Hillary Clinton’s big donor problem isn’t going away: Her history of taking Wall Street cash exemplifies all that’s wrong in U.S. politics

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton (Credit: AP/Andrew Harnik)

In a 2011 interview with the Indian newspaper The Siasat Daily, Indian-American businessman and longtime friend and financial supporter of the Clintons, Sant Chatwal, was unusually candid (for a big donor, at least) about his experiences in American politics as a wealthy donor:

“In politics nothing comes free. You have to write cheques in the American political system. I know the system. I had to work very hard. So I did as much as I could,” said Chatwal, who was co-chair for Hillary Clinton’s presidential exploratory committee in 2008. He continued: “I was interested in building a relationship between India and America… [So I] invested a lot of money in [Michael Dukakis]…But he lost the election because he failed in the debate. Then I thought, let me bet on [Bill] Clinton…I bet on [Clinton]. He became president. Already we were good friends like a family.”

Three years after this interview, Chatwal pleaded guilty to “skirting federal campaign contribution laws and witness tampering,” as reported by The New York Times. The businessman admitted that he had “funneled more than $180,000 in illegal contributions between 2007 and 2011 to three federal candidates,” one of them being Hillary Clinton. In a recorded conversation with a government informant, Chatwal was even more forthcoming about buying political influence: “Without [money] nobody will even talk to you. When they are in need of money, the money you give, then they are always for you. That’s the only way to buy them.”

None of what Chatwal said should be news to anyone with common sense; in American politics, politicians depend on financial contributions to fund their campaigns, and the more an individual (or organization) can contribute, the more influence and power they can obtain (at least that is the hope in writing big checks).

As Chatwal pointed out, influence doesn’t come free in American politics (although it is sometimes surprising how cheaply politicians can be bought). And if a politician chooses to forgo fundraising for big money contributions, the odds of getting elected or reelected are not in his or her favor: the better-funded candidates win the overwhelming majority of the time.

Money in politics has been an important and at times contentious topic during the 2016 presidential race, particularly on the Democratic side of things, where Bernie Sanders has campaigned almost entirely on small donations — breaking grassroots fundraising records previously held by Barack Obama — and railed against Clinton for her financial ties to Wall Street and other industries.

Clinton has responded to these criticisms by arguing that Sanders has no proof of quid pro quo, a similar line of reasoning that right-wing Supreme Court Justices use when throwing out campaign finance laws. At one debate, she insisted that Sanders was peddling an “artful smear” by questioning whether big money donations or high-paid speeches influenced her, which — not surprisingly — she has denied completely.

Of course, there is very good reason to believe that the billionaires and corporations that donate to Clinton or pay her generously for 30-minute speeches are expecting something in return (as with every other politician they donate to). Wall Street bankers don’t contribute to both Republicans and Democrats because they like Republicans and Democrats equally, but to hedge their bets (needless to say, some politicians are much more willing to bend than others).

This is all an indictment of the system, not any particular politician; but the fact that the Clintons have thrived for so long within this system and have become obscenely wealthy because of it should trouble any progressives who want to see meaningful reform. As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich put it, Clinton is the “most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have,” but “Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have.”

What has been especially disturbing about the 2016 Democratic primary debate over money in politics has been the extent to which partisan Democrats have been willing to use right-wing talking points to defend their preferred candidate, dismissing big money contributions as inconsequential without concrete evidence of quid pro quo.

Barney Frank, a prominent Clinton surrogate and board member of Wall Street bank Signature Bank, has gone so far to accuse Sanders of McCarthyism (which is funny, considering the Clinton camp began red-baiting Sanders and his supporters pretty early on) for implying that Clinton and other politicians are influenced by contributions.

In a 2012 interview with NPR, Frank had a slightly different tune: “People say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t have any effect on me.’ Well if that were the case, we’d be the only human beings in the history of the world who on a regular basis took significant amounts of money from perfect strangers and made sure that it had no effect on our behavior.”

Perhaps Hillary Clinton is that one human being in the history of the world?

At this point, Clinton is almost certain to be the Democratic nominee. But this doesn’t mean that the Sanders movement should quickly fall in line behind the former secretary of state — especially if she makes no real effort to appeal to Sanders supporters. The Bernie campaign has put a corrupt political system on trial, and this debate will go beyond 2016. And after she locks up the nomination, Clinton should expect even harsher criticisms from Donald Trump, whose financial independence has been one of his major assets throughout the race.

One thing should be clear: comprehensive reform will only come about when a popular movement demands it, and when people collectively combat the influence of the biggest donors.

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Who is qualified to write about race?

New York Times

(Credit: Dmitry Brizhatyuk via Shutterstock)

This week, a New York Times piece titled “Asian-American Actors are Fighting for Visibility. They Will Not Be Ignored” offered a snapshot into an ongoing conversation about Hollywood’s problematic portrayal (or lack thereof) of Asian characters. I was thrilled to see the high-profile presentation of a long-overdue conversation, and even more thrilled to see the piece was widely read and shared. Activists and personal idols like Aziz Ansari, George Takei, and Constance Wu were certainly deserving of the positive coverage, and having their voices amplified even more will likely benefit the cause. Still, I could not help but find the piece’s byline jarring.

When I spoke with Mary Suh, the editor who assigned the piece to Times Contributing Writer Amanda Hess, she rejected out of hand the suggestion that the NYT ought to have considered a writer of color instead, calling the question a “dangerous” one. Suh praised Hess as a “terrific” journalist who “had the required writing skills and sophistication and analytical skills to write a piece like that,” a characterization of Hess’s past work which I don’t dispute. “As an Asian-American myself I do not want to be limited or siloed,” she said.

Suh’s point is well-taken, and speaks to a broader problem in the industry, particularly with respect to opinion commentary or editorial coverage. Writers of color, especially women, are often confined to addressing social issues, and frequently pressured to do so from an explicitly personal angle, one that precludes their being labeled “serious.” While white men exist in a default state of authority, and are more likely to be judged on the substance of their arguments rather than their qualifications to make them, female writers of color must actively push up against the notion that their expertise is limited to specific facets of their experience, and are often pigeonholed as experts on race, gender, and nothing else.

But, of course, there is a non-trivial distinction between “Asian-Americans can only write about issues of direct pertinence to the Asian-American community” and “Asian-Americans are uniquely capable of writing about such issues, [and other ones, too.]” The distinction is one with strong parallels in Hess’s piece itself, which subtly praised the ingenuity of filling traditionally white roles with Asian actors, while frowning upon casting choices that whitewashed roles traditionally filled by actors of color. The question is ultimately one of representation, and the very real, tangible way in which a long history of systemic exclusion has limited opportunities for Asians in high-profile, public positions.

