Sunday, December 24, 2017

Taxes Are Last Step Not First

[This blog post contains both a Gazette column, immediately below, a variation that appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, the earlier blog post from which both were drawn [Introduction; Follow the Money; Where to Begin], and a sample of two of the comments they produced.]

Decisions Must Come Before Taxes

Nicholas Johnson

The Gazette, January 3, 2018, p. A5
[link to location on Gazette Web site.]

The worst thing about tax cut discussions is the “Oh, look at the squirrel” distraction from what we should be talking about.

Example? Cutting Iowa employers’ taxes can’t create more jobs when employers say their real problem is a shortage of skilled workers.

If a skilled workforce is needed, it’s time to increase, not slash, funding for the state’s universities and community colleges that create those workers.

What is your vision for America?

Some believe we are a nation of 320 million rugged individualists, where everyone is obliged to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps — even those without boots. As Grover Norquist revealed, “My goal is to get government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Others believe those benefiting from a community are morally obliged to care for everyone in the human family. Some cite Jesus’ urging us to provide food, drink, clothing, health care, and prison visits for “the least of these.”

Until we decide whether we want an America of rugged individualism or humanitarianism, little agreement on public policy can follow.

This newspaper is full of reporting and opinion about our plethora of policy challenges — affordable housing, education, environment, flood control, health care, homelessness, hunger, jobs, net neutrality, refugees, transportation, water quality. The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas project explores some answers.

Lynda Waddington recently described Philip Alston’s U.N. report on U.S. poverty and human rights. Read his comparative rankings for U.S. infant mortality (highest), water and sanitation (36th in the world), incarceration rate (highest), youth poverty (highest), poverty and inequality (35th of 37). [Philip Alston, "Statement on Visit to the USA on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights," United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner Human Rights, December 15, 2017.]

We built this America. Is it the nation and state you want? No? Then fix it. How do we do that? In order:

1. Don’t start with tax talk.

2. Decide whether we’re rugged individualists or humanitarians.

3. Provide enforcement of metrics for the values and society we want — for ourselves and “the least of these” — not just aspirations.

4. Develop public policies that can reach those goals.

5. Calculate their costs.

6. Explore ways of accomplishing goals through education and training, philanthropy and volunteerism, churches and trade unions, corporate policies and cost avoidance, other innovative approaches.

7. Propose a tax code, consistent with community values, sufficient to provide the remaining, necessary public funding. And remember:
• No tax cuts until there are surpluses and declining debt.

• When corporations and the wealthy have trillions of dollars they don’t use, don’t hand them more.

• Consumer spending drives 70 percent of the economy. If stimulus is needed, give the money to the bottom 80 percent who will spend it.
8. Vote.

Philip Alston reports that only 64 percent of Americans bother to register, and many of them don’t vote. In Canada and the U.K., 91 percent register, 96 percent in Sweden, nearly 99 percent in Japan.

Could that possibly be a part of our problem?
• Nicholas Johnson is a former law professor and commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission. Comments:


Taxes Are Last Step, Not the First, to Making U.S. Great

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 27, 2018, p. A6

The worst thing about tax cut discussions is the “Oh, look at the squirrel” distraction from what we should be talking about.

Example? Cutting Iowa employers’ taxes can’t create more jobs when employers say their real problem is a shortage of skilled workers.

If a skilled workforce is needed, it’s time to increase, not slash, funding for the state’s universities and community colleges that create those workers.

What is your vision for America?

Some believe we are a nation of 320 million rugged individualists, where everyone is obliged to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps — even those without boots. As Grover Norquist revealed, “My goal is to get government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Others believe those benefiting from a community are morally obliged to care for everyone in the human family. Some cite Jesus’ urging us to provide food, drink, clothing, health care, and prison visits for “the least of these.”

Until we decide whether we want an America of rugged individualism or humanitarianism, little agreement on public policy can follow.

There’s no shortage of policy challenges, such as affordable housing, education, environment, health care, hunger, jobs, net neutrality, refugees, transportation and water quality.

Last month, Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, reported America’s standing among nations: infant mortality (we’re highest), water and sanitation (36th in the world), incarceration rate (highest), poverty and inequality (35th of 37). (Read more:

We built this America. Are the present policies of America, Iowa, and Iowa City what you want? No? Then fix it. How do we do that? In order:

1. Don’t start with tax talk.

2. Decide whether we’re rugged individualists or humanitarians.

3. Provide enforcement of metrics for the values and society we want — for ourselves and “the least of these” — not just aspirations.

4. Develop public policies that can reach those goals.

5. Calculate their costs.

6. Explore ways of accomplishing goals through education and training, philanthropy and volunteerism, churches and trade unions, corporate policies and cost avoidance, other innovative approaches.

7. Propose a tax code, consistent with community values, sufficient to provide the remaining, necessary public funding. And remember:
• No tax cuts until there are surpluses and declining debt.

• When corporations and the wealthy have trillions of dollars they don’t use, don’t hand them more.

• Consumer spending drives 70 percent of the economy. If stimulus is needed, give the money to the bottom 80 percent who will spend it.

8. Vote.

Alston reports that only 64 percent of Americans bother to register, and many of them don’t vote. In Canada and the U.K., 91 percent register, 96 percent in Sweden, nearly 99 percent in Japan.

Could that possibly be a part of our problem?

Nicholas Johnson is a former law professor and commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission.

# # #

Original Blog Post

Why Would You Want to Do That?

Introduction. It's not easy losing weight, and I wanted to share my accomplishment with my doctor.

"Got my weight down to 215 pounds," I proudly said, "and my new goal is 210" -- before I realized what would surely come next. It did.

"Why would you want to do that?" he asked. It was not the first time during the previous near-forty years he'd uttered those words.

If medical treatment was essential he'd provide it. Otherwise, if he thought a patient had a touch of anxiety about their health, he believed some exercise and a sense of calm and well being were often as good as, and always cheaper than, any pills he could prescribe.

He appeared puzzled. "Don't you experience the joy of eating?" he continued. "Why deprive yourself of that pleasure?"

"I just thought it might be better for my health," I mumbled. Whereupon he brought out the morbidity and mortality data to reassure me that the additional five pounds would provide no statistically significant difference in my health or longevity.

Follow the Money. I thought again of his words when reading about the Republicans' plan to put $1.5 trillion on a credit card and then hand over the cash to billionaires. "Why would you want to do that?"

The top 1% of Americans own 40% of the country's wealth -- more than the total owned by the bottom 90% combined, more than anytime in the last 50 years. Worldwide, the total wealth of 62 families exceeds that of 3.4 billion people. [Christopher Ingraham, "The Richest 1 Percent Now Owns More of the Country's Wealth Than at Any Time in the Past 50 Years," The Washington Post, December 6, 2017.] [Photo credit: Kalynn Hines, "Why Are All American Houses Like Mansions?" Quora.]

It's hard to get a precise number on the dollar value of the wealth of individuals in the 1%. It depends on which economist you ask, what is and isn't counted, means vs. medians, and what year you use. But here are some (approximate) numbers from 2007 (obviously there have been substantial increases during the last 10 years of a soaring stock market).
Top 1% -- $14,000,000
Top 5% -- $1,250,000
Middle Fifth -- $110,000
Bottom Fifth -- -$14,000 (debt)
Joshua Kennon, "How Much Money Does It Take to be In the Top 1% of Wealth and Net Worth in the United States," Thoughts on Business, Politics, and Life, Table 3, November 14, 2011.

