19 March 2010

IV - What I Think the Government Should Actually Do

I’m not a libertarian. I look at the libertarians and I see people who probably have some good ideas but are so in thrall to their own philosophy that they take it to its (il)logical conclusion. I’m not a conservative either, by any definition common in America. I think of myself as a liberal in the classical or European sense but even that definition is incomplete. Like nearly all thoughtful people I can’t fit myself into any of the established boxes. The established boxes were established so people wouldn’t have to be thoughtful any more.

I don’t pretend to be consistent, either. But here goes.

This is a very big country, and infrastructure is absurdly important. Privatizing the national road and rail network is a fool’s errand, but so is letting the existing infrastructure fall apart because we lack the funding to actually get stuff repaired, replaced, and properly constructed in the first place. Roads and bridges are over capacity and showing their age; maintaining a functioning and world-class infrastructure system is vital to maintaining any sort of economic edge on a shrinking planet. The United States should be doubling or tripling spending on infrastructure for the next decade or so, and then leaving such spending at higher general levels, to maintain a safe and efficient transportation and utility network nationwide.

Energy is probably the most expensive single commodity on Earth and is likely to remain that way, and while Americans need to reduce their energy consumption individually, that’s only going to take us part of the way. The government needs to be funding research into alternative and renewable energy sources. I’d like to stop having to care about what happens in the Middle East, and every other basketcase country ruled by oil, but we’re not going to manage that by drilling off the coast of Florida. What’s more, the government needs to be encouraging private enterprise to develop and implement energy alternatives as well, through R&D grants, tax breaks, and loans. We can spend the money on this now, or we can fight Iran later. European countries would be wise to do the same thing, with Russia as their bogeyman instead of Iran, and just think how nice it would be to combine the scientific and business minds of America and Europe and Japan together on this project. We can certainly make huge strides in clean energy technology but not without spending some money to do it and making it a priority.

The government needs to be spending more money on research and development in general, focusing especially on university-level research via direct grants, but also by supporting corporate R&D through tax breaks and credits. Advances in learning will keep the American economy buoyant, and leadership in technological innovation will always trump cheap labor in the global economy. American companies will always be inclined to ship manufacturing jobs overseas to find cheaper labor (there will always be poor countries; today China, tomorrow southeast Asia, then Africa—it will be centuries before there is a worldwide convergence of personal incomes), but R&D will always be done here, if we make it a priority.

I am a green, I’ll admit it, and it may make my libertarian friends howl, but the United States needs to stay in the business of protecting the land and the environment. You may argue that infrastructure spending should be privatized, the post office, all sorts of things, and I’ll listen politely and may even change my mind if you’re persuasive enough. But the environment is a common resource, and the tragedy of the commons holds sway. It is always more profitable to pollute than not to pollute, unless nearly all other actors decide to stop polluting. It is always more profitable to develop land than to leave it pristine. You may think privatizing Yosemite National Park is fine, but I will tell you, there will be a hotel on Half Dome if you do that. It will destroy the beauty of the valley forever, but somebody will make a profit, and if there’s a profit to be made, someone will damn the public outcry and make it. The federal government may not need to hold 80% of the land area of Nevada or whatever it is, but the national parks, monuments, and forests need to be held on to. Let private property owners do what they need to with their property, it’s their right, but much federal land should remain off limits, or we’ll find there’s no place left that’s natural. Similarly pollution standards need to be upheld, perhaps tightened, but definitely need to be treated to rigorous scientific analysis so that we can be sure we’ve got the best anti-pollution program, not merely the strictest or the simplest. I consider global climate change a fact, not an opinion, but I don’t think a flat quota is a good way to reduce carbon emissions. Instead the government needs to be finding a way to make it worthwhile for companies to reduce their carbon footprints, and for individuals to reduce their as well, with a stairstepped series of taxes and rebates.

I do believe there is a need for a social safety net. There will always be people who lose their jobs, who can’t work for a period of time, children left orphaned, elderly folks left without family to care for them, poor families who need help climbing the ladder to prosperity. I can’t imagine an America that doesn’t care for these people. Unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, unemployment payments for jobseekers, student loans, tax-free education savings accounts, a well-funded and strictly monitored foster care system, payments to landlords who offer below-market-rate housing (that meets minimum quality requirements), pension payments to the elderly who lack a family to support them… we need these things. We do. But they should never be a dominant percentage of the budget; they are meant to be a safety net, not a way of life.

I’m all for a strong national defense, and a strong volunteer military. The troops should be well housed, fed, and paid, and they should have the best equipment. We have to be able to project force abroad and win a traditional war, but we also need to be ready and able to manage a long-term occupation, peacekeeping activities, and counter-insurgency, things we haven’t really built our military to do. Reforming some aspects of the service will be expensive but is necessary. I don’t feel we spend too much on defense now, but it isn’t always spent well.

There are lots of other smaller things the government should do, too, things that aren’t terribly expensive or invasive. Farm loans, especially to small farmers. Intelligence—especially if it’s actually intelligent—and domestic security (though civil liberties should outweigh domestic security); the judiciary; diplomacy and foreign aid (which needs to be significantly reformed but is a tiny, tiny proportion of our budget and should not be cut); and heck, I even still believe the post office performs a necessary and important role.

And if we could eliminate the two biggest drains on our budget, we could spend the money paying down our debt, and then give fat tax breaks to companies for maintaining strong pension systems for their employees, and to families for caring for elderly relatives, and offer everyone an annual payment to help defray the cost of health insurance. And with lower overall taxes, health insurance wouldn’t be so unaffordable. And with less debt, the country as a whole could revisit the idea of a more expansive health care system—something I’m open to—that wouldn’t force the nation to go broke.

That’s what I think government should be doing. But that, all of the above that I’ve mentioned, is about a quarter of what we actually spend our money on.

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