Gaming the Price of Oil

Secrecy has characterized the oil business ever since a slick Armenian named Calouste Gulbenkian finagled a concession out of the Ottomans and middle-manned partnerships amongst the “Seven Sisters” to exploit Mesopotamian oil, gaining him the sobriquet “Mr. Five Percent” from the commission he customarily took for his efforts. That the industry is still cloaked in secrecy is manifest in the lament of the Financial Times in an article entitled “The Decline of the Oil Spot Market” that, “Unfortunately, thus far, no-one we’ve contacted has been able to give us any estimate about the real size of the spot pool as stands now.”

The spot market is the basis for the price of oil you see quoted in the press. It’s where crude oil is bought and sold, yielding the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) price as set on the New York Mercantile Exchange.* The volatility of oil prices over the last couple of years has got me wondering whether the price can be “gamed”, meaning the price being set through manipulation independent of changes in supply or demand. What set my mind a-wondering is the dramatic drop in price from 2014 to 2016 and the record-setting decline currently.

The steep plunge starting in 2014—from over $100 a barrel to less than $30 by 2016—coincided with tense relations between the United States and Russia consequent to the Russians annexation of Crimea. Such a collapse in the price of their major export must have been a real whammy for the Russians (and secondarily for the Venezuelans, with whom we also have problems). Could it be we engineered the collapse? Now we see a similar collapse just as we try to squeeze Iran by stopping the export of its lifeblood. Unable to accomplish a total embargo on Iranian oil, are we contriving to see that Iran is forced to sell its oil at fire-sale prices?

Is gaming such a huge and complex market as the global oil trade possible? Not if you listen to the experts. They all sing the Energy Information Administration’s tune that price is “determined by supply and demand”. If the price goes down, it’s because Saudi Arabia has increased production, US production is on the rise, there’s a glut on the market, demand is weakening, yada-yada-yada. Contrary facts fail to disturb the harmonious trilling of this jabbering flock.

For instance, in 2014, when Saudi Arabia was said to be flooding the market to maintain their market share in the face of booming US production, Saudi production did not actually rise in sync with the drop in price. Nor did OPEC’s. US production did rise from around 8.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in mid-2104 when prices began to fall to a little over 9 million bpd by mid-2016 when prices bottomed out, but imports of crude oil remained largely unchanged. Non-OPEC production rose by 2 million bpd, but in a 90 million bpd market was this sufficient to cause a 70% decline in the price of oil?

Similarly, the decline we’ve seen in the last month and a half cannot be attributed simply to changes in supply or demand, despite the entrails interpreters of the business press looking to supply/demand fluctuations to explain the current plunge, as is their wont (see “The 7 reasons behind U.S. oil’s sharpest daily point drop in almost three years”). One such claim is that the waivers to the sanctions on Iran granted by the Trump administration increased supply by boosting Iranian exports; but in November, during the biggest one-month decline in the price of oil since 2014—including a record-shattering 7% drop in one day—Iranian exports actually decreased by several hundred thousand bpd and were over a million bpd below the level last spring.

Let’s leave the gurus to their fatuous jargon about “oil fundamentals”, “risk/reward outlooks”, “cross-asset sell-off”, and the like and pursue the question I raised initially: can the price of oil be gamed. First, some market fundamentals. Crude oil is purchased on the spot market or under long-term contracts. Platts, a leading voice in the energy business, ventured a guess that 90-95% of oil production is sold under long-term contracts. That leaves just 5-10% for the spot market, or roughly 2 to 4 million barrels per day.

Purchases made under long-term contracts do not concern us here, as the “price of oil” cited in common parlance is based on trading on the spot market. Purchases on the spot market can be for immediate delivery or for delivery months into the future. Purchases for immediate delivery do not concern us either, as the “official” price is based on the amount paid for delivery two months out. The relative volumes purchased for immediate versus future delivery are not known; but, for the sake of argument, let’s stack the odds against gaming by assuming the spot market handles 10% of the crude oil trade and that all purchases are for two months out, for a total of 4 million bpd.

Is it possible to game a market of that size with its multitude of players? Platts thinks so. That’s why they call it an “overarching concern” of the industry that “no single entity or logistical constraint should be able to control the benchmark [price]”, so let’s consider how it might be done. The largest trader in the oil business is a Swiss company called Vitol, which boasts of trading or shipping 3.6 million barrels of crude every day. How much of that is traded on the spot market and how much for future delivery they don’t say, but if it’s in the 1 to 2 million bpd range, it seems they might be influential enough to manipulate the price by repeatedly lowering their asking price, especially as they would only have to engage in trades in the two-months out timeframe to affect the daily price. No oil need even change hands as trades can be purely financial transactions between buyer and seller (called “swaps”), based on the market price the day of the (virtual) purchase versus the day of (virtual) delivery.

Is Vitol likely to bow to pressure from the United States?*** Even bigger entities than Vitol, namely European governments, find it advisable to acquiesce in American demands, e.g., US sanctions on Iran, so I suspect Vitol would, too, especially as its collaboration would no doubt be generously rewarded by its well-heeled puppet master. Moreover, Vitol’s nefarious history suggests they’ve got a liking for international intrigue, having been charged in the past with circumventing the UN oil-for-food program in Iraq, organizing a controversial sale of Libyan oil to Qatar, and trading with Iran in violation of EU sanctions.

Any gaming of the oil price can succeed only so long. In the end, the true supply/demand equation of the physical item involved—oil—will win out. What might be the game-ender in the current case? Perhaps Iran being able to switch from sales on the spot market to long-term contracts buffered from daily price swings. Or OPEC, prodded by Saudi Arabia, cutting production by a sizable amount. Or maybe the United States deciding low prices are hurting it’s vaunted—but expensive—fracking boom too much. Whenever the game ends—if a game is indeed on—you can bet oil prices will be going up.

As to my core question, my bet is that the price of oil can be and is being gamed; but, in true market speculator fashion, I’m going to hedge my bet. Admitting—with no false modesty—the superficiality of my knowledge of the oil business, I fear I may be mimicking the Gilda Radner character from Saturday Night Live who would take off on some animated harangue based on a gross misconception, e.g., her concern over “Soviet jewelry”; then, when informed of her mistake, meekly murmur “Never mind”. So, in anticipation of someone more knowledgeable pointing out my own ill-informed boner, I’ll conclude with a preemptive “Never mind”.


*This discussion will deal only with the WTI price on the assumption (a big one!) that the conclusions reached here apply equally to the international price, known as “Brent” from the name of an oil field in the North Sea.

**When the experts talk about demand we should always remember they are talking about the demand for oil by those who can afford to pay for it. In a world where two billion people cook with animal dung, true demand is never met.

***An intriguing sidelight is whether it’s legal for the US government to engage in such actions. I suspect it can, under the anything-goes-when-it-comes-to-national-security exemption.

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Autism: Pellagra Redux

At the beginning of the 20th century an epidemic plagued the southern states. The disease gone viral, so to speak, was pellagra. Characterized by a red rash, the afflicted suffered diarrhea, dementia, and commonly death. Largely restricted to the South, it was especially prevalent in public institutions such as mental hospitals, prisons, and orphanages. The medical community was baffled as to what caused the disease and grew increasingly concerned as the incidence rate rose from a few cases a year into the thousands.

I was reminded of pellagra recently when I attended an event on autism at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as I found some striking resemblances between the histories of the two diseases. For one, both diseases, emerging out of the blue as they did, seemed to be related to some societal change in lifestyle. Pellagra had been known since the 18th century, but it only assumed epidemic proportion in the 20th century; autism, first diagnosed in 1947, has only assumed epidemic proportions in the last few decades.

As the quest to find the cause of pellagra became increasingly urgent, medical researchers went off in a wrong direction, misdirected by a groundbreaking discovery by Louis Pasteur: germs. Armed with Pasteur’s germ theory, medical researchers sallied forth and rapidly discovered the microbial invader responsible for such age-old scourges of mankind as typhoid fever, tuberculosis, cholera, and scarlet fever. So many diseases fell to the germ theory scientists assumed any disease for which a pathogen had not yet been found must be caused by a germ. A corollary to Pasteur’s theory was an understanding of how diseases spread through infection, so naturally researchers into pellagra assumed it, too, was infectious—further leading them astray.

The hunt for the cause of autism may similarly be going down the wrong path. The discoveries concerning DNA and the incredible advances in medical knowledge that new understanding has enabled has made genetic research the go-to approach to solving medical mysteries. As described at the AAAS event, research concerning autism is centered on finding the gene responsible for the disease. I’m convinced this is a tragically wild goose chase. (It’s tempting to suggest that one of the reasons the genetic approach is so popular these days is because it requires expensive equipment, gaining researchers huge grants and manufacturers tidy profits, but that would be cynical, so I won’t suggest it.)

Early in the hunt for the cause of pellagra, a doctor appointed by the federal government to study the disease, Joseph Goldberger, concluded the disease was caused not by a germ but by a poverty-induced diet limited largely to cornmeal and molasses. His conclusion was met by outrage from Southerners who considered it a slander against the South as such a diet was typical of the poor in Dixie where 90% of the cases were found. The ruffled sensitivities of Southerners caused them to support the germ theory, as that explanation absolved them of responsibility. Moreover, the concept of an infectious agent provided them with a scapegoat, Italian immigrants, as pellagra was common in Italy. No one seemed to notice—or care—that Italians living in the South did not contract the disease.

Dr. Goldberger was not the first to associate pellagra with a poor diet. In fact, the man who first described the disease, Don Pedro Casal, physician to King Philip V of Spain, associated it with poverty and the resulting malnutrition. But even the fact that the staff of institutions whose patients suffered from pellagra did not contract the disease themselves was not enough to put to rest the supposition of a pellagra germ. Symptomatic, an epidemiologist appointed by the Surgeon General to study the disease spent five years—from 1909 to 1914—unsuccessfully trying to find the microbe responsible, egged on by Italian investigators’ bogus discovery of the supposed culprit: Streptobacillus pellagrae.

Similarities to the history of autism can be seen here. As cases of autism assumed significant numbers in the 1970s, explanations more acceptable than that the disease has something to do with modern-living were grasped at. At first, blame was put on mothers who failed to provide sufficiently loving attention to their babies, so-called “refrigerator moms”. Since that insultingly ridiculous cause lost favor (after a decade or two!), everything from air pollution to aged dads has been suggested. Now, faddish DNA-analyzers have, after years of looking for the telltale gene, gotten nowhere, the rosy picture to the contrary painted at the AAAS event by the Director of the Center for Autism Research and Treatment being contradicted by his own data, which failed to show any gene or combination of genes significantly associated with cases of autism.

A British pediatrician, David Wakefield, went down a different path, suggesting a link between vaccines and autism in a paper published in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, in 1998. As Wakefield’s findings acquired heretical status amongst the guardians of public health, British medical authorities reacted in a huff, lambasting the study and charging Wakefield with having acted “dishonestly, irresponsibly, unethically, and callously“. The Lancet retracted the article, Wakefield lost his license, and the dictum laid down by the medical pontificate on both sides of the Atlantic ever since has been “The theory that vaccines cause autism has been debunked”. The motivation for the alarm raised by public health officials over any suggestion linking vaccines to autism was honorable: the consequence were people to suspect a link was too frightening to contemplate, just as linking pellagra to poverty was too insulting for proud Southerners to countenance.

Links are one thing, causes another. Dr. Goldberger, the pellagra researcher, demonstrated the link between pellagra and diet, but he could not say exactly what in the diet of poor people caused pellagra, so his theory proved unpersuasive to the medical pontificate. They clung fast to the infection theory, supported by the finding of a medical commission that a person who contracted pellagra was likely to live close to someone who also had the disease (The neighbors, most likely, both living in poverty and so sharing the same pellagra-inducing diet… Duh!).

Undaunted, Goldberger conducted an experiment he thought would prove conclusive to even the most purblind sceptic. He isolated a group of prisoners and put them on a diet of cornbread and molasses augmented with a few vegetables. Sure enough, soon half of them had contracted pellagra. But when the experiment became public knowledge, instead of being lauded for his brilliant work, Goldberger was condemned for using human guinea pigs. Even those who had previously praised him turned on him, just as ten of Wakefield’s eleven co-authors disowned his findings after his article came under attack. In an eerily similar fashion, just as Goldberger’s findings were tainted by suspicion the governor of Mississippi had arranged the experiment simply as a way to pardon some friends, Wakefield was charged with financial improprieties which put into question the integrity of his findings.

With Goldberger unable to prove diet caused pellagra and medical sleuth’s searching for a fanciful pellagra germ, cases of pellagra grew to epidemic proportions. From a few hundred cases in the first few years of the 20th century, the number rose to 100,000 cases a year by the 1920s. Despite all Goldberger’s demonstrative experiments, the belief pellagra was infectious was only abandoned when the agent responsible for the disease was finally found in the 1940s. By then there had been an estimated 2 million cases resulting in 100,000 deaths.

