19 April 2009

A manifesto for political agnostics in contemporary times as compiled by a misanthrope with a corresponding overabundance of contemplative time

Since a friend (or whatever it is one refers to a person as with whom you communicate on a semi-regular basis through online mediums but have no social connection toward) was attending some sort of Obama grassroots meeting in a couple weeks, I was set in my mind to contemplate what sort of purpose this meeting would serve, and in some respectable manner, to define what sort of things I had demands to see still from our new President.

I decided first that the agenda should be to see that we can chart a course in America which allows it to succeed in its endeavours and allows its populace to recover with a minimal level of personal suffering and grievance made upon them from our current predicaments. And therefore, the respectful mission with any dissenting opinions should not be to parade about as though our fearless leaders are ideologues incapable of hearing voices of different views, nor to demand Obama's absolution of the Presidential throne on the basis of specious claims, nor to demand the failure in the presentation or implementation of policies and reforms to our system of government. It should be to present as coherently as possible the problems and potential solutions and to mobilize popular support for such action as is necessary.

And as this regards Obama himself, he will never manage to wage a PR campaign that will sway these fanatical strangers that have cropped up over the past months of campaigns and time in office. This is not nor should it be his purpose. His fundamental mission in office might be to help achieve any particular agenda that is put before him that bodes a fair chance of improving the state of the nation, and that is all (this does not always require that he does something with or within the framework of government as the President, for better or ill has a considerable social effect beyond mere governance). Since I myself see him as essentially pragmatic thus far, I suspect a reasonable person will find that Obama is himself being reasonable, so far as one can, with the level of dissent that his election has somehow generated. The essential mission must then become to distance himself from the sentiments of populist rage expressed incoherently and without a centralizing vision raised by his political foes by having cogent and sensible plans laid out for all to examine. When compared with a foe with no cogent and sensible plan, the choice would be obvious. (Consider the GOP alternative "budget proposal" for this year, that had no numbers in it...).

Since I did not vote for the man (yes, I throw my vote away on third parties), I have since found myself repeatedly in political forums with the strange position of having to try to explain to irrational people very rational things, like the premises involved in socialism. The existence of a progressive or graduated income tax is listed very highly in the writings of Karl Marx. That is true. The trouble is that we've already had a progressive income tax for decades, including under the Reagan-Bush arc of Presidencies. In fact its mere existence was initially labeled as a very minor tax on the most wealthy 1% or so, essentially a totally progressive income tax at that point since nobody else paid it at all. There are other such examples. For instance, Marx outlines a system of support for agriculture, and the need for a "national public school system". Again, we've long had these. If one has followed Obama's rhetoric he has even spoken of scaling back our federal agricultural subsidies, particularly as it regards the tax code. I can hardly demonstrate rationally that the rhetoric or policies put forth are radically socialistic. Even if they are, they are no more or less socialistic than what we have been living in already. As a result of these discussions, I can recommend to Obama that his mission must be in the form of reasonable arguments for public relations of a sort. He must outline and explain the need for a particular reform or program as it is announced or even prior to its subsequent consideration by Congress.

I can document three particular situations which his administration has failed to do so properly, and in these cases there has been some form of political backlash, though not yet mobilizing greatly against himself and providing nothing for Republicans to gain political traction with. One such case is the case for TARP funding or bank bailouts (essentially a problem left over from Bush43/Paulson). The public is generally lacking in any knowledge of economics and even such basic elements as an understanding of the reserve ratio are likely to present a considerable difficulty in explanation. Obama must borrow from successful politicians throughout history and find a way to explain these complex things more simply (but still accurately enough to be seen as a sensible figure). He has not managed yet to do this on this issue (and it is, admittedly, a thoroughly complex issue on which to try).

A second problem is the stimulus package that was passed through the Congress some months back. The administration made announcements that it wanted one done quickly. And this was fine. It did not however continue its PR campaign in a sufficiency enough to define the purpose and premise of economic stimulus (there are many boring economic treatises one can read on whether or not there is such a thing to begin with, but few are politically relevant because they usually fail to account for psychology). And when the bill itself was under review, Democrats then allowed contentious Republicans to attempt to define the bill as a compendium of wasteful government spending (which there were some such things in there that were, admittedly, terrible uses of public monies). The painting of a massive package of nearly a trillion dollars as pork spending commenced and some valuable time in the exercise of psychological economics was wasted. The actual amount of pork, though certainly large, was minute in comparison to the total bill (as it usually is). Such waste is certainly bad. But it wasn't the purpose nor the core feature of the stimulus concept, nor even the bill as passed. I was thus somewhat surprised to see that over 50% of the public supported it as of last week. This was encouraging. I'm not sure what factors created this support, and perhaps it was the more credible sounding movements of the Obama team over the last month. One can hope so. There are later issues that this bill itself raises, but among sensible people there are at least issues too academically thorny to argue over in political grounds (ie, most people won't care or understand them enough to know what's even being talked about). The last problem was the announcement of the public-private investment partnership scheme put forward by his economic team and Secretary Geithner. Obama basically promised a detailed plan much too soon. The current plan is probably too favourable for private investors, and perhaps less necessary in the wake of mortgage stablisation plans, but it came about much too late to be of greater assistance to the financial world.

This was, while not a grievous error, suggesting of systemic problems that Obama must move quickly to remedy. The complexity of the financial situation and its untangling requires active and vigorous support by good financial minds both in private enterprise and government policy positions. Secretary Geithner needs more help, and quickly. And this, in a sense, has been seen as an extension of making poor choices to fill various political postings. Obama, in his quest for transparency, also needs to have government move swiftly enough to enable him to act, but not so quickly that his choices can be vilified as easily as an overworked Treasury Secretary with a history of tax problems has been (taxes being another issue which I'll get to). I'm not sure how easy this balance will be to maintain.

As far as Obama's political support structure and what it should be doing. I would think the best option would be to lay out what it wants to see accomplished, by any force within society (including of course, Obama), and more importantly how and why these are necessary ends for society, and by some extension the state, to pursue. There are many issues on which there is a consensus to DO SOMETHING. There is not from these a clear idea, even from Obama, on how to achieve it, or in some cases, why to do that way as opposed to some equally supported conception of reform. I have in mind several positions which Obama himself could move to clarify, and from which public support should seek to clarify itself what it demands, either of him or of the nation as a whole.

1) Obama should move to harness the general dissatisfaction with taxation. While the teabagging debacle/protest was good for many laughs at the expense of the out-of-touch conservative, it does have one fundamental point that comes up when the incoherent mess is examined for some basis in reality: the US tax code is overly complex and needs simplification and thus a general reform in addition to whatever changes in rates occur over the next few years (and against which we are even free to make these silly claims of "socialism" for). Obama suggested that this reform was on the table, even in the works. That's fine, and it was smart move on his part to potentially harness sensible people across the political spectrum who wish to see this done in some way. The question then is: what should we see out of a reformed tax code? Fewer deductions, fewer deductions and a lower rate, things like this. We as individuals have usually only our own taxes and the odious forms involved to consider, but there are other forms. There are payroll taxes, corporate income, capital gains, excise taxes, and general sales taxes. My own interest might be to abolish the capital gains and treat this as normal income (potentially encouraging capital reinvestment by competitive gains rather than shareholder distributions, ie, growth instead of wealth retention by both corporations and wealthy investors). I've also found a moderate level of support for a more radical sort of reform to the tax code by implementing the negative income tax and perhaps replacing, or certainly augmenting, our general social welfare system with this at the same time. This idea will probably not happen of course. It makes too much sense and there's no way to manipulate the system by more powerful interests. Nevertheless, it is sensible to move forward with an clearer idea of what a "simplified tax code" should look like, both from the proposals of the administration and from the public itself. This would be a better use of our time than teabagging with strangers to demonstrate populist rage and would be a better use than the perpetual "we must have lower taxes" mantra of the past several years. Which made little mention of, nor had any use for, the simplification of taxes at the same time.

