Category Archives: U.S. Congress

Here’s what the world owes: $217 trillion

By Steve Brawner

© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

If the $20 trillion national debt concerns you, what about $217 trillion?

That’s how much public and private debt now exists worldwide, says the Institute of International Finance, a worldwide financial industry association. That’s the equivalent of more than $29,000 for every human – and this despite 71 percent of Earth’s population living on $10 or less per day, according to the Pew Research Center.

The $217 trillion is a record, with the increase over last year driven by developing nations, including China, where the IIF says total debt now equals $33 trillion. Advanced economies actually reduced their debt in the past year by $2 trillion, but developing countries increased theirs by $3 trillion.

Not that Americans aren’t doing their part to add to the total. In the United States, the $20 trillion national debt equals almost $61,000 for every American – and that’s only what the federal government owes. Arkansas, whose Revenue Stabilization Act supposedly guarantees a “balanced budget,” still owes billions for bond repayments, retirement benefits and other expenses. Student loan debt in the United States now equals $1.3 trillion, meaning Americans owe more for their educations (or uncompleted ones) than they owe to their credit card companies – which, by the way, has risen to more than $1 trillion, the most since the recession in 2008. It seems that, as in parts of the developing world, debt not only creates wealth, but wealth also creates debt.

Global debt is a topic slightly above my pay grade, but I do understand Proverbs 22:7: “The borrower is slave to the lender.” I also understand gravity. What goes up must eventually come down. We should be wary when borrowers owe lenders and lenders owe other borrowers who owe other lenders – on a global scale. What happens to this house of cards when someone really important starts doubting they’ll get their money back, and acts in their own self-interest?

Here’s where conspiracy theorists might say this all has been orchestrated by some mysterious “they” bent on world domination. In reality, global systems and technologies are evolving so rapidly and so expansively that no one could have planned it all, no one can understand it all, and no one can control it. In many ways, the world has changed more in the past 150 years than it did in the previous 1,000. And yet we’re all walking around with brains the same size as our great-great-grandparents’, with the same basic needs and fears. Humans, whether American, Chinese or Bangladeshi, want what they don’t have, so systems are developing that will feed that need, the result being $217 trillion in worldwide debt, with consequences that can’t be prepared for.

You and I can’t do anything about China’s debt or even the $20 trillion the U.S. government owes except vote for fiscally responsible candidates, if we can find them. What we can do is limit our part of the $217 trillion by living off our bank accounts rather than our credit cards, by buying the homes we need instead of treating them as “investments,” by seeing cars as merely a necessary mode of transportation and not a status symbol, and by obtaining educations that pays dividends, not simply going off to college without a plan because it’s the next thing to do after high school.

Having less debt, or no debt, would be the best insurance policy in case this entire worldwide system eventually undergoes a correction.

It might even lead to more responsible policymaking by our elected officials. It’s not a coincidence that Americans owe, and so does our government. In a representative democracy, we not only get the government we deserve, but, ultimately, the government that we are.

Drones, health care and the Constitution

By Steve Brawner

© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

What do the emerging aerial drone industry and the health care system have in common? They both would benefit from a section of the Constitution that’s largely been ignored in recent years.

That would be the 10th Amendment, which says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

The political science term for this is “federalism.”

I’m bringing this up after reading that Arkansas’ Sen. Tom Cotton and three other senators – two of them Democrats – have introduced a bill that would let states and communities govern aerial drones flying under 200 feet of airspace.

In a co-written column in the Washington Times, Cotton and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said the nation’s drone industry has been stuck in a hover as it awaits regulations from the slow-moving Federal Aviation Administration. Meanwhile, Chinese manufacturers are beginning to dominate the developing market. Cotton and Lee argued that since it will take forever for the federal government to act, states and communities should be given control. A drone flying less than 200 feet over someone’s farm is a local issue, not a national one.

They’re right. Drones will be a growing part of our lives in the coming years. States and communities will have different uses and different levels of comfort with a technology that is both beneficial and invasive, so local solutions are preferable to a one-size-fits-all approach dictated by Washington.

