Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

14 December 2011

Our Ten Grave National Problems: How Long Have they Festered?

As readers of this blog know, I like to tie things together. Hyperlinks make that easier than ever before. So the list of ten grave national problems in my last post will be my mantra for the duration of this electoral season.

For the next eleven months, you can expect to see many hyperlinks to that post. I’m going to measure every candidate on a simple scale. Does he or she have serious solutions to some—or any!—of those grave problems? And does he or she have the brains, character, patience and political skill to make them work?

That’s what any rational, informed voter who wants to arrest our nation’s decline would do. Sometimes I’ll also discuss foreign policy. But, except for our endless wars, it’s not on the list. Why? Now that those endless (and needless) wars are winding down, our biggest problems are at home and of our own making.

How long have these problems festered? Here is a brief table listing the rough chronological origins of each problem and its longevity so far:
1Foreign Oil DependenceSecond Arab Oil Embargo197338 years
2Infrastructure DecayMinnesota I-35W Bridge Collapse20074 years
3AEconomic InequalityGrasso Pay Controversy20038 years
3BFinance Going RogueGramm, Leach, Bliley Act199912 years
4National DebtOff-Budget Iraq War20038 years
5Public-Education LagReportA Nation at Risk198328 years
6Endless WarsBush Declaration200110 years
7ImmigrationImmigration Reform and Control Act198625 years
8Decline of ScienceCanceling Superconducting Super Collider199318 years
9Broken GovernmentRoutine Use of Filibuster197536 years
10Global WarmingJoint National Academies’ Statement20056 years

The column on problem “origin” requires some explanation. In most cases, the “origin” I have listed is not the cause or inception of the problem, but the first dramatic public notice of it. For example, our dependence on foreign oil did not begin with the Second Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, but that event made the American public—and even politicians—painfully aware of it. Likewise, the decline in our public schools did not begin with the National Commission on Education’s shocking report in 1983, but that report made the public aware that our presumed “Number One!” status was in jeopardy.

Sometimes a single event, in retrospect, appears to have been the primary cause of a problem. An example is passage of the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act, officially known as the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999. Financial deregulation began as early as pre-emption of state [anti-]usury laws in 1989. It continued after Gramm-Leach-Bliley, notably with the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which deregulated most derivatives other than commodities futures sold on regulated exchanges.

But expert observers now believe that the key mistake was the 1999 Act’s partial repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, allowing commercial banks, investment banks, and insurance companies to merge. That mistake, along with related mergers, turned venerable financial institutions like Citibank, Bank of America, Chase Manhattan Bank and the once-solid international insurer AIG into big gamblers or big casinos. That enormous change in our financial landscape, in turn, led directly to the Crash of 2008.

As for broken government, the primary cause is routine use of the filibuster, which allows the minority party to block any initiative of the majority party with a mere 41% vote in the Senate. The result is minority rule or (more accurately) minority-induced paralysis of government.

The longevity of this practice surprised even me. But the Senate has kept careful records. From 1917 through 1972, senators used the filibuster to block legislation exactly twelve times. That’s an annual average of 12/55, or less than one-quarter of a block per year! And lest you think that was a placid period, consider that it included the Great Depression, the Second World War, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, women’s liberation, and most of our highly controversial War in Vietnam.

In the 93rd Congress, 1973-1974, blocking rose to nine times, or an average of 4.5 times per year, twenty times the earlier average. From that time on, blocking never dropped below nine times per Congress, or 4.5 per year, except in the 95th Congress (1977-78), when it averaged 1.5 per year.

In the last two years of Dubya’s administration and the first two years of President Obama’s, blockage averaged 31 per year, or 142 times the average from 1917 through 1972. But the precedent for this extraordinary explosion of legislative gridlock had already been established.

In most cases, I have tried to be conservative in estimating the longevity of a problem. The extreme case is infrastructure neglect. The public first became generally aware of the problem when the I-35W bridge suddenly collapsed in Minneapolis, killing several drivers. But the decay that caused that tragedy obviously had been going on for decades, as the report of American Society of Civil Engineers reveals.

Similarly, neglect of basic science has been ongoing since the 1970s. I know this from personal experience. But notwithstanding this long-term secular decline, I have picked the much-later cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider as the key event in our government’s turning its back on basic science. The Collider, on which we would have spent some $11 billion, would have cost less less than three months’ worth of the War in Iraq.

