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Should We Cut Defense Spending?

August 5, 2010

While everyone is talking about “balancing the budget,” President Obama is also balancing something else: priorities.

While Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid present the gravest threats to America’s future financial capabilities, no budget has been overlooked, including U.S. defense and military intelligence spending. Accordingly, this has spawned a great debate over where to draw the line between protecting American interests and fiscal responsibility.

Some people believe that spending more than the world combined on defense and more than all other U.S. discretionary spending combined is irresponsible and excessive, especially as politicians and citizens alike are calling for government frugality. Members of both the left and the right have joined together in calling for the scaling down of the military budget, with the unlikely duo of far-left Democrat Barney Frank (D-MA) and libertarian hero Ron Paul (R-TX) leading the way. While many are critiquing the defense budget from a fiscal standpoint, Frank and Paul also argue that our extra spending is not providing much additional security. In a CNN interview, Frank said, “If we are to be told that what we have to do is keep [Afghanistan] from being a base for terrorism…Sudan, Somalia, [and] Yemen…will soon be bases for terrorism. If we were to withdraw our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and spend about two percent of what we spend on our troops on bolstering national security at home, we’d be safer.”

Others believe that accomplishing our domestic and international security objectives requires such formidable spending and perhaps more. According to a congressionally chartered bipartisan panel co-chaired by Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s national security adviser, and William Perry, Bill Clinton’s Defense secretary, “there is a significant and growing gap between the ‘force structure’ of the military…and the missions it will be called on to perform in the future.” Additionally, the panel concluded that certain areas of defense, such as the Navy and cyber defense, need substantial funding increases to meet the demands of their current objectives.

Are we spending too much on defense?

The conservative Heritage Foundation released its own report on U.S. defense spending in July. The report opposes significant defense spending cuts, stating that, “The Administration is planning to cut the defense budget, even though the existing budget is inadequate to repair, rehabilitate, and replace equipment worn down in combat, much less diversify the force and build the capabilities required to maintain current margins of U.S. military superiority.” Furthermore, the report notes that defense spending as a percentage of GDP is relatively low compared to historical defense spending post-WWII, as illustrated in the graph to the right.  This suggests that the relative costs of our current militaristic dominance are fairly reasonable.

The problem with this thinking, even embodied in deficit-hawks like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and limited government advocate Sarah Palin, is that it assumes too broad a definition of U.S. security interests. Is it vital to our national security that the U.S. utilize interventionist tactics, such as regime changes and nation-building, to proliferate democracy abroad? Do we really need, as of late 2009, over 516,000 U.S. military service members in approximately 150 foreign countries, with 54,000 troops in Germany alone, to defend ourselves? Regardless of the size our economy dedicated to defense spending relative to the past, any extraneous funding that does not accomplish our goals is merely waste. A serious attempt to clearly define our security goals and analyze the cost-effectiveness of our operations and military superiority is in order, lest we find ourselves bankrupt and aimlessly pursuing endless conflict.

-Brett Gall

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Angels of Mercy

August 5, 2010

Recent history reveals that the United States has enjoyed its best international ratings when its humanitarian efforts take center stage. Although the United States, through its primary aid agency (USAID), continues to stay actively involved in the socio-economic development in different parts of the world, such a commitment has always received increased attention during a calamity. While the relief efforts carried out by the United States after the tsunami in Indonesia helped to create a turnaround in U.S. popularity in the largest Muslim country of the world, the enhanced U.S. participation in the wake of the disastrous earthquake in Pakistan is a classic case study of ‘crisis turned into opportunity.’

The 7.6 magnitude earthquake in October 2005, which struck the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Azad Kashmir, left over 74,000 people dead, 70,000 injured and nearly three million homeless. Severe damage to the buildings and the other structures followed, resulting in the entrapment of numerous people in the debris and the failure of ground communication and transportation (roads, bridges). In turn, this amplified the difficulties to extend relief efforts to the troubled areas. In such a situation, the only option left is to extend relief support via aerial means.

Chinook helicopter carrying relief supplies via its ‘twin slings.’

While the Pakistani Army started reaching out to the people, the possible delays and the slow pace of the relief work owing to the insufficient means of air support (helicopters) worried analysts. Realizing the gravity of the situation, the U.S. response was immediate with then Commander of CENTCOM, General John Abizaid, appointing Rear Admiral Michael Lefever to head a Joint Task Force at the Disaster Assistance Center in Pakistan (DAC PAK).

The task force, working alongside the Pakistani government, presented an opportunity for the traumatized Pakistani nation to observe what can easily be termed as the largest and longest relief effort of the U.S. military history. The U.S. contingent not only delivered humanitarian aid supplies to the wrecked parts of the NWFP, set up the field hospitals, cleared roads and tackled other engineering challenges; they most importantly brought with them the symbolism of friendship. The relief operation gained remarkable attention as the U.S. helicopters facilitated the process of reaching out to the people in the troubled areas, in what initially seemed to be a slow-paced if not an impossible task to achieve. It was these helicopters that brought about a major turn-around in the post-quake relief efforts. Over the next six months, these choppers flew more than 5,200 sorties, distributed more than 14,000 tons of relief supplies and, most importantly, carried almost 17,000 passengers from the quake-stricken areas, 3,751 of whom were casualties. Such a mass-scale relief effort was likely a ‘first of its kind’ sight for most of the Pakistanis. Proof that the U.S. had won their hearts and minds duly came from both the Pakistani government and the media terming these helicopters as the ‘Angels of mercy’.

Today, Pakistan is faced with another natural catastrophe as severe torrential rains over the last two weeks have wrecked havoc in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (former NWFP) province and scattered parts of Punjab and Sind. The latest figures are startling. Around 1,500 people have lost their lives while an official UN estimate totals the number of effected people to be around 3.2 million. This tragedy could not have come at a worse time for a country fighting militancy and struggling with a fragile economy.

Pakistani soldiers shift relief goods from a traditionally decorated truck to a U.S. Chinook helicopter.

The Army has already diverted some of its resources to the aid efforts in the flood affected areas, but it will be constrained due to the on-going offensives to curb militancy in FATA and with the prediction of more rains in the Sind province. It will not be long before the public unrest starts escalating, which could lead to further turmoil in an already-devastated situation.

In this situation, Pakistan is desperately looking for much more than aid pledges made by its allies. The destruction of ground communication in the effected areas has again left aid efforts only with the option of extending relief via aerial means and Pakistanis are looking to the same ‘Angels of mercy’ for help. Such an initiative will be a welcome relief for the hundreds of thousands affected by this tragic disaster. Additionally, it will bring back the forgotten, yet positive, memories of the U.S. relief efforts from 2005-06, which will help alleviate the lingering tension between Pakistanis and the U.S. A recent survey carried out by the Pew Research Center about the public opinion in Pakistan paints a gloomy picture of U.S. popularity in the country.

However, channeling this support in the right way will lead to a turnaround in these numbers, as reckoned by the former assistant secretary of the State for South Asian Affairs, Karl Inderfurth. A change in public perception will be critically important for the U.S. as well, as it strives to define and achieve common strategic objectives in the region. Such an effort will act as a means to lessen the influence of the extremist groups who operate under the guise of welfare NGOs and are at the forefront of the relief activities. In the longer run, it will reaffirm the U.S. commitment to a stronger and deeper relationship with Pakistan and will send out a strong message to those expressing doubts about the longevity of this partnership.

-Muhammad Saad Mazhar

Wikileaks: The Afghanistan War’s ‘Pentagon Papers?’

August 3, 2010

In the past few days, the American media has been saturated with talk about the recent Wikileaks release of over 90,000 pages of raw intelligence data concerning US and Coalition operations between 2001 and 2009. Though this leak was a startling and criminal breach in security, it falls far short of deserving the sensationalism and attention it has enjoyed in the media.

Some sources have called it the ‘single largest leak in US military history.’ A word of caution: though the amount of raw data leaked did constitute the largest quantitative leak, its importance is better measured qualitatively. According to Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), “They did not reveal any new revelations.” Still, the media has persisted in its publication of the story. Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, compared the recent release to the leaking of the ‘Pentagon Papers’ by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 – a comment which has sustained the debate. This comparison, however, is a contrived over-simplification and merits a response. Yes, both the Pentagon Papers and the more recent release constituted breaches in security; and yes, both documents contained information relevant to the ongoing wars of their time. However, their similarities exist only superficially. In contrast to the relatively innocuous Wikileaks release, the Pentagon Papers were dramatically greater in scope, revealed incredible secrets incriminating several administrations, shook the American public’s faith in their government, and revolutionized the role of the media in democratic societies worldwide.