Cotton also had a hand in a bigger piece of legislation, the Senate health care reform bill. He was one of 13 senators who crafted it behind closed doors but still hasn’t said if he supports the final product.

That’s because the bill is a mess and will never pass. After seven years of demanding Obamacare be repealed, Republicans are being forced to admit they never had a plan to replace it or fix its problems – and no, we can’t go back to the “old system,” either.

Health care is hard. Public policies result in allocating resources, but with health care, what do we want to limit, and for whom? Do we want more government involvement, which means more government control, or do we want health care decisions to be driven by the profit motive? Should health care be refused to people who refuse to work, or should they be treated in emergency rooms, or just given health care for free? As President Trump said earlier this year, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”

Thankfully, the United States has a valuable feature: its united states. The Senate health care bill does give states some flexibility – just as the Affordable Care Act that created Obamacare did – but maybe this is one issue requiring truly massive experimentation in 50 separate laboratories. Recently, California legislators seriously considered a statewide single payer system where the state government would pay everyone’s health care bills. They couldn’t make the numbers add up, but it’s good that we live in a country where widely varying alternatives can be considered – alternatives such as Arkansas Works, where the government buys insurance for poor people. Through experimentation, maybe an affordable health care system will arise that reflects American values but doesn’t cost 18 percent of the gross domestic product. We must try something, because what we’ve been doing the past few decades isn’t sustainable.

It’s not just drones and health care where a re-emphasis on federalism would be good for the country. As the United States has become more polarized, congressional gridlock is no longer a temporary problem but a permanent reality, meaning long-term problems can’t be solved or often seriously debated. The situation is leaving too much power in the hands of the one official who can act unilaterally, the president, and in the federal bureaucracy. In America, we’re supposed to address issues through deliberative legislative consensus. And that process still happens in state governments.

America’s diversity is one of its strengths. Let states like Arkansas and California try to address more problems on their own, learn from each other, offer lessons for the federal government, and in the end, still be a little different.

It’s OK. We don’t all have to be exactly the same. It’s in the Constitution, after all – about a third of the way through the amendments.

Health care and the 10 Commandments: Two monumental stories

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Sometimes news stories are important, and sometimes they are mostly just eye-catching. It’s important for news providers to offer both if they want to stay in business. It’s important for news consumers to understand which is which, and when a story is both, and why.

This week was a good illustration.

On Tuesday, something important but not particularly eye-catching happened. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (see, I’ve bored you already) announced that the Senate health care bill doesn’t have enough support to come to the floor, so he’s delaying action.

Health care is perhaps the country’s most vexing domestic issue. The system has been on an unsustainable path for decades. What Congress decides to do about it is literally a life and death matter.

But Americans know politicians will argue and posture about this issue forever, and it’s been pretty clear for a while Republicans aren’t ready to repeal Obamacare, much less replace it. So I’m doubting McConnell’s decision was the lead topic of conversation at dinner tables and baseball fields across Arkansas.

Wednesday’s top story, on the other hand, was definitely eye-catching. The day after workers installed a controversial 10 Commandments monument at the Capitol, a mentally disturbed individual knocked it over with his Dodge Dart, leaving it broken on the ground.

That’s a heck of a visual, and it followed a long process that involved passing the legislation authorizing the monument, a commission determining its placement, hearings where satanists argued for their own statue of a goat creature named Baphomet, and a pledge by the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union that they would sue to take it down. After all that, it stood for less than a day.

I didn’t monitor every conversation at dinner tables and baseball fields across Arkansas, but I suspect more people were talking about this than were talking about Mitch McConnell.

But was it important?

Not as a statement in the country’s never-ending culture war, on either side. The driver is not an agent of supposed liberal intolerance, nor is this the fault of the monument’s outspoken opponents. On the other hand, he is not a hero for religious liberty or a defender of separating church and state. He instead is a seriously disturbed individual with a history of mental disorders who allegedly committed the same crime against a 10 Commandments monument in Oklahoma. A guy who has heard voices in his head telling him that he will be abducted by a UFO is not on either team.

But this part is important: We are a nation of laws.

