Work and Days

Can't We All Agree?

What hope and change would all of us, conservatives and liberals alike, welcome from President Obama? Here are some suggestions, surreal and serious, trivial and quite important.

1) The UN. Recently the UN Secretary-General termed the US a “deadbeat” donor, despite our long record of more than generous donations. Cannot we hope and change this organization out of New York? There is no need to withdraw from the organization, but rather we need a liberal solution of asking the aggrieved body to relocate closer to the center of present-day global problems. Conservatives would like the UN gone from our shores; liberals could agree that multilateral solutions need to be closer to the problems—the suffering, the starvation, and the killing? Possible new host cities? Beirut? Cairo? Moscow? Tripoli? A UN headquarters in Nairobi or Lagos would save millions in transportation costs, and allow UN employees a feel for problems in a way New York does not. So many birds killed with so few stones: a) no more autocratic functionaries living it up in New York restaurants and limo-ing around the city as they trash the United States during their day jobs; b) no more media attention to UN antics, as the soap-box speeches no longer go down a few blocks from CBS and ABC, but thousands of miles away; c) the world’s reps live the life in the concrete that they advocate in the abstract;

2) The Meltdown Commission. We had a 9/11 Commission; we formed the Baker-Hamilton Commission on Iraq (never mind the utility of the conclusions). So let us try a bipartisan investigatory commission on the autumn financial meltdown. Thus far the mainstream media narrative is a reductive “Bush did it.” But let us examine past bundling of subprime mortgages, and derivatives, and who introduced more regulation of banks, who opposed it; who tried to restrain Freddie and Fannie, who fought that tooth and nail, what the SEC did and did not do—and why. Let us collate all the campaign contributions from the failed banks, Madoff, the entire open sewer of politics and high finance, and then let those of the commission, both Democrat and Republican, issue a white paper on when, why, and how it all went down.

3) Farm subsidies. From 2002-8 prices for most subsidized commodities, from corn and wheat to cotton and dairy, were quite profitable. Yet the five-year $307 billion farm bill contains billions in direct subsidies to corporate and large farmers who are already making a profit in the open market. The bill itself is full of pork, and there is no real reason to continue any of the direct cash support elements of the legislation. I’m not sure of the exact correlation, but if one were to graph the history of farm subsidies and the decline of small family farms the later line would go upward as the latter went down. We were once promised in the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” act that it would all end. It didn’t. Then right after 9/11 we rushed a renewed “farm security” bill, using the fear of terrorism as another false rationale. When that fear faded, we advanced the notion of stimuli and pump-priming. I never understood why a plum or grape grower got nothing and survived, and much wealthier cotton growers got lots, thrived, and said they would go broke without federal largess. The bill never explained why a few farmers got a lot, and most got nothing; or why the dole continued even when prices climbed.

4) Our Ambassadors. Can we stop appointing the wealthy and well-connected to ambassadorships? Count the ways in which this practice is a disaster: a) the choice jobs always go to wealthy donors, not the top State Department experts. Morale would be enhanced if career officers knew they might at the zenith of their careers make Ambassador (imagine majors and colonels never making generals, who were instead appointed on the basis of campaign contributions); b) we could have some real expertise in time of crises. Now when the Middle East flares up, the former Soviet republics are under siege, or there is tension in the sea of Japan, we send in special envoys, experts, generals—but don’t really in extremis rely on our ambassadors on the scene for sources of regional and cultural expertise; c) and then there is the obvious that it is a very bad idea to tie big money with official representation of the United States, a relic of the 19th-century practice of buying government patronage.

5) Eponymous Heroes. When will the public simply ridicule the practice of naming buildings, highways, bridges, schools (cf. the Rangel this and the Murtha that) after living representatives and senators? If we must name infrastructure after our congressional grandees, cannot we at least wait until they are dead, when time and reflection adjudicate the exact worth and accomplishments of our politicos? Under the present system, we have the embarrassing situation that congress people simply earmark millions for their districts and then carve their names, like eponymous Roman prefects, on any public structure higher than a couple of inches. But it was our money, not theirs, that built these public facilities in the first place.

6) Do not harm. Yes, do nothing for a few months. Over a half-trillion dollars in energy stimuli are occurring naturally due to crashed oil prices. The collapse of interest on US debt bonds has given us billions in near interest free money. Millions have walked away from debt and are unburdened from mortgage and credit card bills. Last year’s budget had a $500 billion stimulus deficit in it.  In short, as we speak, the economy is being stimulated. So why not relax for 100 days, let the markets correct—and quit borrowing in the fashion that got us into this mess?

The above suggestions have no chance of being enacted, but they would do far more for the country at almost no cost than running up the present 1.6 trillion dollar deficit.