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Now, Afghans are Fighting Afghans
In January, 2001, the U.S. treasury had a surplus of $236 billion. Today, as everyone knows, that surplus has turned into regular deficits of well over a trillion dollars. As a result, Congress and the President have introduced us to the strange new world of “sequestration” where meat cleaver decisions about budget priorities will slow the recovery and drive up unemployment. Where has all the money gone?
A report from the Congressional Research Office points a finger at one of the main culprits. According to current projections, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will amount to $1.8 trillion dollars by 2020. Few would argue that this has been money well spent, though apparently Dick Cheney remains unrepentant. Saddam Hussein is gone in Iraq, but in his place is heightened sectarian violence, the tears of countless mourners there and in the U.S., a deeply unpopular government not particularly friendly to the United States, and of interest at least to Christians, what may be the beginning of the end of an ancient church community.
In Afghanistan we have “bought” a corrupt but weak central government, the hostility of a significant portion of the population, a Taliban that is weakened but hardly vanquished, and a nation that appears ready to revert to old ways as soon as we leave, including its oppression of women. The commander of the soon to be departing Third Battalion Fifth Marine Regiment summarized our accomplishment, perhaps more candidly than he intended: “Now, Afghans are fighting Afghans.” Isn’t that about where we were when this all started? Meanwhile, the Israeli Occupation of Palestine continues with no sign that the US is determined to address what is a fundamental irritant to stability in the Arab world. Pakistan plays both ends against the middle, diplomatically and politically speaking, and Iran grows more dangerous in spite of crippling economic embargos. Looking at all we’ve purchased with our loose spending it’s a shame we didn’t check on a return policy!
Setting aside bail outs, stimulus packages, and tax breaks for those in the highest tax brackets, Americans have spent lavishly on an income redistribution project in the United States. This project has systematically reversed trends toward income equality in place from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. The wealthy class has normally been averse to any redistribution of income. But in recent decades they have made it work for them in overdrive. Since 1999 median household income has dropped 9 percent after adjusting for inflation. While this dismal trend was developing, the top 10 percent of earners took 46.5 percent of all income in 2011, excluding investment gains, the highest proportion since 1917. The wealthy experienced large financial losses during the recession. But their prospects have seen a decided turn for the good during the years of the “recovery” as earnings for the 1% grew by 11.2% compared to a decline of 0.4% for the remaining 99%.
Meanwhile, as corporate profits recover and expand, illustrated by a soaring stock market, employment and wages have not. Since the end of 2008 corporate earnings have risen at an annualized rate of 20.1 percent; disposable income rose only 1.4 percent annually. With unemployment high and the bargaining power of labor unions weakened, corporations have little incentive to increase wages. And rather than hire, corporations are increasing productivity, another way to talk about squeezing more labor out of existing employees. For example, United Technologies’ workforce has remained virtually unchanged in the last seven years even as annual revenue grew from $42.7 billion to $57.7 billion. When multi-nationals do hire, much of the growth is overseas. Minnesota based 3M, now trading at record highs, increased its workforce by over 11,000 last year, but of those positions, only 600 were in the US.
And what’s our response to this? How about cutting $85 billion in federal spending, jeopardizing unemployment checks, Head Start, and costing the country about 700,000 jobs, among other things? President Obama, eager to mend fences with the business community, is reportedly ready to name billionaire Penny Pritzker as Secretary of Commerce. This is the same Pritzker whose family resolutely refuses to enter into negotiations with their low wage workers at Hyatt Hotels and whose championing of “school reform” includes expanding charter schools in Chicago while closing public schools, undermining the teacher’s union in the process. This has won her a seat on the Board of Education even as her children benefit from elite private school educations at the University of Chicago Lab School. Don’t look for leadership from the administration to upend the income redistribution program.
Yes, we do know where the money has gone. Has all this spending been worth it? Some of the big ticket items have obviously been lemons. But for the fortunate few, it has been money well spent by all of us for their benefit. Now that the accounts are overdrawn, the rest of are additionally being asked to assume the unpaid bills, including late fees and penalties. That hardly seems fair or just, and certainly does little to contribute to the common good. But at least after all this spending we can say that we now have Afghans fighting Afghans.
John H. Thomas
March 7, 2013