterparts with real assets.

What about “outsiders”? Won¹t they help pay? People who live outside of Johnson County pay about 20-25% of the taxes collected. These are by and large not people from Chicago, however, but commuters who purchase goods on the way home.

I cannot, in good conscience, support a shift of the tax burden to people who have less money. What's more, I have trouble saying that a person earning$25,000 should pay more tax just because she lives in Williamsburg, Riverside, West Branch, Mount Vernon, Tipton, etc. Especially when the local wealthy would be let off the hook at her expense. It is critically important that we think of our middle and low-income neighbors who commute to this County.

In addition, there are “outsiders” who pay property tax; they are absentee landowners. Most of the buildings in downtown Iowa City are owned by people who live outside of Johnson County. Coral Ridge Mall, Proctor and Gamble, Regency Trailer Court, numerous student apartments, and thousands of other properties are owned by entities that do NOT call Johnson County home.Substituting sales tax for property tax lets these absentee landlords off the hook. Others will pay for the roads and services that add value to their properties.

Doesn¹t everyone else impose a higher sales tax? Yes. Currently, only Johnson County has no Local Option Sales Tax. When you are the only (or one of the only) counties that does something, you are either doing something very well or doing something very poorly. I believe Johnson County has been doing very well by choosing not to impose this tax.

Theological arguments I just happen to buy into a worldview that those who are able need to help those who are not. It is a basic organizing principle of any society, for one thing. Most major world religions subscribe to the idea of helping the poor.

I hold to a viewpoint (influenced by Christian doctrine) that says, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last”; “Do unto others”; “That which you do to the least among you, you do to me”; “The meek shall inherit the earth”; “Charity shall cover the multitude of sins”; “You cannot serve both God and wealth”; and “A rich man has a better chance of putting a camel through the eye of a needle than getting into Heaven.” Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and most major religions share similar doctrine when it comes to caring for the poor first. If you think I am making these up, consult your own religious authority.

I prefer to follow this lead rather than doing more to comfort the comfortable.

# # #

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why Unwinnable 'Wars' Are 'Stupid Stuff'

September 23, 2014, 11:50 a.m.

Note: Click here for an updated list of prior columns and blog essays about terrorism and war.

Add 'Impossible to Win' to Objections to War With ISIS

"A strange game.
The only winning move is not to play."
-- Computer's conclusion about the war game "global nuclear war," from movie "War Games" (1983)
"You can't win, you can't break even
And you can't get out of the game
People keep sayin' things are gonna change
But they look to us like, you're stayin' the same . . .
You can't win, you can't win no way
If your story stays the same, no, no"
-- Charles Emanuel Smalls/Michael Jackson, "You Can't Win"
"We're waist deep in the Big Muddy!
And the big fool says to push on!"
-- Pete Seeger, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy"
"Don't do stupid stuff."
-- "The polite-company version of a phrase [President Obama's aides] use to describe the president's foreign policy." Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2014.
"After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State [which] is still dealing humiliating blows to the Iraqi Army."
David D. Kirkpatrick and Omar Al-Jawoshy, "Weeks of U.S. Strikes Fail to Dislodge ISIS in Iraq," New York Times, September 23, 2014, p. A12
"The United States and five Arab allies launched a wide-ranging air campaign against the Islamic State and at least one other extremist group in Syria for the first time early Tuesday . . .."
-- Ben Hubbard and Alan Cowell, "U.S. and Allies Strike ISIS Targets in Syria," New York Times (online), September 23, 2014


There is a rather long list of categories of reasons why our third military adventure in Iraq is a bad idea. They are very briefly reviewed, below.

But for those for whom none of those categories seem persuasive, we now have another: A "war" with ISIS, in which the U.S. is a leading force, can be neither fought nor "won" by the standards of any reasonable definition of those words.

This is not the same as saying America is no longer the preeminent military force in the world, more advanced in technology and larger in resources than the next 10 countries combined. It still is. It is not to say that our military is less able and macho than the ISIS fighters. It is not. It is only to say that there are some places and times in which we cannot fight and win anything resembling a war. Whatever it is we want from others, whatever our "national security" may require, they must sometimes be achieved with methods and strategies other than military -- not just in addition to military but instead of military.

As I once put it to President Lyndon Johnson, "You can't play basketball on a football field." In that instance, Viet Nam was a country in which we would, inevitably, be viewed as only the latest in a centuries-long history of foreign invaders, entering into a form of civil war, in a country with an unfamiliar language, history, mythology, religion, social structure, and geography, where our "enemies" refused to wear uniforms and thus were indistinguishable from our allies, there was no World War II-like "frontline," and land was won, lost and won again with ever-increasing American (and Vietnamese) deaths.

In that war effort, a high administration official and I came up with a couple of alternatives, only half in jest. We calculated a cost of $500,000 for each Viet Cong killed in our effort to "win hearts and minds." What if we were to simply give every Vietnamese $250,000? They would consider it a fortune; it would cut our costs in half; and would probably win more "hearts and minds" than killing them. The other possibility was to withdraw our soldiers and replace them with realtors, whose mission would be to simply buy up the entire country one hectare at a time.

Neither of our proposed options proved to be popular with the President, who decided about that time that rather than continuing my responsibility for sea lift to Viet Nam, I would make a really terrific FCC commissioner.

If you can't play basketball on a football field, you certainly can't play basketball in the desert sand. The ineffectiveness, indeed the negative contribution, of our military efforts in the Middle East have much in common with our failures in Viet Nam.

Others have cited a range of categories of concerns about our Middle East military adventures -- as have I in "Is U.S. Response Strengthening ISIS? Playing Into the Terrorists' Hands," September 19, 2014; " Why Iowans Should Care About Iraq War III; Why Do We Accept Words Like 'Islam,' 'State,' and 'Caliphate'?" September 16, 2014; and "Is War the Best Answer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2014, p. A7; embedded in " Whatever the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" September 10, 2014. [The next day, September 24, the New York Times' editorial board outlined some of these categories as applied to Syria in Editorial, "Wrong Turn on Syria: No Convincing Plan," New York Times, September 24, 2014, p. A30.]

Some find our war effort unjustified by their standards, citing rules of war grounded in international law, religion, philosophy, morality and ethics. Others believe the military action is unauthorized under the letter and spirit of our Constitution and the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. Frightening the American people into supporting the war on grounds we are under threat of imminent terrorist attack in the U.S. is challenged as, at minimum, unwarranted (e.g., Senator Lindsay Graham, "This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed here at home.") Our military actions are self-defeating insofar as they increase, rather than decrease, (a) the ability of ISIS to recruit additional terrorists from now some 74 countries, and (b) the likelihood of terrorist attacks within the United States. The list goes on and on, including in the three prior blog essays linked just above.

Tom Tomorrow, in his usually incisive way, illustrates some of the folly in our Iraq adventure in this week's "cartoon":

[Source: Tom Tomorrow, "Building Blocks of War," September 22, 2014, Tom Tomorrow, "This Modern World".]

There is a kind of disquieting irony in the last three quotations at the head of this blog essay: President Obama's pledge not to do "stupid stuff," followed by the Times report that our numerous air strikes over Iraq, coupled with the Iraqi military's ineffectiveness, have failed to restrict ISIS' hold on Iraq land; and then the news 24 hours later that the bombing strategy that failed in Iraq has now been extended to Syria. (And of course fighting a "war" against ISIS in Syria -- ISIS being the Syrian government's most effective enemy -- is infinitely more complex and futile than fighting them in Iraq.)

As the other opening quotations illustrate in a variety of contexts, there are some wars, as well as some games, that cannot be "won" -- the computer's conclusion from its analysis of nuclear war that "the only winning move is not to play;" the metaphor of a card game in which the players "can't win, break even, or get out of the game;" and Pete Seeger's image of a war in which we "push on," notwithstanding the fact it is getting progressively worse.

We are not winning our military action against ISIS. There is little prospect that we ever will. Even if we did, as with our "defeat" of al-Qaeda, the likelihood is that another, successor organization will only pop up as ISIS did in this ongoing game of "whack-a-mole." If we ever were to, for the third time, "declare victory and go home" ("Mission Accomplished"), the probability is overwhelming that the results will be similar if not identical to what happened the two prior times.

The "solution"? There is none. There is only the "least worst alternative." We shouldn't have attempted a military action that was not fully supported by our Joint Chiefs of Staff and doomed to failure in the first place. Any option that has "the Great Satan" (the U.S.) as the leading aggressor is highly unlikely to be successful. Perhaps we should slowly abandon overt, conventional military action, limiting our involvement to diplomacy, intelligence gathering, economic and trade sanctions, and trying to restrict ISIS' access to financial resources. I don't pretend to have "the solution."

My only position for now is that "unwinnable wars are stupid stuff."

Now here is a 4:05-minute video excerpt from the 1983 movie "War Games," in which the computer's conclusion is portrayed about 3:50 into the excerpt:

# # #

Friday, September 19, 2014

Is U.S. Response Strengthening ISIS?

September 19, 2014, 9:45 a.m.

Note: Click here for an updated list of prior columns and blog essays about terrorism and war.

Playing Into the Terrorists' Hands

William Hale Thompson, known as "Big Bill," Chicago's colorful 41st mayor, was in office 1915 to 1923, and again from 1927 to 1931. He chose as his opponent King George V of the United Kingdom (1910-1936), whom he claimed was America's greatest enemy, and threatened to punch him in the nose should they ever meet. [Photo source: Commons,]

So far as we know, King George V wisely chose not to come within arm's length of Big Bill Thompson, nor to respond in any other way to the threat, and ended up holding his office for five years beyond the last term of the mayor.

A part of Thompson's motive in this choice of campaign strategy was an effort to divert public concern about Chicago's crime and corruption during the 1920s -- a kind of "oh, look at the squirrel." But it was also an effort to enhance his own stature -- to say, in effect, "I am big, tough and important enough to stand toe-to-toe with the King of England."

Similarly, it is important for the U.S. to at least be aware of the extent to which we have unwittingly accepted the role of the King in the ISIS script in which they play Big Bill Thompson. What we are doing is creating, supporting and encouraging ISIS' ability to recruit more terrorists and otherwise expand their influence. It can present itself as an organization that is the full equal of the U.S., under attack by the U.S., but willing to stand toe-to-toe with us, give us a punch in the nose, and defend their followers from the Great Satin. [Photo source: Commons,; 1911 coronation portrait by Sir Luke Fildes.]

Now for us to "be aware" of the unintended consequences of our speech and actions is not the same as "we should, like the King, simply ignore ISIS." Many choices in life are, as the punch line in the joke puts it, "compared to what." A rational, benefit-cost analysis may come to the conclusion that, no matter how much we are aiding ISIS in achieving its goals, the damage we are causing to our cause is less than if we were to abandon military action. That's a topic for another blog essay. This discussion is merely designed to explore the ways in which our talk and actions are aiding, rather than harming, ISIS.

As ISIS' latest professionally produced propaganda film demonstrates, however evil and barbaric these folks may be, they are also very skilled manipulators of public opinion. Without America's military involvement in Iraq ISIS is nothing but evil and barbaric -- in the eyes of Iraqis as well as Americans. With our involvement, ISIS (Mayor Thompson) has more than a squirrel, it has its King of England (the United States), now "the Great Satin," a western invader, something it can use to divert the population's frustration, despair and hopelessness away from Iraq to a land, government, and people thousands of miles distant. [Photo credit: AP file photo.]

To do this, it needs the support of the American people, something most easily obtained by frightening us into believing that we are at risk of another 9/11. The cheapest, easiest, most dramatic and powerful way to do this is with YouTube videos of a beheading -- or two, or three.

For Bill Maher's take on how ISIS is manipulating the American people to its advantage, watch this video clip from his show:

They know that we have a significant number of weapons manufacturers and hawkish politicians who keep their drum sets in the basement, always ready to dust them off and start beating the drums of war. The "military-industrial complex" of which President Eisenhower warned us has only been strengthened over the years. With pressure from the hawks, and driven by a terrorized population, soon other elected officials find the easiest political stance is to support the option of "war" -- as both the House and Senate did yesterday in authorizing $500 million for the training of troops in Syria. Jonathan Weisman and Jeremy W. Peters, "Congress Gives Final Approval to Aid Rebels in Fight With ISIS," New York Times, September 19, 2014, p. A10; Ben Hubbard, "U.S. Goal Is to Make Syrian Rebels Viable," New York Times, September 19, 2014, p. A1.

