An article by the editor of Tone Magazine, an online magazine in Madison, concerning the F-35 and the military industrial complex.
The military-industrial complex in Madison
Those applying this foundational concept to the F-35s debate have a point.
Illustration: Digital collage of an F-35 jet flying over Starkweather Creek. Money is burning in the jet fuel stream and waves of bright toxic green emanate from the F-35. Illustration by M.Rose Sweetnam.
What do we talk about when we talk about people talking about the military-industrial complex?
Those most deeply involved in activism on the issue have articulated a complex and intertwined set of reasons why basing the jets here would be a bad idea—especially its impact on water quality, housing, and childhood development. They use the phrase "military-industrial complex" often enough, but their analysis goes beyond shorthand. Their motivations are much more immediate than simply taking a moral posture against militarism in the abstract.
Former general and Republican president Dwight Eisenhower popularized this concept, warning that lavish military budgets would enrich a "permanent armaments industry of vast proportions," create political imbalances, and leave society with fewer resources to invest in basic human needs. Most Americans didn't listen very well.
We do have to take Eisenhower with a truckload of salt here. He helped create one part of the complex that plays a significant role in Madison, after all. Military agencies provide tens of millions of dollars in funding to researchers at UW-Madison every year, an awkward fact of life that stems directly from Eisenhower signing the legislation that created the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Eisenhower’s administration also oversaw the expansion of the surveillance state and covert military operations, from CIA-backed coups in Guatemala and Iran to the groundwork of the ultimately disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. Not to mention his role in American meddling in Southeast Asia, which would curdle into extensive covert and overt military action.
But you can see why the moral and practical force of Eisenhower's "cross of iron" speech still resonates:
This world in arms is not spending money alone.
It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than thirty cities.
It is: two electric power plants, each serving a town of sixty thousand population.
It is: two fine, fully equipped hospitals.
It is: some fifty miles of concrete highway.
We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.
We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than eight thousand people.
This—I repeat—is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.
This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Militarism, education, healthcare, food, housing, civilian infrastructure, all bound up in one massive and delicate balance. It suggests a sort of "it's all connected!" thinking that has long been unfashionable in our political culture. Still, as we debate fighter jets past and present, we are seeing the trade-offs play out in real time. The over-investment in weapons does leave other needs unmet, and causes plenty of new problems. The Madison area's schools and healthcare systems are struggling under the pressure of a COVID-19 pandemic, we don't have a solid game plan for affordable housing, and we have thousands of neighbors who, as Ike put it, "hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."
When the "military-industrial complex" framing comes up in pro-jet arguments, it becomes not just an object of ridicule but an oversimplified straw man. A recent cartoon in the Wisconsin State Journal sets up a scenario where the anti-F-35 crowd is putting people out on the street and standing in the way of new housing development just to make a point, willing to let others suffer if it gives them a hit of smug moral superiority. Cartoonist Phil Hands (he of cursed dick) doesn't actually use the phrase in the cartoon, but writes in the accompanying text that "Madison leaders would rather play politics with the 'military industrial complex' and F-35s than deal with Madison's lack of affordable homes."
The cartoon depicts an archetypal be-turtlenecked old white hippie with a graying ponytail talking down to a homeless man in the rain, saying: "On the bright side, at least you don't have to live in an affordable apartment near the flight path of the F-35s." One could get into a whole thing about the bizarre racial inversions in Hands' cartoons, but suffice it to say that a lot of the folks at the forefront of anti-jet activism in Madison are in fact poor and working-class people of color. The sort of person he's drawing here seems a bit more like someone who owns a $400,000 house on the near-East Side and flips out about the occasional outdoor concert.
Framing the anti-jet crowd as callous housing obstructionists lets some key people off the hook. Namely those who have been cheering on the F-35s and downplaying the risk, without considering that it may be extremely impractical and economically short-sighted to base fighter jets in a rapidly growing urban area that badly needs to create more housing. Madison has boned itself on this. At whose expense? People who already have a hard enough time finding decent housing they can afford. At the expense of a North Side that will no doubt change, but deserves a chance to change on its own diverse, gloriously marshy terms.
Military and business leaders promise jobs and an economic boost for the Madison area. They have traded up for a very expensive wrench that will now be hurled into every decision-making process about development in the flight path for the foreseeable future. And however much people quibble about and minimize the noise F-35s will create compared to the F-16s already based at Truax, the impacts of this sort of thing are already here and already costing us.
Dane County officials are already pursuing litigation over PFAS pollution, a problem deeply intertwined with both civilian and military aviation. You already can't take a walk along Starkweather Creek without seeing warning signs about the contamination. More costs are likely to fall on local governments, as state and federal governments don't have anywhere near an adequate handle on this issue. The business lobby and the courts have limited state environmental regulators' ability to control PFAS thus far, which will make any kind of accountability an uphill battle. At the federal level, too, we are playing catch-up. There are significant obstacles to suing the military over PFAS contamination.
We in Wisconsin and Dane County aren't equipped to deal with the environmental damage that has already happened related to fighter jets, much less the pollution we risk going forward. The pro-jet folks would have us proceed without real plans or capabilities for handling the downside. We already struggle to maintain the health of our local watershed—the bodies of water that give the area so much of its appeal and are a mighty economic asset in their own right. And to these challenges we have added the legal and scientific unknowns of PFAS.
This is sold to us as the pragmatic, wise, sober, cool-headed road. They say none of this will get bad, we can mitigate the sound impacts, and anyways, look, the military says it's fine. Never mind that the F-35 has gone through a series of costly delays and design problems. It's a bad bet even to a lot of people who are otherwise fine with dumping trillions of dollars into the military. You don't even have to have a problem with the military-industrial complex to criticize the F-35 program—in this case, it really is not military-industrial complexing all that effectively.
When people balk at the "military-industrial complex" framing of the issue, it's because Americans often feel the need to convince themselves that their views are entirely pragmatic, above the fray of ideology and politically charged concepts. Invariably, self-styled pragmatists like Hands do have their own share of assumptions and frameworks—whether they care to examine those is another question. But the folks opposing F-35s tend to come to it from a deeply practical perspective. And a concept is useful when it is staring you in the face.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR – WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL
“You can’t live with them!” WSJ reporter, Logan Wroge, recorded these words of Franklin Grahlf, a US Navy veteran, on the first anniversary of the “UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.” Franklin Grahlf was exposed to atomic radiation when his Navy crew, with no protective gear, was ordered to sail to “ground zero” to investigate the consequences of an atomic weapon test in the Bikini Atoll.
Franklin, 99, has lived a long life. But he has had multiple bouts of cancer and the loss of two children, who he feels were affected by his radiation exposure. His plea is that “the countries of the world need to get rid of nuclear weapons.”
In 1983 the Madison City Council passed an ordinance declaring the city a “nuclear free zone" In 2019 the Council passed a resolution calling for this nation to "live up to US obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty by seeking to eliminate all nuclear weapons ....”
Yet Madison now is accepting a squadron (20) of F-35s that will eventually be capable of transporting two nuclear warheads. Whether or not these B61-12 bombs are ever onsite, Madison will become a potential target in a nuclear confrontation.
Jane H Kavaloski
January 22 marked one year since the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which the U.S. has refused to sign, became a binding treaty. To commemorate that anniversary and in anticipation of the impending release of the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, Veterans For Peace (VFP), a non-governmental organization that exposes the costs and consequences of militarism and war and seeks peaceful, effective alternatives, issued its own Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).
The Pentagon’s 2018 NPR says the United States can use nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks, including cyberattacks, in “extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies and partners.” This would allow the U.S. to engage in the “first use” of nuclear weapons. Anti-nuclear activists are pushing Joe Biden to reverse Donald Trump’s policies set forth in the 2018 NPR, including the first-use policy. Moreover, first use of nuclear weapons violates international law. It would also spell disaster for the survival of the planet.
VFP’s 10-page NPR replaces the goal of “full spectrum dominance” over the globe with “full spectrum cooperation.” It calls on the U.S. to implement a verifiable No First Use policy, take nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert and remove the sole authority of the president to launch a nuclear war. VFP urges the United States to begin good faith negotiations with the goal to eliminate all nuclear weapons and take immediate measures to decrease the risk of an accidental nuclear war. It also calls on the U.S. to sign the TPNW.
