Saturday, August 30, 2014

14-Point Plan for America

This weekend is Labor Day, and for many Americans, this may be the first time that they tune into the elections this fall (for some of us, we never stop obsessing…for others, the phrase “what election?” is going to be a sad and familiar refrain).  In honor of this holiday and this slight change in the national attention span, I thought it would be worthwhile to create a giant post about America, and the direction it is headed.

It’s hard not to turn on the news lately and become extremely discouraged.  Whether you’re looking internationally where situations in Palestine, Egypt, Syria, North Korea, and the Ukraine (amongst many others) show a world in turmoil and chaos, or domestically, where a border crisis, unemployment rates, gun violence, and an embarrassingly dysfunctional Washington mean that we are at a stalemate on almost every major issue.  Normally, I would just complain or do a rant, but I’m not about that this weekend (I’m actually taking a couple of days off from work and am going to be working on a giant To Do list of things that I’ve been putting off but been meaning to accomplish in hopes of that energy spurring me throughout the fall to keep up a strong output-optimism!).  Instead, I have put together a fourteen-point plan that I think the country should get onto in order to gain back a bit of its luster (and only the most thick-headed of persons couldn’t see that we clearly need some help in that department).  Without further adieu, here is something that few politicians would be willing to put forward but I happily will: a To Do list.

1. Get the Money Out of Politics

I struggled with what to put at Number One on this list, because while I’m not ranking them in order of importance (all of these things I feel are important), this is certainly the first one you’re going to read and will set the tone of the article.  However, with Mitch McConnell’s comments about the importance of the Koch Brothers to his party gaining the majority in Washington (“I don’t know where we’d be without you”), this seemed an appropriate starting point.

There is no legitimate reason (NOT ONE) that a single person should be able to spend millions of dollars in order to shape a single election.  Not one.  Citizens United is an awful decision because it makes one person’s vote more important than another person’s.  This is unacceptable, and feels deeply outside of the idea that all men are created equally.  The Senate and House need to do something about this, which they did many years ago when McCain-Feingold became law.  John McCain is still in office-it’d be a worthwhile investment of his time to start leading the charge for a cause he was once beloved for.  Campaign limits to individual campaigns and party committees (as well as the dissolution of PAC’s) would be a great way to regain a bit more of Washington’s ear if they aren’t as beholden to lobbyists and special interests (that’s a clich├ęd phrase for a reason-it’s true).

2. Make it Easier to Vote

It is ridiculous that in this modern era of DVR and online shopping that we haven’t found a way to make one of our most sacred of rights as citizens a little less cumbersome: the right to vote.  Long election lines that may cost people their chance to cast a ballot because of other obligations and the constant focus on voter fraud that doesn’t actually exist is idiotic in such a “have-it-when-you-want-it” era.

Instead, I propose that we have a ten day general election window, ending on our traditional voting day of the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November.  This way every day of the week voters have the opportunity to cast ballots, and we have 1.5 weekends in order to cast ballots.  Eliminate the need for photo ID at the polls (this is solving a problem that doesn’t exist, and is a waste of taxpayer money) and implement same-day registration (this just makes sense because it requires that you only have to make one trip).  The more eligible people who vote the better, and these three steps would greatly increase registration and voting participation, making our elected leaders more representative of the people that choose them.

3. Reform the Tax Code

The tax code in America is a convoluted mess, and a good place to start would be the Buffett Rule.  It is ridiculous that we don’t expect the wealthier in our society to not shoulder a little bit more of the burden, particularly since they are frequently shouldering less of the burden from a pure percentage of their income standpoint.  On the flip side, I do think that it's time to reform the corporate tax code to be more competitive internationally (look alive Republicans-this is something you'll agree with!).  If the Burger King/Tim Horton's merger has taught us anything, it's that the corporate tax structure in America is outdated and needs to be changed to be more competitive on an international scale.  On the flip side, we do need to close some of the tax loopholes that make it easy to be located primarily in the United States but not have your headquarters here to avoid paying taxes.

These increased revenues are also deeply important because if we’re going to address the national debt crisis (and the impending impact that Baby Boomers who will be retiring will have on Social Security and Medicare), we need to grow the tax base.  This starts with increased revenues without sacrificing expendable income amongst middle-and-lower income households (who drive the private sector), which has to be the top 10% of the population, as well as increasing the middle class.

