Monday, April 25, 2011

Public Financing of Elections a Needed Reform

When we look at modern elections in the United States, it's hard to escape the conclusion that they have degenerated into an undemocratic sham. No longer are political campaigns conducted by newspaper editorials and printed pamphlets filled with discussions of public policy, but rather by massive waves of thirty-second television or radio spots, financed by corporations that have their own selfish interests at heart. When the incumbency rate of members of Congress is usually as high as 90%, even while public approval of Congress is very low, it's obvious that something is very wrong.

Money rather than ideas has emerged as the deciding factor in who wins a congressional election. Corporate interests of all sorts have established large-scale operations designed to funnel massive amounts of campaign money to political candidates. Because political candidates depend on this money to finance their electoral campaigns, these corporations utterly dwarf ordinary citizens in the influence they have on the actions of office-holders. If an office-holder toes the line, the corporations will keep the money flowing; if not, the money stops. If that's not bribery, I don't know what is.

Incumbent members of Congress, by doing favors for powerful corporations, are able to count on massive financial resources for their reelection campaigns. Consequently, it is always difficult if not impossible for ordinary citizens to challenge sitting members of Congress (or, for that matter, state and local office-holders), because there is simply no way for them to raise the necessary amounts of money to be competitive.

This problem became much more acute last year, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. In a highly flawed 5-4 decision which overturned several strong legal precidents, the Supreme Court ruled that no government regulation can limit the amount of money a corporation can spend in support of a political candidate. This has already opened the floodgates for a wave of corporate money that is now pouring into our political system, making an already bad situation much worse.

But there is a policy in operation in some states which might provide some relief: public financing of elections. If qualified candidates have access to public funds with which to launch a respectable political campaign, the power of incumbency can be greatly reduced, and the corrupt practices that have bedeviled politics in recent decades would be reduced along with it.

We can examine whether or not such a system would work by looking at the successes and failures of it on the state level. 14 states now provide some form of public financing to certain types of candidates, but let us take the state of Maine as a case-in-point for how public financing can make electoral politics more democratic and equitable.

In 1996, the Pine Tree State passed the Maine Clean Elections Act, which provided for public funds for candidates running for Governor, the State Senate, or the State House. In order to quality, candidates had to demonstrate a reasonable level of public support by raising a certain amount of money in $5 donations. Once they crossed the threshold, they qualified for public funds and could no longer accept private donations.

The program has been a great success, with more than four out of five candidates for the Maine State Legislature using the program. This has largely eliminated the power of corporations to unduly influence the legislation passed in Maine, giving control of the legislative process back to the people where it belongs. In recent gubernatorial elections, the Democratic and Republican candidates have been forced to compete with competitively-financed independent candidates, greatly enlivening the electoral contests. This kind of vibrant competition for office is the lifeblood of a truly energetic republic, and what the Founding Fathers would have wanted to see.

Imagine taking the example of Maine and applying it on a national scale for elections to Congress. A system in which candidates for Congress had access to a reasonably level of public financing, provided that they met certain criteria and agreed not to accept other forms of funding, would inject our political discourse with new energy and more options for voters. No longer would the corporate-controlled candidates have the field all to themselves every two years, facing either minimal opposition from underfunded candidates or no opposition at all. The rotation in office, so important to the survival of a vibrant democracy, would be greatly increased, and even incumbent Congressmen would be forced to act more responsibly if faced with genuine opposition every election cycle.

By itself, public financing for congressional elections would not solve the problem of corporate dominance of the political process. It is likely that candidates who choose not to accept public financing would, in most cases, be able to spend more money than candidates who do. But it would be a great step forward if it could be implemented, and would at least give a voice to those citizens running for office who are not in hock to the corporate political machine.

Of course, the very people who would have the most to lose are the very ones who would have to pass it, so it will be a long struggle to get such a program passed. Furthermore, some of the state-level public financing programs are facing court challenges. But as with all such reforms, the fact that it won't be easy to make it a reality cannot deter us from making the effort. We'd better get started now.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cato Institute Video on Immediate Cuts to the Defense Budget

Here is an informative, brief video from the Cato Institute on a few cuts that could easily be made to the defense budget in the immediate future. While we at the Themistocles Letters don't agree with the Cato Institute on a lot of things, we do agree with them on the need to cut our defense spending in a major way. Enjoy the video.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Refusing to Raise the Debt Ceiling Would Be a Disaster

The need to address the fiscal crisis is one of the central beliefs of the Themistocles Letters. Indeed, we believe that the fiscal crisis is far worse than most people realize and far worse than our elected leaders will publicly admit. It is the great issue of our time. Nevertheless, refusing to raise the debt ceiling above its current level of $14.292 trillion (a level which will be reached within a month or so) would be a disaster. Our elected have a responsibility to hold their noses and vote for raising the debt ceiling, which also pursuing the policies necessary to get the deficit under control.

