Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How I would fix America

Today's post is inspired by both a facebook debate and some email correspondence with my favorite "soulless conservative corporate farmer", Mark Borba.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mark, he has been not only a good friend and mentor, but has made it possible for me to experience some amazing and insightful opportunities, from our entertaining and spirited breakfast debates, to meeting with local politicians, to sponsoring my attendance of an incredibly eye-opening campaign workshop.  For whatever reason, he believes in my ability and wants to see me succeed, and for that I am truly thankful.  Not only that, but he constantly challenges my beliefs and opinions, which I couldn't be happier about.  Having a spirited political back and forth with Mark is like practicing a musical instrument, or training for an athletic competition.  I have to push myself and really work at it, he doesn't cut me any slack and while he would surely downplay his intellect, he's all over me when I don't choose my words carefully enough and leave myself open for rebuttal.  Overall, it makes me a better debater, it helps me more clearly define my positions and it's a great primer for what awaits me as I continue down the path I have laid out for myself.

Well, in the course of our conversation yesterday, I came to a conclusion about the 3 things that I would do, if I were president, that I think would really get our country back on track.  After hearing my ideas, Mark is now convinced that I'm a conservative deep down.  I've never claimed not to agree with some conservative tenets, so I don't disagree with that assessment on principle.  However, whatever conservative values I hold are only given lip service at best by the Republicans in politics today.  My conservative values are not reflected by the so-called "conservatives" in the GOP.  This is why I jumped ship and became a Libertarian (much to the chagrin of my Democrat friends).  I want to see real changes and real reforms and real ideas to get America out of the pit of stagnation and working-class anemia we're in, but all I'm hearing in Washington right now are two different sides of the "more of the same" coin, and I can't subscribe to that newsletter.

So, I have come up with a 3-step plan that I believe would do far more to rebuild our nation's economy, create real 21st century businesses and produce a new generation of students and a society of adults who are more empowered and prepared than ever to once again compete and succeed in the global marketplace.

1) Business and Regulatory Reform.

Right now, one of the biggest complaints that I hear from business owners that I speak to, be they small, medium or large, is that over-regulation kills business growth.  I see the logic in this, I understand where they're coming from, and to a large extent, I completely agree.  I think regulatory agencies are out of control in terms of size and operational cost, and they are supporting their bloat through an ever-increasing amount of rules and regulations that serve as little more than an excuse to levy more fees and fines to generate income to keep themselves operating.  Now, if you know me, you know how I feel about necessary and essential regulation.  I truly believe we need regulation to make sure we have clean air and water, safe food and medicine and a common-sense rulebook by which business should be expected to operate.  However, I think our regulatory agencies have gone far beyond that and are consumed by minutiae, to the detriment of businesses and the working class.

So, it's time to trim the fat.  It's time to reform agencies like the EPA, the FDA and so on.  I'm not talking about creating a corporate food-producer's dream world, free of regulations and pesky laws that say you can only have so much rat feces in your meat before you have to label it.  I'm talking about getting rid of laws that exist only to give these agencies an excuse to charge fees to businesses.  I'm talking about laws that have less to do with making sure the people have clean air and water or safe food and medicine and more to do with getting a fatter check to keep paying for operational costs.  It's not hard to come up with a common-sense framework of regulation to protect the environment and the people - that's what these agencies were founded on - so let's keep the regulations that we need and eliminate the ones we don't, and if that means we cut hundreds of thousands of regulatory agency jobs in the process, that's ok because if the private sector is empowered to start building and operating back in America again, there will be plenty of private sector jobs to take their place.

Again, I'm not talking about letting factories dump sludge into rivers, I'm not talking about metal shavings in your baby food.  I'm talking about cutting the waste, cutting the redundancy and empowering businesses to start building new locations and hiring workers again, without fear of being regulated and "fee-levied" into the ground for it.

2) Tax Reform.

The second most common complaint that I hear from business owners, and probably the biggest complaint you will hear from anyone in this country who works for a living is about our broken tax system.  The Republican solution, in a nutshell, is "lower taxes for the rich, that will solve everything".  The Democratic solution, in a nutshell, is "raise taxes on the rich, that will solve everything".  Well, neither of those two approaches will solve anything.

You can't simply raise taxes on the rich, because they will retaliate by exploiting loopholes, moving their business operations overseas and all the other means by which corporations legally "launder" their profits to avoid paying as much of their domestic tax obligation as possible.  Not only that, but it gives them a perfect excuse to lay off 10% of their workforce, blame it on "big government taxes" and throw another log on that angry, Tea Party fire.

Likewise, you can't simply lower taxes on the rich, just on the merit of calling them "job creators" because there is statistical data that shows very clearly that lowering upper-class taxes for the last 30 years hasn't stimulated job growth at all.  In fact, the lower corporate and upper-income taxes have been since 1980, the slower the job growth and the higher the unemployment rate.  Giving more money to the richest people and businesses in America to keep doing nothing significant to help create jobs and grow the economy is subsidizing failure, and I'm about subsidizing success.

So, my tax plan is this - you want tax breaks for being a job creator?  Prove it to the IRS!

