Friday, February 6, 2009


During his brief but eventful presidency, John F. Kennedy put together a group of brilliant advisers that would come to be known as the "best and the brightest." As the New York Times once noted “the brightest of the lot, was McGeorge Bundy.” Bundy died in 1996, but before he passed on to his reward he served as national security adviser to two presidents and played an indelible role in America's efforts to contain the Soviet Union.

Like many Cold Warriors, Bundy would achieve academic success at both Yale and Harvard. But his brilliant mind did not save him from having to take his college boards at Groton. As one might expect, Bundy whizzed through each part of the exam until he got to the "Essay Section." At that point, he was asked to choose one of two subjects on which to write. The first was "My favorite pet.” The second, "What I did on my summer vacation." McGeorge paused briefly and then wrote an erudite composition questioning the wisdom of such mundane questions when there were so many more important issues to explore. The first grader of the essay portion, put off by his arrogance, summarily failed him. The second evaluator, noting the huge discrepancy between the test and essay scores called for a third assessment. The final reviewer, long tired of reading boring treatises on high school senior’s favorite pets, gave him 100%!

Bundy's decision to challenge the status quo has lessons for us all. We have just finished an important election. The people have spoken. But like so many of the students who took the essay portion before Bundy, too many of our leaders on both the right and the left remain oblivious to some of our nation’s most pressing problems.

Both the Social Security system and Medicare program are entering a critical phase. Whether you are a liberal, conservative or somewhere in between, it is hard to argue with the point that along with college loans, the aforementioned initiatives are indispensable to maintaining our nation's middle class. There is fault on both sides. Democrats offer the status quo (ignore the problem and it will go away). Republicans make the case for privatization (a proposal that could make a bad situation even worse).

In addition to the challenges in maintaining the social safety net, we Americans borrow almost $600 billion from foreigners each year to pay for the imported cars, televisions and other items that make our lives worth living. So far our friends from overseas are more than willing to lend the money. The unsettling worry, however, is what could happen if they suddenly lose interest in holding dollar-denominated investments. Should this occur the outward rush from U.S. stock and bond markets could send stock prices crashing and interest rates soaring.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which supports the retirement plans of millions of Americans lost $12.1 billion in fiscal 2004, boosting its year-end deficit to $23.3 billion. Finally on 18 November, the Senate approved an $800 billion increase in the limit on federal debt. The move was the third increase in the statutory limit on federal borrowing over the last three years for a total increase of $2 trillion.

Not all is doom and gloom; our economy for the moment appears strong and may be getting stronger. But this should not dissuade us from "making hay while the sun shines." The most distressing point perhaps is that no one with any real clout on either side of the aisle is suggesting that the American people face reality. This columnist believes it would be far better to put up with some pain in the here and know rather than have to deal with certain catastrophe later on down the road. What is needed is some vehicle to keep these issues in front of the American people every four days rather than every four years.

The United Kingdom has a parliamentary system which is vastly different in many respects from our democratic republic. But there is one feature of their government that we might adopt that might go a long way in raising public awareness of the critical issues of our day. Each Wednesday whilst Parliament is in session, the Prime Minister must enter the House of Commons to entertain questions from both his supporters and the loyal opposition. It is not a pristine political exercise, many of the inquiries are known to the Prime Minister prior to the proceedings. But for the most part, it is a no holds barred event in which the tough questions are laid on the table for review. In short, we have Presidential debates every four years; in Great Britain they have something far more effective and meaningful every week when the House of Commons is in session.

If our Congress had such a vehicle, it might encourage the electorate to demand that problems be solved on an ongoing basis. In the present day, one must often wait for the political temperature to rise to the point where the body politic has to go on the critical list before anything is done.

Having an American version of " Prime Ministers Questions" would by no means be a panacea to the myriad problems we face as a nation. But there is no doubt that a more consistent airing of the challenges we face would be immeasurably helpful. In the end it just might prompt a few more of us (like Bundy) to personally challenge the status quo thus making life better for all.

In case you have had the luxury of being too busy to notice, we are in the midst of another holiday season. This year with our country at war and with all the troubles that this tired old world is dealing with let us remember the words of Jacob Marley in his efforts to redeem Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge.

"But you were always a good man of business Jacob, faltered Scrooge.
Business cried the Ghost! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity; mercy; forbearance; and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.

Have a safe and restful holiday!

No comments: