Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Knife Review: Mora: Morakniv HighQ Allround Knife

Morakniv HighQ Allround knife with sheath

When I started doing these knife reviews, a part of my motivation was to provide suggestions for affordable good quality knives.  In that vein, I am finally getting around to reviewing a Mora knife.  If you were to spend far too many hours reading about various types of knives for camping and bushcraft on various knife forums (as some of us do), there would be certain knife brands that you would hear mentioned repeatedly as top performers.  The Mora knives are absolutely one that I read people raving about, but what I didn't realize at first was that they are also extremely affordable.  When it comes to affordability in a general purpose knife, I don't think you can really beat a Mora.

Most of the knives I have been reviewing tend to be fairly expensive.  Some of them are very expensive, but not this one.  You can pick up a Morakniv HighQ Allround for less than $15.  This is a quality knife that you can pick up at a disposable knife price.  But in reality, you probably won't pick up this exact knife since the model that I am reviewing was recently discontinued, but there are newer models that are very similar.  If you would like a handy primer on the different styles of Mora knives there is a handy one here, from Ramblin' Jim.  As Jim says, at these prices you can just pick up a few and try them out.  Amazon has bundles of different Mora models for sale.

The TL;DR review summary: 

If you really aren't interested in reading the whole review, then let me just say that I started out just wanting to see if the Mora could handle some of the tasks that I had done with other bushcraft knives.  It was such a pleasure to use I ended up carving a spoon.

This is the first spoon I have ever carved, and I did it entirely with the Mora I am reviewing here (well, I also used sandpaper, but it was the only knife I used)

Let's Start With the Specs:

(Knife Specifications from Knife Center)

  • Blade Length: 3.75" (95 mm)
  • Blade Steel: High Carbon Steel, 59-60HRC
  • Blade Thickness: 2 mm
  • Overall Length: 8.2" (208 mm)
  • Handle Material: Rubber
  • Weight: 3.7 oz. (105 g)
  • Made in Sweden

I'm not going to go into the specs too much here, especially since this exact knife is discontinued, but the followup models are very similar.  

What I think is probably most noteworthy is the steel.  This particular knife that I reviewed is not stainless, it is high carbon.  I accidentally left it outside for a few weeks after I had taken the photos I used for the review, and it definitely rusted.  The rust was just superficial, and it cleaned off, but it left stains.  And this type of steel does stain.  After using the knife for a while the steel will turn grey, even if you take care of it, that is just the way it goes.  The discoloration is called a patina, and lots of people actually really like the patina.  There are many discussions online devoted to different types of forced patinas, and how to get different colors.  I personally prefer stainless myself, but carbon steel is often better performing than less expensive stainless steels.  

Mora also has a good reputation for their heat treatment of their stainless steels, and the use Sandvik steels for their stainless.  But that is not what I am reviewing, because Mora has a particularly good reputation for the heat treatment on their carbon steel blades, and my experience is that the reputation is well earned.  Carbon steels might discolor easier, and they require cleaning and oiling to maintain optimally, but a good high carbon steel can have as good or superior edge holding and toughness than a stainless super-steel at a much lower price.  If you want excellent performance for a low cost, and you are willing to take care of your tools, then a high-carbon steel can be an excellent choice. 

A Note on the Sheath:

I really liked the sheath for this knife.  It is not fancy looking, but it is not a fancy knife.  The sheath is easy to clip on to your belt, but it stays on securely.  The knife fits snugly into place in the sheath with no wiggle or rattle.  It stays secure without needing an additional snap or loop to hold the knife in place.  As an extra bonus, and showing the origin of the knife as a construction/work knife, the sheath is designed to stack with other Mora sheathes, so if you needed two different knives you could have them stacked.



As I stated earlier, the steel is high carbon.  Morakniv does not provide a more precise description than that.  Whatever the exact steel recipe is, when combined with their heat treatment is makes for an outstanding performing blade steel.  A lot of the hardness, edge holding, and resistance to chipping in a knife comes down to having a good heat treatment.  The many decades in the making reputation of knives from Mora, Sweden is in large part due to the heat treatment.

I found the knife to hold an excellent edge, even when I abused the edge.  And one of the benefits of carbon steel as opposed to stainless steel is that it is easier to sharpen.  So after I managed to wear out the initial edge to the point where it just was not performing as well, it was a breeze to put a new edge on the knife.

Blade Finish:

The blade finish is nothing to write home about.  It is a standard, somewhat polished, finish.  The knife is a work knife, it is going to get scratched, and since it is a carbon steel blade it is going to get a patina.  Some other Mora knives have coatings or special finishes, this one does not.


So a big part of what makes this knife (and most of Mora's lineup) perform so well while maintaining sturdiness is the Scandi Ground blade.  The scandi grind is a great geometry for a utility knife.  Different types of tasks can be easier with different grinds, I for one strongly prefer full flat grinds for kitchen knives as an example.  The scandi is especially good for wood working, which is handy for a knife you intend to use for camping or bushcraft.

A big part of the reason the scandi grind works so well for cutting into materials like wood is the lack of a secondary bevel.  The primary bevel on the blade goes right to the edge, so the blade does not shoulder until the blade is at least as far in as the edge of the primary bevel.  I worry that this might be getting a little jargon-rich/technical, so I will just say that I like the grind.  If you want to know more about grinds I wrote about them in my article Knives: A Primer a while back.  I also link to an interesting video that explains blade geometry and shouldering in more depth in that article.

The blade on this knife is pretty small.  It is less than four inches long, and pretty thin.  The blade feels more than solid enough for any task I asked of it, but it is not a big tank of a blade.  It is a handy, nimble size, good for general tasks, but it is not a big chopper.

I did do a little batoning with the knife, just because I figured that it really wouldn't have been a big deal if the knife broke.  The knife held up just fine, but with such a short blade you are pretty much limited to splitting wood that is already kindling.  If you have read my other reviews then you know that I am not a fan of batoning, but it is very "in" right now.

The one big drawback to the thinness of the blade is that it ended up giving me blisters on my left hand from pressing on the back of the blade while carving.


The handle is one of the best things about this knife.  It is not pretty, or flashy, but it is comfy.  The handle is plastic covered with a rubber layer.  It is soft, grippy, and ergonomically excellent.  This knife really feels good in the hand, even after you have been using it for quite a while.


This is a fixed blade, not a folder, so deployment is really just taking it out of the sheath.  The sheath is well designed, and it is quick and easy to take out the knife.

Fit and Finish:

Fine for a $12 knife.  This really isn't a fancy knife.  All I cared about was the sharpness of the knife, and that everything solid.  The bevel were even on the knife.  It came very sharp.  I have absolutely no complaints.

Use Review:

I took a fair number of photos, so I will let the pictures do most of the use review talking.  The one thing I will say, which I feel perfectly sums up how I felt about this knife in use, is that I had originally planned to give this knife away after I was done with the review, but I ended up liking it so much that I decided to keep it.  I like whittling, and it is a great whittler.  It also makes a great extra backup knife.  When I am out in the field, people often need to borrow a knife.  The Mora is a good one to be able to loan out.

The Mora is not really a kitchen knife (though Mora does make kitchen knives) but it does fine.  It's really at it's best handling paring or boning tasks, it's not a real food prep knife.

I loved this knife for wood working.  I used it here to drill out a hole for a fire board.

It bit right into the wood for the notch.

Made quick work of the notch.

You can see in this picture that I ended up getting too enthusiastic with the knife.  I found that it was not totally ineffective at chopping (this knife is NOT a chopper, but it did better than I expected).  But the small size and light weight lulled me into not taking it seriously.  I ended up chopping into my fingertip.  Always remember, knives are not toys, and this one was sharp.  That cut was 100% user error.  My fault.

Cut through a branch to make a spindle for a fire drill.

