September 29, 2009

Stop Listening to Idiots

By Dave

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I offer this video as a classic example of delusional people behaving in ways which are sociopathic and which would be embarrassing if they had any sense of self-worth or common sense. To behave so irrationally and to then proudly trumpet your beliefs to the public in a video has to be some sort of mental disorcer.

If you watch the video you can see exactly where the misinformation this buffoon is spewing is coming from. He starts out with Lou Dobbs, the media’s idiot-in-chief, and as the video goes on he repeats word for word many of the myths and delusions actively promoted by conspiracy-huckster Alex Jones. Note his reference to the mythical North American Union, the nonexistent Amero currency and the dreaded Security and Prosperity Partnership. He tells us to all go out and read about them. And there’s where you know he’s nuts, because if you go and read legitimate sources or read the actual documents he references you realize that his claims about a one-world conspiracy are utterly without merit and probably the manifestation of some sort of paranoid delusion.

And note Governor Perry’s reaction to mention of the Bilderbergers. Like most people who attend this conference he’s utterly at a loss to figure out why these conspiracy nuts are so obsessed with it, or why Alex Jones is hiding in the bushes outside the conference hall with his video camera. It’s the kind of behavior which ought to get him some time in a nice padded room. The Bilderberger obsession basically comes down to an irrational fear of any group composed of the rich and powerful. If a bunch of politicians and buisness leaders meet in a room they must be plotting something evil. This is a classic example of the logial fallacy I call the Conspiracy of the Ruling Elite which assumes that any coordinated effort by the rich and powerful must have dark motives, whether there is any evidence to support that claim or not. To this mindset, private clubs are cult-like organizations, international conferences are secret planning sessions for world government, and innocent organizations whose real motives are absolutely clear like PNAC and the CFR are the seedlings of a dreaded one-world government. All of this despite the fact that the real activities and beliefs of these groups are widely documented and easily available for anyone who cares to do even minimal research.

What the truthers and the birchers and other similar conspiracy nuts need to do is stop listening to idiots like Alex Jones and Lou Dobbs who seek to exploit their gullibility to advance their own wealth and their own careers. These freaks need to get a grip, spend some time among real people, and take a course in logic at the local junior college. Until then we’d all be better off if they just mumbled under their breath like the schizophrenic street people with whom they have so much in common.

September 24, 2009

The Vaccine Fallacy

By Dave

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There’s a lot of hysteria over vaccines and the threat which they supposedly pose to the population because of some of the ingredients and the possibility of government mandated vaccinations against potential pandemics like Swine Flu (H1N!). While as a matter of principle the idea of forced vaccinations is an utterly unacceptable violation of individual rights, the hysteria over the risks of vaccines is based on a fundamental logical fallacy which needs to be exposed.

Some of the ingredients in modern vaccines can be very scary. Thiomersal is a compound based on EthylMercury which is used as an antifungal perservative. It is supposed to be stable and leave the body quickly, but is beleived to break down and cause neurological disorders incluidng autism. Squalene is a natural compound developed from shark liver oil which is an adjuvant which helps accelerate immune responses and is suspected of causing autoimmune disorders like Gulf War Syndrome. Aluminum is also used as an adjuvant and raises concerns that it may not leave the system and can cause a variety of adverse reactions. Extensive tests have been made on all of these ingredients and have found them to be safe in the tiny amounts included in vaccines, but the fact that they are genuinely toxic in larger amounts raises suspicion about them for those looking for explanations for troubling symptoms.

For our purposes here we can actually put aside the real or imagined dangers of these ingredients entirely. Let’s just grant for the sake of argument that there’s some real danger associated with some of these ingredients as critics suggest. It’s certainly true that there are things in vaccines which are genuinely dangerous. Flu vaccines are incubated in egg yolks, which many are dangerously allergic to. More significantly, every vaccine includes some form of a virus and those viruses are in and of themselves dangerous. There’s always a small chance of contracting the disease the vaccine protects you from by taking the vaccine. That’s how most vaccines work, giving you a mild exposure so you build up a resistance before you are exposed to the disease itself.

