Thinking about government’s relationship to its citizens especially in these times, we remembered some memorable lines Marlon Brando spoke as Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata in the movie “Viva Zapata”
….You’ve always looked for leaders. Strong men without faults. There aren’t any. They’re only men – like yourselves. They change, they desert, they die. There are no leaders but yourselves. A strong people is the only lasting strength! …..That’s how things really change – slowly through people. They don’t need me anymore. A strong man makes a weak people. Strong people, don’t need a strong man.
We have had the good fortune through our inherited English common law and our constitution for individuals in the United States to enjoy the protections and freedoms that have enabled us to bring about unprecedented “More”. An expansive open home market and “Yankee” traders abroad led to a rising standard of living. Never perfect (for instance just think about slavery), we have moved forward in our irregular fashion enhancing the abilities of each and every individual to achieve the best that’s in them. While this may always be a work in progress, we must first avoid backsliding while implementing ways to ever strengthen individuals.
What would further enhance our individual ability to succeed in the future? First stop lumping people together in groups or by location. Government needs to deal with directly with its citizens. Rather than deal with our native Americans as groups on reservations, to use an extreme example of failure, citizens should receive any government benefits directly so they can use them as they see fit. Too often the way we distribute benefits keep people in areas that few people would choose to live. Why would anyone stay in an urban ghetto with bad schools, poor employment prospects and ever-present violence? The same goes for economic backwaters whose day has passed. Children assigned to the local school, your housing subsidy, food stamps and medical care are seemingly part and parcel of the “hood”or the “holler”. How does a single mother have the where with all to pickup and move to a place with a better future? What if she received the value of her benefits package as a monthly check. Add school vouchers to use anywhere in the state or exchangeable for a new state’s voucher, and we have given mobility to those who perceive they are trapped in a hopeless “hood” or “holler. According to the Cato Institute, the 2013 benefits package in either Detroit, Michigan or the depressed areas in West Virginia would send her at least $2,000 in cash each month. This doesn’t take into consideration the extra money that would be available through the elimination of government overhead. Stay anchored to a dead-end area or move to an area with better schools, low crime and better job and advancement possibilities. The situation switches from “I can’t see any way out of here” to the question “why am I still here”?
Dave’s Plan to Replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) (see the series under that name) could play a pivotal part in this endeavor. With everyone having a Personal Benefits Account(PBA) at a financial institution consisting of a savings account and a Catastrophic Health Policy, adding the monthly support benefit would hardly be a problem. Under the plan Medicaid and other medical aid already are sent directly. At every level the plan adds to individual mobility. Other side benefits are increased employee bargaining power and a level playing field for small business. These also strengthens individuals. Maybe most important, every person from cradle to grave would have a capital account at a financial institution. Savings, investing and personal finance would no longer be theoretical to a great segment of our populous. Instead they would be something they will have been acquainted with their whole lives. This would include everyone in our capitalist society and improve their chances to succeed in it. If you stood behind someone at the supermarket buying a postal money order or saw them going into a payday loan operation, you know there are a lot of people locked out of the regular financial world to their detriment. Including these people would be a really good thing financially and for their self-worth. Another way to empower individuals.
Some people are trapped by the lack of basic skills. Barring actual disability, this just shouldn’t happen. We spend more than every nation (except the possibility of the Swiss) on educating our people with much less to show for it. Hence, our support for universal vouchers. Education and employment opportunities have increasingly moved to the internet. The world is moving ever faster and the internet is the highway. Our educational institutions just aren’t presently structured to keep up. If you want a vocational education (and we really need people to build and maintain our stuff) it might not be readily available in a particular area but with a voucher and the internet you are likely to find whatever you need. Education would move at the speed of the digital world. We know that given a choice people will move their children to schools that actually educate. The success of Charter Schools in New York City in spite of extreme opposition from politicians and unions should give us hope and pause. Instead of fighting for progress every inch of the way, vouchers would free families to seek what is best for their children. Does anybody really doubt this is best for our kids?
Professional cross-licensing between states would also help, especially in couples where one has licensed employment and the other has a job opportunity in another state. Having to be licensed again in a new state could block an upward move. A hair dresser or barber for example. Impediments to mobility should be eliminated wherever we can.
A felony on your record and you will only hear doors closing on your future. Crime has always been prevalent in economically depressed areas and young people especially boys do stupid things. Put together this produces a lot young criminals. This is true the world over. Introducing illegal drugs and the big money involved transforms the landscape. Gangs that once protected turf now are big business with deadly results. Children in these areas see the drug dealers as successful role models. No wonder 25% of our black population mostly huddled in the “hood”has a felony conviction vs. 6.5% of the non black population. 20 million felons overall effectively locked out of the American dream. Society has every right punish those that cause harm to others, but it is also in society’s interest to shrink this number in ways that doesn’t increase harm.
Our efforts to increase mobility should result in fewer people in ghettos and backwaters. But we still need restructuring of our slums and backwaters for those still there. Beyond better schools, the invasiveness of the drug culture has to be faced. Since it promulgated in 1971 by Pres. Richard Nixon, the War on Drugs has been our longest war with no end in sight. After 45 years we still are faced with headlines decrying a nationwide heroin epidemic. In 1991 Milton Friedman predicted the futility of this war and made a persuasive case for legalization. Decades of failure should at least make us open to change. It’s not just a black or Latino thing, it’s so bad among whites it’s being blamed for a decline in white longevity. Legalizing some drugs and not others just doesn’t solve the problem. The latest upsurge for many started with legal pain killers and moved to the cheaper more available heroin. We know from our national experience with prohibition the injury to the nation’s fabric huge illegal profits can engender. With alcohol we punish irresponsible use that can harm others and we treat the addiction. When someone enters a 12 step program they say their first name and announce they are an addict. It doesn’t matter what their addicted too. The money saved from not waging an unwinnable war could be better used to educate people of drug dangers and help those already affected.
While we probably will never completely do away with depressed areas, the emphasis should be reducing them as much as possible. Increased mobility and reduced impediments to leaving should always be the goal. Each individual that leaves stultifying surroundings for a place with greater opportunity and succeeds changes the balance in society. Imagine if just 5% of our population moved from dependency to tax payer our nation’s financial health would be transformed. We can do even better than that, but only by realizing progress will only be made one individual at a time.
We talk of America being a place where you can be the best can be, but unless government recognizes its obligation to enhance the prospects of every individual too many that could achieve will continue to be left behind. We need to view the disadvantaged an undeveloped resource rather than just dependents. Given the what we currently spend this is a needless loss. Everything we have ever proposed uses just the money we now spend. We just use it in ways that elevate individuals while lowering the costs of doing it in the future.
Our emphasis on basic education and mobility empowering people is rooted in the simple fact that we will live with increasing change. The idea that you had one job and lived in one place was never universally true. In the future it will become rare. Governments need to make this clear to their citizens and take the steps they can to help them continue to learn and move. Can anyone think of a job that won’t be profoundly changed or maybe even cease to exist? Rather than fearing change let’s prepare for it and enjoy the richness of the experience.