November 16, 2012
President Obama was elected last week (November 6, 2012) with a mandate to…just be president. He had no specific agenda, except that he should be the one elected, and not the other guy. To be fair, his opponent had much the same agenda for his platform.
As something of a college sophomore dorm room policy exercise in my head (since neither campaign much bothered discussing policy), I’ve been pondering what should be done to protect and preserve the republic of the United States of America. Not what is politically feasible, but what should be done. Thus I have formulated an idealized program, not carrying any political hopes of fruition whatsoever, but still, what I believe would keep the republic strong for years to come.
To begin, and most pressingly, Social Security and Medicare must be rationalized. There is no way to grow our way out of their insolvencies. We have promised ourselves too much. I would return Social Security to its original purpose—to protect from destitution old people who are unable any longer to work. Accordingly, I would increase the age at which benefits could be received to seventy-five, and not the outrageously low sixty-two which now obtains. Hasn’t anyone heard, sixty is the new forty? How many CEO’s and political leaders now serve well into their seventies, and sometimes even eighties?
My own father is seventy-three and engaged to be married this week to a sprightly young woman of just seventy. Though both lost their spouses to disease, neither of them show any signs of slowing down. Yet they both receive Social Security checks every month. And for my father, who was a practicing physician until just recently, the monthly check could not be more than just a dribble into the vast bucket of wealth he’s managed to accumulate over the course of his life. Which brings up another issue for Social Security. Means test the program for heaven’s sake. It was never intended that Social Security pensions would add to the affluence of the already wealthy.
Medicare should also be means tested. Have a graduated deductible, depending on wealth. For example, those with ten million dollars net worth might have to pay for the first $250,000 in care they receive each year; those with one million, only the first $25,000, etc. There is no reason working folks should pay through their FICA taxes for old men with erectile dysfunction to get a prescription for Viagra.
But instead of limiting Medicare to only those over sixty-five, I would expand the program to cover almost every American, but with a catch—only those procedures authorized by Medicare would be paid for by Medicare. It is high time that the people footing the bill for medical procedures have some input in what is covered and how much is paid. Just like private health insurers have a list of approved doctors and hospitals and procedures, I would institute the same regimen for Medicare, but much more forcefully and transparently than now exists in either the private or public realm.
I would also institute a cut-off age for Medicare benefits, beyond which nothing but ameliorative care would be paid. For argument’s sake, put it at age eighty-five. No hip replacements for ninety year olds, except that granny’s heirs pay for them out of their own pockets. And I would institute a cut-off point for the very young. Before the first year of age, no procedures whose total cost (with complications) over the life of the program is expected to reach a sum in excess of say, a million dollars, would be approved. Yes, I would let some babies, especially severely premature babies, die. The long-term prognosis is simply not all that good for infants who have medical problems so severe that it costs a million dollars or more to keep them alive. It is a romantic but immature notion to imagine every life must be saved, no matter how unviable and expensive.
Furthermore, a great many procedures that have proved only marginally effective at their intended purpose would be reevaluated and labeled experimental, meaning that undertaking them would be a private concern, not reimbursed by Medicare. The evaluation would include more than whether life was extended, but also by how much, and in what quality. Life can almost always be extended, but what sort of life is it that is being extended? Old men with prostate cancer would not get radiation treatments.
I would also consolidate medical procedures which require immense capitalization under fewer facilities. For example, instead of the thirty or so approved bone marrow transplant centers, I would pare the number to about five or six, dispersed regionally, and pay for transportation and stay at the facilities for the patients and their caregiver while under treatment. I would also consolidate medical research under a similar few facilities, and fund it all publicly, and make the research available to any individual or entity seeking it. The regional centers would compete with each other for outcomes, and be accordingly awarded bonuses when proved exceptional.
I would institute a tax credit of $500 or so for anyone whose weight, as of their birthday, was within 10% of the weight recommended by a panel of physicians as healthy for their height.
Is all this somewhat selfish and cold-hearted? Of course, but the republic’s interest in the health of its population necessarily extends to whether or not its investments in that health ultimately enhances or impairs its overall strength. Keeping people who have very little chance to productively contribute to the society alive through heroic and outrageously expensive medical procedures is a recipe for impairing the republic’s strength. If heroic medical care is what one seeks for the very old and very young, it should be paid for privately. Medicare and medical delivery systems paid for by the republic must be rationalized to suit the republic’s ultimate purpose, which is, ever and always, retaining the collective strength to survive.
With the twin entitlement monsters on the road to solvency, I would then turn to defense spending. At least 2/3rds of the annual defense budget of about $700 billion could be cut without impairing the safety and security of the United States one bit. If the US spent only $200 billion, it would still roughly double China’s defense spending. And China is not an enemy, but instead heavily depends on American markets to keep its factories churning. In fact, the United States has very few enemies, and no existential threats. There is nothing in the world powerful enough to destroy the US except the US.
