Presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama recently answered 14 science-related questions put to them by Scientific American and ScienceDebate.org. This exchange left me wanting more. If I had the candidates locked in a room with me, I'd ask them two questions:
What the $%&*#!!! you gonna do about the obscenely big gap between rich and poor Americans?
Over the past few decades the gap between rich and poor and the U.S. has reached Grand Canyon proportions, triggering complaints from prominent scholars and pundits as well as Occupy Wall Streeters. According to journalist (and dean of Columbia University School of Journalism) Nicholas Lehman, the richest one percent of Americans accounted for nine percent of the nation's total income in 1979; today, the top one percent gets 25 percent of all income. Economist Jeffrey Sachs notes that average compensation for CEOs, which in 1970 was 40 times the average pay of workers, was 1,000 times greater by 2000.
Inequality is measured by the so-called Gini index (invented by statistician Corrado Gini). A society in which everybody has exactly the same income has a Gini index of zero, and a society in which one person makes all the bucks has a Gini index of one. The U.S. Gini index rose from .359 in 1972 to .440 in 2010, according to political scientist Andrew Hacker. He estimates that since 1985 the lower 60 percent of Americans has lost $4 trillion in wealth, most of which has flowed to the top five percent.
Let's disregard the morality of inequality and just consider the issue from a public-health perspective. Psychologists Martin Daly and Margot Wilson have linked higher inequality with higher homicide rates in counties across the U.S. and Canada. The social scientists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have correlated a high Gini index with other ills, including imprisonment, illiteracy, infant mortality, obesity, cancer, heart disease, mental illness and substance abuse.
Wilkinson and Pickett analyzed 23 nations, most in Europe, as well as the U.S., Canada, Singapore, New Zealand and Israel. Of this group, the U.S. ranks very high both on Gini score, second only to Singapore, and on social and health problems (that's the U.S. in the right upper corner of the graph above). Wilkinson and Pickett present their findings in The Spirit Level (Bloomsbury, 2011). See also their website The Equality Trust and Wilkinson's TED talk (to which one of my students, Marlon Montoya, alerted me). Inequality is a social sickness, which must be treated. And that brings me to my second question:
What the %$&#@!!! you gonna do about our obscenely big military budget?
Since 2000 the U.S. defense budget has doubled to almost $700 billion, according to SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. If expenditures on nuclear weapons, homeland security and related programs are added, our annual outlays approach $1 trillion, more than the defense budgets of all other nations combined. We spend about five times as much on arms as China, our closest competitor, and 10 times as much as Russia. The U.S. is also by far the world's biggest arms dealer, with record sales of $66 billion last year.
The U.S. military budget has flattened out recently because of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and wind-down in Afghanistan. But no prominent politician except Ron Paul has proposed non-trivial cuts in military outlays. As former Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore writes, whatever the outcome of the upcoming election, "the one clear winner" will be "the U.S. military and our ever-surging national security state."
Republicans and Democrats alike tout the economic benefits of the military-industrial complex. But here are some facts from The Shadow World (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2011), a hard-hitting expose of the arms trade by journalist Andrew Feinstein. Feinstein documents how arms sales foster political corruption and erosion of civil rights, not to mention violence.
Military spending is also a lousy way to create jobs. According to one study cited by Feinstein, spending tax dollars on energy-related fields would generate 50 percent more jobs, on health care almost twice as many jobs and on education almost three times as many. Why aren't all the Republicans who supposedly care about government waste focusing on the Pentagon?
If Romney and Obama and their respective parties fail to take inequality and military spending seriously—and I don't expect them to--maybe we need a new party.
Charts from Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (top) and from SIPRI via Wikipedia.
Postscript: Organizing a third party ain't the only response to frustration with American politics. Kirkpatrick Sale, an old friend and creative troublemaker, is a leader of a diverse group lobbying for secession of Vermont and other regions from the United States. They have recently drafted a document, "The Montpelier Manifesto," urging Americans to "consider ways peaceably to withdraw from the American Empire by (1) regaining control of our lives from big government, big business, big cities, big schools, and big computer networks; (2) relearning how to take care of ourselves by decentralizing, downsizing, localizing, demilitarizing, simplifying, and humanizing our lives; and (3) providing democratic and human-scale self-government at those local and regional levels most likely to effect our safety and happiness." Check it out at http://vermontrepublic.org/the-montpelier-manifesto.