Friday, April 29, 2005

Storm Warning

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, in his piece in today’s Times entitled “What, Me Worry ?” denounces the Bush administration for having “no big idea” on the home front despite big plans for foreign policy “worthy of a presidency and America’s long-term interests.” Mr. Friedman, who is a more thoughtful liberal then average, cites as cases in point America’s broken school system, particularly high schools and the related unwillingness or inability of the administration to deal with rising economic competition from Asia, most particularly China and India. Immigration, intellectual property law, and many other areas touched on today by Mr. Friedman, and in several insightful articles of his recently, all need to be addressed to adequately cope with what he styles, the “flat world” produced by high technology and globalization.

If you’re wondering why the administration has big foreign policy plans, but “no big idea” on the domestic front, leave the editorials and the op-ed page and go back into the news section of your paper. Yesterday, Congress finally managed to accomplish virtually its most important function, passing a $2.6 trillion budge resolution for Fiscal Year 2006. Well, barely passing it, in the House of Representatives, the vote was 214-211, and in the Senate 52-47. If, like El Jefe, you find numbers and money incredibly tedious, keep reading, and you’ll find the solons quarrelling over filibusters, appointments, and everything but the color of the paint (gee, red or blue?) in the Senate washrooms.

Of course the President concentrates on foreign policy. It’s easier. If the President decides he wants to invade Iraq, pressure Kofi Annan, sell F-16’s to Pakistan, or make a trade deal with Japan, he is generally dealing primarily with expert bureaucracies and military organizations run on rational lines which are easier to pull in his direction then 535 little kings and the organized interests behind them.

Congress, of necessity plays a lesser role in foreign policy, and often the aforementioned vested interests have less power here, and often, less skin in the game. F-16 sales to India or Pakistan affect favorably a few congressional districts where such aircraft are built – and of course the interest of millions of Indians or Pakistanis who do not have a vote. By contrast, if you’re a President or a Congressman, and decide you want to make people really sweat, what do you do? Want to get people seriously mad at you? Propose a reorganization of elementary, secondary or high school education in the United States; or restrictions on immigration; or, for that matter, a reform of Social Security. Good luck, Congressman, no more junkets or appearances on Today for you, and please don’t let the door hit you in the behind on the way back to Podunk, Montana.

The American political system is biased against the production of legislation. It was designed that way. When modern American lawyers study constitutional law – they are concerned primarily with the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment. The nuts-and-bolts of legislation and the actual operation of the Federal structure are ignored unless we have a disputed election as in 2000.

Trouble is, the system was originally designed in the 1780’s to be operated by a very narrow political oligarchy, who more or less agreed among themselves on how they saw the world, and who kept real political power safely concentrated back in their home state legislatures. It was emphatically NOT intended to serve a centralized, world-wide empire, such as we have today. It certainly cannot operate such an empire when the empire is internally divided – as ours is.

But Mr. Friedman is right, you see. The concerns he sees are, for the sake of our children, and theirs – going to have to be dealt with. A raft of others: the low personal savings rate; personal and public debt; immigration; the place of religion in our society; and many others need attention. These issues are going to be addressed, one way or another, or they will address us, no doubt unpleasantly, and the world is not going to wait while we get our house in order.

The answers to most of the questions confronting us are out there, and aren’t great undiscovered mysteries. I know half a dozen schoolteachers and rocket scientists who, between them, could probably tell you what was wrong with the schools, and how to fix the problems. The same is true of these other issues, also. But the solutions aren’t going to happen for the present, and the problems will continue to fester and grow. Because the division in our country is real too, and it is not over trivial issues, and is not the sort of chasm that can be papered over with conciliatory words and simple political compromises. The Red and Blue State division so apparent last November is really over first principles. Solutions to our problems are not painless, and are going to produce LOTS of losers. And these losers have real political power at present.

Perhaps worst of all, our internal difficulties and division are occurring when a foreign challenge to our continued complacence and prosperity is becoming increasingly likely. A symptom of the changing environment is obvious at American gas pumps every day. Rapidly industrializing powers – China and India, are gobbling up commodities and capital at a frenetic rate. One-fifth the world’s aluminum, a quarter of its copper, a third of the steel and half the world concrete production are being bought up by China. China is now the second largest oil importer, after the US. Economic development, of course, is not necessarily a threat, but it is producing the need, seen by Mr. Friedman, for us to work much harder, and in general be more competitive and up to the mark.

But development is only part of the picture. At the same time, bankers estimate that the total portfolio of bad loans held by China’s state banks amounts to perhaps a third of China’s Gross Domestic Product. Meanwhile the Chinese government faces internal threats to its legitimacy, is pursuing a serious international (or internal, if you buy the Chinese line) dispute with Taiwan, a long time American ally, and has winked at loud and sometimes violent nationalist demonstrations against another American ally, Japan. Meanwhile, across its Korean border, another Chinese ally charitably described as unstable brandishes nuclear weapons at all and sundry. Asia has become a giant great-power war breeder.

The collapse of the Roman Republic has interested me my entire adult life, but I never thought I might live long enough to see a reprise. The Romans’ problems were so eerily similar to our own: How to run a great empire with a government designed for a tiny city-state, while at the same time coping with serious military threats on their empire’s periphery ? They really tried, but the Romans couldn’t solve their problems either, so they lost their beloved Republic and their ancient ruling class and after lots of upsetment, got the Emperors. And most people, when this finally happened, were sick of chaos and glad for the change. Yes, our houses are more comfortable, and our food and medicine better, but I don’t think we’re any smarter than Marius, Sulla, Cicero or Caesar – probably, if anything, less.

Perhaps I’m a little alarmist, but I don’t think so. Our size, wealth and from most of the world’s problems have always assured us a soft landing in bad times. But the toast lands jelly-side down sometimes.

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