It’s possible, maybe even likely that we will see a radical shift in public opinion and political activity over the next few years. We now know, despite the falsehoods sold to us over the past 20 years by the embedded mass media and their sponsors, that our species is doomed unless we change our ways, and that we don’t have a lot of time for dithering. Our youth and their kids, who will fall victim to a catastrophe of our making if we don’t act, take precedence over all else. Damn the consequences of revolution if it improves their chances!
With a radical shift immediately ahead, we ought to be thinking about radical policy now. The time has come to discuss the costs and benefits of specific big projects and reforms, so that we can make informed decisions when opinion translates into public policy, something that could come sooner than we think. For instance:
Free public ground transportation.
Suppose we taxed ourselves and picked up the fares for all mass transit, freight and people, traveling on the ground. Suppose we set standards for efficiency and environmental impact, standards that today’s trains and buses could meet, but standards that would become more stringent from year to year. Free trips anywhere in the USA for anybody riding or shipping by qualified conveyance.
Instead of upping subway fares, New York City would scrap them altogether. Goodbye, turnstiles. Good-bye, fare machines. Get on and go. Cars would stay in the driveway. Trucks would disappear from the roads, at least for long hauls. At half-a-buck a mile by car, people would get on board the trains and buses in millions. The skies would clear, of airplanes and of pollutants. Commerce would benefit. In fact, new kinds of commerce would arise just because of the increase in social travel, as opposed to isolation motoring and the attendant road rage we enjoy now. The pressures of social disequilibrium–resulting from such forces as immigration, natural disaster, unemployment–would be reduced, as displaced people were empowered to go where the work is, ride with the rest of us, and go back home when it pleased them to do so. Holders of airline, fuel and automotive assets would suffer. Tough. Too expensive, you say? What’s expensive is each one of us pushing a ton of steel around to get from place to place.
We take it for granted that the proprietor of a business should make decisions for the business, but there’s no logical reason that corporations should be governed exclusively by the owners. The corporate form of ownership gives the shareholders a shelter from personal liability. Maybe in exchange for that protection the shareholders should cede the exclusive right to govern. After all, they have only one objective, profit, and their horizon tends to be short. Single-issue governance is not necessarily a good thing for business, especially when the single issue is the short-term material advantage of the owners.
Employees are involved intimately, each in small part, in the overall performance and welfare of the business, and they have a stake in long-term success. They seem infinitely better qualified to set corporate policy and select managers. Employee governance is a natural outgrowth of self-government in political and social institutions, and it would almost certainly bring about a greater alignment of commercial interest with the public interest. Although it is possible that shareholders would suffer losses as a result of employee governance, it’s far from a foregone conclusion, and we know that the current system is outdated and maladaptive, a condition that has frequently cost investors their shirts.
Gross receipts tax.
Federal tax codes comprise a network of loopholes and special exceptions so sophisticated and so extensive that the only certainty in the tax laws is that people who work for a living get whacked. Why not tax all receipts, without deductions or reductions of any kind? The volume of gross receipts is much higher than net income or net profit, and so gross income would be taxed at much lower rates, maybe on a graduated schedule, with large volumes of receipts taxable at a higher rate. The taxes could be collected monthly. No complicated filings. No schedules. Just a small deduction from receipts. All but painless, since the taxation comes only when money is changing hands. A few people would lose special dispensations that they bought with claims of social utility, but we can remind the tax originators that the purpose of taxes is to fund government. It’s going to cost plenty to finance the changes needed to put us on a survival track, and a simple, flexible source of revenue will be a basic tool. There are other ways to promote social ends, and tax policy seldom yields any substantial enrichment of social conditions.
When corruption runs all the way to the U.S. Attorneys’ offices, the rule of law is in trouble. Prosecutors have been politicized throughout our system, and many states have compromised their judicial processes, as well. A simple federal law allowing any citizen to obtain an indictment for any federal crime by which he or she is aggrieved could go a long way toward curing the problem. The outed CIA agent would be able to bring a criminal action against the officials who didn’t get indicted by the special prosecutor. I would be empowered to prosecute Alberto Gonzales for perjury, which I witnessed when he testified before Congress. Watch the prosecutors jump when citizens start getting indictments.
Prohibition and confiscation.
The right to engage in polluting activities, resource-exploiting activities, anti-social activities, or clandestine activities, among others, can be injurious to all of us under certain circumstances. We must not hesitate to prohibit activities that cause substantial harm, even if owners of the right to engage in such activities will suffer as a result. For example, oil prospectors in at least five nations have their eye on the ocean floor beneath the Artic ice as a source of untapped wells. The harm that will result can be calculated, and so can the present incentive not to preserve the Artic environment; the calculations indicate that these activities must be prohibited. To keep public policy from reflecting the will of the exploiters, whose holdings are vast and easily disbursed to key government officials, we should also be willing to confiscate personal wealth. There is no other way to limit the political power of those with too much of it. .
Compulsory education suggests that universal literacy is a national objective, but the fact is that literacy rates have been falling inexorably in this country for many years. By some estimates, four out of every ten Americans can’t read a newspaper. Only an infinitesimal proportion of nonreaders have a disability that keeps them from learning to read. Nearly all of them were promoted out of elementary school by officials who knew they couldn’t read. As a result, we have a population that is without the basic skills required to preserve the republic. We should test all citizens regularly and take remedial action with individuals who can’t read and with communities that fail to teach their children to read.
No institution has abused its constitutional privileges with the regularity and predictability of the mass news media. They have transformed journalism into a form of entertainment, and they decide what to publish on the basis of the size and character of audience they can attract for their advertisers. We are systematically uninformed, misinformed and disinformed to accommodate news-mongers and the products they hawk alongside their empty reports. Sometimes, their disinformation causes grave injury. I saw newsmen cavorting in the streets of New Orleans, reassuring those who’d stayed behind despite warnings to evacuate, while the dikes were bursting blocks away. Newsmen passed on one falsehood after another about Iraq, and they beat the war drum furiously and unabashedly on behalf of their sources. These were acts of journalistic malpractice that have gone unpunished and even unacknowledged. If lawyers and judges began to hold news-mongers liable for the damage they cause, we might start getting reliable reports instead of government disinformation.
I suggest these particular measures not because I favor them all but because they are all somewhat outrageous and at sharp divergence from the way we do things now. They’re not beyond imagining, but each one would have far-reaching consequences for commerce. employment, and our quality of life. That shouldn’t disqualify these suggestions or other apparently unattainable objectives. Now more than ever, radical measures demand attention and merit discussion. We should have contests to generate them.