On Strength & Weakness

by Paul Olson, NFP President Emeritus

In 1729, Jonathan Swift proposed that the English butcher and eat yearling Irish babies, thus making productive use of the Irish children who, after weaning, would starve to death from England’s economic policies. For his satiric pains, Swift had to remain anonymous, hunted by the occupying English authorities.

Yet, even Swift, an English clergyman located in Ireland and sympathetic to the Irish, did not propose that the English eat their own babies. It has remained for a segment of the ruling elite of this state and nation to advocate policies implicitly gobbling up our own kids. Nebraska now has about 100,000 ‘nutritionally insecure’ children—loaded with starches and without fruits, vegetables, meat and essential vitamins, minerals and proteins. Well over 40 percent of Nebraska’s 450,000 children are on free- and reduced-lunch support programs. Though the elites that dominate state and national policy apparently feel indifference or contempt for these children, out of delicacy of expression they have not proposed eating them. Rather, in their policy, our children, surrounded by food deserts, will be consigned to an adulthood of brain torpor, physical obesity and disease. We do not have enough money for SNAP or WIC, but we do need an impractical F-35 program costing $1.5 trillion. In contrast, SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—formerly, the ‘Food Stamps’ program), feeding millions of American children, cost $81 billion in 2012. It though has no apparent future, Congress having nixed its parent Farm Bill.

A study by Paul Piff of the University of California—Berkeley, published by the National Academy of Science, may explain why a portion of our 1 percent finds it useful to ‘starve’ our children. According to it, “upper-class individuals” driving the priciest cars “were four times as likely as drivers of the least expensive cars to cut others off… [t]he discrepancy was even greater when it came to a pedestrian trying to exercise a right of way… those of higher socioeconomic status were also more likely to pocket extra change handed to them by mistake, cheat to win a prize and, yes, even take candy from a child.” Those willing to take candy from a child may find it easy to place that child’s parents in a position where they cannot feed it. The film, A Place at the Table, demonstrates this without sugar coating.

At stake is how we build strength. Presently we bet on our military. The record of military security empires is not good. Alexander’s empire collapsed when he died. Genghis Khan’s did also. Winston Churchill’s projected finest-hour “thousand-year empire” imploded after World War II, when the peoples of the empire revolted against British exploitation and British workers elected the Labour Party to dismantle imperialism. Even in the British Isles, all of Ireland is now free or largely locally governed. The ancient English hegemony over Wales and Scotland weakens as those countries seek devolution. In the U.S., though, we continue to pursue empire abroad and internally “eat our own farrow”—in Irish novelist James Joyce’s phrase—thus dissipating the faith in government once inspired by the Populist/Progressive Movements, the New Deal and Civil Rights reforms. We are armed to the teeth, rich beyond the dreams of avarice in our upper reaches and inwardly hollow.

Richard N. Haass recently wrote a book entitled Foreign Policy Begins At Home that all of us should read. Haass is a conservative, Brent Scowcroft’s and Colin Powell’s advisor, and a consultant to George H. W. Bush. In it, he argues that to have strength abroad, we have to:

  • Stay out of wars that are ‘wars of choice’—unnecessary wars such as Vietnam, Iraq, nearly all of our Middle Eastern wars save Kuwait. Indeed, Haass classifies as ‘wars of choice’ most of the U.S. wars of the last 60 years;
  • Cut our military spending—$25-50 billion a year—and make tax intakes roughly match government outlays;
  • Improve our educational system, now 13th in the world in Reading, 18th in Science and 28th in Math, by recruiting and keeping good teachers in the schools—an argument that I made in the 1960s when I headed a federal commission on education. (Teacher quality has largely been ignored by a federal government that would solve all educational problems through endless testing, mandated under “No Child Left Behind” and costing $150 billion per year);
  • Improve our national infrastructure, which ten years ago ranked fifth in the world and now ranks 24th, behind places like Barbados, Malaysia and Oman;
  • Create a health care system that eliminates unnecessary labs and procedures, reduces efforts to prolong life where treatment is known to be futile, and rewards the search for wellness;
  • Alter our energy system so that we rely more on home-grown renewable sources like wind and solar and energy efficiency measures to encourage conservation.

Haass’ remarks on many things seem wrong to me, especially on Medicare, Medicaid and immigration. He does not deal with the weakness that hunger and poverty create in this richest of lands. He does not address the overwhelming incompetence of the ruling wealthy in this country—their failure to address social need. He does not address the degree to which military overextension has followed corporate imperialism into places where wars of choice rather than necessity seem rational and thus create our gratuitous militarism. He does not deal with the failure of our religious and media institutions to create a critique of our social system that leads to significant debate. Indeed, I found something that I did not like on almost every page. But the thrust of his argument is sound.

Haass knows that strength does not come from guns or nukes or drones. He knows that we must recreate a sense of the common weal in our civil society. He knows that what we can do overseas depends on what we do at home for and with our people.

There lies wisdom.

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