Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A new fair deal for American democracy


As an American, and as a person who cares about giving their family a better life, we can all agree on one thing.  Taxes suck. 

Most of realize there is bare necessity to taxation because we are an interdependent society and someone has to build and maintain the road or bus or train or the sidewalk we take to get to work.  And most of us realize that since we are so big as a society, the yeoman ways espoused by our founding fathers isn’t going to work as our society grows, industrialization takes over, there is a scarcity of land, and we become more interdependent.  Put simply, the perfect balance capitalism and social and environmental sustainability (even with the espoused benevolence of society’s winners) isn’t going to manifest itself in a utopian society, leaving a vulnerable populace that must fend for themselves.  Hence, this thing called government, which provides goods that we all use, and some goods that only some of us use, but which, when executed fairly, should prevent the winners from exploiting the vulnerable and the vulnerable from rebelling against the exploiting capitalists. 

Thirdly, I think we can all agree that the vulnerable citizen populace deserves a fair deal and the resources to manifest their individual potential.  As long as you are a citizen and following the rules, you deserve a fair deal, regardless if your ancestors arrived 1,000 years ago, 400 years ago, 100 years ago, or became a citizen today.

In turn, those that are the recipients of government resources (whether that is redistribution of wealth to support social programs or government contracts to private entities to support defense) need to recognize their social responsibility to not abuse their public resources.  In other words, if you are receiving government benefits, you should be contributing to the common good (and not taking advantage of or exploiting the government for profits). 

So, if we can agree on these points, then maybe we can make one more leap.   Mainly, we can all agree that if you (the government) are going to take away my income, you better spend the money right.   More specifically, if the law is empowering you (the government) to do something that benefits all of us in the end, you better maximize the value to the population (the public who paid for it) impacted by that policy, and do it in the most fiscally efficient manner possible.

So ask yourself – are these democratic values, republican values, libertarian values, or green values?  Or is this just common sense?

(Ok, I know at some point there is something thinking that people should just fend for themselves completely and just screw government.  If you live on a farm and you produce and reproduce everything for yourself with no dependence on others and no negative externality on anyone else, you figured it out).

The problem is no party owns a monopoly over common sense government, but because we are a democracy (supposedly), we own the government, so we better find a way to execute the government in a way that maximizes both the common interest as well as our personal interests.   Let me repeat that – WE OWN THE GOVERNMENT and if we have to accept ownership in it, we better find a way to maximize its value to us based off a set of common values and goals. 

MOVING FROM THE WHAT TO THE HOW

Last week I had a conversation with a former colleague and had an enlightened moment.

The average American citizen knows little to nothing about different ways a democracy can be run.  In college, I took a course on comparative democracy, studying electoral systems and parliamentary government.  There are two points I gained out of this course.

First, other democracies have different voting and electoral systems, which can result in many parties (not just 2) being represented in government.  These systems, to an extreme, can result in too many parties, lack of government continuity, and executional gridlock.  Yet, most systems, even when no party owns a majority of representation in the legislative body (e.g. Congress), are able to function because they find a way to work together based on a set of common values.  And, because of the setup of these alternative electoral systems, it’s more likely that you will vote for a winning party or candidate and feel represented in government than you will cast a vote and not feel like your vote counted (like Democrats in Texas, Republicans in California when they vote for President or Greens, Libertarians, and Independents when they vote for any candidate at any level).

From this, we should ask ourselves, could we maintain our democracy or even become more democratic if we simply allowed more diverse parties and interests to actually be a part of the government?  Should the Republican and Democrat party hold a monopoly on how our government is made up?  Do those monopolies fairly represent our diverse political interests?  Put simply, is our system of democracy right for America?

Second, the enlightened moment tonight really came down to this.

In alternative democratic models, there is often a stronger unification between the legislative and executive branches of government.  In other words, the equivalent actors of Congress and the President are more aligned.  In other words, the people making the laws and executing the laws are more closely aligned.  In other words, the people deciding the “what” are more aligned with the people determining the “how” of government.   In other words, the people deciding what government should do are more aligned with the people actually running the government.

In practice, this could mean the green party has more say over the EPA, or at least a voice in government when it comes time to make key policy decisions on energy or transportation or commerce which could impact the environment.

It could mean that Christians (there are Christian Democratic parties elsewhere) have a greater say in policies with a significant moral consequence.

This could mean libertarians having a greater say over policies that could potentially infringe upon personal rights or policies.

This could mean fiscal protectionist conservatives having a greater say over trade policies or procurement or personnel policies to prevent government from overextending its reach. 

Then ponder on this.

We elect 435 people to Congress to determine the “what” yet we only elect one person to the executive branch of government (the President) to determine the “how.”  (To the policy folks, I’m not trying to diminish completely the rule-making process, the appropriations process, or Congressional oversight over the Executive branch, its departments, and its agencies.  I’m only trying to say that if more members of Congress had direct input into the execution of government, they might find themselves more concerned with running government than changing the law).   Our system of electing one executive translates to a monopoly over execution of the government, and finding clever ways to ignore the laws passed by Congress if they don’t match their narrow set of interests.

But what is fundamentally lost in this structure of democracy is the innovation on how to execute government.  Each member of Congress comes with their own interests represented by their territory or their state.  Their goal – to legislate - add to the law, repeal the law – not necessarily fix the government bureaucracy that is already there.   Having worked on the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) for several years, I cannot blame critics of its execution – it did indeed add to our federal bureaucracy - but I also cannot deny the “fairness” it attempted to create in terms of access to coverage.

While acknowledging that the underlying goals of government are different than a profit-oriented business, both business and government share the value of maximizing the value for those who own it or own in it and consume its services. Whether it’s the owner of the business, the person who works hard at their job to feed their family, or us, the public owning our government – we all want to feel like we are doing the best we can so we can maximize the personal benefits.  If that means a more efficient and effective government and less taxation on all of us, then we all win. 

OVERCOMING OUR DIVISION

No party owns a monopoly on common sense or how government should work. 

As much as Republicans want to own “draining the swamp,” lowering taxes, and reducing the size of government, we don’t have to look far back to see taxpayer money flowing into private entities to fight a costly war in Iraq.  We don’t have to look much farther back to a time where the government ran a surplus and was a creditor nation instead of running a huge deficit.

To my democrats, while your goals to progress our government and build a more sustainable and fairer society are noble, you cannot deny that our government needs fixing first.  No sense in buying a new carpet if the leaky roof promises to destroy it.  We need to own up that even though many of the programs created by democrats over the past 100 years have resulted in a fairer society, there is still a lot of room for improvement before we add onto it.  We also need to own up that while our free trade policies have opened up more economic opportunity around the world, they have come at the expense of environmental degradation, a huge trade deficit, and exploitation by the same profit-driven forces that have abused the ideal balance between capitalism and living sustainability. 

We all deserve a government that is efficient.  We all deserve a government that is accountable.  We deserve a government that enforces fairness without compromising the drive of the individual to better their own life and that of their family.  We need to elect officials with a proven track record to execute government in an effective yet benevolent manner, appealing to our common and rational values to make sure government is run in the best interest of all Americans and with the least financial burden on the taxpayer.

If we can strike a fair deal between our two ruling parties – to focus on running a more efficient and effective government instead of focusing on the fringe issues that separate us politically; if we can open up the policy dialogue to other parties so that our apathetic citizens feel more represented within government; if we can modify our democracy to be fairer and give elected officials a greater incentive to focus on running a more effective government instead of adding to it or gutting it; and if we can recognize that we all paid for the road and we all have to travel that road in order to survive as a nation, then maybe we can build a more perfect union for ourselves and our future citizens. 

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