The Times’s perspective might be that white writers and writers of color are equally qualified and entitled to cover issues of race. But Suh acknowledged the importance of “diversity, not just by race, but by gender, by religion, everything” in the Times’ newsroom, and noted that it’s an issue of “ongoing concern,” while maintaining that this was a separate issue altogether from the question of which stories are assigned to whom. However, this emphasis is an acknowledgment that a breadth of lived experience is one of many factors involved in producing sensitive coverage on complex and nuanced issues.

Jenna Wortham, for example, has spoken publicly about how her deeply wonderful profile of Syd tha Kid for the New York Times Magazine was enriched by their shared race and sexuality. That the experience of reporting the piece was apparently made more meaningful for both journalist and subject is not, in and of itself, unimportant, but the larger benefit is that the rapport developed as a result produced a better product, and a more meaningful experience for reader as well. (Apart from the obvious, again not unimportant, inherent value of another byline.)

Suh’s somewhat contrary point that “reporters are reporters,” who “should be able to go out and write about any number of subjects with sophistication and sensitivity and verve,” is, to a certain extent, also well-taken, but might be better-taken if the Times as an organization were making a good faith attempt to diversify its explicitly editorial voices. Instead, it boasts a woefully homogenous slate of columnists, many of whose attempts to tackle race-related issues fall well short of Suh’s bar, often veering into unapologetically ignorant or hurtfully simplistic territory. When op-ed contributors of Asian descent do pop up on the NYT op-ed page, they are, to borrow Suh’s terminology, frequently siloed. They overwhelmingly address issues directly related to Asia, as a region, or the trials of life as an Asian living in Europe or America.

This is not to say that minorities are categorically better-versed in race-related issues than their white counterparts. And I certainly would not attribute my minor gripes with Hess’s piece — her positive characterization, for example, of Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson’s condescending attempt to brush aside critiques of his casting choices without acknowledging wrongdoing or resolving to do better — to her race.

The problem is not with a particular writer, editor, or article, but instead a need for broad, institutional reform. White allyship is important, to be sure, but allyship often amounts to stepping back to listen rather than stepping forward to speak up. Minorities need public forums to air their own grievances, rather than having them filtered through white eyes. There is an undeniable irony in the fact that the piece itself acknowledges the importance of minorities telling their own stories in television and film, while, by virtue of process, implicitly dismissing its importance in news media. The optics alone threaten to undermine the Times’ important and significant work of drawing attention to Hollywood’s diversity issues. It’s work that would be all the more powerful if accompanied by serious introspection, a genuine grappling with its own shortcomings in this regard. Asian-American actors, after all, aren’t the only ones fighting for visibility.

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West Point on Memorial Day: Race, one graduation photo, and the meaning of America

West Point

Cadets are seated during a graduation and commissioning ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy on Saturday, May 21, 2016, in West Point, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll) (Credit: AP)

My freshman year in high school, one of my drawing teachers assigned us to design the preliminary sketch of a sculpture that would reflect what America means to us. We were to complete the sketch by partnering with another student, asking what they thought the final sculpture should look like and drawing their description.

My partner was a 15-year-old black male. He told me, “I would put a big, black hole in the ground, because I feel nothing for this country but darkness and emptiness.”

I had heard adults I was close to say something similar in their knowing eye rolls, their head shakes and crossed arms as they muttered, “White folks,” at blatant injustice or disrespect and their warnings that we always had to be twice as good as any white person to expect half as much. But I had never heard anyone my age articulate his feelings of abandonment so bluntly.

I don’t remember what I described in return. I had trouble with the assignment; I couldn’t think of anything unique. I had neither my partner’s apathy nor other classmates’ grandiose imaginations of monuments. I envisioned something abstract but patriotic, like Escher’s Relativity in red, white and blue.

Today, I would say my idea describes my relationship to this country accurately. The sculpture would have appeared simple and ordinary at first, but look at it long enough, and a viewer would have seen it was a complex and confusing mesh of rules and directions that could leave you dizzy. It’s also appropriate  that I have no idea how such a sculpture would stand, because as a black woman in the U.S., sometimes I don’t know how I do.

I thought about the high school art assignment when I saw that a photo of black female cadets graduating from West Point Military Academy had sparked an official inquiry. As reported in the New York Times, the photo shows the women “on the steps of West Points oldest barracks … in traditional gray dress uniforms, complete with sabers,” and with their clenched fists raised. As the photo went viral, some viewers took offense. They “accused the women of allying themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement and sowing racial divisions,” according to the Times. West Point investigated whether the cadets violated Army regulations against engaging in political activities while in uniform.

Although the cadets will not be punished and in fact graduated on May 21, the inquiry continues to trouble me. The very action of an inquiry, prompted by assumptions that the women allied themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement, implied it’s impossible to be proud of or have loyalty to blackness and simultaneously have loyalty to or pride in the U.S. The photo, in contrast, implies it’s impossible for black women in this country to thrive without both.

Granted, black people’s relationship to this country is complicated, especially for those of us whose ancestors were enslaved. This year, for the first time ever, I shed a tear when I heard “My Old Kentucky Home” played on Derby Day. That’s justifiable behavior for a Louisville native living far from home on what’s considered a state holiday, but it’s irrational for a graduate student who just completed a literature course on remembering slavery. The latter knows lyricist Stephen Foster set the story of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to a tune. The latter knows the slaves are singing, “weep no more, my lady,” as they pine for Kentucky’s gentler brand of slavery after being “sold down river” to harsher conditions in Louisiana. The latter knows Stowe’s novel was powerful but flawed anti-slavery propaganda that reified racist tropes like the pickaninny and demanded Christ-like perfection of blacks before they were worthy of freedom. The Kentucky girl and the student together miss home but feel a deep and profound sadness for the ancestors whose humanity was so belittled that a lyricist thought there was an optimal way for them to be slaves.

Nonetheless, this black woman still calls Kentucky and these United States, “home.” I still feel pride in them and love for them. Even though I’m taken for granted by one of their main political parties. Even though we are consistently and disproportionately victims of state-sponsored violence. Even though no amount of historical evidence of the impact of anti-black, post-slavery injustices (Jim Crow laws, segregation, being systematically disqualified for government benefits, including benefits black men in the military served their country for) seems to quiet cries that black people are whiney and tend to be worse off than other racial groups in economic and health outcomes because we are lazy.