2) As we move forward in the financial crisis, and the perception becomes not "how do we get out of this mess", but "how do we not get back here again later", Obama must move quickly to define "more regulation" as "smart regulation", and also who shall do the regulating. Much of my understanding of the current crisis is that our banks, through a variety of de-regulatory notions, were effectively permitted to select from the alphabet soup of who shall regulate me, the mighty bank. This is a wonderful environment to conduct business in. Not so much to be a consumer of whatever product is being distributed. For example, complex derivatives of mortgage securities. It might have been enough to deter much of the damage simply to use pre-existing regulatory schematics and have people available to enforce them by operating under the appropriate offices (such as the SEC instead of the OTC). Since I have often heard this rhetoric of "we need less regulation" or "we need more regulation", it must be defined what is meant. There are obstacles to business practices that are onerous or wasteful, and this is often from poorly designed regulatory structure. This is not the purpose of regulation; to provide some drag on economic growth and prosperity. The premise of regulation is to ensure that businesses practice a conduct of ethical behavior of sorts, not to mismanage and abuse their position as conveyours and experts of a specific product, but to abide by agreed upon contractual obligations to their consumers. Effective regulation successfully accomplishes this end. For example, anti-trust regulation prevents the single-minded control of vital industries by any one entity, both ensuring competitive advantages will find their way into the marketplace and preventing the abuse of the public by monopolistic dangers. Concurrently, there are many regulations that operate as effective barriers to entry in particular markets. It may end up, if we were to piecemeal study our regulatory framework, that we might even need LESS regulation to accomplish the ends of appropriately restraining inappropriate business conducts, ranging anywhere from cooking their accounting books to dumping pollution into the streams or rivers. Therefore it is not sensible to claim we must have MORE regulation generally, but rather to define what sorts of regulations we must have that we currently do not possess. Should we as the public be looking for a return of the Glass-Steagall act of the 1930s for example, to fracture financial agents more clearly back to the distinctions between traditional banking, insurance companies, and investment firms? Obviously there are environmental regulations that will be strongly debated, and many other fronts. All of these fall into this general thought; they must be defined as regulations we lack and must possess, and if they are not appropriately designed regulatory frameworks that accomplish our stated ends, they may be unnecessary. Or they may be a re-hashing of pre-existing systems that we have abandoned or failed to enforce properly. That sort of loophole can be fixed with a modicum of effort and does not require "more regulation" or "less regulation". It requires instead more vigorous regulators or less evasive business entities.

There are several such reforms I might put forward as examples that in fact create a more or less self-regulatory system without outside assistance in some areas. For example, food safety has come up. Why not require the owner of a particular food processing site to have to consume a portion of their produce, with some sort of industry watchdog to issue an appropriate label on their product for consumers to see? I should think they would make a greater effect on food safety were they to consume their own products from time to time, and the consumer would perhaps feel more at ease to purchase a product in a time of some uncertainty over a particular food.

3) For a departure from "populist" missions (and hence into my own, more private wishes), Obama, like many other foreign leaders, must move more stridently to position the country on a less xenophobic, less protective status on trade. The most recent decision to nix a pilot program with Mexican truckers (perhaps unpopular with both conspiracy nutcases and unions, an interesting political spectrum to be sure) has resulted in a set of tariffs passed by the Mexican government. Not only is our physical transportation of goods with Mexico an insanely inefficient means of trade in practice (thus imposing costs on consumption of goods by Americans, basically lowering real wages already), allowing it to impose further barriers and protections as a result was not a smart economic play. And internationally, it wasn't great. Especially with pledges from the G-20 leaders to keep such barriers low or non-existent. America may have a serious trade imbalance that it seeks to correct in some fashion, but while we must seek to re-establish ourselves in some moral high ground on terrorism and its complexities, we must also have some standard on trade and economics. This must be a clearer position than merely verbally opposing "buy American clauses". Either America stands for trade and competes within it with other nations or it stands for protectionism and does not. The latter course, while reassuring in the short term for various special interests, does little for our future prospects, including those special interest themselves. A transparent position would take into account the difficult perception of appearing to kowtow toward such interests. Obama, like other leaders, represents, or is supposed to a variety of constituents, not merely a few. As far as the consuming public? Our mission might be simply to consume at this point. I have heard it said this might have been a better time for a President to come out and declare our patriotic duty to go forth and shop. What "we" might demand is considerably different from the sort of trading world I myself envision, and in practice, such a world is unlikely in many commodities. However there are some issues on which the public might want to seek out a position. For example, the possible trading of carbon emissions and industrial waste. Or the possibility of water rights being included in the cost of goods. This last point for example provides a measure of "protectionism" because of the efficiency of American farmers in growing many crops (sugar not being among them) relative to foreign farmers. Mexico already buys much of its corn and wheat from us for this reason. We buy oil from Mexico and Canada for similar reasons (it's cheaper for them to pump it out of the ground in many cases). There may be reasons to find trade imbalance unfair and this can be addressed with other nations as it comes up, such as government subsidies or a lack of appropriate environmental regulation built into the cost of production. There are not good reasons why we as American consumers must pay 3-4 times as much for sugar to protect our puny sugar farming industry, or cannot purchase sugar-based ethanol fuels produced by other countries to protect our corn farmers.

