A Society for the 21st Century.

A Society for the 21st Century.

Looking forward there are two areas that I think will define the type of society we can create moving into the 21st century. The first is how to transfer wealth which has been accumulating with the upper tiers of earners to other areas of society which have been underfunded, the second involves creating a mindset that allows us to welcome those who are underemployed into society, finding meaning for their lives and a way for them to have economic security. These are two new and potentially chronic problems that will require a restructuring as to how we think about society. The reason is that the old model will no longer work, productivity levels, especially when robotics become used even more, won’t allow for low unemployment rates moving forward, and the continued effects of this and globalization will work to keep wages depressed. This doesn’t mean that there may not spurts of growth which work to offset these things, but we can no longer expect everyone who is able to find meaningful work, and employers will have no reason to pay those who do well.

I can offer some ideas that I think may help these issues, but as I outlined earlier I am in favor of setting up laws which promote economic and social justice, and then allowing people to develop systems on their own. It is extraordinarily difficult to design systems that people must live in, but people will find ways to live if you can simply keep them from being exploited. One question we must ask ourselves in the process of doing this is to what degree are we willing to re-make society? For instance to what degree should corporations be dismantled? Should they simply be regulated to the point where they no longer pose threats, or should they be driven to extinction? From a purely practical standpoint the second may be easier to achieve after the first, but remember that corporations, and capitalists, are not free marketeers, and if we are to attack something it should be more the capitalists than the free markets, (even though free markets themselves benefit from a healthy dose of regulation). In any rate I shall offers ideas covering a range of approaches, knowing that where we go will depend on many factors.

First off I would like to get something out of the way. There is an incredible bias against paying people to not do anything. This is really too bad since with the amount of funds we have in the investment sector right now we would be far better off giving a lot of that money to other people, even if they weren’t doing anything. Right now in the U.S. we have a hodgepodge of programs that addresses this, unemployment insurance, aid to dependent children, disability payments, etc. This system is supposed to make it difficult to sit around and not do anything, and I suppose it does, but it is still a disorganized and schizophrenic way of treating the problem of underemployment.

We would be better off paying people to do nothing because these people would spend any money given to them, and that is the lifeblood of an economy. That and we must recognize that while the initial beneficiaries of these benefits may just decide to give up looking for work, but the true benefit to society will come from their children. It is natural for parents to want their children to do better than they did, it is natural for a lot of children to want the same. Rather than creating a culture of dependence we can set the bar for achievement in these communities. And consider this, in 2012 corporate profits were about 1.5 trillion dollars. If even half of that were used to fund employment you could create 15 million jobs that paid $50,000.00 a year. You could essentially erase the unemployment problem in the United States.

As far as the problem of corporations pooling profits there is a creative option for dealing with this that maintains the existing corporate structure. If the problem is that corporations have no need to pass along profits in the form of wages due to the global labor glut then a system could be set up by which everyone in the country is entitled to set amount of shares in a fund which is supported through corporate and business tax revenues, these shares would pay regular dividends. This concept may rankle many, entitling those who have done nothing with proceeds from those who have worked hard. But the fact is that we are all in this together, and everyone contributes to the society in which we live, even if it by not doing things which could cause the society to fall apart. There could be any number of conditions placed upon these shares but the point is to get the money to the people who will spend it, because people being able to spend money is what will drive the economy forward.

