A few hopes on election day
This morning, as I usually do on election day, I spent a few moments in my local polling place. I rather like exercising this civic right, even though as a right-leaning voter in Manhattan, all my vote seems to do is get me jury duty from time to time. Voting strikes me as a fundamentally optimistic act. Across the country, people are voting today, and will likely remove a solid number of currently-serving government officials from office. And you know what? All of the officials who lose will actually leave! If Harry Reid loses, he will not call out the military and have Sharron Angle “disappeared.” For all our talk of incivility these days, we have it a lot better than many other places.
Indeed, for all the talk of a lot of negatives these days — incivility, a stagnant economy, images of Rome in decline — I’m reasonably optimistic. I don’t think any of this decline is inevitable. A lot of current and unfortunate policy choices are pushing us this way. But as we are likely to show with this election, when we don’t like things, we can change them.
This is not a political blog, and my politics aren’t too easily classified. I have a few hopes for this moment, as we ponder where this country is going. I hope the people we elect will do a few things:
- Recognize that the American dream is about opportunity, not security — so stop trying to sell a security that does not exist. Politicians like to wax nostalgic about an economy in which you could work for one employer for 40 years (regardless of whether your work was needed), and stop work for the rest of your life at age 65 with a full pension. This really doesn’t exist in the private sector anymore, and only does in the public sector because no one is thinking about efficiency or calculating how the bills are going to come due. Regardless, I don’t think the tempest-tossed masses arrived at these shores hoping for lifetime employment. The American Dream is about having the freedom to pursue your goals in life through risk-taking and hard work. It’s the idea that if you’re clever and determined enough, you can do very well here. We are all going to need to be more entrepreneurial in the future.
- We live in a globalized world, and should be trying to win the talent wars. We should be welcoming the most ambitious immigrants from all over the world, and when people come here for school, they should be welcome to stay. I think a lot of anti-immigration fervor is about protecting “American” jobs, but see point 1. There is no right to a job.
- If we, as a country, want people to create jobs, we should make life easy for job creators. Federal, state and local governments have created a thicket of regulations on business owners, who then have to spend too many of their 168 hours dealing with these rules, rather than trying to grow their enterprises. A law against fraud is one thing. A law requiring you to only have a certain number of words on your store awning is another.
- The purpose of the tax code is to raise revenue to support the government, not to reward and punish behavior. Exemptions distort the economy. Even popular ones. We allow mortgage interest deductions to encourage home ownership as a way to promote “stable communities.” Now, “stable communities” is a code word for people being unable to move to jobs because they can’t sell their homes. The ability of businesses to deduct health insurance premiums created this system where no one knows what anything costs. We should set rates (ideally just one! But I understand this would be politically difficult) based on the amount of revenue needed, and raise and lower accordingly.
- Entitlement spending is a huge bill coming due and no one is talking about this. It’s wonderful that many of us are living long and healthy lives, but Social Security is based on the demographics of a different era. Indeed, the whole idea of retirement is increasingly old-fashioned (see the “Encore Careers” movement). I’ve gone on record, in a debate with Robert Reich in USA Today a few years ago, saying that we should phase out Social Security. I guess this means I will never be able to run for office! But we should recognize that there is no real link between what people are paying in and getting out. It is just a tax. Over time, it has created its own (large) interest group and since it can’t be touched, has distorted national priorities.
I worry we are moving more toward an economy that’s about protecting certain interests, and preserving a certain moment in time, rather than growth and efficiency. This doesn’t have to be the case, however, if we summon the political courage to rethink how things are going. Here’s hoping that we will seize the chance, this election cycle, to do so.