October 13, 2016
“It is my hope that this election will serve a great national purpose, that it will remind the people of the United States of the unfinished business before our country …..” JFK at Memorial Auditorium, Buffalo, New York, September 28, 1960
John Kennedy saw his job as setting before the American people “the unfinished business of the nation.” Fifty six years later in 2016, we are in the last stages of an election that feels bizarre, even apocalyptic, and we seem to have fallen a long way off Kennedy’s path. Our democracy really seems to be undergoing a test, and it is baffling and very troubling that rather than being able to look forward to discuss problems and opportunities ahead of us, we are being dragged into a rear-guard struggle about old issues that were thought to be settled but clearly were not. Important forward political and national decisional work that needs our attention is not being reached. This is big trouble, because we have plenty of important unfinished business.
I see three broad national tasks:
One is a physical task, not even really political, but nonetheless a world-historical imperative. We must end the grave damage to the atmosphere from carbon dioxide emissions from energy production. This is a matter of engineering and investment, but nonetheless the political sector must orchestrate indispensable public consent to move decisively, with all of our very large capacity and our international leadership role, to protect the climate. .
Although government must lead and coordinate the conversion to renewable energy nationwide, a great deal of the investment and work itself can be done by our dynamic private economy if a substantial carbon tax steers the energy industries in the right direction.
After ambitious energy legislation, blocked for the past decade, has been passed, carbon pollution should be attacked massively and urgently with large resources from the carbon tax and from savings from a reduced defense budget. We need national leadership and coordination for a radical modernization of our power generation and distribution system. This will include broad moves in favor of wind and solar generation, decentralization, greater efficiency in the use of energy. We need new ways to store and transport intermittent electricity to achieve smooth and reliable distribution of non-fossil based power, not only for existing traditional uses, which themselves are intermittent, but for electricity-based thermal pump heating of homes and buildings. The project certainly includes speeding up the adoption of electric vehicles at the same time that transportation more broadly, especially urban or metropolitan transportation, is modernized.
Authorities like Mark Jacobson and his team at Stanford have outlined how this massive transformation in our economy can be done. Such an intense “war-footing” decarbonization of the economy can make us a leader in the new technology of renewable energy, possibly including nuclear power generation. It will create large new employment, solving our deep and growing underemployment problems, as World War II helped end the Depression in the 1930’s, and for the long run, it will give us cheaper (and domestic), as well as non-polluting, energy. New production of fossil-based structures, plants and vehicles should be over within a decade, although existing energy-served capital equipment will take longer to be discarded and go out of use.
We must reverse our society’s evolution toward the highly unequal income and wealth distribution, which Sen. Sanders rightly described as grotesque. As many economic analysts, such as Joseph Stiglitz, point out, the present mal-distribution of wealth handicaps rather that supports and stabilizes economic growth.
The United States is an incredibly rich and productive society, as well as a large and technologically dynamic one. The challenge in front of us could be put, “how do we become rich?” Narrowly or broadly? Opportunistically or with a long-term perspective? Do we create a framework of generosity and cooperation for the broad production, diffusion, and use of many forms of wealth, or do we let a small wasteful financial plutocracy of arrivistes take over? We have seen already that they exist and are well fortified politically against the great majority, many of whose members are left deeply ambivalent about modernity and in the position of estrangement and anger toward establishment elites that we are seeing revealed in the current election.
We should not so much to take existing possessions away from the wealthy, a recipe for bitter resistance and conflict, as rather re-structure the future flow of goods and services so that they are distributed to a much larger swathe of society, in principle all Americans. This certainly implies a much more progressive tax system, and could well advance to a society which sees many basic goods and services, such as education, medical care, food, and good housing, as free or entitlements, rather than having to be purchased in a market. There is a huge literature and a rich real-life history of struggles and proposals for reform on this subject, and there are many societies which can serve as examples of how to achieve an egalitarian and free society of high production and consumption, notably those of Scandinavia. We know from the work of Richard Wilkinson that the burdens of inequality are very heavy indeed on those who are economically and socially left behind, but can they be remedied?