So too with autism in the present day. As the AAAS humbly admits, “the causes for the disorder remain unknown.” While unable to identify a cause themselves, the blue-frocked mandarins know for sure it’s not vaccines. That theory has been debunked. Or so they say. To this layman the most obvious way to test a link between vaccines and autism would be to take a bunch of kids, divide them up as equally as possible in terms of independent variables (e.g., family income), have half of them follow the prescribed vaccine schedule and half receive no vaccinations, come back in five years (the age by which autism is commonly diagnosed) and see how many in each group are autistic. If it’s a lot in the first group and none in the second, voila!: vaccines cause autism.

As far as I know this Goldberger-like test has never been tried, perhaps because there are two problems with it. First, it’s unethical to expose children to potentially fatal diseases when vaccination might protect them [Author’s note: maybe the experiment could be carried out on monkeys]. Second, the study would have to encompass thousands of subjects to be statistically significant as only a small percentage of those vaccinated become autistic (unlike pellagra where, if you put a test subject on an unhealthy diet, he’s sure to contract the disease). So, the definitive proof that vaccines are or are not linked to autism has not yet been provided, to my satisfaction, by medical researchers as they stumble robotically down a blind alley, refusing to even consider the anecdotal evidence of thousands of parents who attest to a dramatic change in their child’s behavior shortly after receiving a vaccination.

Meanwhile, the incidence rate of autism goes up with each new survey conducted by the CDC—from 1 in 150 children in 2002 to 1 in 50 today. Consider what this means: of the 4 million babies born in this country this year, 80,000 will suffer from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), condemned to a living death of frustration, loneliness, and despair (not to mention the toll on the parents). Weigh that against the death rate for one of the most widespread afflictions in the pre-vaccine era, rubella, which caused deaths numbering only in the hundreds each year. If, in fact, vaccines do cause autism, we’ve made a poor tradeoff in reducing the incidence of some diseases only to introduce a devastating new one on a much larger scale.

While the final chapter in the autism saga has yet to be written, at least the tale of pellagra had a happy ending. In the 1940s the dietary deficiency which causes pellagra was found: nicotinic acid, i.e., vitamin B. It seems a new way of milling corn was introduced around 1900 which removed the embryo from the kernels so the corn would not rot so quickly. Unfortunately, the nicotinic acid in corn was removed along with the embryo, making the corn less nutritious. With the cause found, steps were taken to see that processed foods contained the essential vitamin, pellagra disappeared almost overnight, and the germ theory of pellagra finally died a long overdue death.

There may be a happy ending for the autism tragidrama soon, too. An explication of the functioning of the lymphatic system (from someone who had to look up how to spell “lymphatic”) is necessary for you to understand my optimism. One of the primary functions of the lymphatic system is to remove from the bloodstream waste created by the immune system in fighting an infection, for instance, the sort of mini-infection induced by vaccination. But the lymphatic system does not seem to extend from the body proper to the brain. How then is waste removed from blood vessels in the brain?

In 2012, scientists at the University of Rochester happened upon a lymphatic-like system in the brains of mice and checked to see if they could find a similar system in our own brains. They did. They named it the “glymphatic system” in honor of cells specific to the brain: glial cells. It seems to me that if you overtaxed the glymphatic system by too many waste-producing vaccinations over too short a time, it might cause damage to the rapidly developing brains of infants, leading to ASD. (It’s tempting to point out that the know-it-alls who assured us for years there is no connection between vaccines and autism didn’t even know the glymphatic system existed, but that would sound smug, so I won’t mention it).

Support of a kind for my theory was provided by the two doctors amongst the crowd of Republican presidential hopefuls in the last election when both suggested it might be a good idea to space out vaccinations. (Wouldn’t it be a national scandal if some pediatricians don’t vaccinate their own kids according to the prescribed schedule because they have doubts about the “debunking” of the vaccines-cause-autism claim? Any pediatrician who did so without making his concerns known should be… Well, I’ll let you come up with a suitable punishment.)

One glimmer of hope that the cause of autism will soon be found is the fact that autism, unlike pellagra, doesn’t just afflict the poor, so it’s got the attention of the upper echelons of society (Dare I say another glimmer is that we have a president who will at least entertain the possibility that vaccines cause autism?). Hopefully, grant-bestowing entities like the National Institutes of Health will overcome their well-intentioned antipathy towards any linking of vaccines with autism and fund research on the neural impact of vaccines, so that, if vaccines do cause autism, proof will soon be found and the epidemic tearing at the fabric of our society more and more each day will disappear as quickly as did pellagra a hundred years ago.

(If I’ve piqued your interest, you can view the episode of my TV show, “Civil Discord”, on which I discuss autism with a reporter for Science magazine, here.) _____________________________________________________________________
Postscript: Another modern affliction possibly caused by vaccines is the peanut allergy. Only entering medical parlance in the last 30 years or so (how many of you over 50 ever heard of an allergy to peanuts when you were growing up?), the surge in the incidence rate has coincided with the ballooning number of vaccinations given children, many of which contained peanut oil to increase the effectiveness of the vaccines. (Whether peanut oil is still used in vaccines is not clear as the government no longer requires pharmaceutical companies to list the ingredients in their vaccines.) You can read more about this vaccine-related controversy here.

More to mourn than just Khashoggi

“Those who know don’t speak; those who speak don’t know.” That aphorism was applied recently to the opaqueness of the inner workings of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. I’m about to prove I don’t know, as I feel compelled to speak because I find conventional wisdom on the US-Saudi relationship in the wake of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi so unsatisfying and, I believe, off the mark. Freely granting that the consensus has been arrived at by those much closer to the action than I, I am emboldened by the aforementioned dichotomy to provide my own analysis, weak on substantiating evidence though it may be. With that caveat lector, proceed at your own peril (or bemusement).

My story begins in 2014 when the price of oil began its plunge from over $100 a barrel to less than $30. Who benefited from this dramatic decline: consumers (notably the US, at that time the world’s largest importer of oil); who suffered: producers (especially the world’s largest oil exporters, Russia and Saudi Arabia).
Intriguingly, the price drop coincided with the US putting the screws to Russia for its annexation of the Crimea. Could it be that the price of oil was gamed by us to hurt the Russians (with the fringe benefit of hurting the Venezuelans as well)? I think so. If so, it would have required the cooperation of the Saudis, which I believe the Saudis would have acquiesced in, just as they have been acquiescing in America’s wishes ever since FDR gifted King Saud with a DC-3 to start an air force in 1945.

