James Singer is man in pursuit of social justice. The candidate for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District stopped in Moab last week to meet voters and spread his message.
The main purpose of Singer’s trip was to visit the small Navajo community of Westwater just outside of Blanding, where people have lived without electricity or running water for decades. Advocating for equality and human rights is an essential part of Singer’s campaign platform, so the disparity in living conditions between Blanding and Westwater jumped out to him as a problem that needs to be addressed.
Singer is a sociology professor at Westminster College and Salt Lake Community College who decided to run for Congress so he could help address the systemic issues that lead to injustice in America. He sat down with The Times-Independent to answer questions about his platform.
Bears Ears and Public Lands
When it comes to the management of public lands, Singer’s perspective is informed both by his Navajo heritage and his experience as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “The role of government is to protect people and resources but also to empower them… these are all of our lands, not the government’s, but they are the steward,” said Singer in explaining his stance on government’s role. Since the lands belong to everyone, Singer thinks they should be open to multiple uses. “Although we can have many uses for lands, and we can have resource extraction where we need it, there are some places that it just doesn’t make sense, where it should be very limited or completely cordoned off. This is how I feel about Bears Ears, particularly,” he said. Describing his vision for the national monument, Singer said, “There can be multiple uses. You can still have grazing, you can still have people collecting firewood, (and) use recreational vehicles in a much more regulated way so it doesn’t disturb ecosystems or archeological areas.”
Singer added that gas and oil extraction ruin the atmosphere of a place like Bears Ears, a site that is considered sacred by many tribes. He compared the potential for mineral extraction in the monument to building an oil well in Temple Square in Salt Lake City. “If I were to go there and see this giant oil rig in the center of Mormonism, it would ruin the whole experience,” said Singer. “I feel the same way about Bears Ears.”
Having so many nearby lands designated as parks or monuments has been a boon for the Moab area, said Singer. “It opens more business opportunity, which is great,” he said, talking about how entrepreneurship can blossom in a tourism-driven economy. The federal government’s responsibility comes down to adequately funding and regulating the lands that they designate. He noted that some opposed the monument because it would attract far more visitors, but he thought the problem is with how resources are allocated rather than the designation itself. “If we have enough rangers down there regulating that land … then I feel like we can all come to an agreement that we’re actually protecting the land, not just making a designation.”
Singer also has ideas about the government’s role in mitigating climate change. He said we should try to move away from fossil fuel industries toward alternative options. “The federal government, as a point of empowering its people and protecting people and the environment, should be investing in science or actual infrastructure,” he said. Singer envisions multiple ways that could play out, be it government ownership of the infrastructure or public/private partnerships. Either way, “the impetus lies with the federal government,” says Singer, noting how there are already tax breaks and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. “I think if we want to be a more Democratic society, then [green energy] will enhance democracy if we look at it from an environmentalist perspective.”
Singer discussed how economic inequality is inherently problematic, especially in a wealthy country like the U.S. “About 10 percent of all the wealth that we have in our country is being distributed out to 80 percent of Americans … when we have this massive amount of economic inequality, it affects other social aspects of our lives,” he said. Health outcomes and happiness are two factors Singer named as examples to make his point. “Am I advocating for complete equality? Well, we live in a capitalist society, so I don’t know that would encourage people to want to work as an incentive,” he said. While Singer said complete equality is unrealistic, he thinks paying a living wage should be a priority in the U.S. Singer noted how even Adam Smith, a hugely influential economic theorist and free market advocate, said a capitalist system depends on the masses having a basic living income.
As a sociologist, Singer has spent time researching how government policies affect poverty rates. “We could effectively cut poverty in half if we looked at how we redistribute resources,” he said. He described how raising minimum wages to a level based on housing costs could be one tool to help alleviate income disparities. When Singer advocates for a more generous welfare system, it is because he looks at such programs “as investments in the population rather than as handouts.” He argued that fears over increasing the minimum wage are unfounded, “Every time we’ve had an increase in the minimum wage across the nation, there’s never been massive unemployment, there’s never been major businesses going bankrupt.” Despite that confidence, Singer recognizes it will be important to strike a balance between raising wages to an adequate level for everyone and what the economy can handle.
One of Singer’s major critiques of America’s economic system is the lack of potential for social mobility. “We’re told that wealth will eventually trickle down. It hasn’t, and it hasn’t for 30 to 40 years. It has accumulated at the top.” He noted how the extreme disparity between how much a CEO makes and what a company’s employees earn used to be much lower. “We accept levels of inequality because we think we could become that upper group, but the evidence says that’s not happening,” Singer posited. “If we’re a democracy, then our government should be looking out for us and this economic system is not doing that, so there needs to be some major changes… that’s what I mean by reigniting the American dream.”
