Some Dumb Questions

Like many older people, I go on the Internet a lot. Isn't that a wonderful thing we seniors have available to us now? I've been reading there about the increase in the military budget President Bush proposed and I have questions. I'm just an old man who was never in the service and I admit I have a whole lot to learn about the military, so maybe someone will help me out and answer my queries. Before we get started, I wish to express my admiration and full support for the men and women of the US military who are struggling maintain the American freedoms

My questions began when I read on the net that President Bush was requesting a $48 billion increase in the Pentagon's budget for next year. This must be the right thing to do; after all, over 80% of the American public approve of how the president is doing his job. I was able to come up with some numbers on the web that led to my questions: The current Pentagon budget is $330 billion; in 2001 it was $291 billion. In 2000 it was $289 billion, in 1999 it was $278 billion and in 1998 it was $259 billion. In the last five years the United States spent $1.447 trillion on defense. That is a lot of money and it brings up my first dumb question: Considering we had no serious military activity during the last five years -- none of our tanks, planes, ship or munitions were expended until after September 2001 -- why does President Bush need to spend so much more on the military when we already have spent so much? There is the action in Afghanistan, but that involves only four thousand American troops and it is just about over. Why do we need an increase for next year? How about the evil axis: Iran, Iraq and North Korea? The Internet is a wonderful tool, for it allowed me to come up with some numbers for those countries. For Iran I found a 2001 defense budget of $993 million. For North Korea I came up with a 2002 defense budget of $1.42 billion. It doesn't surprise me that information on Iraq was much more difficult to come up with, but I did find that in 1999 the entire national budget was $59.09 billion. I can't vouch for these figures but they do draw a picture showing that together these countries spend a lot less on defense than the United States does. Throw Al Qaeda into the mix with it assets of less than a billion dollars and I become more confused. Maybe some of those folks who give President Bush that 80% approval rating can explain why he needs so much more money to deal with these bush league countries?.

In considering these questions, I ran into some other numbers on the Internet that got me thinking. Again, I recognize I'm an old man who was never in the military and it could be that I just don't understand. But, we have 1,371,000 people in the US military. Over the last five years no more than a few thousand of them have seen anything like active duty. My next dumb question is, what do the rest of them do all day? I know some of them sail our aircraft carriers all around the world and I wonder why. Others fly our planes across the planet regularly, to what end? I imagine some go out and practice driving tanks and others fire off howitzers. Are they expecting an invasion? But, this wouldn't add up to 1,371,000 people. What do the rest do? But, I'm an old man who has never been in the military. What do I know? I just ask dumb questions.

Considering those people who sail, fly, drive and fire off, another one of my dumb questions arises: If they're so well trained, why do we have to call up the reserves every time things get going? We did it in Desert Storm, in Bosnia and now in Afghanistan. If during peace time we have all these people training to defend the nation, why don't they do so when it's necessary? Why call up the reserves? Maybe some of those people who give President Bush an 80% approval rating could explain that to me.

Another number adds to my confusion. There are 668,000 civilian employees in the department of defense. My next dumb question is, why are they necessary? If there are, say, 1,300,000 members of the military who are not fighting any enemy, couldn't some of those people be detailed to carry out the activities performed by the civilians? But, again I'm an old man without any military training. What do I know? I just ask dumb questions.

In reading the newspapers on line -- especially the New York Times -- I ran into some fellows who do know a thing or two; William A. Owens is a retired admiral who was former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Stanley A. Weiss is the chairman of Business Executives for National Security.

In an op-ed article in the Times on Feb. 7, 2002, they cite a report by the Tail and Tooth Commission that was sponsored by the Business Executives for National Security. This commission was made up of leaders from the military, from government and from business. Owens and Weiss state the commission found:

Most if not all of the resources necessary to finance a 21st-century military are already available. But they‚re wasted on mid-20th-century business practices. An astounding 70% of the defense budget is spent on overhead and infrastructure (the bureaucratic tail). Only 30% directly reaches our combat forces in the field (the tooth).

