Friday, February 27, 2009

The Gulf of Maine Restoration Initiative

News from DC drives home the point that the Gulf of Maine needs the same kind of organizing and advocacy that has resulted in a $475,000,000 line item in the President’s budget for restoration of the Great Lakes. Although this is only a fraction of the $26 Billion called for in an interagency restoration plan for the Lakes, it is the largest appropriation for Great Lakes restoration ever requested by a President. With $ billions more coming to the Great Lakes through the economic stimulus package and from a portion of the $3.9 Billion in the President’s budget for waste water infrastructure, the past two weeks have resulted in over $3 Billion in planned or approved funding for Great Lakes restoration!

This is an extraordinary success story for Great Lakes advocates, especially the Healing Our Waters®--Great Lakes Coalition, representing over 100 zoos, aquariums, businesses, and conservation organizations. The coalition has been pressing Congress for four years to finance the implementation of the Great Lakes Regional Collaborative Strategy—a blue print for restoration of the Great Lakes. Coalition activities have centered on a very well organized and sustained communications, education, and outreach effort that has included Great Lakes lobby days, in which hundreds of citizens descend on Washington each year to visit key members of Congress.

Meanwhile, in DC this week, there was increasing talk by the new directors of agencies like the EPA and Council on Environmental Quality about national ecosystem restoration work. And, finally, the Gulf of Maine—which was virtually off the map a few months ago—is starting to get mentioned. But we are a long way from getting the kind of funding for restoration that is being directed to the Great Lakes. Fortunately, a Gulf of Maine Restoration and Protection Initiative ( is gaining momentum in the region, with state and federal agencies, businesses and non-profit groups coming together to create a comprehensive restoration plan. Just having a comprehensive plan and price tag will put the Gulf of Maine on a similar footing with other aquatic ecosystems like the Everglades and Great Lakes that have long been on the Congressional agenda.

With earmarks falling into bad favor these days, it’s gong to be increasingly difficult to get Congress to direct significant funding to local or even regional projects. But with so many major aquatic ecosystems around the country suffering from identical or similar problems (loss of wetlands and wildlife habitat, toxic sediments, storm water and waste water contamination, and invasive species), a more comprehensive, “America’s Great Waters” approach will be needed to in order to gain enough political support to appropriate the massive amounts of money required. (Nearly $400 Billion is needed just to upgrade the nation’s storm water and waste water systems.) Fortunately, the Gulf of Maine is home to two of the most important people in the United States Senate: Senator Susan Collins and Senator Olympia Snowe.

The stars are aligned now, and many agencies and non-profits in the Gulf of Maine are finally coming together to create the comprehensive restoration plan that will be the ticket of admission to a national Great Waters program. The philanthropic and business communities now need to join in the process and provide some of the underwriting support upon which the process will depend.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bridging the Racial Divide

The disgusting, racist cartoon in the New York Post (2/18/09) depicting two officers having just shot a chimpanzee and a caption clearly linking the chimp to Obama, really jolted me and made me reflect deeply about our culture and my own feelings about race. Not that I haven’t thought about this a lot already—but seeing such blatant racism in the mainstream media rekindled the inner debate.

Having grown up in DC I had plenty of mixed-race interactions—socially, academically, and professionally. I didn’t experience much of a racial divide among my peers (fellow students and musicians) whether or not they were African American, Indian, Chinese, or any other race. But I did experience a significant class divide, and this, too, was true regardless of race. When I was young, kids who grew up with violence, who lived in tough neighborhoods, who were poorly educated and aggressive, scared me, no matter what color they were. The fact that many more black kids grew up that way than whites (certainly in DC) might have made race a stand-in for what was in reality a cultural or class divide. In my own experience the divide was much less about race than it was about socialization—differences in education, values, language, and style.

