Month: December 2023

Can We Still Find Common Ground?

Many Americans today worry that our nation is losing its national identity. Some claim loudly that the core of that identity requires better policing of our borders and preventing other races or religions or ethnicities from supplanting white Christian America.

But that is not what defines our national identity. It’s the ideals we share, the good we hold in common.

That common good is a set of shared commitments. To the rule of law. To democracy. To tolerance of our differences. To equal rights and equal opportunities for everyone. To upholding the truth.

We cannot have a functioning society without these shared commitments. Without a shared sense of common good, there can be no “we” to begin with.

If we’re losing our national identity, it is because we are losing our sense of the common good. That is what must be restored.

Some of you may feel such a quest to be hopeless. Well, I disagree.

Almost every day, I witness or hear of the compassion and generosity of ordinary Americans. Their actions rarely make headlines, but they constitute much of our daily life together.

The moral fiber of our society has been weakened but it has not been destroyed.



We can recover the rule of law and preserve our democratic institutions by taking a more active role in our democracy.

We can fight against all forms of bigotry. We can strengthen the bonds that connect us to one another.

We can protect the truth by using facts and logic to combat lies.

Together, we can rebuild a public morality that strengthens our democracy, makes our economy work for everyone, and revives trust in the institutions of the nation

America is not made great by whom we exclude but by the ideals we uphold together.

We’ve never been a perfect union. Our finest moments have been when we have sought to live up to those shared ideals.

I hope you’ll join me in carrying forward the fight for the common good.

You might start by sharing this video with your friends and loved ones.

We Need To Talk About The United States’ Mental Health Crisis – And Its Larger Causes

The suicide rate is at its highest since 1941. In addition to a stronger safety net, we must face hard truths about US society.

I want to talk about an uncomfortable topic that needs much more open discussion than it’s receiving: the United States’ extraordinarily high level of anxiety.

A panel of medical experts has recommended that doctors screen all patients under 65, including children and teenagers, for what the panel calls anxiety disorders.

Lori Pbert, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Chan medical school, who serves on the panel, calls mental health disorders “a crisis in this country”.

A recent New York Times article discussed what’s called “persistent depressive disorder”, or PDD, which an estimated 2% of adults in the United States have experienced in the past year.

Nearly 50,000 people in the US lost their lives to suicide last year, according to a new provisional tally from the National Center for Health Statistics. (The agency said the final count would probably be higher.)

The suicide rate, now 14.3 deaths per 100,000 Americans, has reached its highest level since 1941, when the US entered the second world war.

Men aged 75 and older had the highest suicide rate last year, at nearly 44 per 100,000 people, double the rate of people aged 15-24. While women have been found to have suicidal thoughts more commonly, men are four times as likely to die by suicide.

Suicide rates for Native Americans are almost double the rates for other Americans.

(Some good news: suicide rates for children aged 10 to 14 have declined by 18%, and for those between 15 and 24 by 9%, bringing suicide rates in those groups back to pre-pandemic levels.)

What’s going on?

Maybe the widespread anxiety and depression, along with the near record rate of suicide, should not be seen as personal disorders.

Maybe they should be seen – in many cases – as rational responses to a society that’s becoming ever more disordered.

After all, whose notconcerned by the rising costs of housing and the growing insecurity of jobs and incomes?

Who (apart from Trump supporters)isn’tterrified by Trump’s attacks on democracy, and the possibility of another Trump presidency?

Who doesn’tworry about mass shootings at their children’s or grandchildren’s schools?

Who isn’taffected by the climate crisis?

Add increasingly brutal racism. Mounting misogyny. Anti-abortion laws. Homophobia and transphobia. Attacks on Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Jews, Arab Americans and other minority groups. And the growing coarseness and ugliness of what we see and read in social media.

Consider all this and it would almost be stranger if you weren’t anxious, stressed and often depressed.

Studies show that women have nearly double the risk of depression as men. Black people also have higher stress levels – from 2014 to 2019, the suicide rate among Black Americans increased by 30%.

Are women and Black people suffering from a “disorder”? Or are they responding to reality? Or both?

White men without college degrees are particularly vulnerable to deaths from suicide, overdoses and alcoholic liver diseases, with contributions from the cardiovascular effects of rising obesity.

Are they suffering from a “disorder”, or are they responding to a fundamental change in American society? Or both?

In their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton argue that “the deaths of despair among whites would not have happened, or would not have been so severe, without the destruction of the white working class …”

Part of the problem, they say, is that the less educated are often underpaid and disrespected, and feel that the system is rigged against them.

Even if we had far more mental health professionals, what would they do against these formidable foes? Prescribe more pills? If anything, Americans are probably already overmedicated.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing against better access to mental health care. In fact, quite the opposite. Increased staffing and improved access to mental health care are very much needed.

Mental health care is harder to find now than before the pandemic. About half of people in the US live in an area without a mental health professional, federal data shows, and some 8,500 more such professionals would be needed to fill the gap. Most people rely on family doctors for mental health care.

Officials are trying to widen familiarity with a national suicide and crisis lifeline that last year received a nationwide number, 988.

But in addition to providing more and better access to mental health care, and a suicide and crisis hotline, shouldn’t we try to make our societyhealthier?

Americans experience the least economic security of the inhabitants of any advanced nation. A healthy society needs more job security and stronger safety nets.

The distribution of income and wealth in the United States is the most unequal of any other advanced nation. A healthy society ensures that no one working full-time is poor, and levies high taxes on the wealthy to help pay for what society needs.

Guns and assault weapons are easier to buy in the United States than in any other advanced nation. A healthy society bans assault weapons and makes it difficult to buy guns.

A lower percentage of Americans has access to affordable medical care than in any other advanced nation. A healthy society keeps its people healthy.

The United States puts more carbon dioxide into the air per capita than almost any other advanced nation. A healthy society better protects the environment.

Big money plays a larger role in American politics than it does in almost any other advanced nation. A healthy society does not allow big money to buy politicians.

Some American politicians – like Donald Trump – gain power by stirring up racism, xenophobia and homophobia. A healthy society does not elect these sorts of people.

The list could be much longer, but you get the point. The anxiety disorders suffered by Americans are real, and they apparently are growing. But instead of regarding them solely as personal disorders, maybe we need to understand them at least partly as social disorders – and get to work remedying them as a society.

Granted, it would be difficult to achieve any of these criteria for a healthy society.

But without seeking to achieve them, no number of mental health professionals, and no amount of medications or hotlines, will be enough to substantially reduce the stress, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts that so many Americans are now experiencing.

In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email or In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at

A Line In The Arctic Tundra

In September, President Joe Biden strengthened his standing as the most climate-ambitious president in our history. In a brave move, Biden canceled each and every oil- and gas-drilling lease in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—a response to Donald Trump’s illegal approval of leases there in the waning days of his administration.

It was a game-changing decision that will go a long way toward protecting Alaskan landscapes, Alaska Natives’ traditional ways of life, and the climate. But canceling leases is one thing; permanently protecting the Arctic’s ancient lands and waters is another. To do that, we need far more action from this administration.

It’s hard to understand just how big the Arctic Refuge is if you haven’t been there. At more than 19 million acres, it’s the largest wildlife refuge in the country. Its lands and waters, from rolling hills to vast plains to snowcapped mountains, have been left largely untouched by industry. I was left in awe upon experiencing just a tiny portion of this amazing place last summer. The majestic beauty of the refuge has left an indelible mark on my mind. The freedom from oil and gas extraction has allowed these landscapes to support wildlife and Alaska Native communities like the Gwich’in people since time immemorial. But oil companies are ready to destroy all this to pad their bottom lines.

That’s been Big Oil’s dream for decades—to replace the herds of Porcupine caribou with pumpjacks. As far back as the 1970s, supporters of Big Oil in Congress have had their sights on the Arctic Refuge. And for decades, the Gwich’in and their allies, including the Sierra Club, have worked to preserve those landscapes. With Biden’s cancelation of leases in the refuge, we won a major battle—though not a permanent one—in that struggle.

The truth is, we can’t stop now. Biden’s cancelations will last for the length of his administration, but they could be undone by a future Republican administration. Right now, leading Republicans are calling to not just restore those leases but to open up even more Arctic lands for oil and gas drilling. Combine that with the environmental and climate consequences of Biden’s misguided approval for ConocoPhillips’s Willow project on the North Slope and the situation facing the Arctic could go from cautiously optimistic to catastrophic overnight.

