Former White House advisor to three U.S. Presidents — George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford — Stephen Studdert knows Washington as an insider with privileged information, contacts and insight. Unfortunately these days this knowledge is a burden and the normally optimistic Studdert admits that he's a worried man.
He has written America in Danger — What You Must Know to Protect Yourself to raise a warning voice saying that such a complexity of factors influencing American independence and the economy are upon us that it is difficult for most citizens to gain perspective. However, it is essential to have this understanding to be adequately prepared.
Things feel of late like the planet is on a downhill runaway train and picking up speed, growing ever closer to the mountain cliff. The inevitable crash is around the next bend, or the next. There are frightening clouds of instability on the close horizon and they are easily seen by those who look. In many respects we are a nation sinking under its own weight. My restless and nagging fear is that the avalanche may suddenly come crashing down before we get our houses in order.
His intent is not to frighten readers, but help them assess the risks and dangers that exist from following the policies America is currently pursuing. He says, "We need to hear the real facts and the plain truth even if it hurts."
Studdert lists ten dangers including the triple threat to our global economic dominance posed by China, India and Russia; the time bomb of American debt; our unfunded entitlement programs; radical Islam and terrorism; federal government stupidity; the bursting of the housing bubble; our unquenchable thirst for oil; immigration insanity; pandemic plagues; and America's failing infrastructure.
Some of these are issues we assume we see, but Studdert connects the dots for readers in a way designed to help us pull our heads out of the sand.
Meridian Magazine recently interviewed Stephen Studdert about the issues he discusses in his book.
Meridian Magazine: You indicate right now that you are very worried about America. Why?
Studdert: I told my wife when I first went to the White House when I was 26-years old, I've been exposed to too much information that is just frightening. Sometimes I wish that I hadn't known it.
However, as I look at the issues facing America, I have never seen a more potentially dangerous time since the Civil War, and what worries me most is that if two or three of these possible dangers hit simultaneously, our ability to respond to is very limited. To me a perfect example right now is that we have a housing/credit crunch with the burst of the housing bubble and foreclosures are already at a historical high. Theoretically to avoid a recession, the government passes a so-called stimulus 160 billion refund to the taxpayers, but it is a refund of taxes never yet collected, so in reality it's 160 billion more debt on the backs of the American public.
Meridian Magazine: Tell us about the economic threat facing America.
Studdert: For over a century, the United States has been the economic powerhouse of the world. But not much longer. We are not paying enough attention to the triple threat of China, India and Russia that are emerging as global economic powers in their own right.
China is a danger to us in that China, with its 3 billion new capitalists, is consuming an increasing amount of global resources, which is driving the cost and availability up for our country. China today has about a million cars. In 15 years it is estimated they will have 160 million cars. Where's the fuel for those cars going to come from? India has a billion people, they are surprisingly well educated, and they speak English and so the cost of labor there is a fraction of what it is here. We're going to see more and more jobs migrate from the United States to India.
Russia's geopolitical objectives are very counter to ours, and Russia has enormous gas and oil reserves, which are going to make it a new and dangerous power in the world. Each of those three countries has global objectives that do not necessarily align with the objectives of the United States. They are countries with newfound wealth and we are a country of enormous debt.
Meridian Magazine: Talk about the U.S. debt. Is it something to be concerned about or will increased productivity substantially lower it?
Studdert: Our debt is a ticking time bomb. Last year, for example, we Americans, as consumers, spent $20 for every $19 we made. One doesn't have to be a Ph.D economist to figure out we can't sustain that for very long. At all levels, the government, corporate and personal level, we have been spending money we don't have, by financing debt. Who is the largest buyer of our public debt? China. I find the behavior of China curious when looked at from an American perspective, but when looked at from a Chinese perspective, which is thousands of years in the making, it looks very different. They are on a course to restore themselves to what they see as a rightful position of world dominance. We're going to fund that. We are in the process of indirectly funding it.
David Walker, the comptroller general, says that if the federal government were a private business, it would be declared bankrupt. He also says that if we don't deal with it now, the only choice in a handful of years will be to cut the federal budget by half or double taxes. Those are draconian measures that would be enormously disruptive to our economy, but he says we have no choice.
I dedicated the book to my children and grandchildren with an apology for the mess we are leaving them. Our children will be the first generation of Americans to enjoy a lesser quality of life because of what we have done.
