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A Four-Point Plan to Save America
A Four-Point Plan to Save America
America is in decline. Serious problems challenge us internally and externally. In the United States, middle-class opportunity is giving way to an increasingly bifurcated society of haves and have-nots. While statistics vary, it is surely true that a large number of children go hungry. Many schools fail to deliver a decent education; cities decay with blight, crime and racial tensions; prisons overflow; tragic individuals wreak havoc in movie theatres, churches, schools, and elsewhere. We are piling on debt that future generations will not be able to bear. Internationally, the world runs amok with terrorism, nuclear ambitions, domestic and international wars, religious and ethnic strife, refugee crises and other manifestations of man’s inhumanity to man. Billions suffer abject poverty and hunger. Many believe that the planet faces catastrophe from the consequences of global warming. The list goes on.
These problems, while daunting, are not the central reason for America’s decline. The core issue is our growing inability to address these and other challenges. Our political leadership is dysfunctional and growing more so by the day. Hundreds of media outlets broadcast extreme points of view, sensationalize controversies that otherwise wouldn’t exist, and pour gasoline on the prejudices that divide us. The Internet enables anyone to spew vile and hate with anonymity as common courtesy grows ever less common. This disintegration of interpersonal relationships is the essence of our malaise.
Russian leaders have historically believed that America would crumble from within. Josef Stalin said that America was strong because of its patriotism, morality and spiritual life. “If we can undermine these three areas, America will collapse from within.” Nikita Khrushchev echoed that “We do not have to invade the United States, we will destroy you from within.” American leaders have voiced similar sentiments. Abraham Lincoln said that “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed our values.” More recently, Ronald Reagan warned that “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” As a nation, we are growing dangerously complacent about our liberty. Below are four recommendations for charting a better course.
One and done.
Most people don’t like politicians. A recent Gallup poll shows public approval of Congress near an all-time low of 13%. Approval of President Obama has ranged from 37% to 76% during his time in office, and currently stands at about 50%, Disdain for politicians pours forth from media outlets, clever emails, general conversation, and other politicians. ‘How can you tell when a politician is lying? Check to see if his lips are moving’. This little jab is quaint compared to the venom routinely directed at our political leaders.
My view is a bit different. I admire the talent it takes to get elected to the US Congress and Presidency. The worst player in the NFL is a better football player than 99.99% of the overall population, and a similar level of proficiency is required to rise to the top in politics. They perfectly reflect what the electorate wants. Why do politicians lie? Because anyone foolish enough to tell the truth will not succeed. Certainly we do not all agree on what the truth is, but the larger issue is that we don’t particularly like the truth. You’re a politician who dares to suggest that the best way to reduce greenhouse emissions is to adopt a carbon tax? You’re out. You want to make Social Security solvent by reigning in benefits? You’re out. You have ideas that involve sacrifice from any of the voters you’re pandering to? You’re out. If we actually wanted political leaders to say what they mean and mean what they say, that’s what we would have.
There is no greater threat to America than politicians who aspire to reelection. This assertion may seem overblown given the many problems that threaten our nation and world. But to the extent that human behavior can influence the future, politicians who aspire to reelection are poison to that future because their personal ambition often conflicts with the best interests of the country and because their collective ambition paralyzes the body politic.
Hence, the first recommendation is to limit the 536 to one term in office. Representatives to the U.S. House are elected to a four-year term; the President is elected to a six-year term; and U.S. Senators are elected to an eight-year term. Elections are held every two years to cadence a 50% turnover in the House and 25% turnover in the Senate. Once elected to any one of these 536 positions, a person is permanently ineligible for election or reelection to all of them.
Note that ‘one and done’ is not the same as term limits. Term limits do not prevent political dysfunction because they enable politicians to focus on winning the maximum allowable terms, and then scheming for election to a different office. ‘One and done’ would limit federal leaders to one term and one office.
