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Issue No. 74 (September 1, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Mushy middle? No way! A twelve-point creative-centrist agenda
The knock on the radical middle is that we’re mushy, ad-hoc, technocratic -- in a word, unprincipled.
That’s an especially damaging charge these days, when so many people seem to be longing for a principled political vision -- and so many political parties and movements seem to be offering one:
What is the radical middle offering? So far as most Americans are aware, a cacophony of wonkish books and high-level policy conferences.
Smart books . . . stimulating conferences. You and I should know. I write about them all the time here.
But in the turbulence of the early 21st century, how can anyone believe that books and policy conferences are enough?
To stir Americans' souls, we need to translate our insights into an agenda and a movement.
We need something like the Black Panthers’ famous “Ten-Point Plan” from 1967 -- “We want decent education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society,” etc. And we need a movement that would fight for such a plan.
Stumbling out of the gate
A movement may be in the works. Radical centrist bloggers from across the U.S. have been meeting monthly by conference call, and John Avlon, 32-year-old author of Independent Nation: How Centrism Can Change American Politics, is making arrangements for the first national gathering of creative-centrist politicians and activists this winter in New York City; see HERE.
But a movement without specific and galvanizing policy priorities will forever be toothless -- no real movement at all. And there are signs that radical middle activists haven’t grasped that yet:
-- The Centrist Coalition, a leading radical centrist website, is already offering viewers a chance to cast a fantasy vote for putative 2008 centrist presidential candidates. Surely that's putting the cart before the horse! First we need to know what our policy priorities are . . . then we need to find out which politicians are willing to stand up for them. Only then can we even begin to think about whom, if anyone, we should be backing.
-- The first radical centrist political agenda is now circulating on the Internet, New Democrat Network’s "Agenda for the First Decade of the 21st Century." But despite the obvious thought and care that’s gone into it, it is a total embodiment of the mushiness and wanting-to-have-it-both-ways incoherence I warned about at the beginning of this article. Here are some of the Mom and Apple Pie things it calls for, with no further explanation:
Twelve-Point Plan for caring & creative centrists
To inspire others to begin working on a principled, visionary, policy-specific, and galvanizing creative-centrist agenda, I offer a rough draft of one here.
I could never have pulled it together without the wonkish books and conferences referred to earlier; not to mention various exchanges I've had with many of you and a couple of this newsletter's Advisors over the last few weeks. . . .
1. Balanced budget amendment. As James Fallows memorably conveys in a recent article ("Countdown to a Meltdown," Atlantic Monthly, July-August 2005), current fiscal “policy” is going to bankrupt this nation, possibly even before the Baby Boom Generation now in charge dies off. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects record deficits totaling $1.2 trillion over the next five years alone.
Congress should pass a Balanced Budget Amendment. In an exuberant, contentious democracy, voluntary “pay-as-you-go” Congressional rules can never work. The Amendment should require Congress to raise enough revenue each year to cover the next year’s projected expenditures -- and to pay off some proportion of our mountainous debt as well. This will become much easier upon the adoption of #2 below. [For background reading on this and every other Agenda item, see “RE:SOURCES” section below.]
2. Flat tax. Our current tax system is wasteful beyond measure. Simply complying with the tax code imposes national costs exceeding $150 billion annually. And despite its ostensible “progressivity,” the code -- now 60,000 pages long -- is so riddled with loopholes that wealthy Americans end up paying far less than they should. A national sales tax could be easily evaded in the Internet age and would lead to endless political infighting (should Oreos be taxed?).
A flat tax should be adopted instead. A flat tax would scrap the entire tax code and tax all Americans at the same rate. Wage, investment, and pension income tax would be collected from individuals. A tax on profit would be collected from businesses. All deductions and credits would be eliminated. (Home mortgages would remain affordable because the flat tax would lower interest rates. Charities wouldn’t suffer since increases in giving have always closely tracked increases in income, even in years when the tax value of the charitable deduction declined.) Virtually the only income not subject to tax would be a generous personal exemption -- say $20,000 for a single adult and $40,000 for a family of four. That’s why the flat tax would be more progressive, in practice, than today’s so-called progressive income tax.
3. Patient capital. The only other income that wouldn’t be taxed is income on investments held for five years or more. Capitalism can’t work if investors only care about getting rich quick -- biggest single lesson from the Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, etc., scandals. It’s in everyone’s interest for American businesses to do long-range planning and build wealth over time rather than worry overmuch about short-term shareholder value.
