Friday, November 27, 2015

Politics of fear spreads after Islamic State attacks

Suppose a small war-like country attacked a larger one in the belief that it would expand its territory while the larger country, demoralized and panicked by the attack, would react only with fear. Instead, the larger country, motivated more than frightened by the attack, counterattacked, leading to its victory.
Something like that is the story of the Japanese 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the American response. The rest, as they say, is history.
Much the same could be true of the U.S. and the Islamic State. There can be no doubt: the Islamic State sees itself as a new country (the Caliphate) in formation and not merely a terrorist group. It has declared war on the U.S. and other countries.
The answer should be a response appropriate to the times. Committing massive American forces to ground and sea combat, as was done in response to Pearl Harbor, is almost certainly not the right response now to the Islamic State. But neither is fear.
In his famous First Inaugural address in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of fear. He described it as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” In other words, a fearful response to terrorism could be “unjustified terror,” not defiance.
The attacks in Egypt and France and elsewhere, sponsored by the Islamic State, have brought out far more appeals to fear than leadership in developing a strategy to defeat it. In short, until now, more of the American response has been about the politics of fear than of national resolve.
Donald Trump, a man seeking the presidency with little background in international affairs and little apparent understanding of the purpose and history of the American republic, has lashed out at an entire religious group, revealing his fear of it and apparently trying to gain the support of other fearful people.
He has made recent statements calling for singling out Muslims. He would place their mosques under surveillance and perhaps even dismantle some of them. Without the least bit of evidence, he claims Muslims in New Jersey cheered the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
There’s no evidence that most American Muslims are anything other than completely loyal to their country. There’s no evidence of support for the Islamic State or terrorism by most of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, who mainly live outside of the Middle East.
Such a broad-brush attack on any group could serve to alienate Muslims. But the U.S. needs and wants good relationships with countries where Muslims are the majority. Of the top 10 countries in population, three have Muslim majorities, are not in the Middle East and are larger than either Russia or Japan.
Trump goes too far. President Obama and some GOP presidential hopefuls have objected to his remarks. But it seems to remain politically acceptable for the GOP to advocate clamping down on admitting Syrian refugees, because one of them might be a terrorist.
Republicans make it a practice to reject virtually any Obama position. If he’s for allowing a small number of Syrian refugees, they must oppose it. That has resulted in polls saying that a vast majority of Republicans are against admitting Syrian refugees and a vast majority of Democrats are willing to admit them after serious screening.
GOP governors, including Maine’s Paul LePage, (plus one Democrat) quickly climbed on the “no refugees” bandwagon. They must know that no state can exclude a person lawfully admitted to the country. That makes their statements pure politics.
But Obama’s approach raises some real concerns. The world expects the U.S. to lead in putting down the Islamic State. After the Paris attacks, French President Franois Hollande has been trying to rally a unified response, but the world looks to the Americans for leadership.
A combined effort by major powers is complicated by Russia’s incursions into the Ukraine, conflicting U.S. and Russian objectives in Syria, differences within the Muslim world, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. These issues get in the way of needed coordinated action against the Islamic State.
It’s obvious a single and timely resolution of all of them is impossible. But it is also obvious that the Islamic State threat is immediate and affects many countries, making delay dangerous.
The politics of fear, promoted by Trump and some other Republicans, could be the only voice of America unless Obama speaks out and assumes the risks of leadership, assigning the highest priority to defeating the Islamic State, laying out a plan and heading the combined international effort.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Social Security, becoming national pension, faces crisis

