Five essential issues the candidates have avoided

Every four years the United States carries out one of the greatest exercises in mass political participation in the world, yet every presidential election is defined by the issues the candidates choose to debate rather than the most important issues the country faces. The issues raised this year are the most urgent in several decades of presidential contests, but after three debates in which the same questions were recycled again and again, it should be no surprise that hugely important issues are still off the table. No matter who wins in November, these issues must be brought into the national debate.

Medicare for all
The United States is unique among rich countries: it does not provide health insurance to all its people - one out of every six Americans does not have coverage. Since almost 50 million people can't afford to see a doctor, you might think the US spends less on health care than other rich countries that cover everyone. But in fact American per capita health care expenses are *two times higher* than even the second-highest spender - and three times higher than other countries with universal coverage.

That means we're getting a horrible deal on health care - other countries insure everyone, spend far less money doing so, and their people are at least as healthy as Americans. The reason is that those countries' governments provide health care. In America private insurers do it, spending huge amounts of money to reduplicate each other's bureaucracy (which is mainly used to find ways to *deny* care), to pay their executives millions of dollars, and to buy advertising.

The US already has a highly efficient government health insurance program that provides care at a much lower cost than private insurers - but only the elderly are eligible for Medicare. If we extended Medicare to all Americans, our health costs would plummet and we could guarantee the right of every American to health care. Unfortunately, private insurers also spend your health care dollars on lobbying and political attack ads, which is why even those politicians who understand the right way to solve our health care crisis are afraid to support it. Only when the American people start demanding the only efficient and fair solution - Medicare for everyone - will politicians start listening.

The failed drug war
Americans have a strange relationship with recreational drugs. The two that are by far the most socially destructive - alcohol and tobacco - are legal and widely available. Meanwhile, one drug - marijuana - that unlike alcohol and tobacco is not addictive, not associated with violence, and carries less risk of chronic disease, remains illegal. Other truly dangerous drugs like heroin and methamphetamines are driven underground, where they cannot be regulated. Instead the business is controlled by violent gangs that battle each other and the police to control the market - leading to exactly the same kind of unnecessary violence that accompanied the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. And finally, we treat those who suffer from addiction as criminals, offering them jail rather than treatment. Does anyone seriously believe that addiction is a choice, which can be pummeled out of the victim by prison?

Dangerous drugs should be legal but strictly controlled, and treatment programs should finally be fully funded. This would not only eliminate the violence involved with drugs, and it would not only begin treating drug abusers as human beings with a devastating medical problem. It would also radically reduce the amount of taxpayer money spent to fight drugs - now mostly wasted on controlling prohibition-caused violence and imprisoning nonviolent offenders - and redirect it in more effective ways.

But as we reform our drug laws we must also take steps to address the underlying social problems that make illegal drugs so socially destructive for certain communities. Right now, even though drug use is evenly spread across cities and suburbs, whites and blacks, the drug war is targeted mainly at poor urban blacks. For decades, the economy and social fabric of these communities was devastated by a toxic combination of deindustrialization, capital flight, and racist neglect. Now we imprison huge numbers of these young men for their involvement in what is often the only viable source of jobs in their community, and they then return to their neighborhoods with even bleaker prospects for a job or stable lives. The answer is not to get tougher on people with few other choices - we must target the real problem, which is economic collapse and inadequate public investment.

The global climate crisis and the rising price of oil (halted only temporarily by the world recession) are closely related to sprawl. The endless extension of roads and highways to serve endlessly expanding suburbs and their ever-larger houses and lawns requires an endless increase in the use of energy and resources to heat and cool those houses, to build the infrastructure to serve them, and to propel the cars whose commute distances and times are, unsurprisingly, also endlessly increasing. The longer we stay on this path, the worse global warming, air pollution, traffic congestion, and global oil shortages will become.

For the last 50 years, the government has subsidized and even mandated sprawl by building highways, using zoning regulations to discourage dense, mixed-use development, and constantly intervening in the Middle East to keep the price of oil low. Americans are now demanding more options - neighborhoods that are walkable and bike-friendly, with good access to public transit and retail and jobs close by.

