A leading spiritual voice, Sister Joan Chittister is calling on the media to responsibly and accurately report on the social, economic and political injustices plaguing our society. Bill Moyers talks with Sister Joan about how religion has been so strong a dividing line in American politics. Sister Joan is a best-selling author of more than 30 books, an international peace activist, founder of BENETVISION.ORG, a Web site which focuses on contemporary spirituality, and a regular columnist for the NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER.
Just back from Afghanistan, war journalist Christian Parenti provides a close up view of the realities on the ground and the disturbing balance between powerful warlords and the US-backed Karzai government and an economy dependent on the poppy trade. David Brancaccio sits down with Parenti, a regular columnist of THE NATION and author most recently of THE FREEDOM: SHADOWS AND HALLUCINATIONS IN OCCUPIED IRAQ.
In the wake of a hard-fought election with a divided nation looking toward the next four years, campaign proposals about deficits, taxes, and Social Security are on the table. But what do the President’s economic plans really outline for Americans? David Brancaccio talks to Larry Kotlikoff, an economist who’s developed a highly-regarded method of calculating the fiscal burden we’re leaving our children. Kotlikoff chairs the economics department at Boston University and is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is the co-author of THE COMING GENERATIONAL STORM: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT AMERICA’S ECONOMIC FUTURE.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.
We begin with the gospel according to Bob Jones University in South Carolina. The school proclaims itself the “Citadel of Biblical Christianity” for its conviction that every word of the Bible is literally true. In his critical primary fight with John McCain four years ago, George W. Bush cemented his standing with the religious right and turned the tide in his favor with a speech on the Bob Jones campus.
Last week, on the morning after the election, the President of the university, Bob Jones III, posted this letter addressed to President Bush on the school’s Web site:
“Congratulations… In your re-election, God has graciously granted America — though she doesn’t deserve it — a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. Because you seek the Lord daily, we who know the Lord will follow that kind of voice eagerly. Don’t equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ…. You will have [the] opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the Congress in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm…. Pull out all the stops and make a difference. If you have weaklings around you who do not share your biblical values, shed yourself of them. Conservative Americans would love to see one president who doesn’t care whether he is liked, but cares infinitely that he does right.
Sincerely your friend, Bob Jones III.”
Jones added a post script, quote: “…we could not be more thankful that God has given you four more years…living, speaking, and making decisions as one who knows the Bible to be eternally true.”
BRANCACCIO: A Bob Jones University spokesman said it would be a misreading of the letter to suggest “everyone who voted for the Democrats is a pagan.” I guess that needed to be said.
The election returns confirm that Christians of similar views were indispensable to the President’s re-election. Not only in the Bible Belt but across the country, conservative preachers took to their pulpits to talk about the election. They spurred registration drives to get their congregations to the voting booths. Some churches were even asked to turn over their membership directories to the Bush campaign.
Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, was back. Some 45,000 churches got advice from an organization linked to him. James Dobson hit the road to hold rallies and mobilize the faithful. Dobson is the most popular radio preacher in the country, his programs heard daily on more than 3000 stations.
He went all the way to South Dakota to stoke the crowds to defeat the Democratic leader, Senator Tom Daschle.
Conservative Protestants were joined by conservative Catholics. After President Bush reportedly complained to the Vatican that U.S. bishops were not doing enough to support him on key social issues, several bishops, including Charles Chaput, the Archbishop of Denver, went after John Kerry. They said Kerry, a Roman Catholic, should be denied communion for his views on abortion.
It all paid off. President Bush carried the Bible Belt — the old states of the confederacy plus Oklahoma and Kentucky — and the swing states where conservative Christians were critical to his margin. According to voter surveys, the President won 79% of white evangelicals and 52% of the Catholic vote.
MOYERS: For them, David, it’s payback time.
On the day after the election, Tom Delay, known as “the hammer” of the Christian right in Congress, said, “We’re going to be able to lead this country in the direction we’ve been dreaming of for years. We’re going to put God back in the public square.”
And James Dobson, flush with victory, is leading a campaign to prevent Republican Senator Arlen Specter from assuming his chairmanship of the judiciary committee, because they say he is not trustworthy on supporting conservative judicial nominations.
For his part, Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority — there he is with Bush’s chief political advisor Karl Rove — who talked to religious right leaders every week from the White House, Jerry Falwell has announced that he will lead a new faith and values coalition to continue the momentum of November 2.
Falwell said our goal, quote, “is to help make President Bush’s second term the most successful in American history. And to elect another one just like President Bush in 2008.”
Not in our lifetime has religion been this powerful a dividing line in American politics. You’d think that line was between Christians and non-Christians. But it isn’t. It’s a line between a particular group of Christians, a large group of Christians, who regard their version of divine truth as definitive and immune to challenge—and everybody else.
In that other category are millions of faithful Christians, among them is Sister Joan Chittister. She is a Benedictine nun who served as a prioress of her order for 12 years.
She’s a social psychologist, she leads a worldwide network of women for peace and runs a spiritual Web site. Sister Joan has a Ph.D., 11 honorary degrees and was the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award from Penn State. And that’s not all.
She is the author of 30 books, including CALLED TO QUESTION: A SPIRITUAL MEMOIR, SCARRED BY STRUGGLE; TRANSFORMED BY HOPE, and this classic in contemporary spirituality, WISDOM DISTILLED FROM THE DAILY.
Sister Joan is also a regular columnist for the independent Catholic newspaper, THE NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER.
