Editorial: Skewed priorities

You cannot talk about the federal deficit without mentioning the war in Afghanistan. Sen. Jeff Merkley did both during his talk to the Columbia Forum last Wednesday night. Sen. Merkley took the annual spending on the Afghanistan war – $120 billion – and broke that into jobs that could be created by working on the nation’s infrastructure that is overdue for maintenance or repair.

Merkley’s comments were reminiscent of what then-Congressman Brian Baird told a group inside the Chinook School some five years ago. Baird’s constituents were restoring the school as a community center. They wondered if there might be federal arts or community development money available for their project. “If you were in Afghanistan, I could help you,” said Baird.

It was not a facetious re-sponse. A school or infrastructure project in that Middle East country has ranked higher than our own. Merkley spoke disparagingly of the fruitless “nation-building” at the heart of the Afghanistan adventure.

Now we are in a period of austerity, as Thomas Edsall declares in a new book, The Age Of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics. That suggests even fewer domestic projects will be funded. That outcome has special meaning for our region.

Many Northwesterners – especially the reborn fiscal conservatives – don’t realize the Pacific Northwest is a creature of the federal government. It was federal spending that created that hydropower system and the interstate highway system that moved an agricultural economy to manufacturing and even electronics. At the mouth of the Columbia River, it is impossible to look in any direction and not see federal money – the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Fort Stevens, Fort Columbia, jetties at the mouth of the Columbia River, the continuous dredging, the U.S. Coast Guard.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been immensely costly, rivaling the cost of World War II. Private contractors have profited enormously from the wars, but average Americans have not. Sen. Merkley is right to urge a swift end to our Afghanistan occupation.