Month: August 2018

Harry Belafonte And The Long Road To Freedom

On the anniversary of the March on Washington, YES! reporter Sarah Van Gelder revisits an interview with the musician and civil rights activist about his anthology of Black music.  This story from the YES! Media archives was originally published in the Spring 2002 issue of YES! Magazine.

Harry Belafonte, singer, recording artist, actor, and producer, has been called “the consummate entertainer.” His album Calypso was the first LP in the history of the music industry to sell more than 1 million copies, and he’s won an Emmy Award and a Tony Award. But his successes as an artist have never eclipsed his passion for justice and civil rights. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and was a close friend of  Martin Luther King Jr. He is a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and was one of the co-hosts of the 1990 World Summit for Children. He also hosted South African President Nelson Mandela during his U.S. visit. Throughout his life, Belafonte has been a tireless advocate of justice and human rights.

Harry’s most recent musical contribution is The Long Road to Freedom, containing 80 tracks on five CDs, including the blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the voices of Belafonte, Joe Williams, Gloria Lynne, and Bessie Jones and singers from the Georgia Sea Islands. The set, which also contains a DVD and a book illustrated by the renowned American painter Charles White, is a musical narrative of the history of African Americans.

YES! executive editor Sarah Ruth van Gelder interviewed Harry Belafonte shortly after the release of The Long Road to Freedom.

I’m enjoying The Long Road to Freedom very much. Could you tell us the story of how this extraordinary collection came about?
In the last half of the 1950s when the new stirrings of the civil rights movement were coming into evidence, many of us had to examine what we thought we could contribute to this coming struggle.

I realized that most White Americans knew very little about our history and our struggle, and were having difficulty understanding the basis for our agitation and our resistance and our complaints. I also discovered that while Black Americans had a sense of the beauty and tragedy of the journey from the time of slavery until now, we were not rooted in the specifics. I thought one way to familiarize people with that history would be through the voices of the great folk artists.

The more I researched and listened to this music, the more I began to understand that it is one of the very few accurate documentations of the history of our journey. I delighted in the music of Africa, the earliest of the slave plantation songs, the transformation into Christianity and all that Christianity brought to the lives of the Africans who were forced to come here. In this process, we also examined the tragic role the church played in the development of slavery and its role in helping develop tools for the resistance to slavery and ultimately its abolition.

Although some of the material is familiar, few people understand the subtext of a lot of these songs and what the lyrics really say. On the face of it, some of the words appear to be spiritually pure, when in fact much of it is really the language of rebellion, the language of resistance, language calling on the courage to overcome the oppression of slavery and racism.

I understand that you grew up in an urban setting, so rural black America was a new discovery.
Yes, as far as America is concerned, but I grew up in a very rural environment on the island of Jamaica, and had a sense of the experience of slaves through slave descendants who were members of my family, who worked on the banana and the sugarcane plantations of the absentee landlords from England. So my environment as a child prepared me to reflect on what it must have been like for slaves and the slave descendants to work the plantations of America.

Who are some of the people you encountered and what was most meaningful about this discovery for you personally?
Leadbelly, Bessie Jones, Joe Williams and Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee were but a few of the easily identifiable personalities.

When I listen to many of the voices that sang these songs, the soulfulness with which they expressed themselves dimensionalizes for me the sense of how broad my own repertoire of songs could be. As much as I understood about the music of the Caribbean—which some people view as exclusively my artistic voice—it is the folk music of the African diaspora, which includes America and the Caribbean and Brazil and all the nations of Africa, that enriches my own work.

The purity of purpose and the kind of passion Miriam Makeba and the great Calypsonian singers and the other artists I mentioned brought to their work is very, very different from the ways artists express themselves in pop culture. Pop culture has none of the vibrancy that you find in the folk culture, where people speak directly to their own experience in the human condition. Pop culture tends to be escapist and to focus on the boy/girl, moon/June, the great influence of Tin Pan Alley. We had to go outside of that arena into places that were not so accessible to find blues artists and chain gang songs and other expressions that spoke to the suffering and the conditions of Black people.

Also very central to my own development was Woody Guthrie and the folk art of White America, and the kind of alliances that were made between Black and White people who were caught up in the working-class struggle of this country, and indeed the world.

What have these African American traditions taught the larger American society?
I think there’s a lot that the larger society could have been taught or can be taught, but I’m not sure—given how unyielding the larger society has been—that much has been learned.

Each time we arrive at a new level in extricating ourselves from economic, social, spiritual domination, we have a moment when we dance in the world of these new experiences, only to find that the music soon stops, the dance ends, and we’re struggling once again to save ourselves from being thrown back into those conditions.

I don’t know what America has really learned. We are too quick to do what’s expedient on behalf of our culture of greed and hedonism. We’re quite prepared to go to conditions of tyranny to sustain that culture, and we do it in the name of democracy, when nothing could be more undemocratic. We do it in the name of saving the values of our society, when the way we behave corrupts those values. We do it in the name of God in whom we believe, when in fact we have corrupted our own vision of the Christian journey.

