Friday, June 24, 2005

Intellectual property 

In her Wall Street Journal column today Mary O’Grady slammed Brazil for violating drug company patent rights to give out free AIDS drugs. Imagine the horror of it. A good drug company like Pfizer might not meet its quarterly profit numbers just because Brazil wants to help people with HIV. Wall Street will not be happy. I guess it would be better to let the 600,000 people in Brazil with HIV just die than screw a good drug company like Pfizer. Anyways, that is a little far afield for this blog.

But there is one thing that is relevant – intellectual property. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that a lot of people are just ripping off Chavez’s ideas without any sort of credit or compensation.

Take for example Venezuela’s law on idle lands. Chavez implemented a law that allows the government to sieze idle farm land and give it to poor landless people to farm. The opposition of course raised a hew and cry about this saying that it was trampling property rights. However, up north in the U.S., the Mecca of capitalism, they liked what they saw going on in Venezuela and decided to copy it. Witness this decision from the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday:

Government officials do not violate the US Constitution when they seize and demolish homes and businesses to make room for private development.
In a major decision that narrows the constitutional protection of property owners, the US Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause authorizes government seizure of private property even when it merely offers a benefit to the public, rather than actual public use.

And when Venezuela implemented a new media law to keep violence from being broadcast when children are likely to see it the opposition slammed the law. But apparently there are those who thought it was a good idea. Look what happened yesterday according to the New York Times:

With its standard’s under scrutiny, the BBC, Britain’s state broadcaster, said on Thursday that it would use a time delay mechanism in live coverage of some news events to prevent broadcasting “really distressing, upsetting images.”

It was one thing when they copied his oil policies. But this is really starting to get out of hand. Just too much of Chavez’s intellectual property is getting ripped off. Maybe Mary O’Grady will write about it in her column next week.


Thursday, June 23, 2005

What to do with all the money - II 

I previously posted about Venezuela’s large foreign reserves, how good it was that Chavez had built them up and that the government had a bunch of good options as to how to use them. The Venezuelan Assembly is currently discussing a new law that would allow the government to tap into these reserves. But as usual, the obstructionist opposition is doing the one thing it knows how to do - objecting.

Before getting into the objections lets first lets take a step back. Venezuela keeps reserves of foreign currencies, as do most poor countries, as sort of a savings system to ensure that even if they have a economic crisis or their exports are somehow reduced they will still have money to keep importing what they need and honor their financial obligations. The importance of this was demonstrated during the opposition led “strike” of 02/03 where they tried to shut down the country and did manage to shut down Venezuela’s primary source of income – the oil industry. If not for the fact that Venezuela had large amounts of foreign reserves they would not have been able to import crucial supplies such as food and gasoline nor honor their financial obligations such as making payments on the foreign debt. So these reserves serve as a safety net just as an individuals bank savings may serve as a safety net in case they lose their job.

Under Chavez Venezuela has had very high levels of foreign reserves. Right now they are about $28 billion dollars. Chavez has argued that this is a higher level of reserves than is needed and that a portion of them should be turned over to the government to be utilized for its needs. This is certainly a very rational thing to do.

However, the obstructionist Venezuelan opposition has been fighting this tooth and nail. The reason they give is that these foreign reserves somehow “back” the local currency, the Bolivar, and if they are reduced the value of the Bolivar will be reduced. Also, they argue that turning over these dollars to the government would be inflationary.

Lets look at these assertions. The first thing is just a complete lack of understanding of economics. Foreign reserves don’t back the local currency - nothing backs the local currency. The Venezuelan Bolivar, like almost all currencies these days, is a fiat currency. That means that it is just a piece of paper that has value as a means of exchange because the government tells people to accept it as such and they do. With fiat currencies the value is not determined by what is “backing” it but simply how much of the currency is in circulation. But that is independent of the foreign reserves that the country maintains and therefore this first assertion by the opposition is without merit.

