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Outside View: How could we be so stupid?

By HARLAN ULLMAN, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Jan. 15, 2014 at 12:03 AM
WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- Today is a bad day for many with quarterly income tax estimates due to the U.S. government but a really bad day occurred five days short of 94 years ago.

On Jan. 20, 1920, the 18th Amendment went into force. For those of you who haven't memorized the U.S. Constitution and its amendments, this one was called prohibition.

It read in part: "After one year from the ratification of this Article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited."

The reasons why this amendment proved so catastrophic had little to do with the temperance movement that demonized alcohol as the devil's brew even though that movement was the driving force behind prohibition.

First and most importantly, the 18th Amendment popularized holding the law in contempt. That, in turn, encouraged a majority of Americans happily and voluntarily to become lawbreakers, delegitimizing government and its credibility.

Second, the 18th Amendment ludicrously turned a narrow, minority, misplaced sense of morality and social prejudice into the law of the land-based.

Third, the 18th Amendment turned organized crime into big business that continues today and has expanded far afield from bootlegging and "speakeasies" where illegal booze was free flowing and accessible to most to drugs, betting and cybercrime.

Ironically, the "Roaring Twenties" ignored prohibition and existed in a different universe in which law breaking was socially acceptable if not a necessity to stay with the in crowd.

Once demeaning and disdaining the law set in, reversing societal values and actions was very difficult even when prohibition was repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment.

Unfortunately, no equivalent of the 21st Amendment exists today to reverse the folly of government and its failure to govern, charitably called dysfunctional rather than the more accurate description of badly broken.

The United States is the strongest and wealthiest nation in the world. Yet, this failure of the federal government to govern continues. The United States has lost or is in the process of losing two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The 113th Congress was one of the least productive in history, a reality some would argue was its only saving grace.

Thanks to gridlock, another euphemism for broken government, the federal budget is a mess.

On the current trajectory, entitlements in transfer payments, Social Security and healthcare will bust the bank. Even though annual budget deficits will slightly shrink for the short term, eventually they will climb to more than $500 billion a year. With a federal debt of $17 trillion, when annual interest rates rise, which they will to 5 percent or more, interest payments will become the largest slice of the budget.

Already, the 2014 and 2016 elections are taking shape. One thing is almost certain. If the past 22 years of history count, in 2016 the next president will lack the experience and qualifications for the job when he or she takes the oath of office. Some presidents have learning curves. George W. Bush did. But costs of his tuition and the strategic debacles he produced were unaffordable. The jury is still out on Barack Obama.

Comparing failing government today with prohibition of 94 years ago may be a stretch because the current issues go far beyond banning any single substance. However, the consequences in terms of destroying the legitimacy and credibility of government will be as great. And as far as creating organized crime, the larger crime today rests at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and the failure of both parties to govern.

There may be an analogy with the 22nd Amendment that limits a president to two elected terms (or a maximum of 10 years if that individual succeeds an incumbent mid-term). Amend the 22nd Amendment to allow a president to serve three elected terms.

That way, even though a president may enter office without the essential experience and qualifications, once having gained that background, mandating that a replacement must automatically take over after two terms doesn't make much sense. And if the president isn't re-elected, then the people have made their judgment.

Prohibition was a horrible mistake for many reasons no matter the damage done by alcohol and alcoholism. Electing presidents with thin resumes and thinner qualifications is a much worse one.

Perhaps no equivalent of the 21st Amendment exists today to rectify the limitations of the 22nd Amendment or to serve as an antidote in fixing broken government. And perhaps the failure of government is independent of the qualifications of any president. Still, that is no reason not to consider a third term.

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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.)

© 2014 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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