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Thursday, December 30, 2010

BEST AND WORST AND WHAT'S TO COME

As we enter the first week of 2012, pundits and editorialists seem stuck in the annual review of the past year i.e. the "ten most, worst, best" lists, which have occasional entertainment value but offer little substance. Hopefully, somewhere in the halls of Congress and in the conference rooms of the bureaucracy, elected and appointed officials are looking forward and setting agendas to deal with the most pressing problems the nation faces.
Acknowledging that the effort will be difficult in the face of divided government and the intransigence of competing interest groups, hopefully the mood of the general electorate with respect to government inaction as expressed in the November elections, will
stimulate some effort to solve problems which can no longer be ignored.
The public policy agenda should include:

1. Immigration Reform:
Violence on the border, legal battles between the states looking for solutions and the federal government unwilling to fully address the issues, are a national disgrace and inaction serves no one. The political battle lines appear set. Republicans want the borders secured first. Democrats want enhanced border security to be part of “comprehensive immigration reform” which will deal with the status of the 12-14 million illegals currently residing in the nation. Democrats fear that if border control is addressed first, conservatives will block any attempt to implement the “comprehensive” part.
It is not unreasonable to think that some kind of agreement between party leaders in the Congress and the White House with respect to a multiple step agenda could be agreed upon if the first step was vigorous border security to curtail the flow while the rest is being negotiated. The possible ingredients of reform legislation have long since been identified: guest worker permits, increased visa quotas for qualified applicants, and stiffer penalties and tougher enforcement on employers for hiring illegal immigrants. Instead of a “path to citizenship” for the millions already here, a policy which conservatives deride as “amnesty”, a path to legal residence based on a variety of conditions i.e. English language proficiency; high school graduation or equivalency, might be offered. Neither a haphazard collection of state laws nor the absurdity of the federal government suing individual states is productive. The ideologically based agendas of the open border advocates and the “round’um up and send’um home should be ignored and common sense applied.

2. The Federal Deficit:
The new Republican majority in the House has made much of this issue but the time for specifics has arrived. Simply put, the government spends more than it takes in. The recently passed federal income tax rate schedule fixes those rates until 2012. That limits the deficit options to other types of taxes and cuts in spending. Since the Congress is usually tax averse, spending cuts should not have to wait for a change in philosophy or political courage for something to be done. The size of government itself can be reduced by a hiring freeze. The scope and mission of the Defense Department which now spends over $700 billion annually must be updated. Large numbers of personnel and expensive bases in Western Europe should be justified by genuine threat assessments and cost benefit analyses. Political sacred cows like agriculture subsidies should be justified annually. Only ten percent of farmers received 74% of the $246.7 billion which has been handed out from 1995-2009. The tough work of entitlement reform based on economic realities which the President’s bipartisan commission has started must be continued. Sooner or later Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will have to be addressed and sooner is better.
 
3. Tax Reform:
The federal deficit is approximately $1.34 trillion. The federal debt is fast approaching 14 $ trillion. Clearly, spending cuts, while vital, will not be sufficient to deal with these huge numbers. New taxes will have to be considered but these are politically difficult to enact. In the mean time, reform of the ultra-complicated and inefficient tax code should be implemented. A flat tax or at least a reduction in the number of tax brackets along with elimination of most itemized deductions should be considered. The purpose of the federal tax code should primarily be to raise revenue for the federal government. What has evolved since its inception in 1913 is a system of politically inspired protections, efforts to manage the economy through tax preferences and loopholes and social goals. A simpler system of reduced rates and few deductions would be more efficient, easier to enforce and if properly designed, raise federal revenues.

4. Real Education Reform:
A recent survey of international student achievement presents a dismal picture of the U.S. public education system.
American students came in between 15th and 31st place in the three categories, math, science and reading comprehension
in spite of the much larger expenditures on U.S. education. It is not enough to simply throw more millions at the problem. Facilities, computers and laboratories are important but the culture of education in the U.S. is in decline. Parents and students complain about too much homework and less money for bands and sports. Tests used simply to evaluate student knowledge and progress are criticized for being “biased” or unable to measure “potential”. “Feel good” policies to ensure no one’s self esteem is damaged by failure result in “social promotions” which turn out students without the minimal knowledge and skills to compete in the modern technical work environment. Unions maintain a stranglehold on teacher competency and procedures to replace the least skilled. Federal government control of local school systems is not a good idea or even politically possible but financial incentives and tougher standards and a movement for education cultural reform for access to those funds are appropriate.
Of course there are many other areas of public policy that can’t wait for another two or four years. Infrastructure, the environment, enhanced anti-terrorists capabilities, are all important but the Congress cannot allow itself to get bogged down in partisan fights over every issue. Priorities must be established and progress made even where “perfection” isn’t possible.

It may be overly optimistic but hopefully next year’s “Best Ten” will significantly overshadow next year’s “Worst Ten on the public policy lists.

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