This is the process of cutting through.

Just a shot of the knife surrounded shavings and evidence of using it.


I highly recommend these knives.

If you are looking for a good quality all around knife, and you don't want to pay a lot, this is the knife for you.  Heck, even if you are willing to spend a lot of money, consider picking up a Mora, it might change your mind.  They aren't fancy, they aren't flashy, but they are extremely affordable and very good quality.  Frankly mine is a pleasure to use.

Moras are a great example of a quality tool that you can find for a great price.  And the best part is, you can use it as roughly as you want, since even if you did manage to break the knife you are only out the cost of a couple Big Macs.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

As Human Beings, We Cannot Turn Away Syrian Refugees

In the 1940's when the family of nations turned their backs to refugees, millions of them died. In the 1970's when nations turned their backs to Cambodian refugees, millions of them died. I would like to live in a world that does not do this again.

Taken Without Permission from Facebook - Ralia, 7, and Rahaf, 13, in Beirut, Lebanon
Ralia, 7, and Rahaf, 13, live on the streets of Beirut. They are from Damascus, where a grenade killed their mother and brother. Along with their father they have been sleeping rough for a year. They huddle close together on their cardboard boxes. Rahaf says she is scared of “bad boys,” at which Ralia starts crying.
Copyright - Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet / REX Shutterstock

I have not had time to write for this blog lately.  I have more I want to say, and this topic requires much more, but this is the essence of what I want to say.

We cannot make the world a better place by allowing millions of people to die for want of a home.  We cannot make the world a better place by closing our hearts and borders to refugees.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, it seems that far too many people want to just let the Aegean Sea swallow the waves of desperate humanity.  Closing our eyes and hearts to the suffering of other humans will not make us safer.  And denying succor to those refugees is a betrayal of fundamental humanity.

On a coldly practical level, one can certainly argue that allowing Muslims to die by the millions will be a great marketing campaign for ISIS.  If one wanted to hurry along a planet razing clash of civilizations that dwarfed any previous conflict in human history, aiding in the dying of helpless Muslims would be a good way to go about it.  So in the interest of the survival of our society, pure self interest should motivate you to support helping the refugees.

But we should not need to look at the political costs of abandoning humanity to understand that we cannot abandon our humanity.

There are 60 million human beings displaced right now.  Our climate is in flux.  War is rendering millions homeless.  At no time since the end of WWII have more people been displaced.  We owe it to the world's refugees to help them.  Not because of what it means for us.  Not because of politics.  But because they are humans.

Turning our backs on the refugees is a way of murdering them.   Turning our backs on millions of Syrians would be an act of negligent genocide.

The Syrian refugees, and all the other people fleeing from horrors, are people.  That should be all the reason you need to know that you cannot abandon them.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Why Does the US Have the Worst Murder Rate In The Advanced World? It Does Not.

There has been another public mass shooting at a US school.  This time is was in my home state of Oregon.  Immediately afterward everybody fell back to their angry positions, and rather than taking a day or two to process the grief and tragedy of yet another random massacre, the angry yelling of prepared "arguments" began.  I do not want to write about gun control, or gun rights, or terrorism, or enter into the "debate" in any way right now, I merely want to draw attention to a ubiquitous lie founded on racism and prejudice.


I wish that the focus in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy could be on the lives lost, rather than being an excuse for the angry resumption of cultural debates.  The debate is worth having, but not before we even know how many people are dead.  In this case, not counting the shooter, the number is 9, and each of them has a name and a story.


The basic outlines of this "debate" should be clear to everyone.  On one side you have the argument for gun control, and on the other you have the argument for gun rights.  But these two basic camps are not representative of the actual arguments that are made by either side.  The majority of Americans may fall into the range of people who want things like universal background checks for gun purchases, along with waiting periods, but the arguments that are made by either side of the debate have nothing to do with the middle ground.  Both sides base their "arguments" on emotional appeals, distortions, half-truths, and outright falsehoods.  This post is about one of those outright falsehoods, the often stated claim that the US is the only "advanced" country where this kind of violence occurs.

The claim that the US is exceptional in its rates of murder/violence/gun-violence comes in a variety of false flavors.  The degree to which the various claims about US gun violence being exceptional among the nations of the world are false varies.  There are the ridiculous claims that should be self evidently absurdly false to anyone, claims like "the US has the highest murder rate in the world."  The US is not even among the top 50% of national murder rates.  But the lie that is being circulated most aggressively right now is the various flavors of the claim that the US has the highest murder rate among advanced countries (other variations include: only country where mass shootings occur regularly, highest rate of gun deaths, highest rate of gun violence, etc.).  The one thing that all of these claims has in common is that the only way that they could be considered true is if you construct a definition of "advanced" (or "developed," or "modern") that defines "advanced" as having a lower gun violence rate.

Fortunately for proponents of this idea, there is an easy group to use for this formulation, NATO (plus Japan).  The term "advanced," as used, means: Majority white, Western European Dominated Culture, preferably a colonial power, and NOT Eastern European (plus Japan).  Any formulation of the definition of "advanced" has to exclude Russia in order to make the statement true, since Russia has fewer guns, strict gun laws, more murders (both by rate AND by total despite having less than half the population of the US), and still has periodic mass shootings.

What would Russia have to do to be considered advanced?  Would it need to have one of the largest economies in the world, Check; one of the most powerful militiaries, check; huge cultural sphere, check; a permanent seat on the UN security council, check.  The list can go on, there is no definition of "advanced" that I can think of other than "Russians don't count" that could exclude Russia while including the US, unless part of the definition of "advanced" is "plays nicely with us."

Of course it goes without saying that "advanced" does not apply to brown people.  Brown people live in places that are for colonization, they are incapable of being advanced.  So Brazil is right out despite having the 8th largest economy in the world (7th largest if you go by Purchasing Power Parity) and being the 5th largest country by population and area.

What I am trying to drive home, is that the term "advanced" as it is used to describe countries, is not based on reality, it is based on prejudice.  Countries we don't like are not considered modern, nor are countries that are non-white.

But what about Japan?  Japan has a murder rate of 0.3 per 100,000 compared to the US 4.7, and they are usually included though they are not white.  This is a case where cross cultural comparisons are not very reliable.  First you have to understand that it is a cultural truth that in Japan all murders are solved, one can simply accept that at face value, or one can ask if perhaps some unknowable number of the suicides (which occur at twice the rate of the US) are in fact unsolved murders.  It seems more likely to me that a combination of lower homicide rate and fudging of official statistics is at play.
Suicide rates of a few countries

If we combine suicides and homicides the combined rate for Japan is 20.2, the combined rate for the US is 14.8.  Since the majority of gun deaths are suicides in the US, by a 2 to 1 margin, this would be a more honest comparison of the death rates from violence (if we include self harm as violence).

This reveals just a little bit of the complexity of trying to engage in cross cultural comparisons of statistics.  Different cultures organize statistics differently, and different cultures have stronger aversions to different things.  Some countries (*cough* China *cough*) publish official statistics that seem to have no reliable relationship to reality, and others publish numbers that seem fudged.

Some countries, for religious reasons have stronger aversions to suicide.  Mexico is an example of this, they are kind of the inverse of Japan.  Mexico, like most Catholic countries, has a very low suicide rate.  The rate of suicide in Mexico is only 4.4, less than half that of the US.  One can accept that at face value, or one can think that perhaps the true rate of suicide is fudged by lumping ambiguous or unsolved incidents in with murder (combined rate 25.9).


Making sweeping global statements about violence is extremely problematic.  Particularly when one tries to make simple cross cultural comparisons of issues that are viewed differently in other cultures.


Of course, sometimes direct comparisons are possible.  Some countries, like Canada, are similar enough to the US both culturally, legally, transparency, and in statistical gathering methodology to facilitate direct comparisons.  Canada does have a much lower murder rate than the US, 1.6 to the US' 4.7.  The Canadian suicide rate runs almost identical to the US, 10.2 to the US' 10.1 (this would seem to indicate that the ease of access to guns does not have a strong effect on suicide rates overall, but this is an even murkier subject than the gun/homicide link.  I would not advise trying to draw conclusions).  So we can see that even when we combine suicide and homicide, Canada does significantly better than the US.

Which brings me to my last point.  Don't read this as a blanket argument against having a meaningful discussion about gun-control or the role of violence in our society.  We should be trying to improve.  We do have a problem.  But propagating lies does not help the discussion, it simply exacerbates the Balkanization of positions on this issue.

Let's be clear here.  The Umpqua shooting did not take place in a "Gun Free Zone," because Oregon colleges cannot legally be "Gun Free Zones."  The pro-gun claims that this is the result of gun prohibition are every bit as false as the "advanced country" bit.

But this article is not an attempt to address gun control in the US, nor is it an attempt to address violence in the US.  It is simply an attempt to call out a pervasive falsehood.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Toddler In The Surf

The Zaatari Refugee camp on the border of Jordan.  Just one of the camps for the more than 4 million refugees from the Syrian Civil War.  Source:  The Telegraph

There is a picture on the internet. (Click through the link if you want to see the picture, but don't say I didn't warn you)  It is a picture that I cannot bring myself to look squarely at, and that I cannot bring myself to put on my blog.

It is a picture of a boy, about three years old, dead on the beach in the surf.  He drowned, along with his mother and brother (though his father survived), trying to reach the safety of a place not torn apart by a civil war of unimaginable cruelty.

Perhaps this picture hits me harder than most because I have a toddler myself, but I don't think that is the only reason.  The photo has inspired hundreds of thousands of words of writing.  The little dead boy has inspired soul searching in Western countries.  The whole world doesn't have a toddler.

I think that this little dead boy strikes a chord because the world knows that the little boy didn't hurt anyone.  He wasn't a rebel.  He wasn't a soldier of an evil regime gassing civilians.  He was not an ISIS militant raping and enslaving women and slaughtering innocents.   He wasn't even a not-so-good guy that littered and cheated on his wife.  He was just a little boy, trying to reach a place where he wouldn't have to worry about people trying to kill him and his family.

But he didn't make it.  Like many refugees don't make it.  But a lot more people have died long before they even started to seek refuge.  And that is what the Syrian refugee crisis is about, people, regular people, seeking refuge from slaughter and depravity.

Syrian Refugees entering Iraq back in 2013.  Source: Times of Israel

If you follow the news superficially it might seem like the Syrian refugee crisis is a new thing.  Like it is some new humanitarian crisis that has blown up out of nowhere like a summer rainstorm.  But it isn't new.  It has been years in the making, and we (the West, the US, the voting public) are not innocent in this crisis.  What is different about this crisis now is that it has expanded to the point where the wealthy nations can no longer ignore the human cost of their apathy and myopic meddling.

Syrian Refugee children from back in 2013.  Source: Occupy.com

The challenge in trying to understand something as vastly catastrophic as the Syrian Civil War, or the concommitant rise of ISIS, is that there is always more context and more factors than can be held in any one mind at one time.  The challenge is exacerbated by the inability of the human mind to truly grasp tragedies on a grand scale.  The horrors of millions displaced and hundreds of thousands dead is so far beyond the scope of our ability to grasp that the human mind just resets back to zero.  The death of one person can touch us profoundly, but when the numbers climb it becomes harder to truly feel the tragedy.  So when we are confronted with a little dead boy face down in the surf, it hits harder than the photos of tens of thousands of tents.

Syrian refugee girl, from 2012.  Source: Boston.com

The Syrian Civil War may well have been precipitated by social stresses created by a severe drought, and that drought may have been a result of human-caused climate change.  The post-apocalyptic flavor of bloodthirsty tyrants and maniacal murder-cults of movies like Mad Max seems to be made flesh in Syria.  And fittingly, if Syria is an example of a nation brought to collapse by climate change this could be a whirlwind that much of the world will ultimately reap.

But the humanitarian crisis that faces the world right now cannot simply be chalked up to global forces of nature beyond human control.  Global warming may have precipitated this mess, but failures of leadership here in the US and in the West at large have contributed to the ongoing nature of the disaster.

I could harp again on my hobby horse about the way that the failures of the US and the West to deal concretely with ISIS are creating a monster.  But I've already written a blog post about how the US is half-assing its way to catastrophy (and if ISIS has its way we will half-ass our way into armageddon).  But that would be unfair, because at this point ISIS has become too large, Iraq has become too weak, as has Syria, that a military solution to ISIS would require coherent and cohesive military and economic cooperation to avoid creating further regional destabilization.  In short, we half-assed things long enough that we can't just go stomp on ISIS anymore.

A Syrian Kurdish women and children fleeing across the Turkish border to escape ISIS advance in 2014.  Source:  The Atlantic

So instead I will harp on another one of my hobby horses, division politics.  It is seriously arguable that the humanitarian crisis in Syria has reached its current magnitude thanks in large part to US part politics.  The Syrian Civil War did not have to be allowed to spin out into a poly-polar mess of dozens of factions fighting for myriad goals.  Of course avoiding the mess would have required doing two extremely politically poisonous things: One, at least tacitly supporting Assad; and Two, minimally not working against Russia.

Really, in order to avoid this current humanitarian crisis, the US could have simply stepped aside and let Russia more actively assist Assad with the brutal suppression of the Syrian uprising.  It might have seemed heartless at the time, but it was already clear years ago that the rebels were no better, and probably worse, than Assad's regime.

You may recall the debate and bluster about "Red Lines" a few years ago when Obama was wanting to establish boundaries that would be unacceptable for Assad to cross.  Obama was like Gandalf at the bridge in Moria saying "YOU SHALL NOT GAS!!!"

Of course it wasn't a movie, and Assad did use chemical weapons, but it looked like the rebels did too.

Both parties had been making a lot of noise about Syria and how bad Assad was.  Some people said that we should back the rebels.  Some people said that Obama was recklessly getting us involved in yet another Mideast military mistake.  Some people said Obama was being too soft on Assad.  Some people, who were very much in the minority at the time were saying, "umm, Assad might be bad and all, but this whole Arab Spring thing and the rebels in Syria might not be in our best interests."

But you have to remember that at the beginning, back in 2012, the Syrian Civil war didn't really seem like that big of a deal.  The Arab Spring was bringing democracy to the Mideast.  It was very popular in Washington to hop on the "Democracy good, Dictators bad" bandwagon.  Getting into philosophical arguments about whether or not we should support "democratic" movements that seek to install democratically elected theocracies is the kind of nuanced debate that doesn't make for easily digestible soundbites.  The shorthand we tend to use in this country is "Democracy good," but what we really mean is "Liberal Democracy Done Our Way good."  After all, Hamas is the democratically elected leadership of Gaza.  The Iraqi democracy, that we installed, decided to elect leaders that oppressed the Sunni minority.  The examples go on, but it is the kind of thing that doesn't sound good in political debates.  Whereas calling a political opponent anti-democracy does sound great in political debates.

So against this backdrop, a civil war breaking out in an Arab country that had seemed very stable seemed like...  I dunno, democracy maybe, minor maybe, who knows, where is Syria anyway?

But then news reports started painting a picture of awfulness.  It was sometime in 2012 that an Al Jazeera report first started really scarring my psyche with coverage of the Syrian Civil War.  I had gotten into the habit of watching Al Jazeera reports on current events because the coverage often felt very immediate and raw.  The day that an Al Jazeera report cut to footage of an infant bleeding out from a bullet wound convinced me that maybe I liked my news a little less raw.  But once again it was the children of this war that broke my heart at the start and continue to haunt my thoughts today.

