Tag: collapse

Fiscal Imbalance and Global Power

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question revolves around the health of the U.S. economy, and its relationship to U.S. power. 

The editors ask

How serious a threat is the mounting debt to the nation’s standing as the world’s only superpower? Can the U.S. continue to spend more than all other countries combined on its military forces given burdensome debt levels? In what other ways does the mounting debt undermine the country’s strategic position? […]

My response:

Our long-term fiscal imbalance, which increasingly amounts to a massive intergenerational wealth transfer, is clearly a sign of our decline. But it is a decline that has been a long time coming. (I first wrote about the insolvency of the Social Security system as a college sophomore, 23 years ago.) As such, it is tempting for people to assume that we’ll figure our way out of this mess before a complete collapse. Let’s call them, at the risk of a double negative, the declinist naysayers. And, even if they are willing to admit to the problem in the abstract, the naysayers can point to the more serious, and urgent, imbalances between pensioners and those who pay the pensions in Europe or Japan and say “At least we aren’t them.”

That is a pretty shoddy argument, but it seems to be ruling the day. We can talk about the obvious unsustainability of using taxes on current workers to pay benefits for retirees until we’re blue in the face. And my second grader can do the math on a system that was designed when workers outnumbered beneficiaries by 16.5 to 1, and in which, by 2030, that ratio will fall to 2 to 1. It simply doesn’t add up. (For more on this, much more, see my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale’s latest.)

But this isn’t a math problem; this is a political problem. The incentive to kick the can down the road is overwhelming. The pain in attempting to deal with the problem in the here and now is, well, painful. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that members of Congress / Parliament / Bundestag / Diet, etc, have become very good at avoiding the issue altogether. And many of those who have chosen to tackle it are “spending more time with their families.”

What does all this mean for the United States’s standing as the world superpower? Less than you might think. Our difficulties in two medium-sized countries in SW/Central Asia have done more to puncture the illusion of American power than our political inability to deal with domestic problems. Our fiscal insolvency might convince other countries to play a larger role, if they genuinely feared for their safety. But other countries, especially our allies, are cutting military spending, while Uncle Sam continues to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. In other words, our ability to maintain our global superpower status isn’t driven by our economic problems. But it is strategically stupid.

It is here that I take issue with Ron Marks’s contention that we spend less today than during the Cold War. While technically accurate, measuring military spending as a share of GDP is utterly misleading (as I’ve argued elsewhere.) If the point is to argue that we could spend more, I agree. But the measure doesn’t address whether we should do so.

We should think of military spending not as a share of the American economy, but rather relative to the threats we face. In real terms (constant current dollars), we spend today more than when we were facing down a nuclear-armed adversary with a massive army stationed in Eastern Europe and a navy that plied the seven seas from Cam Ranh Bay to Cuba. We spend more than during the height of the Vietnam or Korean Wars. Today, terrorist leaders are hunkered down in safe houses somewhere in, well, somewhere. In other words, what we spend is utterly disconnected from the threats we face, a point that is easily obscured when one focuses on military spending as a share of total output.

We spend so much today not because we are facing down one very scary adversary, but because we are facing down dozens or hundreds of small adversaries that should be confronted by others. After the Cold War ended, our strategy expanded to justify a massive military. Since 9/11, it has expanded further. Our fiscal crisis alone won’t force a reevaluation of our grand strategy. It will take sound strategic judgement, and a bit of political courage, to turn things around.

In the cover letter to his just-released National Security Strategy, President Obama acknowledged that it doesn’t make sense for any one country to attempt to police the entire planet, irrespective of the costs. Unfortunately, the document fails to outline a mechanism for transferring some of the burdens of global governance to others who benefit from a peaceful and prosperous world order. We should assume, therefore, that the U.S. military will continue to be the go-to force for cleaning up all manner of problems, and that the U.S. taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.

Berlin Wall Anniversary Links

The Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago this month, marking the collapse of Soviet communism. The anniversary is an appropriate time for stocktaking and for seeking to answer a number of questions associated with this historic event, its aftermath, and its continued influence.

  • Podcast: Why Russia must confront the criminal nature of its communist past.

The Legacy of TARP: Crony Capitalism

When Treasury Secretary Hank Paul proposed the bailout of Wall Street banks last September, I objected in part because the TARP meant that government connections, not economic merit, would come to determine how capital gets allocated in the economy. That prediction now looks dead on:

As financial firms navigate a life more closely connected to government aid and oversight than ever before, they increasingly turn to Washington, closing a chasm that was previously far greater than the 228 miles separating the nation’s political and financial capitals.

In the year since the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, paralyzing global markets and triggering one of the biggest government forays into the economy in U.S. history, Wall Street has looked south to forge new business strategies, hew to new federal policies and find new talent.

“In the old days, Washington was refereeing from the sideline,” said Mohamed A. el-Erian, chief executive officer of Pimco. “In the new world we’re going toward, not only is Washington refereeing from the field, but it is also in some respects a player as well… . And that changes the dynamics significantly.”

Read the rest of the article; it is truly frightening. We have taken a huge leap toward crony capitalism, to our peril.

Educational Productivity Has Collapsed — NAEP

The latest Long Term Trends results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress are out. They reveal a productivity collapse unparalleled in any other sector of the economy.

At the end of high school, students perform no better today than they did nearly 40 years ago, and yet we spend more than twice as much per pupil in real, inflation-adjusted terms. I can’t think of any other service that has gotten worse during my lifetime. Our school system has failed alone.

While the stagnation in overall achievement masks a 3 to 5 percent gain in the achievement of African American 17-year-olds since 1970, the scores for whites at the end of high school are virtually unchanged.

Anyone who points to the slightly higher scores in the early grades as cause for celebration is missing the point. What parents care about is that their children are well prepared for higher education and future careers at the end of their secondary education. The fact that scores have risen somewhat in the early grades means little since those gains evaporate for the vast majority of students by the time they graduate.

Update: The Associated Press story is now out on the Long Term Trends NAEP results… and it doesn’t mention the long term trends. The story only reports changes in achievement over the most recent 4 year interval of a test whose raison d’être is to reach back to the early 1970s. I wonder why…. Fortunately, the Detroit Free Press does a better job.