You are hereBlogs / Lawrence Wittner's blog
Lawrence Wittner's blog
Within a matter of months, the U.S. government seems likely to become the only nation in the world still rejecting the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Sometimes called “the most ratified human rights treaty in history,” the Convention has been ratified by 195 nations, leaving the United States and South Sudan as the only holdouts. South Sudan is expected to move forward with ratification later this year. But there is no indication that the United States will approve this children’s defense treaty.
A quarter century after the end of the Cold War and decades after the signing of landmark nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements, are the U.S. and Russian governments once more engaged in a potentially disastrous nuclear arms race with one another? It certainly looks like it.
With approximately 15,000 nuclear weapons between them, the United States and Russia already possess about 93 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal, thus making them the world’s nuclear hegemons. But, apparently, like great powers throughout history, they do not consider their vast military might sufficient, especially in the context of their growing international rivalry.
Now that the Republican Party―the conservative voice in mainstream U.S. electoral politics―has attained the most thoroughgoing control of Congress that it has enjoyed since 1928, it’s an appropriate time to take a good look at modern conservatism.
Review of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, by Betty Medsger (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 596 pages. Notes, Index. Hardcover $29.95; paperback $16.95).
In a recent article about Shirley Jackson, the president since 1999 of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)―a private university located in Troy, New York―the Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that, in 2012 (the latest year for which statistics are available), she received over $7 million from that institution. Like many modern campus administrators, President Jackson was also given a large mansion, first class air travel, and a chauffeured luxury car to transport her around the campus.
Thanks to the fact that Jackson also serves on at least five corporate boards, including those of IBM and Marathon Oil, she supplements this income with more than a million dollars a year from these sources.
U.S. politicians and pundits are fond of saying that America’s wars have defended America’s freedom. But the historical record doesn’t bear out this contention. In fact, over the past century, U.S. wars have triggered major encroachments upon civil liberties.
In the supposedly classless society of the United States, the wealthiest Americans are doing remarkably well.
According to Forbes, a leading business magazine, the combined wealth of the 400 richest Americans has now reached the staggering total of $2.3 trillion. This gives them an average net worth of $5.7 billion―an increase of 14 percent over the previous year.
American politicians are fond of telling their audiences that the United States is the greatest country in the world. Is there any evidence for this claim?
After thousands of years of bloody wars among contending tribes, regions, and nations, is it finally possible to dispense with the chauvinist ideas of the past?
Sometimes, amid the heated political debate about what should done by the U.S. government in world affairs, a proposal cuts through the TV babble of the supposed experts with a clear, useful suggestion.
That proposal came on August 17, when Pope Francis told journalists how he thought the world should cope with the challenge posed by ISIS, the Islamic militant group engaged in murderous behavior in Syria and Iraq. “One nation alone cannot judge how you stop this,” he said, in an apparent reference to U.S. action against ISIS crimes. Instead, the United Nations is the proper forum to “discuss `Is there an unjust aggression’” and “`How should we stop it?’ Just this. Nothing more.”
Americans committed to better living for bosses can take heart at the fact that college and university administrators—unlike their faculty (increasingly reduced to rootless adjuncts) and students (saddled with ever more debt)―are thriving.
In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, 42 private college and university presidents received more than a million dollars each for their work. Robert Zimmer (University of Chicago) was the best-paid, at $3,358,723. At public colleges and universities, nine top administrators garnered more than $1 million each in 2012-2013, with the best-paid, E. Gordon Gee (Ohio State University), receiving $6,057,615.
Ever since the horrors of submarine warfare became a key issue during World War I, submarines have had a sinister reputation. And the building of new, immensely costly, nuclear-armed submarines by the U.S. government and others may soon raise the level of earlier anxiety to a nuclear nightmare.
National officials certainly assume that war has a future. According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, world military expenditures totaled nearly $1.75 trillion in 2013. Although, after accounting for inflation, this is a slight decrease over the preceding year, many countries increased their military spending significantly, including China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, 23 countries doubled their military spending between 2004 and 2013. None, of course, came anywhere near to matching the military spending of the United States, which, at $640 billion, accounted for 37 percent of 2013’s global military expenditures. Furthermore, all the nuclear weapons nations are currently “modernizing” their nuclear arsenals.
Is economic inequality growing in American higher education?
A report just issued by the Institute for Policy Studies―The One Percent at State U―indicates that it is. Surveying public universities, the report finds that the 25 highest-paid presidents increased their income by a third between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2012, bringing their average total compensation to nearly a million dollars each. Also, the number of these chief executives earning over a million dollars in 2012 more than doubled over the previous year. In 2013, the best-paid among them was E. Gordon Gee of Ohio State University, who raked in $6,057,615 from this employment.
