The Cost of Empire - July, 2011

The cost of empire: just the financial cost for keeping American troops cool in Iraq and Afghanistan is many times more than the defense budgets of most nations on earth today. When it comes to social welfare or education, however, the US government has no money. When it comes to waging wars around the world, it somehow is able to allocate trillions of dollars. Yet, there are over one hundred thousand homeless and jobless war veterans in the world's wealthiest and most powerful empire. As America's national and social infrastructure continues to fall apart, special interests such as the military industrial complex and the oil/gas industry in the United States are making record profits. How long can all this be sustained?

July, 2011


Why Wounded Warriors Sleep in Dumpsters

A group of desperate homeless veterans became plaintiffs yesterday in a suit, Valentini v. Shinseki, filed in U.S. district court against the federal officials responsible for their plight. There are roughly 107,000 homeless veterans in America. Many of them are chronically condemned to wander our streets because the trauma they suffered serving our country has left them profoundly brain-damaged or disabled with terrible psychiatric conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. These wounds of war are physically invisible, but they are no less life-threatening.

When military service renders our returning soldiers unable to resume their civilian lives—by holding down jobs, continuing their education, or sustaining family relationships—our duty is to come to their aid. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires us to provide those veterans with therapeutic, supportive housing. Study after study shows that without secure housing, these vets simply cannot benefit from the psychiatric and other medical services to which our laws entitle them. Instead, they live and die in dumpsters or under freeway overpasses.

Facilities for housing these profoundly wounded vets are often readily available. For example, in Los Angeles—a place some call the nation's "capital of veteran homelessness"—there is a 387-acre parcel of land, the West Los Angeles VA Campus. That property is not just theoretically suited to therapeutic housing: It was donated to the government in 1888 by a U.S. senator and a private benefactor for the specific purpose of permanently maintaining a soldiers' home. For 80 years, it operated as such. But during the Vietnam War, when some Americans turned their backs on our soldiers, the government put buildings and land formerly dedicated to veterans' therapeutic housing to other, more lucrative uses.

Today, where the disabled homeless vets of Los Angeles should find a home, they'll instead find a car-rental business, a private swimming pool, a dog run, an oil well, an 18-hole golf course, and a unit that launders linen for nearby luxury hotels. Valentini v. Shinseki, which we helped these disabled veterans file, asks only that the government keep the solemn promise it made when it accepted the land as a charitable gift: provide the housing. Among the plaintiffs in this lawsuit is Greg Valentini. A private in the 101st Airborne, he took part in the initial invasion of Afghanistan. There, he participated in the assault on Tora Bora that sought Osama bin Laden. He was redeployed to Iraq, where he again experienced heavy combat. He received six decorations for his service.

After his honorable discharge, Mr. Valentini attended college, planning to become a police officer. But his combat experience made it difficult for him to control his emotions. He grew paranoid about his surroundings, experienced harrowing nightmares, and repeatedly considered suicide. He left college and soon found himself sleeping on the streets.

Mr. Valentini is one of some 8,200 homeless veterans in Los Angeles. Another, who wishes to be identified only as Jane Doe, had been raped repeatedly by her fellow soldiers during her service as an Army military radio operator. A third, Adrian Moraru, is a Marine who took part in the initial ground invasion of Iraq and ended up with violent seizures, spending his days and nights pacing Wilshire Boulevard. A fourth, Chris Romine, served twice in Iraq where his unit was responsible for "cleaning up" the body parts that remained after roadside bomb attacks on American forces.

These veterans, like many others, all suffer from severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is difficult to help a veteran cope with severe mental illness incurred on the battlefield even under the best of conditions; it is impossible to do so while the veteran is sleeping on the streets. By failing to provide safe and stable living conditions that are within its power to provide, the government denies veterans with mental disabilities meaningful access to its medical programs.

Unfortunately, efforts to rectify this outrageous treatment outside of court have been unsuccessful. We have therefore joined forces with the Southern California ACLU, and with several law firms acting pro bono. On behalf of this group of wounded veterans, we are asking the government to reveal its deals with the commercial users of the campus land; to use the profits of those deals to assist homeless veterans in obtaining the housing they need; and, above all, to fulfill the original purpose of the West Los Angeles Campus by dedicating it to the disabled veterans who could be helped by finding supportive housing there.