So yes, vaccines are inherently dangerous. As with almost everything in life making use of them is a calculated risk. Every day when you get in your car you are taking a calculated risk. You’re betting that despite the rather high level of automobile fatalities today won’t be the day you die in a car crash. You act on the assumption that the risk of dying is outweighed by your need to get places and do things. It’s the same with a vaccine. You’re betting that immunity to a serious and potentially fatal disease is worth the small risk of an unpleasant or even fatal side effect. For that to be a good bet, the risk posed by the vaccine needs to be substantially lower than the risk posed by the disease it protects you from.

The logical fallacy here is that while vaccines are dangerous and may even cause all sorts of terrible things like autism and the occasional death, the chance of dying or getting some other serious side effect from a vaccine is tiny compared to the chance of dying from the disease the vaccine protects you from. Therefore you accept the risk, because it protects you from something worse.

A lot of the argument about vaccines focuses on the flu vaccine because it is the cause celebre of the moment, but there is a lot of conflicting information because there are so many different strains of flu. To demonstrate how this fallacy applies it is easier to look at the simpler and well documented case of the Human Papilloma Vaccine which protects teenage girls from contracting cervical cancer in the future, and which has stirred up a great deal of controversy in its own right because of alarming side-effects and because in many ways it has proved to be a worst-case scenario in unexpected consequences.

Cervical cancer kills 2.4 of every 100,000 women in the United States. 23 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been distributed. Statistics suggest that of 23 million woment treated, 552 would have died without the vaccine. Studies of side effects of the HPV vaccine in use found that the most common effect was fainting, which occurred in 8.2 of 100,000 vaccinations, and that the most serious side-effect was abnormal blood clotting in .2 cases per 100,000, leading to strokes and paralyzation and in 32 documented cases it has resulted in death.

While each of those deaths is tragic, these statistics tell us that a girl not given the HPV vaccine is at least 17 times more likely to die of cervical cancer than a girl given the vaccine is to die from the vaccine. 17 to 1 odds in your favor are pretty good. Even if you take all of the cases of abnormal blood clotting into consideration, it’s still 12 times less likely to happen than death would without the vaccine. Again, 12 chances of dying to 1 chance of a dangerous blood clot is pretty good odds.

This is the heart of the problem with how many people look at vaccines. They look only at the risks of the vaccine without considering the greater threat which the vaccines prevent. Sure, you can point to the HPV vaccine and say it killed 32 people. But that’s 520 fewer people than would have died had the vaccine not been invented. The same holds true with other vaccines. The only sensible way to look at them is to consider both the risk and the benefits.

July 28, 2009

Could the “Birthers” Please Just Shut Up?

By Dave

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I don't want to appear to be opposing absolute freedom of speech, but there comes a point when, as a personal favor to sane people everywhere and to reduce the level of national embarrassment, I just have to ask the rat-brained social deviants who think there's a great conspiracy to conceal President Obama's real place of birth to please shut the hell up. I realize that they have no personal dignity or common sense, but out of respect for the rest of us who oppose President Obama for legitimate and rational reasons, couldn't they just crawl into a closet somewhere and close the door behind them so we can't hear them mumbling to themselves in the darkness?

Lou Dobbs is an idiot. I do enjoy saying that. Lou Dobbs is an idiot. I used to have to explain why I was convinced the giant-headed nativist nutjob had a brain the size of a blighted walnut, but now all I have to do is point out that he lets his birther flag fly relentlessly on his show, featuring the issue again and again, despite pressure from CNN higher-ups who have apparently told Dobbs to drop the subject on the theory the birth certificate was destroyed as part of the routine process of going to electronic instead of paper records in 1991, a good explanation which may not be entirely born out by the facts. This being demonstrated by subsequent statements to the contrary from Dr. Chiyome Fukino the Director of the Hawaii State Department of Health that the original document still exists, reiterating prior statements from Fukino and Republican Governor of Hawaii, Linda Lingle.

