By Donella Meadows
–December 15, 1994–
I hate to admit that Newt Gingrich is right about anything, but I think it’s a great idea to have moments of silence in school.
There should be moments of silence at work too, and before meals and in shopping malls and at baseball games. I’m especially in favor of moments or even hours of silence on television. If we use that silence to contact a higher power or our inner consciences, so much the better — just so the people choose when to have silence and how to use it, not the government, not Newt.
Gingrich and his ilk are entirely too good at grabbing ideas that just about everyone supports and poisoning them with partisanship. They have turned the innocent ceremony of pledging allegiance into a sour Republican test of patriotism. They’ve made the two-parent family into a condemnation of anyone who doesn’t live in one. One is tempted to oppose on general principle everything they favor, but that would be to confuse their mean-mindedness with their underlying ideas, some of which are everybody’s ideas.
For example: government spending is rampantly wasteful. Who, of any political persuasion, would deny that? Let’s agree with Newt and get serious about cutting pork, being sure to include the military budget, handouts to corporations, and goodies for Newt’s Congressional district. We will find many more savings in the rivers of tax dollars that flow to the rich than in the trickles that go to the poor.
Some government regulations are stupid, and most are entangled with red tape. The most liberal of liberals will admit that. Let’s declare a systematic bipartisan campaign to simplify regulations, get rid of the ones that aren’t necessary, and strengthen the ones that are. We need a Superfund, for example, to protect communities from toxic dumping. But everyone from companies to environmentalists knows that the present Superfund is a crock. The challenge isn’t to get rid of it; it is to make it simple, strong, and workable.
There is moral decay in the nation. I worry about that every bit as much as Newt Gingrich does. Who wouldn’t support a common commitment to personal morality, especially if our leaders pledge to start with themselves before they point the finger at others? There are stunning opportunities for bipartisanship here! If we do get around to chastising others, let’s include those who create and profit by the raunch that pervades our media, as well as those who are victimized by it.
We might disagree about whether the federal budget should balance at all times — some of us would want to make special provisions for war and dire emergencies. But surely no one favors peacetime deficits of hundreds of billions of dollars. Both parties have been responsible for those deficits. Let’s admit that, grow up, and recognize that budgets can and should be balanced by any president and Congress any time, without a constitutional amendment.
Our schools are deteriorating. No other problem, foreign or domestic, threatens our economy and security more than the decreasing literacy and numeracy of our people. Could we get beyond our ideologies about whether schools should be public or private and recognize above all that they should be community controlled, that some communities have lost the ability to control and fund them, and that the larger society has an abiding interest in helping those communities create good schools again?
It is a liberal tenet, as well as a conservative one that social problems should be dealt with at the lowest possible level — community rather than state, state rather than federal. But everyone knows that some issues overarch the concerns and capabilities of communities alone, or states, or sometimes even nations. Could we stop yelling about how we hate government long enough to sort out rationally which problems, from crime to education to polluted air, are logically dealt with at which level, and then make government at all levels function well?
No one wants to coddle criminals. No one favors releasing dangerous people back to the streets. But getting tough doesn’t have to mean executing; it doesn’t have to answer murder with more murder. And the tougher we make our penal system, knowing our racist history and our never-perfect judgment, the more careful we must be not to incarcerate innocent people.
Newt and friends also have a great idea about taxes. They want to eliminate income taxes and substitute consumption taxes. If those consumption taxes are to be value-added or sales taxes, they would shift a huge tax burden away from the rich and onto the middle class, which sounds to me like a typical rich-politician idea. But if the taxes were levied on energy and resource consumption, they would reward efficiency, recycling, and pollution reduction. It makes great sense to tax pollution and resource depletion, which we don’t want, rather than income and investment, which we do.
There’s one more Newt idea that’s easy to support. He says one of his first priorities will be a law requiring Congress to hold itself to the laws it passes for everyone else — including affirmative action, workplace protection, and a host of other regulations from which Congress regularly exempts itself.
If Newt manages to do that, I’ll be so pleased, I might even have to stop calling him a fascist.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994