Bags, Germs and Stealing

Bags, Germs and Stealing

Denver is jumping on the plastic bag tax train, joining ranks with New York, California and several other Colorado jurisdictions, but will the bag tax be effective at changing habits or improving environmental conditions?

Admittedly, there are far worse tyrannies to suffer than a plastic bag tax, but the subtleties underlying never-ending government expansion and continual attempts at modifying human behavior through legislation are always worth dissecting. Last week, the Denver City Council voted unanimously to approve Council Bill No. 19-1176 which outlines the parameters surrounding a ten cent per bag tax (they refer to it as fee) on single use plastic or paper bags, to be collected by retailers at the point of sale.

The local coverage of this measure is typically presented as a win-win with the presumption that there could never be any ill effects or unintended consequences. Before delving into the details, what might be the most odd thing is that there is a significant amount of media coverage and public comments on social media about a bag tax, of all things. Of course, most of it is self-congratulatory green-washing, but contrast that with the coverage, or lack thereof, of the Afghanistan Papers, wherein the U.S. leadership, intelligence agencies and the Military outright lied to the public for eighteen plus years and revealed that, as Kym Robinson put it in a recent Libertarian Institute article, there was, “No real mission statement, a flawed and corrupt puppet government, massive amounts of waste, uncertain allies and enemies, incoherent unit cohesion and poor communications between allies, unnecessary deaths but ultimately murder.” No one seems to care about that, but a bag tax? Let’s work that into the news cycle every day! Let’s ban the bags and ignore the fact that the military is the biggest polluter on the planet. But I digress, back to the matter at hand.

First off, if the plastic bag tax is such a good idea, why are there so many exemptions? The list of exemptions includes any customer who participates in a federal or state food assistance program, bags used to package bulk items (fruit, vegetables, nails and screws, bags to wrap flowers and bakery goods, etc.), bags smaller than seven inches by nine inches (why not six by eight?), bags from pharmacies, newspaper bags, door hanger bags, dry cleaning bags, and bags sold in packages containing multiple bags for uses such as food storage, garbage, pet waste or yard waste (more on that later). Also exempt are, from the legislation, “restaurants or other businesses where retail sales are clearly secondary and incidental to the primary activity occurring within the business or any temporary vendor or temporary events.” That “clearly secondary” verbiage is a classic legislative loophole where if you have the right connections or know the right person you can find an exemption for your business. All in, of the six pages of legislation, nearly a full page is dedicated to exemptions.

In theory, the intent behind the legislation is to change people’s habits. This is true, there will be fewer disposable bags used, because when you tax something, you get less of it, but there is one habit that even the most ardent supporters of reusable bags fail at miserably: washing the reusable bag. Even if the bag does get washed, it won’t be washed it every day, and from the house to the car to the store to the shopping cart, all along the way, you are collecting, transporting and disseminating bacteria to share with everyone else. Where has the person standing next to you traveled in the last day, week or month? Did that bag previously go to the gym with them and what was stored in it? The locations where the bag has been and the types of items stored in the reusable bags are endless. Indeed, a recent study found that only about 3% of people regularly wash their bags. If that doesn’t make you shudder, consider this: in that same study, bacteria was found in 99% of the bags that were tested. That same study also found that half carried coliform bacteria and 8% carried E. coli, an indicator of fecal contamination.

People do adapt and change and perhaps some will wash their bags more frequently, but one thing is verifiably true, and that is that people will just switch from one product to another. With a disposable bag ban in place, studies have shown, as referenced in this article, that demand for other bags (4 gallon size, for instance, sold by the roll) to be used as small trash can liners will increase substantially. These types of bags are exempt from the tax in the legislation and are typically thicker than the disposable ones, which ultimately means more plastic is used; exactly the opposite from the stated goals of the legislation.

In a rare moment of honesty, the legislation does acknowledge two economic realities. First, the tax will adversely affect those on the lower end of the economic spectrum and thus, the legislation has exempted anyone on a federal or state food assistance plan. Secondly, if you tax something, you’ll get less of it. If only this economic logic were applied to all other multifarious ordinances.

Finally, what legislation would be complete without the ever popular “you’ll get something for free” section? Of the ten cent per bag fee, the retail store may retain four cents that can be used for educational and informational signage, staff training (ostensibly to train them in dealing with annoyed customers) and to provide “free” reusable carryout bags to customers. How is it free? The customer was literally just forced to pay for it. And since when is it the job of a grocery store to educate the public about plastics, or anything else for that matter? This section also highlights the concept of legal plunder, as small businesses, with lower overhead and razor thin profit margins will feel the brunt of the implementation of this tax, when compared to their big box competitors.

There was nothing preventing stores from implementing a plastic bag tax on their own, it just becomes much easier to export morality to the state, dodge the question and say that the state mandated it rather than feeling the economic consequences of self implementation. The green-washing trade off would have been worth it for some stores and not so much for others. It is telling that for all the green-washing rhetoric that has become de-rigueur for some big businesses, that rather than taking the lead and putting their money where their mouth is, they have waited for the state to force the implementation of a bag tax, for the planet, for humanity, and all that.

Think of the owner of a corner market in a lower income neighborhood. Perhaps that owner, seeking to help out their customers, continues to offer bags at the point of sale but gets caught by the bag police one too many times and goes out of business due to the requisite fines or not getting their license renewed. How does that help the neighborhood? It certainly forces them to go farther from home to get to the big box store.

Shockingly, government has gotten in the way of government with the implementation of this legislation. There is a thirty year old state statute on the books (1989 House Bill 1300) which prevents local governments from regulating the use of plastic materials or products. In short, it’s against the law for Colorado cities to ban plastic bags. Of course, since this is the state violating its own laws, nothing will happen. If it were you or me? That would be a whole different story. This is a feature, not a bug, of an overbearing regulatory state, where the state can’t even manage to follow its own rules. Up next, you’ll see legislation requiring reusable bag producers to print washing instructions on the bags and the legal creep will continue all the way down to your own home. So, dear citizen, how often do you clean your house?

