Democracy and Public Investment

January 30, 2018

What democracy can do is obscured by today’s free market, anti-regulatory, anti-government rhetoric. That rhetoric creates real winners and losers, but taking it at its word, it’s based on an everyone-for-him-or-herself form of individualism. It asserts that our successes and failures are almost solely the result of our personal abilities and denies that what we accomplish always rests in part on what society gives us.

That flatly contradicts reality. This country blossomed because we worked together, with a spirit of cooperation. Cooperation that made associations, large businesses and elective government possible.

Everyone-for-him-or-herself-alone ideologues shouldn’t blind us to the public role in development. America’s Founders knew they needed government. As aptly described in the show Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris and their colleagues understood the importance of a banking system and had government create it. Across the thirteen original states, Founders used government to open transportation to the west. Washington himself was deeply involved in efforts by Virginia and Maryland. When New York, which had a sea level path to the interior, finally built the Erie Canal, it set the path for industrialization and settlement for a century and a half, and made the North into the powerhouse that won the Civil War.

Today we’ve lost a shared sense of the public investments necessary to continued development, and the foundations of American success are falling apart. Bridges take unsuspecting occupants into the rivers and ravines below. Water systems deliver lead, mercury, and an armory of toxins. Sewage systems poison rivers, people and the living things that depend on them. Trains crash for lack of decent equipment. The electronic grid barely carries ordinary loads. The next solar storm can take the electrical and internet grids down, bringing the country to a lengthy stand-still. American colleges and universities have been the envy of the world but stripping their resources will ensure their replacement abroad and with them the R&D that has been central to American leadership. We are the wealthiest of countries but too cheap to fund our infrastructure, terrified that taking care of America would actually put people to work, or that public spirit in building and rebuilding America will help someone else’s business.

The best stimuli for business are investments in the capacity of the public, infrastructure for getting things done, and rules that create a common floor of good behavior. The idea that everything depends on lowering taxes is pure garbage from people who want their winnings the easy way – by taking them away from the people.

Trump promised to put infrastructure in his budget. It’s hard to know whether he’ll keep that promise, whether enough Republicans will follow him, or whether it would include anything more than a wall on the border or brick and mortar repairs. Public investment could make infrastructure better and more resilient, as so dearly needed in Puerto Rico and on the coasts. Public investment could go well beyond controversial minimum wage laws by offering decent, useful, jobs at livable wages. Public programs could improve the private market by creating a model to compete with, like the public health care option that Obama tried to get.

Madison, Hamilton and their contemporaries had a much more patriotic and mature understanding of what American progress depended on – the people, the whole people, not just a few plunderers appropriating for themselves what should be our birthright.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Jan. 30, 2018.

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Choose Life

February 28, 2017

I want to focus on a serious issue that is being ignored in favor of all kinds of fake news and grandstanding. In college, I took a course on demography. That means we were looking at the explosion of population in parts of the world, which then leveled off, but at much higher levels than before. Everything we are struggling with in this twenty-first century is related to that explosion of population.

The most significant advances in our longevity were the result of public health advances, precisely the things that people don’t want to spend on right now, on our water and sewer systems. I remember my dad asking every owner of places where we stopped for the night whether the water was potable, meaning it was drinking water from which we would not get sick. That was new in his lifetime. And by the way, my dad grew up in Brooklyn, in New York City, using an outhouse. Sure many of us have used outhouses at one time or another but they are not the best protection for public health in large communities – septic systems take lots of space.

After water and sewer systems, penicillin probably made the biggest difference – it’s probably why I’m talking with you today but never met my sister who died at the age of three before the discovery of penicillin. Those advances added decades to our lives by comparison to very short advances from modern medicine and surgery.

And they are a large part of the problem of global warming. There are lots more of us burning things, driving cars, using electricity, getting what we need for business or pleasure from the furthest corners of the world. That takes energy. Energy has been produced by burning things. And so the world gets hotter, the oceans expand, tropical diseases proliferate, and life threatens to get nasty, brutish and short once again. And efforts to mitigate that will be overtaken if population continues to expand – worldwide it’s doubled in my lifetime.

So when I hear about advances in medical science, like the possible elimination of malaria, I think how wonderful for the likely victims, and then I wonder about the global impact. There is no free lunch. We can make lots of advances. But the world has its limits. More people will put more stress on the environment. And stress on the environment is already heading us toward the next major extinction – us, human beings, our children and grandchildren.

And so I think there is a trade-off between our health and our numbers. There is no human life after we are extinguished – only death and tears. So let’s be clear, I am very pro-life, but to be pro-life demands support for birth control, especially the kinds that prevent conception.

There is no so-called pro-life position that is not also a position about death. It seems to me that The Church and all houses of worship, must rethink their positions about death and destruction along with their positions about conception. The two are intertwined by laws well-beyond our ability to control. Yes the Bible says choose life, all our bibles say that in some form. But are we choosing life if we ignore the reality of death, destruction, and extinction?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Feb. 28, 2017.


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