The media focus on political minutiae in the presidential campaign can often crowd out the substantive issues that the winner will have to deal with once taking office. And while the candidates themselves occasionally talk about these issues, there’s a number of critical concerns that get no attention, including some of the worst problems (in terms of the harm they cause to people’s lives) in the United States and the world. To address this lamentable state of affairs, ThinkProgress has compiled a list of ten of the most significant problems being severely underserved by the campaign and American political discourse more broadly. In no particular order:
Mass Incarceration and the Drug War
Writing in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik termed “mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history…perhaps the fundamental fact [of American society], as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.” Indeed, as Gopnik notes, there are more black men are in prison today than were enslaved then and more total people in prison than there were in Stalin’s gulags at their largest. The result of this wave of imprisonment was structural inequality so severe that it was called “the new Jim Crow” by a famous book of the same title, as the strict limitations placed on convicted felons have rendered millions black Americans second-class citizens. One of the principal causes of the rise of mass incarceration is the War on Drugs, which has failed abysmally at limiting the use of dangerous drugs but succeeded wildly at aiding and abetting racial inequality in the United States and the murderous drug trade abroad. The Justice Department recently doubled down on these policies by initiating a massive crackdown on medical marijuana in states that have legalized the drug’s medicinal use.
The Housing Market
Though it’s well-known that the housing bubble collapse precipitated the financial collapse, the subsequent woes of the housing market have received comparatively little attention. John Griffith, Julia Gordon, and David Sanchez, in a recent report for the Center for American Progress, call the current housing market “one of the biggest drags on our recovery,” writing that “The historic decline in home prices since 2006 has cost Americans more than $7 trillion in household wealth, forced millions of families out of their homes, and left nearly one in four homeowners owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. Private investment in housing is a fraction of its historic norm, translating to billions in lost economic output and millions of missing jobs. And more than five years into the crisis, the U.S. mortgage market remains on life support as the federal government guaranteed more than 95 percent of home loans made last year.”
The India/Pakistan Conflict
As the United States exits Afghanistan, tensions are likely to flare up again between the two nuclear-armed states over concerns about terrorism and relative influence in the country. The status of the contested Jammu-Kashmir province also remains unresolved. Former Pakistani director of Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs, Feroz Hassan Khan, concluded in a paper published by the US Army War College that “this region seems to be the one place in the world most likely to suffer nuclear warfare due to the seemingly undiminished national, religious, and ethnic animosities between these two countries.”
Fish stocks have been in free-fall since 1989, and the reason for that is clear: humans are killing fish so quickly that “large ocean fish” stocks have been reduced to ten percent of their pre-industrial peak. This pace, which could destroy every fishery in the world by 2048, isn’t just of interest to animal rights activists, as the fishing industry plays a critical role in both feeding the world’s poor and the American economy. Marine ecologist Daniel Pauly goes further, worrying that the effects of the “end of fish” on the ocean ecosystem could imperil its stability altogether, undermining one of the central bases of life on earth.
Global Disease and Malnutrition
Without question, the most significant cause of easily preventable death in the world is treatable illness in impoverished countries. Two-thirds of the nearly nine million children under 14 who die each year succumb to diseases like pneumonia or diarrhea. This is a consequence of the massive gulf in wealth between the First and Third Worlds — the vast majority of such child deaths of these kinds come in low-income countries. One of the major reasons poverty facilitates the spread of these diseases is undernutrition, as underfed bodies can’t fight off disease as effectively as healthy ones. Moreover, there is some evidence that the burden of disease and starvation prevents poor countries from developing economically and creating enough wealth to indigenously address the crisis. Mitt Romney has called for zeroing out American foreign aid, which includes health and food assistance.
We routinely put our vital information online without thinking, but it’s becoming increasingly unclear that such information is protected from government and corporate spying. As products like Facebook become essential services, tech companies are employing shady privacy and security procedures that make it very easy for data to be leaked to third-party sources without your consent. Moreover, FBI and similar government agents can gain access to private electronic information through national security surveillance powers.
America's Security State and Shadow Wars
Though Guantanamo Bay, the PATRIOT Act, and warrantless wiretapping were thought to be vestiges of the Bush Administration in 2009, the Obama Administration hasn’t rolled them back, threatening to make the supposedly emergency-only national security state a permanent institution. In recent years, the the security state at home has been supplemented by an escalating shadow war against terrorist organizations in several countries around the world, waged principally by Special Forces and a secretive drone program. These stepped-up counterterrorism policies may be weakening al-Qaeda and associated movements, but it’s not clear if the potential costs in terms of privacy violations, blowback, and deaths of innocent civilians are well understood, let alone worth it.
Several billion animals live and get killed on factory farms, concentrated animal-raising plants where sentient creatures are forced to live their entire lives in tiny, often poorly maintained pens. The treatment of the pigs, cows, and chickens on factory farms is horrific — the pens are so tight that animals develop sores, the stress of confinement produces psychiatric disorders that result in self-harming behaviors like gnawing on metal bars, and proprietors conduct painful, medically unnecessary tail amputations simply because they want to. Factory farming also hurts humans; the “farms” are ideal breeding grounds for infectious diseases and do serious damage to the local and global environment.
The Civil War in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Between 2.7 and 5.4 million people (roughly) have been killed by violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), making it the most deadly ongoing conflict in the world today. An invasion sparked by the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda devolved into a brutal multi-sided civil war plagued by the mass murder and rape of civilian populations. Though the situation has calmed somewhat today, the predations of the “Movement 23″ militia in the eastern DRC threatens to reignite a wider war.
Segregation by Race and Class in Education
Despite Brown v. Board of Education, there is a pronounced trend toward resegregation by race and class in American schools. Poor students, especially black and Latino ones, are being shunted into a separate-but-unequal school system while wealthy students attend parallel, superior institutions. The effect of this, as Chris Hayes documents in his book Twilight of the Elites, is to create a self-perpetuating class cycle where the wealthy use their advantage to secure that their children get access to the best possible schooling, making it significantly easier for said children to become wealthy and successful and do the same for their kids. The less well off, by contrast, have only very limited ability to break into the upper echelons of American society through education, helping to cement broader trends toward inequality in the United States.