First, close all the exploitable loopholes in our tax code.  This doesn't mean taking away the legitimate right of a business owner to write off standard deductions and enjoy the tax breaks to which they are rightfully entitled - it means doing away with rewarding companies who ship jobs overseas, who abuse tax shelters as a means of "laundering" profit and who kill jobs to generate profits and then essentially scam their way out of paying taxes on it.  It means some major changes to the way we tax capital gains and "carried interest" that allow Wall St. barons, trust fund babies and "unemployed" investors who make billions a year from interest and investments and pay an average 21% or lower tax rate - a rate lower, by the way, than a middle class family making $100,000 in household income.  People who earn their money from businesses - either as owners or employees - are taxed at a much higher rate than people who "make money with money", so that needs to be corrected.  A progressive tax system should be truly progressive.  It shouldn't punish some wealthy people because they work for a living and actually produce something besides more wealth.  Instead, it should reward businesses and wealthy individuals who create jobs, invest in our future, expand their businesses and contribute to research, innovation and education.

Like I said, prove it to the IRS.

If you want to be called a "job creator" then create some jobs!  I would give tax credits to every business that creates new jobs, scaling based on the size of the business and the total percentage by which they grew their workforce, so that smaller businesses can be rewarded as much, or more, for hiring a handful of new employees as a big corporation is for hiring a thousand.  There would be some conditions, though.  You can take advantage of that tax credit for 2 years, meaning you don't have to hire new people every year, but you have to keep those new positions filled for at least 10 months out of each of the 2 years.  It doesn't mean you have to keep the same person in that job, if they suck and don't want to work, go ahead and fire them, but you have 2 months each year to fill that position again with someone else.  Every 2 years, you would have to hire more employees or contribute an in-kind donation to some sort of career-training program to continue receiving the credit.  But, to get in the system in the first place, you have to hire some new employees.

Next, I would give tax credits to any and all businesses that contribute to privately-funded research and development grants for universities and other research firms.  Give a portion of your profits to a general fund that awards research grants to schools and institutions and you get a tax credit based on the amount you contribute.  Basically, help take the burden off the government to pay for everything, and the government will take some of the burden off of you as well.  The goal here is to stimulate development of 21st century production industries, so that we can move the American economy back to being production-based again.  The backbone of our economy is the working class, and historically speaking, the best way to strengthen that backbone is with a robust and prosperous production economy.  If other countries have taken all of the "traditional" production industries, then it's time to find the next generation of production and perfect it ahead of the rest of the world, then we will be back on top as the envy of the world in quality and innovation in our industrial sector.  Not to mention, this would create hundreds of thousands of good, solid middle-class jobs.  Jobs that people would be proud to have.

Lastly, I would give tax credits to every business that invests in education and training to create a 21st century workforce for those 21st century jobs.  This goes hand-in-hand with the 3rd part of my plan, in fact.  Basically, though, what I am proposing is a tax credit for businesses that sponsor vocational training programs in high schools and colleges, who offer hands-on training and educational tools and who help to make every classroom in America as high-tech and competitive as possible.  It's an investment that pays off twice for businesses - first by earning you a tax credit right off the bat and second by training a better-prepared and more highly-skilled workforce in the future.

3) Education and Entitlement Reform.

Much like our tax policy, our education and social entitlement policies are dated, inefficient and, in many cases, simply broken.  We can create better, stronger and more efficient business through incentives like the ones I mentioned, but without skilled labor prepared to enter that job market and compete and succeed globally, it won't result in more domestic jobs and a truly stronger American economy.

Step one is education reform.

We need to completely change our approach to public education in this country.  We need to change the curriculum and the objectives of education at all grade levels.  All of the basic, general ed material should be taught at the elementary level - it is called "elementary school" after all.  This is where children should learn how to read and write, do math up to the algebra level, learn about their state, US and world history, study civics and social sciences, learn the natural and physical sciences and develop essential critical thinking, communication and reasoning skills.

High school would be much like junior colleges are today.  Instead of continuing to focus on the redundant teaching of general ed curriculum with a handful of electives, high school would instead be where students begin to decide where their strengths lie and what they're interested in pursuing as a career goal and choose "majors" to help them work towards that goal.  You should know how to read, write and do basic math by the time you're a freshman in high school.  You should know your basic history, civics and economics.  You should have all of the general ed stuff down pretty pat by then, because primary and elementary schools will be designed and empowered to provide more than adequate education in those departments.  Thus, when you enter high school as a freshman, you will be given an advanced "general ed" core course load that would focus on "tradeskill" mathematics, advanced sciences, business and economic fundamentals and advanced civics and social studies courses.  From there, you would be able to choose electives to explore potential career paths and see where your interests are strongest, so that the student would be prepared to pursue a career-based "major" that they would begin working towards their sophomore year.

