QuestionsForAmerica

This blog contains reflections on the current state of American society and culture from an educated observer who lived outside the USA for many years and has now returned to the USA, to find a sadly deteriorating society. My purpose is to identify problems and discuss creative solutions with others of like mind.

Name:
Location: Somewhere, NY, United States

Born and raised in the NY metro area, I am a 57 y.o, white male academic now teaching at a small college in New York State. Prior to this, I studied in Iceland and taught at colleges in Japan and Eastern Europe. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to not only visit but live in other countries. I believe the perspectives and experiences of other nations are entirely relevant to thinking about the state of America today, and we all benefit from communication, comparison and interaction with other countries. As a scholar, supporter and participant in modern-day Paganism, by which I mean forms of religion derived from native European religions, I am interested to see what can come from applying Pagan perspectives to political issues, and political perspectives to our Paganism. My own political perspective is left-of-center liberal, and this colors and informs my postings on this blog. Others with different political perspectives are encouraged to add comments, and will not be censored or dismissed unless their comments are seen as off-topic, incoherent, disruptive or excessively rude.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ending the "War on Terror"

Despite the sad spectacle of the Republicans in the U.S. Senate succeeding in blocking the resolution rejecting President's Bush's plan to send 21,000+ additional American troops into the meat grinder that Baghdad has become, I am heartened to see that the political tide is finally turning against the war in Iraq, and that the credibility of the Bush administration is sinking beneath the waves of public disgust. It seems only a matter of time before politicians of both political parties will pressure the President, or if not this one, stubborn and insular as he is, then the next, to command our long-suffering troops to exit from Iraq completely. The end of the war in Iraq will be a glorious day, but I think that we who wish to see the United States government return to a sane foreign policy and a healthy domestic policy cannot rest easy until we also achieve an end to the so-called War on Terror. It is, however, not at all simple to even define what this war actually IS, and I think that clarifying the confusion about the nature of this "war" is actually the key to ending it.

The end of the war on terror will come with the end of believing in the concept of the war on terror. This is a war with no precise boundaries in space or in time, with no apparent aim other than striking out against vaguely-defined enemies, with total blindness to how our aggressive military actions and disregard for international norms alienate our allies, energize our adversaries, and turn world opinion against the USA . Dick Cheney shooting his friend in the face last year is a worthy analogy for the shameful results achieved by the misguided foreign policy of this trigger-happy administration.

Of course, the defenders of the Bush policy of unlimited international aggression will point to 9/11, piously intone "never again," and argue that "we have to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here." That is to say, they will try to terrify the American people into trusting in military force as the only possible guarantor of security for the United States. We have to stand up and say, NO! This is not the way to any kind of real security, unless we are planning to kill every person on earth who disagrees with or criticizes the United States. We have to say, yes, there are extremists in the world who do sometimes carry out acts of terrorism, not only in America or against us, but more often in other countries against other peoples, but much of this vicious activity can be undone through patient, quiet police work, not military invasion, which may only incite further terrorism.

We need to say, we have to stop using force and brutality against people "over there," so that others will not want to come and do the same "over here." We have to say, we want a world of rational, humane laws, where no one can be arrested and thrown into prison for years on end without the arresting authorities being required to produce substantial evidence of criminal activity, not mere hearsay or vague suspicion of a "terrorist threat." We need to start believing again in being a good neighbor to the rest of the world, and extending a helping hand rather than a fist and a threat. We need a morally sound and psychologically astute foreign policy that treats other nations with respect and fairness, and invites them to imagine us as partners and equals, not bullies and invaders.

It is time to STOP being afraid that the sky will fall on us if we stop threatening the entire world with our military. It is time to STOP believing that there is a terrorist under every rock and behind every wall. Put very simply, it is time to STOP being afraid all the time. That is the real secret to ending the war on terror: to refuse to be terrified anymore.

It is time to STOP being obsessed with 9/11. It is time to START realizing that we are not being attacked all the time by enemy forces, except in Iraq, where we are, after all, the enemy invaders, and they are the ones defending their homeland. If we had not invaded them "over there"and turned their country upside down, they would not be attacking us "over there" either.