There is an interesting anecdote to relate as concerns how labor will be utilized in the absence of support from government spending or a robust wage scale, which while its real world applications in economics may be limited it does show how we sometimes look at things in a very narrow light. This anecdote is the anecdote of the camping trip. While socialist type organizations are often the focus of much criticism consider the camping trip. You and a group of people you know embark on a camping trip, some may be friends some friends of friends. Upon packing, unpacking, transporting, setting up and running the camp many things require organization. Not only that but many things require sharing, perhaps someone brought a fishing pole, another brought a deck of cards, etc. yet all these tasks are done with very little effort on everyone’s part to organize the group. Now you may have some take charge type people, and you may have some people who don’t work very hard, but everyone finds a place and contributes to make the trip a success without any sort of top down leadership. Clearly it is possible for people to work together on something other than the basis of self interest. There is another story that can relate to the idea of community based cooperation. This story isn’t an anecdote, it is rather an actual story about how humans interacted in a pre-money pre market society. Now there is a common conception that people bartered to make things work in such societies, but this usually wasn’t the case. They did barter, but typically only when dealing with strangers that they never anticipated seeing again. In many cases what they did in their communities was work on informal credit relations, which we do even today. For instance, maybe while you are on vacation I offer to mow your yard, since it is small and right next to mine. While my doing that for you is not formally acknowledged as a debt to me there is an informal understanding that if, in the future, I need a hand you will give it to me. Maybe you will give me your bag of charcoal when I start to barbecue and find that I have run out. This is how exchange occurred in many early human societies. People kept informal accounts as to what they contributed and took from each other. What do these instances mean for how we can deal with the problems outlined previously? That is something I don’t have a clear answer for, and I believe it would be foolish to set out some system that one expects people to operate in, it is better to try to lay out some guidelines and then let a natural evolution occur. In any event the main point is that we need to free ourselves from the narrow set of expectations from human relations that free market economics, and capitalism have taught us.

One thing we should bear in mind when we consider alternatives to our current economic model is how we are shaped by our environment. Not only is our environment a reflection of us, it shapes us. Our behaviors are shaped by what we need to do to live and maintain our societies, if you change the world you change the people, so it is a mistake to expect people to operate in similar ways to what they do under our current economic system. This is true but it was also Marx’s great mistake in that he assumed that once people were freed from the enslavement of their current economic status they would behave in a much more egalitarian manner. The system which replaced the one they had lived under was often not much better, so the experiment was flawed from the start, but just as one should be careful about making assumptions as to how people will behave in any given set of circumstances so should we be careful about assuming that what we see is all people are capable of.

It should be clear that our current economic model is flawed in several ways. Capitalism has been the road map for over a hundred years now, and while it has permitted the exploitation of technological advances which have spread and increased standards of living one still shouldn’t make the mistake of seeing the means of spreading those advances, as opposed to the advances themselves, as the cause of our current standards of living. Many might say that the current problems we see are due to government getting in the way of how well capitalism can work. I find this to be a flimsy excuse for something which has been in use for so long. The idea is presented as something of a holy grail, that if this particular business environment were to be achieved that all would be golden and well, but really is the amount of government intervention that invasive? I really find that hard to believe. In reality over the last hundred plus years capitalism has worked best when it has been subject to pronounced government intervention.

One thing which would help our economy move to a less exploitative and more sustainable model is if we adopted the non-profit model for our business organizations. If you can do business with a nonprofit supplier of something you need, do so. If not do what you can to encourage a start-up of a nonprofit source of what you need. There is a long and good history of nonprofit organizations in this country, it isn’t unusual or bizarre for people to exchange things through these venues.

It isn’t that all people are naturally greedy, its just that greed equates power in our culture, that is why it seems like such a universal way for people to behave, those who get in the spotlight are the greedy ones, because they are the ones with the power. But the non-profit model would be a means to take their power away from them.

If businesses are nonprofit will they be able to still do R&D? Well I wouldn’t consider the money spent on R&D to be part of profit per se. But even at that universities should be our primary source of R&D, reason being that they can make the innovations that don’t rely on a profit motive, this is especially true in things like health care, and a nonprofit economy is in better position to exploit those discoveries that don’t necessarily have a high pay back. A nonprofit economy is in far better position to make good decisions about how to utilize innovation.

Will businesses be able to re-invest if they have no profit? Once again cash spent on improvements, maintenance, or expansion isn’t profit, it is a normal business expense.

