Inequality Busters and Making Work Pay

Inequality in our country already had reached unsustainable levels before last year, and the pandemic and economic disruption that followed only exacerbated that unacceptable trend. There are always going to be income disparities in a market economy like ours, and that is as it should be, but the growing inequality of opportunity to fulfill the American dream is untenable.

Some concrete steps we can take to remedy this follow below, and I have two songs to set the tone for these recommendations: Earn Enough For Us by XTC (and the Freedy Johnston cover as a bonus), and The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby & the Range.

Health Care: Ensuring everyone has access to good health care coverage regardless of their income or circumstances is absolutely critical for people to truly have equal opportunity to succeed. The health care prong of the “We’re Better Than This” platform would create that system, and empower people to start businesses and make other life and career choices that maximize their opportunities without worrying about losing their coverage.

Realistic Access to Higher Education: The higher education prong of the “We’re Better Than This” platform will give people of all incomes an opportunity to pursue college or graduate studies without saddling them with mortgage-sized debt.

We know that access to higher education plays a critical role in creating opportunity, and this new system would make it realistic for everyone to pursue it. Similar to the health care prong noted above, the ability for all people to make life and career choices without worrying about their student debt becoming unsustainable will be a boon to their chances of success.

Expanded Earned Income Tax Credit: While most of the focus today on making work pay is on increasing the minimum wage, expanding the earned income tax credit is the better way to achieve this goal.

Over the years, the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation, and some increase to make up for that is warranted. But when the minimum wage gets too high, it starts to reduce jobs for the very people we are trying to help. And higher minimum wages discourage hiring of teens and people transitioning back into the job market, holding them back from opportunities that can make a big difference for their futures.

The earned income tax credit, on the other hand, can be targeted to those who need it as a shared investment without putting all the burden on employers. Expanding it so anyone working can be brought up to a livable wage, when combined with the health care and educational elements above, will put a big dent in inequality.  

A More Flexible Safety Net That Makes Work Pay: The last point here leads into the next prong of the platform but is an important one. Safety net programs that assist with core needs like food, housing, and child care both protect people going through hard times and give a boost to people who are starting from behind due to poverty, systemic racism, and other circumstances.

We want to design these programs so that people have that safety net and helpful boost while always ensuring that work is the best path for their success. An important way we can incentivize work is to make the phase-out of these programs more flexible so that when people earn more income, they and their families don’t immediately lose these other benefits and always do better than they would if they were not working.

A Better Way of Voting and Holding Elections

For all of the challenges and distressing attempts at interference, the recent elections overall were an amazing exercise in democracy that underscored the power of the people when we give them fair access to safe, secure, and trustworthy means to vote. While voting appropriately remains a primarily state and local government function, there are several things the federal government can do to protect the vote, and some general principles to ensure that it is the people who are choosing their representatives rather than elected officials choosing their voters (as is too often case today).

The theme song for this prong of the “We’re Better Than This” platform was one of my easier picks: People Have the Power by the great Patti Smith. There are three core elements to this plan: a new approach to the Electoral College; reforms to reduce the influence of extremes in both parties; and ensuring everyone of eligible age has a meaningful opportunity to vote.

A Better Electoral College:

With the electoral college vote increasingly out of step with the popular vote in our Presidential elections, many if not most justifiably believe we should ditch the electoral college altogether and just go by the popular vote. My problem with that approach is similar to my problem with the current system: it focuses the candidates on high population areas of the country more likely to agree with them at the expense of building a truly national campaign.

My solution is we keep the electoral college but apportion each state’s votes by population. That way, if you are a Republican in California or a Democrat in Mississippi, your vote still gets counted. And because both sides would get counted in every state, there is incentive for candidates to compete for voters nationwide rather than just putting all their eggs in the basket of the few swing states as we see today.

This system would better reflect the popular vote while giving voters everywhere more of a say in the outcome. No, it won’t magically reduce the focus of each party on their base states, but rather than a handful of states that are not broadly representative of the country deciding the election each time, we all would get a say and candidates would have to act accordingly.

A Better Way to Elect our Representatives:

No one likes gerrymandering except the ones who are doing it, and to be clear, both parties do it all the time when they have the opportunity. A few states like Iowa, where there has been some intervention to require districts are drawn in nonpartisan, geographically sensible ways, offer a better model for redistricting and limiting political interference.

Drawing the districts fairly only solves part of the problem though. The current primary system is pushing both parties towards the extremes, which is both driving gridlock and creating more raging moderates like me who cannot believe the choices we are often left with in the general election. Whether it is the undue influence of public employee unions on the left or hardcore conservatives on the right, they both push their parties toward extremes that most general election voters do not actually support. There are two good ways to limit this pernicious effect.

First is ranked choice voting, which Maine and some other jurisdictions are using to give people the opportunity to vote with their hearts first, but to hedge that with a strategic backup vote if their preferred candidate does not win. This does wonders to limit what we too often see in the absence of ranked choice systems: two opposing extreme choices in the general election where the majority of voters actually support neither of them. And hats off to Maine for the animated video explainer too!

Another way to tackle this problem is what they have done in California: using nonpartisan primaries where the top two candidates regardless of party move on to the general election. This too can limit the influence of extremes, especially in multi-candidate races. 

A Better Way to Ensure Everyone Can Vote:

A new Voting Rights Act, and the concept of naming it for John Lewis–an American hero and true patriot–is one that should carry over to the new Congress. There sadly are still too many shenanigans to limit the ability of Blacks and marginalized communities to exercise their right to vote, and that is simply un-American.

On a related front, we need to do away with limits on otherwise eligible people being able to vote absent proof of election-related fraud. The idea that many states still can and do limit the ability of people with criminal records to vote is scandalous, particularly when it is tied to payment of fees and fines that unjustly stick with low-income people like scarlet letters. The fact that someone has a prior criminal record should never limit their ability to vote except for that very narrow class of people who have committed election-related fraud.     

Finally, the 2020 elections proved what many have known for quite some time: voting by mail can be a safe and secure and a far more convenient way for people to cast their ballots. We can help state and local governments expand this option and offer other secure ways to vote by setting national standards and providing funding to help them meet those standards. The Post Office could play a much bigger role too, not just by delivering mail ballots but also by serving as secure drop off locations for ballots.

Setting a New and Better Tone for Our Country

On this inauguration day, there is one overarching issue that is essential to the success for all other issues in the “We’re Better Than This” platform, and our new President Biden already has nailed it: leading by example to reset the tone for our national discourse. The new Administration could not come at a better time on this critical front.

This will be a short post today, and I want to start with the classic song I went to in the aftermath of the insurrection on January 6thAmerica  by Simon & Garfunkel. David Bowie’s cover as part of the Concert for New York City in the wake of 9/11 really hits home right now too. Lots of people right now are looking for the America of our ideals, the Land of Hope and Dreams that the great philosopher Bruce Springsteen reminds us we all want to believe in.

While we all have a part to play in restoring that faith, leadership matters. Our new President got it right today, and his words are ones that we would all do well to echo and embody in our actions as we go forward. Instead of leading with “us and them” narratives, “we’re all in this together.”

With that, I’ll finish with two more classics from the Beatles, Here Comes the Sun and We Can Work It Out. We can indeed.

An Immigration System Befitting a Nation of Immigrants

With our soon to be new President Biden set to propose long overdue comprehensive immigration reform as part of his Day One agenda tomorrow, today seems like the right day to cover immigration in the “We’re Better Than This” platform.

The songs for this prong of the platform say it all: celebrating that America is a nation of immigrants yet challenging us for our too often failure to live up to that ideal. The songs are America by Neil Diamond, City of Immigrants by Steve Earle, and American Land by Bruce Springsteen. Great songs all.

