We are at a moment in our nation's history when great decisions can be made. The country is energized by the historic election of the first African-American president. But it is also a beleaguered nation whose people need help.
President-elect Barack Obama led a campaign of tactical brilliance, but he did not address social issues adequately. In this time of transition, he and the next Congress should focus on initiating long overdue reforms.
After the Depression and during the period of prosperity following World War II, the federal government established a social contract with the American people. In exchange for hard work, productivity, and taxes, Americans were promised their just social and economic deserts, with a safety net for hard times, and a guarantee of safe retirement without fear of spending their last days free-falling into Dickensian misery.
This past July, a Rockefeller Foundation/Time survey revealed that Americans believe the social contract has deteriorated, and 78 percent wanted a new one. In the avalanche of dire economic news since then, it's evident that the contract is now in tatters. And Americans are at a breaking point.
In the past three months alone, 651,000 workers have lost their jobs, bringing the unemployment rate to 6.5 percent – the highest since March 1994. The number of Americans collecting jobless benefits is at the highest level since February 1983.
Today, the average American is working longer and earning less (real wages declined by 12 percent between 1974 and 2004). Millions of homeowners may face foreclosure. More than 47 million Americans have no health insurance. Medical costs are a chief cause of personal bankruptcy. The Institute of Medicine has estimated that 18,000 Americans die annually because they cannot afford health insurance.
Americans deserve better than this. We need a 21st-century social contract that will restore fairness to the fabric of our society and government to its rightful role as a servant and protector of the people. Fundamental ingredients should include:
•A living wage for all Americans of at least $10 per hour. At the current minimum wage – $6.55 – the annual income for a full-time job would be $13,624, which would relegate a family of three to below the poverty level.
•Affordable single-payer healthcare (Medicare) for all Americans.
•A fundamental reappraisal of our tax laws. Taxes should apply first to behavior and conditions we favor least, such as the clearly addictive industries, pollution, speculation derivatives, and extreme luxuries, instead of applying to work, food, clothing, or other essential items.
•Creation of a new Home Owner's Loan Corporation (HOLC), the New Deal era agency that bought mortgages from homeowners at risk of defaulting and offered them more affordable terms. Include a law with a sunset clause allowing below median-value homeowners facing foreclosure the right to rent-to-own their homes at fair-market value rates.
We must also:
•Reform the pension system. Corporations must be held more responsible for the retirement security of their employees. We need to give workers a voice on the pension board, and the right to control their 401(k) plans.
•Enact a speculation tax. The trading of blocks of derivatives to profit from rapid fluctuations in price is one cause of the escalation in oil prices at the pump, the mortgage industry meltdown, and the dotcom bust.
•Enact a carbon tax, with the aim of lowering US emissions to at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, coupled with the expansion of solar energy.
•Repeal the antiemployee, antiunion Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 to allow workers the right to strike for a living wage and better working conditions.
•Crack down on corporate crime by increasing prosecution budgets, reining in obscene executive pay, and closing offshore tax shelter loopholes.
These are not unreasonable goals. We can start to achieve them by ending our military and corporate presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and refocusing our national priorities on poverty, job insecurity, racial injustice, underfunded public education, and corporate avarice.
It has been said that Barack Obama has inspired a movement. Though the election is now behind us, these citizen activists should not rest. Now is the time to place pressure on the new president and Congress to ensure that these reforms are realized.
Taxpayers recently rescued the casino gamblers on Wall Street with a $700 billion bailout. Now it's time to rescue the American people.
• Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer, author, founder of public-interest groups, and the 2008 independent candidate for president.