From the sophomore year on, students would learn a customized curriculum based on their career preference and post-graduate goals.  If a student is interested in science, they would be given a curriculum that focused on advanced sciences and mathematics, critical thinking and theory and it would include hands-on research and training, sponsored by businesses and industries looking to take advantage of those sweet tax credits I mentioned before and interested in training a better, smarter and more efficient workforce to employ after graduation.  Likewise, if a student is interested in law, they would get a curriculum focusing on communication, pre-law courses, civics and social sciences.  They would get hands-on training in the workings of the legal system.  This would apply to all major career paths, from science and medicine to mechanics and engineering, from politics and law to criminal justice and civil planning, from arts and entertainment to business and investment.  Students graduating from high school would be prepared to either enter the workforce at a low-level position and enjoy a decent, albeit modest living, or they could continue their education at the university level and work towards an advanced degree without wasting time and money rehashing the same old general ed curriculum over and over.

The main objective of my education plan is to teach students to be goal-oriented and career-minded from a much earlier age, so that they can gain a greater understanding of the importance of their education when they're still young enough for it to sink in and influence their decision-making.  Thus, creating a more vested interest in continuing that education.  A child who is motivated to learn will learn, that's all there is to it.  Students who are challenged, academically, rise to meet that challenge, almost without exception.  If you can see a direct relationship between the classes you're taking in school and the job you will have when you graduate, that gives you a better focus and a greater interest in learning.  If high school students are treated more like young adults and less like older kids and given the responsibility and authority to choose their own way in life, that gives them a vested interest in their education.  They're not learning because they have to learn this stuff, they're learning because they want to learn this stuff.  Students who are engaged, challenged and vested in their education don't drop out.  They don't risk their future with things like teen pregnancy and drug use.  They care about where they want to go in life and they make sensible and responsible decisions to get there.  It's been statistically proven over and over - the more engaged a student is in their future and achieving their goals, the more likely they are to do it.

Step two is entitlement reform.

I've often said that I believe in "hand-ups" not "hand-outs".  Now, I've already showed how I would reform "hand-outs" at the top of the economic food chain, so here's how I would reform them at the bottom.

GW Bush passed the much-criticized "no child left behind" bill during his presidency.  I personally believe in "no American left behind".  I believe that, as we change the attitudes of children in our educational system, we can change the attitudes of parents and adults who are struggling and living in and out of government programs as well.

First, major overhaul of the welfare system in this country.  Clinton was on the right track when he passed "welfare to work", but it wasn't enough.  If a state or federal employee wants a government check, they have to work for it.  So, why should a welfare recipient be any different?  If you're a single mom on welfare, you can either work within your state or local community to earn your benefits, or you can enroll in school and work towards a degree if you don't already have one.  There would be on-site daycare provided at all state colleges and technical schools, so you could still spend time with your kids while taking classes, but you would have to enroll in a minimum number of units per semester and maintain a passing GPA to continue receiving benefits.  The goal is to get you to a point where you can provide for yourself, without government assistance, as quickly and efficiently as possible.  For non-parents receiving government benefits, same options apply - you can either work within your community and earn your benefits through your service, or you can go to school and work towards a degree.  Either way, you're not getting something for nothing, you're earning your benefits and gaining skills and experience that will help you get back on your feet and off the program.  Welfare was never intended to be a lifestyle, only a temporary relief, and it needs to be reformed to work that way again.

Nobody should be working for nothing.  If you get a government check and you are remotely able-bodied, you should be giving something back by way of personal service to compensate for that check or those benefits.  If you are in a wheelchair, but can still see, hear and talk and can still use your hands, then we'll help train you to work with computers, in communication, customer service, data processing, anything that you can do within your physical limitations to get you out and in the workforce or to provide a service in exchange for your continued benefits.

Lastly, we need to break the cycle of "children having children".  Teenage girls need to stop thinking of getting pregnant and going on welfare as a viable life decision.  If you have a baby before the age of 18, you are automatically required to enroll in parenting classes.  Upon completion of those classes, you will be entered into the reformed welfare system and required to take college classes and work towards your degree.

Any parent who refuses to participate in the system because they don't want to work or go to school to earn their benefits absolutely has the right to not sign up for them.  However, children are the most important part of this equation and if a parent isn't providing a decent, stable and positive environment for their children to live in, then CPS will step in.  It might be harsh, but we have a country to save here, and cycles of poverty and hopelessness to break.

Likewise, if adults don't want to participate in the program and work to earn their benefits, they don't have to either.  But, there will be a lot of new, highly-trained criminal justice graduates patrolling the streets as law enforcement officers and we're not going to let you continue to live a criminal lifestyle in the slums and ghettos of America as an easy way out of being a responsible, contributing member of society.  You can either crack books in school or press license plates in prison, but one way or another, you're gonna get put to work.

So, that's it.  That's my 3-step plan to creating jobs, growing and rebuilding our nation's economy on a solid foundation and creating a 21st century workforce for 21st century jobs.  This is how I would reduce government spending and make what we do spend more efficient and effective.  This is how I would get the private sector actively involved in the public good, not by forcing them at the risk of punishment, but by enticing them with the promise of reward.  Basically, this is how I would get America working for America again.  "Hand-ups" not "Hand-outs".  To me, this is how we truly share the wealth in this country - not by spreading the money around, but by spreading the opportunity.  Not by giving people fish, but by teaching them to fish.

I don't believe in subsidizing failure, I believe in subsidizing success.

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