Monday, January 28, 2008

Put People to Work Instead of Sending Them Shopping

Where have you gone Franklin Roosevelt? A writer turns his lonely thoughts to you.

Legislation to stimulate the economy by sending out checks to every household in America should sail through Congress with little opposition. After all, what legislator is going to stand in the way? Why play the role of the Grinch when you can be one of a cast of hundreds playing Uncle Samta Claus, giving taxpayers the generous gift of their own money?

This quick, one-off version of tax relief won’t do any harm to the economy. Neither will it provide much of a stimulus. Some people will go shopping, but the spree won’t last long. A good chunk of the money spent will be used to purchase goods made in other countries, thereby muting the stimulative effect here in the USA. Other people may use the money to pay down personal debt. This will shift some of the overall level of indebtedness from personal accounts to the national debt, helping it reach the ten trillion dollar mark a few months earlier. Those of us who are debt-free may choose to add to our savings. (Who knows this might bump the national savings rate back into positive numbers.) When all is said and done the effect of this particular stimulus to the economy will be negligible and short-lived.

What is disturbing about this approach to staving off a recession is that a far more effective means of doing so is not even being discussed. Reports indicate that some Democrats are disappointed that the stimulus package will not include an extension of unemployment benefits. I am disappointed that the idea of putting people to work is not included. It is time once again for a liberal dose of New Deal-style public works programs.

I am aware that using the words "liberal" and "New Deal" will touch a raw nerve with many "conservatives" who have devoted a great deal of effort to dismantling the New Deal. Before the knee-jerk reaction sets in, (Oops! Too late!) I hasten to add that Ronald Reagan, among others, advocated replacing welfare with "workfare." Reagan believed that giving someone a hand up in the form of a job is preferable to giving them a hand-out in the form of welfare benefits. I agree.

The Employment Act of 1946 states that "it is the continuing policy and responsibility of the Federal government to use all practicable means . . . to foster and promote . . . useful employment opportunities . . . for those willing, able, and seeking to work and to promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power." I see little evidence of that policy. This would be a good time for Congress to actually assume that responsibility.

John Maynard Keynes prescribed a relatively simple formula for smoothing out the cycles of boom and bust that characterize unfettered capitalism. When the economy is heading into a recession, the government should cuts taxes and increase spending, incurring deficits in the process. When the economy is expanding, the government should raise taxes and cut spending in order to pay down the public debt that has accumulated. This allows the government to position itself to stimulate the economy again when the next downturn approaches, without amassing a ruinous level of indebtedness.

Politicians eagerly embrace the first half of Keynes formula because cutting taxes and/or increasing spending is always popular with voters. When the economy is expanding nicely and the opportunity to pay down the national debt presents itself, they may give lip service to the concept of fiscal responsibility, but fear for their jobs keeps them from actually doing anything to reduce the debt . Even in the best of times voters tend to punish legislators who raise taxes. Every cut in spending irritates those who were benefitting from the money being spent.

In a happy confluence of events for politicians, we find ourselves on the cusp of, or in the early stages of, a recession during an election year. Cutting taxes and/or increasing government spending is necessary. Putting unemployed or under-employed people to work will stimulate the economy more effectively than sending out gift certificates to people who have already done plenty of shopping.

There is work to be done. The need for repairs to our infrastructure is clear and growing. Assessments of bridges around the country show a substantial percentage in need of repair or replacement. The sewage systems in many of our cities need to be updated and/or replaced. A modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps could put people to work planting trees. Public works projects to address these and other problems would move able-bodied workers from the unemployment and/or welfare roles to gainful employment and stimulate the economy in the process.

The checks are coming. I don’t plan to go shopping. I have no debt to pay down. I will add to my savings.

An article in my local paper yesterday indicated that a fair percentage of the people they interviewed (a decidedly unscientific sample) indicated that they plan to pay down debt or save the money. I hope that turns out to be the case. Maybe if enough taxpayers demonstrate fiscal responsibility with their tax rebates, politicians will do the same when the economy heats up again and we have an opportunity to pay down the national debt.

