Friday, July 28, 2017

We Can Do This, People


Folks, last night the Senate did something wholly unexpected: the right thing. In a stunning display of not being a dick, Senator John McCain cast the decisive vote to bring down the Senate "skinny repeal" bill that was slightly better than the ... uh ... I guess you'd call it the "fat repeal" bill, in that it only kicked 16 million people off health care over ten years, instead of 23 million.

In statements on the floor of the Senate afterward, Mitch McConnell dejectedly complained about not being able to pass the bill that would essentially anally violate the poor, and Chuck Schumer opined that it was time to put together a bipartisan solution. Of course, this means that it is time for Congress to roll up their sleeves and set about the difficult work of placating the various lobbying groups associated with health care, such as the pharmaceutical companies that want to screw consumers, the insurance companies that want to screw consumers ...

So here's what I'm thinking. It's a safe bet that the readers of this blog have crapped out more intelligence after a night of dubious burritos from a 7-Eleven freezer than Congress has demonstrated over the past six months, and I'll bet we can craft a better healthcare bill than those brainstems.

I am totally serious about this.

We can all put our heads together and draft legislation that will meet all of the following criteria:
  • Reduce overall medical costs.
  • Guarantee health coverage for all.
  • Provide necessary services (preventative care, for example).
  • Shore up insurance markets.
I will have the same level of input as all of you; the only thing I will be doing that y'all won't is the actual typing up of the proposal. Once we have something we can elect delegations from each state to present it you our elected representatives.

So .... who wants to take the first swing at it? I have created a shared document that anyone can edit here, so have at it, folks. All I ask is that you include your name so that a) we know who proposed what, and b) we can (assuming we get this done) publicly thank people for their efforts.

I gotta lie down.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Getting People Involved


Yesterday I was talking -- fighting, really1 -- with a conservative acquaintance of mine named Steve on Facebook, in one of the groups of which we are both a member. We were also discussing another topic elsewhere in this group, and he brought up an idea that has some serious merit. Today I would like to discuss this idea of his in a bit of depth, and perhaps to expand on it a bit.

The basic premise behind his idea is this: Americans no longer participate. Participation in elections has been steadily on the decline. For example, the percentage of the voting age population that took part in the presidential election of 1876 was 81.8%. Contrast that with the election of 2012 (the latest presidential election for which data have been compiled), in which the rate of participation was 54.9%2.

But it's not just elections. Volunteerism is down. The armed services are finding it more and more difficult to meet enlistment goals. Public service is often dismissed as a career choice in favor of the more lucrative private sector.

There are many reasons for this, far too many to get into here. However, Steve came up with an idea that has been floated before, and which has some merit. The idea is simple: two years of compulsory service -- in either the military or in some form of public service -- will be required of every individual upon reaching the age of majority (usually eighteen).

Right about now my fellow liberals are probably starting to get a little warm under the collar, but bear with me on this.

The idea here is to get Americans -- all Americans -- to feel like they are actually active participants in this country, and not simply passive residents. I have given this idea some thought, and here's how we can make it work.

Military service

Currently, the military accepts two year active duty enlistments, followed by two years in the Reserve and four years of Inactive Ready Reserve (IRR). Regulations could be modified to allow for a simple two year enlistment with no further obligation3. In addition to fully staffing the military, this could also potentially shrink the military budget by removing the need for enlistment bonuses, even as basic pay and health care costs go up due to larger numbers of personnel.

The challenge facing the military under this approach will be higher turnover and retention. Under the current system of Active/Reserve/IRR, each person makes an eight year commitment to the military4. With shorter enlistments, keeping a ready force will be a more difficult task; however, I strongly suspect we would actually see a slight uptick in the number of people signing up for the full enlistment as a result of the compulsory aspect overcoming "enlistment inertia."

Part of this military service would be the selection of an area of expertise – somewhat akin to selecting a major in college. Enlistees would receive training in these areas, much as the armed forces do today. This would be with the understanding that there are some fields that require a longer commitment of service, both during and after training.

Civilian public service

It is widely recognized that existing public services are woefully inadequate in some areas. Inner cities have a hard time attracting teachers. Fire departments are often understaffed. Animal control, road repair … the list goes on. By giving people the option of civilian public service we can address these problems, and many more.

Similar to the military requirement, declaration of an area of interest will be required. This will not only allow local governments to fulfill their needs, it will also give people who are interested in pursuing a trade career (road construction, etc.) free training in that area.