Fixing our broken immigration system starts with the recognition that people come to America for the same basic reasons now as they have from the time of our nation’s founding: to seek economic opportunity and the American dream, to join their families, or to flee persecution or terror. We truly are a nation of immigrants, and from the start of our country to today, immigrants have played integral roles in our economy and in our communities.

There are two fundamental problems with our current immigration system that lead to many others. First, the laws that dictate how many people we allow in legally are arbitrarily set and generally bear no relation to the realities of our economy or what is happening in the world. For many years now, the system has lacked sufficient legal channels to function efficiently and effectively. While we will never be able to let everyone in who would like to come here, a system that properly reflects our economic and societal needs will both make us safer and more successful for years to come.

Second, with few exceptions, the only available penalty for violations of these flawed laws is deportation. A lucky few can get a deferred status that allows them to stay temporarily or longer term with limited rights. But the system does not allow for the range of penalties that our criminal justice system affords. We don’t throw everyone in jail who violates our criminal law–there are fines, probation and other penalties depending on the severity of the offense so that the punishment fits the crime. Not so for immigration, and many of our current problems stem from that glaring omission.

There is only one way to solve the fundamental problems in our immigration system: taking an honest look at what has gone wrong and developing a fair process for handling the people who already are in the dysfunctional system, and then replacing it with a fair and efficient system that meets our economic and societal needs while ensuring that our safety and security are protected.

For those who have violated the immigration laws in the current broken system, there should be no amnesty, but a range of penalties depending on the type of violations that makes earned legalization possible for those who otherwise have played by the rules. Penalties should range from fines and a lengthy probation period, to deportation for those who have been convicted of serious crimes.

Biden’s immigration plan is a great start for getting us there, and it deserves serious consideration. And before Congress takes up that plan, there are three things they all should be required to do first: (1) Attend a citizenship ceremony to see real patriotism on display (2) Go to the border to get a full picture of the situation there from the perspective of all stakeholders (border patrol, advocates, local governments, and people who live and work there), and (3) Pass the citizenship test and a test of basic facts around immigration (e.g., what is most common way folks get here illegally? Hint, it is not at the border).

Fixing this problem often seems like the impossible dream in today’s politics, but public opinion research shows a clear majority of the country favors this balanced approach. And if we want to end illegal immigration and honor our history as both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants, there is no other way forward.

A Fairer and Better Justice System

In honor of MLK day, today’s focus for the “We’re Better Than This” platform is our nation’s justice system.

I have a song and a quote to set the stage for this prong. The song is a classic, A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, and the quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to resonate and inspire us today: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I use this song and this quote not just to honor Dr. King, which would be a plenty good reason on its own, but to note that our American ideal of justice for all remains a challenging work in progress. We indeed have made a lot of progress over the course of time but there are still glaring racial disparities in our legal system, and low-income and marginalized communities continue to struggle to realize the American promise of equal justice for all.

There is far more to say about the solutions than a short post can accommodate, but there are several things our federal government can do right now to bring us closer to reaching our ideal of justice for all, and really mean for all.

Reducing criminalization: Through the War on Drugs and other often well-intentioned overreaches, we are treating too many personal behaviors as criminal offenses when they are not a threat to the larger community.

That starts with drugs–while there is good reason to go hard after the dangerous thugs and gangs who violently compete to supply illegal drugs, we should be treating individual drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal offense unless the user poses a real threat to others. This is how we already treat alcohol and other legally available drugs, and now are starting to treat marijuana.

By legalizing and tightly regulating the other recreational drugs we currently treat as criminal, we can tax them and pay for the expanded treatment programs and alternatives that are proven to work instead of putting people into the criminal system who do not pose a threat to anyone but themselves. The added benefit will be to sharply reduce the criminal payoff for the gangs and thugs who pose the primary danger to the community, and in the process enable us to better focus law enforcement resources on these bad actors if they move into other illicit activities.

