An Open Letter to the Next US President

by: Roger Ehrenberg

Dear Mr. President:

It has been my view for quite some time that the U.S. is in pretty bad shape. From the deteriorating economy to the questionable integrity of our financial institutions, from the faulty regulatory frameworks to the dumbing down of American culture, from our bankrupt policy towards the U.S. dollar to a deepening malaise from Wall Street to Main Street, things are looking quite bleak.

But all is not lost; we are Americans. We are innovative and entrepreneurial. We can be tough (if pushed). We can come together (if compelled). And now is the time for us to be tough and to come together in order to rebuild our country, a country whose promise is far greater than the one I see today.

I think the most important thing you can do as President is to help us feel better about ourselves, and to help the world feel better about us. And I believe these two goals are pretty closely related.

What is hurting us now? Fear of inflation, stagnant economic output and joblessness. Nobody wants a replay of the 1970s. Or the 1930s, for the matter. One area that has gotten little press that threatens the future of our country and its prosperity is our crumbling infrastructure. A recent story in the Economist provided some startling and scary statistics:

In 2005 the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that $1.6 trillion was needed over five years to bring just the existing infrastructure into good repair. This does not account for future needs. By 2020 freight volumes are projected to be 70% greater than in 1998. By 2050 America’s population is expected to reach 420m, 50% more than in 2000. Much of this growth will take place in metropolitan areas, where the infrastructure is already run down.

And the picture just gets worse over time. This is kind of like Social Security, in which our leaders have chosen to defer pain to future generations, without thought of how it might affect our children and grandchildren. The issue with investing in infrastructure is that it is an investment in the future, yet with benefits that can and will be enjoyed today. A massive program to rebuild roads, bridges and subway systems, to upgrade and expand airports, ports and waterways, would provide hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs and drive local economies across the country.

Such a program would have massive ripple effects on the retail sector, putting money in people's pockets that is not driven by home equity loans but real, productive jobs. Further, such a program would lay a solid foundation for future growth, growth that if it were to happen in the absence of these infrastructure investments would put us on track to have conditions akin to a third-world country. These jobs would be a mix of manufacturing and service jobs, supporting our still-significant heavy industries with real work. Needed work.

Now all this investment takes money, and as you know, we are already burdened with a staggering external debt. This debt is particularly unpleasant because of the sharply falling dollar, which makes our creditors less likely to continue extending credit. But you know what - I bet that you could raise the money to do these investments without even batting an eye. Why? Because all of these investments make the U.S. a better - not a worse - credit risk, as it immediately stokes the engines of growth and further lays the foundation for continued healthy growth in the future. Invest today, get a lot more back tomorrow.

But for this to fly, you need to keep your wits about you and keep taxes low, encourage capital investment. resist any protectionist tendencies and to foster good relationships with our trading partners. Any backsliding in this area and the whole thing will backfire on you. You can easily sell this to both Congress and the American people. And selling the bonds to finance such an endeavor won't be much more difficult to our well-heeled, cash flush trading partners. Well, maybe a little more difficult, unless...

We do need to make some cuts to help finance this historic rebuilding initiative, to show our creditors that we can make tough decisions when necessary. What we don't need is to cut spending on education, science and math programs, early-child support and core programs in the arts that help keep us rounded as human beings. We also need a cogent policy on supporting intelligent investment in alternative energy. What we do need is to cut military spending - dramatically. Not because we don't need a strong military, but because we don't need to be and shouldn't attempt to be the moral compass for the entire planet.

The previous administration drove a stake through the heart of our military, leaving an overextended, demoralized, undermanned, disorganized and fractured institution in its wake. Our massive overseas troop deployments and ongoing presence in Iraq is costing us hundreds of billions of dollars a year, dollars much better spent at home supporting the programs I outlined above. Are we really better off because of such policies, especially in a newly multi-lateral world?  I think you'd be well advised to consider a different mission for our military, one that puts it in the role of protector of U.S. interests, narrowly defined.

We can't turn back the clock on China - it has a role to play as a global force and will not be denied. Then you have Russia, India, the Middle Eastern economic powers and others wanting their seat at the table. We need to become a leader of, but also a true part of the global community. This requires a level of humility, poise and perspective we haven't seen in a long, long time. This means sharply scaling back legacy military involvements that have their roots in World War II, and bringing lots of our fine men and women in uniform home.

It also means rebuilding the command structure and morale of our troops, who have spent too much time fighting questionable battles that have left our proud nation poorer, weaker and more isolated than it has in generations. Our nation and our military deserves better.

I believe these policies will play well with the rest of the world, Mr. President. Not because it shows us in a position of weakness, but because it shows that we can take care of business at home, business that is key for the economic and political functioning of the world. We've been off the rails, and our enemies and allies alike have been acutely aware of this. It is time to reverse this perception, because the status quo is simply not sustainable. I do not wish to live through a slow, grinding decline of the U.S. as a superpower, both economically and militarily. You alone are in a position to stop this from happening.

I know this will be hard to pull off, Mr. President. Let's face it; no matter what, you are leaving office with a trillion-dollar deficit and a global stage still in flux. The real question is how you are preparing our nation for the future. You will either be remembered as someone who had an historic opportunity in a rapidly changing world but chose to do nothing with it, or to make the hard decisions, stare fear and uncertainty in the eye and say "I am embracing the future. Not everybody will be happy today but subsequent generations will benefit from my bold actions." I sincerely hope you choose the latter, Mr. President.

Best regards,

A Proud but Concerned American