Reprinted from Denver Libertarian.

A Beer City Drowning in Regulations

A Beer City Drowning in Regulations

On a recent outing to Odell Brewing’s new brewhouse and taproom in Denver’s RiNo neighborhood, a burgeoning part of town filled with breweries, coffee shops and twenty-somethings, I’m reminded of just how pervasive government is when it comes to influencing what can be built and where. This place seemingly has it all: plenty of seating and bars on two levels, a rooftop patio and a grade level patio. It’s kid friendly, dog friendly and there are plenty of unique beers only available at this particular location. One beer of note is The Real Dill Pils, a surprisingly delicious and refreshing beer on a hot summer day and a fantastic find on a Sunday afternoon of brewery hopping. There is a restaurant right next door and a food truck could pull up at any moment, so what’s not to like?

In Colorado, if you are trying to sell your own beer, you are required to brew in the same place that you sell. There are other compulsory distribution options, but if you want to establish a tasting room where you can sell your own branded beer, then the only option is to brew in the same place that you are selling. Even well established breweries cannot simply brew beer at an offsite and more cost effective location and then sell it at a remote, free standing tasting room. This severely hampers small business development in the beer industry. One of the great things about the Odell Brewhouse in RiNo is that they are producing unique, collaborative and creative beers at this location – which is great for beer lovers. But, this business decision has clearly been influenced by government regulations. Within the context of what they were “allowed” to build and operate at this location, the decision might make sense, but it’s hard to tell, perhaps a true stand alone tasting room would have been a better economic decision, but the regulatory state has already decided for the businessman; that’s not even an option.

The development possibilities for small businesses are endless in the realm of small batch and homebrewing industries. For instance, there could be consortiums of small, independent brewers (brewing off-site) who band together to have their beers featured in a neighborhood tap room. It’s very possible this business model makes no sense, but that’s not for government to decide. In a beer mecca city like Denver, there should be vast amounts of creativity when it comes to beer production, delivery and sale, but within the realm of government coercion, creativity and innovation are stifled. True brewing freedom cannot exist without economic freedom.

But, what about safety? Can you hear the objections from the masses? We can’t just have brewers willy-nilly brewing beer off-site in unsanitary conditions and selling to the unknowing public! Many are quick to lean on the crutch of government regulation forgetting that homebrewers, small brewers and businesses in general realize that consumer confidence is key. Independent third party testing agencies would spring into action to provide a safe-to-drink certification service, encouraged by the brewers and consumers themselves, all outside the realm of government coercion. Even if a brewer decided to forego third party certification, that’s an economic decision for them to make. Would you drink a beer from a homebrewer that your were not personally familiar with? Every person will answer that question differently. Let us not forget that one of the most egregious cases of tainted alcohol came via the hand of government, who during Prohibition purposely poisoned re-distilled industrial grade alcohol (used in paint and cleaning products) in a process referred to as denaturing which killed up to ten thousand people when enterprising bootleggers reprocessed the products back into something vaguely drinkable, who then sold it to an unknowing public, poison and all. But, I digress.

Within the small physical space of the brewhouse and taproom, there is a massive amount of government economic intrusion. Think of the restaurant right next door that should be able to open up directly to the patio of the brewery and sell food, but can’t. Think of the restaurant right next door that should be able to offer micro brew beer to their patrons but can’t (not without a distributor or obtaining a license themselves, that is). Or, not without Odell wanting to be their own distributor at this location. Which they could be, but why? Who benefits? Why all this extraneous government intrusion into what should be a simple economic calculation? Would beer sell at this restaurant? Maybe not, but that’s not for government to decide.

Think of all the government bureaucracy associated with building permits and regulatory compliance with setting up a brewhouse and taproom compared to a stand alone tasting room. It all adds up and the consumer pays for it. Think of all the standard government talking points about “helping the little guy,” yet the reality is that the little guy is constantly regulated out of the beer industry.

In the 1900’s, prior to Prohibition, there were over 4,000 breweries operating in the U.S. with the number effectively falling to zero during Prohibition. After Prohibition was repealed, the number of breweries rose to around 30. Small breweries were absolutely decimated and in the ensuing decades, a handful of larger breweries were able to command and control an unprecedented amount of the beer market. This sordid story is improving for smaller breweries as their numbers are continually on the rise, finally surpassing Pre-Prohibition numbers about ten years ago. Alas, overbearing government regulations are doing nothing but extinguishing the flames of creativity and stifling an industry based on individuality and entrepreneurship. But, rest assured, government is here to help.

Republished from The Denver Libertarian.

Nekoma, The War State and the Giant Concrete Pyramid

Nekoma, The War State and the Giant Concrete Pyramid

Looming over the North Dakota plains lies a massive and ominous concrete pyramid, each face displaying four large discs leering out over the surrounding terrain, as if keeping watch. The mammoth structure rises seventy-nine feet above the surface and extends fifty-three feet below grade with the total building encompassing 127,000 SF, but these are not the building’s most defining characteristics. The construction of this gargantuan building and surrounding military complex exceeded six billion dollars, but the facility was only active and in operation for three days. Say what?

An eerie reminder of a bygone era, the now abandoned Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, in Nekoma, ND, encompasses 470 acres and contains 46 underground missile silos in addition to the massive concrete pyramid. Construction on the project began in the 1960s and was not complete until 1975. The discs on the side of the pyramid were state-of-the-art radar technology that, in theory, could be used to detect multiple incoming missiles simultaneously without having to maneuver a more traditional large mesh dish. It was purported to be able to provide a six minute warning and could hit a target on thirty seconds notice.

Visually surreal, the facility is more reminiscent of a fictional movie set from the 1960’s film Dr. Strangeglove than anything grounded in reality. In this case, truth is stranger than fiction and the circumstances regarding how a facility like this could come into existence at such a tremendous cost, yet abandoned so quickly, provides a fitting catalyst regarding the rise of the military industrial complex, or The War State, as put more succinctly by author Michael Swanson.

