Wednesday, August 27
By Daniel Gross
Barack Obama's tax plan, laid out by advisers Austan Goolsbee and Jason Furman in the Wall Street Journal in mid-August, promises to improve the nation's fiscal standing by scaling back tax cuts for people making more than $250,000. Since then, the business pundit class has been griping that people who make $250,000 a year aren't really wealthy, especially if they live in and around New York; San Francisco; or Washington, D.C. (Check out this CNBC debate, for example.) On Wednesday afternoon, CNBC's unscientific online poll found that (surprise!) only 35 percent of respondents believed an income of $250,000 qualified a household for elite rich status.
I have two pieces of bad news for the over-$250,000 crowd. First, the reversal of some of the temporary Bush tax cuts is probably inevitable, given the Republican fiscal clown show of the past eight years. Second, I regret to inform you that you are indeed rich.
To a large degree, feeling rich or poor is a state of mind, as John McCain recently noted. "Some people are wealthy and rich in their lives and their children and their ability to educate them. Others are poor if they're billionaires." But income data can surely tell us something. And they tell us that $250,000 puts you in pretty fancy company. The Census Bureau earlier this week reported that the median household income was $50,223 in 2007—up slightly from the last year but still below the 1999 peak. So a household that earned $250,000 made five times the median. In fact, as this chart shows, only 2.245 million U.S. households, the top 1.9 percent, had income greater than $250,000 in 2007. (About 20 percent of households make more than $100,000.)
In dealing with aggregate nationwide numbers, we should of course take account of the significant differences in the cost of living from state to state. It's obvious that $250,000 doesn't go as far in Santa Barbara, Calif., or Manhattan—or in most places where CNBC viewers, employees, and guests live—as it does in Paducah, Ky. As census data show, state median incomes vary from $65,933 in New Jersey to $35,971 in Mississippi. But even in wealthy states, $250,000 ain't bad—it's nearly four times the median income in wealthy states like Maryland and Connecticut. And even if you look at the wealthiest metropolitan areas—Washington, D.C. ($83,200); San Francisco ($73,851); Boston ($68,142); and New York ($61,554)—$250,000 a year dwarfs the median income.
But people in Georgetown mansions don't necessarily compare themselves to fellow Washingtonians in Anacostia. Relative income really works at the neighborhood level. As we know from the work of Cornell economist Robert Frank, people rate their well-being not so much based on how much they make and consume, but on how much they make and consume compared to their neighbors. After all, you have to compete with them for status and for important positional goods such as housing and schools. And here the CNBC crowd has a point. It is certainly true that in a few ZIP codes and neighborhoods, brandishing a $250,000 salary is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. There is a significant number of rich people—including a healthy contingent of filthy rich people—in places like New York City and San Francisco. If you want to live in a neighborhood where starter homes cost $1 million, and you want to send your kids to private schools, and you want to go on great vacations and have a beach house, then $250,000 likely won't cut it. For people in this situation, the knowledge that they're doing better than 98 percent of their fellow Americans is little solace when the investment banker down the street has just pulled down a $2 million bonus.
But the number of places where $250,000 stretches you is small indeed—certain parts of Greenwich, Conn.; several neighborhoods in Manhattan; some of California's coast. Even in the most exclusive communities where the wealthy congregate, $250,000 is still pretty good coin. Consider this: CNNMoney recently ranked America's 25 wealthiest towns. In all of them, someone making $250,000 would have a difficult time buying his dream house. But in all of them, making $250,000 means you're doing better than most of your neighbors. Even in America's richest town, New Canaan, Conn., the median income is $231,138.
I await the tidal wave of e-mails and blog posts from self-made, hardworking, accomplished people who earn $250,000 but who don't feel financially secure and who don't consider themselves rich, especially compared to the venture capitalist next door. Having spent my entire adult life in and around Washington, Boston, and New York, I feel you. I'm eager to listen and empathize. Tell me all about how home prices in areas with good public schools are insanely expensive. Tell me about how many other seemingly undeserving people make so much more. Tell me about your proposals to devise an income tax system that accounts for geographically divergent costs of living (the Alternative Yuppie Tax?). Just don't tell me you're not rich.
Sunday, August 24
The Olympics may just be a sporting event, but it is hard not to read larger messages into the results, especially when you see how China and America have dominated the medals tally. Both countries can — and will — look at their Olympic successes as reaffirmations of their distinctly different political systems. But what strikes me is how much they could each learn from the other. This, as they say, is a teaching moment.
Call it: One Olympics — two systems.
How so? You can’t look at the U.S. Olympic team and not see the strength that comes from diversity, and you can’t look at the Chinese team and not see the strength that comes from intense focus and concentrated power.
Let’s start with us. Walking through the Olympic Village the other day, here’s what struck me most: the Russian team all looks Russian; the African team all looks African; the Chinese team all looks Chinese; and the American team looks like all of them.
This is especially true when you include the coaches. Liang Chow, the coach of the Iowa gymnast Shawn Johnson, was a popular co-caption of China’s national gymnastics team in the 1980s before he emigrated to West Des Moines. The U.S. women’s volleyball team was coached by a former Chinese player, Jenny Lang Ping, when it defeated China a few days ago. Lang, a national hero in China, led the Chinese team to a gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It would be like Michael Jordan coaching China’s basketball team to a win over America.
The Associated Press reports that there are 33 foreign-born players on the U.S. Olympic team, including four Chinese-born table tennis players, a kayaker from Britain, seven members of the track-and-field team — as well as Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan’s civil war, who was resettled in the U.S. by Catholic Charities, and Leo Manzano, the son of an illegal immigrant Mexican laborer. He moved to the U.S. when he was 4 but didn’t gain citizenship until 2004.
It is amazing that with our Noah’s Ark of an Olympic team doing so well “that at the same time you have this rising call in America to restrict immigration,” said Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International. “Some people want to choke off the very thing that makes us strong and unique.”
China could learn something from our Olympic team as well: the power that comes from a strong society, woven together of many strands from the bottom up. For instance, it’s hard to drive around Beijing these days and not enjoy the thinned-out traffic and blue sky — which are largely the result of China ordering drivers off the roads and closing factories — and not wonder how these can be sustained after the Olympics. Many Chinese I have spoken to have asked: How can we keep this? Now that we have seen how blue the sky really can be, we don’t want to give it away.
The problem for China, though, is that environmentalism is a bottom-up movement in the rest of the world. While it requires a strong government to pass regulations from the top, it also can’t work without a strong, independent civil society acting as a watchdog, spotlighting polluters and suing businesses that do not comply. China can be green for the two weeks of the Olympics from the top down, but it can’t be green for the next 20 years without more bottom up.
That said, there are some things we could learn from China, namely the ability to focus on big, long-term, nation-building goals and see them through. A Chinese academic friend tells me that the success of the Olympics is already prompting some high officials to argue that only a strong, top-down, Communist Party-led China could have organized the stunning building projects around these Olympics and the focused performance of so many different Chinese athletes. For instance, the Chinese have no tradition of rowing teams, but at these Games, out of nowhere, Beijing fielded a women’s quadruple sculls crew that won China’s first Olympic gold medal in rowing.
The lesson for us is surely not that we need authoritarian government. The lesson is that we need to make our democracy work better. The American men’s basketball team did poorly in the last Olympics because it could not play as a team. So our stars were beaten by inferior players with better teamwork. Our basketball team learned its lesson.
Congress has gotten worse. Our democracy feels increasingly paralyzed because collaboration in Washington has become nearly impossible — whether because of money, gerrymandering, a 24-hour-news cycle or the permanent presidential campaign. And as a result, our ability to focus America’s incredible bottom-up energies — outside of sports — has diminished. You see it in our crumbling infrastructure and inability to shape a real energy program. China feels focused. We feel distracted.
So, yes, America and China should enjoy their medals — but we should each also reflect on how the other team got so many.
