Challenges, Meet Ideas.
The major issues facing our country today can be sorted into three categories:
First, there's the existential problem: climate change and our response to it. How do we protect our future and our planet without causing massive economic or environmental shock waves?
Second, there are the structural problems: how do we preserve and fortify our democracy to ensure liberty and justice for all—both now and always?
Third, there are the symptomatic problems: all the issues—social and economic, domestic and foreign—that we can't seem to agree on. How do we find common ground to solve these problems for good?
All of these challenges can be solved if we take an approach that's centered on truth, justice, and reality. Let's get to it.
the existential: protecting our planet
• Climate change is an established fact, and we must respond aggressively
• We must transition to a strong, efficient, and sustainable economy by harnessing renewable energy
• The US must generate renewable energy surpluses for energy security & non-tax revenue
• We need a national cap-and-trade program to mitigate pollution
• These changes should be responsibly implemented through public-private cooperation wherever possible
I’m generally a believer in the notion that there is some truth to the ideas of both the left and the right. Take economics for example: both conservative and liberal economic theories have merit, because supply and demand are very real forces of nature, and because we know from experience that government intervention can boost the economy and raise living standards. Which school of thought one subscribes to is largely dependent on which arguments one finds more compelling, and there are plenty of credible and qualified economists who support both theories.
Climate change is not such an issue. The world’s scientists are virtually unanimous in their finding that humans’ release of greenhouse gasses is causing a warming of the atmosphere and a disturbance of global climates, a shift that threatens to become irreversible and will have disastrous consequences for the planet. These are the facts as established by those who have the ability to observe what is happening, and they are not in dispute.
Perhaps there’s no point in making the environmental case for a more efficient America; those who truly grasp the severity of the situation need no further exhortation, and those who reject the facts—for whatever reason—will not be convinced now.
Yet the latter should consider that there’s a strategic vision at play here: embracing renewable energy opens the door to energy security, a national security imperative we do not currently meet, but beyond mere security lies the opportunity for our country to prosper in a whole new way.
Picture a future in which the United States is the energy titan of the Americas—or, thanks to underwater power lines, the world. It’s a future in which America has invested its full industrious might in harnessing renewable energy sources, and as a result produces enormous annual electricity surpluses at low cost. Because the utilities reap massive profits selling their surplus to other countries, they don’t need to charge Americans, who pay next to nothing for electricity. In fact, Americans scarcely remember their past of rising electricity bills and wild fluctuations at the pump (to say nothing of poor air quality and polluted waterways); they’re too busy zipping around in electric cars and enjoying world-class public transit, funded largely by a tax the utilities pay on their foreign sales—instead of by our tax dollars. It’s a future of autonomy, security, and prosperity that’s borne of efficiency; rather than depending on other countries for oil, other countries depend on us as they buy the clean electricity we generate for free. We ourselves depend on nothing but the sun and the wind.
Thanks to the United States’ wealth and development, this future is entirely within our reach—but how do we get there?
First and foremost, we must accelerate the pivot from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Due to our reliance on fossil fuels, almost a third of our country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from electricity generation; this value need not be higher than zero. By transitioning to a renewable grid as quickly as possible, we can achieve self-sufficiency, slash our carbon emissions, and improve public health.
Secondly, with more than a quarter of our carbon emissions coming from transportation, we need to get more electric vehicles on the road. This shift will become self-fulfilling as the increasing share of renewable energy in our grid makes electricity cheaper, but will require deliberate action while that transition begins in earnest. In the meantime, we must improve on the fuel efficiency of hybrid and conventional vehicles and increase the availability of clean public transit. Automakers love to complain about stricter efficiency requirements, but they’ll have to contend with this reality anyways if they want to compete in markets like Europe and Canada. If anything, having similar standards here will spare them the need to produce more engine types.
Industrial pollution is the last major component of our carbon emissions, and must be addressed by an innovative, market-based solution: a national cap-and-trade program. Pollution has a real cost in human health and in property damage caused by the storms, droughts, and floods attributable in part to climate change. A cap-and-trade program would see major polluters repay those who suffer under their emissions: the American people.