Limiting jail and detention: While the overcriminalization of drug use certainly plays a big role, it is just one symptom of our overemphasis on incarceration as punishment in our country. Statistics have long shown that we far outpace other countries in incarceration while also seeing much higher rates of violent crime, so something is clearly out of whack here.  

Simply put, we should not jail or detain anyone who is not a danger to the community, a danger to themselves, or who poses a flight risk while facing a serious charge. And each of these three classes of people who meet that criteria should be treated differently, so we are not mixing people being held as dangers to themselves with those who already have been shown to be dangers to others.

This is not to say there should be no penalties for those who break the law and don’t fall into one of these three categories, just that we give more sentencing discretion to judges to make the punishment fit the crime in a more fair and cost-effective manner. I am not naïve that there are many criminals who do pose a danger to our community–that is where we should be focusing our criminal justice resources, and this approach will enable us to do that more efficiently.

Reducing the use of fees and fines: While Ferguson, Missouri became the poster child for excessive fees and fines being imposed in racially and economically unjust ways, they are hardly alone. This is a nationwide problem that fuels both inequality and widespread distrust in our justice system.

Fees and fines should never be imposed as a penalty on people who cannot afford to pay without some alternative means of serving their punishment that does not penalize their economic status. Fees and fines can be a very effective punishment on otherwise nonviolent offenders who have the means to pay (e.g, white collar criminals), but when used indiscriminately they can end up criminalizing poverty and holding otherwise deserving people back from getting a second chance to make a fresh start.

Cash bail can have a similar impact. If we reconsider when we use jail and detention in the first place as suggested above, there will be less need to even worry about bond for people who don’t pose a risk to the community. But for those who do pose that risk to themselves or others or are a flight risk, the answer is to detain them in jail or use alternative forms of detention where we can monitor them, not to let the cash bail system be a way that dangerous criminals with means can get out while others who pose little threat get stuck in jail because they are poor.

Smarter Sentencing and Second Chances: Along with more strategic use of jail, detention, fees, and fines, we can use smarter sentencing that makes greater use of restorative justice and similar programs that better balance the goals of punishment, rehabilitation, redress for the victim(s), and community safety.

In addition, once someone has completed their sentence, the default expectation in most instances should be that they can move on with their lives without the scarlet letter of their prior contact with the criminal justice system hanging over them. There will be some limits on this principle for more serious crimes, but for all others we will give them a much better opportunity to move forward with their lives in a productive manner when they have completed their sentence.

Properly funding the courts and legal aid: The third branch of government too often gets short shrift when it comes to budget time. That is true for both for the court system itself and for the attendant investments like legal aid that are necessary to make the system work fairly and efficiently for everyone. This represents a tiny fraction of the overall federal budget even when fully funded. Given the critical role the third branch plays in our country, which has been on display quite often of late, we need to treat it with the priority it deserves at budget time.

Limiting mandatory arbitration: While most of the focus on justice-related issues focuses on the criminal system, we should not lose sight that the civil and administrative justice systems also play a huge role in our economy and our lives. One of the best ways we can improve those systems is by limiting the use of mandatory arbitration to cases where parties on equal footing have willingly negotiated that option.

So if a credit card company and one of its corporate customers want to agree to mandatory arbitration in a negotiated deal, by all means go ahead. But if the credit card company wants to do that to a consumer customer by burying it in fine print in a contract that the consumer has no real opportunity to negotiate, that should be a no go. If it really is a more efficient solution that is better and more accessible for the consumer, let them decide if they want to do it.

Improving Access to Higher Education and a Realistic Student Debt Solution

Access to higher education is one of the great equalizers in our country and we know it is a ticket to opportunity. But that access remains uneven today for people who do not come from wealthy families, and the number of people carrying life-altering student debt has been exploding for years now.

As discussed below, there are fair and manageable solutions to the problem that can set up a better system going forward, but untargeted and financially irresponsible proposals that are favored by many on the left like free college for all or mass debt forgiveness are not the answer. Before jumping in to this discussion, I have two songs from different eras to get us started: the classic What a Wonderful World by Sam Cooke and a newer one, Campus by Vampire Weekend.

Tackling the student debt crisis: There is little question that the amount of student debt today is unsustainable, exacerbating inequality, and holding back our country’s economic potential. But roughly half of the outstanding debt is held by people with higher incomes, and many who make up the other half have more manageable amounts of debt relative to their incomes.

Therein lies the problem with the mass forgiveness proposals: most of the benefit goes to people with higher incomes who do not need it. The better solution, with props to the pro bono team working with The Chicago Bar Foundation on these issues, is to take advantage of today’s near zero interest rates and give everyone a one-time opportunity to refinance their public and private student debt into one new, lower-rate plan. At that point, everyone would then pay back the debt at a rate tied to their income, with full forgiveness of any remaining balances after 15-20 years (and a shorter amount of time for people in public service).

This plan has the benefit of being more fair and more affordable for our country than the mass forgiveness proposals. Some debt would still be forgiven over time for people of more modest incomes, but that is unlikely to be materially more than what is already considered uncollectible today. At the same time, people who are putting off starting businesses, buying homes, or starting families would no longer have the weight of unsustainable student debt hanging over them, giving a big boost to the economy.   

A Better Way of Financing Higher Ed Going Forward: The fix to the current crisis is also the better way to finance higher education going forward: allowing students of all incomes to borrow what is necessary for tuition and living expenses (with reasonable caps so schools can’t just keep jacking up tuition at unsustainable rates and we don’t have professional students who keep getting degrees on the taxpayer dime), and giving everyone the option of one simplified, income-based repayment plan that has a reasonable end point when any remaining balances are forgiven. This puts people of all incomes on an even footing in access to higher education and prevents anyone from getting into a situation where their debt is unsustainable.

This new financing approach also needs to be combined with more accountability measures for schools that have poor graduation rates or post-graduate outcomes for their students.

Free College for Some: As with mass debt forgiveness, “free college for all” suffers from the fundamental problem that it is not targeted to people who need it. And it would be tremendously costly to hand out this unnecessary benefit, taking away from the many other more strategic investments our country needs right now. And lastly, not everyone wants or needs a four-year college degree to be able to succeed today.

A better investment would be to make two-year community college free to all who want it. These colleges offer degrees in many areas that can put people right to work in good jobs. These schools also can serve as stepping-stones that enable lower-income students to minimize the student debt they need to take on by starting their college careers there and then transferring to a four-year university to finish their degrees. While some higher-income people who don’t need it might take advantage of this benefit, they would be unlikely to do so in large numbers since they already are far more likely to pursue four-year university degrees.

The other way we can target scholarship assistance towards people who need it is through the tax code. For example, we could require schools to make the majority of their scholarships and financial aid need-based to remain eligible for charitable tax deductions. Many schools already do this, and it is not an unreasonable requirement for those who do not.

Improving Education–Pre-K to 12

It is hardly a news flash that education plays an absolutely essential role in ensuring equality of opportunity. But we know that not all kids start from the same place when they enter school, and there remain wide disparities in the quality of education once they do, depending on where they live. This is particularly true for lower-income and disadvantaged communities where kids need it most.

We can do better, and while this is primarily a state and local government function, the federal government has a key part to play. I have one song, School of Rock from the eponymous movie, and one book, Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will by Geoff Colvin, to set the tone for this prong of the platform.   

Key Investments

First off, the federal government can help make up for income disparities and promote good schools with the full panoply of necessary classes and programs through targeted funding.

There is no better investment than funding to help ensure that quality preschool opportunities are available to all kids, especially those who already start at a disadvantage. Study after study shows the critical role preschool plays in preparing kids to start off school on the right foot, and this is an investment that pays for itself many times over in both future success for kids who have the opportunity and future savings on other government services that otherwise would be necessary.

