Review of Burns/Novick, The Vietnam War (PBS)

July 19, 2018

I recently watched the 18-hour Burns/Novick PBS documentary, The Vietnam War, over a ten-day period, one episode a night.  I had previously read many of the criticisms of the film from veterans of the antiwar movement.  I had also returned in March from a two-week tour of Vietnam as part of a delegation led by John McAuliff of activists from the antiwar movement to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre. We participated in the commemoration with a delegation from Veterans for Peace.

My overall impression of the film was that it was well made, engrossing, and fundamentally wrong in key respects.  Just as a well written article is not necessarily right, a technically well-made documentary is not necessarily right, especially in its overall interpretation.

Three of the fundamental problems of the film, as I see it, are:

Interpretation of the U.S. soldiers:  The main message is that the U.S. troops fought valiantly a mistaken losing war and they are to be thanked for their sacrifices.  I’m sure the German Army fought valiantly and sacrificed heavily in World War II.  But there would be huge protests if a Burns/Novick-like film was made about that losing army.  A better interpretation would have been that significant numbers of soldiers turned against the war when they realized that the U.S. invasion was unjust and their leaders had duped them. The film does cover the antiwar movement of soldiers but in a more confused manner where the motives are mixed.  While the pilot and other prowar POWs are celebrated, no mention is made of the pilot and other POWs who became opposed to the war.

Anti-intellectualism: No academic experts were interviewed on the meaning of the war.  Rather, the “expert” commentators were from the State Department, CIA, and military.  The only academic interviewed was a graduate student who became an assistant professor.  But he was not interviewed as an expert on the war but rather as expressing the point of view of a protester.

Attitude toward the antiwar movement:  Antiwar protesters come off as having suspect motives. Burns/Novick present as fact the right-wing narrative of antiwar demonstrators attacking returning solders at Travis Air Force base, which did not happen according to recent scholarship. The most egregious attack on the antiwar movement occurs in the last episode when a former antiwar demonstrator states that she is ashamed of calling soldiers “baby killers.” That is the parting interpretation of the antiwar movement, leaving the impression of it as being at least mildly unpatriotic and anti-soldier.  A soldier who deserted to Canada states that he regrets renouncing his U.S. citizenship—presented as now a man without a country. No mention is made of prominent historians and other scholars who actively opposed the war.  Nor is there mention of the impact of the war on a whole generation of young scholars and the influence it had on their subsequent work.

The roles that a number of individuals play directly or indirectly in the film are problematic.

Peter Coyote (the narrator):  He was with the San Francisco Mime Troupe which was radically antiwar and pro-NLF.  I’d love to know if he agreed with all of the script that he read.  He was at Wisconsin when R.G. Davis, the director of the Mime Troup, stated to a show audience that they should go the Dow demonstration the next day.  “We believe this is your university.  If you can’t control it, you ought to destroy it.”  The university was allowing Dow to recruit future employees.  Antiwar students were demonstrating against the recruiters because of Dow’s production of napalm for the war. The Madison police violently broke up the sit-in with clubs and tear gas.  It was the first time in the country that police attacked rather than carried off antiwar sit-in protesters.

Jane Fonda:  The film repeats as fact the right-wing narrative on Jane Fonda having been a traitor who went to North Vietnam.  (I’d be curious to know if Peter Coyote had any qualms reading that narration.) No mention is made that Telford Taylor, the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes trial, also went to North Vietnam and spoke out against the U.S. bombing.

John McCain:  The McCain myth of the innocent pilot shot down and tortured goes unchallenged, whereas John Kerry’s Senate committee testimony of U.S. war crimes is immediately challenged with a military figure getting the last word that any abuses were isolated aberrations.

John Negroponte:  Burns/Novick present him several times as a sage commentator on the war.  No mention is made that he is one of the most controversial figures of the recent U.S. diplomatic corps.  He started his career in Vietnam, served in Honduras as ambassador facilitating the Contra war, served as ambassador to Mexico overseeing adoption of Nafta, served as ambassador to Iraq after the invasion, and, in his last position, served as Director of National Intelligence.  His name is especially controversial in Latin America.

Bob Kerrey:  He is mentioned positively as a veteran of the war, along with John McCain and John Kerry, who has worked for reconciliation of the U.S. and Vietnam.  No mention is made of his background as a war criminal who led and participated in a massacre of civilians in Ben Tre province.  His role leading the massacre is highlighted in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and on a memorial at the site of the massacre.