The problem of global warming is similar. Indicative research goes back well into the eighties, and Al Gore famously made an issue of it in the 2000 campaign. But I picked the short, Web-published statement of our own, prestigious National Academies (including the National Academy of Sciences) as a point where rational argument should have stopped. Denial after that point, by people (such as Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma) with absolutely no scientific knowledge or training, is like an illiterate Taliban fighter presuming to instruct the College of Cardinals on Catholic doctrine.

The hardest problem for which to pinpoint an “origin” was economic inequality. (That’s one reason why, in the table, I split it off from financial depravity, although lumping both together in my original list of ten.) Ordinary folks’ wages have been stagnating and CEOs’ pay skyrocketing since the late 1970s. But public awareness came only slowly. So I rather arbitrarily picked 2003.

That was the year in which Dick Grasso’s contracted-for $188 million annual pay as head of the New York Stock Exchange created huge public controversy. Grasso’s job was to be a marketer for the exchange, but his most important function was to regulate it and keep it honest. For that job, he was to earn hundreds of times what his counterparts in government (for example, the SEC) would earn. His excessive pay rapidly became an example and a metaphor for injustice then consuming our society.

No wonder plutocrats want to privatize everything! If your salary went up hundreds of times by that simple act, you’d want to privatize everything, too! But life doesn’t work that way for most of us: when things privatize, the folks at the top get more, and we get less.

Perhaps you can quibble with some of my dates of “origin,” or how much the public really knew or knows, and when. But even if you quibble in one two cases, this table amply demonstrates how long-lived our biggest problems are. None of them arose, or even first came to public notice, within the last three years.

The average longevity of the eleven problems in the table is 17.5 years—nearly a generation—with no solutions in sight! Surely we as a nation can do better than that.

By and large, our biggest problems are longstanding, of bipartisan concern, and often of bipartisan origin. That’s especially so with regard to the disastrous effects of impulsive financial deregulation. The worst legislative changes occurred on Bill Clinton’s watch, and he signed them into law.

Bill Clinton was one of the most intelligent presidents in American history. But brains alone are not enough. Finance is an obscure and esoteric field, and he was no expert. After the public recantation of the most powerful expert, Alan Greenspan, he can claim innocent ignorance.

But if the most disastrous economic mistakes in nearly a century could happen on his watch, doesn’t that argue for the caution and deliberation of an equally intelligent man like the President?

Character matters as much as intelligence does. I have seen no one in national public life since JFK to match the President’s character, prudence, deliberation and judgment. Some call him “dithering” or “weak.” But I think we’ve seen quite enough of the impulsive kind of “strength” that makes endless, unnecessary wars and the impulsive deregulation that creates wholly gratuitous financial catastrophes.

Anyway, blame is not the issue; there is plenty to go around. Since our mistakes and problems, by and large, have been bipartisan, shouldn’t both parties be looking for intelligent, pragmatic solutions, rather than placing blame? And shouldn’t we voters start thinking about who, if anyone, offers real solutions, instead of tired ideological dogma, frat-boy one-liners, and “hot button” distractions from what really matters?

Footnote 1: In 2001, shortly after 9/11, Dubya declared any nation who harbors terrorists our enemy. As I’ve pointed out at length in another post, that announcement implicitly declared war on some sixty countries, most of which were innocent and inept (like Somalia) or our ostensible allies (like Pakistan). It led directly to our now-ten-year senseless and ineffective war in Afghanistan.

Footnote 2: I and my classmates in physics graduate school got our Ph.D.s in the late sixties and early seventies, just as the bottom dropped out of federal support for basic science. Several classmates left the field of science and became lawyers (like me), a medical doctor, an investment advisor, or various administrators.

That outcome wasted the time and effort required to get a doctor’s degree in science—typically five years of study—which in my era were heavily subsidized by federal support. For example, a National Science Foundation Fellowship supported my graduate education until I began working on my thesis, after which I got other federal support for essentially full-time research work. I would rather have stayed in science—if I could have made a decent living doing so—but society pushed me (like many others) toward my choice by making a law career much more comfortable, and a career in science poor and insecure.

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