It is time to STOP believing that we have a right to attack others in all the "over theres" of the world, just because we feel frightened or insecure about other nations' intentions. It is time to realize that a free and easy use of U.S. military force around the world opens the door to other nations doing the same when they feel insecure or threatened, and could turn the whole world into a charred battlefield. It is time to return to the older, wiser policy of only using military force in self-defense, and to reject the paranoid, self-defeating logic of "preemptive" strikes or invasions.

It is time to START asking our government whether the billions spent on security measures and military matters are actually doing anything more than simply pumping up the profits of defense contractors. It is time to START demanding that government spending be redirected to meet actual needs and problems, like health care, wage stagnation, collapsing infrastructure and underfunded education systems.

Perhaps there are aspects of the so-called war on terror that are valuable. If so, let us rationally examine them, keep those that have proven their usefulness, and discard the rest. We have so many other things to do. Let's stop frightening ourselves with imaginary bogeymen and phantoms. Let's start imagining what we could do to improve our own country if we stopped wasting our resources, including our precious young men and women, invading other countries. To borrow an excellent phrase from John Edwards, let's start being patriotic about something besides war.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

International News Coverage:Going, going....gone?

I am saddened to report that my hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, announced this week that it was closing its international news bureaus as a cost-cutting measure and re-focusing its surviving journalistic staff on local and regional news. As a professor of international studies, I had only one week ago assigned my students a weekly task of clipping and saving international news stores for class discussion from either the New York Times, the Boston Globe, or several other trustworthy news organizations and their online versions. Sadly, I now must remove the Globe from my list of suggested sources. While it is true that the newspaper will still run some international coverage and still send some journalists abroad to cover international issues and events, the depth and quality of coverage can only go downhill with the loss of foreign correspondents who stay long-term in locations abroad, developing contacts and contextual knowledge.

I see this as part of a very disturbing, as well as depressing trend, toward "dumbing down" mainstream media discourse, and a further closing of the American mind to knowledge about and interaction with the rest of the world. Strangely, this is occurring at the same time as issues such as international terrorism, the energy crisis and global warming make international cooperation and coordination more important than ever. Increasingly, the only aspects of the world outside that Americans learn about are war-zones where American troops are stationed. Not surprisingly, I find many of my students coming to class with an attitude of disrespect, fear and/or insecurity toward the other nations and peoples of the world. Thankfully, human curiosity does sometimes win out, and I find many students do become interested in knowing about other regions of the world when given some encouragement. I do fear however for the future of the United States if our people are to become increasingly ignorant and narrow-minded toward the rest of the world, because the media has encouraged and reinforced such narrowness.

Here is an excerpt from a January 12, 2007 speech made by the journalist Bill Moyers in Memphis, Tennessee which touches on these and related issues. The full text is available at
http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/011807B.shtml

"By no stretch of the imagination can we say the dominant institutions of today's media are guardians of democracy. Despite the profusion of new information "platforms" on cable, on the Internet, on radio, blogs, podcasts, YouTube and MySpace, among others, the resources for solid original journalistic work, both investigative and interpretive, are contracting rather than expanding. I'm old fashioned in this, a hangover from my days as a cub reporter and later a publisher. I agree with Michael Schudson, one of our leading scholars of communication, who writes in the current Columbia Journalism Review that "while all media matter, some matter more than others, and for the sake of democracy, print still counts most, especially print that devotes resources to gathering news. Network TV matters, cable TV matters, but when it comes to original investigation and reporting, newspapers are overwhelmingly the most important media." But newspapers are purposely dumbing down, driven down - says Schudson - by "Wall Street, whose collective devotion to an informed citizenry is nil, and seems determined to eviscerate newspapers." Meanwhile, despite some initial promise following the shock of 9/11, television has returned to its tabloid ways, chasing celebrity and murders - preferably both at the same time - while wallowing in triviality, banality and a self-referential view."

"Worrying about the loss of real news is not a romantic cliché of journalism. It has been verified by history: from the days of royal absolutism to the present, the control of information and knowledge has been the first line of defense for failed regimes facing democratic unrest."

