By Donella Meadows
–May 13, 1993–
A friend of mine has a favorite saying: “Change is upset.” You can see what she means by watching Washington these days. The people voted for change. Bill Clinton is trying to produce it. He’s going in the directions favored by popular fussbudget Ross Perot — cut the deficit, create jobs, reduce the power of special interests. So why does every move he makes result in upset?
Because a few people profit handsomely from things the way they are. And because change, even for the better, stirs up dust, uproots comfortable habits, requires new thinking and hard work. You can tell real change by the amount of perturbation it causes.
So we have an upset about taxes, to take the loudest example first. Listening to the howls, you would think we are finally being asked to pay for the services we demand from government. But if Clinton gets every tax raise he wants, which he won’t, we will still be loading debt onto our children. The only change will be that we will do it at a slower pace for awhile.
In fact Clinton’s proposed tax changes are puny. He wants to raise the marginal rate on incomes above $140,000 from 31 to 36 percent and above $250,000 to 39.6 percent. This modest increase won’t soak the rich, it will barely dampen them. During the economic expansion of the 1950s and 60s the marginal tax rates on the highest incomes ranged from 70 to 92 percent. The nation considered those rates fair. They didn’t discourage entrepreneurs. They didn’t stop the economy in its tracks.
Similarly Clinton’s proposed 5-10 percent energy tax is laughable to our competitors in Europe and Japan, who pay much more for energy than we do. The energy tax on the table is skinny, but the vultures have already starting eating at its vitals. Farm states have extorted an exemption for ethanol made from corn. The steel lobby has won a promise of no tax on coal used for steel. Special pleading has exempted airline fuel for international flights and heating oil for New England. The aluminum industry says that if steel gets an exemption, it should too. The National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, and the American Farm Bureau are out to kill the tax altogether.
This isn’t change, this is business as usual, the special interests strangling the national interest, as Clinton says. Given that there must be taxes, energy is one of the best things to tax. An energy tax would provide incentives for efficiency. If it were combined with the elimination of taxpayer-financed subsidies to energy industries (amounting to $100-$300 billion a year), we would have an unbiased, competitive energy market. If the tax went up for ten years, until it were ten times what Clinton is proposing, it would finally price energy at somewhere near its real costs, it would bring in enough to end the deficit, and industry would have time to adjust. And if it were levied per Btu at the wellhead or mine as Clinton has proposed, allowing no exemptions, it would be easy to administer (as opposed to the bureaucratic mess the special interests are now busily creating).
In the same vein, Clinton’s proposed cuts in the military budget, $6.7 billion next year, are in the right direction, but way too small. The upset they are causing is understandable — some people and communities are going to have to find new ways of making a living. They deserve compassion and help. But any expenditure that does nothing but keep people employed — like the firemen who rode around for years on diesel locomotives, like the elevator operators who still push buttons in the U.S. Capitol — is a waste we can’t afford. Rather than dumping money into obsolete jobs, or throwing the people who have those jobs to the winds, we need to do better at matching unmet needs with unemployed human assets.
That would take a change, of course. Maybe even a job stimulation package.
The White House has decided it can’t face right now the upset over stopping the dole to mining, grazing, and logging companies that abuse resources on public lands. Running our health care system the way Canada does would be an upset that is unimaginable. It would be no change to allow gays in the military, because they’re already there, but it’s a huge upset to admit that.
The biggest upset of all would be to remove the power of money over government, so change can actually occur. The president has suggested campaign reforms, which are, like all his proposals, too mild. They were received with predictable outrage.
You’d think, from all the upset, that we are a nation that needs no change. We have the highest infant mortality rate, the highest health expenses, the second-highest rate of energy inefficiency, the highest deficit and debt, the highest crime, drug addiction, and illiteracy rates, and the most uneven distribution of wealth in the industrialized world. We have degraded our democratic system to the point where the voters have stopped expecting anything other than self-interested power plays. We avoid causing pain to any organized interest group, and thus we undermine the long-term welfare of everyone.
Our new president says he wants to change all that. We’re telling him to stop causing upset. That’s the wrong message. He needs to push harder, with our support. Upset won’t hurt us. Refusal to change is hurting us every day.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993