Our American Discourse, Ep. 22: While the World Burns, a More Sustainable Future Is in the Making

At this very moment, wildfires rage across Southern California. Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas are picking up the pieces from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. These are only the latest instances of an increasingly volatile and destructive climate. But there is hope. Even as the United States withdraws from the Paris Agreement “for Sustainable Development,” cities, states, and private companies are rushing to fill the void. Sustainability is becoming a win-win-win: environmentally, socially, and even financially. The question is, are we too late?

In this episode, Christine Harada gives us an optimism that sustainability can prevail — and tangible proof that we can make it happen right in our own backyard.

Continue reading “Our American Discourse, Ep. 22: While the World Burns, a More Sustainable Future Is in the Making”

The World That Mitt Romney Wants to Build…for the One Percent

“A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” — Michael Kinsley

Mitt Romney really stepped in it this time. His only saving grace is that no one noticed…yet.

In a recent interview with Fortune magazine, Romney indicated that, under his tax plan, “high-income people would continue to pay the same share of the tax burden that they do today.”

This quote doesn’t sound like a gaffe until you put it together with the rest of Romney’s promises. Under his tax plan, those “high-income people” would face much lower tax rates.

This seemed odd to me. The same tax burden with lower rates? Wouldn’t that mean they’d have to earn a heck of a lot more money before taxes?

As it turns out, yes. Yes, they would.

If Romney gets his way, the top 1 percent will pay an average federal tax rate of 22.5 percent, down from the 28.3 percent rate they paid in 2007. The average federal tax rate for the nation as a whole will fall from 19.9 percent to 17.4 percent. (This is assuming Romney doesn’t eliminate a bunch of deductions and credits, in which case most people’s tax rate would actually go up and the number I’m about to report would be worse. I’m giving Romney the benefit of the doubt here.)

In 2007, the top 1 percent paid 26.2 percent of the nation’s taxes. In order to maintain that share of the tax burden, as Romney suggested in his interview, the top 1 percent would have to earn 33.9 percent of the nation’s pretax income.

33.9 percent. One in three dollars of our nation’s output will go into the pockets of the richest 1 percent. To put that into context, in 2007, the top 1 percent pocketed 18.7 percent of pretax income. In 1979, they earned 8.9 percent.

Let’s take Romney at his word. Let’s try to imagine what the world will look like if the top 1 percent earns 33.9 percent of pretax income.

In order to earn that much income, CEO compensation will soar. The financial sector will probably double its share of corporate profits. Leveraged buyouts and other short-term gimmicks will become more prevalent, and many more manufacturing jobs will disappear, replaced by low-wage, no-benefit service jobsif they’re replaced at all. Wages for the average worker will decline relative to inflation. Most households will have to work more hours just to maintain their standard of living, but even that won’t be enough. Households will sink deeper in debt just to stay afloat. As a result, financial crises will become more frequent and more prolonged. Wall Street will thrive, creating ever more complex financial securities that prey on ever more naïve borrowers.

That’s another thing: Lack of education. Well, you can expect poverty to go up, and therefore students’ test scores will go down. But don’t expect the government to pick up the slack with more funding because the top 1 percent is no friend to high public education spendingor food stamps or Medicaid or pretty much anything that would help poor kids.

And in a world where they’re earning one-third of the nation’s income, the top 1 percent is going to have twice the influence they currently have in Congress. So you can expect plenty of corporate subsidies, especially for Big Oil. Forget about clean energy. We’ll import all that stuff from China. You see, the 1 percent doesn’t like to nurture new industries when they threaten the old monopolies.

Of course, not everyone in the 1 percent thinks or acts the same. They’re a diverse and brilliant and, in many ways, admirable bunch. But 1 percent of the population should not control one-third of the economy, no matter how impressive they may be.

You may think I’m an alarmist. Surely the future won’t be that bad.

Well, guess what: Everything I just described has been happening for the past three decades. And it all happened while the 1 percent doubled its share of pretax income.

Welcome to the future. How do you like it so far?

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The Power of “What If?”

by Alex Nakahara

It is the motto of dreamers from children to artists to engineers.

“What if I move this block over here? Can I build my tower higher?”

“What if I try setting these variables constant? Can I see a pattern emerge?”

“What if we try to harness the power of the tides to generate electricity? What is the potential amount of power we could make?”

“What is the best way to implement high-speed rail systems, and what opportunities would that provide?”

True, “What if?” can be seen as a pointless exercise, leading one to daydreams, regret, and recrimination. But ignoring the “What if?” in life consigns us to our staid viewpoint and ignores more promising avenues. Someone who wonders, “What if the British had won the Revolutionary War?” ponders alternate history. But I prefer to think of alternate futures. Before us lie always many potential paths. Indeed, in multiverse theory, every time a decision or event happens that could have gone more than one way, the universe branches with one path for each possible outcome, leading to an infinity of parallel universes. Some of these worlds differ from ours in only small details, while in others the dinosaurs might never have become extinct. Being able to imagine these branches lets us see possible consequences of our actions as well as new areas to explore.

Americans are proud of blazing new paths, and rightfully so, for what speaks more to the vitality of a civilization than its ability to grow, improve, and progress? And what is more responsible for humanity’s exponential strides in the last few centuries than science and technology? I would go so far as to argue that continual improvement of technology is the most important issue facing us. Many of the most pressing problems today — climate change, clean energy, health care, and aging infrastructure, to name a few — need new ideas and technologies to be solved. But it is often in the face of great problems that humanity has found the greatest solutions. In the 1940’s alone, driven by World War II, aircraft progressed from flimsy biplanes to sleek jets and rockets, the first computer was invented (at my own University of Pennsylvania), and, for good or bad, the key to unlock nuclear energy was discovered. In the next century, we may see many devices from science fiction come to life, such as robots for our everyday needs, nuclear fusion, and hypersonic and space travel. But it is equally certain that a large number of inventions will be unpredictable revelations, fascinating in the new possibilities they unlock. All these inventions will be driven by a simple question: “What if?”