What We’re Not Talking About

The cage match over whether or not Congress will agree to fund President Trump’s $5.7bn request for a wall along parts of the border with Mexico continues. The latest move in this battle is that Congressional Democrats have offered $5.7bn to fund non-wall security enhancements; it’s not the money they’re worried about but the possibility that they might be seen as caving to the hated Trump. Meanwhile the president has offered a concession too – he’ll extend legal protections for the so-called dreamers for three years if Congress will just give him bragging rights for having delivered the wall he promised. So far: no deal. Apparently, each side cares far more about the politics of the issue than its substance, or than it does about other, far more important issues.

I thought I would use this post to highlight just a few of the more important issues about which our political class is strangely, frighteningly silent – and has been for a long time.

Our national debt is fast approaching $22 trillion, a figure so large as to seem irrelevant to most people. Expressed in more relatable terms, the national debt is about $66,000 per person or about $179,000 per taxpayer. Think of it as another mortgage – a fast-growing one – that you didn’t know you had. Even more worrying than the number is that the national debt is growing rapidly as a percent of GDP – it’s now about 105% – and, given our demographics and entitlement programs, its growth looks certain to continue to accelerate to the point at which for other countries the markets have taken fright and refused to keep lending within a few years. What’s next, debasing the currency? Default? The American Weimar?

Which major party is making an effort to educate the public on the fiscal unsustainability of our current path and proposing changes to it? Neither one.

Another is that our public education system is well and truly broken – in many places, particularly inner cities and poor rural districts, public schools are so bad as to effectively doom the students who attend them. If you’re poor and reading below grade level by the middle of your elementary school years, society will pretty much give up on you. Do we feel good about that?

Further, our colleges and universities have become ever-more expensive – with costs rising far in excess of inflation over the course of many decades – and, outside of STEM and professionally-oriented fields, they deliver a product now more closely resembling ‘progressive’ indoctrination than usable skills or rigorous intellectual training. What colleges really confer on liberal arts students is a vitally important credential virtually wholly unrelated to whatever their students have or haven’t learned: college is perceived to be the sine qua non gateway to a respectable job. Meanwhile, with student debt at $1.5 trillion, the costs of the American college credentialization machine drain the savings of upper-middle-class families who have children and discourage younger families from having more than one or at most two children – thus adding fuel to the fire of our looming demographic crisis.

Did I mention that we have a terrible underclass problem? The urban and rural poor are devolving into a separate society where the great majority of children are born out of wedlock, crime and drug use are rife, educational opportunities are abysmal and it often makes more sense to collect entitlements and work ‘off the books’ – at activities that may or may not themselves be legal – than to take the kinds of low-wage jobs that are available. Generations live in comparative poverty, with little hope of finding better paths.

(It’s interesting to note that historically many thought that the rich were rich because the poor were poor – and being exploited; it would be hard to credibly assert that today with regard to our multi-generational underclass, which is the segment of society that does the least on-the-books work, pays no income taxes, etc. They are trapped in cycles of dependency, not working in sweatshops).

And, not coincidentally, we have terrible drug problems, with as many now dying of overdoses as from car accidents. What are these addictions if not expressions of despair?

Our nation’s military is greatly overextended, playing a global cop role that made sense in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when we had more than half the world’s GDP, but doesn’t now when we have 24%. Our Canadian and European ‘allies’ (except maybe the Poles and the Balts) are freeloaders, picking at us while we pick up their defense tabs.

A resurgent China looks to be itching for a fight if it doesn’t get its way on the South China Sea (control of which it has seized in violation of all precedent and international law), and maybe Taiwan. Russia wants its empire back, and is perfectly willing to take it by force if given the opportunity. By their own admission, Iran would like to nuke Israel. How can we reorder our military commitments to reflect our lesser relative ability to pay for them without opening the doors through which the world’s bad actors will move? (Note, of the issues highlighted in this post, this is the one that President Trump is actually trying to move on other than by hectoring our allies, as many recent presidents have done to no effect; but I don’t see a lot of debate about it).

Another issue that is not being widely debated, let alone addressed by our elected representatives: we’re rushing headlong toward becoming a surveillance society, where the privacy that we need to think for ourselves, maybe differing from the crowd, is being surrendered semi-consciously in trade for the hollow pleasures of online social networks and the conveniences offered by our apps. I don’t pretend to know how the big tech companies should be regulated or reeled in, or where the line should be drawn on government spying, but these strike me as important issues that are not being debated in the public square. 1984 is far closer than we think; China is already setting up a tech-enabled surveillance state with the eager assistance of our own tech companies (at least one of which – Google – now refuses to work for our own DoD; I guess we know which side they’re on).

Our culture seems at war with itself, with progressives expressing nonstop disdain and dislike for the ‘deplorables” who don’t share their globalist (and state-solution -oriented) political values; the ‘deplorables’, not surprisingly, resent those attitudes. More fundamentally, American progressives are drifting away from the culture of individually-focused rights and responsibilities and toward a more group-oriented sense of rights and wrongs. Conservatives, and libertarians like yours truly, celebrate the individualism embodied by the Bill of Rights as the foundation of our freedoms and of our successes as a society.

The fight over the wall is best understood as the symbolic manifestation of this blue/red kulturkampf, rather than as a serious debate about border security or the paltry sums involved. So our government is on autopilot except for arguing about a symbol – and it seems that our leaders have forgotten how to debate, in a spirit of good faith and comity, the far more important issues about which we disagree.

This won’t do.

M.H. Johnston

6 comments to What We’re Not Talking About

  • KH  says:

    It’s no wonder cannabis is becoming legal nationally.

  • John Primm, MPM  says:

    Well said as always Mark.

  • Anonymous  says:

    The legalization of cannabis is simply another tax scheme by the progressive left promoted as a “virtue signaling” effort to offset the historically higher rate of incarceration of the minority population for “minor” drug offenses.

  • Ron Davenport  says:

    Very well said!

  • Anonymous  says:

    All true, well said

  • Anonymous  says:

    This was a great post Mark, one of your best! I have to say that, since I retired, I have tried to choose the optimistic path on almost everything. I don’t think I have ever been less optimistic that we can truly address the obvious issues our country faces (many of which you addressed here) in a mature (non-fifth grade) manner which would provide a chance for us to help solve them, or, at the very least, initiate ways to address them. The longer is takes to address any of these problems, the harder it will be to solve them. I am afraid that our country is too divided and hate rules the day. We are moving perilously to the far left. I truly believe that there are a substantial number of people who hate Trump so much that they are actually rooting for our country to fail so that Trump will not succeed. Pretty sad!

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