Friday, February 24, 2006

A Different Vision For America

Frequent contrarian commentor and fellow blogger Daniel Levesque at The Raving Conservative has posted up an essay this week called "My Vision for America" in which he lays out what I would call a textbook example of an authoritarian political platform. It's quite lengthy and did encourage a vigorous discussion on his site, and I thought that rather than leave him a dozen comments explaining why I think he's nuts I would endeavor to post my own platform. Unlike Daniel, I have no Presidential aspirations so this is more of a "wish list" of the kind of United States in which I'd like to raise my kids. For my own ease, I am using many of the same issues Daniel addresses. And away we go...

1. Energy Policy - I support an energy policy that moves our society away from excessive energy consumption as the number one priority. The United States is a gluttonous consumer of energy resources, and the relative affordability and availability of energy resources over the past 100 years has led to an America that is grossly inefficient in its consumption. There is no long-term supply-sider solution to energy; the fix must come with a decrease in demand. I also believe the United States should wean itself completely from fossil fuels and commit ourselves to 100% renewable energy. I oppose any further exploratory drilling or mining for new fossil fuel resources in the United States or off of its coasts. That only exacerbates the problem by boosting short term supplies. Such cheap and easy energy resources are why certain areas of our technology, such as the internal combustion engine, have been allowed to flourish decades after they could and should have been relics in a museum.

2. Environmental Policy - I support a strict protectionist environmental policy, one that protects both plant and animal (including humans) habitats with unbending enforcement. Short-term economic gain shall no longer be any excuse for environmental depredations. This means strict regulations for corporations and the military to make environmental protection key to their activity and growth strategies. The reality is that we only have one Earth and while we can't destroy it, we can certainly destroy everything that enables us to live upon it. Short-sited commercial or political gain will no longer excuse needlessly endangering future generations.

3. Health Care - The United States has good, quality health care that costs an average of 43% more than the same care in Europe and Canada. One of the reasons for this price gouging is the problem of many small, separate units of demand seeking products and services from some very large conglomerates of supply. This allows for a mismatch of power in the marketplace, resulting in inflated prices for the same services. I support a single-payer, socialized health program, administered by the federal government that centralizes demand into a more powerful bloc. This will help correct the imbalance of power in the marketplace, which will drive down the market advantage of large corporate players. Mandatory health care for all Americans insures that, as often as possible, preventive care is administered, which will further drive down costs as well as increase the overall healthiness of American citizens.
I believe that the operations of such a health administration must be audited annually, with its books and activities open to public scrutiny at all times. Inefficiencies abound in government institutions, but are endemic of poor management, not government structure. I also support an independent review board and administration, appointed by the President and the Senate, that mediates all disputes between insurers and insured. Insurance companies and HMO's will never again be able to deny healthcare coverage without the prior consent of the review board. Pre-existing conditions will be eliminated and pre-approved claims will be honored without fail. Yes, the cost in taxes will be higher but I believe the competitive advantage in the marketplace, coupled with a higher health standard for the entire country, will help mitigate this cost.

4. Litigation Reform - It's an oft-quoted belief of American conservatives that somehow healthcare costs are being negatively impacted by tort liability. This is demonstrably false, as I've written about here. The right to a redress of grievances is a fundamental right under the Constitution and no litigation reform can infringe that right. The frivolousness of a lawsuit is based upon the opinion and perception of those examining the case and is not always an objective measure. Nonetheless, I propose that any case dismissed due to lack of merit carry with it the stipulation that the party bringing the suit and the attorney representing that party share equally in the maligned party's legal expenses. Also, I propose a "Three Strikes and You're Out" rule concerning the law licenses of attorney's who frequently present frivolous cases. Any law firm or attorney engaging in litigation for the purpose of extracting an unwarranted settlement should face criminal prosecution.

5. Agriculture - Corporate farming practices are unsustainable, environmentally unsound and have the potential to foment a real public health disaster at some point. I support strong government protections for small farming operations and agricultural co-ops. This dovetails with my policy on strict environmental enforcement. I support government subsidies for environmentally sound and healthy growing practices, as well as financial protections against market fluctuations. I also support a strict ban on any and all lobbying efforts towards the Department of Agriculture and its scientists. Nutritional standards should no longer be determined by industry lobbying efforts.

6. Law Enforcement - First, I support a federal ban on the death penalty in any and all cases. Public execution (and corporal punishment) is an anachronism and has no place in a liberal democracy. Further, I support de-criminalizing most controlled substances. Recreational drug use, where it does not significantly negatively impact society, is not the government's business. If Joe Citizen wants to smoke a joint after a hard day at work, that's Joe's perogative. More serious drug addictions should be treated as medical problems, not crimes. Community service should be the preferred punishment in all non-violent crimes.
Our prison system desperately needs to be reformed. I believe that most convicts can be rehabilitated, but such rehabilitation does little good if they leave prison and still face a life of no opportunity. I support reinstituting certain New Deal-style programs to employ ex-cons for public works. That way, they are able to make a decent living in the probable event that they are unable to find work in the private sector. A certain amount of crime will always be with us; that's part of human society. But a criminal justice system that focuses on rehabilitation and correcting the social injustices that lead to crime can boost prevention and reduce recidivism.