Why would anyone even start a nonprofit business? People have been doing it for a long time, even before there were tax advantages to starting them. They can increase consumer confidence since a nonprofit has no reason to cut costs to maintain profitability and so quality can be kept higher. Also just because a business is nonprofit doesn’t mean the people don’t get paid, and that the manager doesn’t get paid more than the janitor, there are still all the regular personal incentives to work hard and get ahead.

Wouldn’t a nonprofit economy just be socialism? No, you can have competing nonprofits, you can have the flexibility to fire poor workers, the markets can still decide what and how much of something it needs to produce, the market can still send price signals.

What would happen to public sector funding if the tax revenues levied on profits were gone? Well it would shrink. But maybe not as much as anticipated since the funds kept as profits would be allowed to re-circulate into the economy, and you would still have the possibility of keeping all the other taxes.

What would happen to my IRA? Well you would be screwed in that regard, but have you looked at your returns over the last couple years? You could be screwed anyway. Pension funds lost a bunch of money in 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/12/public-pension-funds-stocks_n_925898.html Rather than relying on the failed system to secure your future make sure policy makers make it so real savings pay.

All in all a move from our current economic model to one that favors creation and distribution done by nonprofits might not make a lot of difference in how the bread gets on the self, but it would do a lot to diffuse the toxic greed which has infected our culture.

Looking back there are four things that would have made the world a much better place today, a couple of them would have been very simple, and would have had a major impact to improve where we are now.

1) If financial regulation had been expanded to include the effects of global finance and the proliferation of new financial instruments as opposed to rolling it back, and so allowing high levels of risk into the banking industries.

As we know the seeds of the subprime mess was initially started when regulations were repealed that forbade the trading of mortgage securities. Once upon a time the people who wrote mortgages had to hold them. Because of this lenders were much more adverse to assuming risk. When mortgages became tradable securities the focus turned from safety to returns, and the best way to pursue returns is through the assumption of risk.

Investment firms have also played a role in the current sovereign debt crisis. Consider this passage from The Devil’s Derivatives by Nicholas Dunbar

What Sherwood and his team cooked up for the Greek government starting in December 2000 worked slightly differently. Imagine you had a thousand dollars that you wanted to change into euros. A bureau de change proposes a special deal. Instead of the one-euro-per-dollar rate (before fees) displayed on the wall of the booth, the teller offers you a contract paying you double that rate. Perplexed, you ask, “Are you giving away a thousand euros?” “Of course not,” replies the teller. “Actually I am lending you the money, and you’ll have to pay it back, with interest. But that’s our little secret. No one will know because the slip of paper I’m giving you makes it look like you’ve got ‘free’ money.”

In its deal for Greece, Goldman did something equivalent to this mythical bureau de change. It cooked up a cross-currency swap, and in the blank space marked “exchange rate” it wrote a wildly incorrect figure. By using this derivative, Greece had magically reduced its debt by almost 3 billion euros, but this paper gain would have to balanced out by a series of swap payments to Goldman. Over the ten years or so that the swap was to last, the value of these payments amounted to several billion euros. In other words Goldman was secretly lending the Greek government money and getting paid back over time.

Incredibly, Eurostat’s loophole-ridden debt-accounting rules allowed the Greek government to do exactly that, and thus “demonstrate” to Brussels that is was sticking to its budget targets…

By simply bringing more of the financial world under regulation, instead of rolling it back the current mess the global economy now faces could have been avoided.

After all consider that financial markets were very stable after regulations were enacted in response to The Great Depression, when those regulations started to be rolled back we saw one global financial crisis after another take place.

2) Strengthening, not weakening unions.

The way I see it unions could have played a very important role in mitigating the effects of globalization in depressing wages in the developed world. The thing that unions can do is make sure that wage levels remain sufficient to maintain standards of living. They can do this even in the face of a labor glut, they can remove much of the supply demand fluctuations which have gutted wages.