“Louisville, Ky proud,” my Twitter handle beams. “Welcome home,” a customs agent says as I reenter the U.S. after travel abroad. I say, “Thank you,” with a smile I feel in my heart. My loyalty is as inexplicable as the uniforms sixteen black female West Point cadets wear in their photo. Why would they volunteer to serve a country that’s done so much to them? Why would they willingly enter a space that’s 80 percent male and 70 percent white?

Why wouldn’t they? They belong there. They’ve taken advantage of freedoms afforded to them by amendments to the Constitution, gained via centuries of freedom and civil rights movements and not found in countries they may have to fight against.

To me, the more important questions are, why is any assertion of black identity interpreted as anti-white, and why is whiteness interpreted as American while black is not? Whether or not the women’s fist-raised gesture signaled affiliation with Black Lives Matter (and the investigation found that it did not), the gesture did assert the cadets’ black female identity. It acknowledged that in an overwhelmingly white and male space, they came as themselves and survived, probably by leaning on each other. If that sews seeds of racial division, the academy may as well be 100 percent white and male.

Instead, consider that of the women pictured, those whose ancestors were enslaved enrolled in a military academy to stand up for the country their people’s unpaid labor built into greatness, a country that depends on their people for its culture. They stand in their uniform, in their womanhood and in their blackness.

Sixteen black women in full traditional uniform, with sabers, standing on the steps of West Point’s oldest barracks and with their fists raised isn’t an affront to whiteness or to America. Their gesture shows that “unity, solidarity and pride,” are the elements of thriving in a space that doesn’t quite accept you but that you love, built and are a part of. The women’s presence at West Point, though tiny in percentage (1.6), is a step toward making the academy 100 percent American.

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Kitty Genovese had a life, not just a death: “She wasn’t just this murder victim”

Kitty Genovese

Kitty Genovese (Credit: FilmRise)

While the media these days counts bullets fired in unjustified shootings, the journalistic landscape was vastly different a little over half a century ago, when the New York Times reported that a Queens resident by the name of Kitty Genovese had been stalked and stabbed to death in full view of 38 neighbors who chose to look away rather than call the police. Suddenly, those 38 do-nothing eyewitnesses, like shots fired, morphed into legend, shorthand for urban apathy (even after the notorious number had been debunked years later) – and continuing down in time to that “Girls” episode in April, Kitty’s killer dying in prison mere days before the show aired.

But James Solomon’s “The Witness” is not about the myth of the 38. Instead, the doc focuses on Kitty’s life, and the dogged search for the hard facts surrounding her death by her brother Bill, who was only 16 at the time she was murdered. William Genovese was kind enough to chat with Salon shortly before the film opens at NYC’s IFC Center on June 3.

To me, one of the most disturbing scenes in the film was your interview with A.M. Rosenthal, who wrote “Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case,” and was able to shape the narrative of your sister’s murder through his powerful position at the New York Times. I just felt that he was surprisingly condescending, that he couldn’t understand why – with so much positive change in the world resulting from the (crafted) story of Kitty’s death – you’d want to question the veracity of that narrative. I mean, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist should be lauding your inquiries! So what’s your take on Rosenthal – and media manipulation in general? Does he have a point about journalism serving some sort of “higher, bigger picture” purpose?

Rosenthal, generally, was, I thought, pretty forthright. Of course, the story of 38 eyewitnesses has clearly been debunked many times over – including by the Times itself. The fact that a lot of people did hear – that it was toward the end of winter, March 13, and buildings in that era, often the apartments did not have separate controls on the heat. People would have their windows cracked open. They were single-pane glass in those days. It’s arguable that maybe 50 or 60 people actually heard it. There were witnesses who testified to hearing, “Help, help I’m dying” and “Help, help I’m being stabbed.”

But in terms of Abe Rosenthal saying it was a good story that was important to get out – well, that’s pretty subjective how anybody might think about that from a reporter’s point of view. My opinion is that reporters shouldn’t be concocting stories to make a moral play out of it. But he was the city editor at the time, so maybe he felt that he was allowed to do that. Because he was getting information from the police chief that they were having this phenomenon that the citizens were not helping the police as much as they used to help the police. Now remember, this was a Rosenthal who came back to the city as an editor after he’d been overseas for a time, so he was getting reacquainted with the city. So he would have lunch or breakfast with the police chief – once a week or once every two weeks – something of that order.

So when he was meeting with the police chief after the murder, the chief said to him, “Wait till I tell you about this one.” And that’s when Rosenthal sent people to check the story out – because it had been in the Times two weeks before that as a three-paragraph, “somebody was murdered” kind of thing. And then two weeks later it got to be the front-page kind of deal.

By the way, we also got police logs from the time that said the only person who called was Karl Ross. Ross was the guy at the top of the stairs who was a friend of Kitty’s and her roommates, who had to go across the roof to ask a friend what he should do. Ross called after Moseley had left, and my sister was probably dead. So the police logs contradict what that woman Hattie (a subject in the documentary who claims she called the police, only to be told that they’d already received several calls) said.

Also, what wasn’t in the documentary was a gentleman by the name of Hoffman, who signed an affidavit saying that his father called the police. Hoffman, when we talked to him, was a retired NYC police cop – a lieutenant – who claims that he saw what was going on out the window, told his dad, and his dad called the police.

Wow. This is like falling down a rabbit hole. Which also makes me wonder if you feel any solidarity with other relatives of murder victims – Matthew Shepard comes to mind – whose loved ones have been transformed from flesh-and-blood humans beings into abstract symbols (perhaps at the price of facts)?

Look, my personal philosophy and belief is that there is one universal spirit, and that’s what enlivens all of us – so I feel empathy for everybody. But I don’t get churned up about things because my philosophy is, I handle what’s in front of me to the best of my ability.

Sure, I always feel empathy for people whose humanity disappears, but in my sister’s case it became so much, and it was so long-lived, that her name was attached to apathy, particularly apathy in NYC. So many people knew of the story, so many people I bumped into in my life, when I said the name Genovese – when they were not even from the tri-state area – they knew the name Kitty Genovese. I understand that her life, the spirit that we held onto as a family, didn’t mean anything to them. It’s just these 32 minutes of being stalked and killed that they know. Part of the goal of the documentary was to give her life, to show that she wasn’t just this murder victim.

Interestingly, your sister’s death again made headlines last month when “Girls” used the media version as a storyline (and surprisingly, Kitty’s killer died days before that episode aired). Do you have an opinion about the show perhaps perpetuating the myth?

It’s funny how that worked out. I’d never seen “Girls” before, but one night, about a week after (co-producer) Melissa Jacobson told me about the episode, I just per chance bumped into it five minutes after it started when I turned on HBO. So I did catch it. But to me, it was almost like background wallpaper. Because it was like a recreation, people were at a party, it was a social experiment. It was like a sentence you’d read in a book – and then that sentence was the theme for a party. It wasn’t offensive to me. But has the story slipped into being very mundane? I don’t know. It wasn’t anything earthshattering to me.

