Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tremendous Costs

There are two tremendous-cost packages that lie in the few years ahead for the U.S. government. One is repairing Bush's follies--a trillion dollars for the Iraq war and comparable amounts for the bailouts resulting from deregulation and poor oversight of the financial markets. The other is building a corrective future that confronts global warming, worldwide ecological decline, antiscientism and education decay, and devastating worldwide demographic tides (population and industry shifts, water and food shortages, etc.).

Our political leaders appear to be waking up to the consequences of petty politics and greed in high places. One can argue pessimistically that this awakening is empty campaign rhetoric that will lead, when office holders change in the next few months, to little more than business as usual. If so, civilization as we know it is doomed. Over the next few years a series of catastrophic failures will collapse the communications, transportation, and emergency-services infrastructure on which we all depend; over the next few decades there will be a thousand storms of genocide, collapse of city and nation administrations, and reduction to isolated, village-size communities throughout a chaotic, unconnected broader world--punctuated by terrorist and technological catastrophes.

There is the need to design and pay for these two tremendous-cost packages of repairs to our country, our world, and our way of life. There may be the political will--we shall see. But having already hocked our future and put our children and their children in debt up to their necks, is it even remotely possible to pay these staggering costs?

Yes, curiously, it is possible. The gap between the very rich and the rest of us has become increasingly absurd in recent years. Ninety percent of the wealth--both in the U.S. and the broader world--is held by 10% of the populace; 90% of the income, year by year, goes into 10% of the pockets. The Bush tax cuts to the wealthy were only the tiniest symptom of this disparity. Deregulation and generally defective oversight of tumultuously expanding global finances and industries have been growing this rich/non-rich disparity for years. What is required is revised tax policies that gradually but inexorably draw the very rich back down into the upper-middle class--back into the world of one or two lavish homes, not multiple grand estates; of first-class air travel, not private jets; of six-figure incomes, not incomes of millions and tens of millions of dollars a year. The several trillion dollars needed for world repair is available at no great pain--certainly at no more than spoiled, histrionic petulance--to anyone.

Will this be easy? No. Getting these hundreds of billions of dollars to work will be like squeezing a handful of mud. These are people who, within weeks, can have their major assets in the Cayman Islands and be living in Dubai on a Moroccan passport.

We live in exciting times, decorated with catastrophe after catastrophe, in one domain after another. Can our political, industrial, and military leaders find the wisdom and the will to build--stick by painful stone, hour by labored day--a positive future? Historically there is reason for pessimism and despair. Historically there is also room for hope.