A bit of background is in order. Since 1917, Congress has set a limit of the maximum amount of public debt that the government can owe. As uncontrolled spending lead to ever-increasing debt, Congress continually passed new legislation raising this ceiling to higher and higher levels. To a casual observer, it might appear that refusing to raise the debt ceiling would be a good way of preventing the federal government from spending too much of the people's money. Indeed, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) are even now publicly threatening to filibuster to death any bill that raises the debt ceiling. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who has sometimes been touted as the "Republican Obama", recently declared in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that he will refuse to vote for a hike in the debt ceiling.

Refusing to raise the debt ceiling would be more than ill-advised; it would be disastrous. Indeed, since refusing to raise the debt ceiling would very quickly result in the United States government defaulting on its debt, it would be the fiscal and economic equivalent of a train wreck. The effects would be worldwide and catastrophic, making the credit crunch of 2007-09 look like a minor blip on the radar by comparison.

Those who say we should not raise the debt ceiling clearly have no understanding of how bond markets or the global economy work. The federal government borrows money by issuing U.S. Treasury bonds, and these bonds can be sold at a low interest rate so long as they seen as a safe investment. These low interest rates allow the federal government to borrow money at a comparatively cheap price (and, as a side effect, keep interest rates low on such things as mortgage loans). An appreciable chunk of the federal budget is already required every year merely to pay the interest on the debt we already owe; if the interest rates on U.S. treasury bonds went up, that percentage would be even higher.

Think about what would happen if the United States defaulted on its debt. They only have value because people buying them have confidence in "the full faith and credit of the United States". This confidence is rooted in the fact that the United States has never, in all its history, defaulted on its debts. If Congress causes a default by refusing to allow the debt ceiling to go up, U.S. Treasury bonds would plummet in value overnight. Investors around the world have long been concerned about the steadily deteriorating fiscal situation of the United States, and an actual default on its debt would cause them to dump U.S. Treasury bonds as quickly as they could.

The repercussions of this would be swift and devastating. If the value of U.S. Treasury bonds collapse, sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, and major mutual funds all over the world would also collapse, reducing millions of people to insolvency in the blink of an eye. Stock markets would plunge in value, bring the nascent economic recovery to an abrupt end and dragging the world back into economic chaos. Robbed of the ability to raise capital or safely invest their money, the industries which make the global economy function would stop operating just as surely as a car that has run out of gas. The economic damage caused by a default of the federal debt would be more akin to that of 1929 than that of 2007.

Even if the United States somehow got its act together after defaulting and begin honoring its debts once again, the long-term economic damage would be severe. Never again would U.S. Treasury bonds be as valuable as they had been before the default, for the "full faith and credit of the United States" would have been shown to be worth a lot less than had been thought. Investor confidence in U.S. Treasury bonds would be shattered, and it would take decades to repair the damage, if indeed it could be repaired at all. Investors tend to have a longer memory than politicians, after all.

Loss of investor confidence in U.S. Treasury bonds would mean that they could only be sold if they offer a far higher interest rates than they currently do. That, in turn, would make require the federal government to allocate far more money to paying interest on the national debt than it currently does, making the quest to restore some measure of fiscal sanity to the country all the more difficult. Of course, the global economic meltdown caused by the initial default would have shattered the American economy already, so perhaps this would be a moot point.

Is global economic chaos, the impoverishment of millions, and the shattering of the American economy a price that Senator DeMint and his friends are willing to pay merely to prove that they are serious about reducing the deficit? If so, they have no business being members of the United States Senate.

Many Republicans are currently calling for some sort of agreement in which they will agree to vote for an extension of the debt ceiling, but only in exchange for further budget cuts. This was acceptable up to a point in the recent debates about the remaining months of the 2011 budget, but it is not acceptable with the issue of the debt ceiling. If the markets become even slightly concerned that America will fail to raise its debt ceiling, it will damage American fiscal credibility. Indeed, Speaker of the House John Boehner has apparently been having discussions on the issue with top figures on Wall Street, who are trying to explain to him what the real world is like.

The Republicans are quite right to call for further budget cuts, but these are questions best left to the debate that will soon take place over the 2012 budget. Trying to tack them on to the question of the debt ceiling is playing with a kind of fire that could consume the global economy, and take America with it.

Congress should quietly vote to extend the debt ceiling and then move on to the debate over the 2012 budget. Can we hope that our elected representatives will act responsibly on this matter? Keep your fingers crossed.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Dueling Visions of the Fiscal Future of America

In their respective weekly addresses, President Obama and the Republican Party summarized their opposing views on how to tackle the federal budget crisis. Watch both videos below.

First, the address of President Obama.

Second, the Republican address, being given by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).

