Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

Punitive politics: Bigger than Christie

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 13, 2014 22:31 UTC

There is a “Sopranos” episode where a deal for a beachfront house on the Jersey shore goes awry at the last minute and Tony Soprano decides to punish the reluctant seller for changing his mind. He sends a couple of mobsters in a boat mounted with giant speakers to remind the recalcitrant homeowner of the wonders of the Italian popular songbook played at full volume. When it comes to ingenious punishments, Jersey leads the field.

What no one has yet explained about the intentional four-day traffic jam levied on the good people of Fort Lee, New Jersey, at the George Washington Bridge, is the real reason the punishment was exacted.

Was it to hurt the mayor by making his constituents so angry they would, in some future ballot, blame it all on him? Was it to punish the voters for choosing a mayor who declined to back Governor Chris Christie’s re-election? Other possible theories have also been suggested. But in any case, closing the traffic lanes would hardly seem an effective way of exacting revenge.

One thing is clear. Using the good offices of the state to punish a person or persons is broadly considered beyond the pale — which is why Christie is in such a precarious position. If any link is established between him and this act of punitive politics, or if there is any attempt to cover up any link between him and the order to squeeze three lanes of traffic into one for four long days, the Republicans’ brightest 2016 hope is toast.

The principle of punishing political opponents, however, is long established.

Congress has yet to approve the extension of welfare payments for the long-term unemployed, for example. Perhaps Republicans who object to extending unemployment benefits have concluded that those without jobs will never vote for them. That is likely, considering that the GOP has placed unemployment at the bottom of their concerns — way behind paying off the national debt and restricting the size of federal spending.

The sequester is just as destructive as we thought

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 23, 2013 19:40 UTC

Remember the sequester? When seven weeks ago the deadline to find a federal budget compromise came and went, there was much handwringing in Washington. In the event that no agreement was found there were to be cuts to public spending so severe and painful that no one would dare fail to agree. To deter Republicans from holding out, half the immediate spending savings of $85.4 billion was to be found from the defense budget, and, to ensure Democrats would work to find a deal, half from annually funded federal programs. Despite these encouragements to fiscal discipline, the March 1 deadline came and went.

For weeks the word “sequestration” was used so often that commentators and their readers grew sick of it. The headlines moved on. But quietly, without making much news, implementation is well under way and proving just as dire and destructive as advertised. It is hard to fully comprehend the impact of death by a thousand cuts and where they fall. This week the sequester broke surface when it began affecting air travel, causing long delays at airports, which is to be expected when you send 1,500 air traffic controllers home without pay. One in 10 controllers will stay at home on unpaid leave every day until October. With the vacation season looming, crowded airports full of frustrated passengers will become commonplace.

Many cuts have an impact less obvious than gumming up airports. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which relies upon federal sources for 86 percent of its research, is losing $7 million between now and September, while the University of Pittsburgh will lose $26 million, mostly from health research. All other research universities tell a similar story. This fiscal year the National Institutes of Health, the largest federal funding agency for many schools, like the University of Minnesota, is spending $1.5 billion less on research.

The North Korean threat in an age of Pentagon cuts

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 11, 2013 19:48 UTC

It may not feel like it, but we are closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The temptation to dismiss the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as a cartoonish figure of fun belies the real and present danger his samurai sword rattling presents. A strange time, then, for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to set out on the most thorough reappraisal of our defense spending since the end of Vietnam.

It is no secret that Hagel relishes the chance to slim the armed forces to a more affordable size. It is what commended him to President Barack Obama. He has already commissioned a wholesale “strategic choice and management review” of the Defense Department, which has been told to think the unthinkable in terms of cutting spending. This week, before defending his vision before the House Armed Services Committee, he offered a glimpse into what he has in mind: a slimming of the desk-bound middle management whose pay and perks cost more than the value of their contribution to the nation’s defense; a clearheaded look at the generous health and retirement benefits the nation’s military and veterans enjoy; the abandonment of expensive advanced weapons that may not be necessary; and an unsentimental assessment of the need for all of our domestic military bases.

Hagel invited “change that involves not just tweaking or chipping away at existing structures and practices but, where necessary, fashioning new ones” because “left unchecked, spiraling costs to sustain existing structures and institutions, provide benefits to personnel and develop replacements for aging weapons platforms will eventually crowd out spending on procurement, operations and readiness.” The American military is too large, Hagel argued. “How many people do we have,” he asked, “both military and civilian? How many do we need? What do these people do? And how do we compensate them for their work, service and loyalty with pay, benefits and healthcare?”

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