Dobbs is not alone in his nuttiness. Even more dismaying than seeing him on a major news network is that the people of Minnesota managed to elect a Birther to represent them in Congress. In an apparent attempt to balance out the blithering left-wing idiocy of Al Franken they have sent Michele Bachman to the House on some sort of demented crusade to expose conspiracies and promote an agenda which combines the worst of the ideas of Alex Jones, Donald Wildmon and the John Birch Society. To her credit, Bachman can make a rousing speech and she sounds just great until you actually think about the things she's saying and realize she's phoning the speech in from the twilight zone. Her latest accomplishment was a desperate effort to derail a bill recognizing the 50th anniversary of Hawaii's statehood because it acknowledged the state as the birthplace of President Obama, which she apparently thought was a plot to legitimize his birth by congressional fiat.

Then there’s the king of all birthers, bearded legal huckster Philip J. Berg (not to be confused with far more rational and entertaining Dave Berg the late cartoonist for Mad Magazine). Having gone as far as he could with exploiting and abusing the families of 9/11 victims this shyster who has previously been sanctioned for a”laundry list of unethical actions,” has taken up the birth certificate cause with a lawsuit challenging Obama’s eligibility which the court described as “frivolous and not worthy of discussion,” which didn’t stop Berg from trying to get the Supreme Court to issue an injunction to suspend the election, which they ultimately refused to do three times before sending him back to crazyland and a perennial guest spot on the Alex Jones radio show.

The point these oblivious blowhards seem to be missing is that their crazed ranting is counterproductive. For those of us who are trying to mount a rational opposition to the out-of-control left, the promotion of non-issues like the fantasy that President Obama is secretly Kenyan or Indonesian or a secret Muslim wastes everyone's time and makes the entire political opposition look like a bunch of buffoons. It's a circus sideshow which distracts from real issues and concerns and does more to help Obama than to hurt him, plus it creates opportunities for gross distortions and smear attackes from the radical left. Substantive issues don't get discussed when the media and the pundits of the left can focus on birthers and conspiracy cranks to deflect attention. So please, shut up about the birth certificate and let the debate move on to real issues.

July 19, 2009

The thing that made the things for which there is no known maker

By Skeptico

I don’t normally post YouTube videos, but after some thought I decided I would post this link to The thing that made the things for which there is no known maker, that was originally linked by commenter PaulJ on the Atheism is Not a Religion post.  It’s a bit long at just over nine minutes, but you’ll get the idea after less than a minute into it.  It demonstrates the fallacy of thinking that if you can’t explain where something came from, then god must have done it.

In future, when some theist says something like, “what is the origin of life and/or the origin of the information" necessary to bring life into existence?” you can answer with: “The thing that made the things for which there is no known maker and that causes and directs the events that we can't otherwise explain and which doesn't need to have been made and is the one thing from which to ask for things that no human can give and without him we can't be fully happy and is unlimited by all the laws of physics and never began and will never finish and is invisible but is actually everywhere at once and who is so perfect that even if he killed millions of people, including babies, he still would be perfect and who is so powerful and magical that he can even make a virgin pregnant if he wanted to."

Which is, of course, just as meaningful and useful an answer as “god.”

Other Videos

It’s also worth checking out the other You Tube videos from NonStampCollector.  For example, What Would Jesus NOT Do?, ATHEIST!!!!!!!, How amazing is God's Forgiveness? Not very, and The Great Debate.

July 19, 2009

The Real Meaning of Crop Circles: Vandalism

By Jeff Wagg

cropgraffitiReader John calls our attention to a recent article in The Mail in which curious sightseers investigating a crop circle saw something unexpected flying overhead: shotgun fire. The report is a bit confused, but it seems that a farmer, one of his cousins, or a hired hand fired a shotgun over the heads of a group of Norwegian tourists who had come to see a recent crop circle.

Why do such a thing? Simple, he says. He was defending his property.

One onlooker was surprised to come under fire:

I have been visiting crop circles for a decade and have in various ways been told that we are not welcome, but this is the first time I have been threatened with a gun.

Farmers have the right to protect their land, but they have no legal right to threaten people. It was totally unnecessary and incredibly scary.

So, let me get this straight... she knows she's not welcome, and admits that famers have a right to protect their land, but these realizations aren't enough for her to stop trampling people's crops. Got it.

