Sunday, January 19, 2014

Stop the Wars!

Recent discussions of the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty got me thinking again about something that's been on my mind.  A San Francisco Chronicle editorial on the War on Poverty claims that we've "only been able to declare a draw."  That's too positive.  With the slats kicked out of the middle class, and millions of people living paycheck to paycheck and praying for nothing to go wrong, we've lost the war on poverty.  The anti-poverty programs that started with Johnson - Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, whatever food stamps are called this week - they don't eliminate poverty.  They merely help poor people not to die starving in the street. Today they help people not to starve in the street who have full time minimum wage jobs.  If the campaign against poverty is a war, we've lost it.

But - how was "declaring war" on something nebulous and intangible like poverty ever going to help the situation??  Why do we keep declaring war on things (poverty, drugs, terror) that are not military problems?  When you misframe the question, you make it harder to identify the real problems, and therefore the real solutions.  And for any of these situations, "war" is the wrong metaphor.

The War on Drugs

This is the second oldest of these "wars," and possibly the stupidest.  We mount military campaigns - guns, helicopters, SWAT teams - against a public health problem.  Leave out marijuana, which two generations now know from experience is so innocuous, in fact, so medically useful, that the prohibition is silly.  Even considering the "hard" drugs - when Joe snorts cocaine or shoots up heroin, why is that a crime?  He's harming himself.  He isn't directly harming anyone else, except as a side effect of the fact that we say it's illegal.

Drug use is a crime only because we say it is a crime.  It's a public health problem:  Joe's addiction harms him physically, and if he has a family it harms the family socially and economically.  Our solution to this problem should be to help Joe kick his addiction and get him a job.  Our actual solution?  Throw Joe in jail - which will make his family's social and economic problems much, much worse.  We particularly throw Joe in jail if he's African American or Latino.  The drug war is directly responsible for the size of our prison population, which is bankrupting (among others) the state of California.  It has caused several generations of African American kids to be raised without fathers, which has other bad side effects.

And none of this is preventing drug use:  the Nationwide Trends in Drug Facts, published in December 2012, shows that illicit drug use over the last 10 years is essentially flat, with a slight upward trend largely due to marijuana use.

The real reason drugs, including weed, are illegal in the U.S. has everything to do with the people who use them - or are perceived to use them.   In the 19th century there were only minor anti-drug laws.  Marijuana was part of the standard pharmaca; you could buy opium (in the form of laudanum) at the drugstore.  In the 20th century the white middle and upper classes began to worry about opium and coca, as well as marijuana.  All of these were perceived to be used by the lower classes and especially the Negros; therefore we must prohibit the use lest it spread to our lily-white children.  (If you think I'm making this up, do a little research on the "reefer madness" propaganda from the 30s.)  There's a blue-nosed tendency in the U.S., going clear back to the Puritans, which considers that anything makes people feel good must be a sin, and therefore must be made illegal.

We have no legitimate excuse for prohibiting any drug, as long as alcohol and tobacco are sold freely to any adult.  We banned alcohol for 13 years and it practically destroyed the country; banning the other drugs has "merely" destroyed the black working class.  If we let all the drug felons out of prison, rehabilitated them and got them jobs, and regulated and taxed all the drugs, we'd have millions of dollars to spend on rehabilitation and medical solutions to the public health problem of substance addiction.

The current trend in drug prohibition is about to make heavy-duty prescription painkillers harder to get for the patients who really need them (not me right now, but I've been where opiates where the only thing that let me sleep), because some people are "misusing" them to make themselves feel better and getting addicted.

Can we stop banning, and try treating and educating?

The War on Terror

This was almost a legitimate use of the metaphor.  After all, we were attacked.  If we were attacked there must be somebody we can attack back, right?  So in October 2001 we invaded - Afghanistan.  We weren't attacked by the government of Afghanistan; Afghanistan was governed by the Taliban, which was making the lives of Afghans miserable but had zero military capacity for external fights.  We were attacked by Al Qaeda, a militant Islamic terrorist group which the Taliban were putting up; so we attacked the host country.  The attack on the World Trade Center wasn't an act of war; acts of war are taken by governments against governments.  It was a criminal act by a bunch of religious fanatics, and it should have been approached with the resources of our criminal system.

Unfortunately, at that time the U.S. government was largely composed of  neocons - an organized group who believed in projecting American military power, and increasing the executive power by any means.  This got us the TSA and the NSA, and a series of policy changes based on fear that have severely damaged the civil liberties we vaunt.  I'm not sure George W. Bush was a neocon, but his vice president, his security advisers and his secretary of defense were; and he clearly enjoyed playing soldier (despite having carefully avoided actual service during the Vietnam War).

The attack on Afghanistan was inconclusive.  We weren't any better at "subduing" the country than the Russians had been in the 1970s, or the British in the 19th century; 13 years later we still aren't.  Military forces can fight another country's army; they can't fight a collection of tribes, and that's what Afghanistan is.  We taught the British the folly of sending a standing army against a collection of guerrilla fighters in the 18th century; but we seem to have forgotten the lesson.  The amazing thing is how much our troops have accomplished.

The Bush administration then decided it would attack Iraq, for reasons which still remain obscure, since all the explanations they offered turned out to be lies.  As a way to "get at" Al Qaeda, attacking Saddam Hussein was colossally stupid; he hated them as much as we did and was much more efficient at keeping them out of Iraq than we turned out to be.  Our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have largely convinced "the Arab street" that America hates Muslims; how is that helpful?

We need to repeat FDR's words to ourselves daily:  "We have nothing to fear, except fear itself."

The Wrong Metaphor

When will we learn to select the correct metaphor for a situation?  The solution to poverty in America isn't financial aid - it's more and better-paying jobs.  Personally disliking something isn't a good reason for making it a crime.  We finally seem to be realizing that about gay marriage, but we haven't yet applied it to drug use.

As for Al Qaeda, I stand by my statement.  If you want to call them terrorists, fine, but they are criminals. They break laws in every country where they operate. Most of those countries don't have operational police forces, but we do; if we took them seriously as criminals I think we could keep them out, but because we're afraid of them, we stand and shiver.  We are hundreds of times more likely to die being hit by a car while crossing the street than we are likely to be killed by terrorists; but we tremble in fear and ignorance at the terrorists (while our own government intercepts our phone calls), and we cross the street staring blindly at our iPhones.

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