What You Should Think About George Washington

May 30, 2011

“Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind. Not only does your pocketbook suffer for it, but your preparations are lost and a season passes away unimproved.”

–George Washington

The United States of America was forged in battle.  Yet this nation was neither created nor conceived to become a dominant military power.  To the contrary, it was our founders’ ability to defy a military superpower that gave rise to the most authentically populist form of government the world had seen since ancient Greece lost its original democracies.   Extraordinary leadership and unwavering determination made all the difference.  Neither the manpower of the Continental Army nor the skill and equipment of allies opposing the British Army were overwhelming.  The decisive outcome of the Revolutionary War would not be predicted by any purely military analysis of the capabilities each side was prepared to field in when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Even the legendary leader behind this outcome, George Washington, was no great conqueror.  His early military experiences as an American officer fighting for British interests were fraught with misadventure.  In 1754 Colonel Washington surrendered his militia to the French, negotiating a bloodless withdrawal from a hopeless position.  By the end of 1755, his greatest accomplishment involved minimizing losses during the retreat of the disastrous Monongahela expedition.  He emerged from the crucible of defeat as a strict disciplinarian and a cautious tactician.  He went on to promote the prosperity of Virginia by defending the colony’s western frontier with impressive efficiency.

By the time revolutionary sentiment was strong among British possessions in North America, George Washington had already established himself as a commander gifted in the transformation of uneducated and undisciplined volunteers into effective fighting forces.  Yet the ranks of these forces only measured in the hundreds.  His only decisive victories had been won against indigenous tribes equipped with few, if any, firearms.  In 1775, when the Continental Congress asked him to take command of their army, he was selected more by default than acclaim.  The delegates did not recognize how perfectly suited he was to lead an army of underdogs, but they did recognize that he was one among very few prominent American revolutionaries with real experience at military command.

So it was that the fate of our aspiring nation was placed in the hands of a man best known for mitigating the damage from past military defeats.  War had already erupted with the clashes at Lexington and Concord in Massachusettes.  Yet Continental forces amounted to little more than impromptu militias.  Even the core of the army was only committed to single year terms of service.  General Washington immediately set about organizing the military — clarifying chains of command and insisting on rigorous drilling to maintain cohesion when forces were not otherwise engaged.  He held his ground when it was wise to do so, yet he employed his considerable experience at retreat in maneuvers that did much to preserve the modest combat assets of a fledgeling nation.

This leadership went beyond uncommon exercise of military caution.  Washington eventually overcame political resistance in order to restructure the Continental Army as a more stable and durable institution.  Disease and the elements claimed one quarter of his forces during the winter at Valley Forge, but the survivors emerged as tough disciplined professionals on par with the veterans of European conflicts.  Yet even when equipped for plausible victories, he continued to show restraint.  He would strike when the British blundered into a position of extraordinary vulnerability.  Otherwise, he dedicated himself to the preservation of the army and the maintenance of rebel control over an overwhelming majority of colonial territory.

By fighting only the most favorable battles, General Washington bought the revolution time enough to succeed.  Diplomatic achievements, first in France and then elsewhere, forced the British to deal with bigger threats than the loss of American colonies.  He reminded the world that having more men and better equipment does not insure victory.  When he went on to promote adoption of the Constitution and serve as the first President of the United States, he continued to emphasize the value of caution and restraint.  He warned against the costs of lengthy military commitments abroad.  He was openly hostile to the emergence of partisan politics.  He only embraced conflict when he believed doing so was crucial to the survival of the nation.  For example, he personally took command of state militias in order to put down a violent rebellion sparked by one of the federal government’s earliest efforts to raise revenue.

This makes it all the more ironic how George Washington is viewed in some circles today.  Know-nothing fools imagine he would be quick to rebel against federal taxation, when in fact he did not hesitate to put down such a rebellion through force of arms.  Right-wing ideologues imagine he would support costly and deadly exercises in foreign regime change and nation-building, when in fact one of his most clear admonitions was a directive to avoid such entanglements.  Jingoistic bombasts imagine he would take pride in America’s overwhelming military might, when in fact he dedicated much his life to achieving victories while minimizing loss of life and public expense.  It is unlikely that George Washington the man, general, and President would have any respect for the George Washington of Tea Party folklore.

As this Memorial Day comes to a close, I believe it is wise that we ask ourselves, “are we remembering those noble and honorable people who have served this country at great personal risk, or are we celebrating the elective violence and hyperactive warmongering that now consumes over $1 trillion of our $14 trillion national economy?  If we are to truly remember and honor those who were selfless in service to our nation, do we bear no obligation to act against those who engage in the manipulation of political processes and world events for the sake of personal enrichment?”  I believe George Washington would be proud to know that the United States commands the strongest military on Earth.  I believe he would be horrified to know that we only manage to realize that goal by spending 40% all the money the entire planet spends on military procurement.

When we look at the way George W. Bush and Barack Obama launch wars, there is a dramatic contrast.  The former indulged in radical spending increases, made a profound national commitment, ineptly managed alliances, refused to articulate precise objectives, and seemed to believe that merely having an exit strategy was the same thing as accepting defeat.  The latter engaged in modest spending, made a cautious national commitment, harmonized smoothly with allies, and expressed a single clear goal.  The exit strategy for U.S. involvement in Libya remains fuzzy, but otherwise the contrast is dramatic.

First names aside, it is unmistakable which of these leaders is more like the first man to hold the office of President of the United States.  If the entire electorate could be bothered to actually remember the first and greatest of our military commanders, our nation could enjoy a clear path to a more peaceful and prosperous future. As the foremost of our Founding Fathers himself once observed, “experience teaches us that it is much easier to prevent an enemy from posting themselves than it is to dislodge them after they have got possession.”  There is no shortage of hard work ahead for modern day patriots intent on taming the beast of runaway military and security service spending.  Yet it is work that must be done if we are truly to honor the memory of those who made this country great in the first place.

What You Should Think About Energy Independence

August 18, 2008

“If money is your hope for independence you will never have it.  The only real security that a man will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience, and ability.”

–Henry Ford

Ten years ago, the few Americans readily able to associate a concept with the phrase “energy independence” tended toward a consensus that its pursuit was a bad idea.  Energy imports were a path of least resistance sure to make the economy more efficient in the short term, and other considerations were quickly discarded.  Today many Americans contemplate issues that were once the province of academic specialists.  Today many Americans are willing to judge choices by an outlook that goes beyond the short term.

This is excellent.  In my opinion, only a great party or a terminal illness justifies failure to incorporate some sort of long term perspective into one’s thinking.  It is never responsible to look at the national economy as a great party, and it is absurdly melodramatic to look at climate change as a terminal illness.  This leaves us with a real need to look at both . . . look at them long and hard.

All the economic trends favor sweeping and swift change.  Oil prices have sustained a multiple of their peak from the 20th century.  Political responses to atmospheric carbon emissions remain undefined and shamefully belated, but they now seem inevitable.  As if those indicators were not clear enough, the American car buyer is increasingly inclined to favor smaller more efficient vehicles over uselessly large SUVs and their accompanying fuel demands.  In a sense, petrochemicals are simply going out of style.

Yet beneath the trends remain many complex problems.  Most obvious is the delay between a national committment to a new energy policy and the saturation of new technologies in the real economy.  More subtle is the role oil plays outside of combustion reactions.  Byproducts of fuel production are a primary source of raw materials for the plastics industry.  A staggering array of household chemicals also have their roots in the fractional distillation processes taking place at oil refineries.  Even if we could do without gasoline, could we also do without sandwich baggies, paint thinner, and dozens of other ubiquitous items?