It's worth mentioning that, despite their vast political differences, President Obama and Senator Coburn are close personal friends. There is no need for our political differences to manifest themselves in the form of personal bitterness. The better we are able to disagree without being disagreeable, the more effectively we will be able to meet the challenges facing our country.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

President Obama Announces Plan to Tackle the Fiscal Crisis

In a recent post, I said that the Republicans had "thrown down the gauntlet" on the issue of the long-term budget deficit. Yesterday, President Obama picked that gauntlet up. He delivered a much-anticipated speech yesterday at George Washington University, laying out his plan for dealing with the fiscal crisis. The two visions of how to tackle the great issue of our day are certain to frame the policy debates in Washington for the next year-and-a-half, and to shape the outcome of next year's presidential election.

President Obama made a good speech; indeed, he does not make any other kind. But what of the substance of the proposal? President Obama's solution to the fiscal crisis is a combination of large cuts in spending, including cuts to military spending, combined with tax increases on the wealthy. The President has clearly based much of his proposal on the December report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Contrasting his proposal to that released last week by the Republicans (chiefly authored by Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), Chairman of the House Budget Committee), Obama declared that his plan will protect spending on critical "investments" such as education and infrastructure, while the Republican plan will not. He also proposed a series of reforms to the tax code that he claimed will substantially increase revenue.

All told, Obama's plan is intended to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 12 years. Half of this reduction will come through spending cuts, a quarter through the resulting lower interest rate payments on the debt, and the final quarter from increasing revenue through tax increases on the wealthy and a reformed tax code. If this vision were realized, it would bring America a long way towards a balanced budget and perhaps pave the way for us to begin paying down the national debt. The devil, of course, is in the details.

There are very clear differences between President Obama's plan and the Republican plan. President Obama declared that the Bush tax cuts for wealthiest Americans will be allowed to expire on schedule in two years, whereas the Republican plan will extend these tax cuts permanently. The President's plan includes substantial cuts to military spending (albeit not spelled out specifically), whereas the Republicans have essentially pledged to maintain military spending at current levels. The President's plan is committed to keeping Medicare and Medicaid intact in their present forms, whereas the Republicans are calling for a comprehensive restructuring of those programs to achieve massive cutting of costs. These are just a few of the gulf separating the two sides, and one worries that the chasm between them may be too large to be bridged in view of the present lack of bipartisan spirit in Washington.

The two plans have a few problems in common. Both seem to be based on unrealistically optimistic forecasts of economic growth. Neither plan addresses the issue of impending Social Security insolvency, as both apparently believe that this problem will somehow go away if we simply ignore it. While both plans are designed to address the budget deficit, neither truly acknowledges just how bad the fiscal crisis is. One wonders if these matters are being swept under the rug because Republicans and Democrats alike fear that, if told the straight truth, the American people would simply march on Washington and burn down both the White House and the Capitol Building.

The good news about these rival proposals is that they are proof that the two parties are, at long last, waking up to the magnitude of the fiscal crisis. They have put off the day of reckoning for as long as they possibly good, and far longer than was healthy for the prosperity of our republic. What we, the American people, need to do now is hold our elected representatives to account. Neither side is going to get everything it wants, and although hard bargaining is only to be expected, we must make clear to the President and Congress that we want this problem solved and that we expect them to be willing to compromise. If they don't, they need to know that we shall punish them at the ballot box in November of 2012.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Support the Free Trade Agreement Between the United States and South Korea

Take a look at these three quick videos produced by the U.S. - Korea FTA Business Coalition, in support of the free trade agreement between the two countries.

First, California.

Next, Iowa.

Finally, Pennsylvania.

The case is pretty clear. Congress should approve the free trade agreement with South Korea at the earliest opportunity.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Evaluating the Potential Republican Presidential Candidates

In the coming months, a slew of candidates will be officially announcing whether or not they are seeking the Republican nomination for President of the United States, and will then begin fighting it out in primary after primary across the country for the right to challenge President Barack Obama in the 2012 election. A few people have already officially announced, and many others have done so in all but name.

Let's take a look at the most prominent of these candidates and near-candidates. Many such overviews have been attempted, but as the media tends to focus on the political process rather than public policy, the question most often asked in such surveys is which candidate has the best chance of winning the nomination or beating President Obama in the general election. In attempting to steer a more responsible course, let's try to examine which candidate would best serve the country if they were to occupy the Oval Office.

1. Mitt Romney. Between 2003 and 2007, he served as Governor of Massachusetts, and before that he was a successful businessman and organized the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He essentially came in second to John McCain during the Republican presidential primary campaign in 2008. His administrative and managerial experience would perhaps serve him well as President, but that is pretty much the limit of his positive attributes.

