In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president. He proclaimed that it was “morning in America”. He then proceeded to ignore every long term problem facing the country and the world, while busting unions, doubling the military budget in peace time, deregulating business, slashing federal aid to the states and giving hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts to the wealthiest people in America (the top 1%). Through all this, he was blissfully unencumbered by facts. You had to wonder how long it could last, and how much damage would be done. Now we are beginning to know. 1980 was not “morning in America”. The Reagan era glorified greed, proclaimed that “government is the problem” and lost vital time in dealing with the long term issues that responsible people needed to deal with. The entire world is rejoicing that that bleak era, after twenty eight long years, is over. Six billion people look to the administration of Barack Obama to return us to a reality based government that can put us on a path to a sustainable future. There is no choice other than to dismantle the Reagan era. Anything else is a road to nowhere.
Yes we can! This means that there are no problems that we face that cannot be solved by good public policy, implemented by the government. Global warming, diminishing energy supplies, health care, poverty, a troubled economy, a crumbling infrastructure, vanishing civil liberties. You name it; it’s just a matter of figuring out and implementing good policy. I offer here some suggestions.
Global warming, diminishing energy supplies and dependence on foreign oil are all related. They are also urgent. Several years ago, Jim Hansen, chief climate scientist at NASA, estimated that we had between ten and fifty years before global warming reached a tipping point and became irreversible. Right now, while it is inevitable that some warming will occur, there is time to keep the Earth safe for human habitation for the indefinite future. But we must act; inaction will lead to catastrophe. My suggestion, in broad terms, is a major investment in true renewable energy: wind, solar and geothermal. Wind and solar have the potential to supply us with enormous amounts of electricity for the indefinite future without adding a single molecule of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. Geothermal energy has shown great promise as a significant source of energy for heating and cooling buildings. Right now, electricity from wind and solar are somewhat more expensive than electricity from fossil fuels. However, good public policy can change this in the short run by offering government subsidies for wind and solar; in the long run, serious government investment in wind and solar technology would make them more affordable. The government would also have to have a program to rebuild the nation’s electric grid. This grid has not been seriously modernized for a hundred years. It needs to be upgraded to meet the needs of the twenty first century. And, as our nation faces a serious recession, such a modernization would provide good jobs all across the country that would support families and get working people spending again. This could actually moderate the coming recession. Renewable energy would also provide jobs in traditional “red states”. Some of the best places for windmills are the great plains – Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma (“where the wind comes sweeping down the plain”), Kansas, Nebraska and North and South Dakota. Those windmills would have to be built, installed and maintained by local people. With an updated grid, the energy they produce could be sold to the far away cities of Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco etc. at affordable prices. Lots of photovoltaic solar collectors could be placed in sunny places like Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. I even wonder if it would be possible to have solar collectors in Alaska, which gets 24 hour sunshine in the summer when the “lower 48” need air conditioning. The bottom line is that wind and solar have the potential to supply 100% of our electricity needs. And just think of the implications. Renewable electricity means that we could light and heat all of our buildings renewably, as well as power our industries. There would be no need to freeze in the dark! Many people, myself included, groan when we are lectured about the “sacrifices” we will have to make as oil runs out. If we have the foresight now to invest in renewable electricity, those sacrifices will not involve uncomfortable homes or places of work. The emphasis should not be on “sacrifice”, which usually means that poor and middle class people cut their standard of living while the wealthy consume even more. I don’t want to hear about sacrifice. Instead, I want to hear about working hard to rebuild the institutions of a sustainable civilization.
The next step would be to figure out how to get a lot of our transportation done primarily with electricity. We can build trains that go 200 miles per hour; in fact, I was reading that France has built trains that go nearly 400 miles per hour. These trains can run on electricity. That way, if we upgrade our train tracks, another large public works investment, all trips of 500 or even 1000 miles or less could be done conveniently and comfortably on trains (“downtown to downtown”, as Amtrak advertises). This would mean the more energy expensive airplane trips would only be necessary for long distances where trains would still take too long. Mass transit within cities could be done electrically with subways and trolleys. And if the fares were low and the trains clean and on time, many people would commute by mass transit, and not in their cars. Score another one for more comfort from a renewable economy. Cars are a little more difficult – they are so convenient. It is my understanding that electrically powered cars are becoming feasible. This needs to be developed. As for the oil companies, gas companies and coal companies who would not be happy to lose their “share” of the energy market, I have to say two things. First, you had your century of easy profits. You failed to plan for the future. You have made it necessary for the government to intervene to save the planet and its people. You are reaping the consequences of over a half a century of poor and irresponsible decisions. Second, you are selling a resource that is going to run out in the foreseeable future regardless of which policies are pursued in the short run. There is no long term future for you in doing what you have been doing. Perhaps someone can find a constructive role for you in the renewable energy economy.
