President Obama had a press conference yesterday in which he reaffirmed his desire to work with Republicans on the pressing issues of the day. After a long day of compromising with the groundhogs about my vegetable harvest, I'm ready to offer some actual, serious suggestions about what to propose for discussion. For the record--because it's not always clear with me--I'm not joking.
Let's start with health care reform, where Obama should propose the repeal of the individual mandate. (Inland picked this up right away, by the way!) If you'll recall, the individual mandate was a pragmatic recognition that in order to get insurers to do the good things (not dump people when they get sick, reduce the premium spread by age, etc.), we needed to expand their customer base of relatively young and healthy people. Many progressives hated this because it was a mandate, one that put more money in the hands of private insurers. Ironically but predictably, this sop to private interests (insisted upon by Ben Nelson and Max Baucus and by the least progressive people in the White House, I presume), was fodder for Republicans and made their claim about "government health care" at least 1% genuine and 10% compelling, which is all they needed.
Get rid of the mandate, then! Nothing else, just the mandate. This would, first of all, harm the profitability of insurers and I think that is a fantastic idea because they're very profitable and it's high time we tested the threats of private interests that they'll stop doing what they do unless we supply them with huge bags of money. The most inefficient players will leave the market, and that's fine. Second, it would put Republicans in an awkward position: they'd have to say no (what, they like the mandate?), or insist on dumping the popular HCR provisions (what, you mean sick people should be jettisoned?), or say yes (see above). I know there's a purely partisan argument that we shouldn't do this because if Republicans say yes they'll own it, and we'll have to admit error. I can live with that, to get something that's a good in itself; and besides, when you have that picture of the bill getting signed, it's a smiling Obama who's signing it. Especially since we're going after young voters, repealing the mandate is something to consider "very seriously," as the Very Serious People like to say.
Next up, our imperial network of military bases around the world, especially in Europe, otherwise known as the place where nothing in particular threatens US security. Defending the world's wealthiest countries against a nonexistent threat is something that both Democrats and Republicans can recognize as a boondoggle of epic proportions. Ronald Reagan won the Cold War, OK? I'm fine with that--he can't come back to office. Thank you, Republicans, and now let's get the savings we were supposed to get from that all along. Republicans might, of course, say no, but people are tired of expensive and wasteful imperialism so they'd have a tough argument especially since these are expenses that no particular US community benefits from.
Third, let's start hacking away at ag subsidies. Much as I'd like to hack away at the grain programs that are the basis of non-indigenous civilization on the High Plains (full of people who say they're deficit hawks but rely on government for absolutely everything), that's probably not viable so let's start with cotton and sugar. Sugar programs and restrictions only cost the government $140 million a year, but it costs consumers almost $2 billion and it's devastating to the economies of poor countries. Cotton subsidies cost the taxpayer $3 billion a year, plus costs to consumers, plus what US producers of other products are losing because countries like Brazil justly retaliate against us for our subsidies. Worst of all, many of the world's poorest countries can't catch a break because their cotton production can't compete against our subsidized production. And there's really no issue of US worker well-being here: in our country nobody's poorer than the people on the ground harvesting cotton and sugar.
I don't know the budget inside and out, or at all really, but I agree with my new crazypants senator Pat Toomey that it's simply got to be full of a lot of spending we could do without. I don't imagine his Circle of Cuts overlaps with mine more than 10%, but that's a lot of money. If Jerry Brown could run on his 30-years-old record of cutting California's budget, I think it's OK for progressives generally to get on board and take a look; after all, who better than progressives to understand that a lot of the federal budget is regressive spending to benefit the better-off? Either we'll cut some spending, or we'll make Republicans put their real priorities on the table. Either way, the country wins.
On the revenue side, my hobby horse is tax credits. I'm a spending hawk but I'm not a deficit hawk per se: we're not going to default and the size of our debt vs. GDP isn't historically bad. That means, logically, that I'm not a tax hawk with a purely fiscal need to find more and more money among the ranks of the wealthy and the corporate; to me that's more an ethical imperative than a strictly fiscal one. Thinking this through, that means I'm OK giving the wealthy and the corporate their money back--as they would conceive of reduced taxes--but only if they do with it what they always promise they would do with it, which is to create jobs....in the US, that is. The problem with the Bush tax cuts, and low taxation of the rich and corporate generally, is that in our current climate of recession and deindustralization a plain old tax cut ends up fueling investment and production outside the United States: it's not just useless as stimulus, it's actually counterproductive. I don't know how to design tax credits (yessiree, tax credits and fast breeder nuclear reactors, I never did master the design of either of those), but we do a lot of complicated things in our world and I can't believe this would rank up there among the most complicated. Design something that gives the plutocrats "their" money back, but only for genuine additional investment in the US. And make sure they don't just swap out their existing domestic investments for de-facto subsidized ones under what I'm proposing.
Rand Paul is right: we all work for the wealthy, basically. That's capitalism for you. The question is whether we're going to work for them out of the dregs of their wealth--the bulk of it having gone overseas--or out of some more substantial share of it. That's something we can address with the tax regime, and this "expiring tax cuts" moment is a perfect time to start. As with the spending issues above, it's potentially good policy and good politics: either Republicans say it's a good idea and they're all for it, or they have to explain why it's somehow better to give plutocrats a trillion dollars free and clear rather than in a way that benefits our country even as it benefits the plutocrats. If Republicans want to complain that there are no worthwhile investments for private capital to make in our country, well, that's a complaint I'd love to hear out of the party of the City on the Hill!
All of these ideas may be lousy ones at a detail level, and I'm happy for more knowledgeable people to tell me so. My meta-point is simply that we have a lot of opportunities to come up with proposals that obey the President's desire to engage the other side's alleged points of emphasis, without compromising our points of emphasis, on issues that aren't just vacuous symbolism. I should never say something is win-win when it comes to Democrats since we have a gift for lousing up even the most favorable situation, but I'm hoping the White House and what's left of our congressional leadership start thinking along these terms rather than the existing polarity of total capitulation (tax cuts! indiscriminate spending cuts!) or a doubling-down on stereotypical themes (a totally impossible new stimulus, for instance).