Romney has shown himself to be untrustworthy in many ways. While serving as Governor of Massachusetts, he advocated a pro-choice position on abortion, was supportive of gay rights, and generally in favor of gun control. When he decided to seek the Republican nomination for President in 2008, he had quickly abruptly become pro-life, anti-gay rights, and anti-gun control. Although he opposed President Obama's healthcare law, calling it "an unconscionable abuse of power", it was actually based on a state law Romney himself got passed in Massachusetts while serving as the state's governor.

Romney has also repeatedly made inept statements about American foreign policy. He supported the invasion of Iraq, but said that war would have been avoided if Saddam Hussein had allowed international weapons inspectors back into the country; in fact, Hussein had already allowed inspectors back in. He also publicly opposed the New START agreement on nuclear weapons reductions with Russia, but a widely-criticized op-ed piece he wrote in the Washington Post on the subject revealed his complete lack of understanding about the issue; it is quite clear that he opposed the treaty for no other reason than that Obama supported it.

Mitt Romney is an untrustworthy person and the kind of man willing to say or do anything to achieve power. As President, he would probably craft policy designed to further his own political interests rather than the interests of the nation. He would not make a good President and should be regarded as a dangerous man.

2. Mike Huckabee. He served as Governor of Arkansas from 1996 to 2007, and he essentially came in third place to John McCain and Mitt Romney during the Republican presidential primary campaign in 2008. Huckabee has cultivated an image of folksy charm, backed up by his status as an ordained Southern Baptist minister.

His tenure as Governor of Arkansas was solid, if not spectacular. The state's economy grew at a slightly larger rate than the national average, and welfare rolls declined. He has been stronger on environmental issues than most Republicans, supporting a cap-and-trade system to help alleviate global climate change. His policies on education, welfare reform, immigration, and tax policy have also generally been ones of common sense, although nitpicking would allow anyone to find things in them with which one would disagree.

But Huckabee's positions on certain issues raises concern. Fiscal realities and common sense dictate that we must begin reducing the American military budget, but Huckbee has proposed raising it by a full 50%. He has on record stating that the health insurance industry should not be required to cover persons with preexisting conditions. He also has only limited foreign policy experience.

While we at the Themistocles Letters are loath to even mention the religious beliefs of public figures, in Huckabee's case there is a clear case that his evangelical faith could adversely affect his performance as President of the United States. He has quite openly stated his belief that Israel has a God-given right to all land claimed by the Palestinians, and supports this belief through his own understanding of the Bible. Obviously, this would certainly make it next to impossible for Huckabee to be impartial in diplomatic actions central to the pursuit of peace in the Middle East. He has also cited his religious beliefs in justifying his opposition to stem cell research and proper science education, and generally shown a willingness to move divisive social issues to the forefront of his agenda. If he continued this behavior as President, the nation would be the worse for it.

While Mike Huckabee would be far from the worst President if a selection was made from the potential Republican candidates, his apparent willingness to favor a particular slice of the American people because of shared religious beliefs causes alarm bells to go off. The President of the United States, after all, must be a civil servant answering to the whole nation and not just a particular portion of it.

3. Tim Pawlenty. He served as Governor of Minnesota from 2003 to 2011. Previously, he had worked his way up the political ladder, first as a city councilman in the town of Eagan and then as a member of the Minnesota State Legislature. He was considered a potential candidate for Vice-President on the Republican ticket with John McCain in 2008.

As Governor of Minnesota, Pawlenty did an average job. Indeed, "average" is a pretty good word to describe Pawlenty. His records on the state budget, education, law and order, and the environment display a competent but not brilliant performance. This should not necessarily disqualify him from being President, mind you. A competent President who exercises wise judgment would be much better than a brilliant President who exercises poor judgment, after all.

One area in which Pawlenty certainly deserves very high marks is that of foreign trade. As the Governor of Minnesota, he lead several delegations of business leaders on trips to foreign nations, seeking opportunities for Minnesota companies to expand their exports to those foreign markets. One of the most important responsibilities of the President of the United States is to expand American exports to foreign markets, and this is one sphere in which Pawlenty has an advantage over most of his Republican rivals.

Pawlenty has publicly declared his intention to seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. At the same time, he has begun tacking back towards the political right, even declaring that he would reinstate the "Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell" policy of military service were he to become President. While such politicking is unsurprising, it is still regrettable. Pawlenty should run on his record as a governor.

All things considered, Republicans could do far worse than Pawlenty.

4. Sarah Palin. As is well-known, she served half a term as the Governor of Alaska (from December of 2006 until she abruptly resigned in July of 2009) and was the Vice-Presidential candidate on the Republican ticket with John McCain in 2008. Since then, she has become a favorite of the Tea Party movement, hosted a reality TV show about life in Alaska, and been a commentator on Fox News.

The Themistocles Letters strictly avoids personal attacks on public figures, but the troublesome fact about Palin is that she simply lacks the intelligence to be President of the United States. The revelations by McCain aides since the 2008 campaign of her utter lack of knowledge and understanding concerning both domestic policy and international relations are enough to chill the blood of anyone who considers the fact that she came within reasonable distance of finding herself in the Oval Office.

To the extent that her positions on policy matters can be discerned, Palin caters to the Tea Party and Religious Right wings of the Republican Party. The Tea Party is to be commended for putting the issue of the budget deficit and national debt at the forefront of the American political discourse, but its rigid adherence to ideology, its unwillingness to embrace compromise, and the acceptance by many within its ranks of discredited conspiracy theories raise grave concerns. The Religious Right, for its part, would impose its own particular view of religion and society upon the country, rather than allow its citizens to remain free to choose their own paths.

For the United States of America, a Palin Presidency would be a disaster that defies any attempt at description.

5. Newt Gingrich. As a Congressman, he was one of the most prominent political figures in the United States in the 1990s, serving as the Speaker of the House of Representatives between 1995 and 1999. In this capacity, he was the most visible individual opponent of President Bill Clinton, and masterminded the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections. Long out of the public eye, Gingrich has ramped up his public persona in recent years and made little secret of his desire to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

Gingrich is a highly-intelligent man and well-versed in history; indeed, he is a former university history professor. As Speaker of the House, Gingrich was willing to work with his archenemy, President Clinton, to achieve a balanced budget and for this he should be highly praised. He has also pursued common sense welfare reform and proposed innovative policies to promote such things as non-governmental space exploration.

But his positive attributes are outweighed by his negative ones. His unethical behavior both as a politician and as a man are well-known. His personal failings need not be repeated here, but it is worth noting that, in 1997, he was censured by the House of Representatives by a vote of 395 to 28 for ethical problems stemming from the political use of his university teaching post. Like Caesar's wife, the President of the United States should be above suspicion.

Since resigning his congressional seat following a Republican mid-term electoral defeat in 1998, Gingrich seems to have become increasingly extreme and irrational, opposing President Obama simply for no other reason than to oppose him. As a single example, Gingrich pushed for military action against Libya before President Obama launched Operation Odyssey Dawn, but abruptly flip-flopped into opposing military action against Libya after President Obama launched Operation Odyssey Dawn. These are not the actions of a statesman, but of a hypocritical opportunist.

In his opposition to the proposed Islamic community center in southern Manhattan, Gingrich has made public comments that essentially label Islam as a force of evil. In a newsletter to his supporters, he made claims about Islamic history which, as a former history professor, he had to have known were completely false. Can we expect a person who attacks Islam in this manner to be able, as President of the United States, to sit down with the leader of an Islamic nation and negotiate a trade treaty or military agreement? Of course not.

Despite his clear intelligence, Gingrich has proven to be too untrustworthy, ideological, and just plain irrational to be President of the United States.

6. Haley Barbour. After a long career as a high-powered lobbyist in Washington D.C. and a stint as head of the Republican National Committee, he has served as Governor of Mississippi since being elected in 2003.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Barbour was like a mighty oak in the storm. His leadership helped Mississippi get through the crisis at a time when the federal government and the Louisiana state government seemed utterly incapable of dealing with the emergency. For his response to Hurricane Katrina, Governor Barbour is to be held in very high regard, indeed.

That being said, other aspects of Barbour's record set off alarm bells. His long record as a high-powered lobbyist in Washington is a manifestation of exactly the kinds of practices that the country needs to be rejecting with maximum prejudice (especially as his lobbying firm happily worked on behalf of foreign governments). Fundamental reform of political lobbying is an urgent national necessity, and Governor Barbour is certainly not the man to lead this charge.

Barbour has endorsed government interventions in the free market which would seem to enrich wealthy Americans at the expense of ordinary citizens, including farm subsidies and other forms of corporate welfare. Many of his public statements seem to indicate a lackadaisical attitude towards segregation and racial equality, which certainly would be unacceptable in any President of the United States.

Despite his effective leadership during the crisis of Hurricane Katrina, Barbour exhibits too many undesirable qualities to make an effective President of the United States. Republicans would be well-advised to look elsewhere.

7. Mitch Daniels. He was formerly the director of the federal Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration, and has served as the Governor of Indiana since being elected to the position in 2004. Daniels is among the most attractive candidates among the potential Republicans seeking the presidential nomination.

As Governor of Indiana, he has a sterling record of achievement, balancing the budget through effective management, while minimizing service cuts and preventing tax increases. He has displayed common sense in many areas of public policy, including education, healthcare, and foreign trade. Throughout his tenure, he has displayed excellent management skills, a highly competent grasp of the issues, and an unassuming style of leadership.

