Obama’s Top Ten Tasks

litter cartoon
Cartoon from the New Yorker by the late Charles Elmer Martin

I‘m sure there will be many lists like this rolled out over the coming months, but here’s my take on the most important things Obama needs to do over the next four years:

  1. Unwrecking the Economy: We’ve had three decades of corporatism and cronyism run amok. Obama needs to:
    • Restore the progressive (graduated) tax system by rolling back all the tax cuts for the wealthy that have been unleashed since the Reagan years. There is absolutely nothing wrong with people earning a million dollars a year paying 40% of that in taxes. 
    • Restore all the regulations on business that Bush has undone, especially anti-combines (anti-monopoly) regulations, pro-labour and pro-environment regulations. And he needs to put resources into enforcing those regulations and jailing offenders, not letting them settle out of court for minor fines. 
    • Expel and prosecute (to at least retrieve exorbitant salaries and bonuses) the executives of incompetently-run corporations that the taxpayers are bailing out, and nationalize these companies, not give them what amounts to interest-free loans. If and when they can be restored to health, then the government can sell them back, at full fair values, to private sector investors. 
    • Cancel all ‘free’ trade agreements and replace them with fair trade agreements, that protect workers and the environment everywhere, including full costing of social and environmental costs at the border, so that there is no motivation to export jobs or pollution.
    • Cancel all the subsidies and pork paid out to big corporations, starting with the $150B/year of taxpayer money doled out to big agribusiness, none of which reaches either the farmers or the food consumer.
    • Greatly strengthen consumer protections, and enact a consumer bill of rights.
    • Slash military spending, prohibit ‘outsourcing’ and ‘privatization’ of any military or security activity, and require all military sourcing to be open-tendered and open to small producers.
    • Remove the “personhood rights” of corporations. They don’t have the same obligations and shouldn’t have the same rights as real people.
    • Reduce the interest rates on all mortgages to two points over prime, under a national ‘amnesty’ program, that would not change unless there was a default. Reduce the maximum interest rate that can be charged on any debt to four points over prime. If a lender needs to charge more than that, it’s not a loan, it’s a gamble. End the tax deductibility of interest.
    • Tax capital gains at the same tax rate as other income, and charge a speculation tax on quick flip trades (those held for less than a month) especially on commodities and currencies. Charging a higher rate of tax on earned income than on speculative investments is just wrong.
    • Create a 10-year program to eliminate the annual deficit and a 50-year program (it will take that long) to eliminate the $14T national debt. No more stealing from future generations to pay for our lifestyle today.
  2. Restoring Civil Freedoms: In the interests of security, the US has become an arbitrary police state. Obama needs to:
    • Restore judicial integrity by purging the courts of ideological zealots who do not have the competence to do their jobs.
    • Restore the balance of powers by ceding, and prohibiting forever, the rights to ignore and violate the law Bush has seized in the interest of “national security”. No one is above the law.
    • Restore transparency to government and the judicial system.
    • Restore the separation of church & state, by prohibiting the use of government money for ‘faith-based’ programs and removing the tax-exempt status from religious groups that use their funds and pulpits for political purposes.
    • Dismantle the inept brownshirt Homeland Security bureaucracy, which, next to the bailout, has been the biggest waste of money in US history, and a massive intrusion on the civil liberties of innocent citizens.
    • Close Guantanamo, the University of the Americas, and all the covert CIA and CIA-sponsored training facilities and torture prisons.
    • Restore freedom of information laws.
    • Ban capital punishment.
  3. Restoring Environmental Protections: Hard to know where to start with this one, it’s such a massive job. Obama needs to:
    • Reinstate all environmental regulations canceled or weakened by Bush, and dramatically increase resources to monitor and prosecute violations of these regulations.
    • Make intervention of the administration into law enforcement and regulation a criminal offense.
    • Institute mandatory jail sentences for serious environmental crimes.
    • Protect huge areas of wilderness, forests, mountains, and water from all human activity.
  4. Seriously Tackling Global Warming: The US needs to lead the way far beyond Kyoto. Obama needs to:
    • Commit to a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with 2% reduction a year the minimum and 350ppm the maximum tolerable. This will require a huge amount of innovation and conservation, both of which will be good for all of us.
