Friday, July 30, 2004

Heroization of a German - Comments

Dear Professor Kaiser:

Thanks much for your comments. They are excellent and, accordingly, I am having them posted on the website.

I myself wondered what the Germans think about America’s glorification of Alvin York. I also wondered about the responsibility of bomber crews of all nations, and about the responsibility of ordinary Americans -- who could vote, after all -- for the millions dead in Viet Nam. The moral problems of responsibility might well be thought intractable. Yet I admit that the possible intractability does not stop me from having a visceral reaction to the glorifying of a guy who killed hundreds of our men on D-Day.

Be this as it may, let me thank you again for your excellent email.

----- Original Message -----

Sent: Friday, July 30, 2004 3:12 PM
Subject: RE: "Heroization of a German Who Shot Hundreds of Americans on Omaha Beach
To begin with, I do not know how I got on the address list for this email, and would be curious to know, but the article/controversy is interesting.

I am rather surprised by the commentary on Severloh, who is clearly not a war criminal any more than the average B-17 or British bomber pilot who unloaded his bombs over a German city, and possibly, some would argue, less of one. The guy was a combat soldier who because of where he was managed to kill a good many of the enemy. Don't we recognize that as what a soldier is supposed to do? Granted that the cause he fought for was evil, he was simply fighting in a war, like Alvin York or Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Allies never tried to claim that the whole German army were by definition war criminals. I don't see any evidence that Severloh was violating the laws of war.

On the other hand, the article points out that the German government has belatedly gotten around to honoring officially the resistance to Hitler, which is a point in their favor. It's true that there is also a movement to make the Germans seem like victims, which is obviously quite a bit less inspiring.

Very few nations have a consistent record about dealing with the less praiseworthy episodes in their past. The U.S., or parts of the U.S., is still tied up in knots over both the civil war and Vietnam, for instance.

David Kaiser
Professor, Naval War College

"Heroization" of a German Who Shot Hundreds of Americans on Omaha Beach

Dear Colleagues:
Recently, I read the attached article in The Washington Post of July 24th, and then sent the article and the brief attached memorandum to my colleagues. I was not alone in the strength of my reaction to the article, and thought to post the article and the memo on my blog.


TO: Colleagues
DATE: July 30, 2004
RE: Attached Article

What is one to make of, or to feel about, the attached?

Here is a Kraut (Hein Severloh) who shot and/or killed at least hundreds of Americans on Omaha Beach, a thought which makes me sick to my stomach. But the Germans are making a hero of him, "admirers" are beating a path to his door, and, more generally, the Germans are beginning to think of themselves as victims though it is they who put Hitler in power (and who caused 60 or 70 million deaths in two world wars). Is one supposed to sympathize with Severloh? Is one supposed to hope that somebody goes over there and kills him, even though he is now 81? Is one supposed to wax philosophical and say he did not start the war, he was just doing his job, and he had no choice but to do it? Personally, my taste runs to hoping somebody goes over to Germany and kills the

Oddly enough, analogously to the fact that this guy didn’t talk about D-Day for fear of being called a Nazi and a killer, my cousin Joe, whom many of you knew, used to refuse to talk about what he did in the war because, he said, you never knew when some German’s kid might want to take revenge. So Joe’s actions are to a major extent a mystery though he apparently saw a lot of
combat as a paratrooper. (He was at Anzio, among other places.) But be this as it may, the "heroization" of Severloh just makes me sick.

What do you guys think?

The Washington Post

July 24, 2004

SECTION: A Section; A01

HEADLINE: War and Emerging Remembrance;
German Veterans Begin to Add Narrative Piece to WWII

BYLINE: Glenn Frankel, Washington Post Foreign Service



The shifting current funneled the landing craft toward the eastern end of Omaha Beach, where they disgorged men directly below Hein Severloh's camouflaged machine gun nest. He recalls emptying belt after belt of ammunition, raking the shoreline for hours as wave upon wave of American GIs struggled through the blood-red surf.

"I did not shoot for the lust of killing but only to stay alive," said Severloh, 81, a tall, soft-spoken man who said he must have shot hundreds of Americans on June 6, 1944. "I knew if only a single one survived he would shoot me."

For years Severloh told no one but his wife of what he did on D-Day. He said it was partly out of fear he would be labeled a Nazi and a killer, but also because fellow Germans didn't want to discuss World War II or hear about the experiences of army veterans. But over the past few years, historians, journalists and admirers have beaten a path to his farmhouse in this sleepy village in western Germany; Severloh has published a war memoir, been interviewed repeatedly by television, newspapers and magazines and been the subject of a televised documentary. He said he is gratified and amazed at the attention he has received.

As this country focuses on World War II more than 60 years after it began, Severloh's memories of the Allied invasion of Europe are part of an examination long suppressed by Germans. After decades of shame, fear and self-imposed silence, German soldiers and civilian victims are now venturing to describe their perspectives of the war. Beyond the traditional portrait of World War II as an epic battle of good vs. evil, the emerging view reveals a more complex narrative. Severloh's story has become part of the modern mix.

"We have new generations with new questions, and people are interested in what happened during the war without prejudging," said Johannes Tuchel, director of the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin, a museum devoted to chronicling opposition to Adolf Hitler's rule. "We see, we know and we accept that Germany caused the war, but for the first time we are looking at all the aspects of what happened."

Germany officially participated this year for the first time in commemorating D-Day alongside the United States, France and Britain. Other moments for reevaluation have included the 60th anniversaries of the July 20, 1944, failed assassination attempt against Hitler and the Aug. 1, 1944, beginning of the Warsaw Uprising, a savage 63-day battle against Nazi occupation forces that ended in a tragic defeat for Poland.

Recognition of these events follows a wave of books, television documentaries and articles focusing for the first time on German victims of the war -- both the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the Allied fire bombings of major cities and the 13 million expelled from their homes in Eastern Europe. Next spring will bring celebrations of V-E Day -- Allied victory in Europe on May 8, 1945 -- and two films about Hitler that are expected to break the longstanding German taboo against portraying the Nazi dictator on-screen.

One reason for the renewed interest, analysts and historians say, is that members of the World War II generation are dying out, and people are keen to hear their stories firsthand before they vanish. Another reason tems from Germany's new role as a world power, with a more activist foreign olicy and a willingness to dispatch peacekeeping troops to international trouble spots.

"If we want to participate in the world, we have to stand on firm soil as to the past," said former president Richard von Weizsaecker, 84, who also served as a young soldier in the German army in World War II.

Reinhard Hesse, the main speechwriter for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's D-Day and July 20th addresses, said the anniversaries have marked Germany's coming of age as a modern democracy. While the lessons of World War II used to be invoked as a rationale for Germans to avoid military operations, Hesse said, they are increasingly cited as a reason for Germans to become more involved.

For many Germans, the past was another country, a dark place shrouded by anguish, introspection and resentment. Gerhard Beick and Lothar Nickel are combat veterans who were drafted at age 19 and served in the legendary Afrika Korps -- in North Africa under Erwin Rommel. They recall coming home after the war from prisoner internment camps to cities in ruins and people obsessed with day-to-day survival, expressing no interest for the returning soldiers or their experiences.

"No one cared to hear about it and no one asked," Beick recalled. "We had all suffered, an entire generation. We came back to a destroyed country, destroyed cities, and we were interested only in personal survival. We tried to forget the war as much as possible."

There was always an undercurrent of guilt and suspicion. Nickel recalled that when Afrika Korps members began forming veterans groups in the 1950s, newspapers would not publish notices of their meetings, fearing that the men were surreptitiously reconstituting their old units.

"In the minds of a lot of people, we were seen as old Nazis," Nickel said. "But we were just young people dragged into the war."

One of the most abiding controversies centers on the failed assassination attempt against Hitler by military officers and civilians led by Col. Claus von Schenk Stauffenberg. In the first decade after the war, said Winfried Heinemann, a historian with the German army's Military Research History Institute, many Germans viewed the conspirators as traitors who had violated their personal oath to Hitler. At the same time, the communist government of East Germany depicted the plotters as right-wing reactionaries who sought to kill Hitler to save their own necks when it was clear the war was lost. But in later years, the conspirators came to be honored as shining examples of German resistance in a manner that seemed to suggest their actions absolved other Germans of complicity with Hitler.

