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It's been said that the wealthy win because they can always hire half the poor to shoot the other half. Rarely is there a sadder case of this than when it comes to trying to protect the planet that feeds us, clothes us, and generates the only pocket of breathable atmosphere in our solar system.
Because look, say you're a committed environmentalist, your beloved spouse has treatable cancer, and the only way to save his or her life is to take a job clubbing the last baby seal on the beach. That seal is toast. And so is anything or anyone else that stands between your partner and their chemo.
Don't think the greedy jerks who own everything don't know it; they downright count on it to get their way.
Driving down wages, increasing animosity among the lower classes by scapegoating various segments of also-poor people, decreasing the health and safety of working conditions -- these aren't unfortunate side effects of our current economic incentive structures. They are the point, fueling a vicious cycle where more profits flow to the top while workers are too desperate to do anything about it. The effect, as it was recently said, is this:
The great problem we have today in improving our society, in fixing our economy, is that so many people don't want to give up what they have. . . . [W]hat the past 40 years have proven is this: if you lose your job, you're on your own. If you're in your 40s and 50s and you lose a good job, you'll probably never, ever, have a good job ever again. . . .
People know, they know and they are right, that economic change, in our society, could cost them everything. Their job and any prospect of a good job. Their house. Their marriage. Their health care and even their life.
So they grasp tightly to what they have, and everyone fights to make sure that nothing really changes. Each person, with their little or big piece of the pie, fights viciously to keep it whether it's good for society or not. They are right to do so.
The biggest enemy of our environment, therefore, is mass desperation wielded like a billy club in the hands of the extremely wealthy. The following are some ideas on how to both disarm them and take the next steps towards creating a more awesome society to live in.
1. Increase the minimum wage. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage is lower than it was in the 1970s. It's not a family wage, even though it's all some families can get. Yet the whole time it's been declining, productivity and profits have gone up, but a fair share of the increase hasn't been passed on to workers. Raising the minimum wage would put upward pressure on the share of business profits that go to workers, making life less precarious for millions of people.
2. Shorten the work week and increase paid time off. It's hard to have an engaged citizenry when work demands so much of people's time that they can barely unwind, let alone follow the news. A full-time work week barely leaves time to be a good parent, a good friend, or even a good housekeeper; forget hitting the mark on all three. The idea that a 40 hour work week, plus the 10-20 hours of preparation and commute time involved, is a reasonable base amount of time to demand of someone is premised on the social expectations of a bygone era where a full-time worker had a full-time caregiver at home. Lowering the full-time work week to even 35 hours would not only create more job openings, it would likely boost per hour productivity, as it has done in some European nations.
3. Cut higher education and worker retraining costs to students. In the era of the GI Bill, not only was it free for returning veterans to go to college, it was affordable for almost anyone who could spring a part-time summer job. But federal funding cuts have piled on top of state funding cuts, and tuition is now ridiculous at most public colleges. It's patently ridiculous to saddle new college graduates with a mortgage-worth of debt when they graduate and set out on their own. Particularly when the value of a college education has decreased for so many, but is nonetheless necessary because it's barely possible anymore to find family-wage blue collar employment. And when people lose their jobs, they should be able to retrain, if possible, if they can't find work in their original field.
4. Restore federal funding for university research programs. Research departments have had to increasingly rely on industry funding, a type of ballyhooed public-private partnership, which has reduced the independence and objectivity of the nation's research institutions to everyone's detriment. There are many cases, but you have to look no further than the way the fossil fuel industry has corrupted university research on fracking, such that very little information at all is available about the risks of hydraulic fracturing recovery of natural gas, and the public must mainly rely on anecdotes and independent filmmakers to hear anything negative about its consequences.
5. Expand unemployment insurance. Want workers not to fear the loss of outdated, polluting industries? Make sure they know they won't be out on the street if they have to look for work for a while, and that they don't have to take the first crappy job that comes their way. It would go a long way towards preventing rank-and-file workers from fighting to the death to defend industries that are long past their sell-by date.
6. Break up the big banks. The financial sector has grown significantly in terms of their share of GDP and has been the biggest accelerant of income inequality in the country. Add to that the longstanding investment policies of these very large banks to either refuse loan capital to, or downgrade the ratings of, businesses who refuse to move production overseas, bust unions, liquidate pensions or drive down wages, and they have overweening power to make life miserable for the average worker. They can no longer be trusted in any respect to be good stewards of the capital they've extracted from the rest of us and their power must be dismantled.
