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In order to help readers make informed choices in November, we composed a short list of often neglected issues we think are important and asked experts to focus briefly on one of them. What follows is the second installment in a series.

The Editors

Toward 21st-Century Transportation

By James L. Oberstar

Our nation has a rich history of visionary leaders with a strong commitment to transportation infrastructure investments. Our forefathers knew that for a fledgling nation to prosper, trade and commerce had to thrive. The federal government invested in roads, locks, inland waterways, lighthouses and ports. These leaders got it right. Not only did our nation’s economy expand; it grew into the world’s strongest.

Today’s intermodal transportation network is the backbone of our economic security and competitiveness, as well as our quality of life. It facilitates the movement of people and goods and links our communities to each other and the world. It is the foundation of America’s economy.

Other nations have recognized the advantages of the U.S. transportation system. They do not share our complacency, however. They are investing in and expanding their transportation networks to compete with the United States in the global marketplace. But while global competitors make robust investments in infrastructure, the United States has failed to update its systems, much less accommodate future growth. That failure to invest has begun to undermine the prosperity the nation has long enjoyed.

The consequence of failure can be described in one stark statistic: The cost of congestion in our 100 major metropolitan centers exceeds $110 billion a year. Not only are we losing ground to international competitors; parents are stuck in traffic, wasting precious time that they could be spending with their children, and goods move more slowly at higher cost. There are achievable options. For example, a shift of just 10 percent among car commuters to mass transit would save 500 million barrels of oil a year and reduce congestion.

Many in Washington today ignore the lessons of our forefathers. They propose reducing public investment and scaling back federal leadership in transportation. They claim that devolving major aspects of transportation policy to the states and providing them greater flexibility will allow us to “do more with less.” I think we all know that with less, you get less. This shortsighted, ideological approach fails the test of developing an economically competitive, nationally integrated transportation network. It also fails the quality of life expectations of our fellow citizens.

Renewing the nation’s infrastructure is an enduring, job-creating investment in our future. It will nurture a competitive economy, restructure the rural and urban setting and enhance the common good of all Americans. Building a 21st-century transportation system will require bold vision, leadership and a zealous commitment to finding the resources necessary to make multi-billion dollar investments—an arduous challenge in today’s contentious political and legislative environment. But the overarching goals of social and economic justice demand no less than putting America’s transportation network first.

James L. Oberstara Democrat, was a member of Congress from Minnesota’s Eighth District (1975-2011) and chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (2007-11).

Open Doors to Immigrants

By Richard Ryscavage

In the first years of the American republic, the Catholic community consisted primarily of British immigrants anchored in Maryland where the first Catholic bishop and the first Catholic colleges took root. Catholicism strongly influenced the French and Spanish colonial territories, but on the northeast seaboard everyone assumed that Catholicism would find its niche as a minor religious group. At the founding of the republic there were only about 35,000 Catholics. Who could have predicted that by the time of the Civil War there would be three million?

By the middle of the 19th century, Catholics had become the largest single religious denomination in the United States, and by the century’s end they had established 63 Catholic colleges and universities. Immigration propelled this astonishing growth. Most of the colleges established after 1840 coincided with the massive flows of immigration.

These Catholic educational institutions preserved the Catholic intellectual tradition in American higher education while preparing students for civic life in America. The descendents of these immigrants gradually entered the U.S. mainstream, as did the institutions themselves. Eventually much of Catholic higher education lost its special connection with immigrants.

Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, we find Catholics continue to make up the largest single religious denomination, and we find the United States facing another immense immigration influx. The number of foreign-born in the United States today almost equals the proportion around the beginning of the last century. Since the 1990s, one million people a year on average have been legally entering the country. As in the 19th century, most of these newcomers are Roman Catholics under the age of 35. But unlike the response in the 19th century, the recent response of many Catholic colleges and universities has been tepid.

The majority of new immigrants cannot afford to send their children to Catholic schools. Surprisingly, even when scholarships are available, the schools do little to reach out to the 40 different non-Hispanic Catholic ethnic groups establishing themselves in the country. Some schools in California, New York, Texas and Florida have large immigrant student populations, but this is usually not because of any strategic plan on the part of the church. The multicultural student body simply reflects the demographics of a globalizing region.