What we need are stronger protections that ensure the lands and waters of the Arctic are preserved for generations to come. The Biden administration has several immediate opportunities to help achieve that. The Department of the Interior can use the regular environmental impact statements that determine the management of the Arctic Refuge to limit the acreage open to oil and gas leasing to the smallest amount allowed. The agency can also develop a new administrative rule phasing out drilling in the Western Arctic, another reserve of millions of acres of public lands. Protecting these areas would not only preserve lands, wildlife, and Alaska Native communities but also get us much closer to achieving the goal of protecting 30 percent of all lands and waters by 2030.

To its credit, the Biden administration has taken promising steps, but the real, and necessary, goal remains unchanged and unfulfilled: ending all new oil and gas leasing in the Arctic. The White House has flirted with this, from the lease cancelations to making the Arctic Ocean off-limits for drilling. Now is the time to draw the line in the tundra and end leases in the Arctic once and for all.

We’re at a critical moment. This year will likely be the hottest year in history, and temperatures in 2024 could easily break new records. The Arctic is on the front lines of climate change. It’s also on the front lines of climate action. The decisions we make there reverberate beyond those landscapes—for good and for ill. We need President Biden to make the right call.

Inquiry Finds Pharmacies Fail To Protect The Privacy Of Americans’ Medical Records

Many Major Pharmacy Chains Provide Prescription Records to Law Enforcement Agencies Without A Court Order; Birth Control, Mental Health And Other Sensitive, Personal Conditions Can Be Revealed

Washington, D.C. – Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., with Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., revealed that major pharmacy chains fail to protect the privacy of their customers, in the results of a new inquiry released today. The members called on the Department of Health and Human Services to improve federal health privacy regulations to better protect Americans’ prescriptions and other health records held by pharmacies, and to conduct follow-up pharmacy privacy policy surveys and publish the findings.

Wyden, Jayapal and Jacobs began their inquiry following the Dobbs Supreme Court decision that repealed Roe v. Wade. They asked eight major pharmacy chains — CVS Health, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Cigna, Optum Rx, Walmart Stores, The Kroger Company, Rite Aid Corporation, and Amazon Pharmacy — how the companies handle law-enforcement requests for prescription and other health records. These findings reaffirm the importance of revising federal privacy regulations to require a warrant for law enforcement demands for Americans’ medical records, so that Americans’ medical records would receive the same protections under federal law as their emails and location data, as 47 members of Congress called for in a July letter.

“Americans’ prescription records are among the most private information the government can obtain about a person,” the members wrote to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “They can reveal extremely personal and sensitive details about a person’s life, including prescriptions for birth control, depression or anxiety medications, or other private medical conditions.”

The members found that none of the major pharmacies require a warrant to share prescription records with law enforcement agencies, unless there is a state law that requires one. They also found that only CVS Health had committed to publish annual transparency reports about law-enforcement requests for records. During the inquiry Walgreen Boots Alliance and The Kroger Company also agreed to produce transparency reports.

The inquiry also found that three companies — CVS Health, the Kroger Company and Rite Aid — said they do not require demands for records to be reviewed by a lawyer or paralegal. Instead, pharmacy staff are instructed to respond immediately to law enforcement demands. Finally, only Amazon Pharmacy has a policy of notifying customers about law enforcement demands for records, absent a legal prohibition on doing so.

Wyden, Jayapal and Jacobs called on HHS Secretary Becerra to update federal health privacy regulations in light of their findings.

“Americans deserve to have their private medical information protected at the pharmacy counter and a full picture of pharmacies’ privacy practices, so they can make informed choices about where to get their prescriptions filled,” the members wrote. “Our oversight has uncovered significant differences between the practices of major pharmacy chains under current HIPAA regulation and this initial inquiry resulted in immediate policy changes at some of these companies. If the landscape were made clearer, patients will finally be able to hold pharmacies with neglectful practices accountable by taking their business elsewhere.”

Read the full letter here.

Compare each pharmacy’s privacy practices here.

Who Will Win And Lose The AI Revolution?

As artificial intelligence advances, it poses an even bigger threat to all kinds of workers.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich warns that AI will not just displace manufacturing jobs, but also workers in the knowledge economy.