A Syrian Refugee boy in Turkey.  Reuters

With all this awfulness happening, and "Dictators bad" in everyone's mind, eyes turned to Obama.  What was he going to do about it?  And here is where division politics in the US can take a tragedy on the other side of the planet and help it grow into a humanitarian catastrophe that destabilizes a region and then spills out over the world.

Obama couldn't just do nothing, or the Republicans would accuse him of failing to lead.  But Obama couldn't just let Russia pursue their Agenda, especially since that would also help Iran.  Backing Assad would have given the Republicans tremendous ammunition, plus most Democrats wouldn't feel comfortable backing a nasty dictator.  So in order to back Assad, Obama would have had to risk attack on all sides domestically.  But there was never going to be a realistic possibility of the US invading Syria and trying to set up another Iraq (remember, ISIS had not made the news yet, so Iraq was still being sold as a semi-success).  Obama was caught between an emerging crisis and a political opposition that was poised to pounce on whatever action or inaction Obama took.

Obama essentially decided to avoid decisive action.  In order to avoid entering into a politically costly war, Obama simply expanded the use of tremendously expensive air-power.  Our politicians locked in their zero-sum game of musical chairs can all seem to agree that planes are really cool, and gee-whiz sci-fi technology like drones are fun ways to show how powerful the US is.  So Obama "took action" by dropping bombs.

Aww Yiss!!!  Mutha fukin planes 'n shit!!!  Time to drop some liberty on Syria!  Source: The Telegraph

Of course you can't bomb a country into having working infrastructure and the rule of law, and pretty much all of the dozens of factions (other than the Kurds) involved in the civil war are bad guys from the US perspective, so as logic would predict, a bombing campaign that couldn't actually support a side in a conflict failed to make anything better.

Source:  Russia Insider

The US geopolitical position made standing aside a non-option, while domestic political rivalries made any meaningful action problematic.  So the path of least political resistance was to drop bombs and ignore the problem as much as possible.

Back to the kids.  Syrian Refugee children in Iraq.  Source: Rescue.org
All of this writing and finger pointing and political hobby-horsing of mine finally brings us back to the real issue, the human cost of the Syrian Civil War.  I don't want to simply say "tsk tsk, Obama messed up, and the Republicans helped."  I don't think that assigning blame is as important as acknowledging that we all have a share in this problem, and that we all have a responsibility to do what we can about it.

And the good news is that we actually do have a variety of things we can do, even as individuals, particularly in the US.  After several hundred words crapping on the US for hamfisted meddling and apathy, I think it is only fair to remind readers that we do a lot of good as well.  We are far enough away from Syria, geographically, that we don't get a lot of direct refugees (the same goes for the Old World in general); however, the US does lead the world in the resettling of refugees.  Generally speaking, only about 1% of the world's refugees are eligible for permanent resettlement, but the US resettles more than half of that number.  Out of the entire world, the US permanently resettles more refugees than the entire rest of the world combined.

We are a country of superlatives, usually it seems like the superlatives that get focused on are things like most money spent on military, and most shootings (that one is popular to say, but not actually true by a long shot, even among developed countries), and other negative superlatives; but we are also an exceedingly generous country, and we do integrate the most refugees into our society.  And unlike many nations, the US focuses on integration, not housing refugees.  In many countries refugees never get to own property or integrate into society,  For instance, there are many Palestinians who are third and fourth generation refugees still living in refugee camps since the 1947 war of Israeli independence.  For those refugees, almost 70 years later, they are still people without a country.

And the comparison to Palestinians is potentially quite apt, because the nature of the Syrian Civil War is such that it is very possible that millions of the Syrian Refugees may never have a home to return to.  Usually, most refugees are able to return to their countries of origin after some period of time, however some refugees are permanently unable to return to their homes out of fear of death and/or persecution based on religion, political opinion, race, nationality, or membership in a particular social group.  Considering that both ISIS and the Syrian government seem intent on persecuting and killing large swathes of the Syrian population, it is likely that an unprecedentedly large number of Syrian Refugees may become as permanently stateless as the Palestinian refugees have.  What this means in practical terms, is that the permanent resettlement of potentially millions of Syrians may be necessary to avoid an ongoing intractable conflict like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Syrian refugee from Deir Ezzor with his children in tears of joy after arriving in an inflatable boat crammed with about 15 people.  Source: Mirror

It is too late to avoid the Syrian Civil War.  We can't go back and undo the circumstances that led to this crisis.  What we can do is try to keep this crisis from turning into a crisis that never ends.  I wish that I could say that it would be possible to avoid this sort of calamity occurring again, but short of direct intervention by an omnibenevolent omniscient omnipotent force, I fail to see how all future humanitarian crises can be avoided.  The best we can do is the best we can do with what we know and what we have now.

In the immediate term, here in the US, if you want to do something to help, but you don't want to spend money, you can make a difference by writing to your congresspeople.  It might seem trite, but it really is a meaningful step you can take with a minimum of effort.  Far more meaningful than any shared statuses or retweets.  If you want to use a preset form, here is one all ready for you.  That link is to support bills to help refugees, the site is the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants at Refugees.org.

If you want to do more, and you can afford to give some money there are a number of worthwhile options.  Here is an PRI article listing a number of organizations doing vital work on the Syrian refugee crisis.  There are good options for donations.  This article also contains a link to the Save the Children PSA which I will link to below, I think this video is profoundly affecting.  It captures the reality of an everyday existence torn apart, and I think that is important to bear in mind when thinking about the Syrian crisis.  Syria was not some turbulent backwater, it was for decades one of the most stable of Middle Eastern countries.  It had one of the worst human rights records in the world, but it was stable.  Stable enough for people to build lives that have been torn apart by this war.

Another option, if you are willing to truly take on some personal obligations, is you can consider sponsoring refugees.  The US Department of State deals with Refugees, however the sponsoring of refugees is done through nine non-governmental organizations (NGOs)(per the State Department website), but as an indication of how opaque this process is, I cannot seem to find out what those "nine NGOs" are.  There is some worthwhile information to be found, but the US system is confusing and decentralized enough that I feel it is beyond the scope of this blog post to try to explain how to sponsor people.  That said, if you are in Oregon (as I am) Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees (SOAR) through the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon seems to be a viable option.

The refugee sponsorship option might actually be a better fit for organizations that you may be a part of, whether a religious community or social organization.  If you are a member of an organization consider getting your organization involved in trying to help.  The focus should not even necessarily be on sponsoring refugees at this time.  Europe (and countries like Germany in particular) are currently seeing an enormous surge in refugees.  Supporting groups like Refugees Welcome is a way to help soften the impact of the costs of caring for refugees in countries like Germany and Britain.  And Charity Navigator offers a handy cheat-sheet for NGOs to donate to.

I wish that I could offer a workable solution to the entire Syrian Civil War, but I can't.  But we can all do little, and not-so-little things to help.  We can apply pressure on our politicians to seriously address the Syrian crisis.  We can donate.  Geography means that we here in the US can't give our time or labor to assist this crisis as easily, but we can try to assist those helping the refugees.

We can't make all the problems go away, but it is good to find ways to do something.  There will undoubtedly be more awful images that will come from this war.  The Syrian Civil War is ongoing.  The refugees overflowing the Middle East and spilling onto the shores of the Mediterranean are largely landing in countries still reeling from financial crises.  When we see refugees struggling with police it can feel bewildering, and that bewilderment can leave us feeling helpless.

