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It is customary for the editorial in an anniversary issue of Commonweal to celebrate the history of the magazine while restating the importance of its founding mission for both the church and American society.

That won’t be done in this editorial because much of the rest of this eighty-fifth-anniversary issue is devoted to an examination of the prospects for, and the role of, independent journals of opinion like Commonweal. This may seem like a bit of navel-gazing, but we think the survival of a vigorous, critical, and independent press justifies the indulgence.

Here we turn our attention, as we often do, to the uncertainties and dangers facing the nation as a whole. The United States remains engaged in two costly and unresolved conflicts far from home. Although the withdrawal of U.S. troops from a still unstable and politically fractious Iraq has begun, pressure for military escalation in Afghanistan is mounting. President Barack Obama is expected to announce a decision in the next few weeks about the military’s request to deploy more troops there. Despite dire warnings from the usual suspects about the danger of showing weakness in Afghanistan, it is hardly clear that an additional forty thousand troops-or an additional hundred thousand-would be sufficient to “win” in Afghanistan. The administration has yet to explain what it would mean to win, and what human cost it is willing to accept. Some intermediate strategy short of withdrawal or full-scale escalation-one that would allow measurable progress toward well-defined goals-may be the most prudent course.

President Obama’s multilateral diplomatic initiatives have changed the tone and direction of U.S. foreign policy, but have done little to resolve the most serious conflicts. Israel’s right-wing government has rejected Obama’s insistence that it freeze settlements in the West Bank, while the Palestinians remain deeply divided and seemingly incapable of acting as a dependable partner in the peace process. Iran has yet to agree to transfer nuclear material to Russia for processing, an arrangement that would reassure the international community about the purpose of Iran’s nuclear-energy program. In Pakistan, the army’s offensive against the Taliban has taken on a new seriousness, but with mixed results. Patience and persistence, not reflexive belligerence, on the part of the United States must still be the order of the day.

Domestically the new administration can point to a few modest successes. It now seems likely that some kind of health-care reform will become law. Proposals to reregulate the financial industry are making only limited headway. Congress will probably establish a Consumer Financial Protection Agency overseeing how banks handle accounts, credit cards, and mortgages. The Treasury is floating various proposals to curb executive pay and discourage excessive risk-taking in banks and investment firms. Along similar lines, the Federal Reserve wants to restructure the pay of executives at the nation’s twenty-eight largest banks. Yet the effort to impose tighter restrictions and real transparency on the operations of large investment banks-especially on the trading of complex derivatives-is meeting stiff resistance. The financial industry still wields inordinate influence on Capitol Hill, and hardly seems chastened despite having brought the world economy to the edge of the abyss last year. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker wants Congress to reinstitute the restrictions of the Glass-Steagall Act (repealed in 1999), which prohibited commercial banks from holding and trading high-risk securities. Volcker argues that regulating securities trading is easier said than done. Insulating commercial banks, and thereby much of Main Street, from the high-risk speculation of investment bankers is the better alternative. That idea has received a lukewarm response from the administration so far, but it deserves serious consideration.

The last forty years have seen an almost unprecedented growth in economic inequality. Middle-class incomes have been stagnant for decades, while top incomes have risen sharply. By many measures, the United States now has the most unequal distribution of wealth of any advanced Western nation. The consequences of this inequality are evident in failed urban schools, crumbling infrastructure, astronomical rates of incarceration among minorities and the poor, unfavorable health outcomes for the insured and uninsured alike, and economic insecurity for virtually all Americans. Commonweal was founded on the conviction that our individual welfare cannot be separated from the welfare of those around us. American society is predisposed to ignore that common-sense reality, but an independent Catholic journal of opinion is honor-bound to keep reiterating that simple truth.

October 27, 2009

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