The TPNW prohibits the transfer, use, or threat to use nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices. States party to the treaty pledge “never under any circumstances” to “develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”
Eighty-six countries have signed the treaty and 57 have ratified it, which makes them parties to the accord. Once it had 50 parties, the TPMW entered into force on January 22, 2021.
But the five original nuclear-armed countries — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — boycotted both the treaty negotiations and the vote. North Korea, Israel, Pakistan and India, also nuclear-armed countries, did not participate in the final vote.
“The danger of a devastating nuclear war is greater than ever,” Gerry Condon, a Vietnam-era veteran and former president of VFP, told Truthout. “We cannot leave the future of the planet in the hands of the generals, the cold warriors and the weapons manufacturers who have brought us one terrible war after another.”
The U.S. Is Violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
Although the United States is a party to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it continues to violate the provisions of that treaty. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said in a 2005 release by the Institute for Public Accuracy, “The U.S. government is not adhering to Article VI of the NPT and we show no signs of planning to adhere to its requirements to move forward with the elimination — not reduction, but elimination — of nuclear weapons.”
VFP calls on the U.S. to implement a verifiable No First Use policy, take nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert and remove the sole authority of the president to launch a nuclear war.
In the years since, the United States has actually moved in the opposite direction. The Obama administration advanced a policy, which Donald Trump and Joe Biden continued, to develop leaner and meaner nuclear weapons. The proposed U.S. budget calls for nearly $2 trillion over the next 30 years to build two new bomb factories, planes, missiles, submarines and redesigned warheads.
The Veterans For Peace Nuclear Posture Review Is Geared Toward Preventing War
Ken Mayers, a VFP national board member, said in an email to Truthout, “When we considered all the Nuclear Posture Reviews since the first one in 1994, we concluded that they all leaned towards war. We decided that veterans should speak up and push our government to correct that posture by standing up for peace. That is the consistent theme of the VFP Nuclear Posture Review.”
It urges the Biden administration to take the following steps (which I summarized with some additional explanations below):
- Implement a No First Use and No Launch on Warning (“Hair Trigger Alert”) policy that entails separating warheads from delivery vehicles;
- Decommission Intercontinental Ballistic Missile silos and weapons because they can only be used as a first strike weapon;
- Replace the president’s exclusive authority to launch a nuclear attack with a safer, collective process that is less likely to lead to a rash decision to launch nukes;
- End Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (a U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense system to shoot down short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles), as well as other anti-ballistic missile systems;
- Sign and ratify the TPNW;
- Actively initiate and pursue negotiations with an aim toward reducing international tensions and a goal of effecting a major reduction in nuclear arms and promoting strategic stability;
- Summon all of the nuclear-armed countries to the table to negotiate a path toward nuclear disarmament, as required by the NPT;
- Join with China and Russia to negotiate space-ban and cyber-ban treaties;
- Ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion” anywhere around the globe;
- Reimplement the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and eliminate all missile “defense” systems;
- Reimplement the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which required the U.S. and the USSR to eliminate and permanently renounce all nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles that had ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers;
- Work with U.S. allies to remove U.S. nuclear weapons that are stationed in the following NATO countries: Germany, Italy, Turkey, Belgium and the Netherlands;
- Recall to the United States all submarines armed with nuclear weapons, ground the nuclear bombers, and dismantle the missile sites;
- End the “nuclear modernization program,” which includes new nuclear weapons research, design, expansion, refurbishment, laboratory testing and sub-critical testing. Pass the Nuclear Weapons Abolition and Economic and Energy Conversion Act (HR 2850), which would redirect the funds to non-carbon, non-nuclear energy systems in order to reduce the impact of climate change and provide benefits to society;
- Appropriate adequate funding to clean up nuclear production and testing facilities, uranium mines and mills, and nuclear waste sites in the U.S. and Pacific nuclear test areas. Develop facilities and technologies to handle radioactive materials; and
- Create economic conversion plans to assist nuclear industry workers in making a transition to constructive employment.