4. Invest in Transportation and Public Works

This is going to be a theme of the rest of the items on this list (at least most of them), but you need to make sure that you are putting your money in future investments rather than just plugging up the problems of today.  There’s a lot of places to start with this concept, but what I’m going to propose first and foremost is the massive deficit we have in our infrastructure needs.  An extremely well-publicized report card put together by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure a D overall and said that we are on the precipice of a giant “transportation cliff” if we do not move to address the large gap in our aging highways and other forms of transport.  Estimates put the need at a $3.6 trillion investment over the next six years in order to get back to code.

This is a great idea to start off with fixing America’s long-term problems for a number of reasons.  For starters, improved transport is going to help in almost every aspect of American life.  We will see reduced energy costs, businesses will have lowered expenses, and we’ll have more time due to increased efficiency in our transportation.  We will also, by-and-large, be proactively solving a problem, something that we need to do considerably more of (this is a second theme of this article-addressing things before they get worse).  And most importantly, this will grow the middle class.  Both sides of the aisle are correct in saying that one of the best ways to start improving the economy and getting a number of the things we need to get going in the country is getting people back to work with a living wage (this will help grow both the public sector through stronger revenues and the private sector through increased spending...which will in turn result in stronger revenues and expanded industries).  Transportation and public works projects will bring work to thousands of people across the country and get people off of unemployment and able to start gaining additional skills that will be valuable in the workplace, both private and public.

5. Restructure Unemployment

Once again, Republicans, we're on one of your top priorities right now, so wake up.  Ultimately one of the major goals that we should have as a country is to get as many people who are looking for work as is possible off of unemployment.  It's better for morale of the citizenry, it's less expensive, and most importantly, it's better to invest in the future and try to prevent future problems (people working toward new goals) than it is to persistently try to play catchup.

Therefore, I think one of the best ways to redo unemployment is to stop punishing people who are trying to make a little extra cash while they are between jobs.  The unemployment rules mean that frequently if you're on unemployment from a higher-paying job, it makes more economic sense to stay at home and apply for jobs rather than taking a lower-income piece of work while waiting for a job that matched your previous industry and income bracket.  Unemployment should not be cut for people who are simply trying to apply but not having any luck or for people that are taking freelance or low-income work to add to their income while they wait for a job that matched their previous employment level.  Addressing this concern by putting more rules around people applying for jobs and making it easier for people to gain additional limited income while on unemployment will help make unemployment more efficient, productive, and hopefully more temporary.

6. Social Security and Medicare Reform

You will hear it from almost any financial advisor or historian: Social Security was not meant to be what it has become today.  It was initially meant for the last couple of years of your life, and for people to supplement their income.  Today, it has become a behemoth that people rely upon in a way it was never meant to be.

We'll get a little bit to retirement reform in a later bullet on education, but I do think that we need to start Social Security reform with a compromise between the Democrats and the Republicans, as both need to give up something that they hold dear but is no longer pragmatic.  For starters Democrats, it is time to raise the age of social security benefits in this country.  62 is when you can start getting partial benefits, but with average life expectancy reaching 78 at this point thanks to better understanding of human health, it's time to realize that 62 is far too young to be giving out benefits.  Raising the age to 65 or even 67 seems more appropriate for when benefits start, and incentivizing people to wait until 70 would be even better.  This may get a bunch of boos from people nearing retirement, but it's looking at a problem that is impossible to solve without compromise and raising the age limit is the first step to help this to happen.

On the flip side, though, it's time to increase the income cap on social security.  Currently sitting at $113,000 (after you reach this amount you don't pay a social security tax), it's time to bump that number up to $250,000, insuring that the program has a healthy source of income for future generations and will not go bankrupt in the meantime.

7. Universal Health Care

I didn't list the Medicare reform up top because I think it should be covered here.  The United States stands apart in the developed world in the fact that it does not have universal health care, and I think it's high time we caught up.

You can quibble about exactly what changes we would make from Canadian or European models, but we should be able to do better than people going bankrupt because they have cancer or have a broken leg.  I think you could compromise and increasingly change your costs if you implemented certain parameters around receiving the care (such as annual physical examinations and cheaper prescription drug options so that people are taking better care of themselves), but this would a better, stronger country where people didn't have to spend so much time and worry on a solvable problem (and depriving themselves of vital medical care).  Also, as an addendum, we should also shift a focus on mental health issues, particularly for young people and our returning veterans, to ensure that they are not left behind in a medical system that seems to focus primarily on the physical ailments.