Then there is the question of whether allowing the government to spend these reserves will be inflationary. The answer to that is it depends. If the government takes the dollars, converts them to Bolivars and spends them within Venezuela, then yes it will be inflationary and the oppositions objection would be correct. The reason is that a currencies value is determined by how much of that currency is in circulation. If the government increases the amount of money abruptly it will probably be inflationary as an increased amount of money would be chasing the same amount of goods and services.

If however, the government takes the reserves in the form of dollars and doesn’t spend it within Venezuela, but rather uses it to pay down the foreign debt or purchase items abroad to import into Venezuela, then it wouldn’t be inflationary at all. Why? Because the amount of Bolivars in circulation wouldn’t have changed at all.

So what does the Venezuelan government actually plan to do? You guessed it – pay down the foreign debt and spend the money abroad to import needed goods. Witness this article:

CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuelan lawmakers gave initial approval to a bill that would allow President Hugo Chavez to tap as much as $5 billion in reserves held by the Central Bank and use it for government spending or paying off debt.

Opposition leaders on Wednesday criticized pro-Chavez lawmakers for voting late Tuesday in favor of the proposal, which still requires a final vote before going into effect. Government opponents say the reform would spur inflation and permit Chavez to freely spend billions ahead of presidential elections next year.

"The government wants to create a kind of secret coffers to be used without control," opposition lawmaker Salomon Centeno said.

Under the proposed reform, officials would determine an "optimum level" of reserves each year, with any excess transferred to a government-controlled development fund for overseas purchases and paying off foreign debt.

Government and bank officials together would be expected to agree on the method for determining how much should remain in reserves — a topic that has put Chavez at odds with Central Bank directors in recent months.

Centeno, vice president of the congressional finance committee, said the spending of some $5 billion reserves by the Chavez administration could greatly increase inflation.

Centeno said he expects Chavez to use some of the bank's reserves on programs that would help maintain his popularity ahead of presidential elections next year. Chavez has predicted victory by a wide margin in the elections tentatively set for December.

National Assembly President Nicolas Maduro downplayed the criticism and said most Venezuelans favor such a change.

The Central Bank currently holds about $28.3 billion in reserves. Chavez has repeatedly said his government should have access Central Bank reserves for social spending to benefit the poor.

"I propose that we grab part of the excess international reserves, at least $5 billion, and we use it to import agriculture machinery," Chavez said in a speech last month.

Chavez, a former army officer elected in 1998, says his administration is gradually establishing a socialist economy in Venezuela, the world's No. 5 oil exporter.

So there we have it, the government plans to use the money for the very sensible purposes of paying down debt and importing agricultural machinery to go with their land reform program. They sound like excellent ideas.

Of course the opposition will still object. But what they are objecting to isn’t to any type of bad policy as there clearly isn’t one here. And it doesn’t come from any genuine concern about the lever of foreign reserves – lets not forget the opposition spent 2002 and 2003 deliberately trying to bankrupt the country and wipe out its reserves. What they really are objecting to is Chavez’s continued success with the economy which pushes them ever closer to political oblivion.


Notes on Iraq 

In previous posts I mentioned that the decisive factor in fighting a war is which side has the highest morale and the greatest will to fight. It is tempting to think that if one side has much more sophisticated weapons than the other then it is almost certain to win. In fact, that is not true, particularly in guerilla wars. What really counts is which side is most willing to fight on not matter what. Determination counts for a lot more than technique. A side that doesn’t believe in what it is fighting for will always suffer from low morale. But a side with high morale but poor technique will do well as over time its technique will get better. As was mentioned the Iraqi insurgents clearly have high morale and a will to fight. Now for the new bad news for the U.S. – their technique is getting better.

American casualties from bomb attacks in Iraq have reached new heights in the last two months as insurgents have begun to deploy devices that leave armored vehicles increasingly vulnerable, according to military records.
The surge in attacks, the officials say, has coincided with the appearance of significant advancements in bomb design, including the use of "shaped" charges that concentrate the blast and give it a better chance of penetrating armored vehicles, causing higher casualties.

