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The Obama Economic Stimulus — Will it Take Us Where We Need to Go?

Dear President-elect Obama,

The economic stimulus package you laid out today in your weekly radio and internet address is a great starting point—very much needed as the downward spiral of the economy takes away the breath of even the most level-headed observer.

Your plan to save or create 2.5 million jobs by investing in energy efficiency, infrastructure, and schools are all things we called for in the agenda we laid out in the Fall issue of YES!, and are all favored by a large majority of Americans.

Let's look a bit more closely at your specific plans:

"First, we will launch a massive effort to make public buildings more energy-efficient. Our government now pays the highest energy bill in the world. We need to change that. We need to upgrade our federal buildings by replacing old heating systems and installing efficient light bulbs. That won’t just save you, the American taxpayer, billions of dollars each year. It will put people back to work."

Zero-carbon buildings

This is an excellent place to start. Increasing the efficiency of buildings reduces greenhouse gas pollution, and cuts dependence on both imported energy. It sets a higher standard for building owners to emulate, and jump starts what could be one of the best new sources of stable, family-wage employment—refurbishing the built environment for energy efficiency. And it is an investment that will quickly begin saving us tax dollars.

"Second, we will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s. We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule – use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money."

Investment in national infrastructure is desperately needed after years of neglect by leaders hostile to government projects. But we are entering a new era, when everything we build must be assessed for its climate impacts. The potential catastrophe of run-away climate meltdown could make the economic melt down look minor by comparison. Infrastructure investments must be used to build to climate friendly projects—bridges that accommodate mass transit, bike lanes, and pedestrians, for example. And roads that encourage compact communities rather than expensive and wasteful sprawl.

"Third, my economic recovery plan will launch the most sweeping effort to modernize and upgrade school buildings that this country has ever seen. We will repair broken schools, make them energy-efficient, and put new computers in our classrooms. Because to help our children compete in a 21st century economy, we need to send them to 21st century schools."

Great plan. Our kids should not be going to run-down schools that kill the spirit and signal to them that we don't care. Instead, schools should be filled with beauty and light—qualities that can improve learning and cut energy costs. More than any other group, our young people have a stake in a sustainable future, and we can rebuild schools that give them hope. While we're at it, we can address another of your top priorities, health, by connecting the schools with local farmers, so kids get healthy, fresh, local meals.

"As we renew our schools and highways, we’ll also renew our information superhighway. It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. Here, in the country that invented the internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they’ll get that chance when I’m President – because that’s how we’ll strengthen America’s competitiveness in the world."

Agreed. Kids must have access to the extraordinary range of information available on the internet and to the tools needed to create their own on-line spaces, where they can express their own ideas and talents, not just be passive consumers of information and entertainment. We need to find the right balance, though, between kids spending time in the electronic world of the internet, and interacting with real people, real spaces, and real plants, animals, soil, water, and sunshine. In other words, the virtual world is no substitute for the real world.

"... the economic recovery plan I’m proposing will help modernize our health care system – and that won’t just save jobs, it will save lives. We will make sure that every doctor’s office and hospital in this country is using cutting edge technology and electronic medical records so that we can cut red tape, prevent medical mistakes, and help save billions of dollars each year."

We're Not Getting Our Money's Worth: the cost of Health Care

Fine, but let's not get distracted from the real crisis: access to health care.

Will you, as promised, create an affordable system of health insurance that will cover everyone? The analysis we did for the YES! issue, Health Care for All, shows that keeping the private insurance industry as the dominant player in the system, makes universal coverage difficult, if not impossible. Canada and every other wealthy country deliver health care security to everyone by eliminating the expense, bureaucracy, and dominant role of the profit motive from the health care payment system. Medical services are still provided by a combination of private, public, and non-profit medical facilities.

These systems work—few Canadians or Europeans would trade their system for the expense, ineffectiveness, and insecurity of the U.S. system. And little wonder; they live longer and healthier lives than Americans, and can take access to medical care for granted. In spite of the absence of these proposals from most public debate, Canadian-style, single-payer health care is favored by an overwhelming majority of Americans, who now live in fear of losing health coverage due to a job loss or some other change in circumstances.

One other element of the economic plan that Americans favor—please, Mister President-Elect, extend unemployment benefits for those losing their jobs and unable to find a new one in a downsizing economy. Doing so will immediately put money into the pocket of hard-pressed Americans, who will immediately spend it on providing necessities for their families—a great investment in our children and our future, and an immediate stimulus to the real economy of Main Street. (If you have any doubt about the pain ordinary Americans are feeling, check out these stories on the Huffington Post.)

In summary, your plan is a great starting point. But the economic collapse (and pending environmental collapse) shows the need for much deeper restructuring. Some ideas about what that might mean are here.


Sarah van Gelder wrote this article December 6, 2008, for Path to a New Economy, a collection of online articles for YES! Magazine, on economic and financial solutions. Sarah is the Executive Editor of YES! Magazine.

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