THE BLOG

The True State of the Union 2015

02/09/2015 07:31 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

Mr. President, Members of Congress, and Fellow Citizens,

The true State of the Union, and the state of the world, in 2015 can be described in one word: precarious. Despite our wealth, our technological knowhow, our global social media, we are a world at war with each other and with the planet itself. At home, we are at war with our children of color. The victims of these wars often seem far away and voiceless, yet their blood and suffering reaches us nonetheless, in the hideous blowback of terrorism in streets of Paris and in the collapse of trust in the streets of Ferguson.

The real world is different from the imagined one of the mass media, and the happy talk of too many politicians. President Barack Obama told us that the US is back and that the Union is strong. That is true if you are white and rich. That is true if you are a banker, the head of a for-profit hospital, or a military intelligence consultant. It is not true if you are incarcerated, crushed by a heavy student debt, or raising children as a single mother in Detroit, St. Louis, or Harlem.

Let us start with the state of the world. Though we are just 5 percent of the world's population, we are directly involved in most of its wars. That's not because the US is the world's policeman. It is because the US can't stop itself from sticking its nose into other people's business.

How in the world did the US get engaged in a non-stop thirty-year war in Afghanistan? How in the world did the US end up funding Muslim fundamentalists in that country and end up creating Al-Qaeda? How did the US get caught in a 25-year non-stop war with Iraq, leading to the deaths of half a million Iraqi Civilians? What in the world is the US doing trying to topple the Syrian Government through covert CIA operations, thereby stoking a civil war that has destroyed Syria's irreplaceable antiquities of the world's earliest civilizations, taken the lives of more than 200,000 Syrians, and opened the path to ISIS?

When will we tell the truth that for every American who has died in a terror attack, at least 100 Arabs, most of them civilians, have died in US-led wars, drone strikes, and covert operations?

Why does Europe find itself caught in war in Ukraine, the first European war in a quarter century? We may choose to blame it all on Vladimir Putin, but those of us who have lived through the last quarter century of US-Russian relations know that it's not so simple. The US military and intelligence juggernaut has been dead-set on expanding NATO right up to Russia's borders, whether in the Baltic States, Ukraine, or Georgia. The West has thereby hit dangerous trip wires, causing deep and convulsive Russian reactions to Russia's sense of being surrounded by the US military. The provocative call to expand NATO to Ukraine was an avoidable mistake, and one that should be corrected in conjunction with the withdrawal of Russian forces from that country.

No, the state of the world is not good. War is spreading, and the US is the key country that is spreading it. My guess is that President Obama is resisting the right-wing every day; but my guess is also that he is losing the battle. Presidents come and go; the permanent security state remains.

Our war on the planet is nowhere closer to a truce, much less to real peace. The global economic juggernaut is changing the climate, acidifying the oceans, poisoning the estuaries, and draining the groundwater, including from our own food-giving Ogallala Reservoir of the US Midwest. Yet where is the US on this challenge? While the President rightly calls climate change our existential threat, the Administration leases more lands for oil exploration in the Arctic; praises fracking; and defines the Administration's energy policy as "all of the above." In the meantime, the Republicans are so smitten with the Koch Brothers' campaign funds that they'd rather denounce science and sentence their children to climate misery than tell the truth. Is it a consolation that such politicians are not as dumb as they seem, but are merely corrupted by campaign finance?

At home, the State of the Union is also not good. Real incomes of the poor and working class continue to decline. 2.3 million Americans are behind bars, the highest incarceration rate per capita in the entire world. Around 6 million Americans more are under correctional control in the form of probation and parole. Roughly 60 percent of those in federal prisons are African-American and Hispanic.

The combination of high unemployment, low wages, and the mass incarceration of black and Hispanic young men is nothing short of catastrophic for children of color in this country. More than half of African-American children and 28 percent of Hispanic children live in mother-only households, compared with only 16 percent of kids in White non-Hispanic households. Children of color are growing up poor and with little chance of making it into the much-vaunted middle-class. While 26 percent of white, non-Hispanic children live in poverty or near-poverty (under twice the poverty line), no less than 60 percent of children of color are growing up in poor or near-poor households. Of course, even 26 percent is unconscionably high.

The educational outcomes reflect these grim realities. Only 21 of African-Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics aged 25-29 have a bachelors' degree compared with 40 percent of White, non-Hispanics of that age cohort. Yet only those young people with a bachelors' degree today can resist the downdrafts of a labor market in which jobs are going overseas or are being replaced by robots and computers.

Conservatives propose to address the education crisis by beating up on the teachers unions, as if the unions were somehow responsible for the vast gulf in educational outcomes that divide our society by class, race, and ethnicity. Poor children face insuperable obstacles: single-mother households, fathers often in prison, neighborhoods in decay, and schools under-supplied. The focus on union bashing is therefore a mix of naivete, cynicism, and deliberate deflection of the public's attention away from the enormous and growing socioeconomic gulf that divides the White non-Hispanic population from the rest.

President Obama has presided over a gutting of Federal programs even as he has continued to proclaim, eloquently and vividly, the need to invest in our future. Such proclamations are disconnected from the President's own budgetary proposals. Consider the new Fiscal 2016 budget, introduced with the soaring rhetoric of investing in a renewed middle class. The numbers belie the words. In the Obama budget, federal revenues are fixed below 20 percent of GDP, roughly 10 percentage points less than in the affluent countries of Northern Europe. The military, health care, Social Security, and interest payments on the debt eat up almost all of the federal revenues. The result is that Federal civilian programs, the kind that need Congress to vote budget revenues year by year, are fading into extinction.