I’ll tell you what was more disturbing to me. There was this NY Daily News article by this guy Matthew Hennessey headlined, “Kitty Genovese rests in peace: Her Connecticut gravestone unkempt.” To me, it’s like, our plot there is private property. And we have always left the stone unkempt – because people come traipsing through there – so we like to keep it covered. It bothered me more because it was somebody, this reporter, actually traipsing around and undoing the privacy our family wants. It’s like, “Marilyn Monroe died. She was nude.” Who was he to comment on something so private?

In the film you spoke about your sister’s murder coloring many of the subsequent choices you’ve made in your life – but I’m also curious to learn whether you feel your service during the controversial Vietnam War may, in turn, have influenced your dogged search for the truth about her death?

When I was growing up, remember, we had a pretty clear-cut battle with monolithic Communism – or what we thought was monolithic Communism. I grew up with Kennedy asking, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The Vietnam War was very small and tiny through the ’50s, small special-forces units. With the zeitgeist I grew up in, my sister and I were very much into scientific and historical things. Kitty’s boyfriend, who became her husband, who she subsequently divorced, was an army officer who was an engineer. So as she was going through high school, and he through college, she was helping him study, throwing all of her efforts into helping him.

So we grew up very much opposed to apathy. And then when she was killed and the story of the 38 eyewitnesses came out – it was almost like those 38 eyewitnesses had killed her versus Winston Moseley. When you’re a 17 or 18-year old man or boy, or man-boy, with testosterone pulsing through your veins, and you’re taught to stand up for what’s right, it makes sense to join up.

Also, we can blame my sister for the fact that I was a questioning kid. She would inspire me to question. She would say, “I’m not sure about that. You need to look that up.” So she started me on that path. And then, coincidentally, I joined the Marine corps, and I got sent off to language school and became an intelligence scout. So questioning is something that has been branded into my brain right through to this day.

Finally, it’s quite striking that your many siblings, while supportive of your hunt for the facts about that tragic night, also seem to wish that you’d just let it go. So how have they reacted to the documentary? Has it brought you all closer? Further apart?

My siblings couldn’t have been more supportive, but things bubble out. I think they’ve always been concerned about me, about how far I was going to take things. Even though Kitty was 12 years older than me, when she would come up to Connecticut on the weekends, usually Saturday nights we would stay up late and talk. Kitty and I just had more in common with each other. For me, after so many questions about the 38 eyewitnesses came out, it was absolutely the case that I had to get to the bottom of this.

Also, let me just add that the end result of doing the documentary – and anything else – is really to get people to ask, “On any given day, at any given moment, what do I owe my fellow man?”

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Florida deputies fatally shoot robbery suspect

DELAND, Fla. (AP) — Three Florida sheriff’s deputies fatally shot an armed robbery suspect who they say refused to surrender and was holding a knife.

Volusia County sheriff’s spokesman Andrew Grant said a gunman Sunday had robbed victims of their wallets at an Orange City park and ride. They provided a description of the suspect and his vehicle.

Grant says deputies spotted the suspect and a woman driver in the car about 20 minutes later in DeLand, about 25 miles west of Daytona Beach. He says the woman got out of the car and surrendered, but the male suspect refused and wouldn’t show his hands. The deputies opened fire. The suspect died at the scene. His name has not been released.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement will investigate the shooting. The deputies have been placed on routine leave.

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Is a “Star Trek” future possible? “You can have anything you want at any time, anywhere, on demand”

Star Trek

William Shatner and Tribbles in “Star Trek” (Credit: Paramount Television)

“Star Trek” has had the ability to provoke obsession and cultish behavior for decades now. The latest manifestation is “Trekonomics,” a new book in which an economic historian looks at the way money and labor – or the absence of both – functions in the world of Kirk and Spock.

The book, by Manu Saadia, focuses on the universe of “The Next Generation” and the movies that began with “IV: The Voyage Home”: In this newer world, scarcity has been replaced by plenty, and currency shows up very rarely. Though people are busy, they don’t need to work. Saadia looks at the causes and effects, exploring issues like free riding, labor, psychology, automation, and even the little bits of capitalism that exist in its mostly post-capitalist world. (Science-fiction fans will enjoy the way Saadia connects “Star Trek” to genre classics like Isaac Asimov’s robot and “Foundation” novels.)

Annalee Newitz, the Ars Technica editor formerly of io9, calls the book “a great work of analysis for fans of ‘Star Trek,’ and a call to arms for fans of economic justice.”

Saadia spoke to Salon from his home in Los Angeles. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

I’m especially interested in the way you took “Star Trek” as a sort of utopia when you first saw it. What was it like to see the Star Trek movie as a kid?

It was a complete eye-opener. I was in Paris. I had never seen any science fiction. I had been forbidden to see “Star Wars” because it was too violent. So “The Motion Picture” movie came out in the wake of “Star Wars” and a friend of my dad’s who was kind of a sci-fi fan took me to see it, and I was completely flabbergasted. I was like, “Oh my God! This is where I want to live.”

That’s something that really struck me. It reminded me of [Jacques] Cousteau, but in space. They were all these scientists and awesome people trying to figure out what’s going on in deep space, just like Cousteau exploring the seas. They had amazing machines, and unlike Cousteau, it was in the future, so there was something to aspire to. So it really awakened me to a whole new world and what fiction can do. I was like “Oh, you can do that? You’re allowed to do that?” So afterwards, I started to read science fiction as a result, because I didn’t have TV. “Star Trek” was not on TV at the time in France. It was not something that you would do as a kid, necessarily. It was unpopular. It’s hard for people to remember, especially people younger than I am, but in the ‘70s and ‘80s, before “Star Wars,” and even at first “Star Wars,” science fiction never really had the status or the cultural currency that it has today.

So that’s really what got me into science fiction. The person who took me to the movie told me, “You see that person? It’s Isaac Asimov, the greatest science fiction writer ever. And here are the books.” Asimov is credited as scientific adviser to “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” So that’s what got me going.

Economically, this second wave of “Star Trek” is a kind of utopian world as well. The endless resources make it seem very distant from our world. Could you characterize how the economic relations work in “The Next Generation” and the more recent movies?