Reich also predicts AI will be able to perform many professional jobs at least as well as humans and far more efficiently, leading to widespread job losses across the workforce.

Columbia University economics professor Jeffrey Sachs predicts workers will need to adapt to new skills and roles to thrive in the changing economy.

“A lot of people are going to find that the jobs that they had been remunerated for in the past are not going to be the jobs in the future,” said Sachs.

Watch the below video to see the full interviews with Jeffrey Sachs and Robert Reich.


Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi, however, cautions against overreacting to the potential job displacement caused by AI. Zandi points to past examples of game-changing technologies that took years, even decades, to fully integrate into business practices. He suggests AI will follow a similar pattern, gradually affecting the job market over an extended period.

“Generally, it happens over periods of several years, even a couple decades,” said Zandi.

According to economist Mariana Mazzucato, a professor at University College London, inclusive and sustainable growth is particularly important in the context of AI, as these technologies have the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities if not carefully harnessed.

“How can we make sure these algorithms take into account issues that we know we care about?” said Mazzucato. “What kind of planet do we want to be living on? What kind of growth do we care about? Is it just growth for growth’s sake? Or is it inclusive and sustainable growth?” she asked.

– Above text by Jack Hillyer


Words Matter. Especially In Public Health

America Dissected – Episode 215:

It’s not only what you say — it’s how you say it. And that’s often where public health gets it wrong. Our producer Emma talks to a recovered anti-vaxxer about what ultimately brought him around. Then Abdul talks to Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist and health communicator, about how far humility and accessible language can go to protecting health.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: The Texas State Supreme Court rules against an abortion for a non-viable pregnancy. The FDA approved a new therapy for sickle cell anemia. The first FDA approved therapy that uses CRISPR technology. The W.H.O. warns of impending public health disaster in Gaza as the death toll nears 20,000. This is America Dissected. I’m your host, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. [music break] So much of what we say is about how we say it. And sometimes we don’t say it all that well. Our guest today is Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist and health communicator. But this week, for our last episode of 2023, we wanted to do something different. To bring us some context for our discussion, our producer Emma went out into the field. She shared a conversation with Craig Idlebrook, a former anti-vaxxer. They talked about why he resisted getting his kid vaccinated and what ultimately brought him around.


Veterans’ Housing Case To Proceed In Federal Court

Concurring with arguments by several prominent constitutional and civil rights scholars, a federal judge has reversed himself and ruled that veterans can sue the Department of Veterans Affairs for housing they need to access healthcare and other VA benefits.

In a far-reaching ruling, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter also found that the leases of portions of the VA’s West Los Angeles campus to UCLA and a private school are not in compliance with the congressional requirement to “provide services that principally benefit veterans and their families.”

“It’s a historic ruling,” said Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney with the pro bono law firm Public Counsel, one of four firms that represented veterans in the case. “I think it’s the beginning of the end of veterans homelessness in Los Angeles and the nation.”

Carter urged lawyers representing the VA to reach a settlement with plaintiffs who are seeking to rewrite or suspend those leases and are demanding that the VA produce 3,700 units of housing within six months either on the campus or in leased housing nearby. Carter set a scheduling conference for Jan. 4 and said he would foresee a trial in June or July if the parties can’t reach an agreement.

“My hope is that this case never sees the inside of a courtroom again,” Rosenbaum said. “But if they are going to continue their war on veterans we’re going to go to court and we’re going to win.”

The lawsuit reprised an earlier one that ended with a 2015 agreement by the VA to build 1,200 units of housing on the campus with a commitment to complete more than 770 by the end of 2022. Only 54 of those units were completed by then, and by September only 233 were available.

In a statement to The Times, a spokesperson said that the VA does not comment on pending litigation but added that the agency has provided 1,464 homeless veterans with permanent housing this year and invested nearly $140 million over the last three years on infrastructure for the construction of the 1,200 units.

In filing the new lawsuit on behalf of 14 veterans in November, Rosenbaum acknowledged that the failure to include mechanisms to enforce that earlier agreement was an error. Public Counsel was joined by the Inner City Law Center, Brown Goldstein & Levy and Robins Kaplan.

An amended complaint broadened the case to a class action and added the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles as defendants, alleging that their policies provide too few rental subsidy vouchers for veterans while denying many disabled veterans access to the rent-restricted housing being constructed on the campus.