7. Financial transaction tax. Rapid-fire speculation, computerized trading, reckless short-term investing, all add to financial insecurity and promote a casino atmosphere in stock exchanges. It doesn't create a good economy for the average person, though, and these tax-free transactions privilege investors over every other sector of society that has to pay taxes when money changes hands. And there's no one it's more fair to ask to pony up for the public good than the people who've been busily dismantling democracy all these years.
8. Tax capital gains as income. Since capital gains are taxed at very low rates, the wealthy have been incentivized to collect more and more of their household income as some form of investment payout, and disincentivized to reinvest in the productive economy. It's just another way to encourage the wealthy to uselessly hoard cash and is grossly unjust. Tax it fairly and spend it on building a better world.
9. Crack down on overseas tax evasion. With feeling, the wealthy must stop unproductively hoarding cash and starving the public of the funds to run a civil society. This must become unacceptable in every country.
10. Move your money. While large, unaccountable international financial institutions have an incentive to starve their native economies and follow the global race to the bottom wherever it may lead, they're not the only banks. The prosperity of independent credit unions and community banks is much more directly tied to the prosperity of their local economies and the well-being of their customers. These institutions can't afford to recklessly gamble with their financial reserves and are among the most responsible actors in the financial sector. If you can take your business to one of them, please do.
11. Uncap Social Security taxes. If FICA taxes were collected on all income, not just that below the inflation-adjusted, currently ~$110,000 threshold, it would make the program solvent for the foreseeable future. Taking Social Security's solvency off the table for the next few decades would remove a significant wedge issue used by the financial elite to distract the public by leaving us terrified that we're going to wind up homeless when we're too old to work anymore.
12. Lower the retirement age. Increases in the retirement age in the last few years have been a significant cause in the higher rates of disability claims. I mean, duh. When people get older, we tend to get sicker and less able to work. You don't need a PhD to know it. And recent life expectancy gains have mostly gone to the wealthy, not the sort of folks who'd be lucky to find a diner or a paper route to work at when they're 67. Our current national retirement programs have decreased elder poverty by ridiculous amounts. We should look at ways to decrease it further.
13. Open Medicare to everyone. Small businesses would on better footing when competing for talent if they didn't have to worry about covering insurance, and would-be entrepreneurs wouldn't have to be afraid to strike out on their own. Medicare's program costs would go down because of the large influx of healthier people and there'd be a much larger constituency for improving the quality of coverage. Baby seal; saved.
14. End crop exclusions. Currently, if a farmer wants to participate in the federal farm subsidy program, which comes with a host of benefits such as ready access to crop insurance and disaster aid, they can only grow what are known as program commodity crops. A program crop is one of a set number of cereal grains (wheat, corn, etc.), oilseeds (like canola) and legumes (usually soy.) A requirement for participation is that no other type of crop be grown on the land, no fruit, vegetables, etc. This severely limits the ability of farmers to use beneficial intercropping and crop rotation techniques. It would bar a farmer from using, for example, the venerable Native Central and North American Three Sisters intercrop, of corn, beans and squash, because squash isn't a program crop. This restricts farmers' freedom to try new techniques, pursue emerging market opportunities and diversify their businesses. And don't get me started on what a disaster it is for soil carbon sequestration.
15. Break up slaughterhouse consolidation. The biggest obstacle to getting rid of CAFOs is that the slaughterhouse industry has been consolidated under the ownership of the meat packing and distribution industry, with independent slaughterhouses closed down and small, on-farm operations mostly regulated out of existence at the behest of industry lobbyists. In a given geographic area, there's often only one slaughterhouse within a reasonable distance, and you can't use it unless you're contracted with the packer who owns it, for a price they can arbitrarily set and change at whim. There is no other single factor more responsible for the fact that animal production is dangerously concentrated on relatively small, virulently unhealthy feedlots, and why it rarely makes economic sense to farm animals any other way. It's also hard to emphasize enough what an incredible disaster this has been for small livestock producers, who've gone out of business in droves, driving up unemployment in rural communities. In addition to making farming a more economically stable enterprise, reversing livestock consolidation shifts animal waste from being an expensive environmental toxin and back towards being a useful, cost-saving soil supplement.
16. Immigration reform. When you have a large, very desperate population of workers who are afraid to go to the police if they're abused or witness a crime, report wage theft, or organize for safer workplaces, it drags down wages, community safety and working standards for everyone. Give immigrant workers a pathway to citizenship and the security to bargain for better working conditions, it raises the bar for everyone, instead.