Meridian Magazine: Most Americans are not aware of the intricacies of our national debt. Why don't the politicians do anything about it?
It is interesting if you watch our electoral behavior, we tend to ask our elected officials what's in it for me? Federal program after federal program is being funded so that we the voters will keep electing them. It's self-serving, reckless and ultimately very destructive.
We see politics at its self-serving worst. If we look at the true federal government debt, and we say its 9 trillion dollars, that ignores all of the unfunded federal obligations and entitlement programs, which when you add them together, it is about 77 trillion. A trillion is a thousand billion, and a billion is a thousand million. Think about that.
It troubles me that so many of our public officials at every level — federal, state, and local — are more concerned with their own political preservation than they are the public good. My observation is that in Washington today, the long-term aggregate impact is never assessed. They only look at the immediately, short-term political benefit.
We as citizens look to the government to fund all kinds of things, and the amount of money spent and the influence of special interest groups on public officials is at an unprecedented level. Elected officials who used to be beholden to the public are now so much more beholden to the various special interest groups who fund their re-election campaigns that the whole process has become very distasteful.
Meridian Magazine: You mention that many Americans are losing their pensions because businesses have made promises they can't fulfill.
Studdert: I talk in the book about the crisis in American pensions. I'm astounded as I talk to people how absolutely uninformed they are on that subject and yet every day that is an issue that worsens. Many pension funds are broke, too. For example, the city of Vacaville, California, is filing bankruptcy, because of their inability to pay police and fire pension obligations. Kentucky has a multi-billion dollar shortfall for state employees' pensions. With 78 million baby boomers starting this year to retire, that is a problem that is going to accelerate and worsen.
Meridian Magazine: We are all feeling a new crunch at the pump as gasoline prices continue to climb.
Studdert: We are in a very fragile position regarding oil.
Today we're an oil dependent nation and our five biggest oil providers are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Venezuela. We have to be insane to have handed our security to those countries. They are not known for long-term stability or for true friendship to the United States.
Look at Nigeria, which has as corrupt a government as there is in the world and is primarily a Muslim country. Iran's leader is a madman who says Israel should be obliterated from the face of the earth and refers to America as the Great Satan. Saudi Arabia has spent billions over the last twenty years building schools that teach their Wahhabi beliefs and Wahhabism teaches that America should be destroyed.
Meanwhile, we prohibit drilling ANWR in Alaska and prohibit drilling off the coast of Florida, and yet Cuba is drilling 40 miles off the coast of Florida — go figure. I appreciate being sensitive to the environment, which is part of the covenant we as members of the Church mean when we work to be good stewards, but it also means being a wise steward, and we haven't been very wise of yet.
Meridian Magazine: Are the mortgage failures included in your list of dangerous issues?
Studdert: Most of those are adjustable rate mortgages where the rate resets and the homeowners haven't the ability to pay the higher price. The market has dropped so much that the owner owes more on the home than it is worth.
People wonder if the housing market will rebound. I am of the opinion that the current problem is not temporary, and we will see it continue to worsen and spread to multiple other fronts as we've seen it spread to the bond insurance companies.
Meridian Magazine: Tell us about your concern about terrorist attacks.
Studdert: There are approximately 1 billion Muslim adherents in the world. A small percentage of them, 10% or so, could be categorized as extremists. That is 100 million people who would like to see the United States destroyed because of the values we've adopted that they find offensive. I attend on an occasional basis, meetings with those in the intelligence and national security community. They are doing a masterful job of preventing terror attack. People in these agencies are working to the point of exhaustion to protect this country. They need our praise. They need our respect and they deserve it, but they all speak in terms of not if, but when. They speak in terms of the inevitability of a terrorist attack on this country, here at home, be it nuclear, chemical, biological or other kinds of terror.
If the anti-American terror groups don't have access to nuclear weaponry it is only a question of time when you look at North Korea, Pakistan and Iran.
Just in recent days as we were talking about the terror threat to the United States and what our government has gratefully prevented, a senior official said to me, if the public had any idea what we've already prevented, it would scare them to death.
Meridian Magazine: Of all the issues you mention as possible terrorist problems for America, what worries you the most and could cause the most devastation?
