April 1, 2012

A grand compromise

Colin Read: Everybody's Business

---- — On this first day of April, I let my imagination run not to what Washington does, but what it could be.

Imagine a group of Democratic and Republican representatives and senators who come together to foment an ambitious plan. They could propose to put all politics aside and work on grand compromises in the spirit of our founding fathers. They could call themselves the Coalition for Common Sense, and their motto might be "serious solutions for a complex country."

This group need represent only a small, centrist, bipartisan subset of Congress. If it included 73 congressmen and 20 senators, less than 20 percent of Congress, each one could pledge to attract two additional members to approve their compromises.

Every great innovation in this nation was forged from the minds and hearts of a small group of committed individuals who were capable of respect for our differences, and united by a grander vision.

I gather the premises of this inspirational group will be profound indeed.

Like the vast majority of their constituents, these leaders could recognize that we have to return to the notion of "by the people and for the people."

Hopefully, they would agree it is ludicrous that corporations and unions are now considered people and can make multi-million-dollar donations to super-PACs that have so distorted modern politics.

Most of the country agrees that mega-corporations are entities of our creation, but have at times become mechanisms of political domination. We should get corporations, lobbyists, unions and special interests out of politics. If their individual members want to exercise their freedom of speech, then please do.

But, to offer corporations the greatest freedoms without the constraints and accountability of the rest of us is simply nonsensical. This group of representatives could return politics to you and me by taking money's influence on the media out of the equation.

This visionary group could also recognize that government too big becomes too insensitive. We have all heard of grandmothers being frisked at airports by a government too large to exhibit common sense.

Federal government works on a one-size-fits-all approach that ultimately fits nobody, except perhaps the imagination of bureaucrats who create the bewildering array of regulations.

This visionary group can return common sense and accountability to government. If bureaucrats are incapable of common sense, they will be reminded that they work for the people. If they remain unable to practice common sense, they can be fired. Government jobs should not be afforded greater security or more insulation from their clients than the rest of the economy enjoys. A new form of government should give citizens a greater voice in decisions that affect us locally.

The coalition should also assert the premise that we should judge policy not based on how it affects the few but how it affects the many. Every piece of legislation should require a benefit and cost analysis that clearly measures the cost it will impose on future generations.

It is not just for our children to pay tomorrow for benefits we incur today. We should be paying our own way, unless we are building the infrastructure for a more productive future. In such cases, legislation must be about them, not about jobs or handouts we want today.

Finally, this group would hopefully abhor conventional wisdom. Life is complicated. There are times we have to solve a widening budget deficit with additional taxes, times when we have to streamline government spending and the scope of government to what we need, not what special interests may want, and times when government spending should expand temporarily as a tool for economic policy, but only if it yields returns to future generations that are larger than the costs it will impose on them.

In other words, a new group of compromisers without capitulation should assert that we should run government with the same common sense we use when we deal with our neighbors and our community. We'd like our leaders to work together in the spirit of compromise and cooperation, in a bipartisan way rather than a competitive or adversarial way.

Perhaps on this day of April, though, would I be a fool to believe such is possible?

Colin Read is the chair of the Department of Economics and Finance at SUNY Plattsburgh. His tenth book, Great Minds in Finance — the Efficient Market Hypothesists, is coming out this fall. Continue the discussion at