His role in the Bush administration certainly raises eyebrows. Furthermore, his call for a "truce" on social issues has generated enormous opposition from many elements within the Republican Party. In truth, though, his call for a truce on social issues actually demonstrates sound common sense on the part of Daniels. With the country facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis and other serious challenges, getting bogged down in disputes over abortion and other emotional social issues is only going to distract the nation and hinder it from solving its problems.

At this crucial point in American history, we need competent leadership, not necessarily charismatic leadership. Is Mitch Daniels the man to provide it? Maybe.

8. Jon Hunstman. He served as Governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009, and as President Obama's Ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011. Born into wealth, he also has had numerous roles in his family's varied businesses.

Huntsman ran Utah exceptionally well during his tenure as the state's governor, earning many plaudits from various observers for efficiency and effective management. Bucking the trend among many Republican politicians, he has recognized the dangers of global climate change and pursued policies to help tackle the problem. He also sought to simplify the state tax code, demonstrating a willingness to address complicated issues that many other officials would just as soon avoid.

Many were surprised by Obama's decision to appoint Huntsman as the Ambassador to China, and some have contended that it was a political ploy to hinder Huntsman from seeking the presidency. Perhaps so, but it cannot be denied that Huntsman was well-qualified for the post. As a state governor, he was well-versed on issues of foreign trade, a critical attribute for anyone dealing with Sino-American relations. Furthermore, Huntsman is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and highly knowledgable of Chinese history and culture, having spent many years in Taiwan as a Mormon missionary.

Huntsman is certainly among the better choices Republicans could make for their presidential nominee. His administrative experience as a state governor is solid, and his time in China would be highly useful to any President, as the Sino-American relationship is the single most important bilaterial relationship in American foreign policy.

9. Michelle Bachmann. She has served as member of the House of Representatives from Minnesota since 2007. Despite her comparatively brief tenure, she has made a name for herself as a darling of the Tea Party movement and a regular media commentator.

Bachmann has pushed some useful legislation aimed at reducing frivilous lawsuits, but otherwise her contributions have been almost wholly negative. A healthy suspicion of governmental power is useful and necessary, but Bachmann is so driven by ideology that her views have become extreme and irrational. She has opposed sound governmental policies, such as a gradual ban on incandescent light bulbs, and has publicly stated her belief that global climate change is not real.

Bachmann has also demonstrated a massive inability to work constructively with others. She regularly derides anyone who disagrees with her as "anti-American". She offends her fellow Republicans as often as the Democrats, and even bucked her own party by delivering her own response to President Obama's 2011 State of the Union address. Bachmann displays no qualities that would be desireable in a President, and many qualities that no President should ever have.

She would make a horrible President.

10. John Bolton. A career diplomat and fixture within neoconservative circles, he served as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration. Tellingly, President Bush had to use a recess appointment to get him the job, as the Senate had refused to confirm him.

Bolton is a highly intelligent and well-educated man, but his views on American foreign policy are so disturbing that it becomes immediately clear that he would make a horrible President of the United States. Although he served as Ambassador to the United Nations, he has never made any secret of his distrust and hatred of the institution. Many sources within the UN and foreign countries have described Bolton as rude and abrasive, unwilling to compromise and uncaring about the concerns of others. This certainly is not the behavior of an effective diplomat, and it would not be the behavior of an effective President.

More specifically, Bolton has disdained multilateralism in favor of unilaterial American action throughout the world. He has opposed American involvement in global institutions like the International Criminal Court, and seems to believe that military action is a cure-all for every problem in foreign policy. This attitude is what got us bogged down in Iraq for so many years, leading to the deaths of more than 4,000 American soldiers. Bolton has called for a second act, repeatedly stressing his belief that the United States should launch a military attack on Iran. His cavalier attitude towards launching America into war should cause alarm bells to go off.

Bolton would be a horrible President of the United States. His election generate distrust of our country on the part of our allies. Every rational foreign policy should stress the need to avoid war unless absolutely necessary, and Bolton's clear willingness to use force at the drop of a hat is deeply troubling.

11. Rick Santorum. He served as a senator from Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2007, and has made a name for himself as one of the most conservative politicians in America.

While not as abrasive as some social conservatives, Santorum has made his political name by his strict opposition to abortion and gay rights, his general disdain for the separation of church and state, and other issues designed to cater to the Religious Right wing of the Republican Party. While the Themistocles Letters takes no particular position on most of these issues, the fact that Santorum fixates on them to such an extent makes one worry that he would ignore the more pressing issues facing the nation, including the fiscal crisis and our foreign policy challenges.

As he has never demonstrated any particular ability or knowledge of the most important issues facing the country, Santorum is not an attractive candidate for President of the United States.

12. Donald Trump. The very fact that I have to include this reality television star in this list is a sign of just how low American politics is sinking. Nevertheless, recent polling shows that Donald Trump is competitive in the Republican primary and he may declare himself a candidate.

