Thursday, February 26, 2009

Memo to New Secretary of State: Declare The War on Terror Over

The newly appointed Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, can have an immediate and dramatic impact with no fiscal impact. She can declare that the war on terror is over. A simple declaration that the war is over does not imply victory or defeat. It does not imply we do not face serious threats to our national security. It does mean that we can strike out on a new, more effective course.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 President Bush declared a ‘war on terror’ at a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, and for a crucial time in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, the mainstream media effectively became Administration mouthpieces rather than watchdogs of the public interest. During the conflict, an almost total policy reliance on military hard power contributed, ultimately, to the shame of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The fiasco of Iraq has turned many nations against the US.

Even the Rand research center, which counsels the Pentagon, came to the conclusion in a study released last year that military force on its own was not a useful strategy against global terrorism. Their study of 648 terrorist groups strongly urges the U.S. to change course and rely less on military and more on policing and intelligence to successfully combat terrorism.

The ‘war’ not all that effective. The Taliban are making a comeback in Afghanistan and while the surge is working in Iraq, it has little to do with the ‘war’ on the terrorists that continue to threaten our national interests. The very war on terror acts as recruiting agency, according to the National Intelligence Estimate produced by our own intelligence agencies. Since the invasion of Iraq jihadi attacks across the world have increased sevenfold. Recent events in Mumbai bring home the message that the terrorist threat is ever present all around the globe.

Of course we need an effective strategy to deal with terrorist threats. But to frame the struggle as a war is to see the solution primarily in military terms. To describe us as a nation ‘at war’ stifles criticism, prioritizes military solutions, halts questioning of policy alternatives, concentrates power in the Executive, links us with repressive regimes, enlarges the military-industrial-security complex, and dissuades allies around the world from joining the cause.

We have created a giant military hammer that will always find a nail somewhere in the world. Since their will always be terrorist threats, a war on terror is an open-ended commitment with no end strategy or exit date. It is a policy that will of course be promoted by elements in the military who want their budgets increased, military contractors who want lucrative deals and security interests who benefit from this government policy.

Let’s face it: Democracy rarely comes in the tracks of military humvees, particularly when we are engaged in a struggle against nihilistic criminal forces. These forces require civilian as well as military responses, soft as well as hard power, ongoing alliances rather than a lone cowboy approach, continuing vigilance and a more flexible set of policies. Extremism results from economic stagnation in countries that give its population little sense of hope or progress. These problems require shaping appropriate global economic policies and forging international cultural connections more than military maneuvers. We also need a new name. The ‘war’ thing is not working. We are engaged in a very long global struggle against terrorists. Calling it a war is a powerful piece of rhetoric that distorts our policy alternatives and is ineffective over the long haul. The war is over and it’s time now for the new Secretary of State to work with other nations and convince them to join us in the continual struggle for freedom, security, democracy and tolerance.

Suburbs in Crisis

In October last year Levittown in New York’s Long Island celebrated a sixty-year birthday. When it opened in October 1947, it was the first of many suburbs that set in motion a major transformation and the creation of truly suburban society. However, many suburbs built at this time are now showing their age and without attention will undermine the stability of these middle class strongholds.

These inner-ring suburbs built between the opening of Levittown and 1970 are now in difficulty as their housing stock deteriorates and population losses mount. As people move back to the city or into new housing on the metropolitan edge many of these inner suburbs are in decline.

The new metropolitan reality is not one of declining central cities and booming suburbs, but of rebounding central cities, expanding outer suburbs, burgeoning exurbs and declining inner suburbs. Fifteen percent of inner ring suburbs are in crisis with deteriorating housing conditions, decline in both income and population and an increase in poverty. These inner ring suburbs in total contain 6.2 million people and 2.3 million housing units; so the problem is substantial.

Few regions of the country are shielded from this mounting social and economic crisis. Yet across the country policymakers and planners have focused attention and public dollars on the development of sprawling edge cities and the redevelopment of downtown central cities. The inner-ring suburbs are caught in the middle of these two stronger development forces and political constituencies. They are the forgotten crabgrass frontier.

If we care about the future of our inner-ring middle-class suburbs, we must act now or risk even more decline. We need only remind ourselves of the history of decline in the nation’s central cities to know what’s at stake.

Three recommendations to save our suburbs:

First, we must reinvest in our inner-ring suburban communities and make them places of destination in our metropolitan regions. In Maryland, the Baltimore County Office of Community Conservation stands out as a national example of what a jurisdiction can do to reinvest in declining suburbs. The office was created in 1995 and has invested over $1 billion in a decade in its older suburban communities that has gone towards improving dilapidated housing stock and struggling commercial strips. This is the type of public commitment required to tackle suburban decline. As part of the investment in infrastructure, a vital part of US economic recovery, we need to consider the inner ring suburbs as primes candidates for major investment.

Second, regions with politically fragmented jurisdictions must find ways to cooperate with one another, or they risk even more suburban decline. The political balkanization of American local government causes suburban municipalities to compete with each another for valuable resources, public dollars, and residents. When struggling inner suburbs compete to offer substantial tax breaks to private investment it can become a zero sum game. This ultimately undermines the ability of government to tackle the problem. Through political cooperation, jurisdictions must find a way to come together and cooperate on regional issues like transportation, housing and poverty.

Third, we need to find a way to rebuild, renew and rehab the aging infrastructure and older housing stock. Congress and the new president should reconsider legislative proposals to create a federal trust fund to revitalize older suburbs.

The time is ripe to act. After the sixtieth anniversary of Levittown, let us not let the legacy of a stable, prosperous middle-class suburbia fade and die.

This piece was written with Bernadette Hanlon, a research analyst at the Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education at UMBC and Thomas J. Vicino, an assistant professor at Wheaton College. Bernadette’s book on inner ring suburbs will be published by Temple University Press. Tom is the author of the book, “The Transformation of Class and Race in Metropolitan Baltimore: Suburban Crossroads.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Legitimation: The Other Looming Crisis

While the news is filled with stories of the mounting economic crisis less attention is paid to what I call the legitimation crisis: the growing loss of public confidence in our economic and political leaders. Of course the two are connected, when the economy is growing our leaders look smart, when it falters they look fallible and replaceable. Part of the problem lies in the elites’ own response. They take the credit when things are going well but when things go bad they tend to deflect any criticism. It’s not our fault! Who could have seen it coming? Its unprecedented! But if leaders can only respond to the foreseen they are not really leaders and they deserve neither deference nor excessive payment. In other words they are like you and me stumbling along; neither masters of the universe nor geniuses. It then becomes more apparent that people in leadership positions are not there because of their greater intelligence but more the result of accident of birth, connections and luck. Their elite status is less a function of ability more a reflection of good fortune and useful connections. Another sure sign of their ordinariness is their inability to adjust to the new situation, whether it be senior executives justifying bonuses while their business are tanking while demanding for public monies or Cabinet appointees still persisting despite income tax records that reflect either incompetence or greed.

I have nothing against Timothy Geithner, a man considered a genius until his income tax returns were made public, or former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, a man paid lavish bonuses as his company lost billions, but their behavior reflects the arrogance and insensitivity of too many of America’s leaders.

The elite they did well in the growth years and look set to do well in the downturn. They seem to lead a different life from you and me. It is not just that they have more money but that their lives are protected from consequences. Their mistakes are not punished but seemingly forgiven in the political confirmation and executive compensation equivalent of endless do-over. Not so for the car workers laid off or state workers like me, whose wages are furloughed. No the lives of the US elite continue to go on in an endless succession of continued compensation and privilege. The notion of shared sacrifice vital in a democracy undergoing economic trauma is rendered obsolete by an elite permanently insulated from downturns.

We are becoming a nation led by a tiny insulated elite that seems unaffected by democratic political changes. A new administration, same kind of political appointments as wealthy Clinton retreads move from their lofty perches on boards and think tanks back into government and meanwhile ousted Republicans fill the vacancies left on the boards and finance houses. It is an endless revolving door as former political elites become part of the economic elite and transform back again. Cabinet nominee Tom Daschle did not seem to think that getting a free car and chauffeur was a taxable benefit. He must have assumed that is was just something he got as of a right when he entered the revolving door that leads from the Senate to a series of cushy economic positions and lucrative business appointments.

The difference between open and closed societies is that elites can be replaced or at the very least renewed with new talent. What is very disturbing is the shift towards a closed elite reflected in the rise of well funded political dynasties such as the Bushes, Clintons and Kennedys, but also embodied in the reality that as the middle class becomes more separate and more pressed for resources, they and their offspring find it more difficult to break through the class ceilings. You need money to make money, you need an expensive education to assure you of the right connections-- witness all the Harvard and Yale alums in the new administration-- and you need the residence and lifestyle that connects you with the other elites. As elites cocoon themselves in privileged lifestyles, they reinforce the connection between each other and reduce the entry of the rest. A number of serious studies show that social mobility, both intergenerational and short term, has declined in the US. Not only do the poor remain poor but also the middle-class now has less chance of joining the wealthy.

What made America so great, and so different from many other countries around the world was the level of optimism. It had many sources but chief amongst them was a sense that economic and political leaders are smart, relatively honest, share lives and shoulder sacrifices much like our own with the real opportunity that talented people can rise to the top. But when the elites are politically deaf and economically dumb, when their lives are so different from ours, their gains so high and their sacrifices so small, and when entry to the top is so restricted, then our belief in the system falters and our optimism fades. Economic crisis can be fixed with upturns in the business cycle and government stimulation. A crisis of legitimation is more corrosive and longer lasting, as it leads to a steady decline into cynicism and indifference. And that is something that even a trillion-dollar stimulus package cannot put right.