And since I mentioned veterans, the one thing we would not want universal health care to become is similar to the Veterans Affairs debacle, so we would need to make sure that we have enough money, resources, and programs encouraging Americans (or prospective immigrants) to fall into the aspects of the medical field that will need additional workers as a result of increased medical care for our citizenry.

8. Education Equality

One of the weirdest things in this country surrounds education.  In a system that values everyone getting an opportunity and that everyone should have a chance at a strong start at the American Dream, we don't give equal footing at the earliest of stages: a child's education.  Basing education funding off of property taxes means that richer areas generally tend to have better school districts, which seems wrong because it means better funding for the children of wealthier people.  You need to have more state and federal control over creating equitable school districts so that all children get a quality early and high school education.

This does not mean that we should skimp on education, however.  You want to make sure that you are investing in the future, as the theme of this article goes, and as cliched as it may seem (and don't you just hate when people trot this out as an excuse for their own laziness-if you're saying it, you're part of the damned present so do something about it!), but children are literally the future of the country.  Therefore, don't use this as an excuse to cut arts education and physical education in favor of exclusively math, science, and reading (they're all important subjects).  And I do think that it would be a decent idea to do some pragmatic economics and money-planning education toward the end of high school, such as teaching about retirement and the importance of savings/paying off debt.  Too often you end up outside of high school or college and you're overwhelmed by being in charge of your own finances, and early retirement planning/savings are crucial for your long-term success (any financial planner would tell you that money at 25 is worth more than money invested at 45).  Teaching more people to start saving for retirement and rainy days early on will mean less reliance on social security in the future and more people having their house/car/loans paid off as they start shifting their priorities in their fifties and sixties to their post-work lives.  Again, it's not always about the present, but proactively addressing the future.

9. Invest in Science

Speaking of which, I think that it's about time we put our money where our mouths (and the rest of bodies are) and start spending more on scientific research.  In this increasingly globalized economy, it becomes more and more important to know your niche and remain competitive with other countries, and Americans are losing our scientific edge to China and Japan when it comes to research.  Eight of the top ten causes of death in the United States are disease-based (and as I mentioned above with universal health care, suicide is something that we could see the numbers drop on if we spent a little more time on mental health, so that makes it nine), and more investment in medical research, particularly focused on cure and not just treatment-based aspects of the research.  Increasing funding to the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health would result in a stronger scientific output from federal funding, and likely lead to people living longer and healthier lives.  And finding cures for ailments, diseases, or finding other pragmatic scientific solutions would again help our international standing and GDP, leading to more jobs, higher wages, and a burgeoning middle class.

10. Relaunch the Space Shuttle Program

One of the most disappointing aspects of the Obama presidency was the end of the space shuttle program.  If you want a symbolic sign that America is on the decline in the space industry, you don't get much more pointed than watching all of the space shuttles get shuttered up and put into museums while the Russians and Chinese continue to expand their push into the unknown.  The reality is that space exploration, and eventually, colonization, is something that we desperately need to continue to explore as resources on the planet and overpopulation continue to be a major struggle that we will encounter in future years.  Relaunch the space program, and not just letting the private sector take the lead, and make the same sort of promises that President Kennedy made: let's start heading to Mars.

11. Energy and Environmental Reform

I forgot to mention this in the education section, but I do want to say before we get into environmental reform: please stop fighting the culture wars in our classrooms.  Evolution is real.  Climate change is real and influenced by man.  Sex education saves lives and is completely pragmatic.  Let's not hurt our young people over subjects we aren't comfortable discussing or even completely understanding.

That being said, on the subject of climate change, it's time to make some real progress on this front, and not just keep paying lip service.  Through incentives, funding, and fines, it's time to go there with real green initiatives.  Create tougher laws around gas mileage for automobiles and incentivize companies to produce electric vehicles or vehicles that run on renewable energy.  Impose carbon taxes or heavier fines or punishments on companies that are violators of EPA or pollution laws (and heavier on the punishments for repeat offenders).  And invest or make it easier for people who want to make small contributions in their day-to-day lives.  Increase public awareness and public access to mass transit and start investing in affordable mass transit that connects multiple urban areas-and get the private sector involved in this push.  More people having access to more areas will make it easier for businesses across the country to increase tourism revenue.  Imagine if we actually were able to execute something like Elon Musk's Hyperloop system and you could go from Minneapolis to New York on a day trip for something like $70-imagine the new customer bases you could get across the country.  And continue to push companies and people to waste more, buy local, and have the option to recycle (some rural areas still don't have access to recycling, and some urban areas don't have access to recycle all different products-work to make this an option for all people so that we aren't wasting resources).