Despite the central role of women in environmental activism, surprisingly little is known about them. Furthermore, what is known is usually limited to the work of Rachel Carson, whose powerful call to action, Silent Spring (1962), is widely credited with jump-starting the modern environmental movement. Fortunately, Robert Musil’s new book, Rachel Carson and Her Sisters (Rutgers University Press, 2014), remedies this situation.
Musil notes that, as the nineteenth century progressed, increasing numbers of American women obtained better education and the ability to travel, write, and take action. Hiking and botanizing, they observed the encroachment of manufacturing and urban life on the countryside. Eventually, they produced a flood of books, magazine articles, journals, and children’s stories about nature.
Your doctors are worried about your health―in fact, about your very survival.
No, they’re not necessarily your own personal physicians, but, rather, medical doctors around the world, represented by groups like International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). As you might recall, that organization, composed of many thousands of medical professionals from all across the globe, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for exposing the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons.
Well, what seems to be the problem today?
Is there an emotional connection between the oceans and the pursuit of peace? In the latter part of the twentieth century, the oceans were used for nuclear weapons tests and for the transport of nuclear weapons, and this might explain the advent of maritime protests against war, especially nuclear war. But, for whatever reason, peace ships have been increasing in number over the past century.
* * *
Probably the first of these ocean-going vessels was the notorious Ford Peace Ship of 1915, which stirred up more ridicule than peace during World War I.
As the United States begins to grapple with the issue of growing economic inequality, it should not ignore the widening income gap on American college campuses.
Some of the nation’s poorest people work at higher educational institutions, and many of them are members of the faculty. Oh, yes, there are still faculty members who receive comfortable middle class salaries. But most faculty do not. These underpaid educators are adjunct faculty, who now comprise an estimated 74 percent of America’s college teachers. Despite advanced degrees, scholarly research experience, and teaching credentials, they are employed at an average of $2,700 per course. Even when they manage to cobble together enough courses to constitute a full-time teaching load, that usually adds up to roughly $20,000 per year -- an income that leaves many of them and their families officially classified as living in poverty. Some apply for and receive food stamps.
Adjunct faculty face other job-related difficulties as well. Lacking employment security of any kind, they can be hired to teach courses the day before classes begin -- or, for that matter, not hired at all. They often receive no healthcare or other benefits, have no office space, mailboxes, or email addresses at colleges where they teach, and drive long distances between their jobs on different campuses. As the impoverished migrant labor force of its day, this new faculty majority deserves its own Grapes of Wrath.
It’s heartening to see that an agreement has been reached to ensure that Iran honors its commitment, made when it signed the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to forgo developing nuclear weapons.
But what about the other key part of the NPT, Article VI, which commits nuclear-armed nations to “cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament,” as well as to “a treaty on general and complete disarmament”? Here we find that, 44 years after the NPT went into force, the United States and other nuclear powers continue to pursue their nuclear weapons buildups, with no end in sight.
On January 8, 2014, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced what Reuters termed “ambitious plans to upgrade [U.S.] nuclear weapons systems by modernizing weapons and building new submarines, missiles and bombers to deliver them.” The Pentagon intends to build a dozen new ballistic missile submarines, a new fleet of long-range nuclear bombers, and new intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in late December that implementing the plans would cost $355 billion over the next decade, while an analysis by the independent Center for Nonproliferation Studies reported that this upgrade of U.S. nuclear forces would cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years. If the higher estimate proves correct, the submarines alone would cost over $29 billion each.
When it comes to war, the American public is remarkably fickle.
The responses of Americans to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars provide telling examples. In 2003, according to opinion polls, 72 percent of Americans thought going to war in Iraq was the right decision. By early 2013, support for that decision had declined to 41 percent. Similarly, in October 2001, when U.S. military action began in Afghanistan, it was backed by 90 percent of the American public. By December 2013, public approval of the Afghanistan war had dropped to only 17 percent.
In fact, this collapse of public support for once-popular wars is a long-term phenomenon. Although World War I preceded public opinion polling, observers reported considerable enthusiasm for U.S. entry into that conflict in April 1917. But, after the war, the enthusiasm melted away. In 1937, when pollsters asked Americans whether the United States should participate in another war like the World War, 95 percent of the respondents said “No.”
And so it went. When President Truman dispatched U.S. troops to Korea in June 1950, 78 percent of Americans polled expressed their approval. By February 1952, according to polls, 50 percent of Americans believed that U.S. entry into the Korean War had been a mistake. The same phenomenon occurred in connection with the Vietnam War. In August 1965, when Americans were asked if the U.S. government had made “a mistake in sending troops to fight in Vietnam,” 61 percent of them said “No.” But by August 1968, support for the war had fallen to 35 percent, and by May 1971 it had dropped to 28 percent.