The Nature of the State

The State, despite its claim of being “for the people,” exists solely to feed itself and to obtain more power. It works the same under any form of government, be it Communism or Representative Democracy, both will feed the population with lies to prop up the belief in its necessity. Indeed, the common view of the U.S. population is that the War State was an entity that grew out of necessity. A necessity that could only be handled by a giant military-security apparatus to direct, plan and navigate an increasingly complex world of international geopolitical tensions. Author Michael Swanson casts aside this narrative in lieu of an interpretation focusing on the alliance with, and cartelization of, big business, manufacturing, government and perhaps most importantly, the opinion-molding military experts. These so-called experts were able to convince not only an entire generation of independent minded civilians of the necessity of their existence, but were able to convince the vast majority of infallible top government officials as well. This unholy alliance of business and government was a natural progression of the cartelization that became de rigueur throughout the Progressive Era, as most explicitly evidenced by the railroad, petroleum, iron and steel, and sugar industries (or the monopolization of Public Utilities), as painstakingly detailed by Murray Rothbard in his book The Progressive Era.

The existence of the Nekoma facility is indicative of the nature of imperialist bureaucracies, where doing more of the same is the norm, regardless of necessity. It’s easy and tempting to wag our collective finger at failed Communist states throughout history, pointing out the economic fallacies and planning blunders, but there are some uncomfortable similarities when one looks at the War State and begs the question: is the U.S. really all that different? We live out our lives under a continuous government left unchecked and detached from reality, one that creates useless programs and their requisite physical manifestations like the Nekoma facility, all under the illusion of democracy, freedom and protection from the evil-doers.

Circular Logic as Justification

A common theme of any centrally planned government is using circular logic to justify any number of allegedly necessary programs. A mind boggling example of this is recounted in The War State where, “Dmitri Ustinov, who served as the Soviet defense minister, decided that he didn’t need any more nuclear missiles. One of the heads of Russian weapons production asked him to order a dozen more rockets anyway. ‘What will I do with them?’ Ustinov asked. ‘But if you don’t order them, how will I feed the workers?’ the weapons producer responded. Ustinov put in the order.” (p401) No doubt this is Communism in action, but are we any different? Stories abound regarding the wastefulness of the U.S. military, where if you don’t use up an allotted budget, that funding will go away in the next cycle, or wildly expensive toilet seats being purchased via no-bid construction contracts, or criminal investigations into petty theft at a chow hall (for more on this absurdity, give a listen to the Biting the Bullet podcast, a weekly show where three former marines clue you into the utter wastefulness surrounding the military writ large, among other topics).

The lies presented as the justifications for the necessity of military installations like Nekoma went hand in hand with the threat that all of humanity was about to be obliterated at the hands of the Soviets! Action must be taken! The wildly exaggerated news stories parroted by state controlled media outlets caused many Americans in the 1950’s to live their day to day lives in a constant state of terror, even though, “the Soviet Union didn’t even have the capability to launch a missile that was able to reach the United States until the 1960s. Nor did it have a viable bomber force. In the 1950s, Air Force General Curtis LeMay said he had the ability to order SAC bombers to attack the Soviet Union and destroy all of its war-making capabilities ‘without losing a man to their defenses.’ Americans were completely safe, but they lived in constant fear.” (p294) The experts had spoken: fear for your life, citizen and leave the thinking to us, we’ll protect you.

NSC-68 and Propaganda

The standard narrative that the U.S. military is underfunded and the resultant consequences will be dire if increased funding is not provided is ever present and has been for some time. Even now, almost seventy years later, the myth lives on. A willing media parrots the government lines through a myriad of sources and beltway think tanks where it serves the propaganda machine well. To wit: earlier this year, as relayed by Ryan McMaken in this article where, “…in the wake of this year’s [2019] budget deal, researchers from the American Enterprise Institute claimed the binge still was not enough. For them, a trillion dollars per year is just barely enough to ‘avoid outright disaster.’ ”

This message is very intentional and was first codified via NSC-68, a National Security Policy paper concerning the United States Objectives and Programs for National Security. The initial report and its subsequent modifications advocated for a large expansion in the U.S. military budget and increased military aid to U.S. allies. NSC-68 described the challenges facing the United States in cataclysmic terms involving the destruction not only of the Republic but the whole of humanity as well.

The reality on the ground was far different and The War State continually lays bare the propaganda regarding the threat of the Soviet Union which, “was not as powerful as the American politicians, reporters, and national security bureaucrats linked to the military-industrial complex claimed it was. NSC-68… argued that if the country did not vastly increase its defense spending, then in just a few years Russia would be on track to produce enough conventional and nuclear weapons that they would be able to completely run over Western Europe and defeat the United States in an atomic attack.” The theory here being that the U.S. needed to out-compete the military buildup with the Soviet Union and scare them into submission.

It wasn’t so much the military build up per se, but the potential economic power that the Soviets were worried about, as clarified by John Mueller in his book Atomic Obsession (via this article), “the Soviets during the Cold War were not primarily deterred by the size of the US conventional military, or even by its nuclear arsenal. Instead, they were deterred by the ‘the enormous potential of the American war machine’ which existed not in already-made weapons, but in the form of the world’s largest economy. In other words, the best defense is a capitalist one in which enormous amounts of wealth make it clear that the potential for successful war-making is enormous.” This all to say nothing of the conditions of Soviet occupied East Germany, where a wall had to be constructed to keep people in, the economics of it all should have been obvious. Wouldn’t a vast economic powerhouse who ostensibly was set to out-compete the U.S. be able to provide living conditions that would be they envy of the world? But, the experts deemed that the untouched U.S. economy was going to get steamrolled by a depleted and decimated Communist economy and fear won out.

