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"Forget the Rest" blog


Bulletin #159: Elect yourself.

October 17, 2012

Please consider joining us next Wednesday (10/24/12) in Santa Fe from 4:00 to 9:00 pm for a teach-in addressing three crucial issues, aimed at sharing key information and building solidarity.  If you can’t come in the afternoon, come in the evening.  Events in Albuquerque and elsewhere will follow.  See also recent public products and news, below.

It is, however, becoming evident—and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance—that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters.

Vaclav Havel, "Politics and Conscience," 1984, in Living in Truth

Dear friends

On October 24, next Wednesday afternoon and evening, the Study Group will lead working group discussions in Santa Fe on three related issues at the CloudCliff Bakery and performance space in Santa Fe, 1805 Second Street, from 4:00 to 9:00 pm.

Sandwiches or similar fare will be served and a small donation to cover costs requested.

These discussions will be oriented toward those who already have some understanding of the crises facing us and are ready to devote, or are already devoting, substantial effort to addressing them.

Please bring a similarly-committed friend.

Events in Albuquerque and elsewhere will follow.

In this meeting and in the working groups to follow, we aim to share intellectual resources, to network and plan, to increase discernment and solidarity, and altogether to strengthen our ability to change public policy.  We hope you will write, speak, and network, and we will talk about that.

Some portions of this meeting may be videotaped and posted on-line for the benefit of those who can’t attend, but most of the meeting will consist of off-the-record working sessions arranged by topic, with a more general discussion in the middle (over refreshments) and in the final hour.  We expect to have some additional issue experts present to answer questions besides just the usual suspects.

We are looking for two or three volunteers to help with setup and cleanup.  Please call our host Willem Malten at 505-920-1277 if you want to help in this way.

The three topics, with a few notes on each, follow.

  • Climate, energy, and related economic issues

No matter who is elected president, senator, or representative, there is no plan or even germ of a plan to prevent the collapse of our climate and the ecosystems upon which life, including human life, depends.  That collapse has begun.  How far it goes depends in part on us and in part on factors over which we have no control.  Business as usual, should it continue, will harm not just our children and grandchildren, but also many of us now living.  Our political passivity, should it continue, will leave behind a desperate world in which the gains of civilization and the diversity of life are rapidly lost.  Efforts to “adapt” are a form of denial; the only “adaptation” compatible with continually increasing global heating is death.

Neither is there any plan or germ of a plan to rapidly wean our society from the cheap transportation fuels upon which we now depend – but which are fast leaving us.  Instead we pretend, in the face of rapidly-rising prices, that cheap oil will return and be with us for another decade or more, that producing and using it will not harm the atmosphere and nature, that oil’s rising cost is compatible with our cosseted way of life and with putting food on 1.5 billion tables worldwide, and that our policy of burning converted food in cars and trucks will not condemn millions to starvation.

How we respond to peak oil availability is intimately related to issues of climate protection, war, justice, and peace.

Here in New Mexico, our land, water, biota, and economy are already getting hit hard by a degrading climate (and not just by a string of bad luck, as James Hansen and others have shown).

Among the few bright spots in the New Mexico economic picture are our small, climate-friendly renewable energy businesses.  So we have a story to tell.  We can and should shout it loudly and clearly.

Make no mistake: the silence, ignorance, and error in high places about the choices we face in climate, energy, and related economic issues, should they continue, will drive this state’s economy and society into the (desiccated) earth.

As in Dickens’ story, we can see the ghost of that future already, sitting in an abandoned stoop on Central Avenue with an old sleeping bag.  That future is blowing across our eastern plains and across the “Big Res” in a dry wind which will either bring unmitigated ruin, or else bring a plucky new economy of distributed ownership with corresponding social and political organization, one that makes the best of circumstances and takes the lead in stopping the worst which would otherwise come.

The old New Mexico wineskins of absentee capital and resource extraction – and, more personally for us and our friends, the paycheck and pension mentality – will not hold this wine. Sooner or later we are going to have to open our hearts, homes, wallets, and schedules or that dry wind will open them for us, and much less pleasantly.  Sooner or later we will have to organize ourselves in a different and far more real democracy.

