Steven J. Schwartzberg
Democratic candidate for U.S. House (5th district)
Responses to our questions
The U.S. government is now $20 trillion in debt. To address that historic level of public indebtedness, the country would need to raise revenue and/or decrease spending. What is your position on the budget and debt?
We must begin with a correct understanding of our public debt in relation to our ability to pay — the only relevant measure of whether our level of public indebtedness is or is not "historic." In fact, of course, relative to our GDP our level of public indebtedness was higher in 1946 — 119% percent of GDP versus 104% percent today — coming after the necessary expenditures of the New Deal to cope with the Great Depression as well as the necessary expenditures required to help win WWII.
As long as increases in our level of public indebtedness are for investments that will more than pay for themselves — such as the Marshall Plan for America and the Freedom Budget for the 21st century that I advocate — such increases make perfect sense and are to be undertaken.
Rather than focus on our level of public indebtedness — a mistaken conception of the fundamental problem — our focus should be on a generation of sluggish growth and rapidly increasing inequality, on the one hand, and rapidly growing and excessive levels of private indebtedness, on the other, in conjunction with a bloated financial sector that habitually relies on excessive leverage and so threatens another boom and bust cycle.
It has been estimated that the cost of the Great Recession, in terms of losses to the economy, was more than $20 trillion. Redirecting our economy away from "crony capitalism" and into social democratic investment in our future is the central task before us; a task that will be advanced by busting up the "too big to fail." Nearly half of all Americans, according to a recent Federal Reserve study, couldn't cover an emergency expenditure of $400 because they have so little in savings.
That is a far better measure of what must change than the level of public indebtedness (which will, in any case, be best addressed by the reintroduction of rapid economic growth and the avoidance of additional Great Recessions).
Can you identify any major federal expenditures or programs that you would eliminate?
Again, the question rests on a misconception of the problems we face. Expenditures and programs are to be undertaken in relation to the purposes they serve or fail to serve. I believe that Abraham Lincoln was correct when he said in 1864 that "The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities."
For more than a generation, Lincoln's position has been obscured by Ronald Reagan's excessive faith in the market and "small" government, even as market mechanisms were being corrupted by the 1% and the government was intervening on behalf of the 1% like some sort of Robin Hood in reverse. Rather than water the tree of economic growth at its roots, we have been watering its top leaves.
When Reagan said in his inaugural address in 1981 that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," he was mistaken. If he had meant to say that there are more important things in life than politics, and that politics cannot solve our most important problems, that would have been correct. Love, compassion, and civility enter our lives independently of the government. But that was not what he said. For more than a generation — under the spell of Reagan's antigovernment rhetoric — we have pursued policies that have favored the 1% and neglected the investments America needs to make if we are to flourish.
Medicare and Medicaid costs continue to spiral. How can these programs be restructured to control costs and avoid collapse? Be specific about your willingness to change or reduce future benefits.
If there were one article on American healthcare that I could persuade everyone to read, it would be the physician Atul Gawande's article, " The Heroism of Incremental Care," in the January 23, 2017, issue of The New Yorker. Gawande makes clear how and why the path to lowering health care costs over the long run is providing better quality care.
We need to dramatically increase the number of primary care doctors in the country and the compensation provided to these doctors relative to specialists. The United States is 51st in the world in terms of doctors per capita. It is high time for that to change. Gawande points to studies "demonstrating that states with higher ratios of primary-care physicians have lower rates of general mortality, infant mortality, and mortality from specific conditions such as heart disease and stroke. Other studies found that people with a primary-care physician as their usual source of care had lower subsequent five-year mortality rates than others, regardless of their initial health. In the United Kingdom, where family physicians are paid to practice in deprived areas, a ten-per-cent increase in the primary-care supply was shown to improve people's health so much that you could add ten years to everyone's life and still not match the benefit. Another study examined health-care reforms in Spain that focussed on strengthening primary care in various regions — by, for instance, building more clinics, extending their hours, and paying for home visits. After ten years, mortality fell in the areas where the reforms were made, and it fell more in those areas which received the reforms earlier. Likewise, reforms in California that provided all Medicaid recipients with primary-care physicians resulted in lower hospitalization rates. By contrast, private Medicare plans that increased co-payments for primary-care visits — and thereby reduced such visits — saw increased hospitalization rates. Further, the more complex a person's medical needs are the greater the benefit of primary care."