When we are faced with images of toddlers face down in the surf it is a sickening feeling to be unable to do anything.  We can't do as much as we might like, but we can do some things.  I hope that this post helps you identify something that you can do.  Because when we can help other human beings it makes the darkness of these kinds of tragedies feel a little lighter.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Knife Review: Kershaw Scrambler Review

The Kershaw Scrambler, designed by RJ Martin


The Kershaw Scrambler is a knife that I have had for a while, and I have been meaning to write a review of the knife for months, but I am just finally getting around to actually writing the review up.  A big part of the delay on my part is due to the simple fact that I have no major criticisms of the knife, and even find it aesthetically pleasing, but I find myself feeling ambivalent toward the knife.

The TL;DR review summary:  The Kershaw Scrambler is a well made, aesthetically pleasing knife at an affordable price point.  The assisted opening deployment is possibly the best feeling assisted open I have experienced.  The drawback to the knife is that somehow, in person, this knife seems to scare people, making it problematic for daily carry in mixed company.

The Kershaw Scrambler is designed by the award winning knife maker, RJ Martin.  RJ Martin has won the award for Best Tactical Folder at Blade Show (the biggest industry show, in Atlanta annually).  He has actually won the award on four separate occasions (2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010).  The Scrambler is visually similar to the Q-36 which is the knife that won the award in 2007.  The Scrambler is significantly different knife (swedged blade, framelock, G-10 scale, different steel, etc.), but the design lineage is apparent.  The Scrambler is also available in the $30-40 price range, which is roughly 1/20th of the price of a Q-36.

RJ Martin was an aircraft designer for 17 years, which I think explains why his designs appeal to me on a visual level.  Aircraft design encourages the avoidance of design features that do not serve a function.  This means that the design aesthetics need to be consistent with function.  I do not like a lot of extraneous doo-dads on my knives, and RJ Martin's designs tend to be sleek and fairly minimalist.

Let's Start With the Specs:

From the Kershaw Website

  • SpeedSafe assisted opening
  • Frame lock
  • Flipper
  • Reversible pocketclip (tip-up/tip-down) (This is incorrect, there is no tip down option)
  • Steel: 8Cr13MoV, titanium carbo-nitride coating
  • Handle: Textured G-10/steel bolster front, 410 steel back, titanium carbo nitride coating
  • Blade length: 3.5 in. (8.9 cm)
  • Closed length: 4.4 in. (11.1 cm)
  • Overall length: 7.9 in. (20 cm)
  • Weight: 5.2 oz. (147.4 g)

The weight of this knife is listed as 5.2 oz.  This knife is not a lightweight, but is not a total brick either.  The weight falls into a middle ground for me where it does not feel like I constantly have something tugging my pants down, but I never forget that I have a knife in my pocket.  I'd say that, for me, the weight is not a deal breaker, but it is not a selling point either.  The weight helps provide a solid feeling in the hand, but it is a little more than I ideally like from a folding knife.

The Titanium carbo-nitride (TiCN) coating is a hard wearing coating that has a Vickers hardness in the 3000 range (Diamond is 10,000, Zirconium Nitride is 2800, steel usually falls in the 55-180 range).  This provides a very tough exterior coating that reduces shine and protects against damage.  Additionally, unlike Zirconium Nitride which has a friction coefficient on par with unlubricated steel, TiCN actually has a lower friction coefficient of 0.4 (unlubricated steel is around 0.5, teflon 0.04, and rubber 1-2), which means that the coating actually provides a kind of dry lubrication.  This is handy for slicing tasks since less friction means easier cutting.  I'm not crazy about the darkness of the coating, but it is a functionally excellent choice for a blade coating.

The steel is the perfectly acceptable, often Chinese made, 8Cr13MoV.  The name 8Cr13MoV describes the composition of the steel, 0.8% Carbon, 13% Chromium (which is what makes it stainless), Molybdenum, and Vandium.  8Cr13MoV was supposed to be the Chinese equivalent to 440C steel, but in actual performance is more comparable to 440B or AUS-8.  These are all perfectly respectable stainless steels with good performance, but they are not science-magic-super-steels like some of the other knives I have reviewed.  My experiences with 8Cr13MoV have been positive.  I have had some knives (Kershaw Cryo G-10) where this steel has far exceeded my expectations, but for the most part the edge retention and toughness of this steel has been very good, but not revelatory.

This knife has a flipper tab, which also serves as a finger guard when the knife is open, as it's means of deployment.  There are no thumbstuds on this knife, and it really doesn't need them.

A Note on the Clip:

The Scrambler has a tip up carry clip.  The company specs claim that it is reversible to tip down, but the only pre-drilled holes are for right/left tip up carry.  This means that for practical purposes the knife can be carried in either front pocket (depending on which side you put the clip on), but it is not appropriate for back pocket carry.  It is always a good idea to either carry a folding knife so that the blade would open into a seam in your pocket rather than opening up into the pocket itself, for safety.  If you reach into your pocket and the knife has opened up you can cut yourself badly.  I personally feel that this consideration is especially important when dealing with an assisted opening knife.  The other option is to carry the knife in a sheath.

The clip itself is a standard Kershaw clip.  The retention is adequate.  It is easy to clip on and off from your pocket.  The clip is fairly unobtrusive in the hand, but it does not add to the ergonomics of the handle.



As already described, 8Cr13MoV is a decent steel.  The biggest benefit of this steel is that it is a near optimal value steel.  The steel is a solid performing steel that allows for a good quality knife to be made at a relatively low price.  This means that you can afford to get a knife designed by RJ Martin for around the $30-40 range, and be confident that it will perform well.

Blade Finish:

The TiCN coating replaces any textural finish to the steel.  The steel is stainless, so it doesn't require a coating, but the coating does provide additional scratch resistance and slight lubrication as described earlier.  The dark color of the coating adds to the "tactical" appearance of the knife, which can be either a positive or negative depending on your perspective.


The blade shape is sleek and stylish in overall appearance.  The primary bevel is hollow ground, which means that you may want to avoid prying with the edge of your knife.  Of course you shouldn't be prying with the edge of any folding knife, unless you like having a wobbly knife.  The hollow grind makes this knife an effective slicer while allowing for a thick central spine for lateral rigidity and a swedged spine for a diamond shaped cross-section to aid penetration.  This provides a useful balance between tactical design and real world functionality.  The blade is an effective stabber, but also slices things like packing tape effectively.

The hollow grind optimizes slicing for thin things, but not necessarily thick hard things like carrots.  That is why many hunting knives are hollow ground, but most kitchen knives are full flat ground.  The hollow grind allows for a stout blade that slices really well to about a half inch, whereas a full-flat grind is better for a knife that needs to pass fully through things.

The blade edge is very slightly recurved, which looks cool, but can make sharpening the knife a little more challenging.  I did not find the slight recurve to be a significant problem during resharpening, but your mileage may vary.


The handle has a sleek appearance.  The back spacer has some file work that adds a neat subtle decorative touch (I actually didn't notice it until I had the knife for about a week).  The G-10 scale on the presentation side provides decent grip, but is not so rough that it would tear up your pocket.  The frame-lock side is a metal frame-lock...  It is what it is.

Locking Mechanism:

The locking mechanism on the Scrambler is a frame lock, which means that one side of the handle is an all metal frame, a portion if which acts as a spring which slides into place holding the blade open.  I purchased this knife specifically because I wanted to try a frame lock.  The frame lock style is quite popular among high end knives (pioneered by the Chris Reeve Sebenza).  This frame lock compares well to other frame locks I have used.  The handle is big enough that your fingers don't interfere with the lock-bar.  The lockup is solid, though the lockup is fairly deep, around 60%.

One of the attractive things about a frame lock is that when you are holding the handle your hand places extra pressure on the lock-bar.  The exposed lock-bar also looks cool.  The thickness of the metal also makes the lock appear and feel very strong.  However, I don't think that the frame lock is actually any stronger than a liner lock since the cut-out where the lock bar is bent is just as thin as a well made liner lock on every knife I have seen.  Ultimately this means that at the likely point of catastrophic failure there is no real difference in strength.  That said, if you are not being stupid with your knife, the point of catastrophic failure is not going to be an issue.