Welcome to NOW.
CHITTISTER: Thank you, Bill.
MOYERS: It’s always surprising to discover that nuns look like you.
CHITTISTER: Yeah, that’s right. Well, as in what does a nun look like?
MOYERS: I read a column you wrote a week before the election in which you said the election won’t be over when it’s over. Well, as we’ve just seen the Religious Right says it’s over. And they say they’ve won. What do you think about that?
CHITTISTER: Well, I think the word religion is being used very loosely in this day and age. I don’t think that is religion.
This whole notion that my truth is everybody’s truth, there’s something wrong with that in a world of differences.
MOYERS: I can hear them saying this. I can hear James Dobson and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson say, “I was called by God to do what I’m doing.” You feel called by God.
CHITTISTER: I do. But I don’t feel called by God to impose my life on yours. I believe that I’m called by God to keep God a constant question in the human heart. I believe that anything that isn’t— that anything that uses God as an instrument of oppression on other people is not of God.
And I believe that their belief is a powerful witness. I just simply do not believe that it can be imposed on the beliefs of people who are witnessing to another face of God.
MOYERS: What do you mean impose?
CHITTISTER: Well, I believe that when, to have the voice of religion, to have the religious voice in the public arena, as far as I’m concerned, is very faithful to the intention of the founding fathers. Therefore no established church, no established church, no single church or tradition that monitors and weighs and measures everybody else’s attitudes, approaches or moral decisions. I believe that that’s absolutely essential especially in a pluralistic world where we’re all looking for the voice of conscience in our hearts. But when you take the religious voice and you turn it into a religion in the center of the system, do it our way, there’s something wrong with that.
MOYERS: But they are saying they’re acting from moral concerns. That they are trying to carry their moral values into the public square.
CHITTISTER: And so did the Puritans and the Prohibitionists.
It was exactly… they believed that their moral values should be carried into the public arena. And we did it. When the Puritans did it, they burned witches all in the name of God. When the Prohibitionists did it, they decided what you could and couldn’t discipline yourself to do.
MOYERS: But I don’t hear these people talking as harshly as that. They’re not going to burn you at the stake, although some of them might think you’re a witch right?
CHITTISTER: Well, yeah—
MOYERS: Or pagan.
CHITTISTER: Listen carefully for the twigs.
MOYERS: They’re not— do you see them as extremists like that?
CHITTISTER: I do, in many instances. When you begin to use that kind of religious criteria and translate it into law, into God’s call for Armageddon, why are we in Iraq now? God apparently wants us there. Not my Jesus.
MOYERS: All right, then they would say, “We went to Iraq to overthrow a brutal dictator who was persecuting his own people and to prevent Iraq becoming a terrorist haven.” You know what they say.
CHITTISTER: Sure and we have a terrorist haven in Iraq right now. We don’t have the so-called dictator anymore. But if those are our criteria, then we’re going to be, for religious reasons, in a lot of other countries in the next 12 months.
MOYERS: Depending on the sources, Sister Joan, there have been some 37,000 civilians killed in Iraq, or maybe a 100,000. Why is abortion a higher moral issue with many American Christians than the invasion of Iraq and the loss of life there?
CHITTISTER: Could I ask you that question? Because that is the moral question that brings me closest to tears. I do not understand that, Bill. You see, I’m absolutely certain that some of the people that we’re killing over there are pregnant women. Now what do you do? Now what do you do? That’s military abortion.
MOYERS: Somebody said to me— that’s what?
CHITTISTER: That’s military abortion. Why is that morally acceptable?
MOYERS: Somebody said to me the other day that Americans don’t behead, but we do drop smart bombs that do it for us.
CHITTISTER: And that are not smart as we think they are.
MOYERS: What do you mean?
CHITTISTER: Well, what is this smart bomb stuff? We’ve still got a image in our head from 1991 of this little golf ball dropping down a furnace. It’s not working that way.
MOYERS: Dobson, Falwell, Robertson and a lot of secular pundits and columnists are saying that this election was decided by moral issues. Do you think moral issues were that decisive in this campaign?
CHITTISTER: Well, I don’t believe— I’m not exactly sure that they were as decisive in the end. And I’m not sure that there’s any way we can measure that. But even if I say, “Yes, they were,” the fact of the matter is that they are some moral issues, they’re not all moral issues.
The fact of the matter is that they’re all in contention with something else which is also a moral value and also equally important unless you put it completely out of your mind or your heart. For instance, let’s look at the abortion question. I’m opposed to abortion.
But I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking. If all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed and why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.
MOYERS: This seems to me to be the dilemma of American democracy today and of American religion. That there are dogmatists who do not want to admit that the other side might have some claim to credibility.
CHITTISTER: Dogmatism will always get you there. Ask a Catholic. We’ve been there.
We do it well. It was dogmatism that split us in the first place in the 16th century. It’s dogmatism, this whole notion that there is a truth, the truth. that is the eternal truth and the unquestionable truth means that whatever the holy spirit, whatever, whatever the impulses of a creating God goes on creating. We have to close our mind to those.
We learned at the end of a telescope that it got us nowhere. Galileo tried to tell us then scientifically, look at this. We didn’t want to listen.
The religion threw Galileo into house arrest for two or three years. Why? Not because of his science, that’s silliness. Because of his theology. The theology taught that we were the center of the universe. We were God’s rational and best creatures. When the little telescope, when he handed the Pope a telescope and said, “Look, we’re not the center,” they wouldn’t even pick up the telescope. That’s dogmatism. And that’s what we have to be very careful of.