4) On foreign affairs and the conduct of our policies, Obama has moved relatively swiftly to release new codes of conduct, generally revoking the policy of torture and rendition often embarrassing our nation abroad adopted by the former administration. However there are new questions that must be addressed. We must decide, for example, whether it is best to treat some of our enemies as criminals (even, sometimes stretching the definition, as war criminals) rather than detainees from a war zone. Only some of the people we have detained for years are actually combatants picked up from an active combat zone, engaging in combat with our military or threatening violent actions against our citizens (or those of allied nations). What do we do with the rest? We may close Gitmo in some months ahead, and that's perhaps great. But what happens if we just stick a bunch of people in prisons in Afghanistan or Iraq, thousands of miles away from American media scrutiny instead of merely across a brief stretch of ocean currents? We appear to be moving in this direction already in the form of Bagram. Should we persist in detaining people without rights and without any form of trial to oppose their detention? How is this moral situation improved by detaining such people, regardless of our disposition toward them or their often reprehensible conduct for which they could stand accused? I would hold myself that it is not. I would move to require a clearer disposition from our leadership, both in the need for transparency, and for the clarity of world moral opinions. While there are many that do not hold to the same basic rights we do, if we do not practice them in our affairs with others, even within our enemies, there is much to be asked of us as a government abroad. This generally holds true in polls of, for example, Muslims. Americans are or have been reasonably popular as a people (despite the dangers posed by extremists and even though it became less stressful to call oneself a Canadian in some countries). It is generally our government or leadership and its conduct toward particular Muslims, and the world in general that has become questionable. This can and should be remedied.

5) Obama has offered through his campaign and his recent statements on the budget to address the problem of government waste. This will be difficult from a political capital standpoint to achieve. Again, it will be necessary to outline first a general idea of points in the budget of obvious waste. And then to attack the budget itself throughout with an eye toward removing costly and inefficient programs. This cannot come to be defined as a partisan effort. But we are already seeing from the amendments of the defense funding for this year and the cutting of some procurement programs over others, that it may very well be (particularly if the enormous fat involved in defense contracting is the biggest slab on the chopping block). Among his critics, the central budget problems perceived are long-term programs of our social safety network (medicare and social security), and the general deficit and its continuing contribution to our tremendous national debts. Cutting programs generally to reduce and possibly even eliminate the deficit will neutralize the second of these claims and despite the enormous political capital necessary to achieve, will be necessary. On this point there will be on occasion sacrifices from those supporters to be made. Programs that benefit a particular state or jurisdiction may get cut. This sort of bloodletting will have to be ignored, endured, or even praised, if it can be continued. There is no "fair" way to eliminate wasteful spending in politics. It may however be possible in some manner, by harnessing the general political capital of a large grassroots organization that can broadly introduce demand for a sudden and specific gutting of federal programs. It would be useful to understand what sort of cuts Americans themselves are prepared best to endure, or in what way is the government being most wasteful. Obama himself will need to continue to publicly put forth examples of these sorts of wasteful expenditure. This week I have observed that his first real cabinet meeting was punctuated by a demand to cut $100 million dollars in spending by his cabinet. If such a pledge were to occur every time, we might be going somewhere, since such a sum is largely symbolic if it only comes up once given the size of our government spending.

6) A further critical issue (not raised directly by Obama himself) is the notion of a "Christian nation". This idea, while not totally incompatible with the idea of a democratic beacon of liberty, is horribly flawed. It would best to declare this a country heavily peopled by Christians. What we find is that this sort of declaration, and this sort of political debate infused so thoroughly with religion, sends a particular type of message as to the workings of democracy itself abroad. One that is not quite in agreement with the basic rights as enumerated in our foundational laws. The basic message that can be received by foreign nations contemplating our system is either 1) Democracy is somehow a solely Christian institution and does not pose any advantages for other nations which do not have significant Christian majorities living there (ie, China or Saudi Arabia). There are perhaps peculiar customs that will not be easily overridden by a sense of basic human rights that is inherent to democratic ideals (and essential to its function). But these are not generally peculiar to the general faith of America or any other nation. The 2nd option is far more egregious. We are essentially communicating that the exercise of democracy is more about the imposition of populist will than the exercise of protecting rights and freedoms. Thus a country or entity, such as happened in Afghanistan or Palestine, is free to impose by democratic fiat the will of a populist majority despite any violations of rights that will creates for minority populations living under their rule. We as a nation should seek to more clearly illuminate the process and prospective value of democratic traditions as a means of protecting individuals against tyranny through their enfranchisement and equal participation in the ballot and the exercise of their individual rights through free speech. Democracy is not best defined as the expression of public will because the public will may often include methods to actively oppress the members of the general public.

When we look at America it is not the religion of Christianity that we should be making shrines toward. It is the expression of liberty. It is a Statue of Liberty that greeted immigrants for decades as they entered the country escaping some oppressive circumstance elsewhere. It was the ability to practice religion freely that attracted various Christian sects as they escaped religious persecution at home. It was not some beacon of religious pilgrimage that drew the poor and huddled mass.

Accordingly, there are several issues which must be addressed by our public as it regards human rights. One is of course the issue of how to treat our terrorist enemies already raised. Another is the clarification, if possible, of how to separate church and state. Leaving free each of us to exercise our conscience as best we may, often through the assistance, such as it may be, of our faith. The line between the administration of law and the supposed source of moral foundation may always be blurry in society. It need not however be so openly crossed as to impose its the value of state upon church or vice versa.

This opens up at least two major and divisive issues. While it may be amenable for Obama himself to stay roughly away from these issues, they should be more openly and honestly debated among ourselves. Firstly, how long can we maintain a divided stance on the nature of consenting adults private sexual habits? These are all individuals, accorded with certain basic rights. We deny these rights by not permitting all people to, in effect, pursue happiness, and then rather foolishly attempt to compel only a strict interpretation of how this can be done. I have heard it often expressed that a homosexual has the same right as anyone else: they can marry someone of the opposite sex. They do indeed have that right, but it is not a right that they gain would much in their pursuit of life. It is not the sole province of a union between two people where happiness is divided and shared that it should be between only members of the opposite sex. However personally distasteful we may find this in practice, it is not our affair to judge through faith or any other remonstrances the private domains and practices of other people. Objections may be raised, biases harboured, and this will persist, as it does on many other subjects. We cannot however countenance a nation that refuses its essential identity by denying to people who have committed no harmful aggressions or transgressions on others their basic liberty, that they may pursue their basic happiness. We may list this privately as sin. So be it. I can find no basis for this separate and unequal treatment that is not rooted in discrimination.

There are advanced routinely arguments that a movement will next try to allow the marriage of adults to children, or to animals, or with some other inanimate property. The state cannot and should not recognize such actions with any legitimacy. A child or animal does not qualify in most American statutes for a consent to what is effectively a contractual arrangement (ie, marriage). To say nothing of inanimate objects. They would be open to abuses and harms as a result, and thus satisfy a level of protection then provided by refusing to acknowledge any legal claims that these sorts of arrangements are justified. Such spurious logic should be swept aside as it was in historical time in dealing with laws preventing unions between people of different races. Consenting adults should be permitted as much liberty as they are able to wield, and denied it principally when they are in consequence denying it to others through their activities, such as by harming them physically or by violating some private arrangement, causing damage and harm to property, and so on. We should have little interest in creating a state which does not worship this freedom to choose.

