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  • Victor C. Bolles

Urgent Priorities 2024

Each year I publish a commentary about the urgent priorities facing the United States of America. And each year I threaten to merely republish the previous year’s commentary because none of those priorities have been addressed. But this year, 2024, may be different. First of all, it is an election year, and not just any election year, but one that may be pivotal to the future of America. I look at the year 2024 with an admixture of optimism and dread. Optimism because more and more people appear cognizant of the problems we face and are demanding new solutions to overcome those problems. But with a sense of dread because the country seems to be locked into an entrenched political system that is driving us ever onward in the wrong direction.


By many accounts, 2023 was not a bad year, at least here in America. Inflation has moderated although still above the Fed’s goal of 2%. And Fed President Jerome Powell has indicated that the Fed might even reduce interest rates in 2024, which has driven the stock market to almost record highs. GDP for 2023 is expected by the Philadelphia Fed to be around 2.4%, not great but much better than the anticipated recession that never arrived. President Biden is upset that he is not getting credit for this relatively good news but that might be because there is some deeper discontent rampant in the country. Gallup reports that economic confidence is almost as low as it was during the Great Recession. About 70% of the population believes the country is heading in the wrong direction.


Internationally, the world seems to be falling apart. A land war in Ukraine. A terror war in Gaza. Iran on the cusp of becoming a nuclear power while sponsoring terror attacks across the Middle East. North Korea building a new nuclear plant to speed up its production of plutonium. Chinese President Xi Jinping rattling his saber at Taiwan in speech after speech. President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan has unnerved our staunchest allies while emboldening dictators around the globe. And now Republicans are threatening to justify Vladimir Putin’s belief that Americans cannot be trusted to endure the hardship of war, even when someone else is fighting it. The world is a less safe place and the Republicans and the Democrats, and especially their leaders Biden and Trump, bear responsibility for this mess.


As I said in my previous discussion of urgent priorities, our political leaders are so focused on promoting their party’s agenda and their own reelection that they have no idea of which direction the country is going, and worse (since they are supposed to be our leaders) where it should be going. We, as a people, are faced with a plethora of urgent priorities and we need to make sure our political leaders focus on those priorities. As I see it, the priorities fall into two broad categories: 1) national priorities, and 2) political priorities.


Urgent National Priorities in 2024

There are priorities that affect all Americans, rich and poor, black and white, young and old, whatever. We live in a complex and dangerous world. And in 2023 the world became complexier and dangerouser. And it is all America’s fault. But not because America and its Western values are inherently evil as some on the left proclaim, but because Americans appear to be weary of the burdens of global leadership. They wish to put those burdens aside and focus on our domestic problems, of which there are many. But the complex and dangerous world outside our borders will not go away. Ignoring those threats will only make things worse.


National Defense in the Midst of War

During the Cold War the armed forces of the United States had to be ready to fight wars in two theaters, just as we had been able to do during World War Two in Europe and the Pacific. While stuck doing most of the fighting in Korea and Vietnam we still had to have an additional military capacity to forestall the Soviet Union’s designs on Western Europe. But after the fall of the Soviet Union we felt comfortable in reducing our military forces to a size that could fight in only one theater but with a capability to rebuild our forces if a new threat arose thinking that Europe was now secure.


Over time even that capability was eroded. Terrorists were never an existential threat to the United States. They could never defeat us on the battlefield. But they didn’t need to defeat us militarily. All they had to do was to defeat our will to fight. And over twenty plus years since 9/11 our will to fight in the Middle East has dissipated. In twenty years of war in Afghanistan the US lost less than 2000 soldiers killed in action (in the last 18 months in that country the only combat deaths were the thirteen US soldiers killed during President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal). Compare that to the thirty thousand lives lost in less than 2 months during the Battle of the Bulge. That is the difference between fighting an existential war and fighting a non-existential war. The will to fight non-existential wars may have dissipated. But the US is confronted by existential threats and it must have a military capable of fighting an existential war if one arises.


The US military is facing a difficult time. Military stockpiles have been depleted by the aid given to Ukraine in its fight against Russia and House Republicans are holding funding to replenish stocks hostage to the other priorities of the Freedom Caucus. The US Naval Institute reports that the Navy has 299 combat ready vessels but that is more than 80 vessels short of its Congressionally mandated fleet of 381 ships. Meanwhile the Pentagon reports that the Chinese naval fleet will have 400 ships by 2025. The Air Force Times reports that only seven out of ten US  aircraft are mission-ready. And to top it off, the Defense Department's acting undersecretary for personnel and readiness testified before Congress that the armed forces missed their already lowered recruiting goals by 41,000 personnel.


