Like death and taxes, the conundrum of short-term advantage versus long-term gain is always with us, in public as well as private life. Somehow, just now, the dilemma seems to be more than usually evident in political and economic decisions facing the republic.
Here are two cases:
The Supremes, as I write, are off deciding what to do about President Obama's principal policy "achievement" - his attempt to restructure American health care institutions. In addition to their intimate connection to every citizen's person, health care costs constitute one-sixth of the economy - growing far faster than the overall economy, even were it to climb out of its present malaise. If you are of a certain age and going to physicians more often than you thought you ever would, you know exactly why. You watch in dismay if you are a Great Depression offspring at the frantic ripping open with complete abandon of a never-ending supply of sterile paraphernalia. (What ever happened to physicians washing their hands at frequent intervals?) Or you submit like a lamb to slaughter to one more new "test" demanding high-priced digital equipment and ever more high-priced technicians.
To meet this price challenge, Mr. Obama's Gordian knot stroke was a minor catastrophe - a hapless 2,700-page document written by our new breed of fashionable, blow-dried, short-time congressional aides who long ago replaced the bourbon-and-branch-water veterans versed in the art of drafting arcane legislation. The old-timers did not abdicate their role to bureaucrats and their "regs." What logically was required was patient (pun intended), incremental reform of a gigantic problem - for example, using the Constitution's much-debated commerce clause to create a national market, thus eliminating conspiratorial state monopolies in health insurance.
But should the nine justices simply strike down the measure, limiting themselves to judging its constitutionality? That would cause an immediate disaster, for though the law was intended to kick in slowly, it already has created a tsunami of economic as well as political unintended consequences. Should the court ignore, for whatever reason, Congress' failure to write in a severability clause inoculating the legislation from a stricture on particular aspects if the rest is voided? If the court, come midsummer in the sweating welter of the presidential campaign, announces that it is striking down only the patently unconstitutional, generally detested mandate for forced purchase of insurance, it in effect would be helping to write legislation by preserving the law's other parts. That, certainly, violates the spirit of separation of powers, legislative, executive and judicial - the essence of U.S. political genius, now so much imitated by regimes aspiring to democracy the world over.
Equally demanding our attention - at the pumps if not in our grander political vision - is energy, the foundation of all American economic life. True enough, the president - despite the fact that the issue was used as a political machete against his own predecessors - can do little immediately about the gasoline price itself. It is, as his claque maintains, a result of many unfortunate forces coming together - not the least his meandering policy for dealing with the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the fanatics leading Iran.
But the Obama administration's stubborn pursuit of policies limiting production from North American reserves of fossil fuel, by far the largest in the world, is contributing to the rising medium-term cost of energy, even when adjusted for a devaluing dollar. If his celebrated "all of the above" strategy to produce additional energy from whatever sources were actually the president's policy, it would have an enormous psychological impact on markets. He could, for example, block restrictions on coal being pushed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which, if carried through, would curtail the 40 percent of electricity coal now generates. Mr. Obama also could open government lands for more drilling.
In response, the younger, technocratically inclined Saudi princes and their Persian Gulf co-autocrats would understand that they do, indeed, sit on a diminishing resource and would start pumping at maximum levels. For despite ineffective political barriers - the growing sanctions against Iranian oil or Venezuelan demagogue-in-chief Hugo Chavez's flirtations with China and his fellow dying ideological buddy Fidel Castro in Cuba - the world petroleum market is "fungible." In other words, Washington's pursuit of "drill, baby, drill" would increase the world's total energy availability and diminish market speculation on future higher oil prices, helping to ease an onerous burden for the strapped American commuter.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.
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