Roundup: Media's Take
This is where we excerpt articles from the media that take a historical approach to events in the news.
SOURCE: WSJ (10-15-12)
Mr. Gordon is the author of An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (HarperCollins, 2004).
SOURCE: National Interest (10-15-12)
Paul R Pillar is a former senior CIA counterterrorist officer and now professor at Georgetown University.
SOURCE: American Conservative (10-15-12)
Martin Sieff is Chief Global Analyst for The Globalist and the author of the upcoming Cycles of Change: The Patterns of U.S. Politics from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama.
Russia and China today both enjoy the same grand-strategic advantage against the United States that the United States enjoyed through the 44 years of the Cold War.
The Soviet Union was then the superpower of the left, as the left had been globally understood since the French Revolution. It was the state committed to the promotion of revolutionary change across the world.
The United States, by contrast, was the superpower of the right. It was committed to the maintenance of stability and continuity in government systems around the world.
The United States won the Cold War. The craving for stability, peace, and continuity among governments and populations alike proved infinitely stronger than the fleeting flashes of revolutionary fervor. The Soviet Union eventually became physically exhausted and globally isolated by its ideological commitment to revolutionary change.
Today, however, the roles of the two great powers have been reversed...
SOURCE: Independent (UK) (10-14-12)
Rupert Cornwell writes for The Independent.
One way and another, surveyors have left their mark on American history. George Washington started his career as one. Then came Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, two from Britain who in the 1760s used their skills to settle a boundary dispute between the then colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Whether or not the word "Dixie" derives from Jeremiah's surname is unclear. (According to another theory, it originates with the "Dix" on the back of $10 bills in New Orleans.) But the physical line he helped to demarcate, and its later unofficial extension west along the Ohio river, came to symbolise the great divide between the North and the South, between the slave and non-slave states that fought the American Civil War.
Even now, along today's Maryland/Pennsylvania line, you can still see some of the old mile markers of the Mason-Dixon line, great 500lb slabs of limestone shipped from England. But no longer does this 233-mile border symbolise America's ancestral cultural divide. That line is sliding gently but inexorably southwards, testament to a shift in US society that could play a critical role in this year's election.
In fact, the unofficial western extension still holds good; the mighty Ohio remains a North/South frontier. If Washington DC fell to the Confederate armies, Abraham Lincoln reputedly said, he would set up a new capital in Ohio, which then was the third most populous state in the Union. But head south across the river from Cincinnati and you're in another world – or, more exactly, Kentucky. The first town you hit is Florence, or as the sign on the water tower that dominates the skyline has it, "Florence, Y'all"...
SOURCE: TomDispatch (10-14-12)
Jeremiah Goulka writes about American politics and culture, focusing on security, race, and the Republican Party. A TomDispatch regular, his work has been published in the American Prospect, Salon, and elsewhere. He was formerly an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a recovery worker in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice. He lives in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremiahgoulka or contact him through his website jeremiahgoulka.com.
Democrats are frustrated: Why can’t Republican voters see that Republicans pass voter ID laws to suppress voting, not fraud?
Democrats know who tends to lack ID. They know that the threat of in-person voter fraud is wildly exaggerated. Besides, Republican officials could hardly have been clearer about the real purpose behind these laws and courts keep striking them down as unconstitutional. Still, Republican support remains sky high, with only one third of Republicans recognizing that they are primarily intended to boost the GOP's prospects.
How can Republican voters go on believing that the latest wave of voter ID laws is about fraud and that it’s the opposition to the laws that’s being partisan?
To help frustrated non-Republicans, I offer up my own experience as a case study. I was a Republican for most of my life, and during those years I had no doubt that such laws were indeed truly about fraud. Please join me on a tour of my old outlook on voter ID laws and what caused it to change.
Fraud on the Brain
I grew up in a wealthy Republican suburb of Chicago, where we worried about election fraud all the time. Showing our IDs at the polls seemed like a minor act of political rebellion against the legendary Democratic political machine that ran the city and county. “Vote early and often!” was the catchphrase we used for how that machine worked. Those were its instructions to its minions, we semi-jokingly believed, and it called up an image of mass in-person voter fraud.