Veterans who receive disability are disqualified because the payments put them above the income threshold for apartments restricted to people making less than 30% of the area median income.

A tentative ruling by Carter in September found that the VA had a fiduciary duty to use the West L.A. campus primarily for housing and healthcare for disabled veterans but rejected, on technical grounds, the veterans’ claim that they could sue for housing under the federal Rehabilitation Act.

Carter said he tentatively agreed with lawyers representing the federal government that the Veterans’ Judicial Review Act, which created a separate court system to adjudicate veterans’ benefits claims, precludes the federal court from hearing claims under the Rehabilitation and Administrative Procedures acts.

However, after hearing oral arguments in September, he said he was likely to change his opinion and ordered the parties to file written arguments.

Lawyers for the veterans group Swords to Plowshares and the American Civil Liberties Union then filed friends of the court briefs in the case contending that the ruling would in effect deny veterans the right to use the courts to pursue injunctive relief for grievances over systemwide failures rather than the individual benefits covered by the veterans court.

“As a veterans service organization and advocacy group, some of the work that Swords to Plowshares does is in federal district court,” said the group’s attorney, Peter E. Perkowski. “It’s important for us to preserve access to that forum when the alternatives are unavailable or insufficient to provide relief for the clients and communities we serve.”

Six prominent legal scholars including UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Harvard Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe joined in a friend of the court brief filed by the national ACLU.

Other scholars in the group were Yale Law School professors Michael J. Wishnie and Judith Resnik, USC Law School professor Adam Zimmerman, UCLA Law School professor David Marcus and Stanford Law School professor Pamela S. Karlan.

“You couldn’t come up with six or seven scholars of higher repute,” Rosenbaum said. “It’s obvious the court paid attention to what they have to say.”

The ACLU brief argued that the government’s position “would deprive Plaintiffs of a meaningful forum to air their claims,” adding that “the VA lacks the power to issue the full remedies Congress authorized for violations of the Rehabilitation Act.”

In a 41-page order, Carter emphatically sided with those arguments, as well as the plaintiffs’ right to sue the federal and local housing agencies for discrimination on the basis of disability.

“Perversely,” he wrote, “the more disabled a veteran, the less likely they are to receive a HUD- VASH voucher and become housed.”

He also addressed the VA leases, which he had not mentioned in the tentative ruling. The government, he wrote, had “not demonstrated that the Brentwood School leases 21 acres of athletic facilities in order to benefit veterans, rather than to provide premier athletic facilities for their students.”

If the lease was found to be consistent with the intent of Congress, “the entire West LA campus could be dismembered by private entities that provide marginal benefits to veterans,” he wrote.

Carter’s order directly addressed leases to the Brentwood school, a parking lot and an oil drilling operation. He did not mention UCLA, which built a baseball field on the VA property.

Rosenbaum said UCLA would be included in the settlement talks.

“We’re going to litigate all the leases,” he said. “They’re an example of the VA putting the interest of college baseball players and affluent high school students over the veterans who serve this nation.”

Though the lawsuit did not make a specific demand to amend or invalidate the leases, those demands will be on the table, said Rob Reynolds, a veterans’ housing advocate who has assisted in the lawsuit.

“I personally would like to see the leases invalidated,” Reynolds said. “The VA has been leasing off land that’s meant for housing decades and decades.”

Carter, who disclosed his status as a Marine veteran early in the case and has taken a hands-on role in a lengthy case that is forcing Los Angeles city and county to increase their homelessness initiatives, began his written analysis with an impassioned statement of the government’s failure to adequately address veteran homelessness.

“The number of unhoused veterans in Los Angeles is particularly shocking, even in the larger context of the area’s ongoing housing and homelessness crises, because the city boasts a unique property that was historically dedicated to housing veterans with disabilities,” he wrote.

Since the initial settlement of the lawsuit in 2015, he added, “the number of unhoused veterans in the area has more than tripled. It is unclear how many veterans have died on the streets of Los Angeles during that time, never having received housing or services.”

During a hearing Thursday, Carter posed provocative questions to the attorneys and, at one point, harked back to a time when the VA had thousands of veterans living there.

“Why isn’t this a home, a campus again for up to 4,000 or 3,000 people?” he asked.