Even more significant is the near-two-trillion dollars of cash (and cash equivalents) held by American corporations (one-third of it by the top 5; 72% held overseas). [Matt Krantz, "A Third of Cash is Held by 5 U.S. Companies," USA Today, May 22, 2016.]

"OK, so what's your point?" you ask.

Ultimately, I want to address why a discussion of taxes is not the right place to begin. But since that's where the nation's dialog is at the moment, let's deal with it.

1. There's a "National Debt Clock" that increases by the second. On December 23, 2017, at 7:30 p.m. CT, the national debt was $20.6 trillion and growing. If massive tax cuts might sometime be appropriate, this is not that time.

2. If there ever were to be rational tax cuts they should come after the national debt is significantly reduced, and from balanced budget surpluses. Putting the cost of tax cuts on a credit card makes no more sense that paying for wars of choice with debt.

3. Why mention individuals' wealth and corporations' cash reserves? Because when there are trillions in cash sitting on the sidelines and bank loan rates are relatively low, there is no compelling rationale for handing out more cash to those who already have access to more than they can use.

4. Using the funds to improve the environment and the lives of those at the bottom of the wealth pyramid would not only create more human happiness per dollar, but would also more effectively boost an economy 70% dependent upon consumer spending. The wealthy already have most of what they need or want, and tend to invest, rather than spend, any excess income. [Photo credit: unknown; file photo.]

5. If the idea of helping the bottom 50% is not appealing, the money could at least better be used to carry out President Trump's expressed support for massive, essential, overdue, infrastructure projects.

In short, "Why would you want to do that?" It doesn't make economic sense.

But economics -- more specifically taxes -- is not where this conversation should begin.

Where To Begin? Imagine this breakfast table conversation:
"What are your plans for the day?"

"Oh, I thought I'd go down to the bank and borrow some money."

"How much?"

"Maybe $10,000, maybe $25,000. I don't know."

"Tell me now, why would you want to borrow that much money?"

"I don't know. I was just thinking I'd like to have more money."

"But you wouldn't have more money. After paying off the loan and interest you'd have less money. What are you going to do with the money anyway?"

"Just have it. I haven't really thought about what I'd actually do with the money."
That's one unlikely breakfast conversation. This one is more likely:
"We have to fix that big hole in the roof. How are we going to pay for it?

Insurance should cover most of it. And what better use for our "rainy day fund"? "Rainy day fund," get it?

Yeah, I get it. It's just that right now I don't find it funny. What if we need more?

Once we find out how much it's going to be, if we don't have enough I can always go down to the bank for a loan.
Where do you start? You start with your desire for a warm, dry house, and the ongoing maintenance to keep it that way. Then you address how you're going to pay for it.

That's how it ought to be with all governmental budgets -- city, county, state, and our federal budget. You don't ignore economic growth, the need for revenue, and tax policy. It's just that you don't start there.

You start with the most fundamental question. From your answer to that one the answers to the others will more easily flow.

Do you believe you have an obligation -- or if not, at least a desire and willingness -- to create an America that is a large, caring community in which no one is invisible? Or, do you find more appealing a country of individuals, with everyone on their own, where "greed is good," pollution is acceptable as long as it's profitable, and everyone must "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" -- regardless of whether or not they have boots -- until they, like you, can say, "I've got mine, Jack"?

If we're not just talking about professions of belief on Sunday, but the supporting evidence of action throughout the week, there is a discouraging quantity of evidence that a substantial number of Americans, and their elected representatives, are somewhere between a willingness to accept, and an enthusiasm for, the second choice.

So, let's pause for a moment to examine where America may have holes in its roof -- and its safety net.

I am indebted to The Gazette's Lynda Waddington for bringing to my attention Philip Alston, "Statement on Visit to the USA on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights," United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner Human Rights, December 15, 2017. (Mr. Alston is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.) Lynda Waddington, "American Poverty is On Display," The Gazette, December 23, 2017, p. A5 (not yet available online).

When Philip Alston crawled up there on America's roof to take a look, here are some of the things he found.
In talking with people in the different states and territories I was frequently asked how the US compares with other states. While such comparisons are not always perfect, a cross-section of statistical comparisons provides a relatively clear picture of the contrast between the wealth, innovative capacity, and work ethic of the US, and the social and other outcomes that have been attained.
  • By most indicators, the US is one of the world’s wealthiest countries.
  • It spends more on national defense than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined.
  • US health care expenditures per capita are double the OECD average and much higher than in all other countries. But there are many fewer doctors and hospital beds per person than the OECD average.
  • US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world.
  • Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy, and the “health gap” between the U.S. and its peer countries continues to grow.
  • U.S. inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries.
  • Neglected tropical diseases, including Zika, are increasingly common in the USA. It has been estimated that 12 million Americans live with a neglected parasitic infection. A 2017 report documents the prevalence of hookworm in Lowndes County, Alabama.
  • The US has the highest prevalence of obesity in the developed world.
  • In terms of access to water and sanitation the US ranks 36th in the world.
  • America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of Turkmenistan, El Salvador, Cuba, Thailand and the Russian Federation. Its rate is nearly 5 times the OECD average.
  • The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the OECD with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to less than 14% across the OECD.
  • The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality ranks the most well-off countries in terms of labor markets, poverty, safety net, wealth inequality, and economic mobility. The US comes in last of the top 10 most well-off countries, and 18th amongst the top 21.
  • In the OECD the US ranks 35th out of 37 in terms of poverty and inequality.
  • According to the World Income Inequality Database, the US has the highest Gini rate (measuring inequality) of all Western Countries.
  • The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality characterizes the US as “a clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league.” US child poverty rates are the highest amongst the six richest countries – Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Norway.
  • About 55.7% of the U.S. voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. In the OECD, the U.S. placed 28th in voter turnout, compared with an OECD average of 75%. Registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the U.S. than just about any other OECD country. Only about 64% of the U.S. voting-age population (and 70% of voting-age citizens) was registered in 2016, compared with 91% in Canada (2015) and the UK (2016), 96% in Sweden (2014), and nearly 99% in Japan (2014).
Is that really the country you want? Or is it just kind of what happened while we were watching the Superbowl game, neither voting nor otherwise paying attention?

That's where we need to begin. What kind of country do we want? Is it inevitable, or at least OK, that we are accelerating climate change, that some people are just going to have to sleep on the streets, go without healthcare, lack adequate nutrition, education, job training, and the dignity that comes from at least some kind of regular work?

There is no secret sauce. It's clear what we could do, and how to do it. Other countries have offered us examples of how to create a caring nation -- one in which everyone has healthcare and meaningful work to do, one in which free public education extends beyond the 12th grade, one in which there's always someone to care for those without family or friends. Indeed, we accomplished some of these things ourselves coming out from under the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Until we candidly confront the kind of country we have become, decide we want a change, and fashion the programs that can bring it about, we can't begin to address how much it will cost, the best ways to pay for it -- and how to restructure our tax system.

# # #


Note: These columns and blog post generated much positive comment. With the permission of the authors, I reproduce here two emails that are illustrative of the others. Most merely addressed the proposed process and thought it a good idea. The author of the second comment, below, assumed hypothetically that the proposed process was in place and set forth some of the values and approaches he would bring to the table.

Dear Mr. Johnson,

I am an old man soon to be 79. was the Mayor of my small town for 8 years. HEAR-HEAR for your logical thoughts.

I wish the common sense you express was a very contagious viral disease and you could haunt the halls of all our elected bodies, state and federal, and infect all our law makers.

I am contacting my reps and telling to read and heed your thoughts.

Please continue your efforts to instill common sense in the electorate.

-- James Raymond


Read your piece in the Gazette today.