“The Next Generation” basically has replicators. They’re like artificially intelligent robots that can produce anything on demand. On the spot, at any moment, whatever you want. It reduces considerably the necessity to work to sustain yourself. So as a result, economic relations in the world of “Star Trek” are no longer based on productive labor in the way it is here. And as a result also, prices have converged to zero because you can have anything you want at any time, anywhere, on demand. There is no scarcity of resources, and therefore all that we know about current economics regarding the allocation of resources, which is properly what economics is about, has disappeared. So it’s completely different and it’s very weird and it’s very provocative when you think about it.

“The Next Generation” started its run in 1987, at the end of the Reagan years and the crazy ‘80s. And here’s something on TV in every living room, it was popular. “Star Trek” is back, and it’s a world where at the end of the first season, Captain Picard has this sort of discourse where he says, “The accumulation of things is no longer the driving force in our lives.” Very strange in the context of the ‘80s.

Well it’s a big change from the original “Star Trek,” where they did have currency. They bought ale and Tribbles. That was a world somewhat closer to ours, economically, right?

Correct. Even though they were officers in Starfleet, they were part of an institution, fictional of course, that’s the dream of 1960s liberalism. It’s a bit like NASA. Scientists, engineers, going into space to do good things and supported massively by the government. So there’s this sort of élan in the original series.

The inflection point, that I see at least, is in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” the whales movie. It’s an amazing movie, a beautiful movie. They go back in time to San Francisco in 1984, 1985, and they have to deal with money and they don’t know how to do it. Because they have to get whales on board and bring them back to the 23rd Century. There’s this very funny scene where Captain Kirk, William Shatner, takes Dr. Gillian Taylor, the female protagonist, to dinner. Of course she thinks he’s a weirdo and she’s like, “Don’t tell me you don’t have money in the 23rd Century,” when the bill comes. And he smiles and shrugs and says, “No, we don’t.” The whole movie is so remarkable because it’s a little bit like “Gulliver’s Travels.” It’s a way to expose our foibles and the weirdness of our current life through the eyes of a comparatively more developed and enlightened people who are rendered almost hapless by the way things work in our own world. It’s a very 18th Century movie. That’s what I like about it.

This might not be a fair question, because science fiction is always more about the present than it’s about the future — I think it was Ursula Le Guin who said that. But to what extent does the world of “The Next Generation” seem plausible to you?

To preface my answer, I would say “Star Trek” is one of the very few science fiction universes that actually tries to deal with the future, especially “The Next Generation,” because you have a consistent and coherent depiction of how society would work, and it’s very similar to Asimov in that sense. As for the plausibility, one thing that strikes me — the replicator is a very important machine in “The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine” and the subsequent series, but you’ll notice also that there are other alien cultures in the galaxy that use the replicator, but they make you pay for it. So with the same technology you have two different economic systems and two different cultures. I’m thinking specifically of the ignoble Ferengi, the traders and capitalists of the galaxy.

What it tells us, and what the “Star Trek” writers are trying to tell us through this, is that a post-scarcity or a post-economic society is actually a policy choice. That is something I find very eerie. Two different cultures have the same technology: one makes you pay for it, one doesn’t. So it is plausible, not so much because of technology, but because of policy choice or not. In the real world, we do have some systems and technologies that actually function like the replicator. The do not produce the same things, but I’m thinking specifically of GPS, which is a public good, or Wikipedia or the internet. There are technological public goods in the real world, and that is something I find very striking.

A public good is a well-understood and researched economic object. So this is not even something that breaks what we know of economics. This is something that we’re comfortable using in our everyday life. GPS costs what, $1 billion a year to maintain by the Department of Defense? And there are like three billion GPS receptors active in the world today, and it creates enormous wealth for some and it also is incredibly useful.

You say that “Star Trek” is rare among science fiction for looking seriously at the future. Is that because “Star Wars” is set in what we’re told is the past?

I don’t want to diss “Star Wars.” I love “Star Wars.” But “Star Wars,” in a way, is much closer to us in terms of the kinds of emotions and character dilemmas that it presents. In a way, a lot of the later “Star Trek” protagonists are very alien to us. They are very noble and almost inscrutably good people. People diss “Star Trek” by saying they’re all boy scouts and too altruistic and it couldn’t work or it’s not realistic. That’s the point. They are consistent with a world that has overcome or has decided to overcome scarcity. They’re worried about other things than us.

“Star Wars” not so much. “Star Wars” is, in fact, about ourselves. That’s why it’s so popular, because it talks to us on a very primal level. The kids love it, and I understand that.

Your point is that the world of “Star Trek,” the world of plenty, without currency, changed social relations. People live in a very different way.

It changes social relations. We know that empirically. The absence of poverty removes a lot of psychopathologies. That is something we know empirically from the real world. So yes, plenty will profoundly change the way people relate to each other and the kind of society they build and try to maintain. That is the lesson of “Star Trek.” “Star Wars” is not a world of plenty.

And that’s why I say “Star Trek” looks to the future in that sense, or tries to give an account of the future. Not much science fiction tries to do that in earnest. That is the achievement of “Star Trek”: to speak about the future from the standpoint of the future. And it’s a very particular future. The future that “Star Trek” speaks from is the endpoint of the industrial revolution, when machines have finally replaced human labor entirely.

It’s an optimistic view of what machines and automation could do for human society.

What we could accomplish with technology. I think that’s the other thing. The world of “Star Trek” doesn’t come into being as a sort of natural result of technological progress. It is what the people in that universe decide to do with that technology that makes a difference. It’s a policy decision.

Technology, in and of itself, cannot change the world. The famous example, and this is going to get a little nerdy, the steam engine was invented by a Greek mathematician in the 1st Century. There was no point in using a steam machine then because they had slaves. It was used as a prop for theater and entertainment as a result. Hero of Alexandria.

So technology is adapted as a response to social demand. That’s my point here. I think it was Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, who said that the future is either “The Matrix” or “Star Trek.” Well, he’s got a point there. We have to make decisions.

One of your key points is that we could have a world closer to that of “Star Trek,” but we’d have to make very different choices as to what we value and what kind of society and economic structure we want.

Yes. I would say I’m trying to advocate for a more deliberate political response to technological change, and based on empirical data and empirical knowledge. That’s the gist of the book.

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God doesn’t grant wishes: I’m a Christian and I pray — but not the way you’d think

Prayer

(Credit: KieferPix via Shutterstock)

I know it’s unusual for a cynical, abortion-loving member of the New York liberal media that’s trying to destroy America to say this, but — I am a Christian. Yes, I still have profound skepticism over the way that any large institution — like an organized religion — is run. No, I do not possess all the answers to what happens after we die. But I go to church. I fangirl over Pope Francis. And yet, in the darkest, most profoundly testing period of my life, if there was one phrase from friends, family and strangers that made me the most uneasy, it was this: I’m praying for you. 

