04/11/2012 10:33 am ET Updated Jun 11, 2012

You Can't Say That

Some political reforms make so much common sense they have to be banned from polite conversation.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) says the U.S. spent $738 billion (in 2011 dollars) fighting the war in Vietnam. The World Bank estimates that when the war began in 1964 the population of Vietnam was 38 million. Assuming five per family, simple arithmetic reveals that instead of waging a ten-year war that killed two million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans, we could have given each of those families $97,105. Had we done so, we would have obtained just what we got by fighting and losing the war: a law-abiding trading partner willing to assert its independence from China and Russia.

This startling fact begs the question about our policy in Afghanistan. The CRS estimates that the war there has cost $321 billion to date (again, in 2011 dollars), not including hundreds of billions more when post-war expenses like veterans' benefits come due. The World Bank estimates that when the war began in 2001 the Afghan population was 27 million. Again, if their average family size is also five, we have already spent $59,444 per family. If we had given that amount to each, or provided, say, a new pick-up truck and a free college education for one of their daughters, we would not now be bogged down in a war that all agree cannot be won.
Common sense solutions like these, while painfully obvious, are entirely inadmissible within mainstream political dialogue. Why is that? Why can't common sense be applied to our defense expenditures, which now are almost equal to the rest of the world combined? Our current level of defense spending cannot be driven by our need for physical security. We spend six times as much on defense as our nearest competitor, China, and twelve times as much as Russia.

The defense budget isn't just for defense. It has another objective: propping up our economy. The huge military-industrial complex created to wage the Cold War has taken on a life of its own. When the federal government tried to reduce expenditures by closing unneeded military bases, the affected communities rebelled because of lost jobs. Today, when we try to shut down unneeded weapons systems, like the F-35 fighter, we are told that companies too big to fail would be jeopardized.

This is the tail wagging the dog. Dollars spent on peaceful pursuits, like manufacturing pick-up trucks, churn far more downstream economic activity, and more jobs, than dollars spent on products that blow up and disappear the first time they are used, like bullets and bombs.
Obviously, our inability to apply common sense solutions to thorny policy issues does not stop with defense. Want a common sense solution to the social security crisis? Easy. Remove the cap on the social security tax that gives high earners a free ride. Want to reduce global warming? Easy, again. Use Congress to break the power of the oil and coal companies. Worried about the deficit? Pass a one-time wealth tax and wipe it out. Not enough money for public education? Tax the rich. They used to pay for it.

But these "radical" solutions are off the table. The media tells us repeatedly that they are impractical, which is why angry voices ranging from the Tea Party on the right to the Occupy movement on the left all complain that the "mainstream media" represents the interests of the wealthiest 1% of the country while ignoring the needs of the other 99%.

This anger is driven in large part by our inability to inject common sense into our political debates, and that inability comes from the corrosive role of money in politics. Too many of our elected officials are concerned first with the furtherance their own careers. As long as the campaign contributions and lobbying perks they need to do that come primarily from the wealthiest 1% of society rather than the other 99%, mainstream political dialogue will be no broader than the self-interest of those putting up the money.

Of course, there's a common sense solution: End the system of camouflaged bribes by which campaign money and lobbying perks are showered upon officials elected to serve the common good. Take money completely out of politics. Nothing less will solve the problem, but, alas, that too is a taboo topic, inadmissible in polite conversation.

It's all quite amazing, since the amounts of money corrupting our political system are an open secret. In 2010, a total of $3.65 billion was spent on federal elections while a total of $3.51 billion was spent to lobby Congress and federal agencies. Let's be serious. Given these numbers, it is preposterous to think that working -- and non-working -- Americans have a chance at equal representation under the law.

Our nation is in crisis. Our government is hopelessly gridlocked. Our middle class is evaporating. Our schools are in decay. Our health care is failing. Our people can't find jobs. Our streets are in disrepair and chocking on traffic. Even our planet is losing its ability to sustain us. And all the while, our political system drives us farther and farther apart.

No serious person can believe that fundamental solutions to our national problems will emerge from what is now admissible political dialogue. The conversation must be expanded. The best of today's radical ideas must be allowed to blossom into tomorrow's common sense solutions, as they often have in the past. We are the country that invented open political dialogue. If we can't stop the wealthiest 1% from limiting what the rest of us understand to be realistic, our political dialogue will remain terminally irrelevant.

Bill Zimmerman is a partner in Zimmerman & Markman, a political consulting firm. His most recent book is Troublemaker: A Memoir from the Front Lines of the Sixties (Doubleday, 2011).