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Commentary: Jimmy Carter was right

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 19, 2008 - In his 1979 "malaise" speech, Jimmy Carter spoke to a nation facing multiple economic challenges and a debilitating energy crisis. But his focus on problems "more serious than energy or inflation" transcended immediate events.

Carter spoke of a "crisis of the American spirit" and a Congress paralyzed by special interests. He warned that shared sacrifice had been "abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends."

Carter's warnings are distressingly resonant today. But today we face 30 more years of inaction and a decades-old energy crisis, 30 years during which malaise has become culturally ingrained. What was once a perilous but confined period of lethargy is today an unbroken multigenerational denial of the central reality of our age: Independent of the current crisis, we are a nation in decline.

Once upon a time, America was the world leader in the manufacture of almost everything anyone wanted. A blue-collar family with a single breadwinner had time for the kids, because 40 hours of work was enough to pay the bills. Once upon a time, we generated almost every innovation. We were justifiably proud of the better world we would bequeath.

The measures of national decline predate the current crisis: unsustainable debt; a squeezed middle class; the looming entitlement crunch; health and welfare barometers that trail economic competitors; income inequality at pre-depression levels.

While the urgent challenge for the new president is to respond to the immediate crisis, his longer term burden is to focus on the two great barriers to reversing our national decline.

The first is the sheer magnitude of waste, especially in energy and health where we double the per capita spending of economic competitors, and in defense, where our burden is nearly half the global total. Year after year, that's 15 percent of our gross domestic product, $2 trillion in excess spending and borrowing that erodes quality of life and undermines competitiveness.

The second barrier is political paralysis. You can't find solutions when decision-makers occupy antagonistic self aggrandizing poles, when critical options are out of bounds and sacrifice is off the table. Sometimes you need a draft to fight a war, government spending to fight recession or encourage new technology. Sometimes you must raise taxes to reduce deficits or serve human needs. And sometimes you need the courage to say so.

The Government Accountability Office estimates that between now and 2085, Medicare spending will exceed revenue by $55 trillion. Benign neglect won't yield a cure. But elder quality of life is incompatible with $55 trillion in reduced benefits. And we can't redress the shortfall through enhanced revenue if taxation is not an option. So since borrowing at such levels would be catastrophic, we are saddled with everybody-loses inaction.

The United States will never again be that post-war engine of half the world's production. We will be surpassed by China as the largest economy, and our capacity to project hard and soft power will diminish. Medicare provides but one illustration of the structural constraints on would-be solutions.

The current economic crisis will end during the Obama presidency. As he prepares for that day, Obama's transcendent missions will be to focus his soaring skills on our decades-long decline, on the patriotic urgency of joint sacrifice, on restoring FDR's teaching that our true test of progress is "whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

Most of all, President Obama must pursue policies that preclude a continuation of the myopic short-term and bonus-oriented focus of corporate America. Regulation and tax policy must create an environment in which corporate profits are coincident with the national interest.

His nuts and bolts challenges are to replace consumption-based growth with future oriented development in infrastructure, education, and research; to recognize that increased GDP is a false prophet if median income decreases; to avoid military and economic over extension; to pursue global leadership in job creating 21st century technologies like renewable energy.

But the Asian renaissance and decades of debt and inertia have immutable consequences. The dust will settle on an America that cannot be central to every global dispute. If we are smart, we will re-establish the moral leadership that must again be our singular gift. If we are wise, we will embrace a diminished economic role as both inevitable and as livable as Canada or France.

No leader exceeds Obama's ability to speak to us like adults about the challenges we face. If we can respond like adults, his presidency can be more than a transcendent racial breakthrough. It can establish the precept that reduced global reach need not diminish the true measures of the best America can offer.

Ken Schechtman is a freelance writer and a professor at the Washington University School of Medicine.