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Americans Want Leadership Now on Real Cliffs: Jobs and Human Survival

Friday, 23 November 2012 00:00 By Paul Street, Truthout | Op-Ed
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President Barack Obama greets residents during a tour of areas affected by Hurricane Sandy in the Staten Island borough of New York, November 15. (Photo: Luke Sharrett / The New York Times)President Barack Obama greets residents during a tour of areas affected by Hurricane Sandy in the Staten Island borough of New York, November 15. (Photo: Luke Sharrett / The New York Times)Last week the "Public" Broadcasting System's (PBS) Newshour broadcast an interview with Mark Bertolini, chairman and CEO of Aetna, a health insurance company with more than $33 billion in revenue and a worldwide workforce of 34,000. Bertolini spoke about newly re-elected president Barack Obama, the US Congress and the requirements of leadership today. Here is some of what Bertolini had to say:

"What Americans really want is the truth. They want leadership that says here's what we need to do no matter how difficult it is, personal accountability on the part of Washington to get something done and then a level of transparency about what's being done so that people can see progress along the way. That's the way we do it in business. That's the way we need to do it in Washington." 

"What," PBS Newhour anchor Judy Woodruff asked Bertolini, "makes you believe that they can work something out now that they couldn't - when they couldn't do it before?" The fantastically wealthy and powerful Aetna chief (his total compensation in 2011 exceeded $10 million [1.]) responded with bold words:

"Well, a number of them have nothing to lose, No. 1. No. 2., I think the president's not running for re-election again, so he has an opportunity to provide some leadership here. And I think the two most important powers that a CEO can exercise, any leader, is the power to convene and the power to set the agenda. So, let's get everybody in a room, let's convene them. . .  . Let's put the agenda together to say, here are the issues we need to solve, and let's not let them leave until they have it done.  I think [Obama now] has a mandate to lead. And if he uses that leadership well, I think he can get this done." [2]

Ecological and Employment Tipping Points

I couldn't have said it better myself.  Bertolini is absolutely right.  It's time for bold and decisive presidential action on the most pressing matter of our time – anthropogenic (human-made) global warming (AGW). According to new research released last summer by the science journal Nature, humanity is now facing an imminent threat of extinction – a threat caused by its reckless exploitation of the natural environment. The report reveals that our planet's biosphere is steadily and ever more rapidly approaching a "tipping point," meaning that all of the planet's ecosystems are nearing sudden and irreversible change that will not be conducive to human life.

"The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including . . . fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations." So said lead author Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

 "My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the Earth's history are more than pretty worried," another co-author said in a press release. "In fact, some are terrified." [3]

The urgency of action on the climate issue has become clearer than ever thanks to this year's extreme weather, which has continued the 21st century pattern of richly validating the warnings of the great majority of earth scientists. As Tom Engelhardt recently noted on his web site TomDispatch:

"There was the wildfire season of all seasons in a parching Southwest, a devastating drought that still hasn't fully lifted in the Midwestern breadbasket . . . and a seemingly endless summer that may make this the hottest year on record . . . [and then came] Hurricane Sandy, the 'Frankenstorm' . . . the extreme weather coup de grace (And yes, there's little doubt that climate-change-induced rising sea levels contributed to its fury). Superstorm Sandy also revealed just how unprepared the US infrastructure is for predicted climate-change events."  

Sandy, Engelhardt continued, was "stunning enough that global warming was suddenly forced out of the closet.  It made magazine covers and gubernatorial press conferences . . ."and even got a mention in [President] Obama's victory statement on election night," he wrote. [4]

At the same time, there's also a steep structural jobs crisis in the United States - a crisis that almost cost Obama his job and which (more importantly) undercuts the economic security for working and middle class Americans. As the incisive liberal journalism professor Thomas B. Edsall recently noted in an important post-election analysis on New York Times.com:

"Social, cultural, and moral issues have become favorable terrain for the Democratic Party, in the way that they once were for the Republicans, but there are economic trends that do not bode well for core Democratic constituencies, given their disproportionately low income and high-unemployment rates. The issue of mounting salience - unaddressed so far by Democrats and Republicans - is the hollowing out of the job market. . . . A growing body of evidence demonstrates that jobs that provide mid-range incomes are disappearing, but just as important, the kinds of jobs that have long served as stepping stones up the ladder of opportunity are disappearing too. . . . The forces driving the evisceration of middle-income jobs - global production and automation - threaten the newly acquired rights of recently enfranchised populations." [5]

"The 90% Solution"

So, yes, the time has clearly arrived for Obama to act quickly and decisively.  Time is running out. He must rapidly implement what the prolific left social critic Charles Derber calls "the 90 percent solution" in his book Greed to Green: Solving Climate Change and Remaking the Economy (Paradigm, 2010).  Invoking the emergency power granted the executive branch by Article 2 of the US Constitution, Obama must, to quote Derber:

  1. . . . order each federal department to create an emergency plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions in its sector by 90 percent.
  2. order regulation, public ownership, and 'trust-busting' on Wall Street and in the entire financial sector to create a green financial system.
  3. order regulation, public ownership, and financial incentives in the energy sector to create an extremely rapid shift from oil and coal to a new clean energy foundation of the economy.
  4. propose immediate rewriting of corporate charters to help ensure a sustainable, full-employment system of green production.
  5. take these initiatives now and keep Congress in session until it passes legislation enabling these changes.