ISIS needs the U.S. to appear to be waging war with them. Every bomb we drop, every civilian we kill, every American soldier or CIA contractor we put in Iraq or Syria (notwithstanding our "no boots on the ground" policy), further strengthens ISIS' claim that it is both willing and able to stand up to the United States. We increase its ability to recruit more terrorists from an increasing number of countries around the world. "Recruits from 74 countries are among the estimated 12,000 foreign militants in Syria and Iraq, many of them fighting with ISIS . . .." Somini Senguptasept, "Nations Trying to Stop Their Citizens From Going to Middle East to Fight for ISIS," New York Times, September 13, 2014, p. A1. We give credibility to its claim of being a "state." Nor does our constant use of its phrase, an "Islamic State" (the "IS" in ISIS and ISIL) help to reduce its prestige among potential recruits and locals.

In short, we appear to be playing into ISIS' hands, playing their game by their rules, reacting as they predict and desire rather than taking the initiative, providing an essential element of their game plan, without which they would be far less of a threat. To the extent these intuitions are correct, and whatever conclusions one may draw from them with regard to modifications of our anti-ISIS strategy, they would seem to be worthy of serious consideration.

# # #

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Why Iowans Should Care About Iraq War III

September 16, 2014, 4:30 p.m.

Note: Click here for an updated list of prior columns and blog essays about terrorism and war.

Why Do We Accept Words Like "Islam," "State," and "Caliphate"?
To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power -- or risk abusing it. And that’s why . . . clear guidelines, oversight and accountability [are] now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday.

In the Afghan war theater, we . . . will continue to take strikes against high value al Qaeda targets, but . . . the progress we’ve made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.

Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces. . . .

America . . . take[s] strikes . . . against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people . . ..
[emphasis supplied]
-- President Barack Obama, "Remarks by the President at the National Defense University," Fort McNair Washington, D.C., May 23, 2013

"[T]he President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 . . ..” [emphasis supplied]
-- "Authorization for Use of Military Force," September 14, 2001 ((Pub. L. 107-40, codified at 115 Stat. 224).

On September 12 I embedded a column in a blog essay titled, ""Whatever Is the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" -- with links to 10 prior, related blog essays. (Nicholas Johnson, "Is War the Best Answer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2014, p. A7). That column pointed out that the intelligence community seems to have concluded there is presently little to no likelihood of what the White House calls ISIL conducting terrorist activity inside the United States, and it posed the questions, "Why is Iraq War III in our nation's best interests, and if so, what is our goal, our objective, and 'How would we know if we'd ever been successful?'"

But 600 words is not enough to pursue all the related issues, let alone keep up with unfolding events in this adventure. So there may well be even more blog essays to come over time. Here is today's.

It is personally disappointing that there is not more citizen debate on this war -- including within Iowa. There are many ways in which it impacts Iowans. Iowans are sent to war; some never return, some suffer physical and psychological damage that can last a lifetime, too many reduce their life span through suicide. Families are disrupted, with stress sometimes leading to divorce. Fighting wars on a credit card instead of a pay-as-you-go war tax means there is the financial opportunity cost of war -- the trillions already spent, and billions that continue to be spent, are funds that are unavailable for our roads and bridges, schools and libraries, clean water and flood control, early childhood education, financial support for ethanol production and wind energy, mental health and drug programs as an alternative to our use of prisons.

There is considerable evidence, and opinion within the intelligence community, that what we are doing in Iraq as I write this is increasing rather than decreasing the number of Iraq's terrorists both in Iraq and Syria and the likelihood that their anger at America will bring them to our shores.

A Rose By Any Other Name; Whom Are We Fighting in Iraq, and How Does That Affect the President's Authority? Does Our Current Military Strategy Make Even Military Sense?

Naming Rights
Names make a difference. As general semanticist Wendell Johnson once wrote,
A rose with onion for its name
Might never, never smell the same --
And canny is the nose that knows
An onion that is called a rose.
Why on earth would we want to go along with the words the new gang in Iraq want to use to describe themselves: "Islamic State," "caliphate," "ISIS," or "ISIL"? Those words are their efforts at a branding designed to increase their worldwide appeal to potential terrorists, and otherwise increase their status. Our relentless use of their words only increases their power, appeal, and potential threat to us.

They are not a "state" by any definition of the word. They are not recognized as such by the international community, they do not have the organization of a state, and they do not provide the services of a state. It's hard to justify calling something a duck that can neither quack, walk, nor swim like a duck.

Nor are they Islamic. Catholics associated with Catholic Charities are affiliated with the Catholic Church. Catholics associated with the Mafia are not. Alexander Stille, "The Pope Excommunicates the Mafia, Finally," The New Yorker, June 24, 2014. Muslims are entitled to the same distinctions.

Nor are they a branch of al-Qaeda, a distinction with serious consequences for the President's authority to go to war in Iraq -- for reasons explained immediately below. They can be thought of most accurately, and most favorably to our cause, as Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria (QSIS).

Affiliation of QSIS with al Qaeda

Congress can certainly authorize the President's war in Iraq if it chooses. But it has not yet done so. The White House may be able to find authorization elsewhere; but I'm not convinced by its arguments so far. In any event, it is extraordinarily difficult to make the case that a war against QSIS is legal under the authority granted the President by the AUMF of 2001 (quoted above). It limits his power to fighting "those nations, organizations, or persons [the President] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."

There are a number of problems with relying on this document. Given its language and date (2001) it certainly does not appear to be focused on today's challenges in Iraq. Beyond that, for starters, those persons who “planned” or “committed” the 2001 attacks are, for the most part either dead or captured. It is even a stretch to use it as justification for continued pursuit of today's terrorists we consider “members of al-Qaeda.” It is a bigger stretch to say it authorizes using drones to attack “affiliates” of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and elsewhere. But there is seemingly no justification whatsoever for using it as authority for conducting war against an al-Qaeda separatist that is actually fighting al-Qaeda.

Congress may or may not want to provide the President an AUMF for what he has announced he is doing in Iraq. But if they do, whatever form that authorization may take, the one Congress approved on September 14, 2001 is not it.
The repudiation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria came after the failure of repeated efforts by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to heal a dispute between ISIS and the officially anointed al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra that has erupted in fighting in parts of rebel-held northern Syria.

