Sam Hurst is a Rapid City writer and television news producer. His latest book "Rattlesnake Under His Hat: The Life And Times Of Earl Brocklesby" is a terrific account of a legend in the Black Hills tourism industry.
As the mid-term elections approach, my greatest fear is not that Donald Trump will swoop into a congressional district and rally his troops for an agenda of concentrated wealth, racism, and global bullying. My greatest fear is that Democrats will not use this historic opportunity to resolve their own internal conflicts and develop a unified ECONOMIC policy with broad appeal to the American people. So I
offer a caffeine-induced exercise, a Sunday morning puzzle if you will. What is the Democratic economic message for 2018 and 2020, in ten core principles or less? Can it be expressed in a five-minute stump speech by everyone running for city council or U.S. Senate? And, can it be the foundation on which the base of the Party vets its candidates?
The premise of this exercise is that these would be CORE economic principles, not a laundry list of all the things that are important to Democratic voters, or specific constituencies. A young Latina Dreamer running for office in south Texas will have a different focus than a farmer in North Dakota. A working class vet of the Iraq War, running in western Pennsylvania will see things differently than a Yale-educated Millennial attorney in San Francisco. There are critical values that candidates will want to express that rise from their own personal experiences: think police abuse, DACA, #MeToo, LGBQT identity themes. There are tried and true cultural issues that Republicans will use to bait Democrats: think gun control, abortion, bathroom access, the war on Christmas. There are also important issues that seem obvious: controlling the power of mega-banks, making world trade responsive to workers and the environment, challenging China, human rights, the war on terror, immigration, money in politics, gerrymandering, mass incarceration, food and agriculture. There are a hundred VERY IMPORTANT policies that Democratic candidates might individually choose to run on, but this exercise is about the core unifying economic principles of the Party that can be expressed as universal themes, in a short stump speech.
As I approach the 2018 election, these are my eight bottom line principles that define who/what makes a Democrat. There are obvious synergies, both between these eight principles and between these eight and dozens of other issues I am interested in. If a candidate is afraid to defend these principles from the podium, she/he just ain’t a Democrat as far as I am concerned.
1. Universal Medicare Option. Every American citizen, regardless of age or economic status should have the opportunity to enroll in Medicare. This is NOT free health insurance. It will be expensive, but the more broadly the costs are shared the less it will cost each individual. It will protect the freedom to choose your own doctor. Medicare is vastly more efficient, and its health outcomes are more effective, than the current system based on private insurance (especially as the Republicans systematically dismantle the already weak ObamaCare system).
The current system of private insurance and employer mandates is onerous on private enterprise. It traps workers into jobs that they hate but cannot escape because they cannot risk losing coverage. A Universal Medicare option would unleash the innovation economy, entrepreneurialism, and higher quality health for our citizens. If voters are afraid that Medicare-for-all will stifle innovation in surgical techniques, pharmaceuticals, or diagnostic technology, then we should invest in the training of physicians and university-based research. Subsidizing private insurance and mega-hospitals has nothing to do with innovation or quality of care. Finally, we cannot control our debt or the shrinking security of the middle class until we remove the artificial economic cost of private health insurance.
2. Community-based public schools. Public schools are the lynchpin of community stability. If there is any value that the Founding Fathers were unified about, it was the importance of free, public education. Teachers/school staff are the foundation of the American middle class. A $5,000 increase in teacher pay is one of the most effective ways to inject economic stimulus into local communities. It is teachers who buy homes, buy shoes for their children, and participate in civic life. Teachers are the “human capital” side of the American infrastructure.
Teachers who are poorly trained and underpaid are as much a danger to society as a rusted bridge. Our economy is based on innovation that takes place at a wicked fast pace. The days of a worker spending his/her entire career with one company or using one skill-set are long gone. The only answer is to promote a culture of “lifetime learning” in the context of community-based public schools. My own preference would be to emphasize early childhood education. Others favor technical education. Others favor university-based research. These are legitimate ideas. But the core principle is that community-based public schools are the institution best suited to promote citizenship, critical thinking, technical education, opportunity, and diversity. The crisis of public education flows directly from the conservative, racist reaction to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision of the Supreme Court. Community-based public schools are, therefore, an entry point for a national commitment to confront racism, segregation, housing discrimination and poverty.
One of the most important grassroots movements today is taking place among teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky and other RED states on behalf of public schools. It is also worthy of note that these grassroots teacher movements are led by women.
3. Smart-infrastructure. President Trump’s policies on coal and oil are the desperate attempt of a 70 year old man to reinvent the horseshoe. A new generation of Democratic leaders must view infrastructure spending through the eyes of the computer revolution and smart technology. If the idea of “infrastructure investment” is to repair highways, schools, airports, the electric grid, river levies, ports, and transit systems using the old technologies of the 20th century, we will have miserably failed. No infrastructure project should be undertaken that does not integrate the digital revolution, smart technologies, wind, solar, conservation, into its footprint. The days of filling potholes with asphalt, because that’s all we know how to do, are over.
4. Science-based decision-making. One of the great limitations of human evolution is that we have evolved to respond quickly and decisively when a lion attacks us out of the grass. We run, or we fight. If we are smart, we walk through the grass in groups and avoid situations where we are forced to face danger alone. But we have not evolved to respond quickly and decisively to a lion that will attack us in twenty years. Science allows us to see into the future and to understand the challenges of the future. This will require a massive public investment in research universities.
