Friday, February 26, 2010

lopsided toolkit

The United States has a broad range of capabilities and resources to carry out its national security policies. But the civilian side of government is woefully underfunded as more and more activities are assigned to the Defense Department and our military forces. The imbalance is outlined by some noted budget analysts at the Stimson Center who label the problem "the lopsided toolkit."

As they note, "The defense budget is nearly 13 times bigger than all U.S. civilian foreign policy budgets combined."

That contrasts with what I call "the golden year" -- 1950 -- when the State Department budget, which included Marshall Plan funds, was equal to half the entire Pentagon budget. Harry Truman insisted on fighting the Cold War with robust diplomacy, substantial foreign economic measures, public diplomacy, and intelligence activities -- as well as military strength. It's a shame we haven't kept pace with civilian capabilities in recent decades.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"broken but can be fixed"

The notion that the U.S. government is "broken" is gaining wider currency, as evidenced in today's CNN Poll that found 81% of those surveyed agreeing that "Our system of government is broken but can be fixed," a 10% increase since October 2006, when that question had previously been asked. Most of the increase came from those who previously denied that the system was fractured.

I guess we should take some comfort from the "can be fixed" part of the response, since only 5% said the system was broken but "cannot be fixed."

So what are the fixes? As I've noted earlier, a healthy, growing economy will do more than any other single thing to restore trust and confidence in our system. Second, we need changes in our political culture, which now has too many incentives to fight rather than to bargain to agreements. Third, we need changes in Congress -- not only rules changes going far beyond the filibuster but also institutional changes to try to restore civility and mutual respect.

Retiring Senator Evan Bayh has some useful suggestions in an op-ed in today's New York Times. This week's health legislation summit, however, is a high-risk effort that is more likely to showcase disagreements than to generate compromises.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"broken" government

"Washington, right now, is broken," says Vice President Biden. Many other commentators are labeling our political system "dysfunctional." Congress is in low esteem, with the Senate filibuster especially criticized.

Now wait a minute. I share many of the criticisms but believe that much of the analysis is flawed. Jim Fallows of the Atlantic has a more balanced view of America's strengths and weaknesses, and his ultimate recommendation is to "muddle through."

A professor at the always interesting Monkey Cage demonstrates that Americans' trust in government varies over time -- highest when the economy is growing and least when we're in recession.

I'm troubled by the polarization of our politics and the gridlock preventing action on long term deficits, health care reform, energy issues, and reform of banking and finance. But this polarization has been increasing over time, fueled by politicians who have no incentive to be statesmen. Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal has a good analysis of how this has happened in the Senate -- and the explanation is largely a loss in the human interactions that buffered the political conflicts.

Too few in Congress today have institutional loyalty and respect. They have too many incentives to disparage the institution rather than working to make modest reforms. Many in the GOP minority seem to be ready to repeat the Gingrich strategy, which he famously described as destroying Congress in order to save it.

I'm not totally discouraged because I know that "better angels" can arise. There are moments when partisans became statesmen. It happened in 1948 with the Marshall Plan. It happened in 1958 when, in response to Sputnik, President Eisenhower and the Democratic Congress agreed to a broad based response: some defense increases [including DARPA], creation of NASA, and the National Defense Education Act with emphasis on science, math and foreign languages. It happened in 1964-65 with the civil rights and voting rights acts. It happened in 1982 with the Greenspan commission on Social Security. I saw it happen in 1990 with the Budget Enforcement Act that put us on the path toward a balanced budget. And it started to happen after the 9/11 attacks with the Patriot Act, subject to sunset, until the Bush Administration opted for partisan polarization instead of cooperation.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

substance and perceptions

I don't feel qualified to answer the question, what is reality? in scientific or philosophical terms. But I know that policymakers in Washington often acknowledge, and lament, that perceptions are frequently judged as reality.

When presidents have trouble persuading public opinion of the wisdom and value of what they are doing, they change their messaging approach in search of better poll results. That appears to be the plan of the Obama White House.

It's useful to remember, however, that American journalistic culture is predisposed to focus on messages and perceptions to the exclusion of substance, as George Packer brilliantly argues.

While I love political process and tactics stories, just as I love salted cashews, I don't want them to drive out reports on the substance of policies. We citizens need to know, for example, exactly what our troops and civilians are doing in Afghanistan, in addition to whatever public diplomacy or information operations may be under way.

Monday, February 15, 2010

civilization and its disconnects

I'm still trying to get into the blogging rhythm. I've been distracted the past two weeks, in part by paralyzing snowstorms in the Washington area.

As a third-generation Colorado native, I know about snow. I like snow, and the seasonal changes that bring buds in spring and brightly colored leaves in autumn. I don't mind shoveling snow -- or at least I didn't until I developed a tennis-elbow type injury during the 18-incher in December.

But I don't like losing power, as occurred in the first heavy storm of February, when a big tree on our tree-lined street toppled across the road, bringing down the power lines. For 18 hours, we had no power. That meant no heat, no electric lights, no electronic entertainment devices, no Internet. I had to use my cellphone sparingly, since there was no way to recharge the battery.

I wasn't in danger. I had candles and flashlights, a gas stove to boil water and heat pans, and a cozy duvet. Some neighbors held a party: the wine was well chilled. But as the house grew colder, I began to worry about frozen pipes and damaged houseplants. Since we had been without power for four days one summer after a hurricane, I was apprehensive that the repair crews might take just as long getting through the snow and ice. But after 18 hours, the lights and heat were restored.

The biggest lesson for me was how much I depend on connections to the outside world: reliable phone service, daily newspapers, radio and television, and of course the on-line world. At times i the past, I've survived quite well without each or all of those connections, sometimes for days at a time. But now I crave my news fixes, my ability to check out weather-traffic-public services-shopping information immediately. I guess I've become addicted to modern communications and I can't bear even temporary withdrawal.