ISIS 'is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group . . . does not have an organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions,' al-Qaeda’s General Command said in a statement . . .. A U.S. counterterrorism official . . . said Zawahiri had been left with 'little choice but to announce a rupture that, for all intents and purposes, had already taken place.' But despite the weight the al-Qaeda brand still carries among jihadists worldwide, the official said, ISIS 'has never been dependent on AQ core for resources or direction, so the tangible impact of the decision may not be that significant.'”
Liz Sly, "Al-Qaeda disavows any ties with radical Islamist ISIS group in Syria, Iraq," Washington Post, February 3, 2014.
Mission Creep
Nor is the President's legal position helped by Monday's [Sept. 15] action: "The new campaign included a strike on Monday southwest of Baghdad . . .. The strikes, the Pentagon said, go beyond the United States’ initial mission announced last month of 'protecting our own people and humanitarian missions.'” Steve Kenny, "U.S. Airstrikes Hit Targets Near Baghdad Held by ISIS," New York Times, September 16, 2014, p. A11.

This is not the only evidence of what is more like "mission run" than "mission creep." Assume for a moment that, contrary to the last blog essay, war is the best answer. ["Whatever Is the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" Sept. 10.]
Does Iraq War III Make Military Sense?
"Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Tuesday that he would recommend deploying United States combat forces against Islamic extremists in specific operations if the current strategy of airstrikes was not successful, raising the possibility of the kind of escalation that President Obama has flatly ruled out. . . . [As] General Dempsey made it clear, [when] trying to dislodge militants from urban areas like Mosul, airstrikes are less effective because they can cause civilian casualties." Jeremy W. Peters and Mark Landler, "U.S. General to Seek Combat Troops if Airstrikes Can’t Stop ISIS," New York Times, Online September 16, 2014.

“Truly there is no military solution to ISIL,” he said, adding that it could be defeated only with a more comprehensive approach that includes diplomacy. “That may be a tough pill to swallow. But there is no military solution.” Ibid.

Even if there were a military solution, the current military approach -- airstrikes along with only marginal success at putting together a "coalition of the willing" Arab states -- is a long way from the element in the Powell Doctrine that calls for overwhelming force. ("Powell (and other military officers of his generation) believed that the United States should . . . use sufficient force to achieve decisive victory" -- and that only after his eight prior conditions were clearly met. Stephen M. Walt, "Applying the 8 Questions of the Powell Doctrine to Syria," Foreign Policy, September 3, 2013.) [General Colin Powell; photo credit: unknown.]

At the Dempsey hearing, Senator John McCain, not surprisingly, found the military response so far to be "inadequate." Senator Angus King said that airstrikes here and there from time to time struck him as something more resembling a game of "whack-a-mole" than a well-considered military strategy. Peters and Landler, above.

[As will develop over the days to come, and will ultimately be discussed in this blog, there are at least a couple of additional rather significant military obstacles to overcome. (a) Anti-aircraft defenses. Both QSIS and Syria have anti-aircraft capability. There are reports that either QSIS or the Syrian government shot down a plane over Syria just this week. So what? So (1) our bombing efforts cannot be as effective as we thought, (2) more significant, our air war is now, unambiguously, "combat," (3) manned fighter planes are not unmanned drones; there is now a real risk that U.S. pilots can be killed, and (4) if they aren't killed, but are shot down, or otherwise forced to land, General Dempsey has made clear that he will put "boots on the ground" to attempt their rescue. (b) Syria. It is even less clear now than it was a year ago how we can effectively participate in Syria -- with or without combat forces on the ground. Our presumed purpose in entering Syria in any way at this time is to "destroy" QSIS. In addition to the problems always associated with air bombardments in urban wars, and the likelihood of our planes being shot down, we will be fighting (with a goal of destroying) the Syrian government's most effective enemy at this time: QSIS. It is unlikely that we can train enough "moderate" resistance fighters to overwhelm QSIS, and even less likely that all the arms we would supply them would never be taken and used by QSIS forces. And if we were to be "successful" in this effort, which is unlikely, we would have simply aided the Syrian government in oppressing its people further. Thus, our participation in a war in Syria seems even more problematical than our participation in Iraq War III.]

It is, of course, too early to tell how Iraq War III will end -- indeed, whether it ever will. But it is not too early to predict, to sound a warning, and to hope that reason will ultimately prevail.

# # #

Friday, September 12, 2014

Whatever the Question, Is War the Best Answer?

September 10, 2014, 10:30 p.m.

NOTE: There will undoubtedly be updates regarding our Iraq adventure from time to tome. Click here for an updated list of prior columns and blog essays about terrorism and war.

The column, below, was composed and submitted immediately following the President's speech Wednesday evening, September 10, and published today, September 12. It reflects my immediate, personal reactions following that speech. During the 48 hours or more since, it has been both heartening and frightening to see how many individuals who know much more about international law, foreign affairs, policy analysis, and military strategy than I seem to hold similar views.

I had analogous concerns in 2003 and expressed them in the form of "Ten Questions for Bush Before War," a column in the local college paper, The Daily Iowan, February 4, 2003, p. A6. As the years passed, most of those concerns proved to have been valid.

Thereafter I wondered, as I do today about our 2014 Iraq adventure, if my instincts and intuition and limited knowledge are driving me to these concerns, concerns that seem to be shared by others more qualified, why, oh why, are we continuing to pursue such ill-fated approaches? I mean that seriously; what is it that causes our government's disconnect between what seems to be rather widely shared rational analyses by those of independent mind and the policies the government pursues in our name? That, of course, is a column for some future day.

Meanwhile, here is my Wednesday evening effort to understand our most current pursuit of folly, along with today's Press-Citizen editorial on the subject, and links to some prior writing of mine on this and related subjects.

Is War the Best Answer?
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
September 12, 2014, p. A7
We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. . . . As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that the use of force will move us toward the intended outcome.
-- General Martin Dempsey, Chair, Joint Chiefs of Staff, July 19, 2013

With his speech Wednesday evening, once again an American President is preparing the people for a rush to war in Iraq –- adding Syria to our expanding battlefield. [Photo credit: The Guardian/AP.]

Once again, our oil has found its way under someone else’s land.

Once again, we must turn to our military leaders for the caution and rational analysis borne of their experience in battle and their study of history.

Now I’m not saying the pre-election threat to America from ISIS in President Obama’s scenario is no more serious today than the pre-election threat to America from Albania was in the movie “Wag the Dog.” Those ISIS folks seem a truly brutal lot.

But the intelligence community is much less alarmist than the politicians and pundits. As Matthew G. Olsen, National Counterterrorism Center director, put it last week, “ISIL is not Al Qaeda pre-9/11.” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson agrees: “We know of no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland at present.”