A lot of this paradox expresses itself in The Long Road to Freedom. At the very beginning of the album you hear a sermon given by a White preacher to the slaves on the plantation. He twists the teachings of the Bible to preach subservience to the slave masters. Then, bookending the collection, the philosophy of Christianity appears again, but this time used in a more enlightened, compassionate way that leads towards human freedom, as expressed by Dr. King. It’s important symbolically that the first voice you hear is a White preacher and the last voice is a Black voice, Dr. King.

You quote Paul Robeson, who said that the purpose of art is not just to show life as it is, but also to show life as it should be. What does this collection tell us about life as it should be?
That the human spirit is resilient and that truth—no matter how long you abuse it and how long you try to crush it—will, as Dr. King would say, rise up again, and in the final analysis will prevail. From the point of view of the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised, the wretched of the Earth … there will never be peace until their condition has been alleviated and until their humanity is in full bloom.

You survived a period in our history where there was a great suppression of dissident voices and, if I’m not mistaken, you were one of the people whose voice was silenced during that period.
Yes, I was on the black list under McCarthyism.

What were you saying that caused you to be on that list, and how did you come to be politically active?
Well, things not on that list should have been included.

In my earliest of years, my mother was a huge force in my life. She was for all intents and purposes, a single parent. My father had abandoned us. He was an alcoholic and a physical abuser. My mother lived through that tyranny and made her living as a domestic worker. She was uneducated but she brought high principles and decent values into our existence, and she set lofty goals for herself and for her children. We were forever inspired by her strength and by her resistance to racism and to fascism. She was very vocal on the issues of the 1930s, in particular on Hitler and those in America who embraced Hitler’s philosophy. And she embraced Marcus Garvey and the struggles against oppression of Africans.

We were instructed to never capitulate, to never yield, to always resist oppression. That always stayed with me, so much so that during World War II, I volunteered and served in the United States Navy. The Navy came as a place of relief for me. It gave me the chance to learn to read and write and to get off the streets of Harlem and the kind of degradation that surrounded me as I grew up. But I was also driven by the belief that Hitler had to be defeated. Although we had a lot of villainy here at home, he was certainly the most visible illustration of what would happen if fascism went unchallenged.

I became an anti-fascist, and the more I saw what was happening to the peoples of Europe, the Jews, the more I saw the deep cruelty and inhumanity of that system and its philosophy of White supremacy.

My commitment sustained itself after the war. Wherever I found resistance to oppression, whether in Africa, in Latin America, certainly here in America in the South, I joined that resistance. I took part in the labor movement, in social movements, in the church community. I felt that it was the honorable thing to do and still do.

Of course, when you get into that work, you’ll forever come up against those who find you unacceptable and will do whatever they can to get you out of the way. McCarthyism was an attempt to do that. And I think we’re headed that way now, with the very divisive and cynical way in which leaders of our present government are manipulating the democratic process and the constitutional system to deny us our basic rights, and to extract more control and power for those already in power and who are already corrupted by that power.

Having survived McCarthyism, do you have any advice on how to survive this period of political repression we seem to be entering and to keep the movements for positive change alive?
Do not submit. It is extremely critical that oppression be met full head-on and that it be resisted with every fiber in our being. Absolutely no compromise can be made with it. As a matter of fact, compromise is what oppression feeds on.

Without compromise, it would be defeated. Just as some cancers feed on hormones, compromise becomes the hormone of oppression.

Clearly we’ve encountered a lot of dangers since the 9/11 tragedy—fears about terrorism, attacks on civil liberties, the threat of widening war. Do you also see opportunities coming out of this tragedy for greater reflection about what this country is about and what this country could be about?
Not since the early days of the civil rights movement has America been given an opportunity as great as the opportunity we have now. It’s one thing for us to avenge our pain, our anger, and our rage by targeting bin Laden and a handful of men who have wrought this villainy. But one should be wise enough to ask, What fueled all this? What continues to sustain the possibility that this will not go away? I think the answer is poverty.

Dr. King once said that when we reach this kind of crisis, this kind of terror experience, that we should stop long enough to look at ourselves through the eyes of our detractors and find what wisdom we can glean from understanding how we have directly contributed to that tyranny. What have we done to humanity that brings us to this place of inhumanity? Terrorism is in many, many ways the final utterance of voices unheard.

We have the opportunity now to look at the 2 billion people in the world who suffer from the most abject poverty, hunger, disease, and devastation. Add to that another 2 billion people who are just plain poor. If you look into the world of those caught in economic oppression, illiteracy, disease, and sexism, then you’ll understand more clearly what we have to do.

The problem has always knocked at the door; we’ve just never been attentive. And I think now, with our technology, our capacity to grow food, our ability to stop raping the Earth and destroying the ecology and killing off fellow creatures, we have a chance to bring a new harmony and a new path to human development.

America can no longer afford to be as arrogant as we’ve been. We can no longer exempt ourselves from the global family of concern. We can no longer exempt ourselves from conferences on racism like the conference in Durban that we walked out on, or concerns about trade, or global warming.