It will take a long time to rebuild our armed forces. But we must do more than increase defense spending. We need to refocus the entire country on the necessity of being prepared to defend ourselves. Our ancestors had vast oceans to protect us from great power aggression. That is no longer the case. Even pipsqueaks like North Korea have the capability to strike devasting blows with nuclear weapons. The entire country wants to end forever wars but does not realize that a retreat from global leadership to reduce the cost in blood and treasure will not bring peace. It will only encourage the authoritarian powers to be more aggressive. Vladimir Putin is already relying on fading US support for Ukraine as a key element in his strategy to conquer his neighbor. China is doing everything in its power to undermine US support for Taiwan.


A lot of this transformation must come from our leadership. From President Obama’s strategy of leadership from behind to President  Trump’s threat to destroy NATO to President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, American leadership is showing the world weakness and vacillation. But American leadership can turn this around. We need to firmly state our values and principles and assure the world that we will back them up. We need to rebuild and expand our alliances in the face of growing danger. We can do it. It just takes the will to do it.


The Economy

The American economy performed surprisingly well in 2023, but opinion polls indicate that citizens are not happy with “Bidenomics.” Why? GDP is expected to grow around 2.4% and inflation has abated, although still running a bit above the Fed’s goal of 2%. Unemployment remains low at 3.7% and the stock market is near record highs. What’s not to like.


There seemed to be a hollowness to the performance of Bidenomics that has been hard to pin down. However, a recent commentary in the Wall Street Journal, The Welfare-Industrial Complex Is Booming, written by Allysia Finley gives a clue. Most of 2.8 million new jobs created  in 2023 were in government, social assistance and healthcare. Jobs driven by President Biden’s expanding social welfare state and paid for by almost three trillion dollars of public debt. This is not economic growth.


The use of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as our main economic metric is problematic. If you build a factory in one year, that activity adds to GDP. But if you tear down the factory the next year that activity will also contribute to GDP, even though there has been no increase in productive capacity resulting from the two actions. A large percentage of China’s phenomenal economic growth over the last three decades can be attributed to newly constructed cities that have block after block of towering apartment buildings that stand vacant and decaying. The US doesn’t have empty apartment buildings but it is investing trillions of dollars in the Green New Deal. But investments in charging stations, solar panel farms and windmill farms only replace existing gas stations and power plants made obsolete by government edict. Most of this enormous investment does nothing to increase our capacity to produce energy, merely replacing already operating infrastructure with different infrastructure.


We need to retain our fossil based infrastructure while also building out the structure of renewable energy. We need to massively invest in nuclear power (just as China is doing) because clean energy requires new technology that has yet to be developed. Nuclear power can fill the gap until new technology is developed because we cannot allow our economy to be held hostage to environmental policy.


The Environment

If this effort could have a significant impact on global carbon emissions it might be worth it. But it won’t. US emissions of CO2 are down from 1990 as are many European countries. But China’s emissions of CO2 are up over 500% since 1990 making China the biggest polluter in the world, emitting about three times as much CO2 of the US. India’s carbon emissions have increased over 400 percent and will soon surpass US emissions. Many in the developing world are growing even faster and they will not slack their efforts in the foreseeable future. So even if the US and Europe were carbon zero tomorrow the growth of carbon emissions would continue.


We need to learn how to mitigate the impact of climate change. Mitigation, as Stephen Koonin pointed out in his book, Unsettled, can preserve our civilization at much lower cost than the Green New Deal while also not increasing our vulnerability to noncompliant countries like China.


Educating Future Citizens

To confront the existential challenges that face us, we need an education system that can create the most highly educated and prepared citizenry in the world. It is not impossible. We have done it before. However, this time we have some powerful competition.


If boosting the self-esteem of students, teaching them critical race theory, having DEI administrators trying to wipe out their white privilege or allowing transexual children to use the bathroom of their choice helped to prepare our children for a challenging future that demands a well-educated, hard-working, patriotic work force, then such programs would be worthwhile. But the fact is they don’t. The fact is that they create poorly educated children only a few of whom can read at grade level, cannot explain answers to math questions, who require safe spaces to protect them from microaggressions, who cannot take SAT exams and graduate capable only of receiving welfare payments and student loan forgiveness.


