Fixing Broken America
An engineer’s perspective
To understand the problems with our government, it is helpful to examine some common sense solutions to our problems and why government doesn’t implement them. While there are other solutions, the point is that Congress should do something, and isn’t doing much of anything.
This should be easy. Both Democrats and Republicans are in favor of infrastructure spending.
The Problem. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives US infrastructure a D+. Infrastructure investment adds $3 to GDP growth for each $1 spent. We pay for highway infrastructure with the federal gas tax. It hasn’t been raised since 1993, and isn’t indexed to inflation. Gas taxes in the US are 10 times lower than in Europe.
Proposed Solution. The solution is as simple and obvious as it is unpopular – raise the federal gas tax! 31 of 50 states have managed to raise their gas tax in the last 10 years, and 22 states index to inflation.
The Roadblock. Both Democrats and Republicans support infrastructure spending, but neither wants the wrath of voters for raising the gas tax. Everyone wants to use infrastructure, but we want someone else to pay for it. Congress can’t agree on other ways to fund infrastructure. Congress has become much more divisive in recent decades, and neither party wants to give the other a victory.
The Problem. Increasing temperatures cause a variety of serious problems – more droughts, affecting water and food supplies, flooding of coastal regions, extreme weather, acidification of the oceans by absorption of CO2, etc.
The Roadblock. The oil industry. They have not only lobbied Congress, but have manipulated voters by spreading disinformation and climate denial to get voters to stop Congress from taking action. Getting an already gridlocked Congress to do nothing has been child’s play. A lot of us have been receptive because – you guessed it – we don’t want to pay more gas tax and thus are in denial. Many have integrated disbelief in climate change into their identity, becoming unwilling to face facts. But while spreading denial to maintain short term profits, the oil industry is also planning for climate change. The US Military is also planning for climate change.
Risk of Accidental Nuclear War.
The Problem. Congress has the authority to declare war under the Constitution, but gave the President sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. This allows a quick response before a massive strike destroys our land based nuclear missiles. Such a strike is highly unlikely, since we could destroy the attacker with just our submarine nuclear missiles, which would survive. The bigger risk is a false alarm that triggers a nuclear launch that destroys the world. We’ve had a number of false alarms and close calls over the years.
Proposed Solution. We need to eliminate vulnerable land based ICBMs, removing the need for a quick decision, and then put authorization back where it belongs – in Congress. We have more than enough submarine-based missiles, which aren’t vulnerable to a first strike, to respond to any attack after waiting to see if it is real or a false alarm.
The Roadblock. Nuclear weapons manufacturers pay for think tanks to prop up public support, unleash lobbyists and direct money donations to keep Congress dancing on their puppet strings. Again, all they need to do is get an already gridlocked Congress to do nothing.
Decline of the middle class.
The Problem. The middle class is shrinking. We need the middle class to provide the demand needed to grow our consumer economy and to prevent political instability. You can bet Dr. Zhivago wished they had a middle class in Russia before their revolution. That is the trajectory of our lottery economy, where the lucky get incredibly wealthy, and most people are barely getting by. Middle class jobs are disappearing and middle class costs are increasing more than inflation (for housing, health care, college education, etc.). This is a series of problems, discussed below.
The Problem. Not enough housing is being built, driving up prices with more demand than supply. This is exacerbated by low interest rates providing more dollars to chase the limited number of homes. NIMBY groups and the approval process drive up the cost of construction and limit the supply.
Proposed solution. Build more housing by reducing the excessive layers of local discretionary approval.
The roadblock. We, the home-owning neighbors, are the roadblock. Everyone wants new housing built somewhere else, and likes having the value of their home go up. Local politicians are afraid of being voted out if they try to reduce the neighbors’ veto power.
High Cost of Health care.
The problem. The US spends twice as much on health care as other rich countries, with poorer overall health. Obamacare addressed access, but did little for costs (to avoid opposition by the health care industry). One reason for high costs is a lack of competition because of hospital monopolies. Another is the over-use of insurance. Health insurance companies take a 30% cut as middlemen between patients and doctors, and isolate consumers from competitive comparative shopping that would bring down prices. For example, MRI’s cost ten times more in the US because of markups, which are hidden and paid by insurance. We do lead the world in some areas – heart attack and stroke care, and medical bankruptcies.