Sobering words, well worth pondering. Maelstrom.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Root of Many Problems: The Reagan Revolution

In reflecting on the kinds of problems facing America today, such as were noted in my previous posting, I trace many of these issues back to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the subsequent eight years of his Presidency, which proved extremely influential, even fateful for America. Many conservative Americans, such as the current President, look back to the Reagan era, particularly its tax cuts and assertive military, as kind of Golden Age and speak fondly of the "Reagan Revolution." I see it rather differently. I view the Reagan era as the beginning of a 20+ year period of American social decline that only now do we seem ready to get beyond and put behind us. Here are what I see as the negative legacies of the Reagan years that still hang over us like a curse.

(1) The policy of tax-cuts and "trickle-down" economics. The Reagan rhetoric was that "a rising tide lifts all boats," and that across-the-board tax cuts would benefit everyone in society by putting more money into Americans' pockets to do with as they chose, not as the government saw fit. It was acknowledged that the wealthy would reap higher rewards than the less fortunate, but this was justified as still beneficial because more money in the bank accounts of the rich would result in them investing in businesses and thus creating more and better jobs for the poor. The result since then? The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, with the gap in wealth and income between the upper and lower tiers of society continually widening. That is to say, the policy has made America more unequal and divided, and only consolidated the wealth and power of the upper classes.

(2) The rhetorical denunciation of "big government" with the pithy but misleading phrase, "government is the problem, not the solution," and the corresponding faith in the "free market" of private enterprise as the panacea for all social ills. Let us ask, what was so wrong with "big government?" In the 1930s, "big government" saved millions of Americans from starvation and assisted businesses in surviving and reorganizing with new government programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the National Recovery Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Social Security retirement pension, which for the first time extended a social safety net to protect the elderly, disabled and disadvantaged. In the 1940s, "big government" won the war against Germany and Japan, and afterwards, paid for millions of homecoming veterans to receive education and buy homes, a key contributing factor to the post-war economic boom that continued into the 1960s. In the 1950s, "big government" created the national highway system that we take for granted today. In the 1960s "big government" put America on the moon, took action to end racial discrimination and protect civil rights for all citizens, and created the Medicare and Medicaid health care programs to ensure health care for the poor and elderly. In the 1970s "big government" created the Environmental Protection Agency and legislation to reduce air and water pollution and the Energy Department to begin addressing the problems of energy supply and demand in America.

These are the great accomplishments of "big government" that almost all Americans now take for granted and rely upon, but which the Reagan Revolution took up arms against, with false tales of "welfare queens" cheating the government and a constant drumbeat of rhetoric championing free enterprise, private business and individual opportunity, over the supposed inefficiency and wastefulness of "big government." It emerged from disclosures made by David Stockman, Reagan's budget director, that one of the main goals of cutting taxes was to "starve the beast," that is, to cause a gradual shrinkage of government programs by cutting off the funding for all government programs except the military, which has always been the one form of "big government" that conservative Americans hold above reproach, despite demonstrated problems of waste, fraud and abuse within the ranks of the armed services that equal or surpass the supposed frauds of the "welfare queens" and others who rely on government assistance. Your humble blogger is as opposed to fraud and abuse as much as anyone else, but he believes that government programs should constantly be retooled, reformed, reviewed and improved, NOT dismantled.

The message from Reagan was loud and clear: social programs at home to help the American population are bad, while military invasions abroad to subdue other country's populations are good. This is exactly the plotline which the Bush-Cheney regime is following.

Reagan and his "revolution" were very successful in building up the military, including the hugely expensive "Star Wars" program for extending the American military presence into space, which may be the single most wasteful government program in history. They were however unsuccessful in dismantling programs like Social Security and Medicaid/Medicare, because it emerged that however much Americans liked Reagan and his rhetoric, they did not actually want to lose the benefits that they derived from the selfsame programs that Reagan denounced with such rhetorical relish. However, Reagan did succeed in hamstringing the government with a huge budget deficit, cutting funding and spending caps for many programs and initiatives, and creating a large cadre of up-and-coming conservative politicians, including the future Governor and President George W. Bush, who embraced Reagan's dislike of government programs.