So this is a great opportunity to take a good, hard look at these things. Because now we’re more vulnerable than we’ve ever been. The only thing that can put that to rest forever is to abolish poverty. To eradicate preventable diseases. First and foremost to get rid of ignorance.

One last question. What keeps you energized and active in this work?
Even with all the difficulties and the frustrations that we feel—those of us who have been consistent in this journey—what makes it so remarkably attractive and encouraging are the men and women you meet on the way. I have met some glorious human beings: Eleanor Roosevelt, Fanny Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Dr. King, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Che Guevara, and Cesar Chavez and others not quite so famous—they are the ones who really make the journey rewarding. The work I do with UNICEF. The men and women I’ve met in Rwanda, South Africa, working against HIV/AIDS, and the courageous things that simple, wonderful human beings do for each other.

In the face of all the inhumanity, their humanity feeds the capacity to endure and continue to pursue honorable solutions to our pain.

What Can I Do About Climate Change?

People ask me all the time: ‘what can I do to fight climate change?’ And it’s a great question, because the problem seems so big, and we seem so small, that it’s hard to imagine there’s anything we could do.

For years, environmental groups focused on individual actions: new light bulbs, different kinds of cars. Those sort of changes are useful: the roof of my house is covered with solar panels, and I can plug my car into them.

I’m glad about that–it’s environmentally sound, and it saves me money. But I try not to fool myself into thinking that’s really how we’ll solve global warming. Because by this point, with the ice caps melting, we can’t make the math of climate change work one person at a time.

Instead, the biggest thing an individual can do is become…a little less of an individual.  

Join together with others to form the kind of movements that can push for changes big enough to matter. Those changes fall into three broad categories.

100% Renewable Energy

One is to push for 100% renewable energy in every town and city–and it’s a push that’s really working. Diverse cities from Atlanta to San Diego, from Salt Lake City to Portland, have all announced that they’re going to go fully renewable. In fact, when the president pulled America out of the Paris climate accords, he said it was because he’d been ‘elected to govern Pittsburgh, not Paris.’ That afternoon the mayor of Pittsburgh announced that his city was going 100% renewable.

Keep Carbon In The Ground

Second, is to keep carbon in the ground. Scientists have made it clear that at least 80% of known reserves of coal, oil, and gas have to stay underground if we’re to have any hope of meeting the climate goals the world has agreed on. That’s why we fought so hard against things like the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, or for a moratorium on new coal mines on public land. We win a lot of these fights around the world–and every time we put up a fight we slow down the fossil fuel industry, giving the engineers another year or two to drop the price of clean energy even further.


And third, we work to staunch the flow of money to the fossil fuel industry. Our biggest tool is called divestment: convincing cities, states, universities, foundations, and corporations to sell the stock they hold in fossil fuel companies. This tactic–pioneered in the fight against apartheid–really works: new studies show it has focused attention on climate change and robbed companies of some of the money they need for further exploration. New York City was the latest convert, divesting its $200 billion pension funds from fossil fuels–and taking the total global commitment to nearly $7 trillion.

These are big goals–we can only accomplish them through movements. That’s why we join together, all around the country and all across the planet.

While the best thing that we can do to fight the climate crisis is to join together, we can also pair these group actions with the individual ones that climate organizations have been pushing for years.

Reducing our Carbon Footprint / Be More Energy Efficient 

The Environmental Protection Agency has reported that being more energy efficient helps the environment, as well as the checkbook. To increase your energy efficiency and reduce your carbon footprint, you can do the following:

  • Do not heat or cool your house as much as you would usually.There are two ways to do this: 1) when you are going out of the house, try setting the thermostat to 5 degrees or 10 degrees closer to the outside temperature. 2) Slightly change the temperature consistently. If you usually have it at 70 degrees in the winter, set it at 68. Heating and cooling use a significant amount of energy.
  • Unplug electric appliances and chargers when not in use. states that “mobile phone chargers that are left plugged in after your phone is disconnected consume .26 watts of energy — and 2.24 watts when your phone is fully charged and still connected.”
  • Use cold or warm water to wash your clothes90 percent of the total energy used by a typical washing machine is used to heat the water, while only 10 percent is used to power the motor. By simply setting your washing machine to “cold” you will be saving money on your electricity bill and reducing your carbon footprint.
  • Replace old incandescent lightbulbs with energy efficient LED lightbulbs. LED lightbulbs last longer and use much less energy. LED light bulbs use only 2-17 watts of electricity (on third to one thirtieth the amount of electricity used by older lightbulbs.)
  • Seal drafty windows and doors. Both cold and warm air can escape from your home though drafty openings which cause your heating or air-conditioning to work harder to keep your home at the right temperature and therefore consume more electricity. Weatherstripping and using caulk on cracks and gaps can go a long way to helping you save on your electricity bill and reduce your carbon footprint

*Note: this is not an exhaustive list of activities to increase your energy efficiency. 

As shown in many of the examples above reducing your carbon footprint and being more energy efficient also saves money on your energy bill. It’s a win, win situation. 

Choose Renewable Power (if possible)

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “electricity generation is the largest industrial polluter in the country.” Reducing this dependence is critical to slowing global warming. Switching to renewables will significantly reduce your carbon footprint.

There are a number of ways that you can use renewable energy in your home. The most independent and involved way to do this is to invest in personal renewable energy generation on your own property. Department of Energy lists a number of different renewable energy solutions and the steps that you would need to take to install them.

However, installing renewable energy like solar panels on your home can be expensive and a daunting task. Luckily, there are other, less involved, options available in many states.

According to the Institute for Energy Research (IER), 12 states currently mandate green pricing programs for utilities while many others have voluntary green pricing options. These work by allowing individuals and households to buy green energy rather than energy produced by fossil fuels. These green pricing programs work by “charging participating customers a prescribed cost per kWh of green energy purchased.” The IER states that it results in “nominal bill increases.” A couple minute phone call or email communication with your utility company can let you know if they participate in green pricing.

Eat Foods With Lower Carbon Footprints

Different foods contribute differently to your carbon footprint. The video below from Vox outlines how changing your diet can reduce your carbon footprint. Some of the elements they suggest are: reducing the portion size of the meat you eat, choosing meat that has less of a carbon footprint (e.g. choosing fish or chicken instead of beef and lamb), and even cutting out meat and eating a vegetarian, vegan diet.



In addition to adjusting your diet to eat less meat, planning meals and reducing food waste is another great way to reduce your carbon footprint. According to the National Resource Defense Council, “Approximately 10 percent of U.S. energy use goes into growing, processing, packaging, and shipping food—about 40 percent of which just winds up in the landfill.” Through decomposition in landfills, wasted food also produces greenhouse gasses and contributes to climate change. Therefore, we are not only contributing to climate change through demand for the creation of the food products, wasting the produce that we buy contributes as well.

The simplest way to address this is to waste less food. has put together a simple and clear website describing some of the ways to do this, through shopping techniques (a menu plan helps!), information about what due dates mean, as well as recipes for the most commonly thrown out ingredients.

Ultimately, eating local, in season produce and cutting back on the food groups that produce higher emissions will lower your carbon footprint.

Make Green Travel Choices

Private vehicles produce more C02emissions than any other form of ground transportation. For instance, a private car produces on average 0.96 pounds of COper passenger mile compared to 0.64 from a bus, and 0.33 for commuter rail

The more that you can commute or travel by foot, bike, or public transportation, the lower your carbon footprint. Similarly, reducing air travel will also reduce your carbon footprint.  

However, in many areas around the country or because of a number of factors, personal vehicles may be the only option. Luckily, there are some minor change that you can implement in your own vehicle to reduce the CO2emissions including:

  • Accelerate more slowly. While flooring the gas gets more immediate results, it also wastes gas.
  • Speed less and use cruise control. Cars operate at peak efficiency at around 50 to 60 miles per hour. Staying within the speed limit on highways will not only make you a safer driver, it will help you save at the gas station and reduce your carbon footprint.
  • Ensure your tires are inflated to the recommended levels and your engine is tuned. Simply put, the easier it is for the engine to move the car forward, the better your gas mileage will be.
  • Avoid idling in traffic, if possible. Many cars continue to burn gas while sitting at a stoplight or in traffic. However, none of the energy produced is being used to move the car anywhere.
  • Remove excess weight from your car. Simply put: it takes more energy and therefore more gas to move a heavier car.

These and other pieces of advice to make your car more efficient and contribute less to your carbon footprint can be found at


While this is the most commonly cited way to “help the environment” that does not make it any less important. Many people do not realize the impact that creating so much wast has on the environment. Some quick facts to put this int perspective: Almost 80% of plastics end up in landfill or dumps or is littered into the environment and almost half (47%) of plastic waste is made up of plastic packaging.

A clear example of this waste can be found in our use of plastic bags. Americans use 100 billion plastic bags each year. That breaks down to 1,500 plastic shopping bags that are taken home by the average American family. In addition, these bags are only used for about 12 minutes. They are also very unlikely to be recycled: only 1% of bags are returned for recycling. This must change, not only for plastic bags but for many different single-use plastics.

Landfill produces significant amounts of greenhouse gasses and therefore reducing the amount of trash we produce would greatly reduce those emissions.

Recycling also reduces the demand for new products and therefore slows the use of limited natural resources. The organization lists some of the way that recycling helps conserve the environment:

  • “One ton of paper recycle saves 17 trees.”
  • “One ton of plastic saves 16.3 barrels of oil.”
  • “One ton of aluminum saves 4 tons of Bauxite Ore.”
  • “One ton of glass saves one ton of mixed limestone, soda ash and sand.”

Taking a couple extra moments every day to recycle can have a significant impact on the environment.

10 Steps To Finding Common Ground

Most Americans aren’t passionate conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats. But they have become impassioned for or against Trump. As a result, people with different political views have stopped talking with each other. This is a huge problem because democracy depends on our capacity to deliberate together.

So what can we do–all of us–to begin talking across the great divide? Here are 10 suggestions:

1. Don’t avoid political conversations with people who are likely to disagree with you, even in your own family. To the contrary, seek them out and have those discussions.

2. Don’t start by talking about Trump. Start instead with “kitchen table” issues like stagnant wages, shrinking benefits, the escalating costs of health care, college, pharmaceuticals, housing.

3. Make it personal. Ask them about their own experiences and stories. Share yours. Try to find common ground.

4. Ask them why they think all this has happened. Listen carefully and let them know you’ve heard them.

5. If they start blaming immigrants or African-Americans, or elites, or Democrats, or even Obama – stay cool. Don’t tune out. Ask them about why they think these people are responsible.

6. Gradually turn the conversation into one about power – who has it, who doesn’t. Ask about their own experiences at work, what’s happened to their jobs, how others among their families and friends are treated.

7. Ask them about the roles of big corporations and Wall Street. For example:

  • Why is it that when corporations and Wall Street firms violate the law, no executive goes to jail?
  • Why did Wall Street get bailed out during the financial crisis but homeowners caught in the downdraft didn’t get help?
  • Why do big oil, big agriculture, big Pharma, and Wall Street hedge-fund managers get special subsidies and tax loopholes?

8. Get a discussion going about how the system is organized, for whom, and how it’s been changing. For example:

  • Why is it that only 4 major airlines fly today when a few years ago there were 12? Why are there only 4 Internet service providers?
  • How is this increasing concentration of economic power across the entire economy driving up prices?
  • Why are pharmaceutical companies and health insurers able to charge more and more?
  • Why can corporations and their top executives declare bankruptcy and have their debts forgiven, when bankruptcy isn’t available to people laden with student debt or to homeowners who can’t meet their payments?
  • Why are the biggest benefits from the tax cut going to billionaires?

9. Then get to the core issue: Do they think any of this has to do with big money in politics?

  • Is the system rigged? And if so, who’s doing the rigging, and why?
  • How can average people be heard when there’s so much big money in politics? Should we try to get big money out of politics?
  • And if so, how do we do it?

Notice, you’re not using labels. You’re not talking about Democrats or Republicans, left or right, capitalism or socialism, government or free market. You’re not even talking about Trump.

You’re starting with the everyday experiences of most people–with their wages and living expenses and experiences on the job– and from there moving to economic and political power.

10. Oh, and don’t forget to use humor. Humor is the great disinfectant. For example, the Supreme Court says corporations are people. Well, you’ll believe they’re people when Texas executes a corporation.

Remember, the point isn’t to convince them you’re right and they’re wrong. It’s to get us thinking about what’s really happening to America. It’s exposing the abuses of power all around us.

If we can join together around these fundamental issues, we will all win.

The Biggest Threat To Our Democracy That You Haven’t Heard Of

The biggest threat to our democracy that nobody is talking about is the real possibility of a rogue Constitutional convention – empowering extremists to radically reshape the Constitution, our laws, and our country. 

If just a few more states sign on to what’s called an “Article V convention” for a balanced budget amendment, there’s no limit to the damage they might do.

Let me explain.

There are 2 ways to amend the United States Constitution: One way – the way we’ve passed every amendment since the Bill of Rights – is for two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate to vote for a proposed amendment, and then have it ratified by at least three quarters of the states – now 38 in number.

But there’s a second way to amend the Constitution. Two thirds of the states may demand that Congress form a constitutional convention to propose amendments.

Once such a constitutional convention is convened, there are no rules to limit or constrain what comes next.

Amendments proposed by an Article V convention are supposed to be ratified by 38 states. But convention delegates could hijack the process and change the ratification process itself, tossing out the 38 state requirement.

A balanced budget amendment would be crazy enough. But nothing would be safe. A woman’s right to choose. Marriage equality. First Amendment protections for free speech and a free press. Equal protection of the laws. Checks and balances.

An Article V convention would allow delegates to write their own agenda into our Constitution.

Already 28 states have called for a constitutional convention. They only need 6 more to succeed.

Unlimited money in politics and partisan gerrymandering have already given Republicans control of a majority of state legislatures. Big money interests like the Koch Brothers and ALEC are investing heavily in the push for a constitutional convention – which means that they’d be calling the shots if one takes place.

You’re probably already overwhelmed with political actions you need to take. But, believe me, this is important. With just a few states to go, your voice is needed. Please tell your state lawmakers to reject calls for an Article V convention.

Medicare For All Makes A Lot Of Sense

The economics of Medicare for All championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders are actually quite straightforward. Under what advocates call “M4A,” health care coverage would expand while total spending on health care — by companies, individuals and the government – would decline because of lower costs. More would be paid through the government and less through private insurers. 

M4A would reduce health care costs for three reasons. First, Medicare pays hospital and doctors at lower rates than private insurers. Second, drug prices would be lower. And third, there would be administrative savings. These conclusions are robust.

Recently, the libertarian-leaning Mercatus Center published a study with data that bear out these conclusions. Indeed, these sensible conclusions jump out of any straightforward analysis.

M4A would seem to be an unbeatable approach. And indeed it is — almost. It’s basically the solution adopted by Canada, the countries of Western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Yet one high-income country does it differently: the United States, which still relies heavily — far too heavily — on private health insurers.

A broken system 

The main reason why the United States continues with a broken system is straightforward. The US private health care industry is enormously profitable and powerful. M4A would help the nation but hurt the owners, top managers and highest-paid health providers of the private health care industry.

Thus, the health care lobby blocks M4A — though it would greatly benefit the nation. (Free-market ideologues, including the Mercatus Center, oppose M4A because it would enlarge government, even though it would both expand health coverage and reduce costs. More government, in the free-market view, is bad even if it is more cost-effective.)

The challenge in adopting M4A is not really about whether it would be a better system. Yes it would be. It is about political muscle. The health care lobby is the biggest one in the country, with lobbying outlays of a whopping $557 million in 2017, including $280 million by pharmaceutical and health products companies, $103 million by hospitals and nursing homes, $92 million by health professionals and $82 million by health services and HMOs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Those princely sums add up to a lot of votes in Congress.

The lobbyists get a very good return on their political investments, to the detriment of almost all Americans. Americans spent an average of $10,300 per person on health care in 2017, about twice the average of comparable countries. Those excessive outlays pay for the ridiculously high earnings in the health care system. According to recently published data, 17 CEOs of not-for-profit hospitals, for example, were paid more than $5 million each in 2014. And that’s just the not-for-profit sector.

Americans know well the dismaying case of a medicine like sofosbuvir (trade name Sovaldi), a cure for Hepatitis C, that cost about $1 to produce yet was originally sold for $1,000 per pill, with the monopoly power of patents and the protection of an absurd law that blocks the government from negotiating prices with the private pharmaceutical industry.

The current system is an outrage, and Americans express less satisfaction with the healthcare system than do their counterparts abroad. And yet it doesn’t change. The health care lobby has been too strong, successfully playing on the public’s fear of change and the fear of too many incumbent politicians of crossing a powerful lobby.

The missing facts

Vital facts are routinely obscured from the public. Consider the recent Mercatus study. On the one hand, it rightfully and straightforwardly concludes that M4A would provide more health care coverage at lower cost than the status quo, projecting a net reduction in national health expenditures of roughly $2 trillion over a 10-year period (2022-2031), while also enabling increased health care coverage.

Yet the study actually portrays this outcome in frightening terms, as simply a great expansion in the size of government and taxes: “Doubling all currently projected federal individual and corporate income tax collections would be insufficient to finance the added federal costs of the plan.”

The simple retort, of course, is that the reduction of private-insurance premiums would more than offset the rise in the public sector costs (hence the overall net saving). Yet this fundamental point is buried in the report’s rhetoric. It would not be hard to design the new taxes, perhaps as payroll taxes rather than income taxes, so that almost all workers would see a net reduction of their health care costs (with the elimination of private-insurance premiums more than offsetting the rise in taxes).

The Mercatus report fails to emphasize three crucial facts:

First, US health care is not a competitive marketplace. It is rife with monopoly power, enabling the extraordinary markups of drug prices, the extravagant salaries of the top-paid health care providers and the rampant price discrimination exercised by health providers, which charge different prices to different clients depending on the provider’s market power vis-à-vis different clienteles. M4A would limit this monopoly power by putting a powerful government payer up against the monopolists.

Second, US health care prices are sky-high compared with the prices paid in other high-income countries, while US health outcomes are worse. Life expectancy in the United States is not only around five years lower than in the leading countries but has actually been declining in the past two years, in part because of epidemics of depression, suicide and substance abuse.

Third, M4A wouldn’t require the United States to plunge into an unknown health care model. Medicare already ensures lower costs than private health care and is popular among the elderly. The health systems of every other high-income country offer other proven models. Par for the course, the Mercatus study doesn’t even mention the overwhelming evidence from abroad.

By looking more carefully abroad we would learn that M4A can save far more than $2 trillion over 10 years. The savings could actually approach $1 trillion per year, given that the United States would save even more than that amount per year were it to pay the same share of gross domestic product on health care as does Canada with its single-payer system (10.4% of GDP in Canada, compared with 17.1% in the United States, for 2017). Even with that lower rate of spending, Canada achieves a higher proportion of health care coverage and a longer life expectancy (81.9 years, compared with 78.6 years in the United States, for 2017).

Sanders nearly won the Democratic nomination in 2016 by taking M4A to the people despite the naysaying of the Democratic Party establishment and newspaper pundits. With health care premiums continuing to soar, and with Donald Trump and the Republican Congress aiming to cut back even further on health care coverage, the public backing for M4A is sure to surge by the presidential election in 2020.

How We Talk About Climate Change

How we talk about climate change has the power to shape the discussion and overall perception of this important issue. A few ideas to consider:

Increase the media coverage and cover the science

The mainstream media rarely covers the important facts about climate change – even when they are directly relevant to issues or events that they are addressing.

