Meanwhile, back on planet earth…

While the absurd spectacle of America’s debt ceiling follies flickers before us like a silent movie melodrama (the inevitable, concluding sequel to "Birth of a Nation?") it is worth remembering that the hot story of the moment is not the only story.  It’s not even the big story. In fact, as was the case with ...

551431_rsz_119839559_rothkopf12.jpg
551431_rsz_119839559_rothkopf12.jpg

While the absurd spectacle of America's debt ceiling follies flickers before us like a silent movie melodrama (the inevitable, concluding sequel to "Birth of a Nation?") it is worth remembering that the hot story of the moment is not the only story.  It's not even the big story. In fact, as was the case with America's involvement in Iraq, once again the most important story is the cost of our once again being distracted from the important by the seemingly urgent.

If you were to make a list of the most important priorities facing America today, this debt ceiling charade would not be anywhere near the top. And if you make such a list, let me know.  I'd like to read it.

In the meantime, let's take a look at my list of the top priorities being neglected by the President and Congress while they, to evoke the imagery of The Who, "fiddle about" with our finances.  As it happens, every one of these is domestically oriented...but all have profound international consequences and fall under the rubric of what Richard Haass accurately describes as the goals of American restoration.

While the absurd spectacle of America’s debt ceiling follies flickers before us like a silent movie melodrama (the inevitable, concluding sequel to "Birth of a Nation?") it is worth remembering that the hot story of the moment is not the only story.  It’s not even the big story. In fact, as was the case with America’s involvement in Iraq, once again the most important story is the cost of our once again being distracted from the important by the seemingly urgent.

If you were to make a list of the most important priorities facing America today, this debt ceiling charade would not be anywhere near the top. And if you make such a list, let me know.  I’d like to read it.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at my list of the top priorities being neglected by the President and Congress while they, to evoke the imagery of The Who, "fiddle about" with our finances.  As it happens, every one of these is domestically oriented…but all have profound international consequences and fall under the rubric of what Richard Haass accurately describes as the goals of American restoration.

10. Meaningful Immigration Reform
It’s overdue. It’s a vitally important issue not only in border states but everywhere we want to wisely embrace the energizing presence of new Americans as we have throughout our history.

9.  Restoring America’s Infrastructure
Neglected for 50 years, with the Congress currently thinking of new ways to underfund it, it is one of the few sure ways to enhancing our competitiveness and create millions of jobs in the near term.

8. Real Financial Reform
Dodd-Frank was inadequate even before lack of funds and support and legal challenges and slow implementation made it nearly impossible to implement the limited benefits it offered.  However, big issues like financial institutions that are too big to fail and massive concealed risks associated with derivatives markets have yet to be addressed and remain a major threat to national and global financial stability.

7.  Real Healthcare Reform
Call it Obamacare, call it Obomneycare, call it Banaramacare, it’s a band-aid on sucking wound of the chest.  Until retirement healthcare is funded, America’s fiscal house is not in order, our economic future is at risk and our promises to older Americans are virtually certain to be broken.

6. Real Education Reform
The secret of American leadership in the 21st century is not a policy, it’s our people.  Our children are falling behind global standards and we are currently planning spending cuts.  The solutions are there: longer school years, real teacher pay reform…based on real merit metrics, better use of potentially revolutionizing technologies, a national curriculum.  But we’re just playing at the edges with current initiatives, however worthy they are.

5. Energy and Climate Policy Reform
Neither the reality of global warming nor multi-trillion dollar conflicts in the Middle East have awakened us to the essential need to have the coherent energy and climate policy we have lacked for decades. Meanwhile, we are heading for a regulatory train wreck, funds for new technologies are drying up, our competitors are seizing the moment, our old dependencies are getting worse and energy prices are spiking.  Just how big a catastrophe will it take to get our attention?

4. Real Fiscal Reform (Spending and Tax)
We need to fix our broken budget.  Not just the one we carry on our official books, the real one including entitlements.  Sadly this debt ceiling discussion and the trivial and to some extent dubious cuts being proposed won’t do the trick…or even begin to address the problem.  And you can’t unless we have an honest discussion about tax reform (which means simplifying the code AND increasing revenues from those who can afford to pay more) and real long-term cuts.  Sadly, no one thinks that conversation will actually take place for years…if ever.

3. Remaking the U.S. Economy
The last decade was the first in U.S. history in which we failed to create any net new jobs and the first in which median incomes fell. The rich are getting richer.  The poor are getting poorer.  Companies are booming but the people are hurting.  The bad results didn’t just happen due to recession…they happened post-Bush tax cuts and while the economy was humming along in the early 2000s.  Something has changed structurally in the U.S. and around the world.  Our big national challenge is adapting.  Many of the preceding steps address some…but not all of this…and a real strategic vision is needed.

2. Fixing the Housing Market
We started with a housing crisis…and we still have one.  The homes that are the primary assets of most Americans, are their real retirement funds, are a huge engine of tax revenue and of job creation, are falling in value and new ones are not getting built as they once were.  Until we address this, confidence won’t return, spending won’t rebound, and the world economy will suffer.

1. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
Lots of the preceding issues are tied to jobs. But the president and the Congress ought to be addressing the jobs deficit as their number one task. That doesn’t mean they can’t also be addressing housing and competitiveness and deficits. We can keep more than one thought in our heads at a time.  But for the moment, the issue with the U.S. economy is not just growth…it’s growth that benefits American citizens. And for the past few weeks, despite nonsense about how somehow this battle is helping the economy, we’ve been ignoring this.  And in case it comes up, yes, jobs are more important than cutting the deficit for the next couple years and our leaders need to be clear about that…or they will soon be experiencing America’s growing unemployment lines first hand.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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