President Obama said in March 2009 that our veterans "have a home. It's the country they served, the United States of America, and until we reach a day when not a single veteran sleeps on our nation's streets, our work remains unfinished." Many soldiers who have returned from war have since died. If the Department of Veterans Affairs simply keeps the pledge made in 1888 when it accepted the gift of land, it will have taken a modest first step in turning the president's dream of securing every veteran a home into reality.


U.S. military spends a cool $20billion on air conditioning annually in Iraq and Afghanistan

The U.S. military forks out a whopping $20.2billion a year on keeping troops in Iraq and Afghanistan cool, it has emerged. The alarming figure is more than Nasa's entire annual budget and trumps the amount the G-8 has pledged to aid Egypt and Tunisia. It's even more than the clean up cost of BPs Gulf oil spill. Why?

An air conditioning unit at a remote Afghanistan outpost takes a gallon of fuel, which soon goes in the searing 125degree heat. This has to be shipped into Karachi, then driven 800 miles over 18 days to the war-torn country on atrociously bad roads. 'And you've got risks that are associated with moving the fuel almost every mile of the way,' Steven Anderson, a retired brigadier general who served as General David Patreaus' chief logistician in Iraq, told National Public Radio (NPR). Fuel convoys remain key targets for attack, and according to Anderson, more than 1,000 troops have died while delivering vital supplies.

For Anderson the military would save money by going green. He claims experiments with polyurethane foam insulation tents in Iraq cut energy use by a staggering 92 per cent, taking 11,000 fuel convoys off the road. But getting the top commanders to embrace change has been hard. 'People look at it and say "It's not my lane. We don't need to tie the operational commanders' hands" - things like this,' he said. 'A simple policy signed by the secretary of defence - a one or two-page memo, saying we will no longer build anything other than energy-efficient structures in Iraq and Afghanistan would have a profound impact.'

It was thought President Obama's decision to bring 30,000 American troops home soon would act as a relief on the coffers. But according to experts the savings made by the withdrawal do not equal the $30billion cost of putting the soilders there in the first place. What history has told us is that you don't see a proportional decrease in spending based on the number of troops when you draw them down,' Chris Hellman, a senior research analyst at the National Priorities Project, said.

'In Afghanistan that's going to be particularly true because it's a very difficult and austere environment in which to operate.' The infrastructure being built in Iraq is the main expense, according to American University professor Gordon Adams. 'We're building big bases,' the costs of which are 'sunk' costs, he said.


The $1 Trillion Fighter-Jet Fleet


A new Pentagon forecast showing the total cost of owning and operating a fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters topping $1 trillion over more than 50 years has caused a case of sticker shock in Washington. And that price tag doesn't even include the $385 billion the Defense Department will spend to purchase 2,500 of the stealthy planes through 2035. During a Senate hearing this month, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) called the $1 trillion figure "jaw-dropping," particularly when compared with the costs of operating other aircraft. "I appreciate this estimate is still early and subject to change, but we need to know that the program is going to bring that number down," he said.Tom Burbage, who leads the program for manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp., acknowledged that the 't' word "causes a lot of the sensational reaction to it, because no one's ever dealt with 't's before in a program." The long-range estimate is, by its nature, imprecise because it attempts to forecast factors including inflation and fuel costs decades into the future. And the Pentagon says it will be adjusted as the planes enter operation. But the figure is bringing new scrutiny to what is already the Pentagon's largest-ever weapon-buying project as its budget comes under pressure. Already, Lockheed Martin has said it was looking for ways to bring down the long-term cost.