I personally feel that unions have been guilty of some excess in the past, and that this has contributed to the perception that they have hurt and not helped the economy. This could easily be rectified by narrowing the issues which may be addressed through collective bargaining. On a base level wages and medical coverage should be open to labor’s demands. I think that things like pension benefits, or other long term benefits, almost represent a consumer rights issue in that entities should be prohibited from making promises that they may not be able to keep to labor, this only makes labor a victim of false advertising.

It is would also help unions a great deal if they could move from simply protecting labor to promoting labor. They could do this by becoming similar to the old model used for guilds. If a union could advertise itself as having the best trained workers available, perhaps with backup available in case someone has to miss work, then employers would have more reason to hire union labor.

And if we are going to be realistic about this unionization needs to be global in reach, not just domestic. If labor unions are to really be successful they have to avoid being undermined by foreign labor conditions. Only an international labor conference could accomplish this.

3) International recognition of the damages caused by currency manipulation.

There is something of a catch 22 that exists in global trade, the weakness of currencies in developing economies allows them to experience economic growth, but then once they become vital trading partners they have leverage to complain of raising the value of their currencies, with the threat of trade wars. Collecting currency reserves, which is easy when one runs a trade surplus, also gives such countries the ability to manipulate the value of their currencies by purchasing the currency they want theirs to be weaker than.

There is also the problems caused by capital flows. Investors can pump up economies and then pull the rug out from under them at a moments notice by influencing the value of currencies through direct investment. So not only is currency manipulation a danger to the global economy through policy, but it is also a danger from being outside manipulation.

Really the only way to combat this is for the perception to exist that currency manipulation is indeed harmful to the global economy, which sadly is lacking now. If that perception existed in a real sense then international policy could address the problem. The best way would be for there to be an international reserve currency independent of any nation. The U.S. is of course loath to see anything like this happen since having the reserve allows to U.S. to not have the dollar jerked around by its awful fiscal policies. But if we want to do something truly good for the global economy a nation independent reserve would be one.

4) The creation of international labor standards.

It is really absurd that there are no international guidelines for the treatment of labor. We will regulate trade via the WTO, we will enact international standards for armed conflict and attempt to punish those guilty of war crimes, we will protect whales, we will seek to curb harmful greenhouse emissions, yet there is no international body or agreement charged with how humans are treated when they work, the most basic function humans engage in.

The absence of addressing these issues is largely due to the idea that free market forces will take care of the problems that they present given sufficient time, or there is just too much money to be made to be ignored. Now we are at a point where trying enact these things would be almost impossible, to enact the far reaching financial reform we need would certainly amount to such a destruction of wealth that few could stomach it, our trading partners have become too strong to enact the kinds of labor regulations which we could have demanded when the West was the preeminent economic power. We have just allowed ourselves to get too far down this road, we have built a faulty edifice, and the only way to build a better one is probably to destroy what we made in error, this is because there are simply too many people making money off of something which is deeply flawed.

I would like to make some comment on monetary policy, because I have to say that I think it is high time we re-thought how we handle money, consider how The Fed is so willing to pump money into the economy that inflates asset bubbles while so little of it manages to get to the “streets”. Now there are perfectly understandable reasons for this, but I think we need to recognize that these reasons demonstrate a major flaw in the way the system works.

The idea is that putting money into the system lowers the cost of lending and causes lending institutions to forward cash to people or businesses who spur consumption and investment. The problem that occurs is that lending institutions have come to realize that they can make a much better return investing in commodities in Brazil, let’s say, than by loaning money to some schmuck to buy a car. Never mind that current lending standards post credit crisis don’t allow for massive amounts of lending anyway, (which is good, hooray for the frugal culture). So the problem occurs that the Fed puts the money out there but it isn’t going anywhere except into asset investment, which causes asset values to become bubbles.