Smart energy policy, like that outlined above, will create wealth. The next question is how that wealth will be distributed. Central to this is the revitalization of unions so that working people have an organized and powerful voice in policy matters. There are many issues here. First is card check neutrality. This permits workers to form a union free of management intimidation. Second would be a serious upgrading of the public institutions of civilization such as schools, hospitals, libraries, old age homes etc. And third there need to be some mechanisms to insure that everyone who works makes a living wage, and that income distribution returns to equality levels found in most industrialized countries.
In terms of a win-win policy that would make people’s lives and the economy better, we can begin with the fact that all people need to have health care. The only way this is affordable is to have universal single payer health care, like every other industrialized country. This makes it possible to cover everyone for no more than we are now spending since 40% of o
ur health care dollars now go to the bean counters in the insurance companies or to the people doctors are forced to hire to deal with insurance company paperwork. By contrast, Social Security has overhead of less than 1%, and the overhead for Medicare is under 10%. There are further savings that are there for the taking. The government has to be able to negotiate with drug companies for the best possible prices on prescription drugs. Further, by covering everyone, you will catch illnesses early, while they are inexpensive to treat. Closing the wealth gap will lead to fewer chronic illnesses (hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, smoking). This, too, would significantly lower the cost of health care. And for a no-brainer start, immediately eliminate the “Medicare Advantage” programs whereby the government pays more to insure Medicare recipients who enroll with private companies who, in turn, cherry pick the healthiest seniors so that they get the highest profits. This simple measure alone would save an estimated $15 billion dollars per year. The bottom line may actually be a net savings on health care spending, because the United States spends twice as much per capita on health care than other industrialized nations, and we have worse outcomes. In the long run, I would imagine that we could bring our total health care bill down, cover everybody, and offer better health care. It’s all a matter of good public policy, coming from the government. Notice, also, that single payer universal health care is good for business and other employers like local and state governments. It would relieve them of the ever escalating burden of employee and retiree health care costs that put American companies at a disadvantage compared with companies of other industrialized countries and threaten to cripple the ability of states, cities and towns to offer services to their citizens.
Along with health care, there are other ways of keeping the population healthy. Research on vaccines could be expanded, thus preventing disease that is costly to treat. I know there is no profit in vaccines because people use them once and then they don’t need them anymore, but isn’t that the point? Why should we be paying to treat preventable illness? So drug companies can get rich?
Where will the money for all this come from? The $700 billion bailout of the financial industry taught me something. $700 billion is a lot of money. By comparison, during the Clinton administration, it was estimated that you could rebuild every public school in America for $110 billion. Yet when financial companies were in trouble, the United States Treasury came up with this enormous amount of money within a week. And, it has become clear since that time that they didn’t even know what they were going to do with it. Reclaiming that money should be an important policy objective. When Britain bailed out their banks, they got 12% interest and seats on the boards of the banks. We got 5% interest, no seats on the boards, and no regulations or stipulations that would prevent this money, also, from being squandered on executive bonuses and non-productive mergers. In addition, as James Carroll pointed out in The Boston Globe, $700 billion is our annual military budget. We come up with that kind of money every year. So, first of all, I don’t see why we can’t come up with this money or even more if necessary to truly rebuild America, starting with an investment in renewable energy and the electric grid. We have to remember that ever since Ronald Reagan, the government has been borrowing money and giving it to the wealthiest citizens who have mainly spent it on luxuries. The money we are borrowing now would make the nation more productive, so it would help us pay back our debt; in fact, it is probably the only way that our enormous debt can be repaid.
Of course, it would also be good to get the military budget down. Barney Frank estimates that we could get it down by 25% immediately (maybe cancel some of the cold war weapons systems). I’m sure significantly greater savings are possible. And, as we switch our foreign policy back from “preemptive war” to diplomacy, further reductions should take place. We might even start to think about the “peace dividend” that we all hoped for when the Soviet Union broke up. Another way to look at this – our military budget is equal to the military budget of the entire rest of the world combined. Do we envision ourselves fighting a war against the entire rest of the world? I hope not.
Terrorism will probably continue to be a problem as long as there are impoverished and disaffected people. However the whole “war on terror” concept is deeply flawed. Dealing with terrorism should be a police action, and an international one at that. Al Quaeda has struck outside the United States. Nobody likes them. Our allies will be all too happy to help us fight them through the United Nations in an international police action. The fear of a few crazy people should never again be allowed to dictate major policies of The United States of America.
