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Outside View: Ten years later -- Are Americans better or worse off?

By HARLAN ULLMAN, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Sept. 14, 2011 at 6:47 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 14 (UPI) -- The anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks brings with it the self-evident question of whether the United States and Americans are safer or more secure in 2011 given all the blood and treasure expended since the Twin Towers collapsed.

Unfortunately, politics and human nature make finding an objective answer to that question difficult. Republicans defend the George W. Bush administration for its actions against the terrorists. Democrats rally around Barack Obama for his efforts. Meanwhile, both sides attack each other for their failures, of which there were too many.

Yet, the most crucial is the still unasked question. In 1980, Ronald Reagan challenged Jimmy Carter for the presidency by asking the American people if they were better off than they were eight years earlier. By almost every measure, they said they weren't.

In the shadow of September 11th, that key question is whether Americans are better or worse off today than they were 10 years ago not if we are safer or more secure?

How to measure? Voltaire considered that there were lies, damned lies and statistics. However, statistics can be useful. Consider a few.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. national debt was $6 trillion (in then-year dollars); today $14.7 trillion (in current dollars). But no matter what year dollars you use, the debt has approximately doubled with profound political consequences at time of paralyzed government, sadly underscored by Congress' debt ceiling fiasco.

Gross domestic product moved from $11.3 trillion to $13.2 trillion in comparable year dollars; inflation from 2.7 percent to 3.7 percent and short-term interest rates shrunk to virtually zero.

Unemployment bulged from 5.0 percent to 9.1 percent; the poverty level from 11.7 percent to 15 percent; and the Dow Jones industrial average inched from 9,606 to 10,992 the Friday before Sept. 11, 2011.

Approval ratings of politicians are often more volatile than the DJIA. Following September 11th, the popularity of Bush and the Congress rocketed skyward. Today, Obama is fighting to stay in the 40s and Congress barely in double figures.

More significantly, with the exception of rumors and warnings of potential terrorist attacks and with the troop draw downs in Iraq and Afghanistan under way and the Libyan operation in the hands largely of Libyans supported by our NATO European allies, America's focus is riveted at home where the economy has eclipsed national security in dominating popular attention.

Cities and states have been forced to draconian cutbacks in teachers, emergency services personnel and public expenditures from California on the West Coast to New Jersey a continent away. State and local pension funds face sharp reductions. Infrastructure and other essential public services are in disrepair. And to the degree it can be measured, the public mood is fearful about the future as a majority of Americans no longer believe life will be better for their children than it was for them.

Worse, the European banking crisis will or has spread here. China faces a real estate bubble in the coming years as well as growing inflation that will likely stifle demand for foreign goods and will further infect the global economy. And within the United States, millions of homeowners are trying to unload residences at prices far below current mortgages.

Hence, by most accounts, most Americans aren't better off economically, financially or psychologically than they were 10 years ago. Expectations reflect pessimism not hope. How does this answer relate to the September 11th anniversary question of whether America is safer or more secure in 2011 than a decade ago? The link forms a political contradiction of Gordian proportions.

On one hand, any American government, whether Republican or Democratic, must defend the nation. Another September 11th-like attack could be politically fatal for the party in power. On the other, we simply cannot afford to spend the money for that security as we have in the past. And, since we won't choose to engage our minds to compensate for our empty pocketbooks to provide that security at far lower cost, all administrations are vulnerable.

Concurrently, government has run out of traditional tools to deal with the economic and financial crises at home and abroad. Truly bold, courageous and innovative thinking is essential such as creation of a public-private infrastructure bank underwritten by a large line of credit -- $1 trillion-2 trillion that can be drawn at historically low interest rates -- and that will be both job- and revenue-producing through construction employment and user charges for those facilities.

Absent catastrophe, boldness and creativity are incompatible with the seemingly permanent political deadlock. The president had an opportunity for both in last Thursday's speech to Congress. Unfortunately, he passed.

Americans must ask themselves and their leaders if they are better off today than a decade ago. Then they must force those leaders to act when that answer becomes unmistakable.

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(Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business, and is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2011 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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