Another change, a senior military officer said, has been the detonation of explosives by infrared lasers, an innovation aimed at bypassing electronic jammers used to block radio-wave detonators.
In a sign of heightened American concern, the Army convened a conference last week at Fort Irwin, in the California desert, where engineers, contractors and senior officers grappled with the problems posed by the new bombs. One attendee, Col. Bob Davis, an Army explosives expert, called the new elements in some bombs "pretty disturbing." In a brief interview, he declined to discuss the changes, but said the "sophistication is increasing and it will increase further."

This is somewhat similar to the situation of the Afghan mujahadin who fought against the Soviets. They waged a determined war against the Soviets for years without a lot of success because they couldn’t counter the Soviet’s weapons – tanks and helicopters. They tried to shoot down helicopters with rocket propelled grenades with little success. So the war was a stalemate. However, later on the U.S. gave them Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and the war turned decisively in their favor with the Soviets being forced to withdraw. In Iraq the insurgents don’t have any way to effectively counter U.S. tanks and helicopters. But eventually they will either because they develop it themselves or someone gives it to them. If the insurgents hang on long enough for that to happen the war will move from a stalemate to a victory for the insurgency.


On another matter, a lot of people like to talk about issues of transparency and corruption. The “Food for Oil” scandal has dominated the right half of the blogosphere. Not to mention all the blabber of the Venezuelan opposition about supposed corruption in the Chavez government – even though they can never seem to find concrete and coraborated examples of it. Today there was a nice example of how opaque the finances of the U.S. occupation of Iraq are.

Republicans joined longtime Democratic critics in Congress on Tuesday to berate the Pentagon for withholding information about the Halliburton Corporation's disputed billing under a $2.5 billion contract for Iraqi oil site repairs and fuel imports.

Saying the Pentagon is acting as if "it has something to hide," Representative Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut, said at a hearing that he would support issuing a subpoena to the Pentagon next week if the administration did not provide long-requested documents relating to the contract, which was awarded to Halliburton in early 2003 without competition.
Last winter, when United Nations and Congressional overseers asked to see internal Pentagon audits of the oil contract, they were given copies in which all of the questioned charges and most of the critical remarks about Kellogg were blacked out, or redacted.

"The redactions violated the commitment to transparency and regretfully make it appear D.O.D. has something to hide," Mr. Shays told a panel of Defense Department officials at the hearing. He accused the Pentagon of "deferring completely to the contractor's absurdly expansive view of what constitutes proprietary information and must be shielded from view."
In January the agency, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, concluded that $8.8 billion had been provided to Iraqi ministries with poor oversight or controls. Among other problems, it described ministries that claimed pay for thousands of "ghost employees."
Another report by the monitoring agency found evidence of fraud by American officials who dispensed small development grants in the region around Hilla in south-central Iraq.

More than $7 million in cash is missing from that office, and criminal investigations are under way.

Mr. Waxman, who has been the most persistent Congressional critic of spending controls in Iraq, released a report on Tuesday called "U.S. Mismanagement of Iraqi Funds."

It describes the huge transfers of cash, mainly in $100 bills, from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to Iraq.

Because Iraq does not have a well-functioning banking system, payments to ministries and many contractors there have been in cash, in American currency, making it hard to monitor spending. Between May 2003 and June 2004, the report found, the Federal Reserve shipped $12 billion in cash to Iraq, all drawn from the account of the Development Fund for Iraq.

In June 2004 alone - the final month of American control over Iraqi funds - officials urgently shipped more than $4 billion so they could allocate the money before the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis, Mr. Waxman said.

I don’t know about you, but refusing to turn over audit reports, having millions “missing”, handing out billions of dollars of cash with poor controls, and rushing in $4 billion before a new administration takes over all seems fishy to me. I hope the people behind this get investigated as thoroughly as the Kofi Annan did.

Then there was this little gem tucked away in the back of the news sections. Apparently, the CIA thinks the war in Iraq is training a whole new generation of potential terrorists just as the Soviet war in Afghanistan trained Osama Bin-Laden

The CIA believes the Iraq insurgency poses an international threat and may produce better-trained Islamic terrorists than the 1980s Afghanistan war that gave rise to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, a U.S. counterterrorism official said on Wednesday.

A classified report from the U.S. spy agency says Iraqi and foreign fighters are developing a broad range of deadly skills, from car bombings and assassinations to tightly coordinated conventional attacks on police and military targets, the official said.

Once the insurgency ends, Islamic militants are likely to disperse as highly organized battle-hardened combatants capable of operating throughout the Arab-speaking world and in other regions including Europe.

Funny I thought I heard Bush just the other day try to sell the war as protecting the U.S. against terrorism.


Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Real time blogging 

Apologies to those who don't read spanish. This was in todays Panorama and I thought I'd throw it out there for discussion. Later I should be able to construct a real post out of this:

Para 55% Chávez es el mejor de la era democrática

45% de la población acepta que se ha beneficiado de la renta petrolera (este renglón durante otras gestiones nunca superó 20%). 53,7% confía en el Presidente, 22,6% en la Oposición. 60% opina que deben surgir líderes entre los adversarios políticos del Jefe de Estado.

Ante la pregunta de si hoy tuviera que votar por cuál partido lo haría, 41,7% respondió que por el MVR, 9,1% por Primero Justicia y 6,2% por AD. En términos de agrado el Jefe de Estado cuenta con 57%, seguido por Diosdado Cabello con 42%, Enrique Salas Feo con 40%, José Vicente Rangel con 39% y Julio Borges con 38%.

Para 37% de los entrevistados el mayor problema del país es el desempleo. 22% respondió que la delincuencia.

55% opina que el país se encuentra mejor frente a 44% que cree que está peor. 65% acepta el criterio de que Venezuela cambió para siempre. 30% estaría dispuesto a volver al pasado.

Texto: Agencias/Oficina Caracas

Esta afirmación se desprende de la encuesta “Estudio Perfil 21”, efectuada por la firma Consultores 21.

Los resultados de este estudio circulan en el país y se realizó entre el 29 de abril y el 8 de mayo del presente año, en varias ciudades de más de 20.000 habitantes.

Fueron 37 las áreas metropolitanas consultadas. El tamaño de la muestra lo conforman 1.500 personas, residentes en 66 centros poblados.

La encuesta giró en torno de aspectos relacionados con la eficiencia comunicacional del mensaje del Gobierno, la educación, el clima sociopolítico y económico de Venezuela, los problemas del país, las instituciones, los liderazgos políticos y el posicionamiento político.

En relación con la última área de investigación (posicionamiento político) el Estudio Perfil 21 arrojó la siguiente conclusión: 53,7% confía en el presidente Hugo Chávez, 22,6% confía en la oposición y 23,7% no contestó.

Sobre la disposición al voto, 65% manifestó que sí irá a sufragar frente a 27% que dijo que se abstendrá de ejercer este derecho político.

Presentamos a continuación los resultados de la más reciente encuesta en circulación de la firma Consultores 21.

I. Eficiencia comunicacional del mensaje del Gobierno

Existe una aceptación mayoritaria de los aspectos simbólicos que difunde el Ejecutivo, a través de sus mensajes publicitarios y pronunciamientos públicos.

Por ejemplo, 65% está total o parcialmente de acuerdo con que “Venezuela cambió para siempre”.

66% acepta, parcial o totalmente, que “Chávez ayuda al pueblo”.

58% acepta que “Ahora Venezuela es de todos”.

55% acepta, parcial o totalmente, que el “gobierno de Hugo Chávez es el mejor de la era democrática”.

Dentro del mensaje de tipo utilitario: 55% acepta, parcial o totalmente, que el “gobierno lo toma en cuenta”.

45% acepta, total o parcialmente, que se “ha beneficiado de la riqueza petrolera”. Sobre este punto se aclara que, durante los otros gobiernos de la era democrática, la opinión pública que admitía que se beneficiaba del petróleo nunca llegó, en el mejor de los casos, a 20%.

44% admite, total o parcialmente, que ha recibido alguna ayuda del gobierno.