I pray, by the way. I pray every day. I have an ongoing conversation with the divine. Prayer is my time for self-reflection and expression of gratitude, even when the day has been very hard. My prayers also include plenty of mentions of people I love, and people who I know are going through rough times. But when I pray I try — sometimes with varying degrees of success — to not turn those prayers into a negotiation session, to not treat the God I believe in as a big wish-granter in the sky. And that’s how I would like to be prayed for in return.

When I had a fatal form of cancer and a real crapstorm of other stuff going down a few years ago, I had so many people reach out to say they were praying for me. I was on prayer lists in churches I’d never heard of. And I was, and remain, truly grateful. I felt love and intention as a cosmic force, wrapping me in warmth through the worst days. But I never believed in a God who treats human life like a change.org petition, an entity just waiting for the correct number of signers before he’ll grant a hoped-for outcome. Because that kind of God would be a real prat.

When you find yourself thrust into the community of the sick and the survivors and the ones who are maddeningly referred to as having “lost a battle,” you learn a few things pretty quickly. You learn that life is random. You learn that people who meditate and drink green juice die of disease, that children die, and that the religiously faithful do too. That’s why I bristle at that particularly arrogant brand of survivor, the one who chalks up having a successful outcome to forces other than luck and medicine. Trust me, or talk to an oncologist sometime. Whether it’s prayer or cutting out white sugar, those things may make you feel better and more in control, but they won’t affect your fate. And why would anybody want a God who plays favorites, who’s so capricious and easily flattered?

Near the end of my beloved friend Debbie’s life, I had a conversation with someone who insisted, fervently, that “a miracle” could still save her. I would have loved that. But the reality of her situation was that her illness had its own path, regardless of how desperately so many people wanted it to be otherwise. I knew that this person’s prayers would not change that. Yet I will confess that when my own daughter was in the emergency room this past winter in septic shock, my prayers were of a singular and urgent nature. Let her live. Please, let her live. It gave me comfort, in the middle of the night, as she lay in that little bed with tubes attached to different places in her body, to say those words. It was prayer that gave me someone to talk to, someone to cry to, throughout those long, hard, 36 hours before she stabilized. I was talking to a force that was, I believe, a kind of satellite in the universe to send up my love, and bounce it back down to her. But when the morning came, it was antibiotics that saved her life.

People who don’t believe in God — and I really have no interest in talking anybody into it, or praying for anybody who doesn’t want to be prayed for — often argue that no all-powerful force would allow the horrors in this world we are daily reminded of to happen. And many people who firmly believe in a traditional version of their faiths simply reply: IDK, ¯_(ツ)_/¯!

But when I let go of my vision of God as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, my relationship with my faith gets exponentially more realistic. God is not some smug guy granting or withholding favor based on how pleased he is with my requests. He’s not a judge on a reality competition. I don’t have to come up with some clever life hack to coerce him to give me what I want. I can instead embrace a universal and unconditional love, I can tap into the grace that gives me strength when the days are hard, and gratitude for the things that are good. And when people say they are praying for me, I can hope that they are doing it as a gesture of compassion and support and communion in its truest sense and not as an item on a list of requests, so that I can reply in sincerity, “Thanks. I’m praying for you, too.”

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French kids know how to play: American parents’ obsession with structured playtime is stifling our kids

Child, Magic Marker

(Credit: Vanessa Nel via Shutterstock)

As the American mother of a 4-year-old girl, with a French husband, I’ve gotten a chance to see playtime from both sides of the pond. Over the years, I’ve also gained a new set of both French and American “mommy friends,” who often pepper me with questions about whether the French truly parent better, as Pamela Druckerman argues in her book “Bringing Up Bebe.” While I’m hesitant to take part in such a “who’s better than whom” parenting war, there’s one place where French parents have it right: that is, in their attitudes and rules about children’s play.

When we get together with our American friends, we often have to squeeze playtime in between class time, even (or especially) on the weekends. Between French class and soccer class, between guitar lessons and yoga, we struggle to find time to meet up with our friends. “You could sign up for the classes too,” is the frequent refrain, and I have to explain, at times uncomfortably, that we’re already busy enough. The idea that play is a natural thing—indeed, one of the most fundamental aspects of our humanity—seems completely foreign. However, on our trips to France, which we take around every six months, meeting up at playgrounds is the most structured thing we do.

Often, our French friends seem taken aback at even that suggestion, preferring to run through the Luxembourg Gardens and watch the toy sailboats or meet up at a café. On those visits, my daughter’s “playtime” often involves running up and down the stairs of a café, and then coloring or reading stories in between bites of croissant. The preferred French choice is to meet up at each other’s homes (or rented apartments, as the case may be), where the kids amuse themselves with each others’ toys and “help” prepare dinner, cutting bread or throwing carrots into bowls.

The American interest in structured activities has trickled downhill, into the ways we think about parenting and raising kids. No longer is it enough to spend the weekend running errands, doing what we normally do, and knowing that my daughter Sophie will find a way to play, whether juggling the grapes in the grocery store cart or throwing rocks into the water at Walden Pond. No: We must pay for playtime, and have it be organized for us. We must sit back and relax while other people tell our children what to do.

Now that my daughter is in preschool, I see this trend even more clearly, in the 18 school birthday parties we have over the year. Up until two years ago, we often had parties at each other’s houses, but no more. Now, our parties are highly structured affairs, at one of a few key places. By now, I have the schedule of those parties memorized: Jump in one bouncy house structure for 25 minutes, in a second bouncy house for 20 more, then collect shoes, sanitize hands, and walk into the third room for store-provided pizza and cake. In other places, the kids’ activities are fully choreographed, with fresh-faced twenty-something girls shouting “It’s your birthday, it’s your birthday, go go go!” as the often excited but over-stimulated child shoots down a zipline, with a mixture of anxiety and glee.

This example of birthday parties mimics the larger trend in American parenting of making sure that every spare moment is structured, organized, and rule-bound, with little chances for kids to get off-track. Gone are the relaxed soccer games that devolve into kicking the ball into the trees. Now, we have “Super Soccer Stars,” in which kids are enrolled as young as 12 months to start learning how to “kick and play.”

While this critique may sound accusatory, I’m pointing a finger equally at myself. Months before her birthday, my own daughter begged to have her birthday at one such place, and, not wanting to disappoint her, I agreed. She’d seen all of her friends having similar parties, after all. Around the time she was two and a half, we also enrolled her in Super Soccer Stars, and found to our dismay that she didn’t actually want to follow the teacher at all. Rather, she preferred running around in circles when the teacher told her to stand still, and putting the soccer ball in her baby stroller and pretending it was a baby doll.

