Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Let's Be Serious

Let's Be Serious

By Bob Herbert

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The general election is about to unfold and we'll soon see how smart or how foolish Americans really are. The U.S. may be the richest country on earth, but the economy is tanking, its working families are in trouble, it is bogged down in a multitrillion-dollar war of its own making and the price of gasoline has nitwits siphoning supplies from the cars and trucks of strangers.

Four of every five Americans want the country to move in a different direction, which makes this presidential election, potentially, one of the most pivotal since World War II.

And yet there's growing evidence that despite the plethora of important issues, the election may yet be undermined by the usual madness - fear-mongering, bogus arguments over who really loves America, race-baiting, gay-baiting (Ohmigod! They're getting married!) and the wholesale trivialization of matters that are not just important, but extremely complex.

In his book, "Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed?," Jared Bernstein reminds us that the economic expansion from 2000 to 2006 was something less than nirvana for working people. The economy grew by 15 percent during that period, and the official rates of joblessness and inflation were low. But as most of us know, the benefits of that expansion were skewed to the high end of the economic ladder.

Mr. Bernstein, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, writes: "Over the course of this highly touted economic expansion, poverty is up, working families' real incomes are down and some key prices are growing a lot faster than the average."

Steven Greenhouse, the labor correspondent for The Times, has also written a book that examines, among other things, the imbalance in the way the benefits from the expansion have been distributed. In "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker," he says:

"This is a decade during which the American economy has thrived by many measures, with corporate profits and C.E.O. salaries soaring, yet wages have languished for most workers, and health and pension coverage has grown worse."

Let the candidates wrestle with this issue of increasing economic inequality, rather than President Bush's spurious and deeply offensive rant comparing advocates of international diplomacy with those who appeased Hitler and the Nazis.

Let the candidates wrestle with the war without end in Iraq that is not just destroying lives but is taking a toll on this nation's soul. The war is sapping the resources and energy needed for the hard work of putting the U.S. back on a sound socioeconomic footing.

And the way we are treating the troops belies the pretty words that never get farther than a bumper sticker.

The country that professes to be so proud of its men and women in uniform is playing Russian roulette with their lives by sending them into the war zone for three, four and even more tours. Stop-loss, the involuntary extension of an individual's term in the military (making them subject to still more combat duty), is another dangerous affront to those who have already given so much.

The Houston Chronicle did a long takeout on Sunday on the suicide in March 2007 of an Army recruiting sergeant, Nils Aron Andersson - just one day after his marriage to Carry Walton. Sgt. Andersson, 25, had spoken of the many horrors that he had encountered in Iraq and was deeply depressed. He shot himself while sitting in his pickup in a parking garage. Distraught, Ms. Walton bought a 9-millimeter handgun at a sporting goods store the next day and killed herself.

Suicides have become a big problem for the military. Combat does terrible things to people. An independent study by the RAND Corporation found that nearly 20 percent of the troops who returned from tours in Iraq or Afghanistan reported symptoms of major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Let the candidates talk about these things. Let them talk about the fact that the Bush administration, which has pushed the troops so unmercifully, opposes a bill (sponsored by Senator Jim Webb and widely supported in Congress) that would expand the education benefits of veterans who have served since Sept. 11, 2001.

Let them talk about health coverage, which is a scandal, and the vanishing American pension. Let them offer competing plans for rebuilding the American infrastructure and creating real employment opportunities for the newest generation of workers. Let them go at it over energy policy.

Forget the foolishness for a change. No Willie Hortons this year. No Swift boats. No attacks on John McCain like the mugging he endured at the hands of the Bush crowd in South Carolina some years ago.

For once, let the election be serious. Show the hacks and the hypocrites the door. Argue substance. And then let the people decide.

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