VFP Urges Biden to Rejoin Iran Nuclear Deal and Negotiate Peace Treaty With North Korea
As the United States continues to violate the NPT, it maintains a provocative posture toward North Korea (which has nuclear weapons) and Iran (which doesn’t).
Veterans For Peace proposes that the Biden administration implement a five-point plan to revive U.S.- DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea) talks to end the expensive “forever” U.S. war against the DPRK. The plan includes: an agreement to implement the U.S.-DPRK Joint Statement from the Singapore Summit; negotiation of a peace treaty to replace the outdated 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement; an end to all joint exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, Japan and other countries against the DPRK; the lifting of all sanctions against the DPRK; and the cessation of all threats against North Korea and removal of the U.S. missile system from South Korea.
Meanwhile, VFP is calling on Biden to concretely shift course in relation to Iran. The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal. But one year into his presidency, Biden still has not rejoined the agreement despite his campaign promise to do so. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran pledged not to enrich uranium above the level that could be used for a bomb, in return for the lifting of U.S. sanctions. After Trump renounced the JCPOA, he reimposed punishing sanctions on Iran. VFP urges Biden to lift the sanctions and re-enter the JCPOA.
VFP’s Nuclear Posture Review is a critical document, which, if implemented, would go a long way toward protecting the world from a nuclear war. The Biden administration has the power to move effectively toward nuclear disarmament.
“The U.S. could lead the world to eliminate all nuclear weapons. If we take the first steps, others will follow. That will only happen with a major shift in U.S. foreign policy, however,” Condon said. “We need to push our political leaders to peacefully adjust to a multi-polar world that it no longer dominates. Only then will we have real peace and security.”
By John LaForge, Counterpunch, Dec. 3, 2021
President Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian PM Scott Morrison declared Sept. 15 that they would rebrand their military alliance “AUKUS” and then announced that they had wrested from French warship builders the multi-billion dollar contract to build at least eight Australian nuclear-powered submarines following secret negotiations.
The shocking announcement was a sucker punch to France’s submarine industry, cancelling without warning a $90 billion agreement signed in 2016 to build diesel-powered subs for Australia. The head of French military contractor Naval Group, Pierre Eric Pommellet, spoke of “astonishment and stupefaction” at being told the nearly $90 billion dollar submarine contract with Australia was being torn up, the Guardian reported Oct. 7.
Reacting to what appears to be a case of industrial espionage among fierce global rivals — France had reportedly already spent $2 billion on the agreed diesel-powered attack submarines — Paris recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the United States, and its foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the cancellation betrayed “the letter and spirit” of cooperation between France and Australia.
In the face a dozen severe, urgent, and daunting global crises — climate change, increasingly extreme weather events, deforestation, desertification, over-fishing, mass migration, disease control and prevention, and resource depletion among others — Australia’s decision to throw $90 billion into the black hole of uranium fuel handling, nuclear reactor operations, and endless radioactive waste management, when diesel-powered warships are cheaper and safer, could not be more bewildering.
Australia has not built a submarine for 20 years and because of the plan’s immense complexities, supporters admit that its technical hurdles are enormous, and critics say they “could be insurmountable,” the New York Times reported November 9. “I don’t think this is a done deal in any way, shape or form,” Marcus Hellyer, an expert on naval policy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the Times.
Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said during an Oct. 19 visit to Washington, DC, “To have a nuclear reactor in a submarine in a vessel operating safely is a very difficult thing to do,” alluding to the deadly accident rate among nuclear submarines, the Guardian said.
Grossi said that the onus is on US and the UK to ensure that weapons-grade radioactive material and technology was transferred to Australia in a way that did not risk nuclear weapons proliferation. But such risks can only be exacerbated by Australia’s embrace of military propulsion reactors, because US and UK nuclear submarines run only on highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel, and HEU can be made into nuclear weapons. A new low-enriched uranium fuel system must be developed for the Australian subs, or the country will gain access to weapons-grade uranium.
Australia’s decision to promote nuclear militarism — when the country has no nuclear power expertise, no reactor industry or uranium fuel rod program, no radioactive waste control system, and no infrastructure for radiological disaster response — is shockingly counterintuitive.
Andy Stirling, Phil Johnstone in the November 9 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted that building, maintaining, and operating reactor-propelled submarines depends on “expensive access to specific skills, supply chains, regulatory and design capabilities, educational and research institutions, and waste management and security infrastructures.”
“Australia is not seeking to establish nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,” PM Morrison said September 15. But Friends of the Earth Australia’s spokesperson Jim Green told Australian Broadcasting Corp. news that the country’s “nuclear power lobby” had “been quick off the mark,” and was already using the submarine announcement to push for further involvement with the uranium fuel cycle, including nuclear reactors and radioactive waste storage. In the realm of nuclear power and waste generation, all Australia has now are dozens of uranium mines.
“No country in the world has got a repository to dispose of high-level nuclear waste, and the only repository in the world to dispose of intermediate-level nuclear waste, which is in the United States [the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico], was shut for three years from 2014 to 2017 because of a chemical explosion.”
Australia could still reverse its blindingly expensive, dirty, and risk-intensive decision before adding to the naval parade of sunken billions and wasted lives. It should reject this deal with the nuclear devil and refuse to deliberately generate radioactive waste materials that will permanently pollute our shared environment, the oceanic commons.
— John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch in Wisconsin, edits its Quarterly newsletter, and co-edited with Arianne Peterson Nuclear Heartland Revised: A guide to the 450 land-based missiles of the United States.
Here are video messages of 1st, 2nd and 3rd generations atomic bomb survivors:
- Message from Sadae KASAOKA, Hiroshima survivor: https://youtu.be/2Rqhzqxcj_8
- Message from Michiko HATTORI, Hiroshima survivor: https://youtu.be/o70CSa_qvmw
- Message from Kathleen and Sara Burkinshaw, 2nd and 3rd generations hibakusha: https://youtu.be/lO9YTONILFQ
- Message from Yuki MIYAMOTO, 2nd generation hibakusha: https://youtu.be/0Sl2gQg4aOk
- Message from Daiki YANO, 3rd generation hibakusha: https://youtu.be/LgiIR0LZ-T4
- Message from Kakuwaka Hiroshima, a youth group in Japan: https://youtu.be/g-JUKGpS0Ik
A message from Sadae Kasaoka, August 2021
A testimony of Michiko Hattori, an Atomic bombing survivor
August 5 - PEACE GATHERING 2021 - Kathleen and Sara Burkinshaw
August 5 - PEACE GATHERING 2021 - Yuki Miyamoto
A message from Daiki Yano, August 2021
A message from Kakuwaka Hiroshima, August 2021
The most well-known problem with lesser-evil, two-party, winner-take-all elections, at least in a system of legalized bribery and corporate-state media, is the absence of virtually any really good candidates. Naturally this results in (or is at least one major cause of) the tendency of many to not vote at all — with the United States claiming a lower voter turnout than many other countries it loves to look down on.
But the most serious problem is the tendency of those voters who do vote to nonetheless identify themselves with one of the lousy candidates and parties and its statements and actions year-in-and-year-out so that a larger phenomenon than lesser-evil voting is total lesser-evil existing. The extremely rare individual actually votes with his or her nose appropriately pinched, containing the voting to a single moment while rejecting the hype and keeping a free mind every other day.
This problem is compounded by, and its prevalence exaggerated by, the tendency of commentators to invent explanations for votes based only on who was voted for and not on who was voted against — and certainly not on what would have been voted for had it been anywhere to be found.
The top vote-getter in virtually all U.S. elections is nobody at all. The most popular political party in U.S. polling is neither. Yet, we rarely hear about votes having been cast for this schmuck or that schmuck for lack of anybody better to vote for.
Pre-Trump, we didn’t hear much about people voting for candidates only because there wasn’t someone more racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and buffoonish. But once Trump gained the White House, we heard all about the inevitable, intrinsic, systemic racism latent in every Trump voter who had previously voted for Democrats — apparently even those who’d backed Bernie Sanders and even those who’d voted for Obama.
Did many people, in fact, support Trump’s racism? Of course. Did many of them have a latent history of racism and live in a country with a deep history of racism? Of course. But could something completely different from Trump have appealed to them more than Trump did? I think so.
Nobody claimed that any Trump voters were voting that way for lack of any candidates with less clarity, more dementia, and a long-standing commitment to corporate corruption, wars, credit card companies, and quasi-liberal muddling. The need for Joe Biden only needed explaining after Biden had been elected, not before.
Biden and Democratic votes are sometimes recognized as anti-Trump votes, and sometimes as deep devotion to whatever mashup of LBJ and Reagan the Democrats seem to be peddling, but rarely as nose-squeezing, quasi-nauseous votes for the lesser evil of two repulsive crapsandwich choices.
When Mark Warner lost his campaign for governor of Virginia after campaigning almost entirely on his opponent being like Trump, it wasn’t necessary to look closely at his weak platform or his devotion to gas companies.
Nor has there ever been much examination of the cheating that was required to deny Bernie Sanders a presidential nomination. In fact, a ridiculous propaganda gimmick invented to distract from that story itself exploded into a top news story for years, with the debunking of it still occupying prominent space — it was called Russiagate.
What does any of this have to do with Build Back Better? Well, the BBB bill, as originally conceived, was a minimal sort of social needs proposal, pathetically far behind the norm on the planet, originally costing about a third of U.S. military spending (across all departments and agencies of military spending, and treating both BBB and military spending in terms of annual cost, rather than multiplying only the former by 10 as is the custom). BBB has now been cut to (depending on how you count it) a sixth of military spending and with — wait for it — no, it’s really worth the wait — wait for it — tax cuts for the mega-wealthy thrown in during the process of paring the bill down because of — you guessed it — costs.
The U.S. public supported the original Build Back Better bill and even more so the more progressive elements in it, and yet more so a simpler and fuller provision of those elements that was never proposed. There’s not a single human right treated in the BBB bill as a simple universal human right to be provided to everyone without question, means testing, form filling, or resentment building. Rather than providing everyone with pre-school and college, and improving schools from pre-school through college, the bill provides a number of ways to pay less than you do now for preschool depending on your income, etc. This is trumpeted as “Universal Pre-K,” but misses the entire point of universality, which is to make people better off, not to piss people off. The bill tweaks the existing hopeless, and hopelessly complex health coverage system, rather than turning healthcare into the human right it is for humans in other countries. There’s no free college, no living wage, no debt cancellation, no major green new deal for us all. There’s little to inspire and less to bring us together.
I think better than building back any of the twisted, convoluted, half-assed programs in existence, would have been the creation of new, simple, bureaucracy-free, rights to a better life. I think universality, despite its success in other parts of the world, is radically underappreciated in a divided and conquered United States.
Why should rich people get pandemic survival checks? Why shouldn’t descendants of enslaved people get reparations payments? Why should someone who doesn’t go to college pay taxes to make college free? Why should smokers get health coverage? Why should someone get out of their student debt when I didn’t? These are the popular demands.
I don’t claim to have a universal answer to all such questions. There are some questions that I would certainly answer differently if they stood alone. If the rotten U.S. political system were condemned to remain unchanged except in one single regard, then, sure, I’d vote for slavery reparations. By the same token, I’d vote for term limits just to get different corrupt faces into the news, rather than working to make it possible to unelect incumbents.
But I think that there is a consideration being missed by all of these questions, and that it is an extremely important one that usually ought to tip the balance. It is the value of universality. It’s not a theoretical value. It’s what makes Scandinavia a desirable place to live. It’s what makes Social Security and public high schools so popular. It’s why people campaign for Medicare for All, not Medicare for the Worthy. It’s why we’re outraged at the idea of a fire crew asking to see paperwork and check qualifications before putting out a fire.
Universality does a number of things that means-tested programs for certain people do not.
It creates no stigma for those receiving something. That something is not a hand-out but a human right.
It creates no resentment for those not receiving something, because there is no such group. Every service is made available to everyone it might possibly serve should they desire it.
It avoids the costly and massive bureaucratic inefficiency of determining who qualifies and who doesn’t.
It builds solidarity, and encourages a politics in which larger groups can unite to make further changes.
It discourages, not just resentment of actual beneficiaries, but also irrational prejudice against particular groups benefitting or imagined to be benefitting disproportionately.
It strengthens support for maintaining a program into the future, rather than opening up the means to chip away at it until it’s gone.
Universality works against the ideology that justifies inequality, opening up the possibility of taxing corporate and personal wealth. There’s no way to resent giving relatively tiny benefits to billionaires if you’ve taxed away their billions and there are no longer any billionaires. (And did you really think giving a billionaire $600 was going to have a noticeable impact on things?)
If the U.S. government were to give everyone who wants them, across the board, any or all of these things: top quality education from pre-school through college or trade school, top-quality health care, low working hours, long vacations, family and parental leave, retirement, public transportation, childcare, adult education, greater environmental sustainability, and — if Scandinavia is any guide — as a result, a wider range of opportunity, greater class mobility, more entrepreneurs per capita, more patents, and more creativity, who would complain? Whom would I possibly resent? What group of people could some fascist buffoon get me to take out my rage on? For that matter, what foreign leader could an opposing political party redirect my anger toward? What anger? What would there be to be angry about?
As Robert McChesney notes, universality “is the reason the two most popular and successful federal government programs in the United States—Social Security and Medicare—have been impossible for the right to defeat, even though they have been trying to do so since the moment those programs were created in the 1930s and 1960s respectively.”
McChesney also has a theory as to why there aren’t more such popular programs:
“It is standard procedure for most Democratic candidates to support Bernie style social programs in theory—or at least some of them—but then to insert the caveat that ‘of course, rich people or even people above the poverty line should not get them for free because they can afford to pay for them out of their own pockets.’ It sounds very fair and progressive, a blow against crony capitalism and directing government money to the undeserving rich. It is a staple line regarding the student debt plan of Elizabeth Warren, for example, and is roundly approved by the punditocracy. It is the mark of a ‘serious’ candidate. It is called ‘means testing.’ But means testing is a phony progressivism and a crucial tactic promoted by the right to eliminate social welfare programs that could benefit the population. . . . [A]s soon as means-testing is accepted on principle and introduced for a program, it begs the logical question of why not extend it to other similar social programs? So if means testing free public college tuition is such a great idea, then why not have well-to-do parents pay tuition for their children in public high schools and middle schools and elementary schools? Why not bill only the rich when they drive on any public roads or use public libraries or parks or restrooms? Why not charge them for using the police or fire departments? Where exactly do you draw the line? That is a slippery slope toward privatization and elimination of government functions.”
As noted above, there is an alternative to eliminating government functions, namely eliminating the rich through taxation and the abandonment of government bailouts and benefits that discriminate against everyone except the rich. Taxation should not be universal, should not be “flat,” and should not be regressive as it mostly is now in the United States. It should be progressive. But it should be used to create universal programs — which would be easier without the majority of tax revenue going, as it does now, to wars and war preparations.
Wars aren’t the only thing it’s damn hard to end once started. Universal programs are like that too. Making college part of public education, or making Medicare serve us all would be an accomplishment that would likely last as long as the U.S. government. If Joe Biden wants to be FDR or LBJ (minus the wars please!) he should create something universal and lasting. It would be lasting because it could not be attacked as supposedly only benefitting a certain hated group. Nor could it be attacked as inefficient and in need of privatization. It’s the means-testing bureaucracy that’s inefficient. It’s the privatization solution that’s even more inefficient. There’s nothing more efficient than nonprofit universality.
So, why should rich people get pandemic survival checks? Because there are more downsides to means-testing than upsides, because the answer to excessive inequality is to replace regressive taxation with progressive taxes, because who counts as a rich person is going to be defined by the rich people, and because we can’t all be in this together or have the huge advantages of all being in this together unless we’re all in this together.
Why shouldn’t descendants of enslaved people get reparations payments? Because they could get vastly more, and so could everyone else in a non-zero-sum calculation, by transforming U.S. society into a fair and egalitarian place (aiding all in need and taking from all who can spare) rather than courting nasty fascist blowback, building corrupt bureaucracy, and dividing us into a divided people who can be conquered easily.