They Saw What they Wanted to See

Delving into the concept of the continued cartelization of the U.S. economy at the hands of the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Complex, Swanson reminds the reader that, “During the Eisenhower administration, politicians, such as Senator Henry Jackson of Washington, linked to Boeing and other defense contractors, claimed that the Soviet Union had produced so many bombers that a ‘bomber gap’ existed, while the Gaither Report [a Security Resources Panel report presented to President Eisenhower that recommended a significant strengthening of U.S. strategic offensive and defensive military capabilities] claimed that by 1960 Khrushchev [Former Premier of the Soviet Union] would have the ability to launch a first-strike missile launch that would cripple the ability of the United States to retaliate. Such claims helped complete the transformation of the United States into a permanent war state by the end of the 1950s, but none of them were even close to reality. (p264)” Context is crucial and if you are trying to secure lucrative government contracts, you might leave out the details and play up the scary imagery, especially in an era where only a handful of government controlled news outlets exist and the reports are covering a country that is thousands of miles away, it was easy to mislead the people. The government knew the reality and allowed the misinformation to spread, junior high civics book propaganda be damned, we’ve got a war to sell!

Swanson delves into the details and provides the reader with the much needed context in the following paragraphs:

 …in 1955, the Soviet Union had plenty of nuclear bombs and was more than capable of exploding them in  tests, but it had no way to deliver any of them as a weapon against an American city. The American B-52 bomber could fly 7,343 miles when refueled, which was far enough to reach the Soviet Union, but the Russia M-4… couldn’t reach the United States, because its designers couldn’t figure out an easy way to refuel it in the air. The M-4 could only fly five thousand miles, which was too short for it to reach either coast of the United States from the closest point of the Soviet Union. (p265)

What is more, the Soviet Union had only four of these M-4 bombers. When the Russians put on a major air show, they took the four bombers and had them fly around in wide circles to give the impression that there were dozens of them. Khrushchev was pleased when American newspapers reported on a supposed “bomber gap” thanks to the Bison bomber. They saw what they wanted to see. (p265)

In reality, the Soviet rocket program was pitiful. The R-7 could barely function as a viable weapon. It weighed three hundred tons and operated on liquid oxygen fuel. That made it so that when the rockets were fueled up they were in danger of exploding. American missiles used solid fuel, which enabled them to be launched on about ten minutes’ notice. The Russians, though, couldn’t keep their missiles fueled up all of the time. That meant it took them hours to prepare them for launch, making them very vulnerable to attack. (p266)

All this in just two pages of the 410 page book and there’s plenty more information to go around, but it’s easier for the media to parrot the old standard lines of the absolute necessity of a huge war state apparatus and it is repeated ad nauseum on news shows and reruns of WWII era documentaries. Unfortunately, the lies and falsehoods are still being parroted today, even on newly produced shows. For instance, a segment from the Science Channel’s show Mysteries of the Abandoned (Season 2, Episode 2) expounds upon the alleged necessity of the Nekoma facility and is described by self proclaimed Military experts thusly:

“[The Nekoma Facility] Had to be able to target multiple incoming missiles [from the Soviet Union] all at the same time.”

“You had ‘seconds to decide,’ or was it a decoy?”

“To make us feel safe to take out a warhead headed to the mainland US.”

All the hand picked, nonsensical, and easily repeatable Cold War talking points were packed into this short, ten minute segment, not backed by fact, but by fiction given the previously presented information conveyed in The War State. But, how do you get access to the military base to take amazing drone footage? You play their game. You get to sell ads and they get to continue the propaganda; the public eats it up and the fairy-tale lives on.

Many may be quick to say that hindsight is 20-20 and those in charge of the safety of the world did their best with the limited information that they had, but without a doubt, the information to make a different decision was available. The CIA had the intel and the experts deliberately mis-lead everyone involved:

Intelligence analysts were about to know without a doubt what the Russians actually had. After twelve failed launches, the CIA put into space its first spy satellite code-named Corona. It passed over Russia and found that their few intercontinental missiles were all at one launch facility, which made them vulnerable to a surprise attack. They also now had 200 bombers with questionable ability to reach the United States and seventy-eight missiles on about a dozen submarines that spent almost all of their time in port. The United States had more than an overwhelming nuclear strike advantage over the Soviet Union. Yes, there was a missile gap, but it was in favor of the United States. (p296 [emphasis added])

In the end, the Nakoma facility came about through lies, deliberate misinformation and propaganda, without which the whole system would have come tumbling down. This whole situation is perhaps best summarized by Christopher Black, in his essay, Western Imperialism and the Use of Propaganda:

The primary concern they [U.S. government officials] have, in order to preserve their control, is for the preservation of the new feudal mythology that they have created: that the world is a dangerous place, that they are the protectors, that the danger is omnipresent, eternal, and omnidirectional, comes from without, and comes from within. The mythology is constructed and presented through all media…All available information systems are used to create and maintain scenarios and dramas to convince the people that they, the protectors, are the good and all others are the bad. We are bombarded with this message incessantly.

The War State provides much needed clarity and removes the veil in front of our eyes. In this age of plentiful information, it should be easy to counter the official narrative, but plentiful information is a blessing and a curse, sometimes it is easier to just tune out. If only everyone in the 1950’s had done that, instead of tuning in to the nightly news, the Cold War may have fizzled away. We should be wise to never proffer up deference to a group of self appointed elites who have been proven time and again to lie, manipulate and mislead on matters of most grave importance.  And as Ludwig von Mises reminds us in Human Action, that with, “such vital matters, blind reliance upon experts and uncritical acceptance of popular catch words and prejudices is tantamount to the abandonment of self-determination and a yielding to other people’s domination.” These words still ring true today, just as when they were written in the 1940’s.


Book Review of Scott Horton’s Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

Book Review of Scott Horton’s Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

I must confess, the absurdity of me writing a review of Scott Horton’s book is akin to the absurdity of the war in Afghanistan, albeit without the hundreds of thousands of dead bodies and billions of government no-bid military contracts and after eighteen years, nothing to show for it.