Temporary deferments

Part of the problem of going into compulsory service right out of high school is that it does not do anything to address the shortage of skilled workers in critical areas. Therefore, allowing for temporary deferments will give us the ability to attract these people (teachers, doctors, lawyers, and so on) by allowing them to defer their service until after they have completed their education.
In order for this to work, though, the deferment application has to meet the following criteria:
  • It must be applied for no later than 30 days before an individual's eighteenth birthday or his/her graduation date from high school, whichever comes later.
  • It must include the reason for the deferment (to finish higher education, for example, or for medical reasons).
  • It must include the requested end date of the deferment, which serves as the anticipated date the person begins his or her service. This end date cannot be changed except under extreme circumstances.
  • The requested end date of the deferment can be no later than the individual's 25th birthday.
A deferment is not automatically accepted. It will be approved or denied based on the contemporary requirements, the reason for the deferment, and the anticipated length of the deferment.

Permanent exceptions

In some instances people may need a permanent exemption from this program. However, this will be granted only in very serious cases5:
  • Permanent or long-term medical disability.
  • Incarceration for an expected period of five or more years.
  • Attendance at a United States Armed Forces Academy. If the individual graduates successfully from any of these institutions, the compulsory service requirement is considered to have been fulfilled.
Applications for permanent exemptions must be made no later than 14 days after the qualifying event. If an individual is unable to submit the application in this time frame, then power of attorney must be granted to submit on their behalf. This power of attorney may be assumed by one of the following in the event the individual is physically unable to explicitly grant it:
  • An immediate family member, defined as being a biological parent, a step-parent to whom partial or complete custody has been legally granted, a spouse, or a legal guardian.
  • A primary care physician caring for the individual (in the case of a medical exemption).
  • The governor of the state in which the individual is incarcerated (in the case of a criminal exemption). In this case, the governor may assume power of attorney even over the objections of the incarcerated individual.
Benefits to the individual

Of course, nobody expects people to perform these services gratis. To that end, people will be eligible for the following benefits:
  • Pay commensurate with the job for which the person is applying, up to a maximum of $75,000 per annum for highly skilled and professional workers (doctors, etc.). These amounts will be indexed to the Consumer Price Index on an annual basis so as to automatically keep pace with changing economic conditions
  • If a person enters service prior to attending an institution of higher education, then he or she will be eligible for a one point reduction in the interest rate on any student loans.
  • If the service comes after completing a degree, then, in addition to the one point reduction in the rate, no payments will be due during the time of service, and no interest will accrue on the loans during this time.
  • Similar conditions will apply to those who do not complete their higher education in that all student loan activity will be frozen. However, any repayment of educational benefits required due to halting attendance prior to graduation will not be interrupted.
  • During the time of service, individuals will be eligible for free medical care. This will include wellness and preventive care, emergency care, dental, vision … basically, everything anyone needs to stay healthy.
  • Any individual who serves, either in a military or civilian capacity, will be automatically registered to vote provided he or she meets all the legal qualifications.
The student loan provisions will only apply upon successful completion of, or approved discharge from, compulsory service.
    Possibility of extension

    Obviously, if someone wants to extend their service commitment they should be allowed to do so. However, this cannot be an unlimited option. If it was, for example, then someone could apply for an education deferment to complete school, repeatedly re-enlist in their chosen field, and never have to pay back their student loans. This is why there will actually be three options for re-enlistment.

    The first would be considered more of an extension of the existing enlistment. People would be able to exercise this option one time, and only if it is immediately consecutive to the initial enlistment. If they exercise this option, then all benefits (student loan freeze, medical care, etc.) continue uninterrupted.

    The second option is a way for people to make their service enlistment permanent. In this case, salaries would be brought to fair market value and standard benefits (health care, vacation time, etc.) would be available … the same as someone who gets the job walking in off the street. Any outstanding student loans would resume a normal payment schedule, and free medical benefits would cease. They would then simply be employees of whatever entity they were working for as part of their commitment.

    It is important to note that this second option is not guaranteed. For example, let's consider someone who is working as a teacher's aide in an inner city school as part of their commitment. This person decides to convert to a permanent employee of this school, but the school district does not have the budget for additional personnel. In this case the re-enlistment would be denied simply because the school district would no longer be receiving Federal funds to cover the cost of having this person on staff.

    The third option is the one that will be the most controversial: involuntary extension. In extreme cases (a natural disaster, for example) people may be asked to stay on the job beyond their enlistment commitment. In this case, full benefits will continue uninterrupted, and if they have not exercised their enlistment extension they will be given the option of doing so, for the full two year extension, once the immediate need has passed.

    To illustrate this, let's consider a man in San Francisco -- let's call him Eddie -- who has joined up and selected commercial welding as his trade of choice. Eddie has been on the job for just shy of two years and his enlistment is due to expire. He is considering extending, but hasn't decided yet.

    About a week before his enlistment expires, the area is hit with a massive earthquake. Many bridges are damaged and in need of immediate attention. The expiration of his enlistment is put on hold so that he can be put to work in the rebuilding efforts. Once these are completed (say, in a year), his calendar resumes, and if he chooses to re-commit he will be able to do so for the full two years, even though he has already served three years.

    Undocumented residents

    This program will be open to undocumented residents. However, in order to qualify, the individual must meet all of the following criteria:
    • The person must have been in the United States for a period of five years prior to applying for enlistment.
    • The person will be a maximum of 22 years old.
    • There must be no criminal record, with the exception of very minor ordinance infractions (parking tickets, jaywalking, that sort of thing).
    • The person must demonstrate basic fluency in English.
    If a person meets these requirements, then in addition to the benefits described above he or she will be eligible for the following:
    • Any immigration proceedings (deportation orders, prosecution, etc.) will be stayed for the duration of the enlistment.
    • Upon completion of a two year enlistment these proceedings may continue at the discretion of both the supervising authority (city hall in the case of someone working for the municipal parks department, for example), the Department of Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. IN this case successful completion of enlistment will be factored in as part of the decision whether or not to continue prosecution.
    • If the person completes a two year enlistment and a two year extension, and receives a positive recommendation from his or her immediate supervisor, then all immigration proceedings against him or her will be dropped, he or she will be granted provisional resident status, and he or she will be moved to the front of the line for consideration for permanent resident status. Once that status has been established they will be able to apply for citizenship using normal channels.
    I realize there are some who will view this as "letting them off easy" -- after all, they did enter illegally, and this could be viewed as a way of being soft on undocumented immigrants. However, there are a couple of things to consider.

    First, given the age restriction and the requirement that they be in the country a minimum of five years prior to apply, it means that no undocumented immigrant who is 18 years of age or older when he or she enters the country will be eligible for this program. This limits it to children who are brought here when they are under age.

    Second, they are not automatically being granted citizenship. They are merely being given a chance to prove that they can be contributing members of American society, then being allowed to demonstrate their continued commitment unimpeded while pursuing citizenship through normal channels.

    Third, they will not have the same options with regard to the involuntary extension. To use Eddie's example above, the involuntary extension may be applied but it will not stop the calendar. In other words, Eddie would only be able to extend his commitment by one year once the involuntary extension is completed.

    Finally, to those who would complain that "illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans:" this does not apply here, since this is compulsory for all. No jobs are being taken away from anyone.

    Early discharge

    Occasionally there will be situations that arise that will necessitate an early discharge from service. For many of these people these situations are going to be unexpected (medical conditions, for example). In these cases the individual will have the power to request an early discharge.

    If the discharge is for legitimate purposes, then the person will be considered to have fulfilled the full compulsory requirement and any post-service benefits will still apply. However, if the discharge is required due to any sort of non-legitimate purpose (illegal activity, say, or poor performance), then all benefits will cease immediately and the individual will be noted to have received a dishonorable discharge (similar to a military dishonorable discharge). With the exception of discharge for illegal activity, he or she will be given the opportunity to complete the service requirement, either at a later date or in another area of expertise. Upon successful completion, the dishonorable discharge will be expunged form the individual's record.

    Funding

    States and localities will receive Federal funds to administer this program. To receive these funds, each entity (state, county, town, etc.) must submit a detailed breakdown of expected expenditures for the coming fiscal year: number of people, anticipated salary costs, anticipated benefit costs, etc. The idea is to allocate these funds in advance and stick to these budgets. If the involuntary re-enlistment option is invoked, Federal emergency funds will be allowed to cover the costs of this program for the duration of the emergency.

    Obviously, this is going to cost money. A lot of money. Unfortunately, the only way to do this is to raise Federal taxes. The most effective way to accomplish this is to:
    • Raise the nominal tax rate of the top tax bracket by 5%.
    • Raise the nominal tax rate of the next highest tax bracket by 2%.
    • Eliminate the corporate dividend bonus deduction, which allows corporations to pay executives as little as $1 per year while providing the rest of their compensation in the form of dividends that are taxed at the lower capital gains rate.
    Understandably, some people are going to oppose these provisions, but the idea here is to start the conversation … not to dictate the way things should be. To that end, I would love to hear your comments, suggestions, and so on as to how to make this work effectively.