Saturday, August 23
Posted Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008, at 12:02 AM ET
What with the Bush legacy of reckless war and economic mismanagement, 2008 is a year that favors the generic Democratic candidate over the generic Republican one. Yet Barack Obama, with every natural and structural advantage in the presidential race, is running only neck-and-neck against John McCain, a sub-par Republican nominee with a list of liabilities longer than a Joe Biden monologue. Obama has built a crack political operation, raised record sums, and inspired millions with his eloquence and vision. McCain has struggled with a fractious campaign team, lacks clarity and discipline, and remains a stranger to charisma. Yet at the moment, the two of them appear to be tied. What gives?
If it makes you feel better, you can rationalize Obama's missing 10-point lead on the basis of Clintonite sulkiness, his slowness in responding to attacks, or the concern that Obama may be too handsome, brilliant, and cool to be elected. But let's be honest: If you break the numbers down, the reason Obama isn't ahead right now is that he trails badly among one group, older white voters. He does so for a simple reason: the color of his skin.
Much evidence points to racial prejudice as a factor that could be large enough to cost Obama the election. That warning is written all over last month's CBS/New York Times poll, which is worth examining in detail if you want a quick grasp of white America's curious sense of racial grievance. In the poll, 26 percent of whites say they have been victims of discrimination. Twenty-seven percent say too much has been made of the problems facing black people. Twenty-four percent say the country isn't ready to elect a black president. Five percent of white voters acknowledge that they, personally, would not vote for a black candidate.
Five percent surely understates the reality. In the Pennsylvania primary, one in six white voters told exit pollsters race was a factor in his or her decision. Seventy-five percent of those people voted for Clinton. You can do the math: 12 percent of the Pennsylvania primary electorate acknowledged that it didn't vote for Barack Obama in part because he is African-American. And that's what Democrats in a Northeastern(ish) state admit openly. The responses in Ohio and even New Jersey were dispiritingly similar.
Such prejudice usually comes coded in distortions about Obama and his background. To the willfully ignorant, he is a secret Muslim married to a black-power radical. Or—thank you, Geraldine Ferraro—he only got where he is because of the special treatment accorded those lucky enough to be born with African blood. Some Jews assume Obama is insufficiently supportive of Israel in the way they assume other black politicians to be. To some white voters (14 percent in the CBS/New York Times poll), Obama is someone who, as president, would favor blacks over whites. Or he is an "elitist" who cannot understand ordinary (read: white) people because he isn't one of them. Or he is charged with playing the race card, or of accusing his opponents of racism, when he has strenuously avoided doing anything of the sort. We're just not comfortable with, you know, a Hawaiian.
Then there's the overt stuff. In May, Pat Buchanan, who writes books about the European-Americans losing control of their country, ranted on MSNBC in defense of white West Virginians voting on the basis of racial solidarity. The No. 1 best-seller in America, Obama Nation by Jerome R. Corsi, Ph.D., leeringly notes that Obama's white mother always preferred that her "mate" be "a man of color." John McCain has yet to get around to denouncing this vile book.
Many have discoursed on what an Obama victory could mean for America. We would finally be able to see our legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism in the rearview mirror. Our kids would grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives. The rest of the world would embrace a less fearful and more open post-post-9/11 America. But does it not follow that an Obama defeat would signify the opposite? If Obama loses, our children will grow up thinking of equal opportunity as a myth. His defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event, the world's judgment will be severe and inescapable: The United States had its day but, in the end, couldn't put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race.
Choosing John McCain, in particular, would herald the construction of a bridge to the 20th century—and not necessarily the last part of it, either. McCain represents a Cold War style of nationalism that doesn't get the shift from geopolitics to geoeconomics, the centrality of soft power in a multipolar world, or the transformative nature of digital technology. This is a matter of attitude as much as age. A lot of 71-year-olds are still learning and evolving. But in 2008, being flummoxed by that newfangled doodad, the personal computer, seems like a deal-breaker. At this hinge moment in human history, McCain's approach to our gravest problems is hawkish denial. I like and respect the man, but the maverick has become an ostrich: He wants to deal with the global energy crisis by drilling and our debt crisis by cutting taxes, and he responds to security challenges from Georgia to Iran with Bush-like belligerence and pique.