Starting from our present position, this task is not easy. Climate protection or national medical insurance, both politically balked for decades, are child’s play compared with achieving a more equal and balanced society (along with many concomitant cultural changes) through democratic and peaceful politics rather than revolution. But the United States must nonetheless move into and against this problem steadily and with unflagging purposefulness on many fronts, including reducing the role of money in politics itself. Real progress in ending poverty and setting new patterns of post-capitalist economic flow should be made in the coming eight years.
A third major challenge for the incoming administration may go more against Hillary Clinton’s grain, after eight years of the frustration of Barack Obama’s peaceful orientation by the right. As our world leadership role inevitably evolves, we must educate a broad public to set aside illusions of an American exceptionalism and hyper-anxiety about American power and security. Since 1990 we have been the sole world superpower, and we have internalized this situation in the minds of a large part of our population as the only way that we can exist in safety and security. This false national belief has been institutionalized in the large “intelligence community” and our pervasive, costly, military-industrial complex.
In many cases, the U.S. suffers from too much concentrated power in our own hands--our defense budget has been disproportionate to the military spending of other countries for decades. The task now, and the real path to national security, is rather to diffuse and spread order-keeping power and responsibility rather than concentrate it upon ourselves. We need to share leadership and to broaden the collective system’s base so as to increase its stability and durability. We must accept that a good international order will be less based than in the past on our own American patterns, for example, the corporate-centered economy with a problematical distribution of wealth that is often summarized as the “Washington Consensus.”
Our public must come to understand and support foreign policies based on the reality that our true interest and security lie in a less isolatedly dominant and militarized position for the United States. We must begin to behave in a different way, and to build an international politics of such a character that we are not funnelled by our own preconceptions into a catastrophic war with China, or even an extended, resource-draining cold war with a rising Asia like the multi-decade wasteful and dangerous rivalry with the Soviet Union.
We should be a leading participant in the international search for a world order that will protect us and all countries. There does exist a consciously system-preserving, conflict-abating role in world politics, above and beyond the preservation of specifically national interests. But beyond the very short range, this function is not one for a single paramount nation, nor is it uniquely ours. We should continue to invest in an orderly world system and in its maintenance, but not alone, and not primarily militarily. We need an order of orderly change and adaptation, a flexible order, open to legitimize and institutionalize new realities as they emerge, and to discard old ones as they fade or become maladaptive, minimizing episodes of chaos and violence in transitions.
Superpowers can’t retire, it is said. Not so. Superpowers as system creators, like the founders of a family firm must retire, and share leadership or pass it on to successors, rather than cling to it. A patriarch or a hegemon can retire gracefully and gradually, with a voice in a coherent succession, or can cling to power and be driven from it through force. It’s obvious which path leads to safety and prosperity, and which to ruin.
Concretely, there are three capital issues (in addition to nuclear non-proliferation):
-- The modernization and rise of China, four times larger that us, is endogenous and inevitable. Seeing it primarily as a challenge to us, imposing reflexively on us a mission to frustrate or “contain” China, will lead to waste and grief, potentially on the largest most tragic scale.
-- The Middle East is in modernizing as well as sectarian turmoil, and likely to be so for many years. Our dependency on this region for energy supplies is happily waning, but we are tied to a client state in Israel which clings to policies of confrontation rather than “two state” conciliation with Arab and Persian populations around her. This risks drawing us into wars that are not ours; we must learn to keep our distance and our free hand.
-- Around the world, in perhaps a very large scale swing of a cyclical pendulum, we see a growth of right wing and nationalist feeling. It has not become majoritarian and politically governing in most countries, but it is felt in many. Such attitudes are prone to lead to conflict between countries, and to international violence, which surely with new technologies will come in new forms. With the re-rise of populist nationalisms, the world may become a more dangerous place. Apart from making sure that we do not succumb to such elements within ourselves, we have to think hard about what our role can be in reinforcing peace and cooperation against such a trend.
For the dangerous but brave new international world, our American public needs a lot of education. The population must be better prepared and more comprehending, gradually letting go of traditional casts of mind and naive visceral illusions (such as our own exceptionalism), readying itself to yield the practices, privileges and institutions of the 20th and preceding centuries that are no longer relevant. To lead toward this maturation and reform, even softening, of national attitudes on leadership and security is itself a major piece of “unfinished business” for the new administration.