Climate change is the most critical global issue facing humanity. It can only be dealt with at the intersection of education, infrastructure, global investment, and personal sacrifice. The Greenhouse Effect, and the physical and chemical principles that explain it, are a five-minute, 8th grade science lesson. Every Democratic candidate, regardless of the office they seek, should be required to call a middle school science teacher and have the principles of the Greenhouse Effect explained to them in terms that can then be repeated to a lay audience at a county fair. This would be the bare minimum expectation. In framing the problem of climate change for a political campaign, Democrats should combine the tremendous threat with the tremendous opportunity. There are, quite literally, hundreds of jobs in the coal industry and millions of jobs in the industries that must be developed to combat climate change. At this point in the development of geophysical and atmospheric science, any candidate who cannot articulate the fundamental science of climate change in two minutes, and then list all the opportunities, is NOT A DEMOCRAT.
Climate change is global and both a tremendous threat and tremendous opportunity, but the struggle to restore science also intersects with education, health care and global epidemiology, technology, AI, and hundreds of other aspects of public policy. In the 21st century, public policy without science is a prescription for economic defeat.
5. Addiction—The Apollo Mission of the 21st Century: Democrats should advocate a massive national investment in unlocking the science of addiction. We are in the middle of an opioid/heroin epidemic. But we have struggled with the social and economic consequences of drug addiction and alcoholism for centuries. Addiction is a public health problem, not a crime or personal responsibility problem. It is an economic issue of central importance to the security of the population and our communities. We have squandered billions of dollars trying to arrest and incarcerate our way to victory in the drug war, against all scientific evidence. Addiction is at the heart of worker productivity and unemployment, domestic abuse, the uncontrolled (expensive) expansion of our prison populations, international relations with Mexico and Latin America, and runaway health expenses. We still do not entirely understand the science of addiction, or have proven therapeutic and rehabilitation strategies. Addiction crosses all racial, gender, class, religious boundaries.
5. Expand Social Security: Democrats have been so focused on defending security against Republican efforts to destroy it, that they have allowed Republicans to frame the battlefield and they have put their head in the sand when it comes to the demographic revolution (particularly life expectancy) taking place in the nation. This is, in large part, a result of the age of Democratic leadership in Congress, who continue to frame the problem of the social safety net in New Deal terms rather than 21st century terms. Social Security should be solvent, responsive to changing life expectancies, and the wide-ranging ability of individuals to pay into the system. Republicans see these reforms as the first step in abolishing Social Security. Democrats should see these reforms as the first step in expanding the safety net and making pensions and other Social Security services more sustainable. In the future, Americans will live even longer. They will be more mobile, have many jobs/careers, and will work longer. Ask a Millennial if they plan to work for 25 years, retire at 65, and receive a pension for 30 years? A Universal Medicare Option should also be seen as part of the reform of Social Security.
6. Marshall Plan for Latin America and Mexico: Rather than destroying our relationship with Mexico and Latin America, by demonizing and stereotyping their cultures, we should look upon our relations with Latin America as the primary focus of international policy, and international investment. We have our deepest historic relations with Latin America. Latin America is a massive trading partner, and as nations develop it can be even larger. Good relations are essential to solving our intractable problems with immigration. Our historical relationship with Latin America is fraught with imperialist intervention. Our imperial history toward the region, including dozens of military interventions, is a reality that our own citizens are woefully ignorant about, but a 12 year old on the streets of San Salvador can list all the times the United States has invaded a Latin American nation. Creating a new framework for relations will require patience and determination and persistence, especially in the aftermath of the Trump presidency. But it is folly to believe that the United Stats can be economically stable, or can solve its immigration problems without having a new policy in the hemisphere.
7. War is economically destructive: We cannot bomb our way to stability in the Middle East. War is the single most economically destabilizing part of the federal budget and national debt. What would our economy look like if we had used five trillion dollars over the last decade to invest in the economic integration of Latin America into a healthy hemispheric economy, built 21st century schools, and infrastructure based on wind and solar, rather than building bombs, missiles, and the long-term expense of caring for wounded soldiers? Would we have found any fewer weapons of mass destruction? Would Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria be any less stable? Energy Independence should mean independence from the ancient hatreds of desert tribes. All manner of special interests hide behind the cliché of “national security,” but we have lived too long with the conceit that Halliburton’s and Exon’s profit is our national security.
My standard for going to war is very simple. Every member of Congress should hold town halls, and ask this simple question: “Is this war so important to the national interest that you would be willing to have your son or daughter killed on the battlefield?” If the American public is willing to send our own sons and daughters to the battlefield, it is a war worth fighting. If, on the other hand, no one in the audience can even point to the war zone on a map, perhaps it is the wrong war. In the name of global security we have created massive insecurity. In the name of national security we have systematically destroyed our economic security.
8. Progressive Taxation: The fatal flaw in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was to describe his policy prescriptions as “free.” Free health care. Free college. For middle class taxpayers Sanders rhetoric sounded like a mind-numbing prescription for government debt. This is a society built on sacrifice, not free stuff.
A Universal Medicare Option will not be free. Public Schools are not free. College tuition should not be free. Social Security is not free. EVERY American should be expected to pay for the social safety net. If all a person can afford is a dollar. Then they pay a dollar. But the correlate to that principle is that the wealthy benefit the most from our national infrastructure, resources, and system of laws. Therefore, the wealthy individuals and corporations should pay their fair share. The idea that the middle class should pay to support the “job creators” is (as President Bush, I, explained quite vividly) VOODOO ECONOMICS. Taxation should be progressive, and the decision to raise or lower taxes in any given economic environment should be flexible rather than an ideologically rigid, blunt instrument, for the wealthy to de-construct government services and programs.
So, friends, let the conversation begin. Add, subtract, find synergies. But remember…these are core principles.