Paralysis and lack of vision slowly destroying a great nation

The Republican Party is being taken over by a Tea Party faction that is threatening to shut down the US government and undermine the nation’s vitality

By Thomas Friedman  /  NY Times News Service

Fri, Sep 27, 2013 - Page 9

Countries that do not plan for the future tend not to do well there. When you watch the reckless behavior of the Tea Party-driven Republicans in US Congress today, you cannot help but fear that the US will be one of those. What makes it all the more frustrating is that in so many ways the US has the wind at its back, if only everyone would pull together to take advantage of it.

In a world that rewards imagination, the US has an incredible melting pot of immigrants that constantly blends together new ideas from technology to commerce to the arts. In a world where secure, clean energy is a huge asset, US investments in efficiency and discoveries of natural gas, if properly exploited, have the potential to pull manufacturing back from all corners of the globe.

In a world where the big divide is no longer between developed and developing countries, but rather between high-imagination-enabling countries and low-imagination-enabling countries, the US remains the highest-imagination-enabling country in the world — and it has the innovative companies, startups and venture capitalists to prove it.

DIVERSITY

In a world where so many countries are struggling with diversity, the US does so as well, but at least its reached a point where it could twice elect a black man as president, whose middle name is Hussein, who defeated a woman in his own party and then four years later a Mormon from the other. No other country does that.

A country with this many natural assets should be celebrating and instead it is inflicting wounds on itself. The gerrymandered hyperpartisanship that has infected both parties since the end of the Cold War is debilitating enough, but the latest iteration is a new low.

The Republican Party is being taken over by a Tea Party faction that is not interested in governing on any of the big issues — immigration, gun control, healthcare, debt and taxes — where, with just minimal compromises between the two parties, the US could amplify its strengths so much that it would separate itself from the rest of the world. Instead, this group is threatening to shut down the government and undermine the US’ vital credit rating if it does not get its way.

This kind of madness helped to produce the idiotic sequester — the US$1.2 trillion in automatic, arbitrary and across-the-board budget cuts from this year to 2021 — that is already undermining one of the US’ strongest assets.

SLASHED BUDGETS

Ask Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the crown jewel of US biotech innovation. In this fiscal year, the sequester required the NIH to cut US$1.55 billion across the board — 5 percent at each of its 27 institutes and centers, irrespective of whether one was on the cusp of a medical breakthrough and another was not.

“There was still an ability within each institute to make adjustments, but, as NIH director, I could not decide to emphasize cancer research and down-modulate something else,” Collins said.

Because of the sequester and the fact that the NIH budget has been losing ground to inflation for 10 years, “we will not be able to fund 640 research grants that were scored in the top 17 percent of the proposals we received,” he said.

“They would have been funded without the sequester, but now they won’t. They include new ideas on cancer, diabetes, autism and heart disease — all the things that we as a country say are a high priority. I can’t say which of those grants would have led to the next breakthrough, or which investigator would be a Nobel Prize winner 20 years from now,” he added.

Of those 640 top research proposals, 150 were from scientists financed in a previous budget cycle who had returned to the NIH to secure another three to five years of funding — because they thought they were really onto something and a peer-review board agreed.

“Now we are cutting them off, so you damage the previous investment as well as the future one,” Collins said.

Next year, the NIH was planning to offer new money to stimulate research proposals in a dozen areas, including how to speed up the use of stem cells to cure Parkinson’s and other diseases, how to better manage pain in sickle-cell disease and how to improve early diagnosis of autism. All were shelved because of the sequester, Collins said.

“Why ask people to submit applications we would just have to turn down?” he asked.

In addition, this year the NIH had to turn away from its research hospital 750 patients who wanted to be part of clinical trials for disorders for which medicine currently has no answers.

NEEDING A PLAN

The US’ biomedical ecosystem depends heavily on the NIH doing basic research the private sector will not do. So the US is cutting the medical research that has the potential to prevent and cure the very diseases that are driving healthcare costs upward.

In short, the US is cutting without a plan — the worst thing a country or company can do — and it is doing it because one of the two political parties has been taken over by angry radicals and barking fools, and the old leadership is running scared.

I have plenty of issues with Democrats. They are not blameless for our paralysis, but when the Republican Party goes this far off the rails, it is not even remotely challenging US President Barack Obama to challenge his base on taxes and entitlements.

Thus does a great country, with so much potential, slowly become ungreat.