A Plan for Progress

by Kent Willard

635929685016513022-2069519843_downloadWith the inevitable addition of a Supreme Court Justice, Republicans will control all three branches of federal government. Yet Democrats have some advantages going forward. They need to win 24 seats to gain control of the House, and Republicans won 23 seats in districts where Clinton beat Trump. If Democrats run compelling candidates in every Federal legislative race then they have a chance. And Trump is increasingly unpopular with the majority of people who don't watch Fox News. If Democrats can overcome the narrower margins of victory in state legislative contests which are created by gerrymandering, then they could in theory gain control of state legislatures and craft their own Congressional districts after the 2020 Census.

But Democrats appear to think they can run out the clock on Republicans. Protests against Trump are keeping moral high for now, but there's a decent chance that Trump won't be in office in two years due to health problems, invocation of the 25th amendment, or impeachment. The problem for Democrats is far bigger and older than Clinton's loss. Over the years they have lost control of the majority of state upper and lower legislatures and governorships, plus the US House and Senate. In last year's election, Republican Congressional candidates got more votes in aggregate than Democrats. Clinton's victory in the popular vote, along with Trump's outrageousness, conveniently enable Democrats to not study themselves in the mirror too long.

Democrats can't wait for years until minority populations reach their middle to senior ages, when voter turnout is typically high … and hope that those minorities still vote Democratic. Worse, Democrats are historically bad about not showing up to vote in mid-term elections, particularly among younger voters. If they can't get young voters to show up in 2018, then Democrats have little chance of taking control of the House and rebuffing the Republican agenda.

It is hard to sustain momentum for years with a negative platform because cynicism eventually causes people to dismiss all politics and skip voting. Voters need ideals to rally around. Candidates are usually tainted over time, but ideals are more resilient. The platform for conservatives is easy to define, by definition it is to move policy and the nation back in time, currently by about 100 years. Not only does this create problems for the rights and treatment of minorities, it also results in policies that are incompatible with technological advancement – such as returning to a labor force dominated by farmers and assembly line workers in an age of industrial farming and robotic automation. But it plays well to seniors.

Conservatives are also the master of issues like gay marriage or transsexual restroom choice. These topics dominate the news, rallying evangelicals to the polls, distracting Democrats from their own agenda (if they have one), and convincing many dismayed potential voters to simply ignore all politics. Democrats could diffuse such issues by advocating that marriage is a religious distinction to be bestowed by churches rather than governments, and by highlighting the absurdity or new laws by posting police to confirm gender on a birth certificate in order to be allowed into a restroom. Instead, Democratic engage in a fight that assures that their victory can only be defined as status quo on Republican picked topics. Given this history, it isn't surprising that Democrats and the media are so engaged by Trump's malevolence and corruption that they overlook a level of incompetence and/or insanity that is much more dangerous both politically and existentially.

A progressive platform is supposed to advocate moving forward to completely new policies, so much so that any good progressive platform should include a touch of science fiction and utopia. But the Democratic Party isn't progressive, it is status quo. Too often, Democratic policies are simply the antagonist of Republican policies. When that happens, it allows conservatives to be truly regressive rather than assuming the more productive role of being pragmatic watchdogs and reformers of overly idealistic liberal policies. Worse, since the fall of communism, without a true progressive party, we lack an ideological alternative to unfettered capitalism, which lately has resulted in the dubious expectation that nationalistic leaders will rein in the excesses of capitalism.

The root of progressive's demise is fundraising, which has become an end unto itself. For example, many Democratic leaders didn't participate in the nationwide Women's Marches because they were in an exclusive Florida resort meeting with potential donors. Progress will inevitably overturn existing technologies, industries, and fortunes. So party platforms that are approved by many wealthy donors will have been expunged of any truly progressive policies, resulting in status quo.

It is hard to get voters, particularly young ones, and particularly in a time of mediocre economic growth, to be enthused about continuation of the status quo. They can see through the insincerity of candidates who meet privately with wealthy donors and make fortunes from their relationships, and then publicly dispense platitudes and promise to protect minorities from Republicans.

Bernie Sander is popular because he is a sincere progressive. Some of his policies may be impractical if you get into details. But he raised money from his constituents rather than wealthy donors, he supported minorities rather than pandering to them, and in baseball terms, his policies swung for the fences rather than trying to draw a walk. You can cheer for that kind of guy.

Now there is talk of creating a new party in the mold of Bernie Sanders. But the US already has a progressive party, it just lost its way. We must fix the Democratic Party rather than splitting the vote and thus assuring defeat and regression to an antebellum America. We need to create a new wing within the Democratic Party, similar to the Tea Party of the Republicans. Realistically, the Democrat brand is ruined for a generation in the Midwest and South – so candidates need a new catchy movement name, and a new platform. That new platform requires a major reform of fund raising if it is to see the light of day.

All Democratic candidates should vow not to accept donations from anyone who is not a registered voter in their district or state. That means no money from PAC's, unions, or out of state individuals. This forces candidates to spend their time in their district, understanding what their constituents need and making promises to them rather than billionaires. It will also naturally create more facetime with voters, and more opportunities to appear in local media.

The role of the Democratic Party should be to provide general support for candidates, such as training in public speaking and rhetoric, media interaction skills, policy education, and help with voter data and arranging advertising. Rather than leaving candidates prey to expensive campaign consultants, the Party should provide these services directly. If implemented on a large scale, these services should be fairly inexpensive. The goal isn't to make cookie-cutter candidates, but to make more viable candidates who excel at communicating their policies.

What should a progressive platform be? It should vary by candidate according to the needs of their constituents. But it should always include a Constitutional amendment on campaign fund raising that limits donations to constituents registered to vote for the candidate's office. Here are some other ideas aimed at the federal government, but there should be plenty of local ideas too:

1. Stimulus – Democrats consult with their constituents to build a list of specific projects that cover every district, which in aggregate becomes an appropriations bill. Voters need to realize that according to the Constitution, appropriations (spending) bills originate from the House, not the President or Senate. Congressmen hold the power of the purse, so showing up to vote for mid-term elections is vital.

2. Energy – The goal is that in 20 years, Americans will no longer have to buy gasoline. Solar panels on their roofs and batteries in their garage will power their electric car. Gas stations will convert to battery switching stations. Along the Mexican border we will create a great wall of solar and wind farms, with a new smart grid to distribute. This will generate millions of jobs to manufacture and install solar panels, batteries, electric cars, and new power grids. US military policy will no longer be influenced by energy.

3. Employment – Employer payroll taxes will be waived for employers of new hires in one-year internships where the jobs require learning significant new technical skills.

4. Transportation – We will create high speed trains to cross the continent, providing transportation that is faster and easier to use than airplanes. The railways will be lined with solar panels for energy. A carbon tax will pay for the right of way and development.

5. Research – We will triple the amount of research funded by the federal government. Government research will be directed to projects which are too theoretical, too big, or too long-lived to be supported by for-profit enterprises. Past government research made possible the transistor, the internet, GPS satellites, and passenger jet planes.

6. Healthcare – Healthcare providers must post their procedure and product rates to the public (as they must in France). Antitrust law will be enforced on medical clinics and medical diagnosis devices. Government reimbursed healthcare will impose a cap on the percentage mark-up for products where the provider did not invest in the product's research and development.

7. Education – In order to make college more affordable, Federal funds will be increased to state and community colleges, while limiting the amount of debt per student that the Federal government guarantees. Bankruptcy law will be changed to allow student debt to be discharged.

8. Taxes – Capital gains and dividends will be taxed as ordinary income, so that income from working is no long potentially taxed twice as much as income from investing. The estate tax will be repealed, but lifetime inheritance income greater than 10X annual median income will be taxed as ordinary income, so that we don't build generations of undeserving idle rich. The corporate tax will be replaced by a tax on global intellectual property right profits, so that firms pay for the protection that the US government provides on patents, trademarks, etc.

9. Foreign Sanctuary Cities – The US will sponsor foreign sanctuary cities in participating developing nations. For each future city, the US will lease ~1,000 square miles from the foreign nation for 100 years, after which the property and all improvements will revert to the host nation. The sanctuary city will have institutions, laws, and infrastructure similar to those of the US, and property will be under protection of the US. Host nation citizens may get long-term visas to live and work in the city. The goal is to foster innovation and trade similar to what Hong Kong did for China. This will also relieve pressure from immigrants and refugees fleeing to developed nations.

10. Immigration – The US wants to attract the best and brightest from around the world, therefore the number of H1-B visas for technical occupations will be unlimited; however compensation must be at least 2X US median income. All illegal aliens currently living in the US will be reviewed for either permanent residency or deportation, with a preference of permanent residency with a path to citizenship for those who are settled and contributing to the nation. Verification of right to work will be automated and required of employers. Any employer then caught knowingly or negligently employing an illegal alien will pay a fine equal to 10 years of payroll taxes at 1X median income.

11. Emergency Response – The military will create logistics and accumulate inventories to provide emergency water, food, shelter, and medical care for up to a million people to be delivered globally within 72 hours of a disaster. All supplies will be labeled ‘a gift from the people of the USA'. The military will also organize the capability to provide emergency transportation and utility repair to the disaster areas.

12. Monetary Policy – The mandate of the Federal Reserve will be to create monetary policy which supports an involuntary unemployment rate of no more than 5%, and a core inflation rate of 2 to 4% (2% is currently the effective cap). Allowing higher inflation will make it easier to achieve higher employment without raising interest rates, and modestly higher inflation is historically associated with higher levels of private investment.

13. Elected Officials – Constitutional amendments will be supported which restrict campaign contributions to registered voters who are eligible to vote for the candidate. Campaign contributions not spent by election day will be forfeited to the government. No federally elected official may begin their term after their 70thbirthday. No federally elected official or cabinet member can be an immediate family member of a current or former federally elected official or cabinet member. The maximum service in office for a federally elected official, cabinet member, federal judge, or Federal Reserve Governor or President is 12 years.

14. Voting Rights – Voting requirements regarding identification, felony history, number of voting booths, voting machines specifications, voting times, and quality control tests will be set by the Federal government. All voting machines will have paper records as an audit trail. Voting booths must operate from at least 7am to 7 pm for 2 weeks prior to election day. Congressional districts will be drawn to minimize splitting counties and municipalities and should not be drawn to distort partisan representation of the state.

15. Bureaucracy – The Federal government shall maintain a registry of all businesses operating in the nation, which shall be maintained by the businesses in a single internet site. State and local governments will have access to the site, but may not require redundant information which duplicates the function of the registry. Nor may any level of government charge business license fees or require nuisance filings or paperwork.

Our future is limited by what we imagine it will be. If we imagine it to be a return to the 1900's, or to a dystopic destiny, then that is what we will get. I've listed big policy ideas that hopefully ignite our enthusiasm (particularly with younger voters), our imagination, and our future. Some will be impractical, and you may have some better big ideas – great, please share them. But our ideas won't get off the ground if we don't take control away from vested money donors and make our elected representatives responsible to the people. When democracy is representative, then our policies are progressive and we will prosper.

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Kent Willard is a retired(?) risk manager who grew up in Texas and has bounced around the US following jobs. He has settled in North Carolina, where he spends his time reading economics and science fiction, and hiking in the mountains.