War at Home Must be Priority No. 1
For President Obama, this week represents a satanic brew. On Monday, he rolled out yet another effort to help families avoid foreclosure. Tonight, he issues the charge to escalate the war in Afghanistan. On Thursday, he’ll sponsor a “jobs summit.” Then he heads on a Main Street tour, designed to continue the push for jobs. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke comes up for hearings this week on his nomination for a second term, reminding us that Wall Street has been rescued, even if Main Street is still sinking. You have to have a strong stomach to digest this meal.
One contrast could be telling. According to reports, the president will call for sending as many as 30,000 more troops to fight in Afghanistan. The administration estimates it costs about $1 million per soldier per year, so that’s an additional commitment of $30 billion a year–for another eight to 10 years. All told, this country is teed up to spend about $1 trillion on the war in Afghanistan over the next 10 years.
The president’s advisers are saying that he should focus on deficit reduction in his January State of the Union address, and that the country can’t afford new commitments on jobs. Conservatives in both parties are campaigning for immediate cuts in spending–even as joblessness spreads. That would leave the president suggesting that the federal government has done what it could, the economy is growing, and now it is up to the private sector to create jobs.
Forget that. This country is in deep trouble. Some 49 million people do not have “food security”–that is, they go hungry regularly. About 36 million now receive food stamps to help feed their families. About 17 million are unemployed or underemployed. More than 3 million homes will have been lost to foreclosure this year. Foreclosures are continuing not because of subprime loans, but because one in three families has someone who has lost a job. Even the president’s economists suggest that unemployment will remain at unacceptable levels–above 8 percent–for years to come.
This economy may be growing, but Americans are not recovering. The president must recognize the scope of the crisis, not minimize it, and to step up to address it.
He needs to act with boldness and a scale commensurate with the size of the problem. First, target the zones of pain. For too long, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have focused on the zones of gain. They’ve watered the leaves of speculation while the roots of investment have withered. Wall Street now is paying bonuses, but the big banks still aren’t lending to the real economy. We need direct, targeted jobs programs, direct foreclosure and eviction relief. It is time to focus on helping those who are the victims of, not the cause of, the crisis.
Second, strengthen and enforce the law. This crisis took place in large part because predatory lending and reckless gambling were celebrated, not policed. Laws against discriminatory lending were ignored. Consumer protection laws were diluted, as subprime lenders, payday operators and credit card loan sharks had their way. The administration has sensibly called for a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, but while the banking lobby descends on Congress, the administration should be using the powers it has to enforce the law.
Third, stop trickle-down economics and start investing in people. Provide help for cities and states that face plummeting revenues and rising costs. Put young people directly to work or help them stay in school. Make a serious commitment to rebuild America–new energy, 21st-century infrastructure, research and development. But combine that with policies ensuring that taxpayers’ money creates jobs here, not in China or elsewhere. Challenge those in both parties who stand in the way.
At the height of its wealth, America found under Lyndon Johnson, the last great liberal president, that it couldn’t afford to wage war on the other side of the world and build a great society at home. LBJ’s war on poverty was lost in the jungles of Vietnam. Now, this country is devastated, its infrastructure crumbling, its industries divested abroad, with vital investments in our future put off for years. Isn’t it time to rebuild America?