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Bush fails to pay price of drug war

September 5, 1989

The good news is, we've finally got a president who seems to comprehend that cocaine poses a greater threat to this country than communism ever will.

The bad news is, we still don't have a president willing to pay for a real war on drugs.

Most of the $8 billion pledged by George Bush this week was already in the new budget. He asked for about $716 million in additional funds—peanuts, really, if you're seriously talking war.

Amazingly, Bush's budget director, Richard Barman, has suggested most of the new money should come out of social programs: aid to immigrants, grants for juvenile justice programs and subsidies for federal housing projects.

Brilliant thinking, Dick. Of all the places to scrounge for drug-fighting money, pilfer it from those most brutalized by crack: the young, the poor and minorities.

It's not like we don't have the funds for an all-out drug war; the money is there, and in sums greater than you can scarcely imagine. Billions and billions of dollars—$290 billion, as a matter of fact. Easy to find, too, right across the Potomac from the Capitol. Huge building called the Pentagon.

They've got one little program over there called the Strategic Defense Initiative, otherwise known as Star Wars—space lasers that are supposed to shield us from a nuclear attack. Lots of top-notch scientists don't think SDI can ever be made to work; others say it will be obsolete by the time it's ready to be implemented, well into the next century.

President Bush wants to spend $4.6 billion on Star Wars in the coming year, an increase of $600 million over the 1988 budget. What would happen if we put this program on hold for 12 months and used that money for the drug war?

Any way you cut it, $4.6 billion represents a substantial commitment. Think of all the prosecutors you could hire, all the prison cells you could build, all the rehab counselors you could train, all the children you could reach through new educational programs.

For the sake of argument, let's say Bush wants to leave Star Wars alone. Let's say a 12-month hiatus would disrupt research and development. Then let's look at another system that's supposedly finished, researched to perfection: the B-2 Stealth bomber.

Despite serious doubts by military experts as to whether this aircraft will be able to fool Soviet radar, the Pentagon wants to build 132 of them at a total price tag of about $70 billion. Each new plane supposedly will cost about $550 million.

Although defense contractors are notorious for underestimating, let's give them the benefit of the doubt. What if you took the money from just 10 new Stealths (say two a year, over the next five years) and applied it to the federal anti-drug budget? That's more than $ i billion a year that we aren't using now.

Given the choice, most Americans would want their tax dollars fighting crime on the streets, not floating around in outer space. There's no clear and present danger to compare with having a crack house on your block.

Money alone isn't going to end the cocaine wars, and many reasonable critics wonder if we haven't already squandered too many billions on a law enforcement strategy that has failed dismally. Yet there are signs that increased funding does make a difference, especially in the classroom. To claim that we simply don't have the money is nonsense; worse than that, it's hypocritical.

The money is there, if Congress and the president can find the courage to use it.

George Bush is smart enough to know that the political stakes have changed since Reagan, Carter and Nixon declared their wars on drugs. Today the streets are so frightening and cocaine crime is so prevalent that American voters are ready to blame somebody if things don't improve—and that somebody is likely to be the president.

Four years isn't enough time to stamp out crack, but it's enough to learn if George Bush means business. Judging by this week's announcement, war is heck.


U.S. murder of drug lords invites chaos June 12, 1989 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | BSO strikes again in battle of the bulge December 17, 1990







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