Even those who are in their fashion deeply religious should be satisfied by such a state. Only under these auspices they can receive complete protection and autonomy. No one will force their institutions to acknowledge the equality of a union of two people that is not a wish to acknowledge, nor force any sacred ceremony to be sullied by performing it in such a manner. If there is a state that compels by its legal system a particular strain of religious demonstration or violates some fundamental equality in its people on the basis of canonical claims rather than actual harms, then that system can just as easily be aimed against the religious institution that is often behind such a manner of conduct. It is a safeguard and a protection that permits "society" to be governed by methods that are not, in the strictest sense, legal such that they are not binding and punishable upon each other for what amount to theological differences of belief or opinion. Simply put, if no one is punished and harmed by the ability of others to pursue happiness, we should have no public interest in the private nature of others as they carry out their dream. I sympathize that this is not a popular vision, but in order to be consistent with our ideals, it is no less necessary.

Similar arguments can be advanced on abortion, with increasing levels of disquietude. Surprisingly enough, the population as whole seems more capable of accepting a choice where it is in fact a choice, as through the exercise of a woman's right to choose as opposed to the arena which is more of a natural exigency of who we are in our most intimate manner, the nature of our basic sexual attractions. As this regards Obama, he has the good fortune not to have to carry out any great debate over abortion. The make up by ideological grounds on the Supreme Court is unlikely to change during at least these next four years. I should think it unlikely that conservative pundits will be greatly mollified if Obama is to replace a liberal judge with another liberal judge. Yet should the issue even arise that a judge retires or has need of replacement, it is unlikely however to spark any great controversy and debate over the most central judicial ruling in the minds of many Americans. No conservative pundit will gain much moderating support to suppose that this ostensibly socially liberal Presidency MUST appoint a socially constricting judge to high office.

Surely there are many moderate positions that can be taken in debate anyway. It is sensible to ask, since it is clear from history that a legal ban on abortions does not subside the practice, what would? Are there policies that can be pursued that would alleviate the demand for this practice? Would not this be the centrally shared goal of most people; that fewer and fewer people should be faced with a morally divisive choice to be made in the face of an entrenched and vigorous protest and executed generally with great personal discomfiture. It would seem to me that this should be the quest of public efforts, not to deny choices, but to make them easier through the means of making them less likely to occur in the first place. We have already observed that the rate of abortions has been in decline over the past many years since they have become more broadly legal. Certainly there are social or religious objections that can be attributed here. But they would seem to be wholly insufficient to explain all that has happened. We must seek to harness, as best we are able through official policies, a means of increasing individual liberty by reducing its encumbrance from our most burdensome choices.

In all such cases listed, no one is compelled to do something they do not feel is within their conscience to do and no diminishing value is attached to those choices they themselves would exercise instead. In the reverse, we are compelled to restrict the ability of some people to live within their conscience and diminish the value of their choices by not extending full legal recognition and the protection of the state from discrimination or tyranny.

7) This list was composed in a stream of consciousness. So it should not be supposed that the accident of education coming in where it has is an indication of its importance and long-term value toward the vitality of our economy and our future. Indeed, among many economists, there is no issue valued more highly. Not even health care reforms. There are many schools and school districts which have by accident, good fortune, or good planning and administration, developed a means of providing an excellent level of education. Perhaps even comparable to that of some of the most regarded educational systems in the world (usually Finland is among the top, if not the best for example). We have also to acknowledge that there are many school districts for which we have utterly failed to provide a competitive education to the attendees. We must ask what sort of reforms might help this disparity, if not to correct an imbalance between rich and poor schools, at least to bring our poorest schools up to a worldly competitive level. The notion that all students should be able to go to college may be laudable (I have my own doubts), but at the moment, it might be best to wonder if there are enough students among us who are prepared to take up that task in the first place. I surmise that this is assuredly not the case.

Where have we failed? What can we do better? Obama has suggested an institution of merit based pay for teachers. There are many advocates who would support such an idea. I see no reason any top level school teacher could not command a 6 figure income, such as any other educated professional (lawyer or doctor for example) can command. But we still have a great difficulty to discern what is merit in education. Are we talking about some sort of measurable gains by students, if so, by what measure? Are we referring to some sort of general inculcation of learning?