But the Saudis weren’t particularly happy about playing this game for good reason, and after two years of declining revenue because of the fire-sale price they were selling their one and only treasure at they decided to stop playing Whack-a-Russian and the price of oil began to rise (currently at $70/barrel). Our immediate response was for Congress to pass the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which allows victims to sue the Saudi Arabian government over 9/11. The Saudis were so incensed over this they threatened to sell the $750 billion they hold in US assets.

Saudi noncompliance with, if not outright defiance of, American wishes was compounded when they initiated a boycott of our ally, Qatar, in June of last year. How out of the loop President Trump is when it comes to foreign policy was manifest by his heaping praise on the Saudis, declaring their action “the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism”, only to have more savvy hands cognizant of the fact Qatar is our satrapy offer to sell Qatar $12 billion in weapons and conduct a joint military exercise with the Qataris a week later. (Trying to discern our policy from the ill-informed, off-the-cuff tweets of our Commander in Chief is as useless an endeavor as trying to fathom the jockeying for power in the Saudi royal palace.)

Shortly after the blockade of Qatar started, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) acceded to power in the desert monarchy as Crown Prince, replacing the more amenable to American suasion prince, Mohammed bin Nayef. That was followed by MBS’s dad, King Salman, making a trip to Moscow—unprecedented for a Saudi monarch. Ever since, the Russians and Saudis have been collaborating to keep the price of oil high, to our displeasure.

While in Moscow, King Salman also arranged to purchase Russia’s heralded S-400 missile defense system. This was a major break with tradition, the Saudis always looking to the West for advanced military hardware in the past. There should have been a hue and cry over this louder than the current howling over the killing of a journalist. Such an affront by any other country (a near betrayal in Saudi Arabia’s case) would have provoked the threat of sanctions, if not more forceful measures.

A month after King Salman’s trip, MBS detained dozens of his fellow princes in a Riyadh hotel. Some saw this action as part of an anti-corruption drive, but that those detained included such luminaries of close US-Saudi relations as Prince Bandar bin Sultan (known as “Bandar Bush” because of his close ties to that family) suggests the aim may have been to oust from power those inclined to following direction from Washington.

This is not to say that Saudi Arabia is not still an ally. We continue to assist the Saudis in their intervention in Yemen, and at the height of the brouhaha over Khashoggi’s death Saudi Arabia followed through on a pledge to help finance our engagement in Syria with a $100 million contribution. But the strident criticism the Saudis and their young leader in particular, have been subjected to over the last couple of weeks is unprecedented in US-Saudi relations.

What I’m suggesting is that the current tension between us and the Saudis has more to do with them pursuing a more self-directed path than it does with poor Mr. Khashoggi’s untimely death. For a long time Saudi Arabia has been punching below its weight in international affairs. For instance, the Saudis are perceived as in a competition with Iran for influence in the region. But why shouldn’t Saudi Arabia be equally concerned about the long dominant position of an infidel power from half a world away who treats the Persian Gulf as if it’s an American lake? All those billions of dollars the Saudis have spent on their military and they still don’t have a navy which can project power over the strategic waterway that laps their shore. Maybe they have decided such insignificance is no longer tolerable, and we may be having trouble accepting their new, independent spirit.

If my analysis is correct, what confirmatory signs can we expect to see in the future? If Saudi Arabia continues to strive for more autonomy while we lament our lost paternalism, calls for regime change will echo through the halls of Congress and, more ambiguously, of the White House. An invasion to achieve this is unlikely, even if we need occupy only the eastern part of the kingdom (where the oil is) to persuade the Saudis to replace MBS in favor of a prince more to our liking. The risk of a globally disastrous disruption in Saudi oil exports is too great. But our specialty—CIA-machinated subversion – will be pursued in the shadows.

Arms sales to the Saudis will be curtailed, to the dismay of our arms makers (and of those who believe the merchants of death determine our foreign policy). In fact, the Saudis will have trouble getting spare parts to maintain the weapons already purchased from us. Sanctions far beyond just not showing up at an investment conference will be imposed. If the Saudis attempt to divest of their assets in the United States to invest them back home in lieu of foreign investors bowing out of the Saudis’ plan for economic diversification, steps will be taken to put stumbling blocks in their way, including the freezing of those assets. In other words, it will be déjà vu all over again.

And how would the Saudis respond in this game of tit-for-tat? They could follow through on their believable threat to drive the price of oil up to triple digits; they could cancel that touted $110 billion arms purchase from us and contract with the Russians (and the Chinese) for more military hardware; they could make up with Iran while turning hostile toward our naughty, spoiled stepchild, Israel; they could stop financing our adventures in Syria and elsewhere, and who knows what else they might come up with.

On the other hand, if they reflect on what has happened to other countries in the region which have defied us (“They create a wilderness rubble pile and call it peace democracy”), the disheartening vision might cause them to choose to return to their old ways, e.g., settle for a less lucrative, compromise price for their oil, follow through on that humongous purchase of American weapons, accept that our friends are their friends/our enemies their enemies, and so on. For our part, if we recognize that Saudi Arabia has come of age and has legitimate interests that don’t necessarily coincide with our own. If either or both of these understandings is reached, then the frightening scenario I’ve outlined above need not come to pass.

Amongst those of us who believe American foreign policy since the fall of the Soviet Union is best characterized as a drive for global hegemony (why else 700 plus bases overseas?), for some it has become fashionable to declare the demise of that ambitious project. There are indications they may be right, instances where we don’t seem to be getting our way as easily as we have in the past. Not only our bete noire China but our NATO ally Turkey and our wannabe ally India have opted to purchase Russian military hardware despite the threat of sanctions. Europe maneuvers to defy our sanctions on Iran, while we grant so many exemptions to our ubiquitous sanctions as to make them meaningless. While we threaten to rain down fire and brimstone on North Korea, the Koreans themselves promenade toward a joyous reunification. We can’t even effect regime change in our own backyard (Nicaragua, Venezuela), which has always been a slam dunk. I’m not ready to sound the death knell on the grandiose scheme of our intrepid world-beaters, but if our intimate relationship with Saudi Arabia—a keystone of our prosperity and power for over half a century—suffers a breakup, I just might change into mourning clothes.