    • Lead by reducing government and public entity emissions by 4% a year.
    • Introduce a progressive tax on non-renewable energy and resources that will effectively increase their cost by 10% per year until consumption has dropped by 90%
    • Use the proceeds to fund research into, and subsidize, legitimate (i.e. not corn ethanol, not nukes) renewable energy and resources
  5. Reducing Economic, Social and Political Inequality: The soaring inequality between rich and poor lies behind much of the malaise in the economy and the social fabric. It’s been disguised by the massive borrowing of the poor, but that disguise is now coming off. Obama needs to:
    • Redistribute wealth on a huge and consistent scale from rich to poor. Tax hikes for the rich mentioned above are a start. Tax shelters should be eliminated through use of a simple and substantial graduated minimum tax. Substantial gift and estate taxes should be instituted to redistribute wealth when it is least painful to do so — when the rich person dies. A negative income tax should be used to get the proceeds from that into the hands of the poor.
    • Replace institutionalized services with community-based services (and fix the health ‘care’ and education crises in the process). Instead of paying huge institutions money to “serve” the poor, give that money to the poor and let them choose how to spend it. Encourage the creation of small, locally-run schools, clinics and other essential service facilities, staffed in part by volunteers, to leverage the value of this investment and de-institutionalize services. 
  6. Ending the Wars: This one is simple. Obama needs to:
    • Call together all its allies and all the countries in the MidEast, and announce his intention to withdraw US military presence entirely from Iraq and Afghanistan within 90 days. 
    • Ask other countries to help with the withdrawal, by taking in refugees and helping get them out of the country, and by committing humanitarian aid (people and supplies) to deal with the power vacuum as much as possible. Both countries will dissolve into civil war, unfortunately, but that is inevitable in any case. We all need to work together to make the best of a miserable situation, and learn once and for all that you cannot impose democracy and civil liberalism on another country. 
    • Start demilitarizing the world, by working through the UN to halt all sales of munitions, end the use of land mines and other especially inhumane weapons, and destroy the world’s nuclear stockpiles. Our money is much better spent on solving the massive problems this century is bringing us.
  7. Abandoning Colonialism: Colonialists believe that they have a better answer, politically, socially, economically, or religiously, than the people who live in another country, and should be able to impose that answer on them. It has never worked and never will. Obama needs to:
    • State that the US will cease all political, economic and military intervention in other countries immediately — its only intervention in future will be humanitarian. 
    • Forgive foreign debts incurred by ruinous dictators, give back the land and resources we have essentially stolen from the people of the third world, and let these struggling nations start fresh to solve their own problems. They will make plenty of mistakes — we all have. But the only way they will learn to make their states viable and sustainable, on their own terms, is by doing it themselves. 
  8. Election and Campaign Reform: Obama needs to:
    • Make elections publicly funded, prohibit corporate and private donations, cap advertising, and make public disclosure of all lobbying activity mandatory.
    • Outlaw gerrymandering, through the use of non-partisan electoral commissions.
    • Go back to paper ballots with scrutineers. They’re cheaper, just as fast, and can’t be rigged.
    • Limit what taxpayers’ money can be spent on.
  9. Engaging the Citizens: Learned helplessness, fear and blind obedience have been the means by which Bush kept the people in line and off guard, while he robbed them blind and destroyed their reputation. Obama needs to:
    • Recruit all of the American people to rebuild the nation’s shattered social fabric, community by community, collaboratively, reaching across differences, being generous, really caring about other people, learning to do things for themselves, learning how the world works and how it can work better.
    • Get people to volunteer, especially those who can really afford it, and have been on the sidelines far too long.
    • Remove the real obstacles to rebuilding the civil state and the economy. The obstacles aren’t regulations or taxes, they’re monopolies and oligopolies, intellectual property lawyers, brokers and agents and self-aggrandizing executives and financial ‘service’ people who do nothing of value and get paid exorbitantly for it, speculators, money-hoarders, usurers, bullies, buck-passers, and bureaucrats. Get them out of our way and let us, enable us, to get to work.
  10. Picking the Right Team: BHO can’t do it alone. He needs to pull together a team of bright, imaginative, courageous people. Maybe you’re one of them. If so, make sure he knows.