Apollo Moon Landings: $164 billion over 10 years. (Source: NASA)

Christine Fox, head of the Pentagon's cost-assessment office, said in Senate testimony that the F-35 would likely cost about 33% more per flight hour to operate than two of the aircraft it will replace, the F-16 and F-18. But the new aircraft will be much more sophisticated, will be far less visible to enemy radar and will have sensors that allow a single jet to take on missions that now require several aircraft. The Marine Corps version of the F-35 will be able to hover and land vertically. The Navy model will operate from aircraft carriers, while the Air Force version will be based on land. Developmental aircraft are flying, and the first F-35s—which cost about $113 million each—are slated to enter service later in the decade. The Pentagon's forecast includes all the possible costs the military might incur over the lifetime of the program, including everything from housing the aircraft to installing replacement parts. Add all those together, and factor in inflation, Mr. Burbage said, and "you trip the trillion-dollar mark."

Reconstruction of Afghanistan: $62 billion over 10 years. (Source: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction)

But, he said, "The question to ask is, is that a relevant number?" Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Emerson Gardner, who previously oversaw cost assessment at the Pentagon, said it wasn't "good analysis" to put that round dollar figure out without a point of comparison—for instance, the cost of sustaining the less-capable aircraft the new plane would replace. "You can scare the children with lots of things by projecting out to what it's going to cost in 2065," he said. "It's more useful to us if it's [forecast] five to 10 years."

A more near-term analysis, Gen. Gardner said, might add to a constructive debate about realistic costs and alternatives. It is normal for sustainment costs to outstrip the basic drive-away cost of a piece of military hardware. But Pentagon procurement chief Ashton Carter said in a recent Senate hearing that the Joint Strike Fighter's projected sustainment bill was on top of an "unacceptably large" bill for procurement. Still, he said, the Pentagon sees no "better alternative" to the F-35. "Sustainment seems like years away, but now is the time to face that bill and begin to get that under control," he said.

Construction of Interstate Highway System: $213 billion over 40 years. (Source: Department of Transportation)

The Joint Strike Fighter has long been a troubled program, with cost overruns, military management shake-ups and heightened political scrutiny, but Lockheed says the aircraft is now ahead of schedule on its test flights. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Lockheed Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Stevens said the trillion-dollar figure was derived from a new Pentagon "selected acquisition report" that wasn't developed by the company, and said the company would work to find ways to bring down the aircraft's long-term production and sustainment costs. "As big as that number is, there are sufficiently large opportunities to reduce that number by making streamlining decisions along the way," he said.


360,000 veterans may have brain injuries

Pentagon officials estimated for the first time Wednesday that up to 360,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans may have suffered brain injuries. Among them are 45,000 to 90,000 veterans whose symptoms persist and warrant specialized care. Army Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton provided the estimate during a news conference about March as Brain Injury Awareness Month. She heads the Pentagon's Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.

TROOP DEATHS: A look at the American lives lost in Iraq

Pentagon officials have been reluctant to estimate the number of potential brain-injury casualties among the 1.8 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sutton based her estimate upon military health-screening programs showing that 10% to 20% of returning troops have suffered at least a mild concussion. Among them are 3% to 5% with persistent symptoms that require specialists such as an ophthalmologist to deal with vision problems. Sutton's estimate is similar to a RAND Corp. study last year that said 320,000 may have suffered a brain injury.

Following direction from Congress, the U.S. military began to screen all troops returning from the war zones for brain injury last year. Persistent symptoms can range from headaches and sleep disorders to memory, balance and vision difficulties, said Lt. Col. Lynne Lowe, the Army's program manager for traumatic brain injury. Research suggests the vast majority of these troops recover, said James Kelly, director of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, a Pentagon treatment center for traumatic brain injury and psychological health. Kelly said scientists are trying to understand the severity and extent of brain injury caused by exposure to a blast. Many of the wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan were hurt by roadside bombs.

The science is so new that it remains unclear whether symptoms attributed to brain injury are actually the result of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the same combat incident — a roadside bomb blast, for example — that caused the brain injury, Lowe said. The Pentagon's official figure for U.S. military war casualties of all kinds in Iraq and Afghanistan is about 33,000. Sutton said at least 9,100 troops have been diagnosed with brain injuries since the war began.

The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that it has treated about 8,000 former service members for brain injury after their return from Iraq and Afghanistan. The rest of those who may require care have problems that can be treated by a family physician — issues such as headaches and sleep disorders, Kelly said. "It's not unusually complicated care." Hotline phone numbers available for troops concerned about symptoms that might be related to a brain injury are, at the Centers of Excellence, 866-966-1020; and at the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, 800-870-9244.


Related news:

States ponder: What happens when the money stops?

As gridlocked Washington edges toward default, states staggering out of the last recession are preparing for the worst: The federal piggy-bank that helps them pay for health care, jobless benefits, road building and schools could run out of cash. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is warning that his state might not be able to fully cover potential shortfalls, and jittery California cushioned its finances last week by borrowing $5.4 billion from private investors. Massachusetts is preparing to replace $850 million in U.S. payments that could be derailed in August, while Oregon plans to free up a cache of money if Washington stops sending checks.

Freighted with uncertainty, states can't look to lessons from the past: There aren't any. The U.S. government, which has a gilded credit rating, has never defaulted. And no one seems to know what funding could be cut, by how much or for how long. That would be determined in Washington if Congress fails to raise the government's borrowing limit by Tuesday. "You're chasing a ghost," says Nevada Department of Health and Human Services Director Mike Willden. "What's the deal? What is the cut? What can I expect?"

A congressional compromise remained elusive, with anxiety over a possible default increasing with the passing days. At issue is the debt ceiling, a legal limit on how much debt the government can accumulate. If Congress fails to raise the borrowing limit by Tuesday, the U.S. might not be able to pay all its financial obligations. A default could send financial markets and the economy into a tailspin, spreading angst from Wall Street to Main Street.

If the U.S. loses its top-notch credit rating, it could drag down ratings for some states, too, driving up borrowing costs. The most vulnerable are Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee and New Mexico because of their reliance on federal money, according to one rating agency. A group of California legislators warned Congress that failure to raise the debt limit could threaten a fragile economic recovery — California remains in the grip of double-digit unemployment.

In statehouses around the country, preparations were under way as states judged what would happen if federal dollars slowed or stopped. Some were rushing to claim any federal aid that might be in the pipeline before Tuesday's deadline. Many states appeared to have enough cash on hand to fill short-term gaps from Washington. For example, Vermont Finance and Management Commissioner Jim Reardon said the state Medicaid program is expected to receive a payment of more than $53 million from the federal government Monday, a day before the federal government might stop paying some bills.

Rhode Island and New Hampshire have enough money on hand to cover expenses through August, giving Congress extra time to resolve the stalemate before programs might take a hit. But Florida's courts system would be unable to make payroll if a crisis lasts beyond Aug. 22. In North Carolina, state Budget Director Andy Willis said the state could cover Medicaid reimbursements for a few days but floating the payments for a longer period might be a different matter because of a tight budget.

Ohio has an 8.8 percent jobless rate and "if the country stops paying its bills now, those numbers will only get worse," a bipartisan group of Ohio mayors said in a letter to the White House, calling for a settlement. All states rely on federal aid, but the impact will vary state to state. New Jersey, for example, counts on a smaller percent of federal money for state spending than other states, chiefly because it has more wealthy residents. Kansas gets about half its money from Washington. California, the nation's most populous state, gets nearly $80 billion annually, much of it for health care for the poor.

If the debt ceiling is not lifted by the deadline, the Treasury Department, which issues tens of millions of payments each month for everything from food stamps to Social Security, would have to decide what bills it could pay, in what order. The amount of cash would be limited, since the government borrows about 40 cents of every dollar it spends. With the fall school term approaching, the University of California is trying to figure out what a U.S. default would mean for more than $3.5 billion in federal research dollars and student aid it's slated to get this year — 720,000 students receive Pell Grants at UC, one of the nation's largest public universities.

In Alabama, the state is moving some of its investment funds into cash to guard against fluctuations in the financial markets. Massachusetts is looking at whether it could provide interim financing to keep some or all of the programs funded, should federal checks slow or stop. The state receives about $200 million a week in federal funds, and 1.25 million people rely on federally subsidized Medicaid. "If we were to say we can't make those payments any more ... it's hard to imagine what would happen," said Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez. "There would be potentially some dire consequences."