You can stretch this argument a bit, for instance maybe we need to entirely re-tool our energy infrastructure, or do massive public hiring to offset job losses, only problem is we are shackled by the specter of deficits. So a simple argument would be why not just print the money to take care of that? The perfectly sound argument against that is that if you just go ahead and print money to pay for whatever you need you get rampant inflation. The only issue being that we have shown we aren’t concerned with inflation anyway, given how we like to see asset values inflated. Quite obviously our arguments against inflation are only against inflation in consumer goods, if it is inflation in things that supposedly represent the accumulation of wealth then we are all for it.

In any rate the system needs to change. The powers that be need to find a way to directly channel the funds that they wish to stimulate the economy into the hands of the people who will be doing the investing and consuming. (And by investing I mean actual expenditures on operations, not buying securities). There are a couple ways that this could be done, the exact manner isn’t important, just the dynamic itself. Some might say that this is what happens when the government spends money, they are putting money directly into communities. Only problem being that money still needs to come back out, either in taxes or payments on debt.

One of the good things about channeling money through lending institutions is that they act as a filter, especially as concerns business investment, as was brought up earlier, they determine what are reasonable uses for the money, so you get a maximum multiplier effect form it. I think this could still be accomplished however via the public sector. Another issue is that o.k. so you find some direct means of putting new money into the economy. How do you do the reverse? How do you then cool the economy, the function has to work both ways. I would put forward that an ideal manner to accomplish this would be a floating tax rate. When the economy starts to overheat the tax rate increases slightly. Certainly the technology exists to have more of a real time gauge of what needs to be done to throttle the economy.

You could accomplish this process by enacting the dividend system brought up earlier, where citizens are granted what amounts to stock in the government. Dividend payments could be based on corporate taxes and existing taxes on imports. New money injected into the economy could be added to these dividend payments. The dividend payments could be used to fund things the government currently pays for, like perhaps education, that way we aren’t reducing income while maintaining the current level of expenditures. This would also put more pressure on providers of these services to maintain standards of service acceptable to their consumers.

O.k. so we gut the banking sector, deflate the potential for economic bubbles. Well what we are talking about is destroying the way the economy functions, which also means destroying much of the current value of asset investments. Burn the model up. That is a mighty hard pill to swallow I will grant you that. But the alternative is to continue down a path where our economic model favors entrenching power and wealth in the hands of a few on the basis of gambling in assets, which is madness. It may be a hard pill to swallow to make such drastic change, but you know what, if the alternative is sanity, I am all for it.

Why would people construct systems of logic ways to support flawed models? It would seem that the ability for people to delude themselves hasn’t abated at all since the rise of scientific method. Many people still are religious, many people hold beliefs in things that are unprovable. For instance many people believe in either liberal or conservative methods for running the country when the process by which either of these would achieve their aims exist only in theory, and those theories will never be proven since they will never be purely applied. The basis most people have for their beliefs are either that someone they trust has said it is so, or they have a personal proof that they can attribute to their beliefs, but very very few actually deeply reason out the framework of their beliefs.

So if people are so able to engage in belief systems that have only a small basis in demonstrable fact and this has been going on for quite some time even when science has put forward a process to ascertain the certainty of things then what I call ‘delusion’ must actually have an evolutionary benefit. What I would put forward as that benefit isn’t anything so earth shaking, but I have never heard of it cast in the light of evolutionary benefit, and that is that delusion allows people the ability to connect, to gather, to work in mass toward a goal. The ability to believe in something regardless of fact gives a mass of people the potential to overcome their rivals.

One might say that this dynamic hasn’t been in place long enough to warrant its connection to evolution, but we are able to see other evolutionary effects in a similar time span.

So we have come to the point where we are capable of great feats of reasoning, but the fruits of that are made to serve those who don’t engage in reasoning except on a very rudimentary level. In order to negate this the only cultural process I can imagine is one that destroys the advantage of grouping. This works against democratic instincts which foster the power of the group.

