More important to tackle the right question

Just beyond the elections next month lies a new legislative session. Worried as I am about climate change and its consequences, it would make sense to use this column to argue for a carbon tax. While we need to tax carbon to have any hope of slowing the use of it, making that case is not the right issue to tackle.

The bigger question we have to grasp is what basic quality of life we think any human being deserves, not just our relatives or close friends.

An effective carbon tax, like regulations that would keep carbon in the ground, will reduce the profits of companies. Are we willing, collectively, to live by the idea that affording basic human rights to all of us must come before the right to profit for only some of us? Responding to climate change pushes us into that question.

In an a recent article in the Nation, Naomi Klein argues that forming a widespread coalition to demand a guaranteed minimum income is a more important response to climate change than demanding a carbon tax. Why? Because the demand for a guaranteed minimum income insists that everyone is entitled to some basic things—food, housing, medical care, education. It assumes that the meaning of our lives, the essence of our humanity, lies in how we treat each other.

The alternative vision, that the meaning of our lives comes from accidents of birth and the random assignments of privilege and poverty that follow, is a prison that locks us into an impoverished view of who we are as humans.

We can be better. In some places, we are doing better. Last year, students from Portland State University posited a plan to deal with rising student debt.

Building on the Pay It Forward plan developed by John Burbank of Seattle’s Economic Opportunity Institute, PSU students proposed that tuition and fees to public universities be eliminated as up-front costs. Instead, graduates would pay back the cost of both with a percentage of their salary over a period of time.

Students presented their plan to legislators, and in July 2013, HB 3472 passed, charging the Oregon Higher Education Commission to consider the creation of a Pay Forward, Pay Back pilot program. Approval is being sought now to test a revised version of the proposal in 2015.

A guaranteed minimum income provides a floor — access to education gives people the opportunity to reach higher. Not only that, access to a quality education is the primary means we have to prevent the solidification of an elite class, what Thomas Jefferson referred to as “an unnatural aristocracy.”

In his book, “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” Michael Roth describes the historical relationship in this country between access to education and basic democratic practice. In the 19th century, Jefferson worried that without a system to “rake geniuses from the rubble,” inherited wealth and concomitant privilege would lead to the formation of a permanent ruling class.

Jefferson had his critics, most notably those who objected to his enduring belief that only white men should be educated as the nation’s leaders, but his advocacy for a national university was wise.

Roth also describes the work of David Walker, son of a slave and a free woman, who published “An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World” in 1829. Taking issue with Jefferson’s racism, Walker wrote that the only way black people could prove their equality was by “seeking after the substance of learning.”

Advocating that everyone should have access to education, and not just a limited few, was risky: the state of Georgia offered $1,000 for anyone who handed Walker over dead, and $10,000 to anyone who would hand him over alive.

As we head into elections, and as we anticipate the issues that this set of legislators will address, we need to ask ourselves who we think we are, and what we think it means to be human. Could we stand for something other than the rights of some to profit, at everyone else’s expense? Could we guarantee access to quality education, as the Supreme Court says we must, and make higher education affordable?

Could we agree that everyone should have a minimum income? Could we come up with an effective tax on carbon?