We have suffered now through the introduction of a system of standardized testing to attempt to measure the varying school districts and allocate funds accordingly. But studying this system we can then find that the system of standards is fungible by the states themselves, and thus is administered only rarely by some independent body, rendering our attempts for standards often meaningless before we can even evaluate our claims. Throughout this effort it often results for a diminished level of achievement in actual skills, particularly in general areas that are not tested by state proficiency exams. We are in effect "teaching" students to pass exams, not to how to learn. This is a bad precedent, if only for the obvious reason that there are few experiences in later life in which a person is called upon to take an exam. Perhaps for basic or advanced certification in some industry and that is all.

It may be appropriate to have basic standards, and for the public, if not the educational bodies themselves, to determine collectively what these shall be and hold accountable educational institutions to executing them. Surely there are subjects that are fundamental to basic living in our present society, and still others that may become increasingly important in our future. This is not to say that only these should be expounded upon and leave other intellectual pursuits as prey to their merciless expansion. There are also basic subjects which are not at all covered, or covered unequally and inadequately, which could be introduced alongside our current curriculum. A simple course on finance and/or responsible use of credit might be of excellent social utility for example.

There are also structural problems. Decades ago, education was a field that many minorities or young women could enter without facing malicious and crushing prejudice and gain a margin of respectability in society (and make a respectable, if not the most successful, wage to boot). While this was an unfair structural society with built-in prejudices, it used to supply to us a fair quantity of highly skilled and educated people into a field of crucial societal importance. If one now studies the quality of many educators relative to this field, we are clearly diminished. The potentially highly skilled and most qualified educators now have options and other fields in which to compete and receive better and more competitive compensation, and thus have often fled. The cost of achieving a position as an educator is not often enough superseded by its potential gains in financial terms either. It is not for want by society at large that we are so inadequately staffed in education. Many school districts in the most dire circumstances have offered a variety of incentives to people with strong backgrounds in critically underemployed fields such as mathematics or sciences and attempted to entice participation in education by offering to cover the cost of training or state certifications while they begin teaching. I would argue that the levels of certification being demanded are perhaps of uncertain value in many cases anyway. Surely there are necessary methods of education that one should become versed in as an educator. But it hardly seems necessary to complete any college degrees in these skills as opposed to more properly boosting one's knowledge in the appropriate field of interest, say history or chemistry. We should broaden the base of people who can become included in education as to expand the prospective candidacies who could become excellent teachers or professors and then use this larger caste to expel from the system those who are woefully inadequate to our purposes. We should also, as Mr Obama has suggested, seek to reward those who are models of educational prowess in accordance with the level of professionalism that the position demands.

There are indeed other methods and reforms that can and will be proposed. We will see a large and boisterous debate over school choice, or the appropriate level of national participation in local school curricula (though the standards movement generally). There may be merits to some of these proposals. Stronger and more directed funding into educational resources (and teacher pay) and involvement by parents may be essential to our educational reform movement. This may be more possible in an environment where a school's dollars are coming not from the location around the school as a default, effectively locking our poorest communities into schools that are often woefully inadequate, but because of the students attending the school. Any discussion of school choice must also acknowledge that many of the proposals being put forward are undeniably selfish. A discussion of school vouchers inevitably centers around the desire of a few parents to send their children to a school of their choice (or to home school absent any better option in their minds) and receive public monies to support this desire, but not to support other parents sending their own children to that very same school by receiving public monies adequate to cover the cost of doing so. This is horribly flawed policy. All parents should be able to find schools that are appropriate and affordable for the demands they wish their children to achieve through education. To suggest otherwise effectively sentences the poor and undereducated to continue to be poor and undereducated. This must be the central feature in any attempt at educational reforms as it is clear on a moment's reflection that we should not really need the greater society to help fix an affluent school district's and its students' problems. It is essential to fix the problems that our educational inequality poses for our future lest we have perpetual inequality (with all the attendant problems that creates) and deprive ourselves of natural abilities and talents that could have been developed for the benefit and creative amusement of us all.

