Lack of economic security no less a threat than terrorism

November 06, 2006|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- In the final hours before the midterm elections, the misbegotten war in Iraq is still dominating headlines and airwaves. As well it should. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Republicans have insisted on making their so-called war on terror the centerpiece of every election campaign. It serves them right to be chained to the stern of that sinking ship now.

The next Congress must deal with Iraq but also must begin to look beyond it. The economy - and the growing gap between the haves and have-nots - needs just as much attention as the war. Indeed, farsighted economists have argued that the decline of the nation's manufacturing base poses a greater threat to America than Islamic jihadists.

The attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon were outrageous and shocking, but Osama bin Laden has paid dearly for them. Through a straightforward military offensive in Afghanistan and countless covert actions, the United States has succeeded in disrupting al-Qaida, writer James Fallows argued recently in The Atlantic Monthly.

(As Mr. Fallows also notes, the United States damaged its own national security by invading Iraq - fraying old political alliances, bogging down our troops and giving al-Qaida a new cause for recruitment. This country would be safer by now had we stayed out.)

Meanwhile, a more insidious force - globalization - has eaten away at our economic infrastructure. For 30 years now, global competition has been quietly gaining on us, melting the broad base that lifted so many Americans into the middle class. Steel mills are shuttered; textile plants have disappeared; domestic automakers are in their death throes.

Those lost jobs have not been replaced by work that pays as well or that grants health insurance and pensions. The unemployment rate - a low 4.6 percent - doesn't account for the fact that many of those jobs are at Wal-Mart and McDonald's.

This nation is not held together by ethnic heterogeneity, religious solidarity or ancient bonds. While we tell ourselves that the ties that bind are the Enlightenment ideals of democracy and egalitarianism, the American dream is really about economic security.

The post-World War II economy guaranteed working men and women health care, a pension and a chance at homeownership. If that dream disappears for most Americans, what will hold us together? Will we become like fractious Latin American countries, with a constant low-grade warfare between the poor and the wealthy?

You'd think more members of Congress would have noticed the destruction wrought by global forces, but they've barely hinted at it. While the Democrats have at least championed an increase in the minimum wage, Republicans insist the economy is in great shape. If you're standing on the same platform as the average member of Congress, things do look pretty good. Senators and representatives earn more than $165,000 a year (the median household income is around $46,000 annually), and they have excellent health insurance. Some of them came to Congress with wealth. They don't really see the decline of the middle class.

If they did, they'd do something about it.

First off, they'd start rolling out government-paid health insurance for every American. The high cost of health insurance is a huge burden for U.S. companies - a cost that many overseas competitors don't bear.

Second, they'd start a heavily funded national program for energy independence. Not only would such a program jump-start science education, it would also spark entire new industries. It might even lead us to a new, more stable prosperity that doesn't depend on the whims of Middle Eastern tyrants.

The war on terror is certainly important. But so is the war against economic decline, and we're losing that one.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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