I recently argued that President Trump is ignoring our real crises to focus, as he did during the State of the Union address, on a fake crisis at the border. A reader suggested I take the next step by proposing solutions to the six crises I identified. Needless to say, solving problems is a lot harder than identifying them. But here goes.
Climate change. A distinguished, bipartisan group of economists advocates a carbon tax that would “increase every year until emissions reductions goals are met.” To prevent a political backlash of the kind that occurred in France following a gas-tax hike, all of the revenue would be refunded to citizens. But even with a carbon tax, the government would still need to subsidize the transition to green technologies. Sorry, Republicans: This means some version of the Green New Deal. Sorry, progressives: Renewable energy isn’t enough. Sweden is on track to meet its target of “net zero” emissions of greenhouse gases by 2045, because 40 percent of its electricity comes from nuclear power plants and the rest from wind and biofuels.
Gun violence. As Nick Kristof of the New York Times argues, there are many gun regulations that have overwhelming popular support, even from gun owners, but haven’t passed because of the National Rifle Association’s stranglehold on the GOP. Institute universal background checks and a mandatory waiting period for gun purchases. Ban high-capacity magazines. Prohibit gun purchases by the mentally ill, individuals on terrorism watch lists, or anyone convicted of a violent crime or the subject of a restraining order. An assault-weapons ban is more controversial but also necessary; there is no excuse for civilians to possess weapons of war. Following Australia’s example, we should have a mandatory buyback of all assault rifles. This was part of a larger package of gun restrictions in Australia that reduced firearms homicides by 42 percent and firearms suicides by 57 percent.
Opioids. Every year, about 25 million shipping containers enter the United States, roughly half by sea and half by land. Mark A.R. Kleiman, a criminologist at New York University, told me a single container is enough to supply the entire country with heroin for a year. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is 50 times stronger than heroin. So, despite high-profile drug busts, interdiction alone will never solve the problem. Trump signed legislation in October to increase opioid treatment, but the law’s impact is expected to be modest. More money is needed for treatment. Kleiman also suggests making methadone and a more advanced opioid-treatment medication, Buprenorphine, more widely available by allowing more doctors to prescribe them.
Debt. The answer to our looming debt crisis is simple to describe but hard to implement: Cut spending and increase revenue. In 2010, the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission recommended raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 by 2075; lowering Social Security benefits for high-income earners; reducing Medicare reimbursements to doctors; making cost-of-living adjustments for government benefits a little less generous; cutting discretionary spending (including defense); and eliminating $1.1 trillion in tax breaks. Congress cut discretionary spending during the Obama administration even more than recommended — but enacted only one-third of the revenue increases and one-sixth of the entitlement cuts the commission had called for. Now Trump’s tax cut and bipartisan spending increases have added $2 trillion in debt just since 2017. So even greater entitlement cuts and revenue hikes are needed. The longer we wait, the harder the solution becomes.
China and Russia. Trump at least recognizes that China is a problem, but his trade war is unlikely to reverse its predatory trade practices, economic espionage, human rights abuses, political and economic power projection, and military aggression in the South China Sea. Trump’s administration has taken some steps to contest Russian power, but Trump himself has been President Vladimir Putin’s biggest fan, boosting his standing by deferring to him in Helsinki. To meet the challenge from China and Russia, the United States must take a wide variety of steps, from calling out their human rights abuses to working with allies to contain their military expansion. Rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership should be step one. We should also stop propping up aging smokestack industries and invest more in research to compete in cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
Autocratic populism. Trump is taking an important step to challenge the spread of autocratic populism by working with U.S. allies to topple the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela. But Trump has been encouraging populists who are attacking democracy in Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, Egypt, Turkey and other countries. Even worse, he has been undermining democracy at home, leading Freedom House to downgrade the United States behind its democratic peers in its 2019 Freedom in the World report. The United States cannot by itself reverse the tide of autocratic populism, but it can start the process by holding Trump accountable — either via impeachment or electoral defeat in 2020. Whoever succeeds him will need to champion human rights and democracy as previous presidents did — and not just in Venezuela.
There are no easy answers in dealing with our most urgent problems. But we need to at least focus on the really important issues instead of being distracted by Trump’s politically motivated sideshows.