We hated the “Democrat” machine, seeing it as inherently corrupt, and its power, we had no doubt, derived from fraud. When it wasn’t bribing voters or destroying ballots, it was manipulating election laws -- creating, for instance, a signature-collecting requirement so onerous that only a massive organization like itself could easily gather enough John Hancocks to put its candidates on the ballot.
Republicans with long memories still wonder if Richard Nixon lost Illinois -- and the 1960 election -- thanks to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s ability to make dead Republicans vote for John F. Kennedy. For us, any new report of voter fraud, wrapped in rumor and historical memory, just hammered home what we already knew: it was rampant in our county thanks to the machine.
And it wasn’t just Chicago. We assumed that all cities were run by similarly corrupt Democratic organizations. As for stories of rural corruption and vote tampering? You can guess which party we blamed. Corruption, election fraud, and Democrats: they went hand-in-hand-in-hand.
Sure, we were aware of the occasional accusation of corruption against one or another Republican official. Normally, we assumed that such accusations were politically motivated. If they turned out to be true, then you were obviously talking about a “bad apple.”
I must admit that I did occasionally wonder whether there were any Republican machines out there, and the more I heard about the dominating one in neighboring DuPage County, the less I wanted to know. (Ditto Florida in 2000.) Still, I knew -- I knew -- that the Dems would use any crooked tool in the box to steal elections. Therefore America needed cleaner elections, and cleaner elections meant voter ID laws.
Doesn’t Everyone Have an ID?
Every once in a while I’d hear the complaint -- usually from a Democrat -- that such laws were “racist.” Racist? How could they be when they were so commonsensical? The complainers, I figured, were talking nonsense, just another instance of the tiresome PC brigade slapping the race card on the table for partisan advantage. If only they would scrap their tedious, tendentious identity and victim politics and come join the rest of us in the business of America.
All this held until one night in 2006. At the time, my roommate worked at a local bank branch, and that evening when we got into a conversation, he mentioned to me that the bank required two forms of identification to open an account. Of course, who wouldn’t? But then he told me this crazy thing: customers would show up with only one ID or none at all -- and it wasn’t like they had left them at home.
“Really?” I said, blown away by the thought of it.
And here was the kicker: every single one of them was black and poor. As I’ve written elsewhere, this was one of the moments that opened my eyes to a broader reality which, in the end, caused me to quit the Republican Party.
I had no idea. I had naturally assumed -- to the extent that I even gave it a thought -- that every adult had to have at least one ID. Like most everyone in my world, I’ve had two or three at any given time since the day I turned 16 and begged my parents to take me to the DMV.
Until then, I couldn’t imagine how voter ID laws might be about anything but fraud. That no longer held up for the simple reason that, in the minds of Republican operators and voters alike, there is a pretty simple equation: Black + Poor = Democrat. And if that was the case, and the poor and black were more likely to lack IDs, then how could those laws not be aimed at them?
Whenever I tell people this story, most Republicans and some Democrats are shocked. Like me, they had no idea that there are significant numbers of adults out there who don’t have IDs.
Of course, had I bothered to look, the information about this was hiding in plain sight. According to the respected Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, 7% of the general voting public doesn’t have an adequate photo ID, but those figures rise precipitously when you hit certain groups: 15% of voting age citizens making less than $35,000 a year, 18% of Americans over 65, and a full quarter of African Americans.
A recent study by other researchers focusing on the swing-state of Pennsylvania found that one in seven voters there lack an ID -- one in three in Philadelphia -- with minorities far more likely than whites to fall into this category. In fact, every study around notes this disparate demographic trend, even the low-number outlier study preferred by Hans van Spakovsky, the conservative Heritage Foundation’s voter “integrity” activist: its authors still found that “registered voters without photo IDs tended to be female, African-American, and Democrat.”