Despite the near-continual stream of weather-related disasters and temperature records, Nexus Media reports that “fewer than half of Americans say they hear global warming discussed on the media once a month or more often.” A study by Public Citizen concludes that:

“For the public to be well-informed about climate change, it is critical that the media connect everyday coverage to climate where it is relevant, as well as cover the climate crisis directly, including developments on how we can mitigate it. On both scores, the media performed poorly in 2017. When discussing even the most clearly climate-connected topics, like record heat waves, the media mentioned climate change just 33 percent of the time. Regarding most other subjects, including hurricanes and the spread of mosquitoes, ticks, and the illnesses they carry, the coverage was far worse. One of the most important lacking pieces — a subject that appeared in just nine percent of coverage that mentioned climate change — is solutions.”

The media coverage following Hurricane Maria, with a substantial focus on President Trump throwing paper towels, is a clear example of this failure. The Guardian analyzed the media coverage of Hurricane Maria and hurricane season overall and found that “about 60% of the stories included the word Trump, and only about 5% mentioned climate change.” Coverage of the science was virtually non-existent.

“Equal” representation between climate deniers and the majority of scientists is misrepresentation

There is overwhelming consensus about climate change in the scientific community. In fact, 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and caused by human activity. NASA points out that “most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.”

It is disingenuous and misleading to give climate deniers equal time when the stakes are so high. A balanced equal-time approach between a 97% consensus about climate change against the opposing views of a few extremists, misinforms the public by giving the appearance that both positions are equally credible.

Media representation of climate change must convey the actual science. It must inform the public about how and why climate change is happening, and what options we have to address it.

The terms “uncertainty” and “theory” mean two very different things to the scientific world and the layman. The Union of Concerned Scientists describes that while to most people, the term “uncertainty” means not knowing, to scientists, “uncertainty is how well something is known. And, therein lies an important difference, especially when trying to understand what is known about climate change… climate change deniers have linked less than complete certainty with not knowing anything.”

In light of this, it is vitally important for the media to lead with the scientific findings and imperatives and to structure cogent arguments in ways that can accurately represent the scientific facts, data, and ultimately the dire need to act.

Link climate change to the shared human experience

One of the most important things we can do is to communicate the data around climate change in human terms, in a way that doesn’t require an advanced degree in climate science to understand. Some of the most important numbers and terms can also be the most confusing. The seemingly miniscule 2 degree goal in the Paris Climate Agreement, the incomprehensibly large notion of 5 quadrillion tons of air in the atmosphere, and other terminology such as the current 400 parts per million of CO2 are foreign to many people.

Climate researcher Craig Lee suggests “Simply publishing a piece that presents facts doesn’t give its audience the story behind them. When putting climate change into discussion, this ignores a very human aspect, like the cities affected by rising sea levels. Journalists and researchers alike should strive to frame climate change as a human issue, because in the end, it’s humans who will pay the price.”

The media cannot continue citing numbers without giving context for the average person to understand what those numbers mean and how those numbers and climate change broadly will have an effect on their lives.

According to, the five hottest years on record are 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2010. Scientists have predicted that unless climate change is addressed, by the end of the century Europe will suffer 150,000 heat-related deaths a year. Global grain yields have declined by 10%, which will impact the food chain and migration. Climate change related storms have caused billions of dollars of damage and incalculable human suffering. Despite all this evidence, there is a clear disconnect between what is happening and the concern of the American public. According to Gallup, less than half (45%) of Americans think that global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime and fewer (43%) worry a great deal about global warming.

Communication about climate change must convey the seriousness of the situation by putting it into terms that people can understand, internalize, and act upon. People need to understand that it will affect them.

The Roadblock To Common Sense Pension Reform

55 million Americans — about half of the entire private-sector workforce — have no employer-sponsored retirement plan at all. Many work for small businesses in the low-wage service and hospitality sectors. If they don’t save money independently, they will have nothing when they stop working.

This is very different from four decades ago when most workers retired with a company pension.

The good news is that several states – including Oregon, California, Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland — now let such workers put money away in state-sponsored retirement plans that allow them to withdraw their accumulated savings, tax free, when they hit retirement.

The bad news is that the investment industry is aggressively seeking to block these plans, fearing the competition.

That’s because the fees charged by most state retirement plans are capped at around 1 percent – much lower than the fees of similar plans operated by banks and investment companies. And state fees are expected to drop even lower as more workers enroll.

If each of America’s 40 million retirees saved on average $50,000 in the state program, they’d have an additional $20 billion in the first year. That’s $20 billion more in the pockets of retirees, not financial institutions.

Right now, the industry’s efforts appear to be winning.

Republicans in Congress – backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of Wall Street investment firms – are seeking to block states from implementing these plans at all.

Investment and insurance companies are also spending like mad on election campaigns of friendly state legislators and threatening lawsuits. Which is why many proposed state-run retirement plans are languishing in statehouses around the country.

Folks, the anger and frustration that led to Trump continues to simmer. If we allow the moneyed interests to block common-sense reforms like this, in future years, America could face an even worse fate than Trump.

When you vote in November, vote for legislators who want to allow workers to save for retirement and against legislators who are shills for the financial sector.

We Are All Climate Refugees Now

This summer’s fires, droughts, and record-high temperatures should serve as a wake-up call. The longer a narrow and ignorant elite condemns Americans and the rest of humanity to wander aimlessly in the political desert, the more likely it is that we will all end up in a wasteland.