Yet, I was quite aware that there were huge polarities around me: truly racist whites, and lots of blacks with chips on their shoulders, some of whom betrayed a kind of reverse racism through their resentment and justifiable but counter-productive anger. These two polarities were—and are—mutually reinforcing. I really liked the way Obama addressed this during the campaign. He got at both sides of the problem, and laid responsibility fairly where it belonged: on all of us. Ultimately, I think the solution to racial tensions in America lies in the celebration of our differences within the context of shared human values. But it takes making an effort.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a service at a Unitarian Church in Portland, and I had to laugh as the nearly all-white congregation tried to sing an old Negro Spiritual. At one point the organ accompaniment stopped and the choir tried to clap along in an embarrassingly weak attempt to capture the rollicking energy of a black gospel choir. These people need some tutoring by a real black choir, I thought! And that led to another idea: that the racial divide in America won’t go away by itself. We have to work at it. We have to reach out, get outside our own comfort zones from time to time, and make an effort. Churches and other civic institutions can invite musical and cultural exchange. And as individuals we can make uncomfortable choices, like which table to sit at, and with whom to strike up a conversation.

As blacks and whites discover and acknowledge commonly shared values—most importantly our ability to smile and laugh together—we can let go of the fear, resentment, anger, discomfort, and other emotions that have perpetuated the racial divide in America.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Who Shold Pay for the Deficit?

Throughout the debates on the economic stimulus bill we heard the bill’s naysayers echo the mantra about our grandchildren having to bear the burden of the nation’s deficit. That sounds like a good populist complaint, but I have a better idea: the people who have profited by cheating, lying, deceiving the public, avoiding taxes, and extracting disgustingly huge salaries and bonuses as heads of finance, commerce, and industry should pay.

It’s fine to say that in America no one should be restricted from making lots of money. But issues of honesty and fair dealing should not be left off the table. Is it OK for conmen to earn and keep great wealth? How about those credit card companies whose deceptive practices and small print lead to interest rates of 29% and more? How about all the Bernie Madoffs who have not yet been caught, or the highly compensated corporate board members who authorize their CEOs to walk away with tens or hundreds of $ millions in salaries and bonuses while their companies fall into bankruptcy? These are the people who should pay for the deficit! Their ill-gotten rewards should be stripped from them to cover the nation’s debts.

Not all corporate CEO’s are dishonest, of course, but we should not forget those unpatriotic thieves—both corporations and individuals—who hide their profits in offshore banks to avoid paying taxes. Joe Biden was right when he said that paying taxes is a patriotic duty. (The fact that people mocked him for saying it says a lot about their own patriotism—or lack of it.) Paying taxes is not only a patriotic duty, it’s the law of the land. And here’s where things get dicey: there’s the “intent of the law,” and there’s the “letter of the law.” Super wealthy individuals and corporations avoid the intent of the law by finding loopholes in the letter of the law. Leona Helmsley once famously said that rich people don’t pay taxes. She was right. And in my book that makes them criminals, because they use their resources and connections to avoid the intent of the law, while (not always) abiding by the letter of the law.

So how can we address the nation’s growing deficit? First we should reinstate a truly progressive tax code. When the income tax was first introduced in 1913 the minimum taxable income was $3,000. In today’s dollars that would be about $65,000. So let’s exempt any income less than $65,000. Next we should simplify the tax code and eliminate the zillions of loopholes used so effectively by the super rich. Then we should raise tax rates on the highest incomes. Between 1951 and 1963 incomes over $400,000 ($3.3 million in today’s dollars) were taxed at 91% and we had unprecedented economic growth. Now the highest tax bracket has dropped to 35% and look what’s happened to our economy. So let’s temporarily raise that back up to 80%. Admittedly, this would be a hard pill for the super rich to swallow after the tax vacation years started by Reagan in the mid 1980’s and made extreme by George W. Bush.

But let’s be reasonable about this. As Benjamin Franklin noted, the wealthy of our nation owe their ability to make and retain wealth to our economic and political stability—all made possible by a society that values and obeys the rule of law. (The super wealthy of 18th century France, or 20th Century Russia didn’t do so well when revolution broke out). As we face the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, it’s time for those who have done well in our free society to step up to the plate. Making our grandchildren pay the burden of our national debt while the super wealthy continue to enjoy virtual immunity from taxation goes against the most basic values of fairness and justice upon which our free and egalitarian society is based.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Collapse or Reinvention?