As a speech-language pathologist and early childhood expert, I should have known. Children that young aren’t often able to engage in cooperative play, but rather at best play “in parallel,” or side by side with other children. Trying to get them to share is, more often than not, driven more by our concepts of fairness than any clear understanding on our children’s parts. But teaching children to share isn’t the problem. More disturbing is the suggestion that kids need to play the way we do, that they need to mimic our games and rules, rather than make up their own.

Kids can’t be truly creative if, early on, they’re learning nothing more than following rules. As research on child development shows, children should be exposed, as often as possible, to unstructured activities, in which they have the time and space to make discoveries. These discoveries, on the surface, may look like nothing much: how a leaf balances on a stick, say, or how many croissants can be stacked before they all tumble down. More often than not, experimentation in early childhood looks like mess. Learning looks like pulling things apart, then figuring out how to fit them together again. In all the glitz and glimmer of structured classes, there’s no time for such a mess, but no time for deep learning either. That’s the paradox of our modern age: To help kids become more creative, we actually need to start doing less.

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The Pentagon’s dark money: Billions of federal dollars are vanishing into thin air

The_Pentagon_January_2008

(Credit: Wikimedia/Deptartment of Defense)

Now you see it, now you don’t. Think of it as the Department of Defense’s version of the street con game, three-card monte, or maybe simply as the Pentagon shuffle.  In any case, the Pentagon’s budget is as close to a work of art as you’re likely to find in the U.S. government — if, that is, by work of art you mean scam.

The United States is on track to spend more than $600 billion on the military this year — more, that is, than was spent at the height of President Ronald Reagan’s Cold War military buildup, and more than the military budgets of at least the next seven nations in the world combined.  And keep in mind that that’s just a partial total.  As an analysis by the Straus Military Reform Project has shown, if we count related activities like homeland security, veterans’ affairs, nuclear warhead production at the Department of Energy, military aid to other countries, and interest on the military-related national debt, that figure reaches a cool $1 trillion.

The more that’s spent on “defense,” however, the less the Pentagon wants us to know about how those mountains of money are actually being used.  As the only major federal agency that can’t pass an audit, the Department of Defense (DoD) is the poster child for irresponsible budgeting.

It’s not just that its books don’t add up, however.  The DoD is taking active measures to disguise how it is spending the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars it receives every year — from using the separate “war budget” as a slush fund to pay for pet projects that have nothing to do with fighting wars to keeping the cost of its new nuclear bomber a secret.  Add in dozens of other secret projects hidden in the department’s budget and the Pentagon’s poorly documented military aid programs, and it’s clear that the DoD believes it has something to hide.

Don’t for a moment imagine that the Pentagon’s growing list of secret programs and evasive budgetary maneuvers is accidental or simply a matter of sloppy bookkeeping.  Much of it is remarkably purposeful.  By keeping us in the dark about how it spends our money, the Pentagon has made it virtually impossible for anyone to hold it accountable for just about anything.  An entrenched bureaucracy is determined not to provide information that might be used to bring its sprawling budget — and so the institution itself — under control. That’s why budgetary deception has become such a standard operating procedure at the Department of Defense.

The audit problem is a case in point.  The Pentagon along with all other major federal agencies was first required to make its books auditable in the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990.  More than 25 years later, there is no evidence to suggest that the Pentagon will ever be able to pass an audit.  In fact, the one limited instance in which success seemed to be within reach — an audit of a portion of the books of a single service, the Marine Corps — turned out, upon closer inspection, to be a case study in bureaucratic resistance.

In April 2014, when it appeared that the Corps had come back with a clean audit, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was so elated that he held a special ceremony in the “Hall of Heroes” at the Pentagon. “It might seem a bit unusual to be in the Hall of Heroes to honor a bookkeeping accomplishment,” he acknowledged, “but damn, this is an accomplishment.”

In March 2015, however, that “accomplishment” vanished into thin air.  The Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), which had overseen the work of Grant Thornton, the private firm that conducted the audit, denied that it had been successful (allegedly in response to “new information”).  In fact, in late 2013, as Reuters reported, auditors at the OIG had argued for months against green-lighting Grant Thornton’s work, believing that it was full of obvious holes.  They were, however, overruled by the deputy inspector general for auditing, who had what Reuters described as a “longstanding professional relationship” with the Grant Thornton executive supervising the audit.

The Pentagon and the firm deny that there was any conflict of interest, but the bottom line is clear enough: there was far more interest in promoting the idea that the Marine Corps could pass an audit than in seeing it actually do so, even if inconvenient facts had to be swept under the rug. This sort of behavior is hardly surprising once you consider all the benefits from an undisturbed status quo that accrue to Pentagon bureaucrats and cash-hungry contractors.

Without a reliable paper trail, there is no systematic way to track waste, fraud, and abuse in Pentagon contracting, or even to figure out how many contractors the Pentagon employs, though a conservative estimate puts the number at well over 600,000.  The result is easy money with minimal accountability.

How to Arm the Planet

In recent years, keeping tabs on how the Pentagon spends its money has grown even more difficult thanks to the “war budget” — known in Pentagonese as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account — which has become a nearly bottomless pit for items that have nothing to do with fighting wars.  The use of the OCO as a slush fund began in earnest in the early years of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq and has continued ever since.  It’s hard to put a precise number on how much money has been slipped into that budget or taken out of it to pay for pet projects of every sort in the last decade-plus, but the total is certainly more than $100 billion and counting.

The Pentagon’s routine use of the war budget as a way to fund whatever it wants has set an example for a Congress that’s seldom seen a military project it wasn’t eager to pay for.  Only recently, for instance, the House Armed Services Committee chair, Texas Republican Congressman Mac Thornberry,proposed taking $18 billion from the war budget to cover items like an extra 11 F-35 combat aircraft and 14 F-18 fighter-bombers that the Pentagon hadn’t even asked for.

This was great news for Lockheed Martin, which needs a shot in the arm for its troubled F-35 program, already slated to be the most expensive weapons system in history, and for Boeing, which has been lobbying aggressively to keep its F-18 production line open in the face of declining orders from the Navy.  But it’s bad news for the troops because, as the Project on Government Oversight has demonstrated, the money used to pay for the unneeded planes will come at the expense of training and maintenance funds.

This is, by the way, the height of hypocrisy at a time when the House Armed Services Committee is routinely sending out hysterical missives about the country’s supposed lack of military readiness.  The money to adequately train military personnel and keep their equipment running is, in fact, there. Members of Congress like Thornberry would just have to stop raiding the operations budget to pay for big ticket weapons systems, while turning a blind eye to wasteful spending in other parts of the Pentagon budget.