But to make this kind of development cost-effective, and to fight our destructive addiction to oil, the price of gas can never again collapse to the artificially low levels of the 1980s and '90s. And that's why the candidates won't talk about this issue - the only way to address climate change, to meaningfully reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and to convince developers to invest in compact development rather than sprawl is to keep the price of gas high. A price floor of at least $4 should be established and gradually increased, so that if the price of oil drops the cost of gasoline will still reflect the social damage done by driving. Some of the revenues from this tax should be spent to help those who can least afford the transition, and the rest of it should go toward expanding public transit and Amtrak, which have both suffered from decades of underinvestment, and to research on alternative energy sources. The transition to a more sustainable lifestyle will be painful, but not as painful as if we once again wait complacently for the next oil shock.

The devastating impact of animal agriculture
Over the last 50 years the livestock industry has quietly experienced a revolutionary transformation, from the family farm to the factory farm. Now most animals are raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where as many animals are crammed together in as small a space as possible to maximize the profits of huge agribusinesses.

It goes without saying that these conditions are horribly cruel to the animals, who have almost no space to move around or engage in any of their natural behaviors. The cramped conditions also lead to aggression among the animals, so the livestock corporations cut off the chickens' beaks to prevent them from killing each other, and cut off the pigs' tails to keep the pig in the cage behind from chewing it off.

But the problems extend far beyond ethical bankruptcy. CAFOs are breeding grounds for disease, which leads the corporations to shoot the animals full of antibiotics, which make their way into our food and increase the risk that antibiotic-resistant diseases could emerge and devastate the food supply. Huge amounts of animal waste are concentrated in one spot, making responsible disposal impossible - so agribusiness dumps it into our rivers and streams, destroying their ecosystems. This runoff can then infect our vegetable supply, and was the source of recent deadly outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella in lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes.

On top of these dangers, the intense consumption of meat presents its own problems. The livestock industry is responsible for 1/5 of the world's human-induced greenhouse gases - a total greater than cars and planes combined. Meat is horribly energy inefficient, requiring that many times more grain be fed to animals to produce the same amount of protein and calories than a plant-based diet. And meat-eating is aggravating a growing global food crisis by diverting grain to the production of meat rather than to feeding the hungry.

Yet the government heavily subsidizes the production of meat by sending millions of dollars to agribusiness corn and soy interests that grow most of their crops to supply CAFOs. For decades government has stood idly by as factory farms swallowed up the country's family farmers and devastated the rural environment. It's time to start thinking about regulating these unethical threats to public health out of existence, and transitioning to a less meat-heavy diet.

Class war
The only class war in America has nothing to do with Barack Obama's very modest proposal to increase taxes on the incredibly super-rich. Over the last 30 years, the productivity of American workers has increased more than 70 percent, yet workers' real wages have not increased at all, and the lowest-paid have actually taken a big pay cut. What that means is that corporations are making more money, but they aren't giving any of it to their workers (corporate profits now occupy a larger share of the economy than at any time since the 1960s). Corporate executives and shareholders have seized all the gains for themselves. That's class war.

The reason that productivity and wages rose in tandem during the 1950s and '60s is that labor unions were strong, and made sure that workers got some share of the pie. But the severe recession of the early '80s and a brutal assault on organized labor by the Reagan administration crippled the unions. Free trade deals and the increasing share of low-skill nonunionized service jobs in the economy has kept workers weak ever since.

At the same time, the tax rates on the very rich have been continuously lowered, especially on the investment income that they don't actually work for (capital gains taxes). Many corporate executives now pay a lower effective tax rate than their secretaries. The theory was that these people knew how best to invest that money - a theory that produced reckless speculation and has given us the worst financial crisis since the Depression. Maybe it's time to let working people spend more of the money from the wealth they produce rather than letting rich folks wreck the economy with it.

Rebalancing the tax code to reward work rather than unearned income is a good way to start, and so is raising the minimum wage to a true living wage and indexing it to inflation. We must also remove some of the barriers to organizing unions that businesses have thrown up over the years - passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which was blocked only by a Senate minority this term - should be a high priority.

But beyond legislation, we need to start rethinking some ideas that have been taken for granted for too long. The market does not magically distribute income to those who work hardest or most deserve it, it distributes income to those with power. Over the last 30 years a large majority of the population has acquiesced in their stagnating incomes as the power of well-positioned executives, investors, and managers soared and they took more and more of society's wealth. Now that we see what they've done to economy with all that money and power, it's about time we took some of it back.

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