05/26/2010 11:49 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Which Way Are We Going? You Decide

Rising Tea Party Republican star Rand Paul says civil rights laws should not have applied to the owners of private restaurants or hotels or other businesses. They should have the right to discriminate on the basis of race -- and, presumably, on the basis of gender, age, sexual orientation, age or disability. This is the argument of George Wallace and Lester Maddox. Does the Republican Party, does the South, really want to fight the battle of segregation over again?

Republicans, led by Sen. James Inhofe, scorn evidence of climate change. The "Drill, Baby, Drill!" crowd, championed by Sarah Palin, impedes every serious effort to address climate change and move rapidly to renewable energy sources. Rand Paul says we shouldn't "blame" BP and hold them accountable because "mistakes happen." Republicans still call for rolling back regulation. Do they really think that more denial and more deregulation will provide for our security and our future?

Congress is about to vote on an emergency spending bill that would appropriate $32 billion for Afghanistan. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin wants to add $23 billion for a real national security emergency: the impending layoff of up to 300,000 teachers across the country. School districts are closing summer schools, terminating all-day kindergarten and increasing class sizes to 40 or more. Yet the Washington Post reports insiders as saying the Harkin bill has little chance of passage. Does Congress really think that this nation will prosper if the education of its children is sacrificed, while spending continues on military adventure?

The Federal Reserve put up literally trillions of dollars to save the banks. When the Bush administration demanded it, Congress appropriated $750 billion overnight with few questions asked to bail out the big banks. They were "too big to fail," they were told; a collapse would bring down the global economy. This was truly a national emergency.

Now in the wake of the economic downturn caused by Wall Street's excesses, some 25 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed. Among African-Americans and Latinos, unemployment is at Depression-era levels. Among urban teenagers, it reaches 40 percent or more. Homelessness and poverty are rising. Marriages collapse under the pressure. Long-term unemployment is now at levels not seen since the 1930s.

Yet the effort to provide direct public service jobs gets no push from the White House. Congress has not yet even granted a vote to the Miller Bill that would provide direct employment through local governments and non-profits -- local green corps and urban corps that could put young men and women to work. Somehow saving the banks is a national imperative; saving the people not so much.

Americans have a big choice to make. Are we going to go backward divided and argue once more for discrimination on race and gender, deny climate change and keep drilling, defend BP and others from accountability for the calamities they cause, and fight endless war abroad while laying off teachers at home?

Or are we going to move forward together and address the staggering challenges we face? This will require profound changes in priorities and direction. We need to invest in areas vital to our future -- from providing children with the best education and training in the world, to building a modern 21st century infrastructure, to fast trains, to a renewed electrical grid, to subsidizing science and technology.

We'll have to stop measuring the economy by the stock market or the health of Wall Street and start measuring it by whether it is creating full employment and providing good jobs at decent wages for all.

Backward or forward? Denial or renewal? Divided or together? These are the choices. We are making them each day, one way or another.