Thornberry’s gambit may not carry the day, since both President Obama and Senate Armed Services Committee chair John McCain oppose it.  But as long as a separate war budget exists, the temptation to stuff it with unnecessary programs will persist as well.

Of course, that war budget is just part of the problem.  The Pentagon has so many budding programs tucked away in so many different lines of its budget that even its officials have a hard time keeping track of what’s actually going on.  As for the rest of us, we’re essentially in the dark.

Consider, for instance, the proliferation of military aid programs.  The  Security Assistance Monitor, a nonprofit that tracks such programs, has identified more than two dozen of them worth about $10 billion annually.  Combine them with similar programs tucked away in the State Department’s budget, and the U.S. is contributing to the arming and training of security forces in 180 countries.  (To put that mind-boggling total in perspective, there are at most 196 countries on the planet.)  Who could possibly keep track of such programs, no less what effect they may be having on the countries and militaries involved, or on the complex politics of, and conflicts in, various regions?

Best suggestion: don’t even think about it (which is exactly what the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex want you to do).  And no need for Congress to do so either.  After all, as Lora Lumpe and Jeremy Ravinsky of the Open Society Foundations noted earlier this year, the Pentagon is the only government agency providing foreign assistance that does not even have to submit to Congress an annual budget justification for what it does.  As a result, they write, “the public does not know how much the DoD is spending in a given country and why.”

Slush Funds Galore

If smokescreens and evasive maneuvers aren’t enough to hide the Pentagon’s actual priorities from the taxpaying public, there’s always secrecy.  The Secrecy Project at the Federation of American Scientists recently put the size of the intelligence portion of the national security state’s “black budget“ — its secret spending on everything from spying to developing high-tech weaponry — at more than $70 billion. That figure includes a wide variety of activities carried out through the CIA, the NSA, and other members of the intelligence community, but $16.8 billion of it was requested directly by the Department of Defense.  And that $70 billion is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to secret spending programs, since billions more in secret financing for the development and acquisition of new weapons systems has been squirreled away elsewhere.

The largest recent project to have its total costs shrouded in secrecy is the B-21, the Air Force’s new nuclear bomber. Air Force officials claim that they need to keep the cost secret lest potential enemies “connect the dots” and learn too much about the plane’s key characteristics.  In a letter to Senator McCain, an advocate of making the cost of the plane public, Ronald Walden of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office claimed that there was “a strong correlation between the cost of an air vehicle and its total weight.” This, he suggested, might make it “decisively easier” for potential opponents to guess its range and payload.

If such assessments sound ludicrous, it’s because they are.  As the histories of other major Pentagon acquisition programs have shown, the price of a system tells you just that — its price — and nothing more.  Otherwise, with its classic cost overruns, the F-35 would have a range beyond compare, possibly to Mars and back. Of course, the real rationale for keeping the full cost estimate for the B-21 secret is to avoid bad publicity.  Budget analyst Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests that it’s an attempt to avoid “sticker shock” for a program that he estimates could cost more than $100 billion to develop and purchase.

The bomber, in turn, is just part of a planned $1 trillion splurge over the next three decades on a new generation of bombers, ballistic missile submarines, and ground-based nuclear missiles, part of an updating of the vast U.S. nuclear arsenal.  And keep this in mind: that trillion dollars is simply an initial estimate before the usual Pentagon cost overruns even begin to come into play.  Financially, the nuclear plan is going to hit taxpayer wallets particularly hard in the mid-2020s when a number of wildly expensive non-nuclear systems like the F-35 combat aircraft will also be hitting peak production.

Under the circumstances, it doesn’t take a genius to know that there’s only one way to avoid the budgetary equivalent of a 30-car pile up: increase the Pentagon’s already ample finances yet again.  Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Brian McKeon was referring to the costs of building new nuclear delivery vehicles when he said that the administration was “wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it, and probably thanking our lucky stars we won’t be here to answer the question.”  Of course, the rest of us will be stuck holding the bag when all those programs cloaked in secrecy suddenly come out of hiding and the bills come fully due.

At this point, you may not be shocked to learn that, in response to McKeon’s uncomfortable question, the Pentagon has come up with yet another budgetary gimmick.  It’s known as the “National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund,” or as Taxpayers for Common Sense more accurately labels it, “the Navy’s submarine slush fund.” The idea — a longstanding darling of the submarine lobby (and yes, Virginia, there is a submarine lobby in Washington) — is to set up a separate slush fund outside the Navy’s normal shipbuilding budget. That’s where the money for the new ballistic missile submarine program, currently slated to cost $139 billion for 12 subs, would go.

Establishing such a new slush fund would, in turn, finesse any direct budgetary competition between the submarine program and the new surface ships the Navy also wants, and so avoid a political battle that might end up substantially reducing the number of vessels the Navy is hoping to buy over the next 30 years.  Naturally, the money for the submarine fund will have to come from somewhere, either one of the other military services or that operations and maintenance budget so regularly raided to help pay for expensive weapons programs.

Not to be outmaneuvered, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has now asked Congress to set up a “strategic deterrence fund” to pay for its two newest nuclear delivery vehicles, the planned bomber and a long-range nuclear-armed ballistic missile.  In theory, this would take pressure off other major Air Force projects like the F-35, but as with the submarine fund, it only adds up if a future president and a future Congress can be persuaded to jack up the Pentagon budget to make room for these and other weapons systems.

In the end, however the specifics work out, any “fund” for such weaponry will be just another case of smoke and mirrors, a way of kicking the nuclear funding crisis down the road in hopes of fatter budgets to come. Why make choices now when the Pentagon and the military services can bet on blackmailing a future Trump or Clinton administration and a future Congress into ponying up the extra billions of dollars needed to make their latest ill-conceived plans add up?

If your head is spinning after this brief tour of the Pentagon’s budget labyrinth, it should be. That’s just what the Pentagon wants its painfully complicated budget practices to do: leave Congress, any administration, and the public too confused and exhausted to actually hold it accountable for how our tax dollars are being spent. So far, they’re getting away with it.

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2 dead in plane crash in Southern California orchard

SANTA PAULA, Calif. (AP) — Two people have been killed in the fiery crash of a small plane in a Southern California orchard.

Ventura County fire Capt. Mike Lindbery says the crash was reported at 3:17 p.m. Saturday and arriving units found it engulfed in flames. The victims were deceased at the scene.

The site is in the agricultural Aliso Canyon area between the cities of Ventura and Santa Paula.

There’s no immediate information about those who were aboard, the type of plane or its flight.

There are three civilian airfields in the region.

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