In this line of reasoning it is interesting to consider democracy. Democracy destroys the power of the individual. Even though the idea of one person one vote is very appealing in fact the party or group which is most successful will be the one which is best at putting aside individual desires to follow a leader. The more votes the more power. In any rate while we may decry delusional thinking until it no longer provides advantage it will persist.

A bit ago The Economist Magazine carried a series of pieces about the movements to reign in the size of government, I believe the title of the pieces was ‘Taming Leviathan’. A point made in one of the pieces stuck with me, it was that for at least the past century the percentage of global GDPs attributed to government spending has grown. The writer made the point that this is because efficiency, or productivity, has grown in the private sector but not for government. So while output for the private sector has grown with less labor required, for government it has remained the same, over time this has caused the amount of GDP attributed to government to take up and ever larger share of the pie. The writer was trying to make the point that in order to right this government needed to become more productive, as the private sector has.

I have a somewhat different take on this, which is that government has been filling the vacuum created by increasing standards of living that don’t create enough jobs for everyone. Over time, (although this has become skewed over the last few decades), increased profitability allowed for increased tax revenues which permitted government to become an employment machine, redistributing wealth to labor. So that now government employs about 7% of the workforce, although a better way to look at that would probably be government’s share of GDP since that takes into account government’s role as consumer, buying things from private companies, government now accounts for about 20% of GDP.

Now it is easy to take the view that the point hasn’t been making jobs, it has been fulfilling basic needs in the economy and the employment just followed that. But government wouldn’t be able to fill these needs without a pool of revenue to draw from, and if enough jobs were being created in the private sector then the labor market would be so tight that government wouldn’t be able to afford to hire people. It is precisely the profitability and the lack of job creation in the private sector which has permitted these needs to be met. So if we take this view then the role of government becomes broader than simply fulfilling needs, it becomes that of an engine of wealth distribution and employment. This creates a much different view of how government should operate, it should work to tax resources as much as possible to supply as many jobs as possible. Now I don’t mean to endorse the debt spending that has gone on, that is clearly a problem, but it becomes more of a problem of getting enough revenue than of spending, especially when unemployment is above 8%.

There is the concept that if people weren’t working for government then they would find other work, much as the argument goes against unemployment benefits, the work may be less rewarding, but they would find work. This may be true to a degree, but not to the extent that many people would say. The reason is this, people who work for government already function as consumers, they have income and consume goods and services to the degree that they are able, the private sector then doesn’t need these people to work as producers of things for other people to buy, capacity is sufficient, the private sector simply doesn’t need more people to make stuff.

There is also this mantra of the right, that government spending, and the size of government, is strangling the private sector. But it must be remembered that during the 20th century as the role of government grew and grew so did the economy. After the creation of entitlement programs in the 60’s government grew in the long view faster than it had before. If one wants to do a reality check of how detrimental the size of government has been to the economy the past century shows it is of no detriment at all. Some onerous regulations may harm business growth and hiring, but in the big picture the size of government programs has not hurt the economy.

Another point worth making in terms of the size of government over time is that it is simplistic to say that a lack of productivity increases are the driving force behind the increasing share of GDP that government spending represents, a century ago there was no concern for water pollution, for intensive R&D spending, or a network of global national interests which some believe requires a large military to defend. Needs have grown, and so has government.

So while taking pains to assert that debt spending to the degree we do it is bad, I think it is clear to say that government should tax revenue sources fully to create as much employment as possible since it is quite clear that the profitability associated with increased productivity hasn’t offered enough employment opportunity for people. So as we look forward we should assume that the government should employ people, it is one of the best things it does.

I am, as I am sure is apparent, a progressive or liberal at heart, that being said I have to admit that what I would prize highly, an activist government will be very difficult to achieve, that is because government is broke. Whether or not this was by design the “starve the beast” approach by conservatives has worked. Starve the beast refers to the effort to shrink the federal government by starving it of tax revenues, and at this point the “beast” is officially starved. The CBO put the budget for  budget shortfall at 1.3 trillion dollars, and this isn’t an unusual thing. The entitlement budget crisis hasn’t even come around yet.