Moreover, the President’s strategy carries high risk of creating the very threat that does not now exist. Andrew Liepman, former National Counterterrorism Center deputy director says, “It’s pretty clear that upping our involvement in Iraq and Syria makes it more likely that we will be targeted by the people we are attacking.”

Put aside for the moment any moral questions about the inevitable deaths of thousands of civilians. Put aside legal questions about the President’s authority to wage this war, and international law restraints on “pre-emptive war.” Put aside the likelihood that our intervention will increase, rather than decrease, ISIS’ recruitment of terrorists and risk of harm to our homeland. Put aside the multi-trillion-dollar cost for our grandchildren of these Mideast adventures.

What is our goal? The President says it is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. What if the Iraqi Army is not up to that task? What’s “Plan B”? Do we go home, or send in American troops? Are we better off once we’ve destroyed the Syrian government’s toughest enemy?

Have we “destroyed” al Qaeda or just moved it off the front page? Assume we destroyed al Qaeda. How did that work out for us? We got ISIS. Do we really think if we could destroy ISIS nothing would replace it?

What’s our exit strategy? Once we “win,” how do we get out, and what happens when we do? Even if we could eliminate today’s chaos, tribalism, ethnic and religious conflict, why will it not return?

The most fundamental question that’s seldom if ever stated, let alone addressed or resolved is, “What is our ultimate goal, our purpose, for this air war in Iraq and Syria?” As I used to put it to my school board colleagues, "How would we know if we'd ever been successful?” Hopefully, our purpose is not limited to executing our “strategy” for winning battles and wars and then come home, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves.

Will we clean up after the party, reconstructing what war destroys? For how long? With how many billions of taxpayers’ dollars? Is nation-building still a part of our Mideast mission?

Even though we’re rightfully enraged over the beheadings, and want to “do something,” unthinking, precipitous action is not always the most effective revenge.
Nicholas Johnson, former Administrator, U.S. Maritime Administration, was responsible for sealift to Vietnam, and maintains and

Samples of Nicholas Johnson's Prior Writing on Terrorism and War

"Why Unwinnable 'Wars' Are 'Stupid Stuff;' Add 'Impossible to Win' to Objections to War With ISIS," September 23, 2014;

"Is U.S. Response Strengthening ISIS? Playing Into the Terrorists' Hands," September 19, 2014;

" Why Iowans Should Care About Iraq War III; Why Do We Accept Words Like 'Islam,' 'State,' and 'Caliphate'?" September 16, 2014;

"Is War the Best Answer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2014, p. A7; embedded in " Whatever the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" September 10, 2014;

"Syria: Moral Imperatives and Rational Analyses; Spotting the Issues," September 4, 2013;

"Thinking About War -- Before Starting One," March 20, 2013;

"General Semantics, Terrorism and War," Fordham University, New York City, September 8, 2006;

"War in Iraq: The Military Objections," International Law Talks: War With Iraq, University of Iowa College of Law, February 27, 2003;

"Ten Questions for Bush Before War," The Daily Iowan, February 4, 2003, p. A6;

Nicholas Johnson, "Capitalists Can Help U.S. Avert War with Iraq," Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sunday Insight, October 6, 2002, p. A11;

Nicholas Johnson, "On Iraq, Tell the Rest of the Story," Iowa City Gazette, October 2, 2002, p. A4;

Nicholas Johnson, "Let's not get between Iraq and a hard place," Omaha World-Herald, August 13, 2002 (and as published in the Iowa City Press-Citizen and as submitted to both);

Nicholas Johnson, "Search for Better Response Than War; Don't Reward the Terrorists, but Understand Their Interests," Des Moines Sunday Register Opinion/Iowa View, June 30, 2002, p. OP3;

Nicholas Johnson, "Rethinking Terrorism," National Lawyers Guild Conference, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, March 2, 2002.

"Learn the Right Lessons From the 'War on Terror'"
Editorial Board
Iowa City Press-Citizen
September 12, 2014, p. A7

Has it really been fewer than 18 months since President Obama said it was time for the U.S. to stop thinking about future conflicts in terms of “a boundless ‘global war on terror’ ”?

Speaking in May 2013 — more than a decade after Congress first approved the Authorization to Use Military Force in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — the president suggested that the nation, instead, should start viewing such military ventures as “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks with other countries.”

The phrasing was meant to refocus the county’s attention toward the supposed endings of such military efforts. It was supposed to stop conjuring up the specter of a never-ending conflict that will continue to require the erosion of civil liberties and governmental checks and balances.

“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” Obama said at the time. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

During his national address Wednesday night, however, the president again raised the specter of an open-ended, military involvement against a terrorist organization that calls itself the “Islamic State” (aka ISIS, aka ISIL) and is scattered throughout the Middle East.

Speaking on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Obama at times sounded like a saber-rattler. (“We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. … If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.) And at other times, he risked sounding more like a stand-up comedian. (“Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. … And ISIL is certainly not a state.”)

But the president did manage to outline a clear, four-step response to the long-term threat posed the Islamic State:

• 1: The U.S. will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against the terrorist group.

• 2: The U.S. will increase its support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground — whether in Iraq or Syria.

• 3: The U.S. will continue to draw on its “substantial counterterrorism capabilities” to prevent future attacks.

• 4: The U.S. will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to “innocent civilians who’ve been displaced by this terrorist organization.”

The president was equally clear that “this is not our fight alone” and that the American military would be playing more of an advisory role — with regional allies being the ones with boots on the ground.

Yet president didn’t address some of the basic questions — like, “What’s our end point?” — that should be answered before the U.S. commits to any “series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks with other countries.”

That’s why lawmakers, when responding to the president’s speech, couldn’t really criticize the tone and resolve. Yet they nearly all said they were waiting for more details to flesh out Obama’s broad strokes.

We’d like to believe Obama is moving past the failed policies of the “war on terror” approach. Yet the president also did raise the specter of Americans (and American intelligence) needing to keep a suspicious eye on allies and fellow citizens.

“We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world,” Obama said, “and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. … And that’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge.”

We’ve seen before how a seemingly never-ending, war-time agenda provides presidents with far too much unchecked authority. How it encourages further mission/linguistic drift and allows phrases like “immediate threat” to come to mean something more along the lines of a threat to someone, somewhere, sometime in the unknown future.

So in their vigilance, the American people also need to make sure that their leaders show they are learning the right lessons from the nation’s past foreign policy mistakes.

