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King: Even if US knows where it wants to go, getting there can be a problem

POSTED: June 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.

When I think about the problems facing our country today, I recall a story of the man who lost his way and stopped to ask directions from an old farmer.

"Sir, do you know where (blank) is?"

"Yep," says the old man.

"Can you tell me how to get there?"

"Yep," he says again. "You go down this road till you come to ... No. That won’t do. Turn around and go back ’bout 10 miles and turn ... No, can’t do that either. Take that dirt road over there and head toward ... Nope.

"Mister, I’m afraid you can’t get there from here."

Consider the Fair Tax. Sounds great. No taxes on income or wealth, just on consumption, but how do we get there? Get rid of the IRS and we put approximately 100,000 people out of work. Then we’ll need a new bureaucracy to police the black market and another to decide who gets government rebates because the price of everything has gone up.

Consider national health care. We’re the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have universal health coverage, but if we create a system where everyone is covered by the government, millions of people in the insurance business are in trouble.

I’m not implying we can’t or shouldn’t change. Change is going to happen anyway, but let’s think about the process. We know where we want to go, but we aren’t getting there. Where did we go wrong? How do we find a new direction? What changes should we make, and how much will they cost?

Consider the Iraqi war. The problem isn’t just the $9 trillion we have already spent in Iraq and Afghanistan; it’s how we spent it and the entanglements we have created in the process. How did this happen and what needs to change?

For example, consider the Department of Defense. The Defense Base Act of 1941 requires contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan to purchase workers compensation. The State Department, U.S. Aid for International Development and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have done this through competitive bidding. The DOD has not. It has allowed its contractors to negotiate their own insurance with private companies and send the bill to the government.

Then what happened? According to the House Oversite and Government Reform Committee, profit to these private contractors ran as high as 40 percent, costing the American taxpayer an excess of nearly $600 million. (Detail can be found on the committee’s Web site.)

Consider the cost of secrecy. Every government classifies a certain amount of information, more so in a time of war. It costs money to do this, but what most people don’t realize is that it also costs money to maintain and eventually to declassify it, and this must be done regardless of whether a nation is at war or not.

In dollars and cents, the present cost of secrecy is running more than $8 billion, and the cost isn’t just financial. Secrecy erodes public trust, prevents accountability, impedes effective information sharing and depletes resources. Congress has been warned, but the present administration isn’t listening.

Consider the U.S. penal system. The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized county in the world, but the rising prison population is not due to a rising crime rate. It’s because we consistently vote for men and women who promise to "... get tough on crime," and the combined cost to the U.S. taxpayer for law enforcement and corrections is now more than $200 billion annually

These are just a few examples of the economic drain on the taxpayer because policymakers paid little attention to where their decisions would take us. The Iraqi war is probably their most expensive mistake, but finding the way out of Iraq is a bit like the man who stopped to ask directions from the old farmer. I’m not sure you can get there from here.

The U.S. has lost considerable international standing due to the Iraqi war, and the war isn’t the only miscalculation. America used to set the rules for toxic regulation around the globe, but due to lobbying by the chemical industry and cooperation on the part of the Bush administration, standards have been loosened. At the same time Europe has been developing tougher regulations and is now emerging as the leading protector of human health. This bodes ill for the U.S. economy.

Some of this can be changed. Some can’t, but it does appear that America needs a clean break with the past.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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