In a lengthy closing soliloquy, he became philosophical.

Noting that all recent veterans were volunteers, he asked, “Do we owe a greater duty or not? By avoiding the draft, does that change the contractual relationship in terms of a fiduciary duty? Ask yourself that question.”

On the other hand, Vietnam veterans don’t have time to wait.

“If we stall this out, there’s a whole generation of people in their 70s and 80s who will just pass away without this issue being decided.”

He closed with a call to urgency.

“We’re the homeless veteran capital of the world right now,” he said. “So I don’t want to hear excuses about we can’t afford it. It’s the opposite. We can’t afford what’s happening right now, folks. That’s what we can’t afford.”

The Dubai COP May Have Handed Activists A New Tool

As North America slept, delegates from around the world concluded the global climate conference in Dubai, when the chair—local oilman Sultan al-Jaber—quick-gavelled through an agreement that included a sentence calling for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.”

That may not seem like much—it is, after all, the single most obvious thing one could possibly say about climate change, akin to “in an effort to reduce my headache, I am transitioning away from hitting myself in the forehead with a hammer.”

And by itself it will accomplish nothing. As Samoa, speaking on behalf of the Small Island Nations, said a few minutes later, “we have come to the conclusion that the course correction that is needed has not been secured.”

But it is—and this is important—a tool for activists to use henceforth. The world’s nations have now publicly agreed that they need to transition off fossil fuels, and that sentence will hang over every discussion from now on—especially the discussions about any further expansion of the fossil fuel energy. There may be barriers to shutting down operations (what the text of the agreement obliquely refers to as “national circumstances, pathways and approaches.”) But surely, if the language means anything at all, it means no opening no more new oil fields, no more new pipeline. No more newLNG export terminals.

In fact, that last point—LNG export terminals—will almost certainly be the first real test of whether this agreement means anything. The American envoy John Kerry, who celebrated his 80th birthday during the talks, could be forgiven for thinking of it as a crowning achievement. Though he acknowledged stronger language would have been nice, he said “I think everybody here should be pleased that in a world of Ukraine and the Middle East war and all the other challenges of a planet that is foundering, this is a moment where multilateralism has actually come together and people have taken individual interests and attempted to define the common good,” Kerry said. “That is hard. That is the hardest thing in diplomacy, the hardest thing in politics.”

But Kerry’s job isn’t done. He needs to return home and convince the White House to pause the granting of new export licenses for the ongoing LNG buildout, a project so enormous that by itself it could produce more greenhouse gas emissions than all of Europe. If the White House agrees—and Dubai saw the release of a letter from 230 environmental organizations urging just such a pause—than we will know there was something real in all this endless talk.

And in that case, the bland sentence—“transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner”—would join at least two others in the long history of the climate talks as historically significant.

The first came in 1995, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its second assessment report, said “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.” That bland sentence—bland for the same reason, because it also had to get past every government in the world—was the death knell for the argument that climate change wasn’t real; after it, no serious person (admittedly a category with many exceptions) could argue there was no need to do anything.

The second came in 2015, in the preamble to the Paris accords, when (at the urging of those same small island states) the text included a pledge to “substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to hold global temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.” That recognition of 1.5 degrees changed the debate—but only because activists and scientists used it to demand that governments and businesses identify a “1.5 degree path,” which increased the seriousness of those plans. We’re not going to stay below 1.5 degrees—but that sentence may, in the end, knock half a degree off how much the planet warms.

If today’s sentence is to matter, it will need that same kind of activism, especially since the fossil fuel industry—the most well-represented ‘nation’ at the talks—managed to lard the text with wiggle words. For instance, the agreement “recognizes that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security,” which the fracked gas industry is going to interpret as permission for them to go on pumping. We need to insist that the clear, plain meaning of the language is, the fossil fuel era is over. No more new digging and drilling.

What I’m trying to say is, today’s agreement is literally meaningless—and potentially meaningful. But the diplomats are done now—the rest of us are going to have to supply that meaning.

In other climate and energy news:

A big night tonight at Third Act, where we celebrate our second birthday with Senator Bernie Sanders. Join us on the zoom—and tomorrow night we kick off a multi-part training series on nonviolent direct action. I’ll be talking about the history, from Thoreau on—and it will be good prep for taking action in the new year!