MOYERS: Do you have anything in common with the Religious Right?
CHITTISTER: I have Jesus in common. That’s enough for me provided that we’re all allowed to talk about and to hold in our hearts that aspect of the Christ life that we really believe must be raised at this time.
MOYERS: And what are those? What are the moral issues that you would like to see us pursuing as a people, as a country right now?
CHITTISTER: Well, I believe we got the cue on the mountain. I think—
MOYERS: The sermon on the mount?
CHITTISTER: I do. I do. The Beatitudes, as far as I’m concerned are the most overlooked and underdeveloped aspect of Christian scripture.
MOYERS: Well, for all the people who are watching who don’t know what the Beatitudes are, what are you talking about?
MOYERS: The sermon on the mount.
CHITTISTER: The sermon on the mount, Jesus gets up, faces a crowd who’s saying to him, “What are we do now?”
And he said, “Remember the poor. Keep the poor as your criteria.” We have 1 out of every 318 people on this planet this morning, Bill, are refugees. They’re following garbage cans in the back of restaurants around the world. They’re following the resources that we took from their countries that are now jobs in somebody else’s country.
MOYERS: Blessed are the poor?
CHITTISTER: The poor, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. We’ve got somehow or other to recognize that when we go into a country and pay a little kid 20 cents an hour for a 70 hour week to make our shoes and our jeans, we have to ask ourselves how is it that we can export our industry but we can’t export our Fair Labor Standard Act.
MOYERS: So, blessed are those who seek justice?
CHITTISTER: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are those who mourn. Remember those who are in grief, those mothers with dry breasts in Africa right now are mothers. And we’re pro-life? Where are we?
Where are we in Darfur? Why do we have an army in Iraq for killing other mothers when with the power of this country, if this is going to be a moral country. Blessed are the peacemakers, the peacemakers, not the war mongers who are simply planting seeds of war for the next generation. That’s our criteria. The Beatitudes must be our criteria.
MOYERS: See, this is the issue. People read scripture and reach different conclusions.
CHITTISTER: That’s what scripture’s supposed to do. Scripture is not a driving test. Scripture is a challenge to the heart and this moment. Scripture is the whole scripture. But we don’t believe it’s frozen in time.
MOYERS: Why are you a Christian?
CHITTISTER: Well, because of the Jesus story is my story. There’s nothing else that really touches my heart or my spirit the way Jesus does. There isn’t any other answer for me. There’s no question about that.
MOYERS: Why are you a Catholic? I mean, the Catholic Church is still a paternalistic hierarchy. You’re never going be a Bishop, because doctrine forbids it. Your own Pope says, “Never.” So why do you remain a Catholic?
CHITTISTER: Well, we’ve said “never” to a lot of things. We’re very good at never, and then we say 400 years later, “as we have always taught.” I’m a Catholic because I believe that the church is a treasure house of the Christian tradition.
MOYERS: You remember when the President called on the Pope earlier this year?
MOYERS: You said something quite harsh. You said after the President’s visit with the Pope that, quote, “This is not a President whose concern for life matches the life concerns of this Pope.”
CHITTISTER: That’s right.
MOYERS: How is that?
CHITTISTER: This Pope had said very clearly three times in a row that he disapproved of this incursion into Iraq, and that he did not accept the notion of a preemptive war. That’s a major life concern. This was the biggest PR trick I had seen in American history maybe ever.
MOYERS: Great photo op. Lyndon Johnson did it when the Pope came to New York in—
CHITTISTER: Tell me about it. But, when Lyndon Johnson did it at least the Pope could be understood, and what he himself was saying physically. This man is suffering from Parkinson’s. He said, if you read the text later, he said to the President, “Thank you very much for the medal, but you know that you and I disagree on this Iraq thing. I have told you three times.” That’s in the text.
MOYERS: The President went to present the Pope with America’s highest honor, the Medal of Freedom—
CHITTISTER: That’s right. And, it isn’t that the Pope doesn’t deserve it. He did. He does.
MOYERS: But in your eyes, Sister Joan, can the Pope be right about Iraq, and wrong about abortion?
CHITTISTER: The Pope can be right about anything, and wrong about another thing. Yes, I mean, we have a terrible misunderstanding about what infallibility is. We grow as a church from the Pope on down.
MOYERS: But the church does not grow on the issue of women.
CHITTISTER: This woman’s question is a dangerous question.
CHITTISTER: Because they’re trying to deny that it’s a question. People— I have never said that I know the answer, but I know it’s a question, and it ought to be allowed to be reviewed.
MOYERS: What is the question?
CHITTISTER: Bishops have called for that.
MOYERS: What is the question?
CHITTISTER: What is the role of women? What is the role of women in the church? Is there such a thing as a woman being called to priesthood? Those are questions. Cardinals have called for that. Bishops have called for that.
I’m in good company calling for that discussion. I have never insisted that I know the answer. I do know that it’s a question, and the church isn’t going to be— isn’t going to come to fullness ’til it’s addressed.
MOYERS: But, while you’re contemplating, meditating, lecturing, writing these wonderful books, the religious right is going to be running the government of the United States.
CHITTISTER: Uh-huh. So will I.
MOYERS: What are you going to— how’s that?
CHITTISTER: Oh, I’ll write my letters. I’m doing my things. We have Sisters demonstrating at the School of the Americas every single year. I’m not going to stop that.