Sólo 30% está dispuesto a aceptar “volver al pasado”.

Sin embargo, los encuestados aún no han digerido el mensaje de Chávez de que “ser rico es malo”. 73% manifestó que aspira a ser rico algún día.

II. Educación

Al contrario de las afirmaciones que se hacen en la prensa, los encuestados en 77% está de acuerdo con la participación del gobierno en la educación de niños y jóvenes. 60% cree que el gobierno debe controlar la educación y 59% opina que ese control es para mejorar la educación. Sólo 39% opina que es para transmitir ideas políticas.

La preocupación de casi 80% de la población es que sus hijos se eduquen y es, para ellos, un problema económico no político. Al contrario que 20% de la población que le preocupa el contenido e ideologización de esta educación por parte del Estado.

III. Clima del país

Desde mediados de 2003 ha venido creciendo el optimismo, aunque pareciera que está llegando a su tope. A su juicio, podría estarse agotando el efecto “potenciador” de las misiones. En mayo, 58% de los encuestados consideró que su situación personal es mejor y 41% manifestó que es peor.

55% cree que la situación del país está mejor frente a 44% que opina que está peor.

El desempleo ha bajado consistentemente de 23% -que reflejaban las encuestas para el segundo trimestre de 2003, a 16%, según los encuestados. El sector informal representa 26,6% y el formal 21,9%.

Sin embargo, al excluir a los jubilados, a las amas de casa y a los estudiantes, los porcentajes de la población económicamente activa aumentan a 34% de desempleados, 41% el sector informal y 25% el sector formal.

54,4% manifiesta estar satisfecho con su situación económica actual.

IV. Los problemas del país

Los entrevistados jerarquizan los problemas del país de la siguiente forma: desempleo (37%), delincuencia (22%), conflictos políticos (14%), economía (13%) y corrupción (2%).

41% atribuye la culpa del desempleo al gobierno de Chávez, pero, al exigírsele mayor especificidad distinguen las culpas, más sobre el equipo de gobierno (26%) que sobre Chávez (15%). De hecho, 59% no atribuye responsabilidades a Chávez sobre los problemas del país.

El foco de los problemas del país, a juicio de los entrevistados, son económicos y sociales, no políticos.

44% considera que el gobierno de Chávez es bueno o muy bueno.

58% considera que la gestión de Chávez es capaz de resolver los problemas del país y su popularidad se ubica en 57%.

Aseguran en 59% que Chávez piensa más en el colectivo que en sí mismo. No lo ven egoísta, pero a la oposición sí.

57,5% cree que mantendrá el sistema democrático.

V. Referente a instituciones Prestigiosas

Iglesia: 70% (recuperando su crédito, luego de la pugnacidad política)

Gobernadores y alcaldes: 68%

Medios: 67% (en recuperación también)

Fuerza Armada Nacional: 64%

Empresarios: 57%

CNE: 57%

CTV: 44%

VI. Liderazgos políticos

60% opina que deben surgir nuevos líderes de oposición. Ahora mismo, 61% no identifica a ninguno.

Sin embargo, de 39% que sí los identifica distribuye sus preferencias de la siguiente forma:

Julio Borges: 16,3%

Diosdado Cabello: 15,8%

Enrique Mendoza: 10,6%

Henrique Salas Römer: 9,6%

José Vicente Rangel: 6,5%

En términos de agrado:

Hugo Chávez: 57%

Diosdado Cabello: 42%

Enrique Salas Feo: 40%

José Vicente Rangel: 39%

Julio Borges: 38%

Partidos políticos preferidos

MVR: 52%

Primero Justicia: 35%

Proyecto Venezuela: 29%

AD, Copei, MAS: 22% cada uno

Si fuera a votar hoy por cuál votaría:

MVR: 41,7%

Primero Justicia: 9,1%

AD: 6,2%

Proyecto Venezuela: 5,2%

Copei: 1,5%

VII. Posicionamiento político

Confía en Chávez: 53,7%

Confía en la oposición: 22,6%

No contestó: 23,7%

Disposición al voto

65% sí va a votar

27% no va a votar

45,6% cree que va a haber trampa en las elecciones

39,7% cree que será un proceso transparente

14,7% no sabe


Cheaper than Jack Daniel's 

In Tuesday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal they had more information on the price of oil and gasoline compared to previous periods of history. Remember that this is an important discussion because the Venezuelan opposition has consistently argued that the price of oil is too high and that will make consumers of oil cut back and switch to other energy sources (personally I think one of the dirty little secrets of the opposition is that they secretly hope for oil prices to crash so they can drive Chavez from power – again the vendepatrias are willing to screw their own country to regain their former power and privalege). Some even within OPEC, namely the Saudi’s, have asserted that the price is too high and production should be increased to try to lower it.

Venezuela, however, is saying that the price is not too high and that the old $22 to $28 price band for oil should be shifted up to at least $40 per barrel if not higher. So who is right – is oil spiking to high price levels by historical standards thus risking a shift away from oil usage or does it continue to be moderately priced thereby not affecting consumption? Lets see if the WSJ information sheds any light on this.

First they gave a little chart of in the increase of price of different consumer items in the U.S. between 1984 and 2005. Seeing as I still can’t make charts (and sorry, this post doesn’t lend itself to any intriguing pictures) I will just list the price increases:

Tuition, School Fees, & Child Care: +320%

Medical Care +218%

Rent +114%

Public Transport +108%

Car repair/maintenance +103.5%

Housing 93%

Food 88.7%

Gasoline 66.8%

All Items 92%

So one can see that even with the recent run up in oil and gas prices gasoline has increased much less than other major expenses that families have and has increased significantly less than the average price increase for all items. So in real terms, gasoline is still cheaper than it was 20 years ago by a wide margin.

Then the article contained this price comparison:

Nick Cacchione, co-director of research at John S. Herold Inc., a Houston-based consulting company, says gasoline is a “bargain liquid” – 10% less costly than bottled water, one-third the cost of milk, one-fifth the cost of beer and less than 2% the cost of Jack Daniel’s whiskey.

That gasoline is cheaper than bottled water is quite telling. Last time I checked they didn’t need to drill deep sea wells and construct expensive refineries to make bottled water yet it still costs more than gasoline – and people willingly buy lots of it!! Maybe Venezuela should argue the new OPEC price band should be set between the price of beer and Jack Daniel’s – I’m sure the Saudis will love that!

Anyways, the proof of the pudding in terms of whether or not prices are too high would be if consumption was starting to slacken. Yet from the WSJ article we have this:

This year, the U.S. and China are expected to account for more than 40% of the 1.8 million-barrel-a-day growth in world demand of oil to 84.3 million barrels a day, according to the IEA. “There is absolutely no sign of flagging oil demand in the U.S.,” Barclays Capital noted in a review last week. “Indeed, oil-demand growth is actually speeding up,” the review said, noting that the U.S. government data for early June showed gasoline demand at a level never before seen in any month.

So not only is demand of oil not slackening it is actually accelerating in its increase. This is the most definitive indication that oil is not overpriced, even at nearly $60 per barrel.

So the facts we have seen here are that gasoline has increased much less in price than almost all other consumer items, it is cheaper than other liquids such as beer, milk, and even bottled water, and demand for it keeps increasing. This strongly indicates that Chavez is right, that current oil prices are NOT too high, and that the naysayers within both the opposition and OPEC are wrong. Once again, when examined, the facts line up behind Chavez. Why am I not surprised?


Monday, June 20, 2005

Desperate measures for desperate times 

In my post of the other day (All you need is something worth fighting for...) I talked about how it was clear that the morale of the Iraqi insurgents is much higher than the morale of the Iraqi army and police and that that was an indication of the lack of legitimacy of the Iraqi government. But of course things go even further than that. Not only is the morale of the Iraqi puppet regime low the morale of their imperial masters is not doing well. Support for the war amongst the American population has been steadily declining, some politicians are now openly calling for withdrawal of American troops, and, most significantly, the U.S. military has been missing its recruiting targets by a substantial margin.