There are numerous ways that ‘one and done’ would benefit America. For starters, not being consumed with reelection activities will free Congress and the President to do their jobs. The nonstop focus on reelection – fund raisers, poll tracking, meetings with lobbyists, delivering clever but vacuous sound bites, insulting the opposition, jockeying for media coverage, delighting in every setback the country experiences that can be blamed on the opposition, photo ops, etc. – is a full-time job that leaves little time for governing. If politicians were freed from these non-value added activities, they would have time to read and thoughtfully consider the legislation they vote on. They might use the time to talk with colleagues about solutions to the issues that put America at risk. They could turn attention to tax policy and spending priorities, core responsibilities of Congress that have been grossly neglected and mismanaged in recent decades.
‘One and done’ would enable political leaders to govern with integrity. It’s a good thing that there is a broad diversity of opinion in Washington. Differing views vigorously argued generally yield the best solutions. But honest debate about problems and solutions that will serve the country is not what happens in Washington. Politicians don’t even talk with each other outside their own small cliques, much less negotiate with integrity. Everything in Washington is about election and reelection. This is not politicians serving the country, it is the country serving politicians.
‘One and done’ would infuse political discourse with fresh ideas and a sense of urgency to get things accomplished. Most people drawn to politics are motivated by good intentions. But the corrosive cesspool of Washington politics, the intoxication of power, the addiction to reelection, the reinforcing loop of ‘us good people’ versus ‘those bad people’, eat away at those good intentions. Years and decades go by. Blah blah blah with the same rhetoric around the same mulberry bushes with nary a thing to show for it. ‘The minimum wage needs to be increased to a living wage’ vs ‘Raising the minimum wage will reduce employment and harm the very people it is intended to help’. ‘Women’s health and well-being includes the right to choose’ vs ‘Abortion is murder’. ‘If we would just raise taxes on the 1%, all our economic problems would be solved’ vs ‘Lowering taxes will strengthen the economy and create opportunity for all’. ‘Income inequality is the moral outrage of our time’ vs ‘Attacking the successful does not help the poor’. ‘The science on climate is settled and those who do not agree are brain-dead deniers’ vs ‘There’s much we do not know about climate change, and throttling the economy based on speculation is bad policy’. ‘Guns for all’ vs ‘Guns for none’. ‘Democrats are puppets of the unions and plaintiffs lawyers’ vs ‘Republicans are in the pockets of big business and right-wing zealots’. ‘Illegal immigrants are a scourge on this country’ vs ‘We should accept those who are pursuing the same opportunities that our forbearers sought.’ Such polarized bromides are repeated endlessly but never take us anywhere. Politicians repeat their respective catchphrases, preening for their gerrymandered constituents without accomplishing anything more than their own preservation in office. ‘One and done’ would replace the obsession for reelection with efforts to find common ground, negotiate in good faith, tackle tough issues, acknowledge at least the partial validity of opposing viewpoints, voice true views rather than parroting the party line, let data inform policy, treat each other with respect, and exhibit statesmanship. The certainty that time inside the Beltway is limited would encourage action, rather than just peacocking until it’s time for the nursing home.
There are other benefits that ‘one and done’ would provide. It would remove the primary incentive (i.e., reelection) that drives politicians to fiscal irresponsibility. Nearly everyone understands that spending beyond our means is not sustainable, yet the pursuit of reelection compels politicians to lay on the pork and spend money we don’t have, rather than prioritizing spending to stay within our means. Another benefit would be a reduction in the influence of lobbyists and more attention to the common good. ‘One and done’ would improve the working relationship between the Executive and Legislative branches, rather than Congress doing everything it can to undermine the President, and the President in turn exploiting every chance to circumvent Congress. Immediately following each election, there is about a two-minute window of opportunity for politicians to reach across the aisle to get something accomplished. When the two minutes lapse, the window closes, the next election cycle begins, and political dysfunction resumes. ‘One and done’ would keep the window open. More civil discourse among political leaders might provide an example for better behavior in the media and across the country. Often, the most useful contributions of politicians occur after they leave office, including humanitarian efforts, useful policy ideas, statesmanship, successful careers outside politics, etc. Getting more politicians out of office before they calcify would enable more of these post-political contributions. Politicians themselves would be among the greatest beneficiaries of ‘one and done’. A lifetime of rabid ambition to stay in office, participating in political blood-sport, delivering and receiving vicious personal attacks, lying and obfuscating, suppressing true views in deference to the party line, neglecting your family and exposing them to damaging attention, living in isolation from mainstream America, etc., are not healthy. Get in, accomplish what you can, and get on with your life. It will be better for you and for the country.