Hours after the monument was destroyed, the sponsor of the legislation creating it, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, told reporters that the private organization that funded it, the American History & Heritage Foundation, had already ordered a replacement, possibly with some protective barriers. Money is being raised, and it’s possible the driver’s insurance will help cover the cost, he said.

That’s good news. Regardless of what you think about the 10 Commandments monument, we should all agree its fate shouldn’t be based on the whims of a disturbed individual. The proper way of deciding its future is through the courts, which will determine if it’s an appropriate historical marker or an unconstitutional government establishment of religion.

There’s also this. We live in a world where mentally ill people have easy access to very dangerous things such as assault weapons and 6,000-pound vehicles. That combination can do a lot of damage before authorities or bystanders can act.

We must prevent these people from doing great harm to themselves and others. Public policies must balance the rights of mentally imbalanced individuals with the need for society to protect itself. Meanwhile, the health care system must be part of the solution. It must provide better mental health services.

However, as we all know, it’s hard to change the health care system. Did you see where Mitch McConnell delayed a vote on the Senate health care bill? That was really important.

How do you make a person or country change? Generally not through nagging

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

How do you make a person or a country change?

One option is to use overwhelming force so they have no choice but to bend to your will and eventually maybe even embrace it. It can work but is often unavailable and comes at great cost – for example, when West Germany and Japan became free market democracies after World War II under American occupation. On the other hand, if it fails, it fails big.

A second option is using less than overwhelming force – diplomacy, nagging, the silent treatment. It often results in only partial, pacifying change.

A third option is using influence and persuasion so effectively that the other chooses to change, often while in a state of crisis or transition. It’s the most effective option, but it requires patience, confidence, and the acceptance that others may adopt only some of your suggestions.

Which brings us to Cuba.

There, overwhelming force has never been an option for American policymakers for various reasons, most notably that it could have led to World War III. So instead, for half a century the United States chose option number two – ending diplomatic relations, condemning the Cuban Castro regime, and enforcing a trade embargo.

It didn’t work. Ninety miles from the planet’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, Cuba remained a hardline communist country even as most of the rest of the world rejected Soviet-style communism, including the Soviets.

So near the end of the Obama administration, the United States finally tried the third option, the one based on influence and persuasion, by re-establishing diplomatic relations and easing travel and trade restrictions. The change cracked open the door to American products, visitors and ideas. Meanwhile, it drew enthusiastic support from Arkansas’ agricultural interests, who see Cuba as a nearby and readymade market for Arkansas rice and poultry.

It’s far too early to gauge that policy’s success, but if Cuba is to change, this could be the time. Its longtime leader, Fidel Castro, died last year, while his successor brother, Raul, is 86 years old. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who traveled to Cuba in 2015, said last year that Castro’s death was “the moment that I believe needs to be seized.”

Last week, President Trump rolled back the Obama policy – though not completely – by announcing new restrictions on travel and by prohibiting commerce with businesses that are owned by the Cuban military. Perhaps more important than the policy changes was the adoption of a much more aggressive, Cold War-era tone.

The move drew criticism from two members of Arkansas’ all-Republican congressional delegation, Rep. Rick Crawford of the 1st District and Sen. John Boozman. Crawford’s district produces half the nation’s rice, a product Cuba currently purchases from Vietnam, a slow boat ride away from the other side of the world. In a statement from his office, Crawford called America’s decades-long policy toward Cuba “failed, outdated, and isolationist” and said returning to it could open the door to increased influence from Iran, Russia, North Korea and China. Boozman released a statement arguing that the Cold War policy didn’t work and that a more open relationship allowed for not only trading goods but also trading ideas. Days earlier, the two had jointly published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that called for allowing Cubans to buy American-grown food on credit instead of requiring cash transactions, a policy Crawford has long championed and tried to pass through Congress.

The other members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation didn’t release statements. They’re generally reluctant to criticize Trump, who remains popular in Arkansas, and to varying degrees some agree with him on Cuba. Sen. Tom Cotton strongly condemned Obama’s opening with Cuba when it happened, saying it was wrong to do business with the oppressive Castro regime.

We’ll have to see how serious and long-lasting this latest American policy is, or if it’s just temporary politics that changes nothing, and never would have.