August 17, 2010

Pakistan: Can a Nuclear Power Still be a Victim?

After the American Century

The devastating floods in Pakistan that have affected 20 million people dominate the news. As all too often this is presented as a natural disaster in which people are simply victims who need our help. This is true enough of the peasants trapped on high ground who have lost their homes, their fields, and their livestock. But it is not true of Pakistan as a nation, which has spent billions of dollars developing a nuclear arsenal, which it should have spent instead on dams and flood control. It is hard to see a nuclear power with 170 million people as simply a victim, especially when it seems that Pakistan shared its weapons technology with North Korea.The New York Times reported last year that Pakistan employed tens of thousands of people in its nuclear program, and that it is rapidly increasing the size of its arsenal.

That money would have been much better spent on flood control, on preventing the growing population from settling on flood plains, on building hydroelectric dams, and on vast tree planting projects to help absorb water, hold soil, and slow down flooding. A great deal could have been done, but instead money was spent to build nuclear bombs.

In this moment of need, ordinary people give to flood relief, but governments should tie future aid to real change in Pakistan's priorities. Otherwise, aid donors end up building dams and levees so Pakistan can spend money on weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan is now pursuing a policy of of double devastation: floods now, nuclear war later. 

Pakistan has the resources and the talent, as well as the sheer size, needed to be a great nation. But it has not developed its educational system sufficiently. It has allowed religious fundamentalism to flourish, invested vast sums in its military, assassinated its leaders, and even persecuted its lawyers. It needs to find moderation and compromise in politics and to be better at selecting its priorities. Of course we should aid Pakistan's suffering millions. But even if I am very much a skeptic when it comes to the idea of divine intervention in human affairs, it is tempting, though wrong-headed, to see Pakistan's problems as its punishment.

August 03, 2010

No Safety Net

After the American Century

The American unemployment system does not work well if a recession lasts much more than one year. To be precise, benefits run out after 99 weeks. The first people laid off in 2008 have now reached that point, and they are losing their homes, their cars, and everything familiar in their lives. The Congress is not doing anything for them. In fact, it had trouble getting itself to extend benefits to 99 weeks.

Contrast the New Deal in 1933. President Roosevelt created work programs for the long-term unemployed. They did not pay well, but they gave people enough to live on, a sense of purpose and hope for the future. These programs also helped reforest and replant areas that had been misused, built parks and recreation areas, improved roads, and much else. The money was by no means wasted, and the human capital was not lost either.

Indeed, some important writers were given jobs preparing comprehensive guidebooks to every state in the union, and others worked as actors and directors for an arts program that was supported by the government. Today the United States seems far less able to find creative ways to deal with the crisis.

Unless the economy improves soon, the US Congress might want to learn from the successes of the New Deal.