The popular view has evolved to the point where a recent poll in Der Spiegel, a weekly magazine, showed that 73 percent of those polled felt admiration or respect for the plotters and 10 percent expressed disapproval or contempt. This year's solemn anniversary ceremony, held in the cobblestone courtyard where Stauffenberg and three of his fellow conspirators were executed by firing squad on the night of the failed coup, brought together dignitaries and more than 100 relatives of the four executed men.

Schroeder's speech sought to connect the German dissidents with resistance movements in Poland, France and the Netherlands, saying these disparate groups constituted the first seeds of modern European unity. But he acknowledged that in Germany, the resistance constituted a very small minority.

One of those in attendance was Georg Freiherr von Loe, a high school science teacher in his early fifties whose grandfather was one of hundreds of conspirators executed after the plot failed. Von Loe said that he had not attended previous commemorations but that his feelings of guilt now that the older generation is passing and his attempt to deal with questions from his children compelled him to make the six-hour drive from his home in western Germany, along with his wife and two of his children.

He and his family found the experience both moving and disturbing. "We have not slept well these last few nights because we have been discussing it," he said. "We need time to process what we have experienced."

Severloh took 40 years to begin to process what happened to him on Omaha Beach. He had taken up a concealed position on the eastern side of the beach along with 30 other German soldiers, and he recalls watching the horizon turn black with dozens of ships and landing craft racing for the shore. His commanding officer, Lt. Bernhard Frerking, had told him not to open fire until the enemy reached knee-deep level, where he could get a full view.

"What came to mind was, 'Dear God, why have you abandoned me?' " he recalled. "I wasn't afraid. My only thought was, 'How can I get away from here?' "

But rather than run, Severloh slipped the first belt of ammunition into his MG-42 machine gun and opened fire. He could see men spinning, bleeding and crashing into the surf, while others ripped off their heavy packs, threw away their carbines and raced for the shore. But there was little shelter there. Severloh said he would occasionally put down the machine gun and use his carbine to pick off individual men huddled on the beach. He is still haunted by a soldier who was loading his rifle when Severloh took aim at his chest. The bullet went high and hit the man in the forehead.

"The helmet fell and rolled over in the sand," Severloh said. "Every time I close my eyes, I can see it."

Severloh said he was the last man firing from his position. By mid-afternoon, his right shoulder was swollen and his slender fingers were numb from constant firing. When a U.S. destroyer pinpointed his position and began to shell it, he fled to the nearby village of Colleville-Sur-Mer, where he was captured that evening.

In Severloh's telling of D-Day, there are few heroes and several surprises. The German occupiers had warm relations with their French farm hosts before the invasion, he contends. Lt. Frerking, who died on D-Day, was an honorable man who spoke fluent French and once gave one of his men 10 days' punishment for failing to help an elderly French woman with her shopping bags, Severloh said. The U.S. invaders slaughtered farm animals and soldiers, he said, yet that evening he and his ravenous U.S. captors shared a baguette.

Severloh said he first told his tale to an inquisitive correspondent for ABC News during the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984. But the real breakthrough came when an amateur war historian named Helmut Konrad von Keusgen tracked Severloh down. Von Keusgen, a former scuba diver and graphic artist, said he had heard from U.S. veterans about the machine gunner they called the "Beast of Omaha Beach" because he had mowed down hundreds of GIs that day. Severloh confessed he was that gunner. Von Keusgen ghost-wrote Severloh's memoirs, published in 2000, and still visits him regularly.

The two men contend that Severloh might have shot more than 2,000 GIs. That's an impossible figure, according to German and American historians, who say that although the numbers are far from exact, estimates are that about 2,500 Americans were killed or wounded by the 30 German soldiers on the beach.

"My guess is yes, he helped kill or wound hundreds, but how many hundreds would be hard to say," Roger Cirillo, a military historian at the Association of the U.S. Army in Arlington, wrote in an e-mail. He added: "Omaha is like Pickett's Charge. The story has gotten better with age, though no one doubts it was a horror show. Men on both sides were brave beyond reason, and this is the sole truth of the story."

Hein Severloh said he takes no pride in what he did, but telling his tale has given him a sense of relief.

"I have thought about it every single day that God gave to me," he said. Now, he said, "the pressure is gone."

Researcher Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Re. EMail Response

Dean Velvel,

         Clearly diplomacy was a field I wisely chose not to enter.

         I have written numerous journalism review, magazine and newspaper articles deploring the stupid, ahistorical, lazy reporting that it is easy to find.

        My point was that there is not an ABSENCE of policy reporting -- it is available if you want it (especially with the Internet).

       Too many local papers have been turned into advertising rags.
       Pick up a copy of the Seattle Times, a serious newspaper in a highly competitive market and lay it down next to that day's copy of any of the larger Gannett papers and you will see the vast differences in quality.

       It is unreal to expect that political reporters (and I think my parenthetical insertion was entirely fair if you go back and read your own words) who are rushing from campaign site to campaign site, often on buses or planes controlled by the candidate's staff, to do more than chronicle what is happening right there.

       Examining policy proposals takes reasoning and time -- and cannot be done in the mad dash of a campaign trail tour. I have been there. Not possible.

        I expect we will see sharp declines in the next 20 years in those newspapers that have gone for ads instead of substance. That is horrible for local news.

       By the way, the reason people say in surveys that the trust local TV news -- even though most of its is gawdawful and lifted from the local daily with pictures added -- is one of cognitive resonance. If you watch local TV then to justify that you have to believe it, especially if you lack critical thinking skills.

       See you soon.

E-mail Response

Dear Mr. Johnston:

I really appreciate receipt of your email even though you said something I wrote was "nonsense" and that my "use of such simplistic black-and-white thinking is surprisingly [sic] for a law school dean." The reason I appreciate your email, as I also appreciate receipt of other emails about my blogs, is that they show that somebody is reading what I’ve written. And that at least is gratifying, even if you disagreed violently with something I said.

But let me also respond to the criticism you raised. As you realize, I didn’t speak of political reporters. The insertion of the word "political" was your insertion, and the portion of your criticism directed to saying that political reporters are not to write on government or policy is actually addressed to your own narrowing interpolation rather than to my own far broader point. (I will accept on faith your view that "political" reporters are to write purely on politics, and not on the policies which are inherently intertwined with the politics -- although this does seem to me to be like saying that "science" writers should write solely on faculty appointments, who is receiving federal grants, etc., and not explain the intertwined science.)

But aside from what political reporters do, you do, of course, take issue with a broader point: you say that "every major newspaper" has non-political reporters who report on policies "with skill and without fear or favor. And so do some radio and TV organizations." I think we disagree on this, unless perhaps the disagreement stems merely from your use of the words "major" as in "every major newspaper" (emphasis added) and "some" (as in "some radio and TV stations (emphasis added). I would agree that there are major newspapers in this country that enlighten the reader on policy. The Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal come to mind, and there probably are some others (The Los Angeles Times? The Christian Science Monitor?). I would also agree that there are "some" radio and TV organizations that do the same, e.g., CSpan, NPR, PRI. But these organizations, I would think, are in a distinct minority numerically, and are in at least as small a minority, if not an even far smaller minority, in terms of readers, viewers and listeners. As one looks at the huge number of newspapers in this country, and at all the radio and TV organizations and stations, it strikes me that the kind of coverage and discussion one gets from the thin upper crust such as the aforementioned organizations is in relatively short supply elsewhere. Do you think this is incorrect?

