PRINCIPLES FOR AMERICANS--2006

by Larry Finkelstein

Aware that a majority of voting Americans disapprove of the directions in which we are led;

Knowing that the country under President George W. Bush has been severely divided as to both principles and performance of central domestic and foreign policies;

Noting especially that some of these matters affect fundamental tenets of the American credo such as respect for the Constitution and the rule of law, the separation of powers, the right to privacy and to justice before courts of law, sober budgeting, fairness and prudence in taxation and in sharing its benefits, and integrity in government;

Recognizing that the war in Iraq is of deep concern to all Americans, more than half of whom believe it was wrongly undertaken or badly executed, or both, and that it invigorates terrorism, saps our military, undermines U.S. capacity for world leadership, and thus poses a grave risk to the country’s security;

Understanding that the elections in November 2006 give the American electorate the opportunity to vote for better government, including more compromise and consensus, wiser and more effective leadership in both national and international affairs, higher standards of honesty and justice in the land and in government, fairer distribution of economic and political power and responsibility, greater respect for scientific and environmental principles, and wiser foreign policies that will serve the nation better and regain the world respect it has lost;

THEREFORE, we offer these principles we believe deserve the support of the voters, as we proceed to the elections in November:

GOVERNMENT AND ELECTIONS

1 The country will benefit from a Congress better able to balance Republican control of the White House. The checks and balances of our federal governing system badly need repair. The concentration of power in the hands of one party controlling the White House and the Congress has been bad for the country. The arrogant presumption that the elections mandated the imposition of Republican dogmas did not accord with the beliefs of the people, who are much more narrowly divided. The Republicans convinced themselves they did not need to seek out the middle ground. They did not muster the support needed to carry much of their agenda through the Congress. The result has been stalemate across a broad front of issues. Good democratic government requires the lubrication of compromise and accommodation. A better balance will guide the President to avoid extremist appointments to federal courts as vacancies occur.

1 The checks and balances of our federal governing system badly need repair The concentration of power in the hands of one party controlling the White House and the Congress has been bad for the country. The arrogant presumption that the elections mandated the imposition of Republican dogmas did not accord with the beliefs of the people, who are much more narrowly divided. The Republicans convinced themselves they did not need to seek out the middle ground. They did not muster the support needed to carry much of their agenda through the Congress. The result has been stalemate across a broad front of issues. Good democratic government requires the lubrication of compromise and accommodation. A better balance will guide the President to avoid extremist appointments to federal courts as vacancies occur.

2. The role that money plays in our elections is a bane on democracy. It favors the candidacy of the rich. It provides levers of influence for those who fund campaigns. It nourishes corruption in government. Campaign costs should by law be covered by the federal and state governments. The media should provide free access for qualifying campaigners.

3. The Congress needs independent auditing and oversight.

4. Parties in power should not gerrymander in order to perpetuate their control. Doing so distorts the democratic process. Redistricting should occur only decennially to accommodate population changes and to protect the bedrock principle of one-person, one vote.

FOREIGN POLICY

Recent experience provides lessons about how not to conduct foreign policy.

1. Making war, or employing military force, is the most portentous decision a government makes. War should always be the last unavoidable option. The decision to use force requires indisputable evidence that the risk of abstaining is too great and too certain to be tolerable. It requires genuine understanding not only of the military aspects of the contemplated war but also of the political, social, cultural, and economic context that will have as much to do with the achievement of U.S. objectives as will events on the fields of valor.

2. The decision for war has to be wrapped in total candor if the people and the Congress are to give their full and lasting support.

3. Military superiority does not confer legitimacy. This administration believed that this country’s unquestioned military superiority over any state or coalition of states required it to use that strength to improve the world in the American image. This was arrogant and foolish, as was the accompanying declaration of a unilateral U.S. right to use force “preemptively” (“preventively”). The American people were not well served by assertions that we did not have to follow international rules or obey international and domestic law. The overall response in the world was suspicion and resistance.

3. This administration believed that this country’s unquestioned military superiority over any state or coalition of states required it to use that strength to improve the world in the American image. This was arrogant and foolish, as was the accompanying declaration of a unilateral U.S. right to use force “preemptively” (“preventively”). The American people were not well served by assertions that we did not have to follow international rules or obey international and domestic law. The overall response in the world was suspicion and resistance.

4. The American people have every right to resent and reject the leadership that induced them to accept so onerous a burden as the war on Iraq. After three years, it is far from assured that a viable democracy will emerge to replace the regime of Saddam Hussain or that withdrawal of U.S. forces will not result in chaos. Even in Afghanistan, a resurgent Taliban poses threats that were supposed to have been eliminated long ago. The Congress and a majority of Americans, misguided and misled, approved military adventures they were led to believe would soon be successfully over. It is not surprising that public support is plunging

5. The United Nations is the best source of legitimacy for any use of force that is not clearly an act of self-defense. U.S. leaders are wrong to scorn even the contrary opinions of others, especially allies. The Vietnam War proved that. So does the Iraq war. Diplomacy is more than exerting pressure to force others to accept your position. It requires listening and serious negotiation to reach mutually acceptable outcomes

6. We believe that the United States needs the UN and that the UN needs U.S. leadership. The United Nations needs reform, and the U.S. initiative toward that end was appropriate and widely approved. There has been some forward motion before, during, and since the Summit session during the last General Assembly. The results, however have fallen short of the hopes. U.S. tactics have been part of the problem. Success in negotiation may require broadening the agenda to open new opportunities for mutual benefit. Some of the reform objectives are tough medicine for many developing countries. A little bit of sugar may help the medicine go down. Blustering has been shown to have limits.

7. Terrorism will remain a threat for a long time. Home security must be strengthened rationally, which includes preventing it from being a pork barrel. Even the most efficient home security system will not be foolproof. We must continue collaborating with others to find and neutralize points of threat. We must simultaneously pursue study and dialogue to gain better insights into the sources of the malaise that breeds anger and acts of terror and about how to respond constructively.

8. A peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help lower the heat in the Islamic cauldron. For that reason and others we must pursue every avenue toward that outcome.

9. There is no greater threat than the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We are right to be concerned about the risk of nuclear weapons or devices becoming available to terrorists or other malefactors should the number of sources increase. We are right to be concerned that we might be held hostage by the severe harm that even lesser nuclear powers might threaten to inflict on us or on our allies. In a larger sense, we are at the tipping point between the survival of the system that has limited the increase in nuclear weapons states and its disintegration.

10. Iran must not become a “nuclear weapons state” and North Korea must stop building weapons and destroy those it has. The multi-party venues have been useful diplomatic devices. The time has come, however, for the United States to seek bilateral negotiations with Iran and with North Korea. The United States should act on the premise that negotiations with adversaries are more necessary and useful than negotiations with allies and friends. The purpose of such negotiations should be to reach accommodations that meet our needs and theirs. Our need is their absolute and reliable renunciation and termination of any weapons programs.

 

THE TWO AMERICAS

1. The widening of the gap between the poor and the well-to-do must be stopped. The country is being divided into Two Americas demarcated by the wall of inequity. The very rich have been getting richer and, on average, the middle class and the very poor have not. Too many of the latter are imprisoned in hopelessness. The image of “Two Americas” replaces the American Dream. That is not tolerable. Hopelessness will incubate extremism.

2. Americans need assurance of a living wage. The real wages of those earning the least have actually been in decline. The national minimum wage should be increased soon and frequently recalibrated to the real cost of living. Such a living wage could reduce immigration by making the jobs many immigrants fill more attractive to citizens.

3. Tax policies should restore equity in tax burdens and, except for dire emergencies, enable government to pay as it goes. Tax policies have been a significant contributor to the widening gap. Major tax cuts of recent years, especially when war costs so much, have cut back the government’s ability to help narrow the gap. Tax policies favoring the rich over the middle class and the poor have increased the gap directly. They have also resulted in a huge debt burden for future taxpayers to cope with. That rising debt threatens to drive up interest rates which will weigh most heavily on the poor. 4. We believe that the Social Security System as it is should be handed on to future generations of Americans and that measures should soon be put in place to ensure that it continues as a reliable source of retirement income for those who depend on it the most. Those who are not well-to-do depend on Social Security. It was one of the great Democratic achievements of the last century. Demographic trends threaten the system’s viability at some future time. Life support for the needy must not be compromised so that the rich can escape estate taxes.

