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By Aubrey W. Bonnett, PhD

It was an exultant President, still riding high in the popular polls, declaring to a nation, beset with fiscal uncertainty and anomie that, as Chief Executive, he would introduce a large increase in the defense budget and in homeland security to fight terrorism, disarm Iraq militarily, and in so doing, there would be downward adjustments in social spending, in many areas. He also indicated that he would like Congress to make permanent his early tax cuts, which benefit the upper classes, largely.

Finally, he implied that the war on global terrorism must be won at all costs even at the risk of obliterating the surplus, and the small gains made by the middle class and poor in America during the days of plenty. Sure he did outline a call for prescription drugs, and for fighting the scourge of HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean. But can we have these social programs while fighting terrorism and a war in Iraq?

It was then that nostalgia began to return and I recalled the sixties when this nation had just begun, in the post World War II era, to confront social and economic problems, spurred by the winds of change and concomitant social and protest movements and, with the demise of England and the destruction of Europe, was beginning to usher in a new Pax Americana. At that time another popular President, John Kennedy, had used Camelot to challenge our nation to be “other directed” and to make bold changes, both in the domestic body politic and beyond, for, he argued, this would transform this “new nation” into a formidable world power-devoid of empires, not seeking to conquer by the force of might, but instead by lofty ideas of civic virtues, altruism, and an ascendant global capitalism restrained and enriched by democratization- intrinsically and extrinsically .

On Kennedy’s death another Texan President took up the mantle and declared to a mournful and restive nation that he would fight the “War on Poverty”(BUTTER), only to lose that war to the “War in Vietnam” (GUNS) - a loss from which our nation has never fully recovered. Indeed it was just incrementally beginning to adjust positively during the eight years of unprecedented economic growth in the 1990s.

But there are other current and salient factors that we should consider. Secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA chief George Tenet both indicated, in different contexts, that the breathing ground for terror and terrorism was the squalid poverty, abysmal despair, feeling of abandonment, that many nations in the world and their citizens feel are attributable to this “first new nation”-America- and its first world allies. Powell, before the assembly of the rich and powerful at the World Economic Forum, felt we could fight these misguided emotions and sentiments by exporting freedom - I assume that he was referring to its political and economic dimensions - without which, as South Africa and many mini states in the Caribbean show, political independence becomes no more than an illusion.

George Tenet’s testimony before congress had two main foci: first, it was more an attempt to bolster the President’s request for added resources from the congress for homeland security/defense; and, secondly, to simultaneously deflect the massive criticism toward his and the other national security agencies in this post 9/11 era by stating - and this is important - that “true believers”, be they white militias such as Timothy McVeigh or foreign terrorists such as Osama bin Ladin and the Al Qaeda, willing to die for what they perceive as “just causes”, become very difficult to deter , totally, especially in a democracy.

On the domestic front there were other more sobering and alarming trends that related to the further concentration of wealth in America, with the net worth of Americans being further skewed towards the rich, powerful and those in the upper income brackets. Just recently, The New York Times reported that, according to Internal Revenue Service data, the wealthiest Americans paid a smaller share of their income in taxes, because in 1997 congress reduced taxes on capital gains, which accounted for a significant share of their income. Indeed, although Congress tried to equalize this by cutting taxes for the middle classes only one in five qualified for those cuts, the Times stated, which involved tax credits for children and education expenses. Consequently, as a group, the portion of their income going to taxes actually rose.

New York University professor and economist Edward Wolff put it starkly, “although more than half of all families are investors in the stock market, largely through 401(k)’s and similar retirement plans, wealth in America is more concentrated today than at any time since 1929”. Of course the tax cuts passed by Congress and championed by President Bush only aggravate these trends. No less than Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, warned that one peril of democracy was the concentration of wealth in the hands of rich men and the formation of a consequent ruling class. A concern echoed by proponents of the power elite thesis, who contend that the fault line of our social structure is the ownership and distribution of wealth, and the dysfunctional effects of its dispossession on the life chances of the “wretched of the earth”. Our nation’s strength, however, has always been its claim to build a vibrant middle and managerial class, and the ability to keep hope alive among its less fortunate.

So, in this context, a budget by the chief executive, President Bush, that returns to deficit spending to combat terrorism, combined with another proposed tax cut, while seriously cutting many domestic programs such as social security, medicaid, employment and training, public housing assistance, children’s welfare services and community block grants, for example, is a budget that freezes the middle and working classes out of the American Dream. And, of course, all this comes at a time when the US Census reports that the foreign born in this nation is at a record high and, I contend, we must focus heavily on empowering the American Dream for them and their second-generation progeny. We must continue to find new pathways of granting them access to peace and prosperity, and not by faith based initiatives, only.

On the overseas front I take Secretary Powell and former Secretary O’Neil seriously when they argue that our nation must find new ways of battling the root causes of terrorism - global poverty - although I disagree with where they place some of their focus. I would contend that, debt forgiveness; increases in foreign aid; the maximization of funds for micro lending initiatives in poor nations; heavy investment in health, education and urban infrastructure development; and an increase in student foreign exchanges at the undergraduate levels; would be a step in the right direction.

Indeed NGO agencies such as the Ford, Carnegie, the Rockefeller foundations have been exerting a credible effort at building the essential ingredients of true ‘Powellian” freedom. But in these developing nations, as in our own society, we must do more to ensure that the “revolution of rising expectations” is not extinguished for the nascent middle and working classes. For as President Johnson discovered domestically in the 1960’s, and we are now in the external arena, it is not only the “riff raff” that we have to fear, but those imbued with the yearnings for modernity and progress. No amount of disguised unilateralism, unbridled militarism, or posturing by political / economic elites as to their bona fides in empathizing with the poor, or escaping from poverty, will bring us true peace, until we find a middle way of balancing an effective policy of GUNS with BUTTER.



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