Hyping the Warm

I recently had it brought home to me how antiwar types who excel at seeing through the warmongering drumbeats of our corporate media put on blinders when it comes to the same scurrilous press hyping global warming. The ignorance of peaceniks on basic facts regarding the debate over global warming (yes, there is debate) due to their failure to listen to both sides is disappointing. If this applies to you, here’s a synoptic introduction to the “alternative” viewpoint on global warming.

First, let’s get rid of the debate-squelching mantra that is incanted whenever I hint at global warming skepticism: “97% of scientists agree that manmade global warming is real.” Do you know where that factoid (and it is a factoid, i.e., a bogus fact) comes from? Of course not. Who does?

I does. There are two oft-cited sources. One is a study conducted by an Australian professor who supposedly had his students analyze some 12,000 climate-related articles to determine if the authors believe in manmade, i.e., anthropogenic, global warming (AGW). This rigorous, scientific methodology produced a 97% concurrence. The inclusion of some known skeptics amongst the believers, plus the professor’s refusal to release his data (a de rigueur protocol amongst scientists), gives the study all the credibility of an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times.

The second source is a graduate student who, on the basis of the responses of 79 self-described climate scientists to a questionnaire asking “Do you think mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?” and “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”, found near unanimity in favor of AGW. The problem is that all skeptics I know of also agree that the earth is getting warmer and many would respond “Yes” to the second question, depending on what they consider “significant”.

Another way to confirm or dispel the notion of a scientific consensus is by checking the credentials of the skeptics. Amongst the doubters are an emeritus professor of atmospheric physics at MIT(), a past president of the American Association of State Climatologists; the first director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service, the recipient of NASA’s Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement for developing a satellite-based method of determining the earth’s temperature, and the original weatherman on Good Morning America and founder of The Weather Channel. Not exactly rank-and-file members of the Trumpen proletariat, are they?

If both warmists and skeptics agree that temperatures are rising and that man’s activities are a contributing factor, what’s left to argue about? Lots. How fast is the earth warming? How “significant” is man’s role versus natural forces (e.g., solar activity)? What are the consequences of the warming and how catastrophic (or beneficial) will they be?

With regard to the core issue, i.e., how fast temperatures are rising, one of my favorite skeptics, Roy Spencer, a climate scientist formerly with NASA who has retained a sense of humor through it all, graphically illustrated how virtually all of the umpteen models predicting the future temperature of the planet grossly exaggerate the warming compared to the actual temperature record. Spencer explains why there is not just one model—as would be the case were the science settled—with the quip, “Understanding the climate is not rocket science. It’s much harder.”

It’s important to understand that the datum at the heart of the issue, the mean global temperature, is a construct prone to error (and manipulation). One method used to calculate this value is based on weather station records, but as three-quarters of the globe is ocean a lot of conjecture is required to arrive at a figure. Note how the graph based on this method shows a slight warming trend from 1850 to 1880, then a cooling trend from 1880 to 1910, followed by another warming trend from 1910 to 1940, slight cooling from 1940 to 1970, then dramatic warming from 1970 to 2000, i.e., a 60-year cycle of warming and cooling, despite the fact CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have gone up steadily throughout the period. Hmmmm…

Another approach to calculating a mean global temperature utilizes satellites, which would seem to be more encompassing and hence more accurate, but frequent revision of the results shows this approach is not without its flaws. Rectifications of the record by AGW believers almost always make the past cooler and the present warmer, a fact that does not go without notice by skeptics.

Much is made of the rise in sea level by AGW alarmists. All agree—believers and skeptics alike—the sea is rising, but the alarmists leave out an important factor in bewailing unprecedented flooding. The relative rise in sea level (i.e., the absolute rise plus or minus the rise or fall of the land) in the Chesapeake Bay area, for instance, is caused more by land subsidence than by a rising sea (when’s the last time you heard frantic calls for us to stop draining the aquifers?). Across the pond, the Dutch have drastically reduced production from the Groningen gas field because earthquake-induced land subsidence resulting from draining the petrofer threatens to bring the briny deep over the dykes (which, if it happened, would be blamed solely on sea level rise in the press).

A favorite canary in the cold clime for warmists is the melting of the Arctic ice cap, some having predicted it would be gone by now. In fact, the record for the minimum summer extent of the ice (in the satellite era) was set in 2012 (3.4 million km2), but the ice has rebounded every year since, this year’s minimum being a million square kilometers larger. I find it especially amusing when some intrepid seafarers sail the Arctic in summer to illustrate how the ice is disappearing only to get stuck in their own chimera; to wit, last year a cruise ship attempting the fabled Northwest Passage accompanied by an icebreaker required a second, larger icebreaker to get through (Did you see a pic of that along with all the photos of emaciated polar bears? Why not?).

Whenever a hurricane hits our shores—even a Category 1—pseudoscientists warn of the coming apocalpyse, while real scientists debate whether global warming will cause more frequent, more powerful hurricanes or less frequent, weaker ones. The latter conjecture is supported by the fact the 21st century has been one of the most placid periods in American history as far as major hurricanes is concerned.

One thing I think we can all agree on is that science should not be politicized. That one’s stance on AGW has acquired the status of a loyalty oath I blame primarily on the alarmists. It’s not the skeptics who attempt to squelch debate by labelling their opponents “deniers” or argue that they should be imprisoned. Long before anyone heard of Scott Pruitt, Obama’s appointee as Secretary of the Interior made clear her contempt for global warming “deniers”. Indicative of the treatment accorded skeptics is the fate of the professor who debunked a claim that butterflies were migrating north by showing the data on which the claim was based reflected habitat loss, not rising temperatures: he was banished to an academic Siberia while the author of the flawed study was feted at the White House.

Whenever warmists talk about the impact of AGW, all the consequences they can think off are negative ones (droughts, floods, forest fires, etc.), but did you know the earth is actually getting greener? (Did you hear about this midst all the talk about desertification?) Warmists didn’t foresee that; skeptics did. Similarly, warmists speak of AGW’s devastating effect on agriculture, but the world record yields for corn, soybeans, and wheat have all occurred in the last two years, though it’s too early to tell how much AGW may have to do with it.

