I was privileged to secure a seat for a talk tonight by Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations. The World Affairs Council of Northern California convened at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel to accommodate the capacity crowd. I arrived early as is my habit to score first dibs on food and drink at the reception. I'm all about freebies when they're on hand at high-level policy action.
Dr. Haass was promoting his new book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home. He argues that the US must restore its economy's ability to generate prosperity if it wishes to retain its leadership role in the world. A world without US leadership invites chaos and the resumption of national rivalries among lesser powers who would otherwise prosper under the US security umbrella. His basic blueprint for renewal involves reinvestment in our physical infrastructure, revival of public education, and enactment of comprehensive immigration reform. Here's my opportunity to present a 21st Century update to these 20th Century ideas.
Physical infrastructure is great, and I thank Dr. Haass for answering my question (in the affirmative) that the US's oil and gas production boom gives it a window of opportunity for renewal. The problem we face is that much of the money committed to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has been spent poorly. San Francisco got some shiny new lighted signs for its underground municipal train stations and some postmodern bus stop shelters, all budgeted to exorbitant union wage scales. Other parts of the country got bicycle paths and fences that lead nowhere. Some kind of national infrastructure bank would be a better way to commit funds but it hasn't gotten off the drawing board after six years of effort. Americans only get motivated to fix national problems after they are embarrassed by a crisis. The Soviet launch of Sputnik stimulated education spending on math and science in the 1950s. Americans will have to see collapsing bridges and crumbling dams before they get off their fat rear ends and open their wallets for infrastructure.
Education spending is a totally different story. The US already spends more per pupil than most countries and gets embarrassingly poor results. The fault is entirely in the structure of the K-12 public school system, with unionized workforces that can't be held accountable. The No Child Left Behind Act was a serious attempt to introduce performance metrics into public education and the education establishment has resisted it tooth and nail. I say it's time to hit the reset button and start from scratch. The free market is responding to demand for continuing education with the Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare, and other sources that will quickly render public education obsolete. Let those options develop unhindered by the hand of government. My education reform platform is as follows . . .
- Decertify all teachers' unions. Yes, I'm serious.
- End all federal student loan guarantees, Pell grants, and other forms of education subsidy. How collegiate programs meet their enrollment needs is up to them.
- End federally-funded ROTC programs. These are wasteful subsidies for low-quality military training. The US military can commission all the officers it needs from the academies in peacetime and direct commissions in wartime.
None of those things are going to happen, of course, so it's up to the open-source movement to carry the nation's future education burden. Throwing money at students who are too stupid to go to college is a malinvestment that will negate whatever benefits we get from upgraded infrastructure.
The final point on immigration reform is disingenuous. Leading lights at the CFR sometimes reflect the thinking of conventional big business sponsors. The US business community likes cheap labor. Massive illegal immigration depresses wages and makes it easier for employers to fill low-skill jobs. Politicians like it when more citizens become clients of government entitlement programs. Massive immigration means more people collecting welfare, filling Medicare Part D drug prescriptions, and enrolling their kids in public schools. The legalization of millions of illegals locks these paradigms into place. Pew Research reveals that Americans remain completely confused about what kind of immigration policy they want. This means policy elites will tell them what they want. Elite opinion has solidified in favor of a neofeudal stratification of the American labor market that immigration reform will create.
I liked Dr. Haass' characterization of different regions' possible courses: "The Middle East will be the most destructive region, Asia the most dynamic, and Europe the most complacent." This begs the question of where North America, South America, and Africa will be in the near future. I say North America will be the fattest region, South America will be the most suntanned, and Africa will be the most exploited part of the world. Oh, BTW, Antarctica will be the coldest.
Thought leaders are valuable even if I don't always agree with everything they say. CFR people get picked to serve in senior government positions. Their academic studies often become official policy and Foreign Affairs is on every big shot's coffee table. I've started asking around about a path to membership because I'm convinced the CFR needs my genius on hand to take things to a whole new level.