America is broken, so we asked some of its greatest minds how they would fix it | US news
America has some big problems that need fixing.
The last year laid bare hard truths: about existing inequalities made unbearably worse by the Covid-19 pandemic, about a democratic system dangerously vulnerable to its own institutional weaknesses, about the proliferating catastrophes heading our way if we don’t act with urgency to stop the climate crisis.
It’s our hope that the coming year will offer a fresh start. It’s certainly an opportunity for fresh ideas. We’ve asked nine experts to share one, concrete way to address some of America’s most intractable challenges. Their answers are below.
How to fix America’s misinformation crisis
Teach our children critical thinking
By Rebecca Solnit
There is hardly a thing in the US that couldn’t benefit from change right now, but something I think about a lot is public education, from preschool to high school. If it were up to me, we’d throw out a lot of the existing curriculum and start over. The conspiracy theories and delusions across the political spectrum – from anti-vaxxers to QAnon devotees to climate deniers to Confederacy cosplayers – prove that we desperately need a citizenship equipped with critical thinking skills.
By this I mean the capacity to evaluate and factcheck information and sources, and to analyze them to decide what makes sense and who and what can be trusted. Over and over, I run into statements from people who don’t understand that the conclusion they’re brandishing can’t be reached from the data they’ve glommed on to or that their information is itself corrupt or simply wrong. I dream of a curriculum emphasizing research skills, analytical skills, practice in exercising judgment and using language with accuracy.
These things are vital for a functioning democracy and a society inoculated against conspiracy theories, hucksters and delusions. The current pandemic has shown us how dangerous is this capacity to believe things that don’t make sense, but are ideologically convenient, and Donald J Trump’s whole political career was about reaping the benefits of this incapacity.
How to bridge the racial wealth gap
With reparations for slavery
By Dedrick Asante-Muhammad
The United States – and its economy – is based on a white supremacist concentration of wealth and resources. To end this disparity, which rears its head in everything from the racial wealth divide to police brutality and mass incarceration, a massive redistribution of wealth and resources is required.
Today, African Americans collectively own just 4% of the nation’s total wealth. To own a share of wealth proportionate to their 13% of the population, African Americans would require another $10tn.
A long-term and consistent cash infusion will make a world of difference for wealth development, particularly for a community whose median household income is only $40,000. A 20-year injection of $20,000 annually to every African American who can identify an enslaved ancestor in the United States is the type of radical reform needed to build an American economy and society that gets us past the divisions and inequality of the past. Read more.
How to fix inequality
Tax the wealth of the dead
By Robert Reich
Already, 60% of America’s personal wealth is inherited. If present trends continue, it will be close to 80% in a few decades. So much for the myth of the “self-made man” or woman, and for America’s traditional disdain of aristocracy.
What to do? Joe Biden has rejected a tax on great wealth but he’s open to getting rid of the “stepped-up-basis on death” rule. This obscure tax provision allows heirs to avoid paying capital gains taxes on the increased value of assets accumulated during the life of the deceased.
It won’t solve economic inequality on its own, but it’s a good place to start.
Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley
How to fix America’s economy
Put workers at the center
By Darren Walker
Time magazine just recognized frontline workers as 2020 “Guardians of the Year” – rightly so. For nine months, working people have toiled to keep us all afloat through unprecedented disaster.
And yet, even as they’re hailed as heroes, frontline workers have been treated as expendable. Already, America’s workers – especially Black and brown workers – have suffered extreme levels of infection, job loss and poverty.
If we want to honor these heroes, we can offer immediate relief by prioritizing them for vaccines and financial support. We can protect them and aid the recovery by adopting paid leave and sick days, ensuring personal protective equipment and enforcing and improving health and safety policies. And we must push for permanent reform – such as a comprehensive workers’ bill of rights – that addresses systemic inequalities and gives them access to well-paid employment, healthcare and affordable housing.
No one should be forced to choose between their lives and their livelihoods. We must reimagine our world with workers at the center.
How to tackle the climate emergency
For starters, cut the money pipeline
By Bill McKibben
There’s no one way to fix climate change, of course – it’s the biggest problem humans have ever encountered. But convincing banks and asset managers to cut their ties with the fossil fuel industry would go a long way.
New York state recently decided to divest its $226bn pension fund from oil and gas – if Citibank and Barclays and Bank of America and BlackRock and the rest would follow suit, the crimp in the money pipeline that feeds the fires of global warming would make a huge difference.