The Pentagon Papers revealed that the government of the United States had deliberately and premeditatedly expanded the Vietnam War effort with illegal carpet bombing campaigns in Cambodia and Laos – despite repeated assurances that the conflict would not be escalated. Additionally, the papers revealed that four administrations had lied to the American public about their aims and motivations for pursuing the conflict in Southeast Asia. Included in the release was a Defense Department communiqué to the Johnson administration, which stated that the country’s remaining reasons for continued involvement in Vietnam were: 70% – to avoid the humiliation of defeat, 20% – to keep South Vietnam out of Chinese hands, and 10% – to improve the livelihoods of the South Vietnamese people. The Pentagon Papers also alluded to the distinct possibility that the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution – the catalyzing factor to full-scale operations in Vietnam – was based on exaggerated or downright false information. In an NPR interview, Daniel Ellsberg admitted his remorse for not leaking the documents sooner. On the day he released the Papers to the New York Times, Senator Wayne Morse said to him, “If you’d given me those documents at the time, in 1964, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of committee…and if [you told] the truth to Congress, as was your constitutional responsibility to do, [you] could have averted that war and 50,000 Americans and several million Vietnamese.”

The value and pertinence of the Pentagon Papers was monumental; they could have prevented a war, and proved that the administration had lied to the American public. The timing, too, was important. In 1971, the American counterculture was at the height of its opposition to the war, and the country’s citizens were fiercely opposed to the growing draft. The release of the Pentagon Papers confirmed that their loved ones overseas were being killed and wounded on false, political premises; the rage resulting from this realization galvanized the antiwar movement and ultimately resulted in the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam. Despite repeated attempts made by the government to shut the story down, the country’s newspapers printed the story – and in so doing, reaffirmed the public’s First Amendment rights and ushered in a new era of freedom for the press.

Did the Wikileaks Papers have such an important effect on America? Certainly not – and for good reason. The Wikileaks Papers were unlikely to play such a dramatic role in American history for a multitude of reasons. First of all, they reveal very little – if any – information which incriminates the Presidency or damages the public’s perception of the government’s integrity. Secondly, the documents do not provide anything new; they merely confirm several suppositions which were already widely accepted: that the war in Afghanistan is going badly; that Coalition forces have been using Special Operations teams to conduct kill or capture missions against the Taliban leadership; and, most importantly, that the Pakistani intelligence agency (ISI) has been duplicitous in its cooperation with American forces. While the Wikileaks Papers may have served as a wake up call to the American taxpayers, they did not reveal any great insights that were not previously known. The content of the Wikileaks Papers will be discussed in a future post, but with acknowledgement of a different purpose, less significance, and other circumstances than of the Pentagon Papers.

-Stephan Guertin

Give the Fiscal Commission a Chance

July 29, 2010

If recent polls are to be believed, American voters are ready to party like it is 1992. While Ross Perot isn’t on TV with his trademarked budget graph charts, Americans seem to share his fervor for deficit reduction, with majorities favoring cutting the deficits over additional stimulus or spending cuts. Giving his last public speech as OMB Director on July 28th, Peter Orszag acknowledged this reality by touting how the Affordable Care Act is projected to cut the 75-year deficit by 25%-37.5%, according to the CBO. While health care reform remains controversial, Orszag mentioned one initiative with bipartisan support: the President’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

The rationale for a bipartisan commission to reduce the deficit states that the normal legislative process is ill-equipped to address our structural budgetary shortfall. A recent Hart Research poll shows that popular belief in the ability of government to solve problems is at its lowest point in decades. This view isn’t misplaced in an environment with the highest level of political polarization in 120 years.

While some blue-ribbon commissions conclude with voluminous reports that serve as book case fodder, others such as BRAC, which oversees the closure of unnecessary military bases, have effectively separated parochial politics from spending decisions. This commission is tasked with an even more sensitive issue than base closures. Former Clinton Administration Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, the stolid, technocratic co-chairman of the President’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, recently outlined the stakes, saying that currently, our “debt is like a cancer.”

Bowles is joined by co-chairman former Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY), a lanky, famously blunt conservative, whose willingness to compromise has earned the ire of both the far left and the far right. While some fiscal liberals argue that only the rich should pay to reduce the deficit, the non-partisan Tax Policy Center found that to reduce the deficit to 3% of GDP, the “top two income tax rates would have to more than double, with the top rate hitting almost 77 percent.” Similarly, “no new tax” conservatives who support reducing the deficit by slashing social insurance programs, ignore the political peril of cutting these popular programs.

The debt will continue to grow in either case.

Co-chairman Bowles dismisses the false choice between raising taxes and cutting spending, which is an encouraging sign for fiscal pragmatists. “We can’t tax our way out. . . .We’ve got to cut spending or increase revenues or do some combination of that.”  Bowles is supported by retiring Republican Senator Judd Gregg who told The Hill, “Get spending down and revenues up. … That would be very close to a stable situation.” If comments by Bowles and Gregg are any indication of the commission’s eventual decision, one can expect a balanced package of spending cuts and revenue increases.

