Thursday, January 22, 2009

Intellectual Property Rights

I have been thinking about intellectual property rights (patents, copyrights and trademarks) a lot lately. I instinctively doubt that intellectual property laws have any legitimate role to play in a free society.

I have found two highly recommended books that oppose the legitimacy of intellectual property. Both are fairly short and are (of course) available for free. I will be reading them over the next month or so, and I will probably post some reviews.

Against Intellectual Property by N. Stephan Kinsella
Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine

Being willing to lead the way in this great revolution, I hereby renounce my own copyright claim to the renowned poem, "Gayser" (was supposed to be "Geyser"). Any party interested in this literary masterpiece may fairly consider themselves unfettered by the restraints of law or conscience regarding its replication or distribution for personal or commercial use.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Vietnam War

The conclusion of World War II saw the United States and the Soviet Union attempting to carve out separate spheres of economic influence. The political future of Vietnam became an open question. French and Japanese occupying forces had fought bitterly for control during the war; Japan’s defeat allowed France to regain control of much of Southern Vietnam. National forces under the command of communist leader Ho Chi Minh had sought to liberate Vietnam from both French and Japanese colonialism and held power mostly in northern rural areas, filling the power vacuum left by the retreating Japanese. A new struggle in Vietnam developed between French colonialists and nationalist communists, who came to be known as the Viet-Minh.

After a bitter struggle in Korea against communist-backed North Korean forces ended in stalemate, U.S. President Harry Truman determined to take a more stringent and proactive interventionist course in Southeast Asia. The United States naturally hoped that French colonialism and occupation would last in Vietnam. Communism and Capitalism were incompatible economic systems, and Vietnam was an important market for natural resources, including tin and rubber. Truman supported the relatively impotent French occupation against a home-grown communist nationalist movement which swelled its ranks with each passing day. By the time French forces finally collapsed in 1954, Washington was financing nearly 80 percent of France’s war costs against the Viet-Minh. After 8 years of fighting, France eventually signed the 1954 Geneva Accords, recognizing the end of French colonialism and the independence of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Vietnam was temporarily divided at the 17th parallel, pending an internationally supervised national election to be held within 2 years.

The United States refused to acknowledge the provisions of the Geneva Accords and established a puppet government in South Vietnam, led by anti-communist dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. Backed by billions of dollars in U.S. aid in addition to millions distributed by the CIA to bribe detractors, Diem initially enjoyed wide support. Yet over the next 5 years, Diem’s oppressive domestic policies and suppression of communist and non-communist political rivals alike triggered another guerilla revolt among disaffected South Vietnamese. These insurgents came to be known as the Vietcong, and allied with the northern Viet Minh to unify their country in the continued struggle against western colonialism. The CIA supported a coup in 1963 to overthrow Diem, with hopes that a more pliable leader could be found; yet as Washington's influence over South Vietnamese government policy increased, Ho Chi Minh's efforts to portray South Vietnam as a U.S. puppet dictatorship were bolstered.

Kennedy became the first U.S. President to intervene in Vietnam with direct military action, using Green Beret Special Forces to conduct covert warfare. By 1964, the U.S. regularly patrolled the Gulf of Tonkin and occasionally attacked North Vietnamese coastal installations. In July, North Vietnamese patrol boats fired on a U.S. destroyer. U.S. fighter planes returned fire, and operations ceased. In August, the navy reported a second “unprovoked” attack. Recently unclassified documents show that this attack never actually occurred. Nevertheless, President Johnson used the false report to urge Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which granted the President broad powers to escalate military action in Vietnam. Johnson initiated a massive aerial bombing campaign and ordered 100,000 additional soldiers into Vietnam. Growing resentment of foreign interventionism galvanized the Vietcong movement, while the bombings - though overwhelmingly destructive - failed to neutralize the Viet Minh. Troop commitments continued to escalate until by 1968 over 500,000 U.S. soldiers were embroiled in a full-blown Vietnamese civil war, supporting an unpopular, corrupt and militarily ineffective regime against grass-root rebels in South Vietnam, supported militarily by northern Viet-Minh Communists. Early in 1968, the Vietcong launched assaults on every major population center in South Vietnam. The Tet Offensive, as it came to be known, confirmed the fears of the American public that ultimate victory in Vietnam would not be attainable. Public support of the war diminished further when newspapers published photos of the My Lai massacre; 347 unarmed peasants, mostly women, children and the elderly, had been slaughtered by U.S. troops under the command of Lieutenant William Calley. Calley alone was convicted of murder, but his sentenced was reduced by President Nixon and he was paroled, later receiving an honorable discharge after serving only 3 years of house arrest.

Searching for an exit strategy amid mounting anti-war sentiment and protests, Nixon settled on a strategy of “Vietnamization”, where the U.S. would continue to provide air support and munitions assistance while Southern Vietnamese forces gradually took over ground operations. Nixon’s power to implement this strategy was weakened by the Watergate Scandal. Reacting to public pressure, Congress set a deadline of August 1973, after which no more support would be given to fund combat activities in Indochina. The last U.S. combat troops were withdrawn the same year. In 1974, Nixon resigned the Presidency. Without U.S. support, the South Vietnamese government was unable to stop communist advances. On April 30, 1975 North Vietnamese troops marched into the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. The war had cost the lives of at least 1.5 million Vietnamese and more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Johnson's Great Society

President Lyndon B. Johnson skillfully harnessed a mourning nation’s unity in grief to seek wide-ranging and comprehensive reforms following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. On November 27, 1963, just 5 days after assuming the presidency, Johnson stood before a joint session of Congress and passionately argued for the acceptance of his agenda, stating, “No memorial or eulogy could more eloquently honor Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill for which he fought so long.” His landslide re-election victory in 1964 was run with the campaign slogan, “let us continue”. Johnson’s political astuteness combined with a new two-to-one majority of Democrats in Congress to facilitate the passage of many pieces of legislation that have significantly increased the power of the federal government to regulate the affairs of its citizens.

Civil Rights
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the culmination of a request for new legislation by Kennedy in a 1963 national address. The act outlawed many forms of discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Title I barred unequal application of voter registration requirements. Title II outlawed discrimination in hotels, restaurants, theatres and other places open to public access. Titles III and VI prohibited State, municipal and federal institutions from discrimination or segregation when providing access to facilities or granting subsidies. Title VII prohibited private employers from discrimination in hiring.

In April of 1965, Congress passed The Elementary and Secondary Education Act granting federal funding to primary and secondary schools. In November of the same year the President signed the Higher Education Act, which established grants, scholarships and federally subsidized student loans. If federal guidelines were not met, funding could be cut off, giving the government tremendous power to dictate school policy and curriculum. These acts sounded the death knell for southern racial segregation in education.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935, there were no special provisions for health care. The Social Security Act of 1965 established national health insurance for the elderly (Medicare) and for the poor (Medicaid), to be funded through payroll taxes. In the name of protecting free enterprise, conservatives included provisions ensuring that the federal government would not be able to control service fees.

War on Poverty
The Economic Opportunity Act was the centerpiece of Johnson’s War on Poverty. The act established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) which oversaw several newly created federal programs designed to alleviate poverty. The Head Start program was initiated to offer wide-ranging aid to low-income families with young children aged 3 to 5, years seen as critical to development. The Job Corps. program provided vocational training to low-income youth. More than a 1600 Community Action Agencies (CAAs) were established nationwide to provide myriad social services to specifically targeted low income communities. The Economic Opportunity Act was a notable departure from prior federal aid programs, as Congress bypassed State and local governments to fund impoverished communities directly.

Although Great Society programs were heralded by the majority of the public, conservatives lamented the growth of federal power and the development of pervasive federal bureaucracies. Johnson defended his programs with ardor, hoping to establish a legacy as a caring and compassionate President, but the cost of domestic social engineering would combine with commitments in Southeast Asia (soon to escalate into full-blown War in Vietnam) to stretch the viable limits of Keynesian deficit spending. The “guns and butter” – the war in Asia and the War on Poverty – of the 1960’s set the stage for the burgeoning federal debt of the succeeding decades, the final consequence of which has yet to be seen.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Presidential Profiles: John F. Kennedy

The presidential election of 1960 saw a change in the national mood. Despite his extensive meddling in domestic economic and international political affairs, Eisenhower had inexplicably come to be viewed as a “do-nothing” president by the American public. Kennedy, a forty two year old Massachusetts Senator who exuded strength, youth and vigor, seemed to be everything that the grandfatherly Eisenhower was not. In his campaigns, Kennedy emphasized his commitment to “New Deal” domestic activism and cold-war foreign interventionism. The presidential contest focused on the issue at the forefront of the American consciousness: the global fight against communism. Though holding nearly identical foreign policy positions, Kennedy’s perceived vitality - communicated to national audiences via the first-ever televised presidential debates - won him a narrow victory against his opponent, Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