While the benefits of ‘one and done’ are compelling, it’s always possible to make opposing arguments if your self-interest lies in the status quo. So the smokescreen might look something like this: ‘One and done’ will leave politicians unaccountable to voters; it will cut short the careers of gifted leaders; it will result in politicians who are less experienced and therefore less capable; the costs of pensions and other benefits for retired politicians will increase; good people will not seek election if they know their time in office will be limited to a few years; ‘one and done’ will not prevent politicians from lying and making deals with the devil to get elected.
These counterarguments do not hold up to scrutiny. The desire of politicians to get reelected makes them primarily accountable to lobbyists, fund raisers and the party line, not to voters. While political skill is valuable, it is not rare; many have good ideas and the talent for articulating them. There is little evidence that politicians who have sung the same tired tune for 40 years are more effective than those with less experience, except when it comes to abusing Committee positions or ladling out pork. The added cost of pensions for retired politicians pales against the money that is squandered in the pursuit of reelection. People who will only run for office if they can spend decades there are not the ones we want running the country. While ‘one and done’ may not prevent candidates from lying, tacking and spinning in order to get elected, it will remove the need for these behaviors once they are elected.
The benefits of ‘one and done’ are huge. Is it possible that there could be some downside? Sure. Some people have died from penicillin. A small number have died from wearing safety belts who otherwise could have survived the vehicle crash. Yet the benefits of penicillin and safety belts exceed their disbenefits by orders of magnitude. ‘One and done’ similarly offers far more upside than downside.
I propose that we actualize ‘one and done’ starting with the November 2020 elections, which will require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Article I of the Constitution specifies that Representatives are elected for a term of two years and Senators for a term of six years. Article II specifies that the President is elected for a term of four years, while the 22nd Amendment limits anyone to two (four-year) terms as President. While the 22nd Amendment spares us from suffering a perpetual President, it does not prevent the first term from being wasted scheming for reelection, or the second term being ineffectual as others ignore or wait out the lame duck. This dynamic would change if everyone was a lame duck subject to a fixed deadline for getting something accomplished.
There have been 27 amendments to the U.S. constitution. The first ten were the Bill of Rights, which were collectively adopted on December 15, 1791. The most recent 27th Amendment, stating that approved changes in compensation for members of Congress can only be implemented following the next election, was adopted in May of 1992.
Article V of the Constitution provides two paths to amendment. The first is for two-thirds of the U.S. House of Representatives and two-thirds of the U.S. Senate to agree on an amendment, at which point the amendment moves to the states for ratification. If and when three-fourths of the states approve it, the amendment is adopted into the Constitution. The second path is for two-thirds of the states to ask Congress for a national convention. Congress is then obliged to call an Article V Convention to draft the amendment, at which point it returns to the states, where three-fourths must approve it for it to be adopted. All 27 amendments to date have been accomplished by the first method.
Maximize tax revenues.
The second proposal for moving America in a better direction is simply stated. Federal tax law should be written with the sole objective of maximizing the net present value of all future revenues. It is self-evident that maximizing tax receipts would enable federal spending to accomplish the most good for the most people. So why can’t everyone agree that maximizing revenue should be the objective? There are several reasons, but none persuasive.
Let’s start with the fact that people don’t like to pay taxes. Understandably, we’d rather keep our money for ourselves than send it to Uncle Sam to spend on who knows what. But then we realize that if we’re going to be a nation of laws rather than warlords, we need to fund a government. And that’s when the interminable debates about ‘fairness’ begin. Saying that the tax code should be fair seems sensible, but who defines fair? Some argue that a flat tax rate is the fairest possible approach. Everyone pays 10% in taxes. You make a lot, you pay a lot; you make little, you pay little. What could possibly be fairer? But others point out that a person making a lot can easily pay 10% from his surplus, whereas 10% from a person who makes little requires taking money from necessities. They argue that a progressive tax, where the wealthy pay a higher percentage than the poor, more fairly distributes the burden. These debates about tax fairness have continued for centuries with no sign of progress. My view is that such debates are useless because there are no agreed criteria for arbitrating them. Each person’s opinion of fair is dictated mostly by their own self-interest; therefore we need a different paradigm for deciding this issue. A tax code that maximizes revenue is best for two reasons. First, it enables government to do the most good for the most people. Second, it is inherently the fairest approach since any provision of the code that is unfair will perturb human behavior to the detriment of revenue.
Another topic of debate concerns the appropriate size of government. On one side, Libertarians argue that government should be strictly limited to those services for which there is no viable alternative. Individuals should be self-reliant with a minimum of government intrusion. On the other side, Progressives and Socialists favor a larger role for government through regulation and redistribution of wealth. Government plays a central role in our lives from cradle to grave, with self-determination subordinated to the collective good. As a nation, our views tend to be normally distributed toward the middle of these extremes. However, for those who believe that less government is better government, the goal of maximizing tax revenue may be unappealing since it implies more government. My hope for this article is to suggest ideas that Americans within plus or minus three standard deviations of our various political divides can support. For those who favor less government, let me suggest that that the proposal to maximize tax revenues not be conflated with the separate question about the appropriate size of government. Plenty of money is needed to finance the non-entitlement expenditures required for the United States to function effectively. Even assuming the most extensive cutbacks in entitlements that are remotely feasible, major funding will be needed for entitlements that remain. And let’s not forget the $19. 2 trillion national debt, plus interest, that needs to be paid off. And finally the most important of all government expenditures – fixing the mammoth potholes and rusting bridges in my home state of Michigan. Taking these considerations into account, there is little risk that maximizing tax revenues will get us to a point where there is no good use for the money (even from a Libertarian perspective) anytime soon.
Another obstacle to maximizing tax revenues is that the tax code is misused for social engineering. Whether government should do more or less social engineering is debatable, but the fact that social engineering is the central purpose of government is not. However, we make a mistake using the tax code for these purposes, as opposed to enacting all public policy from the spending side. Using the tax code for anything other than collecting revenue has several shortcomings. One is the mind-numbing complexity it creates. According to Walters Kluwer, CCH, the federal tax code 100 years ago ran about 400 pages. Today it’s about 75,000 pages. Another adverse consequence of the byzantine tax code is that it allows the wealthy to pay lower taxes than us working stiffs. Americans spend billions of hours and dollars seeking to minimize taxes, time and money that could be applied to more productive purposes. The tax code is a red-carpet invitation to cheating. Even the best intentions to be honest are often futile; people working the IRS Help Desk provide incorrect answers about half the time. Many social planning initiatives have unintended consequences. Baking policy into the tax code makes it more difficult to correct mistakes because the distortions are obscured and therefore more vulnerable to exploitation by special interests. Amazingly, so-called ‘tax expenditures’ associated with tax law exceed total discretionary spending in the federal budget. The tax code should be designed for revenue collection, with all claims against those revenues competing in the light of day on the spending side.
