Strange Interlude


It’s over – finally.  Now we can return to governance which, after all, is what supposedly it’s  about.  So time for some serious reflection on matters lost in the labored workings of our less than pristine democracy. Here are a few items to ponder with newfound sobriety.

In these troubled economic times, tracking the latest data reports has become almost as much of a national pastime as following the pennant races. Their announcement quickly generates a gush of commentary. That commentary, however, is distinguished more by its volume than its acuity. Little effort is spent thinking through their real life meaning. For example, we look at the monthly jobs report to see how many new ones have been created and what the unemployment rate is. The questions not asked are most telling. How can job creation go up while the unemployment rate moves in the opposite direction? Or vice versa? How do we figure the percentage of those who have dropped out of the workforce? The big one: 54% of those new jobs are temporary!  That means short term contracts with low pay, no benefits and no security of employment. In addition, many are only part-time. Most are in the ‘service’ center. The profound implications are usually overlooked.

Then there is the glaring discrepancy between GDP and tax revenues. According to the official statistics, the United States’ GDP today is about 5% greater than it was in 2007 .  But tax revenues remain well below those earlier levels at the federal, state and local levels. Hence, austerity is now the watch word. Are the statistics wrong? Are they affected by a pattern of what passes for recovery whereby most of the growth of national income has gone to those in the highest income brackets? Is it a matter of the rich paying lower taxes than salaried workers?

Some public policy ideas of dubious vintage, and the resulting programs of dubious benefit, will continue to ride high. They have bipartisan support and are in vogue. Charter schools are the best example. Here, too, there is a discrepancy between fact and virtual reality. We now have abundant evidence that charter schools are far from being a panacea for what ails American society. Indeed, they perform worse on average than public schools – overall. This despite an array of resource subsidies from public authorities and the convenient exemption of most from having to teach a proportionate share of troubled and low performing students.  Still, the dropout rate for black students in Charter schools is higher than in public schools – according to a nation-wide survey by the University of Texas School of education.  Time to rethink what exactly the educational “problem” is, and what are real as opposed to fanciful remedies.

Attention surely will focus on Social Security and Medicare as the budget battle is rekindled. Both sides propagate the idea that the two programs are on the brink of financial collapse – as was declared so by  Martha Raddatz, moderator of the Vice-presidential debate debate.  She pronounced: Both Medicare and Social Security “are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process.” Absolute nonsense.  The inconvenient truth is that the statement is manifestly false   The two programs do not as much as “share” a budget with other appropriations.     Those programs get their moneys from dedicated paycheck withholdings that are entirely separate from general taxes.  The very idea of a “unified” budget is nominal with no legal or financial basis.

Social Security is viable until 2040 and could be extended indefinitely with minor adjustments. What is inconvenient is that before then the federal budget will lose the ability to siphon off moneys from the Trust Fund to cover other conventional expenditure items. It has been doing so for most of the past 40 years. That diversion is only possible so long as the Trust Fund is experiencing a surplus on its annual accounts. The jig is up as soon as more is leaving the Fund than is going into it. In other words, there are still trillions to pay recipients but the federal government must honor the IOUs that it’s been placing in the Fund while taking out the cash. No one in official Washington wants to do that because it would severely worsen the conventional fiscal balance between expenditures and (still depressed) tax revenues.

When we cast our eyes abroad, there is another set of troubling realities that have escaped the attention of the candidates, and therefore the media, during the fevered campaign season. For one, there is the forgotten war in Afghanistan. Joe Biden declared unequivocally in the debate with Paul Ryan that all American troops would be gone by 2014. Yet the administration actually is planning to keep 15,000 to 25,000 troops there to conduct “anti-terrorist” missions and to train the Afghan army. Also, retention of a ring of airbases is a high Pentagon priority. What gives? What is our policy? Based on what national interests? At what cost? How feasible – after all, we tried the same thing in Iraq and got booted out the door by the Maliki government.

More broadly, we still think and try to act as masters of the global scene with a custodial responsibility to shape the world according to our interests and our design. That conviction permeates every speech, every policy paper, and nearly every op ed across the land. What of the discrepancy between our straightened circumstances and pressing needs at home and these far flung, open ended commitments abroad? What of the clear signs that we no longer are the master builders? That others want a bigger piece of the action? At this very moment, we are up to our eyeballs trying to put right Lebanese politicians who refuse to make common cause against the Hezbullah pariah; we are trying to coalesce an array of Syrian factions worthy of Washington’s seal of approval; and we dispatched a team of irregulars (four former officials) to intercede in a dispute between China and Japan over some rocky outcroppings called the  Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. China hadn’t agreed to our doing anything of the sort, saying bluntly that they were not “entitled” to play a role in the matter, even as the quartet of retired diplomats were buckling their seat belts. We are now implementing a plan to ring China with American military bases, a seeming remake of the Cold War strategy to contain the CHICOMS. For what eventuality? Is there reason to believe that there is prospect of war? Should the American public be let in on it?

This is the time when there should be room for reflection. It is the brief window of relative relaxation in the politics obsessed calendar of Washington between conclusion of the last campaign and the beginning of the next. Roughly 3 – 6 months. Let’s take advantage of it.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

Weekend Edition
October 9-11, 2015
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