It's a folding knife, use it as such.  If the frame lock apeals to you then this lock is definitely a plus.  I personally am partial to the liner lock because I like to have non-metal handle scales on both sides of my knife.  I don't really like metal handles, which is why I have personally moved away from frame locks for the most part.  But based on the popularity of frame locks I am pretty sure I am in the minority on this topic.


The Scrambler is an assisted opening knife.  That means that when you press on the flipper tab, a spring helps propel the blade to fully open.  Pressure from the lock-bar against the blade keeps the knife from opening by itself, this pressure that needs to be overcome is called the detent.  Your finger pressing on the tab (which is a part of the blade) overcomes the detent and the spring does the rest of the work.

The difference between an assisted opening knife and a switchblade is that a switchblade is activated by pressing a button or switch on the handle.  It's a silly arbitrary distinction, but it is the difference between a knife that is legal most places where people are allowed to carry pocket-knives and an illegal switchblade.  The difference is silly and arbitrary because there is no real difference in function, but the laws against switchblades are silly and arbitrary because the laws were passed essentially because of mid-20th Century hysteria about the scourge of teenaged gangs and movies like "On the Waterfront."  If you want a little more info you can find it here and as a more in depth and entertaining article here.

Out of the assisted opening knives I have used, the Scrambler is the nicest feeling.  I prefer the assisted opening on this knife to assisted opening knives that cost five times as much.  The opening is swift, easy, and smooth.  There is a satisfying authority to the opening, but it does not feel like it wants to jump out of your hand, it's kind of a magic medium.

Fit and Finish:

The fit and finish on this knife are excellent for the price.  I did not find any flaws with the knife.  The blade was centered.  There were no scratches or mistakes on the knife when I got it.  There was no play to the blade (there is a very slight side to side play now after moderately extensive use).  Lockup is good.  I would be happy with the fit and finish quality of this knife if it were four times as expensive easily.  Of course if it were a Chinese made knife that cost four times as much I would expect a super steel and titanium frame, but I am looking at the quality of workmanship, not materials.  The materials are appropriate to the price point, and the workmanship is excellent.

Use Review:

This knife worked quite well whenever I used it.  The blade sliced things well.  The handle is ergonomic and the deployment was quite nice.  Ultimately however, I did not find myself using this knife a lot.

I strongly prefer back pocket carry, which is a big part of why I didn't carry this knife much.  I feel like if the knife had been tip down I would have probably carried it a lot more.

But ultimately what kept me from using and carrying this knife more, and the reason that I feel ambivalent about the knife, is the reactions this knife in particular provokes.  When I would pull this knife out to cut cords or open boxes people would flat out jump sometimes.  When I loaned this knife and the Kershaw Cryo to a friend so that he could try out some different options, he gave me a great quote, "This knife [Cryo], I pull it out and it is a little pocket knife.  This knife [Scrambler] makes children cry."  When I look at the knife it does not seem particularly threatening or over the top tacticool.  But for some reason people act like you just pulled out a chainsaw/machete/uzi when you open it.  It also seems very big in person, even though I have larger knives that do not seem to inspire fear.

My regular EDC knife is the Lone Wolf T2.  The T2 is bigger in all dimensions than the Scrambler.  The T2 has extensive jimping.  And yet for some reason the T2 does not seem to scare people.  Maybe it's because the T2 has wooden handle scales vs. the Scrambler's dark coated blade.  I don't know.

Ultimately, for whatever reason, I got negative reactions when I would use the Scrambler.  I think it is pretty, but it just bugged me too much to have to people scared of my pocket knife.  Some might argue that it is not my problem if people are irrationally scared of my knife, but I prefer to avoid scaring people.  I am a big bearded guy, I prefer to give people as few other reasons to be scared of me as possible.

The knife cuts well.  Sits in the hand well.  It also makes kids cry.


So there you have it.  The Scrambler is affordable.  It has a nice level of refinement in an aesthetically pleasing package and it won't break the bank.  It has a handle big enough for a large handed guy like myself, but not a huge handle.  The blade is a very useful length of 3 1/2 inches (though it somehow seems bigger).  The knife feels big and solid, but is not actually terribly large or unusually heavy.

And it scares people.

I don't know why it does.  It is not actually huge.  It doesn't have skulls on it.  It doesn't have extraneous spikes sticking out of it.  There is no reason that I can see for the reactions the knife got when I and my friend carried it.

The quality of the knife is top notch for the price.  It's a good knife.  But if you pull it out to open a letter and people act like you are threatening to go on a rampage for no reason, don't say I didn't warn you.  And that is why I am ultimately ambivalent about the knife.  The knife is very good.  Based solely on knife quality, I would absolutely recommend it.  But considering the rather large size and weight of the knife combined with some people's reactions to the knife, I feel torn.  But you could do a lot worse for the cost.  So if the look of the knife appeals to you, I'd say go for it.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

An Immodest Proposal: Universal Uniformed Service

This post is a little different for me.  It is not a knife review, or a digest of current events, or even anthropological; instead it is an idea of mine that I bend my friends and wife's ear about frequently.  My wife has been asking me to write a post about it for a while, so here goes.


A WPA Bridge

I think that our country needs to institute a system of universal service for people turning 18 .  My reasons for thinking this are manifold, but one thing that I want to point out right away is that I am not advocating for universal military service, but I do think it should be uniformed service (for simplicity's sake, from here on out I will abbreviate this idea as UUS for Universal Uniformed Service).  This is a multifaceted idea, so I have difficulty knowing exactly where to start explaining my idea, so I will start with a description of how I would envision universal service working in order to get to why I think it should be adopted.

In my mind the ideal term of universal service would be four years.  This would then sit between the completion of High School and the rest of people's lives.  Realistically, I have a hard time imagining anything more than two years being within the realm of possibility for getting people to agree on.  After all, two years of service starting at 18 years of age and continuing to 20 years would mean that most 20 year olds would have spent one tenth of their life in government service.  From that perspective, two years is a very long time.

Each year over 4 million Americans turn 18.  That would mean that if UUS were adopted, more than 8 million Americans would be in the course of their terms of service at any given time.  This number far exceeds any number that could realistically be useful as military personnel.  Having 8 million enlisted soldiers at any given time would be a massive drain on our economy, and would not make our armed services more effective.  Considering that most of those soldiers would essentially be conscripts it would probably seriously impair the effectiveness of our armed forces.

Our current number for active duty uniformed personnel is approximately 1.4 million people, with a similar number in reserve.  This is out of roughly 140 million people that would be considered "Available" for military service.  Out of the 140 million available, roughly 120 million could be considered "Fit" for service.  Essentially this means that one percent of the US population of service age is active duty military, and a total of two percent is active and reserve.  Out of the total population half a percent is active and another half a percent is reserve, for a total of less than one percent serving.  But that doesn't mean that only one percent serves, in total roughly 7.3 % of the population has served or is serving at any given time.

But 7.3% is still a small fraction of the population.  This means that the burdens of service for our country are borne by less than one tenth of the population.  More than 90% of the population is not involved in unformed service.  This seems very problematic to me.


Aside #1:

What's wrong with letting a small minority bear the burdens of service?

Firstly, and most obviously, if the vast majority of people do not serve their country then that means that the majority have not invested their own effort directly into the country.  If one accepts a fascist perspective on this, that means that the majority does not value the rights and privileges of citizenship since something unearned has no value.  The way I see it, when the majority does not serve, the real danger is that the majority does not truly see themselves as a part of the country.  The country, the government, the nation, becomes an alienated abstraction.  It is hard for a democracy to function when people do not see themselves as part of it.