The “R” Bomb
The more I thought about it, the more I understood why Democrats claim that these laws are racist. By definition, a law that intentionally imposes more burdens on minorities than on whites is racist, even if that imposition is indirect. Seeing these laws as distant relatives of literacy tests and poll taxes no longer seemed so outrageous to me.
After I became a Democrat, I tried explaining this to some of the Republicans in my life, but I quickly saw that I had crossed an invisible tripwire. You see, if you ever want to get a Republican to stop listening to you, just say the “R” word: racism. In my Republican days, any time a Democrat started talking about how some Republican policy or act was racist, I rolled my eyes and thought Reagan-esquely, there they go again…
We loathed identity politics, which we viewed as invidious -- as well as harmful to minorities. And the “race card” was so simplistic, so partisan, so boring. Besides, what about all that reverse discrimination? Now that was racist.
We also hated any accusation that made it sound like we were personally racist. It’s a big insult to call someone a racist or a bigot, and we loathed it when Democrats associated the rest of us Republicans with the bigots in the party. At least in my world, we rejected racism, which we defined (in what I now see as a conveniently narrow way) as intentional and mean-spirited acts or attitudes -- like the laws passed by segregationist Democrats.
This will undoubtedly amaze non-Republicans, but given all of the above, Republican voters continue to hear the many remarkably blunt statements by those leading the Republican drive to pass voter ID laws not as racist but at the very worst Democratist. That includes comments like that of Pennsylvania House majority leader Mike Turzai who spoke of “voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: done.” Or state Representative Alan Clemmons, the principal sponsor of South Carolina’s voter ID law, who handed out bags of peanuts with this note attached: “Stop Obama’s nutty agenda and support voter ID.”
Besides, some would point out that these laws also affect other people like the elderly (who often vote Republican) or out-of-state college students (often white) -- and the latter would make sense as a target, because in the words of New Hampshire House leader Bill O’Brien, that’s the age when you tend to “foolishly... do what kids do”: “vote as a liberal.” And yes, this might technically violate the general principle that clean elections should include everyone, but partisans won’t mind the results.
This makes me wonder how bothered I would have been had I known how committed Republican strategists are to winning elections by shrinking the electorate rather than appealing to more of it. I did certainly harbor a quiet suspicion that, to the extent we were the party of the managerial class, we were inherently fated to be a minority party.
The Safety Valve
Another key reason why Republican voters see no problem with these laws is their big safety valve: if you don’t have an ID, well, then, be responsible and go get one!
If, however, Republican voters are generally unaware of the high frequency of minorities, the poor, and the elderly lacking IDs, they are blissfully ignorant of the real costs of getting an ID. Yes, the ID itself is free for the indigent (to comport with the 24th Amendment’s ban on poll taxes), but the documents one needs to get a photo ID aren’t, and the prices haven’t been reduced. Lost your naturalization certificate? That’ll be $345. Don’t have a birth certificate because you’re black and were born in the segregated south? You have to go to court.
Similarly, Republican voters -- and perhaps most others -- tend not to be aware of how hard it can be to get an ID if you live in a state where DMV offices are far away or where they simply aren't open very often. One can only hope that would-be voters have access to a car or adequate public transportation, and a boss who won’t mind if they take several hours off work to go get their ID, particularly if they live in, say, the third of Texas counties that have no ID-issuing offices at all.
I doubt that most Republican voters know that some Republican officials are taking steps to make it even harder to get that ID. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, to take an example, signed a strict voter ID law and then made a move to start closing DMV offices in areas full of Democrats, while increasing office hours in areas full of Republicans -- this in a state in which half of blacks and Hispanics are estimated to lack a driver’s license and a quarter of its DMV offices are open less than one day per month. (Sauk City’s is open a whopping four times a year.) Somehow I doubt that this is primarily about saving money.
What To Do?
One reason why voter ID laws are so politically successful is that they put Democrats in a weak position, forcing them to deny that in-person voter fraud exists or that it’s a big deal. Republican voters and media simply won’t buy that. It doesn’t matter how many times the evidence of the so-called threat has been shown to be trumped up. It’s a bad position to be in.
