Just how deep the financial crisis is can be seen from this paradox: the Bush administration, the most wild and irresponsible defender of right-wing economic ideology and free markets in our nation's history, now has to muster one initiative after another to intervene in the financial markets. It is even in the process of nationalizing banks.
The economic crisis has received less attention in the media than the financial crisis, but it is no less real or threatening. Unemployment, which is conservatively estimated in our country, last month hit a five-year high of 6.1 percent, and it is rising. In July, home prices - the main source of most Americans' wealth - fell 16 percent in 20 U.S. cities from a year earlier. The bottom is nowhere in sight. Foreclosures are at the highest rate in almost three decades. Health care, food and educational costs are rising, and more and more Americans are lining up at emergency shelters and food shelves.
Meanwhile, during President Bush's tenure in office, the gap between the very wealthy and everyone else has dramatically increased. While 6 million Americans have slipped into poverty, while median income for working families has declined by more than $2,000, while 7 million people have lost their health insurance and 4 million workers lost their pensions, the highest income Americans have made out like bandits - which many of them are.
At this pivotal moment in our history, the American people are demanding fundamental changes in our nation's economic policies. Congress will be reconvening for a lame-duck session on November 17. What should we do? The proposals that have been coming out of Washington, in my view, are not sufficient.
If you could read the e-mails that pour into my office from Vermont and across the country, you would realize how furious the American people are at the greed, incompetence and irresponsibility of the Masters of the Universe on Wall Street who made billions while they drove our financial system to the brink of the abyss. Middle-class citizens of this country do not believe that they, who had nothing to do with causing this financial meltdown and who already have suffered as a result of Bush's reckless policies, should have to pay for Wall Street bailouts. They are absolutely right. Congress must demand that the cost of any bailout should be paid by those who benefitted financially from Bush's policies and those who can best afford it. I proposed an income surtax of 10 percent on families earning more than $1 million a year. I will continue to fight so that any bailout is progressively funded.
When Congress reconvenes, it is clear to me that it must pass a massive "Rebuild America" program in order to address the looming economic crisis. If we can put up $700 billion to rescue bankers from their irresponsible decisions, we must make a major investment putting millions of Americans to work rebuilding our country.
I agree with a number of economists who have told us that, in order to get our country back on sound economic footing, we should make a major investment in repairing our crumbling transportation systems and electric grid. After decades of delay, we must end our dependence on fossil fuel and foreign oil and move boldly to energy efficiency and new sources of sustainable energy.
We also need to address the social crises we face in terms of education, health care, nutrition, and poverty. In the midst of the current economic crisis, we must minimize the suffering of the most vulnerable among us, and we must ensure the future of our country by developing the best-educated workforce in the world.
Let me be specific about what a "Rebuild America" program should include:
We should make a major financial commitment to improving our roads and bridges. We must develop energy-efficient rail lines for both freight and high-speed passenger service and promote public transportation. We need to bring our water and sewer systems into the 21st century. In terms of job creation, every billion dollars invested in the physical infrastructure creates 47,000 new jobs.
We should make a major financial commitment to education. We must end the disgrace of millions of children under five attending totally inadequate child-care facilities while millions of other families are unable to afford a college education. We must invest in new classrooms, new computers, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems. That would not only create jobs, but relieve some of the burden on the regressive property tax.
In these harsh economic times, we should provide at least a seven-week extension in unemployment benefits, so benefits don't dry up for more than 1 million Americans by the end of the year. We should increase eligibility for food stamps and other nutrition programs to assist the hard-pressed middle class as well as the poor. We should substantially increase funding for the highly-effective community health center program so that, at a minimum, all Americans have access to affordable primary health care, dental care, and low-cost prescription drugs.