Needless to say, it is imperative to restore all the civil liberties that have been taken from us in the name of the “war on terror”. We need to become once again a civilized country that does not torture people, does not detain them indefinitely without habeas corpus rights, and does not keep databases on the activities of law abiding citizens. The Patriot Act should be repealed, all of the existing databases need to be destroyed and all the programs that spy on law abiding citizens need to be immediately stopped. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights need to become, once again, the foundation of our country.
With foreign policy, we should end the war in Iraq. An international group should be set up through the United Nations to help the Iraqis rebuild their devastated country. Because we were the main cause of the devastation, we should be prepared to contribute large amounts of money to the rebuilding.
For Afghanistan and Pakistan, we cannot hope to defeat the Taliban militarily. Finding Osama bin Laden and bringing him to justice should be an international responsibility. Ending our war on Muslim nations, especially if it is accompanied by international rebuilding aid, should greatly limit Al Queda’s ability to recruit new people. Good diplomacy can solve problems much more easily and effectively than the mindless belligerence that has characterized the last eight years. Even Ronald Reagan, at some level, understood this. He negotiated the breakup of the Soviet Union.
A few more comments on money. If you are robbed, it would seem only fair to try to get the money back. If you are deliberately looted, restoration of the stolen money is even more important. Since the deregulation frenzy, initially set off by Ronald Reagan and reaching full flowering under George Bush, many people have become obscenely wealthy by looting the country and the people of the country. All those Wall Street bonuses of the last eight years, all the stimulus money that is not being accounted for and is being used by former executives of Merrill Lynch to buy $37 million dollar Park Avenue apartments in New York City (purchased by Peter Kraus’s wife Jill after he received a $25 million dollar bonus for working at Merrill Lynch for three months) – this represents people’s retirement money and life savings. A few very rich people have this money, and I think it is important to recover it. And I would like to suggest a way to do this – taxation! It is always politically difficult to tax the rich. They are powerful and well connected and have all kinds of arguments about how they, singlehandedly, built a great company that employed X many people and created Y amount of weal
th. However, we now have a rare window of opportunity to refute those arguments. It is now obvious that a small number of people possess enormous fortunes that they, in no way, can claim to have earned honestly. They mismanaged and ran companies into the ground, they looted the retirement savings of people who actually did earn their money – doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers, health care workers, factory workers, successful small business owners. Progressive taxation is a way to get this money back for the public treasury. Income taxes on very high incomes (over $1,000,000 per year, say) should be very high – how about 60%. The estate tax should not only be restored, it should be restored at a very high rate on very large estates. How about an estate tax – nothing up to $5 million or so, 45% between $5 million and $30 million; and 95% over $30 million. And perhaps a 100% luxury tax on purchases over a certain threshold (yachts etc). Maybe there should have been a 100% tax on that $37 million dollar Park Avenue apartment. How many New York City schoolteachers would that pay? Did you ever wonder why elimination of the estate tax was a key priority of the Bush administration?
In the past few years, the distribution of wealth in this country has become more and more skewed to the very wealthy, so that now the richest 1% of people own something like 40% of the nation’s wealth. This is not money that was earned fair and square, and taxation is a highly effective way to get it back.
I am very optimistic about Barack Obama. I am a biologist, and for several decades, I have been reading Nature. Nature is a weekly British scientific journal, and is probably the most prestigious scientific journal in the world. This is the journal that in 1953 published the structure of DNA, and was one of two journals that published the initial report of the Human Genome in 2000. Nature has been around for over 125 years and until this year has never endorsed a presidential candidate. This year, Nature, a British journal, endorsed Barack Obama for president of the United States. While this itself is stunning, their reasons were even more stunning. They did not mention a single issue, not even scientific issues like global warming or evolution or stem cell research. What they said was that Barack Obama has the ability to listen to a very wide variety of knowledgeable people on issues and to make intelligent decisions based on this broad input. I am trusting Barack Obama to do exactly this to solve the many problems threatening to tear us all down.
And, finally, I would like to conclude by saying that Barack Obama is a gift from the Civil Rights Movement to The United States of America. Because of the civil rights movement, he did not have to be humiliated by eating at segregated lunch counters, or drinking from segregated water fountains. He and Michelle were able to attend the finest universities in the country. They are living proof that when you invest resources in your people, you are paid back a thousand times over. You not only help them; you help yourself. I hope that this is the beginning of an era in which our policies will allow us to invest in all of our people, keeping them healthy and educated, so that we can continue to reap returns in the coming centuries.