Friday, November 07, 2008

Submit your ideas to the Obama Administration

You can go to the new website and submit suggestions. Presumably, volunteers and campaign staff catalog and index the suggestions, and pass on some sort of summary with representative sample posts to Obama himself.

I've submitted a few of my own suggestions. I might as well share them here.

Suggestion Submission #1. Foreign Aid and Cultural Exchange.

You know Kenya. I've lived there one semester myself, and lived in Kibera, where I understand you have stayed--I had some Luo friends, too. You, better than any president we've ever had, understand the material poverty of the money-poor nations.

The key thing to do is to meet our promise from the Monterrey Consensus to devote about 0.7% of our GNP to international aid to the poorest nations. That aid should be mainly devoted to developing infrastructure, education, and health care provision in the materially poor world. It should be targeted to nations that have the greatest political transparency and show signs of moving toward democracy and independent institutions of civic society.

Foreign aid of this nature should rightfully be considered a matter of national defense, and so we ought to take the increase in international aid from our bloated and wasteful defense budget.
If as part of this policy we establish more American-supported public universities in poorer regions of the world I would volunteer to serve.

As a supplement to this dramatic increase in development aid we should make a massive effort to increase direct public exchange between America and poorer nations. We should be sending 100,000 American high school students and college students abroad each year, and bringing in a similar number of foreign students for cultural and educational exchanges. Thousands more Americans fluent in Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish, Pashtun, and Swahili, (with friends in the lands where those languages are the native or second language) will be worth more to us in helping America maintain peace and security than tens of thousands of more monolingual soldiers.

Make the foreign exchanges part of the foreign aid increase policy. Send American kids from the poor and violent environments to do a year of education and service in an entirely different environment (orphanages in Zambia, for example), and you can imagine the kind of changes we would witness.

Suggestion Submission #2. Higher Education Affordability.

Make higher education affordable. Establish some sort of target costs of providing higher education and some federal guidelines of fair cost-sharing between the public (we all benefit from having better quality higher education that is affordable in our society) and the college students (who reap more direct benefits than the taxpayers who never go to college or finish their college degrees). For example, it seems to me that costs of college education ought to be split with students paying about a third of the cost of their education and the public paying nearly 2/3rds (with alumni donations and private grants used to fund non-educational expenses). Further, costs of education ought to be indexed to median-full-time-year-round wages of the previous year and tuition at public institutions ought to be set on a sliding-scale.
Public universities and the states that control them work out the details of spending and tuition rates, but the federal government can dictate certain broad principles of how public education ought to be funded and priced. The National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, and other federal government organs ought to have policies of only giving grants to researchers at universities that follow federal suggested guidelines for pricing education. Only states that follow guidelines in keeping college costs under control ought to receive federal financial aid for higher education.

Costs of college have nearly doubled in real inflation-adjusted terms since I attended college in the 1980s, but median and mean faculty salaries have declined by approximately 11% over the same 20-30 year period. The problem has reached a point where I could earn more money by leaving my job at the University of Illinois and taking a job in the local public school system as a high school teacher! I'm working 50-60 hours each week trying to help my undergraduate and graduate students get a good education, but even though I've been saving 5% of my income for my two sons for their college fund since they were born, I will be unable to afford to pay for more than two years of their college education, even if they attend the university where I myself teach! My salary and our household income match almost exactly the state median year-round-full-time wage and median household income, so I know that most people in Illinois are in a situation like mine in terms of being unable to afford to send their children to college.

State governments are unwilling to make affordable higher education a priority. Please use the federal government to force the state governments into taking action on this issue.

Suggestion Submission #3. Change the Economic Debate.

People in America need to understand some basics about economics and tax policies and government spending. Someone (the president) needs to clearly explain that we as a society want a public sector that protects and empowers us. We are empowered by education, by infrastructure, and by policies that give us freedom from financial ruin (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, national health insurance policies, etc.). We are protected by national defense, by police and fire departments, by environmental standards and various workplace and financial regulations. Just lay it all out; if the American people want a certain level of protection and empowerment they'll need to contribute an average of some percentage of their incomes to public spending, through some mix of property/wealth taxes, income-and-gains taxes, and sales-consumption taxes. When you combine the costs of public services from local, state, and federal governments and look at the total income and wealth of America it seems like about 40% (give or take 10 percentage points) of the national economy needs to be cycled through the public sector of taxing and spending.

Most of the arguments about fiscal policies and taxing and spending are between conservative Republicans who want fewer public services and less protection and empowerment, and are therefore willing to live in a society where about 35% of the national economy gets cycled through the public taxing-spending cycle, and those who want more protection and empowerment, and therefore want 45% to 50% of the economy cycled through the public sphere.

Make it clear that we have a consensus where everyone in the mainstream, from the most liberal Democrat to the most conservative Republican agrees that we like economic growth and we want a strong private for-profit sector of the economy to serve as the engine of growth. No one disputes that, but we just disagree about whether that sector of the economy ought to be 30% or 40% or 50% of the national economy. Our differences come mainly from how much empowerment and protection we want from the public sector, and how far we trust ourselves and our private for-profit and non-profit sectors to provide security and empowerment when the government's public sphere isn't doing it.

We need to return to a New Deal style consensus about public spending and taxation in this nation, and so we need to destroy these pernicious myths that there is something wrong with a little bit of income transfer and redistribution of freedom-wealth-income-security from the most fortunate to the rest of us. We need to make it clear that the government is in the business of empowering and protecting, and distributing freedom and opportunity. Yes, there are some inefficiencies in the public sphere, but we can make government efficient and responsive. Taxation can be a good thing. There are fair degrees of taxation. Public spending is a good thing. There are desirable and sustainable levels of public spending. Taxing and spending aren't the problem. The problem comes when taxing is too high, relative to the benefits that are received. Taxation is a problem when the government is very inefficient in delivering empowerment and protection at levels expected from such taxation. Taxing is a problem when so much of the economy is swallowed in the public sector that the private sector shrinks and growth slows down too far. So long as the government is efficient and taxing hasn't ruined the private sector it's okay to tax and spend.

We need to make this clear and understood. It's really basic civics and economics, but the way the Republicans were using the Joe-the-Plumber story and framing the issue as socialism shows that a certain segment of this nation is entirely ignorant of basic concepts underlying our democracy and modern economies. This worries me, as such ignorance leads to ideological fanaticism stripped of knowledge and understanding, and I associate such political attitudes with failures of civil society.

Please, President-Elect Obama, use your position to educate Americans about taxation and some basics of macroeconomics. Help us re-frame the debate about taxing and spending. Help change the poisonous climate of empty hate-filled rhetoric to a situation where people have reasonable disagreements about spending priorities and program efficiencies.

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