Providing examples of Republicans committing fraud themselves -- whether in-person or, as in Massachusetts and Florida, with absentee ballots (a category curiously exempted from several of the Republican-inspired voter ID statutes) -- won’t provide a wake-up call either. Most Republican voters will shrug it off by saying, essentially, “everybody’s doing it.”
If we can’t talk about race, and Republican voters insist that these laws really are about fraud, then maybe Democrats should consider a different tack and embrace them to the full -- so long as they are redesigned to do no harm. IDs would have to be truly free and easy to obtain. The poor should not be charged for the required documentation. More DMVs should be opened, particularly in poor neighborhoods and rural areas, and all DMVs should have evening and weekend hours so that no one has to miss work to get an ID.
To be sure that the laws do no harm, how about mobile DMV units that could go straight to any area where people need IDs? Nursing homes, churches, senior centers, you name it. They could even register people to vote at the same time. Now that would be efficient -- and democratic.
No, wait, I’ve got it: How about a mandatory ID card? Every American would receive a photo ID as soon as he or she turns 18. That’s it! A national ID card!
Then voter ID laws would be the perfect thing, because we all want clean elections with high voter turnout, don’t we?
Something tells me, though, that Republicans won’t go for it.
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SOURCE: The World Today (Chatham House) (10-10-12)
John Bolton is former US Ambassador to the United Nations and foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign.
Barack Obama has always been a comfort to European social democrats, given how similar their philosophies are, domestically and internationally. But in American terms, he is a radical president, and a failed one. A second term would be worse, as vividly evidenced in his famous ‘off microphone’ conversation with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Obama pleaded for ‘space’ before the US election, after which he would have more ‘flexibility’ towards Russia.
This spectacle of an American president negotiating on his own behalf rather than for his country is deeply troubling. Equally troubling is Obama’s failure to understand the vital nexus between an internationally strong America and sustained domestic prosperity. Global stability, a prerequisite for trade, investment, communications and travel, is hardly spontaneous. What stability we have depends on the visibility and strength of America and its alliance partners, especially NATO.
But Obama has spurned prudent security policies, starting with national missile defence, the ostensible subject of his Medvedev conversation. Ronald Reagan, whose national security philosophy was ‘peace through strength’, rejuvenated national missile defence. In 2001, George W. Bush carried the ideas forward, announcing US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty so we could develop missile defence capabilities against rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. But ‘mutual assured destruction’ still holds sway among Democrats, and combined with the ‘reset’ button approach to Russia, Obama set about gutting missile defence. Moscow still opposes US attempts to protect our civillian population, and Obama surrendered to its views, cancelling facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Mitt Romney, by contrast, follows Reagan’s vision, insisting on protecting our civilian population from the devastating impact of nuclear, chemical or biological attacks delivered via ballistic missiles. This is sound defence policy in its own right, but also much more: the missile defence debate vividly illuminates the huge gap between Obama’s search for foreign forbearance, and Romney’s adherence to Reagan’s ‘peace through strength’...
SOURCE: Jerusalem Post (10-8-12)
The writer is a former US diplomat. He was directly involved in enforcing UN sanctions against Iraq and in implementing the "Oil-for-Food" program.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained recently why the US refuses to set a deadline for Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program: "We’re convinced that we have more time…to do everything we can to bring Iran to a good-faith negotiation." Inherent in that statement is the assumption that vigorous sanctions belatedly adopted by the US and Europe may yet force Iran to change course.
The UN’s efforts to alter Iraq’s actions have been cited as an example of a successful sanctions regime. Contrary to what some people now believe (or have forgotten), sanctions on Iraq were an abject failure. Let’s review what actually happened when the UN imposed that sanctions regime, and then apply those lessons to today’s situation.
In August 1990, the Security Council imposed a near-total financial and trade embargo on Iraq. Eight months later, following the end of the Gulf War, the Security Council passed an even tougher resolution calling for the removal of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was required to cooperate with UNSCOM (the United Nations Special Commission) on WMD compliance matters.
