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Foolhardy Presidents Keep Declaring ‘War’ On Problems They Can’t Solve (Washington Examiner) July 24, 2018

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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Perhaps you did not get the memo from the president’s Council of Economic Advisers earlier this month: The War on Poverty is over, and we won. To be more precise, the CEA report said, “Based on historical standards of material wellbeing and the terms of engagement, our War on Poverty is largely over and a success.” Consequently, increased work requirements for those receiving aid would now be appropriate, according to the council.

This report seemed almost as funny as President Ronald Reagan’s line in a 1988 speech: “Some years ago, the Federal Government declared a war on poverty, and poverty won.” Declaring war on domestic policy problems has become a bad habit of American presidents and, by now, we should have learned several lessons about them. First, they do not solve the problems they set out to address; meanwhile, they actually reduce our ability to find root causes and alternative solutions; they increase executive power at the expense of Congress; and they never end.

Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was the first of these domestic policy wars. Looking for a signature policy to help define his presidency and the “Great Society,” Johnson gathered his advisers at his ranch in December 1963. He told them he would find federal money for anti-poverty programs and asked them to design a policy. Not much was known then (or arguably now) about how to eliminate poverty, so the advisers came back with some small test programs. Never one to go small, Johnson instead went big and declared a “War on Poverty” in his State of the Union message in January 1964. It was, as these domestic policy wars all are, long on rhetoric and short on policy.

Other presidents have followed the LBJ domestic war template. Johnson later declared a war on crime, though Nixon accelerated it and become known for it. Nixon declared a war on drugs. Jimmy Carter declared what he called “the moral equivalent of war” on energy consumption. George W. Bush declared a war on terrorism. These wars are declared on intractable problems and, in many cases, conditions rather than real enemies, so they are never won — poverty, drugs, crime, and terror are all still with us, and the wars continue.

In each case, presidents declared these wars without a strong sense of the policies that would be needed to win them. In the case of poverty, we have never even known how to define the problem. That, by the way, is how the Council of Economic Advisers could declare victory — it used a consumption-based formula rather than the standard income definition of poverty. The latter has always been flawed because it counts only annual earned income, not assets or government aid. So we are not sure how to define the problem, how to fight it, or what it would look like to win it. Believe me, anti-poverty programs are not over.

Further, domestic policy wars limit the search for policy solutions. We do not have time to search out root causes and debate policy options — we are, after all, at war. Nevertheless, the war calls for us to find enemies and spend money rooting them out. We appoint drug czars, we arm local police with military weaponry, and we diminish civil liberties — all in the name of war.

As he expanded so much of the modern presidency, Franklin Roosevelt really started all this in attacking the Great Depression. He said in his first inaugural that the American people want “action, action now,” and he began a presidential agenda of “bold experimentation.” He said that, if necessary, he would ask Congress for war powers. In this way, presidents have continued to grow their power over domestic problems that should be the purview of Congress, or in some cases, state and local governments.

No, the war on poverty is not over. However, presidentially declared wars on domestic policy problems should end.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:

https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/foolhardy-presidents-keep-declaring-war-on-problems-they-cant-solve

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