Sunday, September 20, 2009

Political fantasy hour

This Sunday's op-ed section in the Times includes two well-informed proposals for radical reform that will never happen, at least not any time soon. One is Tom Friedman's endlessly-reiterated call for a $1/gallon Federal tax on gasoline - an idea so eminently sensible that he's right to have spent decades rolling that stone up the hill. The other is economists Peter Boone and Simon Johnson's proposed five-year revolving door ban between Wall Street and the Federal government -- a ban not just on lobbyists moving back and forth, but financial executives too. This strikes me as a bit extreme, not to say Utopian -- some foxes do make good henhouse guards.

Reading the two policy wishes in tandem set me off on an "if I were king of the forest" fantasy. If I could change U.S. policy by fiat, what would I do? What's politically impossible but eminently sensible? For starters, I think Freidman is dead right -- taxing gasoline has made sense to me ever since Rep. John Anderson proposed it in the 1980 presidential campaign. A few other strays:
  • Ban political advertising. I've always thought the free speech defense was bullshit. The Constitution guarantees free speech, not the right to pay to broadcast your speech. e. I realize there's a long line of legal precedent on this issue, but I think it went in the wrong direction. Political advertising undermines real political discourse.

  • Single payer health insurance: all of the planned reforms to "bend the curve" on health care inflation would be more effective if the government were the only payer. The health insurance industry is parasitic -- it adds nothing constructive to health care delivery. Whatever Rube Goldberg system we patch together will be inferior to Canada's "Medicare for all."

  • End the subsidized private student loan industry: this is one more financial sub-industry that's purely parasitic - subsidized to exploit the young and squeeze profits out of government money directed to a social end.

  • Tear up the college "529" savings programs: I'd love to see the legislative/lobbying history of this boondoggle, in which each state hands a captive market over to a particular mutual fund company or handful of mutual fund companies, which offer a limited menu of investment options offered tax protection in that state. Who can tell me why college savings accounts are not structured like IRAs, allowing investors to qualify for the tax break while investing in whatever vehicles they choose?
This list should be far longer, but I'm sticking to pet peeves and no-brainers. So much for my shallow Sunday morning thinking for a Sunday morning.

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