by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
November 23, 2007
A MESS FOR THE NEXT GENERATION TO CLEAN UP
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Like many Americans, I'm looking forward to Jan. 20, 2009, when President George W. Bush leaves the White House for the last time.
In a just world, he would immediately be arrested - along with Vice President Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and every other person in the White House whose fingerprints are on the illegal and unjust invasion of Iraq - and be whisked away to The Hague to face an international war crimes tribunal.
Alas, that will not happen. Provided President Bush doesn't pull a Musharraf and declare a state of emergency, suspend the Constitution and cancel the 2008 election, they will all slink out of Washington, leaving a mess that will take a generation or more to clean up.
In "The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush," which appears in the December issue of Vanity Fair, economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz discusses the extent of the economic mess that Bush and company will leave behind.
How big is that mess? Start with the national debt rising 70 percent during the past seven years. Add in a tax code that is hideously skewed toward the rich. Then throw in a record price of oil, a record number of bankruptcies and foreclosures and a stunning weakness of the dollar against the world's currencies.
But the biggest problem, to Stiglitz, is that "after seven years of this President, the United States is less prepared than ever to face the future. We have not been educating enough engineers and scientists, people with the skills we need to compete with China and India. We have not been investing in the kinds of basic research that made us the technological powerhouse of the late 20th Century. And although the President now understands - or so he says - that we must begin to wean ourselves from oil and coal, we have on his watch become even more deeply dependent on both."
When Mr. Bush took office in January 2001, the debate was over what to do with a projected budget surplus of $2.2 trillion. While the tech boom ended and the stock markets were slumping, Bush inherited an economy that was sound and growing robustly.
Stiglitz admits that the Clinton Administration, for whom he led the Council of Economic Advisors during part of that time, focused on deficit reduction at the expense of spending more money on education, infrastructure and technology. Mr. Bush could have increased funding in these areas and still paid down the deficit.
Instead, Stiglitz wrote that President Bush chose massive tax cuts for the rich "even as it undertook expensive new spending programs and embarked on a financially ruinous 'war of choice' in Iraq. A budget surplus of 2.4 percent of gross domestic product, which greeted Bush as he took office, turned into a deficit of 3.6 percent in the space of four years."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, defense spending increased by about 70 percent. But much of that spending either has been directed toward high-tech weapons designed to fight enemies that no longer exist, or have been lost or outsourced in Iraq - a war that Stiglitz estimates has cost this nation about $2 trillion so far.
Combine that with the domestic largess directed toward the rich and corporate America, and you have an economic strategy where, in Stiglitz'es words, "money was being spent every place except where it was needed. During these past seven years, the percentage of GDP spent on research and development outside of defense and health has fallen. Little has been done about our decaying infrastructure - be it levees in New Orleans or bridges in Minneapolis. Coping with most of the damage will fall to the next occupant of the White House."
That is a frightening prospect. How should the next President deal with it all?
"What is required is in some ways simple to describe: it amounts to ceasing our current behavior and doing exactly the opposite," writes Stiglitz. "It means not spending money we don't have, increasing taxes on the rich, reducing corporate welfare, strengthening the safety net for the less well off, and making greater investment in education, technology and infrastructure."
Admittedly, Stiglitz knows that to do all this will require decades and the kind of political will that does not presently exist in the White House or Congress. "Extricating the country from Iraq will be the bloodier task, but putting America's economic house in order will be wrenching and take years," he writes.
And even if a Democrat gets elected, there is no guarantee that anything will change.
In Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), the two frontrunners, you have candidates who still believe in a foreign policy based upon military assault and invasion of regimes we don't like. Their supposed health care "reform" plans continue to protect the right of the insurance and drug companies to make outrageous profits. They support NAFTA and other free trade agreements that have decimated the American economy.
Clinton and Obama still cling to the philosophy of "triangulation" as practiced by the Administration of President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. It means joining with your opponents to pass measures that run counter to what your supporters want. That is how a Democratic president won approval for welfare reform and NAFTA. That is how the Democratic Party became the party of big business, and why so much Wall Street money is going to Democratic candidates now.
Clearly, the United States is on a path that is economically unsustainable. The opinion polls show three-quarters of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. But can we count on Clinton or Obama to find the political consensus that would take our nation down a different path?
No matter who is in office come 2009, events may force our government to make painful economic choices, regardless of the political price. It's not a platform any politician wants to run on, but in 2008, any politician that tells us that we can keep on doing what we're doing is lying.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.