July 15, 2009

Show Your Contempt in an T-Shirt

By Dave

Discuss it:

It’s stylish, it’s black, it’s full of anger and contempt. It’s quite a bit like the logo at the head of this page. It’s the official T-Shirt, featuring the site logo and the everpopular “Cracking the Nuts of the Lunatic Fringe” slogan.

It’s a sure way to piss off truthers and Birchers at the next Ron Paul meetup you attend. We accept zero responsible for any beatings, tongue-lashings or drinks thrown on you when wearing this shirt around irrationalists and Infowars zombies.

Best of all, it’s just $22.99 and it comes in all the popular sizes from emaciated autopsy alien to bloated blogging couch potato.

Get yours now at our CafePress store.

June 30, 2009

Atheism is Not a Religion

By Skeptico

This is a refrain I’m hearing a lot from religious apologists – atheism is a religion. Also its equally fallacious siblings, science is a religion and evolution is a religion. It’s a sign of their desperation that the best argument they have is not that atheism is wrong, or that god does exist (supported by evidence of course), but that atheism is a religion too. A strange argument for a religious person to make on the face of it.  Is it supposed to strengthen the atheist’s position or weaken the theist’s one? In reality it’s a sign they have run out of arguments.

Still, this argument is widely made, and so it needs to be addressed. Atheism (and here I mean the so-called “weak atheism” that does not claim proof that god does not exist), is just the lack of god-belief – nothing more and nothing less. And as someone once said, if atheism is a religion, not collecting stamps is a hobby.

That really ought to end the discussion right there. Clearly, a mere lack of belief in something cannot be a religion. In addition, atheism has no sacred texts, no tenets, no ceremonies. Even theists making this argument must know all that. So they must have something else in mind when they trot this one out, but what is it? What are they really thinking? Well, if you look at various definitions of religion, the only things that could possibly apply to atheism would be something like this:

6. Something one believes in and follows devotedly

or this:

4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

Obviously I don’t know if that’s what they mean – I don’t read minds. But I can’t see what else it could be. They must be referring to certain activities of atheists – writing books and blogs, financing bus ads, joining atheist groups, etc. They think atheists are “religious in their atheism” as one person put it to me – the word “religious” being used here colloquially to mean something felt very strongly, or followed enthusiastically. But this definition of religion is so broad that virtually anything people enjoy doing very much, or follow strongly or obsessively, is a religion. It’s a definition of religion that is so broad that it’s meaningless. In reality, most of the things that people follow enthusiastically, are just hobbies. And ironically, although not collecting stamps is not a hobby, getting involved in atheist activities (writing books and blogs, attending atheist meetings) might well be a hobby for some people. But it is a hobby, not a religion.

What Is Religion?

I’m sure that argument won’t convince all theists to abandon this rhetorical trope they love so much.  To really address the argument, we have to define religion, and then see if atheism fits the definition. While I don’t think I can define religion completely, I think I can state the minimum that religion has to have to still be a religion. And it seems to me that there is one thing at least that is common to all religions. It’s this. In my view, religion at a minimum, has to have the following characteristic:

Religion must include something you have to accept on faith – that is, without evidence commensurate with the extraordinary nature of the belief.

Most religions will include other things too, but they must require faith. Of course, not all things that require faith are religions, but all religions must require faith.

The minimum definition covers all the religions I’m familiar with. For example, it includes any religion that involves belief in god or gods – something you have to believe in without evidence. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism… all require you to believe in god or gods as a minimum, without evidence. The minimum definition would also include religions that don’t require belief in god, but require faith in other things. For example, I believe it would include Buddhism, which (for example) includes the belief that living beings go through a succession of lifetimes and rebirth. It would also include Scientology – no evidence for Xenu, that I’m aware of. Maybe you can think of some actual religions that would be excluded, but I haven’t been able to so far.

So religion requires belief without evidence. And by that definition atheism cannot possibly be a religion because atheists do not have to believe in anything to be an atheist – either with or without evidence. QED.

