Monday, May 11, 2009

Economic Ideas

I have spent many years contemplating what economic policies would be best for this country. My thoughts on this subject long pre-dated the current crisis - ever since I first read about the Jacksonian Revolution, the trials of "Battlin' Bob" La Follette, and the New Deal, I have found my mind immersed in the ongoing conflict between Jefferson's promise to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and the manner in which our current economic system imperils the fruition of those God-given guarantees. Eventually I arrived at the following conclusions:

1) All human beings have the inalienable right to be able to afford that which is necessary to guarantee survival, social functioning, and the opportunity to create for themselves the socio-economic lifestyle of their choosing. The first two should be guaranteed to those who work at least forty hours a week, whereas the third should be assured to those who possess the individual merit, character, and work ethic to enable them to advance, given a fair playing field, in their vocational spheres of choice.

2) The logic behind the existence of a system of checks-and-balances when it comes to the distribution of political power is equally applicable to the creation of an ideal system for the distribution of economic power. Politically, the logic goes that governmental power must exist in order for social order and justice to be maintained, but that the concentration of too much power into the hands of a single political entity jeopardizes individual freedom and other human rights; thus political power is set up in such a way that the different branches of government have enough so as to perform their duties as required, while none have so much as to enable them to acquire too much power for themselves and thus undermine the common good. The same principle must apply to the economic system in any free nation. As John Taylor of Caroline said in 1814, "Wealth, like suffrage, must be considerably distributed to sustain a democratick republic; and hence, whatever draws a considerable proportion of either into a few hands, will destroy it. As power follows wealth, the majority must either have wealth or lose power."

3) Through historical trial-and-error, it has been discovered that the most effective system for fostering economic creativity (and its concurrent effects on scientific, technological, artistic, cultural, intellectual, business, and social progress) and guaranteeing individual liberty (in economic matters and all other regards) is one wherein all facets of a nation's economic life originate from and are controlled by private individuals who may do as they please so long as their actions do not infringe on the liberties (to be able to afford the necessities for survival and social functioning and possess socio-economic opportunity) and rights (to a safe work environment, non-excessive hours, reasonable workload, protection from unjust employment termination, et cetera) of others. The role of government in such a system is to regulate private enterprise for the dual purpose of preventing individuals from inflicting injury upon and/or limiting the freedoms of others and making sure that those with unusual power in an economic system do not engage in reckless behavior that jeopardizes the welfare of the social whole; in addition, the government has an obligation to impose punitive consequences against those who have used their economic power in violation of the aforementioned precepts. The rationale here is comparable to that upon which our legal system operates, namely, that all human beings should live their lives in the manner of their choosing provided that they do not harm others; that as such the government has an obligation to actively intervene when one person's will threatens another's rights vis-a-vis criminal actions; and that likewise the government has an equally strong obligation to avoid any involvement at all in the day-to-day activities of human beings except when their freedoms and other rights are threatened vis-a-vis criminal activity. If the government becomes too interventionist when dealing with matters of law-and-order, individual liberties are inevitably stifled; if, on the other hand, the government is too laissez-faire in its approach to law-and-order, anarchy ensues, inevitably allowing those whose circumstances enable them to benefit from lawlessness to take advantage of those whose circumstances make them more dependent on laws.

So what economic policies would I propose so as to achieve this ideal? For the purpose of beginning, I introduce the following four-point plan:

1) Create a Quality of Life Bureau. A Quality of Life Bureau would guarantee that all working Americans receive enough annual income so as to comfortably afford the necessities of life and social functioning. It would do this by calculating each year the amount of money required for an average American to afford food, shelter, medical care, clothing, and anything else that is necessary for survival; add on to that the amount of money required for an average American to function within society, which would include such costs as needed to make possible transportation, communication, and anything else that people need to be integrated members of the societies in which they live; and then guarantee via minimum-wage laws that individuals who work forty hours a week receive enough from their jobs to comfortably afford all that falls into the aforementioned criteria. Ascertaining the amounts each person requires varies from situation to situation; a single parent will need more money than someone without a spouse or children so as to care for his/her dependents, the transportation needs of someone in an urban area will be very different from those of someone in a rural community, and so on. A Quality of Life Bureau would have to take these factors and more into account when determining the annual income an individual is entitled to for the purposes of survival and socialization, as well as adjust that figure each year in accordance with natural cost-of-living increases and technological progress. The authority of a Quality of Life Bureau would be that of establishing the exact amount of the minimum wage for various types of employees so that those who work forty-hours-a-week can meet their criteria, serving as a means of recourse for employees who feel that their rights to a fair income are being violated by their employers, forcing employers who attempt to get around paying this wage to abide by the law, and imposing punitive measures against those same employers for attempting to violate it in the first place (legal consequences have historically proven to be great disincentives, especially when they are criminal instead of civil). While critics of such a program argue that the natural rise in employee wages would present an obstacle to small business growth, that claim can be easily countered by observing that providing the vast bulk of American society with such a monumental increase in discretionary income will increase the consumption of goods and services, which will in turn provide small businesses with the perfect opportunity for establishment and growth while simultaneously creating well-paying jobs for future employees. These same critics should also be forced to observe that their alternative is one in which people who work forty-hours-a-day should be allowed to not receive the necessities of survival and socialization for themselves and their families, a fact that they often verbally weasel around since they know that openly admitting their preference would be unconscionable.