Derber's 90-percent solution is at least a twofer (a two-for one), in that it hits both the climate crisis (which happens to be the leading and ever more imminent threat to the species) and the jobs crisis. [6]

Deficit Scolds vs. the Issues that Matter

Bertolini is right. Americans want to hear the truth about the real threats to human existence and their ability to make a decent living. The president must use his re-election as a mandate to step up to the plate by getting everybody in a room and setting the agenda and not letting people leave until they make the changes humanity and other living things require!

Wait a minute. My mistake . . . Bertolini wasn't talking about the problem of human extinction or the disappearance of remunerative work for tens of millions of Americans.  A leading "deficit scold," he was speaking to PBS about a fake problem that certain segments of the elite economic and political class have for too long brandished in order to further tear up the already frayed US welfare state: "the deficit."  

As the liberal New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman notes,  "deficit scolds" (see below) is a more accurate term than "deficit hawks" when it comes to describing the powerful Washington lobbying and propaganda complex that purports to be obsessed with the federal deficit.  The complex has never been serious about slashing the deficit, as is clear from its longstanding attachment to cutting government revenues by slashing taxes for the wealthy few. As Krugman observes, "recent events have . . . demonstrated what was already apparent to careful observers: The deficit-scold movement was never really about deficits.  It was about using deficit fears to shred the social safety net." [7]

For the spectacularly well-off Bertolini - a leading opponent of serious (that is, single-payer) health insurance reform for obvious reasons given his status as a top don of the corporate insurance mafia/protection racket - and for many other rich and powerful "deficit scolds," the ecological and jobs crises are minor matters compared to the cruel (and for the scolds, urgent) task of cutting back so-called entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Social Security and Unemployment Compensation It's the so-called  fiscal cliff that Bertolini and his pinstripe-suit crowd want us to focus on, not the steep environmental, and inequality, and joblessness, and plutocracy cliffs that menace prospects for a decent, desirable and democratic future - indeed of any future at all.  When he calls for us to do: "What we need to do no matter how difficult it is," in other words, is accept the bitter pill [8] of reduced public old-age, medical, food, housing and other social benefits won through popular struggle over the last century, NOT do the difficult but very different social and democratic work of saving a livable earth and creating economic security, opportunity and equality for all.

Never mind that most Americans have for years told pollsters that jobs, rather than the deficit, should be the nation's top economic priority. Or that an economy combining mass unemployment with low borrowing costs requires "more, not less deficit spending" (Krugman [9]).  Or that the human race is nearing self-elimination through eco-cide.  Or that we could start to put the country and the world on a path to environmental salvation and full employment with a major government-led push for a sustainable, clean energy and energy-saving green economy. [10

1.
"Mark Bertolini At a Glance," Forbes (accessed November 14, 2012).

2.
"With Election Over and Time Running Out, Washington Shifts to Focus on Fiscal Cliff," PBS Newshour, Air Date November 6, 2012.

3.
Common Dreams Staff, "Earth Facing Imminent Environmental Tipping Point: Report," Common Dreams (June 7, 2012); On the current grave and deepening environmental crisis, see John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, "The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet" (New York: Monthly Review, 2010); Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "Climate Change Odds Much Worse Than Thought: New Analysis Shows Warming Could Be Double Previous Estimates," MIT News, May 19, 2009; Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010); Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (London: Fourth Estate, 2007); Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010); James Gustav Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, The Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007).

4.
Tom Engelhardt “The Mandate of Hell: How Not to Change the World,” TomDispatch.com, November 13, 2012, 

5.
Thomas B. Edsall, “The Culture War and the Jobs Crisis,” The New York Times Campaign Stops blog (November 12, 2012),

6.
I  say “at least” because the “red-green collar economy” that Derber and other verde-rouge progressives (myself included)  have long called for also touches upon key problems of class and racial inequality and militarism-imperialism.  See Paul Street, “Our Pass-Fail Moment: Livable Ecology, Capitalism, Occupy, and What is to be Done,” ZNet, November 14, 2012), 

7.
Paul Krugman, “Hawks and Hypocrites,” The New York Times, November 12, 2012, p. A29.

8.
Consistent with his deeply conservative past and record, Obama appears to be ready to play poison pill ball with the “deficit scolds.”  See Common Dreams staff, “Already? Obama Tells Supporters to Expect Bitter Pills,” 

9.
Krugman, “Hawks and Hypocrites.”

10.
It would be nice if Krugman and other leading liberal Keynesian economists (Joseph Stiglitz, Ha Joon Chang and others) would connect their deficit-spending stimulus arguments more concretely to the environmental question, since there’s no economic growth worth having on a dead planet.  For critical reflections of the gaping environmental blind spot in liberal-progressive economists' call for restored growth, see Paul Street and Janet Razbadouski, “The Ecological Poverty of Liberal Economics,” ZNet (August 12, 2012)

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008. Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including "The Return of Depression Economics" (2008) and "The Conscience of a Liberal" (2007).
Copyright 2014 The New York Times.

Paul Street

Paul Street is the author of "Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11" (Paradigm, 2004) and "The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power" (Paradigm, 2010).

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