Proposed solution. One solution is government healthcare (Medicare for all). Another is creating competition that reduces prices. Competition can be created by eliminating insurance for minor matters (so people will make the cost decisions), enforcing the antitrust laws and requiring posted prices. New drugs should be shown to be better than the generic, not just foisted on people with advertising campaigns (see comparative effectiveness). Some combination of government and private health care may make sense. Such a system is used in Singapore.
The roadblock. Health industry campaign donations, misleading attack ads and lobbyists prevent common sense reforms. The drug industry successfully opposed the proposed “comparative effectiveness” disclosure originally proposed for Obamacare – not just showing a new drug is better than nothing, but that it is better than existing, less expensive alternatives. Once more, all they need to do is get an already gridlocked Congress to do nothing.
The problem. A college education costs too much, and many students go deep into debt, often for degrees that aren’t worth the debt. The main cause is exploding demand for a limited number of colleges – everyone thinks a college education is a ticket to a good paying job. Other causes include administrative bloat, expensive campus amenities to attract top students and subsidized student loans. In addition, many states have reduced their funding of public universities. Private lenders have the sense not to lend to people who are unlikely to repay – only the federal government does that. Thus, currently over 90% of student loans are federal loans. The government’s admirable attempt to help more people get a college education has backfired by increasing the cost, since there are loans to pay for the increased cost.
Proposed solution. Federal loans should be limited to colleges/degrees with a track record of graduates landing good paying jobs. This was done briefly with the gainful employment regulations. There aren’t enough professional jobs to justify everyone going to a university, so trade schools should be promoted as an alternative. Federal student debt, unlike private lender student debt and most debt, isn’t dischargeable in bankruptcy, and should be.
The Roadblock. For-profit diploma mills lobby and donate money to avoid regulation, and succeeded in having the gainful employment regulations repealed under Trump. Yet again, all they need to do is get an already gridlocked Congress to do nothing.
The problem. The tax code has had loopholes for the rich added over decades due to campaign donations and lobbying. The IRS audit teams have also been reduced due to the same lobbying, allowing outright cheating by the rich. Capital gains, the income of the rich, is taxed at a lower rate.
1. Increase the IRS budget. Several hundred billion dollars a year are not collected because the budget of the IRS has been cut over the years.
2. Tax all income the same – capital gains are the income of the rich, but are taxed at a lower rate based on the debunked argument that they stimulate the economy enough to more than pay for themselves. What really stimulates the economy is more money in the hands of the middle class, who will spend the money and boost the economy directly.
3. Have a minimum tax for corporations based on their reported profits – they should not be able to pay no taxes using tax code loopholes, and yet report billions in profits to their shareholders.
The Roadblock. Campaign contributions and lobbying by corporations and the rich. This is easy now because the loopholes for the rich are already there, and all they need to do is get an already gridlocked Congress to do nothing.
Lack of competition.
The problem. Many U.S. industries are dominated by large companies that squash or buy out competition. Government regulations also impose excessive paperwork that stymies start-up competition, but can be handled by the large conglomerates. This led to less competition in the U.S. compared to Europe since the 1990s, making consumers pay more ($300/mo. total estimate). U.S. consumers pay higher prices, compared to other countries, for drugs, food, airline tickets, internet, etc.
Proposed solution. Reform and enforce the antitrust laws. Reduce and simplify regulations for start-ups. The large companies can handle complicated regulations, which stifle competition to their benefit.
The roadblock. Lobbying and campaign contributions by the huge conglomerates. Yet again, all they need to do is get an already gridlocked Congress to do nothing.
Decline of fish in the oceans.
The problem. Overfishing, plastic garbage in the oceans and climate change (causing acidification of the oceans) are killing this huge natural resource. This is a classic tragedy of the commons.
Proposed Solution. Fishing reserves have been proven to work, and making 30% of the ocean off-limits to fishing should make it sustainable. Require the phase-out of plastics and replacement with bio-degradable plastics. Again, as for all environmental problems, contraception is an answer – there is too much fishing because there are too many people.
The Roadblock. Fishermen oppose marine reserves, and have large political influence in many countries. In the US, the plastics industry has promoted recycling to avoid regulation, while knowing recycling wouldn’t work for most plastics. Yet again, all they need to do is get an already gridlocked Congress to do nothing.
Other problems. There are many other problems with common sense solutions blocked by politics. They are too numerous for this article, but I’ll just mention a few more. Even 75% of NRA members agree we need universal background checks, but the NRA leadership mounts campaigns to defeat any representative who considers this. The military budget too often includes obsolete weapons to keep arms suppliers profitable, at the expense of new technologies and weapons the military wants. Again, it is the lobbying and campaign spending of arms suppliers that cause this. Overuse of antibiotics, such as for livestock, has led to super bacteria that can’t be stopped with most antibiotics. The common roadblock is the special interests, and all they need to do is get an already gridlocked Congress to do nothing.
Removing the Roadblocks
There are several common denominators to these roadblocks.
1. Special interest money and lobbyists. Special interests can control (or just stop) Congressional action with money – money for campaign funding, attack ads, lobbying, and propaganda to manipulate the public to neutralize opposition. The two parties respond to those with the most influence (partisan primary voters and special interests), ignoring average voters.
2. Two party duopoly. The two main political parties are a Duopoly that sets the rules for elections to their advantage. They fight constantly for supremacy, instead of addressing our problems (but cooperate to keep out competition from other parties or independents). To gain power, they Gerrymandered, instituted closed, partisan primaries, and installed plurality voting systems that keep out independents and third parties. They keep the other party from solving our problems so they have talking points for the next election. Yet our separation of powers requires compromise to get anything done.
3. Manipulated voters. We are the manipulated mob. We vote out of office anyone making the hard, but necessary decisions that force some sacrifice from us. We are also manipulated to oppose things that would benefit us, but help special interests. Because of Gerrymandering and closed primaries, elections are decided by a small group of manipulated primary voters who have been riled up by partisan media and the Russians.
The solution is thus multi-faceted: (1) reduce the influence of special interest money and lobbyists, (2) reduce the two party divisiveness and (3) insulate our representatives from the mob – us voters. There are a number of approaches, with perhaps the most significant discussed below.
End the filibuster.
The filibuster allows the minority to block legislation, and was the result of a rule amendment in 1806 which inadvertently removed the ability to end debate. It has been used on most legislation in the last decades, resulting in gridlock and problems not being addressed. It is not in the Constitution, which assumed majority voting, as was done in the early years, and defeats the careful balance of powers in the Constitution. The minority can already elect a president through the electoral college, and have a majority of the Senate (and control the House through Gerrymandering). The minority does not also need the filibuster. It should be eliminated. Those opposed say it would kill bipartisanship, but you can’t kill something that is already dead. It would also result in the other party reversing laws once they are in power – but isn’t that what is supposed to happen? If the people don’t like the laws being enacted, they can vote the other party into power. In reality, laws that benefit the people would stay in place, it is laws that benefit special interests that are at risk – because they don’t have popular support.
Term Limits – Blocked at Federal Level by the Supreme Court.
House representatives are particularly susceptible to mob/voter pressure, with elections every two years. Term-limits to a single term would eliminate this pressure for re-election. But this is currently moot. Term limits for Congress were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1995.
Independent Congressional commissions and mediators
Since the voting mob and special interest influence on Congress keep problems from being solved, one solution is to isolate Congress from the decisions. This can be done with independent commissions, like the military base closure commission. The Pentagon wanted to close many of them, but constituents in every state wanted their bases kept open for the jobs they created. The solution was the creation of an independent commission to select the bases to be closed, with Congress agreeing in advance to approve the recommendations. It has been suggested this can be applied to other issues, but mainly budget issues. This way proposals won’t be seen as coming from Democrats or Republicans, eliciting a knee-jerk opposition from the other side.
For housing, isolation from the mob means moving zoning decisions to the state or regional level, away from easily pressured local planning commissions.
Another solution is to have a professional mediator between the Republicans and Democrats in Congress. This has been used to settle private litigation by agreeing on a compromise settlements, and several states use mediation in government.
Public funding of campaigns
We can’t stop political spending since the Supreme Court said it’s protected free speech. So if you can’t beat them, join them! We should publicly fund campaigns to make Congress beholden to us, not special interests. Special interest minions would have you believe this is a waste of tax dollars. Not so. Public funding would cost about $7 billion/year ($14 billion every 2 year election). But we’d save many times that much in special interest giveaways, since Congress would no longer work for the special interests. For example, the $15-16 billion/year giveaway to drug makers who lobbied to prevent price negotiation by the government would cover the cost by itself, not to mention the corporate subsidies and off-shore tax havens that cost $284 billion/year, and the $1.9 trillion 2017 tax cut for the rich.
15 states have adopted public funding. It typically means small donor matching, with a qualifying threshold to avoid non-viable candidates.
One proposal is to make lobbyist donations illegal (separate lobbying from the donations that get them in the door). Another is to close the revolving door (extend the amount of time retiring representatives are banned from lobbying). Also, Congressional staff should be increased, since staff cuts have meant Congress now relies on lobbyist staffs to write our laws.