7. A Free Press - For the most part, I feel that the press largely fails in its role as the guardian of our democracy. I don't find a liberal or conservative bias in the press as a whole; I find a bias towards power and sensationalism. Certainly, some media outlets, such as Fox News, Air America or the Washington Times have a definite ideological bias, which I think is fine as long as it is honestly disclosed. I am a big believer in public media and I think it should remain forever outside of political interference. I think all of the media in our country needs to stop the "Shape of the Earth? Opinions differ..." method of reporting stories. The facts aren't biased and when two sides disagree, such as over the validity of Intelligent Design versus the theory of evolution, the side with the facts is objectively right and should not have to share legitimacy with anti-intellectual garbage. As a matter of political policy, I think all media outlets should be required to carry political speech as part of their licensing costs. The "airwaves" are supposed to be in the public domain and the public needs good, substantive policy information to perform its constitutional duty. As a corollary, I believe political ads should be subjected to the same Truth in Advertising standards to which commercial ads are subjected, regardless of the source for the ads.

8. Campaign Finance Reform - The saturation of our political system with money has essentially led to a form of government that sort of looks like a representative democracy but doesn't really function like one. It functions like a hereditary oligarchy and that must be stopped immediately. First, I support the public financing of political campaigns, with some limited exceptions. This, coupled with media outlets being required to allocate time for political speech, should help return our political discourse to substantive issues. I support banning any and all business contributions of any kind at any time. No cash, no gifts, no transportation, nothing. I support individuals being able to contribute cash (no gifts) to political campaigns at a maximum level of $100 per person, per candidate, per race. Being wealthy should not grant anyone the right to lavish money on their pet political candidates. The Republicans have amply demonstrated the corrupting power of money and the entire system is better off without it. I also support tearing down the barriers to third party entry. If a third party or independent candidate can raise the necessary support, then they must be allowed to compete and be given the same access as the two major parties. Free speech is about the free exchange of ideas, not just the free exchange of Republican and Democratic party platforms.

9. Education - I fully support both public and private education, believing both to be the key to American success in the future. I think No Child Left Behind should be repealed immediately. Teaching kids to pass exams just makes them good at passing exams. I think two years of college or vocational schooling should be mandatory as part of the public school system. I believe personal finance should be mandatory for a high school diploma. No one should be graduating without understanding how to balance a checkbook, open a 401(k) or apply for a competitive loan. Further, I support fully funding our public schools and paying our teachers a salary commensurate with the incredibly valuable service they provide. Any nation that spends $700 billion annually making war but then underfunds education has its priorities completely misaligned.

10. Taxation - It is long past time to correct the misguided perception that somehow taxes are an onerous burden on Americans that must be corrected immediately, which dovetails nicely with making education a priority. Thanks to 30 years of bogus Republican rhetoric, Americans have lost all sense of civic responsibility where taxation is concerned. Taxes help pay for things that are not commercially viable, such as infrastructure and scientific research. They help re-distribute wealth and spur economic activity, both of which are essential to a healthy democracy. Every single time in the history of the world that a nation allowed wealth to accumulate among a small minority, that nation failed. Every single time. And yet the Republicans would have America believe that redistributing all the wealth in the country to the top 1% will help spur economic growth and better our society, in spite of 6,000 years of evidence to the contrary. No more! Further, I think our tax system needs to be simplified, but certainly not with a regressive flat tax or sales tax. There is nothing fair about taxing $10,000 of income and $10,000,000 of income at the same rate, unless all prices for all goods and services in the country are prorated the same way (which of course, they're not). We need a progressive tax system like we have today, only with all the special loopholes, exceptions and "welfare without calling it welfare" provisions stripped out. Taxation should be simple and transparent.
I support repealing any Bush tax cuts that affect the top income bracket. There is some merit in not taxing capital investments from an economic standpoint. However, the social cost is unbearably high and while economic growth is important, it is not the be all and end all of human existence. Those who are able to become wealthy via business success are able to do so because of the economic infrastructure of the United States. That infrastructure is the responsibility of all citizens, and wealthy business enterprises make the most use of that infrastructure. Thus, they should have to pay a higher share of the cost. Plus, redistributing wealth away from the top of the economic ladder boosts the entire country. There is nothing meritorious about a nation where people in the 9th Ward of New Orleans can barely afford the basic necessities of life while many professional athletes and business executives have incomes rivaling the GDP of some small nations. That is fundamentally unjust and taxation helps correct that injustice.