# # #

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Labor Day for All

September 2, 2014, 10:45 p.m.
I am glad to know that there is a system of labor where the laborer can strike if he wants to! I would to God that such a system prevailed all over the world.
-- President Abraham Lincoln, "Notes for Speech at Hartford, Connecticut," March 5, 1860, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 4, p. 7

Labor unions have meant new dignity and pride to millions of our countrymen—human companionship on the job, and music in the home -- to be able to see what larger pay checks mean, not to a man as an employee, but as a husband and as a father -- to know these things is to understand what American labor means.
-- Adlai Stevenson, Democratic Party Presidential Nominee, 1952, 1956

Today in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice. I have no use for those -- regardless of their political party . . ..
-- President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954

Every advance in this half-century--Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, aid to education, one after another--came with the support and leadership of American Labor.
-- President Jimmy Carter [Previous three quotes from "Presidential Quotes."]

It was working men and women who made the 20th century the American century. It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today. The 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans. The cornerstones of the middle-class security all bear the union label.
-- President Barack Obama, "President Obama on Labor Day: The Fight for America's Workers Continues," Milwaukee, Sept. 6, 2010

Yesterday, Labor Day, September 1, 2014, I attended the Iowa City Labor Day Picnic in the Iowa City Park -- as I usually do on Labor Day. There are pictures, below, that capture a wee bit of the spirit of that gathering. It is an opportunity once a year for members and friends of labor to gather, share food everyone has provided (what we used to call a "pot luck" meal), listen to political candidates and quality live music, and generally share what was a lovely summer day in the park.

Most union members have at least some notion of the history of labor in this country, and the sacrifices that were made by our predecessors to gain the right to bargain with management collectively rather than individually. There are brief references to that history in Labor Day speeches, but that's about all. The folks present yesterday know that history, and didn't need anyone to run through all the details.

But the day before Labor Day I put a brief comment on Facebook for the benefit of those who don't attend Labor Day picnics, and are apt to know much less about the history of America's working people. It has since gained a couple dozen shares, and many more comments and "likes." But on the assumption you haven't seen it, I'm going to reprint it here, along with the picture of a poster I used with it.

When I wrote it I had done no research, and just spoke from the heart and memory. As you'll see from the quotes above, which I've just found on the Internet, apparently a great many others -- of all political stripes -- have shared these sentiments over the years, from President Lincoln to President Obama.

Here is that Facebook entry:
Regardless of your politics or what you've been told about unions, take a moment tomorrow to thank "Those wonderful folks who brought you the weekend, the minimum wage, the end to child labor, the 40-hour week, a safer workplace than you otherwise would have had, the decades-long fight for healthcare (remember, health INSURANCE is not health CARE), Social Security in your old age -- among a great many other things."

Remember, they also were beaten and died and imprisoned when they stood up for their rights (and ours) in the face of police and National Guard called out by public officials as much in the pocket of the corporate interests of their day as ours are today. Unions were the muscle that built the post-WWII middle class, and booming economy, and elected officials who talked to each other and did stuff. This poster tells it all: "United We Bargain. Divided We Beg." It's the only way that's ever worked. Since the 1980s we've been begging.
Here's my point. On July 4th every American celebrates the Revolutionary War, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the beginning of our nation. It is not a day limited to the descendants of those who fought in that War -- such as the Daughters of the American Revolution. We all celebrate, we all remember.

No, I'm not saying everyone needs to go to a labor union's Labor Day picnic, anymore than everyone should go to a DAR meeting on July 4th. But on both days, I believe, it contributes to our nation's civic health for all of us to reflect upon the debt we owe to those who have gone before us -- along with the ways in which the economic and other problems we have as a nation today are a product of our failure to remember, and apply, the lessons we should have learned when labor unions were a partner with business in building one of the greatest periods in our history.

From 1945 until the 1980s unions were strong. The rich paid substantial taxes, and income inequality was nowhere nearly as stark as it is today. The economy was booming; union workers were paid well, and spent freely, which increased the profits of business, created a demand for more jobs, enabled parents to afford college for their kids, and kept things humming. As a result, both the rich and their workers did better than they otherwise would have.

We need to realize, for example, that what is called a "raise" in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.50 is not a raise at all -- it is merely bringing the minimum wage back up to the level of buying power it had in 1968.

When Wall Street and big business treat the human mothers and fathers who are their workers as a "cost center," and expense item -- even putting aside the human consequences for a moment -- the resulting decline in the economy, as those workers lose buying power, ends up harming the rich as well as the poor.

Unions, the ability of workers to bargain collectively rather than individually, and to be paid at least a living wage, has always been the only way to maintain any economy -- especially one like ours that is 70% dependent upon consumer spending.

OK, enough of all that. Here are some pictures from a great Iowa City Labor Day.

Here is what the shelter and the grounds looked like when I arrived on my bicycle. Tom Jacobs took this picture; the others are ones I took. Congressman Dave Loebsack had a lot of Labor Day events to hit yesterday, and so was allowed to speak and run before all the food had even been set out.

But the food was soon laid out on a table as long as the shelter house for these folks who like to talk almost more than they like to eat. Some stayed out in the sun, but most gathered at the shelter house tables, as I did.

One of the continuing highlights of the event most years, as it was this year, was the very generous provision of live music throughout the afternoon provided by Pigs and Clover, otherwise known as Matt and Jamie Kearney. They have one of the greatest collection of union songs I've ever heard, great voices, a driving guitar and drum rhythm, and a good sense of fun.

To give you a sense of the music (and the crowd noise) here is a one-minute excerpt from their rendition of "Mean Winds" (taken by me with an iPhone):

As a special event, our Johnson County Attorney, Janet Lyness, took and passed the ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) Ice Bucket Challenge executed by her daughter.

All in all it was a really great day.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Curing a Cancer on the Academy

August 27, 2014, 7:10 a.m.; August 20, 2014, 1:10 p.m.

Notes: (1) This morning [Aug. 27] the Iowa City Press-Citizen published a hard copy and online opinion column drawn from this blog essay. It is reproduced below.

(2) Near the bottom of this blog essay is a list of "Prior College Football-Related Blog Essays, 2010-2014." They are grouped by: "The College Football Industry (impact, economics, crime, future)," "Football's Ties to Alcohol," "Football's Ties to Gambling," and "Impact of Fans on Stadium Neighborhood." (Not listed are additional football-related blog essays from 2006-2009.)