You may or may not agree with Obama's policy prescriptions, but they are, by and large, serious attempts to deal with the biggest issues we face: a failing health care system, oil dependency, income stagnation, and climate change. To the rest of the world, a rejection of the promise he represents wouldn't just be an odd choice by the United States. It would be taken for what it would be: sign and symptom of a nation's historical decline.
Monday, August 18
Posted Monday, Aug. 18, 2008, at 12:00 PM ET
While it is almost certainly true that Moscow's action in the Ossetian and (for good measure) the Abkhazian enclave of Georgia has been, in a real sense, the revenge for the independence of Kosovo (on Feb. 14 Vladimir Putin said publicly that Western recognition of Kosovar independence would be met by intensified Russian support for irredentism in South Ossetia), it is extremely important to bear in mind that this observation does not permit us the moral sloth of allowing any equivalence between the two dramas.
Perhaps one could mention just some of the more salient differences?
Russia had never expressed any interest in Ossetian or Abkhazian micronationalisms, while Georgia was an integral part of the Soviet Union. It is thus impossible to avoid the suspicion that these small peoples are being used as "strategic minorities" to negate the independence of the larger Georgian republic and to warn all those with pro-Russian populations on their soil of what may, in turn, befall them. This is like nothing so much as Turkish imperialism in Cyprus and Thrace and Iraq, where local minorities can be turned on and off like a faucet according to the needs of the local superpower.
Kosovo, which was legally part of Yugoslavia but not of Serbia was never manipulated as part of the partition or intervention plan of another country—the United States, in fact, spent far too long on the pretense that the Yugoslav federation could be saved—and, for a lengthy period, pursued its majority-rule claims by passive resistance and other nonviolent means. NATO intervention occurred only when Serbian forces had resorted to mass deportation and full-dress ethnic "cleansing." Whatever may be said of Georgia's incautious policy toward secessionism within its own internationally recognized borders, it does not deserve comparison with the lawless and criminal behavior of the Slobodan Milosevic regime. And in any case, it is unwise for Moscow to be making the analogy, since it supported Milosevic at the time and has excused him since on the less-than-adorable grounds (barely even disguised in Russian propaganda) of Christian Orthodox solidarity. It also armed and incited the most extreme and least pacifist forces in Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Does anybody remember the speeches in which the Russian ambassador to the United Nations asked the General Assembly or Security Council to endorse his country's plan to send land, air, and sea forces deep into the territory and waters of a former colony that is now a U.N. member state? I thought not. I look at the newspaper editorials every day, waiting to see who will be the first to use the word unilateral in the same sentence as the name Russia. Nothing so far. Yet U.N. Resolution 1441, warning Saddam Hussein of serious consequences, was the fruit of years of thwarted diplomacy and was passed without a dissenting vote.
The six former constituent republics of Yugoslavia, which all exercised their pre-existing constitutional right to secede from rule by Belgrade, are seated as members of the United Nations, as, indeed, is Georgia. Twenty out of 27 states of the European Union have also recognized the government of Kosovo as an entity de jure as well as de facto. The Kosovar population is estimated at 1.8 million, which makes it larger than that of some existing E.U. member states. Does anyone seriously imagine that Russia ever even remotely intends to sponsor any statehood claims for the tiny local populations of Ossetia and Abkhazia? On the contrary, these peoples will be reassimilated into the Russian empire. So any comparison with Kosovo would have to be not to its breaking away but to its potential absorption and annexation by Albania. And nobody has even proposed this, let alone countenanced the unilateral stationing of Albanian armed forces on Kosovar soil.
Heartbreakingly difficult though the task has been, and remains, the whole emphasis of Western policy in the Balkans has been on de-emphasizing ethnic divisions; subsidizing cities and communities that practice reconciliation; and encouraging, for example, Serbs and Albanians to cooperate in Kosovo. One need not romanticize this policy, but it would nonetheless stand up to any comparison with Russian behavior in the Caucasus (and indeed the Balkans), which is explicitly based on an outright appeal to sectarianism, nationalism, and—even worse—confessionalism.