From 1991 to 2003, the Security Council passed a series of resolutions reinforcing the restrictions on Saddam’s government and implementing the "Oil-for-Food" program. That program allowed Iraq to sell a fixed amount of oil in order to purchase food and humanitarian supplies for its citizens, thus staving off a potential humanitarian catastrophe.
The Iraq sanctions regime was far broader and harsher than anything now being imposed on Iran...
SOURCE: Financial Times (UK) (10-9-12)
Martin Wolf is a regular columnist for the Financial Times and hosts FT's Economics Forum.
What happens if a large, high-income economy, burdened with high levels of debt and an overvalued, fixed exchange rate, attempts to lower the debt and regain competitiveness? This question is of current relevance, since this is the challenge confronting Italy and Spain. Yet, as a chapter in the International Monetary Fund’s latest World Economic Outlook demonstrates, a relevant historical experience exists: that of the UK between the two world wars. This proves that the interaction between attempts at "internal devaluations" and the dynamics of debt are potentially lethal. Moreover, the plight of Italy and Spain is, in many ways, worse than the UK’s was. The latter, after all, could go off the gold standard; exit from the eurozone is far harder. Again, the UK had a central bank able and willing to reduce interest rates. The European Central Bank may not be able and willing to do the same for Italy and Spain.
The UK emerged from the first world war with public debt of 140 per cent of gross domestic product and prices more than double the prewar level. The government resolved both to return to the gold standard at the prewar parity, which it did in 1925, and to pay off the public debt, to preserve creditworthiness. Here was a country fit for the Tea Party.
To achieve its objectives, the UK implemented tight fiscal and monetary policies. The primary fiscal surplus (before interest payments) was kept near 7 per cent of GDP throughout the 1920s. This was, in turn, accomplished by the "Geddes Axe", after a commission chaired by Sir Eric Geddes. This recommended slashing government spending in precisely the way today’s believers in "expansionary austerity" recommend. Meanwhile, the Bank of England raised interest rates to 7 per cent in 1920. The aim of this was to support the return to the prewar parity. Coupled with the consequent deflation, the result was extraordinarily high real interest rates. This, then, was how the self-righteous fools in the British establishment greeted the hapless survivors of the hellish war.
So how did this commitment to fiscal famine and monetary necrophilia work?..
SOURCE: Foreign Policy (10-8-12)
John Arquilla is professor and chair of the defense analysis department at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and author, most recently, of Insurgents, Raiders and Bandits.
What if all the reasons commonly given for the onset of the current age of terror are wrong? If violence against the innocent is not the product of religious fanaticism, reaction to corrupt governance, or a manifestation of the sheer hopelessness and rage that come with perpetual poverty, then what are the real causes? If the received wisdom about terrorism can be challenged, then there is an obligation to look more deeply into its origins.
In the matter of faith-based zealotry, psychiatrist and former CIA case officer Marc Sageman has profiled hundreds of jihadis affiliated with the al Qaeda movement, finding that religion is a lesser included factor in their recruitment. Indeed, a significant percentage of these militants undertook graduate studies -- such study itself a seeming contradiction of fundamentalism -- many outside the Muslim world. For example, 9/11 attack team leader Mohammed Atta studied architecture in Germany. Al Qaeda's deepest strategic thinker, Abu Mus'ab al-Suri is an engineer. Osama bin Laden had a business education and came from a very wealthy family of industrialists -- again giving the lie to the notion of terrorists as unthinking religious fanatics. As Sageman notes in his Understanding Terror Networks, these sorts of secular backgrounds are commonly found. We have misjudged the jihad.
As to terror arising in reaction to government oppression, the Arab Spring provides much evidence -- as do the many "color revolutions" that have come before -- that social uprisings can take the form of, and succeed with, peaceful demonstrations. And on those occasions when armed revolts have erupted, as in Libya and Syria, they have aimed largely at the tyrants and their militaries, not the innocent. If anything, insurrections in the Muslim world seem less prone to the kind of anti-government terrorism that has surfaced from time to time in Europe with such groups as the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, and in the United States in the form of far-right extremists like Timothy McVeigh.