There are 6 million open jobs in America looking for qualified applicants.

The immigration systems both legal and illegal are bringing in people who do not have the skills or ducation to fill those jobs. So I assume you oppose the current immigration systems. Many people say we need immigration but then why are so many jobs unfilled with millions of illegal immigrants here?

Let's fix it:

- Revise the immigration system to be merit based. Limit chain migration and lottery systems that support unskilled entrants. Fund the wall and improve border security. Address VISA's for foreign students who want to stay, they are skilled people. I'm OK with DACA given these limitations.

- Approve a national voucher system so parents can chose where their funding goes for their children's education. Eliminate the US Dept. of Education and start over.

- Slash university funding. Focus resources on the kinds of skills and education the economy needs and minimize producing people with degrees who cannot find a job that matches those degrees. The current situation creates financial individual burdens and wastes valuable resources on inefficient programs.

- Create more programs to encourage trade schools to fill the jobs required to support the economy. Connect the funding to actual economic needs.

- Approve a federal budget amendment to limit federal debt. There is no net benefit to keep pushing ourselves toward the brink of financial > ruin.

- Impose a border tax so that countries that limit trade with the US are limited in access to our economy. Develop trade policies that support American jobs not American wealth.

- Reform Social Security and Medicare. Eliminate people who have not supported funding the system (see immigration). Increase the expense for those that can afford to pay a larger percentage of the cost of service.

- Make sure that the bottom 80% have skin in the game. Handing out free money is a fool’s errand. Instead of minimizing the number of people in poverty government policy has actually grown the percentage of the population on government assistance. The Great Society has been a colossal failure. Refer to 6 million job openings.

I vote every election. I vote against every Democrat because their party has moved so far to the left as to be unrecognizable as American citizens. Obama and Hillary Clinton are being proven to be crooks worse than the Watergate affair. At least the Republicans had the guts to tell Nixon to leave.

In conclusion the level of taxation is well above what is reasonable in a free society. I understand your point about deciding who you want to be before setting a level of funding. We simply disagree with so much of the current funding it seems reasonable to try and starve the beast, or as Grover put it "drown it in a bath tub". I would point out that the usual zero-sum arguments made by progressives receive on distain from me. There is always middle ground. I think you proposed that but I'm not really sure.

-- Gary Ellis


Sunday, December 03, 2017

Defending Democracy

Defending Democracy
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, December 3, 2017, p. C4
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
‘Til it’s gone

— Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”
There are many divisive issues these days: climate change, renewable fuels, perpetual war, health care, tax reform, higher education, trade policy. The list seems endless.

However, most agree on preserving democracy’s fundamental pillars: free speech, public education, voting rights, and an independent judiciary.

Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison offered us insights.

Media. Jefferson wrote, ““were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Media are one of the few industries expressly protected by the Constitution (First Amendment). They were to serve all the people, creating a “marketplace of ideas,” a check on abuses by the powerful, from which “truth” would emerge. There would be no central control of media by either government or big business.

Americans’ 19th Century “Internet,” its “social media,” was transportation -– rivers, roads, a trans-continental railroad, and pony express. Our “e-mail” was their postal mail. Low postal rates encouraged the distribution of books, magazines and newspapers.

For the FCC to repeal Net Neutrality, ownership limits, or the Fairness Doctrine, or politicians to say media are “the enemy of the American people,” chops away at democracy’s pillars. (Now 46% of voters believe media make up anti-Trump stories.)

Free public education and libraries. Jefferson continued, “But I should mean that every [person] should receive those [newspapers] and be capable of reading them.” In his epitaph, he chose to be remembered as “Father of the University of Virginia” –- omitting any reference to his presidency.

Madison agreed: “a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Free public schools would enable citizens to inform themselves. Free public libraries would provide every American access to the information resources of kings.

When legislatures don’t fully fund public universities, adding to the trillion-dollar debt of graduates, they are undercutting democracy’s pillar of “free public education.” This not only hampers America’s ability to compete with the nations that do provide tuition-free college, it also strikes a blow against democracy.

Voting rights. Over time, the opportunity to vote – a democracy fundamental -- was expanded from white, male, landowners over 21 to everyone over 18.

State legislatures that pass laws making it more difficult, rather than easier, for all to vote, or that draw district lines enabling a minority of voters to elect a majority of their representatives, are attacking a democracy fundamental.

Independent judiciary. The founders created a respected, independent branch of government, the judiciary, as a constitutional check on Congress and the executive branch. Federal judges’ independence was protected by their lifetime appointments. Justice would be delivered under a “rule of law” rather than a law of rulers.

To disparage the judiciary, charging bias, or lack of competence, to appoint those unqualified, weakens a democracy’s last, best protection of our civil rights.

We can probably survive most wrongheaded public policies. What our democracy can’t survive are attacks on its fundamental pillars. Let’s defend what we’ve got before it’s gone.
Nicholas Johnson is a former FCC commissioner who maintains Contact:

# # #

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Lipstick on TIFs

City is Putting Lipstick on TIFs
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 2, 2017, p. A6

The City Council is putting lipstick on its TIFs [see, "Andy Davis, "Iowa City Seeks Public Input as it Begins Discussion of Revised TIF Policies," November 18, 2017]. Like new headlights on a rusted-out clunker, it’s an improvement, but no reason to buy the car.
[Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson]

There are overwhelming reasons for not putting public money into private, for-profit projects [see, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "Tussling Over TIFs: Pros and Cons," April 13, 2014, and Nicholas Johnson,"TIFs: Links to Blog Essays," March 16, 2014].

How else can the Council create public benefit? City ownership – like libraries, parks and schools. By applying zoning and building code requirements, or new ordinances, to private projects.

Iowa City is an economic and cultural magnet. We don’t have to bribe new arrivals.

Ah, the argument goes, if we don’t play this dirty little game some other city, or state, will get the business. (They may; it might also come here without TIFs.)

But what if, as the computer concluded in the movie War Games, "the only winning move is not to play"? Why do we want more growth and sprawl? What are TIFs’ costs as well as benefits?

In 1910 Houston was roughly Iowa City’s size today: 79,000. By 2010 it was 2,100,000. How have Houstonians’ quality of life improved from two million more people? Would we be happier with two million more neighbors?

That should be the first question.
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City

# # #

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Media's Role and Future

"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."

-- Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington," January 16, 1787, Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 11:48-49 (emphasis supplied).

In an effort to save costs, some media owners are giving us the choice between -- to borrow from Thomas Jefferson -- newspapers without reporters, or reporters without newspapers, while in the process creating both.

-- Nicholas Johnson

Democracy's Media
Newspapers' Decline
Newspapers' Challenges
Government Without Newspapers

Note: There are some discrepancies in the cited statistics, below, owing to different sources, dates, and methods of calculation, although they generally support comparable conclusions. Readers disturbed by this are invited to do their own research, and report their findings to the author.

Democracy's Media. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that if put to the choice he would choose "newspapers without a government," he was writing about the essential pillars of a democracy -- of which citizens' opinions, informed by the media, was one. [Photo source: Wikimedia; statue in Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C.]

Note that the quote, above, continues that everyone "should receive those papers and be capable of reading them." That sentence covers three more of democracy's pillars: (1) a postal system with reduced rates for books, magazines and newspapers; (2) free public libraries; and (3) free public education -- to which he would later add the First Amendment's protections for "freedom of speech, or of the press."
As evidence of Jefferson's inclusion of education as one of democracy's pillars, he limited his gravestone's inscription to "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, & Father of the University of Virginia." ["Jefferson's Gravestone," Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation.] In other words, he put more importance on his creation of a university than his having served as president.

Given the fundamental role of a free and independent media in our democracy, President Trump's deliberate efforts to diminish the public's respect for, use of, and dependence upon the media stand in stark and worrisome contrast to President Jefferson's design for our democracy. Here are some excerpts from Trump's comments about the media (he refers to as "they") on August 22, 2017:
30. "And yes, by the way -- and yes, by the way, they are trying to take away our history and our heritage. You see that."
31. "I really think they don't like our country. I really believe that."
32. "Look back there, the live red lights. They're turning those suckers off fast out there. They're turning those lights off fast." [narrator voice]: They weren't.
33. "CNN does not want its falling viewership to watch what I'm saying tonight, I can tell you."
34. "If I don't have social media, I probably would not be standing."
Chris Cillizza, "Donald Trump's 57 Most Outrageous Quotes From His Arizona Speech," CNN, August 23, 2017.
In a democracy dependent upon citizens' trust in the independence of the media, President Trump has kept up a drumbeat of attacks on the media's integrity and accuracy. On February 17, 2017, Trump even went so far as to tweet that the media "is the enemy of the American people." Michael M. Grynbaum, "Trump Calls the News Media the 'Enemy of the American People,'" New York Times, February 18, 2017, p. A15 (the full text of the tweet read: "The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. SICK!" February 17, 2017, 4:32 p.m.).

Although "a correlation is not a cause," it would not be unreasonable to suspect that President Trump's attacks on the media are having some impact. A Politico/Morning Consult poll in October 2017 found that, "More than three-quarters of Republican voters, 76 percent, think the news media invent stories about Trump and his administration . . .. Among Democrats, one-in-five think the media make up stories . . .. Forty-four percent of independent voters think the media make up stories about Trump . . .." Steven Shepard, "Poll: 46 percent think media make up stories about Trump," Politico, October 18, 2017.

Newspapers' Decline. Trying to define "when newspapers began," or to identify "the first newspaper" is impossible without an agreed upon definition of "newspaper." Written forms of shared "news" probably go back to cave paintings and personal communications.
For an excellent essay on "The History of Newspapers," see the encyclopedia entry, Mitchell Stephens, "History of Newspapers" (undated), with illustrative examples: "'Public Occurrences, Both FORREIGN and DOMESTICK' was printed in Boston on September 25, 1690. . . . 'The Boston News-Letter,' which first appeared in print in 1704, survived for 72 years. . . . There were about 200 newspapers in the United States when Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801."
Whenever "newspapers" may have begun, they've demonstrated a great capacity for survival, and are "still here" -- at least for now. [See, Stephen Sondheim, "I'm Still Here"]

But the stark fact is that, today, newspapers' circulation and advertising revenues have declined by roughly 50 percent (revenue from $60 to $30 billion, since 2004; weekly circulation from 50 to 20 million, since 1990). [Michael Barthel, "Despite Subscription Surges for Largest U.S. Newspapers, Circulation and Revenue Fall for Industry Overall," Pew Research Center, June 1, 2017.]

The industry's response has included largely unsuccessful efforts to increase cash flow, and devastating efforts to cut costs. Because reporters are more than just a "cost," cuts in their numbers produce a significant reduction in the quantity and quality of the unique, democracy-sustaining product they create. As a result, in an effort to save costs, some media owners are giving us the choice between -- to borrow from Thomas Jefferson -- newspapers without reporters, or reporters without newspapers, while in the process creating both.

From a citizen's perspective, it is local news that's taken the hardest hit. Although the total quantity of all reporting is down, there remain online (and sometimes delivery of hard copy) alternative sources of national news (e.g., The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal), international news (e.g., Le Monde, The Guardian, The Asahi Shimbun) -- and sometimes state news (e.g., in Iowa, The Des Moines Register). But when local papers (often monopolies) go out of business, or make deep cuts in staff, there are often few, if any, adequate alternative sources of local news.
Recently, one community's chain-owned, once-robust local paper -- that now offers its subscribers only a slim, six-page main section, with an opinion page only Wednesdays and Saturdays -- published an issue that contained no stories written by local reporters. (All copy was reprinted from USA Today, the Associated Press, and another of the chain's papers.)

By contrast, another local paper, The Gazette, which is locally owned, has a stable of local reporters who produce a constant flow of serious stories of local significance -- though possibly with fewer reporters than in years past. It has dropped its Associated Press subscription and substituted sources such as Bloomberg News, Los Angeles Times, McClatchy Washington Bureau, Miami Herald, Reuters, Tribune News Service (and Tribune Washington Bureau), Washington Post, as well as Iowa papers Burlington Hawkeye, Des Moines Register, Quad-City Times, or Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

Because, today, one has access to online versions of most of the world's newspapers, television and radio stations, podcasts, blogs, and more, this is not the service it might once have been. I carry on my iPhone access to Al Jazeera, Associated Press, Bloomberg, CBS Sports, Des Moines Register, Deutsche Welle (German), Gazette, Guardian (London), Iowa Public Radio, Le Monde (Paris), New York Times, PBS News Hour, Reuters, Rudaw (Kurdistan), Shanghai Daily (China), South China Morning Post (China), Sputnik (Russia), Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.

As a result, I don't need the Gazette to bring me news from those publications. On the other hand, I can't read each of these news sources thoroughly every day. So what the Gazette's selection of stories does provide, that my apps do not, is the added benefit of professional selection from national and global sources of stories the Gazette editor believes are the most significant for Iowa readers.
Of course, there are exceptions. Many of those working within the finance sector, or large corporations, understandably believe they simply must subscribe to a paper such as The Wall Street Journal or The Financial Times (London). Others may feel a professional need to subscribe to The New York Times or other papers -- especially if, as is often the case, the expense can be considered a "business expense."
The Times' circulation revenue continues to hover around $1 billion a year (from 2006 to 2016, starting in 2006 at $889.72 million, a high of $936.49 million in 2009, to a 2012 low of $795.04 million, followed by a steady climb to $880.54 million). "New York Times Company's Circulation Revenue from 2006 to 2016 (in million U.S. dollars)," Statista, 2017. Its current circulation of the hard copy editions is 571,500 (daily; November 2016) and 1,087,500 (Sunday; May 2016). Its rapidly increasing digital-only subscriptions are now twice the Sunday hard copy numbers, at 2.2 million (May 2017). The New York Times, (By way of comparison, 25 years ago "The New York Times had a circulation of 1.2 million daily and 1.8 million Sunday in 1993 . . .." Mitchell Stephens, "History of Newspapers" (undated).
Newspapers' Challenges. Equally as serious as the President's continuous assaults on our democracy's independent media are the hurricane-like consequences from strong and shifting winds of cultural, technological and economic change during the past decade.

The newspapers' challenges from technology are nothing new.

The telegraph, ultimately recognized as an aid to journalism, was initially seen by publishers as a threat.
"At first, most newspaper owners failed to see the advantage of this disruptive technology; they were actually threatened by it. After all, why would you even need a newspaper when the news could travel between telegraph operators?" Ron Miller, "The Telegraph, Newspapers, and 19th-Century Disruption," EContent Magazine, May 8, 2012.
The radio, and then television with its pictures, provided an instantaneous form of delivery that printing presses, trucks, and delivery persons couldn't match.

Bad enough with three dominant TV networks through the 1950s, the arrival of "cable television," with its 500 channels, caused even the networks to lose nearly half of their audience share. And today, in addition to the 24-hour news channels, the telegraph's grandchild -- the ubiquitous, instantaneous Internet -- has become the competitor the telegraph operators failed to create, providing links to billions of sites, including most of the world's newspapers, television and radio stations, podcasts, and YouTube videos.

But what may be newspapers' greatest challenge today is the ferocious fight over a slice of every individual's 168 hours a week. We have other things we want and need to do besides reading a newspaper. Every hour at work or asleep, every game of golf or fishing trip, running errands or running for health, doing dishes or helping kids with homework, watching television or listening to music, looking at iPad and iPhone screens, is time we're not reading newspapers.

And however many hours we do devote to the electronic form of the intellectual, educational, informational, artistic and entertainment portion of our lives is divided among an ever more varied and available range of sources -- Netflix and YouTube, audio books and podcasts, Facebook and Twitter.

It's bad enough that we can predict what stories will air on the evening TV news -- never mind the next day's newspaper -- but the multiple sources of news throughout the day are taking time previous generations spent with a morning newspaper and cup of coffee.

And all of this competition presumes that people are actually looking for serious discussions of important events and public policy issues. Some are -- but not many. [Mitchell Stephens, "History of Newspapers" (undated) ("In 1940, there was one newspaper circulated in the United States for every two adults, by 1990 one newspaper circulated for every three adults. According to surveys, the share of the adult population that 'read a newspaper yesterday' has declined from 85 percent in 1946 to 73 percent in 1965 to 55 percent in 1985. . . . The United States had 267 fewer newspapers in 1990 than it had in 1940.")]

The Cision U.S. newspapers' circulation list shows the following as the top seven U.S. newspapers (as of 2016) with their circulation: USA Today (2,301,917), The New York Times (2,101,611), The Wall Street Journal (1,337,376), Los Angeles Times (467,309), New York Post (424,721), Chicago Tribune (384,962), and The Washington Post (356,768). "Top 10 US Daily Newspapers," Cision, June 18, 2014, updated May 11, 2016.

Thus, given a U.S. population of 325 million, it would appear that most individual newspapers are informing far fewer than one percent of our citizenry -- an information inequality that rivals our inequalities of wealth and education. Consider the circulation of all U.S. newspapers combined in 2016 (34,657,199) and it's still about 10 percent. ["Newspapers Fact Sheet," Pew Research Center, June 1, 2017.]

Compare that news with what's happening in India:
India now has the world’s largest number of paid newspapers, and the number continues to grow, from 5,767 in 2013 to 7,871 in 2015. Over those same two years, 50 newspapers ceased publication in the US, which has less than a quarter of India’s print papers. . . . [O]ver the last decade, newspaper circulation has grown significantly in India, from 39.1 million copies in 2006 to 62.8 million in 2016 -– a 60% increase, for which there is no parallel in the world. . . . [W]while newspaper circulation grew by 12% in India, it fell in almost every other major media market: by 12% in the UK, 7% in the US, and 3% in Germany and France.
Shashi Tharoor, "There's One Country in the World Where the Newspaper Industry is Still Thriving," World Economic Forum, May 24, 2017.

Government Without Newspapers. President Jefferson said he would prefer newspapers without government to a government without newspapers. Notwithstanding his preference, we seem to be heading toward a government without newspapers.

Most countries' authoritarian leaders seek to control the media -- by disparaging their journalists and owners, or closing down papers and TV stations that fail to propagandize on the leader's behalf, or taking ownership and control, making all sources of information and opinion a form of state media. We've seen the beginnings of this in the United States, with the President's attacks on the "fake news" and the FCC's willingness to let a prominent right wing television company acquire enough stations to reach over 70% of all American homes.

But responsibility falls on the citizens of a democracy as well. If we are to be in fact as well as in theory a democratic nation of informed citizens actively engaged in self-governing, more of us need to subscribe to and otherwise support our local newspapers -- and read more than the sports pages, comics, crossword puzzle, and obituaries. More of us need to watch the PBS NewsHour and turn off the commercial networks' "junk news" (as distinguished from "fake news"); see, "Two Nights with 'World News Tonight,'" in "Three Legged Calves, Wolves, Sheep and Democracy's Media," December 1, 2014. More of us need to take an occasional break from the silo, echo chambers that reinforce our predispositions More of those of us who are retired, or otherwise have some free time, need to pick a government body (e.g., city council, school board, county board of supervisors, state legislative committee), track its work, and "report" on it in letters to the editor, op ed columns, blogs, and other social media.

There is much more to think and write about, such as: What are "the media's" alternative futures thirty years from now? What can be done to minimize presidential disparagement of a democracy's independent media? What might K-12 and college educators do to improve citizens' media literacy and "civics" education generally? What are the most effective business plans for sustaining commercial media? What potential is there for "citizen journalism"? How might the FCC be reformed to encourage the use of its "public interest" powers to restrain corporate control of an ever-increasing number of outlets, or a content-neutral Fairness Doctrine approach to content diversity? But this is more than enough for one blog post.

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Random Additional Thoughts

(1) What's the question? A question, to be an answerable question, needs to suggest the process, or data, one would need in order to find the answer. As such, research is more about drafting questions than finding answers.

(2) Elements and ultimate goals. Is the ultimate goal to "save newspapers" -- the hard copy paper one reads with morning coffee? It is for some, and is a perfectly sensible goal. But how does the pursuit for answers change if the goal is expressed as maintaining the existence, quantity, quality, and social/political role of journalists and the journalism they produce? In short, a focus on the content and function of what's now produced by journalists, and distributed by newspapers. That distribution could be (and some is) in the form of online services, aggregators, journalists' blogs and Web pages, books and magazines, or distribution orally on television, radio, podcasts, YouTube videos, or even presentations in schools, churches, community town halls, and public lecturers on national tour.

(3) Product and audience. If by "journalism" we mean what's found in newspapers we include the sports section, comics, crossword puzzles, obituaries, and classified ads. If, on the other hand, we are really seeking that portion of journalism relevant to a functioning democracy, it's the slice of a paper's content that involves government, politics, public policy and projects, and reports of the communitarian forces that make for a fully functioning "community."

How many Americans are reading those news stories, columns, and letters to the editor? For starters, 43% of Americans "read" at a basic, or below basic, level (2003). It's unlikely many in that group are subscribers. In fact, well less than half of all Americans, or American homes (by some counts as few as 10%) subscribe to a hard copy or online newspaper. Local news is what's most threatened. But even among our major national papers -- New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post -- none can claim a readership of even one percent of all Americans. How many of those who do see a paper devote more than 5 or 10 minutes to it daily? Of those, how many read the government/politics/policy-related stories, editorials and columns? Of those, how many use that information in their public activism in their community?

(4) Prerequisites. Basic evidence of civic engagement is voting. Roughly 20% of the Americans eligible to register don't. Of those who could vote, 45% choose not to. And that's presidential elections. Turnouts of 5% to 10% are not uncommon in city council and school board elections. We have among the lowest political participation rates of any country.

No matter the quality of your seed corn, if you scatter it on a mall parking lot it's not likely to produce much of a crop. How much difference would it make in voting turnout, and other civic participation, if a quality local paper were delivered to every home? Would it be read -- by the adults, by the children? How well are we preparing our children to be "public citizens"? How many schools integrate newspapers into their curriculum? How many high school graduates, following exposure to a social studies curriculum, register to vote when they turn 18? Should we be rephrasing the question, focusing on the seed bed rather than the seed?

(5) Basic fundamentals. Before we can even begin with civic education, the basic needs of that 40% to 50% of our fellow citizens must be addressed: housing, nutrition, public health and healthcare, increased minimum wage, job training, and public education (through community college) -- including bringing as many as possible above "basic" reading ability and a heavy dose of civics (one of the original purposes of public education).

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Free Speech Rights

Trump vs. NFL
Right: "A moral or legal entitlement to have or do something."

-- Concise Oxford English Dictionary, p. 1238, "right. n.2"
As you may have noticed, the latest target of the President of the United States, right up there with North Korea, appears to be the National Football League (NFL) organization, owners, coaches and players. The kerfuffle involves, in part, the players' "right" to express disagreement with the president by failing to stand or otherwise participate in national anthem ceremonies prior to football games. (The protest involves both his attacks on the NFL, and his less than firm rejection of systemic and overt racism, neo-Nazis, and unwarranted police shootings of African-Americans.) [Photo credit: The Tennessean. Detroit Lions players "taking a knee" during national anthem, Sept. 24, 2017.]

At least for today, I will leave to others the effectiveness of this mode of protest, the cultural role of the national anthem, the Pentagon's payments to the NFL (plus fly-overs and other efforts to militarize sports), colleges' treatment of athletes (especially women), football's concussions and other health hazards (especially for players under 18), and other issues.

My limited focus at the moment is the widespread use of the word "rights" in this dispute -- especially the express or implied suggestion that the players' "constitutional" or "First Amendment" rights are somehow involved.
What follows is not a "legal opinion." If you have a personal stake in these issues, talk to your lawyer. There are constitutionally acceptable limitations on First Amendment "rights" (e.g., you cannot lie in your stock prospectus, operate a sound truck through residential neighborhoods late at night, falsely shout "fire" in a crowded theater, advocate "imminent lawless action," or joke with the airports' TSA employees, among a great many other examples). Outcomes turn on the applicability of law to, and the specific facts of, individual cases.
Call me fussy if you must, but the relevant language of the First Amendment is, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .." Since its adoption, the word "Congress" has been interpreted to mean any form of "state action," whether by Congress, the executive branch, states, cities, or state universities.

Among the values, or consequences, of the First Amendment are (1) its role in meeting the needs of a self-governing citizenry to be informed, (2) its importance to the search for truth in a "marketplace of ideas," (3) its relationship to the "checking value" of the media, as it watches for, and reports, abuses by large institutions, (4) its bearing on "self-actualization," basic liberty, and individual freedom, and (5) the "safety valve" it provides, permitting dissidents the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction verbally, rather than through violence.

Variations on the values represented in that constitutional language, the reasons for its existence, may be equally applicable elsewhere by virtue of social norms or a moral entitlement referenced in the definition of "right," above.

Parents and teachers may reject the old adage, "children should be seen and not heard," believing that children (and adults!) will benefit when children are encouraged to speak. Employers may choose to reward, rather than punish, workers' desire to participate in management by criticizing present procedures and suggesting improvements. A university president may welcome, rather than resist, "shared governance" with the faculty.

But these applications of First Amendment values in other contexts do not constitute the bestowal of constitutional or legal rights on children or employees. The First Amendment does not say, and has not been interpreted to mean, that "no institution or individual shall abridge the freedom of speech of another." Other applications of First Amendment values are merely opportunities to speak, bestowed as a matter of grace, not as a matter of legal right.

Do NFL players have a First Amendment right to speak (by words or actions) from the football field, during a nationally televised game, on matters other than football? No; not unless their speech is being restrained by "state action." I'll leave to others whether the President's efforts to silence them could constitute that state action. Their right to speak could be granted by some other constitutional provision, federal or state law or administrative regulation, or a contract provision, just not by the First Amendment.

In what sense could someone have a "right" to violate an express prohibition of particular speech? In the case of government laws and regulations, the violation could be "civil disobedience" -- deliberate violation as "speech," protesting the law, knowing that there will be punishment for doing so, and with a willingness to accept that punishment (fine or imprisonment).

In the workplace setting, the employer is given wide discretion in setting the terms of employment with regard to employee behavior, dress, and some aspects of speech. Like civil disobedience, the overt flouting of contractual standards may be grounds for dismissal -- though it could be said that the employee has the "right" to violate them and accept the punishment for doing so. Of course, with "employment at will" contracts an employee can be fired for any reason at all, without either just cause or warning. [At-Will Employment,]

Thus, when it comes to speech, citizens and employees are granted some rights to speak (without being punished) by the First Amendment (government); contracts and employee manuals (employment); forbidden some speech (for which they can be punished) by legislation or company policies; and left in limbo with regard to other speech (for which there are no standards).

As with most controls of human behavior, social norms rather than "the law" are the most common restraints.

However you may feel about the content of the players' "speech" (as distinguished from the time, place and manner of its expression), it's useful for them, the commentators, and the rest of us to remember that whatever "rights" the players may have, they do not come from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Afghanistan: Our Unaffordable War to Nowhere

The Reasons We Should Leave



Absent Prerequisites for War

"War on Terror" is Oxymoron

Cost of Wars

The Powell Doctrine


Nicholas Johnson's Additional Writing on War and Terrorism

Some Recent Afghanistan-Related General Media News and Opinion

The shorthand for President Obama's foreign policy? "Don't do stupid stuff."[Christi Parsons, Kathleen Hennessey and Paul Richter, "Obama Argues Against Use of Force to Solve Global Conflicts," Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2014.]

Our 16-years-long military efforts in Afghanistan qualify as "stupid stuff." The list of reasons is long, and has been discussed in a variety of contexts by me since 2001, illustrated in the 23 examples linked below. So I'll try to keep this short.

-- Sam Cooke, "What a Wonderful World" ("Don't know much about history . . ..")

History. We fail to learn from history. When it comes to war, we go where "no nation has won before."

France had been interested in Vietnam since the 17th and 18th Centuries, ultimately creating a large colony (French Indochina) in 1887 which it ruled until defeated by the Vietnamese in the First Indochina War [1946-1954]. ["France-Vietnam Relations," Wikipedia.] Never mind. We're not French. Those Vietnamese won't be able to defeat our military might. Remember how that worked out for us?

And so it's been in Afghanistan.

"Great Britain and Russia [were] maneuvering for influence in Afghanistan" as early as 1826. The British brought military force to Afghanistan on three occasions: 1839-1842, 1878-1889, and 1919. None ended well for the British.
Following the 1839-1842 conflict, "The Afghans. . . would tolerate neither a foreign occupation nor a king imposed on them by a foreign power, . . . insurrections broke out" and ultimately the British were run out of the country. The outcome of the second Afghan War was a little more complicated, but ended with the murder of the British envoy, and a joint effort of Britain and Russia to draw what are today's Afghanistan boundaries.
After the 1919 war, Britain had to recognize Afghanistan's independence, and Afghanistan was one of the first states to recognize the Soviet Union (with a treaty of friendship). That "special relationship" lasted until the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Editors, "Anglo-Afghan Wars," Encyclopedia Britannica.

Russia (Soviet Union) was involved militarily in Afghanistan from 1955 to 1989. "The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. Response, 1978–1980," Department of State, Office of the Historian, Milestones: 1977-1980 ("Since 1955 Moscow had provided military training and materiel to Afghanistan; by 1973, a third of active [Afghan] troops had trained on Soviet soil.")

The results for the Russians were little better than for the British. "The War" lasted from December 1979 to February 1989. "Soviet-Afghan War," Wikipedia.

And with what results?
"In the brutal nine-year conflict, an estimated one million civilians were killed, as well as 90,000 Mujahideen fighters, 18,000 Afghan troops, and 14,500 Soviet soldiers. Civil war raged after the withdrawal, setting the stage for the Taliban's takeover of the country in 1996."
Alan Taylor, "The Soviet War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989," The Atlantic, August 4, 2014 (includes 41 large photos).

Absent Prerequisites for War. Might there be some common themes in why Great Britain, Russia, and the United States have been so unsuccessful over the past 200 years in trying to conduct "wars" in Afghanistan? Let's see.

In addition to our refusal to study history, and our hubris in believing we have a level of smarts and military might denied all other countries, it's as if we don't recognize that war1 is not war2 -- all wars are not the same. You can't expect to win wars you launch willy-nilly, wherever, whenever, with whomever you choose. There are conditions and characteristics that make for wars' successful, and unsuccessful, likely outcomes.

It's best if your military effort is a response to your country being attacked (e.g., Revolutionary War; World War II). Next best is coming to the defense of another country that has been invaded (Kuwait in Gulf War I). Worst are unnecessary, "pre-emptive" attacks on other nations that have not attacked us (e.g., Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan).

Why? Think about it. If Iowa had a 200-year-history of Canadian military invasions from time to time, and Canadian tanks and military were now moving, uninvited, through Minnesota, toward Iowa -- regardless of their pretense for doing so -- even I would be picking up a gun. The Canadians would have a hard time "winning Iowans' hearts and minds." Similarly, when we create a war inside a country with a centuries-old history of foreign invaders, it's not unreasonable for those whose home it is to think of us as just the latest in that history, and respond as Iowans would to Canadians.

Obviously, supporting one side in another country's civil war is even worse. There's no way it can be universally popular ("a British shipyard [built] two warships for the Confederacy . . . over vehement protests from the US." "United Kingdom and the American Civil War"

Fighting in countries where most Americans know little or nothing about that country's language, culture, economy, history, politics, literature, religion, social structure, and geography -- such as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan -- is bristling with unintended consequences that make "winning" somewhere between extraordinarily difficult and impossible (as distinguished from the European Theatre of WWII).

"War on Terror" is Oxymoron." Whatever "terror" may be, it is not a country, or even a tightly coordinated group of individuals. Of course, every country seeks to minimize the death and damage to its citizens and property from acts of violence. But were the deliberate human and property damage in Oklahoma City, Boston, and Charlottesville really part of a "war"? The literary license in labeling anti-violence efforts a "war" is questionable at best; but strategies and tactics premised on the assumption that it really is "a war" are self-defeating and dangerous.

Wars are best when fought on behalf of, or against, countries rather than failed states; countries with some semblance of an organized central government -- more like Germany in WWII, rather than 21st Century Afghanistan, which is still largely a collection of tribal war lords' fiefdoms.

Wars are best when both sides wear uniforms that distinguish them from each other -- and the surrounding civilian population. The Taliban and ISIS often don't wear uniforms. Without uniforms it's very difficult to tell your enemy from your allies, and civilian casualties mount and further erode support for U.S. forces -- who are easy to identify.

Wars are best when there is a "front line" (as in Europe in WWII). (1) Fighting individuals without uniforms, (2) who can easily blend in with the population, (3) over constantly shifting parcels of land, (4) individuals who can easily shift from one place to another, (5) resulting in our gaining, losing, and regaining once again the same "battlegrounds," is a recipe for our seemingly endless wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, with their ever-increasing death tolls and financial burdens.

Cost of Wars. A year ago, the combined costs of U.S. military actions in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan (2001-2016) were estimated at $4.207 trillion ($4.792 trillion minus the Department of Homeland Security budgets). Neta C. Crawford [Boston University], "US Budgetary Costs of Wars through 2016: $4.79 Trillion and Counting; Summary of Costs of the US Wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan and Homeland Security," Brown University Institute of International & Public Affairs, September 2016.

Because it's hard to imagine that much money, how could we translate $4.2 trillion into its opportunity cost -- the other things we could have bought with it (but weren't able to)? What else could that $4.2 trillion have paid for? Here are some possibilities: a 35-year program of tuition-free college at public universities, or health insurance premiums for every American for 12 years, or wiping out all student loan and credit card debt while leaving an additional $2 trillion for rebuilding infrastructure, or a fund to pay for rebuilding after the damage from the next 41 major tropical storms. Ethan Wolff-Mann, "7 Amazing Things America Could Have Bought Instead of a $1.45 Trillion Jet," Money, May 2, 2016 (if you care, and can't follow my math, email me for an explanation).

While I believe the Brown University and Money magazine numbers do not distort the reality, even with the best of intentions precision in these matters is impossible. For starters, what do you count? The numbers do not seem to include the post-war costs of such things as rebuilding the infrastructure we've destroyed in war (such as the post-WWII Marshall Plan), lifetime healthcare for wounded combat veterans, the consequences from the opportunity costs mentioned above. If you include the costs in the war torn countries (as I think we should), although worse than economic numbers convey, what tort law calls the "pain and suffering" of the population, the survivors who have lost their primary income provider, not to mention their homes, the wounded, dying and dead, the children denied food, shelter, and education -- not to mention parents -- would be enormous. [Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense.]

Even if we could agree on what costs to include, determining what they were is virtually impossible with a Defense Department that is so sloppy in its accounting that it is impossible to audit. "The Department of Defense . . . once again finds itself under intense scrutiny . . . because it couldn't account for more than a trillion dollars in financial transactions, not to mention dozens of tanks, missiles and planes." Tom Abate, "Military Waste Under Fire / $1 Trillion Missing -- Bush Plan Targets Pentagon Accounting," SFGATE, San Francisco Chronicle, May 18, 2003.

The Powell Doctrine. There are some basic questions to ask about any rational undertaking -- starting a business, choosing a college and major, planning a vacation trip, building a new home or office building.

The consequences of failing to do so can lead to physical injury, financial disaster or bankruptcy, or merely great disappointment.

In the case of war, the consequences can be much more serious, as the discussion above suggests. This is not to say that there are never acceptable reasons for going to war, or maintaining overwhelming military might as a strategy for avoiding the need to go to war. It is only to say that, if you prepare and use a checklist before packing the car and going on a family vacation, you might also want to have and use a checklist before going to war.

Here is a variation of the ways I've summarized that checklist of questions in the past -- sort of my version of the Powell Doctrine:
  • Is the national security of our homeland seriously threatened?

  • What, specifically, is the goal you’re trying to accomplish?

  • What nonviolent means might accomplish the goal, and have they all been tried and failed?

  • Why do you think a military operation will contribute to (rather than impede) the accomplishment of the goal?

  • In a benefit-cost analysis, what are the risks, what are the costs (including opportunity costs), what will a military mission require in troops, materiel, lives and treasure to achieve that goal, and what will be the benefits for the United States?

  • What is a reasonble projection of how long the military mission will take to achieve the goal?

  • Are the American people, their representatives, and the international community prepared to take those risks, provide those resources and pay those costs for as long as it takes?

  • What are the probabilities that a military intervention will make matters worse?

  • What are the metrics or other means to inform us whether we’ve ever been “successful”?

  • What, then, will be the exit strategy?

  • What will happen when we leave?

  • Will that be consistent with our original mission?
  • See, e.g., "General Semantics, Terrorism and War," Fordham University, New York City, September 8, 2006 (sub-heading "War: Military Control of the Civilians and the Powell Doctrine"); also as Nicholas Johnson, What Do You Mean and How Do You Know, ch. 6 "You As Citizen II: Terrorism and War," p. 61, and see, Stephen M. Walt, "Applying the 8 Questions of the Powell Doctrine to Syria," Foreign Policy, September 3, 2013.