Modern humans, born into one climate era, called the Holocene, have crossed the border into another, the Anthropocene. But instead of a Moses guiding humanity in this new and dangerous wilderness, a gang of science deniers and polluters currently misguides humanity to ever-greater danger. We are all climate refugees now and must chart a path to safety.

The Holocene was the geological age that started more than 10,000 years ago, with favorable climate conditions that supported human civilization as we know it. The Anthropocene is a new geological era with environmental conditions that humanity has never before experienced. Ominously, the Earth’s temperature is now higher than during the Holocene, owing to the carbon dioxide that humanity has emitted into the atmosphere by burning coal, oil, and gas, and by indiscriminately turning the world’s forests and grasslands into farms and pastures.

People are suffering and dying in the new environment, with much worse to come. Hurricane Maria is estimated to have taken more than 4,000 lives in Puerto Rico last September. High-intensity hurricanes are becoming more frequent, and major storms are causing more flooding, because of the increased heat transfer from the warming waters of the oceans, the greater moisture in warmer air, and the rise in sea levels – all made more extreme by human-induced climate change.

Just last month, more than 90 people perished in the suburbs of Athens from a devastating forest fire stoked by drought and high temperatures. Huge forest fires are similarly raging this summer in other hot and newly dry locales, including CaliforniaSwedenBritain, and Australia. Last year, Portugal was devastated. Many record-high temperatures are being reached around the world this summer.

How utterly reckless of humanity to have rushed past the Holocene boundary, ignoring – like a character in a horror movie – all of the obvious warning signs. In 1972, the world’s governments assembled in Stockholm to address the growing environmental threats. In the lead-up to the conference, the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, which first introduced the idea of a “sustainable” growth trajectory and the risks of environmental overshooting. Twenty years later, the warning signs flashed brightly in Rio de Janeiro, where United Nations member states assembled at the Earth Summit to adopt the concept of “sustainable development” and to sign three major environmental treaties to halt human-induced global warming, protect biological diversity, and stop land degradation and desertification.

After 1992, the United States, the world’s most powerful country, ostentatiously ignored the three new treaties, signaling to other countries that they could slacken their efforts as well. The US Senate ratified the climate and desertification treaties but did nothing to implement them. And it refused even to ratify the treaty to protect biological diversity, in part because western-state Republicans insisted that landowners have the right to do what they want with their property without international meddling.

More recently, the world adopted the Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015 and the Paris climate agreement in December 2015. Yet, once again, the US government has willfully ignored the SDGs, ranking last among the G20 countries in terms of government implementation efforts. And President Donald Trump has declared his intention to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement at the earliest possible moment, 2020, four years after the accord entered into force.

Worse is to come. The human-caused rise in CO2 hasn’t yet reached its full warming effect, owing to the considerable lag in its impact on ocean temperatures. There is still another 0.5º Celsius or so of warming to occur over the coming decades based on the current concentration of CO2 (408 parts per million) in the atmosphere, and far more warming beyond that if CO2 concentrations continue to soar with the business-as-usual burning of fossil fuels. To achieve the Paris agreement’s goal of limiting warming to “well below 2ºC” relative to the pre-industrial level, the world needs to shift decisively from coal, oil, and gas to renewable energy by around 2050, and from deforestation to reforestation and restoration of degraded lands.

So why does humanity keep plunging dumbly ahead, toward certain tragedy?

The main reason is that our political institutions and giant corporations willfully ignore the rising dangers and damage. Politics is about obtaining and holding power and the perks of office, not about solving problems, even life-and-death environmental problems. Managing a major company is about maximizing shareholder value, not about telling the truth or avoiding great harm to the planet. Profit-seeking investors own the major media, or at least influence it through their advertising purchases. Thus, a small yet very powerful group maintains the fossil-fuel-based energy system at growing peril to the rest of humanity today and in the future.

Trump is the latest useful fool doing the polluters’ bidding, abetted by congressional Republicans who finance their election campaigns with contributions from environmental culprits such as Koch Industries. Trump has filled the US government with industry lobbyists who are systematically dismantling every environmental regulation they can reach. Most recently, Trump has nominated a former lawyer for mega-polluter Dow Chemical to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund toxic cleanup program. You can’t make this stuff up.

We need a new kind of politics that starts with a clear global goal: environmental safety for the planet’s people, by fulfilling the Paris climate agreement, protecting biodiversity, and cutting pollution, which kills millions each year. The new politics will listen to scientific and technological experts, not self-interested business leaders and narcissistic politicians. Climatologists enable us to gauge the rising dangers. Engineers inform us how to make the rapid transition, by 2050, to zero-carbon energy. Ecologists and agronomists show us how to grow more and better crops on less land while ending deforestation and restoring previously degraded land.

Such a politics is possible. In fact, the public yearns for it. A large majority of the American people, for example, want to fight global warming, stay in the Paris climate agreement, and embrace renewable energy. Yet, as long as a narrow and ignorant elite condemn Americans and the rest of humanity to wander aimlessly in the political desert, the more likely it is that we will all end up in a wasteland from which there will be no escape.