Now there are ways to raise some cash, we have a society with one of the worst wealth disparities in the world, there is certainly room to tax the well to do more, there has also been talk of enacting a VAT, value added tax. The thing is these moves might fill the gap, but forget about expanding any part of the government.

So as a liberal I have wondered where this leaves us. Unlike my neighbors the conservatives I don’t believe smaller government is going to cure anything other than that deficit, and I think there are many areas that could stand to have increased attention from the public sector, but that isn’t going to happen, the “beast” is starved. And there is an answer, although it isn’t one I like to put forward, we will have to do what needs to be done ourselves.

This isn’t such a stretch from a historical or cultural standpoint, however. The left has a long history of grass roots activism, that activism needs to be reborn with a purpose. And things like buying local initiatives, businesses that clean up along highways, and community watches all point to a willingness to tackle issues locally. Volunteerism in community soup kitchens, after school programs, and substance abuse programs are also things that need to find expanded purpose. Innovative thinking also needs to be applied to caring for those that need medical or housing care but aren’t able to find sufficient assistance from the public sector.

Of course some of these things are lead by groups that we may find objectionable, like local churches, but in times of such pressing need we need to recognize that these organizations are run by people who are our neighbors, and now more than ever we need our neighbors despite differences in ideology.

Relying on such throwback ideas is a difficult thing to do. It amounts to admitting that we have screwed up our chance to have government work for us, but it would seem we have little choice. The real pity comes when all these bills must be paid, then we will ask ourselves how this came to pass, and what do we have to show for the years of accumulated public debt. There will be, and should be outrage that so much money was wasted.

What better way to answer those years of waste, by both parties, than by marginalizing governments role in our lives by taking control of those things that we might otherwise look to Washington to solve. And so my dear neighbors, I am with you in seeing the sadness of this day when our government is broke and scarcely able to help us meet the challenges of this new century. But the only thing to do now is when we see a homeless person, or hear of a neighbor who is be foreclosed on, or worry for our children wondering where and what kind of jobs they will find through their lives, the only thing to do is talk to one another and figure out what we can do to help the situation, as neighbors, as communities, because the government has used up it’s chances to help. And as liberal I hate to say it, but it didn’t do an outstanding job.

Along this line of thinking here is a very worthwhile idea for reforming government, especially local governments. Allow citizens to volunteer for work the government normally provides instead of paying their taxes, this would be a wonderful thing, for local property taxes in particular.

What would this accomplish?

1) It would reduce the cost of government since public employees could be laid off as volunteers replace what they do. Volunteers could, after all do everything from staffing parks, to neighborhood watches, garbage pick up, accounting services, or tutoring.

2) It would help the foreclosure crisis by reducing how much it costs for people to stay in their homes.

3) It would help with the retirement boom that is about to occur as baby boomers retire. They would supply a very capable pool of workers to draw from as volunteers and it would reduce the costs of living they face.

4) It would help foster a sense of community in towns, as people get to know more of their neighbors and work with them to take care of their communities.

5) It would ultimately lower taxes for everyone, as a major expense, public pensions, would be lowered over time due to fewer public employees.

6) Poorer people could also see their costs of living lowered, many who are not home owners could be given vouchers that they could use in place of rent. These when turned in to landlords could be used by the landlords to pay some of their tax bills.

Some of the challenges that would be involved include,

1) Scheduling. Since people would be doing this as an aside to working for a wage things like the schedule of garbage pick up, or the hours a park may be open might vary and create inconvenience.

2) Productivity, new volunteers could not be expected to have the same efficiency as public employees who have done their job a long time. Because of this the savings and estimated hourly valuation of labor for volunteers could not be on a one on one basis. Meaning that if volunteers were to figure out what they were being paid at an hourly rate they would actually be making less than the public employees they replaced. Because of this many might be put out at the idea. Still I would guess that there would be a good supply of volunteers, and if we aren’t talking about a dollar for dollar exchange then it allows for government to do more while “spending” less, (the spending being in revenue cuts as opposed to pay outs).

