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Works and Days

Ten Things a Candidate Might Promise

March 26th, 2008 - 2:08 pm

What we want to hear.

1. Surplus! Talk of the notion of surplus, rather than mere budget-balancing. Deficits, and national and foreign debt, are matters of more than statistics. They are barometers of a nation’s self-confidence, its mood and self-image. Percentages of GDP may be the real indicator of debt, but in practical terms Americans think in terms of dollars owed. So we need a candidate not only to outline a balanced budget, but one of surplus that will pay down the debt as well, and by spending cuts rather than tax increases. Do that and much of the American malaise will disappear. Economists might shudder, but imagine no annual deficit, a national surplus of $1 trillion or so, the Social Security Trust Fund in Al Gore’s lockbox, $10 trillion in foreign bonds held by US interests, a dollar at a Euro (yes, we know the trade difficulties that would accrue), and gold at about $300 an ounce.


2. Close the borders.
No need now to fight about amnesty, guest workers, deportation, assimilation, etc. All these key issues loom in the future. For now simply reduce the number of illegal arrivals to zero—through border fencing, more patrolling and manpower, employer sanctions, and stern negotiations with Mexico. Then as we squabble and fight, the number of foreign nationals or those not assimilated will begin to shrink in a variety of ways—once it is not growing. We need to take step one, rather than bicker over steps five and six. Who knows—we might just see many state treasuries miraculously recover, and thereby be spared the mantra that illegal aliens ‘really’ are a budget plus for states?

3. Iraq. Explain Iraq in blunt terms—that the first war against Saddam was won, but the second, more important one against radical Islam is still being won in the heart of the caliphate. Here Americans wish to know how many of the enemy we’ve killed, the degree to which other nations have stopped nuclear proliferation (cf. Libya or Dr. Khan), and the degree to which bin Laden and the tactic of suicide bombing have lost popularity. We need to explain to the American people how the tactical success of the surge translates to strategic victory, in the way stabilizing Korea, for example, allowed the powers of capitalism and constitutional government to be unleashed in the south and eventually to make a mockery of the fossilized north. If we can stabilize Iraq, its government and economy might do the same vis a vis Iran or Syria. In any case, we need some strategic vision of what Iraq is supposed to look like in five years and our role in it. A viable prosperous free Iraq is the worst nightmare of al Qaeda—but why and how needs to articulated daily.

4. Race. No more “conversations on race” but simply an end to identity politics. Americans are worn out with racial tribalism. The post-racial candidate Obama recently posed with Bill Richardson to gain a “Latino” endorsement, on the hope apparently that just as African-Americans are supposedly voting 90% for Obama, Hispanics might do likewise on Richardson’s prompt. But the scene was Orwellian. Both Obama and Richardson are elites of mixed ancestry and they just as well might have argued that they were “white” candidates. When either one claims fides to one side of their heritage, they implicitly reject the other. I can’t believe that a naturalized citizen from Oaxaca would vote for the grandee Obama because the grandee Richardson claimed that as an authentic Latino of similar background and perspective he should. And if he were to do that, then we are simply a tribal nation after all.

5. Taxes. Some simplification of the tax code. Americans can’t figure out their taxes. When in their 50s some of them finally make good money, more than 50% go to taxes while they are demonized as “the wealthy”—even as the mega-wealthy either pay on “income” as capital gains at 20%, or are so embedded in corporations that their expenses are taken care of as business deductions. In America, the couple that makes between $150,000-500,000 carries the country and gets less relief than the really well-to-do, but just as much grief and envy from the less well off. Some sort of flat-tax, simple-form is critical to our survival as a nation (I confess I just filled out my taxes and found it much harder than reading the choruses of Aeschylus).

