Real Life, Real Answers
THE idea was great. For its most recent issue, the Harvard Political Review (HPR) asked several politicians, academics, journalists and business leaders to list their nominations for the five most important issues facing the U.S.
The results were predictable: members of Congress cited drugs. The corporate mogul cited the challenge of lowering production costs. The conservative columnist found "granting abberance the status of victimized minority," one of the most grave threats to national welfare.
If they wanted stale prescriptions from stodgy Talking Heads, they got it. For some real advice--unconstrained by what my constituents want to hear--they should have asked me.
In the spirit of the HPR survey, here are my nominations for the top five policy imperatives facing the U.S.
1. Promote democracy and freedom in all places.
Here, I agree with most of the respondents to the HPR survey: A coherent policy toward the disintegration of communism in Eastern Europe should be a top national priority.
But we shouldn't stop there. Promoting democracy means more than encouraging reform in the communist bloc. It means adopting a foreign policy based on respect for human rights and political freedom rather than on Cold War ideological prejudices. It means using American influence and moral example to eliminate human rights abuses in nations of all ideological persuasions.
It also means protecting civil rights and civil liberties at home.
2. Maximize the opportunities for individual initiative in American society, eliminating barriers to advancement and ensuring justice and fair play for everyone.
My top domestic priority might sound like a chapter out of the Republican platform. But there is a difference. I mean it and they don't.
When the Republicans talk about maximizing opportunities for individual initiative, they usually mean slashing the income taxes of the rich and eliminating affirmative action.
What I'm talking about is making American society a truly level playing field. To do that, we need to take away the free rides that some people have come to enjoy, be they members of the Teamsters union who demand excessive wages, corporations that avoid their fair share of the tax burden or professionals who work to exclude others from competing with them.
We need to eliminate "credentialism" and make people's rewards in life commensurate with their performance, not their "qualifications." This means that doctors, lawyers and "certified teachers" must be exposed to competition from capable people who have been shunted off by professional birth control.
Finally, we need to use the American system of justice to actually see that justice is done. We must provide equal access to the courts for rich and poor alike. We must reverse the Reagan-era tendency to wink at discrimination and abuses of power.
3. Make high-quality education freely available to every American.
This is really a corollary to providing equal opportunity. The American myth of the level playing field can never become reality as long as children in Roxbury and rural Mississippi do not have the same access to education as children in Greenwich and Bel Air.
In order to make education truly equitable, we will have to make some people angry. First, we have to take away the veto power of teachers' unions over educational reforms. We need to make teaching the domain of those who have demonstrated competence and ability to teach, not those who possess a meaningless teaching credential.
We need higher salaries for teachers, but only for those teachers who pass stringent evaluations. Those who don't pass should be summarily booted.
In general, we need an increased financial commitment to education. But it must be be accompanied by a reform of the distribution of funds. We must abandon the system of financing schools with local property taxes, a system that perpetuates inequities among localities and raises barriers to disadvantaged students.
Finally, the government must guarantee a college education to anyone who wants it. This should probably be financed by a system in which people can pay off their college debt through a lifetime deduction of a percentage of their earnings.
4. Make the provision of social welfare adequate and fair.
Government subsidies for social welfare benefits should go to the deserving. That means taking away Social Security and Medicare benefits from the rich.
But more importantly, it means abolishing the middle-class welfare state that is hidden in the tax code. Tax breaks for employer-sponsored pension and health benefits cost the government far more than direct government spending on the poor. The home mortgage interest deduction costs far more than government housing subsidies. Yet these generous subsidies go practically unnoticed because no checks are written.
Government programs for the truly needy, such as Medicaid, unemployment benefits, housing assistance and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, are shamefully inadequate. We need a social welfare system that makes adequate provision for the most vulnerable members of society.
Such a system must include some kind of national health care plan. Whatever plan we choose, it must include effective cost controls.
5. Protect the physical environment and preserve our natural resources for posterity.
Nothing else we do will amount to much if we cannot bequeath a habitable planet to our children.
John L. Larew '91 is a former intern at The Washington Monthly. Any similarities between the author's agenda and the political philosophy espoused by that magazine are purely coincidental.