This last little problem, the US army not getting enough new cannon fodder, is potentially the biggest problem of them all. Without sufficient new recruits the U.S. military will be worn down and eventually cease to function which will definitely put a stop to the war. This is clearly a very big concern for U.S. military and political leaders.

The problem is they don’t have any easy solutions. They have already raised the age limit for joining the army to 39. They have also lowered standards by taking recruits lacking regular high school diplomas and who have very marginal scores on the army’s aptitude tests. All of this leads to a lower quality and less capable military and is not an option that can be taken much further.

Of course, another option would be for all the right wing supporters of the war to go down to the local recruiting station and sign up. But we all know that isn’t going to happen so lets not waste our time discussing it.

The last option is conscription. This could enable them to meet their manpower requirements but with huge political costs. Resorting to a draft will create an instant antiwar movement among other things. So the resumption of the draft will only occur when their backs are completely against the wall and they can’t think of anything else. And rest assured, they ARE busy trying to think of other things. Witness the following idea by the neo-con favorite Max Boot in the L.A. Times:

Defend America, Become American
Max Boot

The Army is getting desperate. Having fallen 25% short of already reduced recruiting goals last month, it is raising enlistment bonuses to $40,000 in some cases and lowering standards to accept and retain soldiers who would have been turned away in years past. A minor criminal record? No high school diploma? Uncle Sam still wants you.

Down this way disaster lies — the undoing of the finest armed forces in U.S. history. But what choice is there? With combat dragging on in Iraq and plenty of jobs available at home, there aren't enough volunteers. So far, a real crisis has been averted only because the Army has exceeded its retention goals and kept some troops in uniform past their discharge dates, but it will only get tougher to keep volunteers in uniform if troops are constantly deployed overseas.

There are two obvious, and obviously wrongheaded, solutions to this problem: Pull out of Iraq now or institute a draft. The former would hand a victory to terrorists and undo everything that more than 1,700 Americans have given their lives to achieve. The latter option, aside from being a political non-starter, would also dilute the high quality of the all-volunteer force.

Having reviewed all the other possibilities and found them wanting, I return to the solution I proposed on this page in February: Broaden the recruiting base beyond U.S. citizens and permanent, legal residents. Legislation has been drafted to make a modest start in that direction.

The proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act is targeted at children of undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. for more than five years but not born here. They would get legal status and become eligible for citizenship if they graduate from high school, stay out of trouble and either attend college for two years or serve two years in the armed forces. This bill, introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), drew 48 cosponsors in the Senate last year but failed to get a floor vote. It is likely to be reintroduced soon.

The DREAM Act is a great idea, but I would go further and offer citizenship to anyone, anywhere on the planet, willing to serve a set term in the U.S. military. We could model a Freedom Legion after the French Foreign Legion. Or we could allow foreigners to join regular units after a period of English-language instruction, if necessary.

When I first made this suggestion, I got a lot of positive responses but also some scathing critiques. A retired Army sergeant in Houston wrote (expletives deleted): "Are you out of your mind? The last thing we need in our military is a bunch of illegal immigrants serving in combat operations for a country to which they are not culturally bonded!" But there is no better way to build that bond than through military training and discipline. Drill sergeants have been forging cohesive units out of disparate elements since the days of the Roman legions.

In the past, the U.S. military had many more foreigners than we do today. (During the Civil War, at least 20% were immigrants. Now it's 7%.) The British army, among many others, has also made good use of noncitizens. Nepalese Gurkhas still fight and die for the Union Jack despite not being "culturally bonded" to it. No doubt they would do the same for the Stars and Stripes.

Some letter writers invoke the specter of mercenaries leading to the fall of the U.S. as they supposedly led to the fall of Rome. That's a misreading of Roman history. As classicist Victor Davis Hanson points out, by the 1st century AD, the legions "were mostly non-Italian and mercenary, and the empire still endured for nearly another 500 years." If only the Pax Americana were to last half as long!

