The imminent often takes precedence over the important in life, but especially now in our politics. Instead of coming up with a list of New Year’s Resolutions for 1997, it appears that our public leaders are putting together a list of New Year’s Irresolutions.
At the top of the list is Social Security reform. The advisory council on Social Security recommends that the private investment market be used to shore up the nation’s endangered old age insurance system. Failure to do so offers the prospect of higher payroll taxes and benefit reductions in the years ahead, while prompt action to link Social Security to the private sector and the “miracle of compound interest” offers nothing less than capitalistic ownership of the means of production by the entire workforce and a better retirement for everyone. Seldom has there been a subject where the choices are so clear and where so many are affected so deeply.
Yet the initial reaction of politicians to the latest call for action is–irresolution. The typical official response is “cautious,” which in government lingo means, “Let’s punt.” In private, Republicans embrace the idea and such Democrats as the influential Sen. Patrick Moynihan of New York acknowledge that it needs to be addressed. Some other Democrats, including the President, are thought to be supportive of reform. However, excepting Sen. Kerrey of Nebraska, they are not about to say so.
Social Security reform is only one of the 600 pound policy gorillas officialdom is determined to ignore in hopes that maybe they will go away. The solvency of Medicare is still more pressing, so it will take the full concentration of our leaders to pretend that they are doing something about that problem while doing nothing.
The same goes for tax reform, upon which the government also has resolved to be irresolute. The distilled opinion coming out of the election campaign was that tax cuts could stimulate growth and stabilize the economy. Dole’s proposed 15% rate reduction across the board may never have caught fire, and neither did Clinton’s parade of “targeted” cuts, but everyone professed to believe that something could and should be done. Now that talk apparently can be filed under “Campaign Rhetoric.”
Maybe in the information age it doesn’t matter whether the Consumer Price Index exaggerates inflation, the tax code punishes marriage and raising children and discourages investment. Maybe we have repealed economic cycles and are fated to plug along with low, but satisfactory growth. Maybe. But nothing in economics is as seductive–and wrong–as the impression that present trends can be extended indefinitely into the future. The statesman knows that and looks ahead. So where are the statesmen?
Next on the list of New Years Irresolutions comes the long range foreign policy of this country. You would think that we had made the world safe and serene forever and that violence in the Middle East or the Balkans are simply curiosities on the evening news. Are think tanks and recently retired generals warning us about reduced fighting readiness in the US military and demoralization in the ranks over gender issues? Defense can wait until we discover a breakdown in the course of an emergency. Put it all on the New Year’s Irresolutions List.
How about the environmental reforms that both liberals and conservatives supposedly agree need addressing? Liberal environmentalists professedly realize that the current, mainly proscriptive laws read great, but are not really protecting the environment. Conservatives continue to complain that the same laws handicap the economy and actually make sensible conservation more difficult. It is time to find a pathway to reform–of the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, and of the Endangered Species Act, for another–that aims more at consequences than procedural purity. Any takers? Or do we put the environment also on the Irresolutions list?
Telecommunications mistakes found in the 1996 act? Live with them. Impending disaster with Amtrak? Hold off hearings until everyone agrees–in the sweet bye and bye.
The great thing about such a long list of New Year’s Irresolutions is that it frees the body politic to attend to matters that are much more amusing, if infinitely less important: petty scandals. We already are into the middle of January and the topic that Congress and the media find most engrossing is whether Newt Gingrich used non-profit money to organize a partisan college course, or used political funds to organize a non-partisan college course. Now, if you don’t find that sexy, look to the Paula Jones scandal spread over the latest issue of Newsweek. What’s the future of Social Security, the solvency of Medicare and the state of America’s defenses in comparison to a soap opera like that?