Reconstituting America

Americans are profound innovators, second to none in examining old things with new eyes... except when it comes to their political system. The Constitution has been subject only to a few minor tweaks in the last two hundred years-- some of them of large import, but none changing the basic system. Though this is in part due to the good sense of the founders, it also leaves us with a political system geared to the technological and intellectual limitations of the 18th century.

Why not at least talk about some more radical changes? Here's five ideas to start.

Direct votes on the budget

In 1789, merely canvassing the voters once every two years was a logistic challenge-- and required an arguably groundless confidence in the sophistication of the average citizen. Today, when we could have an Internet poll every day if we wished, and over half the adult population has had at least some college education, we could go much farther in citizen participation.

A good place to start would be direct voting on the federal budget. With their tax return, each citizen would indicate what percentage should be allocated for each category of spending-- down to the level of the categories in the almanac, at least.

This idea depends on the fact that large numbers of people judge better than individuals. (Have a hundred people guess a man's height, and the average guess will be remarkably accurate.) The people as a whole would be good judges of how much to spend on the military, or foreign aid, or farm supports.

Could citizens or groups play games with this? Of course; that's much of the appeal. Vote for 100% of the budget to go to public radio, if you like; or 50% to the space program and 50% to Medicare. On the whole, eccentric votes will even out-- but an organized minority could always have a real influence on policy. (If just 1% of the voters cast their whole vote for a program, they'd control the allocation of 18 billion dollars. That's bigger than the space program, and bigger than foreign military and development aid combined.)

Since each taxpayer would in effect be saying how his money should be spent, and since groups could work together and be guaranteed to affect the budget, people would feel much more ownership in the government.

As an experiment, I invited members of the zompist bboard to vote on the current budget. The results were interesting. Most of the participants were young, and there was a decided future-oriented cast to their votes: education, infrastructure, space and health research. They voted military spending way down and, somewhat to my surprise, didn't default on interest payments.


The obvious objection is that the citizenry is a bunch of idiots who'd blow the budget on tomfooleries. This is basically the same objection once raised to democracy itself, and gets the same answer.

First, the people as a whole would do no worse, and probably better, than the bunch of idiots they elect (or who inherited their position, or who claimed it in a burst of gunfire). It's a lot easier to buy off a legislator than a substantial portion of the population.

Second, once people realized that their choices affected the world, they'd grow into the role. This was de Toqueville's message to Europe in the 1830s: compared to European peasants, the average American was astonishingly well-educated and civic-minded. Treat people like idiots and they'll act accordingly; give them real power and they'll adjust to it... though it may take a generation or two.

A more serious objection is that government-by-referendum, as in California, is a mess. But I think that's an argument for more voter responsibility, not less. People learn when there are consequences to their actions, and the more direct the better. The consequences of voting for a candidate are so remote that many people don't feel any connection between their votes and government policy at all; and anyone whose candidate loses feels no responsibility at all. In this proposal, voters directly determine the budget; if they mess up, they bear the consequences for the next year.

To minimize disruptions during the learning phase, the system could be phased in gradually: e.g. 10% of the budget is adjusted the first year, 20% the next, and so on. That should lessen the probability that (say) education gets a 50% increase or decrease in any one year. In the first years it can't be done, and in later years people already have a history of working with these new levers and are less likely to lurch in a new direction.

There would also have to be some technical solutions for pseudo-clever gambits like refusing to fund tax collection. (On the other hand, I wouldn't protect the entire IRS budget; let the people decide whether to fund audits, or translation of tax materials.)

Replace the income tax

Another tax-related idea: abolish the income tax, replacing it with a combination sales tax and capital gains tax.

OK, I thought this up in the car this afternoon; but hear me out. People get a little crazy about the income tax. They like the government services it pays for, but they keep feeling that it's Their Money that the government is taking.

Sales taxes somehow get a freer pass. Perhaps it's because we still have remnants of Puritanism, and feel that a tax on work unfairly punishes virtue, but a tax on purchases rightly punishes sin. If everything became 15% more expensive at the same time the income tax bite disappeared, I'm betting most people would feel they came out ahead.

The obvious objection is that sales taxes are horribly regressive. (You can hardly charge more sales tax to those with an income over $100,000.) But this is a technical problem which could be solved by appropriate adjustments-- by different taxes on different categories of goods, for instance. That's also why I couple this proposal to a vigorous capital gains tax, which would be highly progressive.

Itemized taxes

The average voter, like the current average president, seems unable to think responsibly about government. He likes government services, and the more the better; but he doesn't like paying for them.

One component of this is surely the fact that taxes come in just two bins, Social Security and Everything Else. As we learn from user interface design, feedback is key. The taxpayer doesn't know where his money is going, and thus listens to demagogues who insist that it's all going to welfare mothers.

At the very least, we could have a dozen taxes instead of one: a Defense Tax, an Interest Tax, a Courts Tax, a Spread the Wealth Tax, a Business and Farm Helps Tax, and so on. Perhaps you should have to write a separate check for each category, so attention is focussed on each figure.

