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The mother of all (fiscal) tsunamis

By HARLAN ULLMAN, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   May 23, 2012 at 6:30 AM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, May 23 (UPI) -- Imagine you are aboard a palatial huge cruise ship -- longer than three football fields and more than 100,000 tons in displacement. You are in the Atlantic. You receive an urgent text message. A giant tidal wave is headed in your direction and will hit the ship in about 2 hours. A satellite photo of the wave is attached to the warning.

You race to the bridge to see the captain. You are politely told that you shouldn't worry. Everything is under control. An hour and a half later, the wave hits creating an even greater Titanic-like catastrophe. This time, there are no survivors.

The United States is currently on course to collide with an unprecedented fiscal tsunami that will strike the end of this year. We all know the components of this giant wave: the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts; sequestration; debt ceiling relief; payroll tax increases; "doc-fixes' to healthcare; alternative minimum tax issues; and on and on. We all know that the chances that the current Congress, even during the "lame duck" session after the elections, of resolving all or any of these potential tidal wave issues are about zero.

Yet, as aboard the Titanic a century ago, the band plays on!

Less obvious is even more bad news. No matter who wins the presidency, new teams will have to be appointed. The Obama administration will lose the secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury and many of their key staff. Should Mitt Romney win, he will be starting from scratch. Judging from past examples, it will take until the summer for most key officials to be confirmed. And that assumes that the new Congress, regardless of whomever controls each House, can be organized as quickly.

The budget for 2013 that begins Oct. 1 almost certainly will be approved as a "continuing resolution." Spending will be frozen at prior levels until Congress can pass a new budget. The resulting consequences are profound with across-the-board cuts from the Department of Agriculture to State. Defense will be the hardest hit given the size of its budget. "New starts" will be deferred. And worse, no matter how sequestration is handled, reprogramming the budget will be made close to impossible by the absence of key staff members in the executive and Congress to work out the details of dealing with these realities.

For those who believe government is broken, the coming months will reveal in graphic detail how bad this condition is. The nation will suffer. Yet, no one is listening and surely no one is acting.

The failure to listen and to act is manifested in the respective campaigns. What has U.S. President Barack Obama or presumptive Republican nominee Romney said about the forthcoming fiscal apocalypse? The answer is nothing. A good question is: Why has the silence been so deafening?

This column has consistently argued about the gravest and greatest threat to the nation and to humanity at large. That threat isn't economic chaos. It isn't Islamic radicalism or the threat of nuclear proliferation no matter how serious. Nor is climate change however dangerous the major challenge. From Afghanistan to Zaire, the major danger to international well-being is bad, corrupt or an absence of good governance.

From the economic and fiscal crises in Europe, specifically Greece, Italy, Portugal, Ireland and Spain but elsewhere as well, the root cause isn't Keynesian. Economic austerity versus fiscal stimulus is a misplaced representation of the ills that threaten us. The crisis is simply a failure to govern. China is experiencing that phenomenon with its leadership transition. Few states are free and clear of this burden that threatens national well-being possibly more directly than nuclear weapons posed the prospect of annihilation during the Cold War.

Polls in the United States and other countries reinforce this message. Governments are broken and no longer work. So what is the alternative? A century ago, the rise of the "isms," fascism, socialism and communism were clear choices. None survived and as we witnessed in the destruction of the fascist-Hitlerian dream that led to World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union, other "isms" failed to replace either democracy or local authoritarian rule in regions such as the Middle East and South Asia with monarchs; established military authoritarianism; or "royal" families whether by birth or political advantage who have remained in charge.

The 2012 election in the United States should and must underscore the need to re-establish competent government and governance. Sadly, Obama and Romney have been silent on this overridingly crucial matter. We need to know how they are prepared to deal with broken government.

That broken government is the equivalent of a giant tsunami about to envelop and swamp or sink the nation. But who is listening? And who cares?

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(Harlan Ullman is chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business, and 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.)

© 2012 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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