Once the Commission makes its recommendations in December, the President and Congress will have a chance to show their actual commitment to fiscal discipline. With reauthorization of the 2001 Bush tax cuts soon approaching, Congress has a prime opportunity to distance itself from past profligate policies. If members opt to eliminate the tax cuts for only the top 2% of income earners, Congress can reduce the 10-year deficit picture by $675 billion.

In addition to tax increases, Congress can reduce the deficits by thoroughly auditing federal spending. Director Orszag mentioned that last year the federal government made $110 billion in improper benefit payments. Finding obvious inefficiencies like this to cut will help in the short-term, but to reduce the medium and long-term deficits, President Obama and leaders in Congress must be willing to make hard choices. The first such choice is to carefully consider the upcoming recommendations of the Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

-Myles Bugbee

State Tax Revenues Up, Economy Still Down

July 19, 2010

While federal revenues have fluctuated almost daily, there has been a turn-around in the state’s coffers. A recent report by the Rockefeller Institute of Government in New York notes that state tax revenues rose 2.5 percent in the first quarter of 2010.

Although this might sound like encouraging news for a recovery in state economies, the real root of the increase in revenues is veiled in tax increases. Since the recession began, over thirty states have raised taxes, sometimes quite significantly. Major state revenue packages have been enacted in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. These tax increases are seen as a necessary evil to help keep states afloat.

Unlike the Federal government, many state governments must balance their budgets. This constraint often causes states to make steep cuts across the board. In 2010 these cuts were to the tune of over $85 billion dollars, as many states were forced to drastically reduce services and personnel and to promote a more efficient government. These cuts have negatively affected everything from education to police and fire protection. For example, Arizona has ended preschool for 4,328 children while eliminating temporary health insurance for people with disabilities who are coping with serious medical problems.

While taxpayers have consistently voted to decrease taxes in their states, the costs of state entitlement programs continue to increase. Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that, “The Treasury Department estimates Social Security’s deficit at 1% of GDP over the next 75 years and Medicare’s deficit at 4.8%. With federal revenues estimated to be about 19% of GDP in the long run under current law, taxes would have to rise by about one-third to pay all the promises that have been made for just these two programs… the fiscal path of this country is simply unsustainable.”

For many recession-battered citizens, the tax increases that helped fund this turn around could not have come at a worse time. In Washington state, 32 economists have been circulating a letter to public officials stating that “Increasing taxes at this time will shift necessary capital from the private sector to the public sector, thereby depriving private enterprise of the source of true economic growth and making Washington state even less competitive for new businesses and jobs.”

This is where President Obama and Congress come into play. Without the aid of the Federal government, states will face painful decisions despite the recent revenue increases. Certainly some of these decisions are necessary to streamline the fiscal processes and reform the fundamental workings of state institutions. Yet others, embodied in complete cuts of some education and welfare programs, will be so detrimental to the public’s lives that the federal government must take some sort of action. Funding should be provided with benchmarks that states must meet for additional rewards, and strings can be attached so that funds will be put to effective use. States will be expected to drastically cut inefficient spending and close tax loopholes –only then will the federal government provide some help to state financial woes. If the federal government plans to spend in the name of stimulus, placing funds in the hands of states most needing them with conditions of vast spending cuts to extraneous programming, then we should make sure the funding is properly utilized to help fix at least one of America’s problems.

-Alexandra Doan

Only One Makes Pledge to Civility

July 13, 2010

Mark DeMoss, a former advisor for Governor Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign, and Lanny J. Davis, a former aide to President Clinton, are taking on partisan politics one signature at a time.

Prior to Memorial Day, these two sent out a pledge to 585 elected officials. This pledge was not something as demanding as a “No New Tax Pledge” or “Energy Independence Pledge.” It asked for something much simpler and less charged: civility and respect in politics. As of today, only one politician has signed the pledge.

Partisanship and personal attacks have become the status quo in recent years. With politicians spending an increasing amount of time, money, and effort attacking their political adversaries, Americans have simply come to expect such behavior from their leaders.

Candidates running for Congress in 2010 have elevated the partisan rhetoric to a whole new level. In attempts to separate themselves from their national parties’ recent shortcomings and focus attention elsewhere, politicians are strategically bringing the bickering to the local level hoping that even with a lack of national confidence in their party, attack ads will help them win office. Some have called on the public to send in damaging footage of candidates while others have hired trackers with video cameras, leaving no stone unturned.

But many see such strategy as desperation. If you are trying to prove that you are more in touch with America on the issues that matter, using a Reverend Wright attack strategy usually doesn’t change opinion. The attacks go both ways; recently an ad came out attacking Sharron Angle while another came out attacking Nancy Pelosi. The American people are so constantly bombarded with negativity that the issues up for debate seem to be lost in the mayhem of scandal.

Sometimes, mud slinging can work. In the 1964 Presidential Race, the infamous “Daisy Girl” ad demonstrating Goldwater’s “trigger-happy” reputation led to the near landslide victory of Lyndon Johnson. The Swift Boat scandal in the 2004 presidential race caused such a stir that the term “swift-boating” is now a generic term used to refer to any kind of negative advertising. In the 1994 U.S. Senate race in Virginia, tension between Oliver North and Chuck Robb escalated until the candidates themselves publicly called each other “liars.” These examples in American politics through the years demonstrate the undeniable tendency for candidates to throw each other under the bus in the heat of the campaign trail.

The politicization of the issues and elections creates great drama, but bad policy. America will prosper only through rational debate over the merits of politicians and policy. The polarization and partisanship among politicians today demonstrate the need now, more than ever, for our nation’s leaders to abandon their personal attacks and appeal to their integrity and expertise.

This lack of respect and civil communication within campaigns and legislatures is staggering and disheartening. According to the Allegheny College Civility Report, the American people want to see more civility in politics. If we stop responding to these tactics, perhaps politicians will react in turn. America needs a rebirth of civility. The time has come for us to demand it.

-Hannah Clark

Education Reform 101

July 12, 2010

With health care finally stowed away, the Obama administration is looking to chalk up a plan to salvage America’s public schools.

Educational costs have placed an immense burden upon state and federal budgets. States like California, where education pension fund shortfalls are estimated to total hundreds of billions of dollars, simply cannot afford to provide quality education to children under the current processes of tenures, salaries, and pensions. The handcuffs that teachers unions have placed on rejuvenating failing schools, such as mandatory tenures and seniority rules, have served as significant obstacles to substantial reform as well.

While poor decision-making led to notable high-risk investments for these funds and the global economic downturn has substantially contributed to states’ fiscal tribulations, addressing the massive inefficiencies and waste of the education system itself appears to be the only means of producing a long-term solution. Families, teachers, and educators alike are seemingly waiting for something magical to happen even as schools are cutting back on hours of education and programming while others have simply closed.

The U.S. has long valued education as a means of promoting effective democratic participation and achieving “The American Dream.” America’s first movement towards a national public education system began in the early 19th century. Thomas Jefferson, its primary advocate, once wrote, “”I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.” While America has maintained Jefferson’s support for public education, the “diffusion of knowledge” has been slow and uneven.

In recent years we have seen numerous drastic changes to the American education system: the desegregation of public schools under Eisenhower via Brown v. Board of Education, Reagan’s support of competition and voucher programs in response to the “A Nation At Risk” report (which projected a dismal outlook for American education), the rise of charter schools and outcome-based education under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and finally George W. Bush’s monumental No Child Left Behind Act. Nonetheless, as Newsweek notes, “In sharp contrast to many other enterprises, schooling isn’t significantly more efficient than it was a century ago.” Our education rankings haven’t drastically improved,we haven’t eliminated racial and socioeconomic educational achievement gaps, and a large portion of America still does not graduate from high school every year.

The key to education is not to merely throw money at the problem. Finland and Korea spend relatively little money per student yet have some of the best education systems in the world while America is tied with Switzerland for the most spending in the world on its students, yet ranks relatively low and even “below average” for its educational institutions. Most rankings systems place us well out-side of the top 10 and many outside of the top 15 education systems in the world.

The solution lies in the efficient and effective use of our tax dollars. This means using our money to combine teacher and student incentives (such as merit pay) with inter-school competition (perhaps via voucher programs) as well as setting achievable, progressive goals (such as the encouragement of STEM education or minority education) that promote an enlightened society capable of responsible, rationale decision-making. By no means are the aforementioned changes the absolute course of action, but innovation will be crucial to promote cost-effective education.

The very basis of the student-teacher relationship, accountability procedures, administrative structuring, teacher union regulations, and curriculum focus will need to change, lest America’s schools become a monetary black hole. President Obama has laid out some basic guidelines for education reform, such as the promotion of charter schools, and has provided incentives for educational innovation through the Race To the Top. Additionally, experiments are underway in Pittsburgh, where performance-based pay is scheduled to go into effect, and Washington D.C, where voucher and charter school programs may have helped more students graduate. Time will tell whether these efforts will be enough to right this sinking ship.

-Brett Gall