5. We affirm that the best possible health care is a right of all residents of this rich country and that the country deserves and must have the healthiest possible population. Too many Americans cannot afford healthcare.. That is a throbbing inequity. It is shameful that the number of those without health insurance now stands at almost 46 million. Best possible health care includes health education and health maintenance as well as the treatment of illness. Universal health care should be recognized as an objective of greatest importance and highest priority. The goal in the medium term should be to replace the present costly, clumsy and complicated health care system with a single-payer plan. This might be accomplished by incrementally extending Medicare coverage to everyone.

 

4. Those who are not well-to-do depend on Social Security. It was one of the great Democratic achievements of the last century. Demographic trends threaten the system’s viability at some future time. Life support for the needy must not be compromised so that the rich can escape estate taxes5. Too many Americans cannot afford healthcare.. That is a throbbing inequity. It is shameful that the number of those without health insurance now stands at almost 46 million. Best possible health care includes health education and health maintenance as well as the treatment of illness. Universal health care should be recognized as an objective of greatest importance and highest priority. The goal in the medium term should be to replace the present costly, clumsy and complicated health care system with a single-payer planThis might be accomplished by incrementally extending Medicare coverage to everyone.

6. K-12 education leaves too many children behind. Too often, education no longer serves as the escape ladder for the hopeless. It does a poor job of helping to narrow the gap. That is human tragedy on a huge scale. It is also a heavy burden for the country—the self-fulfilling prophecy of unstable families, substance addiction, crime and crowded prisons, loss of productivity, people unable to meet the challenges of a rapidly evolving highly technological economic society. The challenge is important and it is urgent. Unfortunately, we know too well that there are no simple solutions. Money alone will not do the trick.

All our children must be enabled to achieve their highest potential whether they are to be scientists or technicians, businessmen or workers, artists, doctors, lawyers or educators, and as citizens The issue is too serious to be treated as a political football. Vouchers that lure children and extract funding from public schools may be palliatives for some. They will not, however, solve the problem. Free public education in the United States should once again be the source of pride it used to be.

Fixing our schools deserves highest priority. We should start by recognizing that no profession is more important than teaching. Our teachers should be educated, chosen, respected and paid accordingly. We should search for ideas, including out-of the-box ideas, about how education can be best organized and provided. We should monitor the surge of experimental models being tried so that those that work can be adopted widely.

 

HIGHER EDUCATION

 

1. No less than the best higher education for all who qualify will reopen the path to the American dream and also prepare American youth to compete in the global markets for talent and enable American enterprise to prosper in the global economy.

 

2. Secondary schools have to educate students to meet the challenges of truly higher education. Higher education now suffers from the inadequacies of K-12 education. Colleges are institutions for higher learning. Their mission should not be obstructed and demeaned by having to remediate students who arrive at their doors inadequately prepared to learn. Accrediting agencies should require colleges to set high admission standards and enforce them

3. We should ensure that our post-secondary students are enabled to pursue higher education to the full extent of their needs and capabilities. Costs of higher education are going through the roof. Even so-called state colleges and universities impose extremely heavy financial burdens on students. The country is proud to provide public funding of education through grade 12. Higher education is as essential now as K-12 education has always been.

THE ENVIRONMENT

1. We must resist those who would despoil our forests, pollute our waters, and foul our air. They are the enemies of our country’s future and of the generations to come. A good start would be to restore and build on the regulatory network that the Bush administration has been working so assiduously to destroy.

2. Arresting the advance of global warning is urgent. The United States should pledge to achieve the Kyoto goals. Measured by the need, they are relatively modest. The United States has the scientific and technological abilities and the wealth to be a world leader in a cooperative effort to protect our planet. We have instead been playing the role of the skunk at the garden party. It is time to recognize two central principles. We do not know enough about the long term balance of costs and benefits to justify risking our vital long term interests in the environment because of short term calculations based on erroneous conclusions about unbearable costs. The second principle is that such conclusions are erroneous because, even in the short term, going green means earning greenbacks as well as protecting green fields and forests. U.S. entrepreneurs are showing strong signs of understanding that fact.