We have a cancer--within, close to the Presidency, that's growing. It's growing daily. It's compounding, it grows geometrically now because it compounds itself.
--John Dean to President Richard Nixon, March 21, 1973
"Transcript of a Recording of a Meeting Among the President, John Dean, and H.R. Haldeman in the Oval Office," March 21, 2073, 10:13 to 11:55 a.m.," Watergate Trial Conversations, Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.

John Dean, President Nixon's Chief White House Counsel, famously warned his boss that the Watergate burglary was like a cancer growing on the Presidency.

I'm no doctor, but with the opening of yet another college football season, somebody needs to tell the presidents of the big money football schools about the cancer growing on "the academy."

There have been earlier diagnoses of this disease.

In 1906, when college football was killing 15 to 20 players a year, and permanently disabling 150 more, the President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, told college presidents he'd outlaw the sport unless they made it safer. Reluctantly, they organized and agreed to require helmets -- ultimately evolving into today's NCAA. Weiler, et al, Sports and the Law, p. 747.

My friend, Robert Maynard Hutchins, was appointed President of the University of Chicago when he was 30 years old. He considered Chicago's football program a distraction from the school's educational mission, pulled out of the Big Ten, and simply abolished the program. ( "Hutchins heaped scorn upon schools which received more press coverage for their sports teams than for their educational programs, and [gained] the trustee support he needed to drop football in 1939.")

Although Hutchins' analysis and solution are even more persuasive now than 75 years ago, few politically perceptive football critics are today advocating the death penalty for football -- nor am I. If parents and players know the health risks, taxpayers know the costs, fans and TV viewers want to invest their time (and money) watching, the libertarian position seems pretty clear. We will continue to have football.

Moreover, there is a win-win cure for this cancer on the academy that would solve current challenges confronting both higher education and big-money college football.

The cancer has metastasized its conflicts of interest for everyone in higher education who touches it. University presidents find it easier to capitulate to athletic directors and coaches than to fight (Penn State). Non-tenured professors have to weigh how flunking a football starter may affect their career. Coaches must give a nod to players' academic performance, but know that their own multi-million-dollar salaries are much more closely tied to their players' on-field performance. When players' become criminal defendants, ideals of players' personal integrity may conflict with a team's ability to win games. Conventional students are excluded from participation, suspect favoritism for team members, and use football as an additional excuse for drunkenness. Players who really would like a substantive college education are forced to choose between lab time and scheduled practices.

As this photo of a Kinnick scoreboard ad reveals, athletic directors are forced to rationalize why it's OK to take advertising and sky box dollars from the alcohol and gambling industries. The IRS struggles with the propriety of granting tax deductions when fans make "contributions" to a big-money football program as a condition of the opportunity to buy better tickets. [Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson.]

Inevitably, the college administrators, who want to put the best possible face on their schools for the benefit of reassuring parents, attracting students, favorably impressing other academics, granting authorities, Regents, legislators, and the public, are left trying to explain away football's controversial externalities. There are the players' criminal records, the football-associated student binge drinking and sexual assaults, the associated reputation as one of the nation's top "party" schools, the fans' trash throughout the stadium's neighborhood, and charges that painting the opponents' locker room pink is unacceptably anti-feminist -- things for which "the university" is not really responsible, but which challenge its administrators and tarnish its reputation anyway; e.g., Kembrew McLeod, "Pink Locker Room Doesn't Even Pass the Giggle Test," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 26, 2014, p. A5. [Photo credit: Des Moines Register, 2006.]

These days, the conflicts, chaos, and controversies are making life more difficult for the big-money football programs as well.

The NCAA still lives in its dreamworld of the 1906 academically accomplished students who played football without helmets just for the fun of it, and the college professors who doubled as their volunteer coaches. This vision becomes increasingly difficult to market now that, as CNN reports, the 68 top teams took in $2.2 billion in 2010. Chris Isidore, "College Football's $1.1 Billion Profit," CNN Money, December 29, 2010. The highest paid public employee in most states is some school's football coach. Student athletes? How many schools pay department heads millions of dollars a year? (For the details by school see ESPN's shocking, revealing, "College Athletics Revenues and Expenses - 2008." As just one example, the Hawkeyes ranked 16th that year by revenue. Of the top 17 schools, 7 gave their students free admission to the games played by their "student-athletes." The Hawkeyes still consider the UI's students as "customers" rather than students and charges them significant ticket prices to attend the games played by "their" school's fellow "students.")

College players want to unionize, to be paid more of their full costs of attending college, and a share of the millions the schools make off of their likenesses and jersey numbers in fantasy football video games and clothing sales. Byron Tau, "NCAA Hires New Lobbyists for Amateurism Fight," Politico, June 13, 2014 ("The NCAA is facing a number of existential legal and legislative threats to its current system of unpaid student-athletes").

"No pain no gain" is football's mantra. Players want compensation for the healthcare costs from football related concussions and other injuries that may last a lifetime -- a minor form of which is portrayed in this photo of an injured Iowa tackle, Brandon Scherff, screaming in pain during Penn State game at Kinnick, October 20, 2012. [Photo credit: John Schultz/Quad City Times, Oct. 21, 2012.]

Conferences are expanding. The once-midwest-centered "Big Ten" schools are now 14, including Penn State, Rutgers, and Maryland -- well to the east of Iowa. The football-wealthiest schools, and their conferences, have just negotiated a withdrawal from some of the NCAA's restrictive regulations.

In short, from a variety of perspectives this is not your great grandfather's college football.

So what's the win-win cancer cure for America's universities and their big-money football programs?

Start by recognizing them for what they are -- profit-making, commercial organizations, serving as farm clubs for the NFL (even if only 1.6% of college players will be NFL draftees), organizations largely disconnected from the research, scholarship, and classroom instruction of their loosely affiliated university. Spin them off, leaving them free from NCAA regulation and the conflicts inherent in their association with higher education. As for-profit corporations they will be less subject to criticism for what their boards of directors agree to pay their coaches -- and players. Remove the requirement that the players pretend to be college students during the football season and associated practice times.

The rest is "administrative detail" -- detail admittedly not insignificant, and possibly even deal-breaking. But detail that is not the central issue. The separate commercial football corporations could continue to lease the facilities (Kinnick Stadium) and name (Hawkeyes) they were using before. (It's unlikely any school would require a football stadium as a venue for a poetry reading.) Players who wanted to get a college education might be given some special consideration as a result of an agreement between the team and the formerly-associated school -- such as, say, a degree program requiring only attendance during spring semesters. But there would be no requirement that they be "college students."