If it is incorrect, how does one explain the generally terrible reputation of local TV news (from which, apparently, most people get their news), the widespread belief that nightly network news shows are now a dumbed down version of what they once were, and the awful print journalism one sees in so many cities and towns? If it is incorrect, how does one explain that Robert Samuelson, whose column sparked my blog article, wrote an entire piece castigating the media for dealing in nonsense while ignoring important matters, and how does one explain Lee Bollinger’s desire to change Columbia’s school of journalism? If it is incorrect, how does one explain the fact that often I myself will see only one or two references to something even in The Times, and no reference to it anywhere else. (Most recently, for example, I have thus far seen only one reference in The Times, and no reference elsewhere, to the fact that the 9/11 Commission says that the government got reports in the 1990s of the possible use of airplanes as missiles, and that the NAADC had even developed exercises to counter this.)   And if it is incorrect, I would ask you, with all sincerity, why did "friends and fellow reporters around the world [call] to congratulate" you "When The New York Times hired [you] early in 1995," as said in the first sentence of the Preface to your fine recent book on the tax system?

So, as said, I guess we may disagree on the quality of journalism practiced at the print and electronic outlets which are the vast majority numerically and at least a heavy majority in terms of readership, viewership, and listeners. Also, I concede to you in this regard that, perhaps mistakenly, I do not regard my own views as nonsense or as simplistic black and white thinking. But that, of course, is always open to dispute.

In any event, as said at the beginning of this email, I do very much appreciate receipt of your email, since this shows that someone is reading what I write, and I appreciate as well the fact that you took the time to write the email.

In conclusion, let me say that I look forward to meeting you when you come to Andover for the one hour television show on your book. I hope this will be as soon as late August, if sometime around then would be convenient for you.

Sincerely yours,

Lawrence R. Velvel


----- Original Message -----

Sent: Tuesday, July 27, 2004 3:00 PM

Subject: Re: Robert Samuelson's Lament For Truth

You wrote:

If there were concern for truth, (political) reporters would learn the ins and outs of serious issues so that they could present these matters to readers, viewers and listeners."


  Political reporters cover politics -- not government and not policy.

  And every major newspaper has OTHER reporters who report on the policies
and who do so with skill and without fear or favor. And so do some radio and TV organizations.

   Anyone who takes the time to actually readthe newspaper can learn plenty about policy. And often right on the front page.

   The job of the political reporter is to tell you what the politicians on the hustings are saying and doing, just as the job of the reporter covering a
ballgame is to cover the game and tell you the score, not the policy issues of
taxpayer subsidies to build stadiums.

   Your use of such simplistic black-and-white thinking is surprisingly for a law school dean.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Robert Samuelson’s Lament For Truth


Dear Colleagues:

Robert Samuelson, a leading columnist, regularly writes on economics for Newsweek, and writes for The Washington Post as well. About two weeks ago, with the conventions and the campaign coming upon us, he wrote a column on the status of truth in presidential elections: he thinks it is in relatively short supply. The media, he says, are "supposed to be in the truth-telling business," but campaigns "draw us inexorably into a labyrinth of lies and deceits." Politicians speak utter nonsense -- they say things which should cause the speakers to "be barred from office" if they truly believed them.

"But the media," says Samuelson, "treat these routine untruths as respectable statements that ought to be analyzed and debated." The media "cannot be dismissive without appearing arrogant, partisan or both. So we let these rhetorical stupidities stand." Beyond that, "Some political reporters (who, as a class, are generally uninterested in policy, although they’re remarkably well-informed and smart about politics) may not even recognize them as stupidities."

Samuelson also devotes space to the fact that the politicians fail to discuss some crucial issues at all lest they lose votes, and the media does not call them upon this. Rather, "the media condone the silence."

Later in his column, Samuelson lets up a good bit on the pols and the press, roughly taking the position that what is occurring is the best we can do. He ends, however, by saying that "those of us [in the media] who think we’re a powerful force for clarity and candor ought to sober up. Mostly, we’re part of the clatter."

With the arguable exception of the parts of his column where he lets up on the pols and the press, Samuelson is right on the nose. We live in a society where truth is greatly devalued. We have come to expect politicians to lie and to b.s. us, and that is what they do. Much of the press is simply ignorant about matters of policy and fact. This (major) part of the press cares more about what is called the horse race aspects of politics -- who is ahead and why, what will his opponent say or do to try to catch up, etc. -- than about the substance of things fought for. Voters who wish for better have nonetheless learned in disgust not to expect it. And every four years we face a new abysmal choice at the top, not to mention all the other bad choices we get then and at other times.

All of this is, at bottom, the result of lack of concern for truth, notwithstanding the media’s omnipresent claim that it exists to pursue truth. If there were concern for truth, reporters would learn the ins and outs of serious issues so that they could present these matters to readers, viewers and listeners. If there were concern for truth, intelligence agencies would not have ignored the amazing number of warnings they got about terrorism and, very specifically, about using planes as missiles -- which, incidentally, had advertently or inadvertently occurred or been tried many times previously, from the bomber that ran into the Empire State Building in World War II, to the Japanese kamikazes, to the small plane that hit the White House, to the attempt to ram the Eiffel Tower. (Not to mention that in the late ‘90s the government received reports of the possibility that planes might be used as missiles, and the North American Aerospace Defense Command had even developed exercises and had planned a drill to counter this.) If there were concern for truth, the 9/11 commission, as Kevin Phillips has said, would have named names when assessing responsibility for the debacle that occurred on that date and, as Gerald Posner has pointed out, would have asked more questions about and not made mistakes about members of the bin Laden family flying out of the country shortly after 9/11. If there were concern for truth, reporters would not feel the need to report imbecilic comments just because they are made by "important" people, would not feel the need to devote time and space to the various manifestations in other fields of the equivalent of flat earthers and holocaust deniers, and would cover the views of intelligent people and experts even if they are not well known celebrities.

But this is not a country whose politicians and media place a premier emphasis on truth, and sometimes they place little emphasis at all on it. And so now, in an immediately contemporaneous example of this phenomenon, as the conventions have approached, almost nothing was said in the media about the fact that John Kerry’s position on Iraq is, like George Bush’s, that we have to stay there. Can you beat it? -- the war in Iraq has wrecked the presidency of the second Bush (who, of course, is none too bright to begin with), yet Kerry and his Democrats are taking pretty much the same position as to our future in Iraq as Bush is (and as Johnson and Nixon took in Viet Nam). But most of the press has hardly even mentioned this. Wow! That shows real concern for truth, doesn’t it?

So . . . . Robert Samuelson’s lament for truth is all too accurate. And we might as well accept that, because of the lack of concern for truth among our politicians and press, this country is in real trouble and is going to stay there. The reason is that respect for and seeking out the truth is a necessary condition to solving problems. You cannot solve problems by accepting, believing, and mouthing falsities and error (or our venture in Iraq would have been a smashing success, as Viet Nam would have been before it). Falsities and error will not set you free. Only the truth can. Respect for truth is not merely idealistic. To the contrary: it is the only practical course. It is too bad that the only practical course is not followed in this country until years after disasters occur -- and even then the truth is partly ignored.*

*If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

America Loves War. Does John Kerry?

I don’t know whether it is a harsh thing to say or a sad thing to say, but America loves war. We claim to be a peace loving people, but we are just kidding ourselves. This is obvious if one simply takes account of the enormous and surprising number of wars and major military actions that America has been in since the end of World War II. Since 1945 the wars and military actions include at least the following:
  1. Korea, where America suffered approximately 33,000 dead.
  2. A naval quarantine of Cuba, which nearly led to World War III.
  3. Viet Nam, where America suffered about 58,000 dead.
  4. Long secret wars in Laos and Cambodia
  5. An invasion of the Dominican Republic.
  6. The Mayaguez incident, where America lost 38 dead.
  7. The botched attempt to rescue the hostages in Teheran.
  8. Air strikes against Libya.
  9. Sending troops to Lebanon, where 241 died in the bombing of a barracks.
  10. An invasion of Grenada.
  11. The first Gulf War against Iraq.
  12. Naval patrols in the Persian Gulf.
  13. An invasion of Panama.
  14. Sending troops to Somalia, where 25 died.
  15. The bombing of Bosnia.
  16. Air strikes in the Sudan.
  17. The bombing of Serbia, and Kosovo.
  18. The war on terror
  19. The war in Afghanistan.
  20. The second Gulf War against Iraq
Has any other nation been in anything like this number of wars and military actions? Has Britain? Has France? Has Russia? Even Israel, which lives under constant threat?