In a recent book manuscript addressing the need to restructure our compensation system to encourage doctors to once again make house calls — particularly for elderly patients with multiple medical issues for whom repeated visits to the emergency room are an extraordinary source of strain, expense, and danger — the physician C. Gresham Bayne also calls attention to the ways that providing better quality care is the best path to lowering healthcare costs. Bayne is part of the independence at home (IAH) movement that is advocating such change.
A pilot program within Obamacare has already proven successful. According to one of the Congressional Sponsors for IAH, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), a national rollout of physician housecalls covered by Medicare, such as that demonstrated in the 15 cities with IAH sites, could save $300 billion over ten years.
What if anything should be the federal government's role in helping Americans obtain health insurance coverage?
The struggle to ensure that quality healthcare is guaranteed for all the inhabitants of our land — citizens and non-citizens alike — begins with building as strong a consensus as we can that, in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, people should not be crushed into bankruptcy by a chance illness, or driven into debt by excessive deductibles and co-pays, or completely denied the care they need by insurance company bureaucrats who are ignorant of the art and science of medicine, or by an inadequate governmental compensation system.
For most of the first decade of the twenty-first century, polls showed solid majority support (60+%) for the claim that it is "the responsibility of the federal government to make sure that all Americans have healthcare coverage." Then, with the Republican assault on Obamacare, support declined to around 40+%. Now with the public having seen something of the successes of Obamacare (inadequate though it is), and of Republican mendacity in the fight over "Trumpcare," we are once again seeing solid majority support (60+%) for the principle that everyone's coverage should be guaranteed.
If support for universal healthcare continues to develop, and if we elect enough candidates pledged to support Medicare for All, it should be possible to move to universal healthcare in the not too distant future. To contribute to such progress is a primary reason for my campaign, although I also want to help us plan now to go beyond simply insuring that everyone has healthcare by addressing workforce and compensation issues to help make sure that, when it arrives, Medicare for All means quality healthcare for all.
Economic growth has been steady but wage growth is slow. Are you content with the state of the economy? What is your recipe for enhancing American prosperity?
In their recent book, The Captured Economy, two economists, Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles (one a libertarian and the other a liberal), work together to clarify some of the ways in which the government putting its thumb on the scales to favor the rich has contributed both to increasing inequality and slow economic growth: "This favoritism obviously exacerbates inequality, but its side effect is to reduce the competition and dynamism upon which economic growth depends. Accordingly, we now have the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. If we can scale back regressive redistribution we can enjoy more growth and a more equal society."
As an example of a change in the rules of the game benefitting the rich and harming the economy, Lindsey and Teles note that one of the consequences of the change in the tax code since Eisenhower has been to incentivize companies to bid competitively for CEO and administrative talent — to increase their salaries far beyond those of the ordinary worker (and far beyond any value added that they could actually provide). This is one reason why we should restore Eisenhower era tax rates and tax income from capital gains at the same rate as income earned by work. While I do not expect the United States to follow Denmark's example overnight, as Jeffrey Sachs suggests is desirable in Building the New American Economy. I do expect that it will ultimately do so.
In the meanwhile, it is high time for a Marshall Plan for America. We helped rebuild Western Europe after WWII and we can help rebuild ourselves. Our roads, our bridges, our railways, our airports, our water systems, our electrical grid — all are in need of investment. And the world is in need of our decarbonizing our economy.
Beyond the impact that massive infrastructure investment will have on the nation's productivity and — through increased productivity — on future economic growth, such investment will help to generate millions of jobs, including in new fields such as wind turbine service and photovoltaic installation. Already in 2012, there were 14.2 million workers employed in infrastructure jobs — 11% of national employment. And, as the Brookings Institute notes in another report : "More than 80 percent of workers employed in infrastructure occupations typically have short- to long- term on-the-job training, but only 12 percent hold a bachelor's degree or higher and generally need less education to qualify for these jobs." These are jobs, moreover, that pay well on average.
The question is not whether we can afford this investment. It can be financed in a variety of ways and by a mix of taxes and borrowing. Personally, I favor a massive issue of "rebuild America" bonds. However massive infrastructure investment is financed, it must be done. The tax of doing nothing — the tax of deferred maintenance — would be far higher and further contribute to a downward economic spiral. It is time to get out of a vicious cycle and into a virtuous circle.
If you could fix longstanding problems with this country's immigration system tomorrow, what would you do? What is your position on the future of DACA and the Dreamers?
Although the "wall" is an incredible waste, I favor negotiating with the hostage-taker (Trump) in order to save the hostages (the Dreamers).