Once the major college football teams are out from under the NCAA's regulations, there should be no problems with the professional leagues' requirements. It is at least already possible in some situations for high school athletes who have not attended college to join a professional team in the NBA, NFL, NHL, or a professional baseball team's farm club.

Could all this be accomplished before the Hawkeyes' opener against University of Northern Iowa this forthcoming Saturday, August 30? Of course not. Maybe it won't even be accomplished during my lifetime (given my age). But it's an idea that needs to be back on the table as a possible win-win solution to a battery of conflicts and other challenges confronting millions of Americans.

When there is a cure for a cancer of any kind -- whether on the presidency of the United States, or the presidencies of major universities -- it does seem a shame not to make use of it.


Prior College Football-Related Blog Essays, 2010-2014

The College Football Industry (impact, economics, crime, future)

"The $100 Million Hawkeyes' Football Team; Hawks: "How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Dollars," Aug. 28, 2010

"Coach Ferentz Provides Classy Variety of Wins; Winning Isn't Everything," Nov. 22, 2010

"Fandom; Super Bowl, Super Mystery," Jan. 30, 2011

"Super Boosters' Super Bowl; Campions' Wins Can Be Taxpayers' Losses; Lessons for Iowa," Feb. 8, 2011

"Crisis Communications 101; There Are Three Steps," Feb. 14, 2011

"Hawkeye Football Players' Criminal Records; We're Number Two! We're Number Two!," March 3, 2011

"Felons as Student Athletes; Felons on the Field; From District Court to Basketball Court; Do Hawkeyes Check Criminal Records Before Awarding Scholarships? March 27, 2011

"College Football Scandals Larger Lessons; Football's Privileged Tip of Abuses by Powerful," Nov. 8, 2011

"Peak Oil, Peak Football; $80,000 for the Seat; $3750/Year to Sit In It," Jan. 21, 2012

"What America Most Highly Values; In 23 of 50 States It's Football Coaches," Aug. 16, 2013

Football's Ties to Alcohol (and see, "Impact of Fans on Stadium Neighborhood," below)

"A Busch in the Hand is Worth . . . Who Knows? They Won't Tell Us," June 16, 2012

"'We're # 2!' . . . in Campus Drunks; Coach: Players Should Drink in Dorms, Not Downtown," Aug. 21, 2012

"UI Administrators 'Shocked' By School's Beer Ads; Who Could Have Guessed?" Aug. 30, 2012

Football's Ties to Gambling

"Does Herky Have a Gambling Problem? NCAA vs. Hawkeyes," Jan. 25, 2012

Impact of Fans on Stadium Neighborhood

"Football Trash Talk; Iowa City: Where Great Minds Drink Alike," Sept. 12, 2012

"Anheuser-Busch, UI & Hawks a Win-Win-Win; Advertising Pays," Sept. 17, 2012

"Clean Streets and Creative Consumption," Sept. 30, 2012

"'GO, HAWKS!' -- Just Not in My Yard; Homecoming's Public Urination," Oct. 5, 2013


Note: On August 27, 2014, the Iowa City Press-Citizen ran excerpts from this blog essay as an op ed column. Its online version is reproduced below; [brackets] identify the text as submitted, and contained in the online version, that was deleted from the hard copy version.

Let's Stop Making Players Pretend to Be Students
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 27, 2014, p. A11

John Dean, President Nixon’s chief White House counsel, famously warned his boss in 1973 that the Watergate burglary was a cancer growing on his presidency.

With the opening of the college football season, somebody needs to warn the presidents of big-money football schools that there’s a cancer growing on their presidency.

There have been earlier diagnoses of disease.

In 1906, when college football was killing 15 to 20 players a year, and permanently disabling 150 more, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt told college presidents he’d outlaw the sport unless they made it safer. Reluctantly, they agreed to require helmets and organized what became today’s NCAA.

University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins considered Chicago’s football team a distraction, scorned colleges that received more publicity from sports than educational programs, and with trustee support simply abolished football in 1939.

Hutchins’ analysis and solution are even more persuasive today. But few politically perceptive football critics advocate the death penalty — nor do I. So long as parents and players know the health risks, taxpayers know the costs, fans know its cost in time and money, and all still want football, we’ll have it.

Moreover, there is a win-win cure for this cancer that would solve current challenges confronting both higher education and big-money college football.

The cancer has metastasized its conflicts of interest for everyone in higher education. University presidents find it easier to capitulate to coaches than fight (Penn State). Athletic directors must rationalize taking advertising and skybox dollars from the alcohol and gambling industries. [Coaches must encourage players’ academic performance, while their multi-million-dollar salaries turn on players’ on-field performance. Non-tenured professors fear flunking players.] Players who do seek a college education must choose between lab time and scheduled practice.

Nor is the current system loved by the big-money football programs.

The NCAA lives in a 1906 dream world peopled with academically accomplished students playing football without helmets just for fun, and the college professors who doubled as their volunteer coaches. This vision is an increasingly tough sell when the highest paid public employees in most states are football coaches, and their college football industry grosses billions of dollars a year.

College players want to unionize, to be paid the full costs of attending college, and a share of the millions schools make from their likenesses in video games. They want reimbursement for the healthcare costs of football-related concussions and other injuries that may last a lifetime.

[Conferences are expanding. The once-midwest-centered Big “Ten” schools are now 14, including Penn State, Rutgers, and Maryland -- well to the east of Iowa. The football-wealthiest schools, and their conferences, have just negotiated a withdrawal from some of the NCAA’s restrictive regulations.]

[In short, this is not your great grandfather’s college football.]

What’s the win-win cancer cure?

Recognize the big-money college football programs for what they are — profit-making, commercial entertainment organizations, serving as farm clubs for the NFL (even if only 1.6 percent of college players will be NFL draftees), substantially disconnected from the research, scholarship, and classroom instruction of their schools.

Free them from NCAA regulations and their inherent conflicts. Remove the requirement players must pretend to be college students.

The rest is administrative detail. Most professional leagues already have provisions for players who’ve not attended college. Perhaps the football corporations could lease their former facilities (Kinnick Stadium) and name (Hawkeyes). Players who want an education might have a degree program permitting spring-semester-only enrollment.

When there is a win-win cure for a cancer of any kind, it’s a shame to refuse even to talk about it.

Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner and sports law professor, provides more on this and other subjects at

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