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Moats: Big new ideas often precede shifts of power

2019-07-01

Commentary by David Moats, as seen in vtdigger.org: https://vtdigger.org/2019/07/01/moats-big-new-ideas-often-precede-shifts...

It is a season for big ideas.

On the Democratic side, candidates and policymakers are straining at their harnesses to demonstrate their capacity to think big. Frustrated by years of political paralysis, cynical partisanship and anti-government dogma, they are looking for ways to show they can make big things happen.

In Vermont, author and editorialist Stephen Kiernan has produced a sort of manifesto, signed by numerous longtime state leaders, urging Vermont to exercise a leadership role on numerous issues, under the authority of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution. That is the amendment that recognizes states’ authority in all areas not specifically designated as a federal responsibility. Accordingly, Kiernan calls his initiative Vermont to the Tenth Power.

Nationally, two of the most frequently discussed big ideas are the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, sweeping initiatives to address the climate crisis and the nation’s dysfunctional medical system. Much of the debate within Democratic circles has focused on whether to embrace these initiatives whole or to pursue them incrementally.

It’s in the nature of the big idea that it alters the political landscape, establishes new institutions and becomes a new center of power. That is what happened when Franklin Roosevelt used the New Deal to establish Social Security, farm supports, the Security and Exchange Commission and other pillars of big government. Each of these new entities became a power center unto itself, challenging the unfettered power of big business. Thus, it has been the object of the Republican Party over the last 80 years to tear these institutions down.

But how do conditions arise allowing for a new big idea to catch on? It’s not easy. Inertia usually works in favor of the status quo and against a shift in power away from the already powerful. A crisis like the Great Depression is generally necessary to make a big idea seem plausible or even necessary. At present, the sense of crisis is pervasive, and it’s possible to identify three distinct ones.

An obvious and pressing crisis is that of the climate. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, has declared that climate change is our Third World War. During World War II, people didn’t ask whether the nation could afford to fight the war. Rather, they realized they couldn’t afford not to fight.

It is the same with climate change.

Already, he said, the nation is suffering a loss of 2% of its gross domestic product because of the relentless toll of climate-induced natural disasters. In parts of the world high temperatures are claiming lives by the thousands, and some regions are becoming virtually uninhabitable.

The American Midwest has experienced disastrous flooding this spring and summer. Not only can the nation not afford not to fight it, Stiglitz shows that we would have the means to fight it if only we would reorder our priorities.

One big idea advanced by Stiglitz is what he called a Green Bank. It would be a major national institution designed to help people at the grass roots take the steps needed to reduce carbon emissions. It is not without precedent. The federal government operates programs providing billions for housing and other needs through a variety of farm programs. Something like a Green Bank could be done. Mobilization behind a big idea can happen if people understand the urgency.

Of course, declaring that a crisis exists does not ensure that people will buy into the proposition. President Jimmy Carter declared that the energy crisis of the 1970s was the “moral equivalent of war,” and people mostly yawned. But then the fatal consequences of climate change had not yet become apparent; even today farmers whose fields have been inundated are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge the cause of their troubles.

A group of Vermont policymakers recently gathered to consider how best to talk about climate change with Vermonters. The Vermont Council on Rural Development is a nonprofit that has been instrumental in helping communities articulate community goals and find ways to marshall community resources to achieve them. Addressing the problem of climate change is on the minds of many communities, and the council has been working to become a catalyst for action.

Recently, the council’s board held a retreat to discuss the problem of talking about climate change without alienating Vermonters, or frightening them, or causing them to despair. Together with some invited guests, board members considered the dangers of harping on the issue too insistently, while also promoting action at the community level. A common feeling among everyone gathered at the council’s retreat was frustration that more has not been done to address the crisis, though a visitor from Florida commended the Vermonters, saying their state was light years ahead of hers in awareness and engagement.

States have a role, and that is the theme of Kiernan’s effort under the rubric of Vermont to the Tenth Power. Kiernan, former editorial page editor of The Burlington Free Press, had become concerned about the low level of philanthropy in Vermont, and he began to explore the issue, eventually interviewing more than 100 people. The paper he produced describes numerous familiar social and political ills, with the aim of showing how a small state may thrive “in a time of federal collapse.”

One of the great dangers facing our democracy at present is minority rule achieved by voter suppression, gerrymandering, antiquated voting laws and equipment and an explosion of lobbying, according to Kiernan. With the minority maintaining a tight hold on government, the government has failed to address numerous issues where there is an overwhelming public consensus for action. By percentages ranging from 70-90%, polls show the public favors higher taxes on the rich, action on climate change, negotiations to lower Medicare drug costs, web neutrality and gun regulation, and yet the stranglehold maintained by the minority is thwarting democratic action on these issues.

The states cannot solve all of these problems, but it is Kiernan’s hope that Vermont and other states will recognize the potential that exists under the authority of the 10th Amendment. Vermont has already shown it is willing and able to go its own way on civil rights, gay rights, environmental law and health care. Other states are taking bold action on education, health care, immigration policy and climate change, and Vermont can do so as well.

Kiernan notes that Vermont state government at present lacks hefty policymaking institutions. “Vermont is functioning in a desert of policy initiatives,” he wrote. The governor’s planning office was abolished years ago, and the Legislature’s staff is small and overburdened. He and the signatories of his paper are hoping for the creation of some sort of “convening authority” that could lead to the creation of an entity or office that could fully explore the potential of Vermont’s role under the Tenth Amendment.

Since the conservative revolution harnessed by Ronald Reagan began to wage war on government, government has been stripped of resources and the ability to stand up to the immense power of the business interests that, unchecked, have altered the climate and fostered inequality. We need some big ideas — a Green Bank, a Green New Deal, green thinking on an immense scale — and Vermonters from the farm fields of Franklin County to the hearing rooms of Montpelier are becoming restive, hoping that the state can assert an independent, leadership role, not just for the benefit of Vermonters, but for the benefit of the nation and world.

Editor’s note: David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.