The fans of moral equivalence may or may not have noticed this, but the obviously long-meditated and coordinated Russian military intervention in Georgia comes in the same month as explicit threats to the sovereignty of Poland and Ukraine, and hard on the heels of a Russian obstruction of any U.N. action in the case of Zimbabwe. Those who like to describe Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev as reacting to an "encirclement" of Russia may wish to spill some geopolitical ink on explaining how Kosovo forms part of this menacing ring of steel—or how the repression of the people of Zimbabwe can assist in Moscow's breakout strategy from it.
If it matters, I agree with the critics who say that the Bush administration garnered the worst of both worlds by giving the Georgians the impression of U.S. support and then defaulting at the push-comes-to-shove moment. The Clintonoids made exactly that mistake with Serbian aggression a decade and more ago, giving the Bosnians hope and then letting them be slaughtered until the position became untenable—and then astoundingly, and even after the Dayton Accords, repeating the same series of dithering errors in the case of Kosovo. The longer the moment of truth was postponed, the worse things became. But this in itself argues quite convincingly that there was no deliberate imperial design involved. Will anyone say the same about Putin's undisguised plan for the forcible restoration of Russian hegemony all around his empire's periphery? It would be nice to think that there was a consistent response to this from Washington, but I would not even bet someone else's house on the idea, which is what President Bush has given the strong impression of doing in the low farce and frivolity of the last two weeks.
Sunday, August 10
Suppose you have two groups of pregnant female rats. Rats in the first group can either eat as much regular lab-rat chow as they like, or they can eat their fill of human junk food — cookies, doughnuts, marshmallows, potato chips, muffins, chocolate. Rats in the second group only get chow, but again, can eat as much as they like. After the rats have given birth, continue the different regimens while the pups are suckling. Then give both groups of pups access to the chow and the junk food.
Experiments like this have found that pregnant females with access to junk food ate, on a daily basis, roughly 40 percent more food (by weight) and 56 percent more calories than rats that just had chow. Moreover — and this is the interesting bit — pups whose mothers ate junk food while pregnant and lactating had a greater taste for food high in fat and sugar than those whose mothers did not. The junk-food pups ate more calories and were more prone to gaining weight.
What goes for rats does not necessarily go for humans. Nonetheless, such results are thought-provoking. As everyone knows, humans are getting fatter and fatter. According to the World Health Organization, 400 million adults around the world weighed in as obese in 2005. In the United States, more than a third of women between 20 and 39 are obese, some of them extremely so. For the first time in history, large numbers of obese women are having children.
Being obese during pregnancy is dangerous for the mother and expensive for the health care system. But does it affect the babies?
There are reasons to think it might. The period between conception and birth is crucial — after all, you’re growing from a single cell into a baby. Your heart is being built; your brain is being wired. Exposure to alcohol during this time can disrupt brain development; lack of iodine may permanently stunt growth. Being starved in the womb can lead to health problems such as heart disease later in life, especially if food becomes abundant. So what about overnourishment? Does an “obese” environment in the womb somehow predispose babies to obesity later on?
At the moment, such questions are difficult to answer. Humans are much harder to study than rats, and the phenomenon of obesity in pregnancy is relatively new, so we don’t know much about it yet. Moreover, many factors contribute to someone’s becoming obese, and picking them apart is tricky. Added to that, an “obese” environment in the womb has two separate elements: the nutrients provided by the mother via the food she eats, and the hormonal environment of someone who is overweight. (Being obese can profoundly alter a woman’s hormonal profile.) Again, picking these apart is hard.
But the results of several studies suggest that the very fact of a woman being obese during pregnancy may predispose her children to obesity. For example, one study found that children born to women who have lost weight after radical anti-obesity surgery are less likely to be obese than siblings born before their mother lost weight. Another study looked at women who gained weight between pregnancies; the results showed that babies born after their mothers put on weight tended to be heavier at birth than siblings born beforehand. Since the mother’s genes haven’t changed, the “fat” environment seems likely to be responsible for the effect.
Why might this happen? Perhaps an “obese” environment in the womb alters the wiring of the developing brain so as to interfere with normal appetite control, fat deposition, taste in food, or metabolism. Studies on other animals suggest that parts of the brain that control appetite develop differently under “obese” conditions. And in humans, one study has found that babies born to obese mothers have lower resting metabolic rates than babies whose mothers are of normal weight.