The point of this diatribe is not to convince you that AGW is a hoax but to encourage you to be as concerned about the one-sided reporting the media does on global warming as you are about their chauvinistic coverage on issues of war and peace. If much of what I’ve pointed out is new to you, you–who are so good at seeing through the hypocritical sanctimony and bogus atrocity stories of our “humanitarian” interventionists–should stop salivating over the chance to dump on the big, bad oil companies and apply the same critical skills you use to dissect media coverage of American foreign policy to reports of record heat waves, 500-year floods, dying coral reefs, and the like. It’s condescending of me (but seemingly necessary) to remind you of a truism we all know to be axiomatic: “Listen to both sides of an argument before arriving at a conclusion.”

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Note: One thing we foreign policy mavens spend much time trying to discern is the motive behind the actions our government takes. It’s hard to see what would motivate anyone (other than the insignificant renewable energy lobby) to hype global warming, but I do believe it is being hyped. The best I can figure out is that the powers-that-be know we have no choice but to rely more on renewable energy in the future because of the dwindling supply of cheap oil, a fact they find too disconcerting to mention to the hoi polloi. So, they present the switch to renewables as a positive thing (saving the planet), not an act of desperation.

Sapienism

(The following is my entry in the New Shape Prize competition conducted by the Global Challenges Foundation of Sweden last year. The competition sought “improved frameworks of global governance of global catastrophic risks”. Of the 2702 entries from 122 countries submitted, my entry was selected as one of the hundred semi-finalists (the three winning entries, who each received $600,000 in funding, can be found  here.)

Two innate traits motivate the social behavior of the species Homo sapiens. One, egocentrism, is so apparent as to overshadow the other, subtler but no less real motivator: compassion. Egocentrism can produce positive benefits for society, as when it impels an individual to inventiveness or socially beneficial enterprise, or negative consequences, as when it takes the form of predacious greed and insensitivity toward the less fortunate. Compassion is always positive, so long as it is not misapplied through illusory romanticism or discriminatory chauvinism.

The melding of these two instinctual imperatives imbues the institutions humans create to organize their lives as social animals. Individuals group themselves in social units—family, tribe, nation—for their own survival, while compassion binds the group in loyalty to one another. In contemporary society, one’s ultimate loyalty is to his god or nation (or both when one’s nation is conflated with divine approval). International institutions, such as the United Nations, built on representation at the nation-state level are inherently hindered in arriving at global solutions to the perils facing humanity because of the narrow loyalties of their decision-makers.

If earth were attacked from outside, humans would subsume their group loyalties under a species-wide banner in the common defense… or perish. The perils we face today are not so apparent as extraterrestrials landing on our shores, but they demand a supranational response. They also demand the kind of conviction, dedication, fervor associated with religious belief. What is needed is a religion of humanity. Call it “Sapienism”.

Sapienism is humanly, not divinely, inspired. It melds an egocentric recognition that our survival as individuals is dependent on our survival as a species with compassionate attention to the welfare of all humanity. It declares the oneness of humans in its Oath of Unity: “I affirm my supreme, earthly loyalty is to all humankind: one people, indivisible; on one planet, sacrosanct; with one future, harmonious.” The Sapient Creed speaks of the copious but finite beneficence of our earthly home; the genius through which we have exploited that beneficence, enabling us to become the earth’s dominant species; and the responsibility towards all life on earth that dominance imposes on us.

Five principles constitute the basic tenets of Sapienism:

(1) All Human Life Is Precious – the equality of humanity, in rights and duties, is a central tenet of Sapienism as it encapsulates the compassion with which Sapiens view their fellow humans;
(2) The Benefits of Progress Accrue to All – no portion of humankind can lay claim to the accumulated knowledge which has enabled our species to master our environment, so all must benefit from our astounding intellectual achievements;
(3) Consumption of Earth’s Resources Must Be Sustainable – we live on a finite planet, so the resources which sustain us are not without limit and must be shepherded for the sustenance of ourselves and future generations;
(4) The Power To Compel Resides In All Humanity – the divisive factionalism which characterizes human relations and threatens our very existence through the scourge of war can no longer be tolerated; and so, possession of the ultimate instruments of violence must be the monopoly of a body representing all humanity;
(5) The Supernatural Surpasses Human Understanding – Sapienism recognizes that there are things of a supernatural character—for instance, the concept of a “Creator” or “God”—man does not understand and probably never will, so Sapienism adopts an attitude of agnosticism toward belief in the supernatural.

The governmental apparatus of Sapienism consists of a 5-member Guiding Council, a 50-member Congress of Sages, and a 7-member Loyalty Court. The tripartite structure, mimicking the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of modern practice, acts as a brake on the unwarranted assumption of power by any one branch or individual. The Guiding Council appoints the members of the Loyalty Court and is itself appointed by the Congress of Sages; the Congress selects its own members and has the power to remove them; as all officials of Sapient bodies must be Sapiens in good standing, the Loyalty Court can cause them to forfeit their positions for violating Sapient beliefs or practices, and the judges themselves can be impeached by the Congress of Sages.

Those serving in Sapient institutions represent no constituency other than humankind as a whole. This serves to eliminate the bane which incapacitates present international institutions where members represent the parochial interests of a subgroup of humanity: a nation. Individuals are chosen—by fellow Sapiens—to serve in Sapient bodies based on their proven dedication to the welfare of all humankind.

Sapient Halls of Learning complement Sapienism’s governing bodies by advancing and disseminating knowledge to spread the faith. The Hall’s research focuses on aspects of human knowledge which promote Sapient beliefs: the glory, and fragility, of our wondrous planet; the mythology underlying other belief systems, e.g., nationalistic chauvinism; man’s inhumanity to man manifest in war, exploitation, poverty, and other forms of avoidable human misery; and demonstrations of compassionate, effective responses to these societal failings.

The acceptance of Sapient thought and institutions will not be immediate or easily accomplished. In contrast to less all-encompassing solutions to global problems, Sapienism necessitates a revolution in human thought, an end to what may even be a biological imperative—the clustering instinct—which has driven human social evolution. Though its tenets infringe on many prerogatives currently claimed by the nation-state, Sapienism will be in no position to impose its mandates on any nation for many years to come, until near universal support forces acceptance—willingly or unwillingly given—by the possessors of national power.

The triumph of Sapienism is inversely related to the success of global bodies—existing, reformed, or new—in meeting the challenges which threaten the human family. If these bodies succeed, there will be no need for a new, human-centric theology. But if the increasingly perilous state of humankind makes the need for a radical transformation in our beliefs and practices apparent, Sapienism might well prove our salvation.

(Further details about Sapienism are provided here)

Nicaragua

There’s a curious anomaly surrounding the immigration debate I’m at a loss to explain. We’re all familiar with the three Central American countries which are the breeding ground of illegal immigrants to this country: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These three rank below only Mexico in the number of their citizens residing illegally in the United States—over 1.5 million. El Salvador alone accounts for over a half million, i.e., almost one-tenth of that country’s population.

But what about the next country down the isthmus: Nicaragua? Similar in population to El Salvador (6 million), the number of Nicaraguans entering this country illegally doesn’t make the Top 10 Countries of Origin, its contribution to the flow being so meagre it’s lumped in the “Other” category in Department of Homeland Security statistics. Why is this?

It’s not because living standard are better in Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (after Haiti). It’s not because US-bound Nicaraguans are stopped at the Honduran border, as citizens of the aforenamed Central American countries can move freely across each other’s borders. It could be because Nicaragua does not suffer from the violence that wracks the other countries, the murder rate there being one quarter that of Guatemala and El Salvador and one-eighth that of Honduras.

But that’s not the whole story. In the 12 years since its current president, Daniel Ortega, was elected, Nicaragua has been on a roll: poverty and malnutrition cut in half, illiteracy virtually eliminated, free health care and education, an economic growth rate of 5%, and a booming tourist industry thanks to being the safest country in Central America.

Not surprisingly, Ortega was re-elected to a second five-year term in 2011, then a third in 2016, winning 72% of the vote in an election that saw a 65% turnout (we can only dream!). Also not surprisingly, considering the Nicaraguan government’s close ties with Cuba and Venezuela, we questioned the fairness of the election.

Our hostility towards Ortega and his party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional—FSLN), goes back to the very first days of their rule when Reagan armed the contras to oppose the revolutionary government and we mined Nicaragua’s harbors (for which the International Court of Justice found us in violation of international law and awarded reparations to Nicaragua—which we never paid).

The hostility reached fever pitch when Ortega was re-elected president in 2006 after more than a decade out of office. His administration had barely been sworn in before the American ambassador to Nicaragua (in a memo to Washington made public by Wikileaks) recommended an additional $65 million “above our recent past base levels” (?) be spent “to bolster those elements that can best stop him [Ortega]”. (Imagine our reaction if we learned of the Russian ambassador to the US proposing such meddling in our affairs!)

The ambassador proposed working with USAID, US-affiliated NGOs like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and the US military’s Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) to “enhance the technical capabilities of friendly radio stations”, establish internet “cafes” in strategic areas, “back political party strengthening, the media and democratically minded NGO’s”, and “create a Legislative Exchange and Training Program” (along with some actually useful projects like “rebuilding schools, improving water systems, restocking clinics, providing zinc roofing for housing, et al”). All these endeavors, of course, wrapped in the noble banner of keeping Nicaragua “on a democratic path”.

After protests erupted in Nicaragua last April, in an article entitled “Laying the groundwork for insurrection: A closer look at the U.S. role in Nicaragua’s social unrest”, Benjamin Waddell, director of the Nicaraguan branch of the School of International Training, attested to the satisfying return on our investment, noting “U.S. support has helped play a role in nurturing the current uprisings”. One example of the “nurturing”: all-expenses-paid trips to Washington for opposition leaders to suckle at the breast of mamacitas in Congress (in particular, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s bounteous bosom).

If we assume that the US has for long been setting up an apparatus to effect regime change in Nicaragua (no great leap of faith), the question remains, “Why now?”. The conventional answer is that the protests were sparked by an announced reduction in pension benefits (a deficit-reducing measure forced on Nicaragua ironically—and suspiciously—by the US-dominated International Monetary Fund).

I’ve got a different explanation. It’s the same explanation I offer for the thaw in our relations with Cuba: Russians. Just as a chill set in on our relations with Russia over the coup in Ukraine and Russia’s consequent annexation of the Crimea, Russian bombers appeared over the Caribbean for the first time since the Cold War. To support their mission, I suspect Russia approached the Cubans about allowing them back onto the island. To forestall that, we dangled the carrot of normalized relations before the Cubans, which seems to have worked for the present.

Nicaragua became the Russians’ backup choice. With Russian bombers circling off Florida, the devil himself, (Ras)Putin, made a state visit to Nicaragua in 2014. Several hundred Russian troops are now in Nicaragua training Nicaraguan paramilitaries. Ninety percent of Nicaragua’s imports of arms and munitions come from Russia. Last year, the Russians completed a satellite tracking station in Nicaragua that even the most paranoid denizen of the Pentagon might rightfully suspect has capabilities beyond just tracking satellites. Nicaragua’s increasingly close ties with the Russians led one journalist to suggest Russia seeks to make Nicaragua its “Cuba of the 21st century”.

We’ve had reasons for seeking regime change in Nicaragua since long before the Russians showed up, but I believe it was Nicaragua’s flirtation with the Russians that caused us to tap the baton on a carefully orchestrated “color revolution” (call it “blue” after the Nicaraguan flag). (The prospect of the Chinese building a canal across Nicaragua linking the Caribbean to the Pacific added a prestissimo to the score.) Signaling that it was not intimidated by our blatant attempt at regime change, the Nicaraguan government responded by strengthening, not lessening, ties with its powerful ally, signing a memorandum with Russia three weeks into the unrest that, as a Russian commentator noted, made Nicaragua “an ally of far greater importance than just [within] the Central American region”, a conclusion no doubt shared by our own fretting geostrategists.

One solution to the flood of Central Americans into this country frequently given expression (sans concrete proposals) is to improve conditions in the refugees’ home countries. In Nicaragua we are up to the same old tricks that led us to send the Marines in 1912 and keep them there for the next twenty years. It’s the same end game we played in supporting our protégés, the dictatorial Somoza family, for forty years after we withdrew the Marines in 1933. Such behavior in the 21st century is no more likely to be beneficial to the Nicaraguans than was the Yanqui hanky-panky we pulled in the 20th century. If we can’t bring ourselves to assist regimes that are demonstrably improving conditions for their people, maybe we could at least not oppose them.

To tie all this in with the immigration conundrum I raised at the beginning of this piece, let me point out that refugees from the turmoil in Nicaragua have begun to flood into neighboring Costa Rica. If we continue with our plotting to oust Ortega, things are sure to get worse and the trickle of fleeing Nicaraguans will become a flood. Just as Syrian refugees departed waystations in Turkey for the greener pastures of Europe, we can expect Nicaraguans one day to turn north instead of south in search of a refuge. If they start turning up on the Rio Grande in unmanageable numbers, we will have only ourselves to blame.