JP Morgan Chase alone has poured a quarter-trillion dollars into fossil fuel since the Paris climate agreement – Donald Trump was not its only saboteur. It’s time for that kind of vandalism to end.
How to create a more inclusive democracy
Build grassroots movements
By Alejandra Gomez
In 2020, Lucha’s grassroots effort helped turn Arizona blue. Ours wasn’t just the largest progressive field campaign in Arizona – it was the only progressive field campaign in Arizona.
We started to organize ourselves in 2010 because we felt abandoned by the Democratic party, which did nothing to protect us from anti-immigrant policies threatening our communities.
We built a larger, diverse coalition that reflected the community. We created grassroots infrastructure and developed the leadership capacity of immigrant women in our communities. In 2016, alongside our coalition partners, we passed a higher minimum wage and defeated America’s toughest sheriff. We continued organizing our tías, abuelas y comadres across Arizona. By 2020, our coalition was able to energize a large coalition of Latinx, Black and Indigenous women and immigrant voters.
Arizona organizers showed what’s possible when you put resources into expanding the electorate and developing the next generation of leaders – mujeres, immigrants, and people of color. Now it’s up to the Democratic party to follow our lead if they truly want to win up and down the ballot. La Lucha sigue.
Alejandra Gomez, co-executive director of Lucha, has dedicated her life to a commitment to social, racial and economic justice by building power alongside community through grassroots organizing and mobilization
How to fix America’s water crisis
Start with rural America
By Catherine Coleman Flowers
In the wealthiest country in the world, at least 2 million people lack access to basic water and sanitation, and, too often, sustainable wastewater infrastructure becomes the burden of the homeowner. As a result, throughout rural America, straight-piping, failing septic systems, and treatment systems that pour sewage into yards and homes are common.
Who is affected? Mainly Black, Indigenous, migrant and poor white communities. Climate change is making things worse in areas where there are rising water tables, melting permafrost and failing infrastructure. The health impact is devastating; in 2017, I partnered with tropical disease experts at Baylor College of Medicine on a study that found rampant hookworm in rural Alabama. My fear is that the next pandemic will emerge from right here in Lowndes county.
There is no simple solution, but to start, we need to change the engineering paradigm by including affected residents in the process of designing effective and affordable sanitation systems. Collaborative action – between communities, engineers, governments and NGOs – is crucial to ensuring that all Americans have access to clean water and soil.
Catherine Coleman Flowers is an environmental activist bringing attention to the problem of inadequate waste and water sanitation infrastructure in rural communities. A 2020 MacArthur fellow, she is the author of Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret
How to break our addiction to air travel
Look to the lessons of 2020
By Kim Cobb
What insights does 2020 provide about our long overdue transition away from fossil-fueled air travel? First, let’s be clear – this is not the future that #flyingless advocates hoped for. In the low-carbon future of our dreams, we can zip across wide distances via high-speed trains and run straight into the arms of our loved ones upon arrival. We can crowd into packed conference halls with colleagues from our region, while we connect with farther-flung colleagues via virtual platforms.
We’ll look back on 2020 as a screen-filled dystopia that placed new value on in-person connections. By the same token, it will be nice to know that going forward, we have a viable, remote alternative for those trips where the climate costs, and associated injustices, outweigh the value for us as an individual. For me, that would be almost all flights. But going forward, it’s an urgent question for everyone to ask themselves.
How to reduce the plastic choking our planet
‘Strive for consistency, not perfection’
By Rachel Garcia
Many people think that recycling is the answer to America’s plastic problem, but the truth is that only 9% of plastic waste gets remade into something new. The rest is sitting in a landfill or the oceans, polluting our planet and even breaking down into microplastics that enter our bodies.
Many people assume that to make a difference, you need to change everything about your lifestyle, but smaller actions do add up. Put a canvas or reusable tote filled with fabric produce bags in your trunk or near your door. Try to buy loose produce instead of produce wrapped or boxed in plastic packaging. Instead of buying new Tupperware, take a look at your own pantry for the glass jars right at your fingertips! Empty tomato sauce, pickle or jelly jars can easily become clear, organized storage if you soak off the labels with baking soda and vinegar.
To create lasting habits, don’t make drastic changes overnight. The key to reducing your plastic waste is to strive for consistency, not perfection.
Rachel Garcia is the owner of Dry Goods Refillery, a plastic and package-free pantry in Maplewood, New Jersey