With regard to the belief that poverty and hopelessness spark terrorism, one can only say that many, many countries see endless years of travail of this sort without ever a terrorist group rising up. Why is it that the vast majority of those who suffer in such settings fail to take up arms and commit terrorist acts?..
SOURCE: Jerusalem Post (10-9-12)
Hayat Alvi, PhD, is an associate professor at the US Naval War College.
October 7 marked the eleventh year of the Afghanistan war, and American casualties reached 2,000, while many more thousands of Afghans have been killed or maimed by conflict-related casualties as well as terrorist suicide attacks. As US and coalition forces prepare for the 2014 pullout, the International Crisis Group just released a report warning that the Afghan government could collapse, precipitating a civil war.
Most likely that is what the Taliban and fellow insurgents are counting on, allowing history to repeat itself once again. If we were to pull one thread from today’s situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, we would see it woven into an ideological fabric that goes back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan era. Very little has changed in the militants’ worldview and strategies since the 1980s. In fact, that very thread is also connected in many respects to the post-Arab Awakening environments in North Africa, where Salafists are asserting themselves in the most unsavory ways.
The Washington Post (October 6) describes the Salafists’ tactics in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt: "As moderate Islamist leaders in all three countries begin to craft post-revolutionary constitutions, the Salafists in their midst are pushing – sometimes at the ballot box, sometimes at the point of a gun – to create societies that more closely mirror their ultraconservative religious beliefs and lifestyles."
What is the relationship between the current Salafist trends and tactics in North Africa and the Taliban in Afghanistan?..
SOURCE: WaPo (10-8-12)
Clinton Yates is a D.C. native, Local News Editor for Express and a columnist for The Root DC. He was born at GWU hospital the week before Ronald Reagan ended up there for the wrong reasons. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
More than 500 years ago, Christopher Columbus showed up on the shores of the Bahamas. For many years, the Italian explorer was credited with “discovering” the New World. It’s understood now that his arrival was more invasion than discovery. The fact that Columbus is celebrated as a hero is widely protested in many places on this day.
And that act of “nouveau-Columbusing” — showing up someplace and acting as if history started the moment you arrived as mentioned here — is directly germane to the discussion of gentrification in the District.
Over the past month, I’ve sat on three panels discussing different aspects of the changing qualities of Washington. And what’s clear to me is that, although the sting of displacement is understandably harsh, too many black Washingtonians are doing their own brand of nouveau-Columbusing when it comes to the history of the city. Too often I heard claims of how newcomers were not respecting the history of neighborhoods they moved into. Or people throwing around words like “yours” and “ours” when referencing certain blocks. Every once in a while someone would approach me with a lengthy description of “The Plan,” the long standing conspiracy theory I’ve heard about since I was a kid that the current gentrification trends are part of a diabolical scheme cooked up by shadow power brokers....
SOURCE: Foreign Policy (10-8-12)
Robert Zoellick, former World Bank president, is senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and distinguished visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. This article is adapted from his Alastair Buchan Memorial Lecture at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
SOURCE: National Interest (10-8-12)
Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
SOURCE: NYT (10-6-12)
SOURCE: NYT (10-6-12)
SOURCE: NYT (10-5-12)
SOURCE: Guardian (UK) (10-3-12)
SOURCE: WSJ (10-3-12)
Karl Rove served as Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush from 2000–2007 and Deputy Chief of Staff from 2004–2007.
SOURCE: POLITICO (10-3-12)
Jonathan Martin is a senior political reporter at POLITICO, where he covers national politics.
SOURCE: TomDispatch (9-30-12)
Five big things will decide what this country looks like next year and in the 20 years to follow, but here’s a guarantee for you: you’re not going to hear about them in the upcoming presidential debates. Yes, there will be questions and answers focused on deficits, taxes, Medicare, the Pentagon, and education, to which you already more or less know the responses each candidate will offer. What you won’t get from either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama is a little genuine tough talk about the actual state of reality in these United States of ours. And yet, on those five subjects, a little reality would go a long way, while too little reality (as in the debates to come) is a surefire recipe for American decline.
