06/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Wall Street, Nuclear Weapons, MLK Jr., and the Road From Ruin

This week, the stock market flirted with the 11,000 mark and the AP reported that "Unemployment rates fell or remained unchanged in two-thirds of the 372 largest U.S. metro areas in February".

From this news, you'd think America has turned the corner and is on the road to recovery.

Far from it. There are major, structural deficiencies in our system that point in very negative directions. And by "system" I don't just mean economic system. I mean our social system, our culture. And I also mean our physical system, America's transportation, energy, and communications networks.

Think that's a lot of "systems"? You'd be right. And there are more I didn't mention that are also in trouble. But if you want to assess the health of a nation, you can't just look at one part. When you get a check-up, does you doctor look in your eyes and stop there? No, of course not.

How To Know What The Road From Ruin Looks Like

We live in an age that celebrates specialists. But what we fail to realize is that it takes a generalist to see the big picture of what's going on, to see those separate problems as symptoms of an underlying condition, and to know that the only way to get rid of those symptoms is to cure the underlying disease (in this case a disease in society) that is causing them.

So you can see an example of how this works, I'm going to connect this week's breakthrough nuclear weapons agreement - signed by President Obama and President Medvedev April 8th in Prague - with the crisis in America's economic health by way of last month's Corporate Citizenship conference organized by The Economist and the even more recent anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's landmark anti-Vietnam War speech.

By doing so, I hope to give you a sense of what the real road from ruin for America might look like.

A Professional Road Vs. One Built By Amateurs

I went to The Economist's conference already a fan of conference moderator (and Economist USA Business Editor) Matthew Bishop's new book "The Road From Ruin" (co-authored with Michael Green). In my review of this book, I highlighted their call for corporate executives to be licensed the way doctors and lawyers are. By doing this, executives who caused harm to the public would be prevented from practicing their profession in the future. Unethical business executives might be able to harm society once, but not twice.

However, as the conference proceeded, I was impressed by how the speakers ranged from conservative Pete Peterson - who fears the American government is taking on too much debt - to liberal Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream fame), who spoke passionately about how much waste there is in the Pentagon budget.

As I think about Pete Peterson and Ben Cohen now - in the context of the call for business executives to be "professionalized" - I am drawn to the idea of "professionalizing" our government as well.

When you run a business, ideally you should neither take on more debt than you can handle nor buy (or maintain) products or services which you no longer need.

Well, governments shouldn't do this either, right? But - when choosing our "government executives" (aka "political leaders") - how often do we think in terms of whether they truly have the skills to make wise choices regarding America's deficit or spending priorities? How often do we wind up electing amateurs, when professionals are who we really need?

These days - as reported in the "Wow Factor" essay Gail Collins wrote for Saturday's NY Times - we Americans appear to be giving our attention to leaders who are "all wow and no substance."... and who have generated "... a feeling abroad that politicians can only get attention by sounding a little nutty."

I call the media attention people like Sarah Palin get - including from people like Gail Collins - "train wreck reporting," because the media can't help but cover a train wreck when one happens. Unfortunately, if you only cover train wrecks and never report on preventing future train wrecks, then "we the people" are left incapable of preventing those future wrecks (ie. future dysfunctional governments) from happening.

(Yes, it is possible to prevent our government from being dysfunctional... and I don't mean by shutting the government down. I'll write more on how to have a government that works in a future essay.)

If we are going to "professionalize" our government, we are going to need news sources that help us learn what a truly "professional" political leader should know, what kind of character they should have, and whether those who are best known right now are really the best America has to offer. (I mean, is "making stuff up" - as Gail Collins reports Cong. Michelle Bachmann does - really a quality we want in our political leaders?) Oh, and so you don't think either I or Gail Collins is picking on female leaders, Ms. Collins wrote about some really dumb male leaders in her "A Confederacy of Dunces" column earlier in the week.

So, a news media that gives us news we can really use - rather than just the "train wreck" story of the day - is part of getting America on a professionally built road from ruin.

How to get the news coverage we need? That's a sort of "chicken and the egg" situation. I've spoken to a number of media people, and they always tell me that they give people the news they want. And I tend to believe them, because we who consume the news are as addicted to "train wreck" journalism as the journalists are.

We need to start demanding coverage of other types of leaders. I plan on doing this myself, by sending this essay to my media contacts. I invite you to forward it to your friends and media contacts as well.

