I like Joe Biden; I don’t love Joe Biden. His policy record is checkered, and his interpersonal interactions are sometimes creepy. But he is a Democrat, he loves trains, and I believe his heart is in the right place. Most significantly, he is not Donald Trump.
The Democratic platform in 2020 was strongly influenced not only by Joe Biden but by Senator Bernie Sanders. That platform, or parts of it, was attractive to many voters, and President Biden is endeavoring to deliver on his campaign promises.
When we consider the most pressing needs of the nation, campaign promises, and the apparent priorities of the current administration, it is not clear that the country’s most urgent needs have been given the priority they deserve. Most notably, the task of protecting our democracy by assuring voting rights for all is, remarkably, not the number one goal of the president and of Democratic legislators.
What, then, should be the priorities of the federal government in 2021? I will offer my own list, with the understanding that the items on it cannot be addressed in a strictly sequential manner. Moreover, certain matters must be dealt with in parallel to these most urgent priorities. For the immediate future, for example, the administration (and perhaps even the Congress) must deal with the ongoing pandemic.
I am convinced that my first issue should indeed be at the top of my list. I am less sure about the exact ordering of what follows—this is meant to be an ordered list—but I think I am in the right ballpark.
Here is my list of national priorities:
- Voting Rights: Federal action is needed to assure that all citizens have the right to vote The exercise of that right must be as easy and as straightforward as possible. Gerrymandering to favor one party, race, or interest should be banned; and the fair administration of elections and tabulations should be assured. Republicans are doing their best to guarantee their ability to rule irrespective of the will of the electorate. If they are successful in thereby destroying our democratic republic, most of what follows will not matter.
- Climate Change. Life on this planet will become difficult and will severely strain our democratic republic if we do not do everything possible to halt climate change. We must do what we can domestically and encourage other nations to do their part as well. Not everything we try will be successful, and it is impossible to lay out a complete program in advance. Most especially, we must curb the burning of fossil fuels and fund research to find new solutions to the climate problem. “Adapting” to climate change is a losing proposition.
- Wealth Inequality. For decades, we have been reducing the tax burden on wealthy persons and corporations. This has not resulted in wealth “trickling down.” We are building a stratified nation of the wealthy, a thinning, technologically-oriented middle class, and an increasingly impoverished and demoralized underclass. We should be grateful that this has not yet led to revolution. Taxes need to be more progressive and difficult to avoid. Inheritance taxes should be steep, and the preference for capital gains should be eliminated. (All income should be treated the same.) Legislation should encourage unionization; a cap should be placed on executive pay; and existing and improved antitrust law should be vigorously applied. The minimum wage, including for workers working for tips, should be increased and indexed to inflation. (Ideally, the notion of giving tips for anything other than extraordinary services should be discouraged.) The taxing of churches and other nonprofits should be considered.
- Campaign Finance. Corporations can neither speak nor hold religious views and should be denied “personhood” except in limited, specified respects. Political contributions by individuals and organizations, including contributions by candidates themselves, should be strictly limited. All contributions to political causes greater than $1,000 and their source must be publicly disclosed within 30 days. There should be severe penalties for failure to do so. A constitutional amendment may be required to effect these changes. Federal financing at least of presidential elections should be considered.
- Housing. The nation needs more housing. The federal government has largely been indifferent to this need, and the not-in-my-backyard attitude of too many people has made increasing the stock of affordable housing virtually impossible. The growing homeless population in a country as rich as the United States is a national disgrace. Increasing population density will not only address homelessness but also will save energy and fight climate change. Until our efforts in this area bear fruit, we must house the homeless as best we can.
- Reproductive Rights. The fight over abortion is more than just about women’s choices. It is about injecting minority-held religious views into public policy. It is about interfering in the practice of medicine. And it is about controlling women and keeping them second-class citizens. Congress should assure the right of women to be free of restrictions concerning their reproductive lives. Women, with their doctors, should be able to decide what is right for them. This is not a free country as long as women are not free.
- Gun Control. There are more guns than people in this country, and many of them are weapons of war that do not belong in the hands of civilians. Assault weapons should be outlawed and surrendered for compensation. All guns should be registered, and the registration should be valid for no more than two years. The penalty for possession of an unregistered gun should be severe. All transfers should be subject to a mandatory background check and safety training.