There are two things that are conspicuously missing from this list:

  • Health and Education Reform: As I noted in point 5 above, I’m not in favour of top-down systems for managing public health and education. I think each community knows (or can quickly learn) what it needs, and if given the resources can use them to create viable health and education systems much better than any distant government can. So perhaps surprisingly I’m no longer in favour of universal health care or free education, unless that is achieved at the community level. I think it’s more achievable at that level, and without the prohibitive cost of top-down national and state-directed programs.
  • Energy Strategy: The global warming measures in point 4 above essential determine the only viable energy strategy for the future: Use less, and pull out all the stops to find renewable sources.

So now it begins. As Garrison Keillor said this morning: Keep Seat Belt Buckled. Here we go.

Category: US Politics
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7 Responses to Obama’s Top Ten Tasks

  1. vera says:

    Sigh. Ain’t never gonna happen.

  2. Nathan says:

    It’s interesting to compare this post to yesterday’s. Usually you don’t appear to think that the industrial economy will survive, but Obama is at the “top” of the system that keeps it going. If people are going to organise from the bottom up, they will do it regardless of what a government administration says. You said yesterday that change won’t come through legislation, but today things seem to be the other way round.On the other hand, I do have some sympathy for the negative income tax, because it doesn’t channel tax rebates through some irritating bureaucratic social service system.I suppose it’s appealing to imagine oneself as the advisor that people in power are going to listen to, but even so, I don’t think a centralised bureaucratic government will be much good at promoting the decentralised solutions you have been writing about.

  3. vera says:

    Exactly. Been thinking that one of the pitfalls of empire is the fact that it’s far easier to build up than to redirect to something saner. Reforming the U.S. system is like trying to reform the Ottoman Empire. Not bloody likely.Still, though, it is in the elites’ power to make things more, or less, miserable. Perhaps Obama will have the umph and ideas for the latter.

  4. > I’m no longer in favour of universal health care or free education, unless that is achieved at the community level. Though I support much of what you say, points like this one concern me.In certain respects, your position is evolving to some sort of community-individualism or community-atomism — kind of like personal atomist (of the Ayn Rand sort) except applied to small communities.I don’t think doing everything at the small community level is any more sustainable than doing everything at the individual level. Some things – and this includes the infrastructure for health and education – require society-wide cooperation.I agree that the mechanism of top-down centralized society-wide control is not desirable. However, this does not preclude people from having impacts on a society-wide scale.

  5. mattbg says:

    I don’t think Obama needs to do any of that (and he probably won’t do most of it), but on colonialism and it never working, don’t you see any positive outcomes at all? What about India vs. Pakistan and their respective histories? Hong Kong vs. China? Canada vs. indigenous?There is not so much wrong with our current society that that many things need changing. If you want to know what to expect from Obama, I think you can look to Harper. I think they are very similar.

  6. vera says:

    Thinking about this some more, Dave, I don’t have much of any expectations. I am happy the Chimp is nearly history.But I am keeping an eye on this one thing: Will Obama have what it takes to tell Americans the truth? I am not asking for some miracle here. Just that he gets together the best minds who understand the underbelly of today’s reality, that they arrive at the best understanding they can, and then share it with Americans, perhaps via the speech on Jan 20, perhaps more in detail in some other way. This will be crucial.If he does not dare, if he takes the tack of oh, let’s figure out how to climb out of this recession and get back into growth and business as usual, then… But heck, I am watching and waiting. :-)

  7. Interesting that most/all of the commenters here seem to be Canadian? Hm….Anyway, posted this article to my bloghttp://virtualteahouse.com/blogs/beth/archive/2008/11/15/obama-s-top-ten-tasks.aspxThanks–

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