The Leaders Who The Press Should Be Covering

Let me focus your attention on Ben Cohen's presentation at The Economist's Corporate Citizenship conference. This is what I am now calling "professional political leadership," and it is what I believe the news media should be covering.

If it isn't there when you read this, I'm told Ben's presentation will be on the video page of The Economist conference's web site soon.

Until then, here he is making pretty much the same presentation by video...

Ben Cohen on the Pentagon Budget (8 min video)

And here's how Ben demonstrated how many more nukes we have than we need (which isn't in the above video)...

Ben Cohen on how many nuclear weapons we have (2 min video)

The reason I am calling Ben Cohen an example of "professional political leadership" is that - like the best business professionals - he is dealing with the obsolete nature of a particular strategy and the financial opportunity (the better way of spending the funds currently allocated to obsolete activities) available.

Assuming you've watched the longer of the two videos, you've seen Ben spell out how many problems - problems that cannot be solved without additional funds, like rebuilding school buildings around the country, some of which are 100 years old - could be solved with the money saved by reducing our nuclear stockpiles.

I'm sure some of you are thinking to yourselves "Well, isn't that going to happen now that Presidents Obama and Medvedev have signed the nuclear weapons reduction treaty?"

My answer: I don't see any evidence that it will... at least not yet. (If anyone has information that President Obama has spoken of allocating money saved by reducing our nuclear weapons stockpile to problem-solving here at home, please let me know.)

Here's what I mean:

The NY Times interviewed President Obama before he flew to Prague to sign the treaty, and there is no mention of the budgetary benefits of reducing nuclear weapons in the report of that interview.

But going beyond that interview, the Defense Department's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) (available for download here) explictly speaks of spending more money not just maintaining but planning to upgrade America's nuclear Triad.

American's nuclear Triad is the ground-air-sea multiple missile basing strategy devised during the Cold War to prevent the destruction of our nuclear arsenal - and with that destruction our ability to respond - in the event of a surprise nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. The thinking back then was that if the USSR sent thousands of missiles our way, they would still fail to wipe out at least one of the methods we had for launching an attack back on them. (Our nuclear submarines were considered the most likely to survive.)

I have included extensive excerpts from the Nuclear Posture Review at the end of this essay, so you can read how the Defense Department and Obama administration defend the continued existence of the Triad using, for example, this catch-all language...

"Retaining all three Triad legs will best maintain strategic stability at reasonable cost, while hedging against potential technical problems or vulnerabilities."

... and declares the need to modernize the Triad as far ahead as 2027 (for submarines), conduct studies starting in FY2011 regarding how to replace existing missiles ("...with the aim of keeping the fleet in service to 2030, as mandated by Congress"), and to spend "more than $1 billion over the next five years" to modernize the B-2 Stealth Bomber.

What a huge lost opportunity!

The NPR could have declared the death of Cold War thinking once and for all. Instead, it commits us to maintaining the Triad for another 20 years or more. How many school buildings - or roads or bridges - won't get rebuilt because of this decision?

Is Truly Moral Leadership Possible Anymore?

Let's bump up this quest for professional political leadership a notch... to the level of moral leadership. (Why not? This is America! We deserve the best!)

On April 4th of this year - the 42nd anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis (D-GA ) said the United States still lacks a "moral leader".

"We are missing the moral leader of America who had emerged not just the moral leader of America but of the world," Lewis said in an interview on CNN. "This man gave us hope in a time of hopelessness. He had the ability and the capacity to bring the dirt and the filth from under the American rug out into the open light in order for us to deal with it."

As Frank Rich reports in his "No One Is to Blame for Anything" column today, Wall Street titans, such as former Citigroup guru Robert Rubin, are refusing to take any responsibility for the crash. Alan "the Oracle" Greenspan recently said "I was right 70 percent of the time". Rich lists other examples of denial before focusing on President Obama, of whom Rich writes...

Surveying America's moral landscape in his Inaugural Address, Barack Obama called for "a new era of responsibility."

But President Obama has not kept his promise as faithfully as he could have. Rich ends his essay by writing...

Americans still waiting on Main Street for the recovery that lifted Wall Street once invested their hopes in Obama. Getting the new era of responsibility only 70 percent right won't do.