The easiest way to get voters fired up is to go to the dark side of The Force – make them hate the opposition – just as in sports rivalries. In dictatorships like North Korea, people are fed propaganda and manipulated by state media. In the U.S., we do it to ourselves, only listening to Fox News or MSNBC to get a one-sided view that becomes not just our opinion, but our identity. The Internet has provided a tool that unwittingly turbocharges this strategy. In the Terminator movie, AI (Artificial Intelligence) takes over the machines and wages war on humans. The reality is similar – the algorithms and AI behind social media recommendations makes Americans wage war against each other (aided by the Russians trying to bring us down from within). These algorithms maximize ad profits by showing us more of what we like, based on our online profiles (developed by tracking everything we do online). This is useful for selling products – we see things we want. But a nasty side effect is that on political matters, we each end up with different realities, only seeing “news” that corresponds to a point of view we have been manipulated to believe. The artificial intelligence in the algorithms has figured out that inflammatory headlines – things that divide us – get the most clicks. If we click on one, it gives us more and more extreme versions to keep our blood boiling and – more importantly – to keep us clicking and sharing to drive ad revenue. Worse, the algorithms can’t tell the difference between true and false, and false often gets us to click more, which is all the AI cares about.
Part of the solution to manipulation is thus to change the algorithm. Twitter has banned political ads altogether. Google allows political ads, but has limited AI use in micro targeting for political ads. The Google approach is a good one, avoiding appealing to people’s biases as discerned from their profiles and online activity, and only allowing targeting based on geographies, age, gender, and the content of the site where an ad is placed. Thus we get a common reality, not a customized one. But ads are just one part of the problem. Search results will also provide personalized content, and more extreme versions of whatever we click on. The same is true of recommendations based on our browsing activity – TikTok’s “For You,” Facebook’s “Suggested for you,” You Tube’s “recommended videos,” etc. Profiling information should be turned off for political and social content. This can clearly be done. For example, Google has Incognito browsing, but the user has to select it. Political and social content can be identified from a list of key words, and Incognito mode automatically activated.
Ranked Choice Voting.
We need a system where representatives can’t win with just a divisive minority of the votes, as currently happens. Our “plurality voting” system (most votes wins) allows a candidate to win in a field of more than two with, for example, 30% of the vote, when 70% of the voters prefer someone else. This favors a radical candidate with a small but dedicated following, especially in a large field as happened with Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries and almost happened in the 2020 Democratic primary. This system encourages divisive campaigning and attack ads and produces non-compromising candidates. Independents are labeled as spoilers and people are afraid of wasting their vote, so independents don’t have a chance.
The solution is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) or instant runoff election, where you rank your 1st, 2nd, etc. choice. If someone gets more than 50%, they win, but if not, there are automatic runoffs eliminating the candidates with the fewest votes and counting those 2nd choice votes instead. RCV insures that whoever wins is at least the 2nd, 3rd, etc. choice of a majority of voters. Trump likely would not have won the 2016 Republican nomination using RCV. RCV forces candidates to moderate their positions to appeal to the 2nd choice votes of voters whose first choice is an opponent (less sleazy attack ads!). It has been adopted in Maine, Alaska, and many cities and other jurisdictions, as well as other countries.
End Gerrymandering – After each census year (such as 2020), district lines are drawn by incumbent state legislatures to give themselves a greater portion of seats in a process called Gerrymandering (e.g., even if most voters vote for Democrats, most of the seats can go to Republicans, & vice-versa). This is done by cramming the opposition into a few districts, with a majority of the incumbent party in most districts. Districts are then “safe” for that party and candidates need to appeal only to the partisan ideologues of that party who vote in the primary. Thus the candidates become more partisan than the general population, and won’t compromise to get something done.
Primary elections for Republicans and Democrats have low turnout, and are dominated by the hard-core ideologues of each party. Moderates who would otherwise win the general election are eliminated. Incumbent moderates who dare to compromise with the other party to get something done are “primaried” out of office by a more ideologically pure challenger. These incumbent moderates, who would often win the general election, can’t run as independents in the general election due to “sore loser” laws in 47 states.
States should adopt open primaries for Congress where all parties (and independents) vote in the same primary, with the top 4 candidates advancing to the general election (which would use RCV). A number of states have open primaries.
What you can do.
If you want to support these changes, there are a number of organizations working on them, that you could support: