|OPEN TO DEBATE|
July 6, 1999
Fellows from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation talk about what issues they hope to see addressed during the 2000 campaign season.
TERENCE SMITH: Recently the McArthur Foundation announced its 1999 fellowships -- the so-called "Genius Awards" -- given to individuals who show exceptional merit and promise for creative work in their field. We decided to ask five of them to share their ideas on the upcoming presidential campaign. Sara Horowitz is executive director of Working Today, which represents temporary workers and the self employed. Mark Danner is an author and journalist who is a staff writer at the New Yorker Magazine; he specializes in foreign affairs. Shawn Carlson is an educator and physicist who is an adjunct professor in Physics at San Diego State University. Wilma Alpha Subra is a chemist and environmentalist. She is president of Subra Company, a chemistry lab and environmental consulting firm in New Iberia, Louisiana. Campbell McGrath is a poet and associate professor at Florida International University. Welcome to you all.
|Ready or not, the campaign is here.|
Shawn Carlson, let me begin with you. Ready or not, the campaign is upon us, what would you like to hear the candidates debate and discuss?
SHAWN CARLSON: Well, there are two issues that I think are very important. First is what are we going to do with the surplus, how real is the surplus, how long will it actually last, and can it really save Social Security and is the present Social Security system as it is worth saving? Right now, Washington seems to think that if you delay a catastrophe that's the same as fixing the problem, and what they want to do with Social Security, as I understand it, is take the tax revenue that they've collected from the surplus and continued to pour that into the mouth of the monster to keep the system solvent for an additional 35 years. It's still - that may help me, but it's not going to help my children, and I would like to see this problem -- it's been solved three times already in my lifetime -- I would like to see that problem actually solved. The other thing I'm most passionate about is the future of science education in this country. We do an abysmal job at educating young people in the sciences; many countries do much better. If we are going to continue to be a world leader in technology, we have to do much better. And I would like to see some of the candidates describe their programs to reach out into the grassroots and to find people who are doing exciting and interesting and innovative things that are inspiring passion in science for young people and producing future scientists.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Campbell McGrath, science education, Social Security, what's on your list?
CAMPBELL MC GRATH: Education is a big concern of mine, specifically in the sciences, not specifically in the arts where I'm located, but just everywhere. General public education for kids - I've taught in public schools as a visiting writer in New York City. My son goes to public school in Miami Beach, and while I don't have the answers, I know that money and attention would go a long way towards helping at least improve our public educational system. My overriding concern these days is with the influence of money on the political system, campaign finance reform is a simple term for it, but just in general the pervasive influence money has on our political structure, I really can't see any justification for that, other than that people are addicted to the lucre they've got running right now, and nobody really wants to turn off the spigot.
|A transformation of work.|
TERENCE SMITH: Sara Horowitz, what would you add or subtract to that list?
SARA HOROWITZ: Well, I think that I, like a lot of Americans, would really like to hear the candidates acknowledge that there's a new way that people are working, that in our nation's history this is the third big transformation in work. The first was craft work created by the industrial revolution; the second was mass production; and now we're in some kind of new phase that seems to involve high-tech and information-based technology. Work is short term. People are working - about a third of the work force is working as freelance, part-time, temp., consulting, and this really extends from really low-wage workers up to middle class. And why this is important is that this whole work force is just falling out of the New Deal safety net. On the low end they're just going without health insurance and pensions. A third of this work force is ineligible for unemployment. On the high end, people are struggling to buy health insurance, struggling to figure out how they do their asset allocation to make sure that when they retire, they have a pension. And I think you can see that there's this tremendous kind of economic insecurity in a time of an economic boom. And that's because work is just so unpredictable. People spend half the time looking for work and then half the time doing the work, and I feel it's very difficult to live that kind of life and they're not getting the same kind of advantages from the tax code and the insurance industries to enable them to be mobile.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, it sounds as though you want the candidates both to address the issue and then to talk about some of its consequences.
SARA HOROWITZ: Right. I mean, I think the central issue is that, look, if business needs to change and restructure, that's fine, but right now business is calling for flexibility, and that's become a euphemism for low wages and no benefits. Let's say, hey, we have a new work force that's mobile. Let's have portable health insurance, portable pension. Let's have portable rights. Let's make it so that goods and capital can be mobile and we can really support our work force in being mobile, and you can really tell that in this work force the candidates mostly think that people are still working in traditional long-term jobs, and they're kind of missing the boat for a third of us out there.
TERENCE SMITH: Wilma Subra, what would you add to that, from your perspective?
WILMA ALPHA SUBRA: Well, I do a lot of work in the area of environmental protection and the human health impacts from environmental issues. And when the candidates talk about economic development, I'd like them to be required to say how they're account for the impact on the community so that economic development is occurring and how they are going to protect those people, such as implementing buffer zones around new industrial facilities and buyouts for people who live on the cents line and then the second issue is how do you provide information to the people in these communities about what they're being exposed to, how bad is the exposure, what they can do to counteract exposure, and where they can get health care that's designed primarily to deal with environmental exposure.
TERENCE SMITH: You used an interesting word there. You said the candidates should be required to discuss this issue. Is there a feasible way to do that?
WILMA ALPHA SUBRA: I think wherever you talk about economic development, you also have to talk about how you're going to protect the environment and the people living in it, because without a good environment, no senior executives are going to want to bring this into an area that's already polluted and put them there with poor schools and poor environment, so it has to be an entire package.
TERENCE SMITH: Mark Danner, from your perspective, what would you like to hear discussed and debated?