In addition to this huge list of wars and military actions, America, depending on whom one believes, either spends more annually on its military than the next 21 countries of the world put together (which includes China, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, etc, etc.), or more than all the rest of the countries of the world put together.

We love war so much that total fraud sufficed to get us into two of our four biggest wars since 1945. The fraud was American governmental fraud perpetrated on an all-too-willing American people. Korea, Viet Nam, Gulf War I and Gulf War II were our biggest wars since World War II, and we got into Viet Nam and Gulf War II because of governmental lies. In Viet Nam the government viciously lied to the people about the occurrence of supposed attacks on American ships in the Tonkin Gulf. In Gulf War II the government told a host of lies to the American people about mainly or wholly nonexistent WMDs.

These lies succeeded largely because Americans are disposed to war; we love it, we think it solves problems. So we are prone to readily accept it. But why do we love it? What are the characteristics that make us prone to accept it? Well, they exist by the carload, I’m afraid: they are simply astonishing in number. All of them were discussed in a recent 18 page article appearing in a journal of opinion called The Long Term View, so they shall only be listed here.1 They are:
  1. A desire for American power and influence to be preeminent in the world.
  2. The claimed need to stop tyranny.
  3. Economic imperialism.
  4. Racism.
  5. A gross failure to know American history.
  6. Utter failure to know the history and culture of opponents.
  7. Hubris.
  8. Governmental incompetence and utterly stupid decisions by leaders.
  9. The regularly followed, but seldom identified, domino theory of causation.
  10. Falsehoods, delusions and political reasons.
  11. Congressional abdication to the president of the power to decide whether America shall fight a war.
  12. The influence of the South.
  13. The fact that America has never been invaded or had its cities destroyed by a foreign power since the War of 1812.
  14. The effect of movies and television.
  15. The fact that American leaders, unlike some foreign leaders, are never subject to criminal responsibility for their actions, nor do their families or friends fight in our wars.
  16. The new theory of preventive war.
  17. The male desire to fight and destroy.
  18. The individual desire to be part of something big.
  19. Public gullibility and apathy.
  20. Violently inclined religious fundamentalism.
  21. Nearly uncontrolled nationalism and a related civil religion of violence.

The American belief in war being what it is, there have been at least two occasions since 1945 when it has proven very difficult for us to extricate ourselves from major wars that we foolishly entered. The difficulty of extrication occurred because the two wars - - Viet Nam and Gulf War II - - were, or largely became, guerilla wars.

Our love of using war to get what we want, our militaristic belief that we can defeat others, especially "gooks" and "A-rabs", a desire not to cut and run, and a concern for the alleged chaos that would occur if we left, kept and keep us involved in combat in Nam and Iraq, all the while claiming that we want to get out as soon as possible. This claim was plainly a lie when coming from the mouths of Johnson, Nixon, Kissinger and their ilk, who kept us in Nam for ten years. It has been and almost surely will continue to be a lie when coming from Bush II, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et. al, who got us into Iraq, have kept us there for nearly a year and a half now, and are likely to have us there for more years on end if Bush is reelected. The only question is whether it will continue to be a lie if Kerry is elected, just as it proved to be when Nixon was elected. In short, would Kerry get us out of Iraq quickly if he is elected, or will we stay there to support the government we put into office?

Right now it looks as if Kerry would be no better than Bush in this regard if elected president, might even be worse than Bush lest Republicans and superpatriots accuse him of cutting and running, of throwing away our prior military victory, of forsaking the new government, of handing Iraq back to Baathists or to fundamentalists. One says this because we do not hear Kerry saying we must get out of Iraq and get out now. We do not hear him saying, as he did about Nam, "How do you ask someone to be the last man to die in Iraq?" No. When he says anything about the subject, he makes the same kind of noises as George Bush. Of course, he did vote for the war, and now he won’t just flat say we should get out and get out now - - you know, he might lose some votes if he did that, and John Kerry is on lots of sides of lots of issues in order to avoid losing votes. His goal in life since he was a kid has always been to be president, and taking definite stands is not the way to do that, according to the conventional political wisdom of the last 44 years.

There are a lot of very unhappy similarities between Viet Nam and Gulf War II. We got into both because of governmental lies. In each case we had a president who was in way over his head in foreign affairs. In each case we had a very obstinate Secretary of Defense. In each we had an overriding geopolitical fear: communism in Viet Nam and terrorism in Iraq. In each we were going to "liberate" people but had no knowledge or understanding of the culture of the people we were going to "liberate" or of the culture in their general area of the world. In each case we were stupid for thinking we could get the "liberated" to be miniatures of us. In each there were lots of Americans who thought the war wrong, stupid, immoral or some combination of those. In each the President and his henchmen in the executive and congress said that people who opposed the war were traitors. In each we got embroiled in massive guerilla warfare. In each the politicians said we can’t just leave or there will be chaos - - the favorite word of politicians and lawyers. In each we stayed on and on - - for 10 years in Nam, and who knows how many years it will ultimately be in Iraq? In each we would have lost nothing and would have been better off if we just got out, just withdrew lock, stock and barrel. After all, were we really hurt by the fact that the communists took over in Viet Nam? Will anyone even pretend this today, when the Soviet Union has collapsed, China is increasingly part of the world economic structure, we cultivate friendship with Viet Nam, and citizens of our allies stopped hating us on a daily basis for our daily incineration of Asians?

How likely is it that anything different will be the result of just getting out of Iraq lock, stock and barrel? Right now our presence in Iraq is causing Iraqis to hate us, is causing the entire Arab and Muslim worlds to hate us more, is causing allies to dislike us and their citizens to despise us, and is building support for and causing an increase in terrorists - - whom, we fear, are going to carry their battle to our homeland, just as we brought a rain of death and destruction by bombs and artillery to some of their homelands. It’s hard to imagine that the situation would become worse if we got out of Iraq.

But there has been no sign that John Kerry understands any of this or would act on it. All that we have been given to understand so far is that Kerry would merely do the same things as George Bush, that Kerry too - - though he would of course deny it - - is in thrall to military action, to the military fix, to the methodology which has often and so abysmally failed (but which kills people by the scores of thousands and sometimes millions). So right now it looks like Kerry would be no better than Bush. Sad. Very sad. One does not want to sit home again and not vote on election day because neither candidate is worth a damn. One does not want to vote for Nader - - right as he is about so much - - lest votes for Nader cause the mentally arrested Bush to win again, with all that that means for civil liberties, for judgeships, for the economy, for an increase in the plutocracy that this nation has become. And yet . . . and yet. . . we simply are not being offered a choice with regard to Iraq.

Nor does Kerry seem to have any comprehension that, if he is elected, his presidency is likely to be ruined if we stay in Iraq while a guerilla war rages. Getting into or staying in war is what ruined Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, Richard Nixon’s presidency, Woodrow Wilson’s second term, and George Bush II’s presidency. It will happen to Kerry too if he wins the election but we stay in Iraq.

So, as of now, we are not being offered a choice with regard to Iraq. Right now Bush and Kerry are clones in this regard. It reminds me that George Wallace - - of all people, George Wallace - - once said of the Republicans and the Democrats, "It don’t make a dime’s worth of difference." So often George Wallace has turned out right - - and what a criminal, immoral shame it is when George Wallace turns out right. But, with regard to Iraq, it looks now like "It don’t make a dime’s worth of difference." Right now it looks as if Kerry is as much in love with military action and war as the mentally deficient Bush.

1. The Long Term View is available in academic libraries, in lots of but not all book stores, and from The Massachusetts School of Law. The 143 page issue which carried the aforementioned article was devoted entirely to the question of, and was called, Why We Seek War. The issue had articles by professors, authors, historians and others.

Friday, July 16, 2004

A One Page Summary Of A Ninety Page Report?

Dear Colleagues:

A few days ago there was a flap in Washington about a one page document. It seems that, prior to our latest war, the President was given a one page CIA summary of a 90 page report about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The 90 page report is called a National Intelligence Estimate. The one page summary is called a President’s Summary. Both the CIA and the White House, claiming the one page is protected by executive privilege, have refused to allow the President’s Summary to be released by the Senate Intelligence Committee. However, Senate staffers were allowed to read and take notes on it, which of course is inconsistent with a claim of executive privilege, and it is said that 80 copies of the Summary were delivered to the White House, which indicates a degree of distribution which can only technically be considered consistent with executive privilege -- distributing 80 copies is not a good way to keep something confidential, after all.

It seems that the Washington flap arose because the 90 page National Intelligence Estimate contained various caveats and qualifiers about the possibility that Iraq possessed WMDs, but the one page summary did not contain the caveats and qualifiers, according to notes of the Senate staffers who read it. Democrats therefore want the President’s Summary released to show what bad intelligence was being received by the President, who has the very same problem personally, if you see what I mean. The Democrats think, in other words, that the PS was BS. On the other hand, the Republicans say that there is nothing unusual in giving Bush -- and I think they really mean all presidents -- a one page summary, and these should remain confidential. And the intelligence community -- which provides the longer National Intelligence Estimate, which includes its own internal summary -- apparently holds the view, as one so called "senior intelligence official" expressed it, that "‘We expect people to read beyond one page.’" This view should probably disqualify the intelligence community from being called that.

All of this is somewhat peculiar. It sounds as if the Democrats and the Republicans have it backwards. The Democrats want the one page PS released to show that Bush got bad intelligence? This would seem to help exonerate him for his mistake in Iraq, yet the Democrats want it released? On the other hand, the Republicans want it kept secret when it would help his case for saying that he acted in good faith but was given bad intelligence? (By the CIA as well as by God.) None of this seems right. It seems, as I say, backwards.

But maybe the Democrats have something else in mind, something apparently unexpressed. This is entirely a guess, but maybe they want to show that the one page is so simplemindedly one-sided that it is incredible that somebody went to war on the basis of such a document. Maybe they want to show that anyone intelligent would have pushed for more information and would have read the 90 page National Intelligence Estimate, with its caveats from such groups as Air Force intelligence and State Department intelligence. Why shouldn’t Bush and his cronies have read the full NIE? -- This is war we are talking about. (Of course, we know that Bush, Cheney, and their Pentagon group did not want to learn anything contrary to their desire to invade Iraq.) And maybe the Democrats want to be able to blast Bush’s own intelligence, and his professed failure to read, by showing that all he would look at is one page.

The Democrats’ possible foregoing reasons for taking the position they did are speculation, but maybe not wholly stupid speculation. There is one point about this fracas, however, that is not speculation and that shows what bad shape this country is in. The President is given a one page summary of important matters detailed in a 90 page report? He is often given one page summaries of important matters? -- I gather the Republicans are right in saying this happens all the time, and it is not, I suspect, confined to Bush. When decisionmakers are given one page summaries of important and detailed matters, government by imbecility is inevitably going to be the result.

Now, I have read a lot of significant reports in my life that were prefaced by eight or ten page so-called Executive Summaries that pretty much told you everything that was in the reports. And I have also read a lot of academic-type books that in fifteen or twenty page Prefaces or Introductions pretty much told you everything that the books said. But I have never read an Executive Summary or a Preface or Introduction that did this or even tried to do this in one page. The idea is simply crazy. It is lunatic. It can’t be done. Yet a one page summary is the basis for a war? Wow!

Making a one page Presidential Summary even crazier than it already is, the PS’s are supposedly signed off on by 15 different intelligence bodies, which have a variety of often conflicting views. Yet all of this is taken account of in one page? Gimme a break, man.
When you get right down to it, the whole idea of a one page Presidential Summary is symptomatic of a major problem that exists at every level of business and politics in this country. Everywhere we have leaders who don’t read. George Bush is not alone in this truly grave failing. The non readers are rising to the top everywhere. Maybe this is a byproduct of the television age and/or the computer age. Lots of people would say so probably. But whatever the reason, the result is disastrous because, to put it in the blunt vernacular, these people don’t know shit. Everywhere we have political and business leaders who don’t know shit, and in politics we actually elect these non-reading boobs at every level. What a disaster for the country!

As has been said here before, Harry Truman -- a great reader -- once said that not everybody who reads can be a leader, but that all leaders must read. Harry Truman was so right. Would that we had more Trumans and fewer Bushes. Would that the non-eponymously named intelligence community would stop writing one page summaries that only a third grade intelligence is needed to understand. And would that voters at every level would start asking of every candidate, "Is he or she a reader?"* 

    *If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Learning What One Thinks By Writing About Verities

Dear Colleagues:

When asked what they think about a common subject, writers sometimes answer that they don’t yet know because they have not yet written about it. This answer always struck me as a little bizarre. For one would ordinarily think that people write about a common subject because they have thought and formed opinions about it, not that they form opinions about it because they write about it. Yet in the last few years I have had an experience that makes it far more understandable why writers sometimes say they don’t know what they think about a subject until they have written about it.

The experience has been the writing of a quartet -- four books, not a musical composition. (The series started out as a trilogy, but ultimately it became clear that the third book would be far too long unless its material were divided into two books. Ergo, a quartet.) The entire quartet is, to a major extent, social criticism, criticism of the way the United States is today and of the way it has been since about 1955. But the books are not written in an expository way, as one normally expects of social criticism. Rather, they are written in what might be called a quasi novelistic way. That is, they follow the lives of protagonists who moved through the world in the last half of the 20th century. The books tell of the events of those lives, what the protagonists did, what happened to them, etc. (The books are, in this respect, not entirely dissimilar to Siegfried Sassoon’s early fiction (e.g., Memoirs of an Infantry Officer). So, if one steps back to assess what the whole quartet in fact is, one could say quite accurately that it is largely social criticism wrapped in stories.

Yet it was not until I was well into the writing that I began to realize that the same elements of social criticism seemed to surface time after time in the various stories that comprise the events of the two protagonists’ lives. It was only when I was well into the writing that it was borne in on me that several basic, oft-interrelated elements of social criticism constantly reappear, and that the reason they constantly reappear is that -- without ever having articulated it previously, without ever having explicitly articulated it even to myself previously -- there seem to me to be certain characteristics essential for a decent society. Those characteristics are honesty, diligence, competence, responsibility (i.e., a sense of duty), modesty, a sense of social justice, and advancement attributable to ability and work. These characteristics’ opposites, which are objects of the social criticism in the quartet, are dishonesty in both its full blown and lesser forms, laziness, incompetence, irresponsibility, immodesty and oft-associated arrogance and celebrification, total focus on the self without concern for others, and advancement through elitism, sycophancy or both. Those opposites pervade -- utterly pervade -- our society. They are, it seems to me, what is fundamentally wrong with our society.

So, quite similarly to what has sometimes been said by other writers, it was through the writing of the quartet that I came to realize what I really think -- or, perhaps stated more accurately, came to recognize it in a way that is express and organized.

One knows, of course, that expatiation about the characteristics I favor, and excoriating their opposites, will be regarded by many as simple mindedness. Honesty, diligence, duty -- such ideas have been around since thousands of years before Christ turned water into wine. So have their opposites. My views are no great insight, it will be said.

It is true that they are no great insight. The problem, though, is that our society is far too much in the grip of the rotten side of things. Dishonesty, incompetence, greed and lack of concern for others -- these are what have led to Enron and its dozens of progeny in business, in law, in accounting. Some of these same unlovely characteristics, plus immodesty, celebrification and a belief in advancement through elitism and sycophancy pervade higher education and politics. The world we live in has in these ways gotten ever lousier. And simpleminded as it may be to expatiate the verities, their ever increasing absence, it seems to me, really is the problem.

One is also aware of another criticism of an expatiation of the verities. It is that to think that people and institutions might live by the verities is "largely a poet’s dream," to quote Michael Blumenthal. Well, maybe so. But there are individuals and institutions that keep the verities in mind, and that consequently do a lot better than others in living up to them. The problem in this country is that too many people too often regard the verities as only a poet’s dream, rather than as something to be striven for.

I cannot help thinking that if what are thought to be the nation’s problems -- war, the economy, health -- were approached in the spirit of the characteristics I favor, many of the problems might be reduced or solved. What would have happened, for example, if the question of a possible war with Iraq had been approached with a determination to meet the dictates of honesty, competence, and concern for those on both sides who would suffer and die, instead of being approached in the mean, inept, dishonest, and non-diligent spirit that prevailed almost everywhere in the American government and, via the baloney put out by the executive and Congress, in the media? It is hard to believe that application of the verities would not have led to something better than what occurred, and impossible to believe it would have led to something worse.

Concrete examples of the point just made could be multiplied almost indefinitely with regard to what are thought to be our problems. Which brings up another question. Why shouldn’t there be a new political party devoted to the verities? Certainly it could not be worse than the existing two parties, which ignore the verities (except for occasional pious hypocrisies) and which millions of citizens have come to royally despise for their dishonesty, greed, incompetence and self seekingness.

Inherent in what is being said about our purported problems is another example of the (perhaps surprising) fact that writing about a subject may let one know what he thinks about it. For it is in writing the quartet that I came to recognize and believe that it is not the purported problems that are the problem. The true problem, rather, is the failure to approach the purported problems with the verities in mind. Iraq illustrates. So do lots of other matters that quickly spring to mind, e.g, the many business scandals that could collectively be called the Enron syndrome, the disgusting character of our political parties, the failure of our system of education to educate, and, one might venture, even the difficulties which have arisen in our systems for delivering medical care and health saving and life saving drugs.* ++

*The quartet whose writing led to the thoughts expressed here is called, in its entirety, Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam. The first volume, entitled Misfits In America, was published in January 2004 by University Press of America, and is available from UPA, from Amazon, and at various bookstores. The second and third volumes, respectively entitled Trail of Tears and Loss And Creation, will be published by UPA in 2005. The fourth volume, entitled Defeat And Victory, will be finished late in 2004 or in 2005.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

The Justice Department’s Defacto Admission That Bush Ordered Military Tribunals Because The Government Was Violating The Law


Dear Colleagues:

On several occasions (e.g., on May 13th, May 27th, June 2nd and June 22nd), it was said here and in emails that a major reason George Bush ordered prisoners to be tried by military tribunals was that the Administration knew that its conduct precluded convictions in civilian courts. Under the Constitution, after all, one cannot (1) gain information by holding prisoners incommunicado for months or years while questioning them, denying them access to lawyers for this period, and abusing and/or torturing them while in custody, and (2) then use the resulting information to gain convictions in federal courts. The only way to use the information to gain convictions is to use it in military tribunals that are under orders to ignore the circumstances in which it was obtained (and also to ignore the fact that information obtained in such circumstances, especially under torture, may often be untrue?).

It was also said here that the press had ignored the question of whether a major reason for military tribunals was that the Administration knew its own conduct made it impossible to obtain convictions in civilian courts. One prominent New York Timesman was nice enough to say on June 3rd, after an exchange of emails, that the point made here was valid, and that he was sure the subject would ultimately be pursued by the press.

But it hasn’t been yet. There is only one exception that this writer knows of. The Washington Post puts out a weekly sheet called The National Weekly Edition. It is excellent -- it just might be the best thing done in American journalism. The edition for the week of June 21-27 carried a lengthy article by Scott Turow criticizing the government’s handling of the Jose Padilla case. Turow was especially incensed that, in what seemed a transparent effort to influence the Supreme Court via the media in Padilla’s case (and others), the Department of Justice had held a press conference on June 1st to tell the media and the world what it says Padilla has done. Turow found lots wrong with the government’s conduct in the Padilla case, including the fact that, at the press conference, Deputy Attorney General James Comey "revealed nothing about how the damning statements were wrung from Padilla," and "declined to say that [Padilla’s] confinement and questioning had met the terms of the Geneva Conventions." Then Turow wrote this:

"Probably the most galling moment of Comey’s press conference came when he calmly conceded, "I don’t believe that we could use this information in a criminal case, because we deprived him of access to his counsel and questioned him in the absence of counsel."

Comey’s statement was an admission that the government was violating the constitutional rules applicable to trials in civilian courts, knew it was doing so, and knew it could not obtain convictions in those courts. And that knowledge would, of course, explain the government’s demand that trials be held not in civilian courts, but before military tribunals (the very point raised here both before and afterwards). But, apparently, the news media did not cover this crucial aspect of what Comey said even though his statements explain the government’s demand for military tribunals. Certainly this writer, a semi-news junkie and avid general reader, who reads The Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Globe every day and looks at The Washington Post and its National Weekly Edition a few days after they appear, saw no mention in the press of Comey’s remark until Turow wrote about it. Nor, it would seem, did the Timesman who said on June 3rd that the point previously made here was valid. Did the press cover the point and this author simply missed it? Considering what I regularly read, please forgive some dubiety. Maybe somebody wrote or spoke of it somewhere in the media -- perhaps that is how Turow learned of it -- but widespread coverage is doubtful.

So it would appear that the media, in line with the normal incompetence which pervades so much of it, has simply failed to make much -- or even make anything -- of the fact that the government chose military tribunals, and in effect has admitted that it chose them, because it knew that under the Constitution it could not obtain convictions in federal courts. Making this worse, the media has made nothing of it even though trying people by military tribunal is another important step on the road to dictatorship, just like the government’s (now rejected) claim that as Commander-in-Chief Bush can ignore the law of Congress. Trying people by military tribunal has historically been just another way of overcoming the rights they otherwise would have under the law.

All of this has, if anything, become only more important after the Supreme Court’s recent decisions. For as many have written, the Court said very little about what kinds of hearings, and exactly what kinds of rights, are necessary for the prisoners held at Guantanamo, in Iraq, and at undisclosed locations in other countries that apparently were chosen in order to be able to torture people. Will the Constitution be satisfied -- despite Comey’s admission before the Supreme Court’s decisions, which conceivably could render his admission "inoperative," as the Nixonians used to put it -- if the government uses statements made while people were held incommunicado for years or were tortured? Will such evidence and other facts learned because of them be admitted in federal courts? In military tribunals? -- perhaps acting under orders. If admitted in military tribunals, will the four appellate reviewers who are said to have been handpicked by Rumsfeld go along with this? And if military tribunals or federal courts are disposed to go along with it -- in theory at least, and maybe in practice too, there conceivably are reasons which justify it -- will the government first have to prove that its actions were necessary to get information to safeguard our military and our homefront civilians, and that such safeguarding information was in fact obtained, so that the claim of necessity is not a mere false abstract allegation made to justify what otherwise could be considered gross misconduct?

There remain lots of crucial questions -- for a media which, as shown with regard to the initial question discussed here, has generally shown itself on a widescale basis to largely be too inept to ask them.*

*If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Bad Stuff In Academia

Dear Colleagues:

There have recently been some news articles -- sometimes in publications that could be considered unlikely -- that shed light on what the academic world is all about these days. What these articles show isn’t good.

Let’s start with some articles relating to recruitment of professors and/or their salaries -- sometimes law school professors and sometimes other professors. On May 30th, The Chronicle Of Higher Education ran a story about the bitterness-causing divide in salary levels at universities. The basic point is that professors in professional schools like law, business and medicine make a ton more money than professors of English, library science, etc. The main, though not sole, excuse given for this is alleged competition from the private sector -- market forces are the culprit, you see.