Why should someone who doesn’t go to college pay taxes to make college free for others? Because those others pay taxes to make trade school free. Because they teach your kids or at least the young people who will care for you when you are old. Because we are stronger together than apart.
Why should smokers get health coverage? Because human rights are for humans, the human without a flaw does not exist, and a government agency to identify all smokers is not something I want to pay for or live with.
Why should someone get out of their student debt when I didn’t? Because I’m not sadistic. I do not wish for others to suffer if I’ve suffered, but rather, just the reverse.
What would prevent someone turning to Trumpism? Something better to turn to.
Is what’s left of BBB such a thing? Was the original BBB such a thing? I very much doubt it. But the press releases you’ll read if they enact BBB into law will suggest that its creators know damn well what it should have been.
By Directors Peterson and Baez
On COVID, Education, Culture and the Normalization of Relations with Cuba
1. WHEREAS, As of January 2021, the United States has the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths
in the world --25 million infected, and deaths exceeding 420,000, with these deaths and disabilities
falling disproportionately on Black and Latino/a communities, seniors, and increasingly among our
2. WHEREAS, This disease has caused severe disruption in our efforts to educate our children and has put
teachers, staff, and students at serious risk; and
3. WHEREAS, This crisis demonstrates the importance of international cooperation and solidarity in the
fields of public health as well as education for the common good; and
4. WHEREAS, In 1960, the US government adopted a policy intended “. . . to bring about hunger,
desperation, and overthrow of the government” in Cuba resulting in the longest and “. . . most
comprehensive set of US sanctions [imposed] on any country . . . ” and
5. WHEREAS, The Trump administration severely tightened the constraints against Cuba, enacting more
than 40 new restrictive measures in 2020 alone, including restrictions on the right to attend
professional conferences and other curbs on our right to travel, all of which was a reversal of the
policies enacted by President Obama, who visited Cuba; and
6. WHEREAS, This policy of hostility has provided no benefits to the people of the US and has cruelly
impacted the standard of living of the 11.3 million Afro-Latino/a people of Cuba; and
7. WHEREAS, Cuba, a small and poor nation, has prioritized education and universal healthcare and is
currently providing free medical education to students from all over the world, including the US,
one whom is Alexandra Skeeter, a 2010 graduate of Rufus King High School; and
8. WHEREAS, In 2017 Cuba sent medical experts to Chicago to work with public health authorities in
addressing the high rate of infant mortality on its southside, a serious public health issue we also
face in Milwaukee; and
9. WHEREAS, Cuba’s biomedical research has produced many medicines, including one used successfully
by a West Bend, Wisconsin resident to treat his stage three lung cancer (who traveled illegally to
receive treatment), and one that reduces the need for amputations among sufferers of diabetes,
which disproportionately affects people of color in the US; and
10. WHEREAS, Cuba has responded to the COVID pandemic by implementing public health measures that
have limited fatalities to 194 deaths among its over 11 million people [Johns Hopkins University],
compared to Wisconsin with over 6,000 deaths among half that population; and
11. WHEREAS, Cuba has shared its expertise all around the world by sending 4,000 medical practitioners
to 38 countries to assist their local efforts to fight COVID; and
12. WHEREAS, Cuba has also shared its methods for advancing literacy in many countries, including here
in Milwaukee, where Cuban teachers have made presentations to our teachers and families; and
13. WHEREAS, Cuba’s educational system has been recognized by the United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Laboratorio Latinoamericano de la Calidad de la
Educación, and in numerous studies and by educational scholars—including U.S. scholars—for its
investments in education, its consistently high academic performance, its focus on cultural
inclusiveness, equity, and student engagement—all things that U.S. educators could benefit from
through cultural exchanges; and
14. WHEREAS, All MPS students, staff and families, particularly those of Cuban heritage would benefit
from closer ties to educators in Cuba; now, therefore, be it
15. RESOLVED that the Milwaukee Board of School Directors call on the Biden administration and all other
appropriate political, health, and educational authorities to promptly invite negotiations with their
Cuban counterparts to explore mutually beneficial cooperation, as a step toward normalization of
relations between our countries.
January 27, 2021