Some government officials worry about longer-term damage. In Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest city, pension funds rely on income from the stock market, and if it plunges taxpayers are on the hook to make up shortfalls that, in a worst-case scenario, could reach hundreds of millions of dollars. If the region's double-digit unemployment rate goes up, that inevitably digs into the city's share of sales, hotel and other taxes needed to run local government. And if the nation's credit rating goes down, uncertainty could rattle the bond market, making investors less likely to jump in while driving up interest rates that make borrowing more costly for governments around the U.S.

"Should there be a crisis generated by the debt ceiling not being lifted, that would bring us to a very critical state," said City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana. "We have little room left to manage it. Now we are at the bone in terms of the core services we provide," Santana said. "We are sort of victims to the outcome of the gridlock."

At the Hollywood Senior Center in Portland, Ore., optimism was holding up among the low-income seniors who rely on Medicaid and other social-assistance programs to survive. But executive director Amber Kern-Johnson said the idea of federal dollars drying up seemed unfathomable to the center's clients. "Many of them just don't believe something like that could happen," Kern-Johnson said.


Putin says U.S. is "parasite" on global economy

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the United States Monday of living beyond its means "like a parasite" on the global economy and said dollar dominance was a threat to the financial markets. "They are living beyond their means and shifting a part of the weight of their problems to the world economy," Putin told the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi while touring its lakeside summer camp some five hours drive north of Moscow. "They are living like parasites off the global economy and their monopoly of the dollar," Putin said at the open-air meeting with admiring young Russians in what looked like early campaigning before parliamentary and presidential polls.

US President Barack Obama earlier announced a last-ditch deal to cut about $2.4 trillion from the U.S. deficit over a decade, avoid a crushing debt default and stave off the risk that the nation's AAA credit rating would be downgraded. The deal initially soothed anxieties and led Russian stocks to jump to three-month highs, but jitters remained over the possibility of a credit downgrade. "Thank god," Putin said, "that they had enough common sense and responsibility to make a balanced decision."

But Putin, who has often criticized the United States' foreign exchange policy, noted that Russia holds a large amount of U.S. bonds and treasuries. "If over there (in America) there is a systemic malfunction, this will affect everyone," Putin told the young Russians. "Countries like Russia and China hold a significant part of their reserves in American securities ... There should be other reserve currencies." U.S.-Russian ties soured during Putin's 2000-2008 presidency but have warmed significantly since his protégé and successor President Dmitry Medvedev responded to Obama's stated desire for a "reset" in bilateral relations.


Casually dressed in khaki trousers and a striped white shirt, Putin flew by helicopter to the tented camp as part of a string of appearances that are being closely watched in the run-up to the elections. He did not say whether he plans a return to the Kremlin or will stand aside for Medvedev, his partner in Russia's leadership tandem, to run for a second term. But young people crowding round Putin, caught up in the campaigning spirit created by huge portraits of Putin hung from trees, were not shy about saying who they wanted as president.

"Russia's next president will be small, bald and look like Putin," 17-year-old Ilya Mzokov joked with reporters. Asked why Medvedev was not paying a visit to the summer camp, he said: "Only serious people come here."

Youngsters chanted Putin's name and applauded his remarks as he strolled round the camp, where US-style business seminars, extreme sports and political mudslinging were among the topics on offer. Putin, whose macho image appeals to many Russians, briefly swung himself up the first half of a climbing wall, filmed by a gaggle of state television cameras. Nashi, which means "Our People," was created by the Kremlin to counter popular dissent after youth activism helped topple a pro-Moscow government in Ukraine's 2005 Orange revolution.

The group has worked to spread a personality cult around Putin and regularly campaigns against Kremlin critics. Opinion polls show Putin, still widely viewed as the country's paramount leader, retains near 70 percent approval. But his United Russia party is trying to reverse a slide in popularity before December parliamentary polls, hoping to use a strong showing there to help Putin in the March 2012 presidential vote.


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