Now, some religious people may say, “but that’s not my definition of religion”. To which I say, OK, then give me your definition. Give me your definition of religion, that doesn’t require belief without evidence, that includes your religion, the others I named, and atheism. And it needs to be better than the two dictionary definitions I cited above.  Give me that definition. Because here’s the thing. The problems I have with religions are:

  1. They are not based on fact or on any reasonable evidence commensurate with the claims they make. In many cases, the claims they make are plainly absurd and are actually contradicted by the evidence.
  2. Religious proponents demand respect, and adherence to their delusions by others. This despite (1) above.

Those are the aspects of religion that I object to. Clearly atheism doesn’t fit 1 (or 2) above, so it is nothing like any of the religions I object to. If your religion does not require belief without faith, then I probably wouldn’t have a problem with it. Assuming, of course, all the tenets of your religion are actually backed up by evidence extraordinary enough for the extraordinary claims your religion makes. But they never do. 

In my view, theists will have their work cut out to deny this minimum requirement for religion.  Come on – they even refer to their religion as “my faith”. 

Evidence and Extraordinary Evidence

Some religious people will claim that their religious beliefs are backed by evidence. This is where it gets tricky, because many religious people genuinely believe their religion is rational and backed by evidence. For example, one Christian I debated cited that the evidence Christianity was real, was (and I quote), “the resurrection of Christ”. Of course, the resurrection of Christ, if it had actually happened, would be pretty good evidence for Christianity. But, unfortunately, there is no good evidence for the resurrection. Certainly, nothing close to the extraordinary evidence we would need to accept this extraordinary claim.

Extraordinary Claims

This needs explaining in more detail. Why do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Well, all claims require exactly the same amount of evidence, it’s just that most "ordinary" claims are already backed by extraordinary evidence that you don’t think about. When we say “extraordinary claims”, what we actually mean are claims that do not already have evidence supporting them, or sometimes claims that have extraordinary evidence against them. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence because they usually contradict claims that are backed by extraordinary evidence.

So why is Jesus’ resurrection an extraordinary claim, and why is the Bible not extraordinary evidence for it? Well, the resurrection goes against all the evidence we have that people do not come back to life, spontaneously, after two days of being dead. Modern medicine can bring people back from what would have been considered in earlier years to be “dead”, but not after 2 days of being dead with no modern life support to keep the vital organs working. In fact, it is probably reasonably safe to say it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that people cannot come back to life after being dead for two days without modern life support. So, extraordinary claim it is.

On the other hand, the evidence we are offered in support of this extraordinary claim consists only of accounts written decades after the event, by people who were not there when the events described were purported to have occurred. We are offered nothing but hearsay anecdotes from superstitious people with a clear reason for wanting others to think the story true. This is hardly acceptable evidence to counteract the fact that this never happens. Christians might ask, what evidence would an atheist accept for such an extraordinary claim? And in reality, it is hard to imagine that there could possibly be any evidence good enough for us to accept the resurrection as true. Christians may claim that this is unfair, or that we are closed minded, but the fact that you are unlikely to find extraordinary evidence for this event 2,000 years after the fact, is hardly the non-believer’s fault. The real question, considering the weakness of the evidence, and the wildly extraordinary nature of the claim, is why would anyone believe any of it in the first place?  The truth is, they accept it on faith.  In fact, the acceptance of this story on faith alone is usually considered to be essential to the true believer. And although that was just Christianity, the same lack of evidence, and belief based on faith alone, applies to the claims of all the other religions that I’m familiar with.

Religions require belief in extraordinary claims without anything close to the extraordinary evidence that is required.  Atheism requires no belief in anything.  The contrast couldn’t be clearer.

But the believer has one final shot – one last desperate rhetorical item to fling at the atheist.  Here we go.

More Faith To Be An Atheist?

The final argument many religious apologists throw into the mix is it takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to believe in god. That certainly took me by surprise the first time I heard it. I think what they’re trying to say is this. Atheists think matter just appeared out of nowhere, that something came out of nothing. But where did the matter come from? To think that matter appeared out of nowhere requires more faith than to think a creator made everything. Why is there something rather than nothing? To think that matter just appeared by itself, requires faith.

Atheists don’t think matter came out of nowhere. Atheists say we don’t know where matter came from; we don’t know why there is something rather than nothing. Maybe one day we’ll know, or maybe we won’t. But we don’t know now. Theists are exactly the same. They don’t know either, but the difference is they make up an explanation (god). But it’s just a made up explanation – they have no reason to suppose it’s true, other than that they just like it.