Maybe it's because I'm trying to organize my 2008 taxes, or maybe it's the thought of having too many projects on my plate, or perhaps it's the uncertainty of the shakeout from the current collapse of capitalism as we have known it—whatever the cause, or causes, I woke up this morning, February 1, 2009, full of anxiety for myself and the world around me.  To make matters worse, I sat up in bed and read Ben McGrath's article "The Dystopians" in the January 26 New Yorker in which he mockingly writes about James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, Chellis Glendinning, and other prophets of doom, as he calls them.  Their collective worldview is not a happy one, to be sure: cannibalism being about the only ill not forecast for American society as people struggle to survive in the wake of civilization's predicted crash. 
Although I don't share these authors' pessimism (or contempt) about the American economy, I was a big fan of both Kunstler and Glendinning in the mid 1990's, for they expressed many criticisms of our culture with which I agreed—mainly that it was (and is) unsustainable, but also ugly (for the most part), and largely devoid of soul.   My own answer has been to live in aesthetically pleasing (also known as "authentic", or "older") homes and neighborhoods, to rely (as I always have) on my entrepreneurial adaptability, and to try to hone my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual honesty to a soulful edge.  I, too, have predicted an unraveling of the economic order—anyone who was paying attention knew that the stock market, like the housing market, was hugely overvalued and that gamblers and criminals in government and in corporate boardrooms were playing fast and loose with the economy. 
But, in spite of the current crisis—and in spite of Reaganomics and 8 years of Bush/Cheney—I have maintained a slightly more optimistic view of the future than McGrath's "Dystopians."  I agree with them that the consumer-driven economy of the past 50 years needs to radically change course; I agree with them that the entire infrastructure of western civilization is far too interdependent and fragile (just imagine the possibility of a week-long power outage in New York City). However, I don't predict that we'll be reduced to a 19th century world, where horses provide the main means of work and transportation; and I don't expect that we'll all have to stock up on a year's supply of rice and beans and take up guns to defend our homes against marauding hordes of starving men.  (Back in the late seventies and early eighties I used to believe these things, and stocked up accordingly. But I got over it.)
Like George Bush (did I actually SAY that!!) I have an enormous faith in the ingenuity of the American people.  I think we CAN transform our economy, that we can adapt, that we can develop and adopt new, efficient technologies, and that we can live sustainably.  For some people these changes will be voluntary, but the likelihood is that many adaptations will be forced on us, either by market forces or by a proactive government.  (There used to be a day, before the domination of American politics by right wing ideologues, when the government actually regulated things—like requiring seatbelts and CAFÉ standards—and acted in ways generally beneficial to the American people).  As a culture, we are already changing from the inside, and our collective values are getting better all the time.  Just look at whom we, the American people, just elected to the White House!
Change is always uncomfortable, and for many people the radical changes needed to avoid the kind of collapse predicted by the gloom and doomers is going to be painful.  But solutions are out there.  We can bring back to America many of the jobs and means of production we have exported to the 3rd world.  In fact, we'll have to if the peak oilers are right and the rising costs of intercontinental transportation erase the "competitive advantage" of cheap labor in Asia—or if progressive policies ensure that 3rd world laborers are given a "living wage."  We can transform our own markets, increasing demand for super high efficiency products like compact fluorescent light bulbs while eliminating waste.  We can transform our behavior, too.  We probably don't need 5,000 square feet of living space per nuclear family, and we don't need to fill up all that space with cheap junk. (I actually don't know many people who live like that, but that's probably because most of my family and friends came out of the counter culture of the '60's and are "early adaptors").
In any event, it seems obvious that we can't spend our way out of the current crisis without digging ourselves into a deeper crisis, as predicted by the Dystopians.  With intelligent and courageous political leadership we can seize the moment and turn ourselves around.  It will take many extraordinary measures, and a lot of people are going to need government help to ensure that they don't go homeless and hungry in the short term, but we can do this. 
There, now I feel better.