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American Perestroika



THE word is out. The Cold War is over, and we won. But now that Soviet Union has admitted the superiority of genuinely democratic institutions and the futility of the arms race, it's time for America to do the same.

The collapse of Eastern Europe is indeed a triumph for democratic institiutions and ideals. Hungary has officially renounced communism. Romania has deposed a cruel totalitarian dictator. Six East European governments--all once Soviet satellites--have scheduled free elections, and even the Soviet Union itself is poised to eliminate one-party cmmunist rule.

The proximate cause for these changes has been the courage and foresight of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The Soviet leader realized that his country could not survive spending billions on military weapons and leaving little for the basic needs of its people. He also saw that freedom of expression and political participation were critical to the stability and happiness of a nation.

Ironically, many American political leaders seem to have forgotten these truths. A perverse democratic process in this country has concentrated power in the hands of corporate interests, limited national debate and alienated the majority of voters. For the United States to remain a "winner" for the indefinite future, President Bush and Congressional leaders must follow Gorbachev's lead by renouncing the arms race and rededicating the country to government by the people.

GORBACHEV told the United Nations, "Freedom of choice is a universal principle...Each people determines the future of its own country and chooses its own form of society."

The United States is supposed to be the epitome of self determination--a government "of the people, by the people and for the people."

In reality, American political culture is stagnating. The 1988 election saw a voter turnout of less than 50 percent nationwide--the lowest since World War II. And no wonder. As political advertising costs and campaign expenses spiral to record levels, candidates must spend the bulk of their time on the phone with the rich and powerful, leaving just scraps of time for the citizens they supposedly represent. In order to finance the average campaign for the U.S. Senate, a senator must raise roughly $10,000 per week every week of the six year term of office. This system clearly favors incumbency and discourages change: witness the 98 percent re-election rate for members of the House of Representatives.

The results are policies that cater to the few and disillusionment among the many. When millions of voters ignore elections, politicians react to vocal, concentrated interest groups who may not have the interests of the public in mind. When voters do not take an active, daily interest in politics, small, well organized special interests win out over the more diffuse national interest.

The president and Congress repealed the Catastrophic Health Care coverage, for example, in fear of a militant lobby of rich or misguided senior citizens. Congress may soon pass a counterproductive capital gains tax cut for rich corporations because poor and middle-class taxpayers cannot penetrate the insider world of special interest politics.

America needs to decouple money and politics. President Bush's campaign finance reform bill, while a start, would disproportionately limit campaign expenditures by Democratic-leaning interest groups. A better solution would place a cap on total campaign spending, and the most fair and democratic solution would be the public funding of federal elections.

SOVIET observers point to the failure of communism as an economic system. A Stalinist centrally planned economy cannot provide for the demands of a consumer society. But these contradictions were magnified by a Cold War that sucked billions of dollars away from consumption and into the arms race.

Similarly, the arms race has impeded the ability of the U.S. to provide for its people, even if our economy has proven relatively more resilient. The United States currently spends $300 billion on military spending each year, plus billions more in debt interest to pay for past military spending.

The result has been tragic: while the rich celebrate the recent period of economic growth, the poor have seen few changes. Income inequality in the United States remains unconscionably high, and racial rifts continue to characterize urban life. A telling statistic: if current trends continue, one-half of all American children will be poor by the year 2050.

At the same time America pays to keep more than 300,000 troops in Western Europe, at a cost of $342 million per day, 37 million Americans are shunted out of the medical care market for lack of insurance. While the Pentagon loses untold billions to waste and fraud, the U.S. shares with South Africa the dubious distinction of being the only advanced captialist countries without some national health plan.

The Pentagon squanders billions on such expensive duds as the M-1 Abrams tank, the Bradley fighting vehicle and the Advanced Tactical Fighter. Meanwhile, the U.S. has by far the highest rate of infant mortality among the industrial democracies, and the rate of infant mortality among Black Americans exceeds those of several developing countries.

Before America becomes two countries--one developed, the other impoverished--political leaders need to follow Gorbachev's lead and renounce the arms race. President Bush should propose a defense budget with deep reductions not just a budget that only shows reduction after inflation is taken into account.

Bush should also abandon his massive funding proposal for the Strategic Defense Initiative--an unworkable system which only perpetuates a Cold War mentality, encourages military planners to ponder a "winnable" nuclear war, and is premised on the assumption that stopping 95 percent of incoming missiles is enough.

Another tragic example of the fiscal myopia of the Reagan era is the paucity of investment in America's future economic health, by way of improvements in human resources and physical infrastructure. Between 1984 and 1986, while military spending grew 13 percent, government spending for economic programs (including transportation and civilian research and development) declined by 0.6 percent, and federal funding for education declined by 1.8 percent.

The U.S. cannot indefinitely survive on its rich inheritance of public facilities from past generations. In order to remain competitive, we must invest in roads, schools, airports, public transportation, basic research, worker retraining and other expensive necessities that will pay off down the road. In other words, we need to forego some consumption today in order to ensure the productivity and prosperity of future generations. As the most gluttonous consumer in the economy, the Pentagon must bear the brunt of the cost.

Bush should consider another important lesson from his Soviet counterpart: no nation, regardless of its economic system, can indefinitely support a parasitic military burden if neglects the health of the economic and human resources that sustain it.

If Bush refuses to learn form a "commie," perhaps he will heed the advice of the godfather of capitalism, Adam Smith: "The whole army and navy are unproductive labourers. They...are maintained by a part of the annual produce of the industry of other people. Their service, how honourable, how useful, or how necessary soever, produces nothing."

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