The kiss of death for any of the ideas in this article will be for them to get painted red or blue. As it relates to this topic, the red perspective might be that we should lower tax rates for everyone in order to stimulate the economy, create more jobs, and thereby increase tax revenues. The blue perspective might be that we should demand more from millionaires and billionaires in order to fund more entitlements for those less fortunate. My proposal is for all of us to agree on the goal of maximizing tax revenues in order to provide the most good for the most people. If unbiased experts determine that lower tax rates for everyone will increase revenues, then lower rates it is. If they find that higher rates on millionaires and billionaires increases tax revenues (specifically the net present value of all future tax revenues), then higher rates on the rich it is. Once knowledgeable experts have defined the tax code, ‘one and done’ political leaders will be able to enact it.
Eliminate the federal debt.
If the United States does not change its irresponsible spending behavior, it will go bankrupt. For an idea of what bankruptcy looks like for the citizens of a country, study up on the situation in Greece for a recent example. Many vibrant nations and cultures throughout history have collapsed from financial mismanagement, and there is nothing that says the U.S. cannot suffer this fate. Why is the U.S. mired in the self-destructive behavior of spending more money than it takes in? Because unconstrained spending helps politicians get reelected, whereas setting spending priorities within the constraints of available revenues, the central reason for Congress to exist, does not.
The current federal budget is about $3.9 trillion. The biggest categories of expense are Medicaid & Medicare at just over $1 trillion, Social Security at $895 billion, and military spending at $585 billion. Interestingly, another large category of expense is interest on the national debt, which clocks in at $239 billion. In other words, over 6% of the total federal budget goes to pay interest on previous overspending, and that’s with interest rates at all-time lows. That’s $239 billion that is not available for health care, Social Security, national defense, education, transportation, veteran’s benefits or anything else worthwhile.
Of the $3.9 trillion federal budget, approximately $3.3 trillion is obtained from tax revenues and the remainder from borrowing. So about 15% of the budget is money that we’re stealing from the future.
The United States was founded on July 4th, 1786 with an initial debt of $75 million from the Revolutionary War. Our original leaders did their job and eliminated this debt by 1835. The debt spiked during the Civil War and crossed above $1 billion for the first time in 1863. It took another 118 years, in 1981, to hit the $1 trillion mark. Today, just 35 years later, we have tacked on another $18.2 trillion to reach our current debt of $19.2 trillion. Does it matter? Can’t we just continue to borrow more and more and keep the good times rolling indefinitely?
The answer is no, we cannot sustain our profligacy by stealing ever-increasing amounts from future generations. There will come a tipping point where the piper must be paid, and the longer we postpone responsible behavior, the more painful that day of reckoning will be. The Congressional Budget Office, Federal Reserve chairpersons, and many others have repeatedly warned Congress that the mismatch between revenue and spending is not sustainable. The current federal deficit now exceeds 100% of GDP, an obscenity that has only happened once before in our history, during the costly conduct of World War II.
Back in October of 2015, the headlines trumpeted news that the federal deficit for 2015 had fallen to $439 billion, from the previous OMB projection of $455 billion. The improvement was attributed to the continuing economic recovery providing increased tax revenues. So six years after the last recession ended, we are only spending $439 billion more than we have to spend. A word here about the difference between deficit and debt. The deficit is the amount that spending exceeds revenues in a given year. Debt is the total amount of money that the government owes from all previous deficits. So the big news from October that the deficit improved to $439 billion does not mean that our financial grave is getting shallower; it just means that our grave is getting deeper at a somewhat slower rate than previous projections. It is nearly impossible to fathom $19.2 trillion. But that’s OK, because deficits and debts aren’t really about numbers. They are about human misery and the loss of freedom.