Here's a truth test. Add up the civilian discretionary outlays in the Obama budget projected for 10 years from now in the following agencies:

Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy (except nuclear weapons), Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, Transportation, Treasury, Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, NASA, National Science Foundation, the Small Business Administration, and other agencies.

What share of national income is devoted in the Obama budget to these Federal programs? Would you guess that these sums add up to 6 per cent of GDP, or 5 per cent, or perhaps on 4 percent? The shocking answer is 1.6 percent of GDP in the year 2025, down from around 4 percent of GDP in 1980 and 3.6 percent of GDP in 2010. We are not on a path of public investment to build the middle class. We are on a path of closing the Federal Government, other than the military, health, social security, and interest payments.

So what is to be done? We must banish the illusions that the State of the Union is strong. We must enter a generation of reform, and most important, take the path of Sustainable Development.

Sustainable Development is a global movement, and the US must become part of it. Sustainable Development means that a good society focuses not only the bottom line of GDP, but on economics more broadly, including decent jobs, combined with social inclusion and environmental sustainability. Sustainable Development, in short, is a holistic ethic and political approach that combines economic prosperity, social justice, and environmental sustainability.

The first step towards sustainable development is to stop the wars: against other nations, against the planet, and against our own children. Much of this will save money, vast amounts of it. Useless war making has already cost us trillions of dollars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Let us say no to the wars of choice and to the CIA covert operations. Let us say no to the drones and the cyber spying around the world, not least on American citizens.

Let us also stop the war on the planet. "All of the above" is not an energy policy; it is a lobbyist's dream. We need to move decisively to a low-carbon world energy system, and time is running out. By 2050, US emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels should be down by at least 80 percent. By 2070, we should be managing the economy on a clean, green, zero-emission energy system, based on our vast reserves of solar, wind, geothermal, and other energy sources.

Let us stop government by lobbies that leave us with the world's most over-priced health care system, costing at least $750 billion per year more than it should. We have the most costly health care system in the world, not because it is better, but because every service, every drug, reflects monopoly profits eagerly facilitated by a government in thrall to the health industry. It doesn't cost more money to provide low-cost, and high-quality health for all. Rather than more spending, we need to fight the legalized monopolies that have taken over health provision city by city and region by region in this country. An all-payer, single-payer system as in most high-income countries would save a fortune while delivering quality heath services for everyone.

And most importantly, let us stop the war on our own children. We need an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit. We need guaranteed parental and sick leave. We need universal pre-K. We need free higher education, not just in the community colleges but in the state universities as well, backed by federal and state dollars.

Can't afford it? Tell that to Germany, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and others, who take these programs in stride.

Of course to pay for it, we have to tax those with the income and wealth to pay. We need Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, and others to stop abusing their public privilege by parking their international earnings in the Caribbean tax havens. These sweetheart deals with the IRS are shameful, and precisely the corruption that is bought by our money-laden electoral system. We need hedge fund owners to pay top tax rates, not the ludicrous "carried interest" rates that grant them lower tax rates than faced by you and me and workers across this country. We need a Financial Transactions Tax.

We need to put a tax on carbon emissions to shift energy to clean sources. There is no better time than today, with oil prices down by half compared with last year. We could leave consumers better off than a year ago and still fill federal coffers with tens of billions of dollars per year through a carbon levy.

And we need to recapture the democratic system back from the lobbyists. Let us thank David and Charles Koch for alerting us of their plans to spend almost $1 billion in the 2016 election. They may try, but they cannot buy the political system, unless we let them. Their brand of greed and pollution has no place in a decent society. We must fight them and discredit all those who take their dirty lucre.

How can we overcome the billionaire lobbyists, and Big Oil? Do we need big money on our side, our billionaires against theirs? The answer is a resounding no. Think back 50 years to Selma. How did Martin Luther King Jr. teach us to fight against those with the dogs, the Billy Clubs, and water cannons? By our own weapons? Of course not. His genius was the call for non-violent resistance.

How can we fight the corrupt money? Not through more money on our side, but by rejecting all tainted money, by overturning the money tables in the halls of Congress and the White House.

Let us run and support only those candidates that take no contributions above $100 per donor, and that manage their own campaigns through grassroots organizing, volunteers, and free social media. Let us be the ones to tell the American people that we are not bought, we are not beholden, except to the public and to the truth.

If we do these things, if we escape from the thrall of the Military Industrial Complex, Big Oil, Big Health Providers, and Wall Street, we will find that the solutions to our problems are at hand. Some are a matter of simple fairness, such as maternity and sick leave. Some are a matter of budget outlays, such as family support. Some are a matter of regulation, to break monopoly power. And some are a matter of innovation, such as deploying cheap, low-carbon wind and solar power, driving a new generation of smart, all-electric vehicles, and achieving breakthroughs in energy efficiency through a smart grid that uses advances in information and communications technologies.

Let us therefore take the path of Sustainable Development, for the sake of our children, our planet, and the future. As the world's richest and most technologically sophisticated country in the world, we have it in our means to end poverty, provide opportunity for all children, and foster a prosperous, fair, and sustainable society.