Commentary: Fame or shame?

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large  |  June 14, 2012 at 5:30 AM
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WASHINGTON, June 14 (UPI) -- The equivalent of Hollywood's Walk of Fame in the nation's capital is Massachusetts Avenue, the diplomatic walk of fame. Major embassy residences line both sides of what is now known as the Walk of Shame.

Pot holes, steel plates over excavations and a jumble of construction detritus litter the once-proud avenue used by prominent diplomatic visitors from all over the world. Many Third World capitals keep their main thoroughfares in better shape. But then everything in Washington seems to be falling apart.

The chairman of the District of Columbia Council -- Kwame Brown -- recently pleaded guilty to bank fraud and resigned, the latest in a long line of con artists who keep proving that the nation's capital is unworthy of home rule. His boat is named "Bullet Proof."

Brown's resignation followed the resignation of another council member who also confessed to embezzling $350,000 in public funds earmarked for youth sports and arts.

There is also a federal investigation of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray's campaign spending that already triggered confessions by two campaign aides.

Scandal is almost synonymous with home rule government in Washington. One-time Mayor Marion Barry resigned after being caught smoking crack. But six months in prison and other legal problems didn't prevent him from winning a fourth term and retaining a D.C. Council seat.

Legislators in dozens of U.S. states have made sure they would receive "outlandish retirement perks irrespective of length of service."

The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Steven Malanga, who says huge retirement perks are protected by public employee unions and are piling up to the tune of $3 trillion in "unfunded promises to state and local workers."

Median U.S. family income, adjusted for inflation, fell to $45,900 in 2010 from $49,600 in 2007.

The U.S. public debt has almost doubled since 2008 -- $9 trillion to $16 trillion in 4 years.

The U.S. government owes $30 trillion in liabilities (e.g., unfunded Social Security and Medicare benefits) -- or twice the amount conceded by the Treasury's official report, says a new study by the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Across the Atlantic, the European Union narrowly escaped collapse with an emergency $125 billion bailout for Spain's banking system. Greece will be hanging by a thread following national elections Sunday.

Commentators on both sides of the Atlantic are drawing parallels between Europe in the 1930s and Europe today -- soaring youth unemployment (up to 40 percent in Spain versus a national average of 24.5 percent) with corresponding political support for left- and right-wing extremist parties.

On Tuesday, the venerable, authoritative BBC aired "The Great Euro Crash." The network's Business Editor Robert Peston talks to historians, economists and politicians and then makes clear that "some countries lied about their financial position in the lead up to unification."

The cost of saving the euro may be high, the program concludes, "but the alternative could be a return to the mayhem of the 1930s."

Almost all commentators turn to Germany to rescue the European enterprise before it implodes. How could Germany save the slowly sinking enterprise? By throwing its weight behind a European fiscal and banking union.

But even those who need bailing out urgently are reluctant to relegate their countries to the equivalent of a canton in the confederal makeup of Switzerland -- or of a U.S. state in the United States.

In America, the 13 British colonies broke away from Great Britain in 1776 but there was no federal U.S. entity till 1789. The dollar became official national currency in 1785.

In Europe, the euro became official currency in 11 countries Jan. 1, 1999, but euro bank notes and coins didn't enter circulation until Jan. 1, 2002, adding six more countries. Ten members of the European Union, including Britain, continue to use national currencies.

A new European treaty with full-fledged economic, fiscal and political union like the one that binds 50 U.S. states, with all the constitutional changes this would entail, is still a bridge too far.

Hence, Europe's current systemic crisis. A common currency without a fiscal union (which at the very least mandates common taxation, pension and other treasury functions) is like a Ship-of-Fools with a frivolous crew without a skipper who practice deceit, stupidity and greed.

In Greece, for example, the government kept public workers satisfied with generous salary and pension benefits. Salaries alone doubled in real terms every 10 years.

Each European country involved in the crisis loaned big money to different sectors of their economy. The average fiscal deficit in the euro area in 2007 zoomed from 0.6 percent to 7 percent. The traffic cops noticed the infractions but were powerless to issue speeding tickets.

In the Middle East, Egypt is gradually falling under the spell of a Muslim Brotherhood government and its Salafist extremist backers who command a majority in the new Parliament.

In Syria, President Bashar Assad's military regime, ostensibly backed by Russia, is engaged in a ruthless civil war that is killing thousands of civilians as it uses helicopter gunships to suppress an uprising, now in its second year.

And in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, just back from a summit in Beijing, orders the United States to cease and desist bombing civilian houses used by Taliban guerrillas as they seek shelter from U.S. drones and helicopter gunships.

This now informs Taliban that all they have to do after a hit-and-run attack against NATO or Afghan forces is retreat to the nearest civilian dwelling.

The 2014 Afghan exit for U.S and allied forces won't be soon enough. The additional 10 years for a protective U.S. umbrella? Pie in the sky.

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