    Conclusion. I could go on with this -- indeed the list below suggests I already have. Why? Because President Trump -- after opposing our war in Afghanistan for years -- has recently announced that it will be perpetuated by his Administration. In fact, he wants to send even more troops and taxpayer money into the hopeless pit.

    A "war" in Afghanistan was a mistake from the very beginning. If we were trying to punish the state most involved in 9/11 it was Saudi Arabia -- the country that supplied both the financing and the participants. But the U.S. didn't want to declare war on Saudi Arabia after 9/11 any more than it wanted to bomb Idaho after Oklahoma City. So we chose Afghanistan instead.

    It was argued that Afghanistan was "harboring terrorists." But any near-failed state can and does do that. To totally eliminate terrorist training in Afghanistan (1) would require more like 200,000 to 300,000 American troops (as I, and others, suggested at the time; clearly President Obama's 100,000 weren't enough) -- if even that would do it. (2) Our efforts to do that turn out to be counterproductive: our mere presence in the Middle East only intensifies anti-American feelings and terrorist recruiting. (3) Terrorists can, and do, easily move from one part of the world to another. If we drove them all out of Afghanistan they would not disappear, they would merely relocate -- as they now have in at least 70 countries. "Michael Evans" "Al-Qaeda finds three safe havens for terror training" The Times (of London), July 2, 2008 ("Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organisation, driven out of Afghanistan and defeated in Iraq, is re-emerging in strength in three alternative safe havens for training, operational planning and recruiting – Pakistan, Somalia and Algeria – according to Western intelligence and defence sources").

    To the best of my recollection, no American official has declared that our real motive for staying in Afghanistan is to plunder it's resources. I raised this possibility in "Why Afghanistan? Think Oil & Gas," September 25, 2009. Rachel Maddow recently suggested it might be our search for a source of the rare earth element Lanthanum (LA); transcript not yet posted. (If we were in Afghanistan for rare earth elements, however, we've been a little late. While we were sending troops the Chinese were sending negotiators, and have by now pretty much cornered all the supplies in Afghanistan's rare earth market.)

    In summary, the politicians pursuit of our Afghanistan War has ignored virtually all of the Powell Doctrine checklist. We never should have entered Afghanistan in the first place. As soon as that was obvious we should have left. Having failed to do so for 16 years, it is a very expensive tragedy (in lost lives and opportunities to fund what America really does need) that our current president has gone against his earlier instincts and is sending more troops to keep it going.

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    Nicholas Johnson's Additional Writing on War and Terrorism

    "Spending on Military Always Comes at al Cost," The Gazette, April 9, 2017, p. D5, embedded in "Of Missiles and Teachers," April 7, 2017

    "Focus on Muslims Misplaced After Shooting," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 17, 2016, p. A5

    Understanding Terrorist Thugs," The Daily Iowan, December 3, 2015; "What Motivates Terrorist Thugs," The Gazette, December 20, 2015,

    Nicholas Johnson, "Sober Risk Assessment Needed to Respond to Terror," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 28, 2015, p. A11; and as "Sober Risk Assessment Needed to Respond to Terror," Standard-Times [San Angelo, Texas], November 28, 2015

    Nicholas Johnson, "Syria's Refugees: Job One and Job Two," The Gazette, November 1, 2015

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

    "Six Step Program for Avoiding War," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 11, 2014, p. A7

    "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

    "Terrorism, War, 9/11 and Looking Within," September 10, 2011

    "War in Libya, the Unanswered Questions," March 23, 2011

    "General Semantics, Terrorism and War," Fordham University, New York City, September 8, 2006; also as Nicholas Johnson, What Do You Mean and How Do You Know, ch. 6 "You As Citizen II: Terrorism and War," p. 61

    "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

    "Teach Our Children Tolerant Ways," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 25, 2001, p. 9A

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    Some Recent Afghanistan-Related General Media News and Opinion

    Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, "Forceful Chief of Staff Grates on Trump, and the Feeling Is Mutual," New York Times, September 2, 2017, p. A1

    Micah Zenko, "Bush and Obama Fought a Failed 'War on Terror.' It's Trump's Turn." New York Times, August 26, 2017, p. A17

    Mujib Mashal, "Trump's Afghan Gamble Now Rests on General He Doubted," New York Times, August 25, 2017, p. A1

    Mujib Mashal, "U.S. Troop Increase in Afghanistan Is Underway, General Says," New York Times, August 24, 2017

    Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, "Why Afghanistan's War Defies Solutions," New York Times, August 24, 2017, p. A4

    Bret Stephens, "On Afghanistan, There's No Way Out," New York Times, August 24, 2017

    Rod Nordland, "What an Afghanistan Victory Looks Like Under the Trump Plan," New York Times, August 23, 2017, p. A1

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    Wednesday, August 23, 2017

    Business Leaders: Make Legislators Fund Educated Workforce

    [This excerpt from the PBS Newshour, August 29, 2017, describes a program in Colorado, analogous to those in Switzerland and Germany, that is consistent with what's discussed in the column, below. With thanks to Gregory Johnson for the suggestion to embed this.]

    Can Biz Leaders Save Education?

    Nicholas Johnson
    The Gazette, Insight, August 22, 2017, p. A6

    How can we get legislative funding for all Iowans’ post-high-school education?

    Aside from bemoaning tuition increases — before increasing them again — those responsible have shown little sympathy and less results: state university presidents, Board of Regents, Gov. Kim Reynolds, and legislators.

    Where can we turn?

    How about those who hold political power and control: the business community?

    Business leaders are assuming more social and political responsibility. When many Republican leaders did a little sidestep around President Donald Trump’s seeming tolerance of neo-Nazis, CEOs of large corporations resigned from Trump’s business councils in protest. A similarly prestigious group of corporate leaders defeated the Texas legislators’ “bathroom bill.” Many business owners are making sure their employees will have health care.

    Might they lobby for education appropriations as well?

    An educated population benefits everyone — and business most of all. Iowa’s problem is not a shortage of jobs. It is a shortage of skilled workers (as well as entrepreneurs and a creative class). More skilled workers mean less turnover and training, improved productivity, quality control, profits, and economic growth for Iowa’s towns.

    Business leaders are aware the post-World War II economic boom was driven by a college-educated workforce of veterans, paid for by the GI Bill. California and New York built comparable economic growth with decades of tuition-free higher education. Globally, business leaders in 24 countries are benefiting from employees with tuition-free college educations; 13 of those countries offer tuition-free educations to other countries’ students as well (including ours).

    Historically, Iowans willingly have financed public education since the first one-room schoolhouse in 1830. By 1910, the state was one of the first with a statewide high school system, until recently ranked one of the country’s best.

    After another 107 years, expanding public education from K-12 to K-14 is scarcely a premature, radical move. Rules vary, but nine states already have some form of tuition-free community college: Arkansas, California (San Francisco), Louisiana, Minnesota, New York (plus four-year college), Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Tennessee.

    Expanding such a program to the three, four-year regents universities (as New York has done) might be premature. But starting with Iowa’s 15 community colleges ought to be possible. [Photo credit: Kirkwood Community College; welding classroom]

    If Iowa wants to build a competitive edge in a global economy, it must first construct the educational foundation to support it. It simply can’t afford to leave qualified, willing students uneducated.

    Business leaders: Legislators look to you for ideas as well as campaign contributions. You can give them a nudge, give them permission, you can insist they fund at least tuition-free public community colleges for Iowans.

    Indeed, if you don’t insist, it will never happen.

    Do it for your business, your shareholders, your town, your family — or because you know it’s the right thing to do. Just do it.
    Nicholas Johnson is a former university professor who maintains Comments:

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