The National Security Agency is not going to uncover America’s next great threat to national security by rifling through all our emails and phone calls. Individual account level access in near real time has seemingly been available on demand since at least 2007 and yet our greatest threat is still hiding in plain sight.
The NSA’s legal, limited and long-standing program of domestic and international intercepts should come as a surprise to no one. What is surprising is how little real solutions we have directed at what former Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen has repeatedly characterized as our actual greatest threat: the deficits and how to pay for an aging population. Perhaps it’s the bond math or the actuarial accounting but few problems have created more acrimony in Washington and less engagement on Main Street that the dreaded topic of entitlement reform. Here is how we fix both.
It is unquestionable: America is experiencing a crisis of leadership. Broad suspicion of our elected official’s ability to lead, make difficult choices, and work across the aisle to put America back to work, creates widespread frustration and disillusionment. Those feelings are expressed via the short-term solutions prescribed by the Budget Control Act, the sequestration, the furloughs, and the revolving door of debt ceiling debates.
But how did we get here?
This short-termism is a symptom of a larger, intractable problem. We’ve placed entitlement reform at the doorstep of a Congress focused on the next election cycle—all while demanding they exhibit “leadership” by committing political suicide.
America has faced tough choices that unequally impact certain segments of our citizens—some very deeply-- and we did this by partially insulating the decision from pure politics to one based on what is best for the country in the long term. Our political process post Citizens United simply does not allow us to solve 20-year problems when we vote on a 4-year and 6-year election cycle.
What is the solution?
We need to model the increasingly urgent demands of entitlement reform after the Department of Defense’s base closing process. Asking a legislator to vote for a base closing in their district is no less consequential than asking a red state legislator to support revenue increases or a blue state representative to enact entitlement cuts--the result of that vote would surely be the same. A Kamikaze Congress serves no one.
The base closing process has encountered difficulty because it is a national problem with multiple local solutions, impacting families deeply and somewhat arbitrarily. Now, we have a national problem that will affect all segments of our population, but at different times.
The first step is to establish an independent commission comprised of members appointed by the President and with the consent of the Senate. The charge of this commission will be to formulate its recommendations for entitlement reform, and entitlement reform only, including the possibility changing the eligibility age, limiting benefits, and expansion of exclusions. Everything is on the table. The Commission will then send a set of recommendations that are required if we have no new revenues. The commission will also send a subset of recommendations that include various modifications, consistent with specific levels of new revenue without proposing the source.
It is then up to Congress to decide where those new sources of revenues, if any, come from with the knowledge of what the consequences of no new revenues plan will be. A deadline needs to be set for a revenue mandate from Congress. If no new revenue option is passed, the President signs the commission’s original recommendations into law. While this is an absolutely brutal choice for the President, it’s one that is necessary for our national security.
The soft advantages of reserve currency status, political stability and peaceful transfer of power have conferred significant economic benefits to the United States for decades but the possibility of losing these advantages rise with Congress’s inability to govern and the growing awareness that the discretionary spending side of the equation is nowhere near our greatest threat.
American is still where the world comes to innovate but a country that is 25th in math and science education, last in infant mortality in the industrialized world, and near the bottom in income equality does not deserve the advantages we currently enjoy. If DC doesn’t work, we don’t either.
Removing the entitlement coronary blockage will allow Congress the breathing room to fix our most pressing domestic problems all while preserving our capacity to pay for the rapidly changing nature of warfare abroad. Nothing could be more important.
Putting America back to work will require improving our schools, a renewed commitment to improving our infrastructure, and fixing our hospitals.
This isn’t ideology, its arithmetic.
Certainty is the cheapest form of stimulus and if we can remove entitlements from the table, take the bullets out of the chamber, and return the focus to what matters most, we might just have a chance to fix our greatest national security threat before the bond market fixes it for us.
Cooper is the former head of interest rate derivatives trading at an investment bank in New York and has spent much of the last year in Afghanistan working on ways to create the structures and new financial instruments needed to advance development. He is a Truman National Security Fellow and a Term Member at the Council on Foreign Relations.