Unlike the first proposal, this wouldn't help build consensus on how much the figures should be; but they'd be out in the open, and that's the first step in responsible voting. It's easy to get upset at 30% of your paycheck going to "Fed. Withh." If you saw a 5.2% Defense Tax and a 0.3% Space Tax, you might still be upset, but you'd also be informed. (To clarify: these are expressed as percentages of a typical paycheck, not as percentages of the budget.)

Could talk radio hosts get people quite so upset over the 0.4% Welfare Tax? Would people wonder why there's a 0.2% Farm Tax? Would the deficit seem so unimportant if people saw a 2.3%-and-rising Interest Tax?

For all this to be meaningful, the funds would have to be kept separate-- that is, the separate taxes don't go into a single general fund; the defense tax can only be used for national defense.

Bag the states

The biggest anachronism in our political system is the states. Their boundaries are historical accidents that almost never make any sociopolitical sense; and they're just the wrong size for modern governance: too big to offer any real sense of local control, too small to serve as an effective counterweight to either the federal government or big business. There should be either more or less of them.

The right number, I would suggest, is about ten. That would give the average state about 28 million people and a $120 billion budget-- about in the league of Canada. If the boundaries were aligned with actual US cultural regions, these bigger states would have a real chance to pursue regional values, to solve their own problems in their own way.

Alternatively, we could divide up the states to make a couple hundred of them... Illinois, for instance, could separate Chicagoland from a downstate area that has little to do with it. Admittedly this would be a sort of political Lojban-- the primary appeal is just getting rid of the inefficiency caused by holding to dividing lines that make no contemporary sense.

More radically, let each county decide, every ten years, which state to belong to. In the post-modern era, self-governing units no longer have to be large contiguous blocks.

Lose the South

The North fought the Civil War primarily to preserve republican government in a period when world opinion frankly doubted that it would ever last, and secondarily to end slavery. Both battles were won; maybe it's time to look at the downside of the program.

Most if-the-South-had-won narratives, I'd guess, suppose that the two sides would have ended up well-matched and hostile rivals. Not likely. The population in 1860 was already 19 million Northerners vs. 8.5 million white Southerners, and 90% of the Republic's business activities took place in the North.

Today, the eleven states of the Confederacy account for about 29% of the population-- 84 million people-- and 27% of the GDP-- $2.8 trillion. That's comparable to Germany on both counts. The South would be a viable country and an excellent nearby market, but no rival.

The South has been pretty much a drag on the rest of the country since the Civil War. It stymied racial progress for a century, and it's always had a disproportionate and reactionary political influence. We'd be a considerably more liberal country without it. (Without the Confederacy, Gore would have won a landslide in the electoral college-- 266 votes to 124-- and a five-point lead in the popular vote. That's assuming Bush was still the opposing candidate, of course; as a Connecticut native, he'd squeak by legally.)

In other words, we'd have the big business, but not the government dominated by big business; and the cultural conservatives would be mostly off in their own country, where they could create monuments to the Ten Commandments to their heart's content, and not intrude on our television programs.

Postscript: Objections

This last proposal has generated more comment than anything I've written besides my taxation page. Some Northerners are thrilled with the idea; some Southerners hate it while others are bemused by it. Some clarifications seem necessary.

Most importantly: some wonder if I hate the South or consider it backward and repressive. On the contrary: if I thought an independent South would disenfranchise and lynch its black citizens I wouldn't propose the idea even in jest. It's precisely because I think the South has gotten past its racist history that I think it's safe to reopen the question of independence.

Do I want tariffs and passport controls and exchanges of population? Of course not. There are benefits for both sides to maintain an open border, free trade, and no impediments to cross-residency. For a model, consider the amicable separation of Canada and Britain, or that of Norway and Sweden.

Is the idea to kick out the South even if it doesn't want to go? Certainly not; all I'm doing is putting the idea on the table. Again, I wouldn't propose it if I didn't think it would be a relief to both sides.

Wouldn't other regions want to go as well? Possibly so; the problem is that once you get out the finer-ink pens, you end up getting the microscope, too. Simple borders avoid a lot of headaches. If you're really worried about it, I suggest moving back to the previous proposal: dividing the US into a ten much larger states. The independent-South idea is really just a special case of this, though (no surprise) it's much more emotionally charged.

Finally, the best objection I've heard, certainly the wisest, is that (in effect) the political gridlock in the US is good for us-- it forces compromise, and keeps us from the more foolish excesses of both left and right. I can dig that: ideology comes up with ideas, but it's compromise that makes them popular and effective. But gridlock also means that everybody gets frustrated, and sometimes separation cuts through the problem. Most of the Northeast, for instance, would very likely go for single-payer national health insurance, robust environmental laws and consumer protection, and a vigilant separation of church and state. Why does it have to be denied these things forever for the sake of compromising with people who, after all, would prefer to live in an explicitly Christian country with laissez-faire economics? Neither of us, perhaps, can get the whole country to work our way; but it might be nice for each of us to get a large region that does so.

Get me outta here!