Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Solving the Budget Deficit—Step Two: Goals and Objectives

I started to write “with the bright light of day shining on all the sausage ingredients…,” but upon reflection, perhaps we need to use ultraviolet light to keep down the bacterial growth when viewing the miasma created by laws midwifed by lobbyists for their clients. In any event, the United States government needs what the corporate world calls a mission statement.

Liberal Democrats and Conservative Republicans have strikingly different philosophies about government’s role. The mass of United States citizens who occupy the middle can agree on many core values, even while disagreeing on some of the details of how to provide the requisite services.

Even pacifists would agree the Federal government, not states, cities or individual citizens, is responsible for national security. The vast majority of us expect the Federal government to keep us safe from faulty products or drugs. We probably expect the Federal government to take care of the interstate highway system, but not the fourteen miles of gravel roads I need to travel from US 141 to my Upper Peninsula homestead. They’re not the responsibility of any government as they are not public thoroughfares and run across private property.

There is a second large group of services where it is not “clearly obvious” the Federal government is the necessary provider. We need to reach agreement about which of these services the Federal government should provide.

What should the Federal role in disaster relief be? Should the Federal government be involved with flood insurance, or insuring mortgages, or pension plans? How about the Federal government’s role in insuring bank deposits? Should the Federal Government provide support for the arts? Each of these programs developed to solve an historical problem. Is each and every one still appropriate?

There are some things that it appears we will not agree on. Republicans have tried in the past to change Social Security from a group benefit to an individual benefit. Bush’s efforts to “privatize” Social Security by requiring individual 401(k)-like accounts failed. Paul Ryan’s proposals regarding Medicare attempt to apply the same “privatization” approach to healthcare.

Social Security and Medicare developed over many years and were passed in bi-partisan votes. To fundamentally change their structure by the unilateral efforts of one party or the other does a real disservice to the citizenship. There is no current consensus that the proposed Republican changes are for the best. We need a bipartisan group to propose how we proceed with these benefits in the future.

I am not suggesting a bi-partisan commission called together by the president with equal representation of both parties, whom everyone can ignore. How about we collect a statistically significant sample of US citizens? Draft them for one year (a judge could determine hardship dismissals just as we do for jury duty). During that one year they are to work full-time (excluding holidays and four-weeks of vacation) to determine what kind of services the Federal government should provide.

We would pay the individuals the same amount as we pay our Congressmen and give them free access to technology to allow virtual meetings to the extent possible. If they need to travel, we’ll pay for that as well. Government agencies could present their case for why what they do is vital and the effects of increasing, decreasing or eliminating the services they provide. Academics could provide information to the group as could lobbyists, citizens and corporations. They could do physical or virtual town halls, have hearings, whatever.

Anyone can try to influence these citizen representatives with information; however, any gifts, promises, or other attempts to influence the group other than through information will be severely punished.

At the end of a year this group of draftees will define the mission of the Federal government. If some worthy service is not within the mission, the Federal government won’t do it. If Congress chooses to expand the mission of the Federal government, they will need to justify that to their constituents and to justify the increase in revenue to fund the service expansion. If it is within the mission, then Congress should legislate its implementation.

This commission won’t be inexpensive, but even if it cost a billion dollars (way more than I would expect) the immediate savings will be manifold times the cost. I am sure a group of citizens could quickly agree to defund $10 billion of pet projects held over from the days of unrestricted earmark programs.

The next step is agreeing how we pay for the services we decide we need. In the next post, I’ll talk about my ideas for a fair taxation system.

~ Jim

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