With spring comes hope. But, this early spring, I find myself hoping for the best but expecting the worst on several matters global and local.
On Libya: Defense Secretary Bob Gates, just before the U.S. decision to intervene in Libya, stated that "anyone should have his head examined" who decided to add yet another offshore intervention to those being undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan, specifically citing establishment of a no-fly zone in Libya as just such an overreach.
Yet here we are, not only establishing a Libyan no-fly zone but, contrary to early assurances, putting American special-operations teams on the ground to assist Libyan rebels. As with many other prior American interventions, this one was begun without sufficient thought to its ultimate endgame. By no definition does Libya represent a vital American interest. We have no real idea about the composition of the rebel forces we are assisting or, for that matter, of an alternative government which might succeed Col. Qaddafi's.
It could be called a humanitarian intervention, but far worse humanitarian crises have existed elsewhere without our involvement. And other Middle Eastern unrest has more importance than that in Libya. President Obama's instinctive caution seems to have given way, in Libya, to a politically correct reflex to help Qaddafi opponents, who may not be the fighters for democracy we would like to consider them. In the process, he has antagonized congressional leaders of both parties by leaving them out of the decision loop. It will take blind luck to get us to a happy ending on this one.
On Japan: The Japanese people's response to the massive earthquake and tsunami has been magnificent. Their government's response has been slow and not satisfactorily candid. By the time the crisis is done, the radiation damage is likely to have been far greater than presently estimated. Damage to the Japanese and world economies also will be great.
Any silver lining will have to be found in a worldwide check of operating and safety standards at all existing nuclear facilities. I do not accept bland assurances regarding safety being offered by operators, in particular, of West Coast nuclear plants near fault lines.
On the state budget crisis: The Seattle Times last week maligned the attempt — during efforts to reduce the massive state budget deficit — of what it characterized as goofy, left-wing state legislators to remove or reduce "tax expenditures" that benefit favored companies and economic sectors. The goofies' effort, it said, would raise taxes on business at precisely the wrong time.
Fact is, tax expenditures are called expenditures precisely because they are in the same category as outright state-government spending. In Washington, they total at state and local levels more than three times the size of the state's biennial budget.
These loopholes, subsidies, and exemptions create a huge hole in the state revenue base. Any reputable macroeconomist would tell the Times that they also create economic inefficiency (by favoring some enterprises over others), stunt economic growth, and thus reduce overall tax revenues. More power to those who would weed them out. But it is far more likely that human-service and related programs will be pared instead. Microsoft, Boeing, and other companies benefiting from the tax expenditures simply have more political juice than the needy.
On the upcoming Seattle school levy: Seattle keeps "doing it for the kids" and passing one school levy after another. This time our mayor and City Council are sponsoring a new $231 million Families and Education Levy on the November ballot. It is hard to be optimistic, in the present economic environment, about the measure's voter approval or, if it should be approved, the difference it would make in a Seattle school system beset by scandal and outright incompetence.
Voters will ask: What difference would another $231 million make in reducing unacceptable dropout and graduation rates, improving basic reading and math skills, rooting out bad teachers and principals, and generating performance by an overstaffed, overpaid, and complacent central bureacracy? Would the money force the teachers union to accept performance standards for its members? The present School Board is far stronger than the one that preceded it. But until it quite literally sets higher standards for, and demands stronger performance by, system administrators and teachers, it is hard to imagine any amount of fresh money making a difference. What is required is a drastic cultural change.
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