Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Ms Wilmer's Questions: Whence the United States (or - "this may be too complicated for this particular afternoon")

Dammit, Ms Wilmer.  You just wrote me a book.  I.  Curses.  Okay.  Consider:

Once elected the new President will have to work towards the United States' long-term priorities like nuclear arms control and disarmament or the management of relations in both China and in Islamic states. Additionally the President will have to work with current issues as well as the 'surprises' that may come about with changes in other political states. For instance, there are leadership transitions occurring or will be soon in both North Korea and in Russia, both of which could affect the United States' relations with both. Most of the issues can be seen as policy issues, and should the President and Congress make efforts to work towards then it will eliminate or minimize some issues. Without knowing who will win the election, do you believe it is possible for the president to address more long-term foreign policy issues? Or do you believe that the current issues or 'surprises' will required the full attention of the President? Will the United States be able to sustain its international power base in the next generation, should the long-term issues not receive an adequate amount of attention? It is noted that three key components of national power are infrastructure, innovation, and education. Do you agree? And if so do you think the President and Congress will be able to make larger investments in them within the next presidential term?

Geez Louise.  That is a lot.  You'll notice I color-coded parts of this - that's because I'm going to address them each separately.  Dig.

ORANGE - Will the president, be he Romney or Obama, be able to address long-term foreign policy issues or will his attention be taken up with current issues?  Well, we have to remember that the presidency is constrained by at least three things.  First, if the president is in his or her first term he has to be concerned with the democratic impulse - the will of the people.  If the people aren't happy, the president ceases to be president.  Thus, in their first term, presidents find themselves restrained substantially by the people.  Secondly, the president is restrained by Congress - if Congress is intractable then the President can do little, if Congress is cooperative the President gains far more leeway.  Finally, presidents are restrained by the degree to which they can legitimately transform the culture and personnel that constitute the American bureaucracy, including the military, State Department, and Intelligence Community.  The irony of the situation, then, is that presidents find themselves at their most powerful during periods of crisis - "surprises" to use the language of Ms Wilmer.  Congresses, filled with people fearing the democratic impulse without end and often within a range of two years or less (in the case of every member of the House and 1/3rd of the members of the Senate) must appear to be accomplishing something when a crisis appears - this means, naturally, that they have to work with the president who has a huge advantage - the bully pulpit.  The people themselves tend to rally behind the president during times of crisis - we call that the "rally-round-the-flag" phenomenon - and of course both Congress and the masses, in their desire to do something in response to crisis, typically respond by demanding reforms to the bureaucracy, which gives the President far-reaching house-cleaning powers.    Of course crisis is unpredictable, which means it is more likely that reform will be difficult - crisis is sharp and chaotic, allowing opportunity - the dull thrum of general decline is far easier to ignore, making it more difficult for presidents to act.  Which of course is not entirely a bad thing - after all, presidents in Latin American states have repeatedly used the legitimizer of crisis to justify an end to electoral republicanism.  So, there is that.

RED - Will the US endure as one of the preeminent powers through the next generation? Certainly.  Likely we'll be the most powerful nation on earth through the remainder of my life.  But if we don't begin to make serious institutional reforms we will not be able to maintain our military and economic supremacy and, more importantly, we risk not merely relative decline but far more worrying absolute decline as well (think of it as the Roman Empire being less able to push around its neighbors compared to the Roman Empire losing territorial integrity or experiencing declining quality of life).

YELLOW - Infrastructure and education, I would say, make innovation possible - I believe Mr. Adam Smith would agree with me as well.  Will we be able to invest in these in the next presidential term?  I believe we must.  Will we actually do so?  I believe this is far more questionable.

Also, I think we can agree - epic title.

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