Less obviously, having a small minority involved in the military means that the majority views the military as an Other.   When service is voluntary this is exacerbated.  This also leads to the serving minority feeling distinct from the majority.  It is not healthy for a society to view it's military as a distinct class of people.

The most obvious potential negative of having what is essentially a separate military class is that military dictatorship becomes a greater possibility, but I personally think this is less of a threat to our republic at this time than another consequence of our current system.

When military service is borne by a small voluntary minority it is much easier for a country to go to war.  Our all volunteer military is dangerously close to being a professional military, rather than an army of citizen soldiers.  This means that politicians and the public find it easy to start thinking of soldiers as if they were mercenaries.  It is then much easier to go to war.  After all, it's not my kids getting shot for opaque reasons in some godforsaken corner of a country whose name I can't spell, it's those people getting shot.  It's their job after all.

This is the real danger, to my mind, of our current system.  Our all volunteer military means that there is close to zero negative consequences for our politicians when they want to use American money and American lives to go kill people for poorly articulated reasons.  When we had a draft and the government decided to start pumping American teenagers into Vietnam, the push back from the US populace was massive and hugely destabilizing.  As we near 14 years of war in Afghanistan the US populace's response is simply ignore the fact that we are at war.

Universal service makes it harder to send teenagers to die and/or kill other teenagers.


But back to how to make universal service work.

The trouble with the idea of simply reinstating the draft is that, frankly, our all volunteer military is just more effective than the old model armies were.  it doesn't seem like a good idea to make our military less effective.

Also, as I mentioned, if we instituted universal military service, we would end up with more than four times as many soldiers than we currently have when we already have the second largest standing military in the world.  We already spend more on our military than anyone, and our military is extremely large.  So how can we institute universal service in a way that actually serves our country?

The one word answer is: Infrastructure.


In my vision, the primary mission of a UUS would be Infrastructure.  Our country doesn't need a larger army, but our infrastructure is crumbling.  In many cases critical pieces of the US infrastructure are still left over from the WPA projects from the Great Depression.  Much of the remainder of our infrastructure is left over from the Cold War.  Our bridges and roads are crumbling.  Utilities are antiquated.  And there is next to zero political will to seriously fix our infrastructure problems.

The Great Recession could have been an opportunity to engage in a new round of infrastructure renewal, but rather than spending tax dollars on rebuilding the foundations that our economy is built on, the money was spent on bailouts and stimulus packages.  Workers were not trained in trades.  New infrastructure was not built.  New jobs were not created.  Bankers were saved from their own malfeasance and economic stratification was exacerbated.

And our infrastructure is still crumbling.

A UUS with Infrastructure as a primary mission would mean that we would literally have armies of young people literally building a better country.

And infrastructure doesn't just mean roads and bridges.  Part of the infrastructure development could be building renewable energy systems like solar plants and wind power.  Data networks, water pipelines, sewer systems, integrated waste disposal systems that combine sewage and yard waste to more efficiently produce methane to make our waste treatment energy neutral and a source of fertilizer.  There are many ways that an ongoing commitment to infrastructure renewal and improvement can make our country stronger and provide more opportunities and a higher standard of living to people.

One of the obstacles to building new national infrastructure is cost.  A significant portion of that cost is in labor.  One of the advantages of having a uniformed service doing much of the labor is lower labor costs.  I envision a system where the Engineering Corps is paid similarly to soldiers.  This would mean much lower labor costs.  The average enlisted soldier, with less than two years in, makes a little less than $1,500 per month (not counting benefits).  The average union laborer makes a little less than $1,000 a week.  If we were to have 3 million people building infrastructure at an E1 (Enlisted 1) pay rate that would mean $4.5 billion in pay per month; vs. $12 billion in labor costs for the same amount of work at the federally mandated Davis Bacon Prevailing Wage.  So the savings would be almost 2/3 on labor pay.

Of course, if our country could actually commit to spending money on infrastructure the way it spends on the military industrial complex $7.5 billion dollars would be nothing. Heck, we spent that much on just a single no-bid contract to Dick Cheney's business partners during the second Iraq War.  When it comes to the money lost through war profiteering by politically connected companies in the military-industrial complex $7.5 billion in wage savings is a rounding error.


Aside #2

As should be very obvious from the last couple paragraphs, there are already two major politically powerful groups that would almost certainly be opposed to this type of plan:  Unions and the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC).  This would pretty much mean that the idea that I am laying out is one that has zero chance of ever getting the support of any politician.  The Democrats aren't going to want to alienate the Unions, and the Republican (and many of the Democrats) aren't going to want to alienate the MIC.

From a Union perspective this idea I am proposing is essentially taking millions of Union jobs away from trades professionals and giving them to minimally trained young adults. Taking Federal Infrastructure work away from unions would be a hard pill to swallow.  I might argue that this system will give millions of young adults real-world experience and training in vital trades, and could in fact strengthen Unions in the private sector, but government work is an important part of the bread and butter of labor unions.

Nonetheless, I feel that between Unions and the MIC, the Unions are less likely to be such an insurmountable obstacle.

When it comes to war-profiteering firms like Halliburton that fund political campaigns and then provide employment to the politicians they supported after they are out of office, it is hard to imagine any possibility of this sort of idea gaining any traction.  If we had a Universal Uniformed Service it would remove the need for things like private security companies to provide security for soldiers, or private corporations to do construction in foreign countries for the military.  All of a sudden, instead of having unlimited billions to give to politically connected corporations the US government would have to start using uniformed personnel to do work that should be done by uniformed personnel.  It would be a return to the kinds of systems that were in use back in WWII with the Construction Battalions (Seabees). (Bear in mind, the Seabees still exist, but for some reason our government prefers to funnel money to companies like Halliburton)

Since 9/11 we have spent $1.6 TRILLION (that is one thousand six-hundred billions of dollars) on the war on terror.  I will just share this quote on the breakdown of that money:
Breaking down that figure into its parts provides an even better sense of scale. Of that $1.6 trillion, the Department of State received a 6% chunk for foreign aid programs and diplomatic operations and just 1% was spent on medical care for veterans. The largest share — or about 92% — was allocated to the Department of Defense, which distributed funds to the government’s civilian contractors who manufactured the necessary jets, drones, and missiles; helped run prisons like Abu Ghraib; and, provided security and support to outnumbered U.S. troops on the ground.

Read more: http://www.cheatsheet.com/politics/this-is-what-1-6-trillion-bought-in-the-u-s-global-war-on-terror.html/?a=viewall#ixzz3gH8ZLN7g
Many people think that they are supporting the troops when they unquestioningly support the War on Terror, but the numbers show that the troops are an afterthought at best when it comes to the expenditure of our nation's treasure.  The one percent that serves gets one percent of the money, the rest goes to that other One Percent.

A conservative estimate on the amount of that money that has been wasted out of the $206 billion paid to contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq (as of 2011) was $31 to 60 billion.  Like I said before, when it comes to the incomprehensible scale of the colossal corruption of the US war machine, saving $7.5 billion in labor costs is a rounding error.

And it is this massive collusion of political and corporate interests that I feel poses the greatest obstacle to universal service.  Politicians rely on these corporations (and unions to a lesser degree) for the funding necessary to run for office, and then those corporations provide positions and pay for the politicians after they leave office.  Politicians don't just need the corporations to get their jobs in the first place, they are also a means to wealth after holding office.  In return for the money spent on the politicians, the politicians give the corporations life by feeding them the wealth taken from taxpayers.  The corporations make the politicians careers possible, and the politicians make the existence of the corporations possible.  Everybody wins, except for the taxpaying public.  A system of universal service would pose a grave threat to many of the most profitable aspects this system that our government and economy is currently predicated upon.