Even Bill Clinton, who had campaigned for President in 1992 with the slogan, "It is time for them (the Reagan-Bush administration and its followers) to go," saw it as politically expeditious to announce, "The era of big government is over," in his 1996 State of the Union address. In this blogger's view, that declaraton by Clinton will always be a black mark on his reputation, as he appeared to give sanction to the dismantling of social programs, which Republicans in Congress have ever since been laboring to achieve, with the election (or installation) of the Bush-Cheney regime in 2000 giving a further impetus to their efforts. This is why nearly every year, Bush or his supporters in Congress have been attempting to scare Americans into believing that free-market, private retirement plans are far superior to Social Security, which, they preach, will collapse under the weight of its ever-increasing financial instability, and that free-market private medical accounts are superior to a national health care system. Make no mistake: the wet dream of the Reagan Revolution acolytes is to privatize ALL social services, OR to rely on charity organizations, particularly churches, to provide such services. This is why, since the 1980s, it has been so difficult to expand government services for poor and needy individuals and communities, and why the Bush-Cheney regime keeps pushing the idea of "faith-based" social services rather than those operated by national, state or local governments.

(3) A reverence for the military that borders on worship, and precludes more peaceful ways of interacting with other countries and settling disputes. If the Reagan Revolution was opposed to government spending on social programs, it had a diametrically opposite attitude toward military spending. As an old joke has it, "Republicans never met a weapon system that they didn't like." This high regard for the military seems to me to be so fundamental that it functions at an almost pre-verbal, pre-conscious level, something embedded in young children when they play with toy soldiers and watch war movies, which stays with them in later years as an irrational , impermeable, unshakable faith in military force as absolutely sacrosanct. This has resulted in a situation in which US military spending is some 20 times larger than that of its nearest rival, Russia.

Fans of our military will crow about how this powerful force guarantees our national security. Critics, like this blogger, note that all the military power in the world did not prevent the attacks of 9/11 and are not likely to prevent other possible terrorist attacks, which are not caused by huge armies on the battlefield, such as our military could easily dispatch, but small, roving bands of fanatics and extremists who can be more effectively dealt with by police and investigative forces. It could also be argued that our military presence in regions around the world has actually inspired terrorists to rise up against us, out of a sense of outrage at our military maintaining bases in their countries and our soldiers marching through their streets. How would you feel if, say, Russian and Korean soldiers had a base near your community, polluted the land and water with spent cartridges and other military refuse, and went carousing in your bars and night spots on the weekends? In my view, we vastly underrate how our military operations around the world work against our security by turning other peoples against us. NO ONE likes to have their national territory occupied by foreign force, and it inevitably breeds resentment. Relying so much on the military also tends to discourage peaceful solutions by diplomacy and compromise.

Putting aside, for now, the international dimension, let us consider how America's bloated military force affects the health of our society at home. First of all, it means that huge amounts of money that could be spent on other social needs like health care, infrastructure, transportation, environmental protection, jobs programs, youth programs, and so forth, are not available because the money is used for military purposes. Perhaps the most glaring recent example of this is the Bush regime's request for additional funds for the reconstruction of Iraq, even though the American city of New Orleans continues to languish in a devastated state after the 2005 Katrine disaster.

President Bush did not even MENTION New Orleans in his 2007 State of the Union address. It simply did not appear on his mental map of priorities. Iraq, you see, is a military issue; success there is VITAL to our "national security." New Orleans is a poor city inside America; ergo, according to the sacred principles of the Reagan Revolution, its needs should be met by private charity and church groups, not by the government. The President has of course promised to help rebuild New Orleans, and funds have indeed been provided. The problem is, the needs are so huge, that the funds allocated thus far have been totally inadequate to address the enormity of New Orleans' needs. In the 1930s, when the whole country was in dire straits similar to those which the post-Katrine Gulf region faces today, President Roosevelt did not go on the radio and call for charity organizations to take care of social needs. He did not cut taxes or budgets, nor seek to turn the nation's attention to foreign conflicts. Roosevelt stepped up to the plate, addressed the social crisis squarely, and created new federal programs to provide assistance where it was needed, with the result that many who might have starved were saved, and businesses, lives and communities were rebuilt. Thanks to the Reagan Revolution, the only part of the national government capable of and empowered to perform large-scale projects is the military. Any attempt to promote large projects to help Americans at home is ridiculed and rejected by the Reagan Revolution acolytes. This is what they call "patriotism:" using military force abroad while neglecting social needs at home. Is that how YOU define patriotism?