The Inequity of Inequality

An incident illustrative of the current state of wealth inequality in America occurred on July 26th last: Facebook suffered the biggest one-day loss in valuation in the history of the stock market—$119 billion! The talking heads of Wall Street attributed the sudden devaluation to something Facebook’s Chief Financial Officer, David Wehner, said in a telephone conversation with investors the day before. In reviewing Facebook’s performance in the second quarter of this year—a 42% increase in revenue over last year—he offhandedly mentioned that the growth rate in revenue was expected to decline somewhat in the coming quarters (Note, not total revenue but the rate at which revenue would increase!). This casual remark—not some bad news in a formal document like an annual report—supposedly set off the stampede to the exit.

While that explanation has some plausibility in that the value of Facebook stock—like that of the stock market as a whole—has the gossamer quality of a soap bubble the slightest touch could deflate, allow me to offer an alternative explanation. In an interview a week prior to the collapse, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg defended allowing Holocaust “deniers” to post on his brainchild, saying he didn’t think “they’re intentionally getting it wrong”. He indicated such erroneous opinions would not be banned from Facebook.

That hypersensitive Defender of the Hebraic Faithful, the Anti-Defamation League, went into paroxysms, their CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, declaiming, “Facebook has a moral and ethical obligation not to allow its dissemination. ADL will continue to challenge Facebook on this position and call on them to regard Holocaust denial as a violation of their community guidelines.” Could it be Greenblatt’s coreligionists, responding to the ADL’s demand and possessing wealth beyond the sweetest dreams of Croesus, fired a shot across Zuckerberg’s brow to warn him to mend his ways or else by bringing Facebook’s stock price crashing down, like their locks-shorn hero of yore did the Philistines’ temple? (Facebook will probably accede in the end, so if you want to learn what this forbidden knowledge is that so threatens received scripture, you’d better do some internet surfing fast, starting with the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust).

If my supposition is correct, whether the stock was manipulated by a coterie of irate Jewish moneybags acting independently or as a colluding cabal (which would merit an SEC investigation) is hard to say. In either case, the action speaks volumes about the power of the obscenely wealthy in our society. If the Titans of the Financial World can effect such a precipitous downturn, can they also effect the obverse: a quick rise in the price of a stock? Think of the money to be made, and made again, if they can.

The Facebook saga centers on Jews but that should not be construed to mean they are the only ones with such financial clout. That Jews are disproportionately represented in the ranks of the super-wealthy is a fact worthy of sociological study but the bar mitzvah-ed are not the only ones belonging to the club. Gentiles can join, too, and they make up in numbers what they may lack in pecuniary acumen. Roughly (lists vary), seven or eight of the 20 richest Americans are Jews; as you go down through the plutocratic ranks, the uncircumcised (figuratively speaking, and maybe literally) gain greater preponderance.

That individuals—regardless of religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or whatever—own so much as to be capable of market manipulation speaks volumes about wealth inequality in this country. Last year, dozens of hedge fund managers made a billion dollars or more each, i.e., more than the combined salaries of 20,000 teachers, for a contribution to societal betterment of less value than that provided by a single teacher, in my estimation. The inverse of such a concentration of wealth is increasingly apparent in America today in the homeless in the streets, the hungry children in poverty-stricken areas, the deterioration in our public institutions. Just look at our schools.

Not surprisingly, the inequity of inequality is becoming a hot topic in American political discourse, likely to be debated vociferously in the upcoming mid-term elections and even more so in the 2020 presidential election. Some will argue that inequality is a natural state of affairs (“Not all take equal advantage of equal opportunity”, “Individuals must be allowed to keep the rewards of their efforts”, “The poor will always be with us”, etc.), but our “free enterprise” system was not ordained by Nature, much less by God. It is a creation of the hand of man, devised to promote the common good in the most effective manner as circumstances dictate. When it ceases to serve that purpose, man can amend it… or replace it.

That amendment is considered necessary by many is attested to by the various schemes popping up these days to make America more equalitarian. Venerable trade unionist Sam Pizzigati’s call for a maximum wage—a proposal he has been hawking for decades—is beginning to get some traction. At the other end of the income ladder, a Universal Basic Income in some form or other is advocated by those at both ends of the ideological spectrum—from Annie Lowrey of The Atlantic on the left to Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute on the right. A version proposed by Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook (who made half a billion dollars for three years’ effort—remuneration he recognizes is absurd!), would give $500 a month in hard cash to every adult in the country.

I’ve got a solution simpler in concept, more feasible in adoption, and more effective in practice to cure the social disease of inequality (Are you listening, Ocasio-Cortez?): raise the maximum marginal tax rate to 99%. “Impossible!”, you say, “Congress would never authorize it.” OK, then how about 92%? “Still impossible,” you argue, “It would sap individual initiative”. Well, that was the maximum marginal tax rate once—for most of the 1950s and into the 1960s. The American economy did pretty well in those years, people working just as hard to make that extra buck, even if they could only keep eight cents, as they do today when they get to keep 63 cents. So, if 92% was doable to meet a temporary emergency (the need to pay off the debt incurred fighting World War II), why not 99% to rectify a grotesque inequity which threatens our very cohesion as a society?

Under my plan (which could be enacted as easily as the recent tax reform lowering the maximum rate was), assuming the first $10 million in income is taxed at the current maximum rate of 37% and all income above that at 99%, the take-home-pay of someone making a billion dollars in a year would be $16,200,000 (63% of $10,000,000 plus 1% of 990,000,000). Most of us could scrape by on that. Assuming loopholes don’t exist for the crafty to avoid paying any taxes at all (closing loopholes is a matter which needs to be addressed no matter what the tax rate is), my scheme would cause a massive transfer of wealth from individuals to the public at large.

The government could use that bounty to pay off the national debt (which currently represents a transfer of wealth from income-earning taxpayers to unearned income-amassing bondholders); invest in infrastructure improvements; finance socially useful endeavors like medical research, etc. If we have a government coming anywhere close to being of, by, and for the people, our elected leadership should do a better job allocating the nation’s riches than fabulously wealthy moguls bent on egotistical projects like populating Mars.

Early Christians were expected to sell all their worldly goods and contribute the proceeds to the Church. Such a self-denying commitment to a compassionate ideal (if the term “communistic” offends, try “communal”) is not demanded of us, but we would do well to consider how such devotion to the common good led to the rapid spread of Christianity in the first century A.D. and the longevity of the Church thereafter.