8 Reforms to Taxes, Prisons, Marriage, and More That Go Beyond Party Politics
Otto von Bismarck famously stated, "politics is the art of the possible," yet in today's climate very little seems to be possible. With two parties ensconced in demonizing each other and blocking virtually anything the other tries to do, common-sense solutions are hard to come by.
It's been well documented that compromise has become a dirty word and surely there are times when a line in the sand must be drawn. Too often, though, it seems that we have reached a point where the logical fallacy of the slippery slope prevents us from moving to a place that both sides believe is an improvement because it isn't 100% what we want. That makes no sense.
Here are some common sense suggestions that aren't perfect for either side, but would surely be improvements on our current situation:
1. Eliminate the tax code in favor of a primarily transaction tax-based system
The left tends to favor a more progressive income tax with fewer loopholes, while the right often prefers a consumption tax such as The Fair Tax or a flat income tax. Neither is perfect, but the principles of each can be accomplished with a transaction tax that takes a basic sales tax on everything we buy and expands it with a low, flat fee on investment transactions and usage fees for roads, parks, etc. Such a tax would take into consideration the advantages and pitfalls of The Fair Tax and make adjustments accordingly.
This would accomplish the major goal of drastic simplification and elimination of all loopholes and also provides additional taxation to the wealthy by including a small fee on investments. Most importantly, it would tax the underground economy, particularly the criminal element, that currently pays nothing.
Possible compromises might be to add on a small income and estate tax for the extremely wealthy and a prebate for the poor.
2. Replace Social Security with a Guaranteed Benefit Plan that Invests
Social Security has become a political football largely because of the way it operates. The left has advocated for changes to extend the viability of the current program while the right has been more interested in partial privatization. The reality is that it is an important safety net for seniors, but is poorly constructed and offers very poor returns on the money taxpayers and businesses are required to contribute.
The answer is something similar to the USA Plan or Rise Up Theory, which provides safe, government-sponsored investment accounts for individuals while providing a guarantee against loss similar to the way the FDIC insures bank deposits. For those who rightly distrust full privatization as well as others who would prefer it, this provides the best of both worlds with a significant upside, but limited downside, as well as a host of other potential benefits by creating wealth for all workers at retirement.
Medicare and other programs could actually be funded the same way, although we wouldn't need to rely on it as much.
3. Audit the Pentagon and Modernize Accounting and Procurement Systems
While the left and libertarians tend to oppose interventionist foreign policy and the military industrial complex and the right has served as more of an apologist for both, there has been a lot of discussion lately about our massive military budget and the effectiveness of our strategies since facing the long-term consequences of invading Iraq.
With a budget nearly 8x as large as the next biggest spender, the Pentagon has rightly come under more scrutiny in recent years; yet most of the GOP and a substantial number of Democrats -- including President Obama -- have supported increases in defense spending every year under accusations that we would weaken our military if we don't.
The Department of Defense is unique in failing to comply with routine audits required of every other government agency. Because the accounting and procurement systems are so outdated and incompatible with each other, there is massive error, waste, and fraud that is deliberately whitewashed.
Recent estimates on money that is unaccounted for are over $8.5 trillion and repeated bipartisan efforts to audit the Pentagon have failed.
Defense accounting is the single biggest example of big government shenanigans and waste, not to mention outright fraud.
We do not even need to broach the discussion on our role in world affairs and military intervention to understand that we could accomplish the same thing we do now at a fraction of the cost if we invested the money to bring the DOD's accounting and procurement into the 21st century.
4. Audit and Possibly End the Federal Reserve
As politicians and pundits, particularly presidential candidates and incumbents, tout their economic policies and criticize their opponents, virtually no one talks about the most powerful force in our economy—the Fed— and most Americans remain unaware of its role.
Ron Paul certainly certainly bucked the trend in his 2009 Book, End the Fed, where he accurately points out that you can't have a serious economic debate without discussing the role of the Federal Reserve.
While the left tends to believe the financial markets are insufficiently regulated and the right prefers free markets, we seem to have controls run by an independent entity with little accountability, largely controlling things in a way that isn't in our best interest (no pun intended).
As Charles Scaliger comments in his review of End the Fed:
"Many on the right — otherwise eloquent partisans of liberty and free-market economics...set aside certain free-market principles where money and banking are concerned. Laissez faire for factories, mines, retailers, and agriculture, indeed, say apologists for the Fed, but for banking, money, and finance, we must have regulation, currency manipulation, the fixing of interest rates, and other characteristics of a command economy."
Indeed, those who want more regulation are hardly getting what they want as we are largely engaged in policies that simply expand the money supply and employ fractional reserve banking, whereby banks hold reserves that are only a fraction of its liabilities. It's a complex subject that can't be adequately covered here, but if Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul -- the only two current candidates to address the issue at all -- can agree that we need more understanding, transparency, and accountability in regard to the Fed's activities, we should all realize that continuing to allow it to operate in relative obscurity is unacceptable.