If the "shopping spree" approach to stimulating the economy is as ineffective as I anticipate, I hope that Congress will dust off the New Deal play-book and fight recession with public works projects.

All I am saying is give Keynes a chance!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Make the House of Representatives More Representative

What's the job of the candidate in this world? The job of the candidate is to raise the money to hire the consultants to do the focus groups to figure out the 30-second answers to be memorized by the candidate. This is stunningly dangerous. - Newt Gingrich

Would some change-minded candidate or other kindly inform the American people what this business amounts to? Change what into what? - William Murchison

I’m not a candidate for anything, but one change I believe we should make is to change the House of Representatives into a legislative body that more effectively represents the will of the people. To this end, I propose a constitutional amendment providing for proportional representation in the House of Representatives.

Under the present system each state is divided into congressional districts and voters elect a single representative from their district. With proportional representation voters nationwide would each cast a vote for a political party and its slate of candidates. Political parties would nominate ordered lists of candidates pledged to support that party’s platform. Seats would be awarded to each party based on its percentage of the total number of votes cast nation-wide.

This approach would allow candidates for, and members of, the House of Representatives to focus on participating in drafting their party’s platform. It would relieve them of the burden of raising huge amounts of money to fund individual campaigns. This, in turn, would keep them from becoming indebted to special interest groups. Reducing the influence of special interests would go a long way toward improving the approval ratings of Congress and would begin to restore our faith in government.

If this amendment were to pass, the real action for members of the House of Representatives would take place during the run-up to each party’s convention and the convention itself, as they engaged in serious discussions of which issues should be included in the party platform and how each issue should be addressed. While it would be up to each party to determine just how strong of a commitment its candidates would be expected to make with regard to supporting the party platform, members of the party gaining a majority of the seats in the House would logically be expected (by voters as well as the party) to support their party’s platform.

Drafting a platform was once a vital part of the nominating conventions of political parties. The platform is supposed to define the party’s positions on the issues of the day and offer some idea of what the party hopes to accomplish. Today, however, the nominating conventions of the major parties have become little more than coronations formalizing the nomination of a presidential candidate who has already secured the number of delegates needed to win the nomination. By making party platforms and the conventions at which they are written meaningful again, proportional representation would provide an incentive for civic-minded citizens to get more actively engaged within party organizations.

With the focus shifted from individual candidates to party platforms, the sort of attack ads that have come to dominate political campaigns would be pointless in elections for members of the House. The fact that voters would be choosing between parties based largely on each party’s platform, as opposed to the personalities or peccadillos of individual candidates, would promote debates between political parties that would highlight the differences in their plans for addressing issues of importance to the nation.

I believe that most of our legislators ran for political office initially because they have a genuine interest in the give and take of dealing with political issues. I doubt that they are happy about being under constant pressure to raise money. Many of them would undoubtedly welcome the opportunity to spend more of their time devising solutions to the problems we face as a nation.

Political reporters must also be getting a bit bored with simply reporting the results of the latest polls and providing updates on the amount of money raised by each candidate. Even their "informed discussions" of strategy and momentum are a hollow exercise at heart. Covering the process of drafting party platforms and commenting on the details of each party’s proposals would clearly be more engaging for serious-minded members of the media. It would afford them the opportunity to participate in debates and discussion about how the issues and problems facing our nation should be addressed. It would cast them in the vital role of helping voters compare the agendas of various parties.

If we were to succeed in shifting a considerable amount of media attention to party platforms, formal debates could be restructured to do a lot more to help voters make informed decisions on election day. Instead of each candidate reciting their pre-programed responses to questions posed by the moderators, a series of in-depth discussions of the proposals included in each party’s platforms, with each debate focused on a different issue, would highlight the similarities and differences between the parties. Political parties could select one or more party members to represent the party in each debate.

Once elected, the members of the party winning a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives should have no problem getting the legislative proposals included in their party’s platform passed by the House. Combined with the fact that members of the House are elected every two years, this would make the House of Representatives much more responsive to the will of the voters. This is in line with the intention of the Founding Fathers that the House of Representatives would be the most democratic part of the Federal government.

