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A Bigger Threat Than Terrorism

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If you’re weary of ‘threat thresholds,’ as I am, it may have slipped your notice that as we edge our way into the 21st century--an old terror simply continues to grow additional heads.

Perusing a long-ago Sebastian Mallaby’s column, I was reminded of the essential meaning of homeland security. Stay with me on this, true American security has nothing whatever to do with Islamists in the Middle East. Quoting Gene Sperling, a former Clinton advisor, Mallaby wrote,

Sperling is motivated by a desire to help low-income people. As he writes in his book, "The Pro-Growth Progressive," 85 percent of workers in the bottom fifth of the labor force have no access to a company 401(k), nor do 75 percent of Hispanic workers or 60 percent of black workers. Globalization, which has boosted the volatility of family incomes, makes it especially important to help workers build assets that can cushion them against job loss, illness or the financial fallout from divorce. 

Nice sentiment, Gene, but it’s elitist in its point of view.

A 401(k) isn’t going to do much asset-building for the systemically underemployed. It’s a feel-good fix, throwing a pricey entrée to those who haven’t a bone. If you don’t think that’s terror, try making a life out of split-shifts at $5.15 an hour. The bright red and blinking threat threshold that simply won’t go away isn’t poverty, it’s the system under which we have moved from a dynamic to a static economic power.

It’s not merely that America can do better, it’s that it better do better while there still remains a better to do. Terrorism, for all its psychic baggage, the lives that have been squandered in its name and the political vengeance with which we have rebuked the Bush administration, has never

  • Imposed an historic rift between Americans who have nearly all and those who have nearly none
  • Sucked American jobs offshore to an extent that we feel it necessary to build a wall between what’s left and those who would hope for a share of it
  • Weakened basic industry to the extent that a substantive blue-collar American working class no longer exists

If terrorism could have accomplished all that, 9-11 would have looked like a fire drill. But terrorists were unable to get that particular job done. Their best efforts fell short of what Congress has brought down in flames over the past eight decades. It’s called domestic economic policy.

Compared to knocking down two iconic New York office buildings, killing three thousand civilians and causing a knee-jerk reaction from government that (so far) has killed an American soldier for each 9-11 victim, current economic policy seems a dull subject indeed.

But it’s not.

Terrorism and the control of terrorism may be a constant over the next half-century of life in this country. But our economic policy and military waste of assets is the snake at the picnic.

We have become a military Gulliver, tied down by congressional Lilliputians, willing, even eager to panic at every noise under the international bed. $400 billion a year for a Pentagon that Rumsfeld admits can’t account for a couple trillion in past spending. Can’t account? And we still shove money at them? Probably an additional $trillion spent on Iraq (that’s 1,000 billion, for the numerically challenged) before we’re done—all of it in a country with a $5.15 minimum wage.

And I’m not here to argue that military spending should be re-prioritized to the poor. Certainly we have tried through these misdirected eight decades to eliminate poverty by every means. It doesn’t seem to want to go away. Inelegantly and unsurprisingly, it’s spreading like an economic malignancy through the formerly middle-class. When the usual suspects are rounded-up, globalization is the miscreant common to all discussions.

Globalization is as unstoppable as nuclear proliferation. The cork is already out of the globalization bottle.

Workers are cheaper elsewhere and business follows a proven formula of lowest input, highest output. That won’t change, nor should it. Rage over steelworkers laid off and auto-workers bought off all you care to, but the die is cast and protective tariffs are a 19th and 20th century solution to a 21st century phenomenon. Bows and arrows against modern weaponry. Congress, having just turned Democrat and eager to please, is once again blowing the tariff whistle because they are reactive and new ideas are difficult to wrap their limited minds around.

What is needed is a solution that will bring jobs back home at robust middle-income wages. What is hungered for is business investment on our shores rather than India and China. If only there were such a possibility. If only a solution existed that answered the goals of business and labor at the same time, that actually did float all boats rather than trickling down crap wages and putting workers at each others’ throats in competition over grinding lives.

Then pigs would fly—or so they say.

Not so. The sea-anchor that’s persistently slowed our progress and sent our best jobs offshore is nothing more than the income tax. Tax policy

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Jim Freeman's op-ed pieces and commentaries have appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, International Herald-Tribune, CNN, The New York Review, The Jon Stewart Daily Show and a number of magazines. His thirteen published books are (more...)
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