Of all America’s wars over the past century, only World War II has retained mass public approval. And this was a very unusual war – one involving a devastating military attack upon American soil, fiendish foes determined to conquer and enslave the world, and a clear-cut, total victory.
In almost all cases, though, Americans turned against wars they once supported. How should one explain this pattern of disillusionment?
By Lawrence S. Wittner
The State University of New York (SUNY) – 64 higher education campuses with nearly half a million students – is the largest university system in the United States. Therefore, when university administrators join the state’s governor in turning SUNY into a loyal servant of big business, that fact has significant ramifications.
The university’s new mission became increasingly evident in the spring of 2013, when Andrew Cuomo –New York’s pro-corporate Democratic governor – began barnstorming around the state, calling for a dramatic “culture shift” in the SUNY system. Faculty, he said, would have to “get interested and participate in entrepreneurial activities.” The situation was “delicate because academics are academics. . . . But . . . you’d be a better academic if you were actually entrepreneurial.”
Some 47 million Americans live in poverty, and a key reason is the decline of the minimum wage.
Can the world’s biggest corporations act with impunity? When it comes to General Electric (GE) -- the eighth largest U.S. corporation, with $146.9 billion in sales and $13.6 billion in profits in 2012 -- the answer appears to be “yes.”
Let us begin with a small-scale case in upstate New York, where in late September 2013 GE announced that it would close its electrical capacitor plant in the town of Fort Edward. Some 200 workers will lose their jobs and, thereafter, will have little opportunity to obtain comparable wages, pensions, or even employment in this economically distressed region. Ironically, the plant has been highly profitable. Earlier in the year, the local management threw a party to celebrate a record-breaking quarter. But the high-level financial dealings of a vast multinational operation like GE are mysterious, and the company merely announced that the Fort Edward plant was “non-competitive.” The United Electrical Workers (UE), the union that has represented the workers there for the past 70 years, has already begun a vigorous campaign of resistance to the plant closing, but it is sure to be an uphill battle.
If we dig deeper into the record, a broader pattern of corporate misbehavior emerges. Indeed, the Fort Edward factory is one of two GE plants that polluted the communities at Fort Edward and nearby Hudson Falls, as well as a 197-mile stretch of the Hudson River, with 1.3 million pounds of cancer-causing PCBs for several decades. Worried about the dangers of PCBs, workers asked managers about them, and were told that these toxins were perfectly safe -- in fact, that the workers should rub the PCBs on their heads to combat baldness! When the extent of this environmental disaster began to be revealed in the 1970s, GE began a lengthy campaign to deny it and, later, a multimillion dollar public relations campaign to prevent remedial action by the Environmental Protection Administration. GE lost this battle, for the EPA insisted upon the dredging of the Hudson River and ordered GE to pay for it. Thus, the Hudson Valley became the largest Superfund cleanup site in the United States, with a project that will take decades to complete.
GE has produced other environmental disasters, as well. Three GE nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power site in Japan melted down and exploded on March 31, 2011. This was the world’s worst nuclear accident in three decades, and quickly spread radioactive contamination nearly 150 miles. Indeed, the stricken reactors are still sending 300 tons a day of radioactive water flooding into the Pacific Ocean. Dr. Helen Caldicott, who has studied nuclear power for decades, has estimated that up to 3.5 million people could eventually die from cancer thanks to the Fukushima radiation release. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when these boiling water nuclear reactors were installed, GE’s engineers and management knew that their design was flawed. But the company kept selling them to unsuspecting utilities around the world, including many in the United States. As a result, there are still 35 GE boiling water reactors operating in this country, most of them located near population centers east of the Mississippi River. Currently, in fact, more than 58 million Americans live within 50 miles of a GE nuclear reactor.
Another important product produced by GE is the export of jobs. According to an extensive New York Times report on GE in March 2011: “Since 2002, the company has eliminated a fifth of its work force in the United States while increasing overseas employment.” By the end of 2010, another study found, 54 percent of GE’s 287,000 employees worked abroad. Not surprisingly, the company’s overseas operations in that year provided most of its total revenue. Responding to GE’s claim that it had created thousands of new jobs in the United States during the Obama administration, Chris Townsend, the political action director of the UE, produced a list of 40 U.S. plants the company closed in the country during the same period.
Townsend also noted that, even when GE kept its operations going in the United States, it slashed wages, sometimes by as much as 45 percent at a time. For example, the work of the Fort Edward plant will be moved to Clearwater, Florida, a non-union site where GE pays many workers $12 an hour and hires others through a temp agency at $8 an hour -- little more than the minimum wage.
Although technically a U.S. corporation, GE – with operations in 130 nations – apparently feels little loyalty to the United States. Jack Welch, a former GE CEO, once remarked: “Ideally, you’d have every plant you own on a barge to move with currencies and changes in the economy.” According to a Bloomberg analysis, to avoid paying U.S. taxes, GE keeps more of its profits overseas than any other U.S. company -- $108 billion by the end of 2012. Most of these profits, GE declared, would be invested in its foreign business enterprises. Thanks to this tax dodge and others, GE reportedly paid an average annual U.S. corporate income tax rate of only 1.8 percent between 2002 and 2011. In 2010, when GE reported worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, it paid no U.S. corporate income tax at all. Instead, it claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion. This is a sweet deal for that giant corporation, for the official corporate tax rate is 35 percent.
Despite this appalling record, the U.S. government has been very generous to GE. During the financial crisis of 2008-2009, the federal government’s Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program loaned approximately $85 billion to GE Capital, the company’s huge finance arm that accounts for roughly half of GE’s profits. GE needed the bailout because, among other reasons, GE Capital was marketing subprime mortgages, making GE the tenth-largest subprime lender in the United States. The Federal Reserve also bought $16.1 billion worth of short-term corporate i.o.u.’s from GE in late 2008, when the public market for this kind of debt had nearly frozen, and GE became one of the largest beneficiaries of this federal program. In yet a further indication of GE’s influence, President Obama appointed Jeffrey Immelt, GE’s CEO, as chair of his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, which strategizes about how to revive America’s manufacturing base. One of Immelt’s favorite panaceas is to end taxes on the overseas profits of corporations.
Thus, it might seem that those 200 embattled workers at Fort Edward have no possibility at all of effectively challenging a corporation this wealthy and influential. But stranger things have happened in the United States -- especially when Americans have had their fill of corporate arrogance.
Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, "What’s Going On at UAardvark?”
The apparent employment of chemical weapons in Syria should remind us that, while weapons of mass destruction exist, there is a serious danger that they will be used.
That danger is highlighted by an article in the September/October 2013 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Written by two leading nuclear weapons specialists, Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris of the Federation of American Scientists, the article provides important information about nuclear weapons that should alarm everyone concerned about the future of the planet.
Is the human race determined to snuff itself out through mass violence? There are many signs that it is.
The most glaring indication lies in the continued popularity of war. Despite well over a hundred million deaths in World Wars I and II, plus the brutal military conflicts in Korea, Indochina, Hungary, Algeria, Lebanon, Angola, Mozambique, the Philippines, the Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, wars continue to rage across the globe, consuming vast numbers of lives and resources. In 2012, worldwide military spending reached $1.75 trillion. Moreover, the most lavish spenders for weaponry, war, and destruction were the supposedly “civilized” nations of NATO, with $1 trillion in military expenditures. By far the biggest military spender in 2012 was the United States, which accounted for 39 percent of the world total.
Nor has this pattern shifted since that time. Currently, the U.S. government is pouring $7 billion a month into its twelve-and-a-half-year-long war in Afghanistan. Elsewhere, drones are rapidly becoming the U.S. weapons of choice in the worldwide “War on Terror,” with America’s largest spy drone, the Global Hawk, costing $220 million each. In recent months, as the U.S. House of Representatives voted to end food stamps for the poor, continued the sequestration that slashed meals for sick and homebound seniors, and moved toward ending Saturday mail delivery, it rejected a 1 percent cut in military spending and, then, voted for a national defense authorization that provided for billions of dollars more than the Pentagon requested.
Should a public university be transformed into a corporate welfare project? That’s the key question surrounding “Tax-Free NY,” a new plan zealously promoted by New York State’s Democratic Governor, Andrew Cuomo.
Under the provisions of his Tax-Free NY scheme, most of the 64 campuses of the State University of New York (SUNY), some private colleges, and zones adjacent to SUNY campuses would be thrown open to private businesses that would be exempted from state taxes on sales, property, the income of their owners, and the income of their employees for a period of ten years. According to the governor, this creation of tax-free havens for private, profit-making companies is designed to create economic development and jobs, especially in upstate New York.
Joined by businessmen, politicians, and top SUNY administrators, Cuomo has embarked on a full court press for his plan. Tax-Free NY, he announced, was “a game-changing initiative that will transform SUNY campuses and university communities across the state.” Conceding that these tax-free zones wouldn’t work without a dramatic “culture shift” in the SUNY system, Cuomo argued that faculty would have to “get interested and participate in entrepreneurial activities.” As he declared in mid-May, the situation was “delicate, because academics are academics. . . . But you can be a great academic and you can be entrepreneurial, and I would argue you’d be a better academic if you were actually entrepreneurial.”