06/28/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

After Health Care: Now the Harder Part

The passage of health care reform, no matter how limited, was a significant accomplishment. Its adoption is testimony to the fact that even in a political system distorted by private campaign funding, progressive legislation is possible. But health care reform represented relatively low-hanging fruit compared with what else needs to be done to rid American society of its most blatant dysfunctions. Radical change is required in at least three areas: the financial system; the military; and energy policy. The first two have to be downsized, and our dependency on fossil fuels has to be minimized.

The obvious problem is that the very people who are most likely to resist these changes are the most important sources of campaign funds. The power of private political financing manifests itself just as much in what does not make its way onto the political agenda as it does in influencing the choices made among the alternatives that are debated. This is the case with regard to each of these issues. Even now in the aftermath of the financial crisis and with charges flying about the behavior of Goldman Sachs, we are still not discussing the need to reduce the bloated importance of the financial sector in the American economy - only how to correct its most egregious excesses. Similarly, a reduction in the defense budget is not mentioned at all when it comes to identifying how to reduce the government's budgetary deficit - despite the fact that military expenditures account for more than 50 percent of all government discretionary spending. And no consideration whatsoever is given to restoring generous funding for public research and development in renewable energy to the levels reached in the aftermath of the petroleum shocks of the 1970s - levels not been approximated since.

Even under the best of circumstances it will not be easy to convince the American people that the government can be relied upon to reduce military spending and still provide national security; to cut into the financial sector but still provide the capital required for a functioning economy; and to reduce green house gas emissions while still supplying the energy the economy requires. But the American people's distrust of government, revealed recently in a Pew Research Center poll, makes the task at hand much more difficult. For all three of these changes require an activist role for government.
Generally the Pew poll has been interpreted as an endorsement of a right-wing, small government agenda. This is a serious mistake. As recently as 2000 more than 50 percent of respondents reported that they trusted the government, a result that stands in sharp contrast to the 25 percent today. Such a decline has as much to do with specific contemporary events as it does with purported deep seated conservative ideological beliefs and attitudes. The context of the present survey was an economic crisis essentially caused by the government's abdicating its regulatory function concerning financial markets and then turning around and providing enormous sums of money to precisely those institutions responsible for economic distress. The basic injustice of rewarding the agents who caused the damage is more than sufficient to induce a healthy dose of cynicism even among people who otherwise would support government initiatives. The attitudes that are revealed in the Pew survey can be interpreted as the response of a population fed up with government's catering to wealthy special interests. The lack of confidence in government action is not a permanent condition of American society. But it is certainly true that today - with millions of dollars flowing into campaign coffers - the government has a long way to go to earn the trust of the American people.

What therefore we need is a fresh-start - a political process that people can believe in. We need, in short, a politics funded not by special interests but by all the people. Stripped of the taint of special interest funding, members of the public could once again believe in the integrity of public policy. If legislation were adopted by members of Congress responsible solely to their constituents - and not their funders - doubts concerning motivation would recede. Efficiency, not intentions, would be the issue. With that the case, we could engage in an open debate on the merits of economic, energy, and national security policies that would allow the country to escape the dead-ends that confront us today.

It is not a statement of despair to say that making progress on the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, on the damage done by the excessive size of the financial sector, and on the disproportionate size of military spending all require that the special interest funding of politics has to end. It is rather the identification of the strategy that we must adopt in order to achieve those urgently needed goals.