Monday, January 08, 2007

A New Paradigm

As the Democrats have claimed their rightful control of Congress, I thought it would be time to throw off an idea that's been stuck in my head for many many years.

I think one of the big problems with America is we Americans take an awful lot for granted, something driven home by this past week's vacation. I think nothing of turning on a faucet and having the various levels of government provide fresh drinking water, sanitized and purified for my consumption. In Bermuda, each house collects its own rain water (supplemented, presumably, by some town water system, if feasible).

We have rights, but in exchange for these rights, we have damned few responsibilities, it seems. Abide by the law, yes, but in truth, that's it. And this leads to an awful lot of fingerpointing: you must support the troops, or you're a traitor, for example, which would be a lot more difficult a charge to make if we had a Bill of Responsibilities to go along with our Bill of Rights.

So in that spirit, I offer the following ten civic responsibilities, that ought to be included in the Constitution:

1) Vote. If you're 18 or over, and you don't vote, barring a valid reason from a very narrow list of exceptions, you should be fined at least $100. Period. There's no excuse for not voicing your opinions.

2) Serve. When turning 18, everey American will dedicate two years of his or her life to public service. It can be military service, it can be AmeriCorps service, it can be cleaning up your local park. You'll be paid a minimal wage, with a bankable bonus for college or towards your first residence accrued for every hour worked, and will force the various governmental agencies to compete for the pool of talent, so not many people will suffer unduly before they are twenty. The exceptions to THIS responsibility will be even fewer than for voting, since anyone can lend a hand somewhere.

3) Learn. Nearly every profession has what are called "continuing professional education" credits that you are required to earn in order to keep your professional certification intact and active. I envision this working outside of professions in this way: if you produce a CPE certificate that is related to either your work or your general education every five years, you are rewarded with a ten percent credit against your taxes. An informed, voting public is far more valuable and will save the government far more money than an ignorant passive citizenry.

4) Save. I would eliminate the Federal income tax on savings accounts holding less than $100,000, and held in an individual's name and Social Security number. If you can save more than $100,000, you'll be asked to open the account in a second bank in order to gain a tax break on that, in order to mitigate any FDIC problems should a worldwide Depression hit again.

5) Contribute. I would eliminate the need to itemize deductions in order to take a deduction for charitable contributions. I'd lower the standard deduction accordingly, and then allow people to take as much in charitable contributions as they can prove. And they'd be asked to submit the proof with each return. We have a long and deep history in this country of good people doing good deeds. We ought to codify it. It seems the people worse off do the most for other people in trouble, so we ought to make that a centerpiece of our society.

6) Recycle. This should be a no-brainer, but apparently with as much waste as we still create, way out of proportion to our population, we ought to be doing more here. I'd create a strong disincentive to throw away anything that can be reused. We're talking possible jail time, particularly for corporate polluters.

7) Decide. Jury duty is a responsibility that most Americans duck whenever possible. I'd toughen the penalties on ducking jury duty, and further, I would make jury duty harder to finagle your way out of. The trade-off here is, by making jury duty mandatory for anyone over 18 who has a social security card, people who are unlucky (like me) will get called less than five times in a decade and a half. I'm picking up someone else's slack. I don't like it.

8) Speak. While the right of free speech includes the right to keep silent, we should encourage people to speak up on public issues and to take stands. In this light, there are a few things I would propose. First, re-instate the Fairness Doctrine, which forced television stations to air opposing viewpoints of reponsible spokesmen for free. Second, remove the incentive for corporations to fund "free speech" disguising a marketing campaign or political agenda that benefits them. Individuals have rights. Corporate entities should have less of them. Finally, I would encourage people to run for local offices by incentivizing this process for municipalities by fully funding all campaigns below the state level, with some exceptions (it seems silly that the mayor of New York would be publicly funded when clearly private money can be judiciously applied and save us a buck or two).

9) Instruct. Hand-in-hand with the two-year service at 18, I believe that retirees ought to be encouraged to pass along the knowledge and wisdom they've received over the many years of service they've committed. With that in mind, I'd propose a fifty-percent premium in the Social Security benefit for any American who is willing to commit to two years of instruction, either at the school or corporate level. This will be on a sliding scale dependent upon how much compensation they receive from the institution they will be teaching at.

10) Vigilance. This nation was founded on the Millsian principle that you are free to behave as you wish, provided that your behavior doesn't disturb the neighbors. We ought to get back to that philosophy and stop trying to keep people from marrying or doing what they see fit for their own best life. However, "vigilance" comes from paying attention to our neighbors, and making sure that they aren't imposing their will on our lives. Instead of leaving it up to the government and the courts, perhaps the time has come to insitute some form of civic court, along the lines of small claims, that allow each of us to have a mediated hearing over an issue that affects us, but may not be illegal. We see this in some arenas, like small claims court or zoning commission hearings. I'd like to see it extended to such things as property lines, parking violations involving one's driveway versus on-street, and little nuisance things like that. Those are important to the people involved, but usually not important enought to get civic action unless enough noise (or money) is involved. We have a duty to keep small problems small and preventing them from snowballing into bigger problems.