And it’s a useless explanation. Unless they know something about this “God” – how he created everything; why he created it; what he’s likely to do next - it’s a lack of an explanation. It’s just a placeholder until a real explanation comes along. Except that the theist won’t be open to the real explanation when and if science is able to provide one. The god placeholder prevents investigation into any real tentative explanations. The theist who says god created everything, is the one with the faith – faith that “god” is the explanation and that no other is possible. The atheist is content to say “we don’t know”. For now, anyway. And it’s obvious that saying “we don’t know,” requires no faith.  That may be a hard thing to do for people who want all the answers, but it certainly isn’t religion.

One last thing.  Some theists have responded to the “if atheism is a religion, not collecting stamps is a hobby” argument by pointing out that non stamp collectors (aphilatelists?) don’t write books or blogs about not collecting stamps, don’t post anti stamp collecting ads on buses, don't ridicule stamp collectors, etc.  This is meant to demonstrate that the “stamp collecting” analogy is weak.  It actually demonstrates that the analogy is very good, since it highlights one of the main problems atheists have with many religious people.

Here’s the thing they are missing, and the real problem most atheists have with religion.  If stamp collectors demanded that people who don’t collect stamps obey their stamp collecting rules, started wars with groups who collected slightly different types of stamps, denied non-stamp collectors rights or discriminated against them, bullied them in school, claimed you had to collect stamps to be a suitable person to run for public office, tried to get stamp collecting taught in schools as science in opposition to real science, demanded that people be killed for printing cartoons that made fun of stamp collectors, claimed that non-stamp collectors lacked moral judgment, made up ridiculous straw man positions they claimed non-stamp collectors took, and then argued against those straw men positions etc etc, - then non-stamp collectors probably would criticize stamp collectors in the way atheists criticize many religious people. And with good reason. Not collecting stamps would still not be a hobby.  Or a religion.

June 15, 2009

Hammering Some Truth

By Dave

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An excellent article over at Rant and Rave takes aim at three of the outstanding features of conspiracy mania: Birchers, Truthers and Chemies, and makes some excellent points about the way these irrational beliefs develop and the lifecycle they go through.

That’s just one of many interesting posts on the site. It’s well worth checking out.


May 26, 2009

The Myth of American Empire

By Dave

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1 Comment

Again and again I run into people on the right and left sides of the political fringe who hold to the bizarre idea that the United States has some sort of international empire because we have troops deployed overseas. While I agree that we have far too many troops in other countries and could save a lot of money in these hard times by bringing some of them home, these deployments certainly don’t seem to fit the characteristics you would expect of troops who are part of an international empire.

The common claim is that we have “700 bases in 130 countries”. That’s almost as many countries as there are member states in the United Nations. Now, the definition of an empire is one nation exercising economic, political and military control over another. If these troops were deployed for that purpose, their role would presumably be to control the governments of those 130 countries, keep the civilian population under control, and protect the vast administrative network of our empire.

Yet if you look at what our troops are doing overseas you see something very different. Conveniently the Heritage Foundation has compiled historical data on our overseas troop deployments. Foreign Policy in Focus also provides some useful information in a recent report.

The first problem is that to get to this popular figure of “700 bases in 130 countries,” you have to cumulatively add up all of the deployments of the last 50 years and count extremely small deployments and minor facilities which are considered bases even when they have no actual military personnel stationed at them. You have to count as “bases” the the contingents of marine guards at 165 US embassies and smaller consular offices and such things as the hundreds military golf courses, movie theaters, post exchange shops and other recreational facilities. In fact, if you count all the facilities considered “bases” and all the embassies you get about 860 bases in 165 countries, so the popular figures are a bit out of date.

The truth is that most of these deployments are not really military in character and at any given time the number of significant deployments is much smaller. 20 men guarding an embassy are not building an empire. When you look at deployments of 1000 men or more, you find that there are currently fewer than 20 countries hosting deployments of that size. When you look at deployments of 100-1000 men you find that there are fewer than 30. So rather than 130 countries with significant numbers of US troops in them there are actually only about 40, mostly in Europe and parts of Asia. What’s more, rather than building an empire, these numbers have been steadily declining, and are about half what they were in the 1950s.