Colombia’s interesting new president, Gustavo Petro, is worth listening to on the climate crisis, and the obstacles to addressing it:

“I think that the rise of the extreme right is fundamentally driven by fear,” he said. “Fear is weighing on the mentality of the middle classes, which are very powerful in Europe and the United States, about losing consumption, comfort, the standard of living, which no doubt may grow with the transformation.” That fear, he says, will grow because “migratory flows are going to increase in the world if we don’t act quickly. And it is simply because the tropics are running out of water. Migration will grow to become hundreds of millions. That is foreseeable, and so a construct is emerging as in Germany in the 1930s, based on the fear of difference. And anti-migration policies deepen, and the middle and upper classes, even in white Europe, begin to construct a sense of barbarity, of the barbarians who are coming.”

That is a very reasonable description of where we are, and where we may be going. And Petro has acted forthrightly to do what he can, stopping oil exploration in the sections of the Amazon under his control, something his Brazilian counterpart Lula has refused to do.

“The Amazon jungle, with rising temperatures, may burn, with which all that mass of CO2 absorbed for millennia returns to the atmosphere. That is one of the points of no return. So, caring for the Amazon jungle is one of the greatest objectives of a struggle against the climate crisis.

“Brazil has to undergo a transformation of its mindset,” he said.

“It is much easier in Colombia. In Colombia we understand the importance of the jungle, though there are predatory factors at work that have to do with illegal mining [and] money laundering associated with drug trafficking, which has become a motor of depredation there.

“Yet in Brazil the idea of transforming the jungle into large agrarian plantations, in large estates, has been developing for a long time. Many indigenous and environmental leaders have died, have been assassinated, because of that struggle.

“Politically, it is difficult in Brazil to propose the idea of saving the jungle and not exploiting it commercially, its lands, its territories. That is why a Bolsonaro was possible,” he said.

A fine account in the Times of bus rapid transit systems, one of the cheap and obvious solutions to climate and congestion problems.

“For so many people, buses are just not sexy. Light rail is sexy, streetcars are sexy,” said Jeanette Sadik-Khan, a transit analyst. There has been a bias, she said, toward heavy infrastructure projects that are seen as a spur to development. But rail projects are less flexible, can cost billions of dollars and may take decades to complete.

Improving bus systems also allows cities to take advantage of infrastructure the U.S. has already invested hundreds of billions of dollars in: roads.

I saw and wrote about the very first of these systems, in Curitiba Brazil, in the 1990s; they’ve been widely adopted in South America and Asia, and I think they’re immensely wise. “Subways on the street,” they can move massive numbers of people cheaply. But only if they’re given priority over cars, which is always the problem in American transit policy.

The Deficit Myth: Book, Speech (And Other) News

Happy holidays! I hope that those of you who celebrate Thanksgiving had a joyous feast with friends and loved ones. Ordinarily, I would prepare at least a couple of side dishes the day before, but I wasn’t able to do that this year because I spent most of Wednesday in NYC at Danske Bank’s annual New York Summit.

I spoke at the Summit in 2019, and I was invited back to debate/discuss inflation, debt, and deficits with Harvard economist Ken Rogoff. It was a private event, so there is no video. But we had a good discussion, and I had the opportunity to challenge the audience (and Ken) to think differently about why a currency-issuing government (like the U.S., Japan, the U.K., Australia, Canada, etc.) issues securities, whether it has to pay “market rates” on any bonds it chooses to issue, and whether it makes any economic difference whether interest rates are supported via Treasury paying interest on bonds or the Federal Reserve paying interest on reserves. This is all old hat for me, but the arguments were new to much of the audience.

In Other News

Many of you subscribed to this newsletter after reading my first book, The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy. Writing that book was a labor of love, and I am humbled that it continues to serve as a beacon of hope and inspiration for so many people. If you haven’t read it, Amazon has chosen to promote the Kindle edition at a special price ($3.99) for the entire month of December.

And now for the big news.

The proposal for my next book went to prospective publishers last month, and the response was nothing short of incredible. I spent the last two weeks meeting with some of the most impressive teams in America, and the book was auctioned yesterday. I am still digesting everything, but I can tell you that I am excited to be “pregnant” with another book (something a friend and well-known author once told me was a prerequisite to grinding out a book).