ENERGY

1. There is no quick fix for the energy crisis. The spike in the costs of oil, gas, and gasoline at the pump has shattered complacency over the country’s ability to continue its wastrel ways. The core of the problem is the worldwide increase in demand for fossil fuels and the tightness of supply. Most of us will have to drive less and conserve electricity and heating fuels. If there are solutions, they will take time.

2. Resolving the dilemma will require a basket of measures. There is need for finding and developing new resources of oil and gas worldwide, greater refining capacity, higher CAFÉ standards if needed, and other inducements for more fuel efficient automotive engines and heating equipment, alternative fuels, more and better public transportation, greater concentration of habitation and business centers. The most valuable responses now would be to reduce automobile gas consumption drastically, and intense research, testing, and development of alternative energy sources.

3. Gas taxes should not be reduced. There are already calls to respond to the gas price crunch with measures that will worsen the problem rather than improve it. High fuel costs will stimulate adaptations that will reduce consumption of fossil fuels.

4. We should take pains to consider health and environmental consequences when calculating the relative advantages and disadvantages of choices to be made. Some of these measures to improve the fuel situation will also provide opportunities to achieve health and environmental benefits. Temptations to make decisions that are harmful to health and the environment should be scrutinized skeptically. Relaxing environmental standards and drilling for oil in protected lands are two dubious suggestions. While nuclear power generation offers important benefits, it may threaten safety, health, and the environment, especially in the absence of secure and reliable means of getting rid of the waste. Fifty mile per gallon vehicles would be a better option.

5. There is an urgent need for a program to help the needy to cope with the heavy extra burdens of high fuel prices. The country’s fecklessness in not taking seriously the predictions that have now come to pass results in severe deprivation for low income workers and others who depend on their automobiles and who need heat at home. They need cash and they need it now. Perhaps assistance could take the form of “fuel stamps” modeled on the food stamp program.

VALUES

1. Our government, indeed all of us, should respect and defend the right of all to cherish and, within the law, live by the tenets of their own beliefs.

Our government, and all of us, should respect and defend the right of others likewise to cherish and live by their own differing beliefs.

Respect for differences among us is the glue that, imperfectly but in the end sufficiently, has held this country together as we multiplied and diversified. Now, we witness a growing intolerance by those who wish government to impose their religious beliefs on others who do not share them. In the American system, that is unacceptable. The Constitution requires that government not intrude on individuals’ right of privacy. We have seen such issues deliberately exploited as wedges in the political struggle for governing power. This trend is dangerous. It challenges a value that is of utmost importance to the country—respect for difference.

2. We support whatever reinforcement may be needed for programs to preempt abortions.

We deny that government is entitled to intrude on a woman’s privacy in deciding with family and physicians about so grave and personal an issue as an abortion.

The issue of outlawing abortion has divided the country. Very few assert that abortion itself is desirable. For too many women it is a desperate last choice. On both sides of the fissure, there are many who believe abortion should be preempted by counseling the young about sex, including abstention, contraception, Plan B, and alternatives to abortion. There is no evidence to support the belief that outlawing abortion would end the practice.

3. We believe the barrier to Federal funding of medical research employing new lines of stem cells should be lifted. Stem cell research has been another extremely divisive value issue. Overwhelmingly, scientists, medical researchers, and physicians support ending the ban on federal funding of stem cell research beyond the extremely limited existing authority. Their argument that such research holds great promise of discovering ways to treat illness and save lives is persuasive.

CONCLUSION

The principles set out above are about the country and some of the difficult issues and problems it confronts. They are offered as American principles for American voters to consider. We believe it is time to think first about the tough issues of the day as American problems and not as opportunities to score points against political adversaries. Indeed, on some of the issues, views may be converging on solutions that all but extremists can endorse. We believe most American voters confronting the schisms and the stalemates of the day are ready for straight talk about what is best for the country.