Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hey, America: Grow Up!

At this election season, as the song goes from The Sound of Music, “The hills are alive ...”—but with the sound of whining. People complain, quite understandably, about unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, the federal deficit, the tanked economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the difficult days ahead. What is not so reasonable is that they lay the blame for these problems at the feet of President Obama and the Democrats in Congress. “It’s his/their fault! It’s time for a change!” and so the whine goes on.

If ever there was a time for America as a whole to pull up their big boy and big girl pants and just grow up, that time is now. Grown ups take a look at the whole picture, take responsibility to the extent that it is theirs to take, lay the blame where it belongs, and work to fix the problem at its root. The United States is truly in a mess these days, and only a grown-up perspective is going to get us out of it.

Let us consider a few important points.


The unemployment picture is truly grim, with real U.S. unemployment almost certainly reaching over 10%. Many people blame the Obama administration for this. Oh, really? Let’s look at the facts:
  • Everyone agrees that the recession is to blame for the rise in unemployment, and the recession, in turn, was largely produced by the meltdown of Wall Street and the banking crisis that began in 2008. But which political party is more to blame for that? The Republican administration of 2000-2008, whose policies encouraged poor borrowing and predatory lending practices, and whose lack of regulation allowed Wall Street to offer bad mortgages lumped together into esoteric investment instruments.

  • The Obama administration has spent national treasure to try to build American business in everything from the automobile industry to green energy.

  • The Democrats have been trying to make the plight of the unemployed a bit easier by extending unemployment benefits, while the Republicans have tried to block those very efforts, apparently believing that a nation driven to poverty by Republican policies is somehow a more fiscally responsible nation.
Mortgage Crisis

Figures for foreclosures are at unthinkable highs. As I mentioned above, this is a direct result of Republican policies that encouraged poor borrowing and predatory lending, and the creation of bad investment vehicles. The low tide of the national economy has brought all boats low, so even many folks who were responsible borrowers have been caught up short. However, again, that massive drop in the economy is largely the result of Republican policies over the course of many years.

It gets even better. This week we read that the mortgage foreclosure industry, abetted by the banks, is rife with bad practices that deprive people unfairly of their homes, something underscored in an article in today’s paper. The lack of regulatory oversight during the Bush administration is the gift that just keeps on giving—or taking, as the case may be.

Federal Deficit

The federal deficit is now of monumental proportions. But how did that happen? Let’s look at the facts.
  • In January 2000, the Clinton administration handed a budget surplus to the incoming Bush administration. All of our deficit has been accumulated since that time.

  • After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration directed the U.S. military to invade Afghanistan. That was reasonable, and war is expensive.

  • However, with the job in Afghanistan only half done, the Bush administration proceeded to direct the military to invade Iraq. That was not reasonable, being based on intelligence that the administration itself “cooked” to make it look as if Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks and was hiding weapons of mass destruction. In fact, administration insiders knew then what we know now: Hussein had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, and had no weapons of mass destruction. The war and the rebuilding in Iraq have been a huge drag on the American economy for almost a decade, creating a massive and entirely unnecessary deficit that our children’s children may still be paying off—for no good reason, other than to enrich the oil and other business interests represented by the Bush administration.

  • For all the hue and cry about the Obama administration’s bailout of the banks and so forth, those expenditures pale next to the cost of the entirely unnecessary Iraqi War, a legacy of the Bush administration.
 A recent poll shows that “Republicans continue to be seen as the party better able to reduce the federal budget deficit.” That is a senseless perception, given that the Democrat Clinton administration handed over a budget surplus, which the Republican Bush administration proceeded to erase, creating instead a huge deficit.

Government Spending

A very great deal of whining surrounds the Obama administration’s policies about spending in medical care (“Obamacare”) and education. Let’s look at some harsh realities:
  • The United States, which has led the world in economic and military might for the last six decades, is beginning to lose its leadership position. Just one example: today I read that, for the first time ever, the Chinese have built a supercomputer that is 40% faster than anything the United States has. The Japanese surpassed the U.S. briefly on one occasion, but other than that, this is the first time that the U.S. has lost this important lead. Given the importance of supercomputers to military defense and technological development, the possession of a dominant position in supercomputer technology is an important benchmark of overall technological leadership. Of course, in the 21st century as in the 20th, technological leadership translates into economic leadership, as well as military might and national security.

  • It’s not just me that feels this way. As one supercomputing expert, a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, put it in a recent interview about the Chinese supercomputer: “What is scary about this is that the U.S. dominance in high-performance computing is at risk .... One could argue that this hits the foundation of our economic future.”

  • This increasing slippage in technological leadership is largely due to poor educational standards in the United States. We simply are not producing enough home-grown scientists and engineers here. Why? Because so many of our schools are overcrowded, or have nonspecialist teachers teach math and science.

  • We are also a distinctly unhealthy nation. A startlingly large percentage of our citizens do not have medical insurance and so receive little or no medical care.

  • To regain and retain our leadership of the world in the 21st century, we have to be a healthy nation and a well-educated nation. That costs money. If you think that is expensive, go ahead and calculate the cost of failure. Second-rate nations get swept away on the tide of history. Let’s not do that to America.
Today’s Republican Party

Finally, let’s look at the side that wants to take over: today’s Republican Party. A recent poll found that “about 6 in 10 Republicans who are likely to vote think the views of most Republicans are consistent with those of the Tea Party movement.” One hopes not. Let’s look at the Tea Party briefly:

  • One of their leading candidates recently was completely surprised to find out that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandates the separation of Church and State. This is the first paragraph of the Bill of Rights—and it was a complete surprise to this would-be Congressperson.

  • The supporters of another leading Tea Party candidate answered a protester at a recent function by bringing this person to the ground, with one putting a foot on her head, a tactic that brings to mind images of the forces of European fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. The best aspects of America have been built on the foundations of civil resolution of disagreement. Is the stomping of differing opinions the kind of America we want? For those who do, let me suggest a fine country that already has that kind of political life: Iran.

We read today that a careful analysis of President Obama’s speeches and writings reveals that he is a thoroughgoing pragmatist, in the best sense of that word. That is, he is focused on policies that promote the greatest good for the greatest number. If ever America needed an intelligent and principled pragmatist as President, it is now.

The Obama administration has made remarkable progress in addressing our national disaster over the course of only two years. It deserves to have a Congress that will work with it, not obstruct it. Remember that on Election Day.

Making a grown-up assessment of our situation and acting on that assessment is On The Mark.

Print References

Cohen, P. (2010, October 28). In writings of Obama, a philosophy is unearthed. The New York Times [late edition], pp. C1, C7.

Coy, P., Barrett, P. M., & Terhune, C. (2010, October 25-31). Shredding the dream. Bloomberg Businessweek, pp. 76-80, 82-84, 86.

Martin, A., & Rich, M. (2010, October 28). A housing (case) boom: Facing foreclosure, homeowners demand legal recourse. The New York Times [late edition], pp. B1, B4.

Rutenberg, J., & Thee-Brenan, M. (2010, October 28). Coalition that vaulted Democrats into power has frayed, poll finds. The New York Times [late edition], pp. A1, A22.

Vance, A. (2010, October 28). Chinese wrest title from U.S.: Fastest supercomputer, by far. The New York Times [late edition], pp. A1, B9.

[The photo is of a group of primary school children in Paris. It has been released into the public domain, and was obtained through Wikipedia.]

(Copyright 2010 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

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