So we need to eliminate the federal debt, which of course is easier said than done. But the difficulty does not stem from a lack of know-how. Simple Google searches yield shopping lists of ways to reduce government spending with modest adverse consequences; in some cases properly designed cost cuts can actually improve government services. Social Security is the second largest category of government expense. The ways to change Social Security from a deficit-riddled blight on our future to fully solvent are well known; namely, delayed payments, means testing, and/or transitioning some or all of the program from defined benefit to defined contribution. As with every idea for spending restraint, these immediately elicit a chorus of opposition. Many people, myself included, rightly complain that these actions would punish those who have behaved responsibly with their personal finances, reward those who have behaved irresponsibly, and constitute a government betrayal against those who have contributed to Social Security throughout their working years. Excellent points. But let’s be clear that the choice is not between betrayal and non-betrayal. The choice is between modest curtailments in benefits for those who don’t really need the safety net that Social Security was intended to provide versus betraying future generations with an unbearable burden of debt. Since future generations will not be voting in the next election, it’s obvious that they are the ones who will be thrown under the bus by today’s politicians. But it’s gut-check time for the rest of us. The debt will not be erased without sacrifice, nor will it be erased if the only sacrifice we will accept is that which is borne by others.
The specific recommendation is that we commit to eliminating the federal debt, with the following key elements:
A date certain for eliminating the debt is identified. I’m thinking this should be in the range of 25 to 50 years after launch.
The nominal path from the starting point to zero debt is a straight line. No more ‘kick-the-can-down-the-road’ charades with a 15-year plan that has the first real cutbacks starting in year 12.
Given the uncertainties in quantifying future tax receipts and spending needs (health of the economy, wars, natural disasters, etc.), the path to zero debt should include a plus/minus tolerance that establishes a corridor of acceptable progress. If the upper boundary of the corridor is about to be breached, either Congress agrees to spending changes to stay within the corridor or automatic spending cuts are triggered to maintain the corridor. Any excursion above the upper boundary requires agreement from a super-majority of the House, a super-majority of the Senate, and the President. And no off-budget gimmickry or other accounting games. All tax receipts and spending outlays are properly included.
On September 12, 1962, in announcing the audacious goal to send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of that decade, John Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…” Like the moonshot, eliminating the federal debt will not be easy. But the goal is absolutely worthwhile considering that the shackles of debt are leading us to financial ruin, moral decay, and loss of freedom.
Be the change.
The bane of human existence is ‘us versus them’. Rich versus poor, young vs. old, male vs. female, heterosexual vs. homosexual. Those pushing the cart up the hill resenting those riding in the cart. Innumerable racial and ethnic divisions. Christians and Muslims and Jews at war with each other, and collectively at odds with those who believe that all gods are dangerous delusions of the simple-minded. High school cliques – jocks and burnouts and nerds and preppies and loners, or whatever the labels are these days. Democrats, Republicans and other political factions that rant against each other around the globe. These and other fault lines seemingly demarcate everyone from everyone.
There is a quip often attributed, perhaps incorrectly, to Mark Twain – “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Anyone who has parented teenagers can well appreciate the humor and backwards truth of this anecdote. But the story doesn’t end when we reach the age of 21. Rather, many of us continue through life with far more admiration for our opinions than they deserve. We believe that our political views are the result of unique intellect and insight, whereas those who do not share our views clearly suffer inferior brains and lesser understanding. And yet, given a bit of demographic information, algorithms can nail our political views with remarkable accuracy. How can a computer peg our views with such precision? Is it possible that our political and other views, rather than reflecting great intellect and insight, mostly just reflect our predictable self-interests and indoctrinations and insecurities? At the risk of preaching without a license, I’d like to offer a couple of suggestions.
First, we should try to be more circumspect about how smart we think we are compared to those who don’t share our views. My favorite definition of wisdom is how impressed a person is with what he doesn’t know divided by how impressed he is with what he does know. Some of us like to use data to justify our opinions, and certainly data-driven ideas and decisions are preferable to those lacking a basis. But one problem with data is our tendency to cherry-pick that which corroborates pre-existing views, rather than being objectively indifferent to what all the data suggests. Most of us agree on the important things – that love is better than hate, kindness better than cruelty, freedom better than subjugation, living for something bigger than ourselves better than self-absorption, metaphorical light better than darkness. As for the lesser details where we disagree, we should try to keep an open mind to alternative points of view, rather than living in the dirty bathwater of that which reinforces the rut of thinking we’re already in. When our opinions become immutable, personal growth ceases.