5. Prison Reform
As discussed in my recent piece on common sense legislation to curb gun violence, there are things directly and indirectly related to gun violence that actually have much greater implications. Prison reform is the most prominent, with broad support from the right and the left.
It's become obvious that we're locking a lot of people up, some of whom shouldn't be in prison, and failing to rehabilitate those who have the potential to lead a productive life.
The prison industrial complex -- including prison guard unions and suppliers -- are a major impediment to reform, opposing policies that might stop the swell of incarceration. Policy and policing often focus on revenue rather than justice and public safety, weaving a complex web of intergenerational failure that perpetuates the problem by destroying families without rehabilitation and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on policies that make the situation worse.
Recent state reforms aimed at reducing prison populations have lowered imprisonment rates and seen a corresponding drop in crime rates while cutting costs dramatically. Both President Obama and the Koch brothers have declared prison reform to be a priority and are joined by the Justice Action Network, a coalition of equally strange bedfellows including the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, as well as the Faith and Freedom Coalition and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, offering hope that progress can be made.
With creative innovations such as Dogs on the Inside, which pairs homeless dogs and inmates with great results, perhaps prisons can become more than an expensive dumping ground.
6. End the War on Drugs
The left and the right tend to have different interpretations of the role of drugs in our society, but the evidence of the ineffectiveness of the War on Drugs is substantial in many ways: it doesn't stop drug use, it puts nonviolent offenders in jail, and the black market leads to violent crime at every level from street thugs to cartels.
While the exact numbers are difficult to isolate due to the intermingling of drug use and related crimes inherent in the trade, estimates suggest that as much as 50% of homicides are related to illegal drug trafficking, not to mention burglaries and other violent crime, and the cost of lives south of the border is estimated in the hundreds of thousands.
Noah Smith writes in The Atlantic:
“Treating addicts in hospitals and rehab centers, instead of sticking them in prisons, would reduce demand for drugs, lowering the price and starving gangs of income while reducing their incentive to wage turf wars. Decriminalization would relieve pressure on our prison system, allowing us to focus on keeping violent people off the streets instead of pointlessly punishing drug users for destroying their own health. ”
As fellow IVN contributor Jay Stooksberry pointed out recently, "even if we ignored the violence inherent in this failed policy, the War on Drugs would still be considered a complete waste of public resources. The United States has invested close to a trillion dollars in drug-related law enforcement over the past four decades. And what was the return on investment? A black market valued at $100 billion annually and a drug use rate that is the highest in the world."
Not everyone agrees on drug legalization and that isn't the only option. Taxation of lower-level drugs would provide financing for both treatment and law enforcement related to other crimes, but along with the aforementioned prison reform, we need to focus on treatment over incarceration, decriminalizing certain substances and perhaps legalizing others so we can reroute the resources we're currently wasting into more productive long-term goals.
7. Bring Back the Works Progress Administration
With Bernie Sanders talking about dramatic expansion of social programs, we have to remember that there are those who don't believe the government should be involved in any form of charity and still more who don't believe it should be handled at the federal level.
Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress instituted welfare-to-work reforms in 1996, but in 2012 the Department of Health and Human Services started allowing states to apply for a waiver for the work requirements of the TANF program if they were also able to find credible ways to increase employment by 20 percent. This led to accusations that the most successful anti-poverty program in half a century had been watered down.
Whether administered at the federal level or at the state level, a WPA-type program would allow the government to require able-bodied workers to contribute something or at least receive job training. In return, there could be additional help for infrastructure building or other opportunities to incentivize the unemployed to get back into the workplace.
This idea offers the added benefit of relying on money we're already spending on social programs but getting a lot more for our money.
8. Separate the Religious Institution of "Marriage" from the Legal Contract
While the Supreme Court ruled that marriage is a fundamental right and same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, the controversy is hardly over and may grow in the United States. We shouldn't need anyone to "officially" recognize our relationship with another but government involvement has defined over a thousand specific legal rights, privileges, benefits and protections associated with the legal version of "marriage."
As such, allowing one set of couples access to such a contract while denying it to others was always a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, but there are still many who object to redefining marriage to include same-sex couples.
For opponents, the ruling infringes on their religious freedom and longstanding traditions. Their concern about what might happen in the future is seemingly justified by a ruling in Denmark, where gay couples won the right to be married in any church they choose.
Even since the SCOTUS ruling, the best option is for government to remove itself from "holy matrimony" and only provide a sort of registration or recognition of couples who wish to secure the various legal rights that go along with the relationship. These could be identified as civil unions, domestic partnerships without referring to them as "marriages," leaving that aspect to clergy on a voluntary basis.
By doing so, the states will make a clear distinction between the legal aspects and any religious one, thereby hopefully avoiding any future controversy.
Whether you believe in limited government or not, there shouldn't be any question that what government we do have should be efficient and should do more than perpetuate itself for the benefit of special interests. These ideas are a means to that end.