Other critics think it's repugnant to ask foreigners to face dangers that citizens won't. But there is always an element of unfairness in war. Unless you institute a truly universal draft (we've never done it), some will always be more at risk than others.

Besides, the U.S. already makes ample use of mercenaries. We rely on tens of thousands of contractors in Iraq, Colombia and elsewhere, many of them not Americans. They would be a lot more useful if they were in uniform and subject to military orders so that we could avoid mix-ups like the one that just happened in Iraq, where Marines detained 19 employees of an American engineering firm for allegedly firing on them.

Would foreigners sign up to fight for Uncle Sam? I don't see why not, because so many people are desperate to move here. Serving a few years in the military would seem a small price to pay, and it would establish beyond a doubt that they are the kind of motivated, hardworking immigrants we want.

Anyway, what's the alternative? $100,000 signing bonuses? Recruiting felons?

Hmmm. Interesting concept. BTW, as I think someone in the comments section pointed out maybe we could have a meeting of needs here. The U.S. military needs bodies and the Venezuelan oil workers who were fired need jobs. Plus they would get to emigrate to their favorite country – the U.S. I think Juan Fernandez would make an excellent artilleryman.

Of course, don’t anyone take this the wrong way. I wouldn’t want anyone in the Venezuelan opposition to get hurt by an improvised explosive device. I’m just trying to match up willing workers with jobs that are going begging.


Posada Update X 

Given that there were some false starts on the Posada extradition request I just thought I'd put up this picture of the actual extradition request documentation certified by the U.S. embassy. It was this documentation, seal and all, that was turned in to the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C. last week.

Of course, nothing has been heard from the U.S. government on this since it was submitted. When the U.S. wants a terrorist extradited from another country it expects action within weeks or even days, otherwise it starts blowing people up. But Venezuela can't bomb the U.S. so it will have to wait until the U.S. government decides it feels like doing something on this. Here is a health warning, don't anyone hold their breath.


Sunday, June 19, 2005

The new official line... 

I don’t like to post about all the ridiculous utterances of Bush as that would quickly consume the blog - and this blog is not about George Bush. However, some of what he said in his radio address yesterday showed how the situation in Iraq is starting to become unhinged:

We went to war because we were attacked, and we are at war today because there are still people out there who want to harm our country and hurt our citizens.

Iraq attacked the U.S ?!?!?! So we are back to the total BS stage of the justification of the war. What Bush is referring to are the attacks of September 11. And these attacks were used as justification for the original invasion of Iraq. But once it was shown there were no links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda the government quickly backtracked and denied ever having used that as part of the original justification of the war. Well now they are back to using that as justification again. Apparently when things go badly the justifications come full circle.

Some may disagree with my decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but all of us can agree that the world's terrorists have now made Iraq a central front in the war on terror.

Actually, I thought the U.S. did that by invading Iraq. Further, people who attack U.S. troops and shoot down U.S. helicopters are terrorists? That would be an interesting concept. I guess contrary to what millions of young Americans are taught the Minutemen at Lexington and Concorde were terrorists.

Our troops are fighting these terrorists in Iraq so you will not have to face them here at home.

Yeah sure. And if U.S. troops weren’t in Vietnam they were going to have to fight the Vietcong in Los Angeles. Wonder how many times people will buy that nonsense. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

This mission isn't easy, and it will not be accomplished overnight. We're fighting a ruthless enemy that relishes the killing of innocent men, women, and children

Funny, but it was my understanding that the mission was accomplished already. Any ideas what I could have gotten that impression from?


Venezuela in a nutshell 

Actually, there isn't any "Venezuela in a nutshell". The situation there is quite complex and doesn't lend itself to simplifications. One of the analysts who best understands this and explains Venezuela to an English speaking audience both accurately and succintly is Greg Wilpert.

He recently wrote a great analysis of the situation in Venezuela that both provides a great introduction to the situation there and points out some of the possible shortcomings of the Chavez project. It is a highly, highly recommended read.


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