You know the situation is dire when former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin says, "…our long-term fiscal mess will increasingly reduce the ability of the United States government to respond to and deal with the issues that the American people want government to respond to and deal with including national security"- and then tells George Stephanopoulos that no Democratic candidate has an economic plan that will sufficiently address that mess.
But when dour old Warren Christopher writes an op-ed in the Washington Post begging Democratic candidates to provide some strategic vision-the extent of our true peril is clear.
You also may have noted that it's December and very few are really all that excited about your campaign.
Basically, the problem is much bigger than you think. Robert Hormats of Goldman Sachs summed up America's fundamental post-Cold War task in 1991: The United States must "satisfy the domestic conditions required to exercise the necessary international political and economic leadership." For twelve years, the US has ignored our responsibilities preferring to prop up a dysfunctional status quo. The long-term consequences of our failure to lead now loom before us:
- First is our fiscal imbalance-the difference between Federal revenues and Federal obligations-which conservatives put at $44 trillion dollars. Among other horrible consequences, this level of debt will crush the domestic and the global economies under the weight of increased interest rates as the Government competes with the private sector for capital.
- Second, our economy is dependent on energy supplies that cannot be secured. The instability (in large part caused by oil) in Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, the Caucasus, the Andean region, and West Africa, has a cascade effect: in the short term, instability keeps oil prices at or above the upper limit of OPEC price band; the sustained high cost of oil reduces market share; reduced market share reduces the revenue available for essential upstream investment, while simple insecurity makes investment in production capacity either more expensive or impossible. With such high economic growth in Asia and furtive growth in the US and EU, the increasing competition for energy will meet insufficient production capacity and generate more regional conflict over access to energy.
- The third long-term consequence is that five billion people have no economic future. The American economy anchors the global economy yet is not a sustainable model for global development. We simply waste too much energy and material resources-25% of the world's total even though we are only 5% of the world's population. That means only an additional 15% of the world could "develop" like us, leaving more than 5 billion people excluded and generally pissed off. Beyond planting the seeds of deep frustration, we are also shutting out 5 out of 6 trading partners, clients, and customers because they can afford neither to buy nor to use what we want to sell.
- Fourth is the complex damage to essential ecosystem services, such as climate change. Insurance premiums are steadily rising in the developed economies, decreasing profits and slowing growth, while in the developing world, climate change is resulting in death, disease, and displacement. This will only get worse with time-geometrically-as the world's agricultural zones migrate, ocean currents shut down, and sea levels rise.
Of course, these four converging calamities do not negate the importance of the myriad issues facing America in the short and medium terms. Rather, they illuminate the drivers of most of these issues-more accurately, these symptoms-that face us immediately.
How to Fix It.
The first thing to realize is that it is pointless to only address the symptoms without addressing the underlying causes. Bush is demonstrating this now, and you have all stated for the record how ill-conceived his policies are. Your problem is that you have only provided alternative band-aids for those same symptoms. By doing so, you have, de facto, accepted the world view of Bush. That said, keep the best of what you and your colleagues have come up with and call it what it is: triage. Commit to general elections and a constitution in Iraq, get the rest of Israel to agree to the Geneva Accords, stop the looming trade wars, and fully fund the Global Fund for AIDS.
The real problems are long term and so must be the strategy to deal with them-strategic progress will stem the tide of crises and prevent problems in the medium term. That strategy must employ the same strategic algebra that guided the United States through the Cold War; correlating our economic engine and our strategic posture to achieve the single goal that will advance our national purpose. Today, that goal must be to transition the United States-and the rest of the world-towards a sustainable, integrated, global economy; to an economy that generates equitable prosperity at home and abroad.
A new American economic engine is at the heart of that new strategy. It should be based on metropolitan smart growth rather than suburban sprawl, on waste tax and subsidy-free markets rather than income tax and industrial subsidies, and on renewable and distributed energy rather than fossil fuels and centralized generation. Those three basic changes to our 60 year-old conceptions of land use, tax & subsidies, and energy would restore the spiritual core of the American economy-each generation doing better than the last-as Americans build a new, smarter, sustainable America. That new engine would open up the American market to honest domestic competition and fair global trade by removing the cement shoes of income tax and industrial subsidies that stifle competition, innovation, and trade today. That new engine would make the reduction of energy and material intensity profitable; increasing employment while building healthy, safe communities. That new engine would reduce our fiscal liabilities and generate sustainable Federal revenue without penalizing hard work and intelligent choices.
With a new economic engine, our interests will align with our principles. As we harness plentiful domestic renewables and turn efficiency into a competitive advantage, our deadly dependence on hydrocarbon-producing regions will end. With a domestic economic boom based on smart growth and efficient lifestyles, America will consume more knowledge and produce less waste while improving our quality of life-accruing advantage to firms that invest in people. With the expansion of waste-tax systems including 'cap-and-trade' and 'polluter pays', a surge of market capitalization will seek secure and sustainable investment opportunities around the world, spreading the economic revolution.
By complementing these new national interests with a far-sighted strategic posture, a wave of peace and prosperity can follow the economic changes. First, America must lead the transformation of the norms and institutions of the international order, based on a hard-headed conception of responsible sovereignty and a new global development consensus. Second, America must take responsibility for improving the five global systems which determine the amount of prosperity or conflict the world enjoys: energy, water, ecosystem services, public health, and information. Third, we must maintain and expand our principled commitment to human security and global stability, working to generate capable partners at the regional level to share the burden of the collective security tasks facing us in this era.
What's in it for you.
Your campaign manager will tell you that the logic of the Democratic primaries, under normal circumstances, makes such big ideas not only unnecessary, but extraordinarily risky. After all, with a tight field of eight candidates, you merely need to get about 25% of the primary voters on your side in Iowa or New Hampshire to be able to build the momentum necessary to carry the nomination. After all, in a two party system, you can win the general election on the misfortune of the other party. Play it safe, play to the polls, and you have somewhere between a 1:16 and a 1:4 chance of taking the Oval Office.
These, however, are not normal circumstances. With $200 million in Karl Rove's hands, only a National catastrophe will be un-spinnable…and you really don't want to have that strategy memo leaked to the press. At present you cannot attack the President's strategy too hard because you basically agree with the rough outline and disagree on the details and emphasis, which doesn't play in Peoria, and the relentless pursuit of "swing voters" now smells of base pandering to voting Americans.
You have talked about what kind of leadership we need, but have been unable to articulate what end that leadership ought to serve. This "end" is the key. The strategy outlined above gives you that key.
Act now and you can gather a new progressive majority. Act now and you can exploit the media attention such a dramatic change would generate just in time for the primaries. Act now and you can change the course of the 2004 election, the country, and the world.
Patrick Doherty is an independent writer living in Washington, DC. He spent a decade in the field of conflict resolution in the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. He can be reached at email@example.com.