Federal funding also plays a key role in enabling schools in poorer areas (both urban and rural) to provide the necessary resources and supportive services for kids to succeed. This is true for all kids in disadvantaged areas and is particularly important to ensure children with disabilities get the appropriate education they are entitled to under federal law.  

Lastly, schools should be one of the priorities in federal infrastructure funding, recognizing the key role schools play in promoting healthy communities throughout the country.

This funding collectively gives the federal government an opportunity to promote best practices throughout the country, in the following ways.

Promoting Best Practices in Curriculum and Teaching

Rather than the overly prescriptive regulations and funding conditions that are typical today, a better way to accomplish the goal of promoting best practices is to set higher level core standards and then give schools flexibility to meet them. This encourages innovation and local buy-in.  

The concept of a “Common Core” curriculum is a critical one, but that should be done through broad standards for each of the core subject areas and then provide a lot of flexibility for how those subjects are taught to meet the standards.

Equally important, the curriculum needs to go beyond reading, writing, math, and science to include other key skills for citizenship and success in the modern world. Key areas that should also be given equal priority in the core curriculum include:

  • Civics
    • Just one look at the state of our politics and discourse today is enough said.
  • Key Life Skills
    • Skills like empathy, critical thinking, relating to people who are different than us, collaboration, and conflict resolution already are proving crucial for success, and that will only become true as technology becomes a greater part of our lives.
    • The book I noted at the outset of this post, “Humans Are Underrated,” explains this well and offers a great roadmap.
  • History with a Clearer Eye
    • The experience of 2020 brought overdue attention to our collective need to reckon with the real history of our country, good and bad.
    • This is going to be a challenging and fraught conversation, and I suggest a special commission with diverse representation be formed to modernize our history curriculum so that we tell the story of our nation more accurately from all sides.
    • This should not be a self-flagellation exercise; it should celebrate all that rightly makes us a great country without sugarcoating that we have done some very bad things along the way that did not live up to our ideals, slavery and racial injustice in particular. The struggle for a more perfect union is a constant and ongoing one that we all have a role in.
  • Wellness
    • Understanding and prioritizing wellness early on will have lifelong benefits.
    • Knowing what we know about the relationship between physical health, mental health, and learning, we no longer can skimp on gym class, sports, the arts, and extracurricular activities.

Incidentally, most adults would benefit from this curriculum as well, if only we had the same leverage to require it!

Regulation, Evaluation, and Accountability for Government programs

While I lean libertarian when it comes to the breadth of the government role in our lives, I know there are many critical areas where government plays an essential role in fulfilling our nations’ ideals, as the early prongs of the “We’re Better Than This” platform underscore. That said, government’s role in our lives should be limited to those essential functions and carried out with the lightest hand possible to fulfill the objectives.

To set the theme for this prong, I have two songs— Mr. Bureaucracy by a band called Paradox and Something for Nothing by Rush—and two great books, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard Thaler and Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility by David Walker. Lots of inspiration and thought-provoking ideas here.

There are obviously weighty areas where the balance between government regulation and individual liberty is more challenging, like the fight against domestic terrorism that has now become front and center for all of us, and I’ll cover some of those bigger issues in later prongs of the platform. For this post, I want to focus on the many day-to-day functions of government that impact our lives in more mundane yet very important ways.

Government Funding: Federal funding for both private and nonprofit entities, whether through contracts or grants, and whether direct or through state and local governments, plays a critical role in carrying out the business of government. Public/private partnerships done well do a lot of good in the world and can have a lot of extra bang for the buck too.

That said, anyone who has ever bid on or received a government contract or grant can tell you the amount of inane bureaucratic requirements that come with it are incredibly inefficient and can be absolutely soul crushing. We of course should expect and require accountability for all government funding, but the focus should be on meeting the goals of the program and meeting basic financial responsibility requirements (e.g., a regular audit), not getting into the weeds of how the work gets done. We should use “nudges” to encourage good behavior rather than blunt instruments that turn everyone receiving funding into suspects rather than partners.

