Saturday, October 31, 2009

Pakistan on the bayou

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was rather, shall we say, blunt in her remarks to various groups of Pakistanis this past week.

Basically, adjusting for diplomacy-speak, she said Pakistan was a basket case, and that unless that country gets its act together, Americans will just be pouring foreign aid we scarcely can afford anymore down a rat hole.

She told Pakistanis they were too ignorant, too sick, their infrastructure was a damn mess, and that their country doesn't tax itself nearly enough to do any bootstrap-pulling at all.

HERE'S A "money" quote from a roundtable with Pakistani business leaders in Lahore.

"And so at some point, when you ask for partnership, you have to ask what the equity state is that Pakistan itself is looking to make," Clinton said, "because it is difficult to go to our taxpayers and say we consider Pakistan a strategic partner, we consider it a long-term friend and ally, we have supported it since its inception in 1947, we want to continue to do so, and have our taxpayers and our members of Congress say, 'Well, we want to help those who help themselves, and we tax everything that moves and doesn’t move, and that’s not what we see happening in Pakistan.'"

That's blunt. And it occurred to me . . . what if the federal government took that approach with various "undertaxed" American states that, nevertheless, think they have the same -- nay, more -- right to sacks and sacks of federal cash than those "nanny states" taxing themselves into oblivion.

Red-blooded, all-American, rugged-individualist conservatives in low-tax states like (Oh, what the hell . . . ) Louisiana would like us to believe they're somehow ruggeder and more individualistic and moral than us damn Yankees in Omaha, by God, Nebraska, sitting here
with the 182nd-highest property tax out of 1,800 ranked U.S. counties. By comparison, my home parish in Louisiana, East Baton Rouge, sits at No. 1,546.

And the bottom 10 property-tax counties in the United States are
all in Louisiana.

And yet, there are Louisiana's politicians standing there in Washington,
with hands outstretched or, alternately, trying to gerrymander the 2010 Census to tilt federal-aid formulas in their direction -- and maybe keep from losing a congressional district, too.

Cue Hillary Clinton.

I WONDER whether she could make time for a couple of Baton Rouge roundtables? Because if you spend a day driving around my hometown -- driving around all of my hometown -- you're going to think two things.

First, you're going to think it doesn't do much to keep itself up. You're going to, at some point, use the phrase "God helps those who help themselves."

For example, is this a school in Baton Rouge or one in Pakistan?

You ought to see police headquarters (at top).

And second, you're going to think middle-class Baton Rouge spends the money it doesn't spend on taxes on heavy artillery it trains on the city's poor neighborhoods.

WHEN A STATE doesn't see fit to collect enough local revenue to take care of its basic local needs, at what point does a strapped national government -- and Americans who do tax themselves enough to, more or less, cover local basics -- look at the able-bodied beggar and say, "Screw you, buddy! I saw you take that fiver out of your pocket and buy a pack of smokes."

I mean, read these excerpts from
Clinton's remarks and start replacing "Pakistan" with "Louisiana." It gets real interesting real fast:
The United States wants to help create more jobs in Pakistan. We see this happening in two ways: one, a direct way through programs such as what we are advocating for the creation of reconstruction opportunity zones which will open market access to the United States. We are working to accelerate this approach because it’s essential that we provide more assistance in trade and investment and help to improve the environment for you to do more business.

We also know, though, that in addition to direct programs like that, encouraging your government to do more in the way of trade agreements, looking for opportunities to open up the Pakistan economy to greater trade access, from not just the United States but from this region and beyond, but there are issues that affect how much business you can do, what kind of capacity you have.


We know that at the base of any economy are the talents of the people, and there is no doubt that the Pakistani people are incredibly talented. But it is also beyond argument that there needs to be greater emphasis on education and health, on women’s empowerment, in order to realize the full potential of the challenge that exists. I often say that talent is universal, but opportunity is not. And we have to change the opportunity structure and create opportunity ladders.

Last night, I was in Islamabad for the second drawing of the Benazir Income Support Program, and I was privileged to hand out certificates to some of the women who came from very rural areas to accept their certificates, which carried with them the promise of investments, investments in them and in their families, giving them the tools that they then can use to try to improve their lives.