We, as a people, must renew the sense of ourselves — of America — as a nation of immigrants. This is who we are and who we want to be: a hospitable people made up of individuals from every other nation on earth. As I once heard Congressman Keith Ellison say: our ancestors may have come over on different ships, but we're all in the same boat now. That is exactly right. And that is why there must be a swift legislative path to citizenship for all of the undocumented immigrants in the country. They are already part of who we are, but in a second-class status that they do not deserve and that weakens our unity as a people.
The capacity of our economy to grow depends in large measure on the creativity of our system of higher education and the inventions and innovations that fuel technological development. Since the Nobel Prize was established, according to the Institute for Immigration Research, "about 40 percent of the more than 900 prizes have gone to Americans" [and] about 35 percent of all US Nobel laureates have been immigrants to the United States. Eighty percent of those individuals worked at universities at the time of winning the Nobel Prize."
In a fit of ignorance and prejudice, the Trump administration is killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Nationwide, the number of new foreign students declined an average of 7 percent this past fall, the New York Times has reported. Nearly half of 500 campuses surveyed reported declines. We are losing both many talented individuals who should have been encouraged to become American citizens and an important source of financial support for our system of higher education as a whole.
The role of immigrants in the field of healthcare, with its critical shortage of doctors, is perhaps even more important. The journalist Tom Brokaw, recently recounting his own experience, captures a truth about American healthcare that should be universally recognized: "What I've learned is that American health care is a universe of scientific genius and selfless compassion populated by what seems to be the most diverse population in the country. Spinal surgeons of Russian origin and American training, Ecuadorean eye specialists, Chinese imaging experts, Kazakh physical therapists, East Indian oncologists and an elegant orthopedist from Bologna (we traded New York Italian restaurant recommendations). I've met them all. It is not just New York hospitals that are an ethnic "purÃ©e," as an Argentine nurse at Sloan Kettering described the mix to me. Most large metropolitan hospitals are staffed by dedicated workers from just about every continent. Rural American patients welcome well-trained Pakistani and East Indian physicians in private practice and small-town clinics."
In short, we are all in this together and must embrace our common humanity and common destiny as a people who love this country.
North Korea's nuclear weapons program represents a direct threat to the security of the United States and its Pacific allies. How should the U.S. confront or contain Kim Jong Un's regime?
The fantasy that freedom from vulnerability can be achieved by military means led to a war in Iraq that made us more, rather than less, vulnerable. War against North Korea would make the war in Iraq look mild by comparison. It would make us — and everyone else in the world — much worse off while costing unimaginable sums in lives and treasure. It is essential to realize that it is war that is being talked about or "tweeted" about so blithely.
The idea that "effective" sanctions can bring North Korea to terms is yet another fantasy. It is the same fantasy that, when tried against militarist Japan in the early 1940s, led a squeezed regime to lash out in a desperate search for a glass jaw: led directly to Pearl Harbor. China isn't about to go to war with North Korea on our behalf and China knows perfectly well that war might result from "effective" sanctions. Even if China would stand a better chance of winning such a war than we would — not least because we wouldn't arm and support North Korean insurgents as China might well do if we were stupid enough to invade — what would victory in such a war look like for China? It is unimaginable that China would see a reunification of Korea on South Korean terms as being worth such a Chinese sacrifice.
Our accepting our vulnerability is a lousy choice, but it is a better choice than war would be. The odds are overwhelming that "effective" coercive measures would prove counterproductive in the extreme. And by "counterproductive" let me be explicit that if "effective" sanctions or an American first-strike leads to war we are talking about tens of thousands of deaths from conventional weapons in the first day of the conflict — and potentially millions if atomic weapons are used — in conjunction with a blow to the global economy that could easily lead to a global recession and an antagonism with China that might well lead to another "Cold War" with what would become a much more formidable foe.
What we should be doing is cultivating our capacity for undertaking covert action in North Korea while seeking to encourage an eventual peaceful regime change through nonviolent means. We should be publicly planning with South Korea for a "soft" and a "generous" approach to reunification with the people of North Korea that might someday encourage a faction in the North Korean regime to overthrow their government and surrender to South Korea. And we should privately convey to Kim Jong-un that he, and every member of his regime, will be assassinated if they attempt to sell the nuclear technology they have developed to others. I do not place much hope in negotiating with the North Korean regime, but a compromise in which they keep their nuclear weapons without further developing their missile technology might conceivably be reached. The central difficulties would be the problem of the North Koreans accepting intrusive surveillance and our accepting an easing of sanctions.