Those seeking a true and clear Road From Ruin for America - including those who attended The Economist's Corporate Citizenship conference or any of the other Corporate Social Responsibility conferences taking place this year - would do well to be guided in that search by the man who most eloquently described that road in 1967, one year before he was assassinated. Yes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about economics: the economics of war vs. peace.

Here is the key passage in which he described a New Economics of prosperity for all from the anti-Vietnam War speech Dr. King gave on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in NYC.

Dr. King gave us a blueprint for a road to healthier future over 40 years ago. We weren't ready to build that road then. But - with the proper professional and moral leadership on the part of our business, civic, and political leaders - the design and construction of that road can be a news story greater than the Apollo Project that put a man on the Moon!

Excerpts from the Nuclear Posture Review

The Future of the Triad

After considering a wide range of possible options for the U.S. strategic nuclear posture, including some that involved eliminating a leg of the Triad, the NPR concluded that for planned reductions under New START, the United States should retain a smaller Triad of SLBMs, ICBMs, and heavy bombers. Retaining all three Triad legs will best maintain strategic stability at reasonable cost, while hedging against potential technical problems or vulnerabilities.

Each leg of the Triad has advantages that warrant retaining all three legs at this stage of reductions. Strategic nuclear submarines (SSBNs) and the SLBMs they carry represent the most survivable leg of the U.S. nuclear Triad. Today, there appears to be no viable near or mid-term threats to the survivability of U.S. SSBNs, but such threats - or other technical problems - cannot be ruled out over the long term. Single-warhead ICBMs contribute to stability, and like SLBMs are not vulnerable to air defenses. Unlike ICBMs and SLBMs, bombers can be visibly deployed forward, as a signal in crisis to strengthen deterrence of potential adversaries and assurance of allies and partners.

Sustaining Strategic Submarines (SSBNs)

The NPR concluded that ensuring a survivable U.S. response force requires continuous at-sea deployments of SSBNs in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as the ability to surge additional submarines in crisis. To support this requirement, the United States currently has fourteen nuclear-capable Ohio-class SSBNs.

By 2020, Ohio-class submarines will have been in service longer than any previous submarines. Therefore as a prudent hedge, the Navy will retain all 14 SSBNs for the near-term. Depending on future force structure assessments, and on how remaining SSBNs age in the coming years, the United States will consider reducing from 14 to 12 Ohio-class submarines in the second half of this decade. This decision will not affect the number of deployed nuclear warheads on SSBNs.

To maintain an at-sea presence for the long-term, the United States must continue development of a follow-on to the Ohio- class submarine. The first Ohio-class submarine retirement is planned for 2027. Since the lead times associated with designing, building, testing, and deploying new submarines are particularly long, the Secretary of Defense has directed the Navy to begin technology development of an SSBN replacement.

Today, there appears to be no credible near or mid-term threats to the survivability of U.S. SSBNs. However, given the stakes involved, the Department of Defense will continue a robust SSBN Security Program that aims to anticipate potential threats and develop appropriate countermeasures to protect current and future SSBNs.

ICBMs provide significant advantages to the U.S. nuclear force posture, including extremely secure command and control, high readiness rates, and relatively low operating costs. The Department of Defense will continue the Minuteman III Life Extension Program with the aim of keeping the fleet in service to 2030, as mandated by Congress. Although a decision on any follow-on ICBM is not needed for several years, studies to inform that decision are needed now.
Accordingly, the Department of Defense will begin initial study of alternatives in fiscal years (FY) 2011 and 2012. This study will consider a range of possible deployment options, with the objective of defining a cost-effective approach that supports continued reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons while promoting stable deterrence.

There are two principal reasons to retain nuclear-capable - or more accurately dual-capable - bombers. First, this capability provides a rapid and effective hedge against technical challenges with another leg of the Triad, as well as geopolitical uncertainties. Second, nuclear-capable bombers are important to extended deterrence of potential attacks on U.S. allies and partners. Unlike ICBMs and SLBMs, heavy bombers can be visibly forward deployed, thereby signaling U.S. resolve and commitment in crisis.

U.S. dual-capable heavy bombers will not be placed on full-time nuclear alert, and so will provide additional conventional firepower. The value of heavy bombers has been demonstrated multiple times since World War II, including in Desert Storm, Kosovo, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom. The Department of Defense (DoD) will invest more than $1 billion over the next five years to support upgrades to the B-2 stealth bomber.
These enhancements will help sustain survivability and improve mission effectiveness.

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