2) Create an Employment Bureau. All Americans who wish to work forty hours a week have a right to be able to do so, and an Employment Bureau would exist to help them fulfill that right. Just as affirmative action programs provide tax exemptions and other business incentives to businesses and other employers who favor groups that are frequently the targets of discrimination, so too should an Employment Bureau provide economic incentives for businesses and other employers that hire individuals who have been unemployed for lengthy periods of time. It should actively assist those who are unemployed in finding work, providing them with access to resources that post available jobs and counsellors who can take an active approach in aiding them in obtaining employment. Since the Employment Bureau would also be responsible for providing unemployment compensation to those who are out of work, it would prevent individuals receiving these benefits from abusing the system by requiring them to provide a weekly progress report on their job searches; those who are not searching within the minimum standards that the bureau has deemed acceptable should have their benefits cut off, whereas those who are showing due diligence in finding work and are having poor luck in doing so for extended periods of time should receive special attention and assistance. In short, the closer an unemployed individual comes to having his or her benefits expire (within six months' time), the more urgent should the bureau's efforts be in finding him or her a well-paying job. Additionally, an Employment Bureau should assist individuals who are currently employed in all quality-of-work matters unrelated to income, such as guaranteeing that they have a safe work environment; that they are not discriminated against in any way based on factors such as age, gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, or religion; that their employment not be terminated based on any factor save those directly pertaining to their ability to perform their work-related duties (and companies that fire for other reasons should face criminal charges); and guaranteeing that individuals not be required to work in excess of forty hours a week (since excessive work hours are often a hindrance to socio-economic advancement and quality of life). As to this last point, it should be noted that while no job should require employees to work more than forty hour a week, individuals that assign them fewer hours should be required to present a clear compelling reason why they have done so. If one is not provided, then employees should be able to sue for more hours; if not, then those same employees should be able to utilize the resources of the Employment Bureau so as to provide themselves with supplementary unemployment benefits to cover the difference between what their current income and the minimum income established by the Quality of Life Bureau, as well as utilize Employment Bureau resources in order to find another part-time job so as to help them make ends meet.

Should a Quality of Life Bureau and Employment Bureau function properly, all Americans would be guaranteed forty-hours-a-week of work (neither more nor less) and enough money from their work to afford the necessities of survival and socialization for themselves and their dependents. It would do this by making sure that all workers receive enough money for forty hours a week of work to make this possible, that those who are working receive adequate hours and are protected from losing their jobs for reasons unrelated to performance while those who aren't working forty hours a week can obtain gainful employment in a timely manner, and that those who have grievances about their working conditions have a means of ready recourse available to them. After this, I would then emphasize two more points:

3) Create a Department of Free Enterprise. This would guarantee that socio-economic opportunity is available to all by providing subsidies to those who wish to establish small businesses or advance their careers in the sciences, arts, and other creative fields; would prevent large businesses and/or economic powerhouses in every field from creating unfair blocks against competition; and would make sure that those economic entities powerful enough to affect other sectors in the economy behave in such a way as to prevent them from engaging in behavior that has a detrimental impact on society as a whole.

4) Guarantee high quality education to all. I have elaborated on my ideas for this in greater detail in a separate blog post (
In addition to the ideas mentioned there, I would also establish laws that would prevent colleges from price gouging. As college education (graduate as well as undergraduate) is becoming increasingly necessary for socio-economic advancement, the ongoing rise in tuition costs is tantamount to price gouging. This should not be allowed, and rather than expecting students to cobble together piecemeal remedies via scholarships and loans (with the end result often still being a lifetime of crippling debt), the government should instead guarantee high-quality college education to all. How? Well, I am opposed to putting caps on how much private college can charge in tuition. Instead, I believe the government should guarantee that all state-run colleges are free (not merely affordable, but free) to every student within their jurisdictions who has a GPA of 3.0 or higher. In addition, measures should be taken to improve the quality of education available at those colleges, from keeping curricula up-to-date to providing excellent financial incentives for top minds to teach at those schools. This is not the equivalent of free education to all; rather, it is free education to those who work hard and possess enough intelligence that their merits entitle them to one. Economic station should be a non-issue when it comes to access to higher education. Ideally, we could make it so easy for students to receive high-quality education at state colleges that they become an extremely ideal alternative to private schools, thereby forcing private institutions to lower tuition rates in the hope of competing and attracting students.

I can think of no better way to conclude this article then with a great American document often referred to as the "Economic Bill of Rights". Taken from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's eleventh State of the Union Address, this passage perfectly summarizes the fundamental principles of economic liberalism - the idea that Jefferson's immortal pledge is only meaningful in a society where all individuals are guaranteed the necessities of life and the opportunity for socio-economic advancement. While I am aware that I have quoted this before, I cannot refrain from doing so again. The Economic Bill of Rights, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the seminal documents in the development of America's core political philosophy (and as such its political identity), surpassed by none and equalled only by the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution of the United States and Bill of Rights (1787), Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural (1801), Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (1863), and Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points Speech (1918).

Economic Bill of Rights (January 11, 1944):

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.

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