Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Two worries about Obama

Given the amount that we have heard about "change" coming to Washington in the Obama administration, let me mention that for all my support for some of the President-Elect's new policies (e.g. renewable energy, infrastructure spending, and health care), and guarded optimism about others (e.g. higher education finance reform), I still have worries about his willingness to tackle the biggest issues in national politics - the two "complexes" that constrain policy the most. They are (1) the "military-industrial complex" (term coined by President Eisenhower) and (2) the "Wall Street-Treasury complex" (term coined by centrist Columbia Economist Jagdish Bhagwati).

Military-Industrial Complex:

To really understand this issue, let me refer you to three sources. The first is a recent article in The Nation that is an excellent primer on the problem. This article identifies two central concerns and challenges related to our military spending.

The first is simple and straightforward: we should not be spending money on weapons systems adapted to an outmoded geopolitical situation - namely the Cold War. Big culprits include the F-22 Raptor, the Ballistic Missle Defense System, and arguably most of the US nuclear arsenal. An excellent line-by-line report identifying key programs to be targeted for reduction was done by Foreign Policy in Focus, and is entitled "A Unified Security Budget for the United States, FY2009."

The second issue is more fundamental and concerns the position of the US in the world. We have, since WWII, become accustomed to using our military to project influence into the world. Part, though not all, of this is related to energy politics (one of the many reasons for renewable energy). Overall, we have over 700 bases and outposts stationed in foreign countries. Perhaps the most comprehensive coverage of this issue has been done by esteemed political scientist Chalmers Johnson, emeritus at UC San Diego. For a list of some of his fairly regular op-eds, see this page at AlterNet. More importantly, see the trilogy he wrote on US intelligence, military, and the potential decline of the American Republic - including parallels to Rome and Britain. The books can be found on Amazon, and are titled: Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis.

As the article in The Nation mentions, Obama has signaled that he wants a shift out of Iraq and into Afghanistan, but he hasn't signaled that he is willing to take on the Pentagon's ever increasing budget requests or its unwillingness to phase out old programs - to say nothing of whether we should take a fundamental look at where we have bases and why. I voted for Obama because I think he understands that we're looking at a multipolar world. Unfortunately, I don't have any indication that he's willing to take on the established old guard at the Pentagon. Toning down our militarism is the central component to finding a new place in the world. We need to remove our "big brother" and "world policeman" mentality and return to a simple concern with our own national security. Besides, the only thing that will force more military responsibility on other countries is if we don't have the resources to do it all for them.

The Wall Street-Treasury Complex:

My problem here is much simpler - Obama's economic team is populated by old-guard economists, many of whom contributed to the rise of the "Washington Consensus" and the deregulation of financial markets that got us into this mess. When your house falls down, do you hire the same contractor who built it in the first place? I take a little hope that the Treasury Secretary is Tim Geithner, and having a respected hand there is important, but I would be much happier if the economic policy posts weren't completely filled with Robert Rubin's protégés. Rather than complaining about it too much myself, let me suggest two good sources. The first is this article from the NYTimes, and the second is this op-ed by Dean Baker at CEPR.

In short, it remains to be seen if change is really coming to Washington. Old habits die hard, and people are often loathe to unlearn ideas they formed over decades-long careers. Who will Obama listen to, and how will he synthesize their opinions? Is there enough diversity to ensure a proper balance? All of his advisors are bright, well-educated, and experienced - but it remains to be seen if they are stuck in their ways.