I believe both major party Presidential candidates have observed aloud that the oil trade causes our nation to send large sums of money to parts of the world where “people don’t like us very much.”  To me, this says that we ought to work on our image.  To many, it seems to say that we ought to stop buying oil outright.  I suspect those views would change as the matter is examined in more detail.  Given a choice between spending $700 billion on fuel imports or spending $750 billion on domestic energy development to get the same result, and I suspect most Americans would endorse energy independence.  Put forth a choice between spending $700 billion on fuel imports or spending $2 trillion on domestic energy development to get the same result, and suddenly the price tag becomes much harder to justify.

The sticky bit here is that no honest individual can claim a high degree of confidence in pinning down the real numbers.  The science is in on climate change as an ongoing and economically devastating phenomenon.  However, the precise nature and extent of that devastation cannot even be confined to a particular order of magnitude.  Perhaps longer growing seasons will soften the impact of regional famines and expanding deserts, while transpolar shipping partially offsets losses in coastal real estate.  Then again, perhaps the Pentagon was right and global warming will be the driving force behind a new age of savagery and desperation in modern warfare.

Even if some omniscient entity were to spell out the real annual costs of climate change if status quo policies continue indefinitely, humanity would remain in the dark about the extent to which change could mitigate these harms.  Some of the damage has already been done.  Some will result from processes too far along to be stopped.  Much could be minimized or averted, but just how much?  Even for the most informed experts, ultimately it is a matter of opinion just how much economic value ought be placed on various levels of industrial emission restraint.

Also, the monetary cost of petrochemical dependence today is clearly an aberration.  Fundamental forces, like the growth of the Chinese economy, create an upward pressure on oil prices.  From a vantage point in the United States, the plunge of the dollar exaggerates import inflation.  Yet the behavior of those prices does not reflect the realities of those forces.  The real rise in the cost of this particular commodity is clearly a function of market manipulation rather than a reflection of an entirely real, but much more gradual, trend upward.  Alternative energy ventures risk having the economic rug yanked out from under them if business models marginally sustainable under present price levels must contend with much cheaper oil in the near future.

“Energy independence” has a nice sound to it.  As a principle, there is no good reason to oppose it.  Elements of any sound energy independence plan are good in practice.  Take conservation — whenever you can consume less to get the same result, scarcity is alleviated and economic conditions improve.  Research is another good example.  Our society could reach a fairly high multiple of present levels of investment in fields like theoretical physics, miniaturization, solar energy, etc. before diminishing returns would make further spending unrewarding over the long term.  Bold actions that effectively promote efficiency or discovery are entirely appropriate responses to present conditions.

On the other hand, a rush to abandon old ways could prove as costly as the inept dithering we have experienced under the sitting President’s guidance.  Imagine a huge national investment in traditional nuclear power plants is only just completed when the latest and greatest supercollider reveals a much safer and less costly method of generating nuclear power.  The United States would be hamstrung by this committment to old technology while other societies remain poised to fully capitalize on scientific achievement.  That scenario is speculative, but it is far from a worst case scenario.

President Jimmy Carter once helped guide this nation onto a course toward efficient renewable energy technology and national energy independence.  His successor promptly undid much of that work.  Many noble projects, including numerous growing businesses, were wrecked by the double whammy of falling energy prices and rescinded federal subsidies.  A long term outlook must not only consider the challenges of unresolved technology gaps, but also the pitfalls of failure to provide any new paradigm with long term support.

In the abstract, I believe trade is a good thing.  Imports and exports brings distant peoples closer together.  When conducted fairly, trade makes life better for everyone involved.  For all its rhetorical appeal, “energy independence” is nothing more than a state of doing without imports in the energy sector.  In some contexts, it offers a way to rally support for genuinely useful initiatives like raising fuel efficiency standards or funding alternative energy research.  Yet it may also distract from important priorities like addressing climate change or optimizing economic efficiency.

Energy independence itself is no big deal.  However, it intersects with several issues that are each very big deals in their own right.  To the degree that a proposed plan or policy may make our nation more economically productive, less ecologically destructive, more technologically advanced, and/or less heavily involved in resource depletion, it is likely to be a good thing.  If actual energy independence is a side effect of those gains, so be it.  The danger lies in the prospect that none of those gains will be realized even as energy independence is pursued with tremendous national zeal.

What You Should Think About State Secrets

October 16, 2007

“Secrecy, once accepted, becomes an addiction.”

–Edward Teller

It has recently come to light that an inventory of corruption in Nouri Al-Maliki’s regime was kept from public scrutiny because it was classified as an American state secret. It seems rarely a month goes by that there is not some news of a bizarre application of official secrecy by White House officials. After all, what possible purpose could this assessment serve if it was not intended to inform decisions related to our nation’s Iraq policy?

The pattern of secrecy practiced by the current administration supports a common criticism of their methods. It would seem they believe national discussions of Iraq policy have no place in national decisions about Iraq policy. In fact, the word “Iraq” could be struck from the previous sentence without rendering it untrue. From requiring audience members at campaign events sign oaths of political loyalty to banning protests anywhere near a location the President might catch sight of them, this administration seems to have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude about political dissent.

Dragging such an attitude into the loftiest halls of power is directly at odds with the traditions, and functional mechanisms, of democracy itself. In instances where dissent rests on falsehoods and misunderstandings, confronting it improves the quality of public information and increases support for legitimate policies. In instances where dissent derives from insightful critique, acknowledging that critique and adapting policy to the truths it contains will produce better results. Either way, the quality of national leadership suffers to the degree the existence of dissent is denied.

Ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once wrote of secrecy, “through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.” Countless follies have emerged from business managers applying Sun Tzu’s teachings without regard for the enormous differences between armies of slave-conscripts engaged in ancient warfare and workforces of free citizens engaged in economic productivity. I have no idea to what extent the Bush-Cheney team are students of Sun Tzu. Yet it would seem that they take this approach to secrecy into the realm of political debate.

A lesson learned too late, if it has been learned at all by White House insiders, is that there are real differences between methods that are effective in the short term and methods that produce sustainable success. At its simplest level this is an obvious lesson. Armed robbery is an effective way to get money. Yet it is no way to make a steady living. Destroying the reputations of political opponents is an effective way to win elections. Yet it is no substitute for leadership driven by good ideas along with clear communication that enables the public to understand the goodness of those ideas.

It should be no secret that authoritarian leadership rests uneasily on the backs of a population inclined to believe their homeland is governed by and for its people. As early as the transition from our second to our third President, this had been established. John Adams wielded the powers of his office in one blatant political maneuver after another. Thomas Jefferson was able to unseat the incumbent in no small part because of widespread concern that power had been abused.

A cynic might argue that there would have been a second term for our second President if only he had followed through on ambitions of a war against revolutionary France. A groundswell of public support appears to be a primal response to warfare. As it happened, more people felt threatened by authoritarian action menacing American civil liberties than French naval actions menacing American shipping. The end result was the empowerment of a liberal thinker who did much to expand the scope of the federal government, both institutionally and via the Louisiana Purchase.

A cynic might also argue that a state of perpetual warfare in Iraq provided a political form of job security. It seems an unreasonable assertion to argue that any President would wreak so much havoc for purely political reasons. No doubt the architects of existing Iraq policy were driven by a complex mixture of motives that varied from person to person. As hindsight now reveals even to them, mistakes were made in the planning and implementation of the initiative to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Yet it is not as if the foresight to avoid these mistakes was missing from the entire American population. Credible weapons inspection experts recognized that prewar Iraq had become largely compliant with UN mandates. Credible military experts recognized that a large occupying force would be required to maintain order in the aftermath of an invasion. A wide range of credible voices recognized that a jubilant reception and instant harmony would not greet an army of foreigners on Iraqi soil. It seems as if much more effort was made to undermine the credibility of public figures expressing such views than was made to deal with potential problems at the heart of their concerns.

Terrorists attacking America and/or our allies certainly are enemies of the state. Insurgents intent on killing American personnel may reasonably be considered enemies. However, there is nothing reasonable at all about regarding political critics or even rival politicians as enemies of the state. For the most part, keeping sources and methods of intelligence gathering secret will give us an advantage over our enemies. In appropriate contexts, keeping the deployment and capabilities of military assets secret can also provide such an advantage. By contrast, there is no advantage to be gained through distorting public debate about the merits of major national objectives by concealing crucial relevant information.

It is lamentable yet understandable that there will always be some fringe of hotheads intent on characterizing the party out of power as “the enemy.” A mind both volatile and simple does not easily grasp concepts like friendly competition or loyal opposition. What is harder to understand is how this dangerous mode of thought should come to shape the work product of the executive branch. Do they desire an end to public debate about national priorities? Do they believe suppressing discussion of potential problems will alter reality to insure no actual problems occur?

From expanding domestic surveillance to conducting extraordinary renditions to reshaping interrogation policies to so many other bold initiatives undertaken by this administration, the quality of public information has been seriously degraded by sweeping exercise of the power to classify information a state secret. Has our enemy so succeeded in terrorizing us that all these national discussions must be silenced for fear of forfeiting a strategic advantage? Is it really plausible that any campaign of terrorist attacks could deprive our society of more than our leaders willingly sacrifice to the War on Terror as an institution?

Clearly a matter like the extent of corruption in the present Iraqi government has a crucial role to play in the ongoing national debate about Iraq policy. It may be fair to argue that a comprehensive report of this nature should remain classified in part, since it may contain plenty of innuendo along with real evidence. Yet to keep the real evidence classified as a state secret too — that leaves no doubt this administration wishes to suppress informed and honest debate about the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations.

It would be wrong to claim this pattern of behavior establishes George W. Bush as the real enemy of our nation. Yet it is not at all wrong to conclude that his administration regularly makes a mistake similar in form. Millions of loyal American dissenters should never be treated as enemies against which the need to gain advantage justifies exploiting the power of state secrecy.

Civic discourse is degraded to the degree participants sink to that level. Negative emotions can draw well-intentioned citizens into that trap, prompting even more politics of personal destruction. Yet, if you really think about it, demanding the best available information to inform public discussion of national priorities is the right response to this problem of pathologically secretive governance.

What You Should Think About Nuclear Energy

October 9, 2007

For 50 years, nuclear power has been a solution in search of a problem.”

–George Monbiot

Born into the 70s, making my first efforts to comprehend “the grown up world” in the 80s, my earliest perceptions of atomic power were shaped by a blend of rosy corporate propaganda and bleak doomsday dramatizations. By the time I was ready for my first political debate, concepts like “control rods” and “implosion triggers” were already familiar to me. Even setting environmental risks aside, my teenaged self could not break associations between constructive and destructive applications unleashed by discoveries in nuclear physics.

As time advanced, so did my views. Much more importantly, scientific understanding has advanced as well. Today the world finds itself in an interesting place vis-à-vis nuclear energy production. It was not so long ago that consensus views favored “cheaper” alternatives. Yet resource depletion, soot production, and greenhouse gas emission are all real costs associated with fossil fuel consumption. A market that demands one industry protect the public commons while making no similar demands of others may indeed place alternatives to nuclear power at a lower price per unit. Yet a more circumspect analysis reveals that polluting enterprises ultimately exact their true price one way or another — whether or not it is reflected in utility bills.

To be sure, nuclear power poses pollution concerns of its own. Chernobyl is now a household word precisely because of the extreme dangers associated with radioactive contamination. Heck, even thermal pollution is an issue with nuclear power. Clearly any sensible nuclear power program demands stringent and redundant oversight. Operating with a flawed design or sloppy management practices creates a very real risk that no nation should tolerate.

Also, there is the security issue. Yet that is an issue that cuts both ways. Every additional nuclear facility is a new target for terrorists intent on stealing material for radiological attacks or even staging a deliberate environmental disaster. On the other hand, every additional petrochemical facility drives up demand for a commodity that is partially under the control of aristocrats involved with promoting religious fundamentalism and financing terrorist organizations. This would seem to suggest the American energy sector should be heavily invested in alternatives to either approach.