Really, when you look at what it takes for a society in the 21st century to flourish, I believe that it really rests on three pillars. Sometimes I liken it to a three-legged stool. One is a democracy, democratic form of government with accountability, transparency, a commitment to produce results for people, because if democracy doesn't produce results for people, there’s a built-up frustration that can often cause instability. Second, a market economy where people are given the opportunity to flourish and to create their own wealth and spread it around because of the jobs and the other benefits that flow from it. That strong economy goes hand-in-hand with a strong democratic government. And then the third is civil society, the kind of support for society that you get from faith communities, that you get from private associations, that are really what makes life worth living besides being a citizen and being a consumer and a producer in the economy, really fulfilling oneself.

And certainly, when one looks at the results of the decisions that have been made by the kind of people that the governor referenced who have left Pakistan and have moved to the United States or to Europe or to elsewhere in the world, and when I look around this table and look at the names here and realize how much success there is and how many risk-takers there are and how many people have really prospered through good times and bad because of your own hard work and your entrepreneurial skills, I have no doubt that we can expand that and create many more entrepreneurs and successful business people of all size businesses in Pakistan. The United States is ready, willing, and able to help in whatever way is appropriate. But for us, Governor, we want to make a long-term investment in Pakistan. We think it will pay off. And we certainly believe that it is to the best interest of both the people of Pakistan and of the United States to have that kind of partnership.


But I think too that it is only fair to take a hard look internally about what Pakistan needs to do. And at the risk of maybe sounding undiplomatic, Pakistan has to have more internal investment in your public services and in your business opportunities. By any fair measure, for example, the percentage of taxes of GDP is among the lowest in the world. The United States, we tax ourselves, depending upon who is in power, somewhere between 16 and 23 percent of GDP, and right now, it usually hovers around the 20 percent. You’re less than half of that.

And so at some point, when you ask for partnership, you have to ask what the equity state is that Pakistan itself is looking to make, because it is difficult to go to our taxpayers and say we consider Pakistan a strategic partner, we consider it a long-term friend and ally, we have supported it since its inception in 1947, we want to continue to do so, and have our taxpayers and our members of Congress say, well, we want to help those who help themselves, and we tax everything that moves and doesn’t move, and that’s not what we see happening in Pakistan.

And I can say that because I think there has to be, in any partnership, but more importantly in any plan for your own economic future, a hard look at where you’re going to get the resources to meet these needs. You do have somewhere between 170 and 180 million people. Your population is projected to be about 300 million as the current birth rates, which are among the highest in the world, continue – 2.6 birth rate. I don’t know what you’re going to do with that kind of challenge unless you start planning right now.

And despite the fact that you have all of these wonderful assets that we have been talking about, Pakistan ranks at about 142nd on the Human Development Index. So as we sit here in this absolutely magnificent building, as we talk to people who are educated and worldly and successful, it doesn’t reflect what I saw last night when I handed out those certificates to the very poor women who had come to collect them.

So I think that it is important for us to do our part, and I am here to make that commitment. But that partnership and that trust deficit that was referred to can only be dealt with by an open and candid conversation. We have been friends and allies. We’ve gone through good times and bad times. As somebody said to me earlier in one of my meetings, it’s like a marriage; sometimes we just get really put out with each other. And I said yes, but we don’t want a divorce. What we want is to keep working to the benefit of our countries and our people, and, from my perspective, to really see the time when Pakistan realizes its destiny. I mean, strategically, geographically, in every sense, it’s all there. But it has to be put together by the people of Pakistan.

We are willing to help, and President Obama and I have a very personal commitment to this relationship that we will carry through on. And I look forward to this kind of conversation and then the follow-up call to action and work – the hard work – that’s translating the hopes into the reality that’s on the ground that will realize the kind of economic prosperity that the people of Pakistan deserve.
YES, HILLARY CLINTON "looks forward" to "this kind of conversation" with a country on which we're spending relative chicken feed compared to what we're spending at home. On states and localities that obviously have a lot more federal representation than they have self-taxation.

Maybe the Obama Administration has too small a pool of folks it's planning to engage in, as the diplomats say, "frank discussions."

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