8) Burdened by the debts that it often creates, we may look to health care cost as the most pressing business imaginable in the long term. It is certainly among the most costly as its price and social burden spirals upward in an unsustainable and dizzying fashion. I will suspect that we will very soon see health care reforms placed on the Congressional agenda, laid there by yet another of Mr Obama's impassioned speeches. In speaking openly of entitlement reforms, perhaps our most pressing long-term budgetary crisis, we must ask sensibly what sort of reform is necessary, and how best to implement it in a sustainable fashion (one that doesn't merely punt the question another generation or so). But before we imagine whether this debate naturally centers on the inevitable "universal" question, we must also determine clearly what sort of reform is needed to the system. What do we really want health care to do that it isn't right now? How do we build more transparency, currently non-existent on prices for example, or accountability into the system? How do we get more emphasis on general health improvement instead of specialized medicine (or is this even desirable)? Should we expect portable coverage, and if so, why do we persist in the notion that we should receive our coverage through our employers?

I would declare that among any reform plan, there must be a concerted effort to remove the burden of employer's payment of health care for our benefit, while maintaining the community ratings that large corporations can achieve for us. As I understand most forms of insurance, there are means of rating generally the likelihood of making payouts. A teenager thus receives a higher rating for car insurance than an adult. A retiree higher than a new college graduate for life insurance. And these are calculated across the population. For some reason there are no clear attempts to do this with many types of health insurance. We are rather installed in a plan with our co-workers instead of our age-based and economic peers. It should make intuitive sense that as we age the cost of our health care will increase because our need for it will. Chief among the reasons to remove the employer based system is the dependence that it creates on employers by employees. Employees should maintain some freedom to work for themselves, to work for small employers, or to work for a large industrial titan, at their whim. And not to be restricted by burdensome health costs that would sudden skyrocket by shifting coverages or the dreaded "pre-existing" condition.

9) During a recent press conference, the Obama team asked the country to submit questions via the internet. This had some predictable results. For instance, a popular question submitted by a user "green machine" asking about the legalization of marijuana as a possible tool to grow our economy. I'm not familiar with any major economists whose advice on narcotics legalization centers around economic growth. So this was probably not the best way to ask the question or at least, not the correct problem for which legalization is the possible antidote. As I understand it, the Mexican ambassador recently supported a decriminalization, if not outright legalization, policy to be pursued by the United States to assist his country in fighting expanding narco-terrorist gangs. That sort of problem is the situation for which a legalization campaign is a prescription. Nevertheless, while the opinions of a few stoners trying to apply for legalization may be dismissed as the anarchy of internet frivolity, the opinions of a wide range of economic thinkers on the cost and benefit of our nation's drug policies should not be so easily lumped into a flippant or dismissive attitude toward their conclusions.

What we must do is to lay out what a national drug policy would seek to accomplish. Are we intending to punish or prevent drug use and abuse? Treat addiction? Or are we seeking the ability to attack and defeat criminal enterprises that center on the trade of illicit substances, many of which have some tangental national security ramifications seeing as these enterprises, like many other business efforts, have gone global. We receive the brunt of the blow from Mexican gangs, but the supply of drugs has not dried up from Columbia or Afghanistan either. Both of these countries also have serious counter-insurgency problems that might be considerably "improved" by amending our policies. If we choose to amend our policies in a more "liberal" fashion, how best to do this? What sort of revenues, fees, or taxes could/should be levied? And so on. Even what appears a silly conversation on its face when raised by a legion of marijuana supporters (and in some cases, users) could be seen as demonstrative of a general effect within public discourse and thus commands that policy should be examined on the issue.

The internet is hardly a broad cross-section of the populace in its savvy users, but one thing that should not be taken for granted is the ability to use it as an organizing force for particular movements to express their dissatisfaction with particular courses of action. Ideas can germinate through discussion and argument for some time before surfacing into the general public and spreading rapidly. Not all such ideas will be as notably controversial as a discussion of narcotics legalization. It would be well not to always present a flippant attitude toward their proposition through an open and invited public means. It becomes apparent now that there may have been a carefully phrased answer, if not a more sensible attitude for this particular issue. Future references should strive to be more clear and less abrasive.
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