Sticking with absurdity, I’ll start with a passage from a different book, Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh, a fictional account of a fledgling reporter sent to cover a “promising war” in a faraway land. Bear with me. The passage involves the reporter receiving:

…a radiogram which had arrived that morning and was causing him grave bewilderment. It read:




“I can’t understand it,” said William.1

I feel the same as William after devouring this thoroughly researched and well documented book, including over 1100 footnotes from myriad sources from all sides of the political spectrum. I feel this way not on account of illegible or confusing writing, for the book is laid out is such a manner that any average person could follow along and track with the absurdity of it all, but on account of the mind-numbing fallacies, falsehoods and flat out ahistorical bungling of the reality of the facts on the ground in the Middle East for the last fifty years that have led to our current, ah, situation, in Afghanistan.

If you thought the first quote was nonsensical, try this passage from Fool’s Errand and think of the concept of entangling alliances,“the U.S. was bribing one ally to back another ally, forcing a third ally to back our own and our first ally’s enemies, which required the U.S. to turn to the first ally for help against the third, and then around again. This has continued for more than a dozen years. In fact, the reality is even more convoluted than this. Our other allies, the Saudi royals, have continued to finance the Taliban resistance against the U.S. all along as well, since the Taliban serves as a check on the power of Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazaras, who are Shi’ites aligned with Saudi Arabia’s nemesis, Iran.”2 Got it? That might be tough to follow out of context from the chapter within which it was written, but it certainly serves to illustrate the insanity of this whole Afghanistan affair. How could anyone sort all that out? How do you define victory? How do you ever not continue to create enemies in a scenario like that?

After reading this book, there is no rational human being who can justify further military action in Afghanistan, yet the war machine grinds on. A war that, by no conceivable metric can be said that the U.S. is winning, or ever can win, continues to be waged. Every strategy has been tried:

[Retired US Army] Col. Bacevich observed about the war in Afghanistan, and the broader War on Terrorism, “We’ve done counterinsurgency, we’ve done counter-terrorism, we’ve done advise-and-assist, we’ve done targeted assassination, we’ve done nation-building… We have run the gamut of approaches in terms of tactics and methods, and none of them have yielded the success that proponents have argued that we would achieve. So you come back to that basic question, maybe the entire enterprise is misguided.”3

The military has tried to buy off every local warlord only to be double crossed in the end. Every last stolen tax dollar has been blown on an amount that far exceeds the ENTIRE Marshall Plan from WWII, which included aid to 16 West European countries. Rights for women? Schools for kids? Where is the progress on those fronts? And if our barometer for success involves installing a tiny little baby government in a box that will grow and flourish and sprout a glorious “constitution, providing a bicameral legislature, proportional representation…an independent judicature, religious liberty, secular education, habeas corpus, free trade, joint stock banking, chartered corporations, and numerous other agreeable features,” 4 then we most certainly have failed. Afghanistan is the farthest you can imagine from these lofty ideals, as Horton has succinctly summarized in the following passage:

If leaders of the Western nations are truly attempting to initiate a new Enlightenment era of democratic values in the Arab and Muslim worlds, as they claim, perhaps trying to live by our highest principles and leading by example — promoting natural, individual rights and self-government in the free market of ideas — might be a more effective strategy than the current policy of propping up some of the world’s most repressive governments, while launching invasions and carrying out regime change operations against others. So far, these methods have only led to massive casualties, sectarian civil war and a return to fundamentalism by people who very well might otherwise have been much more receptive to the more positive aspects of our ideas and traditions.5

Throughout the book, Horton is banking on many having so easily forgotten, or never learned, the true history of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. To be sure, most of the soldiers who are over there fighting now, weren’t even born when the seeds of this disastrous war were planted. Hollywood is assuming the same thing too, with new movies like 12 Strong that only serve as a continuation in the conflating of the factions Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the minds of the average American. They are all the same over there, right? They all just want to get us and our freedoms forever and ever. Assuming a lack of learned history is a fair assumption. Grab any ole joker off the street and ask him: what was the Carter Doctrine? Follow up with: would you consider the 1990’s “peacetime”? For a bonus round ask: how long have the Iraqi people been living under wartime conditions? Right about now, I’m assuming you are thinking wait, wait, wait, why are we talking about Iraq and not Afghanistan? The talking heads on the nonstop news cycles like to get us to think in small bubbles: just believe us, we have experts on this show, we will tell you what’s really going on over there. We have no sense of historical continuity or understanding of societies beyond the bullshit lines that we draw on a map that define countries for us. Countries that we can’t even locate on a map, but still! We have been programmed to forget that, “to the population of Saudi Arabia, and especially the bin Ladenites, these state borders are meaningless; they view Arabia as one holy peninsula.”6 Further, the concept of a unified Afghanistan is most certainly unachievable, it becomes an eternal struggle pitting one faction against another; always has been and always will be, according to Nizamuddin Nashir, a district governor in Kunduz province:

Mark my words, the moment the Americans leave, the civil war will begin. This country will be divided into twenty-five or thirty fiefdoms, each with its own government. Mir Alam will take Kunduz. Atta will take Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum will take Sheberghan. The Karzais will take Kandahar. The Haqqanis will take Paktika. If these things don’t happen, you can burn my bones when I die.7

But enough with the niceties, there are some general concepts that stick out throughout the book that bear emphasizing. Admittedly, boiling this immense work down to a handful of general concepts is difficult and a little unfair given the all-encompassing nature of the book, but it’s a good framework. The fiasco that is the war in Afghanistan is tied up with the history of the U.S. meddling in the Middle East, the U.S. creating distortions of power leading to entangling alliances, the desire and futility of attempting to change entire societies by force, the perpetual simple answers to “why do they hate us?” (trademark, Team America), and always looking forward so we can forget the past.


Damn You, History:

Alas, there is never really a perfect place to start when discussing history, but let’s start with the good ole days when our once ally, now existential threat and “we must-not-back-down-from foe,” the USSR, was mired in their own war in Afghanistan. This was a time when the U.S. was helping Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to support what were referred to then as “freedom fighters,” in their battle against the USSR. The U.S. wasn’t worried so much about the freedom of the fighters, of course, they were only trying to give the USSR their own Vietnam. There is such a delicious irony in the following interaction between President Jimmy Carter and his National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who boasted that when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979, he sent a memo to [Carter]: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.”8 History never repeats, eh?