Second, we should embrace the serenity prayer of accepting the things we cannot change and focusing on where we can make a difference. On June 15, 1972, the Valedictorian of my high school class gave the graduation commencement address, and I have never forgotten her message that we should endeavor to leave the world a little better than we found it. Most of us can buy the wisdom of this advice, but the world has so many problems that it’s easy to become discouraged with our ability to make a difference. So one day a large number of starfish get washed up on the beach. This is bad for the starfish because they cannot live long out of water. A man is walking along the beach, tossing these starfish one at a time back into the water. A young hotshot rides up next to the man and shouts, “You crazy old man! There’s a million starfish washed up on this beach; you can’t possibly make a difference.” As the man picks up another starfish to toss in the water, he replies “I can make a difference for this one.” None of us is going to fix all the world’s problems, but that should not be an excuse for doing nothing. The smallest good deed is more useful than a lifetime of brilliant critique of what other people are doing wrong.
And finally, let’s recognize that the most important change happens from within. As anyone who knows me can attest, it is not my nature to be humble, non-judgmental, slow to anger, open-minded, or any of that good stuff. But there is one small thing that provides a bit of redemption. When I get the overwhelming urge to confront a complete idiot who seriously needs to change his ways, I sometimes realize that I need travel no further than the nearest mirror. The person reflected there embodies lifetimes of opportunity for improvement. Compared to him, my ability to change anyone else is negligible. We have much better vision to see the shortcomings of others than our own need to change, but the truth is that each of us has plenty to do in our own house. If we are compelled to work on someone else’s house, let’s remember that the only chance for success is to communicate with respect and the best interests of the other person in mind. Insults delivered in anger do not win people over.
The relevance of this be-the-change sermon to the rest of this article is this: It is convenient but wrong to blame America’s problems on politicians. Our elected leaders have, do and will continue to reflect who we are as a people. If we want better leadership, the responsibility lies within each of us.
Uncle Sam Needs You!
The 2016 presidential campaign is in full swing, and it’s providing great entertainment for those who enjoy that sort of thing. I only broach this hot-potato topic to highlight a key similarity and a key difference between the ideas in this article and what the candidates are promising. The similarity is the prospect of a better future. This article suggests actions that can provide a better future for America. Likewise, every candidate has an applause line that is some variation on the theme ‘vote for me and together we’ll make America great’. Whoever becomes the next President, I certainly wish him or her well in accomplishing their promise of a better future. But I’m not optimistic, partly because I’ve been disappointed at that rodeo too many times before, but mostly because of the playbook the candidates use when making their promises.
The most effective political game-plan for getting elected appears to be accentuating ‘us versus them’ fault lines and soap-boxing about how that demarcation corresponds to a ‘great versus bleak’ future for America. The key is to rant against a specified ‘them’ that resonates with enough of ‘us’ to carry the election. So those miserable Muslims and Mexicans are an example of ‘them’ who can be blamed for America’s lost greatness. Or maybe your preferred bogeyman is the white, male Republicans who are engaged in a vast conspiracy against women and minorities. Or maybe the foremost problem with America is those greedy Wall Street bankers who conspire with the rich at the expense of the poor. Or maybe it’s those heinous career politicians who will all quake in their boots and change their ways once I’m elected. For candidates of the party not currently in power, it goes without saying that the current President is Public Enemy #1. And members of the opposite political party are vermin of the Earth.
Don’t get me wrong; there are Muslim terrorists in this world, sexists and racists, rich people who exploit the poor, and politicians who are more interested in being served than serving. These and many other problems exist and need to be addressed. But the larger truth is that the great majority of Muslims are not terrorists, white males are not sexist or racist at an appreciably different rate than the general population, most wealthy people are involved in businesses that create jobs and raise the standard of living for others, and most politicians are dysfunctional due to a broken system rather than uniquely flawed character. If America, and indeed humanity at large, is to have a brighter future, it will come about from the hard work of building bridges across the things that divide us. It will never materialize along the easy path of demonizing broad swaths of ‘them’ who happen to have a different ethnicity, race, gender, religion, bank account or political point of view from our own. I believe the ideas in this article provide the framework for a better future for all Americans, rather than the false promise of a better future for ‘us’ to be achieved at the expense of ‘them’.
