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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Riddle of the Tenth Problem

                  Calvin Coolidge, a president known less for genuine understanding than for rhetorical banalities such as “The business of America is business,” had at least one profound insight.
                  Silent Cal once observed that if you see ten problems coming down the road in your direction, there’s no need to panic. Nine of those problems, he said, will run off the road and into a ditch before they ever get to you.
                   Anyone who takes a long view of things, or who’s just been around and observant for a while, would have to admit there’s considerable wisdom in that point of view. Remember the Missile Gap?
                  Back in 1960, John Kennedy campaigned for president by attacking the Eisenhower administration for allowing the U.S. to fall behind the Soviet Union in missiles, jeopardizing our national security. Years later it turned out there never was such a gap. In fact, it turned out the Soviet Union was rotting from within and was never the threat we feared it to be for decades. Just another problem that ran into the ditch.
                  In both those cases a perceived problem was blown out of proportion because of bad information. Either we didn’t know, or what we knew for a fact turned out not to be so. See also Hussein, Saddam, and Weapons of Mass Destruction, another scary problem that would have run off the road and into a ditch had we but let it.
                  Remember Ross Perot and his flip charts in the 1992 Presidential Election? He had half the voters and nearly all the pundits believing that America was going over the cliff because of our enormous federal deficits. Bill Clinton won the election, got one tax increase through Congress, the economy took off, and six years later, the deficit was no problem.
                  That shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who has a memory or who has studied U.S. history in the most cursory manner. America has had serious debt on a number of occasions and been able to use its resources and can-do character to get out of the hole.
                  None of this should be taken as an argument for complacency and evasion. The prospect of nuclear war never became the ultimate Tenth Problem, because for four decades, under eight presidents (four Republicans and four Democrats), the Cold War was wisely managed through a policy of containment and engagement. The deficit scare before this one was resolved much more quickly than it might have been thanks to one tax increase. And it’s hard to believe that the housing bubble (combined with the witches’ brew of financial instruments that kept it going) would have become a Tenth Problem if there had been even modestly better legislation and regulation.
                  Most of the things that worry us can be kept from reaching the Tenth Problem stage through due diligence, reasonable policy and the occasional shrewd action, coupled with a bit of luck and unforeseen circumstance. The larger problem is that in a political climate where both sides try to gin up public apprehension for political benefit, it’s hard to pinpoint the one thing we should really be afraid of at the moment.
                  So of all the scary things out there now, which is the Tenth Problem? Nukes in Iran or North Korea? Global warming? The federal deficit? China’s Financial growth?  Problems with the public schools? We don’t know, and all we can hope is that some good people will apply their talents toward making all of the above run into the ditch. A little luck wouldn’t hurt, either.