by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
January 4, 2013
WHAT DID THE 'FISCAL CLIFF' ACTUALLY ACCOMPLISH?
BALDWIN HILLS, Calif., Dec. 23, 2012 -- Inflation, long overrated, hasn't materialized. Other painfully obvious problems, like joblessness, have spent months on the back burner. And if we can't face the real issues, we won’t make a meaningful dent in them.
One significant problem is our overrated, short-term fear of the annual deficit, and our generally underrated fear of our accumulating national debt. But first things first: When someone is drowning, we should use our brains; we shouldn't be thinking first about the cost of the life raft.
Many concerns have been exaggerated by the pundits. More stimulus is not only possible but feasible, especially in these urgent times. Only an educated public can gain good jobs and pay taxes accordingly. Only a more highly educated public will obtain good jobs in the future.
Deficit concerns are justified; yet so are concerns about the consequences of failing to invest in our nation of promise. Pro-business, pro-tax-cut and pro-loophole extremists, especially, should realize that it takes government and business investment, too, to help turn that promise into reality.
On-the-cheap shortcuts commonly fail. Neither ignoring our problems nor starving the economy will serve us well. As columnist Paul Krugman recently observed, most countries in Europe that have acceded to increasingly severe austerity measures have found themselves sinking deeper with each new debilitating cut.
There's little doubt about it. When the water reaches your chin or is over your head it's past time to start throwing out life rafts. And in our current economy, millions are still suffering, with one in six having problems facing hunger.
A transformative government should educate the public about the real extent of our problems. These should be obvious with a little reminder, despite GOP myopia.
Transformative leadership should tamper obstructionist-driven fears. For example, a recent bipartisan study reveals that raising taxes has not scared away Big Business. Other studies reveal that lowering taxes (the main GOP plank in the 2012 election) hasn't encouraged large corporations - many already swimming in money - to invest in new jobs, rescue the economy or solve our many crises. Nor have severe government cost-cutting measures proven a panacea for improving our economy. There are better alternatives to unlimited middle-class belt-tightening, particularly while CEOs enjoy and pass around giant bonuses to the lucky few.
The election record shows that the majority of the public realizes that government - as seen in the example of devastating Hurricane Sandy - does have a significant role to play in society, and is not necessarily evil, or "the problem." We can legitimately levy taxes to pay essential bills and avoid catastrophe.
As noted in one post-election editorial entitled, President Obama Succeeds, "Significantly, 60 percent of voters said taxes should be raised either on the rich or on everyone. Only 35 percent said they should not be raised at all; that group, naturally, went heavily for Mr. Romney.
The polling made it clear that Americans are unhappy with the status quo, and a substantial number said the economy was getting worse. But that did not seem to persuade voters that the deficit was a crushing problem. Only 1 in 10 voters said the deficit was the most important issue facing the country."
The deficit is not our biggest problem. Nor are inflation, health care, social security, taxes, or pensions; nor are government, bureaucracy, regulations, or oversight. Our biggest problem, in a slow economy, may be small-mindedness - almost enough so to make us yearn for the robber barons of old who built the railroads that stretched across the country. Small-mindedness will not carry us far, except maybe to preclude the transformative changes greatly needed in our economy.
A transformative government will look seriously at questionable expenditures in our massive budgets for defense and in our War on Terror. This inquiry should not be done with a suicidal mindset as some have expressed; it must not be to see who can dismantle the most government departments and lay off the most employees. Nor should we forget our most urgent needs. Without minimizing security, we might do well to consider other ways of improving it - including making new friends, not just enemies; creating hope, as well as outrage; building, as well as destroying.
We shouldn’t diminish the tragedy and outrage of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But neither should we overlook the fact that more US citizens die in a week from smoking (some 300,000 annually) than are likely to ever die in terrorist attacks. There are other, comparable examples.
Have we really looked carefully at our War on Terror expenditures, especially when probably most of our successes against terrorists have come about through good police work by the U.S., and through tips from our global allies?
Do we need to bail out the banks, with only minimal limits on the conditions that created so many of our problems? Must we ignore the loopholes and legalities that allow the rich to get richer, while the poor get poorer? We may or may not need drones and bombs, but to conduct war on-the-cheap while turning a blind eye to the collateral consequences abroad and at home is wrong. We need not periodically suffer the consequences of unregulated dangerous products, from tainted raw materials to untested and mislabeled fish and meat, nor repeatedly be threatened about underfunded police, fire and other vital local agencies.
One can list many such issues, and tough questions about our actions and inaction despite much desperate need. Can we afford not to educate our public? Can we afford not to improve our health? Can we afford not to develop the talents and resources of our immigrants? Can we afford to watch our infrastructure crumble? Can we afford to ignore credible preparedness as global warming increases? Should we forget about being "Number 1" while boasting about being democratic and egalitarian at the same time? Can we afford not to be a mature member of the world community?
Not everything of great value requires huge sums of money, but sometimes wonders can be accomplished simply by not acting. We might avoid needless collateral damage by not supporting or tolerating questionable people and conditions, such as Middle Eastern duictators like Hosni Mubarak, or by remaining almost silent about highly objectionable actions by our allies or one-time allies like Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Idi Amin and Ariel Sharon.
And in the U.S. (or on U.S. territory), what would some real "justice for all" - at Guantànamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, or "rendition" interrogation sites do for the America's image in the world?
As a New York Times editorial aptly noted, the Justice Department referred to the UBS rate-rigging as an "epic" scandal. But, as yet, "there has been nothing epic in the department’s response.” [Editor's Note: More recently, UBS was fined $600 million for its role in the rate-rigging scandal].
So far, only two traders - among some 50 individuals involved - face criminal justice, and the proposed $1.5 billion fine, though notable, is just another cost of doing business. Justice does not come easily, but a transformative government will give accountability a higher priority.
These are just some of the issues a transformative government will want to think deeply about, and treat seriously. If President Barack Obama does so, his legacy will take care of itself.
This is the last in Ron Kenner's 7-part Transformation series.
AR Correspondent Ron Kenner, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, heads RKedit and has edited about 100 published books, including more than a dozen gold medal/first place national award-winners in nonfiction, dramatic nonfiction, and fiction.