These are ambitious steps to enact an ambitious vision, and government will have to get involved at all levels—local, state, and federal—to help us achieve them. Lobbyists and politicians funded by some of our largest corporations will argue exhaustively that the government has no business making regulations to advance this vision, but it’s clear that doing so would serve the public interest. Is that not the point of government?
Of course, our approach should use regulation only as a tool of last resort, relying instead on more subtle actions like financial incentives for major producers and consumers of renewable energy. Special interests will object to this too, asserting that such moves would distort the energy market and create a ‘false economy’—an argument that highlights the billions of dollars in subsidies received by the fossil fuel industry each year. We must begin phasing these out immediately; if the government is going exert influence on the economy—as it can and should, when doing so serves the public interest—it should be subsidizing technologies that are beneficial, not harmful.
The government does need to exercise extreme prudence in how it advances the above goals, and it should do so in close cooperation with the private sector. But as long as our largest polluters remain fiercely opposed to the changes we need to make, no amount of prudence will quiet their lobbyists. It’s an ill-advised stance that begs yet another argument in favor of an efficient America: money.
To be frank, there’s a big shift coming in how we live and operate, and there’s good money to be made in embracing that shift. The spirit of capitalism is one of energy, innovation, and opportunism, as illustrated by the long American tradition of individuals and companies exploiting change to reap great rewards. Established titans like Koch Industries and Devon Energy decry the coming changes as onerous and expensive, seemingly oblivious of this unique opportunity to position themselves as the premier providers of what the country is only just realizing it needs. If it’s their shareholders they’re worried about, they should help get as many electric vehicles on the road as possible—heck, why not produce them themselves?—and then put up a wind farm and sell their carbon credits. Their shareholders will be thanking them in short order.
Forestalling the worst of climate change is the most compelling reason to embrace an efficient America, but it's far from the only reason. By responding aggressively to the causes of climate change, we can create an opportunity to realize great benefits for our planet, our economy, and our country.
A historic opportunity
the structural: defending our democracy
Participating in democracy should be effortless
• Every eligible citizen who wants to vote must get to vote
• Wait times must be cut and opportunities to vote early or remotely must be expanded
• Voters should be automatically registered and issued an acceptable form of ID for free
• Election Day should be a federal holiday
• We must update election infrastructure for integrity and security
• States’ policies should meet or exceed a national standard that protects voting rights
One of the most corrosive trends in our country today is the ongoing effort to restrict people’s ability to vote. In many states, laws are debated and passed restricting opportunities to vote and requiring that voters carry specific documents, often under the guise of combating voter fraud. The real effect, however, is preventing people from voting. This is unacceptable.
Make no mistake: where voter fraud does exist, it must be stamped out. But the fact of the matter is that voter fraud occurs at negligible levels in our country, and when it does occur, the perpetrators are almost always caught. Meanwhile, efforts to restrict voting are widespread and intensifying, often disproportionately affecting minorities, the poor, and the elderly. Such efforts are not only undemocratic and illegal, but threaten the country by undermining faith in our elections and, therefore, the credibility of our leaders.
It’s time to put an end to the ferocious assault on voting rights. Voting should be effortless for all Americans, regardless of race, age, or income, and there are several steps we must take to achieve that.
Registration is a crucial hurdle that can stand in the way of voting. That is why all Americans should be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18, allowing them to vote as soon as they are of age without having to navigate red tape. Even if they ultimately choose not to exercise their right to participate in a given election, the age-old adage is certainly true of the ability to vote: better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Next, when registered voters get to the polls, they must be allowed to vote. Too many jurisdictions place burdensome restrictions on what kinds of identification are acceptable at the polls, requiring documents that some types of voters don’t tend to have. The idea of requiring government-issued identification (as opposed to ID issued by third parties, like universities) makes sense from an antifraud standpoint, but if we are going to require specific types of ID to vote, we must also make sure that all voters have that required type of ID. To that end, citizens should be issued an ID card when they are registered to vote. Both processes should happen automatically and free of charge; it’s only fair that any documents required to vote be provided to all voters.