Fortunately we have freedom to act as well as access to power if we choose to use it.  For our communities to survive as such, we need to mobilize our resources while we can, and so embody and present Havel’s “word of truth,” with which this Bulletin began.  That’s a victory which will not blow away in the wind.

  • Nuclear weapons policy and related laboratory issues

The untold story of nuclear weapons in the U.S. today is increasingly one of whether raw corporate power – expressed through the ballot box and in the many other ways money talks – will dictate policy.

Executive branch leadership has been largely absent during the caretaker Obama Administration.  No significant disarmament or nonproliferation initiatives have begun.  No significant initiatives have been presented to solve the managerial and fiscal problems facing the nuclear weapons establishment, either as regards warheads (in the National Nuclear Security Administration, NNSA), or as regards the unaffordable huge outlays looming ahead for delivery systems (in DoD).

At the Department of Energy (DOE) and NNSA, paralysis reigns.  In this election year, present management has not even managed to produce the legally-required routine plans that must accompany any budget request, let alone specific plans and designs for infrastructure and warhead maintenance.

That’s because the wild promises made to Republicans in 2010 in return for 11 Republican votes in the Senate for New START ratification are collectively unaffordable and always were infeasible.  These promises included upgrading or replacing every bomb, bomber, warhead, missile, ballistic-missile submarine, and building, not to mention deploying a (technologically impossible and diplomatically indefensible) missile defense system.

The NNSA is approximately 97% privatized, which leaves the agency with too little institutional knowledge and power to effectively manage its big contractors.  At the nuclear labs especially, corporate greed is shameless.

What has happened under Obama that is positive is that civilian and military leaders are “kicking the can down the road” together, which establishes a basis for decisions next year and afterward.

In the coming years we are likely to see nuclear disarmament leadership coming as much from the military as anywhere else.

Here in New Mexico we see what appear to be desperate attempts to promote nuclear weapons, in editorials in our largest newspaper and from Senate candidates.  Oddly and wrongly, weapons projects are usually linked to the state’s economic health.  The reality is otherwise.

Leaving aside most of the errors on which the myth of our nuclear dependence rests, these writers and politicians fail to explain how nuclear weapons will be an engine of growth, an assumed good in their world.  How in the world will static, Soviet-style, pure federal employment, comprising two or three percent of the state’s total workers, become an engine for economic growth?

As a political issue, nuclear weapons in New Mexico really stand for something else entirely, something like who shall rule and what shall matter.  The centrality of nuclear weapons is closely tied, politically and institutionally, one person and one committee at a time, to the maintenance and pursuit of a whole range of regressive policies in this state.

Then there are the opportunity costs.  Our congressional delegation, without fail, serves the labs first.  Every hour so spent, every meeting, every committee assignment so oriented, is a loss to our state.  Cumulatively, in our competitive world, these losses have been very damaging to the state’s economic and social development, to our civic institutions, and to the protection of our environment.

While our delegation may be the last to learn of it, nuclear weapons have already lost much of their supposed importance.  The Cold War world that built the great nuclear edifice is fading, dependent on physical and political conditions that are disappearing.  Gone is the heroic mode of work that sickened tens of thousands of people and contaminated great swathes of land.  The nuclear industrial base and supply chains cannot support any great load and never will.  The old morality and motivation of public service has been largely replaced in the nuclear enterprise by self-interest and corporate interest.  For all these reasons and many more, the world of nuclear weapons is falling down – not all the way down, but down.

We have a story to tell about that and we hope you will help us.

Needless to say, the longer New Mexico clings to a dying past, the deeper our decline will be.

  • Federal budget priorities and the future of New Mexico

Congress will return the week after the election to address the federal budget priorities and associated tax issues which were too contentious to discuss before the election.  Our representatives will be a part of those discussions, which are likely to continue for a long time.

The entire portion of the social contract mediated by the federal government, including the federal tax structure, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, military pensions and benefits, and every other program in the federal government (including the military and nuclear weapons) is “on the table.”

In the absence of new law, the Budget Control Act of 2011 imposes automatic cuts (“sequesters”) federal spending authority by $54.7 billion (B) in defense spending (9.4%) and the same amount in non-defense spending (which breaks down to $43.6 B on discretionary programs, generally at a rate of 8.2%, plus an $11.1 B cut to Medicare).

These cuts take effect on January 2, 2013 but they are beginning to cast a shadow toward us now, as agencies, contractors, and suppliers postpone decisions to hire and invest.

Nuclear weapons accounts in NNSA, including those in New Mexico of course, would be cut by 9.4%; most civilian programs at DOE would be cut by 8.2%, as would just about every other federal program in New Mexico besides Social Security, Medicaid, the VA, and Medicare (which would be cut up to 2%).

How dependent are we on federal spending?  In 2010, the latest year for which the Census Bureau has compiled data, federal spending in New Mexico totaled $28.0 B, or 37% of the state’s $75.5 B in economic activity that year.  New Mexico is the most federally-dependent state on a net tax dollar per capita basis and has been for at least three decades.

Including the secondary economic activity caused by this federal spending, such as retail sales and services of all kinds and state and local taxation and subsequent government spending, will undoubtedly push the federal share of the New Mexico economy to well over 50%.  Induced economic activity created or sustained by federal government and its contractors and employees comprises additional federal dependence.

All told – and this is just a guess on my part – roughly 60% of all New Mexican economic activity is created and sustained by federal spending.  The exact figure doesn’t matter because it is so very large.  Any large cut in federal spending in New Mexico will cause a large contraction in our economy.

Any large, sustained cut that is not quickly and effectively balanced by compensatory stimulative policies will cripple the New Mexico economy, with very serious and lasting social effects.

So what kind of federal spending do we have here – military or non-military?

Military spending in the state totaled $3.24 B in 2010, not including $2.63 B in NNSA weapons activities and related spending.  Adding in NNSA nonproliferation programs, administration, nuclear waste disposal, and defense cleanup raises the defense-related DOE total to $3.84 B for 2010.  Adding these defense-related DOE accounts to military spending gives a total defense spending for New Mexico of $7.1 B in 2010.  This compares with non-defense spending of $20.9 B in that year.  Non-defense spending comprises almost three-fourths of federal spending in New Mexico.

Our non-defense economic dependence is actually much greater than this ratio would indicate, because defense salaries are higher (especially at our labs) and that means that a smaller fraction of those salaries are spent – and spent in the state.  In the U.S., the middle income quintile spends about three-fourths of its income; the top quintile spends a little less than half.  (The bottom two quintiles, needless to say, spend nearly everything and save nearly nothing.)  The high fraction of the U.S. economy which is consumer spending (about 70% nationally) amplifies the economic importance of the lower income classes.

Furthermore, the burden of non-defense budget cuts falls, on average, on more vulnerable people.  This will have huge societal costs and liabilities – and cause plenty of suffering.

Overall, these facts drive us toward the general conclusion that preserving defense programs at the expense of non-defense programs and mandatory spending would be not just regressive but potentially catastrophic for New Mexico.

Not all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed in stating this conclusion.  Far from it.  Perhaps you will help us.  But I hope you are convinced, if you weren’t already, that New Mexico is uniquely vulnerable in the coming budget debate.  Small differences in outcome in Washington will have major effects on New Mexico.

So far nothing has been said about what could be done on the positive side of the federal ledger – what desirable federal programs and stimulative regulatory requirements could do to lift up a state like New Mexico.  Defense is obviously a Soviet-style, centrally-planned sector and the nuclear weapons business, fortunately, does not attract much private capital.  Yet private capital is not scarce in this country.  Banks are looking for loans and need only very small interest rates, provided an investment is security.  New Mexico holds billions of dollars itself.   Poverty here is a result of bad public policy -- a choice, not a necessity.

Please come if you can next week, and bring a friend.  The situation could not be more urgent, and at the same time (and for the same reasons) many of the barriers that have prevented real, positive change are weakened.  We have more allies than any of us can see right now if we understand our situation rightly, and can explain it carefully and accurately in public and in our civic institutions.  We crave your help with that and we stand with you and ready to help you.

We are looking forward to seeing some of you next week.

Greg Mello, for the Los Alamos Study Group

Recent public products and related news:

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