For most of our evolutionary past, the problem has been avoiding starvation. An environment awash with sugars and fats is, therefore, an evolutionary novelty: in hundreds of millions of years of evolution, this is the first time such foods have been abundant. Giant quantities of fats and sugars have not, historically, been available to a developing fetus, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they do have a harmful impact.
If this is right, it raises the alarming possibility that the obesity epidemic has a built-in snowball effect. If children born to obese mothers are, owing to the environment in the womb, predisposed to obesity, they may find staying thin especially hard. Reversing the epidemic may thus rest on helping women to lose weight before they conceive and helping them to eat a balanced, non-junk-food diet while they are pregnant. The well-being of the next generation may depend on it.
Olivia Judson, a contributing columnist for The Times, writes The Wild Side at nytimes.com/opinion. Frank Rich is off today.
... A day later, I flew back to Denmark. After appointments here in Copenhagen, I was riding in a car back to my hotel at the 6 p.m. rush hour. And boy, you knew it was rush hour because 50 percent of the traffic in every intersection was bicycles. That is roughly the percentage of Danes who use two-wheelers to go to and from work or school every day here. If I lived in a city that had dedicated bike lanes everywhere, including one to the airport, I’d go to work that way, too. It means less traffic, less pollution and less obesity.
What was most impressive about this day, though, was that it was raining. No matter. The Danes simply donned rain jackets and pants for biking. If only we could be as energy smart as Denmark!
Unlike America, Denmark, which was so badly hammered by the 1973 Arab oil embargo that it banned all Sunday driving for a while, responded to that crisis in such a sustained, focused and systematic way that today it is energy independent. (And it didn’t happen by Danish politicians making their people stupid by telling them the solution was simply more offshore drilling.)
What was the trick? To be sure, Denmark is much smaller than us and was lucky to discover some oil in the North Sea. But despite that, Danes imposed on themselves a set of gasoline taxes, CO2 taxes and building-and-appliance efficiency standards that allowed them to grow their economy — while barely growing their energy consumption — and gave birth to a Danish clean-power industry that is one of the most competitive in the world today. Denmark today gets nearly 20 percent of its electricity from wind. America? About 1 percent.
And did Danes suffer from their government shaping the market with energy taxes to stimulate innovations in clean power? In one word, said Connie Hedegaard, Denmark’s minister of climate and energy: “No.” It just forced them to innovate more — like the way Danes recycle waste heat from their coal-fired power plants and use it for home heating and hot water, or the way they incinerate their trash in central stations to provide home heating. (There are virtually no landfills here.)
There is little whining here about Denmark having $10-a-gallon gasoline because of high energy taxes. The shaping of the market with high energy standards and taxes on fossil fuels by the Danish government has actually had “a positive impact on job creation,” added Hedegaard. “For example, the wind industry — it was nothing in the 1970s. Today, one-third of all terrestrial wind turbines in the world come from Denmark.” In the last 10 years, Denmark’s exports of energy efficiency products have tripled. Energy technology exports rose 8 percent in 2007 to more than $10.5 billion in 2006, compared with a 2 percent rise in 2007 for Danish exports as a whole.
“It is one of our fastest-growing export areas,” said Hedegaard. It is one reason that unemployment in Denmark today is 1.6 percent. In 1973, said Hedegaard, “we got 99 percent of our energy from the Middle East. Today it is zero.”
Frankly, when you compare how America has responded to the 1973 oil shock and how Denmark has responded, we look pathetic.
“I have observed that in all other countries, including in America, people are complaining about how prices of [gasoline] are going up,” Denmark’s prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told me. “The cure is not to reduce the price, but, on the contrary, to raise it even higher to break our addiction to oil. We are going to introduce a new tax reform in the direction of even higher taxation on energy and the revenue generated on that will be used to cut taxes on personal income — so we will improve incentives to work and improve incentives to save energy and develop renewable energy.”