The U.S. began, in response to the USSR invasion of Afghanistan, the implementation of the “Carter Doctrine,” that is, an attempt to create an environment of “permanent U.S. supremacy in the Persian Gulf [which] had America’s military presence spreading throughout the Arabian Peninsula.”9 This was expanded throughout the 1980’s under President Reagan and ultimately, seventy more permanent bases were later added in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates…as the U.S. prepared to wage the first Iraq war in 1990-1991.”10 It’s not hard to imagine this process creating resentment in any number of sovereign people across the Arabian Peninsula.

The U.S. quickly transformed the Carter doctrine into a concept of “Dual Containment” under the George H.W. Bush administration, playing both sides in the Iran-Iraq war (you need look no further than the current war hysteria brewing regarding Syria to see this concept in real time, let’s arm both sides, what could go wrong?). This was a era of not worrying about Saddam Hussein’s WMD’s, since he was using them against the Iran. Another sordidly ironic historical moment occurred when George H.W. Bush boastfully proclaimed that we had finally kicked “Vietnam Syndrome,” all the while the seeds of what was to become the longest war in U.S. history were being sown. War is plenty devastating in and of itself, but the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the UN and U.S. after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 were devastating to the people caught up in the war. Sanctions, of course, is a nicer sounding word for what it really is: a blockade of essential foods, medicines and other basic necessities (for a current example of this, take a look at the current U.S. and Saudi Arabia blockade of Yemen). Bill Clinton oversaw and continued these sanctions throughout the 1990’s, but finally (hooray?), in 1996, the UN Oil for Food program was implemented. Unfortunately, as Horton reminds us, “it was far too little, too late for hundreds of thousands of people. According to the United Nations, as many as a million people died of this deprivation, more than half of them children, in what Americans called ‘peacetime.’”11 Nevermind Clinton’s bombing campaign in the Balkans; but that’s a whole other topic.

The fallacy that 9/11 was a surprise attack out of the blue that never could have been predicted has been parroted around U.S. lore for so long, it is refreshing to have Horton recount the plain as daylight rationales for why anyone would want to attack the U.S. This was readily admitted by a, “senior official in the George W. Bush administration [who] admitted, [F]atwas from Osama… cited the effects of sanctions on Iraqi children and the presence of U.S. troops as a sacrilege that justified his jihad.”12 In a brutally honest fashion, Horton reminds us that, “September 11 was part of the cost of containing Saddam. No containment, no U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. No U.S. troops there, then bin Laden might still be redecorating mosques and boring friends with stories of his mujahideen days in the Khyber Pass.”13

There are numerous additional accounts of grievances against the U.S. leading up to 9/11, but let’s take that part of out of the equation and act as if history began on 9/11 and that it truly was an unforeseeable event. There was a chance to end this war quickly. Multiple offers from the Taliban were made to extradite bin Laden to the U.S., but they were turned down. A few days after the bombing of Afghanistan began, the Taliban even went so far as to agree to hand over bin Laden to any country, without evidence. This was still not good enough to stave off the U.S. invasion.14 This was never about getting bin Laden, much to the chagrin of every freedom loving, flag waving, red-blooded American, no, this was about creating a never ending war. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld even stated as much, according to journalist Bob Woodward, “Rumsfeld worried that a coalition built around the goal of taking out al Qaeda would fall apart once they succeeded in that mission, making it more difficult to continue the war on terrorism elsewhere. In other words, if the U.S.A. won by defeating the enemy, the war would be over. So, to avoid that problem, they would have to be far more ambiguous about just who was to be included as enemy targets in the war.”15 We let bin Laden get away. This was deliberate, intentional and this is the devastating heart of the matter, not six months after 9/11, the hunt for bin Laden had been all but called off. From the book:

…whatever the motivation, the decision made to focus on hiring local warlords to fight the Taliban regime, instead of focusing on finding Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda allies as quickly as possible, provided enough time for many in bin Laden’s core group, those most responsible for the deadly attack on the United States, to make a run for the border — east toward Pakistan. In December 2001, the CIA, Army Delta Force and their Northern Alliance allies finally tracked down and cornered al Qaeda at Tora Bora in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan. This was where the plan to outsource America’s fight to the Northern Alliance and other associated warlords proved to be a disaster. Warlord Hajji Zaman later laughed that he had taken millions in cash from the CIA and then helped escort Osama bin Laden and his friends across the border anyway.
Berntsen [former CIA Field Commander] was sent home in the middle of the ongoing battle of Tora Bora in mid-December. He later wrote in Jawbreaker that he just could not understand why the generals and politicians were so reluctant to send troops. Days and weeks had gone by with Berntsen and his men repeatedly requesting, even begging, for reinforcements over and over again.
If the Bush government had sent the marines after al Qaeda at Tora Bora, they could have captured or killed them in short order. But, would the American people have cared about all the claims that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was working with Osama bin Laden if bin Laden was already dead and the war was over, justice done, mission accomplished? Who would have supported the indefinite occupation of Afghanistan if al Qaeda’s leaders had already been killed?16

And so began our forever war.

Distortions of Power:

There is no way to sum up the tragedy that has befallen the people of Afghanistan in the ensuing years after bin Laden “slipped” across the border into Pakistan and the full weight of the U.S. military apparatus came crashing down on them. The only thing left holding the country together is the continued influx of foreign donor states flush with tax money and an endless foreign military presence, which unequivocally, the locals despise and that which is one of the most important reasons for continued insurgent attacks in Afghanistan and so-called “homegrown terrorism” back in the mainland U.S. We are always told the simplistic answer that its radical Islam. It’s never that we blew up someone’s family; it’s never the fact that the U.S. is the foreign invader.