Domestic Policy
Kennedy, disparaging the importance of balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility, embraced the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, who preached the desirability of short-run gains achieved through deficit spending. Kennedy combined large military budgets and increased domestic spending with large corporate tax cuts, resulting in large deficits and unprecedented immediate prosperity. The resulting increase in the national money supply triggered a fresh round of inflation, which Kennedy attempted to suppress with federal wage-price “guideposts”. Corporate America resented regulation, but reliance on federal subsidy made it difficult to respond naturally to the forces of supply and demand. In 1962, steel industry leaders attempted to increase prices by 3.5%. Kennedy responded by directing the Department of Defense to purchase steel only from companies who retained pre-1962 prices and ordering price fixing investigations. When U.S. Steel Corp. relented under the pressure and rescinded the price increase, the rest followed suit.

Civil Rights
The 1960’s continued to be a time of social upheaval. In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) instituted interracial “freedom rides” in an effort to desegregate interstate commerce and travel. Following embarrassing televised violence against the riders, the Kennedy administration petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission, and interstate travel segregation was ended in 1961. When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began voter registration drives among blacks in southern states, local whites fought back with terror and murder. In 1963, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) instituted civil rights marches in Birmingham, Alabama. Local police chief “Bull” Connor ordered violent arrests that resulted in televised brutality as police assaulted demonstrators with fire hoses, clubs and vicious attack dogs. Southern political leaders continued to oppose school integration, epitomized by Governor Wallace’s defiant 1963 stand in the door of the University of Alabama to prevent the enrollment of two black students. Kennedy responded to these events with a televised address to the Nation on June 11th 1963, urging racial integration, protection of voting rights, and encouraging much legislation that would eventually become realized with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Rising female employment also challenged social mores. In 1963 Congress responded to perceived injustice in the labor market by passing the Equal Pay Act, which imposed "equal pay for equal work" standards for female employees.

Foreign Policy
True to his campaign pledge, Kennedy continued the foreign interventionist policies of his predecessors. He continued to attempt to purchase U.S. influence in less developed countries by expanding the foreign aid policies of the Eisenhower administration. In 1961 Kennedy instituted the Peace Corps, encouraging American youth to serve as missionaries of democracy and capitalism around the world. Kennedy also engaged in more direct acts of foreign interventionism. In 1961, Cuban exiles trained and organized by the CIA attacked socialist revolutionary Fidel Castro’s forces at the Bay of Pigs. The attack was poorly coordinated and all 1400 exiles were killed or captured. Castro turned to the Soviet Union for protection. In 1962, Soviet troops began secretly installing nuclear missile bases on the island. When U2 spy planes revealed the existence of the missiles, the President reacted dramatically. In a televised address, he apprised the Nation of the possibility of nuclear war and imposed a naval “quarantine” to "keep offensive weapons out of Cuba". Kennedy informed the world that any attack upon the United States from the island of Cuba would be interpreted as an attack directly from the Soviet Union and would be met with appropriate reprisals. Fearing nuclear holocaust, Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev struck a bargain: nuclear weapons in Cuba would be removed in return for assurances that Cuba would not be invaded by U.S. forces and in exchange for the removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey. Kennedy agreed to the terms, avoiding global catastrophe, but continued secret CIA programs to assassinate Castro and topple his regime. Failure to stop the advance of communism in the Caribbean strengthened Kennedy’s resolve to oppose it in Asia. The U.S. increased covert military operations against the North Vietnamese Vietcong and bolstered military aid to seceding South Vietnamese governments. By the end of 1963, Kennedy had over 16,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Vietnam.

On November 22, 1963 the President was shot and killed by sniper fire while riding in his presidential limousine in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Shock and sorrow swept the nation. Most Americans watched the same coverage of the events surrounding the assassination over the course of three days while the networks canceled all advertising. The death of the President mitigated prior widespread criticism of his foreign and domestic policies, and a national sympathy emerged for his unfulfilled political agenda at home and abroad. The consensus which had eluded Kennedy in life would ironically be accomplished with his death. Two hours and eight minutes after Kennedy was shot, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One. Five days later, he stood before a joint session of Congress and pleaded, “Let us continue.”