The system of checks and balances provided for in the Constitution would remain in place. The Senate would have to concur with the legislation approved by the House. The president would retain the power to veto legislation. And the Supreme Court could still declare a law to be unconstitutional. It would be up to voters to decide whether to vote a straight party ticket (for the Senate, the House, and the president), thereby reducing gridlock, or to split their vote. (Some people like gridlock.)

The system of representation in Congress provided for in the U. S. Constitution was the end result of a compromise between representatives from the small states and the large states. The small states wanted to retain the provision in the Articles of Confederation giving each state an equal number of representatives, regardless of its population. The large states wanted representation based on population. The Connecticut Compromise provided for a bicameral legislature consisting of a Senate where each state would be equally represented regardless of the size of its population and a House of Representatives, where the number of representatives from each state would be determined by population.

This was a necessary and effective compromise at the time, but it failed to take full advantage of the concept of a bicameral legislature. Having both senators and representatives represent geographic regions (states and districts within states, respectively) is redundant. Furthermore, under the system devised over two hundred years ago, we have a "national" government without a single component that represents the nation, as opposed to the states.

In the early years of the republic most citizens of the United States identified strongly with the state in which they resided, considering themselves to be "New Yorkers" or "Virginians," etc. This is no longer the case. While some people (particularly sports fans) may identify strongly with their state (or city or alma mater), when it comes to political matters most of us consider ourselves to be "Americans." It is time for at least one part of the national government to represent the interests of the nation as a whole.

Proportional representation is not a new or an untested idea. It is quite common in other democratic governments around the world. Nor is this sort of change in the Constitution unprecedented. In a change necessitated by the rise of political parties, the Twelfth Amendment provided for the electoral college to cast separate votes for president and vice-president and provided a method for resolving elections in which no candidate received a majority of the electoral votes cast. Under the Seventeenth Amendment, direct election of senators by the voters within each state replaced election by state legislatures.

Our political process is in dire need of repair. Our elections have degenerated into a witches brew of fund-raising and advertising. Far too many of the ads paid for with the money raised are attack ads. Even the positive ads amount to nothing more than catch phrases designed by each candidate’s advisors to evoke a Pavlovian response from voters. Slogans, sound bites, talking points, and rhetorical platitudes, address the mood of the electorate, while carefully avoiding saying anything of substance.

Every candidate earnestly assures us that he or she will provide quality health care for all, improve education, help the U. S. achieve energy independence, support family values, and keep us safe from terrorists. Furthermore, they promise to cut taxes and balance the budget.

Like all good illusionists, they are careful not to reveal the details of how they plan to implement this amazing balancing act. Serious, in-depth discussions of the problems facing our nation and the issues of the day take place in forums on the Internet and in the op-ed pages of newspapers and magazines, but are missing in action during political campaigns.

This year’s hottest political buzz word is "change." And the main thing voters want to change is the political culture in Washington. Approval ratings for Congress are even lower than for President Bush. (Not an easy feat!) Providing for proportional representation in the House of
Representatives would make our government more responsive, more democratic, and more effective. Voters who are serious about wanting change should find out which candidates would support this amendment and vote for them.

A couple of footnotes:
1) If this amendment were to pass, it would need to include a provision to alter the Twelfth Amendment which provides for the House to elect the president with a vote by states if no candidate for president wins a majority of electoral votes. I would suggest having the House choose between the two candidates with the most electoral votes (instead of the top three), with each member (as opposed to each state) having one vote.
2) The same redundancy with regard to members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate representing geographic areas, is true of all of the state legislatures (except Nebraska, which has a unicameral legislature). Voters in each state who support the idea of proportional representation should encourage their state legislatures to pass similar amendments to their state constitution.

A final note:
Assuming that you are in agreement with this modest proposal, where do we go from here? You don’t need to join a political action committee or make a financial donation. You simply need to help spread the word. Send a copy of this essay to everyone you know who might be interested in making our government more responsive to the will of the voters. Be sure to include your representatives in Congress and your state legislature.

© 2008 Gary Winston Apple
Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Permission is hereby granted to make or post copies of this essay for non-commercial use, provided the copyright notice is included in the copy.