What is left in Afghanistan is a plurality state with never ending instability due to continued American presence which only serves to induce continual proxy wars from local competing factions. There is an oft-repeated claim from the talking heads that once the U.S. leaves, civil war will break out. This is a true statement, but one that is guaranteed by the fact that the U.S. has propped up the National Unity Government with boatloads of cash and the might of its military; without it, that government could not exist on its own. Despite our lofty intentions, “whether the U.S. government throws in the towel now or years from now, the result will be the same: the Pashtun population will throw off whatever degree of rule the National Government attempts to maintain over them, and then, in all probability, they will be right back where they were in the 1990s, with a bloody civil war, possibly leading to Taliban dominance in all but the far north of the country.”17 Furthermore, since the puppet government exists solely because of the U.S. and other outside factions that are propping it up, the very people who are the alleged benefactors are completely left out of the process. There is zero accountability and no recourse for the people of Afghanistan. Adding insult to injury, once we do leave, all the “good work” of infrastructure projects, schools and roads (among other multifarious projects) that existed only with outside support will fall into disrepair and non-existence, leaving nothing but a wasteland ghost town.18 This should be an obvious question: how could anyone have faith in an illegitimate puppet government propped up by a foreign invader? Not only that, why would anyone trust the U.S., who will undoubtedly overthrow any “democratically elected” leader that isn’t to their liking? For reference, take a look at the recent history of Egypt, where “the loyal dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was overthrown in a popular revolution in 2011, which ended when the conservative Islamist Muslim Brotherhood won the presidency and a bare majority in Parliament. America and Saudi Arabia’s allies in the Egyptian military overthrew the new government in a violent coup and bloody massacre a little more than a year later.”19 Sadly, this is all to common practice in the realm of U.S. foreign policy.

In Afghanistan, there is such a patchwork plurality of factions after thirty years of war, there is no way to back one side without creating an enemy on the other side; there is no way to “win” this war. But, for some reason, leaving is never entertained as an option. In fact, it is roundly dismissed as crazy talk. As with most government programs, reducing the size is never the goal and there is a tremendous incentive to game the system in your favor. Simply provide faulty intelligence, collect your cash and watch your old enemy meet his doom. Apparently, as Horton states, “the conclusion…is always that the government should do more. And when more does not work, it only proves to them that more should have been done sooner and more must be done now and in the future. It is acceptable to adjust strategies or excuses, sure, but never to give up.”20 Hell, I’ll do it. I give up. But, there is so much more to uncover and I encourage you to dig into this heroic and important book on your own. I’ll leave you with this one final passage from the book that really hammers it home. It ultimately comes down to one rampaging empire, drunk on hubris and power and we all just sit back here at home, ever sure to “support the troops,” keep quiet, watch Jeopardy and maybe march around with a pussy hat to “protest” a mean person (never a war), all the while half way across the world people die unimaginably horrible deaths for everyday that we continue this pointless war.

In short, America “fell for it.” U.S. political and military leaders exploited the September 11th attacks to get away with pursuing unrelated agendas, ultimately to the point of imperial over-extension and the detriment of American power, just as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were hoping and betting they would. By granting these leaders the writ to “keep us safe” at any cost in this new, fearful age, the people of this country have instead placed themselves in much greater danger. Our government helped create this international terrorist movement that they then provoked into turning against the American people. Then they exploited the blowback terrorist attacks, using them as an excuse to spread the war to countries that had nothing to do with al Qaeda or their war against America. In playing the role of the rampaging empire, America’s leaders have not only created the space for the spread of bin Ladenite fighters across the Middle East, but have allowed some of these most savage and formerly marginal groups of criminals and terrorists on earth to portray themselves as brave heroes who saw the danger first and would dare to stand up to such overwhelming military power. In doing so, America’s leaders have helped to add tens of thousands of combatants to the enemy’s ranks and guarantee blowback and backdraft against the U.S. and its allies into the indefinite future, all the while using terrorism as an excuse for further erosions of our freedoms. And they did it all in the name of keeping us safe.21

Permission to republish granted by Denver Libertarian.

The Volga German Expulsion, or Why I am Anti-War

The Volga German Expulsion, or Why I am Anti-War

As I write this in the aftermath of the seventeenth anniversary of 9/11, I count my blessings that I am here to write this article. To be sure, this is no patriotic orgy of thanking the military and bowing to the U.S. government security apparatus that is, in theory, hard at work keeping me safe while I sleep at night. No, this is a cautionary tale of the dangers of placing your trust in government, the disruptive impacts of unbridled imperialistic warmongering and the perils of nationalistic fervor as told through the history and experiences of the Volga Germans in the mid 1800’s.

Imagine being presented with an opportunity to move to a new land, ostensibly provided at no cost and with travel expenses to be paid by an outside entity. Imagine, in an era of inevitable conscription and assured death, an opportunity to be exempted from military service. Imagine an assurance of freedom of religion, a guarantee to be able to maintain common practices and a thirty-year exemption from taxes. Even by today’s standards, this is a very enlightened and generous offer. In 1763, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, this very offer was given by Catherine the Great to many people throughout Europe (Catherine’s Second Manifesto). Although many were given the offer, the focus was to the German people and many did come to settle on the lower Volga River basin, about 450 miles Southeast of Moscow. My ancestors were among the people who took this offer, an offer they would ultimately regret and one that would have dire consequences.

Having grown weary of the fighting and tax burden associated with the Seven Years’ War, it was appealing for many Germans to take the offer and start life anew. In 1766, many began the year long journey and began the process of establishing or expanding agricultural settlements in numerous locations throughout the lower Volga River basin. In the beginning, relations among the Russians and the settlers were generally decent and there was relative stability in an area that was somewhat isolated from Imperial Russian control. Indeed, achieving stability in an area prone to roving bandits was a primary, albeit quietly stated, goal for the Russian Empire. Eventually, tensions began to mount between the German settlers and their Russian neighbors on account of the initial German farming successes and the special privileges that they had been granted. Throughout the 1800’s, many ethnic Germans continued to see economic successes in a number of industrial trades and many had become large landowners. Anti-German sentiment would begin to worsen with the rise of Russian nationalism in the late 19th century, a time which, as described by the Norka-Russia website, “the Slavophile movement in Russia cast all ethnic Germans as their mortal enemy and the Volga Germans as a serious threat to the security of the empire. The Slavophile press consistently scapegoated the Volga Germans and other German communities in the Russian Empire.” It was inevitable that a scapegoat was created and it is one of the primary tools of class warfare: pit one faction against another, keep the masses distracted and consolidate power in the process. Indeed, some things never change.

Alas, as go so many government promises, the guarantees from Catherine’s Manifesto began to be stripped away with the stroke of a pen. In the 1870’s Tsar Alexander II issued imperial decrees that instituted compulsory military conscription for the Volga Germans and revoked the right of self-government. Many were sent to war, never to return. Imperialist states always need warm bodies for cannon fodder. In response to these decrees, many Volga Germans began to emigrate to the United States, Canada, Brazil and Argentina, beginning in 1875. Despite the loss of privileges, many Germans did choose to remain and would continue to see economic successes as Russia began to industrialize in the latter part of the 19th century. But, those who did stay would come to know the era of lost privileges to be the proverbial canary in the coal mine of future turbulent times. After 1881, Russian language education became compulsory and anti-German sentiment would swell once again with the rise of the newly unified and increasingly powerful German nation state under Kaiser Wilhelm II.

It’s important to pause and reflect on the latter part of the 19th Century with regards to geo-politics and war. There were long simmering tensions beginning to boil over between Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (among others) due to each empire’s imperialist ambitions. In the late 1890’s there was the internal explosion on the USS Maine and the jingoistic yellow journalism that prompted the beginning of the Spanish-American war and ostensibly, the beginning of the American Empire. Circling back to Russia, there was the Russo-Japanese War from 1904-1905, which grew out of rival imperial ambitions of the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan over Manchuria and Korea. This failed war with Japan was largely viewed as indicative of the failure of the Russian Empire writ large and contributed to the turbulent era of revolution in Russia, ultimately leading to the execution of Tsar Nicholas II. Finally, the outbreak of WW1 in 1914 wrought upon the world an era of warfare and destruction, the ripples of which can still be felt to this day.

If you were a Volga German during the seventy-year span from 1850-1920, there was a decision to be made: do leave the land that you and your ancestors had come to know as home for the last 150 years? What would it take for you to throw it all away and start over again? Consider that many became sugar beet farmers in a foreign land with a foreign language on the dusty plains of Nebraska and Colorado. Also, consider this quote from Russian General Polivanov, on order of Grand Duke Nicholas: “Russia’s Germans must all be driven out, without respect of age, sex, any supposed usefulness, or their many years of residence in the empire.” The writing was on the wall, but do you have the resources and connections required to venture to a new land halfway around the world?

War presents unparalleled opportunities for government to execute any number of nefarious plans, as evidenced by Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov who, again from the Norka-Russia website, “called for a “final solution” to the ethnic German problem in Russia, noting that the time had come…to deal with this long over-due problem, for the current war [WWI] has created the conditions to make it possible to solve this problem once and for all.” For those able to escape, this seems a fitting place to wrap this up with a happy ending. Unfortunately, there is none, for the Volga Germans were caught up in a nationalistic nightmare with hatred surrounding them on all sides. Nationalistic fervor had taken over and many Russians despised the ethnic Germans: the choice was to flee or face conscription and later, deportation. Alternately, one could flee to Germany and get caught up in the rise of newly unified Germany with assured conscription and fight against Russia. Some fled to the United States, only to find themselves facing intense resentment for being German and got caught up in the Teddy Roosevelt nationalistic fervor. The only way to prove loyalty and avoid persecution was to join up and go back and fight in Europe. The insanity was overwhelming.

All this was in the span of a lifetime for some and it only brings us to the WWI era. For those unable to leave, the nightmare was only beginning. WWI increased and propelled anti-German sentiment to unimaginable levels and from 1915 to 1916 approximately 200,000 ethnic Germans were deported to Siberia, all under the guise of outing spies, saboteurs, and well, just being German. The massive deportations continued in the aftermath of WWI and the magnitude is staggering. I began this article stating that I am lucky to be here writing this and here’s why: only about 25 percent of Volga Germans were able to escape and immigrate to the United States and other locations between 1875 and 1920. After the 1920, the Iron Curtain descended and the fates of the Volga Germans were all but sealed, as the Communists in the Soviet Union eliminated any possibility of leaving the country. President Wilson claimed to make the world safe for democracy, but what came of it? From the massive death tolls of WWI came the rise of communism and fascism throughout a large portion of Europe and another world war. So, what is trust when it comes to war and government? The only trust is government trusting that the populace will go along with every lie told and will march right off and commit any atrocity, under any pretense, for love of country and all that empty, nationalistic rhetoric.

The story of the Volga Germans is why I am anti-war. Government lies and nationalistic propaganda sent my ancestors and many others to certain death in the Siberian tundra. This was only made possible via the people enabling a massive nation state to exist. The trust placed in government to divvy up the spoils of taxes leads to inevitable division, hatred and plunder. The sheer magnitude of death destruction and lost opportunity from the 20th century way of war is unfathomable. The Volga Germans were lied to, but their story is not unique. There will always be another government cabal eager to fill the void and mislead the masses to assured death and destruction. We would be wise to stay vigilant and question everything. The only one really looking out for you, is you.

Short Bio: Nick lives in Denver, CO and writes a monthly article on covering history, war and politics through the lens of libertarianism. The website includes a collection articles on events past and present: local, national and beyond, to challenge the mainstream narrative with meaningful, thought provoking analysis. The goal is to present, in a manner easily understood, how Austrian economics and libertarian philosophical concepts can apply to the local and voluntary experiences that occur everyday.  

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