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Thinking Clearly During An Election Year

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The non-stop bombardment of inane, partisan yammering which assaults us during an election year, makes it even more refreshing when a level-headed, clear thinker catches our attention.  One popular subject of debate during the current election cycle has been the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the 2009 stimulus bill).  In stark contrast with the propaganda you have been hearing about the 2009 stimulus (from both political parties), a new book by Mike Grabell of ProPublica entitled, Money Well Spent? brought us a rare, objective analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.

Matt Steinglass of The Economist recently wrote a great essay on the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate, which included a discussion of Mike Grabell’s new book:

The debate we had about the stimulus probably should have been a lot like the book Mr Grabell has written:  a detailed investigation of what does and doesn’t work in stimulus spending and whether the government really can jump-start a promising industry through investments, tax breaks and industrial policy.  But that wasn’t the debate we had.  Instead we had a debate about the very concept of whether the government ought to spend money counter-cyclically during a recession in order to keep the economy from collapsing, or whether it should tighten its belt along with consumers and businesses in order to generate confidence in the financial markets and allow markets to clear.  We had a debate about whether governments should respond to recessions with deficit spending or austerity.

The ProPublica website gave us a peek at Mike Grabell’s book by publishing a passage concerning how the stimulus helped America maintain its status as a competitor in the electric car industry.  Nevertheless, America’s failure to support the new technology with the same zeal as its Asian competitors could push domestic manufacturers completely out of the market:

A report by congressional researchers last year concluded that the cost of batteries, anxiety over mileage range and more efficient internal combustion engines could make it difficult to achieve Obama’s goal of a million electric vehicles by 2015.  Even many in the industry say the target is unreachable.

While the $2.4 billion in stimulus money has increased battery manufacturing, the congressional report noted that United States might not be able to keep up in the long run.  South Korea and China have announced plans to invest more than five times that amount over the next decade.

As Matt Steinglass concluded in his essay for The Economist, current economic circumstances (as well as the changed opinions of economists John Cochrane and Niall Ferguson) indicate that the proponents of economic stimulus have won the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate:

The 2010 elections took place at a moment when people seemed to have lost faith in Keynesianism.  The 2012 elections are taking place at a moment when people have lost faith in expansionary austerity.

Although the oil industry has done a successful job of convincing the public that jobs will be lost if the Keystone Pipeline is not approved, big oil has done a better job of distracting the public from understanding how many jobs will be lost if America fails to earn a niche in the electric vehicle market.

The politicization of the debate over how to address the ongoing unemployment crisis was the subject of a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian lamented that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

The longer that corrective measures are delayed, the harder the task at hand will be and the greater the eventual costs to society.

*   *   *

In fact, our current unemployment crisis is a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations.

Mr. El-Erian noted that there is a faction – among the opposing forces in the debate over how to address unemployment – seeking a “killer app” which would effectuate dramatic and immediate progress.  He explained why those people aren’t being realistic:

There is no killer app.  Instead, Congress and the administration need to move simultaneously on three fronts that incorporate multiple measures:  those that address the immediate impediments to job creation, including a better mix of demand stimulus and medium-term fiscal reform involving both federal spending and revenue, as well as stronger remedies for housing and housing finance; those that deal with the longer-term enablers of productive employment, such as education, retraining and retooling; and those that strengthen the social safety nets to appropriately protect citizens in the interim.

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

In other words, while the election year lunacy continues, the unemployment crisis continues to act as “a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations”.  Worse yet, the expectation that our political leaders could “come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge” seems nearly as unrealistic as waiting for that “killer app”.  This is yet another reason why Peter Schweizer’s cause – as expressed in his book, Throw Them All Out, should be on everyone’s front burner during the 2012 election year.


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Time For Sanity

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Amid all of the television news specials, turgid essays and grim pictorials we have seen on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks – there have been a few encouraging glimpses of sanity.  Several commentators have pointed out that Osama Bin Laden got exactly what he wanted when America reacted to that tragedy by spending trillions on military assaults, which ended up killing unknown thousands of innocent Muslims – also known as “collateral damage”.

How many otherwise peace-loving Muslims will be attracted to Islamist extremism because of outrage over a “war on terror” they perceive as a “war on Islam”?  How badly has our economy been damaged because a military invasion of Iraq was sold as an effective way to prevent another 9/11?

Another tragic change Bin Laden brought to America was the inflammation of a pre-existing National Security Gestapo, which had always been hell-bent on having its way – individual freedom and privacy be damned!  We have witnessed how Barack Obama has been more than happy to accommodate those forces – many of which are private contractors – deliberately placed out of the reach of that pesky Freedom of Information Act.

How did we get to this deteriorated situation?  The mass media bear a large share of the responsibility.  Their need to out-sensationalize the competition helped fuel a consensual mindset, ginned-up with rage and ready to support whatever junta could strike back at our enemy with unrestrained force.  We were told that this enemy was terrorism itself – a tactic.  Our government had declared war against a tactic.  Anyone who questioned that battle was characterized as weak or unpatriotic.

It is only now – ten years after the tragedy – when people are willing to take a rational look at how our political leaders and our media establishment reacted to (or took advantage of) these events.

Spencer Ackerman wrote an article for Wired with the title, “How to Defeat Terrorism:  Refuse to Be Terrorized”.  In the political world, the refusal to be terrorized requires the courage to stand up to intimidation and accusations of being “weak on terror”.  In fact, our political leaders have been rendered weak from terror.  That weakness has resulted in significant deterioration of our personal liberties as well as capitulation to those lobbyists and pressure groups demanding unlimited expenditures in the name of “homeland security”.  Spencer Ackerman provided this explanation:

Look at the charts that Danger Room’s Lena Groeger compiled.  She tallies $6.6 trillion in defense spending after 9/11.  There is nothing that al-Qaida could possibly do to justify even a slice of such a monster expenditure.  Why did it happen?

Former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke has an answer.  “There’s going to be a terrorist strike some day,” Clarke told Frontline for its “Top Secret America” documentary this week.  “And when there is, if you’ve reduced the terrorism budget, the other party, whoever the other party is at the time, is going to say that you were responsible for the terrorist strike because you cut back the budget.  And so it’s a very, very risky thing to do.”

*   *   *

It’s much harder to be the one to stand up and say the threat of terrorism is too minor for such expanded surveillance, and the government needs to stop.  When libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) made precisely that case, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) subjected him to cheap, hypocritical demagoguery.

The only way this changes is if citizens change the political incentives for politicians.  Two-bit terrorists will always be around, sadly.  But when the Harry Reids get major political blow-back for attacking the Rand Pauls, then – and only then – will the 9/11 Era be truly over.

Another important theme of Ackerman’s essay is the absence of an “end game” for this war on terror.  After conceding that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta may be entirely justified in claiming that al-Qaida is on the verge of strategic collapse, Ackerman emphasizes that “it would be foolish” to relent at this point:

But all of that is only justifiable if the new U.S. Shadow Warsundeclared, largely covert wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond – actually end soon.

*   *   *

When Barack Obama ran for president, his national security team told me, in an extensive series of interviews, that a major focus of his presidency would be to confront what they called the “politics of fear” – the national-security freakout that led to counterproductive post-9/11 moves like invading Iraq.  But since coming to power, Obama has accommodated himself to the politics of fear far more than he’s confronted it.

*   *   *

Only when citizens make it acceptable for politicians to recognize that the threat of terrorism isn’t so significant can the country finally get what it really needs, 10 years later:  closure.

President Obama created a new challenge for himself:  By killing off Bogeyman Bin Laden and with the imminent destruction of the world’s largest terrorist organization, he is now faced with the duty to lead America out of this dark age of terrorphobia.


 

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