Letter to Barack: Five Things You Could Do To Create Change — And Change History

October 26, 2008, 3:23 pm

Dear Barack,

You’ve sent me so many emails for the past year that I feel like I know you. Things are looking good, aren’t they? So let’s take a few minutes and plan for the first Hundred Days. As a scholar of the New Deal, I think I am the perfect person to help you establish an agenda. But first some background from a more recent history.

Back in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, what we now call the conservative “base” hoped that Reagan would act by presidential decree to address pressing issues that conservatives, many of whom were activist Christian evangelicals, called a “family values” agenda. This included critical constitutional issues like banning abortion, making school prayer legal, ending desegregation (otherwise known by segregationists as “forced busing”), and making flag desecration a criminal offense. It’s probably worth noting that, since we can all probably acknowledge that the Reagan revolution was a turning point in the history of the United States, Reagan did not use his power this way, and that this agenda was never moved forward in the absolute way conservatives wanted. In fact, Reagan did little for the first Hundred Days, and for a number of days thereafter.

So since you are promising change, I would like to present a modest list of things you might accomplish by presidential decree in your first hundred days. These policy interventions, great and small, would actually change the lives of those folks on Main Street we keep hearing about. They might even change the lives of some of those people who live on the Back Streets, the ones who work for minimum wage and no health insurance benefits for Joe the Plumber. Some of these acts would address areas in which a country that has aspired to, and actually achieved, greatness throughout its history has systematically become the laughing stock (as opposed to the leader) of the Free World.

Transportation. Eliminate the color-coded warning system that alerts people who are already traveling of the possibility of a terrorist attack. Orange, orange, orange. When is it anything but orange? Although we are warned constantly that there is some likelihood that there will be a terrorist attack on the United States, or on our own indifferent persons, we all go about our business anyway. Because what else can we do? I know no one who has been deterred from travel because we are on orange alert, or anyone who devotes precious airport time to anything other than finding the nicest sandwich possible, since the deregulation of airline travel means that they no longer serve real food on airplanes. Can we just admit that the color-coded alert system was a public relations stunt, intended to frighten everyone into supporting two disastrous wars that have accomplished nothing?

While we are still in the airport, let’s drop the stupid business of putting our toiletries in tiny bottles that then have to be sorted into quart sized clear plastic bags. This has never made me feel safer, particularly since the notorious Shoe Bomber, Richard Reid, could not have had more than 3.5 ounces of explosives in his sneakers when he was detected in 2005. The squishing sounds would have been, well, obvious, wouldn’t they? I haven’t asked the Zenith chemistry department, but I bet there are some explosive combinations that could cause a lot of havoc that could be produced by mixing as few as three 3.5 ounce bottles of liquid.

Energy. Leaving the airport, let’s put federal restrictions on energy companies charging their paying customers more because said customers pay their bills and because they are conserving energy. Many of us in Shoreline are in receipt of a letter from United Illuminating that says exactly that. The letter I received two days ago is dated October 6, and informs me that I may attend hearings that commenced eleven days ago about a rate hike that is necessary because of a decline in electrical sales over the past two years, an increase in uncollectible amounts, and “an increased distribution capital expenditure program needed for reliability,” to the tune of $62.5 million over 2009-10.

Ok, this may be a little trickier for you to accomplish Barack, since utilities are mostly regulated — to the extent that they are regulated at all — by the states. So here’s my question: if our captains of industry believe so much in the free market, what is my incentive to save energy if it only causes my bills to go up? And if UI’s deadbeat collection rate is similar to Consolidated Edison in nearby New York City, only 1.5% of those bills are ultimately uncollectible. So why am I paying other people’s bills? And why am I being taxed, in essence, for rebuilding the energy infrastructure, particularly when I am already paying a surcharge for the privilege of purchasing power generated by wind farms?

Barack, Franklin D. Roosevelt tackled the power companies, getting electricity to millions of rural people. You could make a big impact by preventing power companies from shifting shifting responsibility for their declining revenues onto the consumer.

Education. End No Child Left Behind as an unfunded mandate that puts standardized testing, not critical thinking, at the center of a young person’s education. NCLB has been the ultimate Bushie achievement. Urban schools no longer resemble the prison industrial complex, they are part of it. Because of the federal testing mandate, that is unsupported by any funds to either pay for the testing or support better education, dollars devoted to actual teaching have diminished. Furthermore, as the New York Times recently reported, even schools that have succeeded will fail next year, since the bar for success is raised even higher when a school actually succeeds. The idea, as far as I can tell, is to frighten students, teachers and principals into succeeding by threatening to withdraw their education and careers. It is almost impossible for a school to succeed under NCLB except by rote drill aimed at passing multiple choice tests. Oh yeah — the other way to succeed is to expel students who are not succeeding, or encourage them to drop out, dooming them to a life of ill-paid labor for Joe the Plumber, poverty or prison: New York State loses 44% of the students who matriculate in the ninth grade by the time their class graduates four years later.

This policy cannot be reformed or repaired, Barack: it was bad to begin with. It has, in the past eight years, only achieved the conservative goal of undermining public education as a viable resource for sustaining civil society, and privatizing our school system. End it completely and start over.

Health care. Demand that interstate companies that employ thousands of workers at minimum wage, and that take advantage of federal treaties like NAFTA to provide consumer goods at rock-bottom prices, create employer-based health family health insurance and prescription plans at a cost no greater
than 5% of an employee’s taxable wage. Companies like Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, Costco, and other big-box giants could take advantage of their own ability to purchase prescription drugs in bulk to offer employees and their families medications at the cost they have negotiated with the drug companies. And with one stroke of the pen, Barack, you could void the law that prohibits the federal government from negotiating such prices from the drug companies so that seniors and the unemployed poor could have the basic medications they need to stay healthy.

Military policy. The Iraq war cannot simply be ended by decree: we know that. But you know what we could end? Military recruiting in public schools, and mandatory access for military recruiters in schools that take federal money. We could also prohibit the use of information collected in public schools by military recruiters so that they can bombard economically vulnerable students with recruiting pitches. Here’s a place to let the free market reign: if it’ a good war that citizens believe in, they will sign up to fight it, right? If not, not. But I haven’t noticed Choate-Rosemary Hall being forced to let military recruiters in the door, whereas schools in Shoreline are not permitted to prevent military recruiters from wooing the children of the poor.

Actually, my friend, you could do all these things on the First Day, but since we have been waiting eight, long years, I am willing to wait for a hundred days. See you at the polls!

Yours sincerely,

The Tenured Radical

Cross posted at Cliopatria.

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