We need to make meritocracy the bedrock of our educational system. Children are children and children need to play and have fun. But children also have responsibilities, they have a duty to prepare themselves for adulthood, they have a duty to become productive members of society, and they have a duty to their parents as they age. In a meritocratic education system, not all children will be able to perform at the top level. But all children must strive to do the best that they can. And parents have responsibilities to their children. Foremost, to be there. Both parents! Children are more than an unfortunate mishap resulting from some urgent romantic encounter that couldn’t wait for birth control.


Critics on the left will moan that meritocracy would worsen inequality. But equality of outcomes in education would mean driving all children down to the lowest common denominator (which you would understand unless you had been taught the new “equitable” math). But meritocracy will provide equality of opportunity. In fact, you cannot have equality of opportunity without meritocracy. Otherwise you deny talented children the opportunity to be all that they can be and condemn them to a future of boredom and ennui.


The success of inner city charter schools such as KIPP and Success Academy have proven that much of the supposed racial education gap is actually a cultural gap. Parents who care about their children’s education are more highly motivated to get them into meritocratic charter schools. These parents will also support their children’s study habits and make sure they do their homework. Studies have shown that kids from two-parent families are more than a full grade ahead of kids from single parent families. These are cultural differences that progressives label as white culture but it is actually a culture of success.


The cultural shift away from America’s traditional middle class values has yielded poor results that will dog us for decades into the future. At least now people are becoming aware of the damage done by leftist ideological control of education. Some states are now banning DEI departments and critical race theory from education institutions. But we need to do this on a national scale to avoid the existential threat posed by these postmodernist theories.


These are the great national priorities that need to be addressed. You may be able to think of other priorities that are relevant to all Americans. But these great national priorities have been pushed aside by our so-called leaders who focus on narrow political priorities.


We are also faced with other priorities. But these are political priorities, established by people with an agenda. None of these priorities address the existential threats to the United States or its people. Some may be popular, but in today’s hyper-partisan environment, there is little likelihood of reaching a consensus or even a compromise on any of these issues. These issues will consume much of the political dialogue in the months leading up to the 2024 presidential election. Some of these political priorities are actually opposed to achieving our urgent national priorities. None of these issues should be allowed to detract from the importance of addressing the urgent national issues.


Urgent Political Priorities in 2024


Bipartisan Government

Much of the legislative agenda was halted by bitter partisan infighting that blocked even the most routine legislative activity making the 118th Congress the least productive since the Civil War. And that was just among the Republicans. It would be nice to write about legislators with different ideas cooperating together for the good of the nation. But I can’t because there isn’t any. The only significant bipartisan bill, an emergency continuing resolution to keep the government from shutting down, resulted in the removal of Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House and continued infighting among the Republicans.


With razor thin majorities in both chambers, it only takes a few extremists to block legislation. Party discipline is better in the Democratic Party but that requires acquiescence to the powerful Progressive Caucus in the House and adherence to Chuck Schumer’s agenda in the Senate. The fractious Republican Party, torn between loyalty to former President Trump and traditional Republican values, has shown a complete inability to govern in the interests of the American people. Almost 40 Democrats and Republicans have announced that they are leaving, some for other office but many appear to be just sick of it all.


Republican Rot

Former President Trump’s grip on the Republican Party defies reason. His popularity among Republicans also defies reason. I guess he was right when he said he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and nobody would care. His bragging about assaulting women was blown off. His association with sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein is shrugged off. Every indictment only increases his poll numbers.


His endorsements of politicians based on loyalty rather than competence caused the loss of the Senate and almost cost Republicans control of the House in the 2022 elections. He is credited for creating great economic performance especially by himself but, in truth, his results were only mediocre. Much of the growth during his tenure was generated by deficit spending which increased from 2.4% of GDP in 2015 to 4.6% in 2019 before the pandemic. Public debt increased by over $4 trillion also before the pandemic.


If elected he vows to select loyalists for his administration and to fire a lot of bureaucrats. I am not a fan of bureaucrats but I doubt that Trump loyalists would be any better. He vows to purge RINOs from the Republican Party by which he means anybody with a conscience and a mind of their own. He refuses to debate other Republican candidates in the presidential race which is probably smart politics but an insult to the American people who deserve to see him on the debate stage. Other candidates for the presidency try to shrug off Trumpian personal insults while treading lightly on Mr. Trump himself (except for Chris Christie who has trouble treading lightly).