Despite all of the problems with the film, I agree with John McAuliff that its overall impact on American consciousness about the war is more positive than negative.  Burns/Novick present the war as a well-intentioned mistake by American policy makers. It was, in their words, “begun in good faith by good men.”  While there is plenty to object to in the notion that the war was begun by good men with good intentions, the overall impression remains that it was a mistake.  And it was a mistake that kept getting worse with more and more soldiers being sacrificed to it in horrific fighting, and of course many more Vietnamese (though that does not seem to have been a prominent concern in the film).  That’s, I think, the main impression that the film leaves with viewers.  It certainly doesn’t leave any impression of the war as having been glorious.

While a much better film could/should have been made, I suppose Burns/Novick are to be thanked at least for not publicizing the current revisionist view on the right that the war could/should have been won with better leadership.

July 2018

EU: Creciente Crisis en Pensiones [The Growing Retirement Crisis in the United States]

October 14, 2017

La Jornada (Ciudad de México)
14 de octubre de 2017

Como en México, Chile y otros países latinoamericanos, en Estados Unidos existe una creciente crisis en los sistemas para el retiro. Ello porque las cuentas individuales han remplazado las pensiones seguras.

Para planificar la jubilación, la analogía más recurrente alude al taburete de tres patas. El ingreso de la pensión individual derivaría de tres fuentes: el Sistema Nacional de la Seguridad Social (SNSS existente desde 1935); una pensión tradicional de beneficio definido (patrocinada por el empleador) y ahorros e inversiones individuales. Según los expertos, todas ellas deben sumar, al menos, 70 por ciento de los ingresos previos a la jubilación. El objetivo es mantener el nivel de vida que se tenía antes de la jubilación.

(Para continuar leyendo EU: Crisis en Pensiones, cliquee aquí


English version:

The Growing Retirement Crisis in the United States

As in Mexico, Chile, and other Latin American countries, there is a growing retirement crisis in the United States as individual investment accounts have replaced secure pensions.

The analogy for U.S. retirement planning most often used is that of a three-legged stool.  One’s retirement income will come from three sources—the three legs:  the national Social Security system, in existence since 1935; a traditional employer-sponsored defined benefit pension; and individual savings and investments.

All sources of retirement income should add up to at least 70 percent of preretirement income according to experts. The goal is to be able to maintain a preretirement standard of living in retirement.

The three-legged stool was never a perfect analogy since one assumes that for a stool to be stable, the legs should be of equal length.  The amounts of retirement income from the three different sources have been very different.

For those with the most secure retirement incomes, the largest sources comes from a traditional employer-sponsored defined benefit pension plan, followed by Social Security and savings in that order.  These include most public sector workers, who make up a small minority of the labor force.

For most of the rest, including most private sector workers, Social Security makes up the largest source of retirement income, followed by incomes from an employer-sponsored plan and savings.

Let’s look at the sources of retirement income in depth.

Ninety-four percent of workers in the U.S. labor force contribute 6.2 percent of their wages to Social Security. Their employers match that with another 6.2 percent. Those contributions go into a collective fund out of which benefits are paid, including retirement income, payments for disability, and payments for children and other dependent survivors of participants who die early.  Social Security is a classic social insurance plan in which people pay premiums to protect themselves from risks.  The risks being protected against are income loss in retirement and disability, and being unable to support dependents.

Social Security works remarkably well.  Nearly one out of every four households receives some form of Social Security income.  It is the largest component of the minimalist U.S. welfare state.

According to studies, without Social Security, 40.5 percent of the over age 65 population would be poor. But because of the income it provides, the over 65 poverty rate is 8.8 percent, which is actually less than that of the general population.

Social Security enjoys tremendous public support.  Majorities of all major demographic groups, including Republicans, support it.  It is however deeply opposed by neoliberal think tanks, such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and by some parts of the financial services industry for economic reasons.  They don’t like trillions of dollars of the country’s retirement savings being tied up in government accounts rather than going through Wall Street from which they can profit.

There is thus a continuing battle over maintenance of the Social Security program as it is or to privatize it as was done with IMSS in Mexico, following the Chilean model imposed under the Pinochet military dictatorship.

So far, the advocates of Social Security have been able to resist all privatization attempts due to the deep public support for the program.

Employer-sponsored retirement plans cover nearly all public sector workers but only about half of private sector ones.  For those who are covered, there are two types:  defined benefit and defined contribution.

Up until 1984, most private sector worker who had retirement plans had defined benefit plans.  As with Social Security, they and their employers paid contributions into a collective fund out of which their guaranteed retirement incomes were paid.  Starting in 1981, however, employers began to increasing replace the traditional pension plans with defined contribution individual savings and investment accounts, which produce much less retirement income.

In 1981, 61.4 percent of private sector workers who had employer-sponsored retirement plans had traditional pension defined benefit ones.  Today, only 16.1 percent still have those types of plans.

The most widely known of those plans, which has become a metaphor for the approach, is the 401(k), named after a provision of the Internal Revenue Service code.

Individual savings occupy a very distant third place, except for the rich, as a source of retirement income.

Essentially what has occurred since 1981 with the retirement system of the United States is that Social Security has remained steady while employer-sponsored plans have increasingly shifted from being the form of guaranteed traditional pensions where employers bore the risks of investing to individual savings and investment schemes in which employees now bear the risks.  And these individual accounts, while very profitable for the financial services industry, produce much less retirement income than the pension plans they replaced.  Therein lies the major cause of the growing retirement crisis in the United States.

From a hemispheric perspective, U.S. workers have suffered the same transformations of their former collective and solidarity-based traditional pension plans to individual investing accounts that render much less income as have about half of Latin American workers, including those in Chile and Mexico, but in a different way.  While their national retirement system has yet to be privatized, their employer-sponsored plans have been transformed into the same types of systems as the privatized national systems of Latin America.








Are Congressional Districts Too Large?

June 4, 2017

Huffington Post
June 3, 2017

With elections coming up to the U.K. House of Commons and the French National Assembly, Americans might be excused for assuming that they are like our House of Representatives elections. Both are, it is true, lower houses in bicameral systems, and both, unlike in other parts of Europe, are winner-take-all district elections with no provisions for proportional representation.

But the House of Commons has 650 members and the National Assembly 577 members compared to the 435 members of the House of Representatives, which covers a much greater population size. That works out to one representative for approximately every 100,000 U.K. and French citizens compared to one per 700,000 in the U.S.—a representation gap that is over seven times as large. Put differently, UK and French citizens potentially have seven times as much national legislative representation as do U.S. citizens.

Continue reading “Are Congressional Districts Too Large?”

Trump and Le Pen, Take 2

May 6, 2017

Huffington Post
May 6, 2017

Sunday’s runoff election in France will pit centrist Emmanuel Macron against the National Front’s Marine Le Pen for the presidency. On both sides of the Atlantic, people are holding their breaths. Will the French succumb to the same forces that produced Brexit and Trump?

But is Le Pen a French version of Trump?  Or is Trump a clumsy version of Le Pen, as I put it in a Huffington Post article during the primaries? At that time, when everyone was trying to figure out what Trump represented, I advanced the interpretation that he had stumbled into the politics of the National Front and that these were at odds with traditional Republicanism.

Click here to continue reading “Trump and Le Pen, Take 2.”


How We Got Out of a 401(k) and into a Real Pension

April 14, 2017

Labor Notes
February 21, 2017

After being trapped in an inferior 401(k)-style retirement plan, is it possible for a union to reverse the trend and switch back to a traditional defined-benefit pension?

Connecticut state employees did just that in 2012. Our little-known story, combined with similar victories in Massachusetts and West Virginia, shows it can be done. There’s a small but growing movement to follow suit in other states.

Those of us stuck in Connecticut’s 401(k)-like plan had been contributing more than twice as much as our co-workers who had pensions—yet it was estimated we’d receive less than half the retirement income. Without adequate information, we had chosen this plan when we were hired, thinking it was better than the pension.

Continue reading “How We Got Out of a 401(k) and into a Real Pension.”

The Future of Social Security and Medicare in the Age of Trump (Audio Recording)

April 14, 2017

Lecture given by James W. Russell as part of Provost’s Lecture Series, Portland State University
April 6, 2017

Click here to listen.

How Trustworthy Are TIAA’s Predictions of Future Retirement Income?

October 18, 2016

Beacon Broadside
October 17, 2016

The ad from TIAA-CREF, the company that administers university and other retirement plans, which ran alongside my Yahoo inbox was too enticing to ignore. I clicked on the bait: “You could get 90% of your income and maintain your lifestyle in retirement.” The click brought me to another eye-catching claim: “On average, participants in TIAA-administered plans are on track to replace over 90% of their income in retirement.”

These were eye-catching claims because I had been in TIAA for over 35 years and would be replacing nowhere near 90% of my preretirement income. Nor would anyone else I knew who was in TIAA. They were also eye-catching because according to Federal Reserve data, the average family approaching retirement in 401(k)-like plans that TIAA and other financial service companies administer has only accumulated $104,000. That amount is only sufficient to generate an annual retirement income of $4,000 to $6,000, depending on how it is distributed–hardly enough to replace 90% of their preretirement income, that is, unless they were living on a sub poverty income of $7,000 or less.

How then could TIAA make such a claim? The advertisement included a footnote to its claim, literally in fine print. Being a researcher, I read the footnote.

Continue reading How Trustworthy Are TIAA’s Predictions of Future Retirement Income?

Is Trump a Clumsy Le Pen?

October 11, 2016

Huffington Post
October 10, 2016

What kind of political animal is Donald Trump? His campaign caught the Republican establishment, including the conservative think tanks, completely off guard. He may have caught himself off guard as well, never expecting to get this far, thinking of the campaign with an early exit as simply a way to burnish the Trump brand. In P.T. Barnum’s America, that is imaginable.

Trump, it is said, does not read deeply. He listens instead to television talk shows. He thinks he has a keen ear for the zeitgeist. It is also said, by his onetime ghostwriter, that he holds no ideological convictions. As a corporate huckster, he is the master of telling his target market what it wants to hear. Out of all that he cobbled together a message that resonated enough with voters to get him this far.

The message is three parts traditional Republicanism and two parts European populism. A strong nationalist appeal, opposition to immigration, and strong support for law and order fit comfortably within traditional Republicanism. But two parts are discordant:  opposition to free trade agreements and a hinted support for Social Security, the crown jewel of what exists of an American welfare state.

Continue reading “Is Trump a Clumsy Le Pen?”

Sanders Broke Debs’ 104 Year Old Record for Most Votes for a Socialist

October 1, 2016

Huffington Post
August 30, 2016

Unlike in Europe where socialist and communist parties have had sizeable voter support, historians have long noted and puzzled over their lack of electoral support in the United States, a part of the original meaning of the concept of American exceptionalism.

The highpoint of American socialist voting on a national level was the 1912 election, when Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party’s candidate, received 901,551 votes, 6% of the total. It was downhill from then on, that is, until 2016 when in the Democratic Party primary Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, received 13,168,222 votes, nearly fifteen times Debs’ total.

The comparison is of course not exact. The 2016 electorate is a lot larger than that of 1912 since the national population is a lot larger. But even in proportionate terms, Sanders broke Debs’ record. If the November percentage turnout of registered voters is the same as that of 2012, Sanders 13 million plus votes will represent 9.8% of that total, which is greater than Debs’ 6%. We can also assume that had Sanders beaten Clinton and gone on to be the party’s candidate those 13 million plus votes would have expanded greatly.

Continue reading “Sanders Broke Debs’ 104 Year Old Record for Most Votes for a Socialist”

Connecticut Governor Malloy’s Changes Weaken New Retirement Program

June 22, 2016

CT Mirror
June 20, 2016

For private employees who don’t have workplace plans, Connecticut will now have a state-sponsored plan to save for retirement. Unfortunately, what could have been a useful program was severely weakened with changes required by Governor Dannel Malloy in the face of fierce financial services industry lobbying.

This is what happened.

In 2014 labor, senior, and progressive organizations lobbied the legislature to set up a state-sponsored retirement savings program to address the growing retirement crisis, a component of which was that half of the Connecticut’s private labor force lacked employer-sponsored plans.

Over financial services industry opposition the bill narrowly passed. The first step mandated by the bill was to establish the Connecticut Retirement Security Board, on which I served. Its task was to study the issue and design a program that would then be proposed as a new legislative bill.

Continue reading “Connecticut Governor Malloy’s Changes Weaken New Retirement Program.