Yet those alternatives, as they exist today, fall short. Nature offers up light, wind, water, and earth all as methods of collecting energy from sources that renew themselves. In time the yields and costs of solar arrays may improve to the point where that approach would merit a place as a mainstay of American energy. Yet just when that time will occur is unknown. Windmills, tide mills, and dams are only appropriate in locations that satisfy specific conditions. Surprisingly enough, geothermal resources can be depleted by overuse, and they also depend on an appropriate site to achieve commercial yields.

As demand for fossil fuel resources rises and awareness grows of the hidden costs associated with burning ancient carbon compounds, nuclear power provides an alternative with generating capacity independent of local natural features. At the very least, it merits consideration as a supplement for meeting demands when clouds or calm or cooling produce shortfalls from other methods. Given responsible government oversight (a legitimate worry if pursued under the present administration,) nuclear power has the potential to bridge the gap between what we can harness from natural forces and what is required to sustain economic progress.

Yet nuclear power also offers much potential for innovation. Nuclear fusion research has yet to produce anything like a device for generating more energy than it requires, but new approaches do hold some promise. Decades ago, the scientific establishment abandoned the idea that an intersection of powerful laser beams could be used to contain the intense pressure generated by fusion reactions. A new approach, less like a turbine engine and more like a piston engine, might make it possible to sustain serial bursts of fusion reaction with lasers only active for the briefest of instants. The dramatic reduction in energy cost is just one of several innovations that could pave the way for productive fusion power plants.

Then there is the prospect of breakthroughs in fission as well. European scientists are developing precursor technology with an eye toward constructing energy amplifiers. The concept involves using a powerful particle accelerator to outright disintegrate nuclear fuel. It would require elaborate facilities, but it offers many advantages. Energy amplifiers are “subcritical” nuclear reactors, meaning that they can produce power from reaction masses that are not susceptible to meltdown in the event of unexpected technical problems. They can be used to safely destroy dangerous nuclear materials produced by conventional fission reactors. This includes the world’s stockpiles of weapons grade plutonium. Also, they can derive power from thorium — a substance both much less radioactive and much more abundant than traditional nuclear fuels.

Of course, scientific breakthroughs are unexpected by nature. Low cost, high yield solar panels may emerge at some point in the future. Also, there is plenty of ground to be gained by applying energy conservation to building and product design. Society does well to invest in any avenue of progress that might address a mounting crises related to energy demands and existing fuel supplies. Yet without having already achieved such progress, we have no choice but to make due with what we have.

Considering the overwhelming mix of security and environmental concerns, giving private corporations broad latitude to expand America’s nuclear power industry seems like unacceptably risky business. Yet only politics obstructs the pursuit of a nationalized atomic energy industry that serves the common good while benefiting from tight controls that no nuclear facility should be without. As with other public sector enterprises, free markets and innovation could continue to play vital roles in areas ranging from component manufacturing to facility maintenance.

Personally, I’ve long questioned the merits of letting the whims of profit-seekers create turbulence in a key sector that serves as a foundation on which almost all other economic activity must rest. Entities like Enron operated contrary to the national interest not only because they were managed by dishonest crooks, but also because it was their business to seek profits through playing games with energy itself. When it becomes possible to generate revenue by deliberately choking off the economic lifeblood of a region, clearly a failed paradigm is in place.

Yet it is not my intent, today, to argue for the nationalization of the entire energy sector. Instead it is my contention that only in the context of nationalization can we expect the safest and best results from massive expansion of America’s nuclear power industry. Without the need for any technology yet to be discovered, that context makes it possible to safely generate energy enough to satisfy the needs of a large economy that (hopefully) will continue to grow through the years ahead. Given that numerous problems caused by fossil fuel consumption are already bad and likely to get even worse, I don’t believe it takes a visionary like Albert Einstein to point out that we would do well to make greater use of our capacity to split the atom for peaceful purposes.