Because it was smart taxes and incentives that spurred Danish energy companies to innovate, Ditlev Engel, the president of Vestas — Denmark’s and the world’s biggest wind turbine company — told me that he simply can’t understand how the U.S. Congress could have just failed to extend the production tax credits for wind development in America.
Why should you care?
“We’ve had 35 new competitors coming out of China in the last 18 months,” said Engel, “and not one out of the U.S.”
Iraq and Afghanistan are the messes getting attention today, but they are only symptoms of a much broader cancer in American foreign policy.
A few glimpses of this larger affliction:
¶The United States has more musicians in its military bands than it has diplomats.
¶This year alone, the United States Army will add about 7,000 soldiers to its total; that’s more people than in the entire American Foreign Service.
¶More than 1,000 American diplomatic positions are vacant because the Foreign Service is so short-staffed, but a myopic Congress is refusing to finance even modest new hiring. Some 1,100 could be hired for the cost of a single C-17 military cargo plane.
In short, the United States is hugely overinvesting in military tools and underinvesting in diplomatic tools. The result is a lopsided foreign policy that antagonizes the rest of the world and is ineffective in tackling many modern problems.
After all, you can’t bomb global warming.
Incredibly, the most eloquent spokesman for more balance between “hard power” and “soft power” is Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Mr. Gates, who is superb in repairing the catastrophe left behind by Donald Rumsfeld, has given a series of astonishing speeches in which he calls for more resources for the State Department and aid agencies.
“One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win,” Mr. Gates said. He noted that the entire American diplomatic corps — about 6,500 people — is less than the staffing of a single aircraft carrier group, yet Congress isn’t interested in paying for a larger Foreign Service.
“It simply does not have the built-in, domestic constituency of defense programs,” Mr. Gates said. “As an example, the F-22 aircraft is produced by companies in 44 states; that’s 88 senators.”
With the Olympics unfolding in China now, the Navy and the Air Force are seizing upon China’s rise as an excuse to grab tens of billions of dollars for the F-22, for an advanced destroyer, for new attack submarines. But we’re failing to invest minuscule sums to build good will among Chinese.
For the price of one F-22, we could — for 25 years — operate American libraries in each Chinese province, pay for more Chinese-American exchanges, and hire more diplomats prepared to appear on Chinese television and explain in fluent Chinese what American policy is. And for the price of one M.R.E. lunch for one soldier, the State Department could make a few phone calls to push the Chinese leadership to respond to the Dalai Lama’s olive branch a few days ago, helping to eliminate a long-term irritant in U.S.-China relations.
Then there’s the Middle East. Dennis Ross, the longtime Middle East peace negotiator, says he has been frustrated “beyond belief” to see resources showered on the military while diplomacy has to fight for scraps. Mr. Ross argues that an investment of just $1 billion — financing job creation and other grass-roots programs in the West Bank — could significantly increase the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace. But that money isn’t forthcoming.
Our intuitive approach to fighting terrorists and insurgents is to blow things up. But one of the most cost-effective counterterrorism methods in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan may be to build things up, like schooling and microfinance. Girls’ education sometimes gets more bang for the buck than a missile.
A new study from the RAND Corporation examined how 648 terror groups around the world ended between 1968 and 2006. It found that by far the most common way for them to disappear was to be absorbed by the political process. The second most common way was to be defeated by police work. In contrast, in only 7 percent of cases did military force destroy the terrorist group.
“There is no battlefield solution to terrorism,” the report declares. “Military force usually has the opposite effect from what is intended.”
The next president should absorb that lesson and revalidate diplomacy as the primary tool of foreign policy — even if that means talking to ogres. Take Iran. Until recently, the American officials in charge of solving the Iranian problem were not even allowed to meet Iranians.
“We need to believe in the power of American diplomacy, and we should not believe a military conflict with Iran is inevitable,” said Nicholas Burns, until recently the under secretary of state for political affairs and for three years the government’s point person on Iran. “Our first impulse should be a serious and patient and persistent diplomatic effort. Too often in our national debate we focus on the military option and give short shrift to the diplomatic option.”
So here’s a first step: Let’s agree that diplomats should be every bit as much of an American priority as musicians in military bands.