3) Town to town remuneration. One town may have a good supply of basic labor, another town might have a good supply of tutors, how could someone claim credit on the taxes in the town where they live for working in another town.

4) Complaints from unions, and politicians. Unions because there workforce is being cut, politicians because there power is being cut. One can imagine the advertisements depicting a clueless citizen trying to renew a drivers license for someone and the question ‘is this the kind of service you want from your government?’ On the other hand I am sure many people have stories to share about dealing with ineptitude or lack of initiative in the public sector.

5) The idea of tutoring to supplement education and perhaps allow for teacher layoffs creates a lot of questions. The best way to address the main concern about providing an adequate education in a globally competitive world is to standardize curriculum, this could even be done on a national basis through the internet and software, making the tutors role less demanding. It might also be worthwhile to consider shortening high school and adding time to college, allowing students to pursue a narrower pursuit of classes aimed at their interests, (this also fits in with an existing trend of colleges needing to offer remedial classes prior to giving students college level classes).

6) Public employment as a benefit for those who otherwise couldn’t find good jobs. You see this a lot, states put their municipal offices in their most economically depressed areas. They do this to provide support for local economies. Because of this government is a source of good jobs for a lot of people, many who probably shouldn’t have the rug jerked away from them by a bunch of eager retirees who want to see their taxes lowered. This enters in to a broader argument, however, as to what the role of government should be in supplying employment, period, and what conservatives would refer to as wealth distribution. In a time of limited resources for the public sector I would prefer to see available funds spent on things of greater return, for instance applying for renewable energy projects. I would prefer to see the government pay, indirectly as the case may be, workers who are building wind farms than workers who are working at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

All in all however this is a fitting idea for these times. It allows us to make government cheaper, (in so far as one consider that they are not only saving money but doing a civic good), but at the same time not reduce services. This addresses concerns from both the right and left as to where our public sector is heading.

As an example of how scarce government revenues could be used to invest in something which helps the economy over the long haul think about these numbers. The U.S. uses about 134 billion gallons of gas a year, T Boone Pickens 4,000 megawatt wind farm was going to cost an estimated 12 billion dollars, (a typical coal fired plant might produce 500 megawatts). So if you added a 50 cent per gallon tax you could get enough revenue to build slightly less than six of Mr. Pickens wind farms a year.

134 (billion gallons a year)*.5 (gas tax) = 67 billion dollars / 12 (billions of dollars per mega wind farm) = 5.58

That’s bloody workable. And it shouldn’t be politically impossible, it is a patriotic sacrifice after all.

So this stringing together of various writings from the past few years has allowed me to put forward my own humble thoughts on how we can start to work toward a sustainable society for the century ahead. In closing there is one other thing I would like to add The benefits of freedom of speech is something U.S. citizens like to lay claim to a lot. It has however taken a beating on the international stage lately, both from the rise of powers that don’t put a lot of faith in the need for it, and from geopolitical realities. I understand this, but what bothers me is not so much that we aren’t brow beating China, or Egypt, or Venezuela, or Afghanistan, or Russia, or Iran about their policies what bothers me is what a crappy job we are doing in demonstrating the benefits of free speech. Some proud Chinese citizen would probably be perfectly right in saying ‘o.k. so maybe we can’t express ourselves as freely, but what has it gotten you? Politicians that will make claims that they know are lies, talking heads that spout all sorts of craziness, everyone inflaming a dialogue that gets no where. That is the benefit of free speech? That is what it accomplishes? Perhaps you shouldn’t call it free speech, you should call it free yelling.’

So I wish we could do a better job of it. That the purchase of free speech was accomplished by being willing to accept the responsibility to listen. To not do so will do greater harm to the concept of free speech than turning ones head as other countries abuse free speech.