Democratic Dementia

In his 2020 campaign, President Biden was able to convince voters that he was a centrist that would unite the country but his administration is contorting the country toward the far left. Someone needs to tell him you cannot unite country by issuing executive orders. I can’t tell if he deliberately lied to the American people or is being manipulated by handlers taking advantage of his declining mental state. But it doesn’t matter because the result is the same – a lurch toward far left policies that are based on Marxist ideology and not the Western Enlightenment philosophy on which America was founded.


President Biden has done well in supporting Ukraine although far-right Republicans seem ready to abandon those brave people, and he has been steadfast in his support of Israel although he is not on good terms with Israeli PM Netanyahu. But the progressive left wing disavowed Israel and fervently supports the Palestinians and Hamas, causing many American Jews that have long supported the Democratic Party to rethink their party affiliation.


The Mess on the Border

President Biden blames the mess on our southern border on Congress and more specifically on the Republicans in Congress (conveniently forgetting the lack of action when Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress). But this is bullshit and a copout. As I learned in civics class (which some of you ancianos out there may remember), “the president proposes and the Congress disposes.” President Biden has proposed nothing.


To his credit, President Trump proposed an immigration reform bill to Congress when he presented the RAISE Act (The Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act) in 2017. Democrats decried the proposal as racist and un-American despite the fact that many of the provisions in the proposed legislation were based on the 1995 recommendation of the Commission on Immigration Reform commissioned by President Bill Clinton and chaired by noted liberal, Barbara Jordan.


President Biden could easily rejigger Ms. Jordan’s recommendation to fit the current situation but the inclusion of any of those provisions (no matter how modified for the current situation) would cause howls of protest from the far-left wing of the Democratic party. The truth of the matter is that neither party wants to resolve the problem on the border. It is too useful as a crisis to motivate their respective bases. They would rather sling mud than solve a problem. So once again the American people are the victims of our rancorous divisive politics (not to mention the travails of the poor people trying to cross into the US).


Perhaps some candidate for president will come up with a reasonable proposal but I doubt it. The bases that vote in primaries are at two extremes on this issue (draconian closures of the border versus open borders). Any candidate on either side proposing a reasonable approach to this problem will go down in flames.


The Culture Wars

If you watch Fox News you will see a lot of segments talking about the culture war. And if you watch MSNBC you will also hear lot about the culture war. It won’t take you long to realize that the talking heads are talking about two different wars and two different cultures. And both of these wars seek to overturn American values and principles.


Each side proclaims that the other side is a threat to American democracy. And, of course, they are right. Each side is trying to undermine the American democracy that has lasted two hundred and forty years. The progressive left, with one foot in academia and the other on the street protesting (black lives mattering, Palestinian genocide, the right to kill fetuses, demanding the surgical removal of perfectly functioning organs or you name it), attempts to cloak their ideology in compassion for marginalized people. In actuality it is a perverse mixture of Marxism’s devotion to eliminating private property and Foucault’s postmodern negativism. It is clearly a counter-Enlightenment rejection of the individualistic focus that is the basis for Western democratic values, the values that built America.


The alt-right MAGA loyalists seem to revel in the rejection of philosophy. All philosophy. Mr. Trump does not read philosophy. I have been told he hardly reads at all. He goes by his gut and I suppose his gut-based opinions vary according to his diet. He demands loyalty and promises retribution to anyone he sees as disloyal. Which is anyone also seeking to be president or opposing any of his gut-based initiatives. Trump’s appeal is not rational, it is visceral. When he speaks he sounds dumb, but anyone who has underestimated him has paid the price. But Trump-style government is not based on Enlightenment philosophy or the Western values and principles on which America was founded. It is based on a concentration of power in government, a government dominated by one man. That is not what our founders had in mind. It sounds more like Louis XVI than George Washington.


I probably should have put the culture wars in the section of existential threats. As Abraham Lincoln said “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” Soon, very soon, we as a people must decide if we have the will to continue to be the leader of a great civilization or whether we will succumb and become an irrelevant footnote in the history books.


So, we need to focus on our national priorities and overlook some of our political differences. When politicians try to sidetrack us into their political priorities, we must constantly remind them of their obligation to address our national priorities. You need to contact your elected representatives and tell them to focus on these great national interests and not their narrow political interests. You can send them a copy of this commentary. I have sent copies to mine. You need to be politically active and to vote in primary elections as well as general elections. You need to make your voice heard.


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