6. Fuel. We don’t need to be “energy independent”—as opposed to cutting our appetite for imported oil by 5-6 million barrels per day. We have the world’s largest coal reserves. There are still a million or two barrels a day to be captured off our coasts and in Alaska. If every other family were to have a second electric commute car plugged into a nuclear-powered electric grid, we could easily accomplish all that rather quickly—until we arrive in 20 years at the so-called big rock candy mountain of hydrogen, flex-fuels, sustainable ethanols, etc. At $108 a barrel Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez and the Middle East kleptocracies have the cash to cause us great trouble abroad, at $40 they are merely thugs. Would it help if someone said, “Ok, either drill in Anwar, or cut sales of SUVs by 10% per year,” or “Drill off the coast and build nuclear power plants, or have gas at over $5 a gallon—your choice”?

7. Colleges. We need more transparency in our universities. Why do tax-exempt private institutions use their funds largely to enrich an elite rather than to subsidize student tuitions? Universities avoid taxes, but as non-profits don’t use that saving to help those for whom they exist, but rather spend their fortunes more often subsidizing faculty and administrators. They are no different than those scandalous charities who exist for their apparat. How universities have been able to up their tuitions consistently above the rate of inflation, while exploiting part-time, poorly paid contractual faculty, and masquerading all the while as liberal institutions are among the great mysteries of the modern age. Yet any inquiry into the labyrinth of identity politics, racial quotas, the absence of intellectual diversity or the problems with tenure are met by charges of “McCarthyism” or worse. American universities are rated the world’s best only because of our sciences and engineering—and thus despite, not because of, our failed liberal arts curriculum

8. Health Care. Simply mandate, as in the case of car insurance, that everyone buy catastrophic health care plans, and use health saving accounts for everything else. When we go to K-Mart and see a sign that says “Strep Diagnosis and antibiotics—$50” or ”Check our rates for heart exam and medication” and expect to pay cash up-front out of our saving accounts, while reserving insurance for emergencies and major illnesses, the price of health care will plunge and the patient will become an adult again—rather than rushing to the emergency room at 3AM with the “flu” and no insurance, and less ability or willingness to pay. As someone who has been in emergency rooms four times the last five years for either kidney stones or broken bones, two facts I discovered: more than half don’t have health insurance, and 100% had cell phones, the costs of which per month would nearly pay for catastrophic medical plans. Americans for some reason are outraged that they might pay $3000 in health or drug uninsured costs per year, but hardly object to an extra $2000 in moon roof, rims, or GPS on their new cars. We are Hillary’s proverbial “nation uninsured” with plasma TVs and 4×4 trucks.

9. Infrastructure. The objections to government spending revolve around redistribution, not construction. We need a slash in entitlements and more investment in bigger, better, and more roads, rails, and airports. A highway 101 (note I don’t call it a freeway yet after a half-century, given its suicidal cross-traffic breaks) is a cruel joke. In California, there are still only two major winter routes in and out of the state on an east-west axis. Driving a highway 152 or 41 east-west is circa 1955. Most of our Sierra roadways are wonderful up to the crest, where they suddenly stop in their tracks or devolve into pot-holed paved cattle trails—on the apparent assumption there is not ecological damage driving up the western slope, but would be plenty descending the eastern (or that our forefathers were scoundrels that gave us these beautiful roads to the summit, but we are saints for using them and offering nothing of improvement to our children to get over the other side).

10. National Security. Talk honesty about terror and national security. Why can’t a candidate say—“We will monitor what we think are terrorist calls routed through the US. So do you think this is right, or an abject violation of your privacy?” And instead of “Close Down Gitmo!”, one might say, “We prefer to have about 400 Padilla-like trials instead”. Or we could say, “No water boarding and we will take our chances that what damage a terrorist might do is overshadowed by the damage we will do to our reputation.” I don’t think Americans quite know what they want, but they are very tired of being told the question is black/white, win/lose rather than a mess where each answer poses another question. Treat us like adults, and let the public back a candidate who apprises them of the costs and benefits and risks, instead of either mouthing “police state!” or “a nuke will go off!”

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