Subsequently, in its June 14th issue, The National Law Journal ran an article on the so-called "star system" in law schools. The essence of this is that, to become or remain "elite" -- indeed, to be at the top of the "elite" -- law schools are recruiting big names and promising younger people like crazy. Deans and star professors claim that big money is not the draw, is not even involved if you believe these persons who must be avatars of the repeal of human nature. However, some deans admitted "that top law professors can make salaries in the range of $200,000 a year." In the range of $200,000 a year? That’s chicken feed for lots of law professors, as hinted in the very next sentence of the NLJ’s article, which says that a recent report in the Virginia student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, shows that full-time law professors at Virginia make from $74,000 to $350,000 a year. Being curious (nosy?), this blogger got from The Cavalier a list of the annual law school salaries at Virginia. The list for 2002 showed that no less than 24 professors made from $200,000 to $350,000, with most of them making a lot more than a "mere" $200,000. And that list is at least two years old. It is from sometime in 2002. God knows what these people will make in 2004-2005.

Virginia, I would estimate, is in competition with about 15 or 20 other law schools. This estimate is only a guess, but it is a guess based on about 40 years of experience. It likely is in competition with such schools as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, NYU, Georgetown, Duke, Chicago, Michigan, Texas, Stanford, Southern California and some others. So if Virginia is paying 24 professors at least $200,000 per year, and usually amounts well north of $200,000 per year, these other schools are likely doing the same.

Now let’s turn to buildings. For decades Dickinson Law School was a free standing law school of no great reputation in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. A few years ago -- in accordance with what the American Bar Association accreditors have longed liked to see -- Dickinson was taken over by a university, Penn State. On June 25th, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article saying that Penn State is going to construct a new law building for Dickinson on the university’s main campus in State College, Pennsylvania. The cost? Sixty million dollars. That right. Sixty million dollars for a law school building. (The cost of the new law school building for the Suffolk Law school in Boston was $65 million, plus another five million for furniture and accoutrements.)

But $60 million is not the total cost for Penn State. Nope. It is spending another $25 million to renovate Dickinson’s current facilities in Carlisle, so that there will be two branches of The Dickinson School of Law of Pennsylvania State University. The total cost for the law school buildings is 85 million dollars. And there’s not even a cyclotron in them.

What does all this stuff about the star system and huge salaries and incredibly expensive buildings show? The obvious, I would say. Today the name of the game in the academic world, at least in the professional schools, is money. (The same, of course, is true in academic science.) Getting and spending money is what the academy is all about -- with students and their families footing a large part of the bill for the getting part.

We live in a time when universities would do well to think about, and to think about teaching, the values which much of this society has lost, and which have been extensively lost in the fields served by schools of law and business: the values of honesty, diligence, competence, a concern for social justice. But no. The universities, and the professional schools, are not thinking about or teaching these values. They are thinking about money instead. Just like the lawyers, the accountants, the businessmen, the politicians, the media and the others who are wrecking this country by dishonesty, lack of competence, celebrificaton, and the attitude of getting the most you can and screw everyone else. Not to mention the regular use of the immodest vertical pronoun to which politicians are addicted.

* * * * *

Bragging and immodesty being one of the curses of the society, a recent story in The Boston Globe bears notice. On June 11th, The Globe carried a story about a young man who started life as a migrant worker picking various fruits and other crops in California, but was now graduating with an MBA from the Harvard Business School. The Globe article was in many respects a feel good piece, but one point seemed two sided. The article said:

But being around self-assured classmates, many of them Ivy League graduates, taught Curiel the importance of speaking up for himself.

‘In my culture, you’re taught to be modest,’ he said. Harvard Business School ‘has taken a little of that out of me,’ he said.

Modesty is a trait learned by many of us who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet, one subsequently learned that modesty was a disaster for anyone who wanted personal success. America is not Japan. Here modesty begets only lack of advancement. It begets only failure. As many have found out, success in America requires constant pushing and bragging. It requires one to constantly say, as our hack politicians all do, that "I" did this, and "I" did that, and "I" did the third, and "I" did the fourth, ad nauseam. Learning this lesson, by the way, has particularly been a problem for women apparently, because so many of them are taught from birth not to push themselves forward, and to think that competence will be recognized of its own accord. Not in America it won’t.

It is a shame, isn’t it, that a young man who made it from the fruit trees of California to the Harvard Business School has had to learn that one of the desirable attributes taught by his culture, modesty, just won’t hack it in the United States of Amerika, with a k. It is often said, mainly rightly in this man’s opinion, that the greatest benefit of higher education is not what you learn in class, but what you learn about how to conduct yourself in the world. The atmosphere of the Harvard Business School has taught this young man, rightly for Amerika, that getting somewhere will require lack of modesty, will require pushiness. How abysmal.

* * * * *

Lastly, onJune 13th The Times had a very lengthy article on the ten percent rule in Texas. Under this rule the top ten percent of the class at any public or private high school in Texas is automatically guaranteed admission to the University of Texas, described as the crown jewel of public higher education in that state. The ten percent rule is apparently causing all kinds of bitter and angry feelings because the need to accept the top ten percent from every high school has caused denial of admission to kids who do well, but are not in the top ten percent, at top public and private high schools in Texas. Those kids, it is said, are forced to go out of state to college.

Well, isn’t that just tough noogies. Imagine, kids from highly rated public and private high schools have to go out of state to school!! Like so many of us did in prior years. How terrible!!! What an awful injustice. Of course, those kids are getting into out-of-state schools -- nobody claims they are not. And obviously lots of their families can better afford to send them out of state than can the families of poor kids who are now getting into the University of Texas but never could get into it previously.

And by the way, why don’t some of those kids who can’t get into the University of Texas go to other good schools in Texas. There are a number of them, aren’t there? Or has all of Texas given up all of education for football?

There are several arguments on both sides of the argument over the ten percent rule in Texas, and some of them appear to be fairly decent. But that kids who do pretty well, but are not in the top ten percent at highly rated public schools (which are usually in wealthy areas?) or at (expensive?) private schools, will supposedly have to go to schools outside of Texas if they are not admitted to the University of Texas isn’t one of those good arguments.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Should The Present Income Tax System Be Scrapped In Favor Of A Gross Receipts (Or Gross Income) Tax?

Dear Colleagues:

It has been more than 41 years since I practiced tax law, but I would nevertheless like to put forward an idea relating to the income tax system. Conceivably it is a good idea. Conceivably it is a bad one. It needs analysis by experts who are deeply familiar with the tax system. The tax lawyers, accounting firms, Washington lobbyists, Congressmen and others who make their living creating and manipulating the fantastically complex, incredibly-abused-by-the-rich and quite possibly immoral income tax system we have today will likely be against it. For it would simplify the tax system immensely, and these tax players would be out of business or would lose power. Their opposition will therefore be automatic, and should automatically be discounted. The question will be, what are the views of more independent economists, lawyers, and accountants who do not make huge fortunes or wield enormous power due to the current tax system?

The idea in mind is this: The current income tax should be replaced by a gross receipts tax (which could also, if you wish, be called a gross income tax, no pun intended). The current income tax is based not on gross receipts (or gross income) but on net income, i.e., on gross income minus numerous deductions. That is true for both businesses and individuals. It is in the Congressional creation and the private use of deductions (and subsequent credits too) that much our present chicanery arises. Much of that chicanery would be ended if there were no deductions (or credits) (1) that are created for (generally wealthy) private interests by a Congress which, acting at the behest of an army of highly-paid lobbyists, is, for practical purposes bribed (although the bribes are called campaign contributions), and (2) that are manipulated by additional armies of high priced tax lawyers and tax accountants, who figure out how large corporations and rich individuals can pay next to nothing in taxes while the rest of us pay through the nose. In other words, the key to getting rid of much of the chicanery and corruption which is rampant in connection with the income tax is to get rid of the deductions (and credits) which give rise to this chicanery and corruption. This would leave us with a gross receipts (or gross income) tax.

I note that the idea of getting rid of deductions (and credits) is so different from what is done today that tax experts sometimes find this simple notion literally impossible to understand. Sometimes their minds literally cannot fathom the notion because they have been trained for decades to think of taxable income as net income (i.e., income after permissible deductions), not as gross income (or gross receipts), which is income before deductions. Yet there are forms of taxation which, as I understand it (am I incorrect?) are based on gross intake. A sales tax is based on the gross price received by the seller, not the gross price minus the seller’s costs, isn’t it? An import tariff is based on gross value, not gross value minus costs of production and sales, isn’t it?