ISIS is contained in Syria and Iraq but terrorism remains a threat. What are your priorities in keeping the country safe?
Terrorism is a weapon of the weak and cowardly. The single most important thing to do in confronting terrorism is to avoid making it stronger by pursuing a vision of perfect security through military force that will only make matters worse and strengthen the hand of our enemies. This is one of the most important lessons of the invasion of Iraq: it made us less safe.
Even the Obama administration's drone strikes — while preferable to having large numbers of American soldiers on the ground in the Middle East — probably generated far more terrorists than they killed while making us guilty of terrorism of our own toward the many innocents frightened of our drones or actually killed by them as "collateral damage" in attacks that have stoked anti-American sentiment and so strengthened the terrorists. The entire "War on Terror" rested on a misunderstanding of the problem which primarily requires good policing and good detective work in conjunction with smart diplomacy to be contained and minimized.
Beyond its alleged concern with WMDs in Iraq, the Bush administration was seeking to transform the politics of the Middle East — to make the region a peaceful sea of democracies — by invading that country. The United States had tried something similar in Latin America during the first third of the twentieth century — to promote democracy with military invasions — with similarly counterproductive results. By the end of the twentieth century, the United States had come to rely on local democratic allies in Latin America and, when it was helpful to these allies, was mostly helpful by lending them nonviolent support. This should be our long-term approach in the Middle East as well. The one exception in Latin America — the only time in which American military intervention did more good than harm — was in the invasion of Panama in 1989-1990. In that case, the United States found in Guillermo Endara and his supporters strong local allies whose recent victory in a free election had been stolen from them by the dictator Manuel Noriega, and who were willing to accept American intervention. Without such strong local allies, military intervention is doomed to failure.
The best allies the United States has in the fight against ISIS are the more than a hundred and twenty Islamic scholars who crafted and signed an open letter to Baghdadi, the leader of the so-called "Islamic State," which concludes: "But as can be seen from everything mentioned, you have misinterpreted Islam into a religion of harshness, brutality, torture and murder. As elucidated, this is a great wrong and an offence to Islam, to Muslims and to the entire world" (www.lettertobaghdadi.com). We should seek to make it clear to all that we see our pursuit of our own ideals and interests as perfectly compatible with respect for what Islam genuinely teaches, as explained by these Islamic scholars, as well as with respect for the national sovereignty of all the peoples of the Middle East (the people of Israel and the people of Kurdistan included).
Should the U.S. continue to abide by the terms of the nuclear agreement with Iran?
Yes. There is a cycle that is evident in the contrast between the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. Where George Bush championed support for democracy in Iraq to the point of embarking on a course of violence against a hated Iraqi regime, Barack Obama championed respect for the national autonomy of others to the point of embarking on a course of negotiations with a hated Iranian regime. The central interest that the United States government professed in both situations was that of preventing a hated regime from acquiring nuclear weapons, an interest that was compatible with dramatically different approaches. What was decisive was not the central professed interest, but the moral considerations informing the strategies by which American officials pursued their policies.
Drawing a parallel between those who advocated the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and those who opposed the agreement his administration helped negotiate with Iran in 2015, Obama in effect argued that his approach was superior because it was more civil: "Now, when I ran for president eight years ago as a candidate who had opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq, I said that America didn't just have to end that war. We had to end the mindset that got us there in the first place. It was a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy, a mindset that put a premium on unilateral U.S. action over the painstaking work of building international consensus, a mindset that exaggerated threats beyond what the intelligence supported. Leaders did not level with the American people about the costs of war, insisting that we could easily impose our will on a part of the world with a profoundly different culture and history."
While there is much truth in Obama's argument, it is also inadequate as history because it elides the moral context of, and intentions behind, Bush's approach. Determining American policy toward Iraq after the heady experience of the end of the Cold War — in other words with an exaggerated sense of the ability of the United States to contribute to democratic progress in other countries, and with an exaggerated sense of the capacity of democratic progress to resolve international conflicts — the Bush administration overemphasized support for democratic self-government in its policy toward Iraq and pursued that objective with violent means that could have been expected to prove as counterproductive as they did. Renewing that phase of the cycle of American policy would be a profound mistake.
What is your position on the continued presence of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan?
As an historian, I am aware that our interventions in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, in the first third of the twentieth century, not only failed to promote democracy, and actually made us less safe, our incompetent withdrawals led to long-term dictatorships in both countries that darken the reputation of the United States in Latin America to this day.
I favor a competent withdrawal from Afghanistan that seeks to avoid such an outcome. To the extent that such a thing can be managed, this means an absence of timetables and a willingness to return in the face of excessive danger of a Taliban takeover. It means seeking to find and cultivate local allies who are capable of defending themselves and ruling with a measure of decency. Our efforts in this regard were inadequate under Bush and Obama and appear to be nonexistent under Trump.
Do you support a unified, federal background check system for gun sales? Do you support magazine limits or a ban on certain rifles? Describe, briefly, your position on how to balance safety with the Second Amendment.
Yes, background checks should be made universal and comprehensive with no exceptions. I also favor magazine limits on certain rifles to reduce, in some small way, the deaths brought about by our nation's gun culture. To the extent that this gun culture can be changed by law, I favor changing it.
At a minimum, I think guns should be regulated at least as strictly as cars are regulated. Owners should be required to take training, pass an examination, and purchase insurance, before acquiring a gun and then required to renew their training periodically and their insurance annually. This insurance should help to cover civil penalties, which should be established by law, in the event a gun is used (whether by the owner or by someone else) in the commission of a crime. There should also be penalties, covered by insurance, whenever a gun is lost through carelessness or stolen; penalties that increase for repeated losses. I see no conflict whatsoever between this position and the 2nd Amendment.
Should the U.S. government take steps to curb emissions of greenhouse gas? If so, what steps? If not, why not?
When it comes to "decarbonizing" our economy, California is leading the way. According to a report released in November, "the state will get half of its electricity from renewable energy sources, including wind and solar, very soon — by 2020, to be exact, a full decade ahead of schedule." The commitment that California has made needs to be adopted, and intensified, by the nation as a whole.
As renewables come on line, we need to phase out all subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and then begin to impose new taxes on that industry to discourage its existence. Because of California's commitment, the price of solar energy in the state dropped by 77 percent between 2010 and 2016, from $127.55 per megawatt-hour to $29.17 per megawatt-hour. Similarly, the price of wind dropped by 47 percent in the same time period. "We've got to realize that we are here today because of oil — oil and gas, to a lesser extent, coal," California's Governor Jerry Brown said back in 2015: "What has been the source of our prosperity has become the source of our ultimate destruction, if we don't get off of it."
Tell us something about you that might surprise us.
In early October of 2017, in the course of my campaign, I gave what amounted to a sermon on "America and the Kingdom" to a secular audience — the 144-year-old Chicago Literary Club — and received a standing ovation from the hundred or so people present. In this speech, I called for "a moral revolution in this country — another great American religious awakening — a revival of what is best in our diverse faith traditions that renews and deepens our relations to each other and builds a new politics and a new economics on that foundation." The full text can be downloaded from my webpage: http://www.schwartzbergforcongress.com/news-letters/
If you are an incumbent, tell us the most significant accomplishment of your current term.
Unlike all of my opponents, I canvassed door-to-door for Bernie Sanders in Iowa and Wisconsin last year and I whole heartedly embrace Bernie's call for a nonviolent political revolution to save the country. Unlike my opponents, my training is as an historian — Yale PhD 1996 — one who believes that we can draw from our common past to build a shared future. As I see it, we are in a battle for the soul of the country between competing visions of what our nation is all about and what will best serve to improve our common life together. We can only win that fight by rediscovering the most progressive ideals of America's founding generation and building on the work of the many generations that have since sought to see those ideals more fully realized. Unlike all of my opponents, I have been a social democrat for more than thirty years. The record of my published work speaks for itself. Whether writing about American support for the postwar land reform in Japan that benefited millions of small farmers, or American support for democratic working-class movements in Latin America in the 1940s, or the failure of the United States to respect tribal sovereignty that culminated in the genocidal Trail of Tears and Death in the 1830s, I have consistently championed the cause of social justice and sought to help us understand what helps and what hurts that cause so that we can do better in the future. Unlike my opponents, I have not only championed Medicare for All but sought to raise workforce and compensation structure issues to ensure that universal healthcare, when we achieve it, is better quality healthcare for everyone. I have championed a Marshall Plan for America involving massive investment in the nation's infrastructure as well as a national commitment to "decarbonize" our economy. And I have championed a Freedom Budget for the 21st Century with which to begin to abolish poverty through investments in public education, and housing, and job training. For voters who believe in respecting the sovereignty of the native peoples, and who want a foreign policy that is concerned with the global common good and respects the rights and interests of others, my background is unique.