During this election season, you will hear candidates argue about lots of things. Only two things are really important.
Over the course of the next 11 months, here is what you will hear presidential candidates arguing about at length: ISIS; Islam; Mexican immigration; Obamacare; the Iran nuclear deal; gay rights; crime; Black Lives Matter; flat tax proposals; oil prices; charter schools; medical marijuana; Wall Street; abortion; Russia; Israel; guns; and Guantanamo Bay. You will also hear many in the press discussing what the candidates wear; their hairstyles; their accents; the internal management of their campaign staffs; their likability; their poll numbers; their debate performance; and other superficial and subjective measures of winning and losing that keep the political pundit class employed.
Some of these issues are distractions. Many of them are important. All of them are secondary. There are two real issues of primary importance facing America and the world today—two issues that lie at the foundation of many others. Two issues which must be addressed in a meaningful way if we hope to live in a just and thriving nation in the long term. They are economic inequality, and climate change.
Inequality of wealth—or, if you like, the distribution of wealth in our society in a way that results in poverty—is not just one issue among many. It is the root from which blooms nearly all major social problems. Economic inequality is the primary root of poverty. It is the primary root of educational inequality, and health inequality, and crime. On a global scale, economic inequality fuels riots, and revolutions, and terrorism, and war. It thwarts ambitions and causes hopelessness. A world that produces widespread hopelessness is a world that is morally failing. Hopeless people are a tragedy, in and of themselves, and a danger, to everyone.
Further, economic inequality is the sort of problem that can be addressed through government action. It can be meaningfully mitigated using laws and regulations. There are other problems that drive strife and poverty in our world, like racism and religious fundamentalism, that are not so easily addressed by passing laws. We will continue to struggle with those problems for many generations to come, and that struggle will be driven largely by people other than politicians. Outlawing racism will not change the number of people who harbor racist feelings. But taxing, say, financial speculation and using the proceeds to provide aid, to, say, poor single mothers will change things in a very concrete way.
Economic inequality, which produces the landscape in which racism and religious fundamentalism thrive, is the result of an economic system that we designed, and that we can change. Our elected leaders have the power to adjust the tax code and write new regulations and redirect government spending in a way that will in fact make our country (and our world) more economically equal and reduce poverty. America’s (and the world’s) insane concentration of wealth, which has reached levels unseen since the days of robber barons, is not an organic matter. It is not natural. It is not unavoidable, or ordained by science. It is the result of choices made by powerful people. It is the result of monied interests with political influence spending decades twiddling the knobs of our economic system to produce a situation that benefits those who have great wealth. Those knobs can be turned back the other way, if we so choose.
We live in a nation that produces more wealth than any other. We also live in a nation in which the majority of that wealth is captured by relatively few people. We also live in a nation in which certain demographic groups are statistically destined to live a life overwhelmingly more deprived than other demographic groups. Do not let anyone fool you: it is within our power to produce a nation that is still prosperous, and that allows everyone to share in that prosperity. The reason we have not yet produced such a nation is that our political system has not wanted to. Our political system has instead chosen to serve the interests of the rich, and lock the poor in prison. If we do what needs to be done to produce a democracy that serves the needs of the public rather than the wealthy minority, we will see economic inequality begin to fade away. Its logic is overpowering. If we want to change the fact that we shamefully lock a larger portion of our citizens in prison than anyone else, do not just tweak the criminal sentencing laws; get to the root of the problem. People are poor, and people are placed in situations that make them feel hopeless. Hope starts with equality of means, and equality of opportunity. Economic equality. Not a cartoon version of confiscatory communism that will be waved around to scare people—a more fair society, in which all people can reasonably expect to be able to meet their basic needs, and not live in poverty, and have an equal chance to succeed. We are far from that today. But it is not an impossible goal.
If we want to live in this hopeful world, we’ll need a world to live in. That’s why climate change is our other fundamental issue. The fact that this disaster in slow motion moves at a speed imperceptible to us in our day to day lives does not mean it isn’t coming for us. It is coming for us. All of us. We will all suffer. If we choose to put this problem off, it will only get worse.
Climate change is a potentially existential problem for our current way of life. Fighting it encompasses many of the thorniest issues we face: energy. Clean energy. The politics of energy, and oil, and the geopolitical wrangling that surrounds it. Entire economic systems that we have built to incentivize a certain kind of development will have to be dismantled, or at least redirected. The devastating droughts, floods, and other disasters caused by climate change are very real causes of war, and very real threats to global stability and human life. Like inequality, climate change is the big cause lurking behind many more visible manifestations of danger. It may be easier to focus the smaller problems, but in the long run we’re going to need to take on the big problem. In the case of climate change, we have delayed so long that more delays should not be considered a serious option.
The important things should be prioritized. The hardest things should be done first. Economic inequality and climate change are our most important problems, and our hardest ones. It is very easy to become fascinated with the ever-changing news cycle, and to imagine that the most visible issue of the week is the most pressing thing in the world. It is very easy, when an act of terrorism occurs, to imagine that we must drop everything and focus our resources on security. But as all of these events flash before your eyes, remember the two dynamics fueling most of the predicaments we face: an unequal world, producing hopelessness and rage; and a warming world, producing natural disasters we can only begin to anticipate. It is very easy to allow ourselves to focus on any of the many problems exacerbated by economic inequality and climate change, without ever bothering to focus on the big bad issue that lies beneath. Don’t get distracted by the cable news story of the day. And don’t allow presidential candidates to, either.
There are two real issues. Vote for someone who will do something about them.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]