11. The Courts - I support consigning the term "strict constructionist" to the trashbin of history as yet another conservative idea, like "trickle down economics" that makes no rational sense. The role of the Courts is to interpret laws and act as a check on the other two branches of government. The Constitution enumerates many of the rights of Americans but it does not limit those rights. Nor should it. The very notion that our Constitution has one correct interpretation for all cases is ludicrous, not supported by any historical facts and patently un-American. Furthermore, there is no simplistic "majority rules" ideology enshrined anywhere in our nation's history, except in the historically challenged mind of modern conservatives. Madison spoke fervently against the "tyranny of the majority" in public life. In fact, the entire concept of a Bill of Rights only makes sense in the context of protecting minority rights. Majorities don't need to have their rights protected in a democracy. The Founding Fathers, while not perfect, were wise enough to realize that societies always evolve and thus they wrote a Constitution that can evolve with our society. The desire by today's conservatives (or authoritarians rather) to limit the civil rights of Americans as some sort of Christian fundamentalist social engineering project is profoundly un-American. If they wish to live in the past, that's their right. But they don't have the right to drag the rest of us back there with them.

12. Religious Freedom - As an atheist and secular humanist, this issue is extremely important to me. I realize that I will always be in a small minority in a very theistic country, so I take the separation of church and state very seriously. There is no good to be had from co-mingling religion and government. They need to remain apart in all respects. Theocracy, in any form, is an irrational form of government that has failed in every historical example. For many years, Christianity enjoyed an Unconstitutional exception in this area, mainly because it's such a dominant faith. That Unconstitutional privilege was rightly stripped away during the 20th century, though some bits of it still remain today. Attempts by conservatives to reinstate that privilege have no basis in any understanding of American government and are merely the acts of a misguided minority attempting to legitimize their faith by forcing others to follow it with them. Liberal Christians understand that the symbols of faith are made weak by the institutions of man, and vice versa. I realize that conservative Christians believe their's is the "One True Faith". I respect that. But they must respect that I don't agree with them and they do not have the right to make that decision for me or for anyone else. In fact, the harder they try, the more their faith turns away from God and towards human pride, arrogance and intolerance.

13. National Security - Unlike the ridiculous Straw Man conservatives would like to build of us, we liberals do believe in a vigilant defense against terrorism. However, I do not subscribe to the notion that this latter day threat from Islamic fundamentalists is any sort of global existential threat to the existence of life as we know it. The fear-mongers on the Right always needs some sort of Galactic Empire-style super-enemy to keep them properly terrified and to give their love of war and violence a socially acceptable outlet. We've defeated religious fundamentalists before in this country and we will do so again. I believe that the democratization of the Middle East is a laudable goal, but it's not one that the United States can accomplish unilaterally. Invading Iraq has created a festering civil war, not a peaceful democracy. U.S. policy towards the Middle East has been condescending, exploitative and violent for many years, and we are reaping the costs of past mistakes today. I propose an immediate pull-out of Iraq. It was a war we should never have started and the civil war that has likely begun there this week is not something we can stop any longer. Iraq is a tragic example of ideology blinding all rationality, and history will long remember the architects of this debacle.
I fully support the use of humanitarian aid, shared expertise and cultural co-mingling as the most effective methods for spreading American values and defusing religious fundamentalism. Understanding the geopolitics of the world, as well as its religions, should be important to every American. It's the only hope we really have of building a secure future. No amount of war-making expertise can do that.

14. The Right To Privacy - I fully support an individual's right to privacy and I believe it covers more than just probable cause in police searches. I believe issues like marriage and abortion are personal issues in which the state has no place. Every religion has its moral views of these personal issues. That's why it's so important to our country that we not legislate one given religion's views just because that religion happens to be in the majority. That's not democracy, that's theocracy.
I believe that marriage as a civic institution should either be extended to any and all adults without qualification or be abolished completely. Gifted-1 was adamant, and I agreed with her, that we would never abort a pregnancy for any reason. But I would never, ever support our decision being thrust upon every woman in the country. It's a matter of personal choice and is not the government's business. I also support "Right to Die" laws in any form. Again, neither the government nor any religious majority should ever have the right to dictate the meaning of life and death to any other person. These kinds of personal issues must remain personal, or our democracy becomes a populist authoritarian theocracy and the nation that was founded here disappears.

Finally, a word on tradition, since Daniel brings it up in his post. Tradition for its own sake is nothing I care to support. Many traditions have passed away in this country, and rightly so. Slavery was once a tradition, as was child labor. Our society is better off without those traditions. Just because something was done in the past, doesn't mean it should be continued. I would go so far as to say that tradition in and of itself is reason for change. Our society has many flaws, many injustices and is a far cry from what it could be. To my thinking, embracing tradition is to embrace a status quo that has already shown itself to be inadequate. Change is inevitable so I say: embrace that change. Clinging to the past just makes one hostile to the future. Change happens regardless.

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