MOYERS: That’s the school in the South where Americans have been training military officers from Latin America.
CHITTISTER: That’s right. Yes. Yes.
MOYERS: So, you think more people should get out and protest. Take to the street with this?
CHITTISTER: I think each of us should become part of the conversation any way we can.
MOYERS: Let me read you and share with our audience something I read just this morning. Michael Feingold is a theater critic here in New York, playwright, spent 25 years in the theater. He said this, quote, “This is the election in which American Christianity destroyed itself. Today the church is no longer a religion but a tacky political lobby with an obsessive concentration on—compel[ling] someone else’s daughter to bear an unwanted child and depriv[ing] someone else’s son of the right to file a joint income tax return with his male partner.” Do you think he’s right when he says this is the election in which American Christianity destroyed itself?
CHITTISTER: Well, I think American Christianity has brought itself to the brink. And I’ll tell you why. There’s a disconnect between our private morality, or private piety and the call of the Gospels, the call of Matthew, of the Beatitudes, to this public concern for a world that comes out of the mind and heart of God.
MOYERS: Her latest book is CALLED TO QUESTION, A SPIRITUAL MEMOIR by Joan Chittister. Thank you very much, Sister Joan, for being with us on NOW.
CHITTISTER: Thank you, Bill. And God bless you.
BRANCACCIO: The news from Iraq this week has focused on Fallujah.
Re-taking the city is critical to the U.S. plan to secure Iraq ahead of elections still planned for January. It’s a risky proposition.
But today with British Prime Minister Tony Blair by his side, President Bush pointed with pride to the other country where U.S. military action led to regime change: Afghanistan.
BUSH: The success of Afghanistan’s election is a standing rebuke to cynicism and extremism and a testimony to the power of liberty and hope.
BRANCACCIO: We turn now to a reporter who just returned from covering the Afghan elections. Christian Parenti took a long trek across the country with a camera. What he found was a surreal world where religion co-exists side-by-side with the burgeoning drug industry. Those are marijuana fields. In the spring, these fields will be in bloom with opium poppies. Christian Parenti joins us now.
His article in the November 15th edition of THE NATION describes the political landscape of Afghanistan and the powerful war lords who control, among other things, the drug trade. Christian, welcome back to NOW.
PARENTI: Thank you very much.
BRANCACCIO: Glad to see you back in one piece.
BRANCACCIO: Help me assess how democracy is going in Afghanistan. Were the elections legitimate in your view?
PARENTI: The elections were not legitimate in my view. But here’s the weird contradiction, if they had been legitimate, I think Karzai would have won. He’s the only feasible national candidate. But the elections were rushed by the Bush Administration.
Because Bush wanted a foreign policy victory to bring to the voters in the face of Iraq melting down. So, they push for the elections to happen October 9th. Everybody knew the infrastructure wasn’t there.
So as a result, all the parties involved used intimidation and vote fraud. And the elections were in many ways a fiasco. There were, in southern provinces that were heavily Pashtun which were going to go for Karzai, in in several of them, there was 140 percent voter registration. I saw people voting multiple times and talked to people who said they voted multiple times.
Other journalists I know from CBS filmed their drivers voting multiple times. I’m not sure that made the news. I was given two voting cards. Actually, I was going to bring you one as a souvenir but I forgot.
I was interviewing one of the minor parties. And they were claiming that there’s all sorts of vote fraud is going to happen. There’s multiple registration cards and fake ballots. And I said, “Well, how can you prove this?” They said, “Look were have all of these registration cards here without photographs. Anyone can just put their photograph on as many of these as they want and vote however many times they want as long as they can get the ink off their thumbs afterwards,” which turned out to be the case, people washing the ink off. So, I said, “Well, can I have one of those?”
And they said, “Sure.” “Can I have two of those?” “Just go ahead.”
BRANCACCIO: No problem.
PARENTI: So, if I’d put my photograph on there and laminated it, I would have been able to vote. Because there’s no way of controlling who voted where. Afghans had the right to vote in any polling station in the country and—
BRANCACCIO: But did it add up to the conclusion that Hamad Karzai is not a legitimate ruler? He does have some real authority.
PARENTI: He doesn’t really have that much real authority. He’s trapped in his palace. Every time he leaves practically there’s an assassination attempt.
The U.S. has authority. And the international community has authority. And the Afghan warlords fear the international community and the U.S. Karzai is their representative and is a real figurehead.
I don’t think he has much authority. And, in terms of Karzai being in power, being a representation of the will of the Afghan people, I think the election was way too flawed to say that. And I think that the politics of Afghanistan still rely on violence and intimidation to a point where it’s really not possible to talk about democracy.
BRANCACCIO: What is working and what is not working in Afghanistan?
PARENTI: War has stopped which is a good thing. There isn’t sort of, except on the border with Pakistan, there’s still fighting between U.S. forces and al Qaeda elements and the Taliban. But there’s been a secession of open warfare for the most part in most of Afghanistan. So, that’s a good thing. But unfortunately, the way that’s been achieved is that the U.S. has used the Mujahadeen warlords that were its proxies during the war against the Red Army and who are really a bunch of criminals, very nasty people who, you know, commit massive human rights violations.
And these Mujahadeen warlords have been folded into the Karzai government and are getting a new type of legitimacy and institutional power. So, you have people like Hazrat Ali who was the warlord the U.S. used to block al Qaeda at Tora Bora which is in the province of Nangarhar which is one of the places I went. Hazrat Ali let al Qaeda leave. He controls the drug trade.
His sub-commanders steal common lands from people to grow drugs. They will, you know, rape people’s daughters. And they operate a sort of gangster operation. And—
BRANCACCIO: Well, that’s the word I was wondering if you were getting to. I mean, is that what we’re really talking about in western terms, pretty much like a gangster?
PARENTI: Yeah, a gangster, so organized crime structure. The idea is that these guys are given their official power and they don’t go to war and they don’t rock the boat. But what that means for the average Afghan is continued lack of human rights, no political voice and exploitation at the hands of these gangsters who control the smuggling routes and control most of the guns and can leverage income out of these poor farmers who only make money by growing poppy.
Because wheat and dried fruits, the other traditional crops of Afghanistan are basically worthless these days. There’s been a very severe drought throughout Afghanistan for six years. And poppy’s very drought-resistant. So, these farmers have to grow drugs.
BRANCACCIO: I mean, one of the figures that I saw is that 75 percent, 3/4 of all the opium products on the world market come from Afghanistan.
PARENTI: Yeah, that’s right. It’s estimated to be a $28 billion a year trade. And only about 2-1/2 billion of that is captured in Afghanistan. But half of that actually goes to farmers and the other half to smugglers.
And then the warlords tax all the smugglers and farmers.
BRANCACCIO: Is there a war on drugs going on in Afghanistan to keep the junkie on the street corner over here from mugging me?
PARENTI: No and in a way, that kind of makes sense. The official policy is the U.S. military in Afghanistan has been to ignore poppy. And, but that might be changing. The Brits were put in charge of creating a counter-narcotics directorate within the Afghan government. And—
BRANCACCIO: This was the British government’s deal?
PARENTI: Yes, all the occupying powers were given specific tasks. The U.S. had to train the Army, the British train the drug… counter-narcotics directorate. By and large, the eradication efforts thus far have been a sham.
For example, in Nangarhar again, Hazrat Ali, I was told by many people, has a deal with Mirwais who’s the head of the counter-narcotics directorate where Mirwais tells Hazrat Ali that he needs some fields burnt. Hazrat Ali tells the farmers, “After the harvest, burn your poppy fields. And then we can bring the British in and we can show them how much—”
BRANCACCIO: After the harvest burn your fields?
BRANCACCIO: All right, so, let’s say it is a sham. Why don’t authorities crack down?
PARENTI: Because they didn’t want— the same reason that they’ve been folding warlords into the government. They don’t want to rock the boat. They want, you know, there’s only 18,000 U.S. troops there. And they figure it’s the price of peace.
But that might be changing. Now you have officials on the ground talking about how they’re going to get serious with eradication. And beginning in February, there is going to be a fairly substantial U.S. involvement in eradication.
And they plan to hit four provinces pretty hard with eradication. Now, this may or may not actually happen. If enough of it is left up to the Afghan forces it might be the methods used by Hazrat Ali, fake burnings.
BRANCACCIO: But this is the part that really hurts your head. Because if indeed going after the poppy destabilizes Afghanistan, that could, I don’t know, open the door to more terrorists, al Qaeda coming back—
PARENTI: It could. Yeah, it could. The real solution is that there needs to be massive investment in the infrastructure of Afghanistan.
Thus far, the sum of money $4 1/2 billion over three years with really high overhead costs, just is not that much. It’s a country of 20 to 25 million people. So, there’s tremendous amount of need.
BRANCACCIO: It’s a major road ahead on this point about drug interdiction. What about one of the key central stated reasons that the U.S. went into Afghanistan, to break up al Qaeda, get ’em out of there, remove it as a possible base for international terrorism. Has that been a success?
PARENTI: Al Qaeda has been, from what I could tell, moved out of Afghanistan. It has moved into the tribal belt of Pakistan. And Pakistan has used the war on terror in Afghanistan to get back into the good graces of the U.S. and the international community after the nuclear tests and sanctions were imposed on them.
So now, most of the sanctions have been removed. Aid is starting to flow again. Pakistan is undergoing an economic recovery. And they used their role as the indispensable ally in this frontier war against the remnants of al Qaeda to leverage the U.S. in a way.
Because the U.S., I think, has very bad intelligence. And it’s highly dependent on the Pakistanis for this. But I don’t think that Pakistan is committed to really ending that war. They sort of this is a useful role for them. So, at this point, al Qaeda is still in Pakistan, operates in eastern parts of Afghanistan. But the war is sort of on a low simmer. And the new site of, you know, the new international jihad, as everyone knows, is in Iraq. And that’s where young, disgruntled religious men who want to engage the American empire, that’s where they’ll go to fight, not Afghanistan. So, al Qaeda has been moved out of Afghanistan. But al Qaeda has not been crushed, sort of a manageable problem on the border with Pakistan.
BRANCACCIO: Another really important issue that was on the table when the U.S. went into Afghanistan is the role of women in that society, under the Taliban, incredible repression. How are things going? We’re led by the Bush Administration to believe that schools in many parts of that country are flourishing. And they’re admitting young women and that this will lead to a greater role in society for women. What did you see when you were there?
PARENTI: Well, there definitely has been an improvement in the condition of women but not for all women, primarily for middle class women in cities. They’re free to take off the burka. They’re free to have jobs again.
There are schools being built. But in the countryside, particularly in Pashtun areas, many people before and during and after the Taliban are very, many men, are very opposed to women getting an education. This is in fact, the cause of the first tribal rebellion in Afghanistan in 1929.
The king wanted to give girls education. And there was a tribal rebellion. So, there’s actually very deep roots in Afghan tribal culture opposing the liberation of women. So, when—
BRANCACCIO: Especially in the Pashtun sections to the south—
BRANCACCIO: In Afghanistan where apparently that’s very marked.
PARENTI: Yeah, so you, I mean, when you go into the countryside, you still see women segregated from men, wearing burkas, hidden away. I went and stayed with Pashtun families, one does not meet the women. I mean, the women are segregated away from men. And Pashtun men in the countryside still marry women that they haven’t seen since the woman was 12 years old. And a boy and a girl might grow up together and then come puberty, they’re separated. And—
BRANCACCIO: And then there’s the question of the young woman or the woman’s right if things should go bad in the marriage. And sometimes when they try to seek legal redress, I was seeing these stories in which the rights of women are often not supported.
PARENTI: No, they’re not supported and not by the Karzai government either. I mean, Karzai has not set an example. His wife has not come out in public unveiled. She does not have a job.
She doesn’t model a role for emancipated women in Afghanistan. And there are very real limits to the improvement of women’s condition. Interestingly, economically, because the real issue is just the grinding poverty. That’s the thing when you talk to Afghans what they’re concerned with.
They talk about how there’s no work. There’s not enough reconstruction and how everyone’s hungry. And interestingly, women manage to make money in the opium economy doing the harvesting which is some of the best paid day labor in Afghanistan, can make $7 a day harvesting opium as opposed to 2 or $3 a day working on a construction site in Kabul.
BRANCACCIO: But you don’t want women to earn most of their money doing that ultimately, do you?
PARENTI: No, you don’t. But for the time being, that’s the reality in Afghanistan. There is no meaningful replacement. Exotic fruits or alternative crops are not going to make the kind of money that opium poppy makes. So, unless there’s a real commitment into investing billions upon billions of dollars in electrification and road construction and education for the long term, Afghanistan will remain a country that’s dependent on drugs. And its government will be sort of a narco-mafia state, a mafia with a seat in the U.N. and a few military bases on the Iranian and Pakistani border.
BRANCACCIO: But the United States certainly has a stake in making this model of bringing democracy to the region work.
PARENTI: Well, it has a stake in creating an appearance of progress. I not sure it has a stake in actually creating a strong Afghanistan that could essentially maybe get out of control and want the U.S. bases to leave later, ten years down the line if there’s a strong functioning country in Afghanistan. I think that the Bush Administration is perfectly content with keeping a lid on the worst violence in Afghanistan, having military bases there, having the U.N. in there building a few roads, building a few schools.
But that otherwise, they’re not concerned with Afghanistan. Afghanistan is fundamentally not that important to them.
BRANCACCIO: Christian, you’re just back from Afghanistan. But you’ve also spent a lot of time in Iraq. Your latest book as it turns out is about Iraq. Are there lessons from Afghanistan that we can somehow transpose to Iraq?
PARENTI: The one lesson I would draw from Afghanistan is pretty grim. And I would draw it from the Russian experience in Afghanistan that a foreign occupation against nationalist and religious forces is very, very hard or impossible to maintain. And I think that we have to realize that the U.S. in Iraq has so mismanaged the occupation and so alienated and brutalized the people that there’s really no hope for putting the genie back in the bottle. The place is completely out of control and America has essentially lost and it needs to negotiate some other solution other than imposing its will on that country. Otherwise there will be civil war for years and years to come.
BRANCACCIO: All right. A long road ahead in Iraq and it sounds like Afghanistan. Christian Parenti’s latest book, THE FREEDOM: SHADOWS AND HALLUCINATIONS IN OCCUPIED IRAQ. Christian, thank you.
PARENTI: Thank you.
BRANCACCIO: Next week on NOW—
What kind of dark secrets lurk behind the 66 million dollars raked in by a well-connected Washington lobbyist and his partner?
STONE: Few lobbyists in Washington see that kind of money from one client ever in their lifetimes.
BRANCACCIO: Indian tribes hired the men to look out for their casino interests. Now the FBI and a Congressional panel want to know whether they cheated the tribes to enrich themselves and line the pockets of their friends in Washington.
A full investigation, next week on NOW.
BRANCACCIO: Okay, now to the bottom line: the President is taking office deep in the hole. The Congressional Budget Office is currently projecting the deficit over the next 10 years will total 2.7 trillion dollars, with a “t.”
And here are some of the things the new administration is likely to push over the next 4 years: make the 2001, 2002 and 2003 tax cuts permanent; abolish tax on dividends; abolish the estate tax permanently; reform the income tax code; and transform social security. These are big ticket items and there’s no money unless the government borrows more.
This has our next guest battening down for a gathering storm. Larry Kotlikoff is an economist who’s been thinking a lot about the taxes we pay compared to the taxes our children and grandchildren will be forced to pay.
He chairs the economics department at Boston University and is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. His new book, written with journalist Scott Burns, is called THE COMING GENERATIONAL STORM: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT AMERICA’S ECONOMIC FUTURE. Welcome to NOW.
Larry, welcome to NOW.
KOTLIKOFF: Thanks for having me.
BRANCACCIO: As you know, President Bush says that he now has the political capital coming out of this election to reform the system, to change the system. In your view, where should he start? What’s priority one?