Studdert: I suppose the one that concerns me the most would be a terrorist attack where the terrorists used an EMP, an electromagnetic pulse, which we know exists for example in Russia. If one of those were detonated over the continental US at 30 miles up, it would cripple this country instantly in every single measure. What an EMP does is destroy electronics, so instantly power plants, the starter on your car, computer systems, refrigerators — all would be destroyed and the country would collapse. Instantly there wouldn't be a vehicle in this country that has an electric starter that would run. What would we do for food tomorrow if we haven't stored it? That is the one that frightens me most. The other problems are sneaking up on us one day at a time. Hopefully, our national defenses could prevent some of the other terrorist possibilities, but we are not equipped to prevent an EMP. The only way we could stop that is through good intelligence. If one explodes, in a matter of milliseconds the damage is done.
Meridian Magazine: Why don't Americans realize the dangers that we are in?
Studdert: As I watch the so-called news reporting today, the media are not reporting the hard news of fiscal issues or public policy as much as they are such ridiculous issues as steroid use by major league baseball players. The second thing to quote Elder Maxwell is that we're too often bogged down in the thick of thin things. Because so many of these problems are seemingly over the horizon, we're busy managing our own lives on a daily basis instead of paying attention to the bigger picture.
What happened at 9/11 came a as complete surprise to all of us. As tragic as it was, it was limited just to one city. We could learn from that or from Katrina how without warning, devastating things can occur. What would happen if China — who is the largest holder of U.S. treasury debt — were to say, "We're not going to hold this anymore. Or we're going to sell all of these debts at a discounted price. It would have an emormous destabilizing force on our country and we would not have even seen it coming.
Meridian Magazine: What can any of us do about this personally? It all seems a bit overwhelming.
Studdert: We ought to feel an urgency, but not a panic. It is interesting, if we listen to the words of President. Hinckley and others of the General Authorities over the past years, how many times have they kindly, but firmly said to us, get your houses in order? And while you and I can't on our own fix the nation, we can certainly take care of our lives and our own houses and our own families.
We have to be serious about getting out of debt individually and as families. We ought to be serious about not taking on more debt. We ought to be serious about living within our means. We ought to be serious about higher education for the best employment we can qualify for, and we ought to be serious about things like food storage and family preparation.
I had a son who worked in a car dealership in a community that was overwhelmingly LDS. Our son observed that an extraordinary number of people bought cars that were bigger and more costly than they could possibly afford, but because financing was so readily available, they splurged. We don't need that big house. We don't need that SUV. We need to be safe and secure first. The savings rate in the U.S. is a negative number. In China the average person saves 30%. Just that number alone speaks volumes about where our two countries are going.
It is interesting the brethren have told us for decades that our personal food storage ought to include wheat and the scriptures talk about wheat for man. Last week wheat futures closed at $22 per bushel and wheat supplies in the U.S. are at an all-time low. If you talk about a perfect storm for trouble, there it is.
Elder Oaks gave a talk about good, better, best and said we need to make choices between good, better and best. We need to make our lives more simplified and less harried, so we can focus on weightier matters without all the bombarding confusions of the world.
Meridian Magazine: Beyond helping our own families, what can we do for the future of America?
Studdert: I love the United States of America, and I am deeply concerned about the future. Unfortunately today we're more concerned with political correctness than we are political courage. I wish we could change the definition of P.C. to be political courage. To make political decisions that are right for the country may mean the decisions are unpopular, and most politicians today don't want to make unpopular decisions.
In addition, today there is a poison of politics. The personal costs of running for public office and serving in public office are very dear because that vitriolic tone has made the notion of being involved in public service less appealing to more and more people. One example comes to mind during the administration of the former George Bush when the number two position at the state department became available. The position was quietly offered to 59 people before someone would accept the appointment because of the cost, the stress, the drain and the innuendo and the attack. Not one of those 59 wanted to expose themselves to that.
I'm of the view that America was created, as the founders said, under the hand of providence and it had and has divine purposes. For 200-plus years, America has been the light of the world and the envy and desire of most of the world. You go to any country in the world, and there are lines at the U.S. embassy to get visas to come here. There are not lines at other embassies, but because of our reckless spending and self-serving public policy we are dooming ourselves
I for years I've pondered a phrase in my patriarchal blessing about being my brother's keeper. I think that includes to alert your brethren to danger and for me that was a driving force in writing this book. The second driving force is my love of the United States of America because it is still the best system in the world.
Great civilizations in history have failed when they didn't follow the words of the Lord and the words of the prophet, and I pray such is not the course we're going to choose.