We also need to continue to push for more renewable resources.  Questionable solutions like the Keystone Pipeline are a quick fix to a larger problem: wind and solar energy are the better solution.  I know that this is difficult because so much of certain states' economies (such as North Dakota, Alaska, Texas, and Kentucky) are surrounded by coal, oil, and natural gas, but these are limited resources and continue to be of huge concern.  Oil discoveries have been outnumbered by oil production for the past 34 years straight, and this is not a sustainable model for consumption.  The faster we invest and push for more renewable aspects of energy, the better off we'll be from an international standpoint (being less beholden to volatile regions for a vital resources-think of the United States and the Middle East with oil or Europe and Russia with natural gas) and a domestic one (environmentally sound, stronger for the economy, and being a leader on a resource that the entire world is going to eventually have to turn toward in order to continue to function at current levels).

12. Immigration is Not a Bad Thing

It's time we all say it: immigration is not a bad thing.  Economically, immigrants grow the GDP, start their own small businesses, grow the economy through jobs (from those small businesses), increase the tax base, and also help to grow our own scientific output (a study by the University of California-Davis said that just a 1-percent increase in the share of foreign scientists and engineers in the U.S. workforce would increase wages of college-educated workers in this country by 4-6%).  There need to be rules around how to handle things like the border crisis humanely but deterring illegal activity, but perhaps easing the rules on legal immigration would help to handle crises like these.  The reality is that this whole "they took our jobs" South Park style complaining does not jive with evidence.  Immigration helps to diversify our country and create jobs, in turn helping our economy and lowering unemployment.

13. Admit We Have an Inequality Problem

It's 2014, and yet there are still major inequalities in today's America.  Women still make 77 cents to the dollar that a man would make in the same position.  Gay marriage is still illegal in 31 states, and adoption by and employment protection for GLBT people is still illegal in a number of states.  Black men are more likely to be incarcerated than white men (studies show as high as 26-percentage points higher) and minority groups are disproportionately affected by economic downturns.  And I think one of the first things we as a society need to do is acknowledge that we don't live in a post-prejudiced society.  That's the first real step here-I've seen too many Facebook posts or online commentaries saying that what happened in Ferguson is either isolated or "not as big of a deal as everyone makes it out to be" or not connected to race (a friend of mine who works at a predominantly white school even wrote a piece recently about how many of her students weren't even aware of what had happened, which I found stunning but sadly not too shocking).  Acknowledging that a problem still exists is usually the first way to fix it.  So let's do that.

And then let's fix it.  Legislation such as ENDA, the Paycheck Fairness Act, and the Voting Rights Act are a good place to start.  So is stopping the stigmatization of immigration and improving education across the board for all communities.  We also, as has been evidenced with Ferguson and Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin clearly need to see steps being taken by police in terms of training and better understanding the communities they are protecting so that these tragedies don't continue to be seen on the daily news.  This is all something that we as a society need to acknowledge still exists today (this one's not just government led, though they can certainly help more through training and equality legislation), and work to address it together.

14. Implement Gun Control

Speaking of tragedies we are sick of dominating the news and would like to see stop, I'm going to end with a topic that has been a part of the national conversation for decades.  It's sad that James Brady died this past year and we still live in a world that doesn't seem much safer from gun violence than when he became an advocate for it some thirty years ago.  It's time for federal universal background checks (a law 92% of Americans support, and yet somehow cannot manage to make it through Congress) to actually put a curb on gun violence and prevent it in the future.  It's also time for a permanent renewal of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, and creating heavy regulations on gun shows so that illegal sales are more difficult to carry out (and harsher penalties for those that break the law by selling illegal weapons).  This is a problem with a relatively easy solution, and it's time that Congress embraced it.

And those are my fourteen-point program.  I'm sure I have said at least one thing you agree with and at least one you don't, so try to keep the comments relatively flame free, but add in your two cents, and share what I might be missing!

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