    I gotta lie down.

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    1For the record, the fight was mostly my fault, and Steve has gotten the apology he is due.
    2"Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections: 1828 - 2008". The American Presidency Project. UC Santa Barbara.
    3Obviously, if someone wanted to extend their enlistment or adhere to the reserve requirements, they would have the option to do so.
    4The National Guard is not part of this discussion, as it is not a full-time commitment and therefore not part of the proposed mandatory two-year compulsory service.
    5I'm sure there will be other valid reasons proposed for permanent exemption; this is but an illustrative list.

    Tuesday, July 25, 2017

    Taking It To The Next Level, Or Something

    Illustration by Michael Ramirez, Investor's Business Daily

    As the regular readers of this blog -- both of them -- know, I am not a fan of the Republican Party. I think they are callous, and cruel, and beholden to big money, and willing to sacrifice the tatters of what principles they have left in a craven effort to gain more power.

    Turns out they ain't the only ones. The Democrats are just as bad, to be honest. While they don't hold majorities ... well, pretty much anywhere, there is much posturing and grandstanding over GOP policies (not without reason because, by and large, GOP policies are pretty horrible), followed immediately by a fundraising pitch.

    I put the blame at the feet of the Citizens United decision and the pernicious effect of money in politics.

    Presidential campaigns, when normalized for 2016 dollars, have held pretty steady for the past six decades or so. There have been a few anomalies -- Nixon spent nearly twice the historical average in 1972, for example (see graph below) -- and Obama outspent McCain by a nearly 3 to 1 margin in 2008, but for the most part spending levels held pretty steady from 1960 to 2008.


    That changed in 2010, with the Citizens United decision that held, basically, that money = speech and therefore is protected by the First Amendment. Not only did the sheer volume of money in politics increase by something like 47 million times, it also allowed for "dark money" -- funds donated to groups that are not required to disclose donors putting out "issue ads."

    The end result of this is to essentially put a very high cover charge on political participation. If you are not able to bundle hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars for a candidate, the best response you could hope for is a form letter thank you that includes a pitch for you to donate even more, and you could just forget about having any real voice or effect in things.

    I do have an idea for a solution, though.

    1. Eliminate private campaign donations entirely during the general election.
    Individuals, companies, etc. would be able to donate during the primary races. However, once the primaries are held, any remaining campaign funds will be pooled into a general fund, to be distributed equally to the winners of the primaries. Any donations made during the general election will go into this fund directly, and be disbursed equally among the candidates.

    2. Close the 527 loophole.
    This one will be a bit tricky, as it involves amending the tax code. However, 26 U.S. Code § 527(c)(3) exempts almost all income to a 527 organization:

    Exempt function income
    For purposes of this subsection, the term “exempt function income” means any amount received as—
    1. a contribution of money or other property,
    2. membership dues, a membership fee or assessment from a member of the political organization,
    3. proceeds from a political fundraising or entertainment event, or proceeds from the sale of political campaign materials, which are not received in the ordinary course of any trade or business, or
    4. proceeds from the conducting of any bingo game (as defined in section 513(f)(2)),
    to the extent such amount is segregated for use only for the exempt function of the political organization.
    Once we eliminate this section of the tax code, the groups that use dark money will no longer have protected tax status, which will cause donations to dry up.

    3. Limit expenditures to the general fund.
    Any campaign expenditures -- including issue ads -- occurring during the general election campaign will only be allowed if they come from this general fund. All other expenditures, even from the candidate's personal funds, would be prohibited. This will run up against personal liberty and First Amendment issues, but if we are able to get rid of this ridiculous notion that money is the same as speech it will become easier to regulate.

    4. Eliminate outside donations.
    Donations of any kind, either to the candidate, the election committee, a PAC, a Super PAC, or an outside group trying to influence things through issue ads, would be prohibited during the general.

    The reality is that we will never be able to completely remove the influence of money from politics. However, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try ... it's the only way to make the playing field truly level.

    I gotta lie down.

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    And The Oscar Goes To ...

    Yeah, yesterday's column? Um ... no. Yesterday I posted that I had undergone a change of heart, a radical shift in my political lean...