Regulation: Regulation should be viewed through a similar lens, focusing on the desired outcomes rather than how we get there so long as the goals are achieved legally and in accord with the larger goals of the program. With that lens, we should regulate with as light a hand as possible to achieve the desired outcomes, again using nudges whenever possible rather than one-size-fits-all requirements.  

Accountability: Whether funding or regulation, we know there unfortunately are always some who will try to game the system. But rather than operating from a default setting that tries to cover everything that could possibly go wrong when it is only a relatively few who are up to no good, we should have broad requirements in place (with appropriate nudges) that start with the assumption that people and organizations will act in good faith.

That strategy should be paired with periodic random spot audits everyone knows they are subject to (like the state trooper who you can come across at any time on the highway); that can weed out bad behavior, keep everyone honest, and help determine if other program changes need to be considered.  

And broader government funding programs or regulations should all be subject to a periodic review process to make sure they are efficiently and effectively meeting their original goals before they can continue. The book Comeback America I noted at the outset of this post suggests a test for periodically evaluating federal programs that offers a great place to start in this effort.

To sum up here, government has an integral role in fulfilling our nation’s ideals, but it should just be exercised with as light a hand as possible to achieve its goals. Easier said than done I know, but most definitely worth the fight.

A More Sustainable Tax and Revenue Structure

If you have been reading the initial prongs of the “We’re Better Than This” platform on climate change, health care, and infrastructure, you may already be skeptical of how we are going to pay for this and make it work. Have no fear, we can do it, and now is a good time to turn to the tax/revenue and regulation/government accountability prongs of the platform.

We are right to be on guard when new tax or revenue proposals are pitched to fund new programs, and to do so we need to be able to make the case that it is a fair and effective way to make things better. On that note, I offer two theme songs for this prong, Taxman by The Beatles and Carnival World by Jimmy Buffett.

For starters, the bulk of the costs for “We’re Better Than This” health care plan can be funded by realigning how we spend current resources; remember, we spend twice as much as other advanced countries on health care without the attendant payoff in health outcomes. Similarly, the new carbon tax in the environmental platform could provide the primary funding for the infrastructure plan.

That said, we already were running big deficits before the pandemic and the revenue gap has only widened, and more strategic and efficient spending alone is not going to cut it. While the solution to our budget challenges is not simply to jack up rates on the wealthy as some on the left have proposed, we should remember we had strong economic growth in the 1980’s and 1990’s with higher top-end tax rates and significantly lower budget deficits than we have today.

Three more targeted approaches can raise more revenue in a way in a fair and efficient manner for all.

Treat all income equally: One of the core problems with the current tax system is that many types of income that wealthier Americans are most likely to receive are taxed at lower rates than the “paycheck income” income that most of us receive.

Capital gains are the biggest example of this, and while there were policy reasons for originally treating this and some other forms of personal income differently, the net effect over time has been to drive further income inequality and give many wealthy Americans a huge tax break simply by virtue of how they made their money. We should gradually phase in over the next several years a new system that treats all income the same for taxation purposes. It will more fairly and efficiently raise more revenue for the government without making big changes to rates.

Replace the estate tax with an inheritance tax: The estate tax has long polled badly among all Americans even though only about 1% actually are subject to it. A better way to tax unearned revenue received by wealthy Americans would be an inheritance tax that only applies when people receive inheritances above a high threshold (let’s say $2 million for starters). When the inheritance is a family farm or business, this tax could be deferred for as long as they own and operate the business.

A national sales or consumption tax: A modest sales tax at the federal level could raise a lot of revenue that often goes untaxed today, and in a naturally progressive way. The more you buy the more you pay. I recognize that Americans at all income levels would pay this one, and, like the carbon tax, it can be regressive without other changes like lowering overall tax rates for poor and middle-class Americans. We can do that though and still raise significantly more revenue overall in a fair and efficient manner for all.