From where would the cuts come? First, I would repatriate all our deployed troops. (Why do we still have thousands of troops in Japan, Korea and Germany?) The twin fiascos in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan are being wound down. I would wind more quickly, and not leave a garrison behind. Outside of minimalist protection for embassies and such, I would retain as our international presence only carrier battle groups and submarines. I would stand down every one but two Army and two Marine divisions, and each of those would be trained and equipped for rapid deployment wherever needed. The bulk of forces necessary to fight a conventional, sustained ground war would be kept in reserve and national guard units.
I would immediately eliminate every new fighter/bomber project underway, including the outrageously expensive F-35 ($200-300 million per aircraft), pouring more resources into drone technology. The days of dogfights with planes carrying human pilots are numbered, if not already over. The military always trains and procures for the last war, but the standoff between the Soviet Union and the US—the last truly global and existential confrontation the US faced—is long over, though it is clearly for a hot war between two similar adversaries for which the F-35 is designed. And even during the Cold War, there were only a very few times when US jets fought dog fights against their Soviet counterparts (mainly in the Korean conflict). Nothing of what these airplanes have been designed to fight is any longer a threat. Scrap the whole program, except for its research and development arms. It can be revived with the sweep of a hand if the threat reemerges.
And for that matter, equip the Navy’s carrier battle groups with fleets of drones, instead of manned fighter craft. Except to man supply aircraft and helicopters, there is no longer any need for human pilots (and the day will come when humans won’t be needed to pilot those type aircraft, either).
The basis of homeland defense would be the nuclear deterrent. I would not enter any treaties limiting the US capacity to develop and deploy nuclear weapons, and would issue the Curmudgeon’s Doctrine: Any attack on the US or its interests would be met with the overwhelming nuclear annihilation of the attackers. It would only take one such attack and response for the world to get the message.
Billions could be saved by eliminating overlapping law enforcement agencies at home. There is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF); The Secret Service; the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); the National Security Agency (NSA); the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), etc.—an alphabet soup of federal agencies charged with enforcing the law in some way or another. I would eliminate the DHS by placing its limited functions under the auspices of the US Army, which could use the mission to train its reserve units on a rotating basis. (What exactly is a standing army for, except to provide “homeland security”?) I would simply eliminate the FBI. It does nothing except get in the way of local law enforcement, and act as a Keystone Kops Gestapo in the national political arena. I would fold the NSA’s functions into the CIA, and prohibit both from spying on US citizens. I would decriminalize marijuana and cocaine and opiates, focusing on treating addiction instead of fighting a war against suppliers, eliminating the need for the DEA. And there are multitudes of similar programs, too numerous to mention, which would be cut along the same lines.
I would eliminate the Department of Education, lock stock and barrel. The education of children is the province of their parents. It is a job whose responsibility can never be delegated, which is why public schools are routinely such a disaster. The closer a public school’s prerogatives are to the prerogatives of parents its serves, the more relevant and effective the school will be. The existence of a federal Department of Education at best gets in the way; at worst, impairs and confuses, the agency relationship between parents and the schools to which they delegate (some of) their authority for their children’s education. (Authority is delegable; responsibility is not).
I would eliminate FEMA, replacing it with a national infrastructure insurance program which would be funded and earmarked solely for national disasters. The money would be funneled to state and local governments in the event of disaster. Military reserve forces would be activated and deployed to provide food and shelter and order to affected populations immediately after a disaster (yes, people would be housed in tents at least as nice as the troops often live in for months, and eat military grub just like the troops). The military has the expertise and equipment to deal with nature’s fury, as it is tasked with winning battles, no matter the extremes of weather. The short-term federal focus would be on alleviating suffering, and the temporary stabilization of conditions. The long-term federal focus would be on repairing infrastructure, not on repairing or replacing private dwellings and businesses, which would have to be insured privately. And I would eliminate completely the national flood insurance program. Structures built in flood plains would have to be insured by private insurers or local governments, or not at all.
Turning to the economy, to put people to work, I would create conditions conducive to keeping people gainfully employed by granting the option to employers to opt out of the labyrinthine thicket of federal laws and regulations governing the employment relation on the condition that a) they submit to annual financial audits (if not already a public corporation) to determine their level of profitability and amount paid in salaries to executives; b) they agree to split 50-50 between the owners of the company and their workers any accrued profits, after first taking ten percent for additions to company’s capital stock, and c) they agree that their highest paid executives won’t receive regular compensation in excess of fifty times their lowest paid worker. If they agree to all these conditions, they can pay in wages whatever is sufficient to induce people to work, without the necessity of providing any benefits, and without limitations on the hours or conditions of employment, but I would keep in place the existing system of workers compensation insurance in the event of injury on the job.
