The Greatest Threat

Today was all about foreign policy. We heard from 3-star General William Odom (Ret.), who was the head of the National Security Agency under Reagan and is now a professor at Yale. His unexpected but reasonable assertion was that the Greatest Threat to the United States is not terrorism, or China, or a nuclear North Korea or Iran, but incompetent American leadership. America, he says, has enjoyed a unique sort of empire since World War II, largely by virtue of the troops left in Europe and Northeast Asia since that time, creating security which allowed Japan, Germany, and South Korea to develop into prosperous, friendly states. That troop presence has been reduced under Bush, and if it is further reduced or eliminated, Odom fears disaster would ensue. And of course, Bush is doing many other things to destabilize “America’s Inadvertent Empire.”

Among Odom’s other refreshing views: the energy crisis should be solved by putting a $2/gallon tax on gasoline and using the proceeds to fund a Manhattan-project-style shift in the energy system, including a network of bullet trains to displace passenger air travel and cargo trucking, and development of improved nuclear power plants.

In other news, Moisés Náim, Editor-in-Chief of Foreign Policy and former director of the World Bank made the provocative claim that the Greatest Threat is not terrorism but illicit trade (smuggling, trafficking, counterfeiting). He explained that these activities are ubiquitous, sophisticated, highly organized, rapidly growing, and have never been successfully contained by any government. It’s all in his new book. By the end of his talk, I don’t know if I was convinced illicit trade is the the most important thing, but I went from not caring about the subject to being intrigued. I put the book on my potential reading list.

Náim also gives us today’s quote, which relates to yesterday’s post. He was explaining that the extensive illegal trade networks can exist because governments, or at least parts of governments, are complicit:

“All regulated businesses spend a portion of their revenue influencing their regulators. In some countries, it’s legal, it’s called lobbying. In other countries, it’s illegal, it’s called corruption.”

Said with black-and-white assurance, as only an economist can pull off.

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