So here’s a brief guide to what you won’t hear this Wednesday or in the other presidential and vice-presidential debates later in the month. Think of these as five hard truths that will determine the future of this country.
1. Immediate deficit reduction will wipe out any hope of economic recovery: These days, it’s fashionable for any candidate to talk about how quickly he’ll reduce the federal budget deficit, which will total around $1.2 trillion in fiscal 2012. And you’re going to hear talk about the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan and more like it on Wednesday. But the hard truth of the matter is that deep deficit reduction anytime soon will be a genuine disaster. Think of it this way: If you woke up tomorrow and learned that Washington had solved the deficit crisis and you’d lost your job, would you celebrate? Of course not. And yet, any move to immediately reduce the deficit does increase the likelihood that you will lose your job.
When the government cuts spending, it lays off workers and cancels orders for all sorts of goods and services that would generate income for companies in the private sector. Those companies, in turn, lay off workers, and the negative effects ripple through the economy. This isn’t atomic science. It’s pretty basic stuff, even if it’s evidently not suitable material for a presidential debate. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service predicted in a September report, for example, that any significant spending cuts in the near-term would contribute to an economic contraction. In other words, slashing deficits right now will send us ever deeper into the Great Recession from which, at best, we’ve scarcely emerged.
Champions of immediate deficit reduction are likely to point out that unsustainable deficits aren’t good for the economy. And that’s true -- in the long run. Washington must indeed plan for smaller deficits in the future. That will, however, be a lot easier to accomplish when the economy is healthier, since government spending declines when fewer people qualify for assistance, and tax revenues expand when the jobless go back to work. So it makes sense to fix the economy first. The necessity for near-term recovery spending paired with long-term deficit reduction gets drowned out when candidates pack punchy slogans into flashes of primetime TV.
2. Taxes are at their lowest point in more than half a century, preventing investment in and the maintenance of America’s most basic resources: Hard to believe? It’s nonetheless a fact. By now, it’s a tradition for candidates to compete on just how much further they’d lower taxes and whether they’ll lower them for everyone or just everyone but the richest of the rich. That’s a super debate to listen to, if you’re into fairy tales. It’s not as thrilling if you consider that Americans now enjoy the lightest tax burden in more than five decades, and it happens to come with a hefty price tag on an item labeled “the future.” There is no way the U.S. can maintain a world-class infrastructure -- we’re talking levees, highways, bridges, you name it -- and a public education system that used to be the envy of the world, plus many other key domestic priorities, on the taxes we’re now paying.
Anti-tax advocates insist that we should cut taxes even more to boost a flagging economy -- an argument that hits the news cycle nearly every hour and that will shape the coming TV “debate.” As the New York Times recently noted, however, tax cuts might have been effective in giving the economy a lift decades ago when tax rates were above 70%. (And no, that’s not a typo, that’s what your parents and grandparents paid without much grumbling.) With effective tax rates around 14% for Mitt Romney and many others, further cuts won’t hasten job creation, just the hollowing out of public investment in everything from infrastructure to education. Right now, the negative effects of tax increases on the most well-off would be small -- read: not a disaster for “job creators” -- and those higher rates would bring in desperately-needed revenue. Tax increases for middle-class Americans should arrive when the economy is stronger.
Right now, the situation is clear: we’re simply not paying enough to fund the basic ingredients of prosperity from highways and higher education to medical research and food safety. Without those funds, this country’s future won’t be pretty.
3. Neither the status quo nor a voucher system will protect Medicare (or any other kind of health care) in the long run: When it comes to Medicare, Mitt Romney has proposed a premium-support program that would allow seniors the option of buying private insurance. President Obama wants to keep Medicare more or less as it is for retirees. Meanwhile, the ceaseless rise in health-care costs is eating up the wages of regular Americans and the federal budget. Health care now accounts for a staggering 24% of all federal spending, up from 7% less than 40 years ago. Governor Romney’s plan would shift more of those costs onto retirees, according to David Cutler, a health economist at Harvard, while President Obama says the federal government will continue to pick up the tab. Neither of them addresses the underlying problem.
Here’s reality: Medicare could be significantly protected by cutting out waste. Our health system is riddled with unnecessary tests and procedures, as well as poorly coordinated care for complex health problems. This country spent $2.6 trillion on health care in 2010, and some estimates suggest that a staggering 30% of that is wasted. Right now, our health system rewards quantity, not quality, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of paying for each test and procedure, Medicare could pay for performance and give medical professionals a strong incentive to provide more efficient and coordinated care. President Obama’s health law actually pilot tests such an initiative. But that’s another taboo topic this election season, so he scarcely mentions it. Introducing such change into Medicare and the rest of our health system would save the federal government tens of billions of dollars annually. It would truly preserve Medicare for future generations, and it would improve the affordability of health coverage for everyone under 65 as well. Too bad it’s not even up for discussion.
4. The U.S. military is outrageously expensive and yet poorly tailored to the actual threats to U.S. national security: Candidates from both parties pledge to protect the Pentagon from cuts, or even, in the case of the Romney team, to increase the already staggering military budget. But in a country desperate for infrastructure, education, and other funding, funneling endless resources to the Pentagon actually weakens “national security.” Defense spending is already mind-numbingly large: if all U.S. military and security spending were its own country, it would have the 19th largest economy in the world, ahead of Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and Switzerland. Whether you’re counting aircraft carriers, weapons systems, or total destructive power, it’s absurdly overmatched against the armed forces of the rest of the world, individually or in combination. A couple of years ago, then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates gave a speech in which he detailed that overmatch. A highlight: “The U.S. operates 11 large carriers, all nuclear powered. In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.” China recently acquired one carrier that won’t be fully functional for some time, if ever -- while many elected officials in this country would gladly build a twelfth.
But you’ll hear none of this in the presidential debates. Perhaps the candidates will mention that obsolete, ineffective, and wildly expensive weapons systems could be cut, but that’s a no-brainer. The problem is: it wouldn’t put a real dent in national defense spending. Currently almost one-fifth of every dollar spent by the federal government goes to the military. On average, Americans, when polled, say that they would like to see military funding cut by 18%.
Instead, most elected officials vow to pour limitless resources into more weapons systems of questionable efficacy, and of which the U.S. already owns more than the rest of the world combined. Count on one thing: military spending will not go down as long as the U.S. is building up a massive force in the Persian Gulf, sending Marines to Darwin, Australia, and special ops units to Africa and the Middle East, running drones out of the Seychelles Islands, and “pivoting” to Asia. If the U.S. global mission doesn’t downsize, neither will the Pentagon budget -- and that’s a hit on America’s future that no debate will take up this month.
5. The U.S. education system is what made this country prosperous in the twentieth century -- but no longer: Perhaps no issue is more urgent than this, yet for all the talk of teacher’s unions and testing, real education programs, ideas that will matter, are nonexistent this election season. During the last century, the best education system in the world allowed this country to grow briskly and lift standards of living. Now, from kindergarten to college, public education is chronically underfunded. Scarcely 2% of the federal budget goes to education, and dwindling public investment means students pay higher tuitions and fall ever deeper into debt. Total student debt surpassed $1 trillion this year and it’s growing by the month, with the average debt burden for a college graduate over $24,000. That will leave many of those graduates on a treadmill of loan repayment for most or all of their adult lives.
Renewed public investment in education -- from pre-kindergarten to university -- would pay handsome dividends for generations. But you aren’t going to hear either candidate or their vice-presidential running mates proposing the equivalent of a GI Bill for the rest of us or even significant new investment in education. And yet that’s a recipe for and a guarantee of American decline.
Ironically, those in Washington arguing for urgent deficit reduction claim that we’ve got to do it “for the kids,” that we must stop saddling our grandchildren with mountains of federal debt. But if your child turns 18 and finds her government running a balanced budget in an America that's hollowed out, an America where she has no chance of paying for a college education, will she celebrate? You don’t need an economist to answer that one.