Trump has been cultivating the bizarre wing of the Republican Party that is obsessed with the conspiracy theory which maintains that President Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore ineligible to be President. Shockingly large numbers of Republicans believe that this conspiracy theory is actually valid (to be fair, shockingly large numbers of Democrats believed the equally absurd theory that President Bush masterminded the 9/11 attacks himself).

The fact that Trump might actually be competitive in the Republican primary is a symbol of much that is wrong with the modern Republican Party. Serious Republicans should reject him with maximum prejudice.

All in all, the Republican field has a lot of bad names (Palin, Romney, Bachmann, Bolton, Trump, Gingrich, Barbour, Santorum), a few potentially acceptable names (Pawlenty, Huckabee), and a few good names (Daniels, Huntsman). It will be interesting to see the Republican primary season unfold, and we can only hope that the Republicans make the right choice, because whomever they choose has a fairly decent shot at becoming the next President of the United States.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Budget For 2012 Will Be Much More Difficult Than the Budget for 2011

As the clocked ticked towards midnight last night and the country held its breath, the Republicans and Democrats reached a compromise agreement at the final possible moment on funding the federal government for the remainder of fiscal year 2011. Had they failed, vast elements of the federal government would have closed their doors, hundreds of thousands of federal employees would not have been able to collect their paychecks, and the lives of millions of people would have been disrupted.

Some might say that this agreement is evidence that the two political parties have not entirely lost their willingness to compromise on critical issues, and that what we saw last night should therefore give us a glimmer of hope. Perhaps so. But a pessimist might take the opposite view. After all, if it is this difficult for them to come to an agreement on whether to cut $40 billion rather than $36 billion (either of which would amount to only about 3% of the budget deficit for fiscal year 2011), how much more difficult is it going to be for them to tackle the budget for fiscal year 2012?

If this is the amount of political rancor caused by the possibility of cutting funds for National Public Radio, how much political rancor is going to be caused by the possibility of cutting funds for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the military? There was no suggestion by either side of substantial changes to current tax policy during the shutdown standoff; how much more bitter would the debates have been had changes to tax policy been put on the table?

The big budget battles are yet to come, and the episode we have just gotten through has been merely a preview of the main attraction. Everybody better hold on to their hats.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The China Conundrum

What policy should the United States adopt towards the People’s Republic of China? This is one of the most complicated, most riveting, and most momentous foreign policy questions of the 21st Century, and a great deal rides on the answer.

First, let us state the obvious. The government of China is brutal and authoritarian, willing to use deadly force to repress its own people and suffocate their aspirations. It is a police state, which uses the latest technology (much of it shamefully provided by American corporations) to monitor virtually every aspect of the lives of its people. It was scarcely two decades ago that we witnessed the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which saw Chinese government soldiers slaughter thousands of their own people, whose only crime had been peacefully protesting for democratic reforms.

However distasteful we may find its government, we cannot ignore the growing power of China. Its economy has grown with unprecedented speed over the last two decades, and it has recently surpassed Japan to become the second largest economy in the world. Indeed, some projections have it overtaking the United States to become the world’s biggest economy by 2035. Coupled with its growing economy is its expanding military strength, as the Chinese army, air force, and navy continue to deploy increasingly sophisticated weapons systems, many of them clearly intended for potential use against the United States Navy and against American satellites in orbit.

It also seems clear that China is intent on developing a web of alliances throughout Africa and Latin America, to protect Chinese access to oil and other critical raw materials. Immense amounts of Chinese investment is flowing into poor African countries, not in the form of foreign aid so much as big infrastructure projects. Some of the partnerships China is forming are with distinctly unpleasant regimes, such as the Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir (currently under indictment by the International Criminal Court for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity). China has also formed a close economic and political relationship with oil-rich Venezuela, ruled by the socialist and fiercely anti-American strongman Hugo Chavez.

China is authoritarian and powerful, and we ignore it at our peril. In thinking about this, we should remember the wise words of Thomas Jefferson: “We confide in our strength, without boasting of it. We respect that of others, without fearing it.”

Ironically, considering the vast ideological gulf which separates China and America, we cannot escape the fact that the Chinese and American economies are inescapably bound up with one another. Americans enjoy comparatively cheap consumer products largely thanks to Chinese imports, which have also helped keep inflation in check. Moreover, it is largely because of Chinese lending that the federal government of the United States is able to do business. In the process of lending us so much money, China has accumulated a reserve of around $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury bonds and allowed the U.S. Treasury to keep interest rates on its bonds low. If Sino-American relations were to worsen, the economic impact on the United States would be severe.

If China reduced its willingness to lend us money, interest rates on Treasury bonds would quickly go up. This would place substantially greater pressure on the federal budget by forcing the government to pay more on the interest we owe on currently existing debt. More to the point, if China ever decided to simply sell off their holdings of U.S. Treasury bonds, the ability of the federal government to borrow money at all would be effectively shattered, thus presenting the country with an unprecedented crisis.

