We’re emerging from our second winter of COVID cocoonery with our collective happiness riding on what We the People do next.
Do we fold and fade under the stress of multiple, unprecedented system failures? Or — COVID-hardened and resilient — do we repair our failing civic, energy and climate systems?
A lot of mischief slipped by during this pandemic.
The most important factor hindering economic success for American adults is a childhood spent in poverty. Everyone understands this. Except Congress.
Backstory: In just one pandemic year, America’s 745 billionaires increased their collective wealth by 70%, adding $2.1 trillion to their bank accounts.
Thirteen of them shared this wealth with Democratic U.S. Senators Joe Manchin, a coal broker from West Virginia, and Krysten Sinema of Arizona, who opposed President Joe Biden’s efforts to address existential threats to the nation. Manchin joined 50 Republican senators to kill Biden’s short-lived program that, with annual grants up to $3,600 per child, had reduced child poverty by one-third. Too expensive an investment in the nation’s future, they said, at $1 billion per year. We can’t afford it.
It’s an existential threat to the rich.
Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich put that one to rest: this $1 billion is markedly less than the $2.1 trillion, one-year increase in wealth for those 745 billionaires. And it’s less than corporations and the wealthy are saving in taxes, thanks to Donald Trump’s tax cut.
The program lifting poor kids out of poverty “died because, simply, the oligarchy didn’t want to pay for it,” said Reich, a University of California Berkeley public policy professor who authored “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few.”
“Oligarchic economics coupled with racist nationalism marks the ultimate failure of progressive politics,” Reich warned. “Beware. When the people are no longer defended against the powerful, they look elsewhere.”
That link between inequality and distrust of government will resonate in this fall’s elections. As will racist nationalism.
Betrayal of the working class seems a baked-in interest of many oligarchs. Yet we’re seeing an improbable alignment of working class white supremacists’ interests dovetailing with the oligarchy’s: barring certain citizens from voting.
And we have the “freedom” folk, who claim they’re entitled to choose which laws to obey. Their anarchist impulses, ever-present in American history, were stoked by Trump.
It’s gotten to be a heavier lift to prevent oligarchs and racists from calling the shots in this country. But it’s not impossible — if the rest of us show up.
If we’re to survive as a democratic nation, though, we cannot just focus on fixing civic systems. We must intervene in the unruly climate system.
“Climate change is a market failure,” New York Times columnist Ezra Klein correctly observed. It’s a failure of the unfettered, socially irresponsible capitalism that we so foolishly allow those with the most capital to practice.
Here’s where our national interests really lie:
The 22-year-old megadrought ravaging the Western states with wildfires is the most severe in 1,200 years; scientists attribute 42% of its origins to human activity. All seven of the hottest years recorded on Earth happened in the last seven years.
By 1988, the average global temperature had risen to 1.1 degrees F. above what it was before the Industrial Revolution. Thirty-three years later it had risen to 2.2 degrees F. If our present failure to intervene continues, 78 years from now it will have risen to nearly 5 degrees F. above the pre-industrial average.
Fossil fuel industries know all this. So what is their response?
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is in the business of drafting corporate-friendly laws that ALEC urges state legislators to pass. Now ALEC’s peddling the Energy Discrimination Elimination Act; so far, four fossil fuel friendly states are in.
As a condition of doing business with a state, this legislation requires financial institutions to agree not to boycott petroleum companies by refusing to loan them money for new drilling, or by dumping carbon industry-based investments from their portfolios.
“Decarbonization” of Wall Street investment portfolios is a powerful tool deployed to stem climate change; it puts huge investment sums in play.
It’s meant to spur quicker changeover of fossil fuel investments to climate-friendly energy. The world’s largest financial asset manager, BlackRock, which manages the $20 billion Texas state pension fund, is a chief target of ALEC’S legislation because BlackRock supported dis-investments in fossil fuels.
The intent of getting states to outlaw financial boycotts of petroleum corporations by firms that want to do business with them is to enlist states on the side of the fossil fuel industry to “fight back against woke capitalism,” according to a memo circulated at an ALEC meeting.
Meanwhile, Trump’s malevolent legacy looms over Biden’s effort to prohibit new drilling and to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. For example:
Last year’s climate change damages cost an estimated $145 billion. A government “social cost of carbon” analysis determines how much money the damages from climate change cost society. That cost helps decide the stringency of federal regulations that are imposed on carbon-producing industries.
Damages were set at a social cost of $51 per ton of emissions when the Trump administration lowered it to $7 per ton, effectively rendering the regulation toothless. Biden re-instated it to $51.
But two Trump-appointed Louisiana district court judges, Terry Doughty and James Cain, ruled against Biden.
People, we have to do better than this.
Solveig Torvik lives near Winthrop.