- Immigration. Our immigration system is wildly dysfunctional. The easy reform is giving so-called dreamers a straightforward way to gain citizenship in the only country they have ever known. Allowing or denying entry to foreigners who want to come to the U.S. needs to be, if nothing else, speedy. Asylum seekers should be afforded humane and prompt treatment. We must decide how we are to treat long-term residents who have not come to this country legally. Much of the dysfunction of Central American nations that are sending waves of refugees to the U.S. is of our doing. We must try to help these countries rather than promoting the interests of American corporations intent on pillaging them.
- Infrastructure. Yes, the country does need to spend money on its decaying infrastructure. Roads, bridges, tunnels, electrical distribution systems, water systems, and sewer systems need to be put in good repair. In the 21st century, high-speed Internet access needs to be universally available. We should be wary of created new structures that are not absolutely necessary and that will require ongoing maintenance. Expanding the low-speed passenger rail system may not be a good investment.
- Senate Filibuster. This undemocratic rule has racist origins and often racist effects. Eliminating or modifying it will be necessary for the Congress to get much done.
- D.C. Statehood. The District of Columbia has a population larger than several states. It is governed in large measure by the whims of Congress. This should be changed. Additionally, two D.C. senators are likely to nudge the Senate in a more progressive direction. I don’t think that Puerto Rico should be made a state. (I would give Puerto Rico a pile of money, give residents two years to decide if they want to come to the United States, and make Puerto Rico an independent nation.)
- Police. Police often protect and serve their own interests rather than those of the citizenry. It is unclear just how reform should look. In any case, police should be relieved of some jobs for which they are unqualified and untrained.
- Judiciary. The Supreme Court, with its lifetime appointments and capricious replacement procedures, is wildly out-of-touch with the population over which it holds great power. To a degree, lower federal courts share these problems. Ideally, Supreme Court justices should have limited terms, and each president should be guaranteed two appointments. If such a change is politically impossible, additional justices should be added to the court.
- Justice System. Cash bail should be eliminated for low-level offenses reputedly committed by people who pose a low flight risk. Private prisons should be phased out. Other prisons should be provided with larger, better-trained staff. Imprisonment should be about isolation from the wider society only, not an introduction into an inmate-run hell.
- Education. Making community college may simply have the result of attracting students who ought to be doing something else than going to school. We would do well to develop more opportunities to learn useful trades and participate in apprentice programs. For-profit schools of all kinds should be discouraged, and public funding for all schools, including public colleges should be increased. In pre-college education, greater emphasis should be placed on civics, geography, and history. History should include all of U.S. history: economic history, labor history, women’s history, slave and black history. We should tell truth to our youth. (Hum, maybe there’s a useful slogan there.) We should also teach children about climate change. Non-public elementary and secondary education should receive no public subsidies. In any case, education is traditionally a state concern. The federal government cannot always demand, but it can encourage.
- Constitution. Our Constitution, as amended, is a marvelous document, but it is not a perfect one. A number of changes could be helpful. For example, if we elected members to the House of Representatives for four, rather than two, years, members could spend more of their time legislating and less time pursuing re-election. Campaign finance reform may require a constitutional amendment. The Second Amendment could be clarified to be more restrictive than desired by the NRA and the Supreme Court. Although doing so does not require a change to the Constitution, enlarging the membership of the House would reduce the number of constituents of each member, resulting in better representation. Of course, the change that would do most to make our nation more democratic would be amending the Constitution to elect the president and vice president by popular vote.
- Health Care. Our mostly for-profit health care system works better for providers, pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, for-profit hospitals, and insurance companies than it does for the general population. Congress has focused on health insurance rather than health care. That focus needs to change. We should be working toward a single-payer system and reduced for-profit elements of that system. Increasing Medicare benefits may be a step toward a more comprehensive health care system, though it benefits those most who already are receiving substantial assistance.
- Other Matters. There are other areas of concern, of course. We need to be concerned about wildlife and our national parks. Native Americans and blacks have been treated badly by our nation. It is unclear whether compensation for our past depredations is possible, Future actions should be informed by past injuries. It is widely believed that government provides less assistance to parents and children than do other Western nations. We likely should do more, but I’m not sure what that should look like or what we can afford. We should spend more on basic scientific research and, perhaps, on the space program.