Alas, ideas, including good ones, are a dime-a-dozen. A million people may have had the idea for the hula hoop, but it took Spud and Richard to make it a craze. So how do we achieve ‘one and done’ and the other things? Here are a few thought starters:
It would be helpful in launching these ideas to have an organizing body. There are many wealthy people in America who spend millions promoting their favorite red or blue politicians. Since these expenditures largely nullify each other anyway, why not collaborate to accomplish something great by funding an organization that can light the fires to achieve the goals described here.
‘One and done’ is the most important element of this article, and young adults are the ideal choice to lead the way. They have the idealism to believe in a better future and the energy to make it happen. They also know how to leverage social media to generate the widespread understanding and support that will be required to achieve a constitutional amendment. It would be fabulous if ‘one and done’ could be baked into the US Constitution in time for the November, 2020 election.
For the task of writing a federal tax code to maximize the net present of all future tax receipts, perhaps the economics departments at leading universities could show us the way, with big data help from the likes of IBM’s Watson, Google’s AI team, or others with the interest and expertise.
As for defining a plan to eliminate the federal debt, I suggest that several think tanks join to take the lead, specifically the Brookings Institution, Cato Institute, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and the Heritage Foundation. Each of these has the appropriate expertise, and they represent a balanced blend of the political spectrum – centrist, libertarian, liberal, non-partisan and conservative. To reiterate, the mission is to identify a date certain for the debt to be eliminated, define a straight-line path to that goal, and specify a corridor of progress that has robust mechanisms to keep things on track barring super-majority agreements to violate the plan. Everything is on the table, including specific budget proposals, changes to the budgeting process and related Congressional operating procedures, changes to laws that contain entitlements, changing or eliminating government programs, etc. Be thorough and specific.
At the end of the day, it is the ladies and gentlemen of Congress who either will or will not enact the ideas put forth in this article. We’re talking about an American Revolution here, and Uncle Sam needs you to be bold in securing a better future for all of us. Your help in bringing these ideas to fruition would leave a legacy greater than anything else you are likely to achieve in office. If you choose not to support these initiatives, please let the only reason be a sincere belief that they are not good for America. Thank you and God bless.
America is truly a great nation. We enjoy liberty and personal freedoms that are the envy of the world. Our institutions of higher learning are second to none. Our entrepreneurial spirit and creative innovations have brought wealth to many and an excellent standard of living to many more. Our military strength and leadership in the world remain supreme. We are blessed with a rich diversity of people and natural resources. We are the most generous people on Earth, freely donating our time and treasure to make life better for others. We have endured hard times and dark days in our history; but these have usually brought out our best and made us stronger. The proof of America’s exceptionalism is apparent in the number of people who have moved here, or aspired to move here, compared to the number who have left America to make their lives elsewhere. We deserve to be proud of this great nation.
But we should not let that pride blind us to our flaws. Nor should we take our freedoms and future well-being for granted. We respond well to clear and present threats. The title of this article – Let’s Roll – is intended as a small tribute to Todd Beamer, who spoke those simple words on September 11, 2001 as he led a group of passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 to stop terrorist plans for that plane. America’s greatness is nicely embodied by Todd and the other passengers who took courageous action on that infamous day. There’s little doubt that passengers on the other planes would have reacted similarly had they understood what was happening and circumstances allowed. While it is in our DNA to boldly confront clear and present dangers, we tend to be complacent toward the insidious threats that evolve more slowly. The ideas described above can address several of these longer-term threats. In honor of Todd Beamer and the countless others who have sacrificed to preserve our freedoms, let’s roll!