Of course, too often, getting to the polls is a problem all its own. One of the recurring injustices of our elections is that some voters find themselves disenfranchised by long lines, inconvenient polling hours, and remote or inaccessible polling locations. We must invest in the health of our democracy and solve all of these problems by making Election Day a federal holiday, and by making it easier for people to vote quickly, early, and from more locations. If we’re serious about letting all Americans exercise their right to vote, we need to adopt a more flexible and accessible polling system.
States should have the leeway to develop the polling systems that work best for them, but there is a severe problem when these systems don’t work well for the voters. In line with the thinking behind the Voting Rights Act, Congress should set minimum standards with which every states’ elections must comply, to ensure that every eligible person who wants to vote gets to vote. When states fail to meet this standard, there should be an established legal system to challenge and change unsuccessful policies.
These efforts are important, and should be accompanied by sensible and overdue housekeeping measures. It’s time to update our voter rolls across the country, making sure that voters are only registered where they live, and that the deceased do not appear on voter rolls.
Finally, investing in democracy also means securing our election infrastructure, to ensure that every valid vote is counted and only valid votes are counted. While Russia’s attempts to compromise election infrastructure in 2016 appear to have been unsuccessful, we know such efforts won’t stop there; it’s imperative that we bring our election infrastructure up to modern security standards immediately, so that we can beat out the inevitable future attempts. We should also make sure that every step of the election process leaves a verifiable paper trail; only by guaranteeing the security of our elections can we keep our complete faith in the results.
Protecting the right to vote in free and fair elections is critical to our democracy, and we have much work to do in making sure every eligible voter finds it easy to participate. Some of the efforts outlined here are already in place or under consideration in various jurisdictions—it’s time to implement them all, nationwide, to make American elections the most fair, full, and secure in the world.
the symptomatic: finding common ground
Doing the least harm
• Abortion is acceptable before the fetus is capable of experiencing pain or panic
• Abortion is unacceptable when the fetus might experience distress as a result
• When the mother’s life is at risk, she must decide
• Every woman has a right to sovereignty over her own body
• Every fetus has a right to life
• There is no solution that satisfies the rights of both the mother and the child
When approaching contentious issues, I like to start with a foundation of solid facts and work my way up from there. Here are some points that I regard as solid facts about abortion:
Euthanizing a baby the day after it’s born is murder, and euthanizing a fetus at 39 weeks is no different than euthanizing a baby the day after it’s born.
Every woman has a fundamental right to decide whether she’s going to have a baby. When a baby is born to a mother who doesn’t want it or isn’t capable of raising it, it can ruin the lives of both the mother and the baby.
There is a period during which a fetus is not developed enough to experience distress. Once its nervous system develops enough to feel pain or panic, it is “alive” in more than a strictly biological sense.
I also like to start with the questions that seem fundamental to the issue. For me, the first central question about abortion is this: is it okay to tell a woman that she has to give birth?
The answer to this question is an emphatic no. It is every person’s right to exercise sovereignty over their own body, including whether or not they are going to have a baby. Of course, that begs the second question: under what circumstances is an abortion morally unacceptable?
The answer to that question is much more nuanced. Pregnancy is a beautiful and solemn phenomenon that takes on a spiritual level of significance for many people, and terminating a pregnancy is always a grave and wrenching decision. Yet it is a decision that some women find themselves faced with, for any number of reasons.
In my view, it is inappropriate to try and draw relationships between the reason a woman might decide that an abortion is necessary and the moral permissibility of the abortion, as the moral considerations that apply to one woman’s situation will not apply to the next. Because each woman and her circumstances are unique, abortion is not a question that can be answered with such rules.
Instead, let us honor women with the awesome responsibility of judging how to proceed with a pregnancy based on their own moral calculus. Let us trust in their respect for the gravity of the decision and their ability to make the right choice.
Of course, abortion policy must take into account the life of the unborn child as well. It is precisely this clash between the right of a woman to sovereignty over her own body and the right of a baby to life that makes abortion such a difficult issue. Situations arise where these two rights are mutually exclusive, and we as a society are forced to find the most humane course of action. But how?
If the essence of humanity is not to inflict hardship on another human, then we should draw the line somewhere that gives the mother ample time to consider whether she will continue the pregnancy, while ensuring that the fetus will experience no hardship as a result of her decision.