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Presidential Profiles: Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star general and Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II, was well known and admired by the American public. Sought by both Republicans and Democrats to represent their parties in the 1952 presidential election, Eisenhower chose to align himself with the Republican Party. Though opposed to traditional conservative principles of non-interventionism in foreign affairs, he valued fiscal responsibility and did not agree with the liberal social agenda of the Democratic Party.

Domestic Policy
While expressing a belief that individuals should be mostly free to regulate their own affairs in a free-market economy, Eisenhower distanced himself from Old Right Republicans who favored laissez-fare ideologies. Eisenhower believed that government “must do its part to advance human welfare and encourage economic growth with constructive actions.” Thus, Eisenhower tried to steer a middle course on domestic economic issues. He retained major New Deal programs like Social Security, even creating a new cabinet-level Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953, but opposed new legislation such as national health insurance. Most of the price controls re-instituted by Truman during the Korean War were ended, but the federal government continued to subsidize farm commodities, though Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson did persuade Congress to lower the level of supports. Eisenhower opposed federal control of utilities, labeling as “creeping socialism” and blocking the construction of large government dams across the Snake River and Hell’s Canyon, yet he supported the development of an interstate highway system with the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. In response to the Soviet-launched Sputnik satellite in 1957, Eisenhower approved the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), with billions of dollars in appropriations. Substantial grants to universities and private business for research and development, along with large military contracts given to aeronautics, electronics, and computer industries helped to develop a corporate culture of reliance on government favor and taxpayer money.

Civil Rights
The 1950’s were a time of great social upheaval. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that segregation in state schools was a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment to the constitution. This decision overturned a pattern of almost 60 years of federally sanctioned segregation enthroned since the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., helped the fight for legal equality by utilizing the power of non-violent protest and civil disobedience to sting the conscience of segregationists. In December of 1955, local NAACP worker Rosa Parks was jailed after refusing to give up her seat on a public transit bus in Montgomery, Alabama. A citywide bus boycott, led by King, lasted for a year before the Supreme Court intervened once again, desegregating busing. Eisenhower disagreed with these federal encroachments on what he viewed as State’s rights, declaring, “The final battle against intolerance is to be fought – not in the chambers of any legislature – but in the hearts of men.” Still, when Governor Faubus of Arkansas mobilized the National Guard in 1957 to prevent 9 black students from attending Central High School in Little Rock, national outrage prompted the President to order the National Guard and other federal troops to enforce the Supreme Court’s decisions.

Foreign Policy
Despite campaign promises to pro-actively defeat communism worldwide, Eisenhower's foreign interventionist fervor was tempered somewhat by public discontent over bloated military budgets and the loss of American lives overseas. Eisenhower decided to save money and manpower by cutting back U.S. reliance on conventional ground forces and instead developed air and nuclear superiority as a deterrent to perceived communist aggression. Eager to bring the war in Korea to a close, Eisenhower used this nuclear superiority to escalate threats of attack against China and North Korea, pressuring them to agree to a truce in 1953 that established an armistice and political boundaries between the north and the south at approximately the 38th parallel. This action in effect continued the "communist containment" policy of President Truman, and spurred China to begin to develop their own nuclear capabilities.

The CIA was transformed by Eisenhower into a covert interventionist force, capable of acting outside of public scrutiny or congressional approval. With its multi billion-dollar top-secret budget, the CIA launched disruptive operations world-wide in violation of international law. In 1951 the democratically elected premier of Iran, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, attempted to nationalize Iranian oil wells. Two years later, the CIA instigated a coup d’etat, providing crucial military support and enabling the hereditary Shah to return to power. The Shah returned the oil wells to international control, of which U.S. corporations held a 40% share. In Guatemala in 1954, popular leader Colonel Jacobo Arbenz instituted national land reform, nationalizing the holdings of the U.S. United Fruit Company. The CIA overthrew Arbenz by training invasion forces in Nicaragua and Honduras which installed a new president who returned the holdings of United Fruit and gave special tax breaks to U.S. businesses. Vast foreign aid programs were used as a means of tying other nations economically to the United States, especially in South America. In 1959, toward the end of Eisenhower’s presidency, revolutionary leader Fidel Castro rose to power in Cuba. The administration - opposed to Castro because of his nationalization of private U.S. holdings - cut off aid to Cuba, discontinued importations of Cuban sugar and began training Cuban exiles in Guatemala for a U.S. backed invasion. The decision of how to ultimately deal with the “rogue” dictator would be left to Eisenhower’s successor.