Here is the amusing but quite correct take on the situation from that great American political philosopher, Jay Leno:

Although China is currently dependent upon the United States as a market for its exports, the rapidly expanding middle class within China itself will gradually become a more important force in the global economy, and the Chinese economy will certainly begin shifting towards its own domestic market. When that happens, Americans can expect the prices they pay for basic consumer goods to increase sharply.

Even worse, from the American point of view, is the fact that China has emerged as a unrivalled manufacturing powerhouse. As Britain was in the 19th Century and America was in the 20th Century, China is today "the workshop of the world". With an endless pool of poor labor and the virtual absence of any environmental regulations or labor laws, China can easily outproduce any Western nation. Every year, the shelves of our discount stores are crammed with more Chinese goods, and our own manufacturing sector is gradually disappearing.

Another economic issue is the Chinese policy of keeping their currency, the yuan, at an artificially low value vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar. This makes Chinese exports cheaper for purchase in both the United States and foreign markets, undercutting the purchase of American products within the American domestic market and making American exports to foreign markets less competitive. It is estimated that Chinese currency manipulation costs the United States hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Basic economic reality makes it inevitable that there will be tension between America and China. But beyond economics, there exists strains between them due more to old fashioned geopolitical rivalry. The most important of these centers on Taiwan. While it terminated its official diplomatic recognition of Taiwan as the legitimate government of China decades ago, the United States remains an unofficial ally of Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province and have claimed a right to subjugate Taiwan by force if they so wish. It is expected by many that the United States would intervene militarily against China if such an invasion took place, and the United States sells large amounts of military hardware to Taiwan to beef up its defenses. The Chinese, needless to say, do not like this.

Although less important in a geostrategic sense, the status of Tibet is also a bone of contention between the two sides. Tibet has been under Chinese controls for half a century, but the exiled Dali Lama remains a popular figure in America and support for Tibetan independence is strong among many elements of the American left. For that matter, the dismal Chinese human rights record understandably angers many in the United States, creating political pressures on the government to press China to improve itself in this regard.

For their part, the Chinese deeply distrust the massive American military presence in East Asia. There are 28,000 American troops in South Korea, 33,000 American troops in Japan, a large force of land-based warplanes and an aircraft carrier battle group. These deployments are essentially a leftover from the Cold War and are ostensibly there to protect South Korea and Japan against North Korea (although both nations are perfectly capable of protecting themselves without our help). China considers these deployments to be directed at China rather than North Korea, and consequently eyes them warily.

To get an idea of how China feels about American military deployments in East Asia, try putting the shoe on the other foot for a moment. How would we feel if China deployed an army of 60,000 men and a large air force in Venezuela, ostensibly to protect that country from aggression by Columbia? How would we feel if a Chinese aircraft carrier battle group was cruising around the Caribbean? We would obviously see such a large Chinese military presence so close to our own territory as a terrible threat to American national security.

China is increasingly flexing its muscles in East Asia. Maritime border disputes with Japan have recently made headlines, with the captain of a Chinese trawler even being arrested by Japanese patrol boats, sparking a major diplomatic incident. Chinese military activity has also increased in the South China Sea, which is thought to harbor significant oil and gas reserves. There are serious geopolitical tensions in East Asia, but we should rationally examine whether or not it makes sense for the United States to be directly involved in them.

As in all things, our policy towards China should be based on carefully-considered common sense and rational cost-benefit analysis, not xenophobic or nationalistic chest-thumping. Our main priorities with regard to China must be getting our own deficit under control so as to reduce our dependence on Chinese lending, while also finding ways to narrow our trade deficit with China. We certainly should not tolerate Chinese currency manipulation any longer. At the same time, we must be willing to engage in intense diplomacy with China to minimize the possibility of any kind of Sino-American confrontation, and consider whether our questionable military deployments in East Asia might inadvertently and unnecessarily raise tensions between our two countries.

Whenever possible, we should seek to build bridges between ourselves and the Chinese. We should welcome opportunities to work with then at the United Nations on issues in which our interests do not conflict, such as tackling the problem of Somali piracy. We should be willing to cooperate with them in such fields as space exploration and on scientific projects such as ITER. Although we must watch the rise of China with some concern, there is no particular need for America and China to be rivals. Exaggerating the threat China poses, and attempting to relaunch the Cold War with China playing the part of the Soviet Union, would be a grave mistake.

The rise of China will be one of the big stories of the 21st Century, and it will happen no matter what the wishes of the United States might be. We have reigned unchallenged as the stronger nation in the world for the past two decades, but our supremacy was always going to be transitory. The one thing that is certain is that the United States is going to have to get used to having another big kid on the block, and sooner rather than later.