But back to my idea.

As I alluded to in Aside #2, even though my vision is that the primary mission of a UUS would be infrastructure, I am not envisioning infrastructure as the sole role.  8 million people is a lot of people.  Earlier I threw out the number of 3 million people employed to work on infrastructure, that still leaves 5 million people.  I would expect that at least a million of those people would be employed in the military, so now we are left with 4 million people.  There are a lot of things that we could do with those people.

The US government currently officially employs 2.6 million people, but that doesn't count Uniformed or Legislative employees, so the actual total is closer to 4.2 million people (2% of the labor pool).  But even that number hides the true number of people employed by the government.  In 2005 the federal government employed roughly 7.9 million contractors.  Now we are starting to see where those 8 million young people would really be useful.  When you factor in the millions employed by state and municipal governments, the total number of people whose pay derives from taxpayers comes to around 17% of the US labor pool (40 million people), but most of those people are not directly employed by the government, most of them are contractors, and it is the low level contractor work that would largely be replaced by a UUS.

Conservatives may enjoy lambasting the government as inefficient, but federal budget bloat is not caused by government employees, it is caused by the shadowy way that taxpayer money can be endlessly funneled to private corporations in the name of efficiency.  A UUS would gut the heart of this mechanism while posing a fraction of the labor cost.

The remainder of the 4 million people in the UUS could be employed in a wide variety of positions.  Some could be employed in healthcare as an expanded Medical Corps, the Peace Corps could be expanded and we could have armies of young Americans working around the world to better the lives of billions.  Rather than having private security providing security for government and military installations we could have a Security Corps.  And one of the keys to making my idea useful, and the key to making it possible for the system to be truly universal, would be a Clerical Corps.  At all levels of our government and military, many of the jobs being performed are clerical jobs.  While many of those positions do require highly educated individuals, many of them do not.

In order for the UUS to be universal, it would need to be something that every citizen could do.  If every position required an able body and a fully able mind then many would not be eligible to serve.  This would mean that disabled Americans would not be able to serve, and would not be equal to those who were able to serve and share in the benefits of service.  For universal service to be fair and meaningful, everyone who is willing to serve has to be able to serve.  That means (to crib directly from Heinlein) if all you can do is sharpen pencils, then the government would need to create a pencil sharpening position for you, and provided you sharpened pencils adequately for your term of service you would earn the benefits of having served.  If the UUS offered a truly diversified set of options for modes of service then it could in fact be a system of service that was open to all Americans.

In my mind, I imagine the start of the term of service being like the current start, Basic Training.  I would envision everyone going through Basic Training, including firearms training .  But obviously if the system is universal then not everyone will be able to make it through military Basic.  I would envision that there would be a variety of Basic Training tracks, with Mode of Service options being presented at the end of Basic Training.


Aside #3

Firearm training:  In my ideal scenario, the Basic Training for everyone would involve firearm training.

Considering the ubiquity of firearms in this country, I find the lack of basic firearm safety training for most people to be criminally negligent.  Guns are readily available to anyone over the age of 18, but most Americans never get taught how to use one safely.  Not everyone needs to like guns, not everyone needs to use guns regularly, but everyone who lives in a country where there are more guns than people should have a basic understanding of what guns are.

When you consider how available guns are in this country, and how little most people know about guns, it is surprising that our gun problems aren't much worse than they are.  Obviously many people think that getting rid of gun rights is the solution to gun violence, but I tend to land on the side of trying to find solutions to problems that do not involve stripping people of freedoms. But this is too big of a topic to be contained in an aside.

Also, in addition to basic firearm safety and operation, I think that every American should be trained in First Aid.  Teaching everyone about guns may or may not improve anything, but teaching everyone First Aid will undoubtedly save many lives.


Now that I have vaguely sketched out the bones of how I would imagine universal service working we can get to why universal service would be a good idea.

I have already touched on ways that universal service could be beneficial to the US.  Universal service would create a more, well, universal feeling of investment and participation in our country.  Universal service should make it more difficult for our government to engage in wars of choice, and minimally would bring more aspects of our military adventures under the auspices of our government, thereby making it easier for people to find out what it is we are really doing.  Universal service would provide work experience and trade training to millions of young people every year.  Universal service would provide lower cost alternatives to current contractor models.  Universal service would undermine the corrupt systems that warp our government.

It sounds like a panacea!  And we're not even done examining the potential benefits!  But I want to take a step back and be clear that there is not magic bullet to fix all of our problems.  Even if everything I have written about came true exactly as I have described, it would not fix every problem in our society.  Our society and world are unimaginably complex, and there are always unintended consequences.  Universal service would not eliminate corruption.  Universal service would not end social ills.  It would not eliminate all crime, nor provide equality for all disabled people.  At best, universal service could be a tool used to fight the problems we face, but it would only be one tool.  But I think that is more than reason enough to try it.

Continuing in the more intangible and hypothetical vein of reasons to institute universal service, a benefit would be providing a shared rite of passage into true adulthood for young Americans.  Right now the closest thing we have is high-school graduation.  After graduation the privileged get to go directly on to college which functions as an adolescence extending super high-school viewed as a necessary step to achieving a financially solvent future.  Some people go on to trade schools.  A small percentage go off to perform national service.  And the vast majority are dumped out into a world that they are unprepared for without tradable skills or systems of support.  Two years outside of the home, away from school, away from parents, with others of the same age, learning skills, and with a kind of structured and supported step on the way to adulthood would provide young adults with a clearer transition from childhood (I can easily imagine how many would see this very differently, but that is how I view it).

More concretely, universal service would provide possible solutions to many of the political issues that we currently struggle with.  Many Americans require assistance to go to college.  Many require assistance to afford healthcare.  And most young people start out their adulthood without a nest egg to build from.  Universal service could entitle all people who complete their terms to the GI Bill.  Everyone would get access to educational funds.  Everyone would get access to VA medical care.  And upon completion of the term of service, everyone would have had the opportunity to build up a cash reserve to start their adult lives with.  This would simplify arguments about how to make higher education more accessible, plus the incoming freshmen would have had a few years of adult life under their belt before starting school.

If everyone was eligible for VA medical, politicians would not be able to get away with calling people who need assistance with their medical care parasites.  Additionally, politicians would not be able to continue to get away with under-funding the VA the way they currently do.  And let's be clear here, the US government under-funds the VA to such an great extent that it is costing us the lives of thousands of veterans every year.  Our system currently says that those who have served are entitled to medical care.  Many people think that universal healthcare should be provided, and in any case many people have difficulty affording healthcare.  Universal service would make universal access to basic healthcare a reality, and when everyone has access to the VA, then everyone has a stake in making it really work.

One of the benefits of this approach is that it also works around the problems of whether or not there would still be private care.  There would be no need to get rid of private care.  It would be a two tier system in essence, but I am fine with that.  A universally available basic health care system also makes it easier for individuals to engage in entrepreneurship since access to healthcare would not be reliant on employers.  However, this is another topic too big for an aside.

And making the benefits that we bestow on those who have served something that is universally available is the key to making this idea truly useful and workable.  Universally earned entitlements make it much harder for conservatives to demonize poverty.  This system also provides concrete incentives for everyone to serve, because there is one final piece to my vision that I think is vital.  I think that people must be able to be conscientious objectors, or to refuse to serve for religious reasons.  In order for universal service to really be of value it has to be something that people can refuse.  Service would provide benefits, and service would be possible for those who do not wish to serve in the military, but it would not be forced on people.


Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn't.  Maybe I'm a cockeyed optimist.  Maybe I'm an unwitting crypto-fascist.  I can't say for sure, but I think that universal service is a workable tool that we could use to build a better society with better economic mobility and a stronger base.

This is one of my more grandiose political ideas.  What do you think?  Let me know.