17. Marriage equality. It's a joke in liberal circles when fundamentalist preachers blame natural disasters on the gays and other hapless scapegoats, but for a lot of desperate people looking for comfort and perhaps not knowing anyone who's out, it redirects their anger away from the rich jerks who are really fleecing them. Functionally, it's a use of religion to preserve the economic power structure. If marriage equality is a reality everywhere though, everyone will eventually get over it and we can do more productive things with our time than argue about who we let in the clubhouse.
18. Gender equality. When women do better, families do better, children are healthier and intimate violence starts trending downwards. The public health and workforce productivity benefits are immense. Women who are in control of their reproductive options, which is to say that they have access and means to prevent pregnancy or freely choose to carry to term and care for a child, make good decisions about how large a family they can reasonably support. But when they're expected to provide vast amounts of free labor, when they're scapegoated for all of society's ills, and when their sociopolitical capital is tied to some impossible standard of virtue, they too often end up in desperate circumstances. A necessitous woman is not a free woman. A society that can put women's considerable talents towards solving more interesting problems than surviving on the raggedy edge, that's a society that can solve a lot more problems.
19. Paid family leave. There need to be government supports for new parents of both genders to take time off work for the birth or adoption of a new child, or for the acute care of sick family members. It's inherently unfair for women to do all of this type of work at significant economic penalty, or to throw up barriers to men who want to be more involved with their families but feel that they have no choice but to put their shoulder to the grindstone at work. The strain on a family's time and resources that result from having no paid leave to care for the very young or the unwell leaves many people in dire straits, and contributes to the birth of a child being a leading cause of a fall into poverty.
20. Expand public sector employment. There are jobs that need to be done that will never be profitable if done well, but that society needs done and can well afford. Teaching young children is a prime example, as the direct recipients of the service have no purchasing power and society as a whole is poorer if children are only taught on the premise that their parents can afford to pay for it. Having a literate workforce is a pearl beyond price, as it were. There are many more cases to be made for expansive public safety and sanitation services, for public transportation, roads and infrastructure maintenance. A society that provides these services is more attractive to commerce, has more good paying public sector jobs, and inherently reduces desperation.
21. Incentivize local production of everything. I don't know the precise policy mechanism that would be best, but one way or another, cheap, long-distance transportation is going to become more scarce and it's already imposing significant costs in terms of environmental devastation. Further, the trend for ever fewer businesses to consolidate supply chains across the globe starves many local economies of employment opportunities, and many individuals of work they'd find meaningful and enjoyable. It might be more 'inefficient' in terms of consolidation of profit, but the consolidation of profit is a big problem in its own right, as discussed.
22. Make it easier to form a union. If it was as easy to call an election for a union as getting a majority of employees to sign a card saying they wanted one, unionization rates would go way up. This would drive up the share of profits that go to workers, boost workplace safety, decrease economic gender and ethnic discrimination, and generally push working conditions upwards for everyone as non-unions workplaces had to compete for workers with more desirable places of employment.
23. Protect the right to vote. A great deal of progress has been made in terms of dismantling the formal structures of white privilege in America and conferring the full benefits of citizenship on communities of color. We're by no means there yet, but current efforts to restrict voting rights and make our electoral system even less representative of a one-person, one-vote ideal, have the potential to significantly delay progress by putting in power reactionaries who'll continue acting to divide working families against each other and further the desperation of historically disadvantaged populations. And people struggling to have their basic rights, dignity and humanity recognized are often a bit hard pressed to lend a hand to save the oceans. Further, the politicians working to preserve as much racial inequality as possible are usually the same politicians working hardest to burn the world to a cinder for cash. Save democracy, save the planet, I say.
Humanity has been mired for so long in fighting over whether or not there's enough to eat that we almost didn't notice that we'd finally achieved a world in which there's enough for everyone … and we're catching up with the plot of the story just in time to watch that world get wrecked before we can figure out how to share amongst ourselves a little better. But it doesn't have to get wrecked.
Even better, we're wealthy enough that if we'd stop trying to starve each other, we could move on to more interesting questions, like, why can't we mine the asteroids? How healthy *could* everyone be? Would it be possible to achieve a 95 percent global literacy rate? When can we get fusion power? Can we halt species extinction? Where's my goddam flying car? You know, fun stuff. We have the technology, we just need the will.
I should admit that I'm not actually aiming to save the world. I'm hoping we can make it awesome. But I'm pretty sure than can only happen if we also commit to saving each other.
Image credit: Samuel Blanc