Yet it is this wasteful structure that President Bush wants to dramatically increase. He does so on the advice of Donald Rumsfeld, probably the most experienced Secretary of Defense in US history, and General Colin Powell who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Either these men don't know what really is going on in the military, which scares the hell out of me, or, somebody is trying to fool somebody, which is worse. I can't help but think of Dwight Eisenhower's warning to beware of the military-industrial complex. This leads me to my last dumb question. Shouldn't those people who give George Bush a better than 80% approval rating think again? That's something this old man feels he knows something about.

Art Hambach

Aurora, IL 60506

Email bigart@ameritech.net


Don't Blame Draft Dodgers


Your 4/1/02 issue, "Rural Routes" includes an item headed, "Kerry Blasts Draft Dodging R's." As much as I admire some of Sen. Kerry's positions and rhetoric, I find it hard to fathom why Margot Ford McMillen accepts this particular view of Sen. Kerry without comment or qualification.

First, having participated in a war -- even gallantly and sustaining wounds -- does not justify either the particular war or the participation. I, along with millions of others, saw -- and continue to see -- the conflict in Vietnam as totally without merit, resulting in thousands of unnecessary American deaths and an even greater number of Vietnamese deaths. Second, many of those who protested the war then, especially those who chose to pay a price for that protest by serving time in jail, or leaving their families and lives to emigrate rather than serve in an unjust war were as motivated by patriotism as Sen. Kerry.

Unfortunately, bravery on the battlefield has little relevance to the soundness of the specific ideological or ethical cause for which it is employed. If it did, those Germans who fought and were wounded in World War II would be entitled not only to espouse the Nazi cause today, but also its ideology; and those Germans who sat out the war, either for reasons of principle or by chance, would not have the right to take issue with their position.

I agree with Sen. Kerry that we all have not only the right, but an obligation to question "those who try to stifle the vibrancy of our democracy, and shield policies from scrutiny behind a false cloak of patriotism ... and we will ask questions and we will defend our democracy." I also believe that that duty was patriotically fulfilled by many who refused to participate in our country's actions in Vietnam.

By citing the "draft dodging" in that era by these Republicans as a reason to dismiss their attempts to stifle criticism of the president's present actions, he is not only denigrating all Vietnam war dissenters, he is also begging the question of whether criticizing the president is, in itself, unpatriotic. If the point is that these Republicans are hypocritical "hawks," who were willing to send others into battle while they themselves were not willing to risk their lives in a war which they justified at that time, I can agree wholeheartedly. This is, however, not made clear. If they had, indeed, served in Vietnam, would Sen. Kerry feel that they do have the right to tell Democrats not to criticize the President's actions at this time?


Judith Chiti

New York, N.Y.


Editor replies: First, the item in question was in "Dispatches," not "Rural Routes," so don't blame Margot McMillen. Second, Kerry was a decorated veteran of the Vietnam war who came home to become a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Third, Kerry was addressing the hypocrisy of Republican draft dodgers who took the easy way out of the war, but now that they are out of harm's way, they are not only willing to send others to do the fighting, but also question the patriotism of those who criticize them. Finally, the point of his remarks, which you quote, is that Democrats can and should question the president's actions.

Just Vote


When I read your paper, I rarely more than glance at the Letters to the Editor and have never responded. However, after reading Edward Robles "Just Vote No" letter ["Bush is Lying," Letters, 4/1/02 TPP], I can't resist responding.

I happen to agree with many of his complaints about both the Bushes and Reagan. However, his argument against them loses any power to influence things for the better, because he paints all politicians with the same brush.

I also agree with him that money has had a corrupting influence on the process. I have been a long time supporter of public funding for campaigns. We can not expect good public servants to do well, in a system, where money effects their survival and where those who object think they have done their duty simply by denouncing it.

Saying that no politician is any good and that none should be allowed to stay more than four years guarantees that our government will be run by amateurs. Since bureaucrats and lobbyists are often in their jobs for decades, this simply increase the powers of the special interest over the public interest.

Those who are earnest, honest hard working public servants (and there are many) would not be able to count on the support of an appreciative constituency, if people follow his advice

Mr. Robles says there are supposed to be checks and balances. One of the major checks on misuse of power is the fact that each public official comes up for review frequently. Our founding fathers assumed that, we as citizens would take seriously our role as a self governing people.

They believed we would appraise carefully and work to re-elect those we believe are doing a good job and defeat those who were not.

They also assumed that we would be mature enough, as a people, to sort out shades of gray. Even when neither candidate for office is ideal, there is usually enough difference in how they and their policies effect the common good to make an educated choice. When we make a mistake, there is always another election.

It is not an easy job representing thousands or in some cases millions of very diverse people. Those who are really trying to serve the common good need help and support.

It is no help at all to sit back smugly and say "a plague on both your houses! As citizens, it is our job to help make our democracy work.


Midge Miller

Madison, Wis.


Spread Out


I read with interest your articles regarding the plight of the Rio Grande river water supply ["Death of the Rio Grande," 4/1/02 TPP]. While it is true that treaties have not been honored, it seems to me that a much simpler solution exists.

For reasons of weather, the search for gold, oil, and other sources of greed, people have rushed to certain areas of the country causing an over concentration of people in the South and on the coasts.

Meanwhile the midwest seems to plug along just as it always has. The people remain a hardy lot because of the weather conditioning and historic hard work. The rest of the nation eagerly seeks workers from the midwest because of the strong work ethic. As an Iowan it would be very easy to move about anywhere and find a good job.

The simpler solution to the water problem in Texas, the pollution problem in California as well as fuel and electricity shortages there is for people to spread out. Quit trying to occupy the same piece of real estate as everyone else. Move back to the midwest, or the vastness of Montana or Wyoming.

In this age of technology, more and more people are able to work from home. The need to be in the office is not what it used to be. Add to this the fact that many family farms are failing because of the economies of scale, leaving vacant farmsteads as land is consolidated into large (what some like to call 'factory' farms). It appears that the trend in agriculture will not reverse and that larger farms are inevitable. It seems to me that we in Iowa have the chance to turn this 'adversity' into an opportunity by marketing those empty farm houses to those of you who are tired of fighting the traffic, tired of breathing car exhaust, and tired of rolling blackouts. Instead of paying $250,000 for a one bedroom apartment in New York, you could probably buy a 3 acre place here in northwest Iowa for $75,000.

If it appears that I am trying to sell Iowa, I am. But at least it is a viable solution to many, many problems.

Mike Diercks

Storm Lake, Iowa


Connecting the Dots


Why did Bush decree an executive order of military tribunals for dealing with selected Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from Afghanistan? Well consider this: In an interview with French journalists in 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, said that the US (CIA) entered Afghanistan and began aiding the Mujahedeen six months before the Soviets ever entered, in order to draw the Soviets into a Vietnam-like war there. After the Soviets bit the bait, the CIA continued promoting the mindset of the jihad being a holy war against the Soviet occupiers. This interpretation of jihad was not previously held by Muslims themselves. Then the US financed and armed to the teeth these "Freedom Fighters" coming from all over the Muslim world. It is my guess that in an open court, more of these details of the CIA's collaborative history, the source of this whole mess, would come to light. Military tribunals allow old alliances -- and still active operatives -- to remain secret behind closed doors. This is similar to the other executive order W. Bush decreed, preventing access to the records of Reagan's and his Daddy's presidencies. Both, of course, heavily supported such "Freedom Fighters" as the Mujahedeen and the Contras.

Charles A. Robinson

Boulder, Colo.


Promote Instant Runoffs


I was stunned and appalled to read your editorial in the latest issue advising us to stand with the Democratic Party since "Greens and other progressives can't win a Democratic Primary ... and not a general election." Sounds like shades of John Ashcroft to me. Since we now, with the Democrats in Congress being on the same corporate dole as the Republicans just roll over and play dead instead of standing up on the important issues, have one party with two different shades, I think it is more important than ever to support "the Greens and other progressives."

I was left wondering what the answer to your concern was, though. Fortunately, there are lots of good people writing for The Progressive Populist, and I found an answer on page 13 of the same issue, where Hill, Richie, and Olson point out the solution of instant runoff voting. With that we can continue to support our third parties, and keep the pressure on the political system to respond to the people.

Carl Slater

Friendswood, Texas

Email chslater@prodigy.net

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COVER/Dennis Loy Johnson

Fighting the Big Book Chains

To most people, it must seem like a no-brainer: Which is better, an independent bookstore or a chain bookstore? Whichever one has the book you want at the lowest price, natch. And let's face facts -- lately, the winner of that contest has been the chains.

However a surprising recent survey says that regardless of price, people actually feel they're more apt to be satisfied shopping at an independent. Meanwhile, the rabble-rousing plaintiff in an incendiary court case claims the chains' low prices are illusionary, achieved by illegal strong-arm tactics, and may actually be insuring higher prices down the line.

First, the survey, which was conducted by Consumer Reports in January -- it found that most people felt the chains or the equally giant on-line booksellers did indeed offer a better deal price-wise. Nonetheless, independent bookstores generated a higher level of customer satisfaction than even the cheapest chain retailer. In fact, independents scored "on a par with the highest-rated stores from any survey we've done in recent years," said the magazine.

What's more, Consumer Reports also noted the illusionary quality of the chains vaunted discounting -- chains, it said, had "quietly hiked prices by reducing discounts."

Of course, if buying books were the same as buying widgets -- an experience where price was all that mattered -- then in the comparison of independents to chains there would be no need to consider anything beyond those disappearing discounts.

But buying books is not the same thing as buying widgets, and as the survey's findings about "customer satisfaction" seem to indicate, there is indeed more to consider.

Which is what the aforementioned legal case -- being heard right now before a Federal District Court in New York City -- stresses vehemently, and in such a way as to make it seem that what's going on now in book retailing is microcosmic of what's going on in the greater society.

You probably haven't heard about it, though (which is microcosmic of mainstream media coverage of conglomerate America, but that's another column -- although I must point out the irony that the plaintiff in the case is the brother of the late CBS newsman Charles Kuralt). But anyway, in brief: Walter Kuralt, owner of a bankrupt mini-chain called Intimate Bookshops, is suing Borders and Barnes & Noble for illegal activities -- such as demanding secret discounts from publishers -- that gave them an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

Sound familiar? Well, it didn't get much coverage either, but in another case last year, the American Booksellers Association and 26 independent bookstores sued the chains for the same thing. But that suit -- years in the making -- ground to a halt when the judge ruled the independents couldn't collect damages even if they proved their case, because it was impossible to determine the dollar value of any harm done. Already outspent and with a doubtless lengthy appeals process before them, the independents settled for enough to cover their legal fees and claimed moral victory.

But the decision, or lack thereof, begged not only the actual question -- do the chains engage in illegal practices? -- it rendered unanswerable still larger questions that get at the heart of life in contemporary democracy. To wit, is it wrong for the chains, victors in the marketplace after all, to throw their weight around like that? Isn't that -- as the judge observed at one point -- "what capitalism is all about"? Or is it about competition and choice driving commerce? In essence: Is bigger better?

Well, the Intimate case provides a second chance for answers. Walter Kuralt doesn't seem about to settle, and as a Publishers Weekly report observed, "when it comes to juicy allegations," his case "takes second place to no one."

In a memorandum filed to counter the chains' request for a dismissal, attorney Carl Person outlined Kuralt's charges that the chains strong-armed publishers into providing a 60% discount off the cover price -- as compared to the 40% to 46% discounts smaller booksellers like Intimate were limited to. (Remember those figures the next time you hear B&N head Leonard Riggio complaining -- as he did last fall, and did again this week -- that publishers are to blame for prices so high he calls them "abominations." Considering that publishers share what's left with printers, distributors, warehousers and, oh yes, authors, even if B&N is getting only a 50% discount, it's making considerably more than those who actually created the book. Who's driving the price?)

Meanwhile, Kuralt set up a website (www.lawmall.com/rpa/rpa_whk1.html) providing an exhaustive list of "discriminatory payments and benefits received by the chains -- and largely not disputed by the chains." The list includes "co-op funds exceeding costs of advertising," "free freight," "free books not offered to others," "special allowances for fixtures," "access to information regarding competitors," and more that he says "permit the chains simply to expand at will and overwhelm any smaller competition."

But Kuralt doesn't stop there. He says the case is part of a "national disaster" resulting from "the Wal-Marts and Mega-Malls." What would happen, he goes on to ask, "if all national chain store companies were required to observe the law"?

If the judge doesn't dismiss the case we may finally get a chance to find out. We might also learn which is truly better for the consumer: chain stores, or independents?

Dennis Loy Johnson writes for MobyLives.com, where this article first appeared.

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