Social Security is a major problem, and it needs to be fixed soon.
In 2022, just seven years from now, the program will begin eating into its reserves. When they are gone in 2034, payroll taxes won’t cover 21 percent of payments. The shortfall will grow each year.
This pending crisis means something must been done in the next few years. The next president will probably sign the law reforming the program.
Social Security payments to retirees and the disabled have always been financed by payroll contributions by employers and employees. This money goes into a federal trust fund from which the payments are made. Individuals do not have their own accounts.
A changing population, with the number of retirees growing much faster than originally planned, will cause income to be less than outlays, requiring the use of reserves. That’s because the proportion of active workers to the retired has declined.
It was impossible 80 years ago, when Social Security was developed, to forecast the underlying reasons for this change.
Medical advances have prolonged life. When the original retirement age of 65 was set, people were not expected live more than two or three years beyond that. Now lives last at least a decade longer.
Add the baby boomers, the generation born right after World War II. The birth rate had been held down by the Depression and with many men off to war, but that changed massively as the economy grew after the war. Now, the boomers are retiring.
Meanwhile, Social Security has become increasingly like a national pension plan. It provides most of the income of about two-thirds of retirees. For about a quarter of them, it is their only income. Employers are not legally required to provide pensions.
Social Security spending is not part of budget negotiations between Congress and the president. The program operates automatically to produce payments for all those who meet its eligibility requirements. That makes it one of the largest government expenditures, greater than either total defense outlays or all non-defense spending.
Most of the candidates in both parties have been coming up with their solutions. Republicans have joined Democrats in accepting that voters want Social Security to survive in something like its current form.
Candidates of both parties appear ready to deal with shortfalls by reducing payments to wealthier people. That would make Social Security even more like a progressive income tax with payment cuts as income rose. The wealthy might find payment cutbacks preferable to outright tax increases to support the program.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would go so far as to eliminate payments to those making $200,000 or more, but his fellow Republicans and Democrats won’t buy that.
Other ways of reducing payments, such as raising the retirement age or changing the cost-of-living adjustment, may sound appealing but produce little increased program life.
On the revenue side, the payroll tax itself could be raised. If it went up by three percent, most unlikely, Social Security would gain 53 years.
The Bush era proposal to replace Social Security with Wall Street investment accounts, still supported by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, seems dead. The risks are too great. And simply cutting back on payments as lives grow longer could cause a strong political backlash.
A more practical way to raise money would be to tap the wealthy by removing the cap on the salaries subject to the payroll tax. If the $118,500 cap were eliminated next year, it would extend the program by 21 years. Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders would use the extra revenues to expand the program, hardly improving its financial health.
Of course, some combination of these proposals could work. But Washington will have to keep in mind that many Americans depend on Social Security as all or most of the money they will live on for many years in retirement.
While the outlook for a new immigration policy is so embroiled in the presidential campaign that no action is expected until 2017 at the earliest, it could be a key element in the dealing long-term with the Social Security problem.
Resolving the problem of millions of undocumented workers, some paid off the books to avoid detection, plus opening the door to more legal entries could provide a major boost to the number of payroll contributors and Social Security’s yearly revenues. That would be the old- fashioned way of financing the program.
While the political campaign may focus on taxes, terrorism and tough talk on immigration, the sleeper issue could be how to fix Social Security.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Partisans argue about government's role

Beneath the surface of congressional gridlock and the presidential campaign runs a real debate about the role of the federal government.
This issue has deep roots in American history. The debate has three sides, which have now become so strong that they are locked in what may turn out to be a long contest.
For some, often those identified with the tea party movement, government exists to provide the limited array of services that can only be handled by a central government. National defense is an obvious element but social welfare spending is not.
This view dates from the American Revolution. Tired of British oppression, Americans wanted the new federal government to exercise only the limited powers the states granted to it. Most matters should be left to the people or voluntary associations, ranging from churches to businesses.
In the decades between the war for independence and the Civil War, this view was widely accepted. The country was mostly rural, and people counted on themselves and their neighbors to deal with their local problems.
The federal government focused on the expansion of the country. States retained considerable power and could endorse or oppose slavery, the biggest issue of the period.
Today’s opponents of “big government” echo this approach. Their position is more than simply anti-government. It is based on a belief that society, if left alone by government, will produce positive results. Competition and civic virtue should be enough.
A second view is that the greatness of the United States flows from its role as the leading world economy. Following the Civil War, which transferred huge power to the federal government then trying to hold the nation together, Americans focused increasingly on overtaking the British economy to become the world’s major economic power.
For many, the motto came to be: “the business of America is business.” The purpose of the federal government was not only to provide essential services, but also to promote the free enterprise system by aiding the private sector. The benefits of a successful private economy would provide capital for more growth and prosperity to workers.
The role of government would be to assist the private sector and to avoid imposing requirements that would undercut its ability to operate profitably. That meant adopting measures ranging from preventing labor from organizing to high import duties.
This approach was closely identified with the Republican Party but many Democrats also supported it. Today, its essence remains associated with “mainstream” Republicans, but not with the true believers in small government, who have deserted many of the GOP’s traditional corporate allies.
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought the third approach to government. The promotion of a booming economy had allowed uncontrolled behavior leading to a collapse of epic proportions. Individuals, who had been expected to benefit from a benign government or one that promoted business, ended up on bread lines.
The New Deal was based on government providing direct assistance and support to the people and less to business. This concept of government offered social welfare programs that became both necessary and popular, such as Social Security. At the same time, new government regulations were designed to prevent abuses by the private sector.
The role of government kept expanding. Eventually considerable power moved from the states and the people to Washington. The federal government grew increasingly to be in a position to grant or deny power to others in society, even the states, rather than being the recipient of powers granted to it.
The activist federal government, promoting new programs, is identified with today’s Democratic Party. Remarkably, for a party long known for including a wide variety of views, its minority status in Congress has unified it around the New Deal concept of government. Still, even the Democrats have moved somewhat back from an expansive view of the federal government.
The underlying choice for voters is among the three views of the role of government. Even social or wedge issues like same-sex marriage, abortion or gun control bear the stamp of this debate. Beyond the ballot box, the debate extends as well to decisions of the ideologically divided Supreme Court.
Few candidates can avoid taking sides. Tea partiers and mainstream Republicans are increasingly split, while Democrats hold another vision of government. Almost all partisan politicians have trouble accepting even a limited compromise among these views with gridlock as the result.
This debate, somewhat simplified as explained here, is not always obvious. But finding the proper role of government is always at the core of today’s politics.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Needed: a strong, clear foreign policy message

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has adopted President Ronald Reagan’s slogan: “Make America Great Again.” He exploits the sense that America’s world leadership has waned and caters to the sentiment of people wanting to feel good about their country.
This appeal is based on American “exceptionalism” – the belief that the U.S. is a special country whose great power should enable it to lead the world.
It’s likely that most Americans share some version of this belief. They expect the federal government to act accordingly.
When Barack Obama was elected president on a platform of change, nowhere did it seem more likely than in foreign affairs. One reason he received the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office was hoped-for change in America’s leading role in the world.
The promise of that Nobel has not been realized and, instead of the U.S. becoming a new kind of world leader, change has been limited. The president has sometimes seemed invisible.
Obama has had some accomplishments. He finally set relations with Cuba on a more positive path. This was real change, belated recognition of the long-known truth that hostility to Cuba was accomplishing nothing.
The Iran deal, no matter how controversial, is an achievement, perhaps as much of Secretary of State John Kerry as of Obama. If the major complaint with the deal is that it only delays by 15 years instead of forever the possibility of Iran having nuclear weapons, that’s a reasonably good deal.
The problem, as Sen. Angus King recently reminded us, is there’s a rogue power that already has nuclear weapons. No matter how difficult dealing with North Korea may be, there’s no sign the Obama administration is giving it a fraction of the attention Iran received.
And today, the U.S. has fighting forces in three countries – “boots on the ground” with Americans in them. It has ended no major armed conflicts, while key elements of the world situation deteriorate.
The lack of clearly defined and openly stated foreign policy objectives is a major defect of Obama’s approach. Of course, the U.S. should not tip off our opponents about details of foreign policy plans, but it owes allies a sense that it is still the world’s leader and Americans a sense of their country’s strength and determination.
It seems weak to have allowed the Chinese to build phony islands in the South China Sea far from their shores. American surveillance is no substitute for a policy that should have attempted to block such a blatant violation of international law.
Part of the problem is that, even when it’s on our side, the U.S. avoids using international law for fear that someday the rules might be applied to this country.
As for Libya, the congressional hearings on Hillary Clinton’s action relating to Benghazi obscured the more serious question of what American strategy and goals were. A brutal dictator was toppled, but what did the U.S. gain? Right now, chaos.
The U.S. is sending a few troops into Syria, after Americans were promised that ground forces would not be used. What is their mission and how will we know if it has been accomplished? Based on past actions, isn’t it likely that more troops will follow?
As for both Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama inherited U.S. military involvement when he took office. Promised change has consisted of reducing troop strength, but American forces remain on the ground.
Limited military involvement in Afghanistan was justified to root out Al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks. Going into Iraq was pointless, because Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction and the U.S. knew that. The war served mainly to destabilize the Middle East.
Neither of these countries has a history of democratic, self-government. Yet the U.S. has become involved in trying to help them achieve a level of stability that has only been possible under dictatorships.
The Russian seizure of Crimea, not strongly opposed by the U.S. and its allies, is somehow different from Saddam’s seizure of Kuwait, which the U.S. fought. No explanation has been provided.
There may be logic behind all of this, but it has not been well communicated. It is not enough to tell Americans world affairs are complicated.
The problem is that Obama has not used the presidency to develop and communicate a clear message of strength and determination to Americans and the world.
As Reagan showed, making Americans feel better about their country can be a key to political success. However Trump does, it can be expected to be a campaign theme.