As the fall semester winds to a close, I am about to go full-throttle. More on the book—title and publisher— coming soon! I hope you will continue the journey with me.

The Disappearance Of The American Dream

Today I want to address the disappearance of what was once called the “American dream.” Its disappearance provides an important clue about why Trumpism continues to attract so many.

During the 1950s and 1960s, my father, Ed Reich, owned a shop on the main street from which he sold women’s clothing to the wives of factory workers.

This time of year reminds me of his anxious dependence on holiday sales. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, he needed to earn enough to pay the bills and have a sufficient sum to carry us through the first part of the following year.

We weren’t rich but never felt poor, and our standard of living rose steadily through the 1950s and 1960s — as factory workers and their spouses did better and better.

This was an era when the income of a single factory worker or schoolteacher or baker or salesman or mechanic was enough to buy a home, have two cars, and raise a family.

FOR THREE DECADES after World War II, America created the largest middle class the world had ever seen. During those years, the earnings of the typical American worker doubled, just as the size of the American economy doubled.

Over the last 40 years, by contrast, the size of the economy has more than doubled again, but the earnings of the typical American have barely budged (adjusted for inflation).

Then, the CEOs of large corporations earned an average of about 20 times the pay of their typical worker. Now, they rake in over 300 times.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the richest 1 percent of Americans took home 9 to 10 percent of total income. Today they take home more than 40 percent.

Then, the economy generated hope. Hard work paid off. The living standards of most people improved through their working lives. Their children enjoyed better lives than they had. Most felt that the rules of the economic game were basically fair.

Although many women, Black people, and Latino people were still blocked from getting a fair share of the economy’s gains, the nation committed itself to changing this. New laws guaranteed equal opportunity, barred discrimination, promoted affirmative action, and expanded educational opportunity for all.

Today, confidence in the economic system has sharply declined. Its apparent arbitrariness and unfairness have undermined the public’s faith in it. Cynicism abounds. Equal opportunity is no longer high on the nation’s agenda.

To the contrary, our economic and political system now seems rigged.

That’s because it is.

THE THREAT TO CAPITALISM is no longer communism or fascism but a steady undermining of the trust modern societies must depend on.

When most people stop believing they and their children have a fair chance to make it, the tacit social contract begins to unravel. And a nation becomes susceptible to demagogues such as Donald Trump.

We have the power to change all this, recreating an economy that works for the many rather than the few. But to determine what must be changed, and to accomplish it, we must first understand what happened and why.

The conventional explanation is that globalization and technological change have made most Americans less competitive. The tasks we used to do can now be done more cheaply by lower-paid workers abroad or by computer-driven machines. Presumably, artificial intelligence will accelerate this trend.

The conventional solution — at least among people who call themselves liberals, Democrats, and progressives — has been an activist government that raises taxes on the wealthy, invests the proceeds in excellent schools and other means people need to get ahead, and redistributes to the needy.

This solution has been vigorously opposed by people who called themselves conservatives and Republicans, who believe the economy will function better for everyone if government is smaller and if taxes and redistributions are curtailed.

BUT THE CONVENTIONAL EXPLANATION for what has happened overlooks a critically important phenomenon — the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to alter the rules that run the economy.

And the conventional solution is in some ways beside the point, because it takes insufficient account of the corruption of government by these moneyed interests.

The debate over the merits of the “free market” versus an activist government has diverted attention from how the market has come to be organized differently from the way it was a half-century ago, why its current organization is failing to deliver the widely shared prosperity it delivered then, and what the basic rules of the market should be.

The diversion of attention is not accidental.

Many of the most vocal proponents of the “free market” — including executives of large corporations and their ubiquitous lawyers and lobbyists, denizens of Wall Street and their political lackeys, and numerous multimillionaires and billionaires — have for many years been actively reorganizing the market for their own benefit and would prefer these issues not be examined.

MARKETS DEPEND for their very existence on rules governing property (what can be owned), monopoly (what degree of market power is permissible), contracts (what can be exchanged and under what terms), bankruptcy (what happens when purchasers can’t pay up), labor unions (how much power should workers have), and how all of this is enforced.

Such rules do not exist in nature. They must be decided upon, one way or another, by human beings.