KOTLIKOFF: Priority one is to realize that our country is bankrupt. It’s not bankrupt 20 years from now, 30 years from not. It’s really bankrupt right now. The fact of the matter is that we have facing us a spending path which is not affordable given the revenue path.
And that unless we get control of that spending path immediately, we’re gonna just put into concrete the nation’s insolvency. We’re gonna have high interest rates, unemployment, inflation, a recession, if not depression.
BRANCACCIO: You use the phrase “fiscal child abuse” when it comes to this problem.
KOTLIKOFF: Yeah, the people that are really gonna get affected are the kids and the next generation beyond that. And if you know that this is coming, if you know you’ve got major fiscal problems of the kind that this country’s never seen before coming at you, and you’re not dealing with them. And you’re the adults, you’re leaving it for the kids.
You’re just gonna pass a huge burden onto them that they can’t handle. And that’s the first priority the government should deal with right now. That’s much more important than fixing up our tax code or having people in individual accounts and, you know, gambling on their futures. That’s second order. First order is dealing with our long term fiscal problem.
BRANCACCIO: The D-word, the deficit you’re talking about.
KOTLIKOFF: Well, it really goes beyond the deficit. We, you know, if you look at the official debt, it’s a problem but it’s not an astronomical problem. The unofficial debt is about 11 times bigger. This is the commitment to pay all these Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid benefits off into the future. And when you put these things together, you see that we’re, in looking at official debt, we’re looking at the little bushes in front of this huge forest.
BRANCACCIO: The little “bushes” in front of the huge forest?
BRANCACCIO: Interesting metaphor, of course. But when I say 2.7 trillion, that’s the official accumulated deficit over ten years. And that doesn’t impress you in itself?
KOTLIKOFF: Well, right now, the amount of outstanding debt in the hands of the public is about 4 1/2 trillion. If you look at all the bills that the government has to pay from now off into the future and all the taxes it’s going to be collecting, and you look at the difference, which we call the fiscal gap, that amounts to $51 trillion dollars. So the official number is 4 1/2 trillion.
What economists think we should be looking at is 51 trillion. We’re talking about day and night here. We have a situation where the country is effectively bankrupt. The politicians aren’t recognizing it. None of the— neither side talked about the demographics and what that was going to mean interacting with the huge expenditures we’re making per old person right now. And, you know, when you add it all up, it’s really a huge fiscal crisis.
BRANCACCIO: Well, demographics, you’re talking about all the Boomers who get to retirement age and start needing the Social Security, among other things.
KOTLIKOFF: Yeah, the oldest Boomer right now is 58 years old. So just in four years, he’s going to start collecting, or she will collect, early retirement benefits from Social Security. She’ll be eligible for that. And in 30 years, we’re gonna have twice the number of old people and only 18 percent more workers. In 50 years, we’re gonna have enough people 85 and older to fill up all of New York City, all of Los Angeles, all of Chicago and several other major cities.
We’re gonna have enough people over 100 to fill up all of Washington, DC. So that’s the story. We’re gonna get very, very old, much, much older than current-day Florida, to tell you the truth. And then we’re currently paying out $23,000 per head in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But that $23,000 number, even though it’s huge, is growing at leaps and bounds, much faster than the real wages of the workers paying those benefits.
So you’ve got 77 million Baby Boomers interacting with 23,000 bucks per head. And that 23,000 bucks per head is growing at leaps and bounds. And nobody is watching the store.
BRANCACCIO: What does this really mean, though, to, for instance, I don’t know. I have kids. Do you have kids?
KOTLIKOFF: I’ve got two kids. Yeah, 14 and 6.
BRANCACCIO: All right, all right. So they’ll, you know, we all know they’ll have to pay for some of this. How much will they have to pay if nothing changes?
KOTLIKOFF: Well, if nothing changes, their taxes as a share of their labor earnings, net of any transfers, are gonna get— will be twice as high as those that we face. So we’re talking about doubling the tax rates on our kids. And it’s impossible.
We are in— we know that our tax burden is not light. We can’t do this to our kids because they won’t be able to pay it. They’ll stop working. They’ll leave the country. It’s gonna be a fiscal mess and an economic mess.
BRANCACCIO: So what’s to be done? As you know, politicians, even politicians like President Bush who’s coming into this new administration with what he calls a lot of political capital, don’t like to really attack that problem because it just ruins you politically.
KOTLIKOFF: Well, we’re adults. Whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, we’re adults. And the most precious thing in our lives is our kids and our grandchildren. And we have to accept that responsibility that we can’t destroy the American dream. The situation’s far worse than we’re discussing because we’re focused on this $4 1/2 trillion dollars of official debt when we should be looking at a fiscal gap of 51 trillion, which is just astronomical.
So we’re in much worse shape than people understand. There are things to do. But they’re gonna be painful. Somebody’s gonna get hurt. It’s not gonna be a freebie. We have to understand that everybody, old, middle aged and young, everybody except the old poor need to get on board to help deal with this problem.
BRANCACCIO: Translate this to what this would mean for hard-working American families specifically. It could mean what? People could lose a job if the economy contracts because of some of this but what else?
KOTLIKOFF: I think people have to look forward to very high interest rates. Eventually taxes are gonna be raised dramatically. Just as we’re taking out our 401K money, the tax rates are gonna be sky-high. So it’s gonna turn into a tax trap, this whole retirement account deferral idea. Tax deferral idea.