4. Reduce oil dependence on the Middle East via requiring cleaner cars. A rather timid provision along these lines was deleted from President Bush’s energy bill, but for no good reason. Raising fuel economy standards is the most effective single way to reduce oil dependence -- cars and light trucks account for a whopping 40% of U.S. oil use. The average fuel economy of new passenger vehicles (cars and light trucks) has actually declined over time, from about 26 mpg in 1988 to 24 mpg today.
We should increase fuel economy standards for new passenger vehicles 5% per year for 10 years so that they reach 44 mpg for cars and 33 mpg for light trucks by 2015, with improvements of 3% per year beyond 2015. That level of improvement is technically feasible now and would not compromise vehicle safety. In addition, we should investigate energy consultant Amory Lovins’s claim that we can increase fuel economy standards even more quickly by shifting over to vehicles built with carbon composites (materials that are lighter than steel and even stronger in a crash).
5. Retirement security via a guaranteed minimum income for seniors. Social Security might or might not be a burning immediate issue -- but retirement security in general has rightly been called (by economist Robert J. Samuelson) the “central budget issue of our time.” Already Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid represent 42 percent of federal outlays. And the combined spending on Social Security and Medicare is expected to rise from 7% of GNP to 13% over the next 25 years alone. Obviously, this is not sustainable.
Social Security should be replaced ASAP by a guaranteed minimum income of $15,000 for all seniors over 65 and all disabled individuals (in other words, the government would simply make up the difference between a senior’s or disabled person’s annual income and $15,000 / year. Most seniors currently receive more than that through pensions and legacies alone). Social Security taxes would be eliminated, and the guaranteed minimum income for seniors would be funded out of the flat tax, #2 above. Medicare and Medicaid would be replaced by #6 below.
6. Universal health care via private insurance (and preventive care!). We now spend an astonishing 15% of our GNP on health care -- twice as much per capita as the major European nations -- and costs continue to soar with no end in sight. And 45 million of us are not even insured! Fundamental change is needed.
Every American should be required to buy a “basic minimum package” of private health insurance, just as every American who drives is required to buy auto insurance. Those who can’t readily afford health insurance should be subsidized by the government on a sliding scale. The basic minimum package, which insurers would be required to offer at fixed cost, should emphasize preventive care and offer credible “alternative” care options. In addition, spending on public health should be quadrupled ASAP. Once all that is done, total medical costs will decline -- and we’ll be healthier & happier to boot.
7. Education reform via providing great teachers for grades K-12. Without good schools, this country will not survive the high-tech / high-touch 21st century; and the only sure way to have good schools is to have great teachers who’ve been empowered to teach by their own creative lights and exercise discipline in their classrooms.
We should recruit great teachers by striking (or, if need be, forcing) what policy analyst Matthew Miller calls a “grand bargain” with the teacher unions. Teacher salaries would go up! In return, principals or school boards would be free to hire any teachers they choose; fire them much more easily than now (no child should have to endure a less than competent teacher); and pay them based on performance and need, rather than seniority. The most proficient K-12 teachers might eventually acquire the same social status as other high-performing professionals, and not just because of their six-figure incomes.
8. Give everyone a chance at psychological health via universal parental counseling and preschool. Education doesn’t begin in the classroom. Arguably, it begins in the womb (e.g., does the mother smoke? is she tense all day?), and psychologically a person’s most crucial years may be the first five! We should recognize this by including parental counseling in the “basic minimum” health care package, #6 above, and by offering free preschool to the children of all families earning under the flat-tax personal exemption.
9. Give everyone an economic stake in the system via giving every poor child a $10,000 “stakeholder account” at birth. It’s hard for kids to take their futures (and their schoolwork) seriously when they lack the resources other kids take for granted. Therefore, every child born into a family making less than the flat tax personal exemption, #2 above, should be given an untouchable $10,000 nest egg (aka "stakeholder account") at birth which could be used after national service, #10 below, for going to college, buying a first home, or starting a business. In addition, the government should agree to match whatever the child’s parents or other benefactors put into the account, up to $5,000 total. Thanks to the magic of compound interest, the stakeholder account should be worth “real money” by the time the kid is eligible to collect.
10. National security via universal national service. Military recruiting is becoming harder and more expensive (Army recruits can now receive over $100,000 in bonuses and extra pay). Meanwhile, on the home front, millions of socially necessary jobs are going undone, from patrolling the border to caring for stay-at-home elderly. Young Americans share fewer & fewer common experiences, and essential concepts like discipline and honor are falling away.
Americans should be drafted at age 18 or upon high school graduation -- all Americans, without exception, male and female, rich and poor, smart and not so smart. Draftees should be given four options: military service for three years, homeland defense service for two years, Peace Corps service for two years, or community service for one year, with benefits to match (GI bill type benefits for the former, subsistence pay for the latter).
11. National security via sharing our wealth and expertise with the developing world. It is unconscionable to live in a world with so much suffering without DOING anything about it. It is also not the safest way to live. Currently we spend only about 0.15% of our GDP on foreign assistance; most other large industrial nations spend about 0.25 - 0.45%. In 2002, at the Monterrey Summit, the U.S. along with most of the world’s other industrial nations committed to ramping that up to 0.7% of GDP in the, ah, not too distant future.
The U.S. should ramp up immediately. As development economist Jeffrey Sachs recently reminded us, if we spend that sum intelligently & in a hands-on way (a big “if”), then within 10 years we could cut world poverty in half, drastically reduce the incidence of serious diseases, greatly increase the number and quality of schools in developing countries, help devise and implement programs to strengthen labor ministries and combat government corruption, and much more.
12. National security via sharing our market with the developing world. Probably the biggest single thing we can do to help developing countries prosper is open our market to their products, especially agricultural products and textiles. Therefore, we should end our massive farm and cotton subsidies forthwith. “Let us make these unacceptable trade subsidies history,” British chancellor Gordon Brown recently cried, “let us make developed country protectionism history.” It is important to provide the anti-poverty and development assistance called for in #11 above. But radical middle activists understand that capital formation and creating an entrepreneurial middle class in developing countries is at least equally important.
So, shall we begin?
The 12-Point Creative-Centrist Agenda is not meant to be exhaustive or definitive. On the contrary, as I hope you could tell from my presentation, it is offered as a discussion document. It is meant to spur our thinking about what we want most.
It IS meant to be "radical middle," as distinct from left-wing or right-wing. It’s radical in that it seeks to address our most serious problems honestly & fundamentally. Hardly anyone in the mainstream political arena is doing that today. It’s middle in that it seeks to reform actual American institutions, rather than invent ideal ones or change human nature or put us on the road to socialism or libertarianism.
The Agenda is principled in another way too. Each item expresses at least one of what I've called the four key radical middle values: practice fiscal & environmental responsibility (#1-6 above), give everyone a fair start (#7-9), maximize human potential (#5-10), and help the developing world (#10-12).
If activists spend the next year collectively producing a creative-centrist agenda -- and then make it the centerpiece of a new political organization & movement -- I think millions of Americans would be inspired to think and dream politically again.
After all, most Americans are a lot closer to the bold and pragmatic radical center than they are to today's liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans. But the radical center has yet to find its institutional and programmatic voice.
Once we find that voice, we won't have to cast fantasy ballots for centrist politicians (as we're being encouraged to do on the Centrist Coalition website). The politicians will come to us.
All items in the 12-Point Creative-Centrist Agenda are being seriously discussed today -- if not by reporters from the mainstream media, then by policy analysts and activists:
1. Balanced budget. Concord Coalition, “10 Criteria for Judging How Budget Plans Measure Up” (rev. March 2003). Richard Lamm et al., “The Road to Generational Equity,” paper presented at International Conference Foundation Symposium (December 1995), p. 6. Jonathan Weisman, “GOP Drops Work on Balanced Budget,” Washington Post (30 September 2004). Compare Robert Bixby et al., “Joint Statement on the Need for Pay-as-You-Go Discipline,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities et al. (June 2005).
2. Flat tax. Richard Armey, “The Case for the Flat Tax: Testimony Before the President’s Commission on Tax Reform,” FreedomWorks (May 2005). Robert Hall & Alvin Rabushka, The Flat Tax (2nd ed., 1995). Jack Kemp & Ken Blackwell, eds., The IRS vs. The People (2005, orig. 1999), esp. chaps. 6, 10 & 11. Compare Maya MacGuineas, “Radical Tax Reform,” chap. 7 in Ted Halstead, ed., The Real State of the Union (2004; includes helpful charts & graphics that the online version lacks).
3. Patient capital. Jeffrey Garten, The Politics of Fortune (2002), esp. pp. 74-75. Allan Kennedy, The End of Shareholder Value (2000), esp. part 4. Richard Lamm et al., cited above, p. 10. Patient Capital Management Inc., website (showing how it's done in the real world). Mark Satin, Radical Middle (2004), p. 111.
4. Cleaner cars. Alliance to Save Energy et al., “Increasing America’s Fuel Economy” (February 2002), esp. p. 9. Jeffrey Ball, “Tilting at Energy Windmills,” Wall Street Journal (25 July 2005) (reporting on Amory Lovins’s ideas). Roger Ballentine & Jan Mazurek, “Clean Cars,” Progressive Policy Institute (March 2004). John Carey, “Taming the Oil Beast,” Business Week (24 February 2003), item 4. Howard Geller, “Testimony Before the [House] Energy Subcommittee” (3 May 2001), item 2. And purely for your reading pleasure: Danny Hakim, “E.P.A. Holds Back Report on Car Fuel Efficiency,” New York Times (28 July 2005).
5. Guaranteed income for seniors. Social Development Canada, “Guaranteed Income Supplement [for Seniors]” (December 2004). Various discussion papers, U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network. Various articles, Citizen Policies Institute. Compare Richard Lamm et al., cited above, p. 7 (advocating means testing for entitlements). Compare Peter Peterson, Running on Empty (2004), pp. 196-204 (advocating same).
6. Universal health care via private insurance. Ezekiel Emanuel & Victor Fuchs, “Solved! Why Universal Health Care Vouchers Is the Next Big Idea,” Washington Monthly (June 2005). Ted Halstead & Michael Lind, The Radical Center (2001), pp. 73-78. Matthew Miller, The Two Percent Solution (2003), chap. 5. Laurie Rubiner, “Insurance Required,” chap. 19 in Ted Halstead (ed.), cited above. Mark Satin, cited above, chap. 4.
7. Great K-12 teachers. Brian Crosby, The $100,000 Teacher (2002). Frederick Hess, Common Sense School Reform (2004); or Hess, "Status Quo versus Common Sense," Education Week (14 April 2004). Matthew Miller, cited above, chap. 6; or Miller, “A New Deal for Teachers,” chap. 16 in Ted Halstead (ed.), cited above; or Miller, "Honor Thy Teacher," New York Times (28 May 2005). Mark Satin, cited above, chap. 7. Peter Temes, Against School Reform and In Praise of Great Teaching (2002).
8. Parental counseling & preschool. Better Baby Care Campaign, website. First Five Association of California, website. Matthew Miller, cited above, pp. 181-82 (preschool). OhioHealth Parenting Classes, website. Zero to Three Policy Center, website.
9. “Stakeholder accounts.” Anne Alstott and Bruce Ackerman, The Stakeholder Society (1999). Ray Boshara, “The $6,000 Solution,” chap. 13 in Ted Halstead (ed.), cited above. Halstead & Lind, cited above, pp. 94-102. RESULTS, “Background Information on The ASPIRE Act and KIDS Accounts” (July 2004). Mark Satin, cited above, chap. 9.
10. Universal national service. Phillip Carter & Paul Glastris, “The Case for the Draft,” Washington Monthly (March 2005). Michael Lind, “Citizenship and Sacrifice,” The Responsive Community (Spring 2002). Charles Moskos & Paul Glastris, “Now Do You Believe We Need a Draft?,” Washington Monthly (November 2001). Mark Satin, cited above, chap. 12. Compare Will Marshall & Marc Magee, “The Voluntary Path to Universal Service,” Blueprint Magazine (23 July 2005).
11. Share our wealth -- smartly. Dick Bell & Michael Renner, “A New Marshall Plan?,” Worldwatch Institute (October 2001). James Fox & Lex Rieffel, “The Millennium Challenge Account: Moving Toward Smarter Aid,” Brookings Institution (July 2005). Onnesha Roychoudhuri, “The End of Poverty: An Interview with Jeffrey Sachs,” Mother Jones (6 May 2005). Mark Satin, cited above, pp. 169-70. U.N. Millennium Project (Jeffrey Sachs et al.), Investing In Development (2005).
12. Open our market to poor nations. Anne Applebaum, “Live 8 Meets Big 2,” Washington Post (6 July 2005). Edward Gresser, “Blank Spot on the Map,” Progressive Policy Institute (February 2003). Edward Gresser, “The Progressive Case for CAFTA,” Progressive Policy Institute (July 2005). Gary Hufbauer & Paul Grieco, “The Payoff from Globalization,” Institute for International Economics (June 2005). Mark Satin, cited above, pp. 142-43 & 169.
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