It is with consideration of these Reagan-skewed priorities that I ended my first posting to this blog with the warning that we could go the way of North Korea: miserable society, poor and starving masses, bloated, high-tech military. Until we start divesting from our oversized military and begin re-investing in our needy communities, with New Orleans the most extreme example, but only one of many that could be discussed, American society will continue to languish, even while our military grows and grows. The State of the Union will not be good.

Another negative aspect of the emphasis put on military force in our politics is that it brings out the worst in the American character and culture. To be strong, to be aggressive, to be unforgiving and unsympathetic, to kill without remorse, to obey authority without questioning; these are the virtues promoted by the worship of the military. This blogger believes that the rising violence in American society, from gang violence to road rage, grows out of a culture of violence that is intimately related to our worship of the military. What is a street gang, after all, but a warped and twisted version of an army? It has a definite command structure; controls territory; dispenses benefits to its allies; uses weapons to enforce compliance with its commands; kills without remorse. Our soldiers marching abroad and crushing our foreign "enemies," who are all too often civilians, provide a role model for the use of violence at home. Our popular culture picks up the thread and makes a fortune out of selling fantasies of violence and carnage. But let's not take the easy way out and blame Hollywood or the music industry: the glorification of violence originates from the highest levels of government, with the worship of the military.

There is more that could be said about the influence of the Reagan presidency, but I think what I have written suffices to show that there have been many destructive consequences of the so-called "Reagan Revolution." The current President, George W. Bush, is in many ways acting out a script first written in those years. I encourage my readers to reject the popular view that Reagan was a great President. He was greatly influential, no doubt, but his legacy of reducing "big government" programs while seeking to endless expand American military power has led us to our current, dispiriting impasse, our status in the international community as a blundering, misguided giant which directs its resources toward attacking abroad rather than rebuilding at home.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Why I am asking these questions....

Greetings, fellow questioners. If you are dissatisfied with the deteriorating state of modern American society and believe that the solutions we need will not come from attacking other nations with our oversized military, nor from permitting multinational corporations to run the national government to suit their own interests, nor from doting on overpaid sports stars or other celebrities and feeding into the mass media miasma, nor from expecting Jesus and the Rapture to save us from ourselves, this blog may be for you. My name here is Maelstrom, with my real name and identity kept secret to avoid any attacks from conservative Americans who may object to my point of view.

My situation is this. After living outside the USA in both Europe and Asia, then returning to America a few years ago, I felt, and increasingly feel, upset both at the political state of the nation, under the semi-fascistic Bush-Cheney regime, and the general state of the society. This "reverse culture shock" that I have experienced has caused me to feel a rising sense of concern that America is in very sad shape, falling behind other nations in nearly every area except for our superior military power. Our education system? Going down. Our health care system? A cruel joke on the poor and middle class, but a great boon to HMO and insurance companies. Our transportation system? Overcrowded highways; local roads full of potholes; crumbling bridges and tunnels; perpetually underfunded and steadily declining train service; dirty, shabby airports that insult the traveler. Our facilities for our youth? A clear message to them that we do not care about them, despite the political rhetoric about children being "America's future." Yes, they will be our future, and what a bleak future it may be...Clockwork Orange springs to mind, or is it Lord of the Flies? And what about our economy? Rigged to serve the already-wealthy, and to squeeze every lost drop out of blood out of the average wage-earner, whose wages stand still or go down, while the top one percent of the population reap massive benefits from the stock market and the exploitation of workers both at home and abroad.

I ask you, is this a healthy society? I fear that we are falling far behind other nations like Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Finland, to name but a few of the many countries that seem to be charting a more positive and progressive course than the good old US of A. Yes, the "good old"....a meaningful phrase that suggests the sad truth that America seems to be past its prime, to have lost its way, to have forgotten how to take care of itself and its people. The more progressive countries that I mention all have one thing in common: they have governments that invest in their public services, such as education, health care, transportation and infrastructure, rather than, as in America, starving our public services in order to pump more money into the military and the coffers of the corporations. There seems to be only one public service that is indisputably well-funded these days: the prison system. What could be a more succinct statement of totally warped and misguided priorities than the sad fact that our main solution to social problems is to throw people into prisons, when these are nothing but schools for crime, despair, gang organization and drug addiction? When did we stop believing in helping and reforming people, and become convinced that punishment was the ONLY option?

The list of sadly underfunded needs in our public life is endless, as are the pathetic excuses, and the appalling disregard for any solution that does not come out of private enterprise or charity, which is a horrible hangover from the so-called "Reagan Revolution."

Money for public schools? No way. Give students "choice" to go to private schools, and let the public schools collapse.

Money for public works, like libraries, roads, youth centers, bridges, sewers, subways? Sorry. We don't do public works anymore. That is for corporations to decide if and when they want to put their logo onto something.

Money for a national health care system? Ridiculous. We have the best health care system in the world, even if many cannot afford it because they are too poor or lazy.

Money for high-tech military systems that often do not even work? Sure, no problem.

Money for better schools and teachers, especially in the poor urban and rural areas that cannot afford them? No, let's just let the urban kids die in gangs, and pressure the young rural kids to join the military, so they can travel abroad, die there, or come back physically and/or psychologically injured, so that they can then enjoy the benefits of our excellent health care system.

Money for public art and gardens, so that even poor people can feel that there is some beauty in their lives? Sorry, that would be a waste of public funds. All we need are shopping malls and sports stadiums.

Money for invading, destroying and then rebuilding other countries? No problem; here's a blank check, or would you like two?

A job program to put unemployed young people to work and give them a positive start in the society? No way, that's what prisons and the military are for.

Your tax dollars at work, creating a harsher and harsher, more punitive and paranoid society, and causing a continual decline in America's standing in the world.

Many Americans seem to accept the proposition put forward by the Bush-Cheney regime and its supporters that massive military spending and the use of force against other nations that we dislike or disagree with or feel threatened by is necessary for our "national security," particularly in our supposedly apocalyptic "post-9/11 world." Let me tell you what the real threat to people's actual, personal, real-life security is. It is the lack of health care services for a large cross section of the population with either no health care insurance or constant fear about losing it. THAT is a real and present danger, unlike the fictional boogeyman of the Islamic terrorist who is supposedly lurking around every corner, under every bed, and inside every mailbox waiting to explode, like the "commie" terror of the 1950s. Death by cancer, heart disease or obesity, and the lack of affordable treatment for such conditions, are a much greater threat to the average person than the terrorist boogeyman.

Death on the highway or in a traffic accident is much more likely than attack by a suicide bomber, yet our bizarre solution to the problem of death-by-driving is not to invest in safer roads and better highway systems, not to mention more mass transit options to take people off the overcrowded roads, but to buy and sell bigger and more threatening truck-cars that we believe will enable us to survive any collisions, even if the other drivers will be crushed by the massive heft of our menacing, increasingly Sherman Tank-like vehicles.

Rising crime in many cities is a real threat, but our insistence on a punishment-only response is fueling a cycle of despair and violence that suggests the worst is yet to come. And then there is global warming, the biggest threat to our national security of all. This is the one that could make us go the way of the dinosaurs. If the environment goes down, so do we, regardless of how many military forces we march into the desert or how many flags we wave in patriotic hysteria. This is where the Bush-Cheney regime, in alliance with the oil industries, has perhaps done more damage than anywhere else.

My basic question to America is, why do we accept this miserable state of affairs? Why don't we think more about the other nations that are doing well in taking care of basic social needs or even moving ahead of us, and take some inspiration and direction from them? The basic answer is "American exceptionalism," the idea that we are INHERENTLY different from and better than everybody else. This is a sad illusion. We are part of the world community, fellow humans with the same human needs as other countries, and if we don't watch it, we are going to become the has-been "great power" of the 21 st century. We may still have a huge military force that can threaten other countries abroad, but if the "war at home" is lost, if we allow our society to continually deteriorate and become ever more cruel, ignorant and shabby, we will come to resemble a country that we currently like to joke about, a nation that devotes almost all of its resources to military development while neglecting basic human needs to the point of mass starvation: North Korea! If we don't want that fate, we have to start thinking about how to invest in American society, not just the American military.

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