The Catholic Church has been much more welcoming to the new immigrants than Catholic colleges have been. The bishops are coming to terms with the fact that immigrants are redefining Catholicism in America. The church struggles with the dynamics of migration because the newer immigrants are bypassing the traditional gateway cities. More jobs, lower living costs, less crime and family-friendly communities are driving immigrants into the American South and rural Midwest, where Catholic pastoral services are weaker than in northeast or West Coast urban centers. Most big Catholic institutions of higher education remain outside this new immigration zone. The chances of an immigrant finding a local and affordable Catholic college are not good.

Can Catholic higher education reconnect with immigrants? There could be multiple pathways for such engagement if the universities put themselves at the service of the church through more interdisciplinary migration research and teaching, public education about immigration, dedicated scholarships and explorations of the rich Catholic theology and spirituality of migration.

The ultimate test for U.S. Catholic colleges and universities will lie with the immigrants themselves. If our schools reach out to the young newcomers and help the American people understand them, the new immigrants can give Catholic higher education renewed life for a new century.

Richard Ryscavage, S.J., is professor of sociology and international studies and founding director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

Beyond Moral Hazards in Health Care

By Robert M. Veatch

Now that the Affordable Care Act has been found constitutional, Americans will finally join the rest of the developed world in offering nearly universal health coverage. Caring for the sick is a fundamental obligation of a responsible society. It has taken the United States a long time to realize that the common good requires at least a decent minimum of health care for all. Speaking as a non-Catholic who takes Catholic moral teachings seriously, I do not see how anyone who shares this perspective can conclude otherwise.

Though he has promised to repeal Obamacare, even Mitt Romney acknowledges many virtues in health care reform (once derided, now embraced as “Obamacare”)—guarantees for those with pre-existing conditions, insurance purchasing pools, ending discrimination against individual insurance purchase. Unfortunately, he does not realize that the only way to fund these innovations is to require everyone to share the costs.

To pay for them, some savings come from Medicare by eliminating unnecessary payments to drug companies, hospitals and other providers; but under the Affordable Care Act no Medicare services are eliminated. Other savings come from avoiding inefficient emergency room services. Some costs will be covered by new taxes, but people who make some reasonable choices will not pay any fee, tax or penalty unless they are free-riders who do not accept responsibility for insuring themselves. There will be no tax at all for couples making below $250,000 who have normal health insurance, do not use tanning beds, do not abuse their health care savings accounts and do not have flexible spending accounts over $2,500.

Another feature should be of interest to those concerned about moral limits on services covered by insurance. Those who do not want their insurance dollars used for abortion, physician-assisted suicide or other ethically questionable services should be pleased that Obamacare does not envision a single, everyone-included health plan. Had we chosen either a public health service or a single list of required medical services, we would face an impossible dilemma. The package would either include services like abortion or it would not.

One of the essential features of insurance for pluralistic societies is what I call “multiple lists.” People should be able to spend their health insurance dollars on plans covering the services they consider critical while excluding those they find offensive. Obamacare preserves multiple lists along with the freedom to pick among plans based on one’s moral positions.

Unfortunately, however, most of us get insurance through employers, which means limited choices. Many employers will have to cover some services they (and some of their employees) consider unethical. A right to universal insurance with multiple lists and the freedom to buy coverage (with subsidies for the poor) outside our employment setting would be better. That avoids mandatory spending on objectionable services. It would free employers from offensive requirements.

With proper tax law adjustments and nondiscrimination against individual purchases, we could receive as pay what we and our employers now spend on insurance, pick insurance from a list of acceptable plans and take tax deductions on what we spend. Only this arrangement fulfills our duty to the community while preserving our freedom to obtain services we consider essential and avoiding contributions to those we find objectionable.

Robert M. Veatch is professor of medical ethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Betty Sweeney
11 years 9 months ago

If I understand Prof Veatch correctly, he is somewhat recommending the concept I had hoped would be used to provide health coverage for the US...  What I had wanted to see was a list of companies/plans available much as is given to Federal Gov't employees to choose from...  with the general public (those w/o insurance through their employers) given the same choice with the same full tax deduction as the Fed plans...  Is this what he's suggesting???


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