In addition, all of these large deployments are the result of mutual defense arrangements which date back for decades where our troops are there at the invitation of and with the cooperation of the local government. The overwhelming majority of our troops are deployed in coordination with the United Nations or NATO or by arrangement with a few major allies like Germany, England and Japan. In many cases, rather than representing some sort of mythical US empire, they are often deployed on behalf of extra-national groups or programs or working in coordination with local forces.

In fact, a great many of these American troops deployed overseas are not even involved in normal military activities, but are engaged in various humanitarian aid programs. In 2006 the US military took part in 556 relief efforts in 99 countries. These efforts on behalf of various international organizations are a major deployment, but they are hardly empire building. They’re things like aiding victims of natural disasters and distributing food aid and medicine in troubled places like Haiti, Georgia and Somalia. Rather than oppressing these nations with our imperial rule, these missions are enormously popular and poll results in disaster-ravaged countries like Indonesia show a substantial increase in pro-American sentiment as a result of our humanitarian activities there.

Yes, we almost certainly have far too many overseas facilities, too many men deployed outside our own borders and are spending way too much money on these efforts. Right now we have about 400,000 troops deployed outside of the US and only about half of them are involved in peacekeeping in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. Some of the remainder provide support services, but the truth is that we really don’t need 200,000 or more men in Europe and Japan and other friendly countries. In times of economic hardship we could save a lot of money by closing some of those bases. In fact, substantial closures of overseas bases were carried out by the Bush administration and the total number of bases overseas has been reduced over the last 20 years from over 1000 to under 800.

Our overseas military installations and deployments are generally not engaged in anything imperial in character.. An empire is not defined by a bunch of troops engaged in humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and security work. It is defined by economic, political and military control of other countries. To have an empire we would need to be controlling and administering foreign territories, running their governments and profiting from their economies, resources and industrial production. While the United States has a nominal presence in hundreds of countries and troops spread far and wide, with facilities to support them, with the exception of the occasional wartime deployment, the overwhelming role of American forces overseas is to provide aid and support and to fulfill treaty obligations and help our allies. Embassy guards, hospital ships, food distribution centers and golf courses are not conquering or plundering or oppressing anyone.

So by all means, let’s close as many overseas bases and bring back as many troops as we can, but let’s do it for the right reasons, not because of the delusion that the United States is an empire.

May 1, 2009

Fantasy Jobs?

By Jess Henig
At President Obama’s April 29 news conference, he claimed that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has “already saved or created over 150,000 jobs.” Wait a minute. Isn’t the number of jobs actually plummeting? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the economy lost more than 1.3 million jobs in the two months after he took office, and it has probably lost at least another half-million in April. The day after Obama spoke, the Department of Labor announced that another 631,000 workers (seasonally adjusted) had filed new claims for unemployment insurance the previous week. So what 150,000 jobs was Obama talking about? It turns out the president’s claim is really an estimate of what his economic advisers think the stimulus bill is doing, and not based on any evidence of its actual effects. We asked the White House for substantiation of Obama’s claim, and a spokesman responded that the figure comes from a recent estimate by the Council of Economic Advisers. “Because the baseline for employment is obviously still strongly downward,” the spokesman told us, “the estimate does not mean that employment has risen by 150,000. Rather, it means that employment is 150,000 higher than it otherwise would have been.” He said the figure is an estimate of people hired to work directly on ARRA-funded projects, plus “jobs created by the tax cuts, aid to the states, and other parts of the ARRA.” So when the president said his stimulus bill “already saved or created” those jobs, he was just giving an estimate produced by his own economic advisers at the White House. Furthermore, the jobs figure is based on projections done at the time ARRA was passed. Recipients of ARRA spending aren’t required to report until later what they’re doing with the money and how well it’s working, so there’s very little hard data on where the money is being spent, let alone how many jobs may have resulted from the legislation. The CEA incorporated some actual spending reports into its estimate, but that information is not complete.