If an income tax were based on gross receipts (gross income), the tax rate or rates would obviously have to be much lower than currently. The rate could not be, for example, 30 or 35 percent, as it can be (and often is) today when the tax is calculated on net income. Economists with computers would have to calculate the rates that would be needed for the government to operate. Would a single rate of ten percent or 12 percent for all individual taxpayers be enough? For corporations? I don’t know. But the experts can figure it out fairly easily, I imagine.

Should there be only one flat rate for all, or should rates vary with gross income, so that the tax is progressive? Again, I don’t know. The answer obviously depends on one’s social views. Either way, however, the income tax system will be enormously simplified if it is sans deductions (and credits).

How about capital gains? (I am assuming here that they should be taxed -- a point discussed below.) If they are taxed, should they be taxed at different rates than income from wages and salaries? I would think not. They are, in fact, just another form of gross receipts (or gross income) and should be treated that way. This would aid simplification and avoid the distorting and often outrageous efforts to try to convert rich people’s various receipts into lower-taxed capital gains.

One objection sure to be raised to the idea of converting the present income tax system into a gross receipts (or gross income) system is that businesses will have to pay a tax on their gross income (or gross receipts) even if they do not make a profit -- even if they lose money and thus have no net income, but instead have a net loss. Paying a tax when there is a loss is counterintuitive to the current way of thinking about the taxation of businesses. But the answer to the objection is, so what? There are lots of situations in which individuals and businesses pay taxes even though they have a net outgo, not a net inflow, i.e. have a net loss. Individuals who are spending far more than they earn every year must nevertheless pay income tax on their earnings under our current system. Employers have to pay social security taxes regardless of whether they are making or losing money. Import taxes (tariffs) have to be paid regardless of whether the importers are making or losing money.

What would happen is that the ten percent (or 12 percent) (or whatever percent) gross receipts tax (or gross income tax) would be, for businesses, just another cost of doing business. It would be, that is, just another cost that is factored into a determination of whether a business will or will not be profitable, should or should not be started, should or should not be continued. It will be no different in this regard than wages, costs of goods, or, for that matter, the social security tax.

There is also the question of whether certain types of gains should not be considered part of gross receipts (or gross income). This question is intimately tied up with tax deferral. For example, should contributions by an employer and an employee to a pension plan not be considered part of the employee’s gross receipts (or gross income), so that he will not pay taxes on it until years later when he gets his pension? One could go either other way on this, I suppose. Given the importance of saving for the future, one would think current contributions should not be considered part of taxable gross receipts. Also arguing against current taxability of contributions is that payment of tax now would give rise to a form of double taxation when the money is taken out later as taxable pension income. This is a concern as it relates to ordinary persons, though it is not a moral concern as it relates to the system-abusing executives who use one or another kinds of deferral of taxation to amass hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars.

On the other hand, and arguing for taxability of pension contributions when made, is that one must be careful lest so many kinds of revenues be excluded from gross receipts or gross income that we replicate at that level the current chaos and corruption arising from deductions (and credits). This concern is only the greater because of the vast abuse that filthy rich executives have made of deferral in order to amass hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. To prevent this kind of abuse, pension contributions and related types of deferrals exceeding some stipulated amount should probably be taxed even if sums less than the stipulated amount are not taxed.

There is also the matter of increases in the value of investments which continue to be held (i.e., capital gains), as well as interest or dividends received from investments. Here one would think that interest and dividends, in effect being monies received (even if they are reinvested), should be taxed. Increases in the capital value of an investment due to market or other appreciation -- increases in the value of a stock or a bond -- are not yet monies received, and should not be taxed until the investment is cashed in. For that is when they are actually received.

And how about the original capital which went into an investment? Should it be taxed as a part of gross receipts (or gross income) when the investment is cashed in and invested money is received back? And if it is, should the amount received back be taxed as part of gross receipts even if that amount is less than the original investment, so that the investor had a loss? I don’t know the answers to these questions. Arguing for taxability, however, is that the return of capital is a receipt of money. And, if there were a loss, well, people have to pay sales or import or social security or property taxes even though they have lost money in a business or on property. Also, once again, the more you permit revenue to be excluded from gross receipts (or gross income), the more you are likely to end up replicating our current intellectual and financial corruption even though you have done away with deductions (and credits). Arguing against taxability is that a return of capital is only that -- it is only a return of capital, not a gain, and that taxing the return of capital might discourage needed investment, the more so if the return is taxed even when there is a loss.

One can raise other questions about what should be included in gross receipts. Should gifts be included? Inheritances (despite the estate tax? Only if the estate tax is eliminated?)? Insurance proceeds, including life insurance (which is presently non-taxable and has been used by the wealthy, their tax lawyers and their tax accountants to perpetrate gigantic tax avoidance scams)? All such questions have their own pros and cons, albeit the factor of not allowing the current intellectual and financial corruption at the deduction (and credit) level to be replicated at the gross receipts (or gross income) level would seem to be a constant.

A penultimate and obvious point: Having not been a tax lawyer for over 41 years, and reading about taxation only occasionally, my knowledge is limited. What has been said here must be expected only to scratch the surface. But the idea of a gross receipts (or gross income) tax, instead of our present income tax system, may not be prima facie nuts. It may possibly have some real merit in important ways, even though it would be a sea change in the system. People have been willing to consider the so-called flat tax even though, as proposed by Forbes, it would work a sea change and, apparently, is designed, or at least would operate, to benefit the rich by doing away with taxes on dividends, interest and capital gains received by individuals, letting corporations deduct every dollar of the cost of capital equipment in a single year, and letting landlords do the same for the value of their buildings. A gross receipts (or gross income) tax system could be considered far less radical than such a rich-benefitting flat tax in various ways, since it only eliminates deductions and credits while lowering tax rates, no doubt dramatically. So if a flat tax could be considered, why can’t a gross receipts tax be considered?

Certainly, something must be considered. As said earlier, the tax system has become horrendously complex, incredibly abused by the wealthy, and quite possibly immoral. It gives rise to continuing bribery of Congress by what has been called the political donor class. For these bribes, legislators -- who wish to stay in office forever, or at least until they leave to become highly paid lobbyists who bribe others who remain in Congress -- grant tax favors to the rich and simultaneously hobble the Internal Revenue Service. The hobbled IRS is incompetent anyway (like most of Washington). As part of its incompetence, it comes down really hard on small fry, whose lives it makes miserable, while often doing little or nothing about members of the political donor class who evade taxes to the tune of scores or hundreds of millons of dollars each, and while also doing little or nothing about people who simply stop paying taxes or even stop filing returns altogether. The whole system is vastly broken and is contributing to the transition of this nation to a plutocracy with a permanent ruling class of mutually-in-cahoots legislators and the rich, assisted by large elements of the media. Something needs to be done. Some new tax system which is simple and enforceable, in which people can therefore believe, and with which they will cooperate, is highly desirable if not absolutely essential. A gross receipts (or gross income) tax might possibly be a good answer to the problem, and at least it seems to be one that independent experts should think about in order to assess its pros and cons.
Dean Velvel,

I've been enjoying your posts. re: your most recent one, aren't most state and local income taxes flat taxes, i.e. un-graduated gross income taxes? My township here in SE Pennsa. allows no deductions whatsoever and Pennsylvania and New York income tax deductions are minimal.

Here is something else to chew on: isn't the real problem with all policy questions the lack of accountability of our elected officials? They promised us a federal flat tax some years ago, if memory serves, but it never materialized. I like much of what Kerry is saying, but I just don't trust him or the whole Washington scene. Now, if Kerry were to post say a $10 billion performance bond (how much is his wife worth?) I would suddenly gain quite a bit more trust because he would have his family's net worth on the line. Part of the reason many Americans ignore politics is that there is no serious expectation that innovative policies will actually get implemented. Change that expectation and watch the fireworks! And I can think of no better way to make somebody really try to implement change than to put their future well-being at stake.

> Bob W.