Granting 16 weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave, covering tuition costs at public universities and trade schools, and strengthening unions are other policies Singer mentioned when asked how the government could create more opportunities for upward social mobility.
Healthcare as a Human Right
Another important measure in Singer’s vision for reducing inequality would be implementing a single-payer healthcare system. He thinks a viable model would be giving the federal government fiduciary responsibility over healthcare, but allowing states to enact different types of programs to suit the needs, “so long as healthcare is provided to everyone equally.” Singer also said, “It’s about where we decide we’re putting our money. Are we putting it into defense? ... Think of what the Iraq War has cost and is continuing to cost us. If all of that money was instead put into healthcare and education, then we could pay for all of it.” He added that measures such as increasing taxes on capital gains could be used to get those in the highest income brackets to pay their fair share and create a healthcare system that benefits all Americans.
“We’ve treated healthcare as if it is some kind of commodity, and when you look at something as a commodity … there are winners and losers,” Singer said, pointing out that being a loser in the healthcare system can mean bankruptcy or an untimely death. Therefore, Singer wants to switch the narrative and begin looking at healthcare in a different light. “Healthcare is a human right, it is something that we deserve as just being part of this country, as being human … everyone deserves access to high-quality healthcare,” he said. “We can find ways to pay for it because it is an absolute right.”
Singer believes a major problem with America’s political system is how much is spent on campaigns. Discussing the millions of dollars spent each election cycle by both parties, he asked, “Is that really the best way to use our resources? I don’t think so.” Since the landmark decision made in the Citizens United case, which grants corporations the same rights as citizens, Singer thinks the situation has continued to worsen. “I vehemently oppose this idea that corporations are people,” he emphasized. “Because corporations are central to this market society, they are able to then buy elections. They are able to pay different kinds of candidates to get their message out and to make sure their interests become the national interest … that’s not democracy,” he said.
Given his strong views on how campaigns are financed, Singer decided it would be essential for his campaign to not accept corporate money. “As a matter of principle … I have to reject all that kind of money,” he said. That’s why it was important for him to run a grassroots campaign. “This has to be led by people … it means that people have to step up and get involved,” he said, admitting that can be difficult, especially in a state like Utah where democratic candidates are rarely successful.
A Social Democrat in Utah
Singer said he identifies as a Social Democrat and is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He thinks it is important to critique the nation’s economic system and institutions, and he sees socialism as a good framework for those criticisms. “There are massive problems with [capitalism] and you have to critique it to try and fix it,” he argued. Singer said he looks at the ways our consumer culture externalizes the costs of our consumption, especially in terms of environmental degradation and labor exploitation. “It is an unsustainable model. We don’t have enough resources on this planet to continue this model indefinitely,” he contends. Many of Singer’s ideas about socialism come more from his perspective as an indigenous person rather than the western tradition of economic theory. Two concepts in particular, a notion of “relationality” and one of balance, inform Singer’s viewpoint. He said certain rights and obligations come with the recognition of a relationship. For example, viewing the planet Earth as a mother figure comes with the idea that it should be respected accordingly. Singer also said the idea of balance and harmony is central to Navajo philosophy. Applying the idea of balance to our current situation makes one think about how things are skewed, both in interactions between people and between humans and the environment. Those ideas led Singer to say, “We need some kind of strong critique against the system that we’re running, because it is detrimental to human beings, it is detrimental to the environment and we cannot continue down this path.”
When asked how an environmentalist and socialist message can appeal to voters in a conservative state such as Utah, Singer responded by saying that talking about the essence of socialism will resonate anywhere in America. He mentioned how many policies and programs cherished by Americans, such as the 40-hour workweek, strong unions, pensions, Medicare and social security, are “informed by a more socialist kind of policy.”
Singer thinks that by highlighting how “late-stage capitalism has brought us massive inequality, the destruction of our land and the disintegration of what our families could be” he will be able to make a strong case for leftist policy. “We have gone too far into this hyper-individualistic way of thinking, and Democratic Socialism is a way to say, ‘let’s try to find balance.’”
The argument for bringing prosperity to everyone may appeal across party lines. “Will it resonate?” Singer said, “It has so far … we need to be worried about the good of everyone and realize that we’re all in this thing together, and I think people are feeling that from the message I’m trying to put out.”