MARK DANNER: Well, for the third time in this century America is coming out of a war after the first two, World War I and then World War II, America saw a major debate about the role of the country in the world. After the first world war, of course, there was a strong debate about the League of Nations, and the decision was finally made not to join it. American power was withdrawn from Europe, and after the second world war, the institutions were set up, NATO, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, that led America through the Cold War. We're at the end of the Cold War now, long past the end of the Cold War, and it's become striking that America's leaders do not know how to speak to American citizens about foreign policy and about the place of the country in the world.
The war we just have come out of in the last few days, that is, the war in Kosovo, has made this very obvious. America's military leaders are claiming a great victory, a victory without casualties, in the words of one of them, but, in fact, there were a great many casualties, a great many dead, as a matter of fact, among the people that the United States had sworn to protect in Kosovo. There were also casualties, of course, among civilians in Serbia. The war was fought a particular way because American leaders are essentially afraid, at least in my view, to make a political case, to use their political capital to try to persuade the people why it's important to fight this particular war, and, indeed, before that, why it was important to go to Somalia, why it was important to go to Haiti, why it was important to intervene at a certain time in Bosnia.
So I think there's a crying need, just an essential need for the United States and its leaders to have an open and free debate about the role of the country in the world. I think running a foreign policy essentially based on empty rhetoric, which it's been since 1991 or so, and meanwhile taking on responsibilities - for example - the enlargement of NATO, which the United States has now signed up to protect - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic - possibly up to and including the use of nuclear weapons, without indeed the united American people - excuse me - having agreed or having come to a consensus on that responsibility, I think that's a terrible thing, and it, indeed, leaves the country in a very weak state.
|Will they really talk?|
TERENCE SMITH: And a suitable subject probably for this campaign. Shawn Carlson, you mentioned science education. Do you see or have you heard that subject raised so far? And what's your level of confidence that it will be?
SHAWN CARLSON: Well, I haven't heard any discussion about it. People have to realize that education ain't just readin', writing, and arithmetic anymore, and when the candidates have discussed education, everybody wants to be the education president, but despite 30 years of everybody wanting to be the education president and everybody talking about this issue, very little has gotten done. There are some really great ideas that are out there in the public sector that are being put into practice in small areas, and I think that this is a place where the government can learn from the creative and innovative people who are passionate about this issue. So far, I haven't heard it mentioned. I think that people should appreciate its importance. I think everything that the other panelists have mentioned are also very important issues as well. I'm very impressed, because I've heard some really original and new ideas here today. But the science issue has not yet been addressed, and it doesn't - it doesn't sound like it's going to be, because people don't seem to appreciate its importance of it.
TERENCE SMITH: I'm sorry.
WILMA ALPHA SUBRA: May I just add something to what Shawn just said?
TERENCE SMITH: Yes.
SARA HOROWITZ: I think we're at a very interesting time, as they say, in our history where a lot of the innovation really is sort of under - underground right now. You really can see that there are a lot of ideas, and that it's the institutions that are in place that don't quite fit on so many levels, from labor to education, to housing, to the environment, and that it really - it requires a kind of - not only imagination but courage of your own conviction to follow those ideas that are good ideas and to be a megaphone for those ideas, and that's what the candidates could do that I think people would feel there's a tremendous resonance. They say they're talking about me; whereas, now I think they feel like, yeah, yeah, you're the education guy, uh-huh.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Campbell McGrath, I wonder if you share Shawn Carlson's concern that the talk about education in his view has been rather hollow up to this point.
CAMPBELL MC GRATH: Yes. Absolutely. And I agree with the larger point that a lot of these - a lot of the thoughts I hear the five of us expressing fall to the notion that the world has changed and become a radically new place in many ways of our mentally business, education, and yet, the system and the leaders of the system have not changed, and at the same time, the leaders seem to lack courage either to change or even to speak honestly without hypocrisy, without protecting themselves about these issues, they're unwilling to run the risk of making a mistake and alienating anyone, and so I feel like these ideals get shuffled around, and paid lip service, but they don't really go anywhere. I think that kind of - that, for me, would be the best thing to come out of this campaign if through some kind of miracle, some candidate stood up and in some way unmasked himself and said, I'm just going to run my campaign free of that kind of hypocrisy, and truly honestly addressing the world as we see it.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Wilma Subra, did you agree with that, and we've heard some talk about the environment, but I wonder if it's as directed as you want it to be.
WILMA ALPHA SUBRA: No, it isn't, and as a matter of fact, the federal government is tending to de-centralize and pass it back down to the state level. And I can tell you in a lot of the states that I work in across the nation the states don't have the political will to take on the hard challenges and deal with the issues and deal with them sort of outside the box, as it be, so if the federal government decentralizes and the candidates encourage that decentralization, the people at the grassroots level are going to be the ones that are going to suffer, because there won't be the political will to go out and do those hard things that need to be done to protect the environment and protect human health.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Mark Danner, can we have a for instance final thought from you?
MARK DANNER: Well, I'd like to say that I was hopeful that the matters I've mentioned - as far as international affairs were involved - will be discussed in this campaign. But, frankly, in the last three, four, five campaigns, they played a relatively small part, and so I have to say even though some candidates - John McCain, for example, Pat Buchanan - talked about Kosovo when it was happening, we've seen very little indication that the so-called major candidates are going to make this an important issue in that campaign.
I think that's a pity, but I think it's up to the journalists, people who cover the campaign, and in the end the people who are polled, unfortunately, by the candidates to figure out what, indeed, they're interested in, to try to show that these are important issues and that the candidates will have to address them. Perhaps an idealistic view, but I think everybody today - it seems to me - has talked about things that are important to people in this country. It's rather ironic that it's hard to know whether, indeed, they'll be brought up at all in this discussion, long discussion, leading up to this election.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, this may be the first step in the process.
MARK DANNER: I hope so.
TERENCE SMITH: Thank you all very much.