People can look forward to very high interest rates. And a very slow or, you know, depressed economy even. So, you know, economics is called the “dismal science.” And this is putting the dismal back in the dismal science.
BRANCACCIO: And we thank you for at least doing that. But let’s look for a second exactly what the Bush administration seems to be leaning toward. Some of it is reforming the tax system. Not so that the Treasury gets more money or gets less money. But to somehow simplifying the whole way that the tax code affects our lives. Why would they wanna do that? What’s the benefit and to whom?
KOTLIKOFF: Well, the tax system is very complicated. So there’s a good, you know, it’s a good idea to try and simplify it. On the other hand, in changing the tax base, their idea is to switch from taxing income to taxing consumption. And in doing that, we’re going from a very progressive income tax to something that’s not as progressive. So part of the agenda here may be to lower the burden on the rich. We’ll have to really see how this proposal pans out.
BRANCACCIO: And when you tinker with the tax code, there’s going to be winners and losers. In fact, interest groups are gonna fight mightily to preserve some of this stuff. Already the Bush Administration says the deduction for interest paid on a mortgage will be preserved. The deduction for charitable giving will be preserved. But there’ll be others that will come into this debate.
KOTLIKOFF: Yeah, it’s not that tax reform like this hasn’t been considered. Going from income to consumption taxation has some positive benefits for the economy, to be sure, on the savings side, on the investment and growth side. On the other hand, there’s the issue of progressivity. And who exactly is gonna bear this burden.
BRANCACCIO: And who is it? The middle class?
KOTLIKOFF: I think the burden would be shifted more toward the middle class. But I have to see the details of exactly what he’s proposing.
BRANCACCIO: Is it gonna happen? I mean, ultimately do you think they could actually simplify the tax code, given the political stakes?
KOTLIKOFF: I think they have as good a chance as anybody. I think the Republicans have been pushing for this kind of a tax move for several decades now. And they also have been pushing for Social Security privatization. And I think they’ve got a wind behind them. And I think they’re actually gonna pull it off. Whether it’s gonna be, you know, I don’t think it’s gonna be good for the country on balance. But that’s where they’re headed.
BRANCACCIO: President wants what the administration calls an “ownership society” in which we get to decide more about our economic destiny. Not just Social Security, looking it up on a table and getting a check. But having some influence over that. Actually owning the account so some government in the future can’t swipe it from us. What do you make of that?
KOTLIKOFF: Well, it’s certainly good to have private property and let people have free choice. But what we’re doing with the Social Security system or even with the compulsory private account system is forcing people to say, we’re saying to the society, “Look, we know there’s lots of people who have trouble saving. We’re gonna force you to save.”
Now if you’re gonna force Joe and Frank to save, and you’re gonna say, “It’s really important for you to save.” You don’t wanna take Joe and Frank over to the casino and let them both gamble and see who ends up with a good retirement and who ends up with a lousy retirement. You wanna make sure, if you’re gonna force them to save, if you’re gonna put your, you know, your stamp on this process of saving, that they end up with the same rate of return and that it’s a secure rate of return and they get a good retirement out of it.
So that’s what I’m very concerned about with these private accounts. That people are gonna invest differently. Some people are gonna end up very well off in retirement. Other people are gonna end up very poor. And the ones who end up poor are gonna say, “Well, look, you government, you forced me to do this. Now you’re responsible that I took my Uncle Sam’s tip and I lost all my money.”
BRANCACCIO: Now, the President, when he talked about his agenda for the coming four years, didn’t talk about the coming generational storm. Is it a moral issue in terms of what we’re setting ourselves up for?
KOTLIKOFF: You know, I think it’s really the moral issue of the day. You know, it’s are we going to do the right thing by our kids? Are we going to maintain, enhance, improve the American dream? Or we are going to let it vanish and destroy it? And that’s really what we’re looking at.
I think our fiscal situation is worse than Brazil’s. I think it’s worse than Argentina’s. I think it might be the worse of any country in the world.
BRANCACCIO: Argentina that completely melted down a couple of years ago.
KOTLIKOFF: Yeah because Medicare benefits and Medicaid grew three times faster than real wages since they were initiated. When you let that kind of spending occur, and you know that you’re handing these bonuses not just to the current retirees but to 77 million Baby Boomers, in effect — they’re all gonna get these higher benefits because of the uncontrolled growth — then we’re kind of putting into cement the country’s bankruptcy. We have to do some very fundamental reforms to get control of that spending, and also to fix Social Security.
BRANCACCIO: Economist Laurence Kotlikoff, along with Scott Burns, the author of THE COMING GENERATIONAL STORM. Thank you very much.
KOTLIKOFF: My pleasure.
MOYERS: We began this broadcast with God and politics. We end with God and war. With the battle of Fallujah taking such a toll on all sides — on soldiers, insurgents, and civilians — we went searching on the Web for the faces of war, the faces of those fighting it and those trapped by it.
This is one face of war and this is another. Sometimes the faces show up in pairs, sometimes hardly at all. This, too, is a face of war. So is this, brother burying brother.
This one caught our eye, an Arab fighter in Fallujah, reading the Koran, his holy book, waiting for the fighting to begin.
Not far away, Marines praying and reading from the Bible, their holy book, waiting for the fighting to begin.
A journalist said he heard the ancient text read aloud, “Victory belongs to the Lord.” But which one?
That’s it for NOW. David Brancaccio and I will be back next week.
Thanks for joining us.
This transcript was entered on August 20, 2015.