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What Are We Protecting?

August 11, 2010

Three announcements came out of the White House on Monday, the combination of which got me thinking, “What exactly are we protecting?” As depressing as this thought seemed, I managed to find one item of news heartening enough to give me hope that things might improve even if they keep getting worse.

First, President Obama, speaking in Austin, Texas, responded to growing concern about the decline in American competitiveness marked by the number of people graduating (or not) from its institutions of higher education. His speech announced no new policy initiatives. He did, however, highlight several programs launched earlier as evidence of his efforts to prepare students for success in the workplace. These include the Race-to-the-Top K-12 funding competition launched by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, which asks states to throw under-performing schools and their faculties under the bus to qualify for federal financial assistance. Reforms to student loans, Pell Grant rules and college tax credits for working families were also cited as efforts to improve academic performance and economic competitiveness.

Later in the day, I received a request from President himself on my Facebook wall asking me to contact my representatives in Congress to let them know I wanted the Republicans to stop blocking progress on the jobs bill passed by the Senate on August 5, which helps states cover the costs of Medicaid and funds the salaries of police, firefighters and teachers. As Nobel-laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out in his Monday column, state and local governments have slashed spending since the beginning of the recession. Few areas of local service have been held harmless from furloughs, layoffs and service cuts. Public safety services were among the last to suffer serious budget cutbacks, but few communities can afford to maintain that position these days since local tax revenues always lag any recovery and the signs of such a rebound are weak at best.

Then, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that he is taking drastic steps to reduce military spending by as much as $100 billion over the next five years by eliminating one major command, freezing senior uniformed and civilian executive appointments and curtailing spending on contractors. It should come as no surprise that Gates is interested in a strategic reassessment of our defense investment profile with the U.S. struggling to “win” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously countering threats posed by unstable regimes in Iran and North Korea despite spending what some estimates say is almost as much of its wealth on defense as all other nations combined.

Few areas of state and local government performance are harder to measure than public safety. At the same time, like defense these services have become all but sacrosanct, especially since 9/11 and the fear it provoked took hold of our society. Even those who were not moved by the threat of terrorism seemed moved enough by the sacrifices made by the men and women of New York’s emergency services to support their brothers and sister in blue elsewhere. Measuring educational outcomes using test scores, graduation rates and other objective measures has proven controversial even among those who do not consider the task all that difficult. After all, how can we truly assess the value of knowledge? Similar problems plague our assessment of efficiencies in national defense. What price can we put on our national security?

Sadly, the answer to this last question is all too clear. Our investments in government expenditures aimed at protecting us have only helped make us more vulnerable. Unlike investments in education and basic infrastructure, money invested in defense and protective services produces a very small multiplier. Even if you do not consider those who receive government salaries for delivering these services “special interests,” you would find it hard to come up with a convincing argument that these expenditures stimulate creativity, innovation or productivity in the broader economy that enhances national competitiveness. On the contrary, efforts to leverage defense spending to reduce our balance of payments deficit by exporting military technology put weapons and tactical capabilities in the hands of others who wreaked havoc in regions we consider key to our national security interests while arming those who now have become our adversaries.

Imagine how differently things might have turned out if we had invested only fraction of the money squandered on arming other nations and ourselves educating our own people and those in the countries we sought to liberate.Greg Mortensen has wondered just this. His book Three Cups of Tea has become required reading in some commands as our troops on the ground wonder how to defeat insurgents. If they follow Mortensen’s advice, this will involve building schools and educating women to develop their capacity to participate fully in shaping the future of their societies.

I know these are not either/or choices. We must spend on both defense and development. Judging by the quantum spent on security and defense compared to other programs though one might reasonably wonder what we aspire to in America. Are we a people who live in hope of a brighter, better tomorrow. Or have we been overtaken by a sense of impending doom, convinced that we are slowly sliding toward moral, cultural or environmental oblivion?

Amidst all this bad (or least not so good) news, I was heartened by one new item over the past couple of days. It seems researchers have confirmed what some might consider counter-intuitive: It seems those who identify themselves as being of lower socio-economic status are considerably more generous than those who think of themselves as better off. Researchers suggested this might be due in some small part to the fact that those who consider themselves poor are more likely to identify with those in need.

I suppose that finding should give us at least some small hope in the event the economy does not improve soon. Maybe with less to share we’ll be more willing to spread it around a bit if only so we won’t have to watch each other suffer.

I would like to believe though that we can become more compassionate and caring without suffering greater economic hardship in the short-term. But doing so will require us to rethink what we are doing and how we are going about it. For most of the post-war period, we have employed strategies consistent with a male-dominated worldview that takes an aggressive posture toward protection. Maybe it’s time we tried a more female-friendly, nurturing approach to protecting our interests? We can start simply enough by investing in the future of the world’s children and their mothers.

P.S.: It seems the former Clinton Administration Labor Secretary and University of California professor Robert Reich seems to have been thinking similar thoughts today; read his blog post at RobertReich.org.

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