These three changes would put us on a path to solving our revenue challenges. To sell them though, we need to both sell the benefit of the programs and services being funded as well as the accountability for those programs and services being efficient and effective. More on that in the next prong of the platform.

A Forward-Looking Infrastructure Plan

Even before the pandemic and associated social and economic fallout, we were long overdue for a national infrastructure plan, and it is heartening to see that this is a shared priority of the new Administration and leaders in both parties of Congress. Done right, a modern infrastructure plan can create jobs and investment throughout the country in an equitable way, strike a real blow for the environment and the fight against climate change, and set us up for stronger economic growth for years to come.

I offer two songs for inspiration here, the classic Build me up Buttercup by The Foundations and Bruce Springsteen’s Working on the Highway. The core elements of my broad-based plan follow below, focusing on “traditional” infrastructure projects as well as key investments for the 21st century that prioritize equitable treatment for disadvantaged urban communities and rural America, and account for what we have learned from the pandemic.

Universal broadband access: I start here because in many ways this already is the highway of the future, and that only has become clearer since the pandemic. Making broadband fully available to low-income, disadvantaged, and rural communities is critical to fighting inequality, increasing opportunity, and bolstering the environment.

Roads, bridges, rail and air: We are long overdue for investing in these traditional infrastructure functions, and we should do it in a way that looks ahead too.

  • For roads and bridges, that means including GPS and making them driverless and electrical transit friendly.
  • For the airspace, we need to speed up the upgrade of the “flight grid” that air traffic control uses to coordinate flights. This will increase efficiency for all players and help the environment by significantly reducing unnecessary fuel usage.  
  • For rail, I have a more radical suggestion. Unlike the interstate highways and airspace, the rails are owned by a patchwork of private freight companies and public transit entities, with no central mechanism to make them work fairly and efficiently together. We should use eminent domain to make the rails part of the national infrastructure to maintain and regulate them uniformly on par with our other major transit modes. We can then lease the rails back to both private operators and public transit agencies (including Amtrak), which can pay for the investment and free up the market to better serve both freight and passenger rail transit needs.
  • With the same level of priority as highways in rural communities, we need to invest in public transit in metro areas, which in the past has often gotten short shrift compared to roads.
  • And lastly in this category, we need to invest in projects like the CREATE program in Chicago that enable roads and rails to work efficiently together. Like the other steps above, this will do wonders for both efficiency and the environment.

A 21st century power grid: Modernizing our power grid nationwide so that it can seamlessly utilize traditional and “green” sources of power will make the system more efficient, resilient, secure, and environmentally friendly throughout the country.

The Post Office: 2020 reminded us that the Post Office remains a critical part of our nation’s infrastructure. We should recognize that by treating it as a core national asset, properly investing in and modernizing its traditional functions while adding features that can connect people to other key government services (e.g., Zoom kiosks, voting drop box sites). We already have this nationwide network of postal locations, and we should fully utilize them as a public service.

Public buildings and systems: The pandemic has underscored the need to invest in federal, state, and local government buildings and systems so that the courts and other key government functions have state-of-the-art energy and air filtration systems and have full remote access capability.  

Incentivizing private investment: As with public buildings, we should use this opportunity to subsidize businesses, building owners, and homeowners to upgrade to state-of-the-art energy and air filtration systems.

Trees, national parks, and related: We cannot forget our critical environmental infrastructure here, for all of the public health and public enjoyment reasons as well as the essential role they play in preserving the environment and fighting climate change.

Public health: Last and most definitely not least, if we learned anything from 2020, it is that our public health infrastructure is critical to all of us wherever we are. It should receive that level of priority in the larger infrastructure efforts.

Those are the core elements of the “We’re Better Than This” infrastructure plan. While there is no doubt this will be involve many, many billions of up- front costs, few other investments can have this kind of payoff in both immediate and long-term economic impact while also bringing incalculable benefits in the critical fight against climate change.