July 30, 1998
Washington gears up for a battle with global implications
Fasten your seat belts, because we're all in for a bumpy ride as Washington gears up for a battle with global implications -- and it has nothing to do with Monica Lewinsky or Ken Starr.
The conflict, which will have a huge impact on Jews here and around the world, is the emerging debate on Capitol Hill over how this country should respond to the worsening global economic crisis.
Nobody has clear-cut answers; economics is part statistics and part sorcery, with a lot of guesswork filling in the blanks. Add politics to the mix, and you get a pungent brew that makes you want to scream for some plain, comprehensible facts.
But, in general terms, the fault lines are already drawn -- between those who believe America's economic welfare depends heavily on the welfare of the rest of the world, and those who will react to the spreading economic contagion by circling the wagons and trying to keep the rest of the world at bay.
The argument will basically mirror the long-running trench warfare between neo-isolationists, who want the United States to limit its foreign policy to simple things such as containing the deadly Cuban menace, and internationalists, who see our safety and prosperity linked to our willingness to act assertively around the world.
The debate over the spreading economic crisis is more complex because nobody really understands the global forces at work here.
The economists aren't much help; the same experts who were pitching the wonders of the global market a few years ago, telling us that we'd all benefit because our economy is linked to countless others, are now insisting that we're somehow insulated from the alarming problems in these very same economies.
What's wrong with this picture? Last week, mega-financier George Soros told a congressional committee that the global capitalist system, responsible for so much recent prosperity, is "coming apart at the seams."
So what does all this have to do with the Jewish community? Plenty. Jewish security in a number of places -- Israel and the former Soviet Union, to begin with -- is clearly related to the United States' willingness to vigorously pursue its leadership role in the international arena. That goes for active peacemaking efforts, as well as economic leadership.
Nobody has easy answers for the alarming economic collapse in Russia, but it seems clear that Washington can't simply sit back and watch as the former superpower, now an economic super-disaster, descends into dangerous chaos; too much is at stake, including the security of nations that might be threatened if Russian military technology is sold off to the highest bidder, and the fate of more than 1 million Russian Jews -- traditionally the preferred scapegoats for frustrated, angry Russians.
We are also vulnerable at home. American markets have been in turmoil for weeks, and nobody can predict the extent or duration of the fall.
Many experts predict that we're in for an extended period of turbulence, possibly even recession. Our underlying economy is strong, they say, but huge declines in the rest of the world are already hurting our banks, our factories, our exporting businesses.
Declining prosperity will mean new pressures on the federal budget, and on all the programs that the Jewish community has come to depend on -- Medicare, Medicaid, assistance for immigrants and refuges, elderly housing.
A significant economic downturn will hurt Jewish communal institutions, which, even in good times, were struggling to keep up in the face of declining contributions.
If the bear market continues, Jewish political giving is likely to decline as well. We all like to think that politicians support our causes because they believe in them, but nobody in Washington is that naive; the correlation between giving and voting on Capitol Hill is self-evident.
Active U.S. intervention will not provide any panaceas for the global economic crisis. Nor will even the most enlightened policy shield us entirely from its domestic impact.
But the solution of the economic isolationists -- closing our eyes to the rest of the world and shutting our pocketbooks -- will almost certainly aggravate the crisis elsewhere and magnify its impact here.