Friday, July 08, 2005

Considering the carnage in London

What are we to think after Thursday's events in London? It's easy to try to ascribe blame and make things black and white. It's us vs them. That's what we heard from our leaders, and that's what we saw as security forces ramped up around the world. And I share that feeling. Targetting innocent people for death is not a "proper" thing to do, after all.

I am not equipped to comment in depth on the attacks in London. For more details on what has happened and what is happening, you might want to check out Wikipedia's London blast coverage. There will probably be follow-up items published there as well. While it's not "professional" coverage, it has an immediacy that makes it compelling reading.

But as the world digests what's happened, we also need to think more seriously about what is going on. And how our actions and reactions today may affect us tomorrow.

The seeds of the destruction that occurred in London yesterday, and Madrid, Bali and New York before that, were sown years ago. The governments of the West recruited all kinds of people in their previous war (prior to the War on Terror) when the enemy was the evil empire of communism. We won that war but in the process, a lot of people were trained and encouraged to conduct the kinds of terror campaign we now condemn. There is an inevitability to what is happening, when looked at from a longer and larger perspective.

While I don't like to point readers to items that are not freely available on the Web, I'm going to recommend that you consider reading a couple of items. Both of them require paid subscriptions.

The first is today's column by Rick Salutin, in the Globe and Mail. It's available via an Insider subscription. Of course, it's also in the print edition.

In his column, Salutin says there's a grim connection between what's happened in the past and Thursday's bombings:
Let me make the connection more specific. In Afghanistan, working with its partners in Pakistan's security service, the U.S. funded and trained as many as 100,000 religiously fanatical mujahedeen, of whom 5,000 to 15,000 saw action. Then it simply abandoned them. Many of these people now are al-Qaeda and its offshoots. They scattered after the Afghan war, back to their homelands or around the world, applying their acquired skills. Let me specify further. The training they got was often in the use of the kinds of explosives set off in Madrid and, most likely, in London yesterday. Huge amounts of such weapons were left in their hands.

This is not a bit of unexpected "blowback," as has often been said. This is the same reliance on terror by many of the same people, possibly using the same weapons. It's all sickening: the targeting of totally innocent people, the appalling sanctions against Iraqi kids, the bombs yesterday, 9/11. But you can't create, legitimate and utilize terror for decades, even as you officially condemn it out of the other side of your mouth, then suddenly claim to stand utterly clear of its incarnations.

Not even their language separates the "sides." The U.S. justified support for its terrorist "freedom fighters" by saying they were battling the "evil empire" of the Soviets. Now the Soviets are gone, but, yesterday, George Bush again said this is about good versus evil. Many mujahedeen learned the language of good versus evil while in Afghanistan. Today, they fling it at their former sponsors, who fling it back. None of this absolves the bombers of responsibility for their bombs, but it makes for less than a clear contrast with the leaders of the G8.

The second item is this month's cover article in Atlantic Monthly magazine. It's called "Countdown to a Meltdown -- America's coming economic crisis. A look back from the election of 2016," and it's written by James Fallows. Again, you'll have to be a subscriber to the Atlantic to read it, or pick up the print edition.

It's a stunning bit of work. Working from extensive interviews with experts on a wide variety of topics, Fallows has constructed a hypothetical look back on the near future from the perspective of a briefing memo for the next president of the US, who is about to win election in the year 2016. The style is compelling, as are the extensive footnotes that back up many of the predictions and scenarios that are presented as having already happened.

What it paints is a sobering look at the dramatic changes which could affect the World's largest economy if certain things happen. Granted, they may not happen, but the possibilities are worth considering. I won't try to restate Fallow's work, but here's a brief excerpt, just to illustrate:
Before there was 9/11, however, there was June 7, 2001. For our purposes modern economic history began that day.

On June 7 President George W. Bush celebrated his first big legislative victory. Only two weeks earlier his new administration had suffered a terrible political blow, when a Republican senator left the party and gave Democrats a one-vote majority in the Senate. But the administration was nevertheless able to persuade a dozen Democratic senators to vote its way and authorize a tax cut that would decrease federal tax revenues by some $1.35 trillion between then and 2010.

This was presented at the time as a way to avoid the "problem" of paying down the federal debt too fast. According to the administration's forecasts, the government was on the way to running up $5.6 trillion in surpluses over the coming decade. The entire federal debt accumulated between the nation's founding and 2001 totaled only about $3.2 trillion—and for technical reasons at most $2 trillion of that total could be paid off within the next decade.4 Therefore some $3.6 trillion in "unusable" surplus—or about $12,000 for every American—was likely to pile up in the Treasury. The administration proposed to give slightly less than half of that back through tax cuts, saving the rest for Social Security and other obligations.

Congress agreed, and it was this achievement that the president celebrated at the White House signing ceremony on June 7. "We recognize loud and clear the surplus is not the government's money," Bush said at the time. "The surplus is the people's money, and we ought to trust them with their own money."

If the president or anyone else at that ceremony had had perfect foresight, he would have seen that no surpluses of any sort would materialize, either for the government to hoard or for taxpayers to get back. (A year later the budget would show a deficit of $158 billion; a year after that $378 billion.) By the end of Bush's second term the federal debt, rather than having nearly disappeared, as he expected, had tripled. If those in the crowd had had that kind of foresight, they would have called their brokers the next day to unload all their stock holdings. A few hours after Bush signed the tax-cut bill, the Dow Jones industrial average closed at 11,090, a level it has never reached again.

In a way it doesn't matter what the national government intended, or why all forecasts proved so wrong. Through the rest of his presidency Bush contended that the reason was 9/11—that it had changed the budget as it changed everything else. It forced the government to spend more, for war and for homeland security, even as the economic dislocation it caused meant the government could collect less. Most people outside the administration considered this explanation misleading, or at least incomplete. For instance, as Bush began his second term the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said that the biggest reason for growing deficits was the tax cuts.

But here is what really mattered about that June day in 2001: from that point on the U.S. government had less money to work with than it had under the previous eight presidents. Through four decades and through administrations as diverse as Lyndon Johnson's and Ronald Reagan's, federal tax revenue had stayed within a fairly narrow band. The tax cuts of 2001 pushed it out of that safety zone, reducing it to its lowest level as a share of the economy in the modern era. And as we will see, these cuts—the first of three rounds—did so just when the country's commitments and obligations had begun to grow.

Pick up a copy or subscribe. This article alone is worth it.

No comments: