America has big problems. Take your choice... from poverty, wars we can't leave, unaffordable healthcare, policemen shooting citizens in the back, or long lines at Starbucks. And we no more expect our politicians to move these societal mountains than to wipe away the drought plaguing California. Whether you blame 200-year old laws that were intentionally designed to govern (as in 'limit') not the citizens but the lawmakers (brilliant!), or selfish infighting of the current lawmakers is a debate that won't be undertaken here. But a look at our smaller problems—those we should able to solve—reveals a troubling situation: a complete paralysis of our leadership system. Let's start with the easiest, least debatable.
Number 8: The metric system.
If Benjamin Franklin, one of our founding fathers and world's greatest scientists, were alive today to see that the US clings to the non-scientific measurement system of his era he would be appalled and embarrassed. Today, we are with only Liberia and Myanmar in not adopting the metric system. This is the first item on our list because it would not cost a single penny nor call for a single tax increase for the change to be made. All that is required is a declaration that schools and business are to use only the metric system, and that all government purchases and products will be in metric... not in 10 years... now. No laws or fines or punishments are needed. We can suffer with the occasional transition pains, even mixed highway signs. Contrary to the predictable naysayers' nonsense about all the conversion 'costs,' the transition will work quite the contrary. As soon as the declaration is made, a fire will be lit under all sorts of businesses as all of our signage and printing of every sort is redone. With any such change that is both across-the-board and promotes efficiency, increased business activity only increases our collective wealth. So-called leaders who "don't know what a meter is" shall be given one-way tickets to any vacation spot in the world, as long as it's Liberia or Myanmar.
Number 7: Adopt-a-Highway. Many states now promote programs that leave the cleaning of our roads to the citizens. Do you have to be a technological genius to understand how stupid it is to have individuals cleaning roadsides with their hands, rather than using the best machines that money can buy? A single industrial vacuum truck can do the work of 1,000 people, and almost certainly consume fewer resources, from food to fossil fuels and even medicine for backaches. This is not a job for humans, whether professional road cleaners, prisoners in a chain gang, or office workers conscripted by their employer and pretending to help their community. If you can't understand this logic, you are part of the problem, not the solution. And you certainly are not fit to lead.
Number 6: Sales tax on the Internet.
The Internet is now a routine and vital portion of commerce. It's time to stop pretending that commerce done through it somehow is invisible or needs to be given special advantage, let alone subsidized. If sales taxes are a vital portion of virtually all states' means of providing public infrastructure, then let's stop the charade and collect sales tax wherever those businesses use that infrastructure to enrich their owners.
Number 5: The Non-Profit NFL.
You've probably heard by now that the NFL, one of the most profitable organizations in the world, at about $1 billion profit per year, gets non-profit tax benefits. The origin of that status might have been valid, but the current state constitutes corrupt theft from the citizens as a whole, sanctioned by those we elected to protect our interests. I suspect they get free Superbowl tickets; would you bet me against that? Solving this problem gets to the matter of one of our hard problems, inequality. While the simple solution is to take away the NFL's non-profit status, the authentic solution is more difficult... much more difficult. We need to change the rules that qualify an organization as non-profit, and the only way is this rule: the highest-remunerated person (whether CEO, board member, congressman, or former-politician-guest-speaker) from non-profit proceeds cannot have a total compensation of more than 10 times that of any other employee... no loopholes, not even for contracted employees. Notice that this puts no limit on any of the Roger Goodells of the world; the NFL janitor will merely have to get $4M per year. Or they simply pay the same taxes toward public infrastructure as any other profitable company.
Number 4: States competing to woo companies.
Whether it's giving tax breaks and free land to car companies to choose which state to locate in, or New Jersey Governor Christie giving a quarter-billion-dollar tax reimbursement to the now bankrupt Revel casino, this insanity must stop. Yes, competition is generally the engine that makes our country so strong, but if our tax structures are wrong, change them; don't negotiate away the citizens' tax dollars in special deals that give away the house and generally seem to fall short.
Number 3: Spam mail, computer viruses, credit card fraud, and marketing robocalls.
OK, these are more technically difficult to remedy, especially with the offshore element of Internet problems, but modernized laws with real teeth would be a good first step. Must we really have computers that don't have to at least identify the provider/manufacturer of every bit of code running on them, revealing the intruders by omission??? And the vast majority of what's called 'identity theft' is actually just credit card fraud that we refuse to get tough on; if we had real competition in the credit industry, we'd be able to get services from companies that don't tolerate—subsidize actually—the fraud. They'd do this by using more secure cards and supporting 'purchase tiers' that depend on the security and amount of the transaction type (face-to-face/phone/Web).
Number 2: Teachers buying their students' schools supplies.
We talk a lot about inequality these days, and the selfish moralists like to paint it as a complaint of the under-motivated and irresponsible. But let's try a different yardstick for measuring an unequal distribution of our country's wealth. Perhaps like me, you know a schoolteacher who's said they have to chip in to pay for school supplies for their class (or worse, have their students bring in things like tissues for extra credit), in this, the wealthiest country in the history of the world. Apple, a company grown by the American educational system, has about $180 billion in cash right now. Just the interest on that would pay for all the K-12 school supplies in the US, about $50 per student for 50 million students. How's that for inequality? All those under-motivated, irresponsible K-12ers. Not unequal enough for you? I have a better one.
Number 1: Unsupported soldiers.
However any of us feel about our endless wars, our philosophical differences go out the window as soon as the injured soldiers come home. That we are in such a state where private charities have arisen to fill the gap on treating and housing wounded soldiers is an utterly inexcusable crime by all of us, but we have little alternative to holding our national leaders responsible. They should have to work from either prison or a VA hospital until every soldier is well-cared for. I don't blame the rich for having their riches, but consider that we have thousands in our country with previously unimaginable wealth, and the poster children, the Walton family with the wealth of at least 25% of Americans... all while returning soldiers are homeless and under-treated. Is that unequal enough for you? Is 'redistribution' of some of that wealth to those soldiers still a dirty word?
Leadership is about taking people ONLY where they do not want to go or don't know to go. Nothing else. It is not about speeches or celebrations or spending or advice or even negotiation; those are merely typical adjuncts of a leader's role. Our leadership system is broken because our leaders are not taking us where we need to go. I added the word 'system' to acknowledge that the problem is not about the individuals. The system is us, all of us. We have the leadership we deserve; we bought and paid for it. But we must fix it. Many of our problems, large and small, are deeply related to the pace of technological change. That pace of change means that the only solution for America's leadership problem right now is term limits.
Saturday, April 25, 2015
A recent article by Zeynep Tufekci in the New York Times The Machines Are Coming provides a critical morsel in explaining the tidal wave of impact that technology has on jobs:
"But computers do not just replace humans in the workplace. They shift the balance of power even more in favor of employers. Our normal response to technological innovation that threatens jobs is to encourage workers to acquire more skills, or to trust that the nuances of the human mind or human attention will always be superior in crucial ways. But when machines of this capacity enter the equation, employers have even more leverage, and our standard response is not sufficient for the looming crisis."
The effect of jobs being automated has been clear, but understanding where the power moves to is key to dealing with the problem. The author also has a nice counter to the boilerplate response we've been hearing a lot lately:
"Optimists insist that we’ve been here before, during the Industrial Revolution, when machinery replaced manual labor, and all we need is a little more education and better skills. But that is not a sufficient answer. One historical example is no guarantee of future events, and we won’t be able to compete by trying to stay one step ahead in a losing battle."***