It follows that a fetus’ right to life supersedes a mother’s right to control over her own body when it is reasonable to believe that the fetus could experience physical or emotional distress (pain or panic) as a result of the procedure. However, an exception must be made when giving birth would put the mother’s life is at risk; in this scenario, it must be the mother’s prerogative to decide how to proceed, as we simply cannot force someone to sacrifice their life.
The principal challenge with this approach is that there is not yet a medical consensus on when a fetus begins to develop the capacity for distress, a critical piece of information in making such a torturous judgment. If there is going to be a debate about abortion in this country, that is where it should lie—not in bickering over a woman’s right to choose or a baby’s right to live, but in an earnest quest to refine abortion policy based on science, medicine, and compassion.
Yes, a woman has a right to choose whether or not she gives birth. No, we cannot end a sentient life without extraordinary reason. Let’s forge a path for our society that respects these two principles to the fullest possible extent.
Debt & Deficit
A duty to act responsibly
• All governments have a duty to run a balanced budget
• A balanced budget amendment should be ratified and phased in
• Deficits are acceptable during emergencies like war, natural disaster, or recession
• Federal budgets should include paying down the debt
• Once the debt is paid off, federal budgets should contribute to a rainy day fund
Responsibility: it’s one thing that Americans should demand of their government, and the paramount idea that must guide the most powerful nation in the world.
The responsibilities borne by the United States are many, from a moral responsibility to ensure a peaceful and healthy world to a social responsibility to provide for a prosperous and sovereign America. We also have a fiscal responsibility to make sure we as a country operate sustainably—something we are not currently achieving.
Since the 1960’s, the US federal debt has been growing near exponentially; save for a brief period around the turn of the millennium, we have run a significant federal deficit since the ’70’s, which spiked during the Iraq War and then skyrocketed (understandably) as we fought the Great Recession of 2008. The federal deficit today is less than half of what it was at the height of the recession, but it is still unacceptably high.
Many economists argue that debt and deficits are benign or even beneficial, and there are certainly situations where that is the case; a large war cannot be won without borrowing money, and massive stimulus spending is generally the best way to dampen or avert economic crises. Furthermore, while our 20 trillion-dollar public debt may sound worrying, it isn’t truly a danger until we begin to look like we won’t be able to pay it back—a point, most agree, we are far from today.
But there are very real downsides to heavy debt, chief among which is the interest. Interest payments on our debt consume around 300 billion dollars (and rising) of our budget each year, money that could conceivably be much better spent—or not spent at all. Worse still, because we continue to run a deficit even as we make these interest payments, we are essentially borrowing money to finance our preexisting debt. It’s a vicious and irresponsible cycle that saddles the people with increasing debt, and the cycle must be broken—but how?
The first step is to ratify an amendment enshrining fiscal responsibility into our Constitution; that the government shouldn’t put the people into debt is a fundamental principle worthy of being included in our charter and enforced by law.
We must do that intelligently; we can’t jump from a half-trillion dollar deficit to a surplus without massive spending cuts or tax hikes, both of which would generate shock waves that would completely derail our economy. The US economy is an extremely complex entity whose vastness belies its fragility—it can absorb gradual changes, but when large changes are made without giving the economy ample time to adapt and adjust, chaos ensues. Fear not: we can avoid such chaos by creating a binding schedule that phases in the balanced budget requirement over a period of ten to twenty years, and achieves it through a rational blend of spending cuts and tax increases where most appropriate.
Once the balanced budget requirement is fully phased in, all government budgets should be required to include a line item for paying down any debt. If there is no debt, they should be required to include a line item for contributing to a rainy day fund. The size of these payments can vary at the discretion of the government, but they must occur—basic responsibility demands that we have an emergency reserve to meet unforeseen challenges without immediately sinking back into debt. (Payments may need to be pegged to a certain percentage of the overall budget if lawmakers consistently try to contribute next to nothing.)
Finally, we must achieve these goals without tying our hands behind our backs. To that end, the balanced budget amendment should include an exception allowing the government to run a deficit during temporary states of emergency, such as war, natural disaster, or economic crisis. We should eventually be able to endure such crises by using our rainy day fund, but above all, we must retain the flexibility to rise to any challenge, no matter the cost.
