America Speaks “National Town Meeting”

Anyone who’s been paying attention is aware that the Federal budget is out of control, unsustainable, and politicians dare not display any consensus on what to do about it.  So several wealthy foundations are funding the “America Speaks” project, which seems to have focused on a fleet of 19 “town meetings” (plus a few dozen less-connected gatherings) held today.  I attended Chicago’s, at Navy Pier.

The concept is at least a little bit promising.  I guess we had about 600 people, assigned to tables of a dozen or so each, and we talked about how the Federal financial situation might be improved.  But first we had a very loud presentation from Philadelphia. (Philadelphia is apparently standing in for Washington and New York, so we won’t suspect that political professionals and Wall Street are involved in the effort.) We were told that, yes, the deficit is a big deal(as described in this pdf). And before talking about the options for reform, we were directed to determine our values.  The “values” are listed below (and on worksheet #3 of this document), along with the reasons that they make no sense at all.

What is our priority for attending to the needs of the “current generation,” vs. those of “future generations?”

If people have the opportunity to attend to their own needs, then they are better able to attend to the needs of future generations.

How much should the burden of reducing the deficit be shared “equally,” vs. being more heavily borne by those more able to bear it?

The logical and moral approach to this issue is to ask why we have the deficit.  Once we understand that the deficit is mainly due to private collection of economic rent (and failure to allow labor to collect all of its own income, more details here), we see that the burden of the remedy should be borne by those who are currently taking the rent that belongs to the community. As it happens, these people are probably among those best able to bear the additional burden, but the objective here is equality of opportunity.

To what extent is it the government’s responsibility to take care of the vulnerable, vs. people being responsible for themselves?

Of course people should be responsible for themselves, but there are so many ways that misgovernment makes it difficult for them to do so.  The vulnerable need opportunity more than the powerful do.  I believe that the “community” (not necessarily the government) does have the moral obligation to take care of those unable to take care of themselves, who would be quite few in number if everyone had equal opportunity.

The preliminaries out of the way, this booklet (pdf) was loudly read to us by the folks in Philadelphia, and we were asked to select options totalling $1.2 trillion.  The biggest problem is that, on the one hand, few of the options provided enough detail for one to really understand what they involved, while, on the other hand, a few provided great detail, the significance of which went well beyond what most of us participants were able to absorb.

As we finally got to have some actual discussion among the people at my table, it was encouraging to hear that some of us are seriously concerned about the fate of the nation and want to understand our fiscal options (tho others are mainly concerned about how they personally would be affected).  It would have been nice to have time to explore some of the economic fundamentals, but that was not the purpose of this session.

And thru the twin magics of computers and simplification, there preliminary results are already in.

“‘We The People’ have prioritized what is most important for America’s future: creating equality of opportunity for future generations, maintaining a free country where individuals can maximize their potential, guaranteeing children receive a quality education, securing prosperity for future generations and ensuring a stable economic environment.”

Specifically, “we” want to

  • Raise the limit on taxable earnings so it covers 90% of total earnings. [I believe this item refers to FICA tax.  90% was the only option offered, and the idea of paying for social security by collecting economic rent was not presented.]
  • Reduce spending on health care and non-defense discretionary spending by at least 5%. [Of course, the specifics for achieving this were not discussed.  I suspect much of it could be accomplished by breaking the drug patent monopoly, but I have no figures.]
  • Raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1 million. [These being, of course, the folks who can afford good lobbyists to prevent the change, or good accountants to make it ineffective.]
  • Raise the age for receiving full Social Security benefits to 69. [This actually makes some sense, to the extent that Social Security itself makes any sense. The story, as I heard it, is that when Social Security was first established, half the population was expected to die before becoming eligible for full benefits at the age of 65.  Today most folks live beyond age 69, so an even higher age could be justified.]
  • Reduce defense spending by 10% – 15%. [Surely this could be done without reducing the ability to defend the homeland, but an awful lot of defense contractors and other interests have powerful lobbyists, so it’s hard to expect that the cuts will be wisely made.]
  • Create a carbon and securities-transaction tax.[Interestingly, the materials provided did not mentione global climate change.  Yet unless one is persuaded that carbon emissions under the control of humans are causing difficulty, it’s hard to justify a carbon tax.  The securities-transaction tax has theoretical appeal as a way to reduce high-frequenty trading and damaging speculation, but I think it would be difficult to enforce.]

So, what was the purpose of this event?  The organizers say it is “a national discussion to find common ground on tough choices about our federal budget.”  That may not be entirely false.  But I think it would be better-described as “an attempt to justify major cuts to popular (if ineffective and/or damaging) programs, and increases in taxes, without risking radical reform that might actually move us toward equal opportunity for all.”

But that, like everything else here, is just my opinion.

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