War's greatest casualty: domestic spending

The war is having undesirable effects on what the administration likes to call the homeland, notably on education and social structure. These effects will continue to be felt for years unless action is taken now to deal with them. This is not likely.

It is a large number of clever people doing research and development in the Pentagon and for defense contractors who have produced high-tech weapons that made it possible to fight a short war with so few casualties. These people learned how to do this in America's school system, from kindergarten through graduate school. That level of education is what is being lost by the generation now in school. We need better teachers, better libraries, better laboratories. None of these is cheap, and the higher up the scale one advances, the more expensive they become.

Something else being lost with the deterioration in schools: President Bush's cherished goal of no child left behind. The longer we wait to take drastic action, the more children will be left behind, and the more it will cost for them to catch up. We cannot put them on hold; they will not stop growing while they wait for their parents and grandparents to fight the war on terror.

No less than education, the serious shortfalls in state spending are affecting healthcare and welfare. The income gap between rich and poor in the US is already too big and is getting worse. The rich will continue to get education and healthcare; increasingly the poor will be forced out.

This is a country that used to pride itself on having a classless society. This is disappearing with egregious social effects. The CEO of American Airlines recently had the effrontery to give himself a large raise while asking his unions to take pay cuts to avoid bankruptcy. He has since resigned, but his behavior is symptomatic of a larger problem.

We do not need income equality. That would probably be impossible to attain, anyway. What we need is something close enough to it so that we share enough of a common background to be able to carry on a common political dialogue. That is the way we can talk to each other across geographic and ethnic lines. We used to have this, and we are rapidly losing it. Legal niceties aside, that is why it is important that the University of Michigan win its case in the Supreme Court about affirmative action.

The question arises: How did the states get in this predicament. In part, it is overreliance on the property tax and voter resistance to tax increases. Some of this resistance stems from the antisocial view that "my kids have finished school; why should I pay for somebody else's?" The federal government is shirking its responsibility to pay for the improvements it mandates in education, Medicaid, and homeland security. But public policy cannot cure selfishness.

States - counties and cities, too - are consequently scrounging to save pennies so that they can save dollars. Parks are closing; roads, bridges, and public buildings are not being maintained and repaired. In Oklahoma, teachers have driven school buses and mopped floors. Meanwhile, President Bush is struggling with Congress to get a larger federal tax cut.

Potentially more important than any of these bad things is one good thing: So far, 89 cities scattered across the country have adopted resolutions objecting to the chauvinistically named USA Patriot Act. This breezed through Congress in the emotional aftermath of Sept. 11 without real debate. In short, it facilitates government spying on citizens and holding aliens incommunicado indefinitely without charges or counsel.

The more objectionable provisions carried an expiration date of 2005. Now a group of Republican Senators in cahoots with the White House is plotting to make it permanent. Opponents need to assert themselves.

Mr. Bush is not a historically minded president, but it would do him, and perhaps the country, good if he took to heart the wisdom of one of his lesser-known predecessors, John Quincy Adams (1824-29). The US, said Adams, "might become the dictatress of the world [but] she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit."

The worst danger we face in the war on terror is not weapons of mass destruction; it is that in winning the war, we lose the way of life we are trying to defend.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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