The path to financial responsibility is clear, simple, and intuitive. We must phase in a law requiring that government budgets be balanced and pay down debt or contribute to an emergency reserve, without putting ourselves in a financial bind. Such common-sense efforts have been started before; now it’s time to make them a reality.
Orderly but welcoming
• US borders must be completely secured
• The US should accept as many immigrants as is safely and responsibly possible
• Every immigrant should be well-documented, so we know exactly who's here and from where
• Immigrants should be thoroughly vetted for public safety
• Current illegal immigrants should be documented before new immigrants are admitted
• Illegal immigrants who have committed felonies should be deported
Today’s global political climate has made immigration one of the central topics of the 2016 Presidential race. In Europe, a mass influx of Middle Eastern refugees is straining the continent's socioeconomic fabric, and raising grave concerns about international security. In the United States, Donald Trump launched his candidacy for President with a racist broadside against immigrants from Mexico, fanning long-simmering resentments.
Taken together, these events have sparked parallel but opposite reactions on either side of the aisle; Republican candidates are falling over themselves to prove that they are the toughest on current and would-be immigrants, while Democratic candidates seem locked in a contest to out-compassion each other. Arguments from both sides are rooted in valid points, but often creep towards extremity. Let’s find a smarter approach.
First off, let's recognize that there's no point in having immigration laws without a secure border. Immigration policy should be reasonably accommodating for reasons we'll soon discuss, but our first priority should be bringing our borders under total control. Only then can we ensure that every immigrant is properly documented, which should be a public safety, economic, and administrative priority.
Public safety is a definite concern: while those of us who have lived anywhere near a border know from experience that the vast majority of immigrants are honest individuals trying to support themselves and their families, a porous border provides an opportunity for drugs, contraband, and criminals to slip in among the masses of innocent people looking for a better life. This fact is illustrated not only by the scourge trafficked narcotics on our communities, but also by more violent tragedies; it is now believed that some of the perpetrators of the November 2015 terror attacks on Paris—the worst in French history—entered Europe from Syria by posing as part of the refugee exodus currently taking place there. In order to protect everyone in this country as best we can, we must exert total control over our borders, and make sure all immigrants are thoroughly vetted.
In spite of these concerns, there remains a multitude of good reasons why the United States can and should continue to accept immigrants. Most of us have benefited in some way or another from immigrants, and although we often hear them described as “taking our jobs,” they also shop in our stores, eat at our restaurants, and rent our apartments.
We also hear the complaint that a large portion of immigrants’ earnings are sent out of the country, to support families abroad—but if we were more accommodating of families instead of single workers, immigrant wages would remain entirely within the US economy. Indeed, the more we open our society to them, the more they and their children can be expected to become productive members of that society.
But the case for admitting immigrants is based on much more than just shrewd economic calculations. We in this country have a special standing to help those less fortunate than us, to a degree that no other country can. It’s an American tradition; our country has long been defined and fueled by a strong immigrant population, and many of our ancestors immigrated to this country themselves, fleeing poverty or persecution. Rather than deny the liberty and opportunity we’ve enjoyed here to others, let’s foster new generations of patriotic Americans by helping immigrants adapt and thrive.
In that spirit, we must also avoid causing undue hardship through kneejerk deportations. Immigrants who are already here illegally must be brought out of the shadows through sensible action: naturally, immigrants who have committed serious crimes should be deported, but the majority who have come here to live honest lives should be given priority for vetting and documentation. Many immigrants are here as economic or political refugees, and deporting them simply for entering illegally would be needlessly cruel. Critics may call it amnesty, but a secure border will make sure we are not put in this position again.
There’s a farsighted strategic argument in favor or accommodating immigrants, as well. Common sense tells us that there are only two fundamental resources a country can possess: land (more specifically, the natural resources on that land)—and people. People are vital to national strength; they grow our economy by earning and spending money, they advance our society through innovation and invention, and they fight in our armed forces. To deprive America of earnest citizens would not just be morally indefensible—it would be shooting ourselves in the foot.
No, in the age of ISIS, we cannot afford to let the wrong people slip into our country—but neither can we afford to let fear make us blind or callous. There are plenty of foolish ways to approach immigration, and there are smart ways. Let’s take a smarter approach.
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