For those who couldn’t find work, or couldn’t work, or who simply didn’t wish to participate in the market economy, I would open communes in the countryside, staffed and managed by former prison guards and police who lost work because of the de-criminalization of drugs. The communes would be located on tracts of fertile land, and the “inmates” would be rewarded as the commune achieved greater self-sufficiency, but the federal government would insure a minimum level of shelter and nutrition was provided to all. Admission to the commune would require a minimum six-month commitment.
I would charge the Federal Reserve System with managing the currency to ensure stable prices, and nothing more. The Fed would be responsible for keeping a basket of internationally-traded commodities, including at least oil and corn and wheat, within a narrow range of prices. When the basket index fell, the Fed would print more currency. When it rose, they would destroy some. Any idea that the Fed might control real economic outcomes through currency manipulation would eventually be regarded as a hoary idea from an antediluvian past. The only economic outcome sought through the Fed’s monetary policy would be consistency and reliability in the communication value of market prices.
As for specific industries, I would eliminate completely any direct federal involvement in private enterprise. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, among others, would be privatized, and left to survive or fail on their own. I would continue the federal program of insuring bank deposits, but dial back the maximum insured amount to not more than the first $50,000 on deposit, in total, across the system, for any one individual or entity. The Federal Reserve would be prohibited from buying privately-held assets, and the assets it now owns would be gradually liquidated. The federal government would not lend money to, or fund, any private enterprise, except for infrastructure projects, i.e., roads, bridges, or any other of the myriad means through the country communicates and stays connected.
I would limit federal government spending to no more than 20% of national income, plus or minus 2%, in any given year. During years when national income increases, the limit would decline to eighteen percent. During years in which national income is declining, the limit would increase to 22%. Taxation in all times would amount to 20% of national income, and apply to each and every individual or income-generating entity in the land (and abroad, if doing business here). There would be no loopholes and no deductions.
I would eliminate affirmative action completely, even for firms who choose not to opt out of the federal regulatory scheme in employment, and especially for college admissions in universities that receive any sort of government aid, federal, state or local. No country whose founding creed is that all men are naturally endowed by their creator with inalienable rights should award economic, education and political spoils on the basis of a false and arbitrary distinction like race. If the idea of human races is the rough equivalent of the idea of dog breeds, and I think it is, then all humans are mongrels (but are far more clannish and bigoted than dogs, which don’t much care to which breed one belongs when it comes to inter-canine relations).
I would end all federal student loan programs, and drastically curtail grants and scholarships. If a college education is worth the money paid to acquire it, the student will find a way to fund it. Abraham Lincoln didn’t borrow money to fund his education. If colleges wish to stay in business, they will rationalize the value of a college degree with the costs borne to acquire it. A rare few means-tested scholarships will be awarded on merit each year, perhaps one per congressional representation for each state. Thus nine students from Alabama could receive scholarships (7 representatives and 2 senators). But each recipient’s family would have to presently, and for the three of the last five years, been surviving on less than the median income for their area, and not have net wealth in excess of some minimal amount, say $10,000. And the student would have to be in the top 10% of his high school class, and have scored in the top 25% of at least one college entrance exam. It would be a scholarship for poor, but smart, people. Most awards would probably go to recent immigrants.
As for immigration, I would immediately grant amnesty and full citizenship to any and all immigrants, illegal and otherwise, who 1) register for the draft (if over eighteen); 2) get a social security number; 3) submit to a background check through DNA swabs and fingerprinting; 4) prove English proficiency, and 5) pledge an oath of loyalty to the US Constitution. The path to citizenship would also be available to subsequent newcomers. But, there would be a five-year waiting period after naturalization before any immigrant could vote or receive federal government benefits, i.e., Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid, among others, of any sort.
I would issue a decree that the federal government would henceforth recognize any and all life partnerships between any two human beings that have been vetted and sanctioned by any state government as legitimate.
I would issue a decree that neither the federal, nor the states, nor the local governments have any interest in human life before its viability, completely independent of medical support measures, outside the womb.
I would outlaw the death penalty, and empty the prisons of non-violent drug offenders. But anyone found to have taken advantage of their fellow man through deceit, or to have violated a trust placed in them by another, would suffer minimum sentences of five years at hard labor under harsh suns and blistering cold, with little to eat but bread, and to drink, but water. The foundation of any society is trust, so any action constituting a breach of trust would be dealt with severely. There would be no federal country club prisons in my kingdom. Hard time would be just that.
I could go endlessly on, but all that would be a start. I would rule my kingdom not for self-aggrandizement, fame and fortune, but in such a manner that every one of my subjects might have the chance, but